It was a hot day. The hottest one of the year so far. Frank moved hurriedly along the back roads of mixed gravel and low cut hedges. The stones beneath his feet were like freshly-raked cinders. There were scattered patches of tarmac which had melted during the early afternoon and were only beginning to solidify once again. He was careful to avoid these and walked into the banks of mixed vegetation. There wasn’t a puff of air about. A heat wave had taken possession of his world and it wasn’t surrendering its grip. The elm trees which dotted the flat landscape stood as still as gate pillars. The birds in the air swooped between them in a most lethargic fashion. The cattle in the fields masticated even more lazily than usual. The countryside was vivified and yet it protested of the oppressive heat. Frank wore a flimsy Liverpool t-shirt which had seen better days. He considered taking it off, but then thought better of the idea. His skin was warm, his mouth a crusty dry. He hoped he’d come across a water trough somewhere along the way. Just for a few splashes. A cooling effect if nothing else. His face was inundated with a burning colour. It could be mistaken for anger he supposed.
He could smell the burgeoning wild flowers on the verges, the intoxicating bloom of hydrangeas, the fragrance of handpicked blueberries, even the concentrated pollen. In the far distance he heard some young children play. Shouts of elation were interspersed with the admonitory tones of elders. Frank smiled to himself ruefully. He was old enough now, past the point of such reprimand. The oldest of five children, he was the responsible one. That’s what his mother had told him a week before. The same day he’d finished primary school. A lot depended on him she said in a hushed voice. His father wasn’t faring so well. He would need to be more mindful of this than ever before. It meant growing up quickly, perhaps a little too quickly she added in an apologetic tone. But he could still indulge certain boyish things when he’d have the time. He wasn’t a man quite yet. He could still tip his hat to youthful pursuits.
”˜That’s why it’s important to retain Paul as a friend,’ she said, gripping her lower lip between her teeth, ”˜I know he’s going away in September, but you’ll be able to write and keep up contact in a hundred different ways. You’ll see him at holidays to be sure. Halloween…Christmas…Easter…next summer…’
The laborious drones of farm machinery cut through the sultry atmosphere, disrupting his thoughts. Hay was being windrowed and baled. In a few places it was already drawn in. There were other comings-and-goings the 12 year-old had seen many times. Frank saluted the genial tractor drivers, all of whom he knew by name. He moved aside with due consideration, allowing them to pass. One of them, Jack Butler, pulled up beside him. He was a grey-haired old fox, whose face was weather-beaten and the host of a multitude of imperfections. His spade-like hands were a fine web of lines as he locked the steering wheel into position. He began to roll a cigarette into a shapely cylinder, but, then as he spoke, he undid this handiwork vacantly. Frank guessed he’d stopped for this especial purpose, as much as for a chat.
”˜That’s some class of a day Frankie, isn’t it?’ the older man said in a husky falsetto.
He rolled the tobacco again more thoughtfully and, following a theatrical beat, decided to lick the paper.
Frank did not answer. Instead he nodded politely.
Jack carried on with his musings of the moment.
”˜We just finished a grand lock of hay for Pajoe Dowling,’ he said with no little pride, ”˜it’s so much the easier when you have weather of this kind on your side. Do you know what I’ve heard your father call a day like this in times past? ”˜A pure work of art.’ That’s what he calls it Frankie. I expect today would qualify as a pure work of art. Maybe even more so. A masterpiece I imagine.’
Laughing to himself in a raspy cackle, he put the cigarette in his mouth and began to search his pockets. He took out a book of matches, regarded the florid cover, and then returned his gaze to the quiet boy.
”˜So how goes the struggle with you?’ he asked. ”˜Off on your travels somewhere?’
Frank broke his silence at last. Despite the canopy effect the tractor’s cabin offered, he still felt very warm. He wondered again if it smacked of irritation.
”˜I’m going to Paul Campion’s house,’ he said as pleasantly as he could manage. He decided not to elaborate on the reason for this. Time was of the essence. He needed an excuse to get going again. Mentioning the football match would be no way to expedite his leave-taking.
”˜Off to the China house, are you?’ Jack kidded as he lit his cigarette. ”˜That mother of his is a quare creature to be sure, but I suppose I shouldn’t be saying that to you. More to the point, the reason why I stopped with you, is to ask after your father. How is he knocking out his days? Does he get…’
He searched for words he considered appropriate.
”˜Does he get jaded in himself?’
”˜He keeps himself busy,’ Frank answered without a moment’s hesitation, ”˜he’s painting a lot. Sometimes he works late into the night.’
”˜Is that a fact?’ said Jack feigning a modicum of interest. ”˜Well he’s a great man for the singsong, that’s to be certain. A few months ago in Delahuntys he gave us a wonderful rendition of Moon River. Man alive! Andy Williams would have nothing on him!’
There was a velvety indulgence in his voice which Frank did not care for. He decided it was high time to push on. The grey fox could read it whatever way he wanted.
”˜I better be going Mr. Butler,’ he said casting his eye far down the road, ”˜Paul is expecting me at four. He’s a stickler for the time.’
”˜Aye, go on so,’ Jack said in a vaguely derisive tone. He blew out a cloud of smoke that orbited the interior of the cabin. Frank heard him mutter something as he closed the door. It was difficult to make out, but the stagnant air came to his assistance.
The barbed words he was certain he heard were: ”˜That’s the way it begins.’
Frank wondered what that meant. Once again he felt some heat rising in his face. The sun was still high and brave overhead. He expected it was mainly for this reason.
He resumed his time-honoured route to Paul’s house, part by way of this dusty thoroughfare, part by way of meadowland underfoot. It would be much easier to cross those same fields today now that so many of them were reduced. Frank was grateful for this. He’d get there all the quicker as a consequence. On the very dot of four he figured. Old Jack and his fellow workers had done one thing in his favour.
He examined his wristwatch methodically. It was a little on the dated side – yellowed glass and fading Roman numerals – but still kept the time well enough. He wouldn’t be late. The chores at home had not been too overburdening today. He heard his friend’s voice echoing in his head as he wandered along. Paul’s instruction down the phone had been emphatic, his message quite clear-cut.
