No matter how much he might not want to, Jody was going to wake up today. His ex-wife was ringing the doorbell, impatiently slapping him into consciousness, along with a moderate hangover. A bottle of beer didn’t help. Sitting where his alarm clock should have been, the bottle took a dive when Jody swiped for the off button, spilling dregs over the bedside table. Much swearing and fumbling followed until the doorbell cut through the minor chaos. There was further swearing with Jody’s realization of what time and, more importantly, what day it was.
Every box he’d put off unpacking for the last six months now seemed ideally placed to block the path of least resistance. His dressing gown wouldn’t come off its hook, catapulting Jody back in to the bedroom. All the while the doorbell rang longer and louder and more impatiently for Jody to get his act together.
He took the last four stairs all at once. The impact on landing reminded him that even a four-step leap presents the knees of a thirty-two-year-old, without a warm-up, a lesson in aging.
When Jody finally flung open the door, Sally’s hand was poised for another jab at the bell. Like a boxer coiled for one last combination, her finger punched the little white button, so that the unnecessary extra ring occupied that grey area between over the top but understandable. Jody winced, partly because his dishevelled head was now next to the buzzer and partly because Sally was his regular sparring partner, and he knew to ‘protect himself at all times.’
“You forgot.” Technically this was a statement of fact but it carried the weight of an accusation as well.
“No, I’d hadn’t. I just slept in,” said Jody, countering quickly with. “I’ve been looking forward to it all week.”
Sally peered over Jody’s shoulder, who shifted to block her view. “You’ve still not unpacked?”
Jody thought fast. “I’d planned for us to do a bit of it together. You know, some father and son bonding time?”
“What fourteen-year-old boy wouldn’t enjoy unpacking his dad’s things? Come on, Jody!” Typically, this was a trigger. Sally’s exasperation usually had a comparable effect of adding petrol to smouldering embers in their squabbles, but the subtlety of Jody’s hangover was at work.
“Yeah, I know, Sal. We’ll do something together. I promise.” He was sincere, not in the mood for an argument and off script, and it put them out of sync. They’d been out of sync for years, so maybe something else was at work. This was when Jody was supposed to raise his tone defensively, with a “there you go again” or a “leave me alone, Sal”, which fell out of use the last time he said it when she called his bluff and agreed to leave him alone indefinitely.
That was twelve months ago. Jody moved out six months after that, once he found a place and the divorce papers came through. Sally wanted him to fight but he didn’t. He never did anymore, and so he signed the papers, and rented a two-bed dormer bungalow on the edge of town. That’s where he stayed but to say he lived there was a bit of a stretch. As yet, he’d only unpacked a few essentials. The rest stayed in boxes he opened as and when.
Sally beckoned Tom from the car, who had his head buried in a phone. His mum’s enthusiastic flapping caught his peripheral vision and he looked up, sighing at the pretence – as if he couldn’t hear them, as if he couldn’t read his mum’s body language at the door while she pressed the bell over and over. He sloped from the car and shuffled passed his dad without a word, into his every-other-weekend-and-Wednesday-night-home.
“Nice to see you too,” Jody called.
“Take it easy on him. He needs his dad,” Sally said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She was tired. “Nothing, Jody. Just…’
“You remember what it was like being his age?”
He could have cried then, if that was something he did anymore; instead he nodded and looked back to the living-room, where Tom had shuffled off to plug himself in and tune out. “Yeah,” he agreed, but she was already gone, getting into the car and driving away before she cried.
“Right then, what shall we do today?” said Jody, rubbing his hands together. Sat cross legged in front of the TV, Tom shrugged and blew the head off a zombie with a twelve-gauge shotgun and quickly took cover behind a burnt-out Chevy.
“You want to get some breakfast?”
Tom threw a grenade from his crouched position and took out a small pack of the undead. “Already eaten,” he said making a beeline for a fire escape, dispatching another corpse on his way, with some deft machete work to its cranium. “It’s nine-thirty.”
