The Quantum of Bobby (Part Five)
Can Bobby stop David Beckham getting sent off at the 1998 World Cup?
Theorising that radio controlled clouds could help Qatar manufacture a climate suitable for football, the authorities experimented… and nearly killed their national coach Bobby Manager with one. Manager awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing challenges that were not his own, driven to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Karren Brady, or at least a subconscious manifestation of Karren Brady, who speaks to him in a voice that only Bobby can hear. And so Bobby Manager finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that is next leap will be the leap home.
Darkness. And yet… not darkness. Darkness only indicates the absence of light. This was an altogether more complete affair. An absence of everything. Of light, of time, of space. Of everything. Like a blank canvas, but without the canvas. And the easel. And whatever it was you were intending to paint. And indeed the very concept of painting. It was still and it was silent and it was nothing.
There was a polite cough. And then a man’s voice.
“Erm… excuse me?”
“Karren… I’ve been here for a very long time. Are you… erm… are you planning to send me anywhere, or is that it? Do we just fade out?”
“…am I dead?”
“Oh God, that’s it, isn’t it? I’m dead. The cloud killed me. I’ve been wiped out by a fucking cloud. That’s… that’s the most ridiculous celebrity death since Rod Hull lost the signal to the Manchester United game. Oh God, I’m actually dead!”
A woman’s voice.
“Calm down, Bobby. You’re not dead yet.”
“Karren! Where have you been?”
“I’ve been tied up with a good book, I’m afraid. Simply haven’t had the time.”
“A book?! You left me in this sensory abyss for months for a book?”
“In my defence, it was a very good book. You’d like it.”
“I couldn’t give a toss if it was War and bloody Peace! Let me out of here!”
“Fine. Hold on.”
There was a swirling noise and then the feeling that my soul was being hauled out of my body by a giant sink plunger. My lungs were pulled against my ribs, my brain to the front of my skull. There was blinding light from all directions, burning, coruscating light. And then a thud that took the wind out of me. And the taste of grass in my mouth.
“Hang on, lads,” shouted a voice. “That looks a nasty one. You okay, Bobby?”
“Urgh,” I said. This never got any easier. I lifted my head up and rolled onto my side.
“Sorry, Bobby!” said Rob Lee, leaning over me. “I didn’t see you there. Are you okay?”
“Urgh,” I said again. “Head.”
“Get back out there, Rob,” said a voice. “I’ve got this. But remember; just another ten minutes. You are the keeper of your own destiny, if you like. But I don’t want you getting sunburned.” Big hands reached underneath my shoulders and hauled me to my feet. “Come on, Bobby. Let’s see what the damage is.”
“Glenn Hoddle?” I said, looking at him, resplendent in his England tracksuit.
“Oh dear,” he said. “Could be a bit of concussion. That’s all we need right now. Get yourself back into the changing rooms. Doctor Crane is in there with Gareth. We can’t lose you both on the same day. Go see the doc and then come with me to see Eileen. She’ll sort you out.”
“Okay,” I said groggily. “Okay, I know how this goes.” I turned away and left them to it, trudging towards the changing rooms on the edge of the pitch. And then a loud shout made me turn back.
“NO, NO, NO! How many times do I have to tell you, David?” shouted Glenn as he stomped across the pitch. “Not like that. Come on, it’s not difficult. You tee the ball up to yourself, catch it on the toes of your right foot, lift it over your own head while you turn a full 360 degrees, catch it on the inside of your left foot, hold the ball perfectly motionless, then hop twice, flick it up and wallop it with your right. Surely you’re good enough to do that?”
David Beckham stood forlornly on the pitch, hands on hips, head sagging.
“This is nice,” said Karren, from deep inside my head. “The south of France. The beginning of the summer. A nation’s hopes in the balance. A sweet and vulnerable David Beckham who needs to be looked after. I’m grown to cherish these moments, Bobby.”
“I’m glad one of us is enjoying this, Karren,” I said. “Personally, I’d rather just be back in the real world, managing a real football team.”
