Story by Neil Campbell (UK)
Published in The Ofi Press issue 42
A Leg to Stand On
They wandered over from the university. It was one of those pubs that had been a coach house. It was more a bar than a pub though. A slim radiator ran up the wall between the front windows and there were German wheat beers like Krombacher and Paulaner. As usual at that time on a Wednesday afternoon the French barmaid Aurora was working. Once she had put on Facebook, ‘action man needed for my bottom please.’ Pale light shone across the wooden tables and floors. Outside the window, leaves collected on the grass outside a soon-to-be-knocked down student halls of residence. Aurora’s blue bicycle was locked against the railings there. Jack got the beers in: a pint of Hell for himself and a pint of Gold for Neal. They sat at their usual table near the door. It was a big table with six chairs around it, room enough for people to join them as the light faded.
Jack sat at the head of the table holding court. He was a big fella with a goatee beard and leaned on a cane like Orson Welles. He wore a flat cap and when he’d had too much he began swinging the cane around like a bat.
‘It was before they trained at Platt Lane. They had this place in Cheadle,’ he said.
‘So you were actually on the youth team.’
‘Oh yeah. Midfielder. Colin Bell was my hero.’
‘I asked my dad about Colin Bell. And I said to him that Aguero and Silva must be better than Colin Bell was. And my Dad shook his head and said that they had to play a few hundred more games for the club yet.’
‘So it was your knee then?’
‘What, cruciate ligaments?’
‘They’ve only just started being able to treat them properly recently haven’t they?’
‘That’s right. And it was in the 70s when I did it. They cut it open and did something to it but it didn’t make any odds.’
‘Have you read that Paul Lake book?’
‘No, don’t know that one.’
‘It is a great book. Real heartbreaker. Only the second book to ever make me cry.’
‘What was the other one?’
‘Woody Guthrie biography. The first one by Joe Klein. He describes Woody with his daughter and how she was his favourite, and how used to sing nursery rhymes to her at bedtime. And then it describes how she dies in a house fire. Heartbreaking. And the Paul Lake book, I don’t know, it just got to me. I think it was because I watched most of his career. It was when I used to go with my dad to Maine Road. We went to the youth cup final in 1989 when they beat United. And we watched all those players coming through.’
‘I was working at Lancaster around then.’
‘Thing I remember most about Lake was that he could play in any position. He was good in the air and had a great engine and he could pass and he could tackle. And he could score a goal. But what I remember most is him dribbling past about six or seven players and almost scoring great goals. He was a great player. It is not an exaggeration when they say he could have been England captain is it?’
‘No, is it bollocks. He was in the squad for the 1990 World Cup and the only reason he wasn’t in the team then was because he was too young. He was a bit like Bell. He’s the only player I’ve ever seen who had the potential to be as good as Colin Bell.’
‘Have you read the Colin Bell book?’
‘Not seen it. I was there anyway.’
‘Reluctant Hero it’s called. He said the best bit of his football career was when he made his comeback against Newcastle.’
‘I was there with my dad.’
‘There were grown men in tears.’
‘I suppose it was an achievement for him to come back.’
‘I remember the tackle. Against United. Martin Buchan. It was a move that Bell used to do all the time. He’d put his foot to the side of the ball, feint one way and then go the other. But Buchan just went right through him.’
‘So it must have been great to see him back then. Like you say, made people cry.’
‘Yeah but they weren’t crying because he was back. They were crying because of his leg.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘He was dragging it behind him when he ran. You could see it dragging behind him. That’s why people were crying. Because we all fucking knew he’d never be the same. That’s why my dad was crying. You know something, I was with my dad once, watching them training at Platt Lane. This would probably have been in the 90s. And Bell was there. I think he looked after the youth team then. And he walked right past us. And I never realized how tall he was. He was a big guy. And I looked at my dad, and my dad looked at me, and we were both thinking the same thing. And we didn’t have to say anything. I couldn’t believe it. He was still dragging his fucking leg.’
Jack and Neal read each others’ finished work. But they never spoke about what they were working on, viewing this as boring. The only time they did talk about work was when their particular bête noire, the reflective commentary, came up.
‘Why are we asking these first years to write a reflective commentary?’
‘Like we always say, people think it works.’
‘They aren’t fucking writers though are they? Do you think Hemingway ever wrote a reflective commentary? Or Blake? Or anyone that was any good? And we have to mark all this shit.’
‘Who decided it was a good idea, that’s what I want to know?’
‘Probably some twat in an office. Or an academic in creative writing.’
‘Yeah but they just write essays. They don’t hardly ever get their creative work published.’
‘It seems the work can’t just stand for itself anymore. You have to be able to explain it.’
