MOST OF THE time, I know I’m human. There’s a buttoned flap to fuss with when it’s time to eat, and another for toilet. Every enhancement comes at a price.
It’s not good teamwork to complain, not when things are going so well. Seven games in and the men are winning more often than not. And our girls – females – women – are top of the table. Boss tells me the crowds are down a little on last year, but that’s hard to notice at game time, as I’m cantering along the boundary, sidestepping photographers and guards, rearing and paddling my forelegs.
Stampede! the announcer booms through the PA. Fans jab their fists at the empty air and shout, ‘’raffes! ’raffes! ’raffes!’
It’s the most a creature can feel. Later, once the players have jogged down the tunnel and the punters have filtered out, I will watch the cleaning crew shove cups into plastic bags as they move through the bays. I’ll mooch, and scrape my hoof-hands against the mottled fur covering my belly, and wait for the massive towers set at each corner of the ground to surrender the sky. If I close my eyes for a minute or two, the afterimages of those terrible bulbs will fade and a subtler gradient will reveal itself. Before I settle, before I can even think of turning in for the night, I will trace slow laps around the perimeter. To make sure everything is safe.
IT’S EVENING ON a not-weekend and the light is on in Boss’ office, so I hover in the doorway. Before long he clicks his tongue. I trot in and kneel next to him on the floor. In that position, my long neck protrudes above the desk, and he leans forward and rubs the snout of my suit-head affectionately. ‘There’s my big fella. There you go, mate,’ he coos as he rubs.
Long ago, Boss used to play the game. He was a hero in his day, but he has grown too wide and deep. His heavy head is soft at the edges, like the full bags of sand the ground staff carry on their carts. Boss now turns his tactical mind to spreadsheets, marketing plans, everything that can hold our organisation together. His gigantic forehead crinkles when he reads, and his short, sandy-grey hair is patchy, like the fuzz on my rump.
I don’t feel the way he strokes me like I’d feel someone touching my old-skin. But where he rests his hand, there’s a pressure that translates as a tugging sensation, and it comforts just the same.
Boss makes sure I have everything I need. Time is hazy, but it is certain that when I arrived at the stadium, I had nothing. Boss found me the suit and a silent place to sleep: a disused janitor’s closet with blankets and a radio with big buttons that I can manipulate with my hoofs. When something sticky lodges in my pelt, he takes a cloth and dishwashing detergent and rubs in gentle circles till I’m almost good as new. He makes sure the catering entrance to the north-west kiosk is left ajar so that I can help myself to water and whatever else is left there between events.
Our stadium is flanked by a settlement that is either a large town or a small city. From the top of the main stand, you can look north and see the plains fold upward. Beyond the hills, obscured by haze most days, there are mountains. This is something I remember from before. In the mountains, horses roam free.
‘It’ll be a hard run home,’ Boss says to me, still stroking, looking up and past my head to the framed jerseys hanging on the wall. ‘For the competition. For us.’
I snort and wriggle, and he says, ‘Don’t worry. We’re a team. We look after each other.’
Solace can be found in strange places – I don’t deny it.
MY GIRAFFE BODY protects me from pretty much everything, and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy it. Children are always sneaking up and pulling my tail, and over the seasons it has frayed badly, but it doesn’t ache. Kids and men jostle me or punch my stomach, but with all the padding I am usually safe.
The next game day, twenty minutes before kick-off, I make my way to the mezzanine. The roof of the main grandstand curves disapprovingly, like an upper lip, and the storerooms underground are the lower lip or maybe the jowls, but either way that makes the mezzanine the straight line where the incisors meet. It’s where Izzy parks his baked-potato cart.
I ask for one with The Lot because I love the way the sour cream and cheese melt over the potato, and the bacon pieces cluster in the centre of the cross-cut, waiting for my long tongue to reach down and curl them up. Izzy gives me a free spud every game, as long as I eat in front of him. He says that Jerry Giraffe eating a baked potato is the highlight of his week. Today there are spectators milling, trying to find the right gap in the teeth so they can take their seats, and they suspend their conversations and watch, too. When I lick the bottom of the box clean and hold it up for inspection, they cheer.
