They have an instinct for weakness, children. It's admirable, really, the accuracy with which they exploit human imperfection. If I wake up with a leaded skull, if knives glint at the edges of the curtains, then I can be sure they will begin their elaborate torture. Sometimes they play world cup, sometimes fives, and sometimes -- I'm guessing -- they seek only to kick the ball rhythmically against our shared wall, with a view to extending my suffering. It must please them to imagine an old man's skull compressing each time they score a goal. I am thankful, then, for their inaccuracies. The sound of the ball shanked off a shin, their cries of anguish as it lofts up and over the back wall and then -- the only noise I can truly enjoy -- the sound of it nestling in my orchard grass. The wall is too high for them to climb. I have disconnected my doorbell. They can knock and knock, they can clap the letterbox lid, but that is a small punishment compared to the pleasure of holding their size-4 Mitre pro-grade to my chest.
It has become something of an exhibit. I display them on my dresser, rows of four, from smallest to largest, from plastic to leather. There are commemorative special editions -- USA 1994, Italia '90 -- as well as more intricate modern ones -- Delta V12, Neo 2 Pro, Ultimax.
Eventually, the children stopped playing football against the shared wall. Either they got bored of it or couldn't afford any more balls. Whatever, I'll admit it felt like a victory. Since then, I have seen them through a gap in the curtain, making their way towards the park.
This is the bit in the story where I am supposed to say that I miss them, the children, their noise, their cruelty, their laughter high and long. I am supposed to say that I feel bad for having driven them away, that although they brought me extravagant pain, they also gave my life shape and direction. I will not say that.
At some point before long, I will die and my son, who thinks I am cruel and unusual, will return the balls to their owners. I like to imagine all thirty-seven of them appearing on my neighbour's lawn, the day they take my body away. The children will perhaps not even be children, by this time. They will be young men. They will be young men with no use for thirty-seven footballs. They will be young men who, in hearing of my passing, have had their first taste of death. I like to imagine them kneeling on the balls, one after the other, the sound of steady hissing as they let the air escape.