The girl looked up and caught me staring at her. I turned away, to the chewing gum stand on the counter, and threw a packet of Wrigley’s among the rest of the shopping. She smiled to acknowledge the addition. She was covered up and all I could see of her was the oval of her pretty face and the small lively hands; I tried to imagine what kind of hairstyle she might have. Religious austerity was such a shame on this girl. Not to mention a total failure: wasn’t the point of it to deny lust and speculation? Both were rampant in me. I watched her pack my things into a plastic bag and noticed a gold band on her wedding finger. I thought about her going home to her husband, the nervy prelude of dinner and an hour in front of the television, before the bedroom and getting undressed, and the vulnerability she must surely feel. There was, I saw, an inverse to this, the public shyness becoming brash, maybe even slutty, in private. The total, she said to my chest, came to seven lira and ten pence. At the current exchange rate… They were practically giving the stuff away! How often had I been guilty of a similar mixing of languages, from making up for a deficiency – my Turkish was awful - to slipping in a cowardly cuss. I smiled at the girl, though pointlessly as she refused to meet my eye, and handed over the money (strictly in sterling).
It was another hot day, coming at the end of a May that was said to have broken records, and Green Lanes looked like it was melting; road and pavement became one as cars mounted kerbs and pedestrians walked through slow-moving traffic. My mother was expecting me home for dinner and I was in a rush. Stepping quickly through the crowds, I felt beads of sweat break and run down my back. I had never enjoyed being out in the sun, which some people thought odd for a Turk, as if melanoma was a birthright. As a child, when we still lived in Cyprus, it was mostly for my little sister Ayshe, who insisted we go together, that I would go to the beach. I remember the long and very boring days on the eggshell coloured sand of Salamis Bay, sitting under an umbrella, reading, napping, and occasionally running in for a manic splash. One afternoon my grandfather ruffled my hair and called me Ingiliz adam – Englishman - and said my parents were taking me to the right country. It was many years before I realised how out of date the reference had been; in my boyish vanity I’d smiled. The old man had passed away a long time ago, perhaps without ever seeing things weren’t like that anymore, the white-faced and straight-backed Edwardians we were used to seeing in the Forster adaptations having been replaced by the vomit to fuck-fest that is Club 18-30.
I saw the ‘Closed’ sign in the door of Expressly Orient, the travel agency where Ayshe worked; there were still a couple of minutes to go before closing time. “Oh come on,” I complained under my breath. Making a visor with my hands, I looked into an empty shop, and watched for distortions in the misted window of the office at the rear. I knew she sometimes hid there while getting ready to leave, doing her diligent best to avoid customers who might still turn up with a sob story or emergency for which they simply had to make a booking. I knocked on the door and shouted, “Anyone there?” There was, I thought, a shadowy movement inside, though maybe not. I took out my mobile phone and gave her a call, which went straight to voicemail. I left a message: “For fuck’s sake, where are you? I hope your battery’s not gone. Look, I’m supposed to be meeting Jade, so if you get this in time, say I had to stay back at work.” The plan - my plan – was for Ayshe to take the shopping home, along with an excuse for my absence. I swung round hoping I might still spot her in the crowds, my gaze coming to rest on the street corner she had already rounded. Across the road was the entrance to Finsbury Park, which held the curiosity of a baseball diamond, and the stands where I had sat late at night with girls when there was nowhere else to go. I shrugged, and ran to the tube station.
