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by Dan Brotzel

We were in the pub, after Monday night footie. It had taken me three attempts — the first time I’d got as far as the car park, the second time I’d rounded the bottom of the field but had slunk back behind the hedge by the tennis courts. There it all was, laid out before me in my panic — the lads, the joshing, the boasting. The stupid games, the pranks, the OTT goal celebrations.

This time I’d made a point of coming a bit late, so I could just get straight into playing. It was all surprisingly low-key — a few of the nearest players went for a clunky chest bump, a couple went for back slaps, others waved and nodded.

“Play out right, Andy,” said Garry the coach, and I quickly got lost in the action, sweated like a pig, and was so proud of getting out there that I decided to carry on to the pub. Exercise definitely helps with the anxiety, a bit, but this last decision was probably a mistake.

We sit in a big circle in The Crown. After a few minutes of football post-mortem, the talk turns to … motorway driving.

Mack is telling a story about how he almost got driven off the road by an aggressive juggernaut. Ash chips in with a story about two cars he’d seen racing each other along the M25. Now Jack is sharing a link to a video showing real lorry drivers falling asleep at the wheel. Most of them Polish, he says.

I have to listen to stupid conversations like this at work too. I guess it means people are moving on from me. But somehow, that feels worse. And they just won’t shut up.

Tim has a ghoulish story of a dawn pile-up, and now Jav is moaning about driving with his mum, a non-driver. “She sits there in the passenger seat, reading out the speed limit,” he says, to laughter. “She’s always telling me about signs and obstructions up ahead that I’ve already seen. She gets anxious because she doesn’t realise that I’ve seen the car two in front of us slowing down, so she starts pressing hard on an imaginary brake pedal at her feet …”

There’s lots more laughter and nods of recognition among the group. I sit there, smiling awkwardly into my pint, trying to make the right noises at the right moments. But I don’t know where to look, I don’t know what to do with my face. I feel wobbly and insubstantial, and I can’t believe that no one can see that inside I’m screaming again.

Shutupshutup! He’sdeadhe’sdeadhe’sdead!

Then I sort of come to, and I realise that the whole circle is looking at me. It’s one of those moments where you suddenly realise that there’s an elephant in the room … and the elephant is you.

It turns out I was screaming on the outside too.

Dan Brotzel’s first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is published by Sandstone. He is also co-author of a comic novel with Unbound, Kitten on a Fatberg. Two of his stories have recently received Pushcart nominations. He won the 2019 Riptide Journal short story competition, was runner-up in the 2019 Leicester Writes contest, and was highly commended in the Manchester Writing School competition 2018. He has words in places like Pithead Chapel, Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Cabinet of HeedBending GenresThe Esthetic ApostleSpelkGinger Collect and Fiction Pool.