This is not going to be a story about football.
This is a story about frogs.
I saw my first frog at the age of five. I was in Mrs Clark's class, and our spring visit to the school pond was a trek into swampland for me: the grass was waist-high; the dragonflies were buzzing thick around my pigtails; and the dead log by the bank could have easily been an alligator in my overactive imagination. I wanted to see far more exciting creatures than the small brown frog by the waters' edge.
Mrs Clark gathered us around and poked its bottom with a pencil until it jumped away, and I have to say I wasn't really taken with her lecture about God's great ways and the perfect design of the frog for the tasks it had to do. What tasks did it have to do? And what tasks, exactly, was I made for? Was she saying God had given me my gift?
I didn't know it at the time, but that frog and I turned out to have a lot in common. Both of us were poked up the bottom in order to make us perform.
I didn't mind the act of anal sex too much. It was the way he led up to it which was upsetting, with references to getting my pipes cleaned and was I in the mood for chocolate milk tonight? And it was always the night before a show, because he swore blind that it made me a better singer, tightened my voice up that little bit, made me sing it out more clearly.
If God gave me my voice then Davie took it away again. A few years of that, and I couldn't get near a stage without having an attack of diarrhoea. Davie knew it was over, and he left with a younger model. So much for long-term management.
At that point I started collecting frogs.
I'm not talking about real frogs. Real frogs jump and poo and ribbit and do all sorts of things that are of no interest to me whatsoever. But my small flat in Chelmsford - bought with the remains of the one savings account I'd kept in my own name - had a spare room without a use, and as I was walking past the charity shop on the corner I saw a patchwork frog-shaped hot water-bottle cover in the window for fifty pence. And it just so happened that I had fifty pence on me. I'm not a great believer in signs, but I do think that one should go with the gut every now and again. I bought that cover, and the book about pond life I found in the very same shop. I've been collecting ever since. 342 frog-related products later, and not one of them has given me any happiness. That's why I've decided to get a boyfriend. One who's not interested in anal sex.
The Following Thursday
And so Keith comes into this whole thing. Keith frequents The Cow and Moon. I don't often go there, but I went last night, specifically to see him, being the impulsive type. I put my hair up into a beehive and painted my eyes black. I even squeezed into one of my special performing frocks, but it looked awful and brought on the diarrhoea so I changed back into jeans and a tee shirt with a hopping frog in a tiara on the front. Underneath the frog were the words, 'dancing queen'. I hoped he wouldn't ask me to dance and therefore prove I had falsely advertised my charms.
He didn't, but that was because it wasn't a dance floor evening. It was a karaoke night.
A badly aging sex-kitten was belting out Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves, and that seemed to sum up the crowd quite well. Keith was in the middle of the long bench that ran underneath the window, and his friends didn't look too bad. There were five of them, all drinking pints of something brown and frothy in silence, but Keith was the pick of the bunch, with his flatter stomach and blacker hair. The rest of them looked like older versions of him after bad marriages: I wondered if they had wives at home, wearing pinnies, slapping rolling pins, slopping their dinners out to the dog.
Keith and I would never end up that way.
I approached the table and stood in front of him. He frowned, then smiled when he recognised me.
'Can I get you a drink?' I said.
'What?' he said.
I waited until the song had finished and the smattering of applause had died away into general conversation before trying again.
'I'll get you one,' he said, which wasn't what I was after, but it was a pleasant development. He looked at the beer bellies of the friends on the left, then the ones on the right, and decided to crawl under the table instead. When he got back to his feet, his yellow football shirt had become untucked, and he left it hanging over his jeans. It suited him better that way.
He guided me towards the bar, his hand on my back, and ordered a pint of bitter for himself and a dry white wine for me without consultation. Obviously that was what ladies of his acquaintance drank.
'You got a job for me?' he said.
I should explain. Keith is a handyman. He does man things around my house, such as mowing the lawn and fixing drippy taps. I found him in the Yellow Pages, under H.
'Maybe,' I said, trying to be coquettish.
'Well, you do such a good job of looking after the house... I thought maybe you'd want to look after me as well.'
'Yeah?' I don't think he got it. I sipped at my wine and tried not to wince at the taste.
A new act, one of Keith's friends, was called up to the karaoke. He strutted up with the attitude and the physique of Elvis in his Vegas period, but it was Tom Jones that sprang into life through the speakers. It's Not Unusual, Keith's friend sang, and apparently it wasn't, because everyone looked quite bored with his bombastic performance, as if they'd seen it a few too many times.
