Runner Up

Taking Rita to the Match

by Edward Sergeant


My grandfather was quite the storyteller. The family had got used to taking what he said with a pinch of salt but I found him entertaining. I didn’t understand some of what he spoke of because of generational differences but I always enjoyed listening to him spin his fanciful tales, true or otherwise.

I even encouraged him. I’ll never forget the time when I was about sixteen or seventeen and I asked him if he’d ever met anyone famous.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I met Rita Hayworth?”

It was with slight reticence that I had to ask who that was.

“Oh, well. Of course, I forget, why should you know? She was the most amazing actress and dancer of her time. She was a blimmin’ marvel. What a woman! Style, grace, talent, beauty – she had it all. She was most famous for her role in ‘Gilda’ where she captured every man’s heart I can tell you…”

“Gilda – that rings a bell. Wait a minute, I think I remember – she was mentioned in that film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’…”

“Quite possibly, laddie.”

He looked ahead as if lost in memory.

“So you met her, then?”

“Oh, yes. I’ll never forget meeting her for as long as I live. I’ll bet you’d never know how she changed the whole course of a football season?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll tell you. It was hard to believe it at the time and it’s hard to believe it now but it happened alright”.

He settled further back into his armchair and rubbed the stiff grey whiskers that seemed permanently attached to his chin, then looked at me with those keen, bright eyes, that were so at odds with the ageing of his face.

“See if you can sneak me a noggin and I’ll tell you, there’s a good lad.”

It was only through previous requests that I knew what a noggin was and I knew my mum was always trying to limit his consumption of whisky but I thought a glass wouldn’t do him any harm and when I came back, successful, he was pleased as punch.

“Thank you my lad. Now, I know you follow the football quite closely. Well, you’ll never have heard of a match quite like the one I’m going to tell you about now. They’re always talking about a game of two halves. Well, there was never a game of two halves like this one.”

He took a slurp of whisky and closed his eyes in satisfaction before he went on.

“It all started the day before the match. I lived right near the ground in those days and I happened to be walking past it, when I saw a glamourous looking woman coming the other way. She’s wearing a headscarf and was very discreet but I’d have recognised her anywhere. ‘My God, it’s Rita Hayworth’, I says to myself and I looks again, not believing my eyes.

She sees me looking and gives me a friendly little smile.

‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ I says. ‘You’re Rita Hayworth’.

She just smiled back at me. Boy, what a smile. I says to her what are you doing here, Rita? And she just smiles again and then tells me in that amazing voice of hers that she is just out getting some time to herself for a change. Of course, I’m desperate to keep the conversation going in any way I can as I know I’ll never get another chance – after all, this is dream stuff – it’s Rita Hayworth…Rita Hayworth…”

He paused to tip some more of the amber liquid down his turkey-loose throat.

“So I says to her the first thing that comes into my head, with the ground next to me. I’ll bet you’ve never been to a football match, Rita – are you around tomorrow – I could take you if you like. I immediately felt so stupid – how could I be inviting this screen goddess to a football match – it was enough to be asking her anywhere but a football match! I ask you!”

“So what happened then?”

“Oh, she was a real lady about it and says that she never has been before and it might be fun and she’s always wanting to do different things. Of course, I can hardly believe it and arrange to meet her there the next day. I can hardly sleep that night thinking about how I must have dreamt the whole blimmin’ thing and wondering if she’s really going to turn up.”

“I gets dressed up in my best clothes and start worrying about the crowd and how they might be a bit rough for the likes of her but I needn’t have worried – I’ve never known anyone so game in my life. She was dressed very low-key and discreet again and I thought if someone recognised her we could have a riot on our ‘ands but luckily no-one seemed to”

“How do you mean, a riot, Grandad?”

“Laddie, you don’t seem to understand. I’m trying to think of the equivalent today but I can’t. She was a proper star – everyone knew who Rita Hayworth was – she was every man’s dream. If people had known she was there, everyone would’ve been clamberin’ for a look. Of course, I hadn’t even thought about this before I took her in to the stadium, fool that I was. No, every man had seen ‘Gilda’ and every man alive wanted to be Glenn Ford.”

“So what happened at the match?”

“Oh, it started off well enough and Rita seemed to be enjoying it. We were near the pitch, right near the player’s tunnel. She joined in with everything – all the applause and shouting. She was such a great sport. The team were having a decent enough season at that point but for some reason on that day they were rubbish. This was a key game and the other lot were far better than us – they were runnin’ us ragged and by half-time were two up and it shoulda been more. They had one winger in particular that were leadin’ our lot a merry dance.”

“So, the crowd were pretty subdued at the interval and Rita said it was a pity. Then she suddenly looks at me and says is there any way she can get down into the changing-rooms. I gets alarmed and wonder what she has in mind but before I can stop her she’s got down onto the side of the pitch and I see her talking to a policeman and of course, she’s Rita Hayworth so charms everyone to doing what she wants, whatever that is.”

“So you don’t know what’s going on?”

