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Playing Hard A Life and Death.

WHEN my father was in the hospital we talked mostly about sports. He was not much of a sports fan really, but he knew his soccer inside out, from the premier leagues to the less than premier leagues; from English football to the World Cup. He was a storyteller before he was a sportsman, and like any good storyteller he repeated himself. Consequently I heard stories I had heard before; how at the beach at Arromanches, he and another youngster left the deck of HMS Dido and waded toward shore, armed with metal shears to snip the chains holding the mines in place. He was sixteen years old, having lied about his age to enter the Royal Navy. He and his colleague were taking fire from shore. My father was trying to get his colleague to laugh, but he would have nothing to do with it. "Don't you dare try to make me laugh, Albert, you bleeder." Without exception his stories involved the buffoonery of men who played hard and drank hard and were close to death now, like my father.

In the hospital he spoke through an oxygen mask. He was blind in one eye from a previous stroke that had seriously affected the right side of his face, including his speech, which was never fully comprehensible to me. My father was a Yorkshire man, from Sheffield, England, and to my Canadian ear there was something muddy about the dropped articles and the swiftness of the language. When I was a boy my Canadian friends found him incomprehensible, and this made me slightly ashamed of him. They said he spoke with an accent.

When I talked to him in the hospital I had to pull very close to make out what he said. I was encouraged to see that he was no longer speaking through an oxygen mask, at least not all the time. Nonetheless there was an inoperable cancer growing in his esophagus; he couldn't swallow and was feeding through a stent in his stomach. Looking up I saw the yellow paste sliding down the tube on its way into him.

HE was attempting to tell a story about a "mate" of his, a navy buddy: Tommy Hascombe, a mean, angry, friendless young man who had attached himself to my father like a barnacle. It was part of my father's narrative that such types were always doing that to him; he was a lover of the underdog. My father warned me it would be a sad story, but that it had a happy ending. "Remarkable ending," he said almost to himself. "Unbelievable."

Tommy Hascombe was illiterate, and possessed a vicious temper. In a packed wartime dance hall, my father and Tommy were drinking, talking, eyeing the girls. Beside them stood an American sailor, tall, tanned, handsome, laughing--probably he had surfed. All of them were pressed tight, and at some point the young American's elbow nudged Tommy. Tommy found this annoying. What he really found annoying, of course, was the attractive English girl who was in tight with this American, and having a good time with him. Again the American's elbow nudged Tommy's elbow; my father waited for what was coming. Tommy handed his drink to my father, tapped the American on the shoulder, and spoke to him.

"Pardon me?" said the perplexed Yank, defeated by the dialect. Tommy repeated himself. The American made out what he thought might be a "thee," a "thou," or even a "thine," but beyond that, nothing. Tommy spoke. Again the American was defeated. At this point the English girl cheerfully interpreted.

"He says," she quoted, "if thou spills me drink one more time I'll rip thy bloody teeth out."

According to my father, Tommy Hascombe was forever on the verge of ripping someone's teeth out. He kept a mental record of grudges, amassing a list that spanned the British Navy, all the way up to a rear admiral and ending with a ship's stoker. "You watch me, Albert. One day I'll rip all their bloody teeth out." He'd picked this phrase up playing rugby. In a pre-game scrum his captain had made one of those short inspirational speeches that stick forever in the minds of young boys.

"All right lads," he said, "go out there and rip their bloody teeth out."

This story had taken some time. A nurse entered, adjusted one of the many tubes that were inserted into my father's body. He was tired, and what he said next was difficult to follow.

Tommy, my father was clear about this, was an unattractive man to look at. I considered this a strange point for my father to belabour, given that the right side of his own face had long ago collapsed from a stroke. He was no prize either, but even at that late stage he possessed a man's unique faith in his own handsomeness. Tommy was not handsome, and this held him back in matters of love. He received a letter, said my dad, either a letter or an ad on the back of a magazine. On this letter, or advertisement, there was a picture of a young woman with the caption: "If you are as lonely as I am, then please write to me." I believe this was some semi-official lonely-hearts operation, meant to provide solace to the young men overseas. Tommy convinced himself it was meant for him. He was determined to write to her. Being illiterate was only one of his problems. There was another: a photograph was required, even insisted upon. My father, with Tommy's agreement, decided that a photograph was out of the question, concocted some reason why one did not exist, and then my father went to work on a letter for Tommy. He had a way with language, and Tommy eventually earned a dinner invitation to the house where the young woman lived with her parents.