”˜Don’t forget that a quarter past five in Spain means a quarter past four here boss. Make it as close to the hour as you can. Come through the fields if you’re on the late side. Mammy will make us drinks in the Soda Stream. And there’ll be packets of Sam Spudz laid out for us. We’ll have a right old time of it boss. I can’t wait to see Pelé in action!’
Frank had wanted to correct his friend right there and then, but didn’t have the heart. Paul had been so excited on the phone when he called. It was just like old times. They hadn’t seen each other in over a week; most definitely a long time for them. The day they’d finished primary school had felt like a watershed moment for the older boy. Paul, on the other hand, had made light of it. He’d reminded Frank of the vast summer which extended before them; made it sound as if it were limitless.
”˜You and me boss, up to all sorts of divilment, the episodic adventures of rogues,’ he said with an exaggerated wink as they parted outside St. Brendan’s. The World Cup was already well underway. Belgium had sensationally beaten the holders Argentina in the opening game; Hungary had put ten goals past El Salvador; West Germany had lost to Algeria in a huge shock; and the brilliant Brazilians were on the march.
Paul put out a tentative invite as he disappeared into the back of his mother’s car, a voice trailing away in the soft breeze.
”˜I’ll phone you for a match real soon boss,’ he promised, ”˜we got one of those new Nordmende tellies from Germany. Pure dynamite is what it is. State of the art. Much better than the old one you have in your place.’
He’d made comments like this before, but Frank had taken little notice of them up to now. He thought about his friend and this newfound interest in football of his. A few short weeks ago Paul wouldn’t have had the first clue who Diego Maradona was. Or Karl-Heinz Rummenigge for that matter. And as for Zico or Sà³crates, not a chance. But now he was talking about them as if they were long-standing idols of his. A false air of knowledge. A familiar ruse. It was typical of him. Frank had heard it before. Swinging his arms loosely as he bounded over a stone wall, he felt sorely tempted to catch his friend out. Pelé isn’t even playing today he heard himself tell Paul. He hasn’t kicked a ball since 1977. Just ”˜cos you saw him in Escape to Victory last year doesn’t mean he’s doing it anymore. That was just acting you know. Same way with Sylvester Stallone. He’s no more a goalkeeper than you are the King of Spain.
He’d felt a certain tightness in his mind when he heard his friend on the other end of the phone. It’d been the same with old Jack just now, particularly when he mentioned his father singing in the pub. It had not been unexpected when his mother answered and told him who it was. The cause of it he knew full well. Now that the excitement of the match had gripped him, he noticed how it had slackened to a certain extent. He wondered if it would return with the same ferocity. The kind he’d felt a few weeks before. He expected it might. But hoped that it wouldn’t.
He distracted himself with thoughts of the match. What might happen. How it would go. A draw for the Brazilians would be enough for them to advance. Nothing less than a win would do for the Italians. They were the ones who’d have to chase it. He wondered if it was as hot as this at the Estadio Sarrià¡ in Barcelona. If it were, then advantage the South Americans. They were used to such conditions. It wouldn’t affect them as much as their European counterparts. And besides they’d come out and attack; most likely score as well. He was positive about that. It was part of their nature, this was what made them the seleÒ«Èƒo. Frank liked the sound of that word. He repeated it to himself, allowing it to roll off the tip of his tongue. SeleÒ«Èƒo. It was Portuguese; meant selection. Those selected for the Brazilian national football team. Chances are Paul has never heard of that either he supposed. And he thinks Pelé still kicks ball for them. What a play-actor he is. Full of the auld plaumausing as his mother would say.
Paul answered the door to him with a wide smile and vivacious warmth.
”˜It’s real good to see you boss,’ he said, his voice filled with a present joy, ”˜come in and welcome. I knew you’d get here on time. They’re talking about it on the telly. What’s-his-name is saying the Italians are in with a shout!’
He was three months younger than Frank, an only child with sharp features and a ruddy complexion. His face had a social, expectant attitude, and his quizzical eyes tended to close in slits. He liked to think he had a plethora of stories and schemes at his disposal, but it was also noticeable how conformist he could be. Talking big and overt was a liking of his, but, more often than not, he furtively fell in line. He was still quite short for his age and had an electric frame which constantly pivoted like a weathercock on a blustery day. His voice twanged just as it did now whenever he was excited. He also had an inclination towards amiable inattention. This was one of his more annoying traits as far as Frank was concerned; his propensity for distraction, the way he kept asking you to repeat things over and over.
Frank for his part was quite tall, thin as a rake, and just a little jagged around the edges. He had inherited his father’s frame and gait and was sulkily handsome. He had great sombre, dark eyes and a voice that was slow and meditative. Intensely quiet, he didn’t tend to speak as much as erupt out of his silence. For this very reason some people mistook him as abrupt. There were even those who referred to him as doleful. Frank hated that word, especially the dole part. He was polite, but in a detached manner. He was not one for shouting his courtesies or respects. He knew he’d never be a crowd-pleaser like someone such as Paul. His friend was a gregarious creature. Frank much preferred to show his benevolences privately. In dribs and drabs; by way of small acts, even monosyllabic expressions, if they sufficed. Things which only he might notice. Things he could register in his mind. He’d asked for little in return. Up until now.
He was led into the sitting room by his eager friend and shown the brand new Nordmende television. It was a beauty indeed and had a picture as sharp as Frank had ever seen. He felt a momentary surge of envy. The Bush model they had at home was a veritable dinosaur compared to this. Paul was a lucky fellow he thought. He was getting lots of breaks; a new bike for Christmas, an Atari 2600 for his most recent birthday, and now a new TV. He wondered if he had the Panini World Cup album with Espaà±a 82 emblazoned on its cover. That wouldn’t surprise him one bit. Knowing Paul, he’d have every one of those stickers collected in next to no time.
”˜It’s grand,’ Frank said keeping his voice at a level pitch, ”˜must have cost your old fella a pretty penny.’
”˜It did,’ Paul replied enthusiastically, ”˜and he had it installed just in time. No point in doing things by half measures boss. The World Cup is only every four years after all. So whatcha been doing with yourself this past week? Any high jinks or bit of mischief on the go?’
