The Footballer with the Crystal Ankles
Walter loved football from his very first touch, on that dusty path outside his house, where he played under the shadows of the coconut palms. He was born, rather unusually, with both of his ankles made out of crystal but his mother and father loved him nonetheless. Most days he played football so well some said he was possessed by a spirit, and when he wasn’t playing he would swim in the warm waters of the Amazon Basin where his brothers were fishing. “If a dead sea cow washes up on the beach,” they told him, “you have to have sex with it else its sister will come out and eat you.” And then they laughed, and drank. Walter would not touch the sea cows though, because he worried that they were witches; sometimes he stayed awake all night worrying about them until the sun came up through the dolphin-pink clouds.
While he was still a small child, Walter was scouted at a tournament in the rainforest and brought to the academy in Medellín, and it was there that he first encountered the Professor: a bespectacled French philosopher-coach who taught him about puppetry, pendulums and dancing bears. He claimed that every football contained within itself an infinite sparkling cosmos of creativity, and often ran about the room holding his head in his hands. The Professor was fascinated with the possibility of crystal ankles and would quote Antonin Artaud, a poet: “When you will have made him a body without organs/ then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions/ and restored him to his true freedom.” Joyfully he sang songs about a body without organs on his accordion, in upwards-cascading harmonies, as well as hiding crystal prisms under the corner-flags. However after every lesson he was careful to caution Walter: “You must not lose your balance…”
This is where our story starts, swimming in the winding waters of the basin and jumping across its floating lily lakes, as Walter finds himself falling for a miserable looking girl, Maria-Cristina. She always appears so sad and he wishes to make her so happy, and tells her about the wet witches in the rivers and the puppets in the Professor’s house, and the horrid flowers that bloom in the mountain-pass, and how he really loves her. She says she doesn’t care and football is silly anyway. “Yawn,” she says.
One morning a stranger arrives to watch Walter training with the youth team at the academy. The day after that comes another, the day after that another, each one more important-looking than the last. Soon there is a vast huddle of old Spanish men in tailored suits, slowly watching him through the thick soggy hotness. Walter scores a wonder goal, and dances a tropical jig with his teammates, and turns back towards the touchline; only to see all the suits walking away, clutching telephones to their dripping faces while the swallows sing sad songs above them.
When he returns home that evening, his mother and father are waiting for him at the dining table, which smokes with coloured spices, and his goat wears an anxious look upon its face. They tell him something wonderful’s happened: they’ve been offered jobs and untold riches across the ocean, and so has he, and they’re moving to Madrid in the morning! Now he has to say his goodbyes to the old world before the sun sets. Walter walks to the beach where his brothers are cooking snapper fish wrapped in salty banana leaves, and his face puffs slowly up with tears. Afterwards he calls in on the Professor, who’s awfully proud and also sad. “Walter,” he says, stumbling over the words, “you must not lose your balance,” as he hands him a soft, melting cheese. It collapses in on its blue innards. They promise to write each other every week and, of course, they never do. On his way home Walter knocks on Maria-Cristina’s door however she’s not there; “I’m sorry young man, I don’t know where she is tonight,” says her mother with a knowing smile.
* * *
Things are very different for him in Spain, residing along the edges of the city where the buildings fall away. All the other teenagers are formidably talented and play football in a manner he cannot understand. No one ever passes to him. Walter trains on his own in a cold echo chamber controlled by a machine that fires footballs at him from every angle, relentlessly, until darkness falls. And through the night he watches his favourite footballers on YouTube; studying their magic moments over and over again, in ever slower motion, ever smaller circles. He wishes to improve, and doesn’t have anyone else to hang out with anyway. When he falls asleep he has wet dreams and nightmares starring Maria-Christina.
It’s an odd club, is Madrid. The captain there likes tanning and waxing, wears tiny silver shorts and has, he says, two dicks. One morning he turns up to training driving a sports car while wearing a shaman’s mask, and crashes into the stadium. “Well, I’m sure the captain has his reasons,” sighs the coach and quickly makes a call on his phone. Another teammate is a vampire – a very talented and lovely vampire, but a vampire nonetheless – who wears a top hat and a cloak and cannot stop trying to eat everybody on the pitch. As it happens, Walter is the vampire’s understudy and really rather enjoys his company; however, it takes all of the press office’s dark arts to hide his anthropophagy.
Well, until the vampire bites off a delicious Italian playmaker’s ear on live television, at which point he breaks his tooth and smears his blood across everyone’s face. Right away he looks remorseful, even slightly surprised at himself. The crowds throw lit flares from the stands, as well as bananas and a pig’s head, and jump up and down until the whole stadium shakes. It’s a scandal too far, and the vampire’s disgraced in the papers and banned from football for a year, which saddens Walter. Finally, though, he’s invited to play for the first team.
