The Goalkeeper

I am sitting on the red lips sofa in the café Ritz with Jock and Stephen, each of us in our favourite football shirt. We discuss the latest football gossip while waiting for the bible study group to begin. Then Alice, a red-hot firecracker of a ten year old, comes downstairs and proceeds to tell us a most remarkable story.

Even before the story is told, the air freezes. Bradley, our leader, and Elise, Alice’s young mother, look at one another.

What’s this, I think; didn’t they know that Alice was upstairs?

Alice tells the story as an innocent. Out of the mouths of babes, I sigh, when she has finished. Then I linger on the images of Elise and Bradley in the bedroom above us: hands on chests, trousers around ankles.

I can just imagine retelling the story, with appropriate embellishment, to the lads in the dressing room. Even Mick, our captain, would look up from trying to flog his dodgy mobile phones, and listen.

‘Good on ‘im,’ Mick will conclude: ‘fair play to the fella; she a nice looking bird?’

‘Yeah, very fit,’ I’d say.

I look over to where Elise has retreated, watching and listening, in the back room of the café. Her milky white throat and face is English, but her beach-blonde hair could be from Bradley’s native California. Nestled in her cleavage is a large wooden crucifix. Bradley met, saved and converted her at an alpha course in Southwark cathedral.

‘And now he’s reaping the rewards,’ Mick will note: ‘nice one.’

Mick will then turn to Jock, the big, quiet Scot who plays in front of me at centre back, and say, ‘I didn’t think you Christian boys were allowed to go around shagging other people.’

Jock will squirm and wither under the interrogation, just as he squirms and withers under any serious pressure from an attacking forward. He will defend valiantly for a while, moving his big white body to block the in-routes to my goal, but then, usually halfway through the second half, his head will go down. He will get skinned in the next attack and left for dead by the opposing team’s blitzkrieg. I will have to rush off my line and dive at the forward’s feet, if I’m quick enough.

‘Why Mummy?’ bleats Alice. ‘Daddy won’t come back now.’ Alice stands before Elise, little hands on little hips, pouting. ‘Daddy won’t like this,’ she says. ‘He said you weren’t to do this.’

In a soft voice, Elise shushes her daughter. She tries to remove her from the limelight, pulling at the sleeve of her maroon velvet dress, but the little truth-teller is not going anywhere quietly. Alice is a guerrilla fighter, fighting for what is right. Out flashes a small yellow sandaled foot, and a blue, leather-bottomed pouf rolls over lazily and becomes a black eye.

I look at the toppled pouf and see it as a smirch on the hardwood floor, a stain on this place.

Alice struggles free from her mother, who gives up trying to quell the source of her embarrassment and moves away to the furthest corner of the shop, near the front door.

Then another ten year old girl comes downstairs. This is Jane, Bradley’s daughter, who shrinks into the protection of her father’s embrace and glowers at Alice.

Alice scrapes the sun-bleached hair from her wet cheeks and glowers back. She’s a handful now; imagine her in a few years time. She turns to us on the sofa and looks each one of us in the eye. We all inspect the hardwood floor.

‘Come and sit down,’ says Stephen. He reaches forward, rights the abused pouf and brushes the top clean. To my surprise, Alice sits on the pouf and treats us all to a winning smile: a bright banana smile that splits across her face. She’s the coca-cola girl, but tonight she has had to grow up fast. How on earth is Bradley going to wriggle out of this one?

I watch Bradley chew his bottom lip as he holds onto Jane. He is fifty years old, a charismatic man of the world, yet he is frightened by Alice’s allegation. Any one of us could mention this fact to his church superiors and he would be out on his ear.

‘Should own up to it,’ Mick would advise. ‘Dip your wick, you pay the price.’ Mick’s been in and out of prison twice; he’s another man of the world who knows the cost of things.

A mournful silence grips the café Ritz. Bradley Ritz, the proprietor, strokes his daughter’s hair with one hand, and strokes his beard with another. I can see him thinking: there must be another interpretation I can spin on this; if Clinton can do it, so can I.

The funny thing is, now that the air in the café has warmed up again, we have all concluded that Alice’s story is true.

I settle back on the sofa, and realise that I’m rather enjoying Bradley’s predicament. I’m only here because of recent events, and because it was the only way I could get Stephen and Jock to shut up about their faith.

Stephen who wears a Leeds shirt, the brand new yellow one, not that he’s ever been north of the Watford gap. Jock and I let it go because Stephen’s a bit fragile and he’s a mate.

Jock wears an old Arsenal shirt. He’s a true Gunners man, from way before the Premiership and all the Henry adverts. Now Jock does his best to be a rock, both on the football field and off, and I can see what he’s thinking too, because we’ve had this discussion before. Jock will be thinking that there is only one punishment fit for Bradley. He will be thinking that our once esteemed leader, a man previously known to be a good Christian, and a guide into the mysteries of the bible, will in fact be on the next express service to hell.

