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In September 1986, following the collision of two ships a few miles off the coast in the North Sea (leaving one, a medium sized passenger ferry, stranded on a sandbank) Pelé was left alone for what felt like the first time in decades. Few knew he was there at all and even they’d now disappeared.

He put his feet up next to an overflowing ashtray on the glass table in the plain shipping office and considered this.

Original Illustration by Emily Sweetman

Even when he was a kid there’d always be someone knocking on the door complaining about something. For, as the son of Dondinho, Pelé was well known as the one who played football, who set up his own team, who ran everywhere and climbed trees he shouldn’t, and who almost drowned in the creek while pissing around with his friends, showing off again. He was blamed for every broken window for a mile around.

His supposedly brief trip to a town he’d never heard of and would never return to – he’d make sure of that – had been interrupted by the sound of telephone bells ringing and hurried, panicked conversations he tried to grasp, but that were spoken too quickly with softened vowels and a slurring tone that rose in pitch but not volume.

He sometimes liked to boast of how he’d become friends with John Lennon when they were both at the same language school in New York. But that was the thing he liked most about learning English to the level he needed to become a star in the States. He’d lose concentration after a while though because it was harder than scoring goals (he was having to do this well into his 30’s), and nobody ever dared tell him when he got things wrong, so he often found himself just smiling his way through conversations.

People had died in the accident, he knew that, he didn’t know how or how many. It was shit of course, but he was somewhat accustomed to death, and it rarely shocked him. He’d seen the charred body of a pilot in the morgue when he was just a kid, after all.

So he trained his ire on the Santos Port Authorities. They owed him for this. They’d said he’d be an honoured guest, that he’d be in and out, and that the certain financial problem back home caused by another well intentioned, bad investment in another bad company run by another bad faith bum with stars in his eyes but moths in his wallet, would be taken care of in a moment.

They’d said he just needed to shake a couple of hands, to tell a couple of important people what it was like to score a thousand goals, and to smile his biggest, warmest, most charming MasterCard smile until the deal being struck between the two docks was done.

And now there wasn’t a hand in sight left to shake.

The Cuban heels on his spotless black Chelsea boots squeaked on the glass table. His trousers were white, a rigid line on each leg pressed precisely leading to and from the top of his thighs. He wore a dark blue roll-neck with a golden crucifix on a chain around his neck.

His hair hadn’t changed since he was a kid, a tribute, he’d often say, to his Dad, but also a sign of his worry that he’d lose what it was that made him Pelé now he hadn’t scored a goal in years.

He’d looked after himself – he’d wanted to look good commentating on the TV during the recent World Cup, of course – but then he always had. He didn’t like the loss of control when drinking, and cigarettes made him feel sick.

Just the slight bags under his eyes and a thin layer of stubble pushing up through his jaw betrayed the fact his mood bristled.

He wondered briefly if he’d ended up in some sort of purgatory while his papers were being checked – it would be ironic if he, Pelé, the man they called King, had to spend eternity here – but his belief in the Saints was too strong, he was looked after by silent hands, and his charmed life would never end up like this. Whatever the hell this really was.

He drummed one handed on the table, it was at a nice height for it, his thumb hitting its edge, he alternated between the heel of his palm, the tips of his fingers and the flat of his hand with its gold ring that cracked through the stillness for punctuation. The rhythm rolled like the sea he’d been told was outside, it swelled and it retreated away from itself, his timing innate as opposed to mechanical, honed on a shoe-shine box when he was just a baby whose family were embarrassed to say they needed him already to help put some food on the table. It sucked and blew and pushed and pulled, gaps between the beats short but somehow eternal, his atomic punctuality was flawed, malleable.

The first time his uncle had showed him how to play, he’d said,

“I can teach you this, and your father can teach you where the goal is. But only God can show you where the gaps in the song or the holes in the net are.”

The door opened, stirring the greatest footballer to have ever walked the earth from this irritated reverie, and a hairless policeman half Pelé’s age appeared in its frame, domed hat sagging under his arm. He looked Pelé up and down, curling his top lip.

He didn’t ask who the fuck he was.

He asked “What the fuck are you?”

To Pelé this was fortunately just a sound, an expulsion of air, not knowing that much of the communication done in this town was made out of just such noises.