He thinks back to everything the Professor taught him; how to pull defenders out of position and place like a puppeteer, dropping a shoulder or spinning a ball in order to tug on imaginary strings that only the two of them could see. While playing against Madrid’s most hated rivals late into the sticky night, with the drunken crowd baying merrily for blood from the dark stands, Walter has a vision – of himself practising inside the echo machine, turning around and around – and thinking of that, he traps the ball and plays a pass so utterly perfect it causes some of the Madrid fans to faint, and the cook to drop all of his sausages! There’s silence, and then there’s applause so loud it shakes all the sleeping birds from the rafters. In the morning, Walter’s on the front page of all the papers – “The Footballer With The Crystal Ankles!”. Gangs sing his name triumphantly through the streets, writers whisper it in quiet corners, even the coffee machines seem to whistle it while they work. Walter starts to play as if he really were a magician, and tries things that the Professor warned him not to think of, never mind attempt. As he ghosts across the lush grass his crystal ankles catch the sunshine and throw sparkles around the ball, glowing brightly in every colour…
All too soon he loses his balance and his ankles shatter like cornflakes. One of his teammates looks at his injuries and vomits upon the grass. Another starts crying. Walter’s carried off on a stretcher and everyone looks very worried.
That evening in the private hospital the nurse says that they’ll have new ankles carved out of wood, but, nonetheless, Walter will never play football again. Never. His contract is torn up and his mother and father are fired from their jobs, and the only other visitor he has in hospital is the vampire, who always keeps a cheerful disposition. “Yo, Walter,” he chuckles, “I shouldn’t have tried to eat all those people, and you shouldn’t have tried all those silly tricks, innit. Why did we risk everything? Why did we attempt the unthinkable? Oh well, whatever.”
* * *
Walter and his family fly back to the shores of the Amazon, back to their house under the coconut palms. He has his new ankles now, carved out of wood from the rainforest, but running on them feels like being stabbed. Instead, he spends his days fishing in the basin with his brothers, and throws all his footballs at the giant otters that lurk under the muddy riverbank. Walter slides into a long sulk; he feels really sorry for himself and cannot sleep, nor have luxuriant hallucinations of Maria-Christina. Then, one morning, a letter arrives from the Professor inviting him for dinner at his. Once this grand old house was mostly decorated as a marionette opera, but now there are only rows of aquariums and unusually ugly octopuses. Over a chewy dinner the Professor explains that he’s been searching for a psychic octopus oracle to predict the football scores. “But all of these octopuses are idiots!” And so they are. One is trying to escape in eight different directions at once, another is so stressed it’s eating its own arm. Sighs the Professor, “What did you think of that cheese, honestly… And what am I to do, to catch myself a clairvoyant octopus? Apparently they look like any other octopus, except they live in the black water and have human faces.”
So Walter’s brothers take him way, way out on their fishing boat. They travel for many hours through the rainy basin, and eventually into the chilly waters of the ocean where the rain washes over them and the storm-grey petrels follow their boat. At long last they stop to pull a buoy out of the water, and attached to that a psychic octopus trap. But it’s empty. They visit a lot of buoys attached to a lot of traps, and still nothing, not even an octopus sausage. Dispirited and with the hours running away, they start to return to the basin, over the choppy reefs, and as they’re approaching the village, there comes a faint and plaintive mooing amongst the waves. It’s a baby sea cow stranded upon the beach, tangled in the sugary sea weed. She appears to be drunk or wavy. “Careful,” cautions one of his brothers, “it may well eat you!” All together they lead her away into warm, phosphorescent waters and, as she swims off, Walter shouts: “Who will win the football tonight?” Without thinking the sea cow pokes her nose through the waves and sings, “0 – 0,” and “0 – 0,” and “0 – 0.” It’s a wonderful melody, of the sort you might hear from a very expensive phone.
Every other day now, Walter is visited by the mystic sea cow. She swims along the shore, singing tomorrow’s football scores to him and the Professor. When her visions are clouded she doesn’t sing at all, when her visions are crystal clear, it’s as if she’s rapping. Happily, all the fishermen have won a lot of money from her watery prophecies: Walter’s oldest brother sleeps every night on a mountain of gold, while his youngest is opening a space to showcase his contemporary art collection. Standing in the water, watching the tides roll in, they wonder if summer will ever end.
One afternoon Walter spots Maria-Cristina, skipping along the water’s edge, tripping over coconuts with a sad look upon her face. His body shakes with butterflies but he pulls himself together to say hello, swiftly picking her a blossom from amongst the mangroves, and somehow asks her out for a coffee. “Why of course Walter, I’d love to. I’ve waited so long…” She looks down and grins at the sunshine refracted in the river. “It’s only that, when we were teenagers, I couldn’t stand your crystal ankles. And I really hate football too and all its disappointments.”
Illustration by Daniel Frost