I mentioned I had written a short story for this month’s Marsha Ingrao’s Story Chat series. In case you’ve not seen it, here it is. Hope you enjoy it.
The Ealing Invincibles are a wandering Sunday soccer team, formed in 1999 by a group of actors. They play against teams across south west London and make up for lack of skill with unquenchable enthusiasm, a nice line in histrionics when tackled and a readiness to buy their round. If short of a player, club secretary, Fergus Plaimasion sends out idiosyncratic pleas for help. For the game at Battersea Ironclads this Sunday, the message reads: Disaster looms, motley crew. The Furies have denied us a striker and a right back. If you know of anyone waiting in the wings, bring them along.
At 2.17 that Sunday in the shingle car park behind the dilapidated corset factory, Thoms Oldcastle’s ancient VW disgorges three extras: the squat Dr Reuben Twopillow, the go-to TV medic; the tall, handsome and commanding presence of Roderick Henchbodie, currently playing Sebastián in a remake of Brideshead and mooted to be the new Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (to be shown on Sky); and his girlfriend, muse and staggeringly talented polymath, the willowy Professor Wanda Wellbedded.
Thoms does the introductions; after the ritual handshakes (for Reuben and Rod) and side-eye glances from several inherently inadequate men for Wanda, Fergus ushers the players into the changing rooms, leaving Wanda alone with her phone and a few gawping dog walkers. She barely registers their presence: having faced many university funding committees, she is more than capable of dealing with such barely disguised misogyny.
The sun peeps out, despite the chill; it has all the makings of a pleasant afternoon.
An hour later, Rod waves at Fergus who passes him the ball. He accelerates towards goal, already considering how he will celebrate when he scores. Instead, he stumbles and the renowned leading man leads with his famously dimpled jaw, face-planting the mud.
As is often recorded by bystanders to tragedy, time seems to slip a dimension and run slower than usual; hereabouts, it almost grinds to a halt. The other players take a moment to appreciate he has not simply tripped. Some, knowing him an actor, but not knowing the person, wonder if this is a deliberate pratfall, some comic interlude. Only two, Dr Reuben and a member of the home team, Isaac Turtle appreciate this might be more serious than a case of befuddled feet.
They are right: Rod has suffered a catastrophic heart failure of the kind that can afflict young men in particular during exercise and is, to all intents and purposes, dead as he hits the floor.
As the other players gather around, Reuben’s instincts kick in. It may be his quick wit, formidable eyebrows and nearly packaged diversity credentials that got him the gig on TV, but he is first and foremost a doctor. He knows that immediate and continuous CPR are essential if his peri-deceased friend is to have a chance of living.
Isaac is a quiet young man, assumed by many to be gormless, but he is merely a watcher. This week, he has been trained on the use of the club’s defibrillator. It is that he seeks as he sprints for the rickety clubhouse. With the machine clutched to his chest he sprints back to the uniformly rapt and horrified crowd, that comprises everyone bar Wanda, still on her phone and oblivious to the drama unfolding behind her.
As Isaac drops to his knees and Reuben appreciates this may turn out better than he assumed moments before, the crowd seem to understand and step back. The two unexpected collaborators work in wordless harmony; soon Reuben lifts Rod’s sweaty shirt for Isaac to apply the charged paddles, once, twice to that photogenic body.
Almost by instinct, several watchers hold their breath; it is a strange moment of solidarity with the victim. Reuben takes the pulse, leaning close.
The relief is palpable. ‘He’s breathing.’ Moments later he adds, ‘and I can feel a pulse.’
Wanda looms over the still inert Roderick, now aware that she has almost lost her boyfriend. Her cool scientific mind manages to restrain the tsunami of emotions assaulting her. ‘What happened?’
Many versions compete for her attention. She crouches at his side, instinct preventing her from dropping to her knees and potentially ruining her Gucci pantsuit. Touching her lover’s cool face, he blinks. Someone cheers.
Rod is in pain, and demands an explanation. ‘What the bloody hell has happened to my chest?’
Reuben adopts a suitably ‘don’t scare the patients’ manner and explains about his heart.
‘Why’s it hurt right the way across, then?’ Before anyone can stop him, he grabs the hem and pulls his shirt to his chin, straining and failing to see the source of his discomfort.
On stage and while filming, Rod’s unfeasibly beautiful and unblemished body is admired and lusted over by both men and women. He has no tattoos, but when not working sports two small crucifixes on nipple rings (a homage to his devout grandparents) and a silver ingot on a pendant, given him by Wanda.
The reason for Rod’s discomfort is apparent to all, save Rod. In applying the electrical charges, Isaac has inadvertently superheated these three small metallic items and they have burnt into Rod’s taut torso.
‘What’s happened?’ Rod takes in the sea of the faces staring at his chest. One skill that has stood him in good stead is his ability to read his audience and, to his surprise, he detects, not the expected concern, but a mix of humour and pity. He forces his head higher and, despite the fact he sees an inverted version of what the others see, he realises the stark truth.
He has been branded with one word, which once the angry, partly suppurating burns heal will be with him forever. Any gratitude he has for his rescuers disappears as he appreciates he can never now emerge from a lake, bare-chested to woo Elizabeth Bennett. Not if all the viewers see is that one word.