My timing has never really been my forte… I started writing this novel, Salt and Ashes, about 5 years ago – it’s about a journalist who breaks the story on bungs and payments to high profile managers through agents… extract below.
‘This story is going to be huge, Babe.’ He was stretched out on the bed, arms tucked up behind his head, his freckled elbows stuck out at angles as if they were weapons ready to defend him from attack. The white of Adam’s t-shirt was shocking against the purple bedding, but the pale hairs and taut skin of his belly exposed between his jeans and t-shirt were soft and the colour of cream. I was folding the clean laundry, corner to corner, pressing it flat with my hands. ‘Seriously, the timing of this is amazing. For me to get an exclusive like this could life-changing for us.’
I looked up, a pile of underwear in my arms, ready for the drawer, ‘Really? How do you mean?’
‘I mean no more freelance, I mean a major position in one of the broadsheets, more radio work. No more match day reports, but serious journalism. Do you want a hand with this lot?’
‘No, you know the deal, you do the washing well and I put it away badly.’ I grinned, and pulled a pair of my knickers free from the pile and threw it at his head.
‘Oh, sexy,’ He caught the ball of lace and elastic and put them on like a beret.
‘Very stylish! So come on tell all about this scoop then.’ I turned my back and pushed the bundle of knickers and bras into the open drawer.
‘It goes without saying, but, this is strictly between us two. OK?’ I nodded, but a new note in his voice made me turn and face him, he sounded so serious all of a sudden. Not an excited, ambitious boy but a man about to embark on something intrepid, something mysterious and foreign to our world, here in our bedroom amongst our clothes and books and shoes.
‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’
‘I’m serious, Lil.’
‘So am I, Ads.’ I walked over to the bed, sitting down next to him as he pushed himself upright and sat up straight before resting his hand on my thigh.
‘OK. I got a call from a guy called Marc Luccini…’
‘Let me finish and you’ll find out.’ His thumb drew small circles on the fabric of my jeans. ‘He’s an agent. He wanted to meet with me, he said, in private. So I went and met him…’
‘Sorry, but I want all the details.’ I pushed his hair back from his eyes, the tough red strands needing a cut. Exposing the freckles that dotted his high forehead.
‘Listen then. So, I went to meet him in his suite at Claridges, OK, enough detail for you?’ He laughed, ‘And very bloody swish it was too. Right, so, he told me he’d recently been informed that his services were no longer needed by Frank Armstrong, you know who he is, right?’
‘Of course I bloody do, how could I not when I live with you? Besides everyone does, he’s tipped to be the next England manager, yes? The fat man with the very red face, obviously likes his drink.’
‘Precisely, the England manager elect. A very important man for a lot of people. He’s worked with Marc for years now, Marc has done all his deals for him no matter which club he’s at. Everyone knows Armstrong will only work with Marc if he can. It’s also widely known that Armstrong is a dodgy old fucker, and has taken bungs left, right and centre, but no one has ever been able to prove it. Till now. I’m going to prove it.’
Adam had stopped stroking me and was staring out the window into the street, the angle of his jaw precise under his unshaven skin. The stubble like gold filaments on his chin.
‘How can you prove it?’
‘Because I’m getting it all from the horse’s mouth. From the man who arranged it all. The man Armstrong sacked because he wants to clean up his reputation by putting distance between them. He needs to be squeaky clean so that he can get the England job. He’s got to show he’s unimpeachable. So he’s sacked Marc without any warning and of course, Marc is not happy about it. He’s fucking furious.’
I got up and stretched, feeling the bones in my shoulders click back into place, I noticed there were cobwebs clinging to the cornice. I should’ve paid more attention. I should’ve told him not to get involved, that we were happy as we were. I didn’t and it wouldn’t have made any difference, anyway, he would still have gone. ‘I’m going down to make dinner. Come with me and finish telling me in the kitchen.’
‘You do know what a big deal this is don’t you?’ He said as I walked out the door into the walled passage to the narrow stairs. The computer was on in his office, its green light an invitation. It was always a challenge to tempt him away from that bloody machine. There was always work to do, always emails, research, fact checking. Piles of papers and box files were stacked on the small bed and floor. It was supposed to be the spare room for guests, and one day soon, our baby’s room.
‘Yes, Darling. I do, I’m really interested, but I’m also hungry.’
Adam stood up and followed me down, pulling the office door closed as he passed.
It had got suddenly dark and as we walked into the kitchen a burst of rain pelted in through the open back door. Adam jogged over to pull it shut, looking up through the glass at the sky. ‘Bloody English summers. I can’t wait till our holiday.’
‘It’ll be bliss. I’m going to do nothing but sleep and sunbathe.’
‘I just hope this story doesn’t get in the way. If it blows up it could.‘ He looked over at me as if to gauge my reaction. His face neutral. I said nothing. ‘I can prove that Armstrong gets his players to pay him for a wage rise. Can you believe that? He’s totally corrupt. Not to mention the bungs he gets from agents when they do the transfer deals, it’s bloody back-handers left, right and centre.’
‘Bang goes our holiday then, you’re going to have to see this all the way through, aren’t you?’ I pulled a pan from the drawer and let it clang against the hob.
‘Don’t be like that, Lil. I’m sure it won’t come to that, and if it does there’s always another holiday.‘ He walked behind me and rubbed my neck and shoulders as I tipped a packet of fresh pasta in the pan of hot water. Turning my head I leant my chin on his hand, he kissed the top of my head and said, ‘I love the smell of you.’ I let him hold me, I couldn’t be angry, there was no point. Nothing had changed, there was still a chance that nothing would. There would be other holidays, what did it matter if we missed this one if it meant so much to my husband that he see this thing through.
