An Air of Putrifaction

Here’s a bit of a challenge to distract you from the mayhem of this week.

If you are a Believer (upper case ‘B’ intended) you live in a world created by your God, do you not?  Everything you stand upon, every miracle of birth that happens in the secret nests of the birds or the dens of the animals, or even in the comfy dens we create for ourselves, is His work.  The essential stuff of life you owe to Him.  The air you breathe is a wonderful balance of poison and balm He and Nature have created together.

The water of the spring that rises from the rocks in the high hills is as pure and perfect.   It has a story of thousands of years filtering through the ground beneath you before it finds its way to the sun.   And as it begins its journey to the sea it is tuned and moderated by natural things that add to its character, making it worthy to contribute to Ocean in the end.

Until it gets to you.   You, personally.

You – the processes of manufacture, the treatment of soil to force unnatural growth, the effluent and detritus you create every time you load your washing machine with powder or your dishwasher with a tablet, every time you discard a wrapper or kick away a tin, add chlorine to your pool, bleach your bathroom, dye your hair?

From its first encounter with our civilisation, all the way to the sea, our stream’s joyous natural run becomes a gauntlet of dead water from ‘purifying’ plants, poisons that have evaded purification, rubbish and other profanities, all of which together will at last ensure the ocean itself will become blighted. 

And yet – here’s that challenge bit; you knew I’d get to it eventually – we each of us pursue a life that gauges our worth upon ‘growth’ and ‘success’  – bigger house, more exotic food, larger car, more travel – all of which together make the journey that stream has to undertake so much worse!

Alright, none of this is new.  You can maybe excuse yourselves by insisting you do all the token stuff – recycling, saving water, only buying organic, etc..  But brothers and sisters, the beat goes on.  You may lessen your impact, but you still make one.  In your quest for that elusive ‘success’ you always will.

What if you’re making the biggest mistakes of your Earthly lives?  What if, when you of faith arrive at your Pearly Gates, Peter assesses your eligibility not on the worthiness of your life but purely upon how little damage you’ve done?  What if church on Sunday didn’t matter a jot; just a huddle of people having a sing and uttering a few platitudes to assuage their guilt?

What if there was really a trap door that felt sort of warm to your feet, and a lingering smell of sulphur in the air?

No, I’m not a Thunberg disciple or even a Christian.  So I’m not espousing a yurt-ish lifestyle or a composting toilet, nor am I likely to give up my small, economical car.  All I’m saying is COVID has given us this chance to re-think and we should take it.  We shouldn’t simply emerge from under in a panic and re-commence our harem-scarem chase after a pinnacle of success we can none of us ever reach.  We should give the philosophers and the meritocrats a chance.

Consider this for a moment as you drain your Jacuzzi or your bath with all those oils, or your kitchen sink, or discard that plastic bottle as you seek your personal target on your morning run.

Or perhaps revise your religious views?  Ask yourself:  what does He really think of you? 

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Eighteen – Premiership

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Fourteen – A fractured Dream.

 

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On the street the temperature was dropping, and clouds from the east were threatening snow.  I hurried home, mindful of my mother’s words and the conversation that was beginning in my head.  Was she right?  Was it possible a girl with whom I once spent twenty minutes of inexpert passion on a river bank could still mean more to me than the one who loved me now and shared my bed?  Could I – would I – betray Angie so callously over nothing more than a fractured dream?

Indoors, I set up a fire and then began to cook, but my heart wasn’t in it, so I turned off the stove.  Five-thirty found me sitting in our bay window, watching a snowflake corps de ballet as it danced before the glass, and the steadier trickle of people coming home from their work.  My eyes picked out Angie as she appeared at the end of the road; head down against the wind, clicking along the wet and whitening pavement on busy feet. I responded to her jazz-hands wave as she ascended the steps to our door.

“Here’s a night!”  She stood in our little lobby, brushing snow from her coat.  “Feel them!”  She reached out for my hand, squeezing my fingers as she passed, heading towards the bathroom, and casually shedding clothes as she went.  Pipes juddered as the shower turned on.   I felt that completeness of Angie wrapping itself around me as it always did when we were together in the primacy of our private lives, and I was immediately rested and content.  No, I told myself, could be no-one else.

