Young love intervenes between a goalkeeper and his chance of glory
The mirror of the wardrobe door was long and thin — the same shape that Robert Agnew took up, standing before it, arms outstretched — ready to divert the ball as it hurtled towards the top right-hand corner of the goal.
His cat, Miffy, a born thief, crouched under the sofa and plotted its next exploit as the boy shifted, knees bent, eyes narrowed, coiled like a panther while he waited for the next shot.
Robert, 10 years old, an awkward collection of skin and bones, did not flinch as his father walked into the big room with the Saturday paper neatly folded to the racing page — some selections already ticked in biro. Andrew Agnew paid little attention to the crouching form though a slightly puzzled look flashed across his face before he sat at the window where his beloved geraniums overlooked the West Station and yearned for a glimpse of sun.
But this was Greenock — Renfrewshire, Scotland, Great Britain, the World and the Universe — where it forever rained.
The mirrored Robert was never sure if the Milky Way came into the equation but slid off to the side as a low sneaky effort spiralled towards the goal, losing sight of his own image as he sprawled across the new carpet — an imitation Axminster his mother’s pride and joy.
His father spared a glance from perusal of the 2:30 where a horse called Wee Jinkie had engaged his attention. “Thought you were a right-back,” he observed.
But Andrew had been to Middleton Camp where the class had gone for a school holiday, where Robert had howled in the cold shared showers and the man had said, “Ye’re no’ much use without yer mammy, are ye son?” — where he had gone every day into the small forest to hide and thrash armies of stinging nettles with a gnarled bent branch till they were beaten to the ground and he was covered in welts of retribution — what was he beating on?
Where he had watched other boys join together in gangs, missed his best friend Ian who had not been allowed to come because his mother had delusions of grandeur and wanted to go to Dunoon for the Fair — where Robert had never ever felt so isolated — was that what he was beating on? We all hammer away upon the anvil of disappointment.
Yet where — where — in the absence of Mearns Street School’s designated keeper whose family had gone with Ian’s to climb the greasy social pole of Dunoon — where — on a hockey pitch with appropriately small goals that doubled for fitba’ — Robert had been shovelled into service and performed a series of saves that bordered on the miraculous.
In one of the opposing teams, Ardgowan School, was Charlie Cooke who went on to play for Greenock Juniors, Aberdeen, Chelsea, Scotland, the World and the Universe, but even he — even he — could not get the ball past the inspired custodian.
Is there a moment in life when a greater energy takes possession? The Daemon? Where you become the number one son of Charlie Chan? Every time Robert waved his hands the ball landed and stuck there like a Chinese bun.
Or was it just down to the fact that he was, as one of Charlie’s team mates shouted in disgust, “A fuckin’ hockey keeper!” Cooke just nodded — when dimensions altered he’d be on hand; it is always thus with great players. They bide their time.
Mearns Street had won the tournament but Robert did not remember a feeling of triumph just bewilderment. As if it had happened to someone else.
Back at school the legend grew and even his best friend Ian Cameron had muttered, “Whit happened tae you?”
For Robert did not fit in. Rake-thin with bizarre co-ordination — at a hint of violence he bled from the nose, was second cleverest in the class and — hereby hangs the tale — was next to useless with girls.
I wonder if any of you out there, realise the pain of not fitting in? It never leaves, like a shadow on the wall. Especially with — as it is termed — the opposite sex.
The ritual of pigtail pulling, yelled insults between playgrounds and in the case of Wee Willie McFarlane, masturbating while spitting at the same time was beyond Robert’s reach.
And so, sadly, was Mary Capaldi.
She was small, dark-featured, and beautiful. To watch her throw a ball up against the wall and twirl around in the girl’s playground was poetry in motion — but — she was also claimed by Donald Kennedy, a tall, athletic, hawk-faced leader of men who had not been at Middleton Camp otherwise Robert would in no way have sniffed the reduced rectangle.
For Donald was true guardian of the posts in the Mearns Street football team — his old man was a police inspector and according to Robert’s communist father, a fascist by any other name.
Ian’s father was also in the force but was the police billiards champion and only a sergeant so that made him, in Robert’s supposition, a lesser fascist.
Political considerations aside, Donald had the inside track with Mary because of an ability to pluck balls out of the air with hooked unwavering hands. He was also first in the class and next year heading for Dux Boy.
He had big feet as well. And girls like boys with big feet.
The odds were stacked against our hero for Donald and Mary were, according to rumour, ‘winching’, which did not mean lifting a load off the ground — although maybe it did, come to think of it. They were often seen at the library, looking into the same shelves.
So Robert’s chances had so far been about as promising as Wee Jinkie’s but this Saturday might tell a different tale.
For a trial was to take place where the lesser lights of the school were mixed with the top players and Agnew, potential runner-up Boy Dux, had been chosen, due to his heroics at Middleton Camp, to stand in goal for the “A” team, the defence of which was marshalled by Ian Cameron, a tower of strength at centre-back.
