Dean woke up to realise he had wet the bed. Again.
He had been dreaming of a female friend who had not entered his conscious thoughts for a long time, but appeared by surprise in his dream-world kissing and stroking him, making Dean fully prepared to wake up to a day of feeling passionately in love with her. Yet walking together along a beach holding hands, the sand created solely by his brain soon became increasingly wet as the tide of water created by his bladder swelled around their feet and wrenched poor Dean from his love story, dropping him into a bed soaked in wee. His dream was left limp like soggy cardboard on the outskirts of his mind.
He sat up and sighed. What a shame the romantic theme couldn't have been allowed to develop a little further to give him the other kind of wet dream.
The bed had worn flowers for its date with Dean, flowers which he had watered in a bout of somnambulistic night gardening. The morning had turned warm embraces into cold water and drowned beauty. He was like a Cinderella whose coach, horses and footmen had all turned to piss.
His pyjama trousers were cold, damp and stuck to his legs. He got up and walked like John Wayne to the end of the bed and pulled the sheets off, rolling up his incontinental map. Dean had made sure not to drink any liquid yesterday evening, so was annoyed that so much had apparently made it into, and through, his body.
He moved to the window to check on the whereabouts of the boy. If he was outside it meant Dean was free to go downstairs to the kitchen and throw his sheets in the washing machine unnoticed. The boy was digging in the garden. Good. Dean paused for a moment to watch him through the window. As he hurled piles of earth over his shoulder, the boy displayed a look of grim determination on his eleven-year-old face which was unnerving. He was abnormally sturdy-looking for a child and seemed remarkably at ease with a spade. The last time Dean laid eyes on him was yesterday evening, labouring in the back garden as the light faded. For all he knew, the boy could have been shovelling throughout the night – the hole was certainly deep enough for it.
A cold Fluoxetine yawn sent a shudder through his body and he retreated from the window.
Dean was able to load the washing machine undisturbed but had to face the boy when it came to the drying of his sheets. He preferred it to happen during the drying because at least that way the urine would be gone. He took a deep breath and opened the back door.
'Morning,' said the boy.
'Morning,' Dean replied, bending down to pick a handful of pegs out of the basket.
'You've not wet the bed again, have you?' The words sliced Dean's confidence in half and he considered whether or not to tell the truth. He didn't want to irritate the boy as he knew he could turn nasty. There was an angri-Ness monster swimming in the loch of his heart and Dean had caught sight of its ugly head raised above the murky waters on a couple of occasions; once when the boy saw him spitting out the window and once on a previous bed-wetting incident. What he had seen of the monster had been a free boat trip into the mouth of fear; one Dean didn't want to repeat. The youngster would take his rage out on whatever came to hand, or fist, demolishing objects with an expression like a constipated cannonball, turning everything around him into a broken record of itself.
'I'm just hanging the washing out,' said Dean.
'I didn't ask what you're doing. I asked if you've wet the bed again.'
Dean swallowed so hard it seemed audible to the whole neighbourhood.
'Then why did you put the sheets in the wash when they were clean on Sunday?'
'I don't know.'
'You do know,' said the boy, powerfully thrusting his spade into the ground. 'So tell me.'
'Yes, I wet the bed again.'
The boy stopped digging and turned to face Dean.
'I appreciate your honesty. But don't do it again,' he said ominously.
There was an awkward pause.
'How's the digging going?' Dean said to break the silence.
'It's going well, but since when did you take an interest in my work? You spend all day in your room watching videos of old football matches like you're scared of the outside world.
Dean tried to mend the silence.
'I think there used to be another pear tree here – that's why I chose this spot. We've just got the one now but I suspect this garden was full of them at some point.
'Ready to try out the swing yet, Dean? I put the rope on the tree for you ages ago and you haven't been on it once. Why aren't you talking to me? Are you even listening? There's still loads of digging to do so I've not got time to stand around talking about it to someone who's not in the least bit interested, by which I mean you, Dean. Dean? When are you going to take a swing on the swing?'
'I'm afraid of hurting myself,' came the timid reply.
'You need to toughen up a bit. I'd been on a hundred swings when I was your age, Dean.'
'But you're a child and I'm an adult.'
'I haven't always been a child.'
Beyond the rapeseed fields which marked the boundary of the garden where the boy was continuing to dig, a train pulled into the station and breathed a sigh of momentary relief in the hot summer air before pulling away. An albino in a gold and white shell suit stood on the platform and wiped the sweat from his brow. He also checked his watch and seemed content with what it indicated.
It wasn't long before the boy could hear the albino's footsteps rattling through the lanes of the village and began to dig in time with them.