Back at the stove, I was throwing stir-fry stuff absently into a wok when she joined me, gently resting her hand on my wrist and sliding the pan aside.  She came close to invite a kiss, then draped herself against me, letting her towelling robe fall carelessly fell open.

“Are you hungry?”  Angie giggled deliciously.  “Why yes, I do believe you are…”

Later, as we sat before the fire, Angie asked:  “Did you see your Mam?”

“Aye.”  I relayed almost everything that had passed between my mother and me.  “She says she’s quite happy with the way things are, but I don’t entirely believe her.  She’s so edgy these days.  I was a bit worried about her.”

Angie nodded sagely.  “It’ll be the ‘H’, man.  It get’s t’you like that.”

I stared.   “’H’?”

“Oh, come on!  Ah thought you’d kna’ about that at least!  Smack; heroin, Chas!  She must ‘a been on it a year or two, I’d reckon.”

“No!  Oh, god, I didn’t know.  I mean, I didn’t see it.”

“Man!  Are you a divvy or what?  I saw it first time I met her!”

“Why didn’t you say?”

“Would that ha’ been polite, like?  You’re too innocent for this world, you!  Mind, it were another little stone wor Terry managed to drop into the conversation the other night when he were tryin’ to run you down.  He reckons they’re all on it, up Bertie’s.  Brasso’ll be keepin’ ‘em hooked up, I ‘spect.”

“Brasso?”

“Brasso Moziadski.   Tall, thin bloke, sharp threads.  Looks like he’s a lawyer, or sommat, but ‘e’s not.  He’s the biggest dealer round here.  Drives a dark blue BMW?  You must ‘a seen ‘im!”

“Aye.”  I acknowledged.  “I might have.”

After administering a new shock, Angie fell silent for a while, just gazing into the fire.  My mind played around with this explanation for my mother’s behavior, which ascribed the tension that gripped every fibre of her being to a simple need for to score.  Meanwhile, Angie seemed to be steeling herself.  And, at last, she spoke.

“I been thinkin’ about it all afternoon: about us, y’kna?  Chas, be honest wi’ us now; do you seriously want me to come with you when you go to Carlton?”

“Yes.” My answer came without hesitation.  “I’ve never been more serious.”

“Only it’s a big thing for me.  I’ve lived here all my life, y’kna?  All my friends and my relations are here.  I’d be leavin’ them all behind, if I did – if I came with you.  Y’see?”

“I do see.”  I told her.  “Can I say something now?”

Her eyes were uncertain.  “I s’pose.  But Chas, I’ve worked all this out…”

“Angie, I love you.  I’m not going to let you down, am I?”

“Mebbees.  Or mebbees I’d be the one to let you down. Promises we make at nineteen aren’t meant to be kept, Chas.  They really aren’t.” She shook her head impatiently.  “I cry too easy around you, y’kna?”

“Am I going to be allowed to make a case, here, like?”  I protested, “Or are you going to walk out on me without eating that bloody stir-fry?”

“Is it still there?  I’d forgotten about that.”  She smiled through her tears.

“It’s a waste of good vegetables.” My pathetic attempt at humour was designed to cover an awkward truth – I was panicking, because a pit of absolute despair had suddenly opened up beneath me, and the reason for it seemed unaccountable unless this was love?  This – something – that was completely new to me?  Love, or need?  Had I grown to need Angie so much I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her?

”No.  No, let’s not do this now.”  I said.  “Wherever you go you’ll find friends, Ange.  I’ll be joining a proper club, you know, and the other guys will have wives and girlfriends, and besides, you’re just – just so – well, people just like you.  They’re drawn to you.  I was.”  I ended rather lamely.

“I suppose.”  Angie rested her head on my shoulder.  “Chas, I love you.  I wish…oh, you don’t know how I wish…”

“I don’t want us to part.”  I said, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.  “And we needn’t.  Let’s see how things turn out, Ange.  Give us that chance, will you?”  Angie was quietly tearful, my own heart was aching and there seemed no solution to our pain, no chance of escape.  The welcome warmth of the fire had become an oppressive heat, such that I was finding it difficult to breathe.  I had to escape.  “Sorry; I’m sorry, really – think about us a bit more, please, because I love you, Ange, and I can’t stand this.  I’m going out.”

