An Old Man Watching Football After Sunday Lunch
I’m an old man watching football after Sunday lunch. Earlier we went to The Sun in the Wood. I had Cold Turkey, Mary had Roast Lamb, her mother looked like mutton dressed up, with mint-sauce. There we were, lording it, our Sunday-best, our table reserved as usual in the annexe, four bottles of Chateau Neuf du Pape opened and breathing, waiting for us when we arrived. El Perfecto!
My grandson plays soccer. (The manager is a clown). It’s a crap day, wet, wind, and I have to remind myself I’m a volunteer, here to watch my boy. When he pulls on that red shirt I realise he is the most important thing to me.
Let me back-track a moment. For my pains, years back I sold my one decent novel. Now I hack out lousy copies, shadows of that first one, and for whatever reason I still get booked to talk to writers. Yesterday I was in Wales, a shit-hole seaside resort called Porthcawl – a writers conference – and I found myself visiting the town’s Rest Bay Hotel, a hotel for gentle-folks.
Before I travelled, in the morning I’m out on the drive. It’s dark, raining, I’m loading the car, I get this damn nose-bleed, fucking thing. Spot. Spot. Blood in the back of the car. This is all I need. I’ve already trundled a case full of books to the car and raised a sweat humping it over the tailgate and into the back. I’m thinking, Boy, You Got to Carry That Weight and trying to remember the song, but it moves away, I’m just a sad old fuck with long white hair, one good book, and a runny, bloody nose.
My grandkid, his name is Peter. Last Christmas he gave me an Apple iPod. (Well, I know it’s from my son but it was Peter who gave me the box). I may be old but I’m not one of those olds who can’t embrace the new technologies.
I have this trick I’ve perfected. When I drive I always go real early in the morning. I plug the iPod into the cigar lighter, ear-up and shut out the world. If you travel early, eared-up like this, the world is a black tube, and after ten, fifteen minutes of motorway you can enter a zen-like state.
Is it dangerous? Oh, I hope it’s lethal, but the point is you can cross a country (and get to a conference) without once thinking about it. And if you have had my life, non-thinking is a good thing.
Peter hasn’t been picked to start but he’s substitute, jigging up and down on the line, tiny mud splatters appearing on his white socks.
When I got to Porthcawl, I was early. I climbed stiffly from the car, unbent my metal knee, pulled the case full of books from the boot and trundled inside through the drizzle. Old ladies, residents, stared at me.
There’s nobody to greet me, the honoured guest. I’m an hour too early for being an hour early. I go into a common room. It smells faintly of damp and aerosolled-away human waste, a sad smell. On tables I see Scrabble, chess sets, large print books, and I have this wave roll through me, revulsion for the old (of which I am one).
I’m thinking, Death, anytime you like, but be swift and true, my friend. Two women zimmer past and I think, do it any way you damn like, as long as I don’t end up in Porthcawl.
The game is ten minutes old and we are 2-0 down. Our tactics are terrible, the wings are starved of ball, so effectively we are playing with nine men. Peter is cursing, shaking his head, desperate to get on and make his mark. I’m thinking, Peter you’re playing in the wrong position in the wrong team for the wrong damn manager, and fifty years too late. (I was a good midfielder and I would have fed Peter through balls, kept running, got the return pass and buried the ball in the net.)
The talk? Oh, it went fine. I introduced myself and watched the awe move through the room, then I cracked a standard joke about my long white hair, then I asked who in the room wanted to write and who there wanted to be a writer?
We chatted (that’s almost all my talks are these days) and then I read a chapter from The Stars Beneath Their Feet. Someone in the back of the room began to quietly weep.
But now I am looking at this shambles of a football game, aware of Peter jogging beside me, but something happens, gives way, and I remember (not facts, movement or incident, but remember with my blood, feel things in my balls). I remember the trip to Wales.
Smells connect to the soul. Music does too. I have the iPod set to random play, but today God, bored again, set the playlist to “fuck”.
Song one and two I don’t remember. Three is “A Groovy Kind of Love” and I remember Kathy. I sail past a lorry so big it pulls a trailer and the food it carries could probably maintain a city for a week. Ah, Kathy!
You ever wonder how red becomes grey, how alive becomes surviving? You ever see film-star X and starlet Y and read about their break-ups, their new passions and think “I wish”? You ever flip that wish and wonder about the underside? Where there is love there is always pain, the stars are not only above us.
