To celebrate the World Cup (hurrah for having a World Cup), my (informal, semi-irregular) writing group issued a challenge to write a football-themed piece of flash fiction with a word limit of 500 words. The challenge culminated with ‘performances’ of each of the pieces at the Last Post pub in Guernsey on the evening of Wednesday 27th June, after the Brazil match. My piece was partly inspired by Cesar Aira’s short novel An Episode In The Life Of A Landscape Painter (the title, the horse) and came in about 12 words under the limit (let me know if you think there are some I could or should have squeezed in). Here it is:
Dmitri’s father’s preference was to sit high in the stands behind the goal and watch with steepled fingers to his lips, displaying neither joy nor anguish at the team’s fortunes, only enjoying the pattern of play as it created new shapes on the field, like a kaleidoscope.
For young Dmitri there was only one player worthy of attention – he felt the crowd behind the goal had a responsibility to support the keeper in front of them, regardless which team was attacking. Instinctively, he rejected the idea of the ball hitting the back of the net.
This was not to be what made him the most famous goalkeeper in the country, but it set him on a path.
Dmitri practiced diving, stretching his still-growing sinews to reach further. Studied angles. Became elastic, quick. Forced himself to be unafraid to get hurt. Coach praised his bravery; Dmitri knew it was merely devotion to a task. He was a function.
He was good, but not good enough. His fate (though fate had further plans) was that of the substitute goalkeeper, the back-up to be thrust suddenly into situations. Game after game of watching, waiting then – bam! – sliding for the ball, a striker’s studs thump into the number one’s sternum. This was a local derby, crowds upon crowds pressing down on the pitch. Dmitri was on.
He warmed his palms with a few smart saves, leapt above the jostle to collect a corner. His concentration was absolute. He had eyes only for the ball. When his team scored, he barely celebrated, just kept watching the ball as the game was reset. His team-mates’ ‘one’ did not affect his own pristine ‘zero’, but the crowd had erupted into thick smoke and popping fireworks.
Players ran one way then another, in the heat and noise the game seemed descended into madness. But there was something else.
A horse was on the pitch.
There it was, rearing up, wide-eyed, spooked. Dmitri saw it only as an apparition. The ball was still upfield, bouncing from one player to the next until one, in blind panic, launched it high towards Dmitri’s goal. The horse galloped goalwards. Surely the game had already been stopped.
The ball bounced once as it approached the penalty area; Dmitri judged it carefully; the horse kicked up little explosions of turf as it raced on; the noise of the crowd intensified and then went dead.
As Dmitri took the ball, the horse was upon him.
High in the stands, his father, steepled fingers to his lips, watched this strange and hideous turn of the kaleidoscope. The green pitch, the white ball, the bay horse, the hi-vis medics pouring past the different-shirted players.
Later, in the buzzing listlessness of the hospital he waited beside this braced and bandaged Picasso of his son – broken arm and pelvis, cracked ribs, punctured lung; the ball placed at his bedside.