When Robbo awoke, it was so dark, that looking out of from behind his desk, he could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls of his office. He was endeavouring to pierce the darkness, when the chimes of a neighbouring church struck the four quarters.
To his great astonishment the fourth official’s time board which had previously been held aloft by the apparition of Martyn Pert, rose up in front of him; then stopped. Zero! There was no number when he went to bed. The board was wrong. An icicle must have got into the works. Zero!
“Why, it isn’t possible,” said Robbo, “It isn’t possible for the board to be at zero! That only ever happens at the end of the first half!”
The idea being an alarming one, he scrambled out of his chair, and groped his way to the window. He was obliged to rub the frost off with the sleeve of his exquisitely tailored crew neck sweater before he could see anything; and could see very little then. All he could make out was, that it was still very foggy and extremely cold, and that there was no noise of players running to and fro, and making a great stir, as there unquestionably would have been if there were added time to play.
Robbo went to his chair again, and thought, and thought, and thought it over and over, and could make nothing of it. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; “This is worse than when I’m trying to decide what substitution to make” he thought to himself; and the more he endeavoured not to think, the more he thought Pert’s apparition bothered him exceedingly. Every time he resolved within himself, after mature inquiry, that it was all a dream, his mind flew back, like an over committed full back to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, “Was it a dream or not?”
Robbo stayed in this state until the board began to rise once more, when he remembered, on a sudden, that the figure had warned him of a visitation when the board displayed the number one. He resolved to stay awake; and, considering that he could no more go to sleep than play three up front, this was perhaps the wisest resolution in his power.
But now the board began to hum in a soft and ominous tone, and swiftly altered to a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy ONE. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the windows of his office rattled.
The windows of his office rattled, I tell you, by a hand; and Robbo, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who rattled them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.
It was a strange figure — like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions (imagine a more handsome Peter Beardsley). It wore a top of the purest white and round its chest was bound a lustrous blue hoop, the sheen of which was beautiful.
“Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Robbo.
The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
“Who, and what are you?” Robbo demanded.
“I am the Ghost of Seasons Past.”
“Long past?” inquired Robbo.
“No. Your past.”
It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm.
“Rise! and walk with me!”
It would have been in vain for Robbo to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes; and that he had a cold upon him at that time. The grasp, though gentle as a woman’s hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the Spirit made towards the window, clasped his robe in supplication.
“I am mortal,” Robbo remonstrated, “and liable to fall. Or, at the very least, simulate contact in an attempt to slow the game down.”
“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, “and you shall be upheld in more than this!”
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground. “Good Heaven!” said Robbo, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. “I was born in this place. I was a boy here!”
The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the young coach’s sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten.
“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”
Robbo muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.
“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.
“Remember it!” cried Robbo with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”
“Strange to have forgotten it for so many years!” observed the Ghost. “Let us go on.”
They walked along the road; Robbo recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. Some boys were playing football in a field beneath the spire.
“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”
The jocund players came on; and as they came, Robbo knew and named them every one. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them! Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past! Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them speak of chances they had created and goals they had scored, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their several homes! What were chances to Robbo? What good had goals ever done to him?
“The field is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A solitary child, is left there still.”
Robbo said he knew it. And he sobbed.
They went, the Ghost and Robbo, across the field to where that child still played, and Robbo sat down upon a bench, and wept to see his former self as he used to be; practising step overs and Cruyff turns with never a thought of tracking back.
The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his expressive style of play. Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood beside the field, with a notebook stuck in his belt, and holding a local newspaper in his hand.
“Why, it’s Mr. Guzzyfug! ” Robbo exclaimed in ecstasy. “It’s dear old honest Mr. Guzzyfug! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was practising here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. He offered me my first trial with Wolverhampton Wanderers!”
To hear Robbo expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his friends in the game, indeed.
Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his usual character, he said, in joy for his former self, “Lucky boy!” and cried again.
“I wish, ”Robbo muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.
