WAR IS OVER
With a frantic triple-blast of his whistle, the referee of Pitch 49 stopped the game. The crowd’s chant had eased and slipped itself from the usual bark and spit to a cautious rise of jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way.
The players stopped, hands on hips, listening.
Christmas, they thought, it must be Christmas.
The ball bounce, bounce, bounced down and rolled away, forgotten. The ref checked his watch; midnight had indeed passed. Right on cue, snow began to fall; light, soft, fluffy, melting into the turf as if embarrassed by its own arrival.
The managers strode out from the dug-outs and called over their captains. As Jingle Bells drifted into White Christmas, teammates gathered by goals, trying their hardest to ignore the intrusion until it went away. Beyond, on neighbouring pitches, the familiar swell and pulse of football carried on, oblivious to oblivion. It comforted the players, gave them warmth, for now.
On the touchline, ideas were discussed, decisions were made. And then, as White Christmas jollied up to a notch to Last Christmas, the referee restored his firm nod and sent his linesmen on a brief expedition. They returned with the groundskeeper and armfuls of shovels.
The players grabbed a spade each, took to their goal-lines and began to dig. On Pitch 50, someone scored and the roar made them lift their heads like deer. Undeterred, the crowd ebbed down their greatest hits and took up traditional carols instead. The players were soothed by it and returned to their tasks, humming and nodding along. Soon, every remembered tune was sung out and they concluded with a hushed Silent Night. And then the night fell silent.
All that could be heard was the chop, chop, grunt, chop of twenty-five men digging trenches. And, with every twinge of muscle, with every severed worm, every numbed finger and every ruined boot, they thought hard of the other team.
They thought of the faces of those men, frowning, and of what those men on that other team would be thinking about them; what plans they would be making, how much strength they might have left. And they looked at their chopping spades and thought about the ways they could be turned into weapons, or shields, and what else they could use; their studs maybe, or the goalposts if they dug them up and sharpened off the ends. And they thought about how long they might have to stay in this rat hole, how long they would be sat in these puddles, in this mud and this ice, awaiting commands, awaiting instructions and tactics, awaiting new ideas about clever manoeuvres, or just waiting, perhaps, for news and good cheer, for letters from loved ones or for someone to make up a cracking new joke, waiting until they could clamber up and walk safely home, to a roaring fire and the foods they had long forgotten, or just waiting, in the end, for someone above them, the coach, or the owner, or the chair of club or the bloody mascot or whoever; just someone, anyone, who could stop, think it through and figure out how all of this goddamn nonsense started and how in the hell it was all supposed to end.