A Window Over Anfield

August 5, 2010


“So… What d’you wanna see?”

Ian was back in full “Peacock Mode,” preening and grinning from ear-to-ear to find himself the centre of my attention and completely certain that, whatever I asked him to do, I was going to be impressed. Feathers all fluffed and fully prepared to flash the tail.

Tail… My eyes drifted downwards and I forced myself to yank them back up. I was trying to be annoyed with him. At his confidence, at his cockiness… At anything that would give me the fuel I needed to hold back, to stay aloof.

I needed not to like this guy, but it was too late for that. The smug, cock-of-the-walk demeanour was more fun than offensive; he made me laugh so easily, taking any jibes I could dish out and shooting them back with a ready wit. The preening, rather than self-indulgent, was flattering. Ever since the moment I met him, I felt like I was the only girl in the world and while I knew he could probably do that to anyone, the impression wouldn’t shift in my mind.

Yet still… I looked for bricks to put in the wall between us that he was steadily tearing down.

“How about you show me some ball control? Not seen much evidence of that so far.” I fought the impulse to smile, but it was so hard to do when he was smiling back, setting clouds of butterflies fluttering in my stomach and causing… other feelings… other places.

“Ohh, you’ll be surprised. I have excellent ball control skills.” He kicked the ball up with an indolent nudge of his toe, rolling it idily up his foot, then flicking it over to the other, bouncing it a few times before flicking it back. As he settled into a rhythmn, juggling the grubby football from foot to foot, sending it arcing up to bounce off one knee, then another, he snuck a glance over at me, as impish as a child peeking at a birthday present. I was caught, open-mouthed and staring, eyes lit up with a child-like delight of my own, shaking my head in astonishment.

It was pretty fucking cool.

“You’re so precise! How can you… How is that possible? With your feet!” He wasn’t even looking at the ball now, each touch of his foot or knee controlling its flight exactly, always knowing just where it would go, how to move to intercept it, make it bounce back unerringly on target.

He was doing the very same thing to me, but I could see on his face just how much he enjoyed watching the flight, even though he knew already where it ended.

I felt like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. And paradoxically, I loved it.

Football had been Ian’s first love, his passion growing up and into his early adulthood. He’d told me of a youth spent sneaking out of school to practice, stealing into games at Anfield stadium, a whole life revolving around his home team and the dream of one day playing for them, right alongside his hero, Steven Gerrard. He was easily good enough; he’d been lined up to play in front of a Liverpool talent scout before a knee injury took everything away.

This should have been a sad moment, a bitter reminder of all the things that never were, but it wasn’t. The instant his foot touched that ball, it was as if a terrible weight lifted off his shoulders. There was nothing forced, nothing feigned, just a pure and simple joy that suffused him, made him move as lightly, as lithely as a dancer.

I giggled helplessly. “You’re like a little boy!” Unable to resist the lure anymore, I darted in, skirt flying as I danced around him, trying to hook the ball away.

“Aw, hey! I assure you, I’m all man, baby!” He pivoted, easily keeping the ball away from me while continuing to juggle it to and fro.

I frantically tried to wave the negative connotations away. “Not… So not what I meant! I mean… You’re different, with that football. You seem… lighter… carefree… Like you’re in your element.”

“Maybe.” His smile was thoughtful but that aura of contentment still hung around him. “Hmm… What else can I show you? You’ve seen Roladinho, right?”

Television had been my only window into the world in the asylum; most of the books were shallow paperbacks from the sixties and seventies, painfully dated to my young mind though I’d devoured all of them, or heavy-duty psychological texts aimed more at the doctors than the long-term inmates, so I’d grown up with my eyes welded to the glowing screen, grasping at any straw that might tell me how things were supposed to be. Because within the asylum, they never were.

The only screen was in the common room, so it catered only to permitted and shared interests. Football was a pretty common one, so I knew of the brazilian midfielder and his clever footwork.

I nodded, eyes wide at the intimation that Ian might really be that good.

