In all honesty I never liked tennis. In fact there was probably a time in my life where I actively disliked it. And so, it was by complete chance that I ended up a part of the touring party for the 37th world ranked male player. At the time I was a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker living of a past glory. I had made almost solely a film on a volunteer medical team in Iraq that was defined as ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘beautifully honest’. Personally I hated the whole thing. It involved a lot of saving, a lot of panic and too much footage. Footage that I managed to edit down to just under 90 minutes and blag into a local film festival. For some reason, it won the top prize and thus obtained a full release. The rest as they say is history, and the following weeks involved a lot of gushing about a process that utterly shattered me. A process that had been done before my 25th birthday, and something that has eclipsed my life ever since.
After this came about six years of attempting to gain access to the White House, which as it turns out is extremely difficult for a young one hit wonder from the North of England. The premise was to give view from the outside in, in a sort of fish out of water kind of way. My horrid social anxiety let me down for the most part and I spent weeks in a Washington D.C hotel room watching films. The day I decided to leave was the day I met Jackson Bird. We met in the lobby of the hotel room where he hit me square in the face with his tennis racket. I can still feel the pain in my forehead now as I think back, and even after everything that has happened – I’m not a hundred percent sure he didn’t do it on purpose. He was doing the tennis bobbing you see, as though he was waiting for his opponent to serve the ball. On his practice back swing the racket ‘slipped’ out of his hands and spun wildly into my face as I emerged out of the elevator. At first it knocked me back, like a head rush, and then I fell forwards knocking myself out cold.
I woke some hours later to Bird’s gleaming face. He was handsome in an athlete sort of way, and had blonde streaks in his hair. At this time his hair was quite messy but for games he often had it spiked with a thick gel. The best way to describe him would be to say that he would have certainly been bullied at a British school in the eighties. A little too flamboyant. He was wearing his tennis gear: white on white on white – including a sweatband around his head and his wrists. I would later find out that he wore his full gear constantly whilst he was on tour, in an attempt to always ‘stay in the zone’. It was like an actor staying in character for the duration of the filming.
“Ooh, I think he’s awake Suze,” he said as I sat up.
I rubbed my eyes.
“Erm, where am I?” I mumbled now touching my forehead, and I could feel some swelling.
“Penthouse bro, Jackson Bird, Tennis pro,” he put out his hand and I shook it timidly.
“Fergus Bell, erm, film amateur”.
“Film ay? Huh, well I’m afraid caught you on my backswing, see me and Jof are working on this new angle and I think I got a bit carried away, it was gorgeous swing though, wasn’t it Suze?”
“Beautiful darling,” said a new voice from the corner of the room; a female voice.
There were a few moments of silence as I leaned over to look at the alarm clock next to me.
“Shit,” I exclaimed realising I had missed my flight.
“A curser, and it’s true what they say about Englishmen’s teeth,” Bird said.
My teeth were something I had never been proud of, though I didn’t think they were recognisably bad. It was a Jackson Bird trait however, to point something out that others would dismiss. Typical American I thought – brash and rude. Yet my first memory of him past that was fascination. He seemed to have a glow around those blonde streaks in his hair and his voice silenced the room. His body towered over mine as he sat at the end of the bed and his body moved gracefully when he changed position. I was totally mesmerised by his presence.
“Sorry, I’ve missed my flight home, to England,” I said, now almost out of the bed.
“Oh no way, I guess that explains the bags, what are we going to do? If only there was a really simple solution already put into place,” replied Bird with a wide grin.
“What, what do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s Wimbledon in five days man! Five days! And me and the gang are flying to London, tonight,” and with this he slapped me firmly on the back.
