Chapter 1

CHAPTER ONE

I’m not nervous as I wait for my new boss, sports editor Danny Fowler, to come and get me at reception. I know I got this job because I’m good at what I do, so I simply sit and read the romance novel I brought with me to read on any breaks. He comes out smiling and shakes my hand firmly before leading me through the maze of desks to his office, pointing out where my desk is on the way past. This is my first day in the … well, the Carlisle Evening Times isn’t the ‘Big’ leagues but it’s bigger than my previous position at the Falwaite Daily Express. A stepping stone, once I’ve made my name here, I can move on to a bigger city. Maybe Manchester or Birmingham, I could even travel north to Glasgow. Baby steps, that’s what my Dad had said when I wrote my first match report for the fanzine for my local football team.

I smile as I sit down across the desk from Danny; my dreams haven’t changed since I was 12. I ruled the back page at the FDE, I’m a damn good reporter and I’ll scramble my way to the top here too. I work hard and I love football – those two facts about me always shine through in the reports and articles I write. Danny clasps his hands together and leans his elbows on his desk.
“So, here you are – the great Mandy Newton – Queen of sports reporting for the FDE, now thrown into the frantic world of the Carlisle Evening Times. I read a lot of your reports and articles before I decided to give this job to you.”

“I’m glad they helped make up your mind. I’m a great believer in letting my work speak for itself.”

“Your work certainly leaves no doubt that you love the beautiful game, but I’d like to see how you swim in deeper waters.” Danny frowns a little. This was good – he wants to test me, make sure I’m the reporter he thinks I am. Premier league footie reports, here I come! “We’ve already got enough reporters for Football, so I’m making you our Ice Hockey correspondent.”

“Ice Hockey?” I can feel my smile stretch to unnatural proportions, my eyes water with the strain of keeping my face from forming a frowning, grumpy mess. “What happened to your usual correspondent?”

“He got banned from the rink for harassing the cheerleaders … idiot.” Danny uses the tone of voice that I wish I could use, but this is my first day on the job and I have to be perky. “So, the job is yours now.”

“This is a … great opportunity, Danny. But I know nothing about Ice Hockey. Are there even any teams in the UK?”

Danny sighs and goes to his bookcase; I swear I hear him mutter something about ‘Football tinted glasses’ and my heart sinks. When he comes back to the desk, he tosses a heavy book towards me. ‘Ice Hockey for Dummies’, obviously he isn’t going to change his mind about this.

“Read that; buy a copy of Face-Off magazine from WH Smiths. Falwaite Falcons are playing this Saturday at home. Stop being a big fish in a small pond and challenge yourself – really challenge yourself. Sports’ reporting isn’t just football. I expect a match report and full league scores and stats in my in box on Monday.”

And just like that, I’m dismissed from his office. Like I’d been given the most ordinary assignment ever and not had my hopes and dreams crushed under the sole of his polished Hush Puppies. Before I can even begin to get my bearings, I’m accosted by a mass of untamed, curly hair as Caroline tackles me in a hug.

“Mandy, Mandy! This is it; I knew you’d get the job!”

I try to smile as she bounces in front of me. I met Caroline Foster years ago, back then she was a freelance photographer but she got a contract with the CET not long after we became friends. It was through her that I’d heard about the sports reporter position here and I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d put in a good word for me after I applied. I let her drag me to the desk that has a little plaque with my name on it.

“Danny asked me to show you around, seein’ as we’re buds. Here you are – desk, sweet desk. And I got a little ‘Welcome to the CET’ prezzie there for you!”

“That’s … great. Really great, thanks Caroline.”

I sit in the chair and sway experimentally before picking up a little pink box with a blue ribbon. Inside there’s a cupcake with a flag sticking out of it saying ‘Welcome to the team!’ I can’t help the tears welling up in my eyes. Some welcome this is! Forced into reporting on something I have no clue about from the moment I step through the door, the feeling that my new boss wants me to fail right out of the gates isn’t a good one at all. I garble a choked ‘excuse me’ to Caroline and rush off to try and find the ladies loos.

As suspected, Caroline follows. Once I’m in the sanctity of the toilets, I let it all out. In the locked cubicle, I sob my heart out. I cry for the glory that I’ve left behind. I cry for the failure that’s about to come. I cry for the loss of comfort, the bareness of my new surroundings in stark contrast to the desk cluttered with photos and knick knacks that I had at the FDE. I cry, knowing that Caroline is leaning against the door, waiting until I’m ready to tell her what’s wrong.

