It makes sense. Think of the places they’ve been together, the inches of the world they’ve covered, side by side. It makes sense to see England like this, hurtling high above the road, Mousa and Jan, always the same seats – they’ve come to think of them as theirs - their knees sometimes brushing under the table, playing cards and phones and crumpled matchday programmes and wine gums littered between them, sometimes lively with excitement, sometimes tense with nerves, chasing the points up and down the table. They win, they lose; they sit together and absorb the joy or the grief or the anger or the relief, let it settle in the back of their throats, across seasons, across years.
Jan’s talking to the new kid – who’s quickly turning out to be more interesting than Jan’s first impression suggested – as they get on the bus. They’re just chatting shit – he’s giving him the low down on the food in the canteen, and the new kid – Eric – is nodding earnestly like he’s taking mental notes, and saying something about living in dorms in the academy. They get to the back of the bus, and Jan slips into the window seat opposite Mousa, who’s already setting up his Bluetooth speaker. Eric makes to follow him into the bay.
Mousa looks up. “What you think you’re doing?” he says sharply, and Eric stops, baffled.
“I – uh –” he says, uncertainly, and makes to slip into the seats behind, where Nacer is already setting up shop. “Sorry, I didn’t –” Jan grabs him by the arm and wrestles him into the seat next to him.
“Don’t pay attention, he’s joking.” He frowns at Mousa. “It isn’t like there’s a seat plan,” he explains, though there sort of is.
Mousa leans on his elbows and starts worrying Jan’s backpack. “Did you bring snacks, Jantje?” he says. Jan snatches the bag away.
“Get your own snacks, vetzak,” he says.
“I’ve got snacks,” Eric volunteers, still looking a bit wary.
Eric fits like he was always there. He laughs easily, and he responds good naturedly to being teased, and he looks at Mousa like he can’t quite believe he’s real – and Jan understands that.
Times like this Jan feels how lucky he is – not as something abstract, but something tangible, and real, and appreciable; the immense, joyous privilege of all of this, of having friends like these. They’re starting something new. They don’t need Gareth any more, or Luka. Those tides are starting to recede. Something new. Good luck that might last forever, this time.
Somehow they become veterans. Senior players, the media call them. Long of tooth, long of temper. The ones who don’t panic, or show off, or dive. Jan finds himself described as dependable, or stalwart, or workhorse. Compliments with razor blades hidden inside them. Mousa – Mousa is brilliant, or he’s injured. Nothing in between. The bus rumbles up and down England – some come, some go. On the way back from victories they begin to talk about trophies.
“Reckon we should liven things up a bit?” Jan asks Mousa – in Dutch so Eric won’t understand. “Bit of fresh blood?”
Eric is watching tennis highlights on his phone, and not paying them any attention.
“Toby?” Mousa suggests, pursing his lips like he’s not quite sure.
“Na, can’t have too much Belgian quality. Need to spread it about a bit.”
“Could upgrade Tripps,” Mousa says.
Jan snorts. Eric looks up from his phone.
“You two talking about me again?”
“Don’t be arrogant,” Mousa says. It’s sunny outside; he’s pulled the thin curtain halfway across the window, but the sun’s still in his eyes. He’s squinting, screwing up his whole face.
“Don’t be rude,” Eric snaps back. “English, please.”
“No speak English,” Jan says, shrugging comically. Mousa laughs. It’s the same laugh from twenty years ago. You never have friends like you do when you’re young, they say.
Eric mutters something in Portuguese which Jan takes to be profane and altogether disrespectful.
“Eric, have you met Dele?” Jan says.
Eric frowns. His fringe quivers. “Yeah, course.”
“No, I don’t mean, have you slid in on him in five a side, I mean – do you know each other?”
Eric slumps down next to him. “What, can’t he make friends for himself?” It’s so uncharacteristically frosty that Mousa looks up from his phone.