I met the rest of the ‘gang’ on the plane. There was the female voice, Suzie Morris, who was effectively Bird’s personal assistant. She handled everything for him – from tying his shoelaces to putting his toothpaste on his brush. Her glasses were her outstanding feature; being triangle shaped with thick lenses. I was certain that without her around Bird would go absolutely mad. Next was Jackson’s father: Vernon. He served as his life coach and mentor, being a psychiatrist by trade. Oddly he looked not one thing like his son, though age had clearly got to him. Gravity had led his face to droop to an incredible level, and he had matching hair & beard – grey and untidy. After this was Bird’s ‘aesthetic team’, a host of make-up and hair people. It would become more and more obvious how important this part of the job was to Bird. ‘Image is identity, and identity is a career’ is what he always said. I think it highlighted his self awareness of how average his tennis was. He had some success yes, finishing in the top 10 of the French Open the year before, but had appeared on the scene out of nowhere. Within two years of playing on the circuit he had become one of the most famous American names in tennis. I had never heard of him, which wasn’t a surprise. The final member of the ‘gang’ that I was introduced to was Jofra Archer, his coach. Archer was apparently infamous in the tennis game, a West Indian born man on the island of Antigua; he had been a top level coach for decades. Legendary, he had been the back stage master to many grand slam wins and Bird was his first employer who he was public with. He was as massive as Bird, and his black skin shined in the light. The remnants of an afro sat on his head and a loud gold chain bounced on his neck as he walked. He still very much had a Caribbean accent, and you could almost see the sound waves in the air as he talked.
“Who are you?” was the first thing Archer said to me.
“Erm, I’m Fergus, Fergus Bell, I’m, well, Mr Bird, he hit me with his…” I replied struggling for words.
“Another distraction,” interrupted Archer.
“Oh Jof, leave him alone, would ya? Jackie likes him,” Suzie said patting me on the shoulder.
I had stood up to speak to Archer and this particular part of the plane was becoming quite crowded.
“Jackie does like him, he likes his hips and his unshaven-ness,” said Bird popping his head up.
I was unsure as to why he was speaking in the third person, but was flattered by his comments seen as I had put a considerable amount of weight on during my time in the US.
“Come and sit over here bro,” Bird continued.
I obliged and made my way down the narrow plane. It was a private jet, but more sensible than it was glamorous. There were no mini-fridges or bottles of champagnes lying around and the seating arrangement was in tight order. It looked like a converted military plane, though my only experience with one was in Iraq, where I clutched to the walls for the entire journey. I sat down facing the tennis pro.
“It might be a bit chilly in London for just those shorts mate,” I said.
“Ha, I had these on walking the streets of Paris in winter, so no worries bro,” Bird replied.
“Suzie told me why you never change, makes sense I guess”.
“It does doesn’t it, I’ve been trying to explain this to Jof, but he’s an old fashioned soul”.
“He seems like a wise man”.
“He is, as are you! I did a google and…”
“Wait, you did a google?”
“Yes bro, I googled you! Looked you up, bit of research, seeing what you’re about, I gotta say I’m quite impressed.”
“Oh, thanks, I don’t think you will have found much.”
“There’s plenty! The Iraq thing, the interview where you throw water on yourself”.
The water thing wasn’t my finest moment.
“Yeah I was never very good at those sorts of things,” I said getting rather embarrassed.
“The Iraq film though, ninety seven percent on Rotten Tomatoes, that’s not bad man, you ever thought about making a sports doc?” he asked smirking.
“I’ve not been thinking about making any sort of film at the minute, it hasn’t gone awfully well in your homeland”.
“Awfully well, I love it! It happens to the best of us my friend and I’ve got just the thing to get you back on track”.
“Really, what’s that?”
“A documentary on me!”
“On you? Are you joking?”
“No man, picture it: the story of a Wimbledon Odyssey, up and coming American talent, a heartthrob American hero, the challenges, the obstacles I must face to be triumphant on the great lawn,” he was now standing up with his arms spread.
“I’m honoured, really, but I don’t know a thing about tennis,” I was still firmly sat down.
“This isn’t going to be about tennis bro, this is going to be about me”.
