People who like sport remember their lives better than those who don’t. Nothing, not even music, tracks things in quite the same way; sure, you listen to stuff as you go, but stuff from different eras and areas, stuff that appears, disappears and reappears into consciousness. Sport, on the other hand, necessarily runs the continuum of existence, each evoking and fortifying the other to sublime, disquieting extent.
Usually, though, there’s concurrence, but no congruence. Irrelevant bits of one mesh with ephemeral bits of the other, sharing only time and soon to be forgotten. But, very occasionally, something epochal happens, and, more occasionally still, is echoed across the way. So, though pronouns and sports writing do not generally marry, here’s a story about getting divorced during the 2005 Ashes.
We all have our cherished memories of the previous 16 years. 1989, racing home from school to see Mark Taylor reach his tone-setting ton; 1991, waking up to Mark Waugh’s debut ton; 1993, getting to watch Robin Smith’s 167 not out because I was suspended from school for setting the science lab ﬂoor alight, then going to the ﬁrst day at Headingley to see England take just three wickets – one of which I missed, enjoying an illicit tab and pint; 1995, waking up to Blewett’s debut ton; 1997, England sneaking the ﬁnal Test despite scoring fewer than 200 in each innings; 1999, wicket-keeper Hegg, of Lancashire and England; 2001, going to the fourth day at Lord’s, to see England lose six wickets, for 64 runs, in 13 overs; 2003, so illusorily near, so not remotely near at all.
But before the 2005 series, everyone hoped that things would be different, except really, they knew that they wouldn’t, except secretly, they hoped that they might, except secretly, they knew that they wouldn’t. But they might. But they won’t.
To get things going, Bangladesh arrived to play a couple of Tests – encounters of which I remember little, due principally to their coinciding with the decimation of my life. Roughly, we got on well, I still loved her, she didn’t still love me, it happens.
I was introduced to this truism the day before West Brom at home; obviously United couldn’t muster a win, just as they hadn’t on my barmitzvah, just as they hadn’t on our wedding. Then, three days later, came an embarrassing home kicking off Chelsea, before, the following afternoon, Malcolm Glazer bought the club. Suddenly, the only two things I was sure were forever, the only two receptacles for my unconditional love, were gone.
Talking of which, obviously I still laboured under the misapprehension that my wife could be rationalised into rediscovering hers. So, when the takeover happened, a mutual friend warned me against mentioning it; to have any hope, I’d need to curtail my obsessions, a contributory factor in my tinning. But, in a ﬂeeting moment of lucidity, I determined that if I couldn’t share my devastation, if my devastation wasn’t shared, then what’d be the point in it all anyway. I shared my devastation. My devastation was not shared. I thought there was point in it all anyway.
Then I went to Southampton away and then I went to the Cup Final, which was eerie in the extreme. United dominated Arsenal but couldn’t score, so lost on penalties and, a few days later, Liverpool won the Champions League in unfathomable, legendary, agonising, shocking manner. There’ve been merrier months of May.
Shortly afterwards, the Australians arrived. Handling their ﬁrst two games, they were subsequently clattered by England in the Twenty20 and beaten by Somerset and Bangladesh over 50 overs. Whatever; this was not a new hustle.
Getting ready for work the morning before that Bangladesh game, I’d located neither lunch money nor desire to visit the cashpoint. Luckily, sitting in the lounge was my wife’s handbag, left at home as we were out for Friday night dinner – an invitation I’d insisted we honour, to catalyse her tearful reacquaintance with my magniﬁcence. So, into the handbag and into the purse I went, where I discovered various notes to self, detailing her plans for imminent marital bliss, without me.
The buzz of bad shit is a very special thing, life happening rather than occurring. I sat down and amidst the dryness and spinning, felt this very deeply, urging myself to embrace it to the fullest possible extent. Then, to protect my ego, I resolved that my conduct would be to standard, not circumstance, before experiencing gratefulness and relief at not having this news broken to me. These were my modicums.
Then I thought about United, then I went to work, then I told a couple of mates and then arranged to watch some cricket. Then we met after work to arrive at dinner together, then I insisted we cancel, and then, on the long walk home, asked if there was anything I needed to be told. There was not, I was told. Then I broke her news to her, then she giggled; I was told. Then she told me. Then I moved out.