I first met Jade three months ago, when she walked into the Camden branch of American Classics looking for a part-time job. I noticed a young blonde browsing the denim, taking a casual interest in the garments and glancing about unsurely, a folder tucked under her arm. I was the assistant manager and was beginning to read the signs of a discriminating job hunter, who were usually rich white kids. In her black leather jacket, white T-shirt and denim shorts, she had something of classic America about her. I liked the way her long hair was tied up in a sexily carefree way, a few loose strands falling over her face. I went over to ask if she needed help with anything and she smiled, while taking in her surroundings one last time. Decision made. She reached for the folder and handed me a CV. Scanning her profile I caught the name and date of birth (she had just turned 18), and her thighs from over the edge of the paper; the highlighter of the mind ran over that bit, twice. One of the sales assistants, a… well an Australian, walked past, looked her up and down, stared at her arse, and drew a wide ellipse with his hands. He then made a fisting gesture. I nodded, as if either hiring her or entering her from behind was on the agenda. Certainly there were no vacancies. I was going to suggest she come back in a couple of weeks, nearer to Easter, when there would likely be an opening, and so I said, “You’re onboard!” There was a mutinous atmosphere for a while as I was forced to spread out work hours to include the new hire, and Jade was made to feel very uncomfortable. I did my best to avoid her and we hardly spoke for a while. Then one morning we found ourselves working together, refolding jeans on a trestle table, when after a long silence she asked whether I’d like to discuss my management skills over a drink, said with a pokerfaced sarcasm I would come to be familiar with.
Jade lived with her parents in a large terrace near Camden Lock. I got out at Chalk Farm tube station and took a walk through Camden market. The scruffy stalls, with their bright colours and ethnic patterns, the undercurrent of a black economy at work, reminded me of the central bazaar in Lefkosa, the city where I was born; although even here the sellers were timid compared to the hard-canvassing Turks. There was a small group of punks standing by the lock, drinking from 3-litre bottles of cider and giving out dirty looks. I often thought whether this lost bunch, and others like them, who seemed these days to only pop up in iconic areas of London, were on the British Tourist Board payroll. No less a part of life here were the street dealers up on the bridge. They were all young black guys and lines of Class A and C were reeled off as you crossed their path, making for a kind of a cappella. Just in front of me was a broad shouldered boy with a huge rucksack on his back. He and the girl he was with kept looking over to the dealers, though more with curiosity, I thought, than an eye to making a purchase. I wanted to tap them on the shoulder and say they’re historic, yes, but not monuments to be stared at. I noticed one of the dealers, a very dark teenager with the loose Afro and vacuum-packed facial skin of Somali heritage, had spotted their interest and brazenly strode over to walk alongside the girl. After a brief exchange of words she thanked him but declined. The dealer stopped and as I drew level he said, “You fucking cunt.” The girl’s friend turned back and asked what he’d just said. I thought that the Somali, and there had been many like him at my school, lived on the fringes of police custody or A&E, and wasn’t the kind to easily back down. I was by nature a nervous person, something I have always disliked about myself, and moved away from the confrontation, lengthening my stride. When I glanced back the other dealers had lined up behind their man, while the girl pleaded with hers to drop it. They turned and made off, with the hard-canvassing dealer shouting more abuse at them.
Jade opened the substantial green door and turned to stand with her back against it, pushing her head out for a kiss as I came through. The wide and high hall, lit by the westerly sun, which gleamed in the windows of the conservatory at the rear, proved a fast-working antidote to the goings on down the road. I slipped one of my trainers off, and had my toes curled up on the heel of the other when I paused, biting my bottom lip at what was to come. Jade giggled and congratulated me for the progress I was making - she meant remembering it wasn’t necessary to remove my shoes here while I still had one on. “When you come over to my place,” I said, “you’ll have to get your smelly feet out, I hope you know that.” The sense that I had, in some way, just invited her over, or at least gave the impression it was inevitable, made me sensitive to the subject and I was eager to move on. My apprehension then gave way to a semi hard-on at the thought of smuggling her in for a quickie while my mother was out or, more hazardously, and more excitingly, asleep. A door on the right led through into the kitchen and from there we crossed over into the bright lounge. I put the shopping down and was about settle into the armchair when Jade contrived to make a cough sound like ahem! I looked round and saw her patting the space next to her on the sofa. She said, “Any pressies for me in that bag?”
“Yeah, there are actually. I got you a jar of tahini, some dried mint, and a pound of okra.”
“Mm, all my favourites.”
“You get much done today?” I asked.
She blew a puff of air and said, “I’m on revision overload at the moment. Doesn’t matter how many times I read a text it refuses to make sense.” Jade was taking her A-levels and had I given her three weeks off from work; secretly I was hoping she wouldn’t return. “Thank God it’ll be over in a few days. Then I can come back to the shop. Full-time,” she added with the knowing grin of a sadist.
