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Off the Rails by water_lily43175
Chapter 25 : twenty-five
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 4


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The week’s run up to the Pride match was the worst I’d ever experienced.

The England World Cup squad was to be announced two days after the match – assuming, of course, that it finished the same day that it started. If the match was a long one, it was possible we could still be playing when the squads were announced.

It was all that the journalists could talk about. They’d all written articles, listing the players they would choose if they were picking the England squad.

They all picked me.

The Prophet, the Quibbler, Quidditch Weekly, Which Broomstick? – even Witch Weekly. The Prophet had an eight-page pull out dedicated to the upcoming squad announcements, and its journalists’ picks.

I didn’t read Mum’s.

The squad was the only thing people wanted to talk about. I was used to people stopping me in Diagon Alley, congratulating me on my latest game, asking me how my family were – even people I didn’t know. That was the nature of being part of the Weasley family; everybody knew your face, and felt as though they knew the entire family personally. Sometimes, it was nice. Other times – such as now – it wasn’t so nice. More people than ever before wanted to talk to me, just when I didn’t want human interaction.

The only reason I could bear training was that nobody talked to me about it. Nobody needed to. Most of the squad had been through the same, torturous wait to see if they’d achieved their first international call-up; all but four of the squad had international caps. Even the other three who hadn’t been through this seemed to know I didn’t want to talk about it – although Roxanne probably knew to avoid the topic from having grown up with me.

Klaus and Stefan were both feeling as pressured as I was. They, too, remained tight-lipped on the subject, but it was clear to see they both feared they might not make the German and Bulgarian squads respectively. Klaus, however, had done all he could to press his case; he’d played a game more than Stefan, so wouldn’t be playing against the Pride. Sinead was sticking to her promise of giving everyone as much exposure as possible.

Della was certain that Klaus would make the squad, proclaiming that her cousin was clearly the best Seeker their country could field. Klaus broke his silence on the topic to point out to me that it was much easier for her to be confident that he’d make it, given that her own inclusion was assured. She’d been one of the German first-choice Chasers since the last World Cup, and there was no question that she would make their squad. Cato and Cleo were also World Cup definites, and Ryan had already been told he’d made the Irish squad. As a result, the four of them were much more relaxed in training, and tried their best all week to keep me, Klaus and Stefan thinking positively.

There was an awkward atmosphere around training – or at least, an awkward atmosphere between me and Keira. I was just glad that she was a Beater and not a Chaser, so proximity between us could be avoided. Even so, her involvement with England loomed over both of us.

I wasn’t sure if she knew whether I was close to making the squad. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know. As it stood, I knew that so long as I played well against the Pride, I could be satisfied I’d done all that I could to stake my claim for a spot in the squad.

Unless the squad had already been decided, and the Harpies match had quashed my chances.

I was trying not to think about that. I was just trying to remind myself that I’d played well against the Magpies and Puddlemere, and that I could easily do so again. The trouble was, I’d not felt pressured to play well against the Magpies. I didn’t get nervous for League matches these days; I’d performed well in that many games that I was confident of my ability. Even the pressure of the Puddlemere match, with Demelza present, was nothing compared to this one.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know if Keira knew anything about my chances. Part of me wondered if knowing where I stood would make things easier. If the squad had already been decided, and I hadn’t made it, then there would be no point in me playing; at least then Roxanne could have another game. Conversely, if I did have a chance, at least I’d know what I had to do.

I hadn’t considered that Keira was going through the same torment; wondering whether she should tell me what she knew. I noticed her talking to Sinead, Cato and Della a lot, but I didn’t twig that they were debating whether I needed to know what she did. Then, on Wednesday, after Sinead announced the team – me, Della, Ryan, Cato, Cleo, Stefan and Alfie –she and Keira pulled me to one side.

“How’re you feeling?” Keira asked me.

“Alright,” I lied. My intestines felt as though they were tying themselves in knots.

“I thought you might like to know the situation in terms of your England chances.” She cut straight to the point. “They’re good. Demelza’s picked three of the Chasers, but she’s stuck on the fourth. Emily, Tamsin and Jeremiah are in-”

“And it’s a straight shoot-out between me and Wadcock for the fourth spot,” I finished, not sure whether to be happy at this news.

