So my story must assume a mantle of years, rather than days; the tale of my growing up is told, and now, from a spring of frequent storms, you could say my summer days began. In the season of 1989-90, as Hamish Merchison predicted, Carlton Park was promoted to the English First Division, and Allen Ranton’s investment in my talents paid off at last, as he negotiated my new contract at a much-inflated fee.
Through neglect as much as anything, I suppose, the shadows of my past were put aside. I, filling one hundred percent of my life, rushing between training and travelling, match days and corporate events, had barely time to think of Mackenzie Crabtree or his daughter – my absent sister.
Even plans for a November wedding to Angie seemed as if they must be put on hold, however strenuously I sought to fulfil my promise. In the end, Merchison found us a couple of days and we tied the knot in Carlton registry office one foggy Tuesday morning. Our witnesses were Teri and Stevie and we snatched a brief honeymoon in a country house hotel, equally fog-bound. We shared a few hours away from our busy lives and pledged to ‘do the job properly’ in the summer to come.
Christmas meant returning to Casterley and Angie’s family. I left it late on Christmas morning to visit my mother. I found a blue BMW parked outside. I found Brasso Moziadski inside.
The sharp-nosed drug dealer lay slumped in that old chair which, like the central prop in a theatre show, had at one time or another supported most of the characters in my life. Brasso wore a dressing gown for his guest appearance that plainly said he had spent the night, and a distinct odor of stale beer wafted about him. He smirked at me.
“Why, if it in’t the friggin footballin’ hero. Happy Christmas, Charlie!”
“Where’s my mother?”
“She’s upstairs, lad. She’s right out of it, mind. Had a hard night, she has, if yer see whar I mean, Charlie.”
I saw what he meant. I saw what he meant lying on her bed in a mess of stained bed clothing. I did not see my mother that day; but a stranger, a thin shell of a creature unknown to me and I turned my back on her, not because of pain, but because I could feel none. She was asleep or drugged, and I did not want her to wake and catch the scent of my disgust.
I will always berate myself for my lack of compassion. I am never free of the memories that catalogue all the ways I failed my mother in those final years; because I simply could not feel for her. The line between us, scored so deeply, had become too wide for me to cross, so I absolved myself of my responsibility, as I saw it, with money. Little enough at first; for although my income seemed large there was extra expenditure too, and the greater returns of Premiership days were yet to come. I sent cheques which were never acknowledged but always cashed. Letters were returned with childish epithets or drawings scrawled across them. When once I sent a letter without money inside the letter came back with £!?? emblazoned across it in red felt pen. I would go and see her, wouldn’t I? Definitely; next week because we were playing at home, or in the summer when I had more time. Somehow those visits never happened; there was always another reason, another excuse.
“You’re afraid of her.” Angie accused. “Addiction frightens you, man.”
I disappointed Angie in this. “She’s the only Mam you’ll ever have, an’ you mustn’t turn away from her!” she once said. She was right, of course. You will see me as Angie saw me – as heartless. I will defend myself by saying…saying what? That I was numb, perhaps. Yes, that was it. Or maybe – maybe tired?
I think at that Christmas dinner I must have been quiet, which Angie, always with her gift of understanding, accepted without asking why. In so many of life’s ways, she was the wiser one, knowing when to stop to give solace to a fellow traveller, or when to respect his space.
My Christmas break lasted no more than a day. Angie stayed on with her parents while I had a match on Boxing Day and another just before New Year’s Eve when Angie returned to Carlton. We spent New Year’s Eve at a party given by Matt Frierly and his wife (Matt being the Carlton Park Club Chairman) in a private suite at the Royal Hotel. Angie hated parties – I think because any more than the minimum amount of alcohol made her ill. She left early, I stayed on. It was expected.
I kissed someone at the midnight hour, someone I could not remember when I woke the next day. That was expected, too.
Angie’s stature grew. Her employers quickly recognized her potential as a standard-bearer, and she responded by studying hard for the specialist qualifications that had never bothered her in the backwoods of Casterley. She still garnered admiration wherever she went, and her consummate social skills steered her through the network of footballers’ wives that dominated team society, though she was never really a part of the ‘WAG’ circle, as they are known. It surprised even me how easily she adapted to city life. From the very first days of our move to Carlton she challenged her apprehensions and she resoundingly won.