What Izzy does makes me happy, and it seems that I make him happy too, and that means we are friends. But at kick-off my abdomen hurts, and by first drinks I have lost my easy gallop.
Even though my own performance is substandard, this is not enough to hold up the match. Half-time break is called and the field is emptied. There are meant to be bollards and tape lining the players’ race to keep the fans at a distance, but today there are no bollards. A man leans over the edge of the ramped bank of seats adjacent to the race. He grabs the collar of one of our wingers, draws him close and runs his tongue up the player’s jaw and over his ear, collecting the sweat. This is not right, our young man is just here to play football, there are no standards anymore. When I see things like this, I worry that there is no sanctuary.
AT SLEEP TIME, I shut my eyes tight before I take my head off. After so long looking through the gauze of my suit’s neck-hole, it can be jarring to see the world directly. The air settles cold on my naked forehead, so I burrow under my blanket, just like a calf’s head seeks the warm space near its mother’s loin. I feel ashamed. I might not be a player, but I am a mascot, and that means that I am a symbol of the team. Even though (I keep telling myself) I am not really a giraffe, I am the nearest there is for many days’ walk in any direction.
In the dark I can’t help but remember certain events, and tonight it’s the end-of-season party for the women’s comp two seasons ago. The girls dragged me into their huddle and spun me round. They’d reached the semis before losing to their arch rivals, and that night there was a strange, thwarted energy to the proceedings. They sung the team song and stroked the fur between my legs and emptied bottles of beer over me. For the most part I am damp-resistant, but a bit sloshed in through my face-hole and ran down my neck and back and pooled in my hoofs. Beer was all I could smell.
When the party was over, Boss handed me a roll of paper towel and I dabbed sheets against my coat until they turned soggy. That night I slept with my legs off, which I hate to do unless it can’t be helped.
SATURDAY ROLLS ROUND like it always does. Only this time, Izzy can’t give me one with The Lot. Because of shortages, he says, sour cream and bacon have become hard to get. As a substitute, he does me a Mexican (no guacamole, also due to shortages), and he looks upset even though he hasn’t done anything wrong.
A couple of fans stroll by and sneak glances, but they don’t loiter. I finish up the potato, and even though I don’t like it as much as The Lot, I hold up the empty box and whicker my approval.
A prayer is an appeal to a higher power, and that being the case, I’ve spent almost my whole life in prayer. As a boy in various institutions. As a valueless man. Here, I don’t need to ask for anything. I labour, and I get what I get, and it’s plenty.
‘It’s not a good time to be alone,’ Izzy says.
SOMETHING IS HAPPENING in the town. I have shucked my outer skin and stolen away from the stadium in the middle of the night, dressed in team apparel borrowed from the merchandising stand. I’ve also taken some notes from the petty cash box in the finance office (they keep the key in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet) and I wonder if anyone will notice, but they never have before.
I do this once a season. It is mostly alarming and not enjoyable at all, but it helps to remind me what I was. Boss doesn’t know, and I’m not sure how he’d feel about it, but anyway there is no regulation that would prevent me from coming and going as I please.
Once I would have understood fully, but now I can only trust what I sense. The city smells like danger, like decomposition, but I am a free man tonight, so I can’t turn back.
I head to an entertainment district that feels familiar. I believe I knew it well. A man runs up to me in front of a convenience store and tugs at my team shirt and holds his hands in front of his face, palms forward. It’s not a gesture of submission; he wants me to slap them as a demonstration of our shared love of the team. I turn a corner, but the streetlights are out and groups of young people are sat on the pavement, so I feel funny about going any further in that direction. Instead, I spot a bar across the street and walk as briskly towards it as my two legs will carry me. Inside, I point to a fridge, at a bottle of pre-mixed rum and coke, fumblingly passing over too many plastic notes. The air in here is foul with smoke and the room is small and raucous, and the sugar in the drink quickly makes me agitated. This is what being human is like in a town, and long ago I might have enjoyed it, but now I believe I have had enough and I leave through the front door and run home before someone tries to fight me.