I said, “Err, I don’t think so, honey, you’ve caused me enough trouble as it is,” and leaned over to give her a conciliatory peck on the cheek. Her cool, taut skin left a remarkable sensation on my lips and I stayed near her face. She turned round and we began to kiss, in a self-contained, slightly clumsy way, and even her hand wandered doubtfully over my back, before finding solace in my hair. I pulled back and kissed the tip of her nose, then each eye, and said, “You’re messing up my hair.”
“Not vain at all, are you?” She put her hand on the side of my face then got up and walked over to the kitchen, jumping up and sliding herself over a worktop, apparently to open a drawer on the other side. It seemed easier to go around, so I had the impression of being teased with the sight of her arse, and when she wriggled forward it like I was being challenged. At times I wanted to be more assertive with her, a fact I think she understood, and the semaphore signal from the kitchen was an encouragement for me to do something different. From the first time we held hands to the kiss on our second date, and the blowjob she gave me in Finsbury Park, Jade was always the one who had taken the initiative. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her she was only the second girl I had been with, and if I was being cautious in this and other things, it was down to feeling prudish with love.
I was getting up when Jade pushed herself off and came back holding two cereal bars, one of which she threw over to me. Picking up the television remote control from the coffee table, she flicked through a series of on-screen menus, and came to a football game.
“We don’t have to watch this,” I said.
“I don’t mind if you don’t. Ar-se-naal, Ar-sen-al.” The chant, accompanied with a pumping fist, was quite authentic, and convinced me I wasn’t being humoured.
“I didn’t know you were into football.”
She said, “Never came up, I guess. How ’bout you, who do you support?
“No one, not any more anyway; kind of lost interest in it a while back.”
I was looking at the television, though what I saw was a miserable representation of that being shown. “I used to play in the Sunday leagues. And you know what, I wasn’t half bad, had loads of tricks, could play like Maradonna…. Well, a tiny bit like him,” I let out a laugh and noticed Jade turn away from the television to look at me. “Actually I think even Maradonna would have struggled in the slaughterhouse of Hackney Marshes. Show some ability down there and you get chopped to pieces, so every week turned into a fight for life. The whole thing got on my nerves after a bit and put me off football in general.”
“Did you want it as a career,” said Jade, “is that why you ended up so bitter and twisted?”
“Yeah, I… oh ha-ha. Seriously, though, I think everyone having a go at the weekends believes it might happen.” I had seen them all at one time or another, from the pot-bellied to the pensionable, still hoping for a nod from one of the scouts who regularly trawled the Marshes. “I do go and watch now and again, but no more than that.”
She patted my thigh and said, “It’s all right, baby, in the absence of Thierry Henry you’ll do for me.” When I made a face she reached over and kissed me on the cheek, where I was sure she had deposited a crumb of food, and whispered in my ear that I would more than do. We began to kiss again and I made tentative approaches into her mouth with my tongue. I then dived for the back of her throat. When she pulled away there was a pinkish outline around her lips. I pursued her but then the front door was slammed shut, startling me. I must have made a silly face because Jade began laughing, in that way of hers while covering her mouth, as if her astonishing smile was a dental disaster. “It’s next door,” she said. “Not that it matters; I’ve already told you my parents don’t mind you being here.” Shaking her head, she switched the television to stand-by and stood up, offering me a hand. We went across the hall to the stairs, where she stroked my forefinger with her thumb before letting go. Following her like this, in silence and into bed, gave me a mental twitch, a lust-quenching sense of the farcical, that I was about to fumble away my first time with a woman of experience. It was only momentary and I was breathing deeply, my pulse heavy with the almost better than sex anticipation of sex. From the landing I saw a billowed net curtain in the master bedroom, an iron bed, a side table, and not much else, what my mother would have considered a little used guest-room. In Jade’s room I went and stood by the window, and she followed, putting her arm around my waist. There was an exercise bike down on the lawn, which she had told me the whole family used; I thought I would be too self-conscious myself. It must make you look ridiculous from over the fence of a neighbouring garden.
