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Unforgiven









A short story by Alan Botham





First Published in 2018 by Alan Botham

Written by Alan Botham

Editing by Anne Grange Editing

Text Copyright © Alan Botham 2018



All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.



Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.



UNFORGIVEN

By Alan Botham


Chopinwood was waking up to a beaming summer’s day. A small town, with no historical treasures or surprises for tourists, it nestled on the border of middle England and the North.

Previously supporting a mixture of farming and mining, the community was now dependent on light and service industries which had spawned a number of warehouse and factory estates on the outskirts of town.

Charlie Easton worked in one of these units. Chopinwood had no claim to fame, but he was the closest the town got to notoriety. Charlie had played as a professional in the top football league, sometime in the early 1980s. Now, no one remembered the exact details, only the chaotic events that Charlie had served up when he played. Blending frequent injuries with an aggressive approach on the field and unprofessional conduct off it, Charlie had never been short of headlines. His behaviour had often supplied the tabloids with news fodder to sell papers.

He’d had the pedigree to be an international candidate, with decent ball skills and a ferocious tackling ability. Unfortunately, his injuries and continual habit of locking horns with management saw him released after just two seasons. From this point, his fall from grace never reversed and it was a steady descent down the divisions, crash-landing into a coaching job for a non-league outfit before his involvement in football finished altogether.

Charlie was a large man with a big presence. He was around six feet tall and now sported a beard. In his playing days, he had been quite athletic but his frame had expanded some distance, with the excess weight mainly settling around his stomach. He lumbered around, trying to retain his quick, aggressive stride, although his injuries had slowed him somewhat.

He projected an arrogant figure that many of the town’s inhabitants endeavoured to avoid. His overtures and offers to coach the youth teams at the community centre were largely ignored. Although his time as a professional footballer earned him a somewhat muted admiration from the male population, his rude, antagonistic behaviour and lack of manners made him unpopular with many of the town’s women, who did not want their sons to pick up Charlie’s habits on the football pitch, or off it.

Charlie felt unappreciated by the town’s residents and he despised the distance at which many of his neighbours and work colleagues held him.

However, with a certain amount of reservation, he was tolerated by the locals in the town’s elite pub, the Brown Hen. It was a watering hole for local political commentators and amateur football pundits, who were willing to listen to Charlie’s rants about his career: how football had abandoned him, how the managers had been idiots and the headlines written about him had been wrong.

Charlie explained numerous times about how bad breaks had come his way, including broken bones, bad press and bust-ups on and off the pitch, and he gave his pub cronies a valuable insight into some of the amusing vices of the top players of his era. But for the press being quick to headline Charlie’s antics, he could have made the international squad that had carried off a major trophy in the mid-1980s.

It still grieved Charlie that he didn’t even have a single England shirt hanging in his wardrobe. However, the various stories Charlie related earned him many free drinks in the Brown Hen, which enabled him to drink a full night’s worth of beer with empty pockets.

His wife Geraldine, who had been with Charlie for over twenty years, was best described as a long-time supporter who laboured to cope with his highs and lows. The pair had married just as Charlie was leaving his playing days behind. Accepting a number of minor coaching jobs, Charlie attempted to settle down to married bliss. But a low-key life did not suit Charlie. There were constant flare-ups on the training ground and he often crossed swords with management. Bad luck clung to Charlie, whose life careered off the rails at various times, with Geraldine in tow. Football finally booted Charlie into touch and he received no encore to return.

Angry and frustrated, Charlie accepted an assortment of jobs until he found his niche as a maintenance operative in one of the engineering factories on the edge of town.

The somewhat odd couple of Geraldine and Charlie settled down in Chopinwood, and had developed a disinterested approach to life and each other, with Charlie disappearing for long periods on his off-days, and Geraldine adopting an aloof attitude towards Charlie.

By nature, Geraldine was a caring woman, but even this virtue had worn bare. Their co-existence depended largely on their daughter Natasha. Her frequent visits to the parental home to gossip with Geraldine but to totally ignore her father gave some validity to the floundering marriage.

Natasha was a pretty, pleasant, well-educated young lady, with her mum’s caring nature. Natasha was popular in Chopinwood. She had married a solicitor and now lived in the more prestigious area of the town. She did possess a flavour of her father’s aggression and had run foul of Charlie on numerous occasions by criticising his general behaviour and approach to life, particularly his drinking.

Although not jealous of Natasha’s close relationship with Geraldine, Charlie desired more attention from Natasha, beyond the tongue-lashings that he normally received from his daughter. However, he made no effort to win her over, thinking that he would only make a dog’s dinner of any attempt to alter the situation.

As this particular bright Saturday morning greeted him, Charlie rolled out of bed late. This was his usual routine when he had consumed large quantities of alcohol the previous evening in the Brown Hen. His fragile friends in the pub were happy to keep the production line of drinks moving, in return for Charlie’s over-the-top stories of sex and football. Usually, there were more references to sex and sinners than to sport.

Meandering home from the pub, Charlie had decided that the following morning, he would pay Julie a visit. This remained his intention as he made his way downstairs. Geraldine would be in the town centre at this hour, shopping. Meanwhile, for Charlie, it was a quick breakfast of toast and coffee, followed by a brisk stroll to clear his head; then a cocktail of sex, booze and chat with Julie. She was his bit on the side: that was the term that his football colleagues had used in the 1980s.

This afternoon of sin would be played out in Julie’s small house on the other side of town. She was still an attractive woman. Although now in her late forties, twenty-five years earlier, Julie would have qualified for cheerleader membership. She was now fast reaching her sell-by-date but served Charlie’s purpose as a bed partner.