”˜Divil a bit mistah,’ Frank said taking a seat. It was a while since he’d been in this particular room. It was large and lofty; had an opulent quality and no mistake. The couch he sank into had a brand-new feel to it and, looking about, he was reminded of Paul’s mother’s extensive Aynsley collection. The remark old Jack had made about the China house came to mind and Frank allowed himself a cautious grin. Paul caught sight of this. His curiosity was immediately piqued.
”˜What are you smiling at boss?’ he enquired. ”˜You get an idea just now? A brainwave or something?’
”˜No,’ Frank replied covering up quickly for himself, ”˜I was just thinking of the time we watched Blazing Saddles in here. You remember the campfire scene mistah? All those beans and all them farts.’
Paul guffawed loudly as the memory rose to the surface.
”˜Of course I do boss,’ he said. ”˜You were doubled over. Like a fella possessed. It was the same the time we went down to the professor’s house. I had you in stitches then too with what I said.’
Frank furrowed his brow at this. For the life of him he could remember no such occasion at the professor’s house. At least not one involving him in paroxysms of laughter as his friend suggested. He was fairly certain Paul had made it up. For the sake of comic effect. Or just plain simply to butter him up.
”˜Sure mistah,’ he said playing along, ”˜you came out with a real gem that evening. A nugget of a jibe. Shook the old prof to the core I imagine. Priceless.’
”˜There’s more where that came from,’ Paul said inclining forward in his seat. ”˜The episodic adventures of rogues boss. That’s us for the summer. ”˜Til September comes and…’
He halted in his tracks all of a sudden and coloured just a little. The tiny chink of self-consciousness was not lost on Frank. A troubling thought began to plague him again. He endeavoured to throw it back, but the recent occurrence between them quickened his blood.
Paul’s mother breezed into the room just then in a manner not much unlike a stage entrance. She had a flamboyant air about her and reeked of the expensive perfume she wore.
”˜Yoo-hoo boys,’ she called out in a voice resembling the tinkle of a small glass. ”˜Are you all set for your game? Anything else I can get you? How are you Francis?’
”˜I’m very well thank you,’ Frank replied respectfully. ”˜How are you Mrs. Campion? Are you watching the match too?’
Paul’s mother laughed and waved her hand with a broad flourish.
”˜Oh not at all Francis, it wouldn’t be my scene,’ she said. ‘Though I do love the colours of the teams and their supporters. They make it so festive, don’t they? The Brazilians especially. Paul’s been reading up on them, haven’t you dear? Tells me the capital is Brasàlia. And I always believed it to be Rio de Janeiro.’
She laughed to herself again and then adopted a more serious pose.
”˜How are your parents Francis?’ she enquired.
Without waiting for a reply she pushed on to an associated question.
”˜Has your father been lucky and found a job since the meat factory closed?’
Frank shook his head pensively.
”˜No Mrs. Campion, he hasn’t.’
Paul’s mother sat down on the arm of the couch next to her son. She crossed her arms and spoke with subdued emphasis.
”˜Well that’s an awful shame,’ she said, ”˜and no bad reflection on your father mind. No, what I blame is the state of this country. It’s only July yet and already we’re on our second Taoiseach this year. I wish they’d sort it out. I wish someone would take the bull by the teeth.’
This slip of the tongue prompted a belly laugh from Paul.
”˜You mean by the horns Mom,’ he corrected.
”˜Yes, of course dear; by the teeth would be a little difficult,’ she said patting him absently on the shoulder. ”˜But you look at our so-called politicians and it’s obvious they’re going about it the wrong way. Unemployment as it is. It’s such a worry.’
Frank nodded silently. Again he took in his surroundings. Pristine china, comfortable furniture, sweet-smelling potpourri, decorative cornice moulding. And the new television of course. It was hard to take your eye off that. He was pretty sure Mrs. Campion was not as greatly worried about the state of the country as she made out. He knew he wouldn’t be in her position. There were enough things in this one room to distract any person from despair.
”˜It’s not so bad for Daddy,’ he said returning the conversation to its previous subject. He wanted to make it clear his father was not entirely idle; that he filled his days with a valuable pursuit. It’s important Mrs. Campion understands this he thought; that she sees it as plainly as she does her precious Aynsley. Maybe the manufacture of that came from someone being out of work as well. Stranger things had happened.
”˜He’s painting a lot,’ he continued, ”˜sometimes he works late into the night.’
The words dropped down out of his drawn face as he realised they were the exact same he’d uttered to old Jack a short time before. He noticed how hollow they sounded. He keenly felt his own lack of spirit on the theme.
Mrs. Campion stared upon his discomfiture. A look of compassion flashed across her face. A sickly smile quivered about her lips. It felt like an overdone cordiality. The effort at levity which followed was in the same vein.
”˜Well that’s a very positive response on his part,’ she said, ”˜and who knows where it might lead. Did you know that many of the famous painters started late in life?’
Frank gave a jiggling shrug of his shoulders. An intimation of where she was going with this pricked him. He hoped the match would start very soon. Then he’d have an excuse to be diverted.
Mrs. Campion carried on with her frothy reflection. She was intent on her message, no matter how trivial. Her dancing eyes were imbued with an eccentric sense of duty.
”˜Monet for example,’ she offered, ”˜and just think of all those wonderful landscapes he painted. Paul Cézanne as well. Van Gogh even though you wouldn’t think it. I know he died young, but I read somewhere he was actually a late bloomer…as far as artists go.’
”˜Was he the one who cut off his ear?’ Frank asked. He felt a stern calm all over again. The former signs of perturbation were lifted from his face.
”˜Oh yes, and perhaps for that reason he’s not a very good example,’ Mrs. Campion said.
Now it was her turn to flush ever so slightly. The reaction caught Frank by surprise. He hadn’t intended to put her on the spot so. It was just a means of humouring her, nothing more. He felt an immediate pang of guilt. Paul’s mother was airy, but she meant no real harm. It was just a bit of plaumausing on her part. To make it up to her, he decided to share his father’s joke. The one he’d been constantly telling of recent; about Michelangelo and da Vinci and those other dead painters. His father certainly got a kick out of it. God knows he was repeating it enough.
Just then he heard the word ”˜artistry’ spring from another corner of the room. It was the sound of the television set. Paul had left his seat and raised the volume. Evidently, he was growing weary with this conversation about the departed. He wanted to hear more about the living, the virtuosos about to take to the playing field.