“You are in the real world, Bobby,” said Karren pointedly. “It’s just that you’re a pallid pile of flesh in a surgical gown that wouldn’t survive more than 30 seconds if there was a power cut.”
“You could just try to be nice, Karren. It really wouldn’t be that hard.”
“Precisely,” she snapped. “It wouldn’t be hard at all. It would be easy. So easy, in fact, that you could put your few remaining operational synapses on standby and glide through what little remained of your life before total shutdown. Would you like that? Or would you like me to continue pushing you and testing you in the futile hope that your mental pilot light ignites and you can go home?”
“Fine,” I groaned. “Carry on.”
“So, what have we got? It’s 1998, I’ve got that much. It’s the England training camp and Glenn Hoddle is the manager. They’re going to play three group games and then get knocked by Argentina on penalties.”
“Almost right,” said Karren. “They’ve already beaten Tunisia. They have Romania and Colombia left to play before, assuming that you don’t knock them off their stride and make things worse, Argentina in the second round.”
“The game they lost on penalties. So what do I do? You said when we went back to 1990 that some things were too powerful to be changed and that England getting knocked out on penalties was one of them. What’s the mission?”
“You have to figure that out for yourself, Bobby. Maybe you should ask yourself how England could possibly avoid going to a penalty shoot-out with Argentina?”
There was more commotion on the training pitch.
“NO, DAVID! I don’t want you to just cut inside and play the simple ball. I want you to land the ball on his instep from a range of 65 yards without breaking stride. Surely you’re good enough to do that?”
David Beckham stood silently, but his eyes were ablaze with a thousand fires.
“Ah,” I said. “I think I might know where to focus my efforts. Beckham was sent off, wasn’t he? Dismissed for a moment of furious petulance, lashing out at Diego Simeone. England were forced to play out the rest of the game with 10 men. They nearly did it too. I think I can handle this one, Karren.”
Back in the dressing room, I sat down quietly and watched Dr Crane work on Gareth Southgate’s ankle. It didn’t look good.
“You might be all right, Gareth,” he said. “But we won’t know until the morning. Chin up, son. At least it’s not broken. Now then, Bobby. Let’s have a look at this head. Don’t want you missing out either. The gaffer needs everyone fit for Romania, he’s been fretting about it again. Says he’s had one of his dreams.”
“One of his dreams?” I asked as he shone a bright light into my eye.
“Ah, you know how he gets. He reads a lot into his dreams. I try to tell him that it’s just his subconscious fighting with his digestive system, but he does like to consider that they might be premonitions. I hope he’s right. I had a dream that I slipped one to Ginger Spice last night. Ha ha!”
“Mmmm,” I mused. “Speaking of which, how do you think him and David Beckham are getting along?”
Dr Crane sucked air through his teeth like a mechanic presented with a mysterious and soon-to-be profitable oil leak.
“Well, that is a thing indeed, yes. David was very put out not to be included against Tunisia and he wasn’t happy about being paraded in front of the press afterwards either.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “And as you know, Bobby, he’s not going to be playing against Romania either. I thin-” The door opened and he fell silent.
“How are they, Doc?” asked Glenn.
“Well,” said Dr Crane. “Gareth has some nasty bruising, so he’s touch and go for Romania, but he should recover soon. There’s no major ligament damage.”
“Right,” said Glenn. “I’ll tell the press he’s in a medically induced coma and that his family are saying farewell. ”
“What?!” spluttered Dr Crane.
“Got to keep them guessing, Doc. Haven’t you read Sun Tzu? All warfare is based on deception. Get his wife over here and tip off the photographers. See if you can make her cry in the taxi, make it look good. Now, what about Bobby?”
“Erm… nothing more than a bang on the head. No sign of concussion, but best for him to take it easy for a couple of days. Bobby, if you get any headaches or dizziness, you come find me immediately, eh?”
“Thanks, Doc,” I said.
“Walk with me, Bobby,” said Glenn. “We have much to discuss, if you like.”
