Harton Town are in trouble. With three games left before the end of the season, they’re six points adrift at the bottom of the table. They need a hero. They got Johnny Cook, a delivery driver. And he’s not a particularly good one at that.
Johnny Cook is out of shape, out of luck and very nearly out of hair. But it wasn’t always like this. Back in 1986, he was Harton’s hottest young striker for almost twenty minutes before a heavy challenge ended his career on the same night it began.
Due to a ridiculous, and yet somehow plausible, series of events, Cook is given the chance to save his old club from the drop. His players hate him, his chairman hates him, and his girlfriend is struggling to recall exactly what it was she ever liked about him.
It’s that old-fashioned rags-to-rags, boy-has-girl, girl-doesn’t-like-boy, boy-wants-to-keep-girl, girl-wants-a-boy-who-doesn’t-use-farts-as-punctuation story, juxtaposed against the top level of English football and set to the music of Supertramp.
And now, thanks to the nice people at The Blizzard, you can read the first chapter for free here.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Johnny Cook stirred slightly. At the bottom of the duvet, there was movement. His foot shifted and slipped out from under the covers. Circling gently like a raised periscope, it found nothing in the darkened room to its approval and slipped back into the warmth of the bedding.
There was a muffled groan. More movement. Then an astonishing burst of flatulence that ran through the frame of the bed like a seismic event.
‘Cookie! That’s foul. What on earth is wrong with you?’
‘Urgh,’ said Johnny. And he meant it. He rolled over to face the source of the sound, but more than two decades of drinking had taught him not to open his eyes too soon. With his eyes closed he was safe, still technically asleep even if he had to speak to someone. If his eyes opened, the spell was broken and he’d never be able to return to that merciful slumber. Sleep was imperative for a man in his situation because if he stayed asleep, there was a chance that she would give up on her efforts to revive him and perhaps, if he was really lucky, that she would leave, ideally without slamming the door. With his eyes closed, a thorough appraisal of his physical state was impossible, but the fact that his tongue was cemented to the roof of his mouth and his head was already beginning to beat to its own rhythm was enough of a clue. ‘Keep the shutters down, Cookie,’ he told himself. ‘Let the nausea lay dormant for a while longer, let it diminish in power with every minute. This is your sanctuary, Cookie, this is where -‘
There was a loud crack and the darkness behind his eyes lit up with white pain.
‘Jesus Christ!’ Johnny wailed, springing upright, clasping the side of his reddening face and then vanishing off the side of the bed. There was a heavy thump and a whimper from the darkness.
‘This isn’t working, Cookie,’ said the woman, reaching for a cigarette. She struck a match, lit up and took a deep drag. ‘If this really is your idea of paying the rent, you need a new routine.’
From down the side of the bed came a heavy sigh.
‘Sexual favours aren’t enough now, Debbie?’
Debbie dropped the smoking match into a half-empty glass of red wine on the bedside table. She pushed a lock of dyed blonde hair behind her ear and looked thoughtful for a moment.
‘I don’t think you can count what happened last night as a favour.’
‘Aw, come on, Debs,’ said Johnny, lifting his head up and attempting his best boyish grin. ‘I gave you the full package!’
Debbie scowled, bit hard on the cigarette and pulled the duvet up over her breasts. Divorced for eight years, separated for more and now drifting inexorably away from her 40th birthday, she’d learned not to expect much from men.
The dating game had changed dramatically from what she had remembered fondly from her single days in the 1990s. Mobile phones had turned up the pressure. You used to be able to play the slow game of three day rules and a planned rendezvous. You used to be able to tilt from the sickening possibility of being stood up in public to the exhilarating relief that followed when your date arrived. Now everything was abrupt and immediate.
You could never just be out and unavailable, you were always on call. The risk of being dragged into a flirtatious text exchange that would swiftly turn into a stressful examination of semantics was always there. Her decision to sign up to Facebook, something she rued every day and would reverse if she could only figure out how to get her pictures off it, left her life history open and available for anyone online.
She’d once returned from the bathroom in a restaurant to find her date flicking through photos of her on holiday on his smart phone. ‘Nice bikini line,’ he’d said with a lewd grin, putting her off her profiteroles and annihilating his chances of a closer look at her white bits.
On the odd occasion that a date had gone further than dinner, she discovered that internet porn had spoiled a generation of men, normalising what was once adventurous, stripping away the mystery, forcing the things you might have once offered as a ‘special’ birthday present onto the agenda even on a first night together.
