I am 14 years old, scarf wrapped to show just half of the club’s crest through my zipped jacket, standing a third of the way up the terrace of the Hammersmith End at Craven Cottage. With every passing season, I’ve been creeping back a few more rows of concrete terracing. On each step, I get a little bit closer to the depths of the stand from where the sound of singing – I have occasionally given myself permission to join in – is coming. In between my half-whispered attempts (I am over-analytical of my efforts to find the exact pitch of Fulham fans’ reworked versions of Hey Jude), I notice a strange, recurring sensation. Every time the ball approaches our goal, giddy excitement overcomes me. It tingles, as if a metal detector is finding its range. The nearer the opposition gets to our net, the stronger the feeling becomes, before subsiding as we snuff out the attack and launch the ball away from danger.
Every week, this feeling grows, until it becomes too hard to quell completely and I am letting out involuntarily hopeful sounds whenever my team is under threat. Afraid of being caught out, and my passage up the steps towards the massed congregation thwarted, I turn each of these noises into a pained grunt. Who me? Nah, I definitely want us to win, mate. Just nervous they were going to score then, that’s all.
I am, of course, outwardly supporting my team. I spend all week dreaming of the game, before turning up two hours early on the day to watch the players warm up, collecting autographs, living every second of the rhythms of a match day. It’s a lot of effort for someone who is praying that the ground be momentarily engulfed in communal hurt. I eventually admit it, very privately. I do want us to lose. And I solemnly swear never to share this unforgivable feeling simmering beneath the surface.
It’s not just at the football. I find myself passionately and painfully attached to an England cricket team who are losing in ways that haven’t been invented yet. I watch them all day, four inches from the television screen, the real world around me blurred into nothingness. I practise the look each of the men makes as they walk off at the loss of their wicket; dejected, sullenly tucking their bat under their arm, eventually disappearing out of sight. The same giddy swell reappears.
I take to music, too, with a similar private conflict. Towards I Am Kloot, especially. The three-piece from Manchester are perfect and nowhere near as big as they should be. They introduce me and my brothers to the Barfly and the Half Moon venues in London, drenching each dark, boozy space in a sudden sense of melancholy and specific, knowing drama. Every time the singer, Johnny Bramwell, introduces a song, he pauses, before adding what it’s actually about, “disaster”. All the songs are about disaster. That secret little metal detector sensation, as if the ball is heading towards our goal, lights up again.
I gravitate to each sporting loss or song about disaster, but I haven’t yet associated them with my mother’s illness. She has been suffering from multiple sclerosis for a long time and, with every year that I work myself slowly towards the back of the Hammersmith End, becoming a little more entwined with England’s cricket team and a little further in love with music, the disease is deeper entrenched. It has taken away her ability to write, then to walk, then all her movement generally, before she is finally unable to speak, too. As I witness this, with every day slightly worse, I do not feel anywhere near the sense of loss that strikes me when England lose. It does not occur to me that when each heartbreaking wicket falls, in that tiny fraction of time, it is acceptable, suddenly, to show pain, to practise it, to express it; it is a magic little window of relief opened by the world, before it closes again. It does not occur to me that the feeling could belong to anything but cricket.
Nearly 20 years on from her death I am at the cricket World Cup final in London, to watch England. Tailenders, the radio show I co-present, has begun the broadcast for BBC Radio 5 live, and I’m genuinely inside the game. England are chasing down the runs in a thrilling sequence of unthinkable drama. I am shouting and screaming, barely able to watch, hiding occasionally from the action only to peep back through my fingers, when I feel something shift. It’s like a pair of hands that have been quietly gripping at the inside of my throat for two decades have just gently, without any fuss, let go. There is no metal detector glow, no hoping for loss. No secret quelling of involuntary noises. No satisfying disaster in waiting. I just want us to win. And we do.
I leave the ground with tens of thousands of strangers, all remembering ourselves again, back into the same complex, dark, layered and mean London we had entered from. And somehow I feel lighter – my inside and outside more aligned – with a grief that, decades on, I have some tangible evidence is finally being processed. Sport and music are helpful like that.