“I can’t hang around too long,” I said, and heard Jade tut.
“My sister’s out tonight… I’ve told you about my mum, haven’t I?” I followed the contrail of a jet.
“No, I don’t think you’ve told me anything at all about her.”
“I thought I had.”
“What is it?”
“She’s actually quite sick.”
“Yeah, she needs us to look after her.”
It was a lie I had become accustomed to telling.
Normally I loved taking the Tube home after being with Jade, finding my self-satisfied patience the ideal way of dealing with the crowds. Then there were times like today, stuttering along a frenzy of red signals, in a sweltering carriage, and surrounded by a group of oversized American tourists who wheezed and sucked pitilessly at the precious air. They were like parodies of themselves, with their sock-sandal combinations, tent sized T-shirts, and grating friendliness. I was sitting at the end of the row, my head resting against the transparent barrier, pretending to be asleep in case they tried to engage with me. Through lash-blurred slits I could make out Jacquelyn, the redhead sitting opposite, who was squinting at the Tube line above my head, while using a Lonely Planet guidebook to fan her face and enormous tits. I wondered where they could possibly be going on a north bound Piccadilly train; I couldn’t imagine that pathetic diamond at Finsbury Park would attract even a passionate baseball fan. And what was ahead, Arsenal, Bounds Green, Southgate: names that might suggest preserved relics of a warring past but which were beyond dull residential. Maybe they were out exploring and had been tricked by the misleading ratios of the London Tube map. “…In London of all places, I mean, can you believe it, no air cahn.” I opened my eyes to Jacquelyn’s swollen ankles. I expected her to make some remark about Rip Van Winkle finally coming round. The train began to slow and I had a look through the window, where my stop, Turnpike Lane, flashed into view.
I got home and took my shoes off, pushing them to the head of a line against the skirting board. My mother came out of her room and asked where I’d been until now.
“It isn’t eight already, is it?” I said, though my shaky Turkish failed, I think, to carry the note of sarcasm I’d intended. “Something came up at work and I had to go in.” I turned my palms up to say I was unhappy but powerless. “I asked Ayshe to let you know.”
Ayshe came over. “I said you had something important to do,” she said, and I handed her the bag of shopping. She stood up and stared at me, and in English added, “Thanks for your lovely message, by the way.” She was used to covering for me, she who otherwise never lied to our mother, and who could anticipate my motives and movements. It bothered me that I kept putting her into compromised positions, but Ayshe never complained, apart from the odd cynical remark, and I carried on taking shamefaced advantage of her: she was far more likely to be believed than me.
My mother started talking about some photographs which had arrived in the post earlier, and wanted me to look at them with her. She had a piece of dark grey fabric draped over her shoulder, the hem of which she was playing with as she talked. She was a seamstress and regularly machined late into the night. There was an ancient Singer sewing machine in her bedroom and it was incredible how she handled it, this iron giant, as it thundered and shook the walls, and could produce delicate garments of light cotton or silk.
My room was at the end of the hall, past Ayshe’s tidy little nest - not that mine wasn’t, but only thanks to my mother’s intervention each morning. The shirts and jeans I had tried on in various combinations before work, and left in a heap on the bed as time was running out, had been put back into the wardrobe. The privacy I was once so determined to have, and which was the cause of endless arguments with my parents, I had pathetically renounced after starting work. I put my keys on the desk and stood there a moment, looking out of the open window, on a view almost entirely filled by the two grey tower blocks opposite, their grubby faces spotted with satellite dishes.