‘So, how does he manage to get all these backhanders then? Surely, there’s a wage system and HR and accountants and all that stuff even in football clubs.’
‘Yep, but you’d be surprised how money gets moved about and lost here and there.’
‘What about the tax man? How does he sneak all that cash past the inland revenue? Surely they’d check up? I mean you have to put the money somewhere. Or does he stick it in his mattress?’
‘Don’t be naive Lil. The wealthier you are the easier it is to hide. You pay someone to cook the books. Set up an offshore account, buy expensive watches and jewelry, pay cash for overseas property. It’s easy when you know how, or better still, can afford to pay for someone who knows how.’
‘It makes me sick. All that money and for what? Kicking a ball around. There are kids hungry in this country, this country not some far flung place thousands of miles away; living in hostels and what not and arseholes like him take and take and take.’ I drained the pasta and dumped a tub of Arriabiatta sauce into the pan. ‘You hungry?’ and I tipped some of the soggy red food into a bowl for him. He took it and sat on the stool at the breakfast bar, his long legs curled back around the legs.
‘I know, Baby. Glass of wine?‘ He didn’t wait for an answer but opened a bottle of the red he always bought and poured us both a glass. I sat next to him and began to eat. The wine staining the glass a bright red, like a church window. We followed our usual dinner routine. Eating quickly. Sitting side by side, elbows occasionally brushing against each other.
‘So what else did this agent say then?’
‘What didn’t he say? If it all checks out, Armstrong is finished in football. Totally fucked. I mean, he’s such a greedy bastard it beggars belief. Marc said that Armstrong would negotiate a wage rise of say, an extra five, six grand a week for a player with the board, but only on the proviso that the player put a grand in cash on his desk every Monday. No questions.’
‘No way. Why would anyone go along with that? Why not just report him?’
‘Because they just do, that’s the kind of thing that goes on in football, its the culture of the game and who’s gonna go up against him. It’s his word against theirs.’
‘So what proof have you got?’
‘I’ve been given tapes of phone calls so far, but Marc says he can get more.’
I drank a mouthful of wine and swallowed hard. ‘Can you get into trouble?’
‘Not if I check and recheck my sources. The lawyers at the paper will be thorough, especially now. I’ll be fine, I’ll be more than fine.’
‘Bang goes him being the England manager.’
‘I would think so.’
‘That’s going to cause a stink.’
‘Christ, yeah. It’ll open the flood gates on these sorts of stories. It’s not going to be an isolated incident is it? I mean think about it, he’s not alone in this crap. There will be an investigation by the FA and maybe a prosecution or two, wrists slapped and all that. Then he’ll go off and count his millions and probably, given a year or two end up as a commentator on the radio. But I think the fans will be severely pissed off that he’s spending club money on players he doesn’t need just so he can pick up a few quid. That’s the kind of crap that doesn’t get forgotten quickly.’
‘How does that add up? How does him spending money on a player make him money? I don’t understand all this deceit.’
The rain stopped outside, the thick black clouds dissolved, leaving the sky blue again.
Adam sighed and finished off the dregs of wine in his glass before pouring another one. He indicated the bottle towards me and I shook my head no.
‘Say Armstrong is offered a player by some agent, OK. So the player is a good left back and Armstrong says “I’ve already got a good left back” but then the agent makes it known that if he signs this bloke, even if he doesn’t need him, Armstrong will be taken care of.’
‘Ok, I get that bit. I want to know how. Who gives him the money? The clubs? That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.’
‘Look, Armstrong gets his club to pay, say, 10 million quid for some player, but the club he’s buying from only receive 6 million. Yes?’
‘ The rest, the other four million is lost in various agents fees and all that stuff. Armstrong gets his money from that four million. He’s as bent as a nine pound note.’
‘Jesus. And he’s paid how much?’
‘A fucking fortune. Plus the money players give him on top of these bungs. He’s a fraud, a greedy twat that puts money before everything else. The game is full of it, Babe. Full of it.’ He tipped his head back and took a long drink from his glass. On the counter in front of us his mobile phone began to buzz and vibrate, almost propelling itself across the wooden surface. He turned it over and looked at the screen.
‘It’s the agent. I’ve got to take this.‘ He answered the phone as he got up and left the room. ‘Hello, Marc…’ The kitchen door pulled shut behind him.
I washed up the dinner things, rinsing the suds from the crockery and the pans. I could hear Adam upstairs, and though his voice was muffled by wood and carpet and space but I could still hear the tension in his voice, the pace of his footsteps as he walked back and forth across the floor of his office. A knot tied itself around my stomach, I’d never seen him like this, this was a new version of Adam. Driven and determined, forthright. Unknown to me. That was the moment things changed for us and I think that even then, I knew it.
I opened the window and let the suburban summer into the house. The smells of burning meat, flowers and cut grass, diesel fumes and preserved wood, all rinsed through by the cloudburst. I poured myself another glass of wine as he came back in.
‘A player is prepared to talk to me. I’ve got to go up there and meet him, as soon as I can.’
‘It’s looking like Thursday, possibly Friday.’
‘Don’t forget that my sister has invited us down for little Archie’s party at the weekend.’
‘I haven’t. I’ll be back for that, should only be there over night.’
‘You promise? You know how I can only bear these bloody family things if you’re there with me.‘ He gripped my hand tight.
In a post-fact world, what role does fiction have? Big Sam always had that Ron Atkinson-esque whiff of ‘old football’ around him, and the FA has got what it’s long deserved. Lovely piece of writing as usual, H.
Thanks, PB… post fact world indeed….