'That's the perfect metronome for the music of my digging,' he said to himself.
The finale to the music was the sound of the doorbell, at which the boy downed his tools and made his way to the front door.
'Hello,' said the albino.
'I'm afraid my parents aren't around,' declared the boy, making his bottom lip stick out when he'd finished speaking.
'That's fine. It's you I wanted to speak to, actually. Do you mind if I come in?'
The man and boy sat down together on the living room sofa. It was a very spacious room, with several mirrors which increased the sense of space, yet there was just the one sofa, on which perched the pair awkwardly.
'I'm Agent S from Futureself Acquisitions. What we do would be rather difficult for a little boy to comprehend so I won't bother you with that – the important thing is that you may be able to help us.'
'OK.' The boy shifted his position, making the sofa squeak.
'What do you think of when I mention "the Swinging Sixties"?'
'Er... miniskirts, London, the Beatles... that sort of thing.'
'Hmmm,' said the albino. 'That wasn't the answer I was looking for. You do know that you'll be handsomely rewarded if you help us?'
'I'm talking millions.'
'There was a death recently in this house, wasn't there? How do you feel about that?'
'It happened just before I got here,' said the boy. He was building a wall with his words, cementing syllables between himself and his guest. 'It doesn't concern me.'
'Look,' said the albino, his cheeks red. 'We know there's something fishy going on here and we intend to get to the bottom of it. It's up to you whether you help us, but we always get what we want in the end. Would you consider donating your body to us for research purposes?'
The albino man stood up and thrust his hands into the pockets of his shell suit so violently that there was a slight tearing sound. The wall of words was knee-high so he had to step over it as he left. The boy smirked at the sight of him raising his leg and pirouetting in the air to avoid smashing his shins on verbs and nouns.
'I'll be back in a couple of days. Have a think about what I've said.'
The ball went thudthudthud against the oven door as Dean imagined himself before thousands of screaming fans at Wembley Stadium. He was practising his ball skills in the kitchen while the boy was in the garden. Dean was too afraid to play outside in case the football went anywhere near the hole that was being dug. His imagination put the ball on the spot and ordered him to take a penalty in the 90th minute of the FA Cup final. His imagination deemed the World Cup final too fanciful and had relegated his fantasies to a domestic competition because it made them more believable. He booted the ball into the back of the net, which was the oven door, and made the hairdryer sound people make when they are being applauded by an imaginary crowd.
'What's going on?' asked the boy, suddenly popping his head around the kitchen door. 'I can hear banging from outside.'
'Sorry,' said Dean. 'I'm just practising for my trial.'
'The Arsenal trial. Don't you remember me telling you about it?'
'Oh yeah,' mumbled the boy.
'I've told you about it like ten times. It's tomorrow in case you forgot. I might come home an Arsenal player. What do you think about that?'
'Why don't you practice outside? Or are they going to make you kick a ball against an oven door as part of your trial?'
'Um, it's too hot outside,' said Dean.
'The oven's on, you idiot! It's hotter in here than it is outside. I'm cooking a pear tart – that reminds me: why haven't you been on the swing yet?'
'I'm sorry, but it looks dangerous to me. I really hope you don't mind me saying so.'
'I appreciate your honesty, but I promise you there's nothing to be concerned about. I've made and been on hundreds of swings and it never did me any harm. Look at me.'
Dean looked down, hanging tightly onto the hope that he may one day play for Arsenal.
'I've been on more swings than you've had hot dinners,' he continued. 'I've been on swings in Ancient Rome, Revolutionary France and places you don't even know exist. You just need to get swinging on that pear tree and, I tell you, great things will happen. It's like an out-of-body experience. Don't you trust me?'
'Anyway, this tart's ready. I've worked up a real appetite with all that digging so I'm going to eat it right away. I can save you a slice.'
'No thanks,' said Dean. 'I'm going to my room.' He picked up his ball and left.
The boy flicked the oven switch to off and removed the piping hot tart while whistling 'Daddy Cool'. He was licking his lips as he sat down to tuck in. It was a good job Dean didn't want some because there wouldn't be any left once the boy had got his greedy gob around it.
Dean woke up to a familiar wet feeling. He had turned his bed into a toilet once again, reintroducing himself to the kind of shame with which most 22-year-old men are happily unfamiliar. This was the worst day for it too – at 09:00 he had his Arsenal trial, which left him no time to get his sheets washed, dried and hopefully hidden from the boy. Dean had a choice: sort out the dirty bedclothes and miss his trial or rush to the Emirates Stadium and run the risk of the child discovering the mess. The serial bed-wetter decided it was probably worth the gamble because the boy was likely to be in the garden and very rarely went up to Dean's room anyway. Also, a trial for Arsenal was just too good to miss.