I spent the next month living with various friends, ﬁnding, oddly, that I preferred the marital to the single homes, before someone lent me a ﬂat. There, I smoked a lot, ate no food a lot, did no sleeping a lot – and read a lot, mainly to inspire conversation with my wife, if I could only inspire her to conversate, which I could not.
I also listened to a lot of music, supplied by a wonderful girl from work who for no real reason devoted time to cheering me up. My guitars and dance had met her hip- hop and RnB at a mutual drum ‘n’ bass, and we also hated similar people, so set up a disc exchange. Then, one weekend, she took me out to a party, we had a few drinks, I went back to mine, I woke up as usual in the middle of the night, I checked my phone, I discovered that my gran had died. In some ways this was relieving, in some ways I was incapable of registering additional distress, in all ways the situational pile-up was outstanding and hilarious.
The Ashes started. I didn’t really pay much attention though I paid all my attention, watching blankly and staring avidly. The opening hours did probably increase the respite between waves of cognisance, but the merest scent of apparent pleasure was followed by an immediate reminder that such sensations were outside of my ambit. Which isn’t to say that I was thoroughly miserable, though I was thoroughly miserable; the hours and days sat talking, allied to such incredible absurdity, meant a good deal of laughter. I was thoroughly miserable.
And England did not help – they could at least have sustained the illusion of competition for longer than a morning. Devastated, embarrassed and humiliated, losing what they valued most, for all to see; how must that feel? Maybe like volcanic implosion, with burning, aching, sobbing innards and clanging, ﬂexing, screeching mind. Maybe.
The best thing about intense misery is its ability to put you at the centre of the world, when most of the time, that’s just a lie you sustain to justify caring about stuff, to justify existing. And there’s only one thing as absorbing and consuming and gripping as intense misery: intense sport. Glenn McGrath trod on a ball. Ricky Ponting put England in.
I was going to the Sunday at Edgbaston. At the start of play, Richie Benaud marvels at how, though the match could be over in just two balls, there’s not a single empty seat in the ground. Of course there wasn’t, England were about to beat Australia to level the series; how could there be?
I am pathologically, unavoidably, unstoppably, drawn to the doing of things – in particular, going to live sport. So I feel weird if I should be there and I’m not, the empty frustration and disbelieving regret highlighting the elemental childishness that made me an unsuitable husband – and allowed my wife plenty of speciﬁcally spare time for the speciﬁc making of speciﬁc other marital plans.
One of the most unnerving aspects of being unexpectedly single was the sudden autonomy; whether to put the remaining shredded chilli chicken into the rice or vice versa, stuff like that. Late on the Saturday night, I got a text from my lift to Birmingham, whose wife was pregnant with their ﬁrst child. He’d agreed to take me, so still would if I still wanted to go, but given the certain outcome, he’d happily leave it if I’d happily leave it. Flush with power, I told him I’d happily leave it.
The friends I was meant to be sat with were getting the bus from Victoria. There were still spaces on it, I was told. None of them would contain me, I told. One of them should, I was told. I’m fucking distraught, in the last month I’ve schlepped to our graduation to be distraught, I’ve schlepped to a stag in Tallinn to be distraught, ﬁne, I’m distraught, but I fucking hate schlepping and I fucking hate fucking buses, so I’m fucking not involving myself in either, to feel just as fucking desperately distraught as I do sitting on the couch, I told.
With 30 runs or one wicket required, I realised that I was monumentally fucked. 30 runs, and England, the series and the summer are fucked; I’m monumentally fucked. One wicket, and not-having- been-there regret to compound my existent having-been-there regret; I’m monumentally fucked. 28 runs arrive. One wicket arrives. Joy! I’m monumentally fucked! I’m monumentally fucked.
