And then there was Hendrik. Oh, how do I describe Hendrik to you?
I have known Hendrik for the best part of my life. He is four years older than me, and he played for the same football club as Orcun, Hector, Leo, and I. The first time he made an impression on me was when he acted as ref during my F-Youth days – that is football aged 7 and 8. He was only 12, but there was already something about him I adored, right from the start. He was without mercy. Once he made a call, you knew there was nothing you could do to change his heart, and any attempt to argue just resulted in a foul being given against you. He applied the rules very strictly, but he was fair, and as far as I know always correct. He knew his stuff.
I began paying attention to him, watched him when he played himself, or when he hung out at the club house with his mates, or when he just helped Coach or older players stow away stuff, take care of equipment, and so. Hendrik was always a bit stocky, at times almost chubby, but in that firm, supple way that makes you think of a powerful, aggressive dog, or a tiger, or a wolverine. His hair, usually worn longish and shaggy, was a rich, dark blond that depending on the light could be the tawny colour of honey or the shimmering green gold of tarnished brass.
He was a quiet bloke, and rarely smiled. He didn’t scowl either, but just seemed to watch things in a detached, almost serene way. He was almost always at the club, either playing or helping or watching. He was never particularly close with anyone, but he was never an outsider either. And when you looked into his eyes – though I suppose few ever did except me and Coach – you knew that he didn’t miss much, and that he always knew what he wanted.
As a player he never lost his cool, but there was a grit in him, a deep, smouldering fire that wouldn’t ever let him give up. Oh, he could be tactical, even devious in his attempts to get his will, on the pitch or off, but he never waivered.
I always tried to be like Hendrik, as a football player, to be equal to his focus, his courage, his ruthlessness, and his absolute will to win.
And then came 2003. I was in E-Youth. Hendrik, who turned 14 that July, was in C-Youth. Coach had asked him to be his permanent assistant on our team, and we’d seen a lot more of him. Coach had always trained us to be efficient and goal-oriented – no “it’s not if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” hogwash – but Hendrik made us bend the rules to the breaking point. ‘Thinking outside the box’ was what he called it, to win, and to win by wider margins.
“It’s only a foul if the ref gives it,” he told us. “And even the, sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes a booking, and at the end of the game even a send-off can be worth it, if it gives us a tactical advantage. Just be smart about it.”
We practiced awareness of when we were invisible to the ref, and how to create diversions that drew attention away from a player about to commit such a tactical foul. I know it is bad form, it’s considered unsportsmanlike, but I still say that there was something very sporting about it: it wasn’t just that we played only against our opponents, but also against the system itself. The challenge, the fun and joy of it, is being so good, so quick, so deft and perceptive that you can get away with it. For after all a rule or law is only as good as it is enforceable. Following it is not a necessity, but a choice. You just have to be aware of the consequences. Later I applied all of that to my career as a crook, but I learned it from Hendrik on the football pitch. Don’t they say that sports teach you for life?
You can imagine how as our team moved up in our league we got a rep as grade A bastards.
I knew that Hendrik was paying me some attention also. I certainly did everything I could to impress him, and slowly I became one of his favourite players. I started out as a winger, because of my size, but eventually I was made centre forward. But still, he never seemed fully content with my performance, and always wanted me to exhaust myself more, play more aggressive, and more daring.
“It’s not your job to be careful, Ricky. Leave the defence to Bariş, Leo, Cem, and the others. It’s your job to score and to help Hector to score. Nothing else matters.”
And when I complained that he was less harsh judging Hector, he ginned without humour: “Hector is content to be merely good. If I push him harder, he’ll walk. And I don’t have anyone better to replace him with. You, you want to be the best. You I can kick as much as I like, and you’ll come back for more. So, yeah, I expect more from you. A lot more. And you know you can give it.”
There was that one game that summer, an away game against a team from Halle, in Saxony. We’d screwed them the last time we’d played them with two unlawful scores. So the tone of the game was hostile from the kick-off. They were fairly secure at the lower mid-table of our league, and they needed a win less than they needed to avoid another lost game, so they’d decided to stonewall us all through, with only occasional passes and quick strikes when we neglected our own defences too much.
It had rained hard not just through the game but for the last couple of days, and the pitch had turned into a mud bath. The game was almost over, we might even have been in stoppage time, and no goal had been scored by either side. We were all exhausted, and very frustrated after 90 minutes of railing futilely against this wall of disdain.
I had just made a solitary run down the right wing, to open up their left flank. Hector had been supporting me, while our two other forwards got into position. But when I tried to pass to them directly over the centre backs of the Hallensers, one of them had leaped up gracefully and blocked it with his head. The ball had fallen down, and they drew four of their defenders together around it, apparently intending to slowly pass it back to their goalie. Everyone was waiting for the ref to end the game, and they only meant to kill the remaining time.
