Play To Win – a short story

Play to win
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Play To Win – a short story

When I was your age my passion was “Tin Can Squat”. Does this game still get played? Maybe you know it by another name? Let me explain. The rules were quite simple. Two teams, between two and twenty in a team, depending on who turned up. Each game started with a hunt for the equipment. A tennis ball was usually easy enough, there always seemed to be one around. We all scanned the street in search of ice-lolly sticks. You needed three, each being broken in half to give six pieces. Somebody, usually me, was then despatched to the dustbin to retrieve a medium sized tin. A baked beans tin was best but soup would do just as well. I sometimes had to go to Mrs. Parker’s bin as we mostly used family sized tins after my sister was born.

This size of tin can was perfect
This size of tin can was perfect

The tin was placed in the middle of the street with the sticks on top. The teams stood at opposite ends of the street, twenty paces away from the tin. I usually counted the steps. We once let Lanky Colin mark it but his legs were so long we were standing miles away and nobody scored before it got dark. Each player took a turn to throw or roll the ball at the can. If it hit, your team had to rebuild the pile of sticks on the tin without being hit by the ball. The other team had to get the ball and hit every player before the pile was built. You got a point for hitting the tin, another for rebuilding the pile or one point if you stopped the other team. The team with the most points won. The game was over when the owner of the ball got called in for tea or it got dark or Dr. Who was starting.
Anyway, that summer we played every afternoon. Lanky Colin’s dad was a teacher and organised a five-a-side league. Each street on the estate had at least one team, sometimes three or four. By the third week in August my team had just edged out Smelly Ibbotson’s from Dacre Close to win the league. Lanky Colin and me were in the social club, looking at the league table when we saw the poster.

Tin Can Squat World Championship Final
August Bank Holiday Monday

England Vs. France

Tombola and cake stall.

“Wow!” I stared at Lanky Colin. “You never said anything about this.”
“Dad told me last night.”
“I didn’t even know they played in France.”
“Dad says these guys have been on telly and everythin’.”
“Let’s go tell the others.”

Slow Mo and Toast were in their garden. They hadn’t seen the poster but soon got very excited. It was Toast who realised the problem first.
“When did you say the match was?”
“Bank Holiday Monday” Lanky Colin and me said together.
“That’s no good. Tweedle went to Blackpool this morning. He’s not back ‘til after the game.”
This was bad. Tweedle was our best player. He could dodge the ball no matter how hard it was thrown and he was the fastest runner on the estate.
“Who else could play?” I asked, panicking.
“What about our Jen?”
“A girl?”
“She can throw a ball harder than you can.”
“And she can run quicker.”
True. But a girl!”
I was quickly out-voted. Jen was in the team.

The day of the game was like all of the others that summer, hot and sunny. The difference was the excitement in the air. Lanky Colin’s dad had put red, white and blue balloons all across the front of their house. My dad was running the tombola on the edge of the field next to our garden. All of the neighbours had turned out and all the kids that had played in the league. They would all watch from the field, the match had to be played in the street and gardens.
The French team arrived in a minibus at half past two. Lanky Colin’s mouth dropped open as they emerged, in matching blue tracksuits. All were much bigger than we were. For once it was Slow Mo who spoke first.

“They’re gonna murder us.”Even Toast stopped chewing.

“Look at the size of him.”
It was Jen who snapped us out of it.
“Come on you lot. They might be big but they haven’t got our secret weapon have they?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Me, you idiot!”

Lanky Colin’s dad made a speech to welcome the French team. He said something in French that nobody seemed to understand, and then we all lined up to have the official photograph taken. The French team stood to attention, smiling at the camera. We shuffled about with hands in pockets. As usual Toast had a splodge of jam on his tee shirt. Only Jen stood up straight and smiled. The rest of us looked like a bag of washing.

The two captains were called forward. My nose was level with the cockerel on their captain’s tracksuit. He had his name, Pierre, embroidered on the chest. Lanky Colin’s dad produced a new ten pence and I called heads. It came down tails. Things could only get better. They chose to go first and I pointed to the cul-de-sac end. We took up our positions. The crowd cheered as the French team removed the tracksuits to reveal matching blue shorts and shirts. Slow Mo turned his baseball cap backwards and spat on his hands. I’m not sure what Toast said but it’s probably a good job his dad didn’t hear. Then there was a hush as the tall blond captain stepped up to start.