TWO GAMES LATER, there aren’t enough patrons to fill the inner bowl of seats ringing the park. The steps to both grandstands are gated and locked, which makes me angry because I like to sit up high in the evenings and watch the sun drop onto the land like an egg yolk on a plate of rice.
It’s harder to work when the crowd is subdued. I pump my fists and run and do a flying kick in the air, but inside the humid atmosphere of my head, all I can hear is my own breathing.
The competitors must feel it too. Returning to the change rooms at half-time, they move in a tight pack, taking care not to stray too close to the walls of the race. A group of the older players are being rested, which isn’t too strange at this point in the regular competition, but they haven’t even come to the game. I keep my ears open, but I don’t hear anything about injuries. Mostly the chatter from the sidelines is about banks and a withdrawal freeze that’s making people worried about their savings. I wonder if I should be worried, too. Boss says he’s invested my salary (after living expenses and taxes) in a term deposit.
Our boys lose to a side they would normally dismantle. Afterwards, Boss takes to the field and, speaking through a microphone gripped in his big fist, thanks the fans for their loyalty in these difficult times. ‘I truly believe that sport can help us heal the divisions we face each day, outside this place. Go well, be safe, and we hope to see you again in two weeks, when our beloved ’raffes take on the Lobsters. All going to plan, kick-off will be at four.’
IN THE OFF-SEASONS, I am called on less frequently. Boss sometimes loads me into the back of his SUV and we roll across to a private residence where a child is having a birthday party. I prance and pose for photos. There have been occasional fundraising dinners and promotional events where I am expected to wave as the guests arrive and then remove myself as the entrées are served. After Christmas there is usually a junior coaching clinic. And the stadium is used for cricket in the summer. I don’t like cricketers at all, but I stay out of their way and they usually stay out of mine.
In the hills, wild horses eat grass, fruits, the leaves of small bushes, insects, kitchen scraps. They go wherever they want and if there’s anything they don’t like, they trample it until it’s crushed in the dirt.
BOSS HAS SUMMONED me to his office. It’s been weeks since we’ve spoken outside of game times. The big screen, mounted on the wall opposite his desk, shows horses being led around a yard. Their coats are so lustrous that they seem to shimmer as their muscles shift. He asks me if I recognise any cousins. Says there’s a big race about to start. He’s moving restlessly, and there are plenty of used bottles lined up by the wall. As I walk in, papers stacked high on his desk slide to the floor, like those clifftop houses they showed on the news, but Boss doesn’t care.
The horses are led into slots behind a barrier and I see them toss their heads. And then the gates open and they bolt, and my breath gets stuck in my chest as I comprehend their power and speed. The thumping sound as their hoofs strike the turf presses on something under my suit, under the old-skin.
But then, one of those horses breaks down at the end of the first turn. It’s in the corner of the frame, and the camera pans and it’s lost from view. My mind replays the moment where the fetlock snaps.
‘Poor bastard.’ Boss lets out a chuckle, but when he turns and looks at me, his mouth tightens into a grimace. Although I am still and my face is the usual length, Boss is very perceptive. ‘Won’t suffer long,’ he says gruffly.
After the race is over, Boss gets me down on all fours and he slides himself until his bottom rests in the dip between my rib cage and my coccyx. He pretends to whip me and I bear him slowly around the room. The weight of him is scarcely tolerable, but I don’t falter. My legs, my back: it turns out they are strong.
I want to say, Thanks for everything you’ve done, and I also very much wish he would hop off. But I’m not Mister Ed, I’m just a giraffe, so I say nothing.