Gentile. Conti. Tardelli.
Zico. Sà³crates. Falcà£o. éder.
The word they’d both heard was referring to the exalted seleÒ«Èƒo. The commentators lauded their immeasurable skills as they emerged onto the pitch. Their hallowed golden shirts blazed in the vivid sunlight. The fans in the overcrowded stands responded to their arrival. They embraced. They beat the air. They shouted joyously with excess of emotion. Acclamation was broad and leapt in all directions. The noise swelled upwards and outwards. The tract of stadium that was the Estadio Sarrià¡ was pulsing with an electricity all of its own. The waves of energy beat and rumbled in Frank’s ears. He felt the intoxicating contagion like an active participant. His eyes followed the team members as they took their positions. They were full of the importance and urgency of the task at hand. Just as he’d been earlier in getting to Paul’s house on time. He longed to fix this moment in his memory; this whole day if possible. He feared the thought of what might happen tomorrow, or the day after; September to be more precise. He looked at his friend beside him. Paul was pushing out his lower lip. He’d assumed a concentrated expression. Frank knew full well this would not last. In a very short time Paul would be gabbing away as he was wont to do. Frank could hear the questions that would come. Who is such-a-one and what club does he play for? Why is it a free-kick and not a penalty? What do you mean the Italian goalkeeper is 40? Sure that’s as old as Daddy is boss!
Oddly enough, he felt tears lance the corners of his eyes. He questioned why this was, tried to explain it to himself. The word ”˜artistry’ popped into his head again. He noticed how quiet Paul had been when he was chatting to his mother; especially about his father and the painting. Does he feel guilty about it he wondered. It was only a short time ago after all. No more than two weeks. They hadn’t spoken about it since then. The silence between them had taken the edge off to a certain degree. But it had also served to amplify his own sense of hurt.
The long-awaited kick-off came on the stroke of 4.15. Paul’s focus broke just five minutes later. Paolo Rossi opened the scoring for the Italians. The younger boy was amazed at how quickly it came. Antonio Cabrini’s cross and then bang, it all seemed so simple. He turned to Frank, his face mottled with inquisitiveness. A swear word could be employed now that his mother had left the room.
”˜Jesus boss! He scored that awful quick,’ he said, ”˜that must be a record or something!’
”˜Robson scored against France much quicker than that,’ Frank told him. ”˜After just 27 seconds of play mistah. And there’s even been faster than that. Six seconds I think.’
”˜I like that fella Rossi,’ Paul said as the match resumed, ”˜Paolo is the Italian for my name. That’s a good recommendation boss. For the rest of this game you can call me Paolo. It’s got a good ring to it, hasn’t it?’
”˜Sure does mistah,’ Frank chuckled in reply, ”˜and who am I supposed to be? What name do I get?’
Paul’s eyes narrowed as he gave this a moment’s thought. A wide smile shot across his face as he came up with an answer.
”˜The next fella who scores is who you are,’ he proposed. ”˜How does that sound boss? It could be any one of them on the pitch.’
It was Sà³crates and it came seven minutes later. Playing a neat one-two with his midfield partner Zico, the Brazilian captain advanced to beat Dino Zoff at his near post. He wheeled away in delight, a fist raised in celebration. Frank took great pleasure in this. His whole frame shook and a torrent of cheers passed his lips.
”˜Did you see that mistah?’ he said to Paul his voice filled with infectious glee. ”˜That’s the talent they bring to the game. That’s the art–‘
He broke off suddenly as if something quick and urgent had come to mind. Appearing a little self-conscious of his own behaviour, he mumbled a quick apology and returned to his habitual carefulness. Remaining bolt upright in his seat, he drained his bottle of Soda Stream at a gulp.
”˜Gosh but that’s good stuff,’ he said brightening a smile in Paul’s direction. ”˜You got any more of it mistah? It’s so hot I didn’t notice how fast I drank it.’
Paul dutifully went to the fridge and got a bottle of the fizzy stuff. It was a bit too dutiful as far as he was concerned. He found he was still pinching himself. Frank’s burst of sparkle just now had taken him by surprise. He was not used to seeing his friend react this way. It was so out of character for Frank. Particularly of late. It told of what this game might mean to him. The younger boy could not help but feel the want of that excitement. A cloud of jealousy overcame him. He wanted this fervour for the game too, but instead only felt the languid beat of his pulse. Gazing at Frank from the kitchen the solitude begotten of recent events began to have an oppressive effect on him. Over the final few weeks of school a gulf had opened up between them. Frank had been going more into himself. There’d always been a stony rigidity to his face, but now it was supplemented by a resigned aspect. And it isn’t even September yet Paul thought to himself. This was why he kept reminding his friend about the long summer ahead of them. This was why he’d invited him over. He was making an effort damn it; putting his best foot forward like those Italians in Spain. Why did it feel like such an impossible task at times? Why had his friend become so prickly? Mammy said Frank was quietly disquieting in himself. Now he was getting a vague understanding of what she meant by this. She’d questioned him earlier as to why he was even coming round. Paul explained it was to watch the match. Of course he didn’t tell her the whole truth – about how he was trying to make it up to Frank. Because of that thing he’d done in the middle of June. Or was it just two weeks previous? He couldn’t quite remember. He made an effort to say something as he came back into the room, but then gave it up just as quickly. Frank took the bottle with a cursory thank you. He was still pert and erect, with a hand on each knee like a man in a barber’s shop. On tenterhooks as to what might happen next it seemed. Taking his own seat, Paul made to place his palms together and interlace his fingers. He quietly discharged his mind of any further conjecture. A wan smile crossed his face. If he wants to act like this, then let him he figured. I said I was sorry at the time. What more could I do? He fell into fits of absence again and dropped few signs of interest in the game. A hush had fallen on him and this seemed to suit Frank. His eyes were raptly focused on the TV screen. From time to time he opened and shut his left hand, then dropped it again clenched upon his knee. It was like he was engaged in a sort of mute inquiry. Quietly disquieting Paul thought to himself as he shot the occasional glance. He could no longer stand it – the breaks in conversation; the sunken contemplation; the whispered murmurs; those brick-coloured hands moving up and down; and his own imagination-mill working fast and furious.
Quietly disquieting. Quietly disquieting.