For the rest of the flight I was doing my own ‘googling’; on Bird and on tennis. I hadn’t actually agreed to the golden haired sportsman’s proposal, but I now had at least some direction in life. It was a direction I needed, having detested my time in America. As soon as I arrived in DC I lost all faith in the world. All my doubts and fears about Capitol Hill arrogance came to fruition. I found myself in an episode of Veep, with absolutely no courage to speak to anyone. So as bizarre as Bird appeared to me, and as strange the circumstances, I was at peace with my current situation. The woes of the last six years were slowly fading away.
It turns out, unbelievably, that it’s very difficult to learn everything about tennis through Wikipedia in just a few hours. Thankfully I managed to pick up lots of things about Bird. He was born in West Texas, though only his father showed signs of a southern accent. Bird’s accent must have disappeared when he moved to California to live with his mother. This is when he began playing tennis, and there was a small list of his school achievements; most notably a win in the ‘Under 18’s California Schools Competition’. I traced his life through the internet, but it wasn’t until his early 20’s that it began to get interesting. The tennis records and images with trophies disappeared, to be replaced by an alarming amount of topless photo-shoots. It appeared that for a period of his life Bird had been a fitness model. Now, at that time, my fitness level was below average to say the least and I was took aghast by Bird’s physique. I peered from the screen to glare at his biceps across the plane. His polo was very tight on his arms and I wondered if he still looked the same as he did in his modelling days. Racing through my mind were images of him topless and I worried my face was going red. This was the only time in my life where I felt myself falling in love with another man. I’m straight, unsuccessfully straight, but definitely so. There has been no ‘experimenting’ in my life, and not once have I been sexually attracted to a man. Yet, there was something about Jackson Bird, something majestic. He was like a perfectly groomed breeding dog, with an eccentric glowing edge. I had no desire to be romantically involved with him – I wanted to be him. I wanted his body and attitude, his jaw-line and teeth. Most of all I wanted him to like me and I wanted him to want me to be there. It was safe to say the modelling pictures sealed my decision to become a part of his touring party.
I somehow managed to suppress my new emotions to tell Bird I would become his documentarian, which he greeted with a massive hug that of course only elevated my heart rate. We then spoke until we landed, in an attempt to fill in the gaps left by the internet. He talked about how he was desperate to leave his father in Texas as a child, and how much his childhood improved when he moved to live with his mother when he was 10. She pushed him into tennis because her step-father played, and it was his driving force as a teenager. Then, when his mother died of breast cancer he gave the sport up, aged 20. He moved to Hollywood and was quickly picked up by a modelling agency that spotted him for his ‘truthful’ but ‘Adonis’ look. It wasn’t until his father came back into his life at 25 that he started playing tennis again. Apparently his father Vernon put him through a ‘treatment’, which enlightened him to a real purpose. Two years later, he was the number 37 in the world, channelling his mother and ‘true consciousness’ with every shot. His dictation to me was totally captivating, telling his journey like an experienced after dinner speaker. He was for a moment Daniel Day-Lewis spouting a monologue or Louis C.K crafting a joke. Every word was spoken with such clarity, and every note touched on with positivity. Even the story of his mother’s death, and his disenfranchised early 20’s were told with humour and happiness. I was lost in his endless blue eyes and compelled by each subtle movement of his lips. The captain interrupted us, and we were finally in England.
When we arrived at the hotel I got some things out of the way. I called my mother to tell her I was staying in London to make a film about Wimbledon for the BBC (I didn’t want to throw in the coincidences of the last day, she was getting old and worrying was a routine for her). She was disappointed I wasn’t coming home just yet, and I got a long rant about how my sister won’t visit enough either. However there was no time for any melancholy about that, as Suzie walked through the door without knocking.
“Right, you have a camera yes?” she instantly said.
“Hmm?” I said, a bit baffled.
“For the documentary?”
“Oh, yes, I have my dslr but I usually just like to spend time with my erm, subject, take notes, become acquainted, that sort of thing”.
