You are to division four, mixed gender, social league, inner-city lunchtime touch football, what Federer is to tennis. That is to say, beautiful. Your passes, when you pass, are perfect spirals. You are fast. Agile. You step left and right, you zig and zag, as if your shoes are made of special springs that allow you to weave across the turf better than anyone else. But you wear normal, mortal shoes. You are God’s Gift to Touch Football.
Today you are playing in the lunchtime league’s semifinal. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. In fact, it only gets one bigger than that. And so you’ve stretched in earnest, got good, clean blood pumping round your body, and you feel, inside of your muscles, the extraordinary calm before your equally extraordinary athletic storm. You’re a wily springbok. Wah! But like, also like, a lion. Watch you roar!
Obviously you don’t wah or roar or say any of this stuff out loud. You greet your teammates goodnaturedly. Shyly. You say to them good afternoon, and nice to see you, and how about this weather, and who are we even playing today anyway?
And this is because you are not just God’s Gift to Touch Football. You’re humble, too. And you work real, divine, transcendent, evangelical miracles with those perfect spiral passes. Like Jesus.
Uhh… That might be… Umm. Yes. Yep. You’re going to stand by that one. Like Jesus. You’re very good at touch football.
Your team is down 4–0. But that’s okay. You have the ball. You run towards the line of defenders—a coordinated human chain-link fence that would seem, to a lesser player, impregnable. But there are holes, and if there aren’t, you’ll make them. GOD you’re good at touch football.
You saunter towards the opposition, hopping and bopping, waxing and waning. A space in the defence opens up, thanks to your bamboozling goose-step, and you pounce! You twirl! You hop, skip and explode through! You’re free of the defenders, with nothing but grass between you and the goal line, when you hear a cry of, ‘Touch!’ from behind. And you don’t think so.
‘No fucking way, lady’, you come very close to saying. ‘Not in this dimension!’
But of course you don’t say that. Touch football is founded on a strong moral code, an honesty system. And though you don’t think you were touched, at least not in any corporeal, physical way, you don’t want to get into a whole thing here. Not this early in the game anyway. You jog back to the mark with an amicable fake smile and play the ball.
The game continues.
A teammate has it now. James, is it? Or Julian? ...Hamish? You don’t really care what his name is, you just want the ball. You sweep around behind him and yell, ‘Here if you need!’. Your tone and arm waving makes it clear that what you in fact mean is: ‘Pass me the ball right now whether you need to or not.’ And you are obliged. You catch it. You run. You throw a perfect spiral pass out to the wing, the strength and precision of which wrongfoots the defenders and throws open your teammate for a clear line on goal. They score. 4–1.
Most players ebb and flow, but not you. While teammates and opponents and even the referee ebb, ebb, ebb around you, dropping the ball, missing touches, throwing atrocious passes, changing direction like their shoes are full of wet cement, disappointing themselves and their families, you play close to the perfect game. You flow, baby. Oh boy do you flow. You’re dancing out there. Single handedly you make the score 5–4 to the good.
And you’re humble too. Self-effacing. Everytime someone says, ‘Wow!’, which they do a lot, you produce an almost apologetic smile. You raise a hand in a way that both acknowledges and dismisses the compliments that are thrown at you—though of course you catalogue them for later gratification (in your memory palace). You congratulate others and you are polite and you make the occasional well-received joke. You’re on fire out there. You are God’s Gift to Touch Football and you’re a nice guy as well.
And then someone from the sideline calls your name.
This division four, mixed gender, social league, inner-city lunchtime touch football team is not a meritocracy, even though you really think it should be. It’s one of those happy clappy, crappy, socialist, everyone-gets-a-fair-go, we-just-want-to-have-fun delusions. There’s a stopwatch on the sideline, and it’s your turn to go off. You do so good naturedly, to keep up appearances.
Somehow, from this angle on the sideline, the game looks rather pitiful. Inner-city businessmen and women, far from their physical peak, cramming exercise into their one hour lunch breaks, chase one another around on uneven grass. They’re playing between small, orange cones that are neither in-line with each other nor regulation distances apart. The ball is thrown around like a pizza being lazily tossed. The game is slower from this angle. Awkward. Tragic.