“Right,” agreed Jody, “of course. I’ll… just grab a shower then.” Tom shrugged and panned the area for targets. Jody retreated.
Because he needed it often enough, paracetamol was at the top of the box. Jody threw three into his mouth, took a swig from the tap and looked in the mirror. A shave was the last on a long and important list of things Jody needed to do, but it was a place to start, along with a shower and all the other necessary ablutions. Getting out of the bathtub, half tangled in the shower curtain, he nearly broke his neck on the box marked ‘bathroom’. Unpacking was somewhere on that list too. The last of his clean t-shirts and underwear were buried at the bottom of a duffle bag and needed a sniff to be distinguished from the used garments with which they shared their home.
Pulling back the curtains, he strained at the light that flooded in from a Nottinghamshire Spring morning. Jody picked up the plastic bag he got from the carry-out after the pub last night and filled it with the empty bottles of beer littering the bedroom.
Downstairs, Jody switched to a white bin bag, the carrier bag now full. He gave the kitchen a quick decluttering of empties before doing the same in the living room. Tom didn’t look up while his dad cleaned. He’d switched games on the console and was now running down pedestrians on a Los Angeles boulevard with a Shelby Mustang GT. Screams of terror followed Jody to the recycling bin outside.
The contents of a blue, council supplied, wheelie bin full of empty alcohol receptacles gave Jody a powerful flash of his father. He buried it quickly, because as much as it was a memory, it felt like déjà vu, and something else as well, something scab-like that needed to be picked to heal, but it would hurt so it was better left to fester.
Angelenos were still under the terror of Tom and his Mustang when Jody returned to the living room. Tom was fourteen now and by all accounts a wonderful mono-syllabic mass-murdering, post-apocalyptic hero, but Jody still saw his boy, the one he used to play football with.
“What?” grunted Tom, becoming aware of his dad looking at him.
“Nothing, I was just thinking how much you’ve grown.”
“Well, can you stop looking at me?”
“How about we do something today? Whatever you want,” said Jody.
His dad was clearly putting Tom off his game as a young couple, hand in hand, ran for their lives, escaping the wrath of the Mustang. “I’m busy,” sighed Tom.
“Yeah, okay. Maybe later then? We could get some lunch?” There was no reply, which was not exactly a no. Running out of things to say, Jody decided to take this non-response as a positive sign and looked around to kill some time until mid-day. Nothing appealing showed itself, only what was left of his life, less than neatly packed in box after taped up box.
A thud at the window drew Jody’s attention. A starling shook itself and flew off. Jody moved a box to open the window. He breathed in the familiar air of the small minster town he’d lived in his whole life. There was a promise of sun and an earthy breeze, as if the air had scrubbed itself clean, as if that were possible. It caressed his face with memories: secret alley ways and cut-throughs; baggy blazers and floppy hair; Sunday morning football that he always got to by himself; frosty walks to school with a beautiful girl with a beautiful smile.
The box he’d moved caught his eye. It was much older than the rest. The cardboard was wrinkled and it was held together with many reapplications of brown tape, crisscrossing its corners and seams. And on its side, it read ‘Jody – bedroom.’ This wasn’t a box he’d packed when moving out of the family home; however, he knew it immediately. It was a box he’d not opened for more than fourteen years, not since leaving his parents’ home at eighteen and moving in with Sally a month before she gave birth to Tom. It was the box of things from his childhood bedroom. He’d put it away never to open it again, because there was nothing in there he needed anymore. Sally got pregnant at the start of upper-sixth and they missed doing their A-levels and going to university. Jody was going to study Engineering and Sally would read Law. Instead, Jody got a job at a mechanics over in Newark and started to earn some money. He abruptly became a man and so put away his childish things. Sally finished her A-levels at night school when Tom started at the comprehensive, and was a year into a part-time Law degree with Nottingham Trent University. Jody now ran the garage.
