Every Monday evening, I’d join a group of guys to play an hour of five-a-side footy near Kings Cross Station.
Nick was nearly always the one who organised the game. When we were short on players a few weeks before Christmas seven years ago, he added a new person to the list, including them as a recipient in a reply-all email, stating, “I have a player: Derick Johnson.”
For some reason, my first instinct was to assume that Derick Johnson was a figment of Nick’s imagination or a sort of creative in-joke between some of the players. The name, I observed, sounded like a character from Mad Men. I imagined a dapper fellow in his mid-thirties turning up to play, with a short glass of scotch on the rocks in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
When I told Nick my thoughts that Derick Johnson sounded made-up and asked him how he knew him, Nick replied back curtly, professing that Derick Johnson did indeed exist and it was “none of my business” how he knew him.
A few days later, about an hour before we were about to play, Derick Johnson emailed the group to apologise, explaining that he’d have to pull out of the game as he could not get out of work. At that point, it was fair to say that I was more than a little dubious as to his existence. But, at least for a short while, the more I examined the idea that Nick was having us on or that the other lads were staging an elaborate rue, the less confident I could really be of its truth.
None of the people I played football with were the sort to make up a fictitious character (with a made up motive of joining us for games of football) simply for the sake of cheap shits and giggles. The only person I could think of who would go through something so ultimately arduous and inane would actually have been me.
In fact, if Derick Johnson only existed as fiction, I should have been the chief suspect. I will not-infrequently stay up until 3am recording made up conversations and attaching them to emails, claiming, for example, to have been commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary on fruit-machine addicts. I have even followed strangers as part of a game, within the confines of strict rules that took me weeks to come up with (and spent further weeks writing up the reports of those follows), all as some bizarre and twisted version of a hobby. I am possibly the closest person in history to making pointlessness an art form.
I was also the first person to recognise Derick Johnson’s name and dispute his existence. And if you follow the well-known mantras associated with farting (“first to know did the blow” and “whoever smelt it, dealt it”), then I should surely have been the first person to point the finger at.
There was, of course, the possibility that Derick Johnson, rather than being an imaginary character-addition to Mad Men, was actually a real person. I entertained this possibility, albeit reluctantly and with a healthy amount of scepticism, for several months. But as each week passed, my initial instincts seemed increasingly vindicated because Derick Johnson (or whoever was pretending to be him) would continually respond affirmatively to emails and be added to the list of players, only to pull out at the last minute, usually with some seemingly spurious reason of work or injury (and on one occasion, a broken boiler). I increasingly got to the point where I was 90% certain that Derick Johnson was not a real person.
By March, Derick Johnson had still not managed to join us for a single game. And it would turn out he would never end up joining us because Nick sent an email round to the group saying that he’d be unable to play football on the upcoming Monday because he would be attending the funeral of Derick Johnson. A large part of me initially felt very guilty for assuming Derick Johnson was made up and for accusing Nick of making him up a few months earlier. But a smaller, nevertheless incessant part of me was still unsure whether Nick had been having us on all along and was still keeping up the pretence that Derick Johnson had ever existed.
Curiosity is a real fucker. I realise now that my request was outrageous, but I asked Nick if could attend the funeral with him. This was my perfect chance to know for definite if Derick Johnson was real or not. Of course, I didn’t explain my real intention to Nick—I simply told him that I wanted to pay my respects to Derick’s friends and family. In hindsight, there were two plausible reasons why Nick declined my request to attend the funeral with him:
- Derick Johnson didn’t exist, so there wouldn’t actually be a funeral. Nick probably had other plans but wanted us to still think that Derick was a real person (for whatever twisted reasons he had for this).
- I had never met Derick and I didn’t know his family, so it was completely inappropriate to attend his funeral.
Whatever the real reason was, I’ve stopped receiving group emails asking me if I can play football on Monday evenings. My last email from Nick in April was frosty at best:
“If you keep emailing me, I will have no choice but to contact the police and report you for harassment. You are not welcome at football and you are not welcome to contact anyone on the list.”
So many years have passed, but I haven’t stopped missing those Monday night football games. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop missing them.
Curiosity got the better of me again the other day. I couldn’t help but swing by the football pitch after work, just to take a look from a distance. I saw most of the old crew there, but I could swear I saw a new member of the group changing by the side of the pitch—a tall, handsome man in his early forties taking off a grey, fitted, three-piece suit.
I didn’t take a closer look. I was too sad from being shunned. I was also genuinely worried that Nick would call the Police if he saw me. I continued past the steel gates leading to the pitch, along Gray’s Inn Road, with no real purpose or destination in mind. Large, salty tears welled in my eyes and trickled down my cheeks, separating into tiny beads as they hit my stubble—the sides of my face resembling a warped game of pachinko.
I contemplated for a moment whether, in the smooth, soulful words of The Temptations, “It was just my imagination, running away with me.”
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. I was still shunned from playing, and walking by the football pitch hurt me too much to ever try again.
Cover image courtesy of Groundhopping Merseburg via Flickr