“Nothing,” said Robbo. “Nothing. There was a boy practicing free kicks near my house last night. I should like to have given him some advice: that’s all. And not told him he would be better served learning how to line up in a defensive wall”
The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!”
Robbo’s former self grew larger at the words, and the world became a little darker and more dirty. The trees shrunk, the church vanished and fragments of grass flew into the air; but how all this was brought about, Robbo knew no more than you do. He only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was, standing in a brightly tiled corridor.
The Ghost stopped at a certain door, and asked Robbo if he knew it.
“Know it!” said Robbo. “it’s the locker room at Molineux! I was apprenticed here!”
They went in. At sight of an old gentleman in a wig, sitting on such a high treatment table, that if he had been two inches taller he must have knocked his head against the ceiling, Robbo cried in great excitement:
“Why, its old Gutterbritches! Bless his heart; it’s Gutterbritches alive again!”
Old Gutterbritches laid down his dubbing, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious track suit; laughed all over himself, from his shows to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:
“Yo ho, there! Robbo!”
Robbo’s former self, now grown a young man, came briskly in, accompanied by his fellow-‘prentice.
“Dick Wilkins, to be sure!” said Robbo to the Ghost. “Bless me, yes. There he is. He was a decent left back was Dick but often failed to get goal side when defending set-pieces. Poor Dick! Dear, dear!”
“Yo ho, my boys!” said Gutterbritches. “No more training to-night. Christmas Eve, Dick. Christmas, Robbo! Let’s get the nets in”
You wouldn’t believe how those two fellows went at it! They charged onto the pitch and had the nets, flags and balls up in their places before you could have counted to twelve, panting like race-horses.
“Hilli-ho!” cried old Gutterbritches, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. “Clear away, my lads, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Dick! Chirrup, Robbo!” (This is all text-book Wolverhampton dialogue by the way).
Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Gutterbritches looking on. It was done in a minute. And then a ball was brought out and Robbo, Mr Gutterbritches and Dick Wilkins were lost in the reverie of keepie-ups, head tennis and the general gaiety of three carefree souls with nought but the fun of football in their hearts.
When the clock struck nine Mr Gutterbritches sent them on their way and wished them a Merry Christmas.
During the whole of this time, Robbo had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. It was not until now, when the bright faces of his former self and Dick were turned from them, that he remembered the Ghost, and became conscious that it was looking full upon him, while the light upon its head burnt very clear.
“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to see these silly folks so full of love for the game.”
“Small!” echoed Robbo.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Gutterbritches: and when he had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few hours of your mortal time: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Robbo, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our style of play light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.
“Nothing particular,” said Robbo.
“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.
“No,” said Robbo, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my players just now! That’s all”
“Spirit!” said Robbo in agitation, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”
“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.
“No more!” cried Robbo. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”
But the relentless Ghost pinioned him in both his arms like a central defender holding on to a forward at a corner kick, and forced him to observe what happened next.
They were in another scene and place; a room, not very large or handsome, but full of chalkboards and chalk. By one chalkboard stood a slightly older, slightly wider Mr Gutterbritches and near to the window sat a young player, probably a tricky number ten.
“Boss” said the player, turning to his coach with a sad smile, “I saw an old player of yours this afternoon.”
“Who was it?”
“How can I? Tut, don’t I know.” he added in the same breath, laughing as he laughed. “Robbo.”
“Robbo it was. I passed his locker; and as it was not shut up, I saw he had a book of defensive tactics inside, I could scarcely help seeing it. And then I heard him speak of five at the back and two holding midfielders. The team is in desperate need of attacking flair, I hear; and there he sits ensconced in the world of defence. Quite obsessed with defence, I do believe.”
“Spirit!” said Robbo in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
“Remove me!” Robbo exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”
He turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.
“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the Ghost with no visible resistance on its own part despite Robbo’s constant shouting, occasional pat on the back and arm around the shoulder was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary.
In an instant Robbo was back at the training centre with the floodlights blazing relentlessly, he could not hide the light, which streamed from on high, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.
He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own office; and had barely time to reel to the chair, before he sank into a heavy sleep.