The Ball That Got a Kicking
Sample translated by Ana Fletcher
The ball that got a kicking
Sample translated by Ana Fletcher (do livro O chute que a bola levou, Moderna, 2011)
A dangerous game on the tarmac avenue
When somebody goes into free-fall without a how, a where or a why, anything can happen.
Our football, perennially pumped up by compressed air mixed in with vanity, dreams and fancies, ended up landing in the middle of a dual carriageway reputed to be the city’s busiest thoroughfare.
The heavy traffic flowed in both directions like blood through veins and arteries. The problem was there was too much blood for not enough veins and arteries. Cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes, scooters, lorries and vans were thronged by countless taxis, ambulances with their sirens wailing, police cars in hot pursuit of criminals, bikers buzzing about like flies and people riding bicycles, all of them coming and going in spurts: accelerating, beeping, swerving, overtaking and breaking.
The ball came hurtling down and hit the hood of a tipper truck driving at high speed. With the force of the impact it bounced right back off, flew up high and then fell again, now in the opposite lane, onto a car bonnet.
Before she knew it, our ball was sailing without a compass, caught up in a type of vehicular volley, flying, falling and twirling from crash to crash, from bounce to bounce, from one lane to another.
The ball had a bright red collision with a fire engine. She ricocheted off a distracted cyclist’s ear. She cannoned into a taxi, scraped the side of school bus, crashed against a lamppost, bounced on the tarmac a couple of times and then took off once more thanks to a speeding four-by-four that came zigzagging along.
Our ball was actually quite enjoying the unexpected match, with its pitch of tarmac and unruly vehicles for players.
It was only once the game went from being played up in the air to down on the ground, that she realised just how much trouble she was in.
Suddenly, our leather sphere saw herself rolling across the tarmac mere inches away from tires bearing down by like blades, ready to cut, puncture, flatten, burst, shred and destroy whatever got in their way.
A cement mixer passed by so incredibly close that she actually felt death’s stale breath waft over her.
When the light turned red and the traffic stopped, our football saw and learned just how surprising and generous human beings can be.
She watched as a foot strapped into a golden sandal with a low heel emerged from one of the cars stopped at the light. The ball considered the dainty, clean toes, each toenail painted a fetching shade of pink. My Lord! What a difference from old Moustache’s great big dinner-plates-for-toenails!
Before the light changed to green, the dainty little pair of feet took a few steps back, paused in preparation, ran forwards again and – wham, bam, thank you ma’am! What a feminine kick! What graceful toes! Our ball was struck by a sweet thought. The most top-of-the-range, anatomical, silver-plated pair of football boots in the world could never deliver a kick as warm and unknowable as that one.
And that, dear reader, is how – as if propelled by a genuine and elegant goal kick – our ball saw herself taking flight once more. What a stroke of luck!
The light changed colour, the cars roared forwards, honking and breaking, and there went our ball across the avenue, suffering fright after fright, until suddenly she hit the corner of a moving van’s left mudguard, was flung to the other side of the dual carriageway and crashed into the helmet of a motorbike rider coming from the opposite direction.
It looked like a training ground move. An inviting cross from the van and a clinical header from the biker.
Seeing as the busy dual carriageway was hardly a grass pitch, and seeing as how this wasn’t a real football game and there was no goalie or even any goal posts getting in the way, our ball was free to fly in a straight line through empty space. She rose up higher, traced an aimless arc through the sky, and fell into somebody’s garden.
A kickabout in the garden
The garden was at the back of the house. The ball landed with a thud on the cement floor and came to a stop against a tap.
Instead of colourful flags waving in the stands of a crammed football stadium, there was a clotheshorse laden with shirts, jumpers, trousers, knickers, boxer shorts and socks, in the wettest and most varied of colours, dancing happily on a nylon line.
Our artefact of rubber, leather, thread and glue barely had time to consider the mysteries of its mysterious destiny, before a surprised voice called out:
‘Well, well well! What have we here?’
The voice belonged to an older gentleman. He made his way slowly down the low step leading from the kitchen and bent to pick up the ball. He adjusted his glasses and examined it closely. Then, he squeezed the leather between his hands and gave it a sniff.
He walked back into the house with the ball under one arm and went straight to the kitchen sink, where he turned on the tap and left her to soak.
Meanwhile, he reached for a large plate and arranged several slices of ham around the edge. Then he chopped up a pineapple and opened a tin of canned peaches.
After slicing up the peaches and slotting them in alongside the ham and pineapple, he patted our ball dry with a tea towel, carefully positioned her in the middle of the plate, and opened a drawer next to the stove.
When he approached again he was holding an enormous, very pointy, very threatening knife.
With all the concentration of a surgeon, the old man positioned the tip of the blade in between two segments and held the handle in both hands.
‘Nice and ripe,’ he said, as he prepared to deliver the fatal blow.
A woman’s voice interrupted the footballistic homicide, which, dear reader, would have spelled the sudden end to this book, amongst other calamities.
‘Dad! What’s going on?’
‘This melon sprouted up in the garden, love. I picked it and now I’m going to cut it up. Would you like a piece?’