A quick glance out the window confirmed that the boy was indeed hard at work outside, chucking earth around like brown confetti at the wedding of a spade and a hole. Dean felt he could safely sneak out of the house and catch the train to London without being accosted. After a quick shower to wash away the urine, he put on the white t-shirt and black shorts which had, until several years ago, been part of his school PE kit. He didn't have a fancy football kit like the other hopefuls probably had, but it was skills that mattered most, and he'd been honing those non-stop in the kitchen so felt ready to display them confidently.
Dean took a ball with him to practice his footwork on the train but it was too crowded with commuters for him to be able to do anything. Instead, he sat in his PE kit with the football on his lap and watched the world outside becoming less colourful as he left his village behind and got closer to London. It was as if the colours were being sacked from the landscape one by one and told to find work elsewhere. Grey was Employee of the Month in and around London.
As the train was pulling into Kings Cross, one of the passengers lost control of his coffee cup. It flew from his hand and exploded over the floor, showering Dean's football boots with liquid the colour of boring wallpaper. The smell was nice but it made his footwear look awful. The man who had lost the arm-wrestling contest with a cup of coffee apologised and left the train; Dean stayed behind to kick the excess liquid off his feet and worry about whether it would affect his trial. He knew in his heart that no one else would notice but couldn't help conjuring up nightmare scenarios in which he lost out to a footballer with cleaner boots.
He wasn't prepared for the contents of the station, of which he was an unwilling part. It was too multitudinous and moved too quickly in every direction at once. Dean had only been to the capital once before, on a school trip to the Tower of London when he was very young, so everything was practically brand new to him. Apart from when he was playing football, Dean wasn't used to thinking on his feet, yet here he had to consult papers and read signs while navigating a safe route through the seemingly endless sea of people.
He felt like a seasick mariner with coffee-stained boots.
A dirty-looking man approached Dean and offered him some contact lenses from a plastic bag for £2 a pack. Dean politely declined but was not forceful enough to get rid of the man, who kept urging him to have a closer look and consider how much more expensive they would be if bought from a shop. Dean told him he didn't even need contact lenses but the grubby old man didn't seem to hear. The packets were in very poor condition, much like the person trying to sell them. Dean politely declined over and over again until the man lost interest and moved onto someone else.
'Phew,' thought Dean. He found London tiring from the outset.
After a tube journey spent staring at his boots, Dean arrived at the Emirates stadium. It was a gigantic structure which made his existence seem like Carl Sagan's pale blue dot in comparison. Its vastness made a fist and punched Dean in the stomach, the pain serving as a reminder of his inferiority and vulnerability. The stadium felt slightly sorry for him and moved from punching to pinching to allow him to catch his breath. After the Emirates saw tears forming in Dean's eyes it desisted from physical tomfoolery altogether and went back to being a simple, immovable structure of metal and concrete, a sacred temple of football.
Dean shuffled towards the stadium entrance with shaking legs. A man dressed like a druid was standing outside. He was so still he seemed like a statue that had been there since ancient times, a monument to a future football stadium. As Dean approached, he came to life.
'You wish to enter the Emirates?'
'Er... yes,' said Dean. 'I'm here for the trial.'
'The trial. Follow me.'
The druid beckoned to Dean with a bony finger and led him through the entrance. His footsteps were solemn. The pair walked through a series of corridors and then down a flight of stairs to a huge set of ornate wooden doors with a sign above which read: Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum. The druid knocked three times on one of the doors and took a step back as both were flung open.
The interior was basically that of a courtroom, with wooden panelling throughout, a group of jurors on benches and a judge sitting in a raised seat to oversee proceedings. The only difference was that each jury member wore a red-and-white scarf and bobble-hat, while the judge was dressed as a football referee.
'By the power invested in me by Arsenal Football Club, I declare this trial open,' said the judge. He then blew a whistle. 'Bring the defendant to the stand.'
The druid grabbed Dean's arm and took him over to the stand. Dean felt the eyes of everyone in the room scrutinising him.
'Name,' said the judge, staring over his pointy glasses. Behind him was an Arsenal flag.
'Mr Moles, you are going to be interrogated by the Finder of Facts. Do you understand?'
'Yes,' said Dean, terrified.
'And do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?'
'Yes, yes and yes.'
A small man with a grey wig and an Arsenal away kit stood up to the right of the judge and cleared his throat.
'As the Finder of Facts, I would like to begin by asking you whether you consider yourself to be an honourable and decent person.'