After sex and booze, Charlie often talked, while Julie listened intently. She remembered his playing days and knew many of the crowd he had associated with. There were no parties or meals out, but Charlie was generous with gifts whenever he possessed some money. There was nothing in the relationship to write home about, and passion was not high on the agenda, just sweaty sex and Charlie rambling on about how life had doubled-crossed him and his football friends had discarded him.

With no respect for the weather, Charlie set off across town wearing a thick jumper and jogging bottoms. Only a mammoth would be kitted out in warmer garments. No dressing up or shave was required for a visit to Julie’s.

It soon became apparent that his dress sense clashed with the hot day and Charlie soon became overheated and uncomfortable. The beer he had consumed the previous night started to rise to the surface, causing large sweat stains to erupt under his armpits. His journey had not long commenced before his desire for Julie’s body was replaced by the sort of cursing and swearing that was often heard on the terraces from match day crowds.

As Charlie approached the medical centre, he failed to notice Mrs Kane leaving the centre with her three children. She was pushing a buggy containing her baby, with her five-year-old daughter holding onto it, as her nine-year-old son Mark trailed slightly in the rear.

Charlie needed to be on the pavement on the opposite side of the road. With his body heat boiling, Charlie did not want to be corralled at the edge of the road, and was soon skipping across, regardless of the oncoming traffic.

His dash across the road initially seemed to be without incident. However, as he arrived safely on the opposite pavement, he was heralded by a fanfare of sounds, telling Charlie that something had gone horribly wrong.

He heard a screech of car brakes, followed by a harrowing scream. A car door opened and a man’s voice shouted, with a mixture of anguish and abuse.

Charlie was afraid to look, but when he turned around, he realised that the noises had conveyed events that were truly dreadful. His worst fears were confirmed. He was not equipped to take absorb the scene that faced him. He started to feel limp and his senses felt numb.

‘You bloody idiot!’ the car driver shouted.

Charlie was jolted back into reality.

The driver hurried around to the front of his car., where Mrs Kane’s young daughter lay motionless. Mrs Kane was sobbing, sitting on the pavement, with her son Mark trying to tend to her.

The driver was torn between running towards the young girl or her mother. He continued to make angry gestures towards Charlie. He took his mobile from his pocket and phoned the emergency services.

Meanwhile, Charlie looked on, remembering his playing days, when he had stood over an opposing player whom he had slain with a waist-high tackle. Get up. You are not injured, was his first thought then, and this was his thought process now, as he stared at the little girl lying on the road.

Charlie was beginning to jigsaw together the possible scenario of the events leading up to the accident. He had sauntered across the road, ignoring the oncoming car and for whatever reason, the young child had run across too, following him.

The car driver had not managed to brake in time, and had been unable to avoid a collision with the child, who now lay, motionless, in the road.

Charlie buried his burning head in his hands and wished the world would die. Next, there were sirens, more commotion, and a scene quickly developing into a TV drama. Charlie kept his head down, hoping that everything would disappear and he would find himself far away, in Julie’s arms.

A policeman disturbed Charlie’s shrinking world by tapping him on the shoulder.

‘We would like to ask you some questions, sir.’ His tone was polite but brisk.

‘Didn’t see anything…’ was Charlie’s automatic answer. He was intent on escaping the situation as rapidly as possible.

‘Sorry, sir but after a few particulars have been taken, you will have to go to the station and make a statement,’ the officer insisted, pointing to a police car waiting with a driver and an open door.

Charlie noticed the ambulance speeding away. He couldn’t see Mrs Kane. She must have gone with the ambulance. Her remaining children were being ushered into a police vehicle, to be whisked away from the accident scene and into someone’s caring arms. The car driver was continuing to whirl his arms, spout angry words and throw his best hard stare in Charlie’s direction.

Charlie reluctantly supplied his basic personal details, before being led to a police car and driven to the station, leaving a few accident scene officers and policemen taking measurements and photographs, and diverting traffic away from the area.

At the police station, Charlie was grilled about his role in the incident. He had been informed that the police were now dealing with a fatality, although in his present state, Charlie would not even have reacted to a rattlesnake bite.

From the questioning, it became apparent that even in their angry, troubled and confused state, both the car driver and Mrs Kane had implicated Charlie as the catalyst for the horrific occurrence. However, the details were not that simple, as the car driver seemed to be confused and Mrs Kane was disorientated and stricken with grief.

Charlie quickly decided to confirm his original opening statement: he hadn’t seen anything, and although he was dismayed at the accident which had resulted in the girl’s death, he could add nothing to clarify matters. He did not see the car or the young girl near the road, which was probably true, given that all he was focusing on at the time of the accident was on reaching Julie.

The interviewer realised that Charlie may be slightly emotional due to the incident which had unfolded, and decided to terminate proceedings until more evidence from the accident site was available. He was obviously not aware that Charlie’s only emotion was frustration at being caught up in this dreadful episode and having to miss an afternoon of sex and booze.

Charlie was informed that he would be required to return in the next few days. He was allowed to exit the interview room. He was led out of the room, relieved to escape more cross-examination but he still felt as if he had been stepped on by a giant monster, crushed and exhausted.

In the corridor, Geraldine was waiting and she hurried to Charlie’s side. For once, he was pleased to see his wife and he hugged her, which surprised Geraldine as this had not been a gesture Charlie had performed in many years. His mind was now in freefall and he was more than anxious to make for home. He put his arm around his wife and they walked quickly towards the front entrance together.