“She’s leaning towards you, I think. Wadcock’s not been playing well recently; whether it’s the pressure getting to him or just a loss of form, I’m not sure, but it’s gotten her concerned. You, on the other hand, have been playing well. Very well. She was impressed with your performance against him, that will have helped your cause massively.”

“I’m guessing there’s a ‘but’ here,” I said gingerly.

“She is concerned about taking a punt on you. She’s not the type of person to gamble unless she’s certain it’s the right thing to do. You’ve played well in a strong Falcons squad, and she’s not sure whether that’s a good enough test of your mental character. I think she wants to pick you, but she’s not totally convinced.”

I chewed my lip nervously.

“So it all comes down to this weekend’s performance.”

“It does. Puddlemere are playing the Bats, so Wadcock will have a hard time of it up against O’Sullivan and Quigley.”

My mouth twitched slightly. Fiona O’Sullivan and Aisling were Ryan’s fellow Chasers in the Ireland squad. Their places were also guaranteed, so they, like Ryan, would have the pressure off, meaning they would both probably have blinders. Wadcock certainly didn’t have an easy fixture in which to press his case.

“If he doesn’t play fantastically, and you do ... well, you’ll have done all you can. I’m not committing to anything, because it’s Demelza’s choice, but you’d be looking good for a spot.”

“But I’ve got a tough match too.”

Tough, but not as tough as Wadcock’s. McCormack’s a good Chaser, but it’s a slightly easier prospect then playing the Bats, though still tough enough to provide a good comparison with Wadcock’s performance. And even if he does play well on Saturday, you’ve been better than him all season so far.”

“Will anyone be at our game?” I asked. I felt certain someone would be, but if they wanted to watch Wadcock as well as me...

“Tamsin’s not playing for the Tornados on Saturday. They’re playing the Warriors, so they can afford to leave her out. She’ll be at Portree, and Demelza will be at Ballycastle.”

So Wadcock was playing away as well. This was some relief; Portree was possibly the worst place in the League to play at, but Ballycastle wasn’t far behind.

“It basically comes down to who can hold their nerve,” Sinead summed up. “Just go out there, play your own game and don’t let the occasion get to you. If you do that, then you’ll prove to Demelza that you’ve got the mental strength she’s looking for. She can’t possibly overlook you-”

“Unless Wadcock plays well,” I put in.

“You can’t affect his game,” she reminded me. “Just go out there and play the way you always play. Regardless of what happens on Monday, I know you’ll do us all proud on Saturday.”

I smiled slightly, and for the first time ever found myself hoping the Lynch brothers had a good game for the Bats.

“Don’t worry,” Ryan reassured me later, “Aisling and Fiona won’t let you down.”

I nodded, but didn’t say anything. I was slightly concerned I’d be sick if I opened my mouth.

“Just play like you normally do, and you’ll be fine,” he continued.

I opted to change the subject.

“Lily’s got some school dance coming up, and she needs a date for it. I’m going; Maddie wants me to take her. It’s the same day as the World Cup draw, would you be able-”

I tailed off, seeing the look on his face.

“Desmond says he wants the squad to watch the draw together,” he said awkwardly. Desmond Ryan was the Irish team’s head coach. “I really would love to go with her, but I won’t be able to.”

He looked sheepish, as though he felt guilty for mentioning he was already in his country’s squad. This barely bothered me, though; I was more concerned about finding Lily a date. Ryan had been my first – and only - option.

“You, er...” He scratched his stubbly cheek, looking awkward. “You could ask Cato?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“He’s seeing your sister.”

He shrugged.

“We both know it’s noncommittal. As is this dance. Ask him, I’m sure he’d take her.”

I wasn’t sure I liked the idea, but I’d promised Lily I’d find her a date, and she would probably be quite pleased if I produced Cato for her.

So I asked him, and tried to quash the slight twinge of annoyance I felt when he said yes.

***

I didn’t tell my family what Keira had told me about my chances of making the squad. I didn’t want them knowing I needed to play well in this match. They all knew that I had to play well to maximise my chances though, so all turned out for it – even Uncle Percy and Molly.

Even Dad.

Carlotta was true to her word, and turned up at mine early on Saturday morning. I said little to her, and luckily she seemed to sense my nerves, and instead engaged in light-hearted conversation with Mum as I tried to force some food down my throat. Eventually, Mum took pity on me and cleared my plate away.

“Come on, darling; there’s no point in sitting here all morning.”