In a flute-like tone, he heard himself say: ”˜Well I guess that goal makes you Sà³crates boss. It suits you too ”˜cos you always look like you’re stuck in thought.’
He parsed his own words, regretted them straight away, and felt it best to return to the here-and-now. Sport the great unifier he thought. They could still find common ground, have fellow feeling surely. He hoped they would. If he could just get to the pitch of enthusiasm, the place where Frank was at. Perhaps later they’d kick some ball around. Maybe even pay a visit to the professor’s house.
”˜But I still fancy the Italians boss,’ he said resuming his pantomime of joviality, ”˜they’ve got Paul Rossi in their side. He looks razor-sharp to me.’
Frank felt a small surge of annoyance at this. As usual Paul had appointed himself the authority on the subject. The expert who had all the facts and could read the situation like a book. But the truth was he knew next to nothing about Rossi. Nothing about the match-fixing scandal which had kept him out of the game for two years. And nothing about how rusty the centre forward had looked up until now. The whole of the Italian team in fact. They’d looked pretty dour; had only just scraped through the group stage. One more goal than Cameroon – that was hardly the form of champions. Most definitely not enough to best the seleÒ«Èƒo.
And what is that he means by stuck in thought he wondered.
Twenty-five minutes gone and the game interrupted his deliberating. The Brazilian defence went into another slumber. Toninho Cerezo knocked an indolent pass across his goal area. Intended for Junior, it was instead met by Rossi, suddenly a go-getting poacher once again. The opportunistic number 20 fired the ball past the outstretched Waldir Peres. 2-1 to the men in the azure. Game firmly on and no mistake.
Frank felt his shoulders stiffen. Paul danced a jig without leaving his seat. Reaffirming his veneer of elation, he gently thumped the arm of the couch.
”˜Paul Rossi all over again!’ he said. ”˜Boy ain’t he something boss. He must be the best striker in the world right now. To score two against the Brazilians!’
His voice obeyed a softer inflection then as he noted Frank’s punctured attitude.
”˜Is it twenty minutes left in this half boss?’ he enquired phlegmatically.
”˜Yes,’ came the blunt response.
”˜And another forty-five to go in the second half?’
”˜Of course! The second half is no fewer than the first.’
”˜Well that still gives them sixty-five minutes boss. Oodles of time. I wonder if you’ll score again…Sà³crates I mean. The fella you say smokes like a chimney when he’s not playing and…’
It stayed at 2-1 to the Italians for the remaining twenty minutes of the half. The Brazilian team swarmed forward pursuing another equaliser. Zico had his shirt torn by the dogged Claudio Gentile. Toninho Cerezo looked like a man desperate to atone for his lamentable mistake. Rossi’s eyes pivoted here and there, a rejuvenated striker scenting blood. The age-old evergreen that was Dino Zoff continued to rally the defensive unit in front of him.
Fifteen minutes of the second half had passed by when Mrs. Campion joined them again. She asked how it was going.
”˜The Italians are winning by a goal, it’s fierce exciting,’ Paul told her. ”˜Frank here is ready to burst out of his skin, aren’t you boss? He wants Brazil to win.’
Mrs. Campion accepted his invitation to take a seat. She was finished with the roses in the garden. The dreaded greenfly were back in numbers, but tomorrow was another day she joked. Was this the final game for one of these teams she then enquired. Would there be no tomorrow for the fine-looking men in the golden jerseys?
”˜If they don’t score again, it’s the end,’ Frank replied not favouring her with a glance.
They did though and it came in the 68th minute.
Falcà£o collected a pass from Junior and launched a ferocious left-footed drive from 20 yards. There was nothing Zoff or his steadfast colleagues at the back could do about this piece of magic. The number 15 ran towards the Brazilian bench, a jugular vein popping out of his neck like a cord. This time, mindful of Mrs. Campion’s presence, Frank did not celebrate as openly as he did the previous goal. He exhaled a murmur of appreciation. Paul smiled graciously, allowed his friend his moment of satisfied silence. Mrs. Campion was the only one to speak. She had a question for her son; something about this effusive celebration which puzzled her.
”˜Why Paul, isn’t that the picture you painted for the art competition?’ she said. ”˜The one Mr. O’Grady gave you the prize for?’
Her harmless query was received with a mute scowl and unwieldy response.
”˜No,’ blurted Paul in reply, ”˜it was from another match. A different player…’
He searched his mind for the name. It was provided by Frank.
”˜Zico,’ he said in a brusque prompt.
”˜Yeah, that’s right, Zico. They were playing the Russians…’
”˜Scotland,’ Frank interjected in a grumble. ”˜He scored from a free-kick. It was a thing of beauty. They used that same word to describe it – artistry.’
Mrs. Campion seemed to divine a certain attitude from this. She excused herself saying she needed to check on the young foal that had been poorly of late. She was well gone by the time of the 74th minute. The Italians won their first corner of the match. The ensuing in-swinger was half-cleared and fell to Marco Tardelli, loitering on the edge of the box. The number 14 miscued his shot, but the ball made it to Rossi who could do nothing else but stroke it past the hapless Peres. Hat-trick complete the Italian centre forward had the embarrassed look of one who is slightly pained. The tap-in was far too easy. Hardly a strike worthy of dislodging the mighty seleÒ«Èƒo.
Neither boy said a word. A quietness took possession of the room and it was not dispelled until the ball was in the back of the Brazilian net for a fourth time.
”˜Jesus! Another one!’ Paul said, wary of ruffling his friend’s temper.
Frank’s voice came down low in reply.
”˜No goal!’ he said making the words sound broad like a snore. ”˜The linesman’s flagged it for offside.’
There was one remaining moment of drama following this. A glorious header from Oscar was smothered by the effervescent Zoff. The 40-year old hugged the ball on the line as if his life depended on it.
Paul turned to Frank in excited inquiry.
”˜It’s not a goal boss, is it?’ he said. ”˜The ball didn’t cross the line, did it?’
”˜No,’ Frank answered, a furtive sigh escaping him.
”˜Is that it so?’ Paul asked. He could see Frank’s disappointment and concluded that a more grandiose phrase should not be risked. His friend looked to be in a dishevelled heap the way he was sitting. Waving his hand mechanically as the referee blew up the match, his face continued to betray a lingering agitation.