Donald was relegated to keep the faith behind a very leaky “B” team fortification but their attack was lethal, led by the bandy-legged John Doig.
How these events had coincided was no doubt to do with the fickle finger of Fate but this might be Robert’s chance. If he kept a clean sheet? Anything is possible with a clean sheet.
Saturday morning was usually two bacon rolls, the Adventure, Rover, Wizard and the Hotspur but he sacrificed the comics, gulped down the rolls, left his father frowning over the 3.30, his mother deep in her latest Max Brand cowboy story, The Lone Rider of the Purple Sage, and belted up the hill towards the Murdison Park where a full-size football pitch spread out like a vampire’s cape.
He got changed, wearing Tam Donnachie’s spare football boots since Middleton Camp had been in sandshoes and Robert had never needed proper footwear until now. Tam was the hard man of the class. “Don’t pee on them,” he warned. “Or Ah’ll hammer ye senseless.” He had a soft spot for Robert.
He was given a lime-green goalie’s jersey, potentially Papist and not blessed; Donald at the other end, had a dark-blue woolly effort that contrasted with his fair hair — contrasting in turn with Robert’s dark, tangled, thick, unruly locks.
He could make out the petite figure of Mary behind the opposition goal along with her pals — but though she sometime favoured him with a sideways glance in class — she did not wave.
How many times have we waited for a wave? Across the Great Divide.
The game began and so did the rain, heavy, monotonous, baleful. The ducks in the Murdison Dam above watched morosely as large chunks of sodden doorstopper bread floated past into oblivion.
By half-time, Robert dared to hope. Though a muttering Ian Cameron had to take the goal kicks due to his inability to propel the ball beyond 40 yards, the defence held firm, marshalled by the centre-back, and Robert had only to field a few long-range shots that were no patch on Davy Crockett.
But their attack had managed to boot in a single goal scored by Wee Willie in his tackety boots as part of a twin terrorising spearhead with Tam. Willie balanced his lack of dribbling skills by petrifying the opposing centre-half Colin MacMaster, who was the janitor’s son and therefore an easy mark.
Donald tried to insinuate offside but Mister Harvey the gym teacher with red thinning hair and pale blue eyes — who had picked the teams and been booked by Inspector Kennedy for speeding in his Hillman Minx with a blonde not two weeks before, blew first his nose and then for the goal.
The rain however fell on all without favour and when they changed ends, Robert was thrilled to see that Mary had stayed put underneath a big golf umbrella that one of the girls had no doubt borrowed from her father and was striped like a barber’s pole. She was now behind his goal with Donald a long streak in the distance.
And the rain fell.
Robert could now hardly see through the downpour but Ian’s rangy figure intercepted, tackled and bawled instructions in language that would have shocked the denizens of Dunoon. “These bastards are no’ getting’ by us — a clean sheet or nothing fucking doing!”
While Mister Harvey pretended deafness, the captain turned to his drenched and drookit last line of defence. “Aggie — you keep on the qui vive!”
Aggie. A hated nick-name. The girls behind giggled. Wee Willie kicked Colin MacMaster into a crumpled heap and the referee blew for a reluctant foul.
The ball was now so heavy it could have been shot from a cannon.
The rain fell and went on falling.
His hair was dripping large, unwholesome, splutters of water into his eyes and Robert began to panic. A goalie needs vision.
The ball hurtled over from a corner and he plunged bravely forward but Ian’s head lamped it to safety. “Stay on the line Aggie,” he advised. “That’s where ye belong.”
“Robert?” A more enticing voice cut through the wet. Mary had slid round to the post and offered a small white handkerchief, already knotted at the four corners. “This’ll keep ye dry.”
For a moment their eyes met. Hers were unscathed from under the umbrella, his blinking away the heavy hair-dripped watery gobbets — he solemnly accepted the favour and like a gallant knight, put it upon his head. More giggles but Mary seemed all solicitude.
The hankie sat on his head like a skullcap but it did a half-decent job. It was now only five minutes to go and glory beckoned.
How often have we thought this? Money riding on the likes of Wee Jinkie, breath caught short by a wild hope.
The bandy legs of John Doig emerged in the pelting rain but once again Ian Cameron had moved to cover and, in disgust, the forward took a whack at the ball from 25 yards. It dipped to hit a muddy patch and skittered goalwards. An easy save. Approaching glory.
Yet as Robert stooped down to collect the trundling ball, the handkerchief slid deceitfully from his head to fall over his eyes and, blinded by the material which clung on like some sort of treacherous ectoplasm, he was left to grope with desperate but futile intent. The ball smacked onto his hands like the teacher’s belt and then squeezed between his legs.
For a second there was an eerie silence and then cheers plus howls of derision rose to the black clouds above.
His first sight on scraping the perfidious hankie aside was that of the ball in the net. And as the old fitba’ saying would have it, “Once the ba’s in the net, not even Moses can help ye.”
Robert fished the thing out and booted it up the field, then suffered the cold unforgiving stare of his centre-back. “There goes the clean fucking sheet,” said Ian.
