BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
My dad had Alzheimer’s. Mam always said he had ‘wandered’ but I couldn’t use that phrase without thinking of the Dion Dimucci song. Funnily enough, it was a staple on Smooth radio which always seemed to be on as she permanently wiped things for hand marks in the background. She was like a forensic scientist in reverse my Mam, a serial killer’s dream. I knew she mopped up her tears too. On occasions like that, when she stared out of the window like she was frozen, I would tell her I would take dad out in his wheelchair. The Hartlepool air seemed to focus him. Little wonder; as the salt of the breeze was like taking sandpaper to your cheekbones or being stood in one of those wind machines they trained American astronauts in.
He was usually quiet when we went outside. We were always left alone to each other, apart from the odd person who would come up whenever they recognised him. Dad had played football for Hartlepool United back in the day. He’d left them for dead on the left wing like a cruel con man running off with someone’s savings. There hadn’t been many heroes at Victoria Park but he had been one of them. He refused to go now. ‘They’re haunted by their own feet,’ he would say. ‘Life is depressing enough.’
We would walk across the old estates. The ones the private landlords had ruined. Every house had broken blinds and there always seemed to be a decapitated Barbie in a bush overgrown. They were like witchcraft symbols to scare the bailiffs off. They gave the streets a haunted feel. Sure enough, as we turned a corner we saw an addict looking like a angry ghost, crouched untidily against a wall. The bones in his face looked like the edges of Argentina on a map. It made me want to turn around and go home, but Dad would have none of it. He looked furious at the prospect. He had plans for us both apparently.
‘Go home. Don’t you know what day it is.’
‘Call yourself a football fan. Today is the day. It’s Johan Cruyff’s funeral.’
Cruyff had been dead for a few years. He had also been Dad’s favourite footballer. Even now he watched old clips of him on YouTube that made him purr with happiness. His theory on the great Dutchman was he never touched the centre of the ball but caressed at the outsides. That’s how he got his angles apparently. Dad said people like Cruyff were the reason he believed in God. ‘The random universe couldn’t throw up something like that. He was sheer beauty.’
It was then I noticed he had an orange handkerchief in his jacket pocket. It bent in the wind as if it was guiding us. We walked the short distance to the cemetery. It felt as though there was malediction occurring.
When we arrived at the entrance, Dad suddenly saw Johnny Rep.
‘Wheel me over.’
‘Don’t worry. I won’t embarrass you,’ he said
I did as he said and he asked Johnny about that famous goal against Scotland. The World Cup screamer that broke hearts north of the border.
‘Was it a toe poke or an instep Johnny? I’d bet all you footballers tattie-ender it from time to time’, he said.
Johnny Rep looked at him blankly. He was wearing blue overalls and smoking a Benson and Hedges down to his knuckle. Dad would later say it was sad that a world class footballer was reduced to painting railings for Hartlepool Council. He excused his lack of conversation for languor.
‘He must get sick of talking about it.’
‘Plus, he was always in Cruyff’s shadow.’
I agreed with him on that point and wheeled him inside. The sun was already beginning to wind down in the distance. I struggled to move us both through the dead leaves, as the sky suddenly looked bruised and unkempt like an old shopfront. My arms ached. It made me think I should join Fitness First or get some oil for the wheels – I already knew it would be the latter.
Just then I saw there were figures on the far side of the graveyard. Silhouettes stood silently like they had been painted into the background by a master.
I was hoping that Dad wouldn’t see them but his eyesight was suddenly like that of a marksman. He pointed a long, bony finger and motioned at me excitedly to wheel him over.
‘There’s Johan Neeskens and Rinus Michels,’ he said. ‘They look as though they’re having a minute’s silence for El Flaco.’
I pushed Dad over to where the group stood. Rinus Michels had a neck tattoo and scratched his backside from time to time as if he was bored. Johan Neeskens, however, wept openly. His tears fell down his fluorescent work jacket, at the paws of a shivering Jack Russell. They both looked at us inquisitively.
‘Did you know John then?’ The latter man said as the Jack Russell went scrabbling after something.
‘Only from a distance,’ Dad said.
‘But he was a genius alright. An artisan. He had wonderful trajectory.’
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