the square ball week: player of the monthBack
“No honestly Luke, you’ve done well.”
David stood with his right hand held in front of his body, waiting for Luke to grasp it, as if he were offering a bit of carrot to a frightened hamster in a cage. Balancing this gesture was a black bin bag.
“David, I don’t know what to say,” said Luke, who didn’t take the bit of carrot, leaving David’s hand stiff, useless and airborne.
“You don’t have to say anything, Luke!” David’s eyes narrowed; accordion crinkles appeared at the outer edges, his irises taking a more dramatic shade of blue. He hadn’t consciously thought about it until that moment, but Luke realised that he had always wondered if David wore tinted contacts.
“After all, you’re going great guns, aren’t you kid?” said David.
Luke had never seen him with a lens case or any of that cleaning fluid stuff, but still.
“Nominated for Player of the Month. Not bad that, Luke.”
And he hadn’t seen him wearing glasses either, not like Rudy. It was always good banter when Rudy put his gigs on. Dame Edna.
“You should have won it too, Luke. You and your mate Redders. Course you should. Right pair of winners, you lads.”
Luke hadn’t been paying attention. For the first time he’d been thinking about David’s eyes, instead of feeling trapped by them, two spotlights trained on the Hollywood Hills.
“Did you just call me a wanker?”
“You, Luke? The golden boy? Why would I ever call you a name like that? You can probably pay someone to do that for you anyway.”
“Hey now, listen,” said Luke.
David dropped the bin bag to the floor. From the soft sound it made Luke thought it must be full of training gear, and he wondered how come David had so much training gear that he could fill a bin bag full, and he looked around the changing room at the lockers, all of them empty, some of the doors hanging off their hinges.
“What was it they paid for you?” said David. “A million quid? Money well spent if you ask me. Great success. Of course, money like that was spent on me once.”
Luke accidentally swallowed some air, or so he tried to pretend. “When?” he said.
“When Ipswich bought me from Plymouth,” said David. “It was reported as undisclosed. But that transfer practically bankrolled Plymouth’s part in World Cup 2018.”
“Eh? That’s in Russia.”
“Come on Luke, brighten up lad. England were bidding – Plymouth was going to be one of the host cities. A whole new stadium. The Nozzadrome. I saw the designs. There was going to be a statue.”
“Of me, for crying out loud! Plus holograms and a big video wall, so I could speak directly to my fans. There won’t be one now though, that’s for sure. Maybe for you though, golden boy – it’s not too late for you. Nominated for Championship Player of the Month – that’s just the first step, innit? Next thing you’re on that plane to Russia. Goal in the final, Jules Rimet, Smurf’s your national bleeding hero.”
“Ha, come on David, I’m not that good – ”
“No Luke. You’re not.”
An uneasy silence crept around the coat hooks. Luke noticed David’s hand was still held out to shake, but it seemed the wrong moment to cheerily grasp it now.
“I said you’re not that good, Luke,” said David. “Are you? Eh kid? Are you that good?”
“Are you win-the-World-Cup good Luke? Are you? Are you that good? You won the Johnstones Paint Trophy though, Luke. If you can win that you can win anything, right? And a goal at Wembley in the play-offs! What a career you’ve had. No wonder they paid so much for you. A World Cup winners’ medal though – are you good enough for that, Luke?”
“Then why are you in the team?” David was barely addressing Luke now, but some unseen figure, high above the ceiling. “If you’re not that good, Luke, why are you in the team?”
“Well, Mathieu has been Facetiming me a lot to keep my morale up, and the gaffer said if I worked hard in training I’d get another chance, and – ”
“Another chance! Not just a chance, but another chance! How many chances does a million pounds get you, Luke? A million chances for the million pound boy?”
“Well, you always have a chance. Mathieu always says that if you keep your head down when you’re out of the team, then – ”
“Yeah, you were out of the team, weren’t you? I remember it well.” David’s eyes faded to the colour of an old teddy bear, forgotten behind a toybox. “The million pound wonder, having to slum it in the Development Squad with the likes of me.”
“I don’t remember you playing in the Devs?” said Luke.
“What do you mean? We were in the same team for all those pointless friendlies.”
“Really? What position were you playing?”
“Midfield, Luke. I’m a midfielder, like you. I was in midfield. Next to you.”
“I’d clean forgotten. Anyway, what were you saying?”
