Fiction / June 2013 (Issue 21)

Happy and Glorious

by Peter John Humphreys

Through blurry eyes, there came the slow realisation of what was happening. His memories were of staying up late into the night, planning the revolution. Yet here he was, the morning after, taking his place in a hurriedly marshalled line-up of men—young and old—most of whom he'd barely spoken to before. They came from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, as well as further flung places that had failed to make it onto his radar. The sense of injustice was palpable. Some whispered unknowable words under their breath, others concentrated on regulating their breathing. A tremor of grim anticipation danced along the row of sloping shoulders. The men raised themselves one last time to squint towards their enemy. They weren't actually going to shoot, were they?


Reg Garter had been playing amateur football in Hong Kong since arriving on the sweltering isle a decade earlier. He hadn't taken much interest in the round ball at school, but, being of a certain height and girth, found he could take up a defensive role for his mid-ranking work team while maintaining a steady stream of banter with the ladies on the sidelines. One birthday, he'd even smoked a cigarette while operating an effective offside trap ("Shut it!"). His salad days at Happy Valley came to an abrupt end when his company moved overseas. A more sensitive soul might have felt abandoned, but Reg simply got on with it. The next banking job may not yet have arrived, but he still had a ready supply of nest eggs to crack open and a beachfront home in Stanley from where he could operate the bachelor lifestyle of his 20s at three-quarter speed. The football was a different matter. The work team disbanded; his feet itching and the leather creaking on the boots in his sand-flecked porch, he'd swallowed his pride and advertised himself on the Yau Yee League website.

Useful centre-half, 39, lots of HK footy exp. Decent fitness. Can do a job. Fancies one more season. Email This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

They believed in auspicious numbers out here, though he couldn't say which were luckiest. All he knew was that he'd stopped at 39 a while back. Dating websites: 39. Job applications: 39. Most of his passwords contained a 39 somewhere along the line. He'd made it his own number. No bugger else wanted it.

It felt strange to be wearing a new kit. The old one had the name of a British pub splashed across it like a ketchup stain; this only had some Chinese writing he couldn't understand. Maybe it was a set-up. Like when they gave you those tattoos that turned out to be swearwords in their own language. He hesitated, then clapped his hands together and cleat-clattered out of the changing rooms. Seconds later, he was sinking his appreciative studs into soft ground as he jogged slowly towards the scattering of kitbags and footballs that marked their pre-match claim on the edge of another field of dreams.

Overhead the buzzards caught the thermals and glided between the symposium of skyscrapers that surrounded Happy Valley's famous racetrack and seventeen football pitches. The jungle of Bowen Road, midway up the tallest totem, steamed its fetid offerings towards the Peak. Reg caught wind of a thousand faces watching him, or not watching him, from behind the acres of glass and concrete. He'd never thought about it before, but that's what Happy Valley was all about: spectator sports for the well-to-do, and not only when the horseracing was in full swing.


Mr Lee had crept up on him again. A slight presence of indeterminate age, he sported a disconcerting smile: part playful, part wise. It took a lot of persuading for Reg's hangover not to suspect that smile of being knowing. If there was one thing he hated it was knowingness, yet how could the gaffer know anything, given the amount of Wrigley's he'd chomped through on the way here?

"Shirt OK, Reg?"

"Yeah. Thanks again know...inviting me down."

"All are welcome."

Although he'd cut down on the burgers since Mr Lee's call, Reg's body felt heavier than ever, as if weighed down by expectation. Examining his physique in the morning haze, he noticed his thighs were covered by random spirals of thick and aimless hair that, judging by their flabby paleness, had been doing an excellent job of keeping the sun off his legs. For the first time in his life, he felt shy of his own body, felt like putting on a tracksuit and zipping himself up inside. This was all a far cry from his work team's tour of Thailand, where he'd skipped into the sea before breakfast, spanking out a rhythm on his bare behind.

It was time to meet his new teammates, busy warming up all around him like a troupe of Beijing gymnasts. If he was embarrassed, he wasn't going to show it. There was no time to learn names, so he used his grey-grizzled chin to nod at each of them in turn, and they answered with their eyes. A mixed bunch. He wondered what they thought of him. One or two must hate him. It stood to reason.

The whistle. Kickoff.

"Enjoy the game," that was all Mr Lee had said to them. "Enjoy the game?" What kind of tin-pot outfit was this? Reg assumed the real instructions had been dished out in Cantonese, long before he arrived. He readjusted his professional grimace. He knew how he looked, and no one could take that away from him. His body creaked and lurched like a clipper lashed up in a typhoon, but the words that came to him were from a more modern era.

"You got the turning circle of an oil tanker."

