The Red Ball

A Story

Henry Cox strides across the polished stone floor of his sitting room, and sits at his desk. He leans to the right to open the bottom drawer which is stiff and needs encouragement. He jiggles it slightly and it opens with an indignant squeal. Once he’d intended to oil it or run soap along the bottom runner, now he rather enjoys the familiar sound.

The desk drawer is crammed with papers and opens with difficulty. He eases his fingers inside to hold down the cards that obstinately stick themselves into the crack of the drawer above and shakes the drawer from side to side until it is fully open. Then he pulls it out and lifts it on to his desk where he can examine the contents.

There is far too much in it. A lifetime of things. Old diaries, forgotten pens that need refills or new nibs, staples for a size of stapler he no longer possesses, keys for forgotten locks, a lifetime of useless things.

And so much paper. Old letters from his publisher, photographs and cards from the summer visitors who think he needs a reminder of how much fun they had in the village when they were on their holidays. He’d enjoyed some of their company. There are letters from former lovers and those whom he had hoped might become lovers. Then the letters and notes from friends who have died, making him unable to throw away anything which still bears their familiar scribbled signatures or handwriting. Above all, there are the few letters and notes from Laurent: ‘Dig going well, back next weekend. T’embrasse.’ ‘Can you get some more coffee?’ ‘Just gone out for a drink. Back later.’ And the final letter: ‘I’m so sorry, Henry, mon cher, I never expected to write this. But Stephanie and I are in love.’

Then the next layer, old notebooks of his parents, his only tangible reminder that he did have parents. There are cheap red notebooks which his mother had used to write down her accounts: she bought several hats during the War, he discovered, as well as making donations to war orphans. She also had what she’d described as her dinner party book with every date and name carefully inscribed in the clear italic she’d learned at school. ‘1950. June 16 M & T and their children(unfortunately) lunch. Cold soup, cold roast chicken and salad, strawberries with cream and ice-cream. Chablis.’

It was the year his parents died in a senseless accident when the brakes failed on their car. His absent-minded father had almost certainly forgotten to check his car, and these were the days before MOTs and regular services. He’d been five years old.

He puts down the shiny red book. The ink on some pages is so faint it is hard to decipher. And it always was, which had made it all the more exciting when he had stumbled across a new piece of evidence about his parents’ life which he had never known. Was that where it began, the love of history? Had it started with these shabby small notebooks?

There is a handful of memorabilia of his own childhood. Handmade birthday cards. To Uncle with love, inherited after his death, and which Henry had felt bound to keep hold of. He can’t now remember whether his uncle had enjoyed receiving them. He had found it hard to have a small boy in his life, while feeling it was his duty to look after him. They had rarely talked beyond exchange of necessary information and requests asked and given: ‘May I go cycling this afternoon?’ ‘Is it OK if I go and stay with Jules and his family?’ Jules, his only schoolfriend, and now his publisher, bringing out Henry’s dry histories both know will be unread and unsold.

A life in a pile of papers, jumbled together. He really should sort them into some kind of order. He doesn’t. He throws them back into the drawer. But then he notices an exercise book of the kind he’d had a school. He’d written his initials on the cover with a flamboyant flourish underneath. Inside, was a short story he’d never published or even shown to anyone, though he’d made corrections to it over the years in red biro. Written, he thinks when he was about fifteen and deeply influenced by Graham Greene; the sense of observing life from the outside, figures moving unhappily in a strange land. 

He opens the notebook and begins to read. 

The Red Ball

Dominic lay in bed and watched the pattern of light drift across the flowered wallpaper as the curtain billowed in the evening breeze. Through the open window he could hear the sounds from the street below. The steps and voices of people going out to dinner merged with the sounds of children laughing and screaming at each other. It seemed as if everyone except him was out there enjoying themselves.

That was the trouble with summer, he said to himself. At school it was the sound of tennis balls as the older boys played on the grass courts long after his year had been told ‘lights out’. But the dormitory was darker. There the wooden shutters allowed only a solitary beam of light. Here the thin curtains did nothing to dim the light or muffle the noise.

