“Sounds like we could be back in a few weeks,” someone texts to the WhatsApp group full of men who – before lockdown – would gather every Monday and play 5-a-side football. “Exciting!” I respond, followed by “xxx”.
Of course, I did not mean to send the kisses. These are men I only know because a friend of a friend invited me to a weekly kick about two years ago when I was new to the city, lonely, and wanted to meet some people. But I work in the arts where every email ends with at least three little “x’s” so it has become a habit. No one responded to my message. I spent the next week thinking about it, knowing I had broken the unspoken rules of masculinity in a WhatsApp group.
It made me realise that I had not actually made many friends while playing football. Each week people would turn up, play for 60 minutes, then head home, waving absently over their shoulder as they left. Where were the post-match pints I had been promised? The friendly questions about how work was going? The jokes about Graham’s new haircut?
I listen to my female friends, read articles about the small gestures, the messages sent between women during a global pandemic, and I notice how this is absent from my friendships with men. I am as much a part of this as anyone else: I have been meaning to call my friend Tom for weeks; I have not spoken to my dad properly since Christmas; I respond to my brother’s memes about Arsenal’s defensive weakness with only a laughing face emoji and a blunt “haha”.
When men don’t talk to themselves or each other about how they feel, they stop practicing how to ask for help: it is one of the many complicated factors that can lead to suicide and three-quarters of registered suicide deaths in the UK in 2019 were men. The violence men do to others and themselves stems, in part, from our silences.
But it is no longer enough to say “men need to talk more”. We need to ask why we do not talk in the first place. I wonder if it is because we fear not only being shot down saying our feelings out loud but, perhaps even more deeply, the resounding silence in a room after you have said you feel sad; the awkwardness a friend treats you with after you express something when drunk one night; the blankness of the phone screen after you accidentally send kisses, when you see those two blue ticks that say you have been seen, but no one has responded.
I thought about those kisses – and the emptiness that followed them – so much that I decided to start asking the men if they would talk to me, one on one, about why they came to play football every week. I have had some magical conversations and they have formed part of workshops which are a Creative Individuals Norfolk commission by Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
One man on a Zoom call slipped seamlessly between the glory of Nineties Arsenal kits and the fact that all his vintage shirts were bought for him by his father “instead of saying he loved me”. He told me how body conscious he was when he put on the old Dreamcast kit from the Nineties and felt like his belly was pressing too much against the fabric.
Another told me how he broke his back a few years ago and football is now a creative act to see each week what his body is capable of. “It’s therapeutic,” he says. It makes me think of each sprained ankle, swollen knee and concussion I have had and the slow, careful re-entry to the world of sports.
A third man expressed the sheer joy – what he called his “Labrador complex” – of seeing a ball and simply having to chase it, and how during the pandemic, he missed that. It made me think of being a boy again, before exercise became a matter of goals scored or runs tracked on Strava, when it was just fun.
These conversations feel like they are the start of answers to my kisses in the WhatsApp group. We tell each other how we feel, protected still by the distance of a Zoom screen and in that moment – through the words that have passed back and forth like a football – I think we understand each other and ourselves at least a little better.
Lewis Buxton is a writer. His first book, ‘Boy in Various Poses’, will be published in May 2021
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