“D … Danny has muh … made me the… huh Ice Huh … Hockey cuh … correspondent.”

“Oh, I see.” Caroline’s voice is muffled through the door of the cubicle. “That’s not so bad, pet, didn’t you send in your CV so you could better yourself?”

“This isn’t ‘bettering myself’. It’s a disaster! I’m back to square one … even worse than that – at least I knew about the sport I was writing for when I started at the FDE.”

I hear Caroline sigh deeply and clear her throat. “What do you want to be, Mandy? Do you want to be a football reporter or a sports reporter? I didn’t get my job here because I just took shots of footballers. You know how much I travel and how many sports I cover – that’s what makes me a good sports photographer.”

In my head, I know that Caroline is making sense, but it still feels like betrayal. “Did you know?”

“I knew Danny needed someone to do the Hockey since Gordon got moved to golf, and I knew he needed someone fast since the season starts this weekend. But I didn’t know it would be you.”

I nod, even though she can’t see me, and blow my nose, loudly, into a piece of toilet paper. “I knew it would be different here, that I’d need to work up from the bottom again but … I never expected this. I thought he’d want me to stick with my strengths – not toss me overboard without a raft!”

“You’ve always counted on me to be honest and that’s what I’m doing now. It’s sink or swim, Mandy. You need to pull up your knickers and do this – or you’ll just end up back at FDE or another small-time paper.”

I know she’s right. This … development shouldn’t have come as such a shock to me. I take a deep breath and step out of the cubicle. “Well, I can’t go out there on my first day with a blotchy face.”

“That’s my girl!” Caroline winks and leaves me to tidy up.

~*~

I manage to get through the rest of the day by plunging into Ice Hockey research. It turns out that through my entire life in Falwaite, including the half dozen times I went ice-skating at the arena as a teenager, I never knew there was an Ice Hockey team playing there. The more I researched, the more I realised how blinkered I’d been. Falwaite was a tiny village that had been turned into a new town in the 1960s and had expanded until it reached the city limits of Carlisle – stuck to the arse end of the Cumbrian Capital like a bad case of piles. But it didn’t just have a football team and an Ice Hockey team; it also had a cricket team, a curling team, a rugby team and three bowling clubs, all under my nose the whole time.

Suddenly I feel very stupid and out of my league. I blame my Dad, who only ever took me to football matches and never watched or followed other sports. I blame Harry, my previous editor at the FDE, for never pushing me to stretch my boundaries. When I’ve exhausted everyone else I could blame, and excused their actions, I have no-one else to blame but myself. All these years I’ve called myself a reporter – when, really, I was just a footie fan who could type. I stave off another emotional outburst and busy myself by focusing on Ice Hockey. At five o’clock, I tuck the copy of ‘Ice Hockey for Dummies’ into my messenger bag and turn off my PC.

When I get home, I immediately open a bottle of wine. I down half the glass before I bravely venture into my bag and pull out my phone to check my messages. As suspected, there are a few texts from my boyfriend, Peter. It’s still very new with him, we’ve only been seeing each other for a few weeks, but it’s nice that he cares enough to contact me and see how my first day has been going. Up until my Pinot Grigio hit, I’d ignored my phone; worried that my tension and fears of failure would taint any pretence that my first day had been anything but fun, exciting and full of meeting new people. I plaster a smile on my face and prepare to act positive, confident and full of hope that my career won’t crash and burn with this development.

“Hi, Peter. I got your texts.”

‘Hey you! Did you have a good first day?’

“It was … all very new and … overwhelming.” Be positive, be positive, be positive. “But nothing I can’t handle once I know the ropes.”

‘That’s great! Tell you what, we’ll go out this Saturday night and celebrate. A nice meal, some drinks and maybe back to my place?’

“That sounds great!” Then I remember I have somewhere else to be on Saturday. “But I can’t do it on Saturday, how about Friday instead?”

‘You know I work late on Fridays, what about Sunday?’

“I’ll probably be working hard trying to finish my report so it’s ready on Monday Morning.”

‘And I’ve got Footie tonight and Wednesday.’

“I go to yoga on tomorrow night and my Mum’s on Thursdays.”

‘Couldn’t you cancel something just for one week?’

I pull the phone away from my ear and stare at it. It’s nice of him to offer to cancel one of his activities … not. “It’s not just one week, I’m going to be reporting on the Ice Hockey and it’s on every Saturday night, sometimes Sundays too.”

‘I see. Well if you can’t make some small adjustments to your schedule and make time for me, then I don’t see how this is going to work.’