Karaoke is a funny thing. Regulars have a song that they stick to – maybe because they think they resemble the singer, or that it suits their range. Or maybe it reminds them of the one good time they had, and they're stuck like a 45 on an ancient turntable, going round and round on repeat in an attempt to maintain the illusion of standing still in that moment.
Keith's attention wavered between me and his friend on the stage. His face was tight, his moustache quivering as his lips formed the words of the soon. He looked like he wanted to be up there too. He caught me watching the movement of his mouth, and shrugged.
'Wish I'd been a good singer,' he said.
'Wish I hadn't.'
'Don't you go up there, then?' I said.
'Nah.' He looked at the stage as if it was home at the end of a long night out. 'S'magical, innit?'
I could have put up with a snorer, or a farter, or a general attitude problem. But hero-worship of light entertainment was a step too far. I downed the wine, hissed at the taste, and took a step back. 'I should get going.'
'Yeah... what was this job?'
He looked hard at me. 'You all right, love?'
'It's been a bad week,' I said. 'And I thought...'
'Look, stop here for a minute, okay? Keep me company. The lads are always on at me to sing, and I don't sing. S'nice to have someone else to talk to.'
I nodded, and he ordered me another drink – vodka and orange this time, more to my taste. We were getting to know each other already. We had nothing in common apart from the fact that singing wasn't on the agenda, but that was all I needed.
Later, he walked me home and kissed me on the cheek.
The Thursday After That
'S'packed,' said Keith as he came back from the bar bearing a pint of bitter and a margarita. We'd got there early and commandeered a small round table at the back of the room, far from the stage but close to the speakers. 'S'only ever busy on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons.'
'Why Saturday afternoons?'
'Footie,' he said. He pulled at his shirt – the yellow one with green stripes again.
'Is that your team?' I asked him.
'Brazil,' he said. 'I don't really have a team. I like the best players. Brazil's the best. Well, they were.'
'Do you mean Pele?'
He nodded and inclined his head as if impressed that a woman could know such things. I'd taken a wild guess, but he didn't need to know that. 'But there's lots of other players, brilliant players, people don't know about. Brazilian league football is the best in the world. Shits on the Premier League. Sorry. I get excited when I talk about football.'
'Right,' I said.
'You can ask me anything,' he said. 'League tables. Player stats. It's a hobby of mine.'
'It's good to have a hobby,' I said, thinking about my spare room bursting with fake frogs. Keith seemed to get a lot more out of his obsession than I did out of mine. 'Your hobby sounds great.'
'Really? You're the first person to say that.'
There was a round of applause as the first act of the night took the stage. It was a girl who couldn't have been more than sixteen under the glittered and teased hair and blue eyeliner. From her raised position on the stage, her tiny silver sequin skirt no longer hid her purple thong. All the men in the room crouched a little.
She sang Without You. The voice wasn't bad but she was too young for such a song. Somebody should have told her that there are songs which are only suitable for the old and broken amongst us. I could have done Without You justice now, if I'd been able to. I could have sung it to death.
Keith continued to talk away, and I nodded in the appropriate places even though I couldn't hear a thing. Occasionally, between songs, I gathered that he was telling me about football. On his face was the most beautiful expression. I wondered if he had ever been allowed to just chatter about the thing that consumed him before. When a person is a singer, everyone wants them to open their mouth, When a person is a football obsessive, everyone wants them to shut up. It didn't seem fair to me, so I let him talk, and enjoyed the way his eyes rolled and his hands fluttered like butterflies around his pint glass.
The night passed, broken into bite-sized pieces by the same old songs that people never seem to get enough of hearing. Keith's friend murdered It's Not Unusual again, and the aging sex kitten belted out Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves once more. I found myself singing a little, under my breath, at a volume that only dogs could hear. It felt good. Everything about the evening felt good. And Keith looked better than ever.
'And then, in 1926, Palestra Italia-SP came top of the Campeonato Paulista,' Keith said, 'winning all nine of their games and scoring a staggering thirty-three goals.'
'Last song of the evening!' shouted a voice. Keith stopped talking and looked up. I turned around in my seat. Keith's friend was on the stage, the microphone in his hand and a dangerous, beery grin on his fat face. 'Please welcome... Keith and friend!'