He puts down the exercise book and sighs. He should be packing, not wasting time. He has to empty his house so it can be demolished and so the next stage of the dig can begin. He now lives in a protected archaeological site and although a new house is being built for him and the other inhabitants of this tiny Cretan village, he resents having to leave his home with every nerve, muscle and sinew. If bloody Stephanie hadn’t found that Minoan urn in her garden with its hoard of jewels, if that hadn’t led to the discovery of the lost palace… Stephanie, his oldest friend. Right now he could ring her neck.

He’d written that story because his English teacher had told him he had promise. Such a validating word when you were young, he thought. But then he had never received much praise in his life. He remembers the story now. Dominic on holiday in Italy with his parents, full of resentment, hating everything, but particularly the red ball the other children played with. He’d written it when he himself was on holiday with his uncle in Italy. Yes, he had been fifteen and certainly did not go to bed before dark, though he can still vividly remember how it had felt as an English child abroad, when he seemed to be the only person in bed and the rest of the world was still enjoying themselves. 

Henry reads on. There is so much anger in this story: Dominic sitting on the beach wanting to read while his parents tried to get him to play with the other children. Watching enviously as they played with the red ball, on the beach and in the water. And the parents trying to get him to join in. ‘Dominic knew, as if there was an unwritten rule that he could not. And he knew the other children knew this and would not allow him to play with them. His role was that of a watcher’.

Did he feel that so strongly at fifteen? Yes, he decides, he almost certainly did. He certainly knew that he was not someone that others welcomed into their company. He could make individual friendships, but that strange camaraderie of the group always excluded him. He was not wanted and could never join. Even now, over sixty years later, he can feel the boy’s frustration off the page, which is turned into his anger against the inanimate red ball. He seems to remember that the story then became very melodramatic with Dominic waiting until everyone was asleep and then creeping back to the beach to attack the red ball which was kept in the beach hut.

There are some bits of the story that he quite likes. The boy’s disgust at the smell of sherry on his mother, the strangeness of the familiar path in the dark, the eerie sound of the wind in the Corsican pines. But the rest is impossible. Dominic behaved like one of the characters in the books He’d read as a child, Norman and Henry Bones, boy detectives. Armed with his penknife, setting off in his grey shorts and aertex shirt, but not against any criminal, just a piece of indiarubber. ‘Holding his torch firmly in his hand, his breath stifled as he crept through the silent hotel garden, the prospect ahead filled him with mingled unease and excitement.’

Henry turns to the last page. Dominic stabs the ball. It is the pivotal moment in his life. From then on he is free, he expects to read, but no, he is wrong. Dominic does not stab the ball. He carries the ball outside and puts in down on the sand, where it looks rather sad and insignificant. Then the moon comes out and illuminates the sea. ‘And in that moment everything became clear to Dominic. All the problems which had bothered him, his inability to mix with other children all now seemed inevitable. He knew for the first time who he was and why.’ 

Henry feels a pang of sympathy for his teenage self and wishes he could go back and hug … no, not hug him, even now he has not adopted this ubiquitous method of greeting, but at least give him a pat on the shoulder. Tell him it will be all right. He will even find love, although it will not last, but he will be happier.

The story had all the frustrations of adolescence dressed up as childhood rage. Childhood rage was much simpler. Was he so lonely, did he feel so angry with his uncle for being aloof and with his parents for dying and leaving him alone?.

And that ending. It must have been the year he discovered Camus and took from him all the 

emotional scraps of existentialism and none of the thought. But, strangely, he can still feel it so vividly. He can feel the sand beneath him on that Italian beach. Sitting there watching it trickle through his fingers. The slightly querulous voice of his uncle on other occasions: ‘Why don’t you join in? I’m sure the other children won’t mind.’ The red ball was nothing to do with the other children, it was the way he could never match up to what his uncle expected him to be. ‘Not on the rugby team?’ ‘Never thought of taking up rowing?’ ‘Isn’t it time you found a nice girl?’

Of course Dominic couldn’t actually stab the red ball. Poor fictional child trapped in an adolescent world of self-hatred and confusion. No, uncle, I could never join in, be like all those others you compared me with. I knew even then I was gay, which was why I escaped here to Greece. 

It is time to throw away that story. He has moved on and now, indeed, has a move to do.