“Are you supposed to be here?” asked the policeman. He then said the word mate the way most people said prick.

“Mate?” asked Pele raising an eyebrow. “Companheiro? Mate? Not Sir?” asked Pelé, calmly.

“Watch your lip with that,” said the policeman in his high pitched, nasal voice. “You’re lucky I haven’t got time for this. Just wait here, I’ll be back for you in a bit.”

He turned on his heel and slammed the door behind him, knocking a calendar off the wall with pictures on its pages of identical container ships the length of football pitches, and identical women, identically topless.

“Fuck you too” said Pelé in English to the back of the door.

There had been times he snapped (like in the World Cup semi-final in 1970 when he cracked the Uruguayan Dagoberto Fontes so hard he was lucky whatever cruel deity had given him the River Plate to grow up next to had given him a forehead as thick as he had, otherwise the blow from Pele’s elbow could have killed him.) But he rarely snapped to authority figures, even officious, snivelling racist ones, and he’d met enough of them.

He picked his black leather coat off the back of a chair and walked out. A red plastic telephone on a table rung its bells, mostly to remind itself it was still there.

He could hear the churn of the sea, he could smell it in the air, feel it on his skin. He remembered the first time he’d seen it when he went to Santos in his early teens. It had been everything he’d dreamed of, golden, blue and endless, he could see the bottom until the water was well over his head.

He remembered how he ran and ran and ran down fine white sand, falling into it, not believing that it really was salty as they’d said it was. He’d thought that was a wind up.

He was still scared of the water because of that story with the creek, but he also couldn’t help but throw himself into it. He said it taught him to face his fears.

The wind was strong, gusting sideways along the beach. He pulled up his collars and reached the concrete promenade. The beach was made of countless millions of small stones, a blur of dull colours with sharp edges among dried black seaweed necklaces and cracked and empty dogfish egg pods. The water was dark and impenetrable. It foamed cappuccino white in places where the sewage outflows disgorged themselves into the water.

Its chocolate sprinkles were of shit and litter.

He could see the belly of the boat, half submerged, out towards the horizon, or at least where the grey of the sea met the grey of the sky. A couple of tugs bobbed unhelpfully around as it let off its dying cries. There were people on the beach and on the prom, pointing, mouths hanging open dumbly.

Someone said loudly that the whole fucking place was losing its mind. They relied on the sea, on their link to the outside world that also hemmed them in, even if they took it for granted. There had been times when it had overrun the small town that gave the port its name; there were pictures of old floods up on half the pubs’ walls, and everyone knew stories of daring rescues at night during storms when the sea swelled out of all proportion, but those monstrous boats rarely fell prey to it.

But now it was largely flat. This was new, boats rarely sunk. Or just lay down. This was unnatural, a reordering of things.

Pelé sat down on a wooden bench inside a wrought iron shelter facing out to sea, having first checked for anything that would stain the back of his trousers. He lifted them above the knees as the way he’d been taught to do when he started appearing on chat shows. Back when he still had the world at his feet, when his intentions of scoring a thousand goals and healing the pain Dondinho had felt after the 1950 World Cup final, were fantasy to everyone but him.

Both the names of teenagers and insults were carved with similar, if more fleeting and graphic, youthful certainty into the seat and on the walls. An empty cider bottle lay in the corner, a brown glass island in an ocean of stale smelling piss. He pulled his collars up again, it was bitterly cold. There was a kid inside, sat on his hands. He couldn’t have been more than eight years old and his coat didn’t seem thick enough for this weather.

“Why are you here?” asked the kid, an inscrutable, unflappable boy. His wide head was bound and held together by tight, light curls. Pelé thought he looked a little like a stray dog.

“I don’t know,” said Pelé. “But it won’t be for long.”

“You scored 1283 goals,” said the kid.

He’d thought that things might be different when he’d first arrived in New York almost a decade before, that he’d be afforded a little peace, but the executives at Warner Brothers needed him as much they needed the Bee Gees. He had also always coveted the fame, he dined off the recognition in a land that knew nothing of football, he believed in his own greatness. He had bought into the existence of a guy called Pelé who was the King. He needed the fantasy to be as real as everyone else did.

“You know who I am?” asked Pelé. “At least someone in this place does. Entende?”