“Well there’s no time for that, we sleep till 7 then we’re up for a practice session, Jackie wants you to film as much as you can, okay?”
“Got it, where’s Jackson now, I haven’t seen him since the airport?”
“He’s sleeping, you should be sleeping, need anything I’m across the hall”.
And with that she left, with a slight slam of the door.
The training session the next morning was in the hotels built in sports hall. It was a special hotel for athletes put in for the Olympics in 2012, and for this year’s Wimbledon each top seeded foreign player got an allotted time in the facilities. Bird was first up, and Archer had pulled a few strings to get him another hour. As demanded I was recording on my small camera as soon as I entered. They were already underway, and Bird was hitting serves. After a few he would turn and spend a few seconds talking to Vernon in tight whispers. Archer was watching from the side, pacing, and what I assumed to be his helpers were collecting the balls. Suzie was nowhere to be seen, but the make-up and hair team we’re coddled up in the corner on a bench chatting. I wandered over, then quickly my anxiety took hold of me and I froze, before leaning against the wall and to point the camera at Bird. With every stroke of his arm he would grunt. It wasn’t a rough grunt, or a deep one, but more of an angelic sound. He was echoing his athleticism through his vocal cords with grace as he slowly bounced up and down. My aim at this point was just to get stock footage – something to be there as transition between the interviews. As Bird said the film would be less about tennis and more about him, which I was totally fine with. So I zoomed my camera in; to get his facial expressions rather than his technical expressions. I was soon glaring with infatuation as his face shifted. However it wasn’t long before the boredom of the sessions kicked in, and my vision fuzzed watching Bird do the same movement over and over again. I asked to leave and was granted permission.
Boredom is what I mostly felt for the following couple of days, as I found myself further and further away from Bird. There were more training sessions, where I would stand in the corner of the hall and film, saying nothing. There were dinners, where I would sit at the end of the table, saying nothing. And then there was the daytime, where Bird was off on ‘mental retreats’ with his father, where all I could do was talk to myself in my hotel room. It was like D.C all over again. Suzie simply tolerated my presence – always telling me what to do or where to stand and Jof just scolded at me. Vernon, the most mysterious of the party, hadn’t said a word to me since the plane. The only solace I found was in the make-up and hair team. I managed to learn all of their names, just about. The most interesting of them all was the three Claire’s: Claire Bennett, Claire Woakes and Claire Hope, who had all worked previously on films together. They had been a trio for some time doing the ‘look’ of actors in a range of Hollywood movies. I tried to gauge what they were going for with Bird’s image, which to me was glowing perfection. There answer was ‘American Hero’ and I couldn’t argue with that. Since his arrival in London Bird was no stranger to a bit of stars and stripes patriotism. He had boasted loudly in interviews about an American invasion, and how much London needed a bit of red and blue pride. I decided this would be the basis for the opening of the documentary. Nevertheless there was only so much I could get out of the three Claire’s and second hand interviews, so I would have to get to Bird somehow. On the plane he appeared fond of my company, so surely he wouldn’t mind if I arrived in his room unannounced in the middle of the night?
I went to him on the third night – two days away from the start of the tournament. Suzie was in the room directly across from him, so knocking on his door past 10pm was a no go. So, I needed some other way to wake him up and I had both a cunning and ridiculous plan. It was simple; I set an alarm on my phone for 10:15 titled ‘open the door’ then slid it into his room – in a hope that Suzie wouldn’t hear the bells through two doors. At the time the whole cloak and daggers was exciting, but really I should have just demanded some time alone with Bird in the day. I never had the courage for that. Luckily the alarm woke Bird and when he opened his door I dashed down the hallway from my hiding spot as quickly as I could.
“Gus, what, what are you doing?” Bird exclaimed as I pushed him in and shut the door behind him.
“Shh, Suzie will hear and I’ll get shunned back to my room,” I said guiding him into the bathroom, to get another door between us and other possible listening parties.