I was still running lightly in the direction I had kicked the ball, and threw a quick glance over my shoulder towards Hendrik, who was standing at the sidelines. Through the rain I could make out his set jaw, and the cold fire in his eyes, his angry, withheld disappointment, nay, loathing with us.
It was still only moments after they had blocked the ball, and they were still ambling around each other, tired and lacklustre in spirit themselves. Their goalie was slowly approaching them, leaving the goal wide open. And then I understood the mistake they had made, in their wishful thinking that the game was already over, and picked up speed again. I ran as hard as I could, my thighs protesting with sharp pains, my ankles groaning and trembling with the stain of having to stay steady on slippery ground, until I was an arrow aimed at the heart of their defence. Only one of their defenders saw me coming, and he shouted to alert his slowpoking mates, but it was too late. I knew I couldn’t shoulder through the three bloke wall between me and the ball. The ball was still just outside the penalty box, so even if I hurt one of them, or tripped them, it probably wouldn’t result in a penalty kick against us, and anything else wouldn’t make any difference at this point. So I dropped down to one knee, the other leg outstretched, and on a wave of mu and water I slid through between their legs, kicked the ball, and scored.
When blokes understood what I had just done – reasonably certain that everyone was just then staring at the goal, and given the poor visibility, and that I was hidden behind the thicket of their legs – all of them kicked me as hard as they could. All the anger we had so justly incurred all through the season, and all the mute, cold frustration of this long, wet game went into those kicks.
And then the ref’s whistle signalled the end.
Hendrik carried me back to the bench himself. Before the designated game medic (the father of one of the blokes who’d just vented on me, actually, and who as an EMT by profession) began patching up my bleeding face, Hendrik hugged me quickly, and hard enough to make me groan in pain, and whispered: “That was fantastic, Ricky. Fucking fantastic. I am so fucking proud of you!”
It was the first time he said it, and I knew I would willingly put my right arm into a meat grinder to have him say it again.
My back was one big bruise, and I had serious trouble breathing. The medic gave me a shot that made me woozy and faintly high but reduced that sense of suffocating. They debated if I should get checked out at the hospital in Halle, but in the end decided against it. On the bus ride back, Hendrik had me lie on the backseat of the bus, where I could stretch out, and put my head in his lap, partly to make sure I was okay and didn’t pass out or anything, and partly to ease my breathing by taking pressure from my chest.
It was late as we drove back, and almost dark outside. Everybody was excited and relieved that we’d won after all, and talking loudly over the thundering diesel engine, and the hard rain, and the evening rush hour traffic on the A9 northbound towards Berlin.
Hendrik put his hand on my head.
“Try to sleep, brave Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.”
“What’d you call me?” I whispered back.
“Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. You know, the mongoose from the story, the one that follows the cobra into its lair and kills it.”
“I know the story. My sister calls me the same. She calls me Tavi.”
“She’s a bright girl, then. Now try to sleep.”
The bus was shaking us gently. My cheek rubbed against the smooth nylon fabric of his trackie bottoms, damp from the rain. Mostly he kept both his arms stretched out along the top of the seat’s back, like a relaxed Jesus on the cross, but every now and then (when nobody was looking?) he put one warm, strong, heavy, and slightly sweaty hand on my shoulder or my head, and would as if absentminded tousle my hair. For a while Coach sat with us, offering to spell him, but he said I’d just fallen asleep (which I dutifully pretended to be, after that), and he’d rather not wake me. They’d talk quietly for a while, and then Coach went back up the aisle to keep the rest of the team in check. The red and white lights of the passing cars got caught in the rivulets and raindrops on the deep indigo windows.
And in my memory I held firmly the image of his face, as he’d hugged me, carrying me across the pitch, both of us rain-drenched and muddy, and as the blood from my nose had soaked the arm of his track suit. I held the fire in his eyes, no longer cold, but fiercely hot, like a furnace, as he said: “I am so fucking proud of you.”
So what do you expect? Of course I fell for him. I fell like a ton of bricks. But this was football. Football players aren’t queer. Even in 2003 that still just didn’t happen. Period. I kept being one of his star players, at least as long as I didn’t slacken and kept the performance of the team in higher regard than my personal well-being or my good name as a sportsman, but he never called me Tavi again, and he never held me again. He never even let me sit next to him on the bus, or join in a conversation he was having with mates his own age, or anything. He was strictly business, and I didn’t dare to push that boundary.
So for the best part of the following year, all through winter, I pined for him from afar, and did what I could to stay in his good books, and dreamed of him doing nameless, ill-imagined things to me at night. I came out to ‘Nette, and Lukas found out about me and told ‘Nessa. And in spring Tariq caught my eye, and for a while I put my desire for Hendrik aside as unattainable. But I never forgot him.