Alan pulled on the flesh at his throat, snorted a gulp of beer. He wasn't sure he could bear this, he should have stayed at home and watched by himself. This was too hard, all the noise from everyone else – for God's sake, there were people in here who weren't even watching, just chatting to themselves, laughing and clattering cutlery and as for the bloody morris dancers, walking round in their bloody noisy bells! He could feel sweat breaking out on his top lip and the back of his neck. There was Jones, running across the pitch, what the hell was he doing? He was offside! The flag was going to go up any minute – yes, up it went, the whistle blew out, full screen picture of Jones looking downcast as if he hadn't noticed, the prat. What was Gary Larson thinking? Standing there in his suit and tie, at least he was sweating as much as Alan.
Would you believe it, someone was singing now – some godawful pop song, nothing to do with the football – what were they thinking? It wasn't as if this were just any match, this was the final of the World Cup for God's sake! Other people were hissing at them though, thank gord, it wasn't just Alan, of course, straining forward; Heaven Almighty, there was Jones streaking across the field again, he wasn't offside this time, yeah, go on Jones, go on and.... the ball went in, sailed right over the head of the goalie and right into the sweet, back corner of the goal and now the whole pub was on its feet, beer fountaining into the air, Alan wasn't sure whether it was beer or tears running down his face – they'd done it! Only five minutes left, there was no way France was going to get another two goals please Sweet Heaven, don't let that happen!
Seven minutes later and the referee's whistle went. Yes, it was truly done. 'It's coming home, it's coming home, football's coming home!' Everyone in the pub now was laughing, hugging, singing, shouting. It's coming home! Home to England!
They were definitely tears falling down his cheeks now -though Alan didn't care. This was what it was all about. England, England had won, they had won the world cup, after all these years and everyone, even the bloody morris dancers - maybe especially the bloody morris dancers - were ecstatic. They were all streaming outside now, with fresh pints, into the pub garden, where the roses were in bloom, their perfume mixing in the air with the smell of beer and cigarettes, the gold wash of late afternoon sun shining on all faces, making everyone beautiful, united in their joy. Alan closed his eyes and breathed in the heady mix, absorbing the sounds of laughter, the music of an accordion playing, the bells – how could he have thought the bells were annoying? The sound of morris bells was the sound of distilled laughter, wasn't it?
This was what sport did for you. Myra could turn her nose up all she liked, but this was what it was all about, people united in their pride because, after all the taunting of years, after the embarrassment of the last World cup, they had picked themselves up, as only the English could, and gone back into the fray and this time, they'd done the unbelievable, they'd done what Alan never thought he'd see in his lifetime – they'd won! They were the world champions! Alan opened his eyes and there was even Raj, grinning all over his face, as though he'd personally kicked that last, winning goal. 'We did it Al, we did it!'
And Alan grinned in return, slapped him on the back. 'Right you are mate, we did it!' though, at the back of his mind was a tiny grain of sorrow for his friend. Poor Raj, he was as proud as the rest of them, but when it came down to it, he must know, deep down, that underneath he wasn't really English, not like Alan, whose Dad and granddad and great granddad and so on for generations had farmed this little corner of Oxfordshire. Raj had been nearly two or three or something when his parents had brought him over from India and India itself hadn't even qualified for the World Cup! Never mind, now was not a time for reminding his friend about that. Alan himself had travelled all over the world and he'd enjoyed it. He'd worked in Dubai for a couple of years, sweating it out in dusty, over air-conditioned offices, then in Germany for a year. He'd holidayed in Thailand, riding elephants and swimming at pristine beaches, climbed Ayres Rock in Australia. He'd been all over Europe too, seen the Eiffel tower, the tower of Pisa, gone skiing in the Alps. Yes, there were some great places, but nowhere was really like England. He only had to look over the old stone wall with its icing of roses, across the road to the old village green, with its sward of emerald turf – you didn't see green like that anywhere else! And the old cottages, that looked like they'd been made from crumbling flapjacks, hollyhocks growing up the walls, more roses; beyond the houses, over their slate tiled roofs, were the hills, fields of sheep, you could hear them bleating even now, joining in the celebration as if they knew. This was the real England and nowhere in the world could beat it. Even the music was the best.
The dancer next to him was playing a concertina, pumping it out and in, fingers flying over the buttons, and, for the first time in years, Alan felt his fingers twitch towards it. He couldn't even remember when it was he'd last played the instrument, he wasn't sure why he'd stopped. It had been when he'd first started working in London – it hadn't really fitted in with his yuppy image, something stupid like that. Oh well, he'd been young, going to the pub was all about drinking and making connections then, not about playing music and having a good time.
'Hey, you want a go?' The dancer was grinning at him, from beneath his pheasant feathered hat, holding out the instrument. Alan stared down at it, fingers twitching again. Did he dare? Why not? No one here was in a mood to judge! He took another slug of beer. “Thanks.”
Bloody hell, it was like he'd never stopped playing it! His fingers seemed to find the buttons with ease, instinctively seeking out the tunes he'd once played.
'Wow! You're good!' the owner of the concertina was staring in open mouthed admiration and Alan laughed. Yes, he was good, or he had been at any rate. People were turning to look, smiling, Raj was gobsmacked, he'd had no idea Alan could do anything like this. Okay, it was probably the beer talking, he knew he'd regret it later, but maybe he should sing something too? There was a song he'd learnt as a boy, an old folk song that came from round here - what was it? It was swimming around there, somewhere at the back of his brain, he just knew it was right for the occasion. Something about the Kings of old, it was meant to be about the old burial mounds off the A423, some story that one day the Kings would wake and England would be restored to all its former glory. It was just perfect for this moment. Oh yes, that was it. He opened his mouth and started to sing:
'The time has come, awake my Lords
The time has come today...'
'Bloody hell, it's years since I've heard that song!' someone was saying and then others were singing, it had a great tune, a lively, heralding tune and Alan wasn't surprised when some of the dancers started to dance along. Then they were all dancing, everyone in the pub was dancing, shouting out the words.
'Come wake and rise,
Gather your steeds
Raise England right up high!'
And deep beneath the earth the King stirred, shifted in his bed to the sound of the silver voices, calling him, calling him. It had been a long sleep, but the scents of the earth, of river and valley and mountain, of forests and deer, pheasants and hare, was calling him awake, so that he sat up and stretched, opened his eyes.
But what he saw did not please him. What he saw was an England that was overrun with the enemy, people from foreign lands, who worshipped heathen Gods and heathen money and his sluggish, tired blood stirred and fired with rage. He saw palaces of evil destroying the beauty of hill and dale, he saw simple people with no royal blood, who had risen to hold themselves higher than those whom God had set to rule.
This was not the England he had reigned over for so long, this was not the England that he had sacrificed himself for, binding his soul forever to its green pastures. No. They were right to call him. He reached for his sword, speaking the words of the ancients, a breath that wafted out and over the mounds and the grass, calling forth his latent army. There would be strife and there would be bloodshed, there would be famine and war, but England would rise again, a glorious Island of its own, away from the rest of the world.
Alan continued to sing, tears in his eyes, whilst all around him the dancers leapt and twirled, the other revellers shouted out the words of the song, sending them to breathe new energy into the long-dead. And none of them noticed the dark menace of the shadows that were growing, stealing through the countryside, spreading to cover all of England and beyond.