I played five-a-side football last night for the first time in a couple of months. In fact, only eight of us turned up, so it was an exhausting and traumatic four-a-side. I’m not very good, but I try my hardest. I get up and down. I stick a foot in. I dog the more gifted players, hoping that my huge, sweating bulk may at least distract them from exercising some fancy piece of footwork, a trick or flamboyant pirouette – the sorts of things that hadn’t even been invented when I was learning the game, as a schoolkid in Leeds. Back them I was a rampaging centre-forward, an early growth spurt putting me a head above the other urchins. My one trick was to kick the ball past the defender and run after it. Later on I learned the ‘Cruyff turn’, and would employ it frequently, for no real benefit to anyone. But those glory days are well behind me, and now I’m easily the worst of the regulars.
Anyway, after ten minutes I was knackered. After an hour, broken in body and soul. As broken as Brexit, as the Middle East Peace Process. But the real pain came, as I knew it must, with the morning. Every particle of my being ached. Even my hands and scalp felt beaten. It was as though I had a groin-strain that extended from its natural homeland to cover the whole of me. The day-after pain of sport at my age is as uncomfortable as a serious illness – it’s like a hard dose of the flu. You know it’ll only last a couple of days, and that helps. A little.
So I thought I’d try to get myself moving by wandering down for a coffee on the high street, here in West Hampstead. Each step provoked a groan. But, with my usual courage and fortitude, I made it, and sat outside a café in the weak sunshine, reading my London Review of Books, in case anyone attractive and brainy should pass by in a mood to be impressed.
It was time to go, and I hauled myself up, a process as prolonged and painful, it felt, as the construction of the pyramids by the enslaved Hebrews. Then, on my way back, I realised that I was walking behind a vaguely familiar figure. This area has quite a few residences for people with mental health issues. I’d seen this fellow before. Bald, huge, dressed in leisure clothing, he had something wrong with his legs – oedema, or swelling of some kind – as well as obvious psychiatric issues. He was a mumbler and gesticulator, a converser with imaginary folk. Every few steps he would look up to the heavens, and rub his face with his hands, as if performing some religious ablution. We were walking at the same speed, my football-related incapacity matching his own physical problems, and so I neither caught him up, nor fell further behind.
And then it struck me that as I’d been limping heavily along, I’d been rehearsing what I was going to say at my creative writing class in the evening. Flamboyant hand gestures had accompanied my learned ejaculations, on the correct (and incorrect) degree of detail needed in a piece of descriptive writing, on the time for simile (comedy) and metaphor (tragedy). And to an observer, it must have looked precisely as though I were mimicking and mocking the shambling character before me. So I stopped, meaning to let him get further away. But he chose that moment to attempt to tie the laces on his boatlike shoes. And then when I tried to overtake him, he sprang back up, with surprising agility, and we resumed our grotesque ballet. The builders on the scaffolding outside our block observed our approach, and turned away, embarrassed by such a crass, bullying, tasteless attempt at humour on my part.
‘Good walk?’ asked Mrs McG when I got in.
‘I accidentally made fun of a disabled person,’ I replied, but she wasn’t listening.