The woman’s eyes widened in alarm.
‘But, Dad, that’s a football!’
The old man turned around and stood with his hands on his hips.
‘Are you calling me senile?’
‘Are you saying my brain’s gone soft?’
‘Are you telling me I’m an old sclerotic gone gaga?’
‘Don’t you think I know the difference between a papaya and a football?’
‘But that isn’t a papaya – and it’s not a melon either! Can’t you see it’s a ball, Dad? Where did you find it?’
‘Of course it’s a melon! Nice and ripe, too, just begging to be sliced up and eaten.’
‘Dad, where did you get that ball?’
‘It’s not a ball, it’s a papaya!’
The old man was beginning to lose his patience.
‘Besides, who are you to say whether it is or isn’t a ball? You don’t know the first thing about football!’
‘Says who? Yes I do!’
Lying on the plate belly-up, trimmed with slices of ham and chunks of peach and pineapple, our ball observed the scene unfolding before her with a mixture of curiosity and terror.
‘Oh yeah?’ the old man shouted, his voice taunting. ‘So what’s a goal kick then?’
His daughter didn’t miss a beat.
‘A goal kick is when the goalie or one of the defenders kicks the ball back into play after it’s crossed the byline.’
‘Oh yeah?’ the old man retorted. ‘And what’s a corner?’
A know-it-all smile spread across the woman’s mouth.
‘A corner is awarded when the opposing team is on the attack and the defending team put the ball out behind the byline. The attacking team then put the ball back into play by kicking it from the corner, where the touchline meets the byline. Usually, the player taking the corner crosses it into the penalty box and this can result in a goal.
The old man wasn’t giving up so easily.
‘Oh yeah? And what’s an Olympic goal?’
‘An Olympic goal is when you score directly from a corner. A handful of players are so great they can curl the ball, making it bend in the air, tricking the goalie and landing it in the back of the net. An Olympic goal is always spectacular.’
Feeling discouraged, the old man rested the knife back on top of the sink. Suddenly, he held his pointed finger inches away form his daughter’s face and shouted.
‘Explain the offside rule!’
The woman hesitated.
‘The offside rule?’
The old man was brandishing the murderous knife once again.
‘Not so clever now, are you? The-Off-Side-Rule,’ he said again, overpronouncing each syllable. ‘What is it?’
He smiled a small, satisfied smile.
‘You see, Soraia, you don’t know the first thing about football and you come here and try to pull a fast one on me! On top of which you want to teach me the difference between a melon and a football!’
Just then a young boy walked into the kitchen and blocked his grandfather’s shot.
‘Offside, Granddad, is when one of the attacking team’s forwards is standing behind the defending team’s last player. Goal-hanging, basically. As soon as the guy gets the ball, the ref blows for offside and stops play. It’s a free-kick for the defending team. So forwards have to pay attention and make sure they run beyond the last defender after – and not before – their teammate plays the through ball. Also – what’s that ball you’ve got there?’
‘Your granddad found it in the garden, love. It must belong to one of the neighbours.’
‘Fancy a kickabout, Granddad?’
‘Come on, Granddad.’
The old man’s face grew sad.
‘Oh I’m not sure… I woke up feeling rather tired today.’
‘Tired-shmired! Aren’t you the one who’s always going on about what a pro you used to be? Let’s see it then!’
‘Not anymore, Felipe. I’m too old. I’ve got my high blood pressure and my arthritis and my rheumatism.
‘Forget the rheumatism, Granddad. Let’s go and play one-aside in the garden.’
‘But we haven’t got a ball!’
‘That’s ok, we can play with the melon!’
‘But that’s a papaya!’
‘We’ll play with the papaya then.’
The old mad followed the boy outside, grumbling all the while.
‘All right,’ said the mother, ‘but when you’re done, Felipe, you’re to check with all the neighbours to see if you can’t find out who the ball belongs to.’
Out in the garden, grandfather and grandson set up two makeshift goals. For one they used a plastic bucket and a rubbish bin. For the other, a flowerpot and cardboard box.
The game was one-aside, which meant first Felipe would shoot and his grandfather tried to stop the ball. Then the granddad shot and his grandson tried to stop it.
The game got underway and they were soon falling about laughing.
On one of Felipe’s goes, his grandfather stopped the ball with his chest and, without letting it touch the ground, did three keepie-uppies with his knee, trembling all the while, then punted the ball forward, straight past Felipe and into the back of the net.
‘Get in!’ the old man shouted excitedly, punching the air.
Felipe was impressed.
‘Not fair! Ok. You think you’re such a hot shot, stop this one!’
He positioned the ball carefully on the cement floor.
His grandfather crouched down between the makeshift posts like a keeper about to face a penalty in the World Cup final.
Even though it was only a home kickabout, a humble one-on-one, our leather ball sensed real excitement in the air. The game felt like a title-decider, because it was being played in earnest, with heart, truth and energy.
The boy started up an impression of the sports commentators on the telly.