“You know don’t you? You’ve worked it out? Thank go…”
“Worked out what? That I’m never going to get close to you? That the only way I’ll ever finish another film is if I take risks?”
Bird sighed. He looked dishevelled. A shadow of his daytime self: his hair darker and messier, eyes bloodshot and face pale. He was wearing only boxer shorts, of course white, and when he spoke there was little brightness in his voice.
“Not exactly, listen Gus, there is something I have to confide in you, ever since we met I knew you was the answer for everything and what I’m about to tell you must stay between me and you, got it?” he said grabbing my shoulders.
“What is it?” I replied, now in sudden shock as this wasn’t how I planned this conversation would go.
“I think that Jof and Suze are conspiring against me to throw the tournament.”
Three things came to my mind after he said that. First off, I was confused? Why would they want him to throw the tournament – was this a thing in tennis? Second off, Bird was the 37th ranked player, touted to go out in the second round; it would be a miracle if he won anyway. And thirdly, how does he know this? So I asked why. What came next was a vast list of reasons that were as preposterous and as full of paranoia as each other. It ranged from Jof running drills that purposely worked to his first opponent’s hands to Suze putting too much sugar in his morning coffee. He had accusations of them coercing with Russian players and secret meetings where they burned the American flag. I didn’t believe a word of it; this was not the man I was in awe of in the sunlight. He was acting like a neurotic Woody Allen character – all arms and everything. When he stopped to breathe, I spoke.
“Do you have any proof of this? I mean real evidence,” I asked, he was now sat in the bath and me on the toilet.
“I don’t need proof, when I can sense it; it’s been the same for months,” he replied.
“But what of your dad? Does he know?”
“Vernon? He’s the reason I know! His treatment has allowed me to see the light, my mind is open, it’s so clear to me who the enemy is.”
Who the enemy is. I was beginning to deduce who the real enemy in his head was.
“If you’re so sure then, why do you carry on? There are other assistants and coaches in the world surely?” I was running out of things to say.
“Because an enemy must be defeated Gus. Me, you and Vern can break the back of this evil,” he said this with a closing of his eyes.
This evil. This evil? Was I dreaming? Had I dreamt the journey to Bird’s room? This was tennis; lawn and furry balls being hit by tightly screwed netting. What had Vern been whispering in his ear? Whatever it was, fear had entered my body. The night time was never kind to me and I wished to sleep to meet a new morning. I told Bird I would investigate Jofra and Suzie and see what they were up to. My actual intention was to probe at the evangelic Vernon.
The madness of the previous night thrust upon me like a hangover the following morning and I was even more baffled with my fresh brain. Bird’s theories about his companions were melodramatic, and their alleged acts not as scary as he described them. He was less of an egotistical beauty and now a madman in his eyes. I had to delve deeper into the impact Vernon was having on him, and how different Bird was from day to night. And so once again Google was my friend, as I engulfed any knowledge on Vernon that I could. His life was naturally shrouded with more ambiguity than his sons and I only really found a couple of essays written by a Vernon Bird. One was titled ‘Running out of Ideas’ and the other ‘Running out of Problems’. From their abstracts they seemed to have nothing to do with sports psychology, mind control, or tennis. However, it must have been Bird’s father as they included a little picture of him on the website. From this little research Vernon hadn’t quite tore up the psychological field, and so my best bet to find out more about him was to follow him around.