I was beginning to see that this story would end in grief and mute sadness. My father saw Tommy leave the ship on the way to meet the young woman and her family. "God only knows what they thought when they saw this fellow standing in their doorway," he said, feelingly. The young man was scrubbed and hopeful. He saw Tommy two days later, his head bowed, mute, rejected. He talked to no one, not even my father. It was the last time he ever saw the man.

For a moment my father appeared to collapse not into his bed, but into himself. He was getting X-rayed in this bed, without having to move from it. He was impressed by this, impressed by the chaotic efficiency of the hospital and the staff. "It's chaos," he said, "but it does work." He returned to Tommy Hascombe. "It was awful," he said. "Bloody awful. Then one day I was reading the newspaper..." He was animated now. "I turned the page and saw this great, large headline. 'World Champions.' There was this picture, and there was Tommy, blood all over his face. He was holding up the world rugby trophy. It was Tommy. You had never seen a man that bloody happy, ever."

My dad settled back into his bed, exhausted.

Tommy had been one of his navy mates. An unpleasant man with a bad temper who suffered defeat in the game of love. Then he'd gone out onto a different playing field against different contestants, and had ripped their teeth out. Like a man in love, he was champion of the world.

IT is a convention, not so much taught as intuited, that you are to speak to the dying in soft voices, and that's how I spoke to my father. As if by speaking loudly I would hasten his death.

On the drive in, a voice on the car radio had given me the good news that survival rates for all forms of cancer were on the rise. There was one exception, he said: cancer of the esophagus; the survival rate remained at eleven percent. That percentage did not include men in their mid-eighties, who had previously suffered a serious stroke.

My father was a goner. I suspected he would know this. He would have known the impossibility of knowing it, and he would want more. Four more years for another World Cup to roll around, for England to find another way to lose, for another gathering with the boys, for a pint pulled from a tap. Four more years to read more books, indiscriminately, biographies, novels that he didn't have the confidence to know were bad novels, which is why he finished them unsatisfied, assuming the fault was his. Four more years in the presence of his wife. Visits from his granddaughters. He had four of them. Two grown, two more, adoring, troublesome, frolicking girls, who climbed into his lap as though they were born to it.

Four more bleeding years.

In a soft voice I asked him questions about soccer, about the war, about life aboard warships. "Did you play any sports on board?" I asked stupidly.

"No," he said, with patience, waiting for the next question. He had been asked so many questions by doctors and nurses: "Do you drink? How much? Do you smoke now or have you ever smoked before? How much?" He was flattered by the attention.

At some point it dawned on me that my father was not only a man who loved soccer, who knew soccer, and who played soccer--he was also a man who had once been very good at it.

"Were you good?" I asked suddenly.

"Yes, I was." This was not bragging. I don't believe men from Sheffield are capable of bragging. They didn't know what it was. "I was nimble-footed," he said. "Very quick-footed." He was then quick to deflate himself. "In England with the rain, the ball, back then, the ball was pigskin. In the grass, with the rain, it got heavy. I was quick-footed but I was slight. To me it was like kicking a cannonball."

It seemed to me I could see on his face the disappointment of trying to navigate a sodden soccer ball between the legs of heavier and larger opponents. I watched him as he made a pass to a surging striker only to watch the ball die short in the sopping grass. My father was explaining why he had not become a professional footballer. He explained to me that his ship, HMS Dido, following the war was tasked, as he put it, with "showing the flag." "We were there to show the flag," he said. When the war was over these gleaming ships staffed with ruddy sports-loving lads sailed into ports around the world. They came to show the world the war was over. They also came to play.

It turns out that the entire crew of HMS Dido had been selected on their ability to play football.

"You're kidding," I said.

"No, oh no. They did it all the time."

Since then I have entertained a vision of fleet admirals, perhaps Winston Churchill himself, over cigars, with files in front of them, selecting the roster of the British Navy's postwar warships. "Al Unwin, radio operator, has nimble feet," says one vice admiral, looking up from his dossier. "A fondness for pints though, and hot temper." "But he does have nimble feet," says another. "Ideal for the desert, where it doesn't rain and the ball never gets heavy." My father was assigned to HMS Dido, and he told me of a memorable game played against the French Foreign Legion in the desert outside of Marrakesh.

"Dad," I said. "Do you remember the score?" He thought about this. He reached back sixty-four years into his life.

"Two to one."

"Did you win?"


After a moment he added, with noticeable discomfort. "We won. But we cheated."

Currently a PhD candidate in the humanities at York University, peter unwin is the author of numerous books, stories, essays, and I poems. His latest novel, Searching For Petronius Totem, is published by Freehand Books. His story collection Life Without Death was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two daughters.
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Title Annotation:Creative Writing
Author:Unwin, Peter
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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