Portree was generally quite overcast. Luckily, today the visibility was pretty good, although there was still a fairly strong breeze. We were the first people there, but Sinead and Brigid turned up soon afterwards. Brigid came and sat down next to me, took my hand and squeezed it tightly. She didn’t say anything, for which I was grateful.

People arrived in dribs and drabs as normal, my family scattered amongst those Apparating into the ground. Some people tried to talk to me, but I ignored them, not wanting to hear what they had to say.

Eventually, the rest of the squad arrived, and Sinead summoned us into the changing rooms. I got to my feet, my insides churning. There was a chorus of ‘good luck’ from my family. Carlotta kissed my cheek, Freddie clapped my shoulder – “Go get ‘em, Jim” – Rose and Lily both hugged me tightly, Albus punched my arm lightly, and Mum brushed the hair out of my face and planted a kiss on my forehead.

“You’ll be fine,” she murmured.

As I passed Dad, he reached out and took my arm.

“James, wait-”

“Jim, come on!” Della called from the pitch.

I glanced at her, then turned back to Dad.

“I’ve got to go,” I said. “See you after the game.”

He released my arm and I turned and dashed down the steps of the stand. As I did, I could have sworn I heard him wish me good luck.

After we’d changed, we headed out for a warm-up. I tried to calm myself down, reasoning that if I was nervous, I wouldn’t play as well. It was difficult though, especially when I caught a glimpse of Tamsin Robins in the stand.

“I think I’m going to throw up,” I muttered to Della.

“Well, make sure you get it down the toilet,” she replied matter-of-factly.

I smiled slightly, despite myself. That was Della’s typical way of dealing with things. Her chirpy mood was infectious, and made me feel slightly better; she seemed confident enough that I would play well. I just hoped that it wasn’t ill-placed.

After our warm up, we returned to the changing room. Sinead looked tense. She’d not given us defined match tactics all week, and now, we needed them.

“This is difficult,” she said slowly. “Normally, I’d say that we want this game to be over as soon as possible, but...”

I caught her glancing at me, then Stefan, and twigged.

I wasn’t the only one who needed to play well in this match. Stefan was concerned about his position in the Bulgarian squad, and this was his last chance to impress his selectors.

The trouble was, the job of a Chaser and the job of a Seeker conflicted. For me to impress, I needed as long a match as possible. For Stefan to impress, he needed to catch the Snitch as soon as possible.

Whichever tactics Sinead laid down, they would only benefit one of us. And she couldn’t choose between us.

“Just ... just play,” she finished. “Just play, and win.”

***

Sinead’s advice was much easier to give than it was to heed. Facing four of Scotland’s team made it an even tougher task. The silver lining for me was that only one of their Chasers was of international class – Elspeth McCormack, the granddaughter of Scotland’s best ever Chaser, Catriona McCormack. The Pride team was somewhat of a family affair; her brother Angus was one of the Beaters, and their cousin Finlay McGregor was the Keeper, following in his mother Meghan’s footsteps. The Pride’s fourth international player was their Seeker, Donald McBride, and so Stefan would have a tough task.

They weren’t going to give us an easy time of it, that was for sure. They were out for a win, and a large one at that; they were in the hunt for the League title, and were only just below us in the table. On top of that, their Scottish players were naturally looking to impress as much as possible before their own squad announcement – they knew they’d would be picked, or possibly already had been, but in their case it was more about proving they deserved to represent their country on the biggest stage.

They got off to a good start. Or at least, I got off to a bad one. Ryan caught the Quaffle at the start, as planned, but I failed to take the catch, and Elspeth snatched it up and scored. They’d managed to score three more goals before we got ourselves on the board.

“Jim, you’re trying too hard,” Della hissed to me after she’d converted her chance. “Just relax!”

But I couldn’t. Every time I tried, I caught a glimpse of Tamsin, scrutinising my every move; of Mum, looking nervous; of Freddie, waiting for me to start playing like he knew I could. I wasn’t sure what was worse; the hope or the expectation.

Another fumble, another drop, another Pride goal. Another glance at the stand. A disappointed shake of the head from Dad.

Disappointment. Again. I supposed I ought to have been used to it by now.

And suddenly, Stefan went into a dive, McBride hot in pursuit. My stomach contracted. We’d not been playing for that long, and I’d messed up too many times already; if Stefan ended the game now then I was done for. I hadn’t done nearly enough to impress Tamsin. Heck, I hadn’t done anything that would have impressed her.