Ayshe and my mother were sitting side by side in the front room, my mother’s hands resting on a bunch on photographs. A Jiffy bag dropped through the letterbox two or three times a year, an endless flow of marriages, births and circumcision parties from a large family in Cyprus. It never failed to amaze me, the lightning speed with which the islanders lived their laidback lives. I sat down next to my mother and threw an arm over her shoulder, then annoyed Ayshe with a flick of her ear. We were told to keep still and my mother took out the photographs. The top one was of a crying baby. It really was the most worthless of pictures, neither endearing nor informative; I could only think it was taken as a future testimony of parental hardship, and what a self-important reason that was. Ayshe cooed and pretended to stroke the fat cheeks of the month-old, who belonged to two people I had never heard of. Next up were the two people I had never heard of, in a black and white studio portrait. My mother was gushing with admiration for the cousin who had married and built a nest for himself, and so soon. There was one of Hassan, my older brother, lying on the beach, his face in too much shadow to tell of any significant changes, though the goatee moustache was new. When he was young he fancied himself as a martial arts expert, going by the stupid, and self-inflicted nickname of Turk Lee, which eventually stuck in a less provocative abbreviation. “Lee,” I said softly, and wondered if something of my brother’s lean physique, obscured here by a beach ball, had also remained. We hadn’t seen each other in the seven years since he moved back to Cyprus, where he swapped his pounds for the inert Turkish lira to open a grocery business. He was thirty now, and had already been married for a while by the time he was my age. There were moments I resented the distance between us, resented him for opening it up, at a time we needed him so much. Taking a deep breath, my mother pensively caressed the face in the picture with her finger, and then slipped the photo to the bottom of the pack. Next there was a chubby girl, with a fair few spots the soft focus had failed to gloss over, and frazzled hair tied back. She was laughing, almost manically, as though at a deftly timed punch line by the taker; the eyes, though, they seemed detached from the fun.
“Beautiful girl, don’t you think?” said my mother, and turned the picture in my direction, as if recognising my instincts on such matters and seeking judgment.
This threw her and she took another look, holding it out into the range of her long-sightedness. “She’s not very bad,” was the new, drastically downgraded, verdict. Behind the fat girl was an attractive brunette standing outside, her eyes narrowed in the sunlight, a gauze of hair blowing across her face. As I stared at the picture its affected look of surprise gave way to a calling-card eroticism. I said, “Now she’s a beauty.”
“You’re so predictable,” said Ayshe poking my shoulder.
“Actually,” I said in English, “your little friend’s been looking good lately. I’m thinking about asking her out.”
“Ismet’s got better taste than to go out with a loser like you,” she said with unexpected venom.
I laughed out and then as I was clearing the non-existent tears from my eyes said, “You’re so funny, really.”
My mother was holding out the brunette’s picture, playing with it to catch a better light. “You’re right, she is pretty this one. Twenty-two years old. A villager originally, but educated at Ankara university.”
“What is she a cousin or newly married into the family?” I asked, and thought how many new faces had been added over the years, all of them unknown to me except through the brief résumés given by my mother. As for those I had once cared about, relationships so easily rekindled during summer holiday visits, that was now a dark place, and although I’d never admit it to my mother, I really didn’t give a shit about the goings on back home.
My mother said, “Could be a new one. Yes, could be.”
It took a second or two for her words to register. I sighed and let my head fall back. “For me?”
I glanced at Ayshe, who had covered her mouth not to laugh, though her eyes were rolling about on the floor in hysterics. The concept of an arranged marriage held no fear for me, as it might young Pakistanis and Indians, and in fact I believed in it as something to fall back on for the Quasimodo’s of this world. I just happened not to be among them.
“The problem is she might not be willing to relocate here,” said my mother, as if that was the only stumbling block, and after a moment’s consideration of the dilemma she added, “You could always move back home.”
“I’m not getting married,” I said, “and especially not through an Argos catalogue of women.”
Ayshe reached across and tried to grab the photographs from my mother. “Anyone in there for me?” She had her hand slapped away, and my mother said:
“I know you two find our ways funny, but I don’t, so please show me some respect.”
“I need the toilet,” said Ayshe getting up, and virtually ran out of the room.
“Thanks for your support!” I shouted after her.
With force my mother put the brunette back into the pack and shoved the whole lot back inside the plastic wallet. “I hope you’re not getting close to this new one of yours. And I hope you weren’t with her earlier, not when you promised me you would be back early.”
“Of course I wasn’t. And her name is Jade.”