Nel Kershaw, John Hargreave, Jack Masters and I kept in touch. Jonna and Sarah had drifted away, no longer, seeming interested in friendship, although Greavesie did run across them occasionally. The news that interested Jack Masters was all to do with my progress in my new team, and my continuing curiosity concerning issues at ‘Town’, where the prospects were diminishing steadily. I know how much this upset him, for he had bound up his whole life in the team and its affairs, but there was little I could do other than offer sympathy. I appreciated the problems, I just did not know how to resolve them. Did he blame me for leaving?
John Hargreave had gone to university in pursuit of his electric dreams. Telephone discussions between us conjured up images of a certain kind of future that belonged only to him and to the few enlightened, his new friends and the missionaries of his post-apocalypse world. I should have seen the signals. I did not.
Nel and I kept a much closer liaison. She visited Carlton frequently in the course of her work, and if I was free we would have coffee or the occasional lunch. Ms ‘X’ formed the spine of many of our conversations:
“She’s opened up more with her feelings about performance-enhancing drugs,” Nel told me. “Yes the whole idea of cheating is anathema to her, but the threat of injury terrifies her at least as much. She had a friend she used to train alongside – in fact, this person was the reason she became interested in heptathlon.”
“And they were injured?”
“Worse, Chas. A stroke. She died. Apparently, steroids can induce reactions as strong as that in some people. One accepts it is very unusual, and tragic as it was, she might have kept it in proportion, were it not for the furore that followed. The club closed ranks about their coach, the sponsor group descended on her head, and everyone else’s, to make it perfectly clear that anyone who squeaked a word about doping might as well say goodbye to their career. ‘X’ said she was disgusted: ‘This is the real world, girlie.’ Is a phrase she particularly remembers. That was a representative of her friend’s main sponsor. Sexist guy.”
“They’re still out there…”
“Thing is, Chas…”
I looked up to meet the hypnotic gaze of her green eyes. “Oh-oh!” I said.
“The thing is, I’m getting nowhere. The wheels are too big for little old small-town solicitors like me. I can’t divulge ‘X’s identity, but just suppose I could persuade her to get in touch with you – I mean, just suppose?”
“Why? I don’t see how I could help.”
“Oh, come on, you have status now! Your word will carry weight.”
“Not much,” I said. “I think of myself as a bit of a nonentity, really. I’m still learning.” I raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed you’re following my career so closely, though.”
“Am I?” Did Nel colour slightly? “Anyway, I think if I can persuade you and others like you to get behind ‘X’ those faceless people who work on the darker side of the big sponsors would have to front up. Whatever you lend your name to will be news, won’t it?”
“In a small way, maybe.” I agreed to think about it.
That evening I discussed the story with Angie, who added her perspective.
“Ah think if they want to stifle this ‘X’ lass they’ll come after you as well. You might be endangering yer own prospects, Chas.” She was eating a ‘lap supper’ from a plate balanced on one knee while studying a test paper on the other. She lapsed into silence for a while, dividing her concentration between reading and eating, then she said: “Why, ah never thought there was so much o’ this dopin’ gannin’ on, y’na? Mebbees I should ha’ been a chemist. Remember your friend Susan? She was a bit of a genius with the pills and potions, wasn’t she? Chemical Carter, wor science teacher, he reckoned she had a special talent. He was dead sorry when she left, like.”
I could recollect Sue mentioning her ambition to become a chemist, once. I had dismissed it as a response to her teacher’s enthusiasm. “She really was good at chemistry, then?”
“Aye, she could spout off all those weird names and the whatsits – the Periodic Table? She were dead good, like.”
Although I quickly recognized the gulf separating my Angie from any form of science, that snippet of information remained in my mind.
The telephone call took me by surprise. Sleeping in after a late return from an away fixture, the ringtone roused me, but it was Angie who picked it up and brought the receiver through to our bedroom wearing an expression of studied inscrutability. “It’s for you.” She retreated to the living room, shutting the door behind her.
“Hello, is that Mr Haggerty.” The voice was silvery. “We have a mutual friend, Nel Kershaw. She suggested I get in touch with you.”