“Really? Me either because you expect me to adjust my schedule to see you but don’t offer to drop one night of rec level Footie to see me.”

‘Why should I? I’m not the one who got a fancy new job. Let’s just call it a day, eh?’

“Yeah, let’s.”

I press the red button on my phone hard enough to hurt my thumb and go back to my bottle before I broach the next message on the list. I wish I’d phoned my Mum and Dad first instead of Peter, or maybe one of my friends. Now, as well as feeling out of my depth at work, I was suddenly single without the opportunity for Saturday night dates. A first day at work shouldn’t make me feel this wretched. I fare a little better with the call to my parents; they’re pleased that I’m ‘exploring minority sports before going back to my roots’. The news that Peter had broken things off because I couldn’t spend time with him was met with Dad asking if I’d be receiving a bonus for working antisocial hours. It’s hard trying to explain that journalists don’t get paid extra for doing the investigation and research that their job requires, so I promise him I’ll speak to ‘my boss’ about it tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Tuesday, that leaves me five days to cram as much knowledge about Ice Hockey into my brain as I possibly can. While I phone round the couple of friends that left messages, I browse the Falwaite Falcons website. Face-off is at 7.00pm on Saturday, looking at the pictures on the site it seems like a very vibrant, family orientated experience. The rink has a bar and there’s a club a ten minute walk away from it. It could be a good night out! The other girls could have a few drinks while I get some quotes from the players and tidy up my notes. Excited at the prospect of mixing business with pleasure, I call Tracy – she’s always up for a night out. I think of others I can call while I listen to it ring. Caroline is an obvious choice, maybe Nicole would like to come too.

‘Hey Mandy-pandy. Was it today you started your new job?’

“Yeah, I was wondering if you wanted to come on a … night out with a difference on Saturday to help me celebrate.”

‘Ooh, sounds intriguing – what is it that makes it different from our other nights out? Will there be strippers?’

I smile as she cackles into the phone. “No, it’s an Ice Hockey match. I thought we could watch the game, have a few drinks and hit a club afterwards.”

‘Ice Hockey? I dunno Tam, I don’t really fancy it. I like Footie well enough but you know I’m just there for the lads.’

Of course, Tracy made no secret of the fact that she aspired to be the next Colleen Rooney. “Maybe there’ll be some fit lads at the rink?”

‘You know they won’t be my type. I’ll leave it, but thanks for asking me. What brought on the sudden switch from Footie to Ice Hockey?’

“My job.” I sigh. “I’ll be reporting on it, and all the home games are Saturday nights, sometimes Sundays, so I thought I’d try and make the best of it.”

‘Ooh, I don’t blame you for that, love, but I’d rather sit in with some Lambrini and re-watch Clueless than stand, freezin’ my bum off next to a patch of ice!’

“If I had the choice, I’d join you.” I grumble. “See you later, pet.”

Unfortunately for me the next two calls go along the same lines. I leave Caroline for last because I’ve got a feeling she’ll come along. And I’m right. Out of all my friends, Caroline is the only one who understands why I need to spend my Saturday nights in Falwaite Ice Arena. I wonder if I’ll ever see them again, it would be too much for me to go to all the Football matches and Ice Hockey matches. I’d be too knackered and hoarse from cheering Falwaite Rovers to concentrate on the Falcons.

It feels like starting all over again. New job, new sport, the only friend that’s prepared to support me is Caroline. I don’t know the game, the players or the home grounds and I won’t know any of the regular supporters. I start to resent this assignment more and more the longer I think about it and the only way to plug the gaps in my knowledge is to go to Falwaite Ice Arena. One thing I do know is that die-hard fans will take any opportunity to see their team in action; I reckon that’s universal across any sport. So I call the rink to ask when the Falcons have their training sessions. I’ll show Danny ‘swimming in deeper waters’ if it’s the last thing I bloody well do.

~*~

I spend the next two days boning up on how to write match reports for Ice Hockey and on the sport and terminology too. Not only do I learn that it’s more commonly referred to as just ‘Hockey’ in the community, but there’s a whole other language that’s used in the reports from Footie. Checking, holding, high sticks, minors, majors, line changes … and then there are the videos I’ve watched. Hockey is fast, much faster than Footie and I wonder how the people playing and watching manage to keep track of where the puck is! Suddenly, the thought of sitting at the rink with a notebook and pen doesn’t seem like proper preparation at all.