Moving at an easy jog, he started to dribble the ball towards me. “Just try to take the ball off me. Kick it away as I run past.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. It sounded simple enough, so I suspected a trick. Sure enough, when I darted my foot out to intercept the ball as he kicked it towards me, it rolled the opposite way. I was positive his foot had hit it on the other side. Further attempts yielded the same result; the ball rolled back to Ian as if on elastic, never quite where I thought it was going to be. He jogged easily in a circle around me, chuckling at my confusion.

In its own small way, it was wonderful, like a conjurer’s magic trick expressed in the Liverpudlian’s confident athleticism.

“Ok, so that’s the Ronaldinho. Wanna see the Ronaldo?”

“Hell, yeah!” I clapped my hands in glee, completely caught up in the display.

He kicked the ball to me and I was immediately nervous. Whatever he needed me to do, I was pretty certain I couldn’t do it competently enough and with all my heart, I didn’t want to do anything to spoil this stolen, innocent moment in the midst of all the violence and bloodshed. Just a guy showing off with a football for a girl while gunfire and explosions boomed in the distance and the scream of twisted metal rang from a crash on the overpass.

He laughed at my timidity, a low, rich chuckle that was both inclusive and infectious. “Don’t worry, just try to kick it past me, off to the side.”

“You want me to miss you? Oh! I can do that!” I took a short run towards the ball, focusing determinedly on a point just to his left, then skidded to a halt as he started laughing uproariously, clutching his knees for support.

“What?”

“Oh god, you… You stick your tongue out of the corner of your mouth when you’re concentrating!”

I went bright crimson, hastily pressing my lips together, then covering my face with my hands. The ground refused to oblige and swallow me whole.

“It’s very cute.”

I peeked at him through my fingers. The quirk of his lips was amused, but kindly so and his eyes sparkled at me over the top of his sunglasses. I slowly dropped my hands and he grinned encouragingly. “Now kick it!”

My foot connected solidly with the ball, sending it bouncing and skittering over the waste ground towards a group of barrels a little behind Ian and to the left. It was quite wide of the mark and I assumed he would show me some lightning-fast move to intercept it.

Instead, he looked at the ball, then immediately fell to the ground, clutching his leg and howling. I had run to his side before I realised what he was doing and started laughing, offering him a hand up. “He’s a big ham with the injuries, huh?”

He nodded aimiably, dusting off his jeans as he stood. “Mmhmm… Now, what else can I show you? I know!” He pointed up out of the little courtyard and across a neighbouring building site. I squinted, trying to spot what he was pointing at.

Above a broken wall and past an intersecting pair of cranes, a satellite dish hung on the wall of a nearby tenement block. For a moment I couldn’t fathom why it should be of interest, then I gasped. “You can’t! You can’t possibly hit that from here!” Then I shrieked in surprise as a bullet whizzed past my ear and buried itself in the wall behind me, flinging up chips from the rotten brick surface.

“Get into cover.” He gave me a gentle push towards a walled corner that stood between us and the sniper on the cranes, then walked serenely after me, pulling a long-muzzled revolver from its holster on his back. Humming softly under his breath – a tune I could almost recognise – he took two careful, calculating shots around the corner of the wall.

The gunfire ceased and he walked back to the football as if nothing had happened. “Now, you see that dish?”

I nodded, my chest feeling too tight to speak. I knew I should feel… that I should judge him, somehow, on that casual kill, that serene act of murder, but in San Paro, I had already learned, it was kill or be killed, and besides…

It was really fucking cool.

I didn’t breathe as he took the kick. The ball arced up, dwindling elegantly into the distance. It flew over the enmeshed arms of the cranes, then dropped slowly towards the dish.

It hit high on the left, bouncing off to fly out into the street. All I could do was shake my head in astonishment.

“Well, Doll, I’m afraid that’s it for today. Got a couple of things I need to attend to, but see you around later?”

My mouth was still open. He tucked a finger under my chin and pushed it shut, then walked off, laughing softly to himself.

Just before he reached the end of the alley, he glanced back over his shoulder and winked, knowing I was still watching. I stepped hastily back around the corner, out of sight, then fell back against a wall, covering my mouth with one guilty hand and staring up at the sky.

That guy… he’s so fucking cool.

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