IN STADIO ULTIMO
Ronald Sutcliffe was a good man.
That’s something which has to be said and understood and accepted, first and foremost. Otherwise no good can come of this story. There was, and still is, no doubting this irrefutable fact: he was as good a man as any. He fought for his king and for his country, and knew very well that to die for them was the greatest honour of all. He won medals for his service as a soldier, and medals for his swimming and running as a boy.
He was outstanding.
Mechanical engineering to him was as simple as crying is to a baby: it was instinctual. He could tell you exactly how any form of engine worked – every last detail, every reactionary movement – and, if you struggled to understand the many long words he used, could even build a working model to efficiently aid you in your comprehension.
He was upstanding.
He lived clean, played fair, and never stole a thing in his life – to common knowledge – save for the hearts of a few good women in his younger years, he had to confess, and the admiration of a few even younger boys in his elder years.
He was such a very proper man; his shoes were always polished, his shirt pressed and his hair combed neatly, regardless of whether he was stepping out or staying indoors all day – perhaps this was something of the soldier in him.
‘Always take pride in your appearance,’ he would say, ‘or nobody else will.’
‘Cleanliness is next to godliness.’
‘Manners cost nothing.’
Kindness unequivocal, Ronald was a man who never swore in front of ladies or children, only drank a glass or two of whisky on special occasions, and invariably held the presence of mind to hold open a door, so that you might walk through it before him.
He was chivalrous.
He was humble.
He was the very definition of a gentleman.
Forever he displayed humility, seeing always the good in people but never acknowledging his own virtuous self.
Perfectly ripened tomatoes grew in his great glass-greenhouse and succulent pod peas in his garden. Each day, when in season, he would eat spinach and praise its life preserving properties – its green goodness. He was a creator, self-sufficient, and therefore a god among men.
He was an affable man.
Beside him other men appeared meagre, paled in comparison, seemed somehow more mortal.
He looked taller than all, even when he was not.
He had an almost angelic radiance about him.
People loved him.
They flocked to him.
They could not help but doing so.
But now, seated in his tired armchair, preparing for the crimson velvet curtain to fall, for death to claim him, embrace him, he was alone.
The boys had grown up, fled like chicks from a nest, wings spread, never to return. Their laughter echoed no more around the house, their feet no longer pattered over lawn and carpet and floorboard, up and down the staircase time and time again, and the doors of his house no longer opened and shut, opened and shut.
But, he could still hear them.
Perfectly, clearly, he could still hear them.
He could still see Jim’s wry smile, too, and Charlie’s sulking face, his pushed out bottom lip – these were images indelible – for they had taken turns in tormenting one another, but always reconciled in the end.
However, now was not a time to shed tears or to recall combats and truces…
Slowly, one corner of Ronald’s mouth upturned, as he remembered the happiness the boys had brought to him, the things they had made him know about himself.
‘No need to run now, boys. No need to shout. No need to scream. What’s done is done and you can’t change it; can’t gather up time and turn it over in a magic hourglass; you can only mend things up the best you can; can only patch up the present…’ Ronald Sutcliffe remembered his own words, spoken so many years ago now, when Charlie had fallen and cut open his knee, elbow and chin, all in one go. ‘No need to shout. No need to scream…’
Charlie stopped screaming.
Jim stopped shouting.
The venerable veteran knelt beside the wounded one.
‘Better,’ he said softly. ‘Now, what’ve you done? Let me see…’
Both young boys winced and the retired soldier shushed, as the cuts were treated with an almost brown liquid, smelling so strongly of something – iodine?
‘Blow them, blow the cuts. Helps get air to the blood, coagulates quicker, scabs up faster – kind of a cool cauterisation – keeps out the germs.’
The injured boy worked around the big words in his mouth and mind, and took what he could from the informatively instructive sentence.
‘Don’t I have germs in my mouth, though, Uncle Ronnie,’ he said, still wincing slightly, ‘and won’t I be blowing them into my cuts?’
This was typical of the boy: Charlie always had a question and an answer and an excuse, and often rolled them up into one long breath.
‘Well…’ said the man, thinking, ‘yes… yes, you do… and yes… I suppose, you will, yes.’ He paused for a moment. ‘But those germs can’t be so bad if they already live in your mouth, now can they?’
The blonde boy shrugged. ‘I suppose not.’
‘Well then now, now they can just go ahead and move home and go live in your leg and in your elbow for a little while, can’t they. And they’ll make their own way back up to your mouth from there. I’m certain of it.’
