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Chasing Ghosts: His Little Black Book

by Steven Fitzgerald about a year ago in football

A record of revenge

"I beg your pardon?"

"I'd like to give you one thousand dollars."

"But why?" Mrs. Beckett asked. "You don't even know me."

Douglas gave a small cough, clearing his throat, and embarked upon telling the lie he had already told nine times before.

"In his will, my father specified that - following his death - he wanted all of his medals, and other memorabilia, to be sold. Half of the profits were to be distributed among his children. The other half was to be given to the ten players he most respected from his playing days. Your late husband was one of those players."

Mrs. Beckett stared at him, her grey eyes boring into him. For the briefest of moments, she flicked her gaze downwards, towards his heart. Towards the...

"How do you know?" she asked, lifting her eyes to stare back at him. "How do you know he respected Malcolm."

"My father had a list," Douglas replied, looking down at the cup in his hand. "Your husband's name is on it."

Mrs. Beckett sat back in the threadbare armchair. She was tiny, as fragile as a small bird, and the chair - although a perfectly normal size for such an item of furniture - seemed giant. It was like a prop from a film, where everything had been made bigger, as if the main characters had been shrunken by some scientific experiment gone wrong.

"A list?"

"Yes," Douglas replied. An irrational impulse to pat his suit jacket, and the object contained in the pocket within it, washed over him. "He was quite fastidious."

"And what did he say about Malcolm?" Mrs. Beckett asked, raising her cup to her mouth. "Specifically."

"That he was the toughest opponent he'd ever faced," Douglas replied, lying. "He enjoyed their battles immensely."

"Is that so?"

"Yes," said Douglas. "It is."

Mrs. Beckett sipped from her small, china cup. Like his, there was more than one chip on its rim. As she drunk, her pale, rheumy eyes continued to stare at him. Examining him. The longer she did, the greater his guilt grew.

The sooner Douglas could extricate himself from this mess the better. What seemed like a good idea a few months ago now appeared faintly absurd.

Chasing ghosts...

The ridiculous urge to touch the object in his pocket flamed into life again.

"One thousand dollars seems a lot," Mrs. Beckett finally said. Despite having lived in Portland for over thirty years, there was still a trace of London in her voice. "I mean, Malcolm was just doing his job. He was supposed to be a... what did you say? 'A tough opponent.' I'm sure that he'd find all this a bit silly, if you ask me."

"I suppose it is, really," replied Douglas, forcing a fake smile. "However, there's also the fact that players didn't earn that much in their day. They got a pittance. I think my father wanted to re-address that."

"He did do well, didn't he?"

"Sorry?"

"Your dad," Mrs. Beckett explained. "He went on to have a very good career, didn't he?"

"Yes," Douglas said, lifting his own cup of lukewarm tea to his lips. As he did, he sneaked a glance at his watch. If she droned on much longer, he'd miss his flight. That's all he needed: Sandra was already furious about this charade in the first place - God knows what she'd say if he had to spend the night here. "He was very lucky."

Just say, 'Thank you; I gladly accept your offer.'

"Oh, I don't know about lucky," Mrs. Beckett said, smiling. "You don't get fifty-four caps for your country by being lucky."

'If you make the cheque payable to...'

"I'm sure he..." Douglas paused. "Fifty four? How did you remember that? It's a very specific number."

"And then there's the transfers: Broke the record at one point, didn't he? 1979 - the most expensive British footballer ever. I'm sure he got a little sweetener, didn't he? Not judging, mind. It's just how they did things back then, wasn't it?"

"I'm sure it was," Douglas said slowly. The object in his pocket seemed to vibrate, to glow warm, as if it could sense the conversation.

"Then there was the endorsements. That funny TV ad he did for that Japanese car. Used to make me chuckle, that did."

"Yes," said Douglas. Something about this was...

"Funny, really."

"Why 'funny'?"

"Funny that such a cowardly thug should be so handsomely rewarded," the old woman said sweetly.

"I'm sorry?"

"Your father. He was a thug. A bully."

Douglas was lost for words. His mouth opened and closed a couple of times, before he gave up trying to find something to say. He looked away, staring at Mrs. Beckett's collection of ceramic cows lining the top of the fireplace.

What was happening?

"Did you know that the night your dad made his debut for England, was the same night as my Malcolm left hospital?"

"I didn't," Douglas replied.

"But you do know why he was there, though, don't you? In hospital?"

"I don't, I'm afraid..."

"Because your father broke his leg in six places."

"I... I..."

"Six places. Chelsea versus Newcastle. Stamford Bridge, January 15th, 1978. 'Assault' one journalist described it. We got a free-kick, but your dad didn't even get booked."

"Referees were a bit more lenient in those days," Douglas said weakly.

"Six places. It was amazing he could walk again. Well, it took a long time, but Malcolm was determined. Do you know, that during his rehab, he never gave up the dream of playing again?" Mrs. Beckett chuckled. "There was no telling him. Pig-headed, my Malcolm. 'I'll play again, Patrica,' he used to tell me. 'Mark my words, I'll play again.'"

The small living-room fell into silence.

"Broke his heart when the doctors told him his leg would never be strong enough."