Your time on the sideline lasts an eternity. And in that eternity, your team manages to lose the unassailable lead you made for them. They’re down 7–5 in this all-or-nothing, division four, mixed gender, social league, inner-city touch football semifinal and it’s like they don’t even care! They’re laughing at their mistakes! They’re saying things like, ‘Whoopsie Daisy!’ and ‘Oh! That was close!’ and it boils your blood.
There’s still a minute to go on your time allotment. Only five to go in the game. And you can’t bear it. You cancel the timer and call a teammate off. Only you can win this game.
You’re on the field for less than twenty seconds before finding the ball in your hands. You feel your vision widen; your conscious thoughts fade away. It’s just you and the ball. You sprint forward to within reach of the defence, then stop, on a dime. You skip backwards, evading a swiping arm. Woosh. You skip left, then back right, to dodge a defender who flies past you, carried by their own momentum. More opponents close in on you and you retreat in a wide and sweeping run towards the touch line. There you see a gap—no more than a metre wide—and in two big steps you fire through it. Like lightning. You must contort your body to fit through the hole, to twist side on, and arch your back, and flare your arms out. Like a dancer. Or some kind of electric, superpowered magician. You can’t be touched.
No fucking way, you think, and then say. But the toucher stands firm. The referee agrees. Typical. Biased. He’s a hack. They’re all out to get you.
‘I believe that you think you touched me,’ you say, quietly, bitterly. And you reluctantly play the ball. You get it straight back, and now, powered by the fossil fuel of injustice, you wind and spin your way past two lunging defenders and score a goal.
It’s beautiful. It’s smooth. 7–6.
Play resumes. There’s very little time to go and you’re still losing. You can’t lose.
You’re really in flow now. You are both hyper-aware and not aware at all. You feel it happening, like a machine performing a task. As if the body is autonomous. This car is driving itself.
Touch football is a fast game. It can be hard to read the play, harder still to understand it on a deep, primal level. But you do. Your opposition has the ball and you see a big pass coming. You intercept it in a flash and take off down the touch line. But you’re being chased by the only fast guy on the opposition, and the exertion of carrying the whole team is taking its toll. He’s gaining on you. You’re going to have to pass. You look around.
On the other side of the field is a streaking team mate. They’re almost on the opposite touch line, twenty metres away, but there’s no one in front of them. This is it. The moment. The whole semifinal is at stake. Ticking clock, closing window, the ball in your beautiful, special hands. You load up and unleash the perfect pass. Snap. Woosh. Wah!
And once the ball is let go, in its perfect spiral, you realise there is no longer anything you can do but watch, equal parts horrified and hopeful. You snap out of your flow-state trance. The ball floats high. And slow. And you realise it is quite a beautiful thing you’ve just done. And you realise how incredible it is to be alive.
Still the ball soars.
And you can’t help but think about what being beautiful at touch football actually means. It means that you, a human being, a machine made of chemicals and meat, have attained such mastery over the body, over the mind, that you move in a way that reconciles the improbability of your existence and even makes it pretty.
Still the ball soars.
And you think that your body is really quite spectacular. The chemical constituents of it, the atoms of oxygen and hydrogen could be found in any old pile of dirt. They’ve been assembled in such a way, in your body, so that you are not only conscious but beautiful. You think of your skin that regenerates itself, the liver that metabolises on its own. Though much of that is small and ugly stuff, that’s all you really are. Your entire body is made of chemical reactions and electrical impulses that you, you, have brought together into a single, beautiful thing.
And still the ball soars.
You unite your own disparate parts—the strange and unwieldy limbs, the beating heart—in order to play touch football and that, you feel, is tangible proof that you exist. That you are alive, that there is a conscious, brilliant mind in charge of the body that surrounds it.
Woosh. Wah! Clunk.
The ball hits your teammate at a perfect, catchable height. It bounces off their meaty hands, dribbles along the ground, and rolls out the sideline.
You lose the game. You lose your shot at the grand final. You lose your temper.
You say some things you’ll later regret. You burn a lot of bridges, actually. You accuse your teammates of not existing in the same way that you do, you say that they’re ugly, pitiful people, failing to understand or reconcile the true beauty you have attained through the mastery of your body. And, well, basically, the postseason drinks are kind of unpleasant, and after a couple of weeks you’re quietly removed from the team WhatsApp.