'I do,' said Dean.
'Tell us about yourself.'
'Um.' Dean hated talking about himself. 'Well, I'm 22 and I love football. I spend most of my time either watching or playing football at home. I used to live there with my dad but he died last year. Now I live there alone... well, sort of. A boy hangs around the place but he doesn't really live there. My dad was a writer. He was very depressed and that's what killed him. I never knew my mum because she died giving birth to me. I'm very simple, really. I just want to be a footballer.'
'Uh-huh. And do you know what this is?' The Finder of Facts produced a football and held it up for Dean and the rest of the court to see.
'It's a... is this a trick question?'
'No,' said the Finder of Facts with a tone of annoyance.
'It's a ball.'
'Good. And what do you do with it?'
Glancing around the court, Dean could see that the glue fixing every gaze on him was super, the only exception being a woman with a typewriter who was engaging her eyes in the act of transcribing everything that was being said.
'Er... you kick it.'
'He says you kick it, ladies and gentleman, but do I detect some hesitation in his voice? Should we really entrust this ball to someone who doesn't immediately know, with 100% certainty, what to do with it? Do we want to risk this man embarrassing our football club by suddenly picking up the ball halfway through an important match? We'd be the laughing stock of the entire football league. We need certainty. And how hard would you kick it, Mr Moles?'
'Hmm,' said the Finder of Facts. 'He says the right answers eventually, but without any confidence. Is this really our man, ladies and gentlemen? Can you envisage him lifting the FA Cup?'
Dean was suddenly aware of pains in his chest. He realised he had been experiencing them all day but it was only now that his preconscious mind handed them on a plate to his conscious mind for direct inspection. Becoming fully aware of them made the pains more painful.
'Let me give you a scenario, Mr Moles. You are in the opponent's penalty area, you are onside, and the ball is passed to you. What do you do?'
'I kick the ball at the goal.'
'You kick the ball in the goal, you mean?'
'Oh, yes,' said Dean. 'That's what I mean.'
'You talk the talk but can you walk the walk? It's time for the next round.'
The druid led Dean to a strip of artificial grass in front of the jurors. He was asked to stand at one end of it, opposite a tiny goal about the size of a fridge on its side.
'The defendant will now attempt to kick the ball in the goal,' said the judge, who pointed to Dean's feet and blew his whistle.
'Kick it,' said the judge.
The silence that descended on the court was so huge it could be heard from space. Dean knew what he had to do but his nerves were already beginning to get the better of him, making his palms sweat and his legs shake. He took a wobbly step back and wished himself luck. If he got the ball in the net he could go home an Arsenal player.
This was his one and only chance...
'What the fuck do you call this?'
The boy threw the dirty sheets in Dean's face as he walked in the front door. 'I've got piss all over my hands because of you.'
'I've probably got piss on my face now,' said Dean timidly.
'What? Don't get smart with me,' screamed the boy. 'What kind of 22-year-old wets the bed anyway?'
'One whose dad died recently.'
Although it was perfectly true that his bed-wetting had started immediately after the death of Dean's father, and therefore seemed like a valid response, the boy seemed to take umbrage at the statement, his anger visibly rising. He lashed out against a framed reproduction of Van Gogh's 'Wheatfield with Crows' in the hall, smashing the glass with his fist.
Dean started crying.
'Oh my God, he's blubbing now! First he wets the bed and then he wets his face. When are you going to grow up?'
'What is wrong with you?'
'I missed,' said Dean into a microphone of tears.
'At the trial. It went miles wide. The jury found me guilty and the judge showed me a red card.'
'You can't do anything right, can you? Your dreams have died. It's time to go on the swing.'
'You're right: my dreams are dead. I'm still scared of the swing though.'
'I've told you there's nothing to worry about,' insisted the boy. 'I've been on it hundreds of times. It worked for your dad.'
'But he died on it.'
Dean didn't understand the last comment. He just felt the sadness of his father's absence claw at him from deep inside.
'Come outside with me,' the boy said solemnly.
The garden was full of sunshine and colour. It was a beautiful summer's afternoon. A light breeze was making the branches of the pear tree twitch like excited fingers.
They were excited because they knew Dean was about to swing on them for the first time. Finally.
There was a stool already in place to help him up.
'It's such an unusual swing,' said Dean to the boy. He was right. Unlike most swings, this one consisted of just one rope and no seat. He had always found it hard to get his head around the physics of it, especially the fact that his head was meant to go through a noose. Apparently you swing by your neck alone, no hands.
'It's unusual all right,' said the boy. 'Now hop on.'
