A Christmas Carl: Part One-Pert’s Apparition

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little blog, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
R. B.

Martyn Pert was scouting players in South America: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his travel was posted on the Instagram accounts of both #IluvdaCaps!!! and #BlooandWhite4ever who both saw him boarding a plane at Vancouver airport: and Robbo himself had seen the flight tickets and approved the itineray. Martyn Pert was in South America.

Robbo knew he was in South America? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Robbo and he were partners for I don’t know how many years. Robbo was his gaffer, head coach and his friend.

The mention of Pert’s travels brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Pert was in South America. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

Robbo never painted out Pert’s name from the locker room. There it stood, hours and days after the flight, above the door to the boot room: Robbo and Pert. The pair were known as Robbo and Pert. Sometimes people new to the media called Robbo Robbo, and sometimes Pert, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was so defensively minded Robbo! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, kind of defence! He carried that defensive style of play always about with him; he plotted in his office in the dog-days of the season; and didn’t change it one degree at Christmas.

Opponents playing attractive football had little influence on Robbo.

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, “My dear Robbo, how are you? When will we see your team play again?” No baristas implored him to bestow a tactical nugget on how to break down two rows of four, no children asked him why he preferred inverted wingers, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to goal of Robbo. Even the visually impaired people’s dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up alleys; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “Quick before he starts talking about how possession stats don’t really matter”

But what did Robbo care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all attacking intent to keep its distance.

Once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—Robbo sat busy in his office. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the players on the pitch outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the turf to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already—it had not been light all day—and striplights were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the pitch was of the narrowest (to prevent skillful wide players effectively plying their trade), the offices opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

The door of Robbo’s office was open that he might keep his eye upon his attacking midfielders.

“A merry Christmas, Boss!” cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Nicolas Mezquida, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

“Bah!” said Robbo, “Fine lines!”

He had so heated himself with rapid running in the fog and frost, this player, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

“Christmas isn’t about fine lines Boss!” said Mezquida. “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

“I do,” said Robbo. “Merry Christmas! What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? You’re poor enough thanks to the salary cap.”

“Come, then,” returned Mezquida gaily. “What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose?”

Robbo having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Fine lines!”

“Don’t be cross, Boss!” said Mezquida.

“What else can I be,” returned the coach, “when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Out upon merry Christmas! What’s Christmas time to you but a time for playing football with no defensive structure; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not another clean sheet to your name; a time for balancing your goal difference and having every goal scored against feel like ash in your mouth.”

“Boss!” pleaded Mezquida.

“Mezquida!” returned the coach sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

“Keep it!” repeated Mezquida. “But you don’t keep it.”

“Let me leave it alone, then,” said Robbo. “Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you! Now get out there and start working on closing down the opposition central defenders!”

“Don’t be angry, boss. Come! Play football with us to-morrow.”

“Good afternoon!” said Robbo

“Merry Christmas!” said Mezquida

“Good afternoon!” replied Robbo

Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with iPhones lit up, proffering their services to go before the UberEATS cycle riders, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Robbo out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, some labourers were replacing a demolished gas station with a community garden, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of tattooed and bearded men with growlers had gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture.

At length the hour of shutting up the training centre arrived. With an ill-will Robbo dismounted from his chair, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant players on the field

“You’ll want all day to-morrow, I suppose?” said Robbo.

“If quite convenient, sir.” said the players in unison.

“It’s not convenient,” said Robbo, “and it’s not fair. If I was to stop a day’s worth of TAM, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound?”

The players smiled faintly.

“And yet,” said Robbo, “you don’t think me ill-used, when I pay a day’s TAM for no defensive work.”

The players observed that it was only once a year.

“A poor excuse for picking Major League Soccer’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” said Robbo, buttoning his exquisitely tailored great-coat to the chin. “But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning.”

Robbo took his melancholy protein drink in his melancholy office; and having read all the latest training manuals on how to play with an isolated striker, and beguiled the rest of the evening with GIFs of Kendall Waston tackles, prepared to leave for home.

Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the football on the floor.  It is also a fact, that Robbo had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence in that place; also that Robbo had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the city of Vancouver, even including—which is a bold word—City Hall, real estate developers, and craft beer enthusiasts. Let it also be borne in mind that Robbo had not bestowed one thought on Pert, since his flight to South America. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Robbo, having risen from his chair, saw in the football, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change—not a football, but Pert’s face.

Pert’s face. It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the office were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Robbo as Pert did look.

As Robbo looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a football again.

To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger from infancy, would be untrue. But he put his hand upon the door handle and prepared to head home.

He did pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before he walked the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Pert’s tracksuit floating in the corridor. But there was nothing.

“Fine lines!” said Robbo; and walked across the room.

After several turns to the door and to his desk, he sat down again. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a whistle, a disused whistle, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with the players during training. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this whistle begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out shrilly, and so did every whistle in the training centre.

This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The whistles ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the treadmills in the state of the art fitness room.

The fitness room door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

“It’s fine lines still!” said Robbo. “I won’t believe it.”

His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, “I know him; Martyn Pert!” and fell again.

The same face: the very same. Pert in his usual tracksuit, socks, and boots. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Robbo observed it closely) of shin pads, corner flags, yellow cards and goal nets.

“How now!” said Robbo, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

“Much!” — Pert’s voice, no doubt about it.

“Who are you?”

“I am your partner, Martyn Pert”

“Can you — can you sit down?” asked Robbo, looking doubtfully at him.

“I can.”

“Do it, then.”

Robbo asked the question, because he didn’t know whether a figure so unreal might find himself in a condition to take a chair; and felt that in the event of its being impossible, it might involve the necessity of an embarrassing explanation. But the figure  sat down on the opposite side of the desk, as if he were quite used to it.

And then the figure raised a frightful cry, and Robbo fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

“You will be haunted,” cried the figure, “by Three Spirits.”

“I — I think I’d rather not,” said Robbo.

“Without their visits,” said the figure, “you cannot hope to shun the path you tread.

The figure then held up a fourth official’s time board (sponsored by TAG Heuer)

“Expect the first when this board moves to the number one”

“Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and have it over, Martyn?” hinted Robbo.

“Expect the second when the board moves to the number two. The third upon the number three. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us.”

When it had said these words, the figure stood and walked backward from him; and at every step it took, the office window raised itself a little, so that when the figure reached it, it was wide open.

Once the figure departed Robbo closed the window, and examined the door by which it had entered. It was double-locked, as he had locked it with his own hands, and the bolts were undisturbed. He tried to say “Fine lines!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion he had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or his glimpse of the Invisible World, or the dull conversation of the figure, or the lateness of the hour, much in need of repose; sat back down in his chair, without undressing, and fell asleep upon the instant.

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