By Ernest Hemingway
Translated from the English
In the autumn the season was starting and there were games everywhere, but the luxury coaches left without us. It was cold in Milan, and getting dark very early, but with the street-lamps on and the lights in the shops it was nice to look in at the windows. There were still bargain rails out on the street, and some early powdery snow caught in the lapels of the coat-collars. There were sports shops with last year’s replica shirts on sale-rails blowing in the cold wind, spinning round on hangars so we could see the names over the numbers on the back.
Every afternoon we were all at the hospital. There were different ways of getting there across the town through the dusk. The longer way was beside the canal, and there were drug-users there and madmen, but at some point, to get to the hospital, you had to cross one of three bridges. On one of them an Albanian woman was frying sausages for hot-dogs, one hand inside the pocket of her Puffa. If you stood too close, hoping to get some of the warmth from the grill, you’d get spat on by fat.
The hospital was very old and needed repairs. You went through a gate and across a car-park and through another gate the other side. Sometimes there were hearses in the car-park, or plain-sided vans. Beyond the hospital was the special clinic where we met every afternoon and compared injuries, if we had any language in common, and where we tried machines and treatments we all sincerely hoped would make some difference.
The doctor came up to the fixed weights where I was sitting and asked me what I used to like to do best. ‘Before football. What did you like?’
I said: ‘Other sports.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘You’ll be able to do other sports as well as ever.’
I couldn’t bend my knee and my calf muscle had sheared away from the bone. The weights simulated riding a heavy bicycle, uphill, but so far it hadn’t made much difference and often I had to let the weights drop with a clang. The doctor said: ‘It’s nothing. You’re a very lucky man. You can play all sorts of other sports again, like a champion.’
On the next bench to me was an Olympic pentathlete with his fingers viced straight in splints. The doctor moved his arm up and down from the shoulder. ‘And can I play other sports too, doctor, like a champion?’ Some people said that he could have been a medallist.
The doctor went to his office and came back with a picture of the captain of the French handball team, who was holding up a trophy on a rostrum. He said the captain’s hand was once in the same kind of splint.
‘A horse?’ the pentathlete asked.
‘No. He fell badly.’
‘Very interesting,’ the potential medallist said, and handed the photo back to the doctor.
‘Do you have a little more confidence now?’
There were three lads there every day who were about the same age as I was. They were from Milan, and one of them talked about being a lawyer, another about being an artist. The third could only ever talk about being a footballer. After we’d finished on the machines at the hospital, we sometimes walked to a cafe near the opera house, called La Scala. We walked the shortest route through a run-down area. None of us had played for the clubs of these people and sometimes when they recognised us they’d call out from the wine shops and the restaurants, telling us to fuck off and go back home and break a leg.
Another boy who walked with us sometimes wore a black silk handkerchief across his face because he had no nose then and his face was being rebuilt. He’d gone straight from military academy with the UN to Bosnia, and been wounded by a rifle-grenade in the first hour of his first patrol.
At the hospital they were building up the muscles in one of his legs, but most of all he wanted his nose rebuilt, in the style of Hollywood stars. He was waiting for his compensation payment and the right surgeon. Later, after the operation went wrong, he went to America and nobody ever heard from him again. But this was a long time ago, and at the time we had no idea how any of us would turn out afterwards.
We only knew that there was always football, but none of us would be in it anymore. We all had cupboards of medals, except the lad with the black silk handkerchief, who had a different type of medal, though in the cafe he always said he was once, as a boy, a decent tackler. The tall lad with the thin face who thought he might become a lawyer had played full-back in Rome and had three winner’s medals whereas the rest of us only had one each, and those from different countries. He was older and had lived a longer time with the idea of the finish, the end, death. He was more detached, though we were all a little detached, and the only reason we hung around together was that every afternoon we were always at the hospital.
Having said that, as we walked from the hospital to the cafe through the tough part of town, in the dark, with light and obscenities pouring from the wine-shops and the Irish pubs, sometimes having to walk in the road with the Vespas and snorting cars when there were too many men and women and cats and dogs on the pavement, and sometimes, limping, we barged them a little to get by, and just then we felt there was something that held us together that they, the people who hated us, who were only spectators, did not and would never understand.