“You’re ‘X’.” I said. “Nel thinks we should meet. Do you?”
Isita Pennell had already arrived at the coffee house and made herself comfortable at a table. I was a little late and apologized. I suggested her name was unusual.
“It’s Indian. My mother’s family came from Gujarat. I won’t tell you what it means – it’s embarrassing!”
Isita, in a simple white dress, had the definition in her hands and arms of a honed athlete. Her shining black hair had been tied back in a no-nonsense bun, framing a face with all the fresh directness of a child.
“You can never get directly to these people; they hide behind their precious contract. Vary it? No. No negotiation, no exception. Sign, or face exclusion. They control almost all the prestige competitions now, and certainly all of the money. What can I do?”
“I guess you have to prove that you can hit their targets without resorting to peptides, or whatever. There’s no argument then.”
“I can so nearly do exactly that. If I had access to the best coaches I know I could get there. But they’re all locked into this conspiracy and they won’t break it. ‘Accept our dietary regimes, or we want nothing to do with you. You are on your own’.”
Our meeting really yielded nothing new. Isita was mortally afraid of entering into an obligation that could mean fueling her body with foreign substances over which she could exert no control. “Have you seen what over-prescribed anabolic steroids can do to a person? Can you imagine the long-term damage artificially increased erythropoietin will inflict on someone’s kidneys or liver in later life?”
I pointed out that any contract which contained an illegal clause was null and void.
“The contract doesn’t actually mention drugs. It just stipulates diet, which could be quite healthy stuff, that might just happen to contain human growth hormone or EPO the day before a big event. Oh, and don’t forget the diuretic, to take immediately someone tips you off that you might be tested. Get caught, it’s the end of your career, it was your decision, you take the accusations, you suffer the shame. Maybe your coach gets investigated, but somehow there is always money to buy him out of trouble. Not you.”
There was little I could contribute, at that time. Nel, however, was tireless, so it wasn’t long before a lobbying group was taking shape, one which I was happy to join. Isita, too, became a strong voice, forgoing her anonymity and with it, as I thought, any hope of a future as an athlete.
For myself? I came away from my meeting with Isita having learned a little about an industry without a face, an unseen underworld of drug research that was always working, fighting to stay ahead of the testers. Would I know them in the street, these people skilled enough to administer blood transfusions, calculate the correct measure of dope for the body mass of each athlete? Where were their laboratories, and what means did they have to move the drugs around?
However, this was a year when such matters must be shelved. I had to become accustomed to the pressure and the work-rate of my new team, while helping Angie plan for our wedding at the season’s end. Our betrothal would be solemnized in an Anglican ceremony at Carlton Abbey, celebrated at the nearby Tithe Barn Hotel, then followed by a May honeymoon in Majorca, which had to be cheap because by that time the money, as well as most of my credit, had run out.
Angie’s guests were her family, her Casterley friends, to whom she remained steadfastly loyal, and those more recent acquaintances she had made through work and her personality in Carlton. Although most of the team turned up for my side, together with their families, Allen Ranton and even Hamish Merchison, the crowd appeared a trifle one-sided. I invited my mother, of course, with little confidence she would show, and my father, in whom I had greater hope, but neither appeared. I would learn all too soon that my father was too ill to make the journey. Malcolm, Angie’s father, walked her proudly up the aisle, as well he might, because she was the closest to a goddess I would ever see. John Hargreave was my best man.
It was, in all ways, a good day. It was the beginning of a good summer.
I could make a journal for you. I could describe my days, weeks, and months of the years which followed if you wished, were I a diarist. This, is a story, though – a mystery of a forgotten girl who only I, it seems, remember. And so only a few mileposts remain along the journey that brings us to this time and place: my apartment, 23rd July in the millennium year 2000. Some of those milestones have served to close the doors upon my Casterley past, others have called me back. All are clues to our mystery – stepping stones on the path to its solution.
Just as life can separate us, so death can bring us together. Three deaths: the first, tragically, that of the man I still regarded as my father. A letter with the news awaited me at the football club one morning in April 1991 – ‘after a long illness bravely borne’ – my intention to see him again was just one more broken promise now, sacrificed on the bonfire of my career. I went to see him that one last time as he was laid to rest, and there I met Brenda, the woman who had taken care of him and loved him as neither I nor my mother could. Brenda was a nice person; a fine person. I know she made him happy.