Held on by habit rather than anything adhesive, the old brown tape peeled away easily. Jody inserted his thumbs into the gap between the flaps to fold them back. There were a few things of note. The picture of him and Sally draped over each other, only fifteen, all floppy hair and baggy jumpers. She had her trademarked smile, big and pretty. Sally was still the same, though Jody thought it was a long while since he saw her smile like that. He felt a pang of guilt and buried it again; he fancied a beer. Jody had his serious, moody face on, which was his trademark for all photos of this period. He smiled at his younger self and rummaged on, forgetting about the beer. There was also a couple of tatty books: Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. His sixth form school diary, and under that… something rough but pliable. Jody got a good grip on the thing and firmly jiggled it free, pulling it up from the bottom of the box to hold it talisman like in both hands, to see it anew in the Spring light.
It was the ball, his ball. Deflated and old and worn but most definitely his football. He felt a sudden urge and thought about where he would have put the other thing he now needed. The rumple of a ball in his hand Jody strode down the living room passed Tom.
“Found my ball,” he beamed. Tom rolled his eyes and put an inter-galactic, dystopian, first-person shoot ‘em up into the X-Box.
At the back of the garage were all the boxes of tools and gardening equipment. Jody tore each open until he found it. How many times had he done this before? Thousands probably but not for a few years, not since Tom stopped showing an interest in playing football, or was it Jody who’d stopped? Stopped taking him to practice, or driving him to the Sunday game, preferring to drop into the pub after work or to go for a not-so-swift drink on a Sunday lunchtime. Anyway, some things you never forget. The perfect pressure of a football is one of them.
And miraculously there it was, faded and a little broken up from the cracking of the ball’s synthetic-leather, the words that had borne him through most of his teenage years, until the girl with the big smile took over its job of being the most important thing in his life.
In one of his random acts of self-serving generosity, eleven-year-old Jody’s dad acquired two tickets to Nottingham Forest’s final home game of the season. Truthfully, he won them in a card game at a lock-in and their looser was glad to get rid of them. Forest had had a terrible season and if they didn’t win they’d be relegated.
The first warning sign was getting the bus early into the city. This meant a convoluted walk from the city centre and, conveniently, watering at five hostelries on the way. Meaning that despite leaving plenty of time, they still only just made it to the ground. The Trent End stand were already leading the chants, calling in the stragglers. Jody and his dad rushed through the car park of the Main Stand, around the back of the Trent End, skirting the river, and to the side of the Executive Stand, where Jody’s dad gave his characteristic brand of well-meant but unsettling safety advice.
“If we get separated I’ll meet you at the edge of the car park around by the Main Stand, where we walked passed.” Jody nodded in acknowledgment, worried about how likely it was that they’d get separated.
They climbed the wide concrete stairs with red railings, that rose in right angled turns. Jody’s dad sent him up to the seats on his own, while his dad got some refreshments and relieved himself of the fluid he’d taken on during the walk to the ground. Jody knew what that meant. Dad already had five pints on the way there. Drink wasn’t allowed in the ground but a flask of whisky was easily secreted about the person, or a thermos of coffee could be spiked. Jody’s dad preferred the former and appeared twenty minutes later with a lukewarm hot chocolate for Jody and a muzzy glow for himself. He was slurring now, swearing freely at the game and questioning the parentage of the referee.
The game went badly but had a surreal air. Forest’s manager, Cloughie, in his iconic green sweatshirt, ruddy faced, put his thumb up to the Sheffield United fans when they chanted his name. Both sets of fans cheered at this, although Jody heard a few around him mutter things like: “He’s an embarrassment,” or, “They’re taking the piss, you old fool.” Someone even said, “Sober up,” and Jody thought they meant his dad, who’d disappeared again with only ten minutes of the game left.
They lost two-nil and Cloughie did a lap of honour, his team, one-time league champions and two times European Cup winners, just relegated. Jody had only half watched the game. The other half of him kept looking for his dad, scanning across the thousands of people in the stand, double checking every entrance. Twenty minutes after the final whistle he was the only one left seated, and he started to cry quietly.
An attendant looked up from the exit down at the bottom of the upper tier. Before the man could climb the stairs, Jody left by the other side, wiping his eyes.