We left the changing room and strolled back to the hotel complex. You had to hand it to Glenn, he’d found us a lovely place to make camp in France. Neat lawns, clean buildings and absolute solitude. It was perfect. We even passed a huge games room filled with pool tables and arcade machines. The players, their training complete, sauntered around in flip-flops. We walked past and stepped into a smaller room on the side, with comfy chairs and piles of leather-bound books.
“Here again, Graeme?” smiled Glenn. “You and your books, you big book-head.”
Graeme Le Saux sighed.
“It’s just a Tom Clancy,” he said. “It’s actually really good, it’s all about submarines and politics.”
“Yeah, yeah, listen; can you give us the room?” Graeme nodded and went to put the book back. “You can take the book with you.”
“Not a bloody chance,” said Graeme grimly. “They’ll only try to flush it down the toilet again.” He carefully hid it behind a cushion and left the room, pausing only to let a small middle-aged woman through the door first.
“Eileen!” beamed Glenn.
“Glenn, ya lovely little bastard! ’Ow are ya?”
“Bobby, I want you to spend some time with Eileen. I know that you’ve always been a little dubious about this sort of thing, but I think it can really help. Especially after your bang on the head.”
“Ooooh, ’as he ’ad a bang on the noggin?” giggled Eileen. “I’ll soon set that right, donchoo worry.”
“Come on, Bobby,” said Glenn kindly. “Relax into it. I was a sceptic once, you know. But then Eileen laid her hands on me and I could see that it was my preconceptions that were holding me back. I’d created a prison of my own ignorance, if you like, but she was able to throw a rope ladder over the perimeter fence and help me to freedom.”
Eileen stepped forwards, her hands outstretched. I wasn’t so sure.
“It’s OK, Glenn,” I said. “Seriously. It’s just a bit of a knock. I’ll take a couple of paracetamol with a glass of water and I’ll be fine.”
“Bobby,” said Glenn, placing his hand on mine. “Do this for me. As a favour.”
Eileen moved around behind me and lowered me into my seat.
“Don’t you worry about a fing, Bob,” she said. “I’ve laid my healin’ hands on ’undreds of troubled noggins and the only bloke to complain was that tousle-haired ginger nugget that Glenn don’t pick no more. You’ll be fine, my sweetheart.”
I sighed and sat down in the seat. I felt her fingers curl into my hair and across my scalp.
“Mmmm,” she murmured. “I can feel the troubles already, Bob. You should’ve been to… oh.”
Her fingers tensed on my head for a moment.
“Everything all right up there?” I asked.
“Oh Bob…” she said quietly.
“Eileen?” said Glenn. “You’ve gone as white as a sheet, what’s wrong?”
“Oh….” she said in a small voice. “So many lives. So many short, short lives. And something else. SomeONE else.”
“I told you she was good,” said Glenn with a broad grin on his face.
“No…” said Eileen. “No, I won’t leave! Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?”
“Eileen?” said Glenn.
“What’s going on up there?” I said, trying in vain to turn my head against her steely grip. “And what’s that smell?”
“So much malevolence!” wailed Eileen. “Her eyes! She is terrible!” Her grip slackened off and she fell away.
“EILEEN!” cried Glenn and he jumped forward to catch her as she crumpled to the floor. There was a stench in the air, like rotten eggs left in the sunshine. I reached up and felt my head. My hair was singed and crunched in my fingers like dry grass.
The door crashed open. Martin Keown and David Batty ran in with pool cues in their hands. Behind them still more players craned in to see what was going on.
“What’s happening boss? What’s wrong with Mrs Drewery? Why is there smoke rising from Bobby’s head?” said Keown.
“She’s had a funny turn, Martin,” said Glenn, kneeling over her. “Get her a glass of water, will you?”
“She will come for it,” groaned Eileen groggily. “She will come for it. She will come for the people’s arena where the river meets the road. She cannot be stopped. She cannot… be… stopped.” Eileen’s eyes rolled back in her head and she fell silent.
“What an interesting woman,” said Karren quietly. “Weak, but interesting.”