The crowd gave half-hearted applause which stepped up a gear as the rest of Keith's friends, at their usual table, whooped and stamped their feet.
'Shit,' said Keith.
'I really can't,' I said. 'Really. I can't.'
'Christ.' The crowd kept clapping. The friend on the stage put down the microphone and pushed through to stand in front of our small table. 'C'mon, Keith!' he shouted. 'Give us a duet with your lady friend.'
'Oh no no,' I said.
'Keith shook his head and folded his arms. The crowd clapped harder, starting shouting. There was a sense of inevitability in the air as Keith's shoulders drooped. He stood up, tucked his yellow football shirt into his jeans, and offered his hand to me.
'I really can't,' I said. I could feel my bowels rumbling. 'Come on.' In his eyes I could see desperation, a plea to accompany him up to that place he idolised and feared in equal measure. Alone, he could not conquer it. But together, we stood a chance. Maybe the same was true for me too. Apart we could only be silent, but as a couple, we could sing a song, and do it justice.
I stood up.
The crowd made mad noises, like animals in the zoo awaiting feeding time, as we stepped on to the stage. I've performed in front of some rowdy groups in clubs and bars, but this one took my breath away. The introduction to the song started to play, and they quietened, but their expressions were still hungry, their eyes trained on us as if they were the lions and we were fresh meat.
Don't Go Breaking My Heart.
Keith sang first, took the opening line, hit one note out of six and was out of time, but at least he'd got the words out and had maintained a decent volume, and then it was my turn.
'I couldn't if I tried!' I sang: every note was perfect, like bluebird song, and I laced my arm around Keith's waist and gave a little shimmy and a wink, feeling the urge to sing out sweep back over me like I'd been swiped with a great big glittery brush from God, who had made me to perform just like he'd made frogs to jump.
Keith stopped singing and looked at me with open mouth, so I sang his lines as well. He recovered by the chorus, and did a fair job of harmonising. With some practice on his part, we might have been okay. Kiki Dee's not really my kind of range, but it was pleasant to sing something light and undemanding, and Keith's presence next to me made it easy to shine. The song passed as quick as an eyeblink, and when I looked around the room everyone was applauding me, whistling, shaking their heads in amazement.
Everyone apart from Keith.
He stared at me. 'What's that smell?' he said.
'I'm so sorry,' I said. 'I've shat myself.'
Not the Next Thursday, But the Thursday After That
I put on a black wig, Cleopatra-style, and the darkest sunglasses I could find to brave The Cow and Moon. It took a lot to walk back through those doors, but it was pointless anyway – he wasn't there. Something told me he would never be there again.
The regulars sang the same old songs. Nobody bought me a drink. Nobody asked me to sing. It was for the best, really.
On the way home I passed the enormous 24 hour Tescos and wandered through the car park and up to the sliding doors. I kidded myself I wanted some biscuits, a treat from the expensive range, maybe Belgian chocolate cookies or those German wafers with hearts on the packet, but really I knew where I wanted to go. I headed for the toy section, , hoping to catch a glimpse of green.
They had a new range in stuffed toys. Fairy Tale Furries, they were called, and amongst the bears and the pigs and the wolves in grandmother-style caps, were long thin frogs with red smiles. I picked one up and held it in my hands. It wore a gauzy skirt, and when I turned it over the skirt flipped over its head to reveal a golden-haired prince underneath, complete with dashing moustache and enormous crown. He looked like a real catch.
I paid for the Frog Prince and took him home. Instead of banishing him into the spare room, I took him into bed with me and put him next to me on the pillow. After I'd turned out the light, I could feel his presence beside me, reaching out to me, begging me to take him in my hands and make him into a man once more.
Mrs Clarke was wrong. God doesn't design us perfectly for the tasks we are meant to undertake. God makes blobs, and the blobs divide and become creatures, and creatures become different as time goes on because they don't want to stay the same, to keep repeating the same tasks again and again.
I might have to kiss a lot of frogs before I find a prince who can make me into a princess. But I'll keep kissing away. I have a feeling that inside all of us frogs who are fed up of jumping to the same tune, there are human beings.
About the author:
Aliya Whiteley lives in Cambridgeshire, UK, with her husband and daughter. Her detective novel, Light Reading, was published by Macmillan New Writing in February 2008. For more information visit her website at www.aliyawhiteley.com.
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