News of the second death, and the most unexpected, was broken to me by Angie. Returning from my morning run at the beginning of the 1993 season I found her waiting for me, red-eyed from weeping.
“Come and sit down.” She motioned me to the couch, holding my hands, “There was a ‘phone call just now, Chas. It’s Greavesie – he’s gone.”
I must have shown my disbelief. John Hargreave and I were the same age. “How? Was he ill?”
“Oh, Chas, darling, I don’t know why but he did it to hisself. He went down The Bridge.”
Down The Bridge; the Casterley tradition. When life in my sad old town, for one reason or another, became too much, a walk along Rob Bentley Way to the one-time viaduct that passed high above the river offered itself in invitation; a reasonable alternative to pain, or debt, or the black dog of Despond. John had taken it: he had looked down at the rushing waters, the green banks, at the rocks and the old quay where as children we once played together, and our ghosts had risen up to offer our embrace and he had leapt. He had leapt to join his memories. He had leapt to put an end to something only he could explain, but now, of course, he never would.
“John wanted you to have this.” His father said on the day of goodbyes. “I think it’s some sort of diary. I didn’t intrude.”
The last of these sad endings was my mother’s. Just last year, in the autumn of 1999, she destroyed herself by injecting something which pretended to be heroin and was not. Her future had been written in the stars for a number of years by then, yet I still wonder if she knew when the last fix would happen. A month earlier she had sent me a letter, the only response she ever made to one of the regular cheques I mailed. I made sure she had a decent funeral, drumming up as many relations as I thought we had which, to be candid, ensured there was a sizeable crowd of mourners but for all the wrong reasons. Most who attended had few favourable memories of my mother. They were more interested in cementing their relationship to a potentially famous footballer and his money.
In my tales of the last decade, none has a more important place than Angie. My wife in 1990, she flowered in the warm nurture of her new Carlton home and prospered in her career. Increasingly this involved travel, spreading, as she understood it, the area of her specialization throughout the region. Or, as her company perceived it, building their business through the power of her personality; something so natural to her she was oblivious to its existence. Because she was so busy and so successful, because she was apt to be away from home for days at a time, and because I was away equally frequently, we were together less and less. Our team’s summer tours proliferated once we were defending our First Division status, and these were holiday occasions for many of the WAGs (wives and girlfriends of the players) who joined the tour to soak up the sun and the social scene. Angie was too busy. She did not join us on tour in either 1991, or the following year, when the lid lifted clean off the football scene and the First Division became the Premiership.
My selfishness in the shower of money following the transformation was reprehensible. The unattainable came suddenly within my grasp, allowing dreams of my childhood to become reality by the simple device of a signature on a cheque. One dream made real was the purchase of a boat big enough to allow me time at sea. Much of my year was spent learning to sail, making short sallies into the inhospitable waters of the North Sea. The chill and battle with conditions quickly took hold of me. It was an enthusiasm Angie did not share; one short but choppy voyage was enough. Thereafter she remained at home.
We avowed our love for one another often, but the substance of our love, not unpredictably, perhaps, was diminishing as we grew. Lives that the adversity of Casterley had so closely intertwined were drawing apart – not through any intentional lack of affection, but because they lacked the glue that had held them. How strange the paradox, remembering that in our early days together I was the one who felt bound by chains to our relationship, and how soon it became obvious those same chains now wrapped themselves about my wife. Nevertheless there was much that was strong in us, and we might have ridden it out, had there been children. I know there was a stage, at least, when Angie’s desire for a child would have been all it took to check her in her stride, but it didn’t happen. In the summer of 1993 it became apparent the time for a ‘conversation’ was near, and to our credit, we did not try to put it off. Anyway, events were about to force it upon us. The Premiership had dawned, prompting Allen Ranton to do what a good agent should. He put me up for sale, and my price was high.
It was inevitable. I would be moving south to join one of the bigger clubs which could showcase me for an international career. Angie had, once again, to make her choice, but the ties that still bound her to her hometown had stretched to their limit. A time for sad smiles, breaking hearts and reluctant acceptance: we had tried.
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content