Jonny sighed as he scanned his eyes over the room. The displays about the small town of Alderfield’s agricultural history and the timeline of the local brick factory weren’t exactly his idea of exciting. He sat slouched on a creaky little bench. Jonny knew his parents were probably still on the top floor of the museum. There was a collection of watercolours by one of Jonny’s mother’s favourite artists, and the family had stopped by the little museum in Alderfield on the way to the campsite. The last thing he wanted was an argument on the first day of the family holiday, so he kept quiet and hung around in the main room on the ground floor, out of the way. What kind of 15 year old wanted to hang around with their parents in a boring old museum anyway?
Checking his phone, Jonny stood up from the bench to stretch his legs. There was still no data signal, so no chance of checking Facebook or the sports news. He still had forty minutes before he was meant to be meeting his parents. It was a humid, airless Tuesday afternoon in early July, and the place was pretty much deserted bar a couple of quietly-spoken old women. Jonny’s white England football shirt was stuck to his back with sweat. The sickly haze of floral air freshener was starting to give him a headache, and the sun streamed in through windows all around the room. Its glare caught on all the glass display cases. Jonny sighed. He couldn’t wait until they got to the campsite and he could kick his football about in the fields. Even putting up the tent in the burning afternoon sun with his father moaning about something every ten seconds would be more entertaining. Anything was better than sitting around in a stuffy museum surrounded by a bunch of boring old tools and crumbly bits of pot.
Jonny wandered slowly round some of the displays, peering into the glass cases and lazily scanning his eyes over the text. There were a couple of interesting things, like a small collection of fish hooks with their bright feathery flies and some old musket balls, but Jonny had finished looking at everything in the room in a few minutes. He pulled a folded up map of the museum out of the back pocket of his shorts. The watercolour collection that his parents were looking at was on the floor above, along with an exhibition on the history of women’s fashion and a display of local, handmade jewellery. Jonny wrinkled his nose and looked at what else was around. The map of the ground floor highlighted the café, the toilets and the gift shop, but everything else was just lumped under the vague label of ‘exhibits’. Scowling, he folded up the map and shoved it back in his pocket.
As Jonny headed for the door, the sound of his trainers on the polished wooden floor felt suddenly intrusive, and he tried to walk as quietly as he could, shuffling down the corridor towards the café. Dark oil paintings in stained metal frames hung on the pale lavender walls above squat glass display cases. A glint of gold caught Jonny’s eye. There was a great case of trophies standing proudly in a room on the right-hand side of the corridor. Anything sport-related was enough to catch Jonny’s attention, and he wandered into the room. They were football trophies; gleaming, gold things with bright ribbons that hung from the handles. “Alderfield FC, League Champions 1965-66” read the engraved plaque on the biggest of the trophies. Jonny peered into the case to read the inscriptions on some of the others. “Under 15s League Champions 1962-63”. “Autumn Cup Tournament Winners 1959”. “John Bradbury: Coach of the Year 1958-59”. There were others on the shelves below and in the next display case. Jonny raised his eyebrows. He’d heard the name of Alderfield football club somewhere before but he didn’t quite remember where, perhaps it was something to do with this impressive collection of trophies. A signed football shirt was flat behind a glass frame in one corner, hidden from the glare. The rest of the room was covered in photos and newspaper clippings, with big white display boards, some now faded by the sun that streamed through the windows.
A set of wooden seats attached to the wall caught Jonny’s attention, standing out from the rest of the displays, and he headed over to them. “Museum exhibit: please do not sit on these seats”, read one sign taped above. Jonny looked at the seats more closely. There were three of them, rickety-looking wooden things, the seats folded up against the backrests, with the chipped metal frame holding them together painted in a dull red. Jonny touched one of them gingerly, pinching the seat with his thumb and index finger, pulling it down a couple of inches with a creak. A display board was next to them on the wall.
“Alderfield Football Stadium seating: These three surviving seats were formerly located in the West Stand of Alderfield Football Stadium in Row S. The West Stand had approximately 2,000 seats, many of which were destroyed in the stadium fire of 1968,” Jonny stopped reading. Fire? It must have been a big one to destroy that many seats. Maybe there was more information about the fire nearby, thought Jonny, this was a museum about the town’s history after all. Sure enough, there was a board a little further down the wall, titled ‘The Alderfield Stadium Disaster’ in bold black letters, and Jonny began to read.
“Steve?” suddenly asked a voice from behind.
Jonny was startled, glancing away from the sign he was reading. A young man with short curly ginger hair stood in the doorway. His face changed to one of embarrassment as his eyes met Jonny’s.
“Oh, s-sorry,” stuttered the man, “I was lookin’ for my brother, you looked just like him from behind. I didn't mean to scare you."
“You just made me jump, that’s all,” Jonny said.
“Sorry,” the man apologised again as he stepped into the room. Jonny went back to reading the sign, trying to find his place.
“Do you like it here?” asked the stranger. Once again, Jonny turned around. The man was watching Jonny, standing awkwardly in the middle of the room by the display of trophies.
“Yeah, it’s… okay,” said Jonny, “my parents came for that watercolour exhibit. We’re here on holiday near here for a few days.”
“On holiday in Alderfield?” chuckled the man, “Not much to do round here.” As he smiled, Jonny saw that one of his front teeth was chipped.
Jonny shrugged. “My dad wanted to come down here, there’s a miniature railway or something nearby? He loves all that sort of stuff. We're going on a boat trip tomorrow though which is cool, apparently there's dolphins."
“At Blackport bay?”
“Oh, um, I don’t know the name,” Jonny replied. “Something like that. Are you from round here?”
“I used to live just down the road from here. I spend a lot of time at this museum, it’s a nice place. Peaceful,” the man was inspecting some of the trophies Jonny had been looking at earlier. “I’m Ed, by the way,” he added.