His voice was warm and deep as sequoia wood in the wind, his accent still thick. He punctuated his words with ers and ahs, his th’s at the end of words came with a tsching, the sound of the flourish of a samurai sword being drawn. His s’s were so drawn out they were almost whistled. He had a tendency to end his sentences with that Entende. It meant a sort of ‘do you know what I mean’, but the kid didn’t, speaking no Portuguese.

Pelé was also the first black man he’d ever met in the flesh. He stared at him.

“You’re Pelé. You scored 1283 goals.” he said again.

He lifted himself to remove the book he was sitting on along with his hands, an illustrated history of the World Cup. Pelé was in the arms of Jairzinho on the front, punching the air, having won his third in 1970. You’d think it were a look of surprise on his face were he not so sure he’d do it already.

Pelé had seen that picture so often, he’d had to sign so many copies of it over last 16 years he thought they were becoming worthless, but he hadn’t actually looked at it for a long time.

“You know they asked me to play this year. In the World Cup, I mean. I’m fit enough, nobody would ever forget me then, if I’d have won another one, been the youngest and the oldest. I could have done it, too.”

The kid was used to men angry at those who had intruded on their patches, but he hadn’t expected it here, not from him. He knew all about Pelé, the book under his legs wasn’t the only one he had. His grandfather, a romantic man whose temper, too, had grown shorter over the last couple of years, had seen him play at Goodison Park in 1966 – though he was kicked off the park with brutal regularity and couldn’t quite summon up the decisive magic that he needed to – he said he had been honoured to be in the same stadium as the great man.

He’d told the kid that Pelé was something else. He had a presense.

When he spoke at the Maracanã having scored his thousandth goal, he’d said it was for the children. He’d said we needed to look after them, look out for them, and it had been comforting somehow to the kid when he heard this because he had rarely seen anyone who seemed that bothered about children before.

Pelé, however, carried on, almost as if he wasn’t there at all.

“I don’t know. It’s been nine years. Maybe I’d have ruined everything, but I tell you what, I’d have stopped them all talking about Maradona. In the studio, all they asked me about was him. You know what that is like?”

The kid didn’t.

“Nobody likes him here,” he said.

“I once scored a goal against Fluminense that was so good they had to put a plaque up at the Maracanã to it. I lifted the ball over two people’s heads, kid. I danced my way to that goal. That wasn’t with a hand, or going through a bad, ugly defence like England had. They just let him go, but they kicked me. I’d like to see him do that.”

“I like him, too,” said the kid. “But I’m the only one here who does.”

“Well, I’m the only one who knows what they’ll put him through,” said Pelé, quieter now.

“I’ll tell you a story. There was a guy, another Argentinian, Messiano, he kicked and punched me all day long. He spat at me and whispered shit in my ear and pulled my hair. He poked my eyes, pulled my shirt, he would have put his fist in my arse if he could get close enough. This motherfucker, sorry, this…, well… I broke his nose, and the referee… well he pretended he hadn’t seen a thing. I guess that I was fighting the Argentinians long before the English”.

The kid didn’t really get Pelé’s joke, for it was only meant as that, a joke. To lighten the mood. But he didn’t laugh, he just looked sad. Pelé wasn’t sure if it was because he’d delivered it badly, or if he just didn’t get it.

Normally people just laughed whether it was funny or not.

Pelé started hitting the bench in that same push-me-pull-you rhythm, he did it unconsciously, his thumb and his palm and the tips of his fingers controlled by wires from above. But after years watching the same sea the bench was too damp, it didn’t have any bounce, it didn’t sound as good as the table had.

“They look like Giraffes” said the kid, nodding along the coast towards the large steel cranes, stood stoically with long necks and bowed heads.

“There’s a couple of their brothers at the port in Santos. I thought they looked like priests,” said Pelé. “Have you got a family, kid?”

“I live with my Granddad, he’s out there now.” Bryan pointed at the stricken boat lying on its side in the distance.

“He’s not dead. He’s on a tug. He brings the ships in and then he tows them out again. He hates it here though. He says its the end of the world.”

“Well, I can understand that. I’ve been stuck here all day,” said Pele.

“And he? Him? His job is to almost leave, and he gets so far, showing others the way, but then has to always come back again? I don’t know, maybe he’s lucky.”