My heart sank as he rose out of the dive – and then I realised that his hand was empty. My first instinct was to look at McBride, in case he had the Snitch, but he too was empty-handed, and was wearing the expression of a man who’d just fallen for a ruse.

Then Stefan glanced at me, and I twigged.

Stefan had seen the Snitch – and had flown in the opposite direction, his only choice being to lure McBride away from it. He could have caught it, won the game for us, and guaranteed his call-up. Instead, he’d just thrown caution to the wind, and risked his own World Cup chances in order to give me a chance to shine.

I had to make the damn squad now. If I didn’t, I’d be letting Stefan down.

I realised Sinead was right. I had to play this game as though it was like any other. I had to stop thinking about the squad, about Tamsin, about my family. I had to shut it all out of my mind, pretend that nobody else existed. For now, the only people who were relevant were Ryan, Della and McGregor. Nobody else. Not even Elspeth McCormack.

Because I sure as hell wasn’t going to let her get a fingertip on that Quaffle.

I caught the Quaffle. This time, I kept hold of it. I kept hold of it all the way up the pitch, weaving past Elspeth, ducking past her fellow Chaser Catriona Campbell, swerving round a Bludger. As I headed towards the posts I pulled my arm back, and threw the Quaffle with so much force that it soared through the middle hoop, with too much force for McGregor to stop it, and travelled for a good twenty feet before beginning to drop.

Della clapped me on the back triumphantly as McGregor flew off to retrieve the Quaffle.

Played, James!” she said. “Just believe in yourself, and you can do this. Just don’t do that again!”

I smiled ever so slightly, but said nothing. After all, it was actions, not words, that were relevant right now.

From that point onwards, things began to click. My moment of madness, albeit risky, had blown away the nerves and the cobwebs. I was reading Ryan and Della’s moves, as I should have been from the start; and the Quaffle was now sticking. Slowly but surely, we began to ramp things up, and we overturned the deficit, turning it into a solid lead.

Slowly, but surely, I began to have faith in myself.

Yes, Elspeth McCormack was good. Yes, McGregor was good. And yes, Wadcock was good, and was possibly having his best game of the season against the Bats.

But I knew that I was good too. I knew that I wanted this, a spot in the England squad, more than anything else. And I knew that I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.

***

After the match, Sinead told me I’d played some of the best Quidditch she’d ever seen, not just from me but in her entire career. It was high praise indeed, from a member of one of the best Chaser trios in history. I couldn’t tell her where I’d pulled it from. I had no idea myself I could play so well, let alone where I’d managed to dig it up from after my appalling start.

“Don’t worry about the start,” she said, beaming widely. “If anything, this gives you more credibility. Remember what Keira was saying; that Demelza wasn’t sure that your mental strength had been tested? Well, if ever she wanted proof you could deal with the pressure, here it is. The fact you can turn a start like that into a performance like that ... well, if you’re not in the squad after that, I’ll eat my foot.”

“What happened in the Puddlemere game?” I asked tentatively.

“Bats beat them by three-fifty. Wadcock had a terrible game.”

“Really?” My grin was beginning to mirror hers.

“Yeah. Bit of a shame, really, because that result’s denied us top spot, but even so, we’re second in the table. And with four relatively easy games on the bounce to come...”

We were definitely all feeling pretty giddy that evening. On top of my performance and our overall league position, Stefan had also had a good game. The best Seekers were able to judge the right moment to catch the Snitch; his dummy early on in the match had demonstrated this perfectly, and he was now beginning to believe that he’d make the Bulgarian squad, which we’d all been trying to reassure him about for weeks. The happiness wasn’t just confined to us Quidditch players; Cato had approached Lily at the end of the match and asked her himself if he could take her to her dance. She’d looked at me slightly puzzled, clearly still expecting Ryan to be her date, but said yes nevertheless, looking thoroughly delighted with her new date. I grinned, relieved to see her so happy. At that moment, everything seemed to be going right.

The feeling of euphoria had well and truly worn off by Sunday morning, though. In the cold light of day, the situation was crystal clear; I’d done all that I could. All I could do now was sit, and wait, for twenty-four agonising hours, to see if I’d achieved one of my lifetime aims, in winning a call-up to the England squad.


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