Dean stepped onto the stool and let out three Fluoxetine yawns in rapid succession. He put his head slowly through the noose.
'That's right. Get into position.'
Up on the stool Dean surveyed the garden. He'd never seen it looking so resplendent. Everything, except the hole, seemed straight out of a scrapbook about nature. A couple of blackbirds had flown into the garden to watch the action, their beady eyes following Dean's every move as he tried to make himself comfortable.
The boy didn't wait for a response. He kicked the stool away and sent Dean swinging. Back and forth he went like Jacques Brel's arm before finally coming to a hangstill in the sunshine.
Jan Jansen opened his eyes to what he knew would be a very busy day. Today he had his Aids test at the hospital but there was something even more important on his schedule, something even more life-and-death than a fatal disease. As soon as he had had his blood taken he would rush out to a house in the countryside to receive confirmation that, to him, life is no longer a mysterious thing.
'I'll wear my football shirt,' he thought.
It was the same football shirt he had worn last night during an embarrassing defeat to Plymouth in an FA Cup replay, in which Jan had played for Arsenal. Much of the blame had been laid on his shoulders. He felt so forlorn that he couldn't be bothered to wash the literal and metaphorical stains of last night away, and just wanted to get the test over and done with. He had played over 100 games for Arsenal but had failed to score a single goal, and now the fans would taunt him and sing unpleasant songs to highlight his lack of success on the pitch. These were Arsenal fans that were meant to be encouraging him but had taken a journey straight to mockery and bypassed anger because he was so poor. There was even talk of getting t-shirts printed to ironically mark the occasion, sometime in the distant future, when he finally scored.
Jan was Danish and had grown up in Denmark, as most Danes do. As soon as he learnt of the special relationship between a ball and a foot, and the magical offspring it can produce, he had wanted to be a professional player. He had worked his way up to the top and scored for Denmark in the final of the European Championship, making him hot property. He was bought by Arsenal for a record sum and the stage was set for him to become an even bigger success, but someone – perhaps Jan himself – dismantled that stage and used the boards to build barriers between him and the goal until he became the biggest clown of Premier League football. He had achieved his dreams and realised he was a loser.
With the possibility of having Aids, and the gloom he felt at being laughed at by thousands of people every week, Jan was feeling very low indeed. He had begun to dwell almost obsessively on his own mortality. It was when he entertained his first ever truly suicidal thought that a memory from a very, very long time ago, predating even his love of football, popped into his mind and opened up a new avenue of potential experience for him. After his Aids test, he was going to the house in the countryside to hopefully begin a journey down that avenue.
'If I'm wearing my dirty t-shirt, I might as well wear my dirty socks too,' Jan said to himself. He already had the muddy socks on as he had been sleeping in them.
During the entire journey to the hospital Jan thought about life and death, life and death, life and death.
Outside the hospital he saw a group of reporters talking excitedly and wondered if they were there to report on him. Certainly it would make a good story: FOOTBALLER'S AIDS FEARS. But as he entered the building they didn't even notice him, despite being fully recognisable in his kit. He was both sad he didn't merit more attention and happy he could be left alone, because the reason he was having an Aids test was embarrassing. It didn't have anything to do with sex, but instead related to a moment of pure stupidity dating back to his adolescence in which he and his best friend decided to become "blood brothers" by intentionally giving themselves wounds and pressing them together so their life sauces became mixed. That friend had recently phoned to say that he had been diagnosed with Aids and maybe Jan should think about taking the test too.
He entered the hospital like a man walking into an iron bar.
No one inside seemed to recognise him. Even the receptionist who registered his name seemed oblivious to the fact that she was dealing with a celebrity. She probably wasn't into football.
'Just pop your clothes on the chair.'
'Only joking,' said the nurse. 'Just roll up your sleeve.'
The nurse was a plain-looking woman in her thirties. Her plainness made her look like a blank canvas, which meant those with a strong imagination saw her as beautiful. Jan saw her as plain-looking, nothing more.
'Wow, you've got gorgeous veins,' she said.
Jan always got this. Nurses seemed to get very excited at the sight of his blue lightning. They would use words like 'gorgeous' or 'lovely', or even 'delicious' in one case, to describe it.
'They're so big!'
The nurse drew her breath in through her teeth, making the sound you would expect someone who had just seen a huge cream cake in a baker's window to make.
'It makes my job so easy: there's no way you could miss one of those babies.'
She stuck the needle in.
Jan thought about his lack of success with the opposite sex to take his mind off the pain, but it made him so upset he switched to thinking about the needle to distract him from the emotional pain. It had been three years now without any action. Jan thought that being a famous sportsman, albeit a ridiculed one, would result in amorous advances from women left, right and centre. He had armed himself with a mental stick to beat them off with if necessary, but so far it had just been used by Jan to beat himself up with.