”˜That’s the end of it,’ he said in a quavering tone. ”˜It’s desperate it had to finish like this.’
He frowned as if trying to puzzle it all out. There has to be a reason for this he told himself. The result was bad enough by itself. And then that other thing; that other thing which made his head positively sore. An anger sprang to mind. A curse came close to his lips. He managed to restrain them both. The impulse subsided for now. A close thing he realised. Just like that glancing header in the dying moments. Same as the Italian goalkeeper he needed to keep a hold of it. His features filled out with comprehension. Just enough clarity registered. He returned to the end result. The Italian players were embracing, full of congratulations for one another. The Brazilians were departing the pitch, shirts forlornly slung over shoulders, some of them kissing crosses round their necks. Strangely he found he was no longer sorry for them. They deserve this defeat he decided. On the day they simply weren’t good enough. And that’s what matters the most when it comes to such things. On the day. At this precise moment in time.
”˜The writing was on the wall for them,’ he said as he got up from the couch. ”˜It was there long before the final whistle came. From the time of the first goal. Don’t you think?’
He directed this question to his friend.
Paul had also risen to his feet. He clasped his hands behind the small of his back as if giving this great contemplation. There was an exaggerated obsequiousness in the tone of his reply. He wished to sound clued-in, on the ball.
”˜Sure boss, I saw the signs too,’ he said employing a conversant ring. ”˜From an early stage. The moment Paul Rossi scored. Didn’t he have a mighty game?’
The air was charged with a delicious perfume as they emerged outdoors. It was past 7, but the sunlight still held great influence. The now-familiar orange glow would emerge later on. Tomorrow would be every bit as good a day. There was a lunar eclipse due. It was expected to be spectacular on account of the gorgeous weather. The evening-time cacophony of sounds was just beginning. The last remnants of farm machinery were constricting to a faint hum. A flutter of lively swallows dotted the skyline. In the distance came the boom of a dog barking with considerable obstinacy. Gradually it rose and was sustained in a raucous howl. Paul wondered if it was the professor’s. He chuckled sourly at the ebb and suspiration of the animal’s whining. It had to be the old man’s he reckoned; sounded just as batty as its owner was.
”˜He goes out in the darkness with his poetry,’ he told Frank, ”˜rattles off the verses to the old mongrel. He’s an odd old divil, isn’t he? Do you fancy going down that way boss? Or would you prefer to have a kick-around here?’
Frank elected for the former. It was a silly chaff, but he didn’t want to go home just yet. It was much too early. Evening-time was not so great at his place. There were arguments about the pub and so on. Every now and then tempers flared, voices were raised. After 9 and matters would be quietened down. Daddy would either be dabbling with his paintbrushes in the garage or else gone to Delahuntys.
The two went down the gentle embankment past Taylors’ Cross and followed the railway track round to the place where it met the public road close to Woodland Demesne. It took them longer than usual; the best part of an hour. Their breathing came in quick, short gasps. The humidity of the day was persisting with quiet decorum. It was not so easy to saunter, to do anything brisk for that matter. They grappled with it as men against a strong wind.
Frank felt a little pain gather like a ball inside him. The professor’s house was coming into view now. Nestled about fifty metres from the tracks of the railway, it was a thatched smokeless structure on a confined rectangular footprint; well-preserved in spite of its age, with terra cotta tiles and vibrant bay window boxes. There was a collection of colours which he surveyed – pinks, mauves, purples and whites. Hanging baskets either side of the front door bore trailing geraniums and busy lizzies. It appeared perfectly salubrious to his eyes. He wondered if the passengers on trains could see it. Or were the carriages moving too fast? The occupants engrossed with other things? What a shame he thought. But then what a hare-brained place to plant a house. And as for its current inhabitant, he could only guess at his peculiarities.
Inside the lighted square of a window they both could make out a stiff silhouette; a dark intolerant head as it appeared. Neither of them had ever heard the sound of the professor’s voice, but they understood he was originally from the area having lived and worked for many years in a place called Bahrain. He was no professor though. The word was a misnomer. Some said he’d been an engineer during his active years; in telecommunications or transport. But no one was entirely sure. The professor kept himself to himself. His bookish demeanour and penchant for the solitary existence had earned him his nickname. Especially with the children at school.
With more than a note of boisterousness in his voice, Paul hollered noisily as they approached the one-off domicile.
”˜Hey professor!’ he said, ”˜are you dreaming up rhymes in there? Poetry for your dog? I have a good one for you. I made it up today. It’s called Italy 3, Brazil 2. Here’s how it goes.’
Drawing himself up to his full height, he reeled off his inept verse in a fearless accent:
”˜There once was a boy called Paul Rossi,
His friend Frank was just a bit bossy,
They played a game,
They called a name,
Twas yourself prof,
A real nice gent.’
A curtain was raised and a face looked out through the opaque lace.
The professor was a stocky meat-like man with a long face and ashen-grey moustache. His brow was weathered and thoughtful. There was an expression of disapproval etched in his features; it was silent for he said nothing, but shook a wizened finger. He beckoned them to go away then with a histrionic flourish of his hand.
This elicited a peal of laughter from Paul.
”˜Ah Jesus prof, is that the best you can do?!’ he teased. ”˜The way you flap your hands around is just like that Italian goalkeeper arranging his defence. What’s his name again boss?’
”˜Zoff,’ answered Frank.
This response informed the professor of his presence. The old man riveted a steady gaze on the other boy. To Frank’s mind his thick neck seemed to flex in pity. He found he could not bear this. Does he know something about me he wondered. Something about my family? Has he heard talk?
At that moment he was sure he detected a watery smile. It was clear-cut for him now. The old codger does know something he thought. Much more than he ought to.
A rush of anger took hold of him. He let fly with the worst insult that came to mind. It smacked the professor’s face causing him to withdraw from the window. Even Paul was taken aback. For a moment or two he was gobsmacked, but soon let on to be duly impressed.
Trailing behind him as Frank walked away from the small bungalow, he sung the older boy’s praises.
”˜By Jesus boss! That was really telling him! You sure did nail him with that one! What was it you said again about where he could stick his…? What was that word you used? I don’t think I ever heard that before. But it was top-notch. Really first-class boss.’
