January 06, 2012

A Poolie Christmas Carol (part one)

KT POOLIE with apologies to Mr. Charles Dickens


Pool’s season was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The table was perused by the club secretary, both cup draws had passed without consequence, even old Johnstone’s Trophy was beyond reach. The campaign was as dead as the Echo Arena.

Old Scrote knew it was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? He had been a season ticket holder for I don't know how many years, so there is no doubt that the season was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If, a few years earlier, we were not perfectly convinced that the afternoon at Peterborough was over at 3-1, there would be nothing remarkable in Nelson’s pile-driver five minutes from the end.

But he was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old supporter, Scrote. Hard and sharp as flint, secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold northerly wind froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice."In life I was a great man. I wouldn’t say I was the best, but I was in the top one." ...observed the Ghost.

External heat and cold had little influence on Scrote. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew from the cold sea over the empty docks was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could not have made Scrote more miserable. In short, a Millhouse man.

Lately, no man or woman inquired of the score. Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, "My dear Scrote, how is the team doing? Are the newcomers doing well?" No programme sellers implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o'clock. Even the blind men's dogs appeared to know him, and then they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into the doorways of the bookies.

Once upon a time - of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve - old Scrote sat in his Millhouse seat. It was cold, bleak, biting weather, foggy withal, and he could hear the people at the turnstiles go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the terrace steps 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 floodlights were flaring in the windows of the press box like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.

“Come on Pools!" cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrote's nephew, who cheered the team through thick and thin.

"Bah!" said Scrote, "Humbug!"

He had so heated himself with fanatical chanting in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrote's, that he was all in a glow, his face was ruddy and handsome, his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

"Pools a humbug, uncle!" said Scrote's nephew. "You don't mean that, I am sure?"

"I do," said Scrote. "What right have you to be merry? We’ve seen defeat eight times here this winter."

"Come, then," returned the nephew gaily. "What right have you to be dismal? What reason have you to be morose? We’re not in the Blue Square. Look at your colleague Bob Scratchit, he has more to be miserable about than most, being father to the unfortunate Tiny Tim Sperrevik, yet he always carries a cheery countenance.”

Scrote having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, "Bah!" again, and followed it up with "Humbug."

"Don't be cross, uncle!" said the nephew.

"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "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 paying bills without money, a time for finding the season a game older, but we’re not a point richer. If I could work my will," said Scrote indignantly, "every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own foot-long hotdog, and buried with his season ticket. He should! Support the team in your own way, nephew, and let me support it in mine."

"Support it!" repeated Scrote's nephew. "But you don't support it."

"Let me leave it alone, then," said Scrote. "Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!"

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew. "Following Pools among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Saturday at The Vic as a good place, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant venue, the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people around them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave. Poolies till they die, if you like, and not another race of creatures bound to other clubs. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good, and I say, God bless it!"

A fan on the terrace involuntarily applauded. Becoming immediately sensible of the impropriety, he tightened his scarf to the wind and cheered a wayward pass.

"Let me hear another sound from you, Scratchit" said Scrote, "and you'll be going home in an ambulance! You're quite a powerful speaker, sir," he added, turning to his nephew. "I wonder you don't go into the Town End."

"Don't be angry, uncle. Come with us to Exeter."

"Never" said Scrote.

His nephew left for his pie and Bovril without an angry word. He stopped at the pitch-side to bestow the greetings of the season on the steward, who, cold as he was, was warmer than Scrote, for he returned them cordially.

As he raised his eyes to events on the field, Scrote beheld two ticket sellers. They were portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold, who now stood, with their hats on, in front of Scrote.

"A few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the disadvantaged some food and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"

"Nothing! I wish to be left alone," said Scrote. "I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the first team - they cost enough, and those who are badly off must go to the workhouse in Darlington."

"Many can't go there, and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrote, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Foggier yet, and colder. piercing, searching, biting cold. Pools were struggling. Scratchit’s elder son, the owner of a scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stood and raised his arms in front of Scrote:

"Well played Hartley, good tackle, sir. Howay the lads!"

Scrote scowled with such energy of action that the boy was silenced in terror. The game petered to as miserable an ending as the weather.

Scrote took his melancholy dinner in the Engineers, his usual melancholy tavern, and having read all the newspapers, went home to bed. He lived in a gloomy suite of rooms. Nobody lived in it but Scrote, the other rooms being all empty.

He closed his door, and locked himself in, double-locked himself in, which was his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his hat and scarf; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his nightcap, and sat down before the fire to take his gruel.

As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a rattle, a used 70’s Christmas present, that hung in the room. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this rattle begin to turn. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound, but soon it clattered out loudly, and so did a bell – the one in the outside privvy he used to call out for toilet paper when he had run out.

This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bell and rattle ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain.

The cellar-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.

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, Cloughie's Ghost!" and fell again.

The same face. The very same. Cloughie in his usual green training top, tight shorts 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 Scrote observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent, Scrote had often heard it said that Cloughie had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

"How now!" said Scrote, caustic and cold as ever. "What do you want with me?"

"Much, young man!" - Cloughie’s voice, no doubt about it.

"In life I was a great man. I wouldn’t say I was the best, but I was in the top one. Now, I see you don't believe in my legacy or the team," observed the Ghost.

"I don't," said Scrote.

"Why do you doubt your senses? Are we not better placed than we ever dreamed in those dark days? "

"I doubt my senses, because," said Scrote, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

Scrote was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror, for the spectre's voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones. There was something very awful, too, in the spectre's aura.

"Why are you here?" asked Scrote.

"Hear me!" cried the Ghost. "My time is nearly gone. Stand up straight, get your shoulders back and get your hair cut. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day. I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping your misery. A chance and hope of my procuring, young man."

"You were always a good manager to me," said Scrote. "Thank'ee!"

"You will be haunted," resumed the Ghost, "by Three Spirits."

Scrote's countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost's had done.

"I - I think I'd rather not," said Scrote.

"Without their visits," said the Ghost, "you cannot hope to shun the wretched path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls One."

"Couldn't I take 'em all at once, and have it over, Mr Clough?" hinted Scrote.

"Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. 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 apparition walked backward from him, and at every step it took, the window raised itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned Scrote to approach, which he did. When they were within two paces of each other, Cloughie's Ghost held up its hand, warning him to come no nearer. Scrote stopped. He looked out.

The air was filled with 60’s and 70’s phantom fans, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore blue and white and the misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to support their team, for good, but had lost the power for ever.

Whether these creatures faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, he could not tell. But they and their spirit chanting something about Willie Waddell and Billy Ayre faded, and the night became still.

Scrote closed the window, and examined the door by which the Ghost had entered. It was double-locked, and the bolts were undisturbed. He tried to say "Humbug!" but stopped at the first syllable. Much in need of repose, went straight to bed, without undressing, and fell asleep upon the instant.

(story continues further down)