'All done,' said the nurse. 'Unfortunately, we don't have any Caucasian plasters at the moment.'
'Plasters for white people. We've only got blacks in due to a mix-up with the supplier. You don't have any objections to that, do you?'
'Um, no,' mumbled Jan. 'I'm just surprised, that's all.'
Jan had never thought about the colour of plasters before. It was only now that he became aware of the inherent racism of white plasters, which have colonised medicine cabinets and first aid kits around the world, arrogantly presenting themselves as the one-colour-fits-all solution to cuts and scrapes.
The day was being baked alive in the oven of summer as Jan made his way to the house in the countryside. It was the first time he had been, yet Jan knew exactly how to get there without consulting a map or timetable. For him, it was a matter of accessing distant memories and reacquainting himself with ghostly figures.
When he arrived at the house he immediately went round to the back garden, where he found a boy digging.
'Hi, I'm Jan,' he said.
'I've been expecting you,' said the boy. 'How did you like the swing?'
'It's a wonderful thing. It really is an out-of-body experience, just like you said. But I'm afraid it's time for me to have another go already.'
'Yeah. Nothing's going my way anymore,' said Jan sadly. 'It's just as bad as before.'
'But you always wanted to play for Arsenal and now you do. How can you say nothing's going your way? The swing is there to change you into a new person, and a new person you are.'
'But I want to experience that feeling footballers get when they've just scored. As soon as they achieve it they turn and run away from the goal at such a speed it's as if they're afraid of being caught in the net, as if they're about to be eaten up by the structure. They hide in the corner of the pitch or rip their shirt off in an act of bravado to protect against the thing they've just created. I want to experience that again. I want to create a monster.'
The boy scratched his chin and exhaled loudly.
'I'm almost done here. Perhaps now that you've been on the swing you understand why I've been doing all this digging.'
'Not really,' said Jan.
'Well, I'm nearly done.'
'Where's my body now?'
'It's still with the pathologist,' said the boy. 'Don't even think about turning up at your own funeral. I know your parents are dead and you hardly had any friends, and that makes you feel sad about the lack of people to say goodbye to you, but it'll raise awkward questions if a top footballer randomly appears at a suicide victim's funeral. It's just a body, after all.'
Jan went inside to visit Dean's old room. The house seemed horribly empty. Not so long ago it had been occupied by a father and son; now it was being used by a strange boy and his Danish guest. How quickly things change. He went upstairs and looked at all the old football magazines in piles at various points throughout the bedroom, wondering how many dreams had been squashed between their pages. Sadness pervaded every inch of the room.
He picked up one of the miniature football players from a Subbuteo set and held it between his thumb and index finger, staring a hole through its heart with heavy eyes. Jan felt like a member of a firing squad. He continued staring at the little man until his vision clouded over and all he could see were white lies dissolving into nothingness.
The first thing Jan made out as his sight returned was a red and white scarf draped over a desk, and in order to inspect it closer he put the plastic man back in its cardboard box and shuffled forward. He extended his arm and caressed the surface of the scarf, which was surprisingly soft, and thought about the neck it had been hung around before coming to its final resting place here on a dead man's desk. He imagined the neck's halcyon days, when it was wrapped in warm, soft wool and knew nothing of the harsh, coarse feel of rope. He felt sorry for that neck; felt a shiver down his own at the thought of how it ended up, bruised and twisted like a masochistic swing dancer, but Jan knew it was for the best and that there was no other way for the head to which it was connected to move on.
Jan moved on to the window, stared at the digging boy and let out a huge Fluoxetine yawn.
The sun was still out, watching over Jan as he strode through the public footpaths on his way to the park where a travelling fair had set up camp. It was at the behest of the boy, who had told Jan he should pay the fair a visit before going on the swing again. He had been reluctant to state why exactly but was adamant Jan should go. The failed footballer wondered if it was just to get him away from the house while the boy finished whatever it was he was doing in the garden.
The sun watched Jan on his journey through narrowed eyes, as if suspicious of him. It was too bright for Jan to meet the sun's gaze directly but he could feel the mistrustful rays hitting the back of his neck like slaps from a policeman. He felt like turning around and shouting at the ball of light, to assure it he was not up to anything untoward and was only following the boy's orders, but he kept walking because he feared someone would see him yelling and think him mad.