Johnny had been different. He was as loathe to embrace the 21st century as she was. He didn’t even have a mobile phone. He was the only person she knew who had used a phonebox this century.
He was useless, but occasionally charming. Out of shape, but surprisingly tender. He didn’t have a hidden agenda or a checklist of things he wanted to put up her bottom so that he could tell his mates, primarily because he didn’t have an agenda of any sort, or indeed many mates. Not close ones anyway.
Yes, he was officially her tenant and whatever it was they shared had started out as a tipsy joke, but some semblance of a relationship had come from it, at least for the first couple of weeks. Now, two months in, it had deteriorated, culminating in last night’s… incident. From having a paying tenant and a passable impression of a boyfriend, she now had a parasitic, flatulent non-paying lodger. And enough was enough.
‘Do you know what you gave me last night, Cookie?’ she said, staring at him with such intensity that he lowered himself back down to the floor and out of sight. ‘Do you remember what happened when we came back from the pub? You pulled my pants down and pushed me back on the bed, you put your head between my legs, told me that you were going to take me to heaven…and then you fell asleep.’
‘I’m sorry, Debs, I’ve just been working really hard.’
‘YOU FELL ASLEEP IN MY VAGINA!’
‘You know how desperate I was? I let you stay there. I let you stay there in the hope that your snoring might set something off.’
Johnny lifted his head back up above the line of the bed and smiled hopefully.
‘No, of course it didn’t!’
Johnny slumped back down again, hoping that his absence from her sightline would bring a swift end to the conversation. It didn’t work.
‘You’re a drunk, Johnny,’ continued Debbie, tapping a large lump of ash into the wine glass. ‘You’re a drunk and a loser. You’re only any fun between your second and your second-from-last drink. You don’t take me anywhere, you don’t make an effort. We don’t do stuff. This isn’t working and it’s stressing me out. Look at me, I’m smoking in bed! I haven’t done that in years. This is stupid. And I want you to start paying your rent again, you know we were never serious about that.’
Johnny stayed very still on the floor. He turned his head to one side and let the cool wooden boards ease the sting of his slapped cheek. He stared absently under the bed. Half a dozen wicker baskets, loaded with nick-nacks stood in a line under the mattress. He could never organise nick-nacks like that. He had a small chest of drawers next to his futon that had started as somewhere to keep his paperbacks and his socks, but had expanded its role to contain old photos, receipts, instruction manuals, batteries, a torch, the first album he’d ever bought (Toto IV) and a set of keys that he’d brought with him on the last five house moves, unsure of what they opened and too scared to throw them away.
He liked the idea of storing nick-nacks in a specially defined place. It suggested that the flat was a home of some permanency, rather than simply a place you fell over in at the end of the night. He quite fancied the idea of permanency. Maybe one day, one of those wicker baskets could be filled with his old crap.
It was clearly time for a big gesture. Johnny shrugged off the rising nausea, clambered back onto the bed and stared meaningfully at Debbie. She was pretty, in a very natural way, he thought. Her dark blonde hair, her bright green eyes, the crumpled line of bottom teeth that she hated and tried to hide with a thin smile. There were laughter lines and dimples and bits that sagged a little more than perhaps they used to, but he liked that. He liked character. A month ago, he’d told her that she looked like someone’s favourite book, a little worn but well loved. She didn’t speak to him for three days. In retrospect, perhaps it had sounded better in his head.
‘Can I make it up to you this morning, Debs?’
Debbie softened. She dropped her cigarette into the red wine and patted him gently on the side of the face, stroking the flushed skin.
‘Yes, of course you can. That’s all I want. Just a bit of effort and consideration.’
Johnny nodded, smiled at her again and began to tug at his flaccid penis, stopping occasionally to try and flick more life into it with the back of his hand.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ wailed Debbie.
Johnny stopped and let go; his penis fell forward like a fainting weatherman.
‘I’m making it up to you this morning,’ he said quietly, like a little boy in trouble.
‘I didn’t mean sex! I thought you were going to make me breakfast in bed or something!’
Debbie shook her head and rolled over, facing the wall. She didn’t turn around again until she’d heard him quietly shutting the door behind him.
You can buy Johnny Cook: The Impossible Job in hard copy from The Blizzard here for £10