Lion on the Court
Strangely, for me, I’ve been watching the Olympics and quite enjoying it: they’ve been throwing stuff and all sorts and I’ve been paying attention. I used to do a lot of swimming, so seeing that and the other events floating by in the background – while doing something much more sedate, like reading a book – has been pure gold. This week’s #FridayFlash wasn’t planned as an Olympic-appropriate story, but kind of ended up that way. I guess the coloured rings must’ve snuck into my subconscious and stuck, demanding sport-related shenanigans. As I’ve never been one to turn down shenanigans, sporting or otherwise, this one is called ‘Lion on the Court.’
elly found the lion basking in the sunshine of the court.
At first it was a quality of that high, summer light and the wind-dust blowing across the cracked, compacted grit, and the weed-heads dancing in between – a soft, susserant breath of movement that could be muscle shifting.
How big is it? What does it want? he wondered, even as he knew it was very, very, big and very, very, old (ancient, wandered through his mind) and it wasn’t entirely friendly. Its golden pelt was patched from the glitter of small stone and mica, golden sunbeams and childish wonder. He pictured the soft pad of paws and the warm, soft, fur that could be gathered in armfuls – if only it’d let you.
Where the net sagged, string rotting; where the volley ball plopped, deflated; where the other kids came along with a challenge or other – or laughed at the little boy taking soft-wristed punts and splatting the leather bladder on his wrists (playing ‘wally ball’, they said) – the lion ran underneath, tail flicking, jaws grim, tongue lolling.
And surely those teeth had to be there, if the boy had stared so long into the sun? Or played so long with a dream in his heart? Or had to overcome so much in such a simple place, where grit and promise, and a skint knee or elbow on the wasteland court, had demanded so much imagination? The lion spoke of an older time, when hearts were inspired and battle raged, when glory was held above all other pursuits, where death was a simple thing, unremarked.
“You have stood guard,” the lion rumbled, “for years of your short life and so I shall do the same.”
Clouds shifted and the lion sat up. Kelly could feel its warm, moist breath on his face and hands; grimaced at the carnivore in it. He punted another shot. Plop went the ball in the dust, unlamented by mum or dad or community or council. Only his grandfather had known: champion of champions, gold so distant it was grey in celluloid. The long shorts, the moustache, the blocky shoes – unshaped and unlovely – the mane of wild hair, were alien, but the look in the old man’s eyes was familiar.
“Yes,” breathed the lion.
Kelly kept the picture close, even when it frayed and he had to tape it.
Spray paint ran in the jumbled mounds of brick and slate amongst the fireweed to the sides of the court; broken glass spoke of dereliction as well as the derelict. Kelly played on in determination.
“Well, you’ve caught me by the tail now,” the lion said. It vanished at sunset, Kelly exhausted, with nothing to indicate the beast had ever been.
That night, the boy flopped into bed feeling sick and sunburned. But the next day he was back and so was the lion, breath blowing through the boy’s sandy hair; and Kelly was intrigued as to what it intended.
The lion’s breath filled him. From dawn to dusk, there was only the boy’s grim smile, the splat-plop of the ball, and the pad, pad, pad and scratch of trainers in the dust as the boy collected the ball, and tried again, punting it once more into the harsh sunlight. Beside him in the endless desert, there were soft-pawed footfalls and the low rumbled purr of approval.
Slowly the boy began to improve.
Though rain came and threatened to banish the lion, or times came when Kelly thought it best not to wolf down his breakfast and do battle on the court before school (when the lion sat on his chest and growled like a motorbike full of rocks until he relented, claws sharp in that first glimmer of light beneath the shades) the boy was given over to his fate and the lion prowled beside him.
Kelly had spent years alone, had gotten some kind of job – not even he was entirely conscious of what – and the ball was now firm, the court cleared of the worst of the glass and cans and condoms, and his gear was cheap but new; if worn and well used. His sword and shield was the light of the sun, and there wasn’t anywhere he couldn’t put that ball if he had a mind to it.
As he’d grown, so the lion had aged. Its teeth were wonky, its pelt moth-eaten; flesh sagged. But Kelly knew this was the state of things – that the old lion must fall away, so that the new may take its place.
“It’s not cold, it’ not sad, it’s necessary,” the lion had once said. And so it was true. “Take your place in the sun, should you want it” and the lion had motioned to its feet.
A few months later, Don Finch came to the old court – a miracle, he later said: just a detour off the main road to the middle of nowhere and a conversation over a bacon roll and a coffee. A waitress had sat down for a ‘quick breather’ to rest her varicose veins. Amongst other things, she asked him what he did and he’d said ‘sports promoter’. She frowned where the word ‘sport’ had resonance, and complained that her ‘fool son’ was out in all weathers knocking a ball about. “Good too, them other lads say, though we all wish he’d give it up. ‘Specially his father. Get his head sorted. Get him back to school.”
Well, Don’s heart shrank, of course: all mothers have sons knocking about with some well-worn ‘talent’ or other, but there was something in her vehemence against the boy that suggested there was fight here, between will and woman, between old and new, that made him want prove her wrong.
Fat, arthritic pads wound through the chairs and tables beside him.
A couple of times Don got lost finding his way down into the old factory works – even had to climb a fence – but there was a nudge when he needed it: a yawn of gap-toothed alertness that ensured his onward path to the battlefield.
“This kid’s ‘mazing,” said Motto. “It’s like, it’s like he’s got God in his hands. Jus’ look at ‘im go.” Gutty agreed. So did Franky. So did Stevo.
Don stood back and watched as the court ran with kids, and Kelly sprang the grit and flew and darted and spiked and clawed and played out with all the grace of a feline hunter, all gold in the afternoon sunlight. And later as they talked, Don, who was unfond of melodrama, thought to himself: this kid’s already a legend.
And on the old court, as the last of the sun tickled the bricks and glittered it’s last of the day, the old, old lion roared its agreement, before softly padding away.