When he arrived at the fair Jan felt exhausted. It had been a busy day thus far, what with his Aids test and travelling to meet the boy to have his assumptions about the swing verified; however, just as his energy levels were sinking, they hitched a ride upwards on the sensory offerings of the fair, the candy floss delivering an instant sugar rush just from its smell, the big wheel giving him an adrenalin rush from its sheer size. He didn't really feel the need to have a go on any of the rides, just to wander around slowly and observe others enjoying themselves. He witnessed sweaty palms being read, bodies being warped by crazy mirrors and white faces emerging from the ghost train. He saw coconuts toppled, rubber ducks hooked and moles whacked. The excitement of the fair went some way to temporarily nudging away the depression that had been plaguing him of late.
The one thing Jan did partake in was a football-related challenge, which required him to kick a ball through one of the eye-holes on a giant wooden board shaped and painted like a skull. All the participants who faced the skull were no doubt put off by its horrifically pained expression – it looked like it had been made to watch six million Holocaust documentaries all at once – and kicked the ball wide, but Jan had the advantage of being a professional football player whose inner demons looked even more terrifying than the face on the board.
'Step right up,' said a man with only one leg. Jan suppressed the urge to make an inappropriate joke. 'Step right up to win a goldfish. Just kick a football through an eye socket!'
'How much?' asked Jan.
'Only £1 a go.'
The Arsenal player handed over two 50p pieces and took a ball from a sack. He handled the ball as if he were sculpting it out of clay, smoothing and patting its surface. It was baked by the sun's rays.
'Make sure it's still before you kick it,' said the man.
'And take a good run-up.'
'Give it a good whack too. Most people don't hit it hard enough.'
Jan took a couple of steps back and set his eyes to lasers, projecting red beams first at the ball, and then at the skull.
'And pick an eyehole before you kick.'
'Yes, alright!' said Jan rather angrily. He was getting tired of being lectured about football by a man with only one leg. 'I'm trying to concentrate!'
His raised voice caused the people around him to turn and stare, which added to the pressure Jan was already heaping on himself. He had started to say things in his head like 'my career depends on getting this in' and 'if I miss this my confidence will be irreparably damaged'.
'Phew, someone's taking this a bit seriously!' said the man, looking around at the growing crowd of spectators. 'It'd be embarrassing if he missed now, eh?'
Jan took a gulp of air and closed his eyes. He could feel the ball of air travelling down his windpipe and bouncing around his stomach. Everything was balls and holes for him. The football, his stomach, the sun, the skull's eyes. Balls and holes.
This was his big chance to prove to himself he was worthy of being an Arsenal player. His last chance...
'Are you ready to cooperate with us?'
The albino was standing at the door, a constellation of sweat beads on his forehead.
'My position remains the same,' said the boy.
'Futureself Acquisitions are going to work out how you're doing this.'
'This... this jumping from body to body. We're going to get your current body and, with it, the answers.'
'Good luck with that,' laughed the boy.
'Look out: there's a storm coming.'
The sky suddenly went from blue to grey like a rapidly aging whale, imprisoning the sun behind a thick wall of cloud and plunging all the scantily clad humans below into a state of panic. They started running for cover and enquiring about the purchase of umbrellas as the rides of the fair ground to a halt. The area had not seen rain for weeks, so the sight of a pregnant sky, bulging with millions of rain babies, was quite a surprise for everyone. The heavens burst apart and made them rich with pennies of water, the cash-flow increasing in intensity until liquidity was aggressively introduced to the markets of people's hair and clothes.
It was pissing it down but Jan couldn't care less. He was barely aware of the weather as he skipped back along the public footpaths, a goldfish in a plastic bag in his hand. He had successfully put a ball through an eyehole and proved to himself that he still had some skill in his old feet. A small victory for a man who had been feeling the size of an atom's little finger felt like an Empire State achievement.
'I'm back,' he said out loud as he wiped rain from his face.
He was looking forward to showing the goldfish to the boy and thanking him for making him go to the fair. He wondered if the boy was still digging in the rain – certainly he was the sort of person to do that, his dogged determination overcoming all previous obstacles thrown his way by the weather.
Back through the footpaths went Jan, fish in hand, whistling made-up tunes to celebrate his victory, all the way back to the house where Dean and his father used to live.
When he arrived, Jan rushed straight upstairs to the bedroom full of football paraphernalia, a room he seemed to know well as he went straight over to one of the drawers, walking like John Wayne due to his wet clothes, and pulled out a towel. He dried himself off and wandered to the window, where he saw something which fried his heart and threw it to a pack of wolves.
The boy was dead, floating face-down in the water with which the hole he had been digging was now filled.
Jan hurried downstairs and out to the garden, where he inspected the body of the boy, checking for signs of life. It was indeed a body: a "boy" with a "d" for "death" added.
