disclaimer: the content contained herein is fully and completely fictional.
July in Madrid is, as expected, intolerable; summer in Liverpool is a balmy nineteen – maybe twenty – degrees, and as Stevie sweats it out in the sun (his T-shirt sticking uncomfortably to his chest and his back) he wonders if it’s nearly hitting the forties out here. Somewhere a paparazzo is probably lying in wait, and tomorrow several photographs of him “soaking up the sun in Spain” will probably be splashed across the sordid pages of the local papers, and the rumours will get worse, but things like these have never given Stevie any cause for concern – least of all because he has yet to make up his mind – which, of course, means that somewhere in the midst of all those rumours, there is a grain of truth, if you go looking for it. It is all really rather – what was that word again? – fatalistic.
At least Alex seems to be enjoying herself, he thinks, watching her sip her cosmopolitan. There is nothing to suggest that she would be against the idea of moving to Spain, for four or five years, perhaps, until Stevie finally grows old and weathered enough to retire from football, and the children aren’t a problem. There’s always the summer window, they could always return to England for a month or two, and a change of environment isn’t always bad, Stevie thinks to himself, trying, every moment of the day, to weigh the pros and cons. The thing is, it is complicated enough to think about moving to Spain, and when there’re other clubs to consider the entire situation is a right mess. Stevie decides, shielding his eyes, that if there were going to be a decision breaker, having the right friends in Spain would probably be a huge factor.
Which, if you think about it carefully, is probably downright ridiculous, when you’re talking about football.
The rumours begin in January. Xabi reads about them in the papers like an insufferable doctrine, and week by week the same reasons repeat themselves – he’s getting too old, he’s never going to win any more trophies with Liverpool (Istanbul was, indeed, in that sense, a miracle), the club should make a quick buck out of those which so desperately want him (for all the wrong reasons, and foolishly so). They could never have run out of reasons. He could – should – play in Italy. In Spain. He would never go to Chelsea. Anywhere but England. He could have achieved so much – by now.
“You’d like it if he was here, wouldn’t you?” Nagore sometimes likes to tease him about it, looking over his shoulder at breakfast, at the article he’s reading, and he always replies, “Wouldn’t I.” Nagore will then leave the room, but before she leaves she always kisses his forehead, like a subtle reminder. Xabi puts down the paper, drives to work.
They never talk about it during training. People joke about it sometimes, though; the team definitely needs at least two, three more players because their midfield is just so lacking. “We’re really not buying any players for now,” Íker has to explain carefully, “Inasmuch as I’ve heard.” Which is a comforting thought, but sometimes Xabi thinks, what if? He thinks, The decision really is up to him. He thinks, Yes, I would love for Steven to come to Real, Spain would love him, it would be amazing to have him in the midfield with me again, and we would be indestructible, the two of us, just like back in the day. Alonso and Gerrard. Gerrard and Alonso.
In a surreal turn of events Stevie finds himself hidden away in Xabi’s dining room as he watches Nagore prepare tapas for dinner in the kitchen. It would be great, Xabi had said in a message just two nights ago, to have you over for dinner. With Alex, and the kids. We haven’t met in a while. Spanish food isn’t really his thing, but he doesn’t say anything.
“How long will you be staying?” Xabi asks, laying the table.
“Just for a few days,” Stevie tells him. “We thought we wanted to take a break.”
They talk about lots of things. They talk about Stevie captaining England (“Don’t think I actually did a right job at all”), about television and how Stevie can never find the time to watch television anymore, about parenthood, about the children. Xabi and Nagore love children, even if they don’t look it; Xabi is not sure if he wants Jontxu to be a footballer. “He’ll study,” Stevie says, “economics?” They have a good laugh about it; they have a good laugh about everything they talk about, and something feels right like it hasn’t in a long time. Maybe, Stevie thinks, for about a year now. Pretty much nothing has really felt right for a year now.
