Friday, 22 November 2013

Tell You A Story......

A busy weekend so here is a story to tell, not entirely about football, at just under 4000 words.


It was mid afternoon.  The time for remunerated work had passed so I was busy on my thesis, the Aerodynamics of Crumpled Paper Balls In the Office Situation.  I had been working on it for a few months, and was coming to the stage of testing and verification.  With a stable financial market, luck, and a soft examiner, I could soon be a PH.D. of the University of Featherstone, the academy of learning located in a redundant Adult Education Centre in the shadow of the Featherstone Rovers Rugby League ground, where I had spent so many frozen hours reviling my fellow men.  Banking was my job, Finance Director of the Universal Transit Bank of the City of Barleyville, capital of the Arable Islands, but we won’t talk about that, I want to stay sane.

A large shadow loomed through the glass, gave one knock at the door and walked in.  I was about to shout at my Senior Executive Assistant and tell her to get this lump out when I saw who he was, and gulped.  It was Jesus Mary Joseph Ackroyd III, or Big JMJ to his friends.  He had a lot of friends; indeed everyone was his friend.  Being his enemy was a serious error of judgement. Up I leapt and made strangulated noises of welcome and pleasure and rushed to shake his hand.  He was good on body language, I was jerking more than usual, so he knew he had me cold, very cold.  When Big JMJ said “Hey” to the President, or for that matter, the Prime Minister, they said “Wow” back. 

It was not just influence, he held six key jobs in parallel in the governance of the Islands.  Minister of Defence, Chief of Police, Chief Commissioner of Customs and Excise, Head of Compliance at the Central Bank, Chairman of the Arable Islands Olympic Committee, and critically, Secretary of the Carnival Committee.  It was the fourth, third, and second I was worried about, in that order.  But we won’t talk about that either, lets just say, I was deeply concerned that it was to be another bad day at the office.

I called for a couple of real lemonades spiked with lime, and lots of ice, Big JMJ was mostly a temperance campaigner, except when we was retailing his own brand of hooch through the Customs and Excise Office, a sort of mango and pineapple Islay type Malt Whisky, at 75% alcohol, and at least six weeks old.  He smiled, and I worried.  He smiled some, I worried more, then he spoke.  “Hey, we know all about you!”  I said “Wow!”  He took a long drink, smiled once too often, and then said “Good, good!” 

This was looking ugly.  He gave me the feint.  “Hey, you were a big man.  “Uh, uh,” I replied, thinking of the Bank in Milan I was once concerned with, that went down the blackest hole in European financial history.  Then he hit me right where it hurt.  “Pontefract Collieries”, he said, very quietly, and without any emphasis, and leaned back.  How the hell did he know that?  It was a bad time and long ago.  Two and three goals a game I had been getting, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur had been wrangling over a deal, and they sold me for a deferred £500 to Wharram Percy United, who promptly went bust citing excessive transfer costs.  The big clubs had moved on, so I took up golf to network better, and ended up in that cold world of lost souls and those who dream of Never Never Lands, banking, and as an accountant, Dear God.

To let him know just how I felt, and without words that could be misinterpreted or recorded on the office audio taping system, I took out a bottle of his hooch from my desk cupboard and put a large shot into my lemonade, and I did not offer him any.  In the Arable Islands, this was as strong a message as you could get.  So what was next? I expected an invitation to launder some of his hooch money.  Potentially it was a great deal, sadly, one had to earn a crust, as well as a billion dollar pension fund for retirement at forty.  But it was also an invitation to an American Gaol as over there they had taken a dislike to some Arable Islands habits for which there was not a rational explanation.  I enjoyed my visits to Disneyland with local ladies I liked to impress, and the Miami plane was the quickest way out if there was trouble.

“No, you got it wrong,” he countered.  Obviously he was thirsty.  “I just want you to play a few games of football.”  My jaw dropped, not a good thing, as he could see the dentistry was very costly, but these things happen.  OK, everyone knew I was a fitness freak, and I could still run and the rest, as well as enjoying a few kick abouts on the beach, and the odd friendly game in the National Stadium, a bare stretch of sand behind the car dump.  In the Arable Islands, it was a good policy to enjoy the local culture.  “Just that?” I asked.  “Just that,” he said, spitting on his right hand and offering it.  I shook it, reached into the cupboard again, gave him a large shot and topped mine up.  He raised his glass, and clinked it with mine.  Then I got the real shock, he offered me one of his own brand cigars.  He really wanted something.

