Man’s Best Friend
There is nothing better for a light MDMA hangover than a stroll by the river.
‘A spliff?’ countered my companion, Dirty South, channelling the wild wisdom of weeds.
I was happy to be corrected. There is nothing better for a light MDMA hangover than a stroll by the river and a massive little spliff. Particularly after work.
We had just completed a solid hour’s graft in Borough. We don’t record our podcast often, we acknowledge that. Why not? Well, to sum it up in three words: Pure laziness. But when we do, we like to unwind with a quality ale outside The Rake pub, enjoy a long lean on the bins provided for such purpose and consider our options and commitments.
After a brief discussion we had concluded that we had nothing in particular to do and had set off to the river to get on with it immediately. As devotees of the Deserter Way may already know, one of the wonderful things about having nothing in particular to do is that you never know what’s going to happen next. And so it was as we skinned up on the exposed foreshore of the Thames in the pale late afternoon sun, near Tate Modern.
We are often drawn to this special place, this ribbon of wilderness that lies at the heart of the city, offering unheralded views and unusual angles of the familiar. Right in the middle of it all and yet, at the same time, away from it all. Just how we like it. They can’t build their shit flats here, we like to think, though they’ve been doing their best to cover over the best bits with their shit bridges.
We breathed in the fresh riparian air. We breathed in the sweet-smelling smoke. We started to notice things.
I saw it first. I gave Dirty South a nudge and nodded my head in its direction.
‘Oooh,’ he said.
‘Isn’t it?’ I replied.
For there, nestled amongst the ragged stones, tiles and round-edged house bricks, sheltering beneath Blackfriars Railway Bridge, lay a familiar yellow orb, bright but forlorn, as if it knew it was lost, out of place.
It were only a bloody tennis ball.
Men, generally, are delighted by balls. Perhaps because we speak so much of it. And Dirty South and I are no different. Freeing the blessed globe from its watery resting place, we began kicking it to one another as we strolled along the shore; knocking it off a wall here or a post there; using the banked sands to curl inch-perfect passes. Once we almost lost it to the waters but Dirty South, with a gasp and a shriek, risked a wet foot to save it. Hero, plain and simple.
‘What shall we call him?’ asked Dirty South.
‘Simon?’ I offered, it being our go-to name for inanimate objects: A bifter, perhaps, Roxy’s hip flask, our shared Spotify playlist. But Dirty South didn’t look keen. I could see he was working on something. Something big.
‘Let’s call him… Bally,’ he said. And it was so right there was no point in further discussion. The man has an uncanny knack with words.
‘And let’s kick him all the way home,’ I said, my eyes now wild with delight. And possibly skunk.
‘Yes,’ said Dirty South. ‘To Wimbledon.’
‘Wimbledon,’ I breathed. ‘Of course.’
We passed the Oxo Tower and after several failed attempts (that might have forced lesser men to concede defeat) finally managed to flick-kick Bally up the steps at Gabriel’s Wharf. Having lain alone on the Thames shore for so long, we figured he would appreciate the people and lights of the Southbank. And how right we were. He was the belle of the ball as we booted him, now, along this handsome riverside boulevard, past the ITV building and the challenging multiple levels outside the National Theatre.
The early evening crowds were swelling and strangers joined in with our game, knocking Bally back to us or laying him off into our paths with a smile and a wave. We got the impression that some of the more skillful touches were performed by our European brethren and sistren, primed by years of tiki-taka. The more clumsy attempts to join in – by the shinners, the ball-treaders, the toe-stubbers – all seemed to be by English speakers, a sad indictment of something akin to our national game.
One man, sporting brogues and flamingo pink chinos and facing a firm pass from the Dirty One, simply froze in his tracks and watched as Bally bounced off his shoes. I will never forget the withering look he received from his girlfriend, who had clearly seen this unforgivable side to him for the first time.
‘I give it a month,’ I said to him, not without sadness. One’s approach to street football defines one. She knew that, and he’d just defined himself out of a relationship.
Heading now to Hungerford Bridge we approached pop-up beer-stop, The Hop Locker.
‘I wonder if Bally might be thirsty,’ said Dirty South, and we stopped to try their mighty Simcoe Pale Ale, a collaboration brew with Norway’s Lervig brewery.
‘Hello. Do you serve men with balls?’ I enquired of the barman.
‘I expect so, mostly,’ he said.
‘Excellent. Three pints of the Simcoe then, please,’ I said, and we flicked Bally up onto a table to people watch in the fading light.
One of London’s finest viewing spots is the fifth floor balcony of the Royal Festival Hall and it was here the three of us headed next, keen as we were to show Bally some sights before home time.
When you’ve a ball on the crew, you are only ever the discovery of a ‘natural goal’ away from a quick game of three and in and we paused at the external lift doors – which offered the perfect goal and excellent lighting – for some light exercise in order to build a thirst.
At the RFH bar we were presented with the choice of Theakston’s, cider or 21 taps of Red Stripe. I went for a cider, Dirty South had a Theakston’s and Bally surprised us both with a large rum, ice no mixer. What a character!
Upstairs we gazed across London for a while and then took a table on the balcony next to some young women. Who can say who was first attracted to whom, but very soon we were all chatting and when they heard about Bally’s evening they were thrilled to take some selfies with him, which he seemed to enjoy.
A quick look at Google Maps told us that Wimbledon was still, somehow, a two and a half hour walk away. We decided that it might make better sense, given the hour, if we escorted Bally onto a train at Waterloo instead.
‘I wonder if Bally might be hungry?’ said Dirty South, as we rolled him down six flights of stairs and across the busy lobby.
‘Very good point,’ I replied, admiring his thoughtfulness and sensitivity to the needs of others.
Ordinarily, Dirty South and I might treat ourselves to a budget-conscious cheese egg burger at Waterloo Grill after an evening out, but Bally had other ideas. On the way to the station he took an unexpected ricochet off a parked car and settled onto the terrace of upmarket grill bar, Black & Blue.
‘I think he wants a steak dinner,’ I said.
‘Well, it is his night,’ said Dirty South, and we chipped him through the restaurant door, leaving the hurly burly of the traffic behind.
‘Table for three, please,’ I said.
‘Certainly, gentlemen. I like your ball,’ said the maitre d’, making us fall in love with her. We told her his story and she laid Bally a place at the table and brought him a napkin.
The three of us tucked into a côte de boeuf and shared a powerful bottle of red before heading up the steps into the bright lights of Waterloo Station. At the ticket barrier for the Wimbledon train we found a good man who agreed to take charge of Bally and ensure he alighted safely at Wimbledon.
‘It would be an absolute fucking honour, boys,’ he said, and we waved them both off.
Feeling a little emotional, we decided a pick-me-up might be in order and headed round to Penny, the late night bar beneath the Old Vic. Penny may pass muster as a cafe (which it is in the daytime) but as a dive bar it’s a bit short on atmosphere. We do end up there a lot, though. Mainly because it’s so, you know, open.
There we raised a glass of continental lager to our dear, departed friend. We’d given a tennis ball probably the best night of his life, and in the process had had one of our own.
It made me realise that, really, all you need for a wonderful evening out is a humble ball, man’s best friend. Plus a mate, to be fair. Perhaps some beer. Nice food. Spliff. Girls. London.
But apart from that, nothing. Except maybe a fat dab of molly.
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