‘The stadium is packed. The crowd goes quiet. Felipe adjusts the positioning of the papaya. The goalkeeper stands firm in the middle of the goal. Felipe takes a few steps back. The goalie braces himself. He’s decided to do without a wall. But watch out. Felipe is a long-range deadball specialist. This is a free kick in a very dangerous position and the goalkeeper is trembling like a leaf. Here comes Felipe at top speed, he approaches the papaya, he shoots, and…’
Grandfather and son looked up at the immense indigo blue sky.
Up sailed our dreamy ball of glue, rubber, leather and thread; over the wall it went, over a leafy mango tree, across a back street before disappearing altogether into the rich and unexpected whirlwind that is life and the world.
The street girl
In one corner of the square, close to a scruffy row of bushes, stood a traffic light.
Whenever the light turned red, a skinny, barefoot little girl walked from car to car begging for money.
Hidden in the bushes, our ball sat and watched.
As it was a hot day, most cars had their windows rolled down. As soon as the girl got close, their windows went up.
The girl carried on walking as heads and hands behind the glass windows said ‘no’.
Soon after, the light would turn green and the cars would drive off, accelerating in a hurry.
Then the girl would turn around, sit on a cement bench right next to the spot our ball was hidden in, and wait. She looked a little distressed. At times she sat quietly. At others she spoke to herself.
When the light turned amber, up she would get to go and beg for money, walking from one car to the next, from one window to the next, and from one ‘no’ to the next.
The light turned green. The girl returned to the cement bench. Her feet didn’t reach the ground and they swung back and forth as she sat.
That was when her eyes locked on the ball.
Running towards the bushes, she bent down, picked it up and held it tightly in both hands. Then she looked around to make sure nobody was watching.
Next she lifted up her skirt, shuffled the ball up so it was flat against her stomach, held it in place with her knicker elastic, pulled her skirt down again and went back to the cement bench.
Nestled up against the girl’s belly, underneath her skirt, the ball wondered what on earth was going on.
Through a tear in the dress, our leather sphere saw the traffic light go red.
Faking a slow, laboured walk, the girl set off on her pilgrimage once again.
The trick worked.
A lady lowered her car window.
‘Are you pregnant?’
To which the girl answered, ‘I am, miss.’
‘Take this, a little help.’
The girl put the money away.
‘God bless you, Aunty.’
In the next car along, a man’s voice said, ‘How old are you?’
‘Good grief, child! Pregnant at thirteen? You should be in school!’
‘I am! I go to school in the evenings. By day I work here in the square, begging for money to help feed my family.’
The man shook his head.
‘Here, take this change and look after yourself.’
‘God bless you, Uncle.’
In some of the cars, the drivers sitting behind the closed windows just shook their heads to say ‘no’.
Further along, a woman asked, ‘How many months?’
‘I’m seven months along, Miss.’
‘And how will you look after the child?’
‘I don’t know Aunty, we do what we can, don’t we? God will lend a hand.’
The woman smiled, wished her luck and gave her some change. The traffic light turned green.
The girl walked back to her cement bench, sat down and began to count the money. Four reais and sixty-five cents.
The ball – still hidden underneath the folds of the girl’s patched and mended skirt, pressed up against her belly – grew indignant. What kind of shady business was she up to? If life was a game, this was foul play.
Our ball felt ashamed at being forced to take part in such a dirty trick.
The girl was nothing but a barefaced liar. Our ball refused to accept it; she’d learned by now that there was more in store for her than simply being knocked off a production line, sold in a shop and picked to participate in a classic football match. She’d come to embrace the idea of playing the game of life. She knew it could be unexpected and surprising. But this! This was too much.
The light changed again.
Off went the girl, stopping at every car, picking up loose change here and there.
A bitter rhythm beat in the round heart of leather, thread, glue and rubber.
The ball knew that life was a game to be played, that winning wasn’t everything. And she liked it that way. But she refused to accept that she’d been put on this earth to play the criminal and trick people!
‘I don’t want to be an embarrassment to other footballs!’ she said to herself, trapped underneath the girl’s worn dress.
The street girl walked from car to car several times over, collecting some more money, before slipping the ball back out and hiding it in the thicket again. Then she disappeared. When she came back she was carrying two glasses of milk, a cheese and ham sandwich and a fizzy drink.
The ball watched her closely from in between the bushes.
The girl left the milk, the can of fizz and the sandwich on the bench before walking over to the other bush, picking up a pink plastic school bag and sitting back down again. Carefully, she opened up the bag and took out a parcel.
Our ball shook from top to bottom.
The parcel, reader, was a real-life baby!
Carefully, the girl reached into the bag for a baby bottle, filled it with milk and gave it to the child to nurse on.
As the baby sucked, the girl ate the sandwich.
All around them, cars, buses and motorbikes zoomed blindly past, interested only and exclusively in where they had to get to.
Once she’d drunk all the milk, the baby burped, smiled and fell asleep again.
The girl sat and held him in her lap for a good while.
Then she changed the baby’s nappy.
From time to time she kissed the top of his tiny head, which peeked out from the blanket.
Later, she gathered up her things, put her bag on her back and left, carrying the baby in her arms.