Geraldine attempted to ask Charlie for details about what had happened, but he was in no mood to respond to more inquisitions. Geraldine realised that Charlie was shutting down and although she had discovered that a young child was dead, she decided to leave the discussion until they arrived home.

Charlie stayed in his own dream-like state for the entire taxi ride home. Geraldine came to the conclusion that Charlie had moved into his silent movie mode and that she may never uncover the truth about the circumstances that had led to her husband being questioned by the police. Not from Charlie’s lips anyway.

On their arrival home, true to form, Charlie grabbed a can of beer from the fridge and slunk upstairs. Geraldine’s constant enquiries about the incident fell short of answers. Charlie had been sent off for an early bath and he was not in a frame of mind to respond, not even to his wife. Geraldine had satisfied herself with the limited information she had received at the police station concerning a road accident resulting in a young girl’s death and Charlie being at the scene of the incident.

Charlie remained to be drawn on the unfortunate accident, either in his second interview with the police or to Geraldine. He was glued to his original response: that he had seen nothing to shed any further light on the collision, even to any of his work colleagues. He seemed to be in denial concerning the fatal accident, his empathy eroded by continually blaming others for his misfortunes.

Avoiding his normal routine of visits to Julie and trips to the pub, he floundered on the sofa all day until the inquest date arrived.

No one apart from Geraldine wished to make any effort to break Charlies’ silence, especially as his belligerent, booming attitude when approached resulted in Charlie being sidestepped rather than embraced.

Charlie stayed trapped in this limbo-land until the inquest started. He had no knowledge of how these proceedings worked, but he hoped that it would put an end to the tidal wave of gossip surrounding the accident. According to Mrs Kane’s accusation, he was partly to blame. By remaining anonymous until the court was held, he hoped to sidestep most of the fallout erupting from the tragedy.

When the inquest was held, Charlie, the car driver and Mrs Kane were all called as witnesses. Due to Mrs Kane’s fragile state of mind, a statement was allowed to be presented to the inquiry. The inquest was an intense and emotional affair, well-attended, and publicised by some searching headlines in the papers.

Charlie’s role in the incident was already under scrutiny. Charlie sensed that all eyes were focused on him, whoever was speaking. In contrast to his playing days, this was a painful morning for the ex-footballer. Mrs Kane’s close family members were all present. Her husband had unfortunately died a year earlier, so her daughter’s death was a doubly cruel twist of fate. The bereaved mother had obviously briefed her relatives about the man whom she held responsible for the accident.

The driver stated that he had noticed Charlie rushing across the road, but not the child. Being in charge of the vehicle, his duty of care to the public had been scrutinized as part of the police investigation. He always maintained the young girl must have stepped in front of his vehicle only moments before impact, leaving him no opportunity to take evasive action. Obviously upset and angry, the driver’s answers were sketchy and disjointed.

Mrs Kane was unsure whether she or her son Mark had been holding her daughter’s hand immediately before the accident, or if the girl had been hanging onto the buggy. However, she was convinced that her daughter had followed Charlie’s dash across the road. Her statement was a muddled account and was interrupted numerous times by disturbances from the direction of the Kane family. This culminated in large amounts of sympathy for Mrs Kane as the second victim, but provided little clarity for the inquest.

Charlie fervently wanted to eliminate himself from the proceedings. He claimed that he had not seen the car, although he had crossed the road in a normal manner. He didn’t mention that his usual way of crossing the road meant sprinting to the opposite pavement, however busy the traffic appeared. Furthermore, he stated that he didn’t remember seeing Mrs Kane and her family being near the road. This may have been close to the truth, as his attention had been firmly fixed on the bull’s eye of Julie’s house.

His negative answers were received with more mutterings from the Kane contingent but they were dutifully recorded by the court.

The coroner, having listened to witness evidence and in possession of a police file detailing the time line of the events leading up to the accident, took an interlude to deliberate. He then returned a verdict of accidental death.

It would seem that the evidence pointed to the child slipping away from her mother or Mark, and running into the road, with no time for the car driver to avoid a collision. There were no suspicious circumstances. With no other witnesses, it would seem that Charlies’ role was not significant, and there was no need of further investigation. He was just crossing the road.

The conclusion of the inquiry was not without incident, due to the Kane clan making efforts to confront Charlie, while other family members ushered Mrs Kane away and comforted her. Charlie managed to leave the court, due to intervention from the police and, with Geraldine’s assistance, quickly fled to a taxi and home.

After the inquest, Charlie slipped under the radar. He took a week’s holiday and spent the majority of his free time scanning the local newspapers. This was not his usual pursuit, but he was anxious to spot any fallout from the proceedings, particularly any mention of his name.

One headline shouted that Mrs Kane named him as the culprit, responsible for her daughter’s death. These might be the ramblings of a grieving mother, but this left no doubt in the readers’ minds. Mrs Kane blamed Charlie.

The papers hurried to add fuel to the flames by unearthing some of Charlie’s football shenanigans from the past. Due to Charlie’s well-known hostility towards the community, it made popular reading. Even though the inquest did not implicate Charlie, the papers indulged Mrs Kane and her family as victims one removed, and labelled Charlie as the offender.

Charlie was not quick to grasp the situation and at first, he hoped that it would all blow away like the rain. But Mrs Kane was looking for a scapegoat to slaughter and that happened to be him. Okay, he may attract a few distasteful looks or comments from elsewhere, but Mrs Kane would not absolve him from guilt and Charlie began to feel that this was not going to go away.