Unsurprisingly I received no messages about my absence from the morning session and I set my plan into motion that afternoon. From what I had inferred Vernon and Bird were apart for only two hours every day: 12pm – 2pm. This is when Bird had his post training meal and rubdown from Jofra, so Vernon was left to his own devices. I disguised myself the best I could, and by that I mean a baseball cap. My round belly was probably my most defining feature, but there was no hiding that. I hung around the sports hall until they finished inside, and waited for Vern to appear. He too was not the slimmest of characters and was pretty un –miss-able. Along with his beard was a capital D stomach and tree trunk legs that created a waddle from side to side as he walked. Following him, therefore, was a slow and nervy process. He headed to the centre of the city; leaving the rest of the gang at the athlete campus – giving me my first indicator that he had something else going on. Vernon walked, and I followed some distance behind constantly pulling my cap further over my eyes. He took I left, I took a left. He waited at some traffic lights, and I waited at the road before. My heart was pounding, my blood curdling in my veins, sweat misting up my eyes. More than once I questioned my sanity and more than once I slapped myself back into motion. Gratefully, it was a fairly quiet London afternoon and I got a good look of him going into his first destination. A Costa for a croissant. This massively disappointed me – it wasn’t the sort of malevolence I was expecting. After that a little more walking, then a betting shop. The croissant had been eaten in between. I leant against a lamppost as he came in and out of the building, seeing that it was a quick transaction. Whatever Vernon was betting on he had set it up previously. From there came a systematic and incriminating pattern of a bad diet and gambling as he went from coffee shop to betting shop. Croissant eating to money placing. Vernon then returned to the hotel, and I hung around a few minutes before entering myself.
My best moments of thinking come from lying on my bed, and so I retired to my room to look at some ceiling. Once more no one had realised I wasn’t around. What I had uncovered from my little trip was that Vernon had some sort of betting scandal on. The contents of the scandal could have been anything, and in hindsight it was wrong of me to jump to conclusions. Whilst lying down I got it in my head that Vernon’s whispers into Bird’s ear and his ‘treatment’ were an attempt to control him. It was Vernon weaving Bird’s athletic ability to his advantage, leading him to throw games of tennis. Bird would lose in the first round, like he said, not down to a mass conspiracy but down to his own mental state. A mental state manufactured by his own father for monetary gain. Yet what could I tell Bird? How could I explain this to a maniac? This insane turn of events was impossible to escape, and the only option I could see was to let it play out. Let Bird lose in the first round, or lose himself. It felt as though all the setbacks of my recent projects were falling down on me all at once. This hopeful coincidence of making a sports documentary was over, and I hadn’t the courage to press Vernon or study Bird. The whole thing had eclipsed me, and I laid solemnly in my hotel room watching films all over again. Then my mum rang. It was a life changing conversation.
The build up to the start of the tournament was incredibly tense. There was a sudden rush of people around the player campus with a day to go. A swarm of journalists and camera crews were scattered everywhere. The noise levels had risen and the friendliness between players was over, with competitive stares coming to the forefront. Bird seemed fairly relaxed, and had only mentioned our late night talk the once. He was asking if I had found anything on Jofra and Suzie and I told him I was working on it. Jofra and Suze themselves were not all that relaxed, with Jofra worrying about Bird’s chaotic preparation and Suzie dealing with a logistical nightmare. It was interview after interview for Bird, and the envy from other more skilled players was obvious. Bird was certainly the golden boy of the tournament with even the BBC airing a special extended interview with him. He mostly talked about his favourite white socks, and his love for his homeland. For me this chaos was a chance to keep one eye on Vernon, but also to finally enjoy the occasion. This was Wimbledon and I was in the middle of it, waiting for something catastrophic to happen to Jackson Bird.
The morning of the tournament was when it was at its most quiet. You could feel the nerves in the corridors of the hotel, and hear the accelerated heart rates if you put your ears to the walls. Bird didn’t move a muscle when I met him in the hotel lobby. He stood completely still staring off into the distance, with Vernon’s big sweaty hand on his shoulder. Jofra was not around, nor the style team, just Suzie buzzing from side to side. She was on the phone one minute then talking to Bird’s absent face the next. As she spoke on the phone she paced up and down writing notes on a little pad. Seeing me she grimaced and ushered me over.
“Okay, this is it, the big moment, the only real important moment,” she said.
“What is?” with my reply she clipped me on the back of the head.