The atmosphere at Old Trafford is electric. It’s also hostile – and it remains that way for the full ninety minutes or so – some things just never change. Stevie tries not to clam up when the whistle goes off. He’s not sure what he’s expecting anymore.
“I’m staying,” he tells Rafa resolutely off the pitch later, staring up at the scoreboard amidst the players walking back into the tunnel, “even if you’re going somewhere else.” The players passing them by give them the longest gazes of curiosity humanly possible, and Rafa looks warningly at them, making sure they’re way out of earshot before he continues his conversation with Stevie.
“I never suggested,” Rafa says, “that you should leave.”
“I was just wondering if the thought ever crossed your mind,” Stevie says. He concentrates on adjusting the drawstrings on his shorts and avoids looking Rafa in the eye until Rafa walks away, exasperated, until Stevie himself realises that what he’s just done borders on juvenile, perhaps even stupid. But that is what the year has been so far – exceedingly stupid.
Two months later Liverpool finish seventh. The season is over, and Stevie goes nowhere.
Stevie has obviously thought about Spain. All throughout dinner Xabi keeps his silence on the subject – talks about the World Cup – does not talk about clubs, does not talk about transfers, tries not to talk about life at Real. He pays an overwhelming amount of attention to Jontxu’s usage of cutlery and is glad when Alex picks up on it and starts asking about the children. Her Scouse accent is so thick; he can barely understand what she’s saying. It’s been a while since he’s heard someone speak the dialect.
The question comes sooner rather than later, anyway. “You glad you came back to Spain?” Stevie asks. “It seems like a great place to be.” He gives Xabi an expectant stare.
Xabi tries to be subtle about it. “It’s closer to home,” he explains. “But I enjoyed Liverpool. A lot.”
“You ever wonder about Mourinho nowadays, though?” Stevie continues, and Xabi tells him (lies), “Not really. We’ll see when the time comes.”
(A few months later Xabi Alonso would remember, out of the blue, this one particular evening; he’ll remember it in his sleep – brushing his teeth – he’ll remember it doing the most mundane tasks, his favourite things, because while memory may fade, guilt never forgives, and when he remembers he will not know what he was more ashamed of – for wanting the impossible in the first place, or for giving up.)
Two perennial underachievers meet in the final of the World Cup. England struggles their way there, beating the Dutch 2 – 1 in an extraordinarily close call; Spain once again defeats a bitter Germany in their efforts to make it to Johannesburg. Xabi begins the match on the bench; he is seated next to an extremely antsy Cesc Fàbregas. The atmosphere is even crazier than it was at the Euros. On the pitch – right in front of him – Fernando and David, looking even more sour than usual, and some distance away – there is Stevie. Xabi can’t recall the last time he’s seen Stevie in the flesh; it takes him a bit of thinking. He looks well.
This is what happens: Xabi is brought on at half-time for David Silva, whom the medics suspect has pulled his calf during a particularly difficult challenge near the end of the first half. As he gets onto the field Xabi catches Stevie’s eye – Stevie kind of stares at him a bit, then gives him an awkward half-smile before marching off into place. Next to him there’s Lampard (perturbed, or annoyed?), hands on his hips. Xabi receives a slap on the back from Iniesta as he takes his position; from there the goal looks like it’s a million miles away. He reminds himself of what he’s there to do.
When the final whistle goes it is Spain that has triumphed. Xabi forgets, once again, how to be young; he can hardly breathe as he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a ten-man group hug; someone is laughing into his shirt, his unrecognisable voice filtered through the stadium and its roars. Everything is a blur.
The next thing he knows, Stevie is congratulating him, hand outstretched, and Xabi takes it, unable to think of anything to say. “Amazing game,” Stevie tells him, and all Xabi is able to articulate is “Yeah,” shrugging his shoulders. Stevie has aged since he left Anfield; the wrinkles on his forehead, Xabi thinks, are more prominent than ever. There is an air of – Xabi can’t quite place his finger on it –
“I’ll see you around,” Stevie says, looking past Xabi’s shoulder at the growing contingent of celebrating Spanish players. There is so much Xabi would like to tell him (ask him) but for once he thinks it’s not the right occasion, so he says “Okay,” and lets go of Stevie’s hand. After a few seconds, however, he calls out, “Visit us,” surprising himself, and Stevie, looking back, gives him a half-hearted wave; for a moment the din of the vuvuzelas is almost bearable.