He picked up the local newspaper from the doormat. The headline read:

Ex-Footballer to Blame for Tragedy and Will Always Be Unforgiven.

This had probably been cobbled together by an editor, rather than being a direct quote from the victim’s mother. Charlie had just tossed the paper aside when Geraldine entered the kitchen, more as an opponent than a wife. She circled the ring before throwing the first punch.

‘Hiding again today?’

‘No!’ Charlie objected to any inference that he was sheltering away from trouble. ‘Going out soon. I might be gone for a few hours.’

Geraldine had been quiet since the inquest. The full realisation of the circumstances they faced had dominated her thoughts, but she knew that Charlie’s tracks of life had not altered. Although his attitude may have become more reserved, it was unyielding. He refused to accept that he may have played some part in the child’s death. As in his playing days, numerous excuses, from muddy pitches to blind referees were all in the queue before Charlie admitted to having a stinker of a game. As the inquest stated, the collision between the car and the girl had been an accident.

Geraldine was determined to engage Charlie.

‘Natasha is visiting today,’ she said.

Their daughter had called less frequently since the tragic day. Even then, it was to comfort Geraldine, not to have a cosy “I support you” chat with her dad. Charlie knew that with the conclusion of the inquest and the reports in the newspapers, today’s visit from his daughter would be forceful, even quarrelsome, in his direction.

‘Waited for the dust to settle before she gets her knife out,’ was his response. ‘Her well to-do friends must be giving her a hard time.’

‘If you had more time for Nastasha, she’d have time for you,’ Geraldine stated quietly, knowing that Charlie often became upset when his daughter had ignored him on previous visits.

Charlie took a last sip of his coffee, left the breakfast table and searched for his jacket. His strategy was obvious: to flee before Natasha arrived. Charlie adored his daughter and was very proud of her achievements and her popularity in the community. The recent events had, however, left a trail of distasteful and critical gossip that Natasha did not find palatable.

As he was in the eye of the storm, Charlie thought that it was best to take his bit of the hurricane to Julie’s house. She had been on his mind, notably her body, these past few weeks. He was sure that he would be welcomed with open arms and a warm bed.

To Charlie’s agitation, Natasha arrived before he could slip his lead. His “plan B”, of slinking off into the garden, was blocked by Geraldine.

Since last visiting, Natasha had suffered a slight accident of her own at home. She had a few bruises and a small cut on her head from falling downstairs. Geraldine placed the blame for this mishap at Charlie’s feet, due to the stress caused by the controversy that her husband was involved in.

On this visit, Natasha made all haste to corner her father and hit home with her viewpoint on recent affairs.

‘Sneaking off for a pint, Dad?’ was her first salvo. ‘Hiding in a pint glass won’t make things go away this time. Neither will your football yarns.’ A second volley came Charlie’s way.

He responded with a glare, upset by his daughter’s tone.

‘You do realise me and mum are being avoided? I doubt if people are going to forget this mess for a while,’ Natasha snapped.

‘Like everything, it will blow over. You’ll soon be invited to coffee mornings again. That’s all you’re worried about,’ Charlie responded. With this, jacket in hand, he found the front door and disappeared, muttering under his breath.

Feeling a little battered, Charlie retreated and headed to Julie’s house. He was never equipped to deal with heavy discussions, just like the awkward talks with football managers when he had been sent off. He didn’t shed any tears, but he was experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions. His compass was set in the direction of Julie’s for a mixture of sex and booze, to blow away the spider webs infesting his thoughts.

The initial knock on Julie’s door paid no dividends and Charlie tried the hammer drill technique for a second effort. This time, he had success, as an upstairs window opened to reveal the top half of Julie’s well-formed shape. She was dressed in a night gown, which gave the impression that Charlie had awoken her from beauty slumbers or disturbed her from her bed partner. She resembled an aging princess trapped in a tower, although Charlie in no way resembled a charming prince on a white steed.

‘Hi, Julie – come to see you,’ was Charlie’s charming chat-up line.

‘Why?’ came the immediate reply.

‘You know why, Julie.’ It was the best he could muster.

‘So you decided to show up?’ was her cold reply.

‘You must know it’s been difficult for me to get away. Let us in, Julie,’ pleaded Charlie, now working up an anger.

‘I think we should leave things for a while, Charlie – a long while.’ Julie’s statement was a clear rebuff, even to Charlie. It was the first refusal at the starting gate that Julie had ever handed to Charlie.

‘Julie, you’ve always enjoyed my visits. Come on – get the booze out – let me in.’ Charlie had gone straight to begging, as he had done in the past to be allowed to play, even when injured. This time it was his pride that was injured.

With a hint of a smile, Julie drove home the final stake in his heart.

‘Go home to your wife. That’s where you’ll find comfort.’

With the stake well driven, Julie firmly closed the window. Charlie had been shown a red card and sent off. There would be no more away fixtures in Julie’s bed.

Even the most out of tune clairvoyant would realise that Charlie had been given the boot. He stood motionless for a few seconds. Charlie had not reached the desert island of Julie’s bed. Instead, she had crushed down on him, as cold as the iceberg that hit the Titanic.

Charlie had always departed from Julie’s arms with a warm glow; after a cuddle and comfort, he felt that there was some colour in his life, but not today.

Searching for a pick-me-up, his recourse after Julie’s cold shoulder or bosom was as always, to do what it said on the tin and visit the Brown Hen. He always received a welcome of some sorts from the bar flies who settled around the beer pumps of the pub.