“We want you to help us qualify for the final rounds of the World Cup,” he said, “It’s time we had some ambition in the Arable Islands.”   “This could be tricky.”  I replied, hoping it would not offend him.  It wasn’t as though it was a criticism.  The Arable Islands had never entered before, were not even listed on the International ratings, and the last International game they had played was seven years ago, that had been abandoned when it was realised by the players that the P Diddy show from LA was being screened live on cable. Not that it mattered as the opposition had been the Pastoral Islands to the West, which had similar cultural ideas, but a lot less money. 

“Speaking as a banker,” he already knew that, I hoped, “this could be a very expensive operation.  The guys have to train full time, play a lot, travel a great deal, and then there is all the medical and physiotherapy backup.  It ain’t cheap, and failure comes to most of those in the game.  And you are up against outfits that are very, very, determined.  It’s a superb ambition, but, but, it’s too long a shot, and in money terms very high risk.”  “Good,” he said easily, “straight talk, and true, no problem, but we want to take a run at it.”  This was a relief, but the nagging thought rankled round the head, was he wanting Universal Transit to pick up the bill?  If he was then I was going to have to revive my CV, and quickly. 

He gave a soft smile, “Hey! We already have a sponsor, and an open chequebook.”  Big JMJ was a very sensitive man, I smiled and opened my arms, and waited.  “He is the main man in Ostmania, has all the oil and mineral rights, owns the Boggi Desert, all those silicon reserves and has the ear, OK, the balls of the White House.  Money no problem, we need the right men, and those guys who kick around on the beach, our squad, say you can organise.”  I was dumbfounded, this wasn’t a deal, it was a high honour, and I tried to show it.  “And the Ostmanian, he is looking for a new bank, as well as a new passport, and perhaps Universal Transit is right.”  I could not help myself drooling; this could be the answer to my dreams, and most of the Universal Transit Bank’s nightmares. 

My ex girl friends all agree that my most serious fault was to ask too many questions.  I can’t help it, when I grew up my parents forced me to watch endless quiz shows to improve my mind.  It was one of their theories, they had a lot of them.  Personally, I don’t like theories, but I had to pretend to in my job.  I had to ask Big JMJ the obvious one, “Sir,” this was real greasing, “Sir, why the Arable Islands, and not an Ostmanian team?”  Big JMJ gave a small frown, answering questions did not figure in his usual conversations.   Perhaps it was time for a trip to Miami.  “Hey!  They don’t do games on feet, only on horses.”  “Horses?”  There had not been many questions in the quiz shows about Ostmania.  “Yes, man, horses.  In that place real men ride, they leave the walking to others.  Playing some game on foot is not manly.  Also, they reckon that when the oil runs out, they will get back all the lands they lost, because guys who ride will rule.” 

“Interesting theory, but how is that going to work?”  I said.  Big JMJ was still smiling, he leaned forward and whispered, “Forage, no forage, no horses, they got the horses and the forage.”  This was getting intricate, so I just nodded.  People like their theories, so who am I to make them unhappy?  “OK, sir, I’ll work out how to go long on forage.”  He seemed happy with that.  “We do OK, we make them feel good, we all get rich, everybody is happy.”  “Except, the guys who lose, I hate to say this, but if we go places, there are going to be some unhappy people.” 

Big JMJ had spent enough time.  “You do man or you don’t, now what do you say.”  He was bigger than me, in every way, it was an offer I could not refuse.  “Yes Sir, I’ll go with it,” and lifting the glass, “Here’s to success and happiness!”  The glasses clinked, “And just a little wealth to make us all very happy!”  said Big JMJ.  “Wow”, I said.  “Hey!” he said, “You could retire at forty!”  “Wow, wow,” I said, the bastard knew everything.

According to very recent discoveries in the Archives of Spain at Simancas, the Arable Islands should have been the first of the Americas to be discovered by Christopher Columbus, but he suppressed the landfalls there in order that the first recorded might be more promising. The islands that became the Pastoral group he sailed through in the night.  The Vikings in around 900 had visited, leaving a few relics from Lindisfarne, and the Chinese expedition of the 1420’s had left some recipes chiselled in stone, but no group with any sense had stayed until Drake in the late 16th Century had marooned a number of his more insubordinate seamen. 