He watched as his friend crossed the railway tracks and wriggled under protective fencing on the other side.
”˜Where are you going boss?’ he yelled in a bemused pitch. ”˜Sure that’s not the direction for your place or mine. Out that way is just grazing land. Acres and acres of nothing but fields!’
Those same fields were becoming monochrome now in the falling dusk. Shadows were appearing in all corners and margins. Before long this veil would be thickening into darkness. And after that night-time. Bats and owls would be out in force by then. Foxes and badgers the same.
Paul turned his face flush against the waning light. Groping for a quick decision, he weighed up what was best to do. Follow his friend? Or go home alone? He didn’t understand what Frank was up to. What could possibly be out there in those rolling meadows? Why was he walking off? Why wasn’t he replying? This guesswork was getting him nowhere, so he decided to pursue. Angling his slight body between ground and fence, he entered the wide field. There was a sloping bank over the ridge. Frank had gone down half-ways. He gazed across towards the far end, at objects which were vague and becoming more indistinct. There were tall trees and nonchalant cattle, a slow rivulet passing through the topography. But nothing of great note, nothing out of the ordinary.
”˜Is there something out there boss?’ Paul asked as he drew up alongside the taller boy. ”˜Something that’s caught your eye?’
There was no answer. Frank sustained his meditation.
Paul fixed on a different strategy.
”˜Do you think there are any more trains due this evening?’ he said. ”˜We could stay here a while and watch out for one. What do you think boss? Would you say there’s a Cork train coming? Or maybe one heading for Heuston?’
”˜Do you always have to be asking questions?’ Frank asked his peremptory voice cutting through Paul’s. ”˜Who cares if there’s a train? What difference does it make where it’s going?’
This response of his struck at Paul from behind. His face was startled and pink. For a few seconds he could think of nothing to say. He looked around in mock helplessness, then settled on a brave show of candidness.
”˜I think I know what you mean boss,’ he said tentatively, ”˜I do ask a lot about a lot of things. It’s just because I want to know stuff. I need to be ready for that school. Daddy said there’ll be fellas in my class who have a head start. Some of them have been to Colà¡iste na Rinne. Daddy says that will put it up to me for sure. Just ”˜cos I did well in that entrance exam means nothing.’
He thought ahead to September and what changes that might bring. He’d get home every few weeks, but wouldn’t be about as much. Mammy promised they’d come visit most Sundays, but they couldn’t bring home to him, this place he’d lived in his whole life up until now. There were some things you couldn’t possibly budge. Some people that way too. This final thought had reiterated itself more often of late. He looked at his friend and wondered where they were at. Frank was staying here, he was leaving. When would they be down this way again? Were some of the old certainties of his life vanishing like the light?
Frank’s voice cut through the heavy atmosphere again. The slow drift of his thought became clearer.
”˜Why did you show your mother that picture?’ he asked. ”˜The one I painted, the one you used in the art competition. I told you to get rid of it. You should have done what we agreed. And you shouldn’t have stolen it from me. That was wrong mistah. I would have won that competition otherwise. I would have had a prize to take home.’
Paul flushed with awareness. A short silence fell on him. His conscience felt sore. His eyes narrowed as he shifted nervously. There were no lithe evasions that sprang to mind. There was only the truth left. He decided to make a clean breast of it. That would be enough surely; enough to clear the air between them.
”˜I’m sorry boss,’ he said meekly, ”˜I should have binned it like you told me to. It’s just that I never did well in those competitions. You know I didn’t. And I was tired of O’Grady giving me highly commendable each and every time. Highly commendable is a nothing prize. Just once I wanted to do well. Like you do with your pictures. You have a gift for it boss. Everyone says so.’
”˜Including O’Grady,’ Frank observed, ”˜I think he knew what was going on. I think he knew it wasn’t your picture. But he let you away with it on account of it being the end of school. On account of where you’re going in September. It was a big boost to him when you got that entrance exam. You could see it in his face. You’d swear he’d scored a goal in the World Cup final.’
He continued to stand in a stillness that was both tense and dramatic. Paul surveyed him with lurking apprehension. He did not know what else to say. This gloomy interrogation made him uncomfortable. Why couldn’t they just move on? Why was their summer starting out like this? He thought again of his mother’s words with regard to his friend – quietly disquieting. God how he hated the sound of that now.
”˜Does your father ever make jokes about himself? About what he does?’ Frank asked in a plain-spoken inflection.
This question puzzled Paul very much. Now he really didn’t understand. His expression was set in a dumbfounded look.
”˜No, he doesn’t,’ he replied, ”˜usually he’s just too busy. He’s on the road a lot you know.’
Before he could enquire as to the relevance of this topic, Frank was already in mid-sentence.
”˜My Dad has this joke,’ he said. ”˜It’s about his painting. Ever since he lost his job at the meat factory. He tells it more and more often. I think it’s to mollify us. Especially Mammy. As if he’s trying to make it easier.’
He said this last part with a trace of hesitancy. There was a faint welling-up in his eyes. His throat went on working like a pump.
”˜The joke he keeps telling us is about how all the great artists are dead,’ he bravely continued, ”˜like da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio. Then he takes a pause for a second or two. Sometimes there’s a wink as well. It doesn’t matter ”˜cos we know what’s coming next. The punch line is always the same, it never changes. He laughs and shakes his head. ”˜Aye, all the great artists are dead,’ he says, ”˜and you know something – I’m not feeling too good myself.’ It’s a sort of apology for the way he is now. Out of work and drinking too much. Some days he doesn’t get up until noon. Those are the ones after he’s been in Delahuntys. They’re the worst of all.’
He began to sob dry and hard. Curses against his father, against the whole state of affairs, came through with an apparently expert profanity. He sat down on the ground in a sort of powerless collapse. Paul watched him all this time not knowing what to do. He’d heard a little about Frank’s father, about his present circumstances. Frank had told him about the extra work he had to do at home, helping out with his younger siblings amongst other things. The twins, Bernadette and Joseph, were very small and proving to be a real handful for his mother he said. But he hadn’t complained about it until now. He hadn’t pointed the finger at anyone. Instead he’d become more sullen in himself, more withdrawn.
