It was a first outing to the Old Vic in Ashburton. I have only recently met Richard through his wife. She was working in the same NHS trust as me and as the 6 Nations started, it seemed like the ideal place to watch a bit of rugby. Wales played. I can’t remember against whom, possibly England or France. It was the start of the 2009 season and the Welsh were hungry to retain the title they won the previous year.
Although the details are slightly blurred, somewhere during the evening, we met Eilir, Stuart and Stuart’s dad. I wish I could say that the conversations were deeply intellectual, but I must confess that by that time voices were already harsh in the attempts to stay audible over the pub’s noise in between encouraging the team of your choice. I backed the Welsh, my adopted northern hemisphere team. My choice was before finding out that Eilir and Stuart were backing the boys in red. Although thinking back, it would have been obvious given their vocal support that was fuelled on by the Otter Ale. During half-time or possibly afterwards we discussed life in Devon and how my family and I ended up in the glorious part of South-West England. It was Stuart who in his inclusive manner invited us to join their Thursday Football group. Famously among those in the know as “The Ashburton Dad’s Football Club”.
I must admit that it took some courage to take on their offer. The idea was attractive. In the world of mental health, “boy time” is often limited and my profession tends to dwell on the emotional, the intuitive and the relational. But I managed to get some “kit” and some courage. At that point I have yet not admitted that my prior football experience consisted of about 60 minutes of chasing a football. Once. I have played rugby union. I have played cricket and tennis (both badly) and have attempted several other activities that involved round shaped objects. But more often than not, I discovered that I had the passion, while the natural talent and skill were lacking. But then, why should that come in the way of a good time!
I managed to find the pitch on my first venture out. It was cold and rainy – typical. I was probably one of the early arrivals. Over-eager; as always. Nervous to arrive early; as always. The first person I met was Graham. Slightly over-conscious I introduced myself and made reference to Eilir and Stuart’s invitation. It was quite easy to speak to Graham. Hearing where I was from, he referred to his early years in Swaziland and that their family spend time in the northern parts of South Africa. The next hour involved middle aged men running about on the pitch, several claims of illegal play while I tried to gain to decipher what is allowed and what not. Dave quickly pointed out (aka shouting at me) that diving tackles were not part of the game, while it became clear from Tony’s game plan that the off side rule did not apply. It was great. I was a boy again among two teams of slightly overweight and ageing boys. And that was prior to the philosophical discussion back at the Old Vic afterwards.
And so it continued. Relationships grew. Often taking the mickey was a significant component of post match discussions while we enjoyed a few Otter Ales, some warm chips supplied by Nick and Gemma at the Old Vic and while on tour to Cardiff and Bath. In between the football, ale, laughs and scheming on changing the world, there were moments of seriousness. One point of reference was Grahams’ treatment for stomach cancer a few years before. But this did not deter from pulling his leg and his brush with death.
When our family returned from England, I knew that I would miss playing football every Thursday night. Well, saying football, I mean having a roaring time and occasionally running into a few guys (apologies to Joe, Marco, Nick). And defending like hell. Thursday night football became an integral part of my routine and from the first game that left me unable to climb stairs to becoming more fit and competitive over time. I missed it and was grateful for the kind farewell wishes after my last game and well-wishes on my transfer to the “African Ankle-bitters” (!). But a year after our return I heard that Graham became ill again. The cancer returned.
As I mentioned before, the post-football banter was mostly light hearted and full of jest. But underlying was a caring whenever an ADFC member was in need of it. So with Graham’s return to treatment, it came as no surprise that the football guys were planning to run the Rotterdam Marathon in support of Graham and his fight against Cancer. I could not be left out and declared my willingness to run the SAD half-marathon and a local trail run. My training went well. I noted from the http://www.just-dump-it.com/ site that my colleagues up north were training and received information on the finishing of the marathon on the 2nd of April 2012 and how they raised 4400 UK pounds for the Rowcroft Hospice.
But Graham died. He could not go to Rotterdam with the boys and passed away on the 25th of April 2012. It was while thinking about him that I completed my half marathon in Wellington South Africa on the 1st of May 2012. It is celebrating Graham’s life tonight and raising a drink a glass of red wine while the AFDC is raising a glass to him in Ashburton. It is looking at the picture of flowers that was put on his grave today and knowing that time is precious even though we are all fragile.
This one is for you Graham. Saluté!