“You’re an asshole,” Mousa says placidly. He stands halfway up and yells down the bus, “hey, Dele! Come and sit down here, bro.” He raises an eyebrow at Eric as though daring him to object.
Dele gets sick travelling backwards, so Mousa – obliging, easy-going Mousa – switches places. Now he’s next to Jan, instead of opposite him. It’s funny what a change of perspective can do.
Jan misses watching Mousa’s face twitch – he knows every line of it, and what each one means – his eyes roll a little whenever Sonny starts screeching, and the corner of his mouth lifts slightly when Poch says something ungrammatical. Like a map, and Jan’s got the key.
Instead, Mousa’s thigh presses against his when they go round corners. Their elbows nestle next to each other. Mousa reaches out to put down his pick-up-four, and then retracts his arm, and it falls back into the same place, the little sacred notch between their bodies. Mousa dozes against him, sometimes, on long journeys. Jan likes away trips to Newcastle best. Hours of it – Mousa warm next to him, the crackle of possibility moving under his skin.
Mousa and Jan have a front row seat. They sit side by side, hurtling backwards, and watch them fall in love. By inches, by the sudden unguarded flare of Dele’s laugh, the perhaps more than accidental passing of their fingers against each other. Eric’s eyes seem a brighter shade of blue. In the spaces between the words, Jan sees it happening, a roadmap of all the things he and Mousa got wrong, all the chances to be brave they didn’t take. Hold on to it with both hands, Jan wants to say.
Instead, he says, who’s dealing, or Del, this is just noise, gimme your phone, or no washbag again, Dier – we should send you up the front to sit with the gaffer. Mousa nods sagely next to him, and they don’t look at each other when Eric drapes an arm around Dele’s shoulder, or trips over his words. Jan doesn’t think about what Mousa’s heart would feel like wrapped around his, and for all he knows, neither does Mousa.
Dele falls asleep quickly, his head lolling against Eric’s shoulder. Jan sees Eric’s body soften to let Dele nestle closer. Jan catches his eye; Eric stares back with his jaw set, daring him to say something.
This is a story of years passing. They’re sitting still, but they’re moving. Boys pass through, the music on their phones changes, Watford sack another manager, the same debates (Messi or Ronaldo, Scarface or Godfather, would you ever move to Arsenal), time spools out. Dele and Eric, Jan and Mousa, clustered over Uno, laughing, breathing the same air, roaming. From these seats they can see the world.
Mousa leaves. The world tilts.
The others tiptoe around him for months, and around the empty seat next to him. It’s like they’re all leaving a vacant chair for a son fallen in a far-off, futile war. His teammates look at him like a widow. They say Mousa’s name like it’s made of glass. For the first time he feels chilly on the bus, and drags a jumper from his rucksack. He pulls it over his head, and for a split-second he’s surrounded by darkness, alone.
Without asking, Eric tries to vary things. Ben appears in Mousa’s seat one journey, looking bemused, and lasts all of five minutes before he wanders off to hang over the back of Christian’s seat. Hugo doesn’t pan out, either – he spends hours on the phone to his wife, and doesn’t like Starmix. Sonny fidgets, Winksy jabbers. Toby leaves well enough alone. He knows the seat is haunted.
The knowledge of Mousa’s departure – the knowledge that this is what they signed up for, threads weaving in and out of each other’s lives, yanked and snapped by other people’s whims, by the fortunes of their bodies and of their clubs, spat out full of rust in the end – is different from the understanding of it. Knowing Mousa is gone is different from understanding that this means there are conversations they will never have – and that his body is so used to Mousa’s arm against his, rocking with the sway of the road, that his absence feels like a scar.
It's a different coach – they’re on the way back to the airport, just a short trip back to Schiphol – but they’re in the same seats, more or less. Eric keeps getting up to go and hug Lucas again. Dele keeps saying, fucking hell, fucking hell. Jan videos Nando and Coco singing La Bamba, his heart pounding; Ajax is in his blood, and so is Tottenham, and it’s a wild, mad mix, and they’re in the Champions League final. His throat hurts from yelling.