That's what his dad would shout at the older players, from the terraces, and Reg would laugh, even though he didn't understand what it meant until later. Thinking about it now, his old man must have felt like this, at his age: like the game was almost up. He'd never let it show, of course; not until the day he keeled over. Kitchen floor. Linoleum. Teabag slouched against the curve of his favourite mug. Kettle finishing its mournful rise and trough before Mum could think to click it off. She'd lost it for a while. Dad would have disapproved. Dad never complained about anything, as far as he could remember.


"Garter? Garter, is that you?"

"Well, who else would it be, on this number? My number?"

"It's just you never answer. Always with some totty or other."

"I wish. What's up?"

"Terrible evening. Can't explain. Full details on arrival."

This was how Carlton spoke. In tense bursts. Like he was under attack. Which he often felt he was.

"I told you. Got my first game for my new team tomorrow. Early start..."

"One pint. Just one pint. The bar is, what, thirty-five yards from your door?"

"Yes," Reg had sighed. "I'm aware of that."

"You. Are. A. Pal."

Only once had he let himself fall. She was half-Cantonese, half-Glaswegian. He'd got plenty of mileage out of that. And she'd laughed at his jokes, at first. He'd been that close to asking her to move in, before the work tour. "What happens in Thailand, stays in Thailand," that's what they'd said. Only it didn't. Because some smartarse stuck it on Facebook. Poor Lou. Poor Lulu. Next time he spotted her on the sidelines, she was with that streak of pisch from marketing, and the time after that she was pushing a buggy determinedly across Happy Valley. Quite the single mum, he would have joked, had they still been talking; only she wasn't, and they weren't.

He'd had sixteen nicknames at the height of his popularity; nine based on his first name, and seven on his surname. But those days were gone.

Surfer's welcomed customers from all over the world, but very few were from Hong Kong and most of them were white, and wealthy—apart from Carlton. It was doubtful that the two men would ever have met in the UK. Carlton gave the impression of coming from minor aristocracy, since fallen on hard times, while Reg's self-fulfilling narrative operated in reverse. Reg refused to pursue his beer buddy's history in any detail, suspecting the conversation might end with a request for a loan of some kind. And he didn't have money to burn. Not anymore.

"Pint then?"

"Please," Carlton had sat down next to Reg at the bar. Maintaining the sinewy build of a world-weary roadie, any fat he had on him was down to the generosity of his elderly landlady, whose willingness to claw back Carlton's rent arrears was the sole reason he still had somewhere to live.

"What's so urgent it couldn't wait until tomorrow?" Reg asked.

Carlton began with a ramshackle tale of drunken misfortune that had seen him blunder into a Cantonese language am-dram performance of The Mousetrap, where he'd remained incarcerated for hours. Reg sensed this was merely an hors d'oeuvre and so tuned out momentarily. He tried to balance his (real) age, current weight and recent level of exercise with the amount of beer he could consume before playing football with a bunch of strangers at 10.30 am the next day. Returning to Carlton, he found that things had moved on significantly.

"So let me get this straight. You want me to help finance the overthrow of capitalism?"

"Yes. Think about it, Reg. What's it ever done for you?"

"Well, it allowed me to help fund its downfall by the sound of things."

"That was then, this is now. It's like cars. Soon as the Chinese get hold of them, they're already out-of-date. Same with the system. All we need are a few carefully chosen targets. It's a shame your bank buggered off, isn't it?"

The man was mad but discussing the finer points of his plan for low-budget mischief was a good excuse for a few additional pints. The bar staff had been wanting to close up for hours, but there was something especially vulnerable about the two middle-aged regulars that night. To the students on the bar, it had long been obvious, but it was as if the two gweilos had finally worked out that it wouldn't be men of their nationality, or even generation, who would be making the decisions fundamental to the future of Hong Kong (or anywhere, for that matter).


"My ball!" Garter bellowed, blood pumping from head to heart to feet to thighs. How could he ever have doubted himself? His header travelled fully forty yards. Let the hidden housewives, and Filipino helpers scoff at that one from their lofty perches.

But then he saw Mr Lee urging them back into a defensive formation. The ref had blown for a free kick. He'd barely touched the anorexic attacker. Typical. Biased against the big man. They were one-nil up. No way were they going to get this past him. Not today. He'd mark whoever they floated the ball into. A subtle shift in the line-up. They were never going to shoot, were they? Thirty-five yards out! Madness. But if the enemy were going to try it, they'd better line up right. Reg corralled his men into position. And then, at the last second, all his experience, inner-vision and intense, alcohol-infused paranoia combined to help him see the beginnings of a trick play. He charged at the striker.

The whistle had blown. Time slowed down. He was on the grassy ground that smelt of boyhood and hope and victory, and his teammates were steadily piling on top of him in joy and relief. There were Hong Kongers, Malaysians, Singaporeans, even an Indian he'd somehow missed before. And Reg Garter realised he was happy. Properly happy. His joy only tempered by the sure and certain knowledge that he was having what he hoped would be a small-to-medium-sized heart attack.

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