“Oh,” I text my pregnant wife-having friend. “We’re idiots,” comes back the response. This minds me of a key refrain in Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan’s divorce album, which, despite my general avowal to engagement, I’ve not dared approach. So, in the spirit of triumph and as punishment for my cowardice, I dared approach; it did not go well. Most particularly, I was compromised by the song, line and sentiment “If You See Her, Say Hello”, which seemed like the saddest thing in the world; I was nowhere near anywhere anyone would ever want to be. England had won! I felt better even though I couldn’t, so I felt worse.
For years, I carried my unbroken ticket stub in the bag that I took everywhere, to remind me never to be such a prick again – and, in moments of indulgence, to remind me of me. Once it began to show the strain, it relocated to my desk, where it still lies; I see it every day, and have convinced myself that my attachment to what it allowed me to see is more intense than it would be had I actually seen it.
Waiting for the third Test, further mistakes began creeping into my work, such as it was. I was a trainee solicitor in the City, at one of those ﬁrms whose partners believe in its unique, distinct personality, and show more love to legal people than real people.
My problem was that, on leaving university and being asked what I intended to become, after answering “a writer,” I was stumped by the follow-up question, “of what?” So, slightly seduced by the prospect of two years at law school – ! – on the basis that I could bestseller my way out of things in that time, I allowed myself to be bullied into it. It remains the most bizarre, out of character thing I’ve ever done; suddenly, getting married at 22 appeared positively normal.
So, several marks of 51 per cent later, there I was; one of innumerable, indistinguishable, chickens, imprisoned in a row of little boxes to be denied daylight and joy, my time measured in “capacity”, while the vicious and avaricious administered my richly demoralising existence; a battery hen in a syoot.
Happily, it turned out that if you were incompetent, people soon stopped asking you to do things – preferable for both parties, if not my poor peers. Still, though, I lived in constant terror, and not even because of the gaping canyons in my legal knowledge, rather the omnipresent existential threat. At any moment, someone could ask for a moment, during which they would appropriate your next month’s worth, 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and consider you in their debt.
But now, I could leave! The joy of realisation!
My supervisor at the time was a stressed- out, stuck-up mid-30s type, perpetually seething at the effrontery of the cosmos in not arranging someone to ravish her into marriage. That, or she just fucking hated me.
Most of our time together, I spent alone in an empty room, expelled from the office that we shared because the sound made by my tapping on my keyboard was too much to bear. She’d recently been to Glastonbury to not see Primal Scream, New Order, Van Morrison, 808 State and Roots Manuva, to see the Killers and the Kaiser Complete and Utter Chiefs.
So, one morning before Old Trafford, I arrive at work – dressed in obligatory summer attire of awful polo shirt and silly pale trousers – and, as usual, tentatively poke my head around the door to gauge whether or not I’m welcome. “Daniel!” she shoutwhines theatrically. “Tell me you’ve got your suit here!”
“But you know you’re going to court.”
My previous boss was a serious City face and, in his position as secretary of some committee – an appointment that made him carnally excited – once asked me to send a fax for him. But, just as I was about to press send, one of his secretaries insisted I wasn’t sending the latest version; naturally, I bottled it and went with her. She was wrong.
For this I had bestowed upon me a sustained shouting in face, and as I was letting it go, all I could think about was the dismay, disgrace and disgust of my 16-year-old self – my any-year-old self. What would Eric Cantona think? Bloody hell, what would Matthew Hayden, or Glenn McGrath, or Justin Langer, or Ricky Ponting, or Shane Warne think?
The joy of realisation!
“No, I know I’m delivering boxes to court, I didn’t know I was going in. Am I going in?”
“You know you are.”
“No I don’t, how could I? You’ve not spoken to me for two weeks, you’ve not even let me in the same room as you.”
“Daniel, I’m trying to give you some advice.”
“Well your tone doesn’t sound very advisory to me.”
The joy of realisation!
Start of the next week, the next Test hadn’t quite started, but I departed litigation to what they insisted on calling “Real Estate”, then moved in with a friend, then the Test started. Sat at my desk that Thursday morning, it suddenly occurred to me that, even more so than usual, I had no business being there; this series and me were intimately entwined way beyond the usual. No environment examines nuance, detail and ﬁbre as forensically as Test cricket, and mine right now was the closest I was getting to that; I needed to be watching it and it needed to be watched by me, because we knew each other. So I went home, where I relaxed myself, actually relaxed myself, and enjoyed, actually enjoyed Michael Vaughan. It felt very odd.