We crouched nervously behind our line. He rolled the ball, lightning fast all along the ground. It zipped within an inch of the tin but didn’t hit. My turn: two inches wide. The French number two was even bigger than the captain. He collected the ball and stared at the tin for ages. Suddenly his arm came back and he threw. The ball bounced an inch in front of the tin before knocking it in the air. The ball whizzed over my head and landed, first bounce, in Tommy Coleman’s garden. Toast leapt over the privets, the rest of us scattering to head off the French team. The tin was back on its spot by the time Toast got to the ball. His throw was good, keeping low; it struck the Pierre in the middle of his back. One down. I raced after the loose ball. Before I could pick it up I could hear the celebrations. The stack was rebuilt and we were two points behind.
Slow Mo and Lanky Colin both missed on their throws, as did the French. Jen was up next. She rolled the ball slow but straight. She hit the can right in the middle. It wobbled and took forever to fall. She screamed and made for the can. I shouted for her to stop but it was too late. The French team flew into action. Jen, Lanky Colin and Toast were hit within seconds. Toast had made for the cover of his garden while I got behind Johnny York’s Cortina. I ducked just as the ball fizzed over my head. I was round the car and managed to get the can upright with three sticks on it before the ball hit me just behind the ear. As I rubbed my ear, I realised the ball had bounced off me and under the parked car. Slow Mo raced in and got the last three sticks. We were back in the game at 2-2.

As the game progressed, the afternoon got hotter and hotter. Half time was signalled when the ice-cream man arrived at just after four o’clock. We were behind 6-5. Lanky Colin’s dad bought everybody a 99 and we sat on our garden wall to eat them.
“Look at the bruise on my leg” moaned Toast, just before his ice cream dripped onto his tee shirt. Jen inspected her arm.
“I’ve got one here as well. They seem to throw the ball as hard as they can. Look at ‘em. Sitting there with their matching shirts. Let’s make sure we win this.”

“Yeah, come on everybody, let’s do it.”

The game re-started with Slow Mo scoring again. The ice creams seemed to have done the trick and refreshed everybody. The points flowed and, by the time Lanky Colin’s dad blew his whistle, we were in front at 20-19. He explained that there was time for one more throw for each team before the game was over. It was my turn. I knew that two points would mean that we had won.
My team patted me on the back as I picked up the ball. The crowd cheered, then went silent. I could hear my heart pounding as I stepped forward. I had to hit. I steadied myself. Suddenly, as I pulled back my arm to throw, Pierre ran forward, waving his arms, trying to put me off. The crowd booed and Lanky Colin’s dad gave him a good talking to. I turned away and tried to concentrate. With the French team back behind the line, I stepped forward again. I went underarm, rolling the ball along the ground, straight as an arrow. I heard the ball fizz along the road, my eyes glued to it. I set off and ran towards the target but at the last second, the ball bounced up and over the tin. I couldn’t believe it. I put my hands on my head and stared. There was one throw to come.

Pierre stepped forward as I got back behind the line. Two points would win them the title. If he missed or we got the point for stopping them building the tower, we won. I forced myself to look as he lifted his arm. He sneered at me, and then released the ball over-arm. The tin bounced about a foot in the air, the sticks flying in all directions. The scores were level. Toast chased after the ball as I moved towards the tin. He got to it first bounce and let fly at the French team. The ball hit one of them in the back and bounced straight into his team-mate. Two down. I swooped in and picked up the ball. I reached out and touched the tall number four with the ball. Three down with four sticks already rebuilt. Slow Mo called for the ball from behind me. I threw hard. He caught it and immediately passed to Lanky Colin who hit the number two from close range. As I turned, Pierre placed the fifth stick on the can. If he got the last one they won. I called but the throw was too high. My fingers touched the ball but couldn’t stop it. First bounce it was in old Mrs. Smith’s garden. I hesitated. Nobody went near that garden. She would set her big dog on you if the ball went anywhere near. It was Jen who pushed past me and leapt the fence in one go. She shouted at me to get back to the tin. I turned to see the French captain scrabbling on the floor. The rest of his team were screaming at him but still he couldn’t find the last stick. Jen’s throw was low and hard. I caught it and threw in the same movement. The French captain dived to the floor, the ball missing him by an inch.

He was on his feet and searching again as Toast got to the ball. His throw was hard but again the target dodged out of the way. The crowd were cheering and Pierre was getting more and more frantic as he searched for the final stick. I picked up the loose ball. The captain was trying to escape. I passed to Jen who set off in pursuit. I watched in horror as she tripped over the kerb. It all happened in slow motion. Her left knee hit the ground first, then her left hand. Somehow, she managed to twist and throw. The ball missed its target but hit the lamppost. It rebounded and struck Pierre right between the eyes.

We went berserk. Toast and Slow Mo threw their arms around each other, and then remembered Jen who was lying on the ground. We all ran towards her. Her shoulders were shaking. I thought she must have hurt herself quite badly and was crying. She rolled over and we all realised that she was laughing so hard that the tears were rolling down her face. We picked her up and carried her on our shoulders towards our garden where Lanky Colin’s dad had set up the cup on a little stand. Everybody was clapping and slapping us on the back.
The French team were still arguing amongst themselves when I was presented with the trophy. We’d done it. We were world champions.

I think about that afternoon every week when I dust the mantelpiece. I still have the small silver cup. It sits in the middle, next to the photograph of Jen and me at our wedding. On the other side, in a little glass case, is half a lolly stick; the one they couldn’t find!


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