Everything is different. I feel like I’ve been thrown from a Maths degree in Oxford to an English Degree in St. Andrews. My only constant is Caroline – without her I’d be going crazy. ‘Supportive’ should be her middle name – if Caroline hadn’t been in the office that day, there’s a good chance I would have just walked out. She’s agreed to come to the match on Saturday but can’t come to the training session with me tonight. I try not to feel put out by it, she’s got a life to get on with but then I wonder what happened to the life I had to get on with. Oh yeah, that’s right – it got taken over by a Hockey assignment. By the time I park outside the Ice Arena, my resentment is no longer brewing – it’s simmering quite nicely and about to come to a boil. I’d never considered myself a person who didn’t like change, I always thought I was a ‘go with the flow’ kind of girl and that challenge to how I view myself does nothing to improve my attitude.

The reception area is nice and warm; I remember that from years ago. I paste on a smile as I walk up to a lady standing behind a counter. She’s a full head shorter than my 5’6″ and twice as wide as my size 12 frame, her name badge says ‘Rita’. It’s silly but she looks like a ‘Rita’. I hold out my press pass and tell her that I’m here to see the Falcons training. She just looks at the pass and nods.

“Um … is there a certain area I go to? Do you have a media room or press box?”

Rita looks at me with a sarcastic smile. “Of course, pet, they’re right next to the VIP lounge and champagne bar. The ice pad is to your right.”

I can feel my face heat up with a combination of anger and embarrassment. This is getting off to a great start! I walk slowly with my head held high, pretending I hadn’t just made myself look like some kind of entitled snob. Once I walk through the door, it hits me. The cold air from the ice creeps up my legs, making me wish I’d worn trousers. No, scrap that – a snow suit. Feeling this cold while indoors is just wrong; I’m reminded of why I only came here to skate a few times and never bothered with it again. I take a deep breath and shake it off while making a mental note not to wear my usual ‘interviewing the players’ skirt and top.

The Arena hasn’t changed much since I was 14, you’d think it would be shabbier or at least different colours from maintaining and redecorating. But it’s not; it’s exactly the same condition and colours as it was twelve years ago – not brand new looking, but not bordering on dilapidated either. The benches to change into your skates were still red and scuffed from the blades of the skates, maybe they were a bit more scuffed now – I couldn’t tell from where I was standing and I didn’t plan on getting any closer. The ice pad was crammed with teenagers and children skating around, singing along to Carly Rae Jepson and trying to do that fancy move where you stop and spray ice all over people. I always hated that part of going skating, the ones who could skate – probably hockey players in the making – always intimidated people like me who weren’t quite so adept at it.

Older and wiser, I walk away from the rink-side and up the stairs – following the signs that point to the bar. Why stand around in the cold when I could be nursing a drink and watching through the big windows that overlook the rink? When I open the door to the bar, I immediately notice the fan blowing hot air above me. It’s a nice touch, but I wonder if it would be effective after standing next to the ice for half an hour. I reckon I’d need basin of hot water and some of those foil blankets rather than a hair dryer. The door closes behind me and I notice that the dozen or so people already in there are all staring at me.

I don’t know what to do, so I just wave and smile and walk over to the bar. All eyes follow me and I can feel them boring into my back as I look at the wine list before deciding I’ll probably be safer with a coffee. There’s no music in the bar, just the muffled restrains of the PA system through the huge glass windows. By the time the barman has made my latte and I turn around, everyone has gone back to doing what they were doing before. I park myself at a small table and watch the motion of the skaters while my drink cools. I’m already halfway through my drink when the stewards start to usher the kids off the ice to let them resurface before the Falcons start their session.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

The voice shocks me and I almost spill my coffee. Turning around, I see that it belongs to a very handsome young man. He can’t be any older than 20. “Um … no, I’m Mandy Newton from the Carlisle Evening Times, just thought I’d pop along to watch the training session for the Falcons.”

He smiles and looks me up and down; it’s a move I’ve seen countless times in the pubs and clubs. It creeps me out there and it creeps me out here too. He holds his hand out and I place my fingers in his palm for a weak handshake.

“Simon Chadwick, I’m one of the D-men.” I nod and smile, searching the recesses of my brain and working out that he means that he’s a defender. “Have you just moved here?”

“I’ve lived in Falwaite my whole life; I came here skating a few times when I was younger.”

“I don’t remember seein’ you at any games … and I’m sure I’d remember seein’ you.”

There’s that look again. I suppress a shudder. “Well, that would be because I’ve never come to any of the games before.”

He starts to laugh, very loud and very noticeably. A quick glance around the bar confirms that we have the attention of everyone in the room. Simon turns to a group of other lads and jerks his thumb at me.