In the belly of the stand clumps of people still hung around, mostly men, a few holding their child’s hand. Jody fidgeted looking for his dad. He checked the toilets and worry turned into panic. He cleared the tears as soon as they formed. ‘The meeting point,’ he thought and pinned his hopes on his dad’s advice. How could he have been so silly? His dad was sure to be there.
Jody hurried; dad would be waiting for him. Jumping two steps at a time he sprang down the wide concrete stairs, taking the last four in one go, bouncing off into a run. It didn’t take long to round the side of the Trent End and zig-zag against the flow of despondent fans. The carpark was mostly empty and Jody could see people milling about the main entrance. He headed straight for them but when he got there, none of them were his dad.
Panic surged over Jody, the kind of panic from a dream in which the dreamer is walking along a clifftop path until they lose their footing. The dreamer feels the certainty of death as their hands find no grip, their feet find no footing. They begin to freefall and their stomach lurches searching for hope and finding nothing. Knowing the end is inevitable they wake. Only, Jody was already awake and there was no escape from the panic. ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ he thought.
The group of people behind Jody moved off isolating the eleven-year-old, who frantically scanned the occupants of the last few cars. There was no one left and Jody instinctively, slowly backed away retreating from the big, terrifying, lonely world, falling, until finally he bumped into something. It had the solidity of a wall, or maybe a mountain, or maybe this is just how a grown-up remembers a child’s memory, but the mountain spoke.
“Aw’ right, kid?” said the mountain with a London accent. Jody turned to look up at the mountain, who had dirty blonde hair in a side parting and looked exactly like Nottingham Forest’s team captain, England left back and the man with the coolest nickname in the whole world, “Psycho.”
“Stuart Pearce?” said Jody.
It was as if the universe had plonked a demi-god down right in front of Jody exactly when he needed one. Proving that it, the universe, can be both subtle and blatant at the same time, or rather at different times, but with the same act.
“That’s right. You okay?” asked Stuart, seeing the boy’s tears. “You lost ya’ dad?” Jody nodded. Stuart looked around. “We’ll wait here for him then, shall we?” Jody nodded again, the panic lifting. “You don’t say much, do ya’, kid?” Jody shook his head. Stuart laughed and looked around with a ball tucked under his arm.
“Is that the match ball?” asked Jody. With Stuart around he felt braver, and being braver he felt bolder too.
Stuart looked down at it. “Yeah,” he said.
“But we lost. I thought you’re only supposed to keep it when you win.”
“Not me,” said Stuart.
The mountain looked down at the little boy who looked back for answers, so Stuart crouched on his haunches to come down to the boy’s level, holding the ball in front of them. “I kept it to remind me. You understand?” Jody shook his head again. “It’s easy to play when you’re winning. It’s easy to feel on top of the world when everything’s going well. But the real trick is to keep going when you’re at the bottom, when everything’s gone wrong, when they’re not cheering for you anymore, when you start to doubt yourself. So, I kept this to remind me that I don’t like losing, that when things are at their worst you keep goin’, you keep kickin’ the ball, you keep playin’ the game, and whatever happens you keep it up because that’s the only way back.” Stuart tossed the ball in the air and caught it again in demonstration.
There was a silence between them. Jody felt goose bumps on his arms and thought at that moment he could probably do anything.
“There you are,” slurred Jody’s dad from behind him. “Where the fuck have you been?”
“Don’t swear at the kid. He’s been looking for you,” Stuart said, standing up.
“Don’t tell me what to… Fuck me, you’re Stuart Pearce,” Jody’s dad squinted theatrically and then broke into a chant, rhythmically pointing at Stuart with each word, “Psycho, Psycho, Psycho,” and then grinned. “God, you lot were crap today. Crap all season really.”
“What? It’s true. We lost didn’t we and got relegated?” Jody’s dad swayed.
“You’ve got a good kid here,” said Stuart, and Jody’s dad puffed up with pride and booze.