As they were from West Bromwich they managed to get hold of women from elsewhere, one of the great unrecognised achievements of history, and bred an early population both fiercely independent, and emotionally volatile.  These characteristics remained despite other the many and various other groups drifting in with the tides, fleeing, or arriving by default from other territories in the Caribbean.  Plantations never occurred because the original horticulture was seaweed and compost based, and the guano reserves unrealised until the late 19th Century.  Moreover, the population had difficulty with the concept of being employed.  There was no word for employer in the local patois, the term “Big fish” did for all levels of management. 

The names, Arable and Pastoral, were coined by a small party of Dissenters who had fled from Ormskirk in the 17th Century, who were given to wishful thinking, and soon reverted to the local folkways.  The Arable Islands early to declare their independence from the British Empire in 1767, unnoticed, because the Senior Clerk in the Southern Department in London put the document in the wrong box.  The Grand Remonstrance, so called, was copied at the time by a visiting Massachusetts lawyer, who took it home, where it excited a great deal of interest. 

It was only during World War II that the discrepancy was realised when a small British naval party arriving to establish a radio station were promptly interned, and Churchill nearly sent the 7th Armoured Division from the Western Desert to invade Barleyville instead of chasing the Wehrmacht Afrika Corps.  Fortunately, Field Marshal Alan Brooke was working late that night, intervened, and an agreement was made quickly to the advantage of the Arable Islands, to the fury of Herbert Morrison who was determined to use the territory as a nuclear testing ground out of spite. 

The station became private property called Radio Barleyville playing wall to wall Bing Crosby until the 1970’s when the original owner died.  Tourism never occurred, because JMJ Ackroyd II, who inherited the job of Minister of Tourism prevented it as a threat to his hooch monopoly, a policy continued by his son Big JMJ for his own reasons.  In the 1960’s a refugee from the UK’s high tax Labour Government had arrived and established offices, soon filled in the early 1970’s by his associates fleeing from the legal consequences of the Secondary Banking Crash of the period.  Since then the Arable Islands had prospered for the first time, but the Pastorals stayed dirt poor, and deeply resentful.

Big JMJ called the next day, this meant that I had arrived in the community, normally people were invited to see him and waited, and then waited some more.  “Hey! We got the medic’s and physio’s, the sponsor found them in California.”  I asked the simple question, “Sports medicine specialists?”  “No, but they are sure willing to learn fast.”  “How did you manage it?”   I was trying to think why any good set of Californians would suddenly want to up sticks and come to The Arables, it was like a Brit’ moving from Bournemouth to Bootle.  “They were available, and for the fee were minded to come.”  I pondered the minded and then by word association came to brains.  

There was a major scandal in California, a medical team that had been doing brain implants to help celebrities with their acting or media presentations was under heavy fire.  Too many of the beautiful people were being seen attending recitals of Chamber Music and enjoying marital harmony.  It was bad for business and the writs were flying.  “The sponsors got brains then?” I said.  He gave me the big laugh, he was a real mean flatterer.  “Hey, you’re a good man.”  I wasn’t worried, because someone else was paying but it was interesting.  “And we’ve got all the balls we need.”  Big JMJ was working overtime on this.  “I truly hope so, Sir, we all need balls.” I responded, taking a risk.  He laughed a lot more, “I said to the sponsor you were the right man, he’s sends his regards.”  So my neck was on the block.  Still laughing he sidled out, blowing a kiss to my secretary.  This was mean, even she was starting to be polite to me.

At the first work out on the beach the squad were unusually quiet, and almost worried, but the more I looked at them the more I wondered how much was possible.  It would be too much to say that the genes that had gone into the Arable Islands population mix had produced a super race, but for a game of football they could be quite useful if they buckled down to it.  A lot were big, active, and physically very capable, the ball skills were latent, and the outdoor life had hardened them up.  The few smaller ones, the last remnants of the early settlers, were quick, fierce, and willing to get into a scrap.  They were still shy of too much exertion. 

Then I realised, they were all down from a high.  After going into my mad dog mode, they began to take things more seriously, only for another slight problem to emerge.  Differences of opinion between groups of men in the Arable’s were normally settle by a long established tradition of major affray in which the abiding principle was “They go down in one, they stay down in one” so it was likely that a typical competitive match involving them was all to likely to end in the game being abandoned for lack of players, one way or another.

It did not look good so I passed a message to Big JMJ telling him that there was an inherent cultural difficulty, and got another back telling me to see him after Church on Sunday.  This was a test of my personal skills.  It meant I had to go to his Church.  After Big JMJ had given the sermon, married several couples who had not expected it, and indeed had never met, he turned on the fire sprinklers to make sure we were all rebaptised in his particular band of faith, and then his men took the collection.  I put a handful of large ones in, and then added a few.