Oh, I let Kathy go, sweet, simple Kathy. Sweet Kathy who was only pretty, only sweet. Kathy who loved this guy who was pretty damn good on the ball, wrote little poems, dreamed of writing a novel. Groovy Kind of Love.
My kids (Peter’s father and his uncle Tom) – they tootle. My kids they cruise, they coast, they float. My kids blob along on a crazy, slow, lazy river. When the river reaches the falls they’ll be asleep.
But Peter out there, my kid’s kid, in his little chest beats a little heart and his muscles course with possibility, but already he’s learned to jog on the sidelines and wait his turn, because some jackass with a soft belly has the title manager.
This song-sequence yesterday morning, I think it was a message. My damn nose started bleeding again, and the songs just came at me, in waves, attack after attack, crooners sneering, all the bad things I’d done, the places I despised, the women I discarded.
I was passing Swindon when I started to cry. I managed to hold on to each sin, each piled-up, dumb, tin-pan-alley trick-emotion; but like the smell of love, like Kathy’s ear-dabbed tweed, like the dull odour of my father’s death, nothing went away. It accumulated.
And I remembered that I was old, I was a fraud. I knew I acted for middle-aged writing teachers who were gleefully surprised I came so cheap, the author of the dazzling Stars Beneath Their Feet. I remembered how much of a shit I was, how I had hurt, and then I remembered how I let my other wives persuade me that leaving a woman was never anything to do with weakness, or a fault in me. No “they” weren’t enough, the writer of Stars Beneath needed what the writer of Stars Beneath was now about to receive, this dark woman, this weight, these spread legs, this sacrificial sucking.
And I wept, slowly, as the sun rose, as I swept up and over the verdigris V of the Severn Bridge, and onwards, always falling, to Porthcawl.
Yesterday I read something; a short story, that’s all. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t meant to, yet it ached. It ached with what was once in my bowels, my heart, and my stupid, desperate prick. It ached with whatever it was made me cry when I came into Kathy. It ached with whatever it was that lined up these songs and made me cry from Swindon to Cardiff in my black tube, in my silences, swishing at seventy, downhill.
And here I am now, old, empty, fraudulent. I could eat this fucking manager, eat him up and spit him out and not break step. This moron who finally has allowed Peter his chance on the pitch.
But as I watch, the ball never comes near, never comes near, and little Peter, who flies like the wind, can fly like the wind, his head drops, and I hear this moronic manager mutter to his left. I hear my surname and I know he’s not worth shit.
This is when I disgrace myself. I take off my old writer’s warm grey coat and run on to the pitch.
There is a lump with the ball. I hit him hard and come away, leather close to my feet.
“Peter!” I shout, and I push a through ball ten yards in front of him. He barely hesitates. He runs it down, cuts inside one defender and outside another. He must hear me shout, “Near Post!” and the ball comes over, gold against the sky.
I haven’t stopped and the ball, falling, is there, almost. I have to dive to connect, and I do, gloriously, the ball leaving thick, dark mud on my fore-head and in my white hair as it SLAMS into the net and I slam into the ground. I hear the referee’s whistle.
A man has run on the pitch. Some silly old codger, clattered some lad. Crazy old bastard.
I get up and like I am iPodded in my slithering car, I hear but hear-not the blathering idiots, the lifeless, sexless floating things. I’m kneeling now, barely breathing. Something is coming out of my nose. When I say, what’d’you think of that pass, then Petesy? It comes out blubbery and suddenly I wonder if I’m dying.
Now I look at Petesy and there’s the light that wasn’t in my son, but is in him. He’s laughing. He’s telling me there isn’t a granddad on the planet who could do what we just did. He says was that a sweet cross or what gramps? and I say, never mind the bloody cross, what about my diving header?
Now I’m wondering as this blood continues, but I think, Death? could you just give me a minute?
I’m actually negotiating, figuring I need five minutes here, then at least five more years. So I block one half of my nose and blow, block the other side, blow. I get up.
The fishmouths are still going but I am in my tube. I tell them Peter has just resigned, and I grab his hand and we walk away. I’m thinking about iPods, tunnels, The Stars Beneath My Feet, and sequels. I am covered in mud.