He started looking forward to renewing his tall tales of the adventures of Charlie the footballer with his bar cronies as he strode through the Brown Hen’s doors. Immediately, Charlie was under the impression that he had walked into the wrong pub, either that or someone had just been sick on the bar.

Groups in deep conversation turned to silent mode; the barman moved to opposite end of bar and commenced a glass-cleaning routine that would shame the most wooden actor. The reaction of the group who usually welcomed the sight of Charlie with a laugh and gesture, asking what was his tipple, was to blank any recognition that he had entered the pub.

Charlie felt like Captain Scott, who had arrived at the Pole to find that he was second: beaten, exhausted and angry. He turned tail and retreated through the doors. There were to be no free drinks or lurid behind-the-scenes football stories. As he fled, Charlie bumped into Old Bill, nearly clattering the old chap to the ground. He’d barely had time to digest the second knockback from his supposed friends, but now his footballing reflexes kicked in and he grabbed Old Bill, saving him from falling backwards.

‘Charlie! Great. Hoped to catch up with you here,’ said Bill.

His nickname was derived from the fact he had been the town Bobby for over thirty years before retirement. He now spent most of his free time in the Brown Hen, receiving even more donations of free ale than Charlie.

‘Not leaving, Charlie?’ Bill quizzed him.

Charlie nodded, too upset to speak.

‘I wanted to see you – to give you this clipping.’ Bill handed Charlie a piece of folded newspaper; he reluctantly took the offering and placed it into his pocket. Charlie was in erupting mode now and was not fully engaged.

‘It’s about Rod Crookshank. Remember him? He’s been ill – just come out of hospital. One of your old rivals on the pitch, I remember…’

Those were the last words Charlie heard from Bill. He stormed off, still steaming from his unpleasant snubs by his lover and supposed friends; he longed for comfort and support.

Rod Crookshank .The name started to burrow into Charlie’s mind. Rod had been his enduring foe on the football ground. No quarter was given or white flag waved when he and Charlie had opposed each other. They often shared headlines as adversaries and each had been on the receiving end of horrendous mutual tackles.

Charlie cheered up slightly, thinking of his old rival. He was in need of a lift in spirits. His mind, normally a fortress to gossip and cold shoulder, was now cluttered with weeds of doubt, resulting from Julie head-butting him out of her life and his tenuous friends in the pub kneeing him in the groin. It was clear that this was as a consequence of Mrs Kane’s accusations, echoed around the town, that Charlie was to blame for her daughter’s death and that she would never forgive him.

Charlie needed a beacon of some kind to bring some light into his darkening thoughts. Rod Crookshank was that beacon. He too had played top flight football in an aggressive style, similar to Charlie’s approach to the game. Their careers were parallel: although Rod had won one international cap, he’d had to submit to his injuries and had fallen into the lower leagues, like Charlie.

As was usual with Charlie’s thinking, while walking home, he spontaneously decided to call Rod. There was a telephone number quoted in the press clipping for anyone wishing to contact the ailing ex-footballer. A conversation with an old fellow player would lift Charlie’s spirits and maybe it would cheer Rod in some small way.


A day later, standing outside Rod’s house, Charlie felt a little apprehensive. Having phoned the number given in the newspaper, he had spoken to Rod’s wife Sara, whom he had met at a few social gatherings many years earlier.

Sara had been delighted to hear his voice and she had begged him to visit her husband. Sara was sure that it would be better than any medication Rod was currently taking, and it would raise both their spirits. Charlie had dug out some old photos of their playing days and the footballers they had known and faced on the pitch. Flicking through the photos before ringing the doorbell, Charlie grew in confidence, and the welcome he received when Sara opened the door to admit him dispelled any lingering doubts he’d had about visiting.

He was shown into the front room by a very happy Sara, who then quickly disappeared to make tea. Rod was sitting in a big armchair near the TV, but he made no attempt to rise.

‘Sorry, old pal. This is best I can greet you. Knees have gone,’ explained Rod in a chirpy, excited voice. ‘Glad you came,’ he added.

Strong echoes of a past era blew through Charlie’s mind and he strode across the room to shake Rod’s hand.

‘Great to see you, Rod. Still watching the game on the box?’ asked Charlie, pointing to the TV.

‘Yep, if that’s what they call it – a game. It was a war in our day. No handbags – just men against men,’ Rod replied.

Charlie laughed quietly and produced the photos. Rod produced an album too, and the conversation flowed like good wine.

‘Hope it wasn’t my tackle,’ Charlie said, pointing to Rod’s knees.

‘No, some young cocky centre forward from lower leagues,’ laughed Rod.

They paid homage to the players and teams that were around in their time. Players who could take it on the chin, even from a football boot. They had both created mayhem on the pitch in the name of football and put each other out of the game at least once. Steel, not blood, flowed through their veins. There was no posing for photo shoots, no big cars. Maybe a blonde or two, but it had all been about the game: the beautiful game.

Sara replenished a steady stream of tea and cakes, pleased to see her husband engaged and happy. Here were two rogues who had left their carbon footprint on the pitch – and even some players, both enjoying the good old times again. It was only a game, and once the whistle had blown, they had been firm friends.

Rod was surprised but overwhelmed by Charlie’s visit. As Charlie got up to leave, he put his hand on his ex-foe’s shoulder.

‘I know you’ve been having a hard time recently, Charlie. Sara’s friends told us. Sometimes you have to remember that even though we tackled hard on the pitch, life is different off it. We have to put the boots away. It’s a team game in life too. You have to allow others to help.’ He smiled gently at Charlie, just as he’d done at the end of a vicious match in their playing days, when they’d headed for a bath and bar.