“I was saying I remember you Luke. Out of the team, stricken by guilt for costing Hockaday his job in Bradford. You were nothing then, Luke, price tag or no price tag. Just a desperate and sorry individual, leaving so many tearful apologies on Junior Lewis’ voicemail he had to change his number.”
Luke waited to see if there was more, but there didn’t seem to be. He decided now might be a good time to shake the hand that was still thrust forward, a pool forming on the floor beneath it of what Luke hoped, despite having watched Terminator 2 last weekend, was just sweat.
“It’s ironic now though, isn’t it Luke?” Luke grabbed for the hand, but it was so slick and wet that it slipped away from him like an otter sliding down a riverbank. “Nominated for Player of the Month on the very same day I have my contract terminated.”
“Yeah, well, I hope you get fixed up Dave, I think that contract Colin gave you should have – ”
“Don’t ever call him that! At least Mr Warnock gave me a chance. He still phones me now, demanding to know why I’m not in the team. He says my appearance bonuses were a crucial part of my contract. But even when you were cast out, how come I didn’t get my chance then? When you were dragged down to my level, why was I never elevated to yours?”
“I don’t know Dave, but you had that bad injury, didn’t you?”
“God damn it Luke, that was a lie!” David slapped a locker door, leaving a wet palm print on the metal. As it swung back open Luke noticed a pair of shorts on a hanger inside the door, and when David noticed them too he grabbed them and threw them in his bin bag. “Did you really think I was injured all that time, Luke? Have you ever heard of a player being injured for so long without any progress?”
“Well, I mean, Aidy…”
“The doctors made it up, Luke. The physios were in on it too,” said David, pacing the room. “It came from the top. You’ve seen those leaked emails from Bahrain? Well there’s one coming that will rock the world of football to the core of its knees. Do you know what it will say, Luke?”
“Keep Nozzdogg injured,” said David. “Or words to that effect. Whatever his condition, keep telling him he needs more treatment, keep him off the pitch. It was all part of their plan, Luke.”
“They had a plan?”
“To keep Leeds from getting promoted and to drain the club of money. Bleed the club dry, that was the plan! So what would have happened to their plan with the stands full of fans every week, cheering the name of David Norris, as he scored the goals that sent Leicester City soaring into the Premier League? What would that have done for their plan?”
“Leicester City are in the Premier League, Dave. This is Leeds United.”
“Is it?” David’s eyes darkened, as he fished a shirt out of the bin bag and examined the badge sewn on it. “Oh, is that a U? I always thought it was a C. I must have been looking at it upside down.”
“Listen, David, I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you here, but I want to wish you all the best. I’m sure things will work out for you, maybe if Col – maybe if Mr Warnock gets another you job, you and Paddy – ”
“Things will work out, Luke,” said David. “I know exactly what I’m going to do.”
“That’s great! You’ve got a club sorted already?”
“I’m going to Dubai. There’s an innocent man in jail there and justice has to be done.”
“Jesus David, I wouldn’t get involved in that.”
“But I am involved, Luke! I told you about the email keeping me out of the team – but I didn’t tell you about the email summoning me to Dubai. It said they were offering me a job, Luke – but there was a mix-up, and they sent it to David Haigh instead. It’s a case of mistaken identity. That jail cell was meant for me – that’s my destiny now.”
“I’m not sure that makes sense,” said Luke. “How would they mix the emails up like that?”
“David dot whatever at Leicester City dot com,” said David. “It was probably autocorrect, it’s easily done.”
David took a last look around the changing rooms, his eyes leaving a faint burn as if someone was dragging a hot soldering iron over the benches by its lead.
“I won’t say goodbye, Luke,” he said. “Because you’ll hear from me again.”
“Bye,” said Luke.
David walked backwards out of the room, his eyes glowing like the headlamps of a Volvo being reversed into the sea at dawn. Passing him on the way in was Rudy, who walked straight into Luke and nearly knocked him to the ground.
“Stick your specs on Rudy, for god’s sake,” said Luke. “I won’t laugh.”
“You’ll call me Dame Edna. I hate being called Dame Edna.”
“I promise Rudy. Put them on before you hurt yourself.”
The glitter encrusted frames flashed as Rudy took his glasses from their case and, after a few attempts, successfully placed them on his face. “Who was that going out?” he asked.
“David Norris,” said Luke.
“David Norris,” said Rudy, trying to focus. “David Norris. Nope. Is he new?”