The two boys had never really belonged to Ronnie – not by blood, at least – but biology is no boundary to adoration. Three whole generations had adopted him, without haste, as their uncle. They had willingly placed themselves beneath his wings.
With an image of wrapping up the little boy, then, like an ancient Egyptian mummy, the gentleman of twilight moments remembered those calming words again, and now he knew, more than ever, with a distinct resonance, just what he had said that day, just what he had really meant by it. And now he knew just how wise he was.
Softly, he spoke to himself.
‘Can’t do it – no – can’t gather up time like sand and pour it back into that magic hourglass and turn it over and start anew, and it’s best that way, by God it is. How would it be then, if you could, if all people could? How many wars would it start instead of stopping, prompt instead of preventing? For surely every single soul would desperately want their own particular reality to work out, their own plans to go to plan, uninterrupted, dreams to be realised. And that wouldn’t do. No, it just would not do, because fortune has to favour only the few.
‘There’s only so much fortune, so much luck in the world, and it needs its opposite: misfortune has to occur. It’s only natural.’
He recalled the occasion also, during one bitter winter long ago, when snow had fallen heavily and Jim had expressed fearful apprehension, in his then timid voice, at the prospect of sledding solo down what to him must have been a mountainside.
‘If you get hurt,’ the sage man had said, ‘you get hurt. That’s just the way of things. It’s the natural order. But life’s worth it, because if you don’t take the risk you’ll never know the thrill. You must never let fear stop you flying. Only the ones who are prepared to take the biggest risks get to hold the true treasures of life. And it’s those who get hurt along the way – feel a little pain – that know what it is to really be alive.’
‘Okay, Uncle Ronnie.’
After a slow and almost silent agreement had been expressed by the boy, the man had then released his hold and the sledge had slid away; and away from him Jim had sled, gathering voice and pace, cutting through the drift, growing smaller in the white distance, snow-spray stinging his raspberry-pinked cheeks, screaming in a terrified ebullience.
Being too young to know fear, Charlie had quickly followed.
Now, proudly, Ronnie smiled to himself.
What great men the boys had become.
His head lolled back against the headrest. With only the slightest moisture, he licked his lips. A great thirst was coming over him. But there was no use in drinking now. For this was a thirst unquenchable.
Would the boys have changed him, he asked. Would they have had him be any other way? Well now, no, of course not. He had been good to them and they had loved him very much, even if they had never said it, as most young boys never do when they become aware of themselves, finding their emotions inexpressible.
No, they would not have altered one single thing about him. That was definite. As the saying goes, they would never have changed him for the world. Tears would most certainly be shed when the time came – that looming time, that very near inevitability, that almost-now ominous occurrence.
As though being hypnotised now, feeling very tired, feeling very sleepy after such a long an eventful life, after days which had seemed never to end, he began to relax. His breathing began to slow like a softly dying breeze of springtime bloom, caressing new life, sifting through cherry blossoms. His heart began to beat as that of a sleeping child – just a murmur, the casual flapping of tiny wings.
Changes had indeed been affected by Ronald Sutcliffe. He had touched lives, altered perceptions, taught boys to read and girls to skip rope. Smiles had been gifted by him and to him. He had left impressions on people – not some good and some bad, as most do, but always good, always, it might be said, impeccable impressions.
As small as it was, his mark had been left on the world.
That had to be loved.
Languidly, but with a sense of purpose, Ronnie took off his spectacles now, folded in the arms, and then proceeded to wrap the glasses neatly in his handkerchief and place them gently on the arm of the chair.
It was too much to get up now, too heavy an effort, too much of a haul, his mouth so dry, his legs losing sensation, his body becoming alien to him, one cell at a time, detached.
Slowly, weakly, he then folded his own arms, as he had done those of the spectacles, relaxed once more, let his back sink into the cushion of the chair, and felt himself inexplicably drifting, drifting as a balloon does, toward the blue serenity of the sky.
The fire began to die out.
The many dull aches and pains which had gathered in his bones and joints and muscles over the last seventy-some years now left him.
As it goes in all moments of stillness and approaching silence, the arms of a clock could now be heard ticking slowly. The patter of small feet could be heard also, quietly – those joyous sounds of summers long ago spent, sounds that live forever in the memory, inscribed in ink on the mind.
Once more he smiled to himself, this time not at the thought of what had passed, but at what was coming, what awaited, hereafter.
And then, at peace and with a blissful finality, Ronald Sutcliffe’s eyes fell closed.