Hardly time for kick-off before the final whistle blew.
As the sparse crowd left the scene, some still laughing, one person stayed in place for a moment. Charlie Cooke. He lived close to the Murdison Park, had bided his time and now witnessed the downfall of a flash in the pan.
Cooke shook his head dismissively and turned to go but somewhere behind him, Robert thought to have glimpsed his own father’s figure among the departing.
When he turned back, the girls and Mary had vanished. The field was also uninhabited save for Wee Willie who sat whistling cheerfully in the downpour as he examined the toe-end of his tackety boots. “Ah pit a dunt in it, kickin’ that bastard MacMaster,” he announced — and then, “Hey? Ye want tae hear the latest?”
“I suppose so,” replied Robert.
“Big Donald and Mary — they’re winchin’ hard!”
“What does that mean?”
“Big Donald tellt me. Got his hand up. Right intae the hairy bits!”
Willie roared with laughter as Robert walked on, clutching at the handkerchief, his cup of misery near to overflowing.
“Hey Aggie?” Willie shouted. “By the way — ye’re a shite goalie!”
Robert sneaked into the changing room, grabbed his belongings and ran for it — he’d give Tam back his boots on Monday but could not face the merciless barrage of scorn.
He walked home bareheaded, studs slipping on the pavement — a drowned rat from a sunk ship. Then he saw his father standing in front of a tobacconist’s the top of Dempster Street.
“Away in and get me 10 Capstan extra strength,” said Andrew.
‘Were you at the game, daddy?” asked Robert with some dread.
“Certainly not. Here you are.” A silver half-crown changed hands. To a certain extent this made sense to Robert; his father was dead shy and had been known to wait outside a shop for hours until he was certain it was empty of customers. “There’s an auld biddy inside the place talks 90 to the dozen. Away ye go — I’ll haud the clothes ye can keep the change.”
But as Robert entered the shop and the door pinged, the old woman went out past him and he was left looking at a bear of a man with buck teeth, running a bit to fat, thinning hair, two massive paws resting on the counter while behind him, John Player’s, Capstan and the Wild Woodbine cigarettes lined up for the long season.
Jimmy Cowan. A genuine hero — the Greenock Morton keeper who had single-handedly defied England at Wembley: The Prince of Goalkeepers, who’d prowled the line like a tiger.
“The usual, Robert?” he asked.
The boy nodded. In his desolation he had forgotten that the Prince had long retired and this shop was his wee nest-egg. He was teetotal so a pub was out of the question.
Coin given, change and cigarettes accepted, Jimmy took in the bedraggled figure before him and indicated the lime-green sweater. “I had one that colour,” he said quietly. “Never let me down. How about yourself, son?”
It was then the tears flowed and Robert told the whole shameful story.
Jimmy’s slightly hooded eyes never left the boy’s face. He was a gentle soul and fame had left no scars upon him. “The goalie always gets the blame, Robert. Hold on.”
He disappeared into the back shop and returned with a flat bonnet that looked like a squashed pancake in his huge hands. “I wore this a few times. Take it. Bring you luck and keep the rain out of your eyes, eh?”
“I’m no’ playing again, Mister Cowan.”
“You never know. Take it — if it’s too big ye can stick some newspaper in.”
Robert wiped his face with the sodden, knotted handkerchief, took the cap, nodded a polite and grateful thanks for the precious gift, then left with another ping of the door.
Jimmy sighed. Andy Agnew had been at school with him — never much good on the wing just the one trick, but his classmate had nipped in before to warn Jimmy that there might be a broken heart to mend. Well, he had done his best.
“The goalie always gets the blame,” he muttered to the Wild Woodbine.
The rain had finally stopped by the time Robert and his father had reached their close at the West Station. Andrew suddenly handed the boy a line from the bookies.
“Away and collect that.”
“Collect? But you never win, daddy.”
“Wee Jinkie. Came in at 10 tae one. Don’t tell your mother — she’ll want tae buy a ranch.”
Andrew looked down at his son. “Whit was the result anyway, for the game?”
“It was a draw,” Robert replied carefully.
“Six more and you’ve won the pools. Away ye go then!”
Robert stuck the cap on his head. It was too big right enough but for the first time he felt like a real goalie. The boy turned smartly and walked off while his father feinted and then side-footed a stone into the gutter — his one trick.
As Robert walked past Auld’s the Bakers where the wee cock-eyed woman always dithered over doughnuts, he felt the dampness of the handkerchief in his trouser pocket. He’d have to unpick the knots and ask his mother if she could spare the time from the Purple Sage to wash and iron the piece of cloth — then give it back to Mary Capaldi.
Not her fault that a sweet gift turned sour but girls were a menace. Maybe it would be better to wait a bit later in life before he tackled them full on.
He turned and saw himself reflected in the bakery window. The women inside smiled and thought he was looking at them or the cream buns.
But he was looking — he was looking — at a goalkeeper.