“I don’t want to know her name, these are the girls I am interested in,” she said holding up the wallet, which made me wonder how many more were in there. “And so should you be.”
“Look, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but maybe it isn’t for me.”
She took my hand and pulled it into her lap. “I often wish we had never left our beautiful home, otherwise you would never say such things. No one is forcing you to take a particular girl. You arrange to meet, be together for while, and only if you like each other are things taken forward.”
I knew well how it worked, remembering Hassan’s deliberations after such, chaperoned, dates. With my mother he was ambivalence personified, all shrugs and “hmm”s in response to her listing the positives – good manners, homely girl, affluent family – while later with me he was a bit more forthcoming – zero personality, crooked teeth, no tits, I mean, really, Um, what the fuck am I supposed to do with that? One night he came home and I knew, from his smugly calm state, that he had finally found the right girl. But had the girl found the right guy? In the patriarchal past the decision would have been my brother’s alone, but we’re Turks, the straddlers of cultures and continents, fine-line treaders between tradition and rights, all of which is another way of saying we’re a confused lot, neither here nor there, or I suppose in both places at once, so tradition plus rights added up to the girl having the final say on a marriage with Hassan. And what she said was no thanks. When my mother told him the bad news he got into a right strop and said that from now on any arranging would be done by him personally. He was going clubbing to find his wife.
“Anyway,” I said, “I’m not ready, so let’s not talk about.”
“You’re twenty-four,” said my mother. “By the time you meet and arrange things you’ll be a bit older. The engagement and wedding will take longer still. If you’re not careful you’ll be single and thirty. Then no one will want you,” she added.
“Jade will,” I said, in a recklessly flippant way, though with an idea the jolt would skew the conversation. We looked at each other, me smiling, my mother with crossly tense lips, the kind you might make for a reluctant kiss.
She said, “You can be really stupid sometimes, do you know that?” I nodded, and she turned away. We sat in silence for a moment. “I made your favourites, kofte and dolma, and hummus without the tahini you didn’t bring to me in time.”
“I don’t mind it that way.”
“They’ve gone cold, of course, but I’ll put them under the grill for you.” She squeezed my hand before giving it back, then got up and left the room, taking the photographs with her.
The following afternoon I took Jade on a date to watch Sunday League football. Hackney Marshes is set over a large ground, but never gives any sense of calm, having little or no insulation from the surrounding A-roads and industrial estates. Passing by in a car, the grassy expanse looks well groomed and level, though is anything but, not only lumpy underfoot but also undulating, so each pitch poses its own problems when playing football. The only feature of the grounds is a serpentine waterway (though the Serpentine it ain’t!), complete with rusty footbridges and at certain times of day the stench of sewage. The place is as ugly as the football played on it.
We arrived half-an-hour after the three o’clock kick-off, avoiding the frenzied scramble of a dozen teams taking up their positions all at once. Between the thundering lorries and the playing fields there is a gravel surface on which rest several brick sheds, know also as the ‘Changing Rooms’. The memory of these dreary spaces in the winter, the freezing cold sapping any desire I had to play football - I would sit on the bench, fully clothed and clutching my kit bag, a lethal cocktail of Deep Heat and deodorant spray burning the back of my throat – sent a shiver through me. The first game we came to was hosting a good Sunday League crowd; two groups of supporters, managers and substitutes, about ten in total, were lined up on opposite touchlines. Play had stopped, for what looked like an injury, and the teams were idling around. I noticed some conferring, furtive and prankster-like, along one of the touchlines, and a suited man stepped forward, shouting at the other group that their team was even nastier than the coffee they served. I translated for Jade and explained that most of the teams here, unlike their alcohol influenced English counterparts, are sponsored by cafés and restaurants, and not pubs.
“Does that mean you get names like Starbucks Rovers?” she asked.
As we were making our way behind one of the goals, the game resumed and an attack quickly closed in, so we paused behind the net. A wild shot saw the ball fly over our heads and end up near the changing rooms. Disgusted with himself, the tall striker punched his thighs and cursed in Turkish.
“Wasn’t that the first word you taught me?” said Jade, and gently elbowed me on the arm.