“Can you believe this? It’s not enough that the Carlisle Evenin’ Codswollop send a perv that bothers the cheerleaders, now they’ve gone and sent us some bimbo who’s never even been to a Hockey game before!”

I feel my rage build and stand up, poking Simon in the shoulder to get his attention. “Just because I’ve never been to a Hockey game before doesn’t mean I’m a bimbo! I was the lead sports reporter at the Falwaite Daily Express!”

“Obviously this lady is a professional journalist – let’s not tarnish her view of the Falcons before the season even starts.”

This voice is deeper, older and it comes from behind me. I was so intent on giving Simon a piece of my mind I didn’t hear anyone else come into the bar. When I turn around to thank the man who has stuck up for me, I’m speechless for a few seconds. He’s gorgeous. His grey eyes look familiar, and I remember that all the pictures of those on the Falcons roster were taken while they were in full kit – helmets, gum-shields and everything. I clear my throat and hold out my hand, trying to stop myself making googly eyes at him.

“Mandy Newton, CET.” I wince internally as that comes out far more girly and high pitched than I intend.

“Tony Robertson, Falcons Captain.” His grip is strong, but not forceful, and his hands are warm. I can feel calluses and hard skin, rough against the soft pads of my fingers. “This is my sister, Madeline – we call her Mads – and her friend Kathy.”

I feel awful that I didn’t notice the two women that had come in with him and mumble a ‘nice to meet you’ as I squeeze their hands. Mads has the same dirty, blond hair as her brother and the same eyes, but that’s where the similarities end. While Tony is tall, at least 6’2″, Mads is around the same height as me. His shoulders are broad and I can tell from the way he fills out his shirt that he’s muscular. Mads is very slim and willowy, for a moment I’m a little jealous of her narrow waist – compared to Mads, I’m ‘blocky’, but then I notice how small she is in the chest and feel proud of my boobs. Kathy is shorter than me and Mads, with curves for days and dyed blond hair. She’s wearing a shorter skirt than me and a tight, low-cut top. Mads looks like she dressed to come somewhere cold – Kathy looks like she’s out on the pull. I watch as Tony walks over to Simon and, I assume, the other Falcons. When I turn around, Mads and Kathy have sat down at the table I intended to occupy alone and were smiling at me.

“Are you really a sports journalist? We write for the Falcons Fanzine!”

Mads’ voice is bubbly and full of excitement. Her smile is contagious and I can’t help but return her enthusiasm. “Yes, I used to write for the fanzine for Falwaite Rovers!”

“I can’t believe you’ve never been to a Hockey match before – you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Kathy is less bubbly. In fact her voice seems laced with disdain. “Do you even know the rules?”

“I’ve been reading up on them and watching clips on the Internet. It’ll be different from what I’m used to, but I’m sure I can report on Hockey just as well as I can report on football.” I try to sound confident rather than resigned. “And I’m looking forward to getting to know the players and fans, just the same as I did with the Rovers.”

“Don’t you worry!” Mads grips my hand, her face a beacon of welcoming. “We’ll help you negotiate all the politics and what-not!”

“Politics?”

As I say it I hear the door to the bar open and in walk five young women wearing even less than Kathy. They’re all in full make-up and skyscraper heels and totter over to where the players are hanging around. Mads leans in and whispers conspiratorially.

“Puck Bunny politics. The fact is, you’re fresh meat – the players love that, and you’re pretty with some major power in the rack area. Stick with us and we’ll steer you right. There are toes that can cause problems if they’re trodden on. A few games with us and you’ll know who’s friendly and who’s got a knife ready to stab you in the back.”

When I turn to look at the puck bunnies, they’re staring at me. And not in a friendly way either. I’m used to WAGs and they’re used to me, the women that hang around the Rovers know I’m there for the game and not to steal their men and their glory when that player gets picked up by a major club. These puck bunnies don’t. And that just doubles the amount of mines in the field I’m being forced to walk across.

My head is buzzing when I get back home. While watching the Falcons practice, Mads talked my ear off about all the players, where they were from, which teams they had played for before and what their playing style was. She’s a one woman wiki for the Falcons. Kathy didn’t warm to me at all and, thankfully, stayed fairly quiet. I’m not sure I could have handled both of them filling my head with all that information. As I climb into bed, I realise something. I’m … excited. And the fact I’m excited makes me even more excited because it means my feelings about Hockey have done a complete one-eighty. I wonder if I would feel the same way about it if Tony hadn’t spoke up for me and introduced me to his sister and her friend.

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