After dinner Stevie wanders around the living room with the children while Alex helps with the cleaning up. “Don’t make a racket,” he tells the kids. He restricts himself to its boundaries, its four walls; nothing is quite as restrictive as being a guest in the house of a friend you’ve forgotten how to really converse with. There were text messages, sure. The occasional phone call. Things like how are you. I’m sorry about that, good luck. Good night.
The evening paper lies on the table. Stevie meanders around its pages; it’s all in Spanish and all he can understand are a couple of sentences. On page thirty-three (the sports section) – oh, he’s in the papers again, surely he’d recognise his own name when he saw it – a picture of Mourinho. He’s sure he can guess what the article’s contents are about. Someone somewhere is talking about him. He remembers he said he’d talk about his future as soon as the World Cup was over, but now that the Cup is over, he hasn’t been doing any talking.
“Stevie,” Xabi says. Stevie flips the paper over as nonchalantly as he can, but he’s sure Xabi had seen what he was reading.
“Coffee?” Xabi asks.
“Sure,” Stevie says. “Thanks.” And then, “You want to go for a couple of beers afterwards?” he suggests before he even knows it. “I mean, we don’t have to if you don’t want to –”
“I’d love to,” Xabi tells him, getting the coffee pot.
“I’m going to Spain,” Stevie tells Carra over the phone one morning, and Carra can hardly contain his dismay.
“What for,” Carra says, and Stevie can almost hear the scowl on the other end of the conversation, pictures Carra’s forehead wrinkled with his frown, that same expression that he always wears on the pitch when nothing is going their way.
He pauses and fidgets with something within his reach – anything – his car keys, the pages of an old, worn calendar – before replying, “For sightseeing.” It’s true; he’s not lying.
“I’m not lying,” he repeats to Carra, just to make sure.
Somebody recognises them and pesters them for autographs, and after signing about five napkins or so (“Sign,” the man yells at Stevie, “sign,” grinning and miming writing with a pen) they retreat to a quieter spot. The bartender brings them a couple of beers as ordered.
There is a slight lull for a while before Xabi can think of something to talk about. He asks about Carra, about everyone at Liverpool, even though he’s still in contact with a few of them. The lack of actual physical contact and face-to-face interaction means a lot. They order another round by the time Stevie finishes talking about them, and after dinner and now this Xabi thinks he’s run out of topics to explore. Maybe he doesn’t know Stevie that well after all. Maybe they don’t have as much in common as he thought. He drinks, and waits.
Stevie pauses and frowns at his beer for a couple of seconds. Then he asks, “What do you miss about England?”
“I don’t know,” Xabi replies without thinking. “What about you? What do you like about Spain?”
They arrive at the airport in the evening and make for the hotel right away. The winds are pleasantly warm – probably because it’s late – and the cabbie is awfully friendly. He loads their luggage into the boot of the taxi and asks Stevie where he and his family are from in broken, heavily accented English; suggests tourist attractions and nightspots and gushes about the city centre. His daughter is in university; she taught her whole family how to speak bits of the language.
The view from the suite is beautiful. Stevie seats himself in the couch, facing the landscape.
Come visit us in Spain, Xabi had said. Did he really? Stevie stares blankly at his cell phone as the kids run around the room, screaming. “Hello,” he begins to type, and doesn’t know how to continue.
“What should we have for dinner?” he asks Alex.
Xabi has to call Alex (using Stevie’s cell phone, of course) and ask for the name of the hotel. “Thanks a lot, dear,” she says, unexpectedly friendly, and Xabi tells her, “You’re welcome. Maybe you should wait for him in the lobby.”