‘Things will come right, Charlie, if you make the right choices,’ he said.

Charlie hugged Rod and waved as he left the room, even though Rod’s words were laced with a little too much wisdom for him to digest in one mouthful. As Sara gave him a kiss on the cheek, she pushed a small piece of paper into his hand.

‘It’s Vince Moore’s number. He called Rod to catch up and see how he was recovering. Give him a call – I’m sure he would like to hear from you,’ she explained.

As Charlie said his goodbyes to Sara, he realised that his mind was relaxing for the first time in weeks. The nasties that had dogged him recently were being moved aside, not only from meeting Rod, but the opportunity to contact Vince Moore, the most talented footballer Charlie had faced in his playing days.

Unlike Charlie and Rod, Vince Moore’s career had rocketed to the stars after becoming the lead scorer in England’s all-conquering Championship-winning side. He was the “Made in Britain” good-looking centre-forward, who went onto have a successful career in TV and management. Everything Vince did, on and off the pitch, was beautifully crafted. He handled the press well. His profile was clean-cut; he had married a blossoming film star and had harvested a successful career after football.

His star continued to shine even after retirement, while Charlie’s fell to earth in flames. Charlie wasn’t daunted, however. He was determined to contact Vince and tell him about his meeting with Rod and how they had chewed over the bone of old times together.


A few weeks had passed since Charlie’s journey to Rod’s house, and he had enjoyed a long telephone conversation with Vince Moore. Vince had been thrilled to hear from Charlie. With the celebrity lifestyle he had carved out for himself, Vince rarely spoke to any of his old football colleagues. He had a fondness for Charlie and the rugged approach he had to the game and to life. He told Charlie that he had learnt more in one game with Charlie as an opponent, than in his entire first season.

This was a huge boost for Charlie. He was now in a more assured frame of mind, and was trying to put aside the fact that he had been jettisoned by Julie and the crowd at the Brown Hen.

Charlie was debating his next move to try to raise his profile and morale. He had become redundant in the social life of the town, as rumours still circulated concerning the tragic accident, which was now a few weeks in the past. Although Charlie had not seen Mrs Kane, bits of gossip filtered down: according to the mother of the dead girl, he was still the number one suspect when the blame game was in town.

Suddenly Geraldine hurried into the front room and dropped a parcel on the coffee table, anxious to see the contents. It was something to cheer up an unusually very serene husband.

‘The card says – All the best, Vince Moore,’ stated Geraldine.

Charlie was beside himself. In their chat, Vince had said that he would send Charlie a souvenir. He grabbed the parcel and ripped the packing off like a child on Christmas Day. There, inside the box was a football. No ordinary ball, but one containing the signatures of most of the England squad which had won the major championship in the 1980s. A campaign that Charlie thought he should have been part of. Charlie was lost for words but he managed to say something at last.

‘Great. Look, Geraldine. What a treasure.’

Geraldine smiled, thinking that Vince probably had twenty signed balls and handed them out to all of his celebrity friends. No worries though, if it cheered Charlie up, it was worth it. It had provided an injection of sunshine into her husband’s life; desperately needed.

‘You might consider, Charlie, making a generous donation with your new gift,’ she suggested.

Charlie looked at his wife rather sheepishly, obviously not wishing to part with the ball.

‘It would be a good gesture on your part to give the ball to Mark, Mrs Kane’s son. Especially in light of everything that’s happened. I hear he’s a big football fan and plays for the school team,’ explained Geraldine.

Charlie had removed the ball from its packaging and was about to play with his new toy. Once around the furniture would test his knees and prove that they were still up to a minor run around on the park.

Geraldine’s idea was not one he would have generated himself, but he stared at the gift and wondered if this was the window of opportunity he had hankered after. It was a gesture that would show that he did have a heart and not just a pair of big feet. Mrs Kane might even realise that she had been mistaken, and stop planting the blame for her child’s death in his garden. Some forgiveness from Mrs Kane may also change the minds of the other townsfolk.

Charlie had jumped a few miles ahead of himself. Over the next few days, he wrestled with this plan and about how he would approach such a gesture. As usual, Charlie came to a conclusion of direct strategy; Blitzkrieg watered down.

Several days later, he arrived on the street where Mrs Kane and her two remaining children lived. With no real sensitive plan in place, he aimed to present himself at her front door, hand over the ball and scoot off. He would tackle hard and then disappear from the referee’s view. He was on a mission: as before matches, his approach was simple and direct.

Circumstances caught him out, as Mrs Kane and children suddenly walked out of their garden gate. No U turn, thought Charlie and before Mrs Kane had time to react, he marched up to Mark and handed the football to the young lad.

Mark was obviously thrilled at being presented with a ball, especially one signed by many footballers. He grabbed the gift and hugged it to his chest. With no hesitation, the lad firmly staked his claim to the ball, even though he was in a quandary as to exactly who Charlie was or why he had given him the present. Mrs Kane had sheltered Mark from most of the circus that had accompanied his sister’s death and he looked blank, staring at the strange middle aged man.

‘It’s signed by Vince Moore and other England footballers from the Championship winning side,’ stated Charlie, trying to conjure up his biggest smile. He thought that this bit of information may sweeten his benevolent act. Mrs Kane wouldn’t know the names, and was bound not to be impressed but from Mark’s reaction, the lad did.