“Here Stuart, sign something for the boy, won’t you?” Patting himself down, Jody’s dad searched for either a pen or something worth signing. He had neither.
Jody blushed and tried to not look at his dad.
Stuart took in the man and then the boy. “Good idea. I’ve got something.” Stuart handed Jody the match ball to hold and then crouched down again, unshouldering his kit bag and fished around inside a pocket. He pulled out a thick, black permanent marker and took the ball from Jody, cradling it in the crook of his right arm while he wrote on it. When he was done, he put the marker back, stood up, shouldered his bag and gave the ball back to Jody.
Jody stared at Stuart, who smiled, ruffled the boy’s hair and said, “Remember, keep it up, kid,” and off he walked.
“That woz nice,” sniffed Jody’s dad. “Let’s find a pub.”
For years after this the ball was his saviour. Whenever his mum and dad fought, which was often, Jody would play a simple game. He took the ball at its word and he practiced keeping it up. If it was nice outside he’d play in the back garden; if it was wet he got good enough to stand in his room on one spot, keeping up the ball. He could occupy himself for an hour or more, by which time his mum and dad had usually burnt out, or more likely his dad had slammed the door and gone off to the pub.
Jody found if he could focus on one thing, and control it, he could block out everything else. This had some useful side effects. It became his party trick, and his friends would try and distract him in the playground, but he was unshakeable. One day, watching all break time while on playground duty, Head of PE, Mr Robinson, saw Jody performing his trick. Jody was recruited to the school team, and then for the team in the year above, becoming something of a school mascot. All the while he put in the hours with his ball, losing himself in just keeping it up.
At fourteen Jody’s parents, had reached an unhappy compromise because the alternative was the nuclear option. Instead, his mum tolerated the new silence, and began playing bridge two nights a week. His dad was bodily present. Drinking was now permitted, if not in the house, then in the garden or garage, and as such dad was pretty much insensible in front of the TV by seven pm.
As summer approached, Jody’s team won the school cup. He scored one and assisted with another two and was named ‘man of the match’. His mum and dad didn’t come to see it. It was bridge night and his dad had his usual prior commitment. Instead, a girl with a beautiful smile, standing with a gaggle of friends cheered and clapped at the side of the pitch. Jackie, one of the cheering girls, came up to a muddy Jody after the game and said her friend Sally fancied him and would he go out with her. He knew which one Sally was and said yes.
There wasn’t such a need to keep the ball up after that. If an argument broke out or the silence went on for too long, he would go around to Sally’s.
A little worn but with the writing still clear, the ball was put on his shelf, among the books and Brit-pop CDs. There it stayed, slowly deflating until it naturally became the convenient size for shoving at the bottom of a box of things a boy thought he didn’t need anymore because he was about to become a dad.
Standing in the garage, Jody looked down at the football in his hands. Time and use had cracked its polyurethane coating, but the words were still legible more than twenty years on: “Keep it up kid,” along with the looping squiggle of Stuart Pearce’s autograph.
Jody had an idea.
Genetic mutants can be rather tricky, unless you have a plasma rifle with over-under rocket and grenade launcher. Luckily, Tom did. He also had remote detonating incisor mines, the flesh-ripping-bone-splitting kind. Jody was about to speak when Tom raised a ‘wait a second’ finger, silencing his dad, mouth half open, ball in hand. The carnage was balletic. The plasma rifle set down a supressing fire, slowing the charging mutant horde. Tom lobbed grenades to the left, right and rear, bunching together the ugly fatherless sons of a mutant Martian hound. And then for the perfectly timed finale: a symphony of explosions. Flesh and bone were torn asunder, limbs flew hither and thither from the incisor mines, and in a deft percussion of keys, a crescendo of rockets launched into the melee. Only a single mutant, badly injured but still a threat, survived. It was dispatched with whimsy: a single, nonchalant plasma-round to the head.
Tom had already dropped the controller before the ‘End of Level’ animation began. Jody raised his eyebrows impressed by the carnage and gathered his thoughts.
“Football. Do you want a kick about?”