“The start of the tournament you moron! What we’ve been working towards! Everything is set for Bird’s entrance; he’s on court one first game and it’s finally time to do something useful,” she exclaimed still grimacing.
“Wow okay Suze, where do you need me?”
“You’ve got courtside seats, and I need some camera work. You’re to capture Bird’s triumphant entrance, his walk out, and the crowd’s reaction etcetera. Now go! I need to find Jof before I lose my mind.”
Now go. I felt like going, this moron felt like going to a Greek island till old age melted him away. But no, I owed it to myself to at least stay for the first game. I wished Bird good luck, though he looked straight past me, then headed for the venue. The court at which Bird was playing was a minor one, yet it was the first game that was being televised. It was only a short walk from the hotel, but I had to get past all the crowds. There were far more American fans they I had expected, and a few of them had big signs with Bird’s face on it. My particular favourite was a sign that said: FLYING THE AMERICAN FLAG FOR THE AMERICAN EAGLE. Bird was no Eagle; he was simply a pretty Budgie. Thankfully my credentials that Suzie had given me got me past all the security with ease and before I knew it I was sat waiting for the game to begin. To kill the time I looked through the crowd but ultimately ended up gazing at the television cameras that surrounded me. I imagined them to able to get much better shots than I could, and with the court stands being so small the cameras were extremely incongruous. Suzie had certainly done a good job of hyping Bird up; getting an astronomical amount of attention on a sub-par contender.
The match was to start at 9am and at 8:45 Bird’s opponent walked out to a ripple of applause. His name was Roman Palichnikov, and he was from the Ukraine. He, like Bird, was a newcomer to the professional tennis circuit and had some menial success. The moment I saw him I knew Bird had no hope, as he was everything Bird was not. Where Bird was fair in his face, Roman was strong. His complexion was grizzled and raw, his arms massive, his legs abnormally hairy. The white outfit he was wearing looked unwashed and his hair was cropped short like he was part of the Spetnaz. If Bird was a show pony – Roman would have been a racing horse. He sat down next to elevated referees chair twiddling his racket like he was sharpening a sword on a grindstone, joining the crowd in eagerly awaiting Bird’s arrival. Anticipation grew higher and higher as it got to 8:50 with no signs of Bird, then 8:55. The crowd began to mutter speculation at each other as it reached 9am, and as the clock stroked the hour the referee dashed to the underbelly of the court. My eyes followed him in curiosity and when 5 more minutes passed without any change I wondered if this was the explosion I was expecting. Roman was the most restless, naturally, and began blurting out some eastern European language I didn’t understand. The referee returned to pull Roman from the court back with him to the underbelly. I glanced over to the commentator’s booth to see the BBC’s reaction, but just then I could see Suzie sprinting over the grass. I will never forget what she said to me.
“Jackie’s having a slight meltdown and has locked himself in the caretaker’s garage saying he needs you,” she said completely out of breath.
The panic on her face was frightening, and I got up immediately to run across the court to be the hero of the situation. It was a short run, as the caretakers garage was directly below one of the stands. Outside the door was Jofra, the referee, Roman and of course Vernon, with Suzie catching up with me behind.
“He wants you, so speak to him,” Jofra said sternly.
I approached the door slowly, like I was trying to avoid setting off a land mine.
“Jackson? Are you there?” I asked with my face centimetres from the door.
“Gus? Is that you bro?” replied a timid Jackson Bird voice.
“It’s me, are you okay mate? The match is meant to have started; we need you on th…”
“It’s happening Gus… the demons are here… I can’t walk out… it’s what they want… it’ll end me…”
“Who’s ‘they’ Jackson?”
“You know who! The conspiracers! Jof and Suze, I can see them in my mind, they are burning my mind, they mean to kill me on that court!”
Roman pushed pass me to bang aggressively on the door.
“Come on stupid American! You face me now,” he shouted.
I could now hear Bird quietly crying and so I took my judgemental eyes over to Vernon.
