I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. Waited. Silence. I curled and uncurled my hands three times, wondering whether to knock again. Just as I made up my mind, my right hand instinctively rising to the panel of dark wood between the two smoky plates of frosted glass, I heard a thump from behind the door. I could make out a shadow moving inside. I lowered my hand to my side. I heard a vague rumble of a voice, muffled by the distance and the heavy wood of the door. Then slow, heavy footsteps. The shadow grew larger until it filled the glass, obscuring all light that was peeling through to me. Then There was a clinking sound, metal-on-metal. A loose chain, jangling like atonal bells. A deep, guttural thud as the key turned over the lock once. Twice. I felt the air, displaced as the door shifted from its frame and then slowly, slowly, the door silently glided open.
Towering a full head and shoulders over me, his presence filled the doorframe completely. My eyes searched for his, above his bristling beard, wound like shiny wire wool and completely obscuring his face. Eventually I managed it, difficult as it was with the light refracting off of the thick bottle-bottom lenses of his round spectacles. I felt the faintest hint of a smile as we made eye contact, but it soon disappeared. He inhaled, his huge chest expanding like an industrial bellows and I felt my palms wet with perspiration while I waited for what he might say.
“So it’s you again,” he said in his thundering baritone. “I suppose this must be … the third time? Or the fourth?”
I let the question hang in the air as he took off his glasses and, with a hanky removed from his faded corduroy trouser pocket, he polished them off before looking up to the light through them. He nodded to himself slightly and set them back onto the bridge of his large bulbous nose. “Speak, lad,” he said, a note of irritation colouring his words this time.
“I suppose the third,” I replied, inwardly cursing myself for the tremble in my voice. “I …”
“I don’t have time,” he cut me off before I could go on. “… for the carefree comings and goings of someone like you. Oh, I remember the time, at your age, when things were different. All sorts of mischief I’d find myself in. Causing bother and who knows what else. But today … today I like things to be a little quieter.” He angled his face down at mine more intently now. I could smell his breath, each word laced with stale coffee and the pipe smoke that sometimes wafted out of darkened windows, a few feet from where I stood. “What do you suppose,” he went on, “might happen to you, should you continue to persevere in disturbing me from my affairs, young man?”
It felt like a threat and I swallowed hard. Hard enough that the sound of it cut through the silence of the deserted lane where we stood. I looked down at my scuffed shoes and saw myself moving my weight from one to the other. I looked at his weathered hands, balled into loose fists. I imagined what even the most half-hearted blow might do to me and my small frame. I looked up again and his eyes were fixed on me, still. They were intense, a lively brown with flecks of green illuminating the edges of his irises. His brow was rigidly furrowed into a firm frown and I could barely detect the heaving of his breath.
“Cat got your tongue?” he asked, another feint wave of halitosis blowing warm on my face.
“I suppose,” I said. “I mean, I think it might lead to quite a lot of trouble for me. But I’m not here looking for trouble. I tell you truthfully, I’m really not.”
“Then what is it that you are here for, exactly?”
“I came here because I had no choice,” I said, stifling a whimper. My eyes darted to either side of me. “None of this was ever meant to happen. I was trying to do things the right way. I was trying not to do something that might bring me grief. But I made a mistake. Something went wrong and it’s my fault and the only thing I could do was to come here and to try to put that right.”
My chest was heaving. My hands were trembling. I concealed them behind my back, hoped he hadn’t seen this sign of weakness in me.
“I’ll ask you once more,” he said. “I’ll ask you very plainly. And I don’t want any more stupid answers. No more foolish stories. Do you hear me?”
I nodded, yes, and sniffed hard.
“What,” he boomed, “exactly … do you … want?”
The silence hung palpably in the air. I looked around one last time. The lane was still deserted. Even the walls of the houses seemed to be looking away from me, unwilling to acknowledge my pleading eyes, desperate for support.
“All I want,” I said, taking in a huge breath. I looked up at him and bit the corner of my lip to regain my composure. “All I want—and this is the last time—all I want is for you to throw my football back over the wall. Please!”
“All right, lad,” he said, after a short pause. “But it’d better be the bloody last time as well.”