It got me to him fast.  “Two things, the first is the hooch, the other is the violence.”  He stared for a time, I just stared back, furtively patting the flight tickets in my pocket.  “Uh; the hooch, what?”  he said, with a hurt tone in the voice.  “You have to take out the steroids and viagra, and a couple of other things.  One or two players found positive on the testing would bust us all.  I can’t ban it, the players can’t do without it, and it would be bad for business.” 

“This is bad, it’s a matter of taste and quality” he spat out. “Sir,” I said with a bow of the head, “the taste is old turpentine, and the distillers job will be to find other, safe, legal, ways of maintaining the great and indefinable quality.”  I hoped he wasn’t too strong on irony.  “I’ll see, uh uh and the other thing?”  “Just how the hell do I stop them fighting?”  “I’ll ring the sponsor.”  With that I was dismissed, and for the next two nights lay awake thankful I had open flight tickets.

The Ostmanian Airways transports took us by surprise, especially the airport staff.  Normally an early flight arrival meant a long wait in a narrow corridor before staff could be persuaded to leave their recreational facilities to open the doors.  The Ostmanians removed them, and then mounted their small chunky horses to charge howling and cheering through passport control and the arrival lounge.  While they were settling in the Arabalians were patronising about their exercising and horseback games knocking about a round hairy object on a dusty field. 

The opinion changed after one local tried to steal a horse and disappeared.  Next morning the Ostmanians were using his head, and the population of the Islands, including the squad, began to observe the respect they deserved.  The Chief of Police, indeed, applauded them, but Big JMJ would, he had a vested interest.  “Hey, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” he said, he really should have become a comedian.

The truly weird thing was at the two training sessions that Big JMJ suggested I skip and the Ostmanians took over, something happened.  There was now a total discipline, scary, very scary.  If badly fouled or insulted the Arable boys would simply put their hands together, bow slightly and say in the language of the opponent “Peace be upon you, brother.” Or something from Confucius.  Not only did this throw all the teams in the qualifying group, especially in Mexico, but turned the tide in the very nasty playoff against Argentina who had struggled in the South American group.

So we won the World Cup, and a handful of mad punters who had bet on us were paraded by the Bookies in the media, no mention being made of the zillions they had won from those who backed the usual favourites at ungenerous odds.  It is a long and intricate story, and perhaps the tale would be lost in the telling.  The Final against Russia, another unfancied team, was said by all to be a wonderful feast of football.  Most of the media should have said in the spirit of the Corinthians, but they didn’t know how to spell it, so they used their own boring words from their cheap processors. 

Our win over France was lucky, a couple of early goals, one a deflection, another a defensive error, and then they fell apart, and the referee soon took a dislike to the French tradition of activist philosophy after a torrid first half.  Nobody gave us a chance against Germany, including ourselves, and the sponsor, who had booked his flight home already.  But the rain came down, the pitch was heavily sanded, so our boys were back on the beach again.  It was one way traffic.  The earlier England game in the Groups was intriguing, there was a long debate about the English defensive formation and quite why they kept running into each other, but that really is another story.  In any case it’s all in the files.

So now, aged thirty nine, I am retired from Banking, have modest but comfortable properties where I want them, and follow my own interests.  Kensington is my usual home, but my other citizenships and passports from the Arable Islands and Ostmania help me around the world.  I have taken up riding, and after exercise on Rotten Row in Hyde Park, sometimes like to ride my small chunky Ostmanian mount into Claridges or the Dorchester for lunch.  They and the traffic police are always very helpful.  There is no shortage of bountiful consultancies coming my way now that Big JMJ is Secretary General of the United Nations voted by popular acclaim, and after Ostmania had annexed the Peoples Republic of China at half time during the Final when everyone was watching the game.  Recently, I have invested in organic farming.  The Newmarket trainers of horses say that my forage is the best they can find. 

A chain of football academies gives me income and prestige, as well as the ear of most of the cabinet.  But I will not enter either into politics or owning football clubs.  The first is all about fools errands, and the second is fools gold.  The one great lesson I learned from Big JMJ was that politics only really pays if you have the draw on absolutely everyone, and I had learned long ago whilst a player for Pontefract Collieries, that honour is strictly only amongst thieves.

1 comment:

  1. You could work this up into a novella, or a series with an ever expanding cast of bizarre characters.