The footballer was on his knees in the mud. The rain was now beginning to ease, as if its chief goal had been to fill the hole. The last few drops of rain mixed with tears from Jan's eyes. He didn't really know why he was crying, but he let it all out, turning his cheeks into paddling pools for shattered thoughts.
He consoled himself with the notion that perhaps this was what the boy had been digging the hole for, but Jan had no real evidence for this and no idea as to why such an end would be desirable.
As the hot tap of tears and the cold tap of rain were simultaneously turned off, Jan powered the light bulb above his head with the electricity of an idea for a tribute to the boy. He undid the plastic bag and tipped its contents into the hole, the fish making a satisfying plop as it fell into the water.
'There you go, little fishy,' he said. 'This is your new home.'
As one thing ends, another begins.
There was an untouched pear tart on the kitchen table, still warm. Making it must have been one of the last things the boy did before he died. It was a fruit-filled full stop to his life.
Jan sat down to eat it. It seemed like the right thing to do, knowing how much the boy had liked pear tart, how lovingly he made it. As he filled his mouth, Jan remembered how, in his previous life, he had been asked a number of peculiar rhetorical questions out of the blue by the boy, one of which was:
'What's the French for "father"?'
The question now seemed to take on a special significance, an added weight like gold-plating on a hot air balloon. He realised that the answer sounded exactly like the fruit of which the boy was so fond. Jan couldn't think what the boy was trying to communicate, if anything, by drawing his attention to the similarity between the two words, but he continued to chew over the père in his mind as he masticated the pear in his mouth.
The tart tasted delicious. It was most welcome as Jan had barely eaten anything all day. He had been rushing around like a bird on wheels as his stomach grew smaller and smaller.
Suddenly the doorbell asked a question. Jan went to answer it.
'Hello there. I believe someone won a fish at the fair earlier today?'
There was something curious about the man at the door but Jan couldn't quite put his finger on it.
'I have reason to believe your fish is infected with a completely new kind of parasite. To prevent unnecessary suffering, and to find out more about this unusual affliction, we are going to have to take the creature away and perform some tests on it.'
'Oh dear,' said Jan.
'Yes, I hope you don't mind.'
'Where is the little fella?' asked the strange-looking man.
'Out in the garden.'
'I'll just go round and help myself, then. Thanks very much.'
The footballer didn't really take in the information as he already had so much going on in his mind. He was thinking too much about pears and death to worry about the welfare of a fish. It wasn't until a good five minutes had passed that he realised with a start: the man who had gone round to collect the fish would also have happened upon the corpse of the boy, floating in the water-filled hole.
He rushed out to the garden, hoping to catch him and offer an explanation, but it was too late: he was gone, along with, shockingly, the body of the boy rather than the goldfish.
Then it occurred to Jan what he had found odd about the appearance of the man who had made off with the cadaver. It had been so obvious but had taken Jan, in his distressed state, a few moments to register it: the man was an albino.
ONE WEEK LATER...
Jan put his feet up on the coffee table and exhaled loudly. He was back in his apartment after a tough but gratifying match played against Newcastle for Arsenal the night before. The blinds were open, allowing soldiers of light to march around the apartment. It was a happy place.
He picked up the newspaper and went immediately to the back pages, where he found the headline he had been waiting almost four years to see:
JANSEN SCORES FOR ARSENAL
The article went on:
Jan Jansen finally got his name on the Arsenal scoresheet last night after helping his team to a crucial 2-1 victory against the Magpies. His cheeky chip left the goalkeeper stranded and put Arsenal ahead in the dying moments of a frenetic game of football.
He pinched the newspaper to check it wasn't dreaming. Nothing changed. Glee took the corners of his mouth for a walk. He knew he had given his demons a good kicking in the process of scoring his first Arsenal goal, so Jan read and re-read the article until his eyes hurt, knowing that physical pain was the only kind of pain he was likely to suffer for the time being. He wasn't under any illusion that it would last forever, but he was more than happy to soak up all the temporary pleasure being offered to him.
After another satisfied exhalation, Jan turned the paper over and inspected the front page.
The headline grabbed his attention immediately:
MASS SUICIDE IN BEDFORDSHIRE
He read on with interest:
60 members of a group called Futureself Acquisitions were found hanged yesterday in an orchard in Bedfordshire. The police say they are not looking for anyone else in connection with the deaths as the group, thought to be a cross between a scientific research company and a cult, had planned to take their own lives. The grim discovery has left the community shocked.
Jan dropped the paper and let out a Fluoxetine yawn that made the walls of the building shake.