Then, as England pressed for the win on day ﬁve, I again escaped the office, meeting a friend for the ﬁnal session and experiencing the animation that nothing else can provide. Sport was sport, and I was me.
Ten days. Ten bloody days of desperation waiting for the next one, ten glorious days of anticipation waiting for the next one. Lots of time for other things, no time for other things; it’s impossible to recall what happened during them, it’s inconceivable that anything happened during them. As the Bible says of the seven years Jacob worked for Rachel, “they were like nothing such was his love for her”; as Avon Barksdale says of prison sentences, “shit, you only do two days no how, it’s the day you come in and the day you come off.”
Due to objections voiced loudly from elsewhere, I had not, for many years, become ecstatic; no acceptable human could possibly invite such malign emotion into their life. Now, though, the ability to enjoy an overwhelming rush of love, pleasure and unity with everything would be a decent test of my recovery; rather like the England team that travelled to Trent Bridge, I now felt capable, to draw a pointless parallel.
So, while they took command in the middle, I went to a daytime festival on Clapham Common where, amazingly – or not amazingly at all, in retrospect – everything just worked. The music was rubbish, I didn’t mind, England were excellent, I did mind, I informed many complete strangers of both.
The following morning, me and a couple of friends ﬂew to Menorca, where I was immediately faced with a terrible choice: did I stay inside watching United, did I stay inside watching England, or did I stay inside watching neither, ﬂicking between the two. Clearly, I ﬂicked; United, at least, had the grace to ﬁnish winning just as England’s second-innings collapse got underway. Imbued with my new mood or, and, my happy Sunday, I felt not a scrap of tension; just like my legal career, England were dormie one!
In order to achieve divorce, I needed to visit the Jewish courts, so arranged the hearing for the ﬁnal day of the series – though told my supervisor that the process took two days. She would later exact revenge by awarding me the bottom mark for every single appraisal category out of 40, including “robustness in accepting criticism” – the only one that I challenged.
Saturday evening, things were precarious. Australia were set for a major ﬁrst-innings lead, which meant that England were set for a major second-innings collapse. I took a couple of my friends out with the wonderful girl who for no real reason devoted time to cheering me up. We went to a party where, amongst other things, we celebrated the engagement of her sister and brother-in-law, whom I’d never met, but who are now my sister-in- law and brother-in-law, whom I have met. We stayed out an exceptionally long time – or, put another way, I was celebrating divorce with honeymoon – and then met my Edgbaston lot to snooze ﬂoatily in front of Freddie’s Sunday morning, not fucking distraught.
Next morning, I woke early and brought a friend over to mine; there was little point in us suffering this peculiar day atomised and alone. So, we quickly toasted ourselves, and then, an hour before play began, I made the conveniently short drive to the Bet Din, the Jewish marital court – I was in and out quickly, but they insist on two visits, to allow for a change of mind. A second trip was scheduled for the luncheon interval.
So, series beautifully poised, me beautifully boxed, I return to end things. Clearly, hanging around is out of the question, so I’m straight with the Rabbis; I explain that I need this to be over quickly, because Harris’ Ashes are in the balance. They’re amused, but not convinced.
“This document tells us that you are divorced, in London, on the Thames. Do you want to know why we say ‘London, on the Thames’, not just ‘London’?”
“Well, I’m going to tell you anyway.”
“I know why.”
“Don’t you believe me?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I want you to know.”
“I do know.”
“It’s so we know that it’s this London, not another London, somewhere else in the world, London where the greatest Test series of all time is about to be decided.”
And so on. Then, a quick chuckle and glance when they announce that she’s mutar lechol adam, permitted to all men, then it’s done, I’m out, I’m outside, I’ve taken a wrong turning, of course I have, I’m stuck in traffic, of course I am, I’m missing Pietersen smash it all over, Pietersen’s smashing it all over, it’s over. 16 years are over, it’s over.
People who like sport remember their lives better than those who don’t.
This article appeared in the eighth issue of The Nightwatchman. You can buy all copies here.