The bubble of anger in my heart was not for Angie.  I tore myself away from her not because I felt she had betrayed me, but because I knew I had betrayed myself.   I slammed the door behind me not because I was turning my back on the home she had made, but because there was no home for me, anywhere.  My childhood, my whole miserable life had bred a fear of relationships in me and I knew it was a reserve that showed – that try as I might I could not give her the true and selfless devotion that would let her build her world in me, let her trust me.  She believed I would let her down, and perhaps she was right.

The snow fell fast enough to hide my tears, the cold air offered an alibi for my reddened face, my interrupted breath.  Nevertheless I avoided the town and its still-busy streets, choosing instead to take the alley which led from the far end of The Avenue past the blind ends of a trio of similar culs de sac and on in the direction of the park.  I walked briskly, ignoring the slips and slides of my inadequate shoes on the snow-slick pavement, kicking back at it with furious feet, slamming against walls and fences with aggrieved fists.  So preoccupied was I with my inner noise I was deaf to the lonely darkness and oblivious to the approach of running steps.

The first I felt was a sickening blow to my head, the first I saw was a galaxy of stars.

I was stretched out on the pavement.  A knee pinned my chest.  The thrust of a boot raked into my side with such murderous precision it may have made me scream.

“Too proud fer yer fans kidder, isn’ the’!  The great friggin footy star, yeah?”

Another voice.   “Friggin’ wanker!

Another:  “Mak’ ‘im nice an’ pretty fer ‘e’s girlfriend, like!  Frigging prick!”

The boots were heavy, the kicks vicious and well-aimed, but the surprise was over.  Kicking upward as hard as I could once, twice, three times I found the groin behind the knee, making its owner groan and shrink sufficiently to release me.   I rolled to my feet, counted three of them: balaclava’d heads snapping at me like dogs.

Remember the rules, the street fighting rules: which one looks like the leader?  Pick him out.  Don’t try and counter all three; go for him and him alone.  Don’t let up.  Never let up.

The one that was tallest, noisiest.  “Yer kna wha’ us ganna do ter the’, wanker?  Wor gan ter break yer legs, man!  Tha’s nivver gan ter play footy again, frigger!  Finished, man; finished!”

I sent him the best message of defiance I could muster.  I heard his nose crush.  Then I was straight after him, not letting him draw back, not giving him a second before I got in a perfect groin kick to bend him double.  But they were three, I was one.  Almost too late I saw the iron bar clenched in the smallest one’s hands, and though somehow I rode the first scything swing it scored across my calf, opening flesh.  Hands pinned me so thoroughly I knew I would not avoid the second.  They were intent upon crippling me, these darkly clad men.

“Stand still yer little frigger!  This is a message from one o’ yer fans, like!”

The bar was swinging, my eyes closed against the certainty of pain.  Heaven would have heard my involuntary shout – it was not heaven that answered.   There was a crack like an egg, but of bone.  The iron bar clattered to the ground, the bar wielder’s knees crumpled.  My hands were suddenly free to unleash a haymaker of a punch, the hardest I could muster into the ribs of the noisy one, while behind me my third assailant was being treated with savagery.  The grey shape that had materialized out of the snow had grounded him, subjecting him to a furious sequence of kicks.  Seeing I was out of danger, though, the shape desisted quickly, grabbing my arm.

“Come away, lad.  Ah think I might ‘a killed the stupid bugger!”

Even in my disoriented state (by this time I must have had several blows to my head) I could see the iron bar wielder was not in a good state.  Lying inert in the snow, a dark red halo was growing around his head.

“Police!  We should call the police.”  I managed to drool out.

“Frig it nah!  Ah’m gannin nowhere near the chatties, lad!  Coom on, run!”

I made no argument.  Run – or stagger – I did, supported by my savior’s arm as together we retraced my steps back to the apartment.  I wondered vaguely as we went why the grey shape had a voice I found familiar.

“Footsteps!”  I pointed behind us to our trail in the snow.

“Aye.  But this snow’s going to keep up all night.  Blowin’ a bit, too.  They’re coverin’ already.”