‘Vince Moore!’ Mark shouted feverishly, holding the ball up to his mum. Mrs Kane stood, stone-faced, bewildered by the whole affair. Charlie was the last person she wanted to be near and the strength of her mounting anger took her own breath away.

Having accomplished the majority of his scheme, Charlie decided to depart, as Mrs Kane’s stare warned Charlie that he was about to be booked. There was no point in hanging around; the lad had his offering. He did quickly glance back when he was at the end of the street, to see Mrs Kane smiling at her son as he cradled the gift. After losing his sister, the boy was at last experiencing some joy, albeit from an undesired source.


A few weeks had passed since Charlie’s errand of relinquishing the ball to Mark. If Charlie was under an illusion that his charitable act would sprout a new era and the horrible details of the accident would be consigned to people’s distant memories, he was mistaken. There had been no skull and cross bones brick with the football attached crashing through his window, and no attempts to push the deflated ball under his door.

But still, the townsfolk secretly whispered as Charlie went to the shops, and accusing glances fluttered like moths around him. Mrs Kane had not repented and he was still held to account, not even forgiven. The glass of cheer that contacting Rod and Vince had filled was evaporating quickly.

Charlie’s mood was sombre and he sulked. His excursions out of the house when he wasn’t at work were less frequent; having few options now he was avoiding Julie and the crowd at his former watering hole. To Charlie, life was now happening somewhere else, not around him.

Geraldine had been quite passive throughout the tragic proceedings, but now she was anxious and worried about Charlie’s dark mood. For weeks now, he had been quiet, not contentious, and had no desire for a drink. She started thinking up a plan to cheer up her husband, and she shared it with her daughter.

Natasha was calling round more regularly now to support her mum. Sometimes, she brought Charlie some football magazines. This pleased him, although he refused to show any gratitude.

Geraldine decided to make her move today, when Natasha came round.

As soon as Natasha stepped through the door, Geraldine motioned towards Charlie. Natasha nodded.

‘How are you feeling today, Dad?’ she asked perceptively.

‘Wonderful!’ Charlie replied, meaning the opposite. He grunted, to say why do you care?

Natasha approached her dad and gently placed her hand on his shoulder.

‘Look, Dad, it’s a nice day, why not get off to the park? Maybe you could have a game of football? There’s always a group of lads having a kick-about,’ she said, quietly.

Charlie did not reply, even though he was bowled over by his daughter’s concern for him. He just stared at the silent TV, his shoulders hunched.

Geraldine silently gestured at Natasha, urging her to continue with their plan.

‘If you feel so bad, why not go and talk to someone? The GP will refer you to a counsellor, who will listen to you, and then get you to work through things. At the moment you’re just sulking around house, afraid of your own shadow and upsetting Mum,’ Natasha suggested.

It was not the thought of upsetting Geraldine that Charlie responded to. It was Natasha’s apparent interest in his wellbeing. She was actually showing some consideration for his mood. This pleased Charlie, although he was not intending to show it.

“That sort of thing’s for sissies,’ snorted Charlie, a little peeved by the suggestion.

‘At least think about it. It would you some good, Dad,’ was Natasha’s parting shot before she went into the garden with her mum.

The way Natasha had called him Dad, almost lovingly, resonated with Charlie. He did think about going to see the doctor. He was reminded of the statement Rod had made about life as Charlie had left. Maybe Rod had been trying to say the same thing.

Charlie was used to seeing things from a footballer’s prospective and he couldn’t separate his feelings on and off pitch. Certainly, life was trickier than a game of football. And if Natasha was taking an interest in him, then why not go for it? It might not help him but it would show he was making an effort. Charlie was under the impression he could go through the motions of going to see a counsellor and everyone would be happy, especially Natasha.

Charlie paid a visit to his GP, who was surprised to see a much more co-operative patient than the last time Charlie had paid his respects at the surgery. He was referred to an NHS consultant just for a stress-free chat; a piece of cake, as the GP put it. There would be other people who’d been referred there, and Charlie could leave at any time.

Waiting outside the counsellor’s door in the general hospital, he wondered if he had make a mistake. The door opened, and a female consultant in her late forties beckoned him inside. She was well-groomed and smartly dressed, and spoke in a mild manner, with every intention of putting Charlie at ease.

He was invited into the room where four other people were seated. So this was a group session: not what the doctor had ordered or explained. Before Charlie could set sail for home, the consultant ushered Charlie into the group.

‘My name is Tina. Please take a seat, Charlie.’

After listening to a couple of the patients explain their troubles away, it was Charlie’s turn. The counsellor urged him to enlighten everyone about why he was here.

Charlie decided to give it the works and went into a controlled rant: starting from his stalled footballing career and his life in Chopinwood, to the accident, finishing with presenting Mrs Kane’s son with the signed ball. It was a raw account, with nothing spared.

Tina listened attentively to his ravings about being always short-changed, without a clue about how to interrupt this man. At the final whistle, Charlie rested back in his chair, seemingly exhausted at his eruption of words. Tina had taken notes and after some deliberation, turned to the group and asked for their opinion.

‘You seem to find weakness in everyone but yourself,’ someone piped up. ‘Always passed the buck – blamed everyone for life’s little twists and turns.’

Charlie did not appreciate the comment and went into silent mode for the rest of the session.

After more revelations and a request to return if they thought it helped, Charlie set off across the car park, firmly of the opinion that this group counselling thing was for losers, not winners. As he passed a line of parked cars, he suddenly noticed a women who had been in the therapy session, standing by her open car door. She smiled in a friendly way but nothing more.