Pelé put his hand to his forehead and squeezed slightly.

“Shit. I mean, I’ve spent my whole life moving. I’ve been to every country on earth, everyone knows my name, the great king Pelé, they call me. But they don’t know my real name, they don’t know me.”

“You’re called Edson, after Thomas Edison.”

“My Mum calls me “Dico”.



“I like Pelé,” said the kid after mulling it over.

“So do I” said Pelé.

“But sometimes I don’t like the way people act around him. And sometimes I don’t like the things he has to do. You know I missed the birth of my daughter. She’s the most beautiful thing on God’s earth, but I was busy, I, Pelé, had work to do.

“I always find something.

“My dad was always there for me. When he wasn’t playing he’d be resting his knee, so he was at home. Football treated him like shit so, I think, he treated us well. Well, football treated me wonderfully, it gave me everything… but I can’t give the same back. I just can’t do it.

I never wanted to let anyone down. I fought harder for the generals and for my country than I did for them. I fought and I danced, and I scored a thousand goals, but I never realised that I was letting my own family down. It’s a lot of pressure, entende?”

The kid didn’t know what he meant.

Pelé was hurt long ago when people called him a coward for trying to get out of his military service – which was a joke after all – and then when they called him a fascist for not standing up to the military when he could never really have done such a thing, not him, even when others did. Now he had convinced himself he didn’t care if people mocked him for saying that the children were our future or that the world needs love, or any of that stuff, but it still hurt.

Now no-one listened any more. They just smiled through conversations like he did.

He’d talked to hundreds of women, of course, but he couldn’t betray any weakness there. Same with his old friends. Like Coutinho, who he’d played with most of his life, but who he mostly talked to about football, who was one of the few people in the world left who’d take the piss out of him, and who’d seen him cry a thousand times, but never over anything important.

“Don’t let them tell you what to do, kid” said Pelé, because he’d always done what had been asked of him, and he sometimes wished he’d have been as rebellious as Garrincha. Or Maradona, even. He’d started to resent how they were idolised and romanticised.

“I won three World Cups and I don’t even have a museum in my home country. I did everything they ever asked of me. Sometimes, you need to do what you want, do what makes you happy. What makes you happy, kid?”

“I don’t know,” said the kid, because he’d not really thought about it before. No-one had ever asked. He had no natural aptitude for football, the ball just bounced off him like a stone skimming off the sea. He’d just assumed until now he’d live as the grownups he saw did; he’d work and be supposed to be happy about it, he’d be rude about his wife in public, he’d go to the pub.

Anyway, the nuclear bases ringing the town, with the port at the middle of this huge dartboard, made long term plans somewhat moot and the kid seemed unnaturally and uniquely aware of the precariousness of his situation. He had woken a few months previously to the sound of planes on their way to bomb a foreign country he couldn’t recall the name of back to the stone age. He hadn’t slept for weeks after that.

If Pelé didn’t sleep pretty well, it wasn’t because of nuclear war, and, knowing no different, the kid said he should be happy about that.

A couple of teenagers walked past, dressed head to toe in black, with black dyed hair, hers down to her hips, his reaching up impossibly, immovably. She wore an overcoat, he looked like he had four jumpers one one over the top of the next like Russian dolls. They clung onto each other tightly around the waist, passing a bottle of cider between them.

He took a great pendulum swing at a large pebble on the promenade with his right Doctor Martens boot, catching it full, pinging it into the wing mirror of a small car parked at the side of the road.

They laughed and he cheered, and he punched the air like Pelé did in the arms of Jairzinho in 1970, he took a long swig of cider in celebration.

“They’ll blame me for that you know” said Pelé.

“I’ll tell them you didn’t do it,” said the kid.

A helicopter was hovering over the boat, the sun was starting to go down behind the silhouettes of the giraffes, or of the priests, chewing or praying their listless hours quietly away.

“You want me to sign your book kid?” asked Pelé, but neither of them had a pen and he didn’t seem that bothered anyway. So instead he tried to think of a story he could tell. It’s what he was supposed to do, after all. Something magical, inspiring. But he couldn’t, and he’d been trying long enough.

But it mattered little. There was no better story he could ever come up with than the one on the front cover of that book anyway.


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