Ian McMillan: A bright football shaped blast from the past

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The other day, in our back garden, I had a glimpse of how archaeologists must feel when, trowel in hand, they find a fragment of a caveman’s toenail in a pile of dirt. There’s a sudden rush of excitement, a glimpse of the long, long stride of history, and a revelation that our ancestors weren’t all that different: they had toenails and all! The toenail-smithereen had laid there in the dirt for thousands of years and then suddenly there it was, not just a toenail but a postcard from the past. Quick, polish it up and get it in a museum!

So, in the back garden, my wife was Getting Rid Of The Ivy. I’ve given the task capital letters because it felt important, historic. That ivy has been clogging up the hedge for years and it was time for it to go to the place where all discarded ivy goes. I stood there wringing my hands and asking if she wanted a cup of tea because that’s my way of being helpful. If I actually attempt help in a practical fashion something will go wrong, like when I tried to cut the aforementioned hedge and instead cut through the wire so we had to buy a hedge-cutter. It somehow made it worse that I was wearing 
shorts because I looked like a 
daft schoolboy trying to help his mam.

Then my wife pointed to a space in the hedge where the ivy had been; I leaned forward to have a look and the years fell away.

There, stuck in the hedge like a representation of the planet Mars, or a child’s model of a tomato, was a red foam football. Like Mars, it had craters. Like a child’s model of a tomato, it was mis-shaped.

I play football and cricket in the garden with my grandson all the time; occasionally a ball goes into the hedge and, despite our best efforts, we can’t find it. That’s why we started playing with a bright orange ball rather than a green one. A green ball in a green hedge is a loss waiting to happen, as they say.

Skip a generation and I used to play football in the garden with my kids, mainly with my son. And the same thing would happen, the ball would sometimes go into the hedge and it would be as though it had fallen into a black hole at the end of the Universe.

Even though you saw it go in the hedge at a certain point and you looked carefully at that certain point the ball could not be found. Even though it was a red ball in a green hedge. Like this one.

I gingerly pulled the ball out like it was a precious cultural and historical object, which indeed it was. It had been in the hedge for more than ten years, fifteen maybe, waiting for somebody to come and find it, like a round red foam Robinson Crusoe. The craters I referred to earlier were deep holes gouged all over it, making it resemble certain kinds of cheese. “Something’s been living in there,” my wife said, and that’s certainly what it looked like. A robin, she suggested. Or a mouse. We looked into the holes, a little nervously. Nothing mousy to see.

I threw the ball in the air. It fell into the hedge, like it was going home. I couldn’t bear to get it out. I’ll just leave it for a decade or so.