‘You did well in there,’ she said, in a pleasant voice.

Charlie grimaced.

‘No, you were very brave,’ she continued. ‘But you won’t achieve what you wish.’

‘What’s that, then?’ asked Charlie, wondering why she was showing him any attention.

‘Absolution,’ she replied. ‘We all want it. It solves the puzzle for us – makes things right.’

Charlie stared at her, totally perplexed.

‘We all have doubts about whether we are to blame or not. Life is never black and white but a mass of grey. What we want is forgiveness, whatever our sins, and then all the flowers can look pretty again and we can continue just as before,’ she explained.

‘What was your story then?’ goaded Charlie, remembering that the women had not spoken in the therapy session.

Leaning on the car door, she related her story.

‘I was celebrating with my best friend,’ she said, in a wistful voice. ‘We’d both just got good jobs for the same company. We were young, and this was an important step on the ladder. I drove to her parents’ house and they gave us a glass of sherry each to toast our success. Then I drove her to meet another friend. On the way, we stopped at a pub for a chat – I had half a lager. I wasn’t to know that there was something sharp stuck in one of my car tyres, maybe there was some broken glass in the car park. When I drove out of the car park, the tyre burst and I lost control of the car. I escaped with minor injuries, but my friend died at the scene.’

‘Were you to blame?’ Charlie asked.

‘I was breathalysed but it was negative. But when my friend’s parents found out I’d had a second drink, they blamed me for the accident. I tried to talk to them, but there’s no forgiveness. I am unforgiven.’

‘Unforgiven,’ repeated Charlie.

‘Yes, that’s right. Just by chance, I joined that small section of society – people who are held responsible by colleagues, friends and family for accidents, mistakes or deaths. We are the underbelly of society. No one takes any interest in us, like they do addicts or alcoholics. We’re just shut out by some sections of the community. We are the unforgiven.’

‘You make it sound as if we’re marked for life. Part of a tribe. Is there no escape? Why does it have to be this way?’ he pleaded.

‘Blaming me helped my friend’s parents to grieve. Their not forgiving helps them to hold on.’

‘Hold on?’ Charlie asked.

‘Hold onto the image of their daughter. Photos and memories help, but by not forgiving me, they keep a bond to their loved one. To forgive me would partially break that bond,’ she said ruefully.

This was way beyond Charlie’s IQ and he felt as if someone was holding a knife to his throat by blaming him. He was confused and angry.

‘How did you cope?’ he demanded, challenging her to give him a solution.

The women got into her car.

‘Find a purpose. A reason to keep living,’ she said quietly, as she closed the car door. With her answer ringing in Charlie’s ears, she drove off.

Purpose? What’s a bloody purpose? thought Charlie, solidly of the opinion that today had been like a goalless draw, a complete waste of time. Charlie would need to acquire more life skills to digest the women’s lesson in unforgiveness and he sulked all the way home.


Seven months had elapsed since that fateful accident involving Mrs Kane’s daughter. Life had improved for Charlie. There had been no reconciliation from Mrs Kane, and he had not returned for any further therapy sessions. His conversation with the mystery women in the carpark still confused him somewhat, but he filed it away, now his life was starting to gain a little momentum.

Charlie unintentionally took Rod’s advice on board and had allowed people into his space. He and Geraldine were a lot closer now, and his relationship with Natasha had revived, especially as his daughter was now pregnant. He was going to be a grandad. That was better than receiving an England cap, thought Charlie. He’d had few desires for Julie’s meaty body, and Charlie had been a notable absentee from the Brown Hen.

Many of the townsfolk continued to avoid any contact with Charlie, although this did not prevent Charlie’s elation at becoming a volunteer for the local youth football team, helping to coach juniors at the weekends. His sessions took place in the park near the community centre and they were well-attended, as many parents were keen to see their sons enjoying real coaching from an ex-professional player.

Charlie became a celebrity with the kids and he enjoyed his Saturdays in the park. His knees may have ached after chasing the juniors around the pitch, but Charlie had thrown off his recluse’s cloak and returned to his roots. Football had rallied his physical and mental wellbeing.

On this particular weekend, Charlie was engrossed as ever in coaching the juniors at five-a-side. He failed to notice the figure of Mrs Kane with her two children, entering the park gates and walking towards the community centre. One of the community workers walked over to greet her and after a brief chat, she gave her son a big hug, turned military fashion and marched with her youngest child back to the park entrance.

The community worker walked back towards Charlie, who had suddenly become aware of the entrance made by Mrs Kane. The group of young lads he was coaching stopped to wave and shout at Mark.

‘Seems you’re a hit with another lad,’ said the community worker. ‘This is Mark. He wants to join the group. His school friends have been bragging about you coaching them, and he’s mad about football.’

‘Did she say anything else?’ asked Charlie.

‘Only that the lad ate and slept football, and anything that made Mark happy was okay. Even being coached by a big stupid overgrown ex-footballer,’ came the answer. ‘You are popular,’ he added.

‘Doubt it,’ mumbled Charlie.

Charlie directed his gaze at Mrs Kane’s son and realised that Mark was holding the football he had given to the lad. Charlie smiled and waved him over. Mark dropped the ball and, with a flurry of excitement, dribbled it across the path to join his friends, who were pleased to see him.

Charlie scanned in the direction of the park gates but Mrs Kane was nowhere to be seen.

He turned to see Mark, kicking the ball around with his mates, waiting for him to come and coach them. He knew then that he had found his purpose, but he knew that he was and would always remain, unforgiven.

32



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