The streets are bare as Xabi waits for a taxi to show up. He tucks Stevie’s phone into the pocket of his jacket and desperately hopes that Stevie doesn’t throw up all over the bench; he can barely walk or talk without tripping over his own feet or his own tongue. Xabi doesn’t know how it happened, but when Stevie got to his fourth and started talking about the Beatles something was definitely going wrong.
“Xabi,” Stevie begins, clutching onto the sleeve of Xabi’s jacket. “Wait. Listen –”
“You’re drunk, Stevie,” Xabi mutters.
“Xabi,” Stevie tries again, “I’ve been thinking – my agent’s been talking about it, too – Spain would be good. I’ve been thinking about a change of environment. Don’t you think –”
A taxi arrives in sight, and Xabi flags it down.
“Stevie,” Xabi says, holding onto Stevie’s shoulder, “Stevie. You need to go.”
(You asked me what I missed about England.
What do I miss about England?
I miss England. I miss the horrid weather, how the food there is never done right, people never drink coffee, never smile – or rarely – only when there is occasion to. The English are a people of great contrast, and you are a great example. A prime example. You were the inhabitant of a scorned planet when I first met you, all your unfortunate fortunes written across the planes of your face, the contours of your feet. The first time I saw you score, the world came alive with you – or at least, the Red half of it did. But the way I saw it – the way that sonic crowd moved – there was no discernable difference. You became a different person; you forgot who you were, you forgot that you were a mere mortal, and the stadium forgot that along with you. And from that instant on I progressed from being a curious onlooker of that foreign, alien world. I wanted in. You were one of the last remaining phenomena.
Afterwards I gave England a piece of my heart, and there it was, in Liverpool, in Anfield, along the corners of the streets, the stones in the walls, its rivers, its cliffs, its people. In England there is a piece of Xabi Alonso. Now that I am no longer there it is as if some part of me is missing, as if I had forgotten to bring something along with me back home. Something important, like a heart or a lung or a disc in my spine. But I can’t quite remember what it is, and the memory aches. I miss England. I miss you.
I asked you: what do you like about Spain? The question I should have asked is: what do you love about Spain?)
Stevie wakes up on a Monday morning, unsure of his summer getaway, unsure what of what he’s doing in Spain; he can hear Alex packing up in the living room of the suite – “The shoes here, Lilly,” – blindly he stumbles his way to the bathroom and washes up. He can barely look himself in the mirror, he must have said something exceptionally stupid last night – how did he even get back to the hotel, anyway? – the sound of the water rushing from the faucet is messing with his head; it’s playing games with his memory. He turns it off.
“I forgot something,” he tells Alex when she asks him where he’s going. (“Just remember the check-out’s at three,” she calls after him.) He mentally rehearses his apology in the taxi, and the driver frowns at him, unable to remember where he’s seen that face.
Stevie tells the driver to keep the change when he gets to Xabi’s apartment. He stands at the door and shuttles back and forth for a bit. He can’t quite remember what he wanted to say. He’s rescued when Nagore notices him and tells Xabi to answer the door, even when Stevie’s done nothing to notify them of his arrival.
“Hello,” Xabi says.
“I wanted to thank you for last night,” Stevie blurts out. “I have no idea what happened; I figured you must have sent me back.”
“There’s no need.”
Stevie fidgets for a bit before asking, “I didn’t say anything stupid last night, did I?” He’s fairly certain he did.
Xabi smiles and looks at his wristwatch, presumably checking for the time. “The pre-season is starting soon,” he says.
“It is,” Stevie replies.
“You should go home,” Xabi says, his words right between the ticks of a second hand. Right between the distance between them.
this is obviously an AU, because the plot was conceived in january and ... only written now, and several situations in this fic obviously conflict with the reality of what has happened. also because i had the guts to write about an england/spain final. A GIRL CAN DREAM, OKAY.
thanks for reading! i hope you enjoyed it, any and all feedback is welcome.