I know this because, you see, until recently, I was going to hell too.

‘That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it,’ I protested when Jock had announced the sorry news. ‘I mean, we might get relegated, but going to hell is a bit strong.’

‘You’re not saved, Peter,’ Jock explained, ‘you are in limbo; you are not in a state of grace. None of us are until we open ourselves up to the Lord.’

I didn’t want to be rude to Jock, because I’ve found it always pays to keep an open mind, but I kept him at arms length for a bit, and continued to curse his lack of legs and commitment in the second half. Picking the ball out of the back of the net, I would turn and invariably see him standing on the penalty spot looking exhausted. He would come over, slap me on the back, and say that was all he had, that the other team was fitter and stronger.

‘Fight, man,’ I told him, when I could not stand it any longer. We were in the dressing room, the banter of another defeat over, and the team had moved on to the pub. The air was warm and moist, the mist slowly clearing from the showers dripping in the background. I suggested to him that he should fight harder, try and get back and win the ball, never give up.

‘Don’t you ever get tired of struggling?’ Jock said. ‘Each of us here can only do our best.’

I’m wearing a green goalkeeper’s shirt with ‘Camus’ and ‘1’ on the back. The missus got me it the other day. It combines my love of football and philosophy. Albert Camus was a writer and a philosopher, a leading existentialist, and a leader in the French Resistance movement during the war. Better than all that, he played in goal for the Algiers Racing University Club. Apparently, he said that he learnt all about morality and obligations from football. I can see how that could happen. Even now I still feel obliged to save the day.

Red, yellow, green goes our football traffic light, but I’d never let Mick see me in this shirt. Only the blue stripes of the King’s Head will do. Even though we’re bouncing off the bottom of our division in the Harlesden and Willesden district Sunday league, we’re still proud of the team and the club.

I like Jock so I would never tell him what I really thought, that he was defeatist, and too quick to say that it was all in the hands of the Lord, a mysterious centre-forward who I had heard plenty about, but had never actually seen play.

But that was before I was involved in a road accident, hit by a driver coming towards me on the wrong side of the road. I remember looking at the car and thinking: that can’t be right, and then the car hit mine, and the windscreen crazed and there was a pain in my head and chest and knees and that was that for a while.

When I awoke, it was because the surgeons had saved my spinal cord from a wayward cervical vertebra. I can eat and drink today thanks to the ambulance men who took the time to pick my teeth off the dashboard. They even put most of them in the right way round, ramming the enamel back into my bloody gums while I was unconscious, before the nerves died.

I wanted to kill the other driver, who survived with a cut lip, that’s all, when I was discharged from hospital and I was told that my playing days were over. But the impulse faded in the warmth of the bosom of my family and I was glad just to be alive.

‘You were saved,’ said Jock, inevitably.

‘I was saved because several healthcare professionals did their jobs expertly,’ I replied with difficulty, the effort of talking too much then as it is now. Bother words; action is what is needed.

‘Yes, the Lord was acting through them; that’s how he works.’

I didn’t have the strength to argue; I saved it all for the physiotherapy, and learning to walk again.

But it did make me think. The consultant showed me the X-ray of my spine, and pointed out the number of millimetres separating me from this world and the next. He said I was lucky. Camus had not been so lucky. He was killed in a road accident in 1960. Jock kept telling me that I had been saved, and on one emotional day, with my six year old in my lap sobbing that she was glad Daddy was still here, I gave in.

‘Okay, Jock,’ I said, ‘I’m an open-minded sort of guy. I’d like to find out more.’

Jock was overjoyed, and a little bit surprised, that he had convinced me. I had previously suspected that there was kudos to be won for such evangelical endeavours, and I was right. Stephen now regarded Jock with awe, as if the sun shone out of his arse, and he joined the bible study group when I did, the tart.

Bradley’s mirror is forever cracked, however. His gorilla arms are now wrapped around Jane, who is struggling to escape. Every now and then he raises his eyes to the ceiling, to the site of his alleged misdemeanour.

I don’t want to be here when Lydia walks in. Forget the fire and brimstone; hell hath no fury like Mrs Ritz scorned. We should all leave. My wife will be pleased to see me back so early.

Bradley bends down, turns Jane around to look at him, and begins to whisper in her ear. He will be speaking in paragraphs, and his defence will have a beginning, middle and end. Whatever he says, as he strokes Jane’s shoulder-length brown hair, seems to appease her.

We have been distracted. How funny it is that when a kid is peaceful and quiet, she disappears.

Alice makes her move, dashing past Clara and thumping upstairs in her yellow sandals, a trail of dust rising up from the old brown carpet. Jane squeals and attempts to follow.

