Jersey: Population 50,000. Largest of the Channel Islands at 45 square miles
(1,000 times smaller than New Jersey) lies 10 miles from France and 100 miles from England.
Extensively fortified to resist French invasion, it has been a British Crown Possession for over 800 years.
Shaped like the hide of a cow pegged out on its four extremities it is inclined from 400 feet
in the north to sea level in the south. Because of this sunny angle, it is ideal for
agriculture and produces thousands of tons of early potatoes for the British market each year.
Sheltered in the bay of St Malo, caressed by the Gulf stream, it enjoys a benign climate and
even more benevolent tax regime.
It has become a haven for the wealthy who love new potatoes almost as much
as counting their money.
‘Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies.’
Shakespeare: Venus and Adonis 799-804
Sunday 9th July 1939: Jersey Swimming Club's seawater pool.
He had me by the balls. Surprised, angry, I tried to twist away but the Dutchman laughed, gave another tweak, then pulled me under. I thrashed back to the surface, snorted out seawater. It had amused the section of the crowd closest to us. Most of them didn’t understand water polo, but appreciated a good tussle.
Miko stood up and shouted to Phillips, the referee, trying to draw his attention to the fouling at this end of the pitch. He was wasting his time but it distracted my marker enough for me to wriggle free and shout for the ball. Nelson spotted me and lobbed it so high it crossed the sun, blinding me as I followed its arc. I fumbled the catch and was jerked underwater again. Surely, Phillips had seen that blatant foul. I surfaced and reached for the ball to take the penalty but he had raised the blue flag. He tapped his sandal with the flagstick indicating that I had pushed off my marker and committed the foul. So now, Phillips, honorary policeman, dishonest butcher, and pompous fart, believed he could see underwater.
The Dutchman took the free shot paddled back behind me, rubbed his unshaven chin into my neck, and scratched my ribs with his nails. ‘You are quick, my friend, but you must play fair.’
Nelson swam the ball up and shouted at me to clear the goal area. I stretched to my left but the salaud grabbed my trunks and pulled me back. I threw up my arms theatrically, sucked in a good breath, ducked under water. When I surfaced, the ref was pointing his white flag. I retrieved the ball and passed it for a quick return but the Dutchman was already on me. Nelson flipped the ball into the perfect position. As I grabbed it, pain seared through me. The bugger was crushing my testicles.
Over the whistle’s screech, I heard the Dutchman calling out. ‘He has, how you say — cramp.’
Phillips laughed. ‘Help him out but no substitution for the white team.’
Cookie left his goal and towed me to the concrete wall that marked one side of the pitch. ‘Careful, Jack. He’s a tough nut. Want me to have a word?’
Big-hearted Joe Buesnal, Cookie to his friends, was quite capable of knocking the tulips out of the Dutchman. Six foot four, eighteen stone, fists like shoulders of mutton, he was playing for the island’s defence. I had been given a chance to lead the attack on his goal in a warm up match for our annual battle with Guernsey. I shook my head. I didn’t need his protection.
He rolled me onto the warm, pitted surface. I slithered across to the seaward side and dangled my legs in the water trying to fight off the spasms. The tide was receding, but wavelets still splattered against the granite retaining wall. A cormorant popped up yards away and twisted its long, oiled neck in my direction. With a wink of one liquid eye, it ducked under, in search of a late lunch. I vomited mine into the water conscious of Phillips’ fat legs as he scurried up and down the wall policing the game. The Blues scored twice while my team was reduced to six men.
Someone hissed at me. Miko had worked his way through the crowd on the concrete steps. Now for a lecture in broken English. I sighed and shuffled towards him.
‘Te idióta,’ he spread his hands in exasperation, ‘why, you let him hold? You remember nothing? Spuma!’
I knew the last meant ‘make white water’ in Hungarian but that was impossible against someone whose sprint was equal to mine. I shrugged. ‘It’s only a practice match.’
He spat foreign words in his rusty voice. They sounded like broken tools in a metal bucket. Their meaning was clear but I still threw him the sort of dumb look I’d perfected on my Latin master.
He shook his head and spoke slowly in English. ‘You clown. Is only practice match?’ he sneered. ‘How you make senior team if that your belief? Huh?’
He was right. I was on trial and, so far, I hadn’t done very well. I knew the older players had their doubts about selecting someone just for speed but Nelson had persuaded them. Perhaps they were right, I should stick to racing. I started to untie my cap.
‘No, Jerk.’ He couldn’t even pronounce my name. A couple of spectators laughed.
‘So what do you suggest?’
He pulled his right arm across his chest, slapped his elbow, dropped his shoulder, and rotated it backwards. ‘Nincs fék a kezemben.’
I stared at him in disbelief but he nodded and slipped back into the crowd.
Phillips’ whistle shrilled — half time.
I hobbled towards the rest of team. They were arguing but stopped as I reached them.
Nelson turned to me. ‘How do you feel?’
Just then, I heard my name and glanced up to catch Caroline's wave. After her diving display, she had swapped her white Janzen costume for a low cut yellow dress that left even less to the imagination. I waved back. She must have seen the treatment I was getting. Did she care, or was she just hoping for some blood in the water to relieve the tedium? Higher up in the wooden stand, Saul reclined in a white linen suit. He doffed his hat and raised two fingers before nudging Rachel. She smiled but didn’t wave.