‘Most of my favourite writers don’t explain their work. My favourite poet is MacCaig. He couldn’t explain his work. He said he just kept the good poems and threw the rest out. Made them up as he went along. Best story writer? Well, there’s loads of them. Carver never said much about his work. I’m reading MacLaverty’s Collected. And he says in the intro that he can’t explain his work. He doesn’t need to. We don’t need him to. The answers are all there in the work itself. That’s why academics can’t write fiction. They analyse it too much, they can’t free themselves up or let themselves go.’
‘Just read great literature and then write. The rest is just bollocks. Tangential at best.’
‘It is a business. And big business. That gets confused with art.’
‘Nobody at that place is interested in art, mate. It is just academics reproducing academics. Money, that’s what it is all about.’
By the early evening an academic had joined them from the university. Jack and Neal both taught creative writing on the strength of their own publications. But Jack also taught at module on the literature degree. He specialized in the Beats: Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, Whalen, Diane Di Prima, Lenore Kandel. He said that’s why he liked Neal. Neal Cassady. Jack and Neal.
The English department rarely spoke to Creative Writing but there were one two mavericks among the coffee blinkered group. Dr Dickson was a specialist on Byron, and Jack knew a shitload about Byron too, but he let this Dickson waffle on.
For his part, Neal hated academia. It was full of sly people. He had been failed on his Ph.D. by someone with considerably less publications and this rankled with him. Though it was supposed to be about coming up with something new there was a strange kind of conformity about the academic approach to creative writing. They wrote a book and then took some tenuous aspect of it and tagged it to some French theorist. Then they got their commentary published in some excessively priced journal that nobody ever read, before getting invited to a conference on some random topic like ‘the role of dogs in literature’, or ‘walking and the narrative experience’ or the ‘impact of domestic servitude on creativity’. And these conferences were usually in places like Portugal or Malaysia. It kept the Literature people quiet and it was all a fucking racket.
Jack and Neal bit their tongues and looked like they were interested, and Dickson kept getting the beers in. It was another way he tried to assure himself of his superiority. And he was always trying to ingratiate himself with Jack and Neal by coming up with some spurious historical evidence that he was in fact working class. He was forever asserting that he was a descendent of Welsh miners on his mother’s side. He had even cried about it once, when the wheat beer got to him.
As Dickson waffled on, Neal’s eyes lingered on Aurora as she finished her shift and went outside to unlock her bike. He loved the way she rode it, no helmet on, sitting upright and with her bag in the straw basket at the front. He always loved women that were a bit different. He thought it was a midlife crisis that had made him try it on with her. God she was young. And that thing she’d said on Facebook. Jesus.
Dickson was still in full spate, the subject having moved on to football. ‘I was watching England the other evening. They simply weren’t moving forwards with enough speed or precision. It seemed to my mind that Rooney was the only player displaying any quality at all.’
‘What do you know about football?’ said Jack.
‘As much as you know about the Romantics.’
‘Ha, ha, that old chestnut. I’ve told you before, fuckface, ask me anything you like about Blake.’
‘And as I have told you before my old mucker, he wasn’t fit to lace Wordsworth’s boots. Blake was simply mad.’
‘No, he was a visionary.’
‘No, come on matey, he was mad. Coleridge, Shelley, all superior. And of course, my man Byron.’
‘Here we go.’
When they all realized that they had started to repeat themselves they necked their last pints quickly. Wandering across to Oxford Road, Jack waved his bag in the air. Cab after empty cab went past them. Overhead, the traffic hurtled by along the Mancunian Way. A stripping wind shifted their jackets as they wavered by the side of the road. Dickson was now on the topic of the role of creative writing in the academy. He said it wasn’t even a proper subject. Then he went under the Mancunian Way to piss through the railings. At this point Jack dropped his bag by the side of the road and lifted his cane. Then he walked across to the railings and thrashed fuck out of Dickson.
In the cab they looked out at Dickson as he clambered up off the ground. Jack turned and looked at Neal, ‘Listen, say nothing about this. He will be too embarrassed or he won’t remember. And most importantly, right, we know that a lot of creative writing in academia is bollocks, but don’t ever let anyone in the English department suggest it. Don’t let them say anything or we will be fucked. If they can get away with what they can get away with, so can we.’
Neil Campbell was born in Audenshaw, Manchester in 1973. While working variously as a warehouseman, bookseller and teacher, he had poems and stories published in small press magazines, and edited the literary magazine Lamport Court from 2003-2008. In 1999 he completed an MA dissertation on the short stories of Raymond Carver at the University of Manchester, and went on to graduate from MMU’s MA Creative Writing programme in July 2006. His short story collection Broken Doll was published by Salt in March 2007 followed by a second, Pictures from Hopper, 2011, and an e-novella, Sky Hooks, in 2014. He has also had two poetry chapbooks, Birds and Bugsworth Diary, and a story collection Ekphrasis, published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press and had a story in the Best British Short Stories 2012.