Douglas fidgeted in his chair. The inside of Mrs. Beckett’s tiny house was cold. The fire below the cows on the mantelpiece was unlit. Outside, it was the middle of a Maine Winter; every so often, a small gust of wind would whistle down the chimney breast. Ordinarily, he'd be fighting the urge to shiver. However, at present, he was resisting the urge to mop the sweat from his brow.

"One month later I found him hanging from a rope he'd attached to the garage ceiling."

"I'm... I'm sorry," Douglas said.

"'The Ghost.' That's what they used to call my Malcolm. Because he could drift past players as if they weren't there. Would've played for England. Might've got a few of those silly, expensive transfers himself. Instead, hung himself in a tiny garage, surrounded by half-full tins of paint. Do you know how old he was?"

He knew his age. Douglas knew all of their ages. All ten of them. The ten young men his father...

"I'm sorry, but I don't," Douglas said.

"Twenty-three," Mrs. Beckett said. "Twenty-three years old."

Douglas could feel his breathing shorten.

"Anyway, couldn't stay there after that. Too many reminders. Took myself off. Ended up here. Never intended staying in the States. I bet you didn't either?"

He looked at her. She stared at him, her eyes etched with pity.

She was right: He didn't. Douglas came here for an internship. Short-term. He always thought he'd go back. But...

He was there.

Larger than life. Overbearing. Bullying. Even at the end, Douglas had waited until the last possible minute to fly back, once the cancer had thoroughly ravaged his father's body. The small, shrunken being in the hospice bed hadn't scared him. Hadn't elicited any reaction.

Not even pity.

"Anyway," Mrs. Beckett said, casually. "Do you know, it always struck me as being funny?"

"No," Douglas replied, trying to keep his voice even. "What did?"

"When everything came up at auction. I remember thinking, it's not there. They've kept it private. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"

"I don't," Douglas said. "As far as I'm aware..."

"His 'Little Black Book.'"

Douglas' heart stopped, and he froze. Like a witless idiot, he simply looked at her.

"Oh, Mr. Hammond. Everyone knew. It was common knowledge your father kept a list of those people he had a grudge against."

The cup in Douglas' hand began to shake. As did the object in his pocket. No, no, no - it's inanimate, just a...

"Do you know what Malcolm did to so incur your father's wrath?"

"Look... I've come here, at great personal..."

"What did Malcolm do?"

"I'm not sure what..."

"Answer the question, Mr. Hammond." There was steel in her voice.

"He..."

"Yes?"

"... Tackled him."

"He did just that," Mrs. Beckett said, instantly becoming sweet once more. “Malcolm tackled him. Fairly. Didn't foul him. Just nicked the ball off him during a meaningless end of season match. For that, he got put in your dad's little black book. Next season, your dad got his revenge by robbing Malcolm of his livelihood."

Douglas looked down, staring at the worn, brown carpet beneath him.

The story was true. It had been a non-entity of a match, with nothing at stake. No trophies were on the line; everything had already been decided. Just a meaningless encounter in the pouring rain in West London. No-one even mentioned Malcolm's tackle. Just one player stealing the ball off an opponent.

It didn't even warrant a sentence in the match-report.

But Douglas' dad had remembered. 'Insult' he'd scribbled in his tiny black notebook. Next to that he'd written Malcolm's name, and the date of the misdemeanor. And, once such an entry had been made, revenge had been pre-ordained.

Fractured in six places.

Typical of the man Douglas knew. A man fueled by petty, narcissistic dreams of revenge. A man he'd spend the last few years atoning for. A man who'd never taken even a fraction of that effort in getting to know him.

"Mr, Hammond," the old woman said. "The thing is, your father wasn't the only one who kept a little black book. I did as well."

"Did you?" Douglas asked. His throat was dry, his voice raspy.

"I did," she said. "And in it is one name. And that person owes me a lot more than one thousand dollars."

Douglas' dad...

He owed her...

Owed...

Slowly, he reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. His fingers curled around the tiny, desiccated, leather book. He didn't want it near him. Not anymore. He pulled it out.

Silently, he held the notebook in his hands for the last time. He'd tried. To make amends. To make his father...

Without speaking, he extended his arm towards her.

"I want you to have it," he said. "A collector in London promised me twenty thousand for it. I'm sure he'd offer you the same. I'll dig out his information when I get back to L.A. It can't bring your husband back but..."

"It's a start," Mrs. Beckett said. "Aren't you afraid about its contents becoming public?"

"Everyone already knows about him, don't they?"

"Yes," Mrs. Beckett said, taking the notebook. "They do. If you don't mind me asking, well, two things, really."

"Yes," Douglas said, standing.

"What were you going to do with it? Once you'd paid us all off."

"Burn it," he replied, simply.

"Understandable."

"You said you had two things to ask?"

"I do," she said. "Did it help? Seeing us all, and giving us some of his money?"

"No," said Douglas. "I was hoping it would give... "

"Yes?"

"'Sins of the fathers,'" Douglas said. "Closure. I wanted closure."

"And you didn't find it?"

He stared at the ancient, small notebook in the old woman's withered hand.

A book containing a list of trivial, and imagined, slights.

The follies of the father he never truly had.

"I think I have now."

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About the author

Steven Fitzgerald

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