Memory is a curious thing. I was out walking my dogs in the driving rain and howling wind yesterday, when a spaceship visited me from the distant galaxy of my youth. A panel in the side of the spaceship opened, and I walked aboard. And there, all around me, was a forgotten episode from my early years, unvisited all these decades.
I was playing for Ratcliffe under-16s against Coalville Grammar School. Coalville was -- is -- a small town in Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire. Nearby lie the beautiful villages of Normanton le Heath, Appleby Parva, Norton-Juxta-Twycross and Woodhouse Eves. Coalville is what it says in the name.
When the Romans arrived, its inhabitants hid in the mines until they'd gone. Coalville-folk speak aboriginal Pictish, their faces are usually adorned with a single long eyebrow, and whatever few teeth they possess are usually molars, crowded on to their front gums.
To the boys of Coalville Grammar, Ratcliffe College boys were toffs. Well, we weren't, actually: our fathers had merely not spent their childhoods hacking holes a mile underground. Safe sex in Coalville means you're wearing a collier's hat, and these lads had probably found their way out of the womb with the help of a Davy-lamp and a canary. But they were also grammar-school boys, which meant that they were bright and determined to succeed, whereas the boys of Ratcliffe, being the sons of Irish GPs and modest Catholic businessmen, lacked their hunger.
It was a day such as we've had this week, except that the wind from the North Sea is even colder and harder than the sou'westers that blow off the Atlantic. But both are full of the bitter, sideways rain that few people from outside these islands know. It lashed against us as we trotted out into the long, wet, freezing pre-match misery, in wretchedly thin rugby shirts. What bitter eternities can pass, as you blow on your stiffening, aching fingers, and squint into the rain-filled gale, while goose-bumps for life form on your arms and the idiot-referee loses coin after coin in the centre-field puddle.
Then, finally, the kick-off, at which point we discovered that we were not so much playing with a rugby ball as five solid pounds of slimy clay. The pitch had almost no grass on it, yet though covered in mud, was strangely firm under foot. I was scrumhalf.
For our lineouts, the ball would go to our second-row forward, Dave Fletcher, the tallest boy in the team. It being impossible to catch, he would tap it back to me, only for it to slip between my lifeless, blue fingers like a greased cannonball. Whereupon, I would fall on it, and all the forwards would then descend on me. And let me tell you, until you have been rucked off the ball by a half-dozen miners' sons, you cannot possibly know the meaning of the term 'near-death experience'.
So I would fight my way clear of these churning, cobbled boots, and scramble back to the rear of the scrum, waiting for the ball finally to arrive. A dive-pass was the only way to put momentum on this leaden lump of sodden leather, which I accordingly performed. The ball flew about five feet. As I landed, it felt as if two six-inch nails had been hammered through my kneecaps. This was because the pitch consisted of "clinker", a mine-waste usually dumped on to slag-heaps, but here levelled into a playing field, and then covered in a thin layer of turf, which had now been largely dissolved by the rain.
The Coalville boys were bred here, and didn't so much have kneecaps as armadillo-shields, whereas the delicate Ratcliffian leg-joints were soon haemorrhaging warmly. Blood loss I don't mind; pain I do. Not merely were clinker-fragments industriously working their way deep into my cartilage, but every time I hit the ground, I acquired an agonising new brace of near-permanent bruises.
Thus the ritual unfolded: lineout, tap-down, fumble, fall, ruck, miners' boots, near-death, escape, pass to outhalf, break knees, get up again, flounder in the wake of this endlessly repeating cycle of muddy brutality. Half-time, frozen and shuddering, we chewed on Coalville's idea of luxury, quartered marmalade-oranges, while the rain turned the pitch into a chemical marshland of scalding potash and salt-petre: absolutely ideal for open-wounds. In the second half, the sheer tenacity of the Coalville lads -- though much smaller and less experienced -- suggested that pit-pony DNA featured strongly in their pedigrees.
We won 3-0, courtesy of a wholly undeserved penalty. Instead of the usual post-match tea, the Coalville lads cooked the referee in a pot, as a way of saying thank you. We Ratcliffians, meanwhile, slunk off to wash ourselves in the showers, which were apparently drawn from recycled colliers' bathwater, but nicely chilled. We then clambered aboard our coffin-cold bus, and left Coalville, dripping blood, and vowing never to return.
And I didn't, until yesterday. Attend, now: for no matter what terrible events have since befallen me, or ever might befall me, they could never compare with the day we played Coalville Grammar School. Thank you, time-travelling spaceship, for reminding me of an extraordinarily lucky life.