Angie emerged from the kitchen as we burst through the front door.  I could see from her expression I was not a pretty sight.   She moved instantly into caring mode.  “Come away, man, take off those clothes, I’ll get you some towels.  Who’s your friend, like?”

I think I already knew.  Watching as he unwrapped himself, taking his flat cap from his balding head and unwrapping the scarf from his face.  “Dad.”  I said.  “He’s my Da’.”

I was treated to the broad smile of a man at war with his teeth, and for once in my life I felt genuinely glad to see him.  “Recognized me, then. Hello, son.”

“Da’, this is Angie.”

“I kna’ lad,”  My father said,  “and a canny lass she is.  Make sure yer keep yer ‘ands on this one.”

“Pleased to meet you.”  By this time, Angie’s eyes had widened into saucers. “I thought…”

“I kna, Angie, pet, ah’m supposed to be the most absent of absent fathers.  But since ah’m ‘ere, ah’m wonderin’ if you’d mind washin’ this for us?”

From beneath his donkey jacket my father produced a brutish-looking adjustable spanner, its grips encrusted with blood.  Angie stared at it.  “Shouldn’t we get rid o’ that?”  I asked him.

“Nah, lad, no way!  That’s the only one big enough to fit wor bath taps at ‘ome.  It’ll clean up canny!”

Angie took the spanner between thumb and forefinger and nearly dropped it because it was heavier than she expected.  “Do you always carry a spanner when you go out?”

“Aye, lass.  Yer never kna’ when yer gan ter meet someone wi’ a loose bath tap.”

Angie nodded.  “Of course.”  She disappeared into the kitchen.

“I’m lucky you were passing by.”  I said, not really believing it.

“Luck had nowt tae do wi’ it.  Ah’ve been followin’ yer’ for days.  I were keepin’ an eye on they, too.  I kna’d they were workin’ ‘emselves up to have a go, like.  Ah’m stayin’ ower the Black Horse, where they drink, y’na?  The skinny one was lanterin’ about how you was too big fer yer boots an’ as how ‘e wanted ter fix yer, like?  But it were more than that.  They were plannin’ ter get yer anyways, Chas.  Ah follered them tonight ‘stead o’ you – for a change.  It were less damp.”

“It’s good for me that you did,” I said.  “But how did they know I’d be on the street?  I hadn’t planned to go out.”

“Ah don’t think they intended to get yer on the street, son.  Ah think they was comin’ ‘ere”

I had scarcely time to absorb that thought before Angie returned to bandage my leg, demanding we explain.  I described events leading up to my father’s appearance, omitting the reason he was able to intervene so quickly, and hoping she would not spot the fault in the logic.  “I could place one of the voices,” I told her, “It was that troll from Pellosi’s.  I thought he was just a bad accident, but looking back on it now I think he had meant to be there.”

“It’s likely.”  My father nodded.  “They was drinkin’ wi’ a friend o’ there’n, used ter be Town’s best player ‘til you showed ‘em as how it should be done.  Reckon it were him tryin’ to get ‘e’s own back tonight, like.  Guy Harrison – y’ kna’ ‘im?”

“Guy Harrison!  Way aye!  He’s still in the team.”  The more I thought about it, the less this information surprised me.  Guy had already tried to injure me once, in training at the beginning of the season.  Guy would not know of my intention to leave, and if I stayed the club wouldn’t renew his expensive contract; not just to be my understudy.

“We should tell the police,”  Angie said.

“Nah, no police.”  My father was emphatic.  “Me and the chatties round ‘ere, we go back a long way, Angie pet.”

“Don’t leave your bicycle around him.”  I advised Angie.  “He’s canny light-fingered, like.”

“Yeah?  He saved you, that makes him alright by me.  Anyways, I haven’t gorra bike.”

“What brings you back here, Da’?”  I asked.  “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again.”

This brought a sigh from my Da’, and I thought that I saw the effort go right through him, as though his rib cage was a rack of iron he had scarcely strength to lift.  “Ah’m not stayin’, son.  I’ve been hearin’ about yer and yer football an’ yer made me proud, y’kna?  I wanted ter see yer again, an’ tell yer, I suppose.  Then I got ‘ere an’ I’d not the courage to approach yer, like.  Not affer leavin’ yer the way I did.  An’ I’ll be awa’ again, now, likely.  I’ve a good woman waitin’ fer me, where ah’m from.  But I wanted ter warn yer, ‘cause I thought yer might be in trouble, an’ I were right.  Nor about tonight, mind, that were just Harrison, but there’s summat in the wind, ah can smell it.  Watch yerself with Mack Crabtree and Marty Berry, Chas; they’re bad people, y’kna?”