The cafe we all understood. We’d been here a million times, where it was rich and warm and dimly-lit, noisy, smoky. There were always girls on their own and Italian tabloids up on racks on the wall. The girls at the cafe were great football fans. In fact I found that the most supportive fans in the whole of Italy were always the cafe girls, and I imagine they still are.
The Italian lads to begin with were very polite about my medals. Because they asked, I brought in my scrap-book and showed them clippings in language they couldn’t read, important words like loyal and selfless, but which really said, with the adjectives removed, that I’d won the medals because my father was a famous player and I’d been in the right teams at the right times. After that they were a little less respectful.
I was a friend, but I was never really one of them after they read the clippings. It had been different for them, and they’d had to fight that much harder. I was injured, like them, but we all knew that getting injured was simply one of those things. I was still proud of my medals, and sometimes, after a few drinks, I’d imagine it had been as hard for me as it had for them.
But walking home at night through the windy streets, with all the shops closed, and keeping as much as I could under the bright street-lights, I doubted that if I’d been like them I’d ever have made it. I was very afraid, and often lay awake in bed at night, afraid of this finishing and wondering what this fear would mean even if I did make it back.
Those three Milanese with the medals were hard, and I was not hard, although I might seem that way to anyone outside. Those three saw things more clearly, so in the end we drifted apart. I stayed friends for a while with the boy who’d been wounded in Bosnia, because he too hadn’t had a chance to see how he’d turn out, and I liked him because I thought he might not have been a fighter either.
The pentathlete didn’t believe in looking back, and he spent his time in the hospital correcting my Italian. With him, I found it easier to speak in a foreign language. He said in that case, if it was so easy, I ought to learn some grammar. It was easy like golf can be easy, until we started on technique. Then it became so difficult I was afraid even to swing the club.
The pentathlete rarely missed a day at the hospital, even though he didn’t believe in physiotherapy. Sometimes none of us did and one day the pentathlete exploded, saying it was all pointless and a waste of time. It was a theory, like any other, and its only chance of working was through faith. He didn’t even believe I was ever going to learn proper Italian, and I too was a waste of time. He kept on with his arm exercises all the time he was cursing.
‘What will you do when they say you can’t play anymore?’ he spat at me. ‘Speak Italian!’
‘No, but I’ll try.’
‘More fool you.’ He seemed very angry. ‘A man must never marry.’
I can’t remember everything, the Italians talk too much. What I understood was that a man who marries loses everything. No man should have to put himself in such a losing position. He had to find good things he couldn’t lose. He always had to watch out for becoming a loser, and having everything taken away.
He was incredibly angry, and bitter. He didn’t look at me when he talked.
‘Why does he have to lose it?’
‘He’ll lose it. Don’t argue with me.’ He stopped his exercises and climbed off the bench and walked out. I thought he’d gone for good, but he was in the massage room. He asked the masseur if he could borrow his mobile, and the door swung shut. When he came back in I was sweating at another machine, for the upper body, and the pentathlete was fully dressed, not in his tracksuit but in trousers and a jacket, and an open necked shirt.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. He patted me on the shoulder with his good hand and I stopped pulling and pushing. ‘I didn’t mean to be rude. My wife has been ill. You must forgive me.’
I didn’t know what to say. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
He stood there biting his lip. ‘It’s been very difficult,’ he said. ‘I can’t resign myself.’
He looked straight past me and into the mirror. Then he began to cry. ‘I am utterly unable to resign myself,’ he said, and choked. And then crying, his head up, looking at nothing, carrying himself straight and sportsman-like, with tears on both his cheeks and biting his lips, he walked through the machinery of the gym and out through the door.
The doctor told me that the pentathlete’s wife, who was very young and whom he had married only after his injury, had been ill with pneumonia. She had been very sick for a few days. No one had expected her to die, and she’d made a full recovery. The next day the pentathlete didn’t come to the hospital. The doctor put up large photographs around the wall of various patients who after treatment had been photographed standing on podiums and receiving medals from VIP’s.
I don’t know if all those athletes had been treated here, because I’d always understood that we were the first. The photographs didn’t make much difference anyway to my friend the pentathlete, because we never saw him again.