There were many more games being played further in, the depth of fantasy showing in ever shrinking figures in row after row of pitches. Walking along a narrow channel, I kept an eye on the games either side of us. I said, “Got to be a bit careful round here, otherwise you’ll get your head knocked off.”
“So these are all Turkish teams?” asked Jade.
“The ones playing here are, but anyone can play for them. There’s even a transfer system, of sorts.” I was watching two players sprinting for a ball not far from where we were. “Instead of money, jobs are offered, so if you’re ok you might be enticed with a management or a maitre d position…” I stopped and grabbed Jade by the arm as the two men cluttered into each other and fell to the ground right in front of us. “Though if you lose form it’s the dirty dishes.” Getting up the guy on top deliberately planted his foot in the other man’s groin. The downed player screamed and flexed into a foetal coil – it made me flinch and raise one knee up. His nearest teammate came running over, shouting, “Nedir yaptigin you fucking bastard!” I took a few quick paces backwards, taking Jade with me, as several others rushed in. The referee’s whistle was impotent in the following scuffle and it was a few minutes before the teams were separated and the game could resume.
“Bloody hell,” said Jade, “is it always like this?”
“Pretty much, and they pay for the pleasure after the game.”
Nearing the last set of games, I pointed to a team in a retina disturbing yellow and green kit, saying that was my old club, and we stopped to watch. Beyond the pitch, over on the other side of a busy road, was a cluster of tower blocks, and the balconies from where the games gained a few distant spectators. Standing to my right was a middle-aged man in a tracksuit and two substitutes doing kick-ups. I walked over to ask the older guy what the score was.
Without looking at me he said, “Two-nil to the whites.”
“This was my team up until last season,” I said, “I used to play central midfield.”
The man’s eyes rolled to the top of his head, then across and down, as if following an imaginary up-and-under: it was that facial looseness of a mental enquiry, a recollection maybe that up until last season this team were pretty damn good. He said, “You a decent player, then?”
“I’m not bad.”
“I manage this lot now, so if you fancy coming back let us know.” He slapped his forehead at something on the pitch I hadn’t seen. “And if you know anyone who can play in goal…”
I looked around to find the accused, barely able to make him out in a congested penalty area, where bodies were fizzing with competition as they waited for a corner kick to be taken. A curving ball zipped into the box, and my friend Mustapha, barging people out of the way, dived to get it. He completely missed and ended up sprawled on the ground, while the ball fell to a surprised white shirt, who then thumped it over the bar. Mustapha jumped up and swung his head around looking for the ball, that normally dependable face in a state of confused anxiety.
“He’s playing like a donkey,” said the manager throwing his arms into the air, as if in supplication to the god of goalkeepers. “A donkey!”
I walked back to Jade and said, “That guy over there is one of my best mates,” and then cried out across the field, “Oi, goalie, keep your fucking eyes open next time!”
Having finally spotted the ball, Mustapha now sought the critic. He seemed affronted and ready to challenge what I considered a fair comment, until he realised it had come from me. He smiled, and then stuck out his hand to give me a middle finger, which was more or less tamed by the padded glove. While he was off getting the ball, my old teammates waved and said hello, one having a moan at me about how crap they’d become in the space of one season (a dig clearly directed at the new manager, who I heard reply in a low voice that he was a son of a bitch), another friend suggested I get some kit on. Jade barely got a second look, testifying to the seriousness on display.
“Nice of you to show him some support,” said Jade.
“I did think we might run into him today, his company used to sponsor one of these teams,” I said watching Mustapha line up a goal kick, doubtful planned and actual trajectories were about to match.
“His company?” asked Jade.
The moment the ball left the ground it was clear trouble lurked for the stripes, the angle was too great, the pace not enough, and so it made a parabolic arc, landing well short of the halfway line, and immediately putting his side on the defensive.
I said, “Look at that, the guy’s useless.”
“Come on, he’s not that bad,” said Jade kindly.
“He owns a company which makes zips. Well, technically it belongs to his father, but Musy – Mustapha - more or less runs it. We used to be next door neighbours but they’re loaded these days and live in a huge house up in Muswell Hill.”