“Ugh! I’m not ten anymore, Dad.”
That little boy Jody used to take to football suddenly felt terrifyingly far away. Jody said. “I just thought we…”
Tom picked up the controller again and tracked through his inventory of weapons.
“Right then, shall I go and get us some lunch?”
Tom didn’t answer but then silence is important when sneaking up on a heavily armed interstellar freighter guard to insert a serrated battle knife between his third and fourth ribs. It prevents the screams.
Jody found himself in the Crown, with a pint and his ball propped up on top of his shopping bags, facing him from the seat opposite. His dad preferred the Saracen’s Head across the road. “If it was good enough for a king,” he’d say. Jody raised his glass to the ball and put it to his lips, looking over the road to the Saracen’s. He took a swig, thinking: ‘The king then got his head cut off, though didn’t he?’ He swallowed. The end of his hangover throbbed in response, and the ball stared back at him with the same advice it had been trying to give him for the last twenty years.
“What the fuck am I doing?”
“What was that?” said John, the landlord, from behind the bar preparing for the lunchtime rush.
Jody didn’t respond. He left his beer, picked up his carrier bags and tucked the ball under his arm.
“What about your pint?” John called, but Jody was already hurrying across the road back through town as quickly as he could.
When Jody hurried into the living room, reinvigorated with a clear purpose, Tom was trying to pretend he hadn’t been looking at his dad’s things. The picture of Jody and Sally as teenagers was next to the box and not where Jody had left it. Jody picked it up.
“It’s a nice picture of mum. Not sure about my hair though.” Tom nodded from where he sat cracking open a case to another game. “I’ve got us lunch. Fancy that kick about in the garden after?” Tom shrugged. Jody thought about how they used to play all evening, when Tom was seven or eight, dribbling and shooting against each other, both with their own heroic commentaries. There was a long silence. Jody thought he’d let the idea hang around. There was no need to force the issue. That never worked with Sally either. “I’ll make us lunch,” he said, putting the ball down next to the TV.
Smoky bacon crisps, a can of Coke and a cheese and ham baguette was Jody’s offering. All Tom’s favourites, or at least he thought they were. When he brought their plates into the living room he said nothing about Tom resting his controller and hands on the ball in his lap. Jody put the plate next to his boy and sat in the second-hand armchair. They ate in silence.
Jody got up, asking, “What’s the game?”
“Ori and the Blind Forest.”
‘Forest,’ thought Jody, glancing at his ball, but he didn’t say anything, he just got into that long and important list of things he needed to do. Pulling out his penknife, Jody opened all the boxes in the living room and began putting things away.
The afternoon drew on and most of the living room boxes were done. Jody got them another Coke and a snack. Tom even said, “Thanks.” Not loudly or anything, but “Thanks”.
Jody folded back the flaps of a box of books. With his back to Tom, he knelt and put them into a small bookcase.
It was a start. However small, he was beginning to make a dent in that list. All he had to do was keep it up.
Only one box remained in the living room, the one from his teenage bedroom. Jody placed it by the bookcase and put The Colour of Magic and Fever Pitch on a shelf. He picked up the picture of him and Sally, tracing his fingers over the girl with the big, beautiful smile. It felt like there was no way back to the girl in the picture.
Set in motion twenty years ago, a football rolled across the sitting room floor. It hit Jody’s heels with a subtle tap. He turned with the old photograph in his hand. Tom had switched off the games console and was standing, ready to take advantage of the last of the day’s sunlight.
Once Dan was an academic but the sentences proved too long and the words too obscure. Northern Ireland is where he now lives. But he was born in England and raised in Byron’s home town, which the bard hated but Dan does not. They named every other road after Byron. As yet no roads are named after Dan but several children are. He tries write the kind of stories he wants to read and aims for readers to want to turn the page.Dan’s work has featured in The Incubator, Storgy and the horror magazine Devolution Z.
You can read Daniel’s previously published short story ‘The Switch’ by clicking the link below:
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Check out Daniel Soule‘s previously published fiction below:
Little Man o’ War
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