‘No, stay here darling. Alice is confused.’ Bradley pulls a blue lollipop from his shirt pocket and fairly stuffs it into Jane’s mouth.

There is silence until we hear a bang and then movement above us in Jane’s bedroom. Jane spits the lollipop on the floor. She screams and breaks free of her father, scrambling up the stairs after Alice.

Soon there are screams above us; first Jane, then Alice, mocking her. The bedroom door rattles with a series of loud thumps.

Jane’s head appears midway down the stairs. Normally a demure girl, her hair is twisted into knots. ‘Dad, Alice has locked herself in my room! Get her out, Dad! She’ll break my toys.’

Bradley trudges upstairs, a beaten man.

A chair is being dragged across the bedroom floor. What is Alice up to? Then there is the unmistakable sound of a small hand hitting a window frame. Alice is standing on a chair, trying to open Jane’s bedroom window.

The doctors said I should take it easy, but somehow I know what is coming. I do believe that Alice is now attempting to dispose of Jane’s pet mouse out of the window.

It is a huge effort to get off the sofa. Stephen helps me with a hand underneath my elbow. Jock passes me my crutch.

The banging increases upstairs. Bradley is thumping the bedroom door, and demanding that Alice open it.

I’m summoning the energy to tell Stephen and Jock what I think Alice is up to, when Lydia walks in. The first person she meets in the café is Elise, who had been looking at her ghostly reflection in the front door. She moves away but she will haunt this place for a while yet.

‘Hello, Elise!’ says Lydia. ‘How are you? How are your discussions going?’

The shit will surely hit the fan now. It’s a similar feeling to when the final whistle draws near. As usual our defence is strung out like the Maginot line, and half the team has ceased to care. The midfield is pretending to be supporting the attack, and no one can be arsed to run back to defend.

Jock moves past me into the back room. Oh, if only I had a pair of working legs! He lights up a cigarette and takes a long drag. The smoke wafts over, a little bit of hashish to steady the nerves. Then he sits on the floor in a heap and starts to thumb through a pile of second-hand detective novels.

Stephen is in the kitchen, with a coffee mug frozen to his mouth. He says its only lemonade, but we found an empty bottle of ready mixed gin and tonic in the bin last week, so his secret is out too.

It is very quiet. The banging upstairs has stopped. Bradley and Jane must be hiding up there, Bradley possibly with his hand clamped over Jane’s mouth.

Then I hear the sound of a window coming unstuck from its frame, and the rattle of the window-stay across the sill as it opens into the cold evening.

Keeper’s ball! Keeper’s ball! I’m rushing off my line as fast as I can go. I open the back door, put my right foot forward, and try to anticipate the distance down the step to the ground, how much to bend my knee, and finally how much it will hurt.

I barely land upright on the grass. I howl as the pain shoots up my leg into my head and rattles around my teeth. House lights and the penumbra of a street lamp light the garden. Hobbling around the corner of the house on my crutch, I see Jane’s bedroom window open above me.

Alice’s hand appears out of the window. She holds a silver cage. Inside the cage, a small white mouse clings to the bars.

Alice shakes the cage vigorously. She is trying to free her fingers, which are stuck between the bars. Then she will be able to drop the cage and rid herself of her friend’s pet, an animal that provides Jane, and therefore Bradley, with far too much happiness.

The logic is all there: the logic of retribution. In a way, I admire Alice’s spirit, but my heart hardens to her methods. I am dismayed; truly, man is alone. What resource of the supernatural world could help us now?

Don’t drop it! Wait a minute, I’m not ready!

When I was a young boy, I would roll up a pair of socks into a ball, throw it against my bedroom wall and dive onto the bed to catch the rebound. I would do this again and again, varying the angle and power of the throw until my mother arrived and scolded me about breaking the bedsprings.

In school, I played goalkeeper for the football team, and also at college, and then for the King’s Head. I am very defensive towards my family, over and above my friends who are also fathers.

When in church for the Christmas communion, I daydream about terrorists who abseil though the stained glass window and take the congregation hostage. Only I escape and raise the alarm. I still daydream like this.

Thus, if this were the last shot of the game, and it was just me standing between a well struck penalty and the undefended English goal, millions around the world would see my fit and supple body arc into flight and my fingernails telescope into eagle’s talons.

I would pluck the cage from the frigid night air and hug it to my chest, before it could bounce and break on the ground. It would be an ejaculatory ending.

Truth is, I stumbled and lost my crutch. The cage fell quickly and hit the ground and the mouse died inside.

I did have the impulse to dive and save it, to keep fighting, but Jock held me tight and stopped me from breaking my neck.

© Mark Carew 2005

First published in Leafing Through magazine, Gorlan Publications

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