“That’s exactly it! I don’t know where she’s gone and I don’t know why. And I’m terrified that somethin’ll happen.”

He passed his thick, stubbly fingers over his eyes and chuckled.

“A few minutes later, she’s back. I asks her what happened and she just smiles her amazin’ smile and tells me she thinks it’ll be a different match from now on. Of course, I ask what she means but she won’t tell me anythin’ more, says she’ll tell me later.”

“And what had she done?”

“I’ll come onto that in due course. The match restarts and it’s completely different. Their lot are truly awful. The winger that was so amazing in the first half keeps trippin’ over the ball and their keeper keeps droppin’ it. They can’t seem to pass the ball straight. Our team gain heart from this and realise somethin’s up. Once they get one goal back, it’s plain sailin’ and they win the game easy. All the crowd are goin’ mad, sayin’ the manager’s a genius but I know it’s somethin’ Rita’s had a hand in.”

“So how could she have affected the match?”

“Ah-ha! That’s what I was wondering. I kept asking her as we walked from the ground and she just looked at me with that cheeky smile bringing out her dimples. Eventually she said, ‘Do you really want to know?’ and then told me how she’d charmed her way to the dressing-rooms saying she’d like to meet the players briefly – and who could say no to Rita Hayworth? She got to the home dressing-room and just wished them better luck for the second-half but it was in the away dressing-room that she really went to work.”

“How do you mean?”

“She tells me she’s ‘vamped’ them! I don’t know what she’s talking about but then she explains and I can believe it – she gets totally under their skin and does her ‘Gilda’ impersonations for them and a little rendition of the song, ‘Put the Blame on Mame’. The team couldn’t believe they had Rita Hayworth in their dressing-room at half-time and she told me she focused on the winger and the goalkeeper in particular and did the thing with flinging her hair back like she did in the film.”

He chuckled again. “No wonder the goalkeeper couldn’t catch the ball! No wonder the winger kept falling over! No, there’s no doubt, Rita Hayworth won the match for that team. They got promotion that year and if they’d lost that match it could have been a whole different story”

“So what happened then? Did you ever meet her again?”

“Well, of course I asks if she wants to, even though I know she can’t – after all, she’s Rita Hayworth and what’s she doing here anyway – and she looks at me and smiles again and then touches me on the lips with her index finger. She says to me, ‘It’s been perfect so let’s leave it as perfect’ in that film-star voice and as I open my mouth to say something, I don’t even know what, she vanishes into the distance.”

“My God! So you never saw her again?”

“Well, not exactly. Of course, I couldn’t stop thinkin’ about her. I knew there was no hope of ever seeing her again and it wasn’t like I could talk to anyone about it – I didn’t want to – it was somethin’ I didn’t want to share with anyone, if you know what I mean. Have you ever felt like that about things – that it’ll ruin them if you talk about them?”

I nodded.

“Anyway, I sees all about her in the papers and her romance with a Prince and I thinks to myself how our worlds are so different. Then, a couple of months later, I sees her in the street again.”

“What? Really?”

“Oh yes, my boy”, he answered, enjoying my reaction.

“Of course, I can’t believe my eyes and when I go up to her expect she’ll disappear and just be a vision I had. But she’s real alright, she’s as real as you are to me now.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Too right it doesn’t. Exactly what I thinks. How can she be in two places at once? I know she knows who I am. She smiles but looks a bit embarrassed. ‘Rita’, I says, ‘Am I mad?’ and she laughs and tells me no and she’s not actually Rita Hayworth”

“What?”

“Yep, you could of knocked me down with a feather. Because this woman in front of me is Rita Hayworth – she has the lush chestnut mane of hair, the same amazing curvaceous figure, the full lips and dark eyes and above all the sweetness of her smile and face – it’s the actress I’ve seen in ‘Gilda’, ‘You’ll Never Get Rich’ and all the other films.

“I know what you’re thinking – I get it all the time. I look exactly like her don’t I?’”

“So she’s not actually Rita Hayworth at all?”

“No! I tell you – if ever there’s a spitting image, lookalike, doppelganger or whatever else you might call it – well, this is it. I actually get a bit angry at this point and tell her she’s lied to me but then she says she never told me she was Rita Hayworth, that I had just assumed she was and I think back and realise it’s true.”

“But she deceived you!”

“She did, lad. She tells me she led me along and she’s sorry but she was having so much fun and she really didn’t want to. She told me she didn’t know what got into her that day, she would never normally do what she did and brazenly go into the dressing-rooms at a football match, however much she might look like a film star!”

“She shouldn’t have done that to you.”

“No, I suppose she shouldn’t. But you didn’t know her and I would have forgiven her anything.”

“Did you ever see her after that?”

He looked at me and chuckled once more.

“When you get a second chance at Rita Hayworth, you don’t mess up. Of course I was never going to let her get away again.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, that Hayworth became my wife and your grandma"

“My God! Honestly?”

“Absolutely true. I never regretted it. I never got to meet the real Rita Hayworth but I never needed to – I had my own. She was a wonderful woman in every way