Paul stopped himself in time, but another thought floated up. Why was his friend so preoccupied with the picture? Why had there been such an ugly glitter in his eyes when he spoke of it? Paul felt blamed, held responsible, like Frank’s father. He didn’t like it. And he was fairly certain he didn’t deserve it either. It was just a picture he thought. I wanted to avoid highly commendable that one last time. That’s all. Did he not get this? Could he not see how it meant…nothing?
His voice was careful in its appeal.
”˜Can we just go home now boss,’ he said squeezing his friend’s hand. ”˜It’s getting late. The light’s falling out of the day. You can come round and watch the semi-finals on Thursday. Italy versus Poland. France against West Germany. A great double-bill boss. Not one to be missed.’
He was greatly relieved as Frank rose to his feet. There was a measurable degree of control restored in his face. He apologised for this escape of emotion. It was not normal for him he admitted. A few things had caused this accumulation. The heat of the day; the odd jobs for his mother; the match they’d just watched. Walking home he remarked as to how it was better the Italians had won. They’d been the sharper side, had taken their opportunities when presented. That was what set winners apart. No messing around. Single-mindedness. Sense of purpose. And yet a lingering feeling for the men in gold endured. He hoped they’d be back, more skilful than ever. The only difficulty was 1986 was so very far away. Would they all return then? Would the four years in between tell on them in some adverse way?
They exchanged few words for the remainder of the journey. The sky above was motionless and inscrutable. The path ahead becoming pitch-black and twisting like a rope. But they knew it very well. As they did each other. Friends for life. No amount of Septembers in any year could change that Paul said. He was confident they’d keep in touch during school term; mentioned some of these ways in passing. He thought about how things had taken such a singular and unexpected turn at the end of the day. A pity he thought. It would have been a perfect day otherwise. He hoped Frank’s mood would improve now. He needed to pick himself up a bit. First thing to do was put that picture out of his mind; the one of what’s-his-name scoring against the… What difference he figured. It was already gone, like the Brazilian team. He wiped his eyes and strode casually. He wasn’t going to fall. Or fail for that matter. Daylight or darkness, he felt very sure of himself. Just like Paul Rossi must be he imagined. In the finest of spirits after his hat-trick. The cream of the crop.
Frank looked at his watch again. It was good and late now. The rest of them would be gone to bed. His mother no doubt would still be up. She’d ask if he had a nice evening, how Paul was. Who won the match; what did the result mean. He’d broach the subject of Thursday and the semi-finals then. It would be the ideal opening. A small pleasure he’d earn over the next two days. She wouldn’t refuse him. He was pulling his weight the best he could. She kept saying so. And she was also adamant about him keeping in with Paul, remaining fast friends. He wondered though what she might think about the picture if he told her. Would she be unchanging in her opinion then? Probably not he concluded. She was generally for conciliation. Even with Daddy ultimately. All the more so after a bad argument; like the night she ended up with salt and glass in her hair. He loved that side to her. He wished he had it to the same extent.
They passed the small limestone quarry which had resumed operations the previous spring after an eight-year hiatus. The entrance gate was severely padlocked and there was an oversized no-trespassing sign. A steep greyish-coloured incline extended behind it, bending trees and scattered bits of verdure at the top. Complaints were being made to the county council. Individuals in the area were expressing problems with the amount of noise and dust; more than ever now with the blistering heat.
Paul enquired as to who owned it, who was in charge of its running.
”˜A fella called Jack Butler,’ Frank told him, ”˜he’s got his finger in a lot of pies. Just this afternoon I met him on the road to your place. They call him Bolshy Butler seeing as how he’s stubborn, hard to reason with. Especially when it comes to that quarry.’
Paul shook his head in unfamiliarity.
”˜I don’t think I know him,’ he said.
”˜Sure you do,’ said Frank. ”˜You couldn’t miss of him. He’s got one of those faces. And he’s everywhere. I once did a picture of him. More like a cartoon actually. Had him spitting fire in it like a dragon, with a nose the length of a shrew.’
Paul laughed with gusto at this.
”˜Sounds great boss,’ he said, ”˜you must let me see it sometime.’
His face wore an exaggerated simper. He slapped his friend on the back. There was a false rush of enthusiasm. It dropped a warning; clear as day in the darkness.
Frank nodded his head as he fathomed this.
”˜Sure mistah…sometime…sometime,’ he said.
They parted company on the front lawn of the younger boy’s house. Paul yawned and stretched from top to bottom. It had been a long day he observed, adding, with comical vehemence, that the drama of the match had taken a lot out of him.
”˜Well-good-night-boss,’ he laid out in one flat phrase, ”˜hope to see you Thursday.’
There was a listless drift to the words. His eyes fixed dreamily on the far horizon.
Frank thrust his hands deep inside his trouser pockets as he walked off. Going home at last, he felt in possession of a promise; a promise that would be broken. Sooner or later he guessed. It was an end result that could not be avoided. Like the beaten seleÒ«Èƒo he’d lose something more than just a game. But his upset gave way to an embracing acceptance. His body relaxed with his spirit. His stomach no longer coiled with fear. Grit rose to the surface, and with it a design to capitalise. Make hay while the sun shines he decided. The fabrication between them was disingenuous, but he felt the need of it. Another day. Another game. It would do for the time being; for the rest of the summer if possible.
He heard the creak of a door opening in the house behind him. Cutting a quick glance over his shoulder, he found that Paul was peering at him covert-like from the entranceway.
He smiled hard the instant he was detected.
Frank returned a big beam. He felt a powerful current of letting-go. Raising his right arm, he made a fist in the air as Sà³crates had done.
A cursory giggle issued from Paul. With a strange sort of formality then he waved this away.
They stood at opposite ends of a palpable silence. Perfectly calm, perfectly still, a communion of reserve.
One saw in the other’s expression a twisted vestige of hope.
The other looked and regarded a face sagging into blankness.
Such an evocative story! Beautifully paced with great atmosphere and a very precise dissection of children’s friendships at that age and the edginess of perceived or actual betrayal. Wish you hadn’t mentioned Sam Spudz though … my appetite has been truly whetted. Glad to say with the Euros, this is perfect seasonal fare. Congrats.
Thanks very much Elaine!! Glad you liked it. Bring back Sam Spudz say I!!