He opens his chat with Mousa. Did you watch? He types, and then deletes it. Mousa always watches. He’s another one with Spurs down deep in the marrow of him. At the atomic level, they’re more or less the same.
Wish you could have been here, he tries. Deletes. The journey is short, but it stops and starts, sluggish through traffic. He doesn’t recognise the neighbourhood they’re crawling through. Everything looks different at night. He would have sworn to knowing every inch of the place. A long time’s passed since he was twenty five. Going through the past on the way to the future.
His thumb hovers over the keyboard again. I miss you, he thinks of writing.
His screen lights up. Jan feels his eyes prickle. Tired, wired – magical European nights, his legs like lead by the end, the long slow drag of the season, and Mousa Dembélé is FaceTiming him from the other side of the world.
Jan hits accept.
They lose again. They’ve been doing that a lot, recently. It doesn’t matter where. It’s not working. It’s a long journey back, or feels like it, and no one’s in the mood for talking. A sullen, sleepy silence falls. Jan’s alone in the bay. Dele injured, Eric injured. Jan’s had seasons like that, when things never really get going, and they leave you alone with your body - your greatest enemy, and your only true friend – and let you suffer through it.
Jan watches his reflection, rippling through the streetlights, a steady, speeding orange pulse. It makes him look old – even older than he is. And in the gaps between the lights – when the bus is cast again into purple darkness, his face looks back at him, the lines gone, the shadows deeper, impossibly young.
Back then. Back when he was –
He’s not sure he’s ever felt young, or wild. Back when he was – quicker, at least. It was hard to imagine running out of time, back then. Now he blinks, and the last away fixture is here. Time is short, and shorter, and everything he does is laden with the knowledge that this is the last time – eating the last meal in the canteen, narrowly avoiding swiping Paulo’s Jeep with his wing mirror, hauling himself up the steps of the bus to find his place. He wishes they were playing somewhere up north – somewhere with a long journey. You can't outrun time when your knees are shot.
Eric’s raring to go, fire in his belly. He’ll be fine without him, Jan knows. He keeps opening his mouth as though he’s about to say something sincere and final, and Jan finds he doesn’t want to hear it.
Dele doesn’t say anything. His knee jiggles anxiously.
“Come on, stop looking like it’s an execution,” Jan says – nudging him with his ankle.
“What we gonna do without you, bro?” Eric asks flatly.
“Yeah, what, you gonna make us sit with Moussa?” Dele says. Moussa, across the way, rumbles a laugh, and sticks two fingers up.
“He might knock some sense into you,” Jan says darkly.
“Might just keep it empty.” Dele unfolds his long spindly legs and pushes Jan’s calves to the side. “Be nice to stretch the legs a bit.”
Jan reaches under the table and pinches his knee. “You can do whatever you want when I’m gone. Just have some respect.”
“Yeah, have some respect,” Eric says, nicking Dele’s cap. Dele scowls, adjusts his hair. Laughs, bright. The same heartbeats, well rehearsed over years now. The bus will keep driving, Dele and Eric in orbit, scowling and laughing and scowling and laughing, a gyroscopic, seasick sort of love, until one of them leaves, and then the other, and other boys fill their seats, and fight over Haribo, and sulk on the way back from goalless slogs at Burnley, without ever knowing they’re on hallowed ground.
The bus pulls up outside Selhurst Park. The engine cuts out. There’s something hard lodged in his throat.
They leave things behind. Old charger cables, coiled like dead snakes in the dust under the seats. Sour sugar, gritty in the seams of the leather. The heat of their bodies, the lacy imprint of their heads smeared on the window. Shreds of old kinesio tape, picked anxiously away. Sweat, traces, echoes, masks. Little fragments of their youth.
Jan thanks the driver as he leaves.