“This is on you,” I said, putting my index finger into his chest.
“Me, what are you talking about you fool?” he replied.
“Yes you, you’re the whisperer in the ear, the radio comms! You’re the influencer, the shaper of his actions! Any idiot can see how you’ve changed him, how you’ve morphed him into being exactly what you want him to be! You want him to lose this match, fail at the first hurdle, and then you’ll cash in. I’ve seen you put your bets on; I’ve seen your bloody menace! You’re no father to him.” I exclaimed.
This was the bravest I had ever felt.
“You’ve lost your mind; everything I do is to help my son, my son! You heard him, it’s those who have betrayed him” he yelled back pointing at Jofra and Suzie.
Jofra had his arm around Suzie and she nuzzled herself into his large shoulders. This is when it became crystal clear to me.
“Them? Can’t you see what’s going on? It’s love that’s making them so suspicious, not a grand scheme of treachery,” I said calming down.
With this Suzie came up to the door; Bird was still present on the other side as his whimpering was audible.
“It’s true sweetie, me and Jof have been together a while and well we didn’t want to tell you because you like to keep things simple,” she said softly.
“NO, NO, NO, NO, I can feel it, I can feel the evil from you,” Bird screamed back.
Suzie jumped back at the scream to return to Jofra, who remained resilient to the emotions. I sighed.
“You’ve broken him, and if you want him to go out there and lose, you’re gonna have to snap him out of it. The only way you’ll get your money is if you twist a different tale in his head,” I said staring intently at Vernon.
He too sighed before raising his eyebrows for us to move away. More whispers occurred, this time through a door. Me and Roman watched closely, whilst Jofra and Suzie consoled each other. The words spoken between the father and son were impossible to hear, and Vernon looked frustrated. He was sweating profusely to a point where it was dripping from his hands to the floor. His belly was pushed up against the door and after a few moments of whispers he rested his head against it too. Silence. Roman gave me a puzzling look and then swore in his native tongue. I reached out for Vernon but he lashed out and knocked me away.
“It’s no use, he’s too far gone, you’re right I’ve broken him,” he said backing away.
“There must be a way, you must know a way?” I said suddenly feeling sorry for the man.
Vernon just shook his head, put his hand on my shoulder, and then walked away. I turned round to a staring party and had an epiphany like no other.
“Jackson, are you still breathing mate?” I called through the door.
“I’m… here…” he replied timidly once again.
“I spoke to my mum yesterday.”
“Yes mate and she told me this thing about how they’ve moved her favourite programme; you know TV show, to a weekday, which has completely messed up her routine. Like she has to watch certain things on a Saturday now, which she hates doing because she does her shopping on a Saturday, so she’s always rushing about”.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Erm, the point is mate is that none of this matters, you know. There’s a woman in Stoke who’s worrying about TV programme schedules, and this is just Tennis. The demons will come and go, like you just hit a ball backwards and forth, and you’re not even that good at it. And for Jof and Suze, that’s just human, maybe all this evil is just human. Erm I guess what I’m trying to say is to remember how pointless everything is.”
There was no response from Bird until there was a click of a lock a few seconds later. He emerged head down sniffling.
“Come on mate, let’s get knocked out in the first round then go home,” I said, putting my arm around him.
Bird lost in straight sets to Roman, and within two hours he was talking to Sky News about how disappointed he was. Later he would tell me how relieved he was. After all the press I said my goodbyes to everyone; getting a squeeze from Suzie and nod of approval from Jofra. The style team offered me a free ‘brush up’ anytime and the three Claire’s kissed me on the cheek. Bird was almost back to his normal self when he bid me his goodbye. He lifted me up and proclaimed me the real victor of Wimbledon and gave me his word he would let me do a real film on him one day. However that was the last I ever saw of him, in fact it was probably the last the world ever saw of him. I’ve heard nothing of him, or Vernon since. In my mind he’s on some beach somewhere, or a Greek Island, waiting for me to interview him.