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Waiting for Protocol

A tragicomedy in one half

Illustrations by Tyson Whiting

First Half

A football stadium. A clip of Jan Vertonghen’s injury against Ajax plays silently, then ends.

VERTONGHEN is sitting on the ground, holding his head. He is bleeding. He tries to stand, gives up, sits down again.


VERTONGHEN: Nothing to be done.

ALDERWEIRELD: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Toby, be reasonable, they’ll sort something out one day. And I’ve resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle.) So there you are again.

V: My head hurts.

A: Did they beat you?

V: No, no. An accident. (He gestures.) Goalkeeper, cross, fist. My head hurts.

A: It hurts?

V: Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts! (Pause.) What are we doing here?

A: We’re waiting for Protocol

V: (despairingly) Ah! (Pause.) You’re sure it’s coming?

A: What?

V: You sure. Protocol.

A: They said by the touchline. (They look at the touchline.) Wait, and be seen.

V: Are we losing?

A: Yes.

V: Is this the right touchline?

A: My right or your right?

V: Maybe we should be over there.

A: There— what are you insinuating? That we’ve come to the wrong place?

V: Protocol should be here. My head hurts.

A: We don’t know for sure if there is one.

V: And if it doesn’t come?

A: You’ll go back on.

V: And then off again.

A: Possibly.

V: My head hurts.

A: You’re merciless.

V: Are we losing?

A: Yes.

V: All right. (Vertonghen sits down on the grass. Alderweireld paces agitatedly to and fro. Vertonghen falls asleep. Alderweireld halts finally before Vertonghen.) Jan! … Jan! … JAN!

Vertonghen wakes with a start.

V: (restored to the horror of his situation) I was asleep! (Despairingly.) Why will you never let me sleep?

A: I felt lonely.

V: I had a dream.

A: Don’t tell me!

V: I dreamt that we were surrounded by younger, quicker footballers, (he stands) doing younger, quicker things around us, (he opens his arms wide) and all we could do was watch them—

A: Don’t tell me!

V: (sitting down). My head hurts.

A: Let’s wait and see what they say.

V: Who?

A: Protocol.

V: Ah.

A: I’m curious to hear what we’re supposed to do. Then we’ll take it or we’ll leave it.

V: I could have sworn I heard shouts.

A terrible cry, close at hand. Alderweireld collapses to Vertonghen’s side, and they hold each other.

The doctor drives Poch by means of a rope

Enter Doctor and Poch. Doctor drives Poch by means of a rope around his neck, so that Poch is the first to enter. Poch carries a large bag containing drinks, a first aid kit, spare kit, training cones, and a spare football. Doctor carries a lanyard with an identification card.

V: (undertone). Is that him?

A: Who?

V: (trying to remember the name). Er …

A: Protocol?

V: Yes.

DOCTOR: I present myself: Doctor!

A: Not at all!

V: He said Protocol.

A: Not at all!

V: (timidly, to Doctor). You’re not Protocol, sir?

D: (terrifying voice). I am Doctor! (Silence.) Doctor! (Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you?

Long silence.

A: (conciliating). I once met a Brazilian called Doctor. He had a beard.

D: (peremptory). So who is this Protocol? You took me for him.

A: (surprised). You don’t know? I thought you should know —

V: (they start to talk over one another). We don’t know him very well —

A: — hardly at all, in fact —

V: — never met him. Or it —

A: — couldn’t tell you what he—

V: — it —

A: — they —

V: — looked like. But —

A: (hopefully). — you should know—

V: (hopefully). — you should know?

D: (after a pause). No idea. (Vertonghen sinks to the floor.) Now, let’s say no more about it. (To Poch.) Water! (He considers the bottle carefully, then squirts it in Vertonghen’s face.) Bandages! (He takes the roll of bandages, and loops it round and round Vertonghen’s head, until there is only a small slit for the mouth.) Can you see? (Vertonghen shakes his head.) How many fingers am I holding up? (Vertonghen shakes his head again.) Good. (To Poch.) Sit down. Back! Further! (To Vertonghen.) Now, there you go. All sorted. Happy days!

Silence. Alderweireld sits. Vertonghen, unable to see, walks cautiously up and down.

D: (after a time). How did you find my attention? (Vertonghen and Alderweireld look at him blankly.) Good? Middling? Poor? (He takes hold of Poch’s face and forces the sides of his mouth up with his thumbs.) Smiley face? (Then down.) Sad face?

A: Oh, very good, very good indeed.

V: (from under the bandages). Excellent.

D: Bless you both. (He lets Poch go.) I have need of such encouragement. (He waves the lanyard at Poch.) Do you hear? (To Vertonghen.) Would you like to see him dance? (To Poch.) Dance! Dance! (He throws the lanyard at Poch, who catches it.)

POCH: On the other hand—

D: Stop! Stop!

During Poch’s impending tirade he removes all the articles from his bag, one by one, and throws them on the ground. Initially Doctor ignores them, but then he starts frantically gathering them all together, until by the end he is slumped at Poch’s feet, holding everything in his arms. Meanwhile Vertonghen lies down flat on the ground, while Alderweireld moves from attentive to distressed and back again, before eventually mounting a violent intervention.

P: (after a pause). To dare is to do to do is to dare do dare doo doo doo given the circumstances of the happenstances of the mission here as placed down in the works of Blanchflower and Greaves you come into our house and treat us like this big balls big big balls here is where we find the measure of the man here in the refusal to be defused brings back unfinished business risky business to dare is to do the work of Butcher and Souness with regard to the regard in which we are to hold the idea of man not as a being but as an assertion as an intervention as an argument with the idea of not arguing anymore there is the man who carries on and then there is the not-man who does not but here here here beyond all doubt that as a ringing in your ears in my eyes in your eyes where have your eyes gone the skull the skull the lilywhite bandages we wrapped around his leaking head the lilywhites of his eyes that stared past my eyes your eyes get that right up your tactics board you Manc fucks big balls so quick they move and we move and they move again and it doesn’t seem fair the way out is through I never met a problem that a clenched fist couldn’t solve you just have to want it more and if they want it more more than you want it more more more so one finger two finger side to side and up and down and man up and forward there are no systems in place and there are no places in systems and we move between the two nothings and collapse the skull the skull the pursuit of sporting excellence is to dare but it is also to do in spite of the strides of physical culture the man wastes and pines he does not all sorts two paracetamol and a splash of water and a bananananananananana the skull the skull the facts are there but time will tell you resume alas alas because nobody has any place in any system with any interest in stopping you or your skull the skull fading and we are losing fading smashing smacking the brain the skull the skull the skull! audere est! the skull! facere—

Alderweireld overpowers him, and clamps a hand over his mouth. Poch drops the lanyard, and Alderweireld lets go. Long silence. Poch walks from the stage and Doctor follows, dropping and picking up bits and pieces as they go.

V: My head hurts. (Pause). Let’s go.

A: We can’t.

V: Why not?

A: We’re waiting for Protocol.

V: (despairingly). Ah!

Vertonghen in bandages, sitting

The Ballboy enters. Alderweireld looks at him hopefully. Vertonghen doesn’t see him.

BALLBOY: Are you—

A: Yes!

B: You are?

A: What?

V: (angry). Who is that?

B: (afraid). It’s not my fault

A: What isn’t?

B: They told me to come. He told me to bring you a message.

V: Who?

B: Protocol. It says—

A: Ah!

B: — Protocol says he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.

Silence. Ballboy leaves.

V: I can’t go back on like this.

A: That’s what you think.

End of First Half