Preparing for the match I close my eyes and practise the breathing technique recommended by the doc. I need to be calm, centred, focussed. I can’t go out there as hyped as I am now. I’m in the locker room on a hard wood bench, back against a cold wall. The flaking paint scratches the bare skin on my shoulders. I hate these vest things we have to wear. Ok, they’re practical but I prefer sleeves. I like somewhere to hide myself.
No one seems to understand that. The other guys flex their muscles proudly every opportunity they get. Guns, they call them. Is it only me that hates that? How can they all be so comfortable in their own bodies while I sit here hating every square inch of my skin. Wishing I was someone different. Shorter, blonder, smarter. If I’d been smarter I wouldn’t have let them push me into this. If I’d been shorter I wouldn’t be playing basketball at all..
I catch myself starting to hyperventilate and it’s a huge effort to slow my breathing down. I pull in a long, slow stream of air through my nose and blow it out equally slowly through pursed lips. I feel stupid but, what the heck, it works. After ten of these my heart rate is slowing again and I feel ready to start the second part of my ritual.
Visualisation. The doc is big on this. Imagine the game before it starts, she has instructed me. Imagine striding out onto the court. We don’t walk, Paul, we stride. Head up and confident. Feel the strength in your body, the muscles sliding beneath your skin. Hear the roar of the home crowd. That’s for you as much as it’s for anyone else. Are you feeling it, Paul? The flood of confidence in your blood, pumping through your veins. Feels good, doesn’t it. All these people supporting you. Willing you on.
I tell myself I can do this. I take another five of the long, steadying breaths and see myself as she tells me to see myself. I look down and see my boots reflected in the shine of the polished wood floor. See the brightness of the new white laces. The ones I bought especially for today. After another few steps the court markings come into view and finally I’m standing at the edge of the centre circle. The crowd is roaring, the guys, my team, are standing around me. They are psyched, high-fiving each other. Pumped up and ready to go. I want that too but the adrenaline doesnt kick in.
I imagine the whistle blowing and in my mind see the tip off. It goes our way and I try to run. No, not try, I rearrange the visual and I am flying down the edge of the court nearest to the crowd. Their voices rise and fall, crashing like waves across the gym. The ball comes my way and I scoop it up and with two bounces I’m within reach of the basket. He shoots, he scores! I see the ball leave my hand and fly toward the hoop in a high and perfect arc. The fans go wild. I am a hero. This is how it must happen. This is how it will happen.
As we celebrate the door of the locker room opens with a crash and breaks my concentration. It’s Doug, he nods to me and throws his bag down. He strips off to change into his kit without a shred of embarrassment but I’m not taking any notice. It’s only me who can’t do that. The others find it natural. Another one of my small idiosyncrasies, I suppose. I go back to my visualisation but the triumphal moment I had been enjoying has slipped away and I can only see an empty gym.
The silence eats into my head. My shoes, now battered and old, squeak as I cross the court. In the distance a shadowy figure bounces a ball that makes no sound. I’m not deaf, I heard my shoes clearly enough. As the ball continues to bounce silently he turns and looks up from under the dark, fall of hair. Is he smiling yet? I can’t tell. He stands, as always, between me and the safety of the locker room and I am forced to back away.
He does smile now. My ghostly nemesis always smiles at me eventually. In my head the doctor’s voice reminds me he is not real. But he is to me, real as I am. This is what no one else seems to get. He haunts me on the court as if he were still alive. He blames me that he is not. Why did my parents push me into the game? He wouldn’t have done this if I had taken up football. Basketball was his passion, his love. He expresses his disapproval at every game I play. It should be me, he says, the silent words burning into the space behind my eyes. If you hadn’t made me change seats in the car that day, it would be me.
I open my eyes back in the locker room. I’m done, it’s over. Picking up my kit bag I leave. If anyone speaks to me, I don’t hear them. Outside, a mile down the road, the bridge beckons. My dead twin waits in the road, silently bouncing his ball. It seems selfish not to go play with him.