The treetop rustled as a swift breeze rushed through it; a moment later a few dark green leaves spiralled down through the branches to the ground. Victor stared ahead at the mansion’s brick wall, and the lush vine that had scaled it right to the roof. A gentle, gritty scrape moved behind him: the despondent shuffle of Gary’s shoes dragging across the courtyard. There was a faint rumble of distant thunder.
After a minute, Gary had worked his way around to the end of the courtyard and was heading toward the pool room door. Victor turned his head and watched him: head down, shoulders drooping, football tucked under one arm. Victor turned back to face the wall, where brightly flowering bushes overflowed their garden beds. His fingers brushed over the dirt beside him and stopped at a small loose rock. He picked it up and lobbed it at the wall; it bounced off with a clack and fell into the bushes. Victor tilted his head back and looked up at a ceiling of twisted branches and ten thousand leaves. A few spots of blue sky peered through. He turned again to Gary; the old man with the football had his hand on the doorknob, about to enter the mansion. Victor sighed. “Gary,” he called. Gary stopped and turned around. Victor stood up and brushed a clinging leaf from his pants. He looked at Gary. “I’ll play football with you.”
Gary stood straight and his eyes widened. “Really?”
“Yeah, come on,” said Victor, stepping out from the shade of the tree.
“Okay, great,” said Gary, grinning from sideburn to sideburn. He ran to the other side of the courtyard, near the shed. “Come around this side,” he said to Victor. Victor crossed beneath the apple tree and stood in front of Gary. “Okay, now go back near the fence. We can practice out kicks, and then we can play a game.”
“All right,” said Victor, as he turned and walked back to the stone wall, about fifteen metres away from Gary. “Just take it easy on me—I’ve got a dodgy shoulder.”
“Okay, that’s far enough,” called Gary.
“All right, now what?” said Victor. He turned around to face Gary, just in time to see a back-spinning football rocketing toward his face. He slipped his head to the side and dodged the leather missile; it thumped the wall behind him and rebounded into the back of his leg. “Good grief, Gary. I said take it easy.” He reached down and scooped the ball up in his right hand.
“Sorry,” said Gary, with the look of a schoolchild waiting outside the principal’s office.
Victor smiled. “Don’t worry about it.” He shifted the ball to an upright position in his hand and then dropped it and punted it back to Gary. The kick sailed off target, lodging in a high branch of the apple tree. “Ah sh**, sorry.”
“It’s okay, I’ve got it,” called Gary, and he turned and ran to the shed, emerging a moment later with a rake. He stood under the tree and stabbed upward with the rake until the football, along with three small apples, fell loose from the branch. He threw the rake by the tree trunk, picked up the ball and then dashed back out to face Victor. “Ready?”
Gary dropped the ball and rammed his foot into it as it touched the pavement; it shot like a cannonball for Victor’s chest. Victor raised his hand and blocked the ball before it had a chance to fracture his sternum. It ricocheted with a slap that echoed across the courtyard. “Bloody hell,” said Victor, shaking his hand loosely. He looked at the red mark filling his palm. “What a kick.” Gary smiled. Victor stepped over to where the ball had rolled, picked it up and kicked it to Gary. The ball sprayed off the side of his foot and tumbled toward the side wall. “Sorry, Gary. It’s been a while since I kicked a football.”
“Really?” said Gary, wading into a garden bed to fetch the ball. “You never play football—not even at the park?”
“No, not in years.”
“Then what do you do all day?”
Victor smiled. “I work, mostly. Trying to offload the metronomes my dad left me.”
Gary fished the ball from beneath an azalea bush. “Oh yeah—the clocks.”
Victor sighed. “They’re not clocks. But yes, those are the ones. Selling those takes up most of my time. I don’t get the chance to play.”
“That’s a shame.” Gary stepped free of the garden. “You must really like selling meganomes.” Victor said nothing. Gary ran onto the pavement, bounced the ball and said in the manner of an excited football commentator, “Here comes Baldock at half-forward. He kicks from forty-five…” He punted the ball high into the air. “…It’s a goal!”
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