ANOTHER SATURDAY MORNING, but I’m not seeing the crews who usually arrive to get things ready. With an hour to go until kick-off, the front gates are still locked. At go time, the team captains and the referee huddle by the sidelines. It seems the visitors are three men short of a full complement, and so our boys agree to play two down, and one of our reserves is loaned to the other side so that the game can proceed.
There’s a knot of people up by the fence near the players’ benches. Two coaches, a drinks runner, a medic, the ref and a few spectators who have managed to turn out despite everything. They stand silently, looking at the empty field so that they don’t have to look at one another. Most of them wear backpacks. Some carry knives slung through belt loops. Others keep cricket bats or makeshift clubs within easy reach. These are the true fans, and I recognise most of their faces. I trot over, but Boss sees me coming and shakes his head.
I watch the game from the top of the eastern stand, which is accessible again now that the padlock on the security gate is busted. The players look small from up here. It’s quiet, and my gaze drifts past the on-field action, past the edge of the western concourse, above the ramped earth and the trees, to the centre of town. A grubby trail of smoke is rising above the business district. I can see cars unmoving on the highway, and if the roads are blocked, maybe that explains the poor turnout. Boss will be disappointed with ticket sales. The game is decided by a penalty.
I MISS IZZY most of all. He was my good friend. Boss looked out for me, but I’ve decided he was never my friend. If he had been, he wouldn’t have left without a goodbye.
It’s been days and days since the last game. How many, exactly? I couldn’t tell you. I am an even-toed ungulate. We can’t count past eight, and it’s been more days than that.
For a while, the streets around the stadium were loud, but now they are not. There has been no football, and no talk of football. The power has gone out, and I’m glad. There is no light at all in the service tunnels, and no one except me knows the way to my sleeping closet.
At first I ate too much from the canteen, before I realised that stocks were low. Now I need to ration chip packets and stiff bread rolls. There are plenty of soft drinks left, so I won’t starve anytime soon.
There has never been so much time and space in which to canter. I try to shout, but it seems I have lost my voice, and the best I can manage is a kind of rusty honk.
THE MACHINE INSIDE that works the limbs is growing weak. But that’s not what matters. A breeze plays over my fur. Just because I can’t feel the wind doesn’t mean it’s not there. It means I’m more than I was.
I’ve been learning to graze on the turf of the main playing surface. It is special ground, and in normal times this behaviour would be wrong. But no one has been here to water it for a long time, and weeds are sprouting at the southern end. If I can learn to live off what the ground provides, then it will tether me to this place now that Boss, the players, Izzy – everyone’s gone. But it isn’t easy: if I take more than a few mouthfuls at a time, my old stomach gets cross, and yellow-green puke splashes the concrete beneath the visitors’ benches where I sit with my neck between my knees.
NOW THAT I am alone, I am remembering facts and key moments. I know I have been a human, and it’s not that I want anything different. But what’s happening is happening. It seems like many are struggling in these difficult times.
When I was at St Christopher’s, after I was kicked off the Alternative Accommodation Scheme, I got treated pretty much as I deserved. I sold myself to Boss for a pouch of Eternal Red and the promise of a quiet place to sleep. Later, he explained what I would have to become.
People are cruel and weak. That is two ways of saying the same thing. Giraffes, horses, zebras – all herbivorous mammals of the plains and hills – we are more resilient. I have trained my body to ruminate on fibres. What I eat still comes back up, but I feel that I am taking in ample nutrients to sustain my activities.
Not too long ago, I had a team. I represented them. The team meant everything. I gave it everything, and I believed it was everything. But when times got hard, the team didn’t look after me, and in fact there was no team. No one is coming to tend me. I have had many, many, many days alone, but it’s only now that the thoughts join up in a simple line.
This isn’t my home anymore.
And: I know where it must be.
I climb the perimeter fence. This is not easy, not what I was built for, but now that I have a plan I am determined.
I trot down a ruined street, aimed north to the mountains, and my tongue knocks like a wet heart against the roof of its enclosure. Kah-klok, kah-klok, kah-klok, kah-klok, kah-klok.