When hurting each other was so important to us, my mother would constantly hold up Mustapha’s success to illustrate what a failure her own family were. I frowned at the potential for more unfavourable comparisons being made in two weeks: Mustapha was getting married.
At half time, and with the score miraculously unchanged, Musy jogged over to where the team bags were, grabbed a drink, and ambled down the touchline.
“I don’t know why you need that,” I said gesturing at the fast emptying bottle of Lucozade. “You haven’t done anything.”
Ignoring me, Mustapha went straight to Jade. “Don’t tell me a chick like you’s going out with this loser.”
Jade sighed despair. “Afraid so.”
I made the introductions, “Mustapha, Jade, Jade, Mustapha: A. K. A. the worst goalkeeper in the world.”
“Musy,” said Mustapha, and offered her a massive gloved hand. “Oh shit, sorry.” He held it between his knees to pull out. “Nice to meet you, sweetheart.”
“He’s awful, isn’t he?” said Jade. Mustapha gave her a long, unblinking look, and nodded, as if he expected nothing less, which made Jade add, “If it makes you feel any better, I thought you did really well.”
In a sudden eruption of confidence, Musy inflated his chest. “I’m just getting my eye in, you wait till the second-” he was interrupted by someone barking out his name, and we all looked round to find the other players standing in a loose group around their manager, who was holding his hips and staring at Mustapha. “I suppose I should go over there,” said Musy.
“Yeah, I think that’s not a bad idea,” I agreed.
“But you two stay where you are, I’ll be back soon.” The moment he walked over they began arguing among themselves. It was uncomfortable to watch, not least because I might find myself getting dragged in, so I tried talking to Jade, but she was absorbed in the drama of insinuation and strategy rethought, and completely ignored me. A few minutes later Mustapha came back, with an orange slice between his teeth. He cleaned the last bit of flesh from the rind and threw it away, then put a fresh one in its place.
I was shaking my head. “You’ve come to keep goal, not have a fucking picnic.”
“I need to keep my energy up for all that diving around, don’t I?”
“So you’ll be coming out for the second half?” I asked, quite seriously.
“Course I will,” he said. “Besides, I’m the only goalie they’ve got.”
“Well make the most of it, all this will come to an end in two weeks,” I said, which was ammo, once I filled Jade in about the upcoming wedding, to the collusion between her and Mustapha; I was happy to be attacked if it encouraged their friendship.
“Shut up, that’s a rubbish attitude,” said Jade, and then to Mustapha, “Congratulations.”
“Cheers. You’re invited as well, by the way,” said Musy, and then caught sight of me grimacing. “Just, err, you know, let us know in advance so I can get extra seating sorted. The missus invited tons, like, tons of people. Not that I’m complaining or anything… Yeah.”
I said, “Thanks,” less for Jade’s invite than the doubt he had left with the backtracking, one I could work with to make sure she wouldn’t go.
“Sure, I’ll get in contact through Um. Thanks,” said Jade cheerily.
Mustapha turned to me. “I can’t wait to see Ahmet.”
“What time do you think he’ll be back?”
“Late afternoon, I think. Depends if they come by train or car; you know how his old lady makes them drive at a crawl.”
“I’m sure he’s going to have some interesting stories to tell.” A whistle was blown and we all looked round, though it was to restart the game being played on the adjacent pitch. “Leave out the buggering jokes though, will you,” he said, in a sombre tone, and couldn’t resist a smirk at his own advice.
“I wouldn’t be so insensitive,” I said. “Straight away.”
Mustapha put his gloves on and punched them tight. “Unfortunately I can’t get round to see him tomorrow, but I’ll give him a buzz, break the news of the wedding. You guys hanging around?”
“Yeah, for a bit longer,” I said. “Look, if you need help with the wedding let me know.”
“Nice one, mate. I think we’re ok but I’ll keep it in mind.” The referee called time, and Mustapha turned to Jade. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Yeah, likewise,” she said, and as he was sprinting up the field shouted after him, “Good luck with the game!”