Eileen wouldn’t come near me after that. Every time she saw me in the hotel, she’d let out a little squeal and rush off in the opposite direction. But we had bigger problems than a traumatised faith healer. Romania beat us 2-1 in the second group-stage game and our survival was at stake. Everything came down to the last match against Colombia.
“I don’t know what went wrong, lads.” said Glenn over coffee at our coaches meeting the next morning.
“I don’t know either, Mr Grimsdale!” gurned Peter Taylor.
Glenn stared at him.
“You’ve been warned about this, Peter.”
“It’s just one of those things, Glenn,” I said comfortingly. “It wasn’t a bad game, it was just a couple of mistakes and they both got punished. There’s no need to do anything dramatic. And look on the bright side. Young Michael Owen scored and David Beckham looked very comfortable in midfield. There’s a lot of promise in this team and there’s every chance that they’ll grow in strength as the tournament continues.”
Glenn looked up.
“I think we need more M People,” he said. “We’re searching for the hero inside ourselves, if you like, when we should be moving on up. And if we’re going to have our one night in heaven then it’ll certainly be a sight for sore eyes.”
“| don’t think that’s the solution, Glenn,” I said.
“Okay, it’s settled,” he said, standing up. “More M People. Thanks for coming, lads. I always welcome these little chats.”
After training that day, I took David aside for a talk.
“You’re okay, David. You’re doing well. You were great when you came on the other night and I’ve got a feeling that the boss is going to pick you against Colombia.”
David shook his head sadly.
“He hates me,” he said. “He’s always making me look silly in training. He does his fancy free-kicks and then shouts when I can’t do them as well as him! I do my own free-kicks, they’re good free-kicks too!”
“They’re great free-kicks, David. You keep doing them. Especially if you happen to get one against Colombia, OK? Promise me that. The boss just has his ways. He’s trying to keep your feet on the ground because he’s worried that the bewitching lure of celebrity is going to corrupt you.”
David looked at me with anger in his eyes. “That will NEVER happen! Why does everyone think that celebrity will change me? Elton John said the same thing to me when we was on Tom Jones’s yacht last summer. It makes me so angry.”
“Look, David,” I said. “The most important thing is that you keep your head. You can’t afford to get angry and, you know, lash out. The next time you get angry, why don’t you just shut your eyes and count to ten?”
“Well, that ain’t gonna work,” said David. “How am I supposed to see me fingers with me eyes shut?”
“Okay,” I conceded the point. “Maybe just keep your eyes open.”
He may not have seen the significance of my counting advice, but David certainly didn’t forget what I said about his free-kicks. He whipped one home in the first half to double the lead after Darren Anderton had smashed in the opener from a narrow angle.
“Not bad at all, David,” said Glenn afterwards. “I would have played a simple one-two from the dead ball, flipped up the return and put a bit of spin on the eventual finish, if you like, but your way wasn’t bad either.”
It was progress of sorts.
It’s funny, really. You would think that having seen the Argentina game already would make it less stressful, but that wasn’t the case at all. Argentina’s penalty after six minutes, England’s penalty after ten minutes. Michael Owen’s astonishing goal to put England in front. Javier Zanetti putting the finishing touch to a perfectly-worked free-kick just before the break. It was tense, nerve-racking stuff.
“Let’s just get them in and calm them down,” said Glenn as the half-time whistle blew. “I’ve got just the solution.” And with that, he sprinted down the tunnel and into the dressing room.
“Well done, lads,” I said as I stood by the door, patting them on the head. “Great goal, Michael. Keep at it, Alan.” They all trooped in and sat down on the benches as Dr Crane handed out energy drinks. Then all the lights went off and Glenn emerged from the shower room with a tray of lit aromatherapy candles.
“Peter,” he said quietly. “Hit the vibes.”
Peter Taylor pointed a remote control at the stereo in the corner of the room and the sound of a gently teased saxophone filled the room.
“Everyone take a candle,” said Glenn. “And just let the sound of Kenny G take you over. It’s from his Billboard chart-topping album The Moment and this is your moment, if you like.”