Caroline mouthed something to me then caressed her hand through her hair. The look and gesture were almost as effective as the Dutchman’s grip and I started to ache again.
The timekeeper blew his whistle and Phillips waddled back to the halfway marker, his white plimsolls slapping through the puddles.
Nelson tapped me harder. ‘Yes or no?’
I looked from Caroline to Rachel and noticed that Miko had squeezed onto a seat below them. He glared with about as much sympathy as the cormorant, and mouthed ‘spumá’.
‘Jack, wake up. I need an answer.’
I sucked in a calming breath and grunted, ‘I'll do my best’
Fletcher, who fancied Caroline, snorted, ‘Fat lot of use that’ll be. Best place for you is in the stands with your Jew friend.’
I lurched towards him but Nelson blocked me off. ‘That’s enough, you two. Save it for the opposition.’ He shoved me hard towards the water. I attempted a somersault, but landed on my back with a stinging splash and surfaced to ironic applause
Nelson swam up. ‘Forget Fletcher, he’s just jealous. Best way to shut him up is to score a goal.’
Phillips blew his whistle and tossed the ball into the centre of the pitch. I got there first, flipped it back to Nelson, surged on towards the goal, and straight into the Dutchman’s fist. Again, the ref ignored the foul.
‘You have played this game much? It is good fun, no?’ He laughed and jabbed his knee into my backside. ‘In Holland it is only the men who play.
Ya, only the men.’ As I turned, he pinched the skin under my armpit. I jerked my shoulders back in reflex pushing into his chest. ‘Ah so, we are learning, no?’ He dug his knuckle into my spine.
Play was getting closer. I squirmed and wriggled, trying to rise in the water for a flick-on shot. The whistle went. Fletcher had been fouled.
Everyone froze in their positions, floating statues. Free throw to Whites. Fletcher looked around and, with a wicked grin, threw the ball straight at me. No chance to flick it on. I felt fingers reaching between my legs again as the ball flopped in front of me. It floated free, out of reach of the Dutchman, but his hand threatened to wring my balls if I stretched out.
Caroline’s screech cut through the tableau. ‘Do it, Jack!’
The Dutchman’s voice grated in my ear. ‘You don’t have the guts, boy.’
Fire shot through my body arcing into my brain; the blood roared in my head. I exploded forward, rolled my shoulder, and flung my elbow back into his face. Released from his iron grip, I scooped up the ball, and hurled it into the net. Goal!
The crowd roared. The goal judge waved his flags and I turned back to face the team in triumph. The whistle shrieked — not the congratulatory looping blast for a goal — but the long sharp screech of disapproval. I looked at Phillips.
He jabbed his white flag at me, spat out his whistle, and bellowed, ‘White seven. Permanent exclusion for brutality — leave the pitch and this area immediately.’
I grabbed the ball, pulled it back and aimed at him. ‘You bast—’
Cookie snatched it from me, pushed his nose into my face, cutting off my words, ‘Don’t make it worse. Just get out and get changed.’ He shoved me to the side then helped Nelson to drag the Dutchman to the wall. Blood streamed from his nose. The crowd was silent.
I levered myself out. My arms were trembling and I scraped my thigh on the rough concrete. Brewster, the Club manager, studied his hands as I stumbled to my feet. My face was burning. I untied my cap, crumpled it in my fist, and dropped it onto the table. One of its long wet laces whipped onto the match sheet. I turned and marched towards the granite steps up and away from the silence of the arena.
‘Jack, wait,’ Saul bustled through the crowd. I stopped, praying he wouldn’t add to my embarrassment. He spat his cigarette into the sea. ‘O, vengeance, vengeance! A very excellent piece of villainy, Jack. If you were a kaffir, I’d have to cut your balls off.’ He roared something in Afrikaans and slapped me on the shoulder.
Everyone could hear him. I remembered a line from our play where Bassanio curses Gratiano for his noisy friendship. I blurted it out now. ‘Thou art too rude, too wild, too bold of voice.’ If I pushed him into the water, I might regain some credibility with the crowd.
He must have sensed my thought as panic flickered in his golden eyes. He edged towards the steps. I moved closer, feinted with my right and flicked his hat off with my left. This drew an appreciative laugh from the gallery as it spun into a puddle, but his freckled cheeks flushed with anger. Perhaps he did deserve a swim. I reached out, but he scooped up his hat and darted off towards the diving boards chased by the laughter from above. I shrugged and moved away.
‘Jack.’ Rachel’s voice.
I paused and looked back. Saul was showing her his soggy hat. She grinned at me over his shoulder. Behind her, I saw the Dutchman sprawled on the concrete while Brewster administered first aid. Caroline was standing in the group surrounding him. Well, she’d got her blood. I willed her to look in my direction but she seemed focused on the casualty.
Rachel beckoned me towards her. I couldn’t. I was in enough trouble already. Exclusion meant that I had to leave the Pool area without delay. A cold shower wouldn’t do any harm.