The winger – fast, tricky, skilful – picks up the ball on the halfway line. Beats one. Beats another.
“Cross it,” yells a voice from the touchline.
Keeps going. Beats another. Still going…
“Cross it, for Pete’s sake!”
Still going. “Cross it, damn it!”
Into the penalty area. Shoots. Goalie has no chance. Scores the winner. Mobbed by team-mates. Runs back to the centre circle. Huge grin. Turns to the middle-aged bloke who kept shouting “cross it”. Waves to him.
Then – in full view of at least three teachers – raises the middle finger of her right hand.
My daughter, ladies and gentlemen. In one of the scenes from her childhood that is forever imprinted on my memory.
But a child no longer. Last Tuesday she turned 18. Time to look back…
A Saturday night in August. Gosh, I’m tired. But not as tired as my wife, who’s past nine months pregnant and remarkably fed up. Another night, another curry. Not that it’s going to work. Curry, driving over the cobbles on the sea-front, we’ve tried ’em all. And none of them are going to work. The first baby was two weeks late: this one’s already six days overdue. Sorry, love, there’s another eight days of curry to endure.
An hour later we’re in the lift. “Can’t it go any faster?” my wife pants. “I damn well work in this hospital. I am not giving birth in front of a porter.” She doesn’t. But only just. Jessica arrives in a blur. Tiny. Like a little bird. With her eyes open, peering through the caul.
“Oh my lord,” says the midwife. “This one’s an old soul. She’s been here before. And with the caul as well.”
Later, I look up the stats. Less than 1 in 80,000 births. And we live in a seaside town. Local tradition insists that a child born with the caul over its face can never drown.
She’s independent from the off. And determined. Other people might use a different word. “Jessica, why have you bitten your brother?”
“He deserved it.”
“Whatever Tom’s done he doesn’t deserve teeth marks in his arm.”
“Oh yes he does. And I’ll bite him harder next time.”
Don’t laugh. She may shortly be working in your office. Best not to steal her parking space.
Aged six she is the Angel Gabriel. Simply radiant. Shimmering in a white dress. She leads the angels round the hall. I turn to my Mum: she’s in floods of tears. “So beautiful,” she says, “So very beautiful. And I’ll never see her grow up.” Simultaneously one of my happiest and saddest memories. Mum died a few months later.
Jessica runs. Fast. One glorious May morning she wins the area cross-country. She runs faster. And I spend a frozen winter on the desolate hilltops of the North Yorkshire/South Durham X-country league.
But now she’s a teenager. Hormones rage. Doors slam. “Where are you going?” “Out.” “Where?” “Nowhere special.”
Things happen which dad – wisely – isn’t told about. The First Serious Boyfriend arrives. Am I happy? No. Do I manage to keep quiet? Just.
Exams loom. She wobbles. Gets back on track. Works harder than I ever thought possible. And in September she’ll go to Sheffield to study journalism. So proud I couldn’t speak. But the little bird that arrived in a blur is leaving home.
That’s my daughter. Feisty, determined and – at times – downright difficult? Absolutely. But strong, capable, ambitious, talented? Oh yes. And when she puts her ball gown on and combs her hair to one side, more beautiful than even her Gran imagined.
You would love her to bits, mum.
As do I. Happy birthday, darling...