“I’m Jonny. I was just heading to the café when I saw this room with the football stuff and thought I would check it out.”
“I can see you like football, want me to tell you a bit more about all this, a little guided tour?” Ed offered, looking at Jonny’s football shirt.
Jonny checked the time on his phone; he still had plenty of time before he was meant to be meeting his parents. “Sure, why not,” he replied.
“I think it opened just after the war, about 1949,” began Ed, “It was the biggest stadium for miles. It’s a little mining town, you see, Alderfield. All the miners and their families used to come to the games. I think even a couple of the players worked at the mines during the week!” he chuckled.
“There’s a few photos over here,” Ed gestured over towards one of the displays, “You can see how it used to be.”
Jonny looked over the pictures. Smiling people waving striped scarfs from where they sat in the great rows of tiered seating. Moustached football players with shirts tucked into their shorts. “The place was in a right old state after a couple o’ decades, there were great blocks of seats roped off where they were falling apart in the North Stand. They’d hired cheap builders, you see, bunch o’ cowboys. The council did their best to fix the place up but there was only so much they could do really when it was the structure itself that was the problem," Ed was rambling away, pointing to things in the pictures.
“But we loved the place, us in Alderfield, there weren’t much else round here really. I mean, you could go down to Blackport ‘n go crab fishing off the docks. But for the kids, unless you liked wandering round the fields lookin’ at sheep, there was sod all to do,” chuckled Ed. Jonny smiled. He knew the feeling, his own town back home had nothing except a grubby old swimming pool.
Ed told him stories of Alderfield stadium; anecdotes about the players and the fans, tales of last-minute wins and crushing defeats. Jonny was impressed at just quite how much he knew, as the pair wandered around the room.
“What about the fire?” Jonny asked awkwardly, embarrassed to interrupt Ed in the middle of one of his stories.
“Oh,” Ed murmured, his smile fading, “Yes, um, that was a… a real tragedy, that. There’s photos along here, they added a video too. I didn’t even realise they’d filmed it til I saw that.”
There was a TV screen set into the wall surrounded by display boards, showing silent footage on a loop. A few flames that crept up in one of the back rows soon became great black plumes of smoke that engulfed the whole stand. Fire tore through the seats as fans scattered onto the pitch. Jonny stood and watched the video in silence. People climbed over each other in panic, dropping children from the edges of the flaming structures into crowds below. A hysterical little boy had his burning jacket torn from him as men pulled him from the smoke. “It was just so quick,” murmured Ed, “from a stray cigarette to… that, in just a few minutes. Everything was just made of wood and…” he shook his head and was quiet. The orange inferno continued to grow. On the grass, young men and boys waved to the camera, skipping and showing off their scarfs, oblivious to the scale of the disaster unfurling behind them. “33 people, dead. And the ones who didn’t die, all kind of burns, and… the sort of injuries you can’t see, that’s what happens after things like that,” Ed paused between his words. Jonny could see tears pricking in the corners of the young man’s eyes. He didn’t want to say anything, maybe Ed had lost relatives in the fire, or perhaps the sight of something so important to his town burning was just too much to bear.
“Oh, I better get going, I didn’t realise I’d been rambling on so long,” Ed said, clapping his hands together, startling Jonny as he stared at the looping video recording. “I’m surprised my brother hasn’t come by here. He’s a funny little chap, Steve. Looks just like you, same height, few freckles,” he gave a little chuckle. Ed walked over to the doorway of the room and peered both ways down the corridor. “Steve?” he called, still trying to keep his voice down. As he began to walk away he glanced back inside. “Bye Jonny,” he said with a brief wave, and then he was gone.
There was another group of photographs, next to the window that looked out over the museum’s small garden. Another picture of a football team, much like the others Jonny had already looked at. “The Alderfield football team on the day of the disaster. Centre-midfielder Brian Wilson later died of injuries he received in the blaze.”
"12-year-old friends Anthony Symonds and Paul Goodman died of smoke inhalation when they became trapped in the toilets under the North Stand." A photo of two grinning schoolboys.
“Geoff Carter, aged 27, lost his life in the fire. His infant son, Tobias (pictured) and brother-in-law, Ian Scott, who also attended the game, survived”. A young man proudly showing off his baby.
There were just over a dozen photos like that. Smiling faces and their accompanying stories of tragedy; lives cut short back on that sunny afternoon in 1968. “Edward Cunningham, 20, died as a result of injuries he sustained from falling debris in the West Stand. It is thought that Edward was searching for his younger brother Steven at the time of his death, who he had become separated from during the fire. Steven Cunningham, 14, a member of Alderfield’s youth team, also perished in the disaster.” There was a picture of a young boy who was the spitting image of Jonny. Below, a photo of a young man with short curly hair and a wide grin, with a chipped front tooth.
"Oh, there you are, Jonny. I thought I said we'd see you in the café at two-thirty," said Jonny’s father from the doorway, an edge of irritation in his voice.
Jonny checked his phone, it was only 2.35pm. “Oh, um, s-sorry,” he muttered, slipping his phone back into his pocket. Thoughts were spinning in his mind faster than he could understand them and he stared, dumbfounded, at that one photograph. Goosebumps prickled on his skin as a bead of sweat rolled from his face disappeared into the white fabric of his shirt. His eyes met those of Ed Cunningham in the grainy black and white photo on the wall in front of him. “With how much you sulked in the car on the way here I thought you’d be the first waiting by the exit,” tutted Jonny’s father. “Sorry, dad, I’m… I’m just coming,” Jonny opened his mouth to say something else but he didn’t know where to begin. Dragging his eyes away from the photograph, he headed for the door.
Written by Jet.98