The players exchanged looks, but after a shrug and a nod from Alan Shearer, they began to hand the candles out among themselves. But David Beckham wouldn’t take one.
“Are you all right, David?” I asked him as G’s understated brass tones built to a thoroughly unsatisfying crescendo.
Veins were standing out on David’s head as he sat shuddering in the corner. He was digging his finger nails into the tops of his thighs, leaving marks in the skin.
“I… can’t… stand… Kenny… fucking… G…” he grimaced.
“Just try to relax,” I said. “It’ll be over soon.”
David breathed heavily through his mouth like a man trying not to vomit on a rollercoaster.
“I… am… so…. angry.”
“Relax, David.” I said. “Just try to count to 10, like I said.”
He turned to look at me, his eyes wide in the gloom.
“It’s dark, Bobby. How can I be sure that I’ll get it right?”
I had to stop the madness. I stepped over to Glenn and gave him a nudge.
“Boss? Don’t you think this is a bit much? Shouldn’t we just try to focus on the game? Maybe go over that free-kick and how to avoid it happening again?”
“No, Bobby. Kenny G really works. His soothing sounds settle even the greatest rage.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “Didn’t Paul Gascoigne smash seven shades of shit out of your hotel room when you put Kenny G on?”
“I’m not at home to negativity right now,” said Glenn. “Take a candle and sit down.”
I was so worried about the second half. And rightly so. Perhaps Argentina had sensed that David wasn’t quite right, that he could be targeted. They went for him straight from the whistle. The ball fell to him in the centre-circle, loose, in need of taming. For a moment, Beckham had it, moving into it, bringing it under control, shielding it with his body. And then a flash of dark blue and a heavy thump. Like an unmarked police car going through crates of watermelons in a 70s cop movie, Diego Simeone crashed into Beckham, knocking him flat on his face.
“Come on, David,” I hissed. “Hold it together. Hold it together.”
He lay still, his leg twitched for a moment, but then he relaxed. Referee Kim Milton Nielsen strode over, reached for his pocket and showed a yellow card to Simeone. The Argentine midfielder held his hands outstretched in front of him as if to say, “Who? Me?” Nielsen nodded and scribbled his name down.
“Yes!” I shouted. “Well done, David! Well done, son!”
Glenn turned and shot me a look.
“Well done? For getting fouled?”
“He didn’t react though, did he? That’s the thing. That’s the important bit.”
“Why would he react?” Glenn chuckled. “You’re an odd one, Bobby.”
Simeone shrugged at Nielsen and then stepped over to David, leaned towards him and whispered something in his ear. David pulled back, his face contorted with rage. And then he nutted him. There was a horrible crunching noise and Simeone fell to his knees trying to hold what remained of his nose onto his face. The Argentina players howled in rage, their bench rose as one and ran onto the pitch. It was chaos, people were pushing each other over, fists were raised, the crowd roared in fury.
Glenn just stood there, shaking his head sadly. He spat on the ground.
“I knew I should have handed out the life-force crystals as well,” he groaned. “Damn your impatience, Glenn Hoddle. Damn you.”
David slipped away from the melee, walking away with his eyes fixed on the tunnel. I left the bench and ran to him.
“David! What on earth were you thinking?!”
He looked at me. Tears wobbling in his eyes.
“Why does everyone say that about her? Why is everyone so obsessed? We did it that way ONCE and we didn’t even like it! It’s so unfair!”
I reached out a hand, but I seemed to pass right through him. The stadium around me, the supporters, the noise, it all began to melt.
“Karren!” I shouted.
“I’m sorry, Bobby. But it’s not just unsuccessful England penalty shoot-outs that cannot be changed. England must always have a scapegoat too. There must always be someone whose one moment of shame can be used to obscure widespread failings brought on by arrogance and insularity. You cannot fight nature. You were never meant to succeed here. You were only meant to try.”
“I just want to go home, Karren! I just want to go home!”
I fell, first into the grass and then down through the soil and into the earth, spinning viciously as I went. I was leaping. I was leaping through time and space. I hoped against hope that this leap would be my leap home. Oh boy, was I wrong.