Chapter One

:00 (First Half Kickoff)

The old groundskeeper didn’t so much limp as drag his left leg as he made his way toward the shed. His joints creaked in the predawn damp, and he was vaguely aware of the smoke from his cigarette hovering like the fog that crouched over the river.

The river.

From a trickle, the River Ribble grew inexorably as it headed south, idling beside the football ground before it arced leisurely westward, through Lancashire hills and old mill towns, swelling and strengthening like a well-told yarn before disgorging itself into the Irish Sea. Old Reg knew the river. A contradiction of permanence and transience. He’d been born near it. He’d die near it. Others moved on. He was here for good.

The cold air made his knee ache, and he paused at the shed door to rub the bony joint, ruined years ago — decades ago — when he was the standout center half for Giggleswick Town Football Club, the “Laff Riots.” That was back in what locals considered the club’s heyday but was, in reality, just a blip in a century of rotten luck and epic underachievement.

Squinting, Reg thumbed through the random assortment of keys on his chain, cursed, fumbled for the one to the shed, cursed, found it, “Gotcha, you bastard,” jiggled the bloody thing into the resistant lock, cursed, and gave it a meaty twist. The door creaked open on rusty hinges, emitting a stench of rotting fish as it revealed its bounty, an unkempt treasure trove of old rakes and pitchforks, shredded nets of dubious origin, a “Keep Off The Grass” sign that had long ago been vandalized to read, “FucK Up The ass” and the club’s prize possession — the line striper.

The line striper was a Reg-modified seed spreader, used to paint the lines on the pitch on match days. It was the Laff Riot’s prize possession because it was a source of income. The football club rented it out for twenty-four pounds a year to the local rugby club, which, through a quirk of geography and opportunism, sat adjacent to the football club. The two shared the acreage of flat land along the river, separated only by a low hedge that ran between their respective playing fields.

But the rugby club had no need of the thing this season. They were playing elsewhere while their hulking new grandstand was under construction — a monster emerging along the riverbank on the other side of the hedge.

Reg pulled out the striper, poured a bag of thick chalk powder into it, and wheeled off to his starting point at the near corner. He cranked open a lever and began to walk into the sunrise, retracing the faded lines from the previous weekend.

At the opposite corner, he paused and looked back with satisfaction at a perfectly straight white line. Reg felt a kinship with the pitch, his pitch, and spent the early morning hours working his magic on it. No matter the abuse it took from players hacking at it, and each other, match after squalid match, Reg charmed his pitch back to a smooth, even surface. The best rectangle of turf in the region. And unlike those clubs from across the Lancashire county line, he didn’t have a crew to help him. It was his job and his alone. He wouldn’t want it any other way. He preferred to work alone, marking lines, smoothing divots, caring for the pitch that once — once, mind, and years ago — saw his moment of glory. Back when he played. Against the Lancastrians.

Leaning on the striper, he took a deep drag from his cigarette, exhaled a long, wet cough of smoke and phlegm, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, saying to no one in particular, “Aye. Fuck off the lot of you.” Then he tucked the cigarette back into the corner of his mouth and walked on.

The sun crested the hills as he approached the far end of the pitch. The net was missing from the goal frame. “Bloody vandals!” growled Reg, looking toward the construction site where mischief makers would sneak in through a gap in the fence. “I’ll find you, you bastards!” shouted Reg.

Something caught his eye, and the old man’s gaze shifted from the riverside construction site. He wasn’t alone after all.

There, in the middle of his pitch, someone — some ones — were asleep. Of all the things Reg had to deal with on Saturday mornings, teenage trysts were the worst. It was a rite of passage, fornicating in the center circle of the Laff Riots’ football pitch.

“Oi. Oi! Wakie, wake, you two!”

Reg snapped the lever on the striper shut and marched toward the sleeping figures. “Come on, come on. Rise and shine Romeo and —”

It wasn’t a teenage couple. It was Tommy Crier, Giggleswick’s star goalkeeper.

“Oh, come on, Tommy. Get and be off with you, you drunk fool,” said Reg. “It’s match day, for fuck sake.”

Tommy didn’t stir.

“Are you all right, lad? Can you hear me? Are you all right?”

Reg took two steps then froze, mouth open, cigarette stuck to his lip.

Tommy wasn’t asleep. He’d been staked to the ground under the net, the stakes driven through his hands, his feet and — Reg turned away as nausea overwhelmed him — right through the middle of the lad’s guts.

   # # #

Death Is a Laff Riot is a “football (soccer) noir” with elements of historical fiction, romance and magic. The story is set in the lower echelons of non-League English football in the late 1970s, drawing on the culture, sports and politics of that era—with a whiff of Arthurian legend and a pub jukebox that knows just which Frank Sinatra song best fits the mood.

Death Is a Laff Riot was a runner-up in the 2017 Writers’ League of Texas Manuscript Contest.

👉 Purchase your copy of Death Is a Laff Riot here