“I think I already know about Mack Crabtree,” I said,  “But Martin Berry?  He seems canny to me.”

“Aye, he’s friend enough to yer face, but keep facin’ ‘im, lad.  Don’t turn yer back, awright?”   He raised himself to his feet.  “Now I’ll be on ma way.  You’ll be awreet now, and I’ve some sleepin’ to do.”

“Stay!”  I said.  “We can make you comfortable here.  There’s so much to be said, Da’.”

“True, there is.  I’m not goin’ back fer a day or so yet, so if tha’ wants some catchin’ up, we’ll do it tomorra, because you’ll not be training wi’ that leg. But meantime this young lass doesn’t kna me, so she’ll not be com’fable wi’ me in ‘er home.  Besides,” My father nudged me knowingly;  “I’ve a feelin’ you’ve got some bridges to mend, son.”

Angie saw him to our door, helped him slip his jacket around his shoulders and watched his back as he hunched against the snow.  Then she turned to me with her face a picture of concern.  “Oh, Chas, man!  Whar’ ever am I going to do wi’ you?  I can’t even trust you to go for a walk on your own, can  I?”

“Then you’ll have to stay with me, won’t you?”  I told her brightly.  “I need looking after.”

It was no night for righteous sleep.  We lay awake together, Angie and I, listening for the wail of sirens, half-expecting a heavy knocking on the door that might announce the presence of my father’s dreaded ‘chatties’.  Neither happened.  Did I wonder if two of my earlier attackers might return?  Honestly no.  I felt that our deterrent effect upon them would be sufficient to keep them busy with the accident and emergency department of Bedeport District Hospital at least until morning, by which time I would have had a meaningful discussion with Guy Harrison.  At the stroke of eight I limped along to the Town ground with exactly such an encounter in mind and was gratified by his pale mask of surprise when he saw me come through the doorway of the home dressing room unassisted by wheels.

If you have never entered a room in which, until the moment you thrust wide the door, you have been the occupants’ sole topic of conversation: if you have never been the object of dislike, maybe even hatred, of each one of those occupants; if you have never experienced a silence in that room of such toxicity the very air seems to be reaching for your throat, then it will be difficult for me to describe it for you.  Suffice it that no-one wanted to see me walk through the door, or had believed that I could; and from that I deduced that the plot to injure me had been shared, in some form or another, with everyone there.  It was a palpable moment, if a brief one.

“Yer late for training!”  Pascoe snapped.

“Injury, Joe.”  I told him.  “Flesh wound, nothing much but I’d better keep off it for a day or so.  I’ll be sorted by Saturday.”

“Sit in, then.  We’re going over tactics for Abberton.”

And that was that; but from it I saw, with refulgent clarity, the true undercurrent of resentment I caused in the first team at Casterley Town. I had offered friendship, without ever, as I can remember, dealing underhandedly with or deliberately offending any member of it, yet they disliked me with an obdurate resolve I would never break. If ever I wanted ratification of my decision to leave, it was given to me then.

In the meantime, I needed to keep Angie from becoming entangled in this thicket of plotting and to avoid further violence.  Where originally I had intended to confront Harrison with a direct threat, now it was simpler to channel my message through Pascoe.  As the other players walked coldly past me from the dressing room, I grabbed his arm.

“Can you tell them not to worry, Joe?  Between you and me, I won’t be here next season.  It’s not official yet, mind.  Can you, sort of, pass it around?”

Pascoe glowered at me.  “Ah don’t care if yer friggin’ leave or not.”

That was a bluntness typical of the man.  I didn’t mind;  I knew the message would get through.

With my mission completed, I returned to the apartment.  Our telephone was ringing.

“Chas?  Hi!  It’s Dave Corker, County Record; I hear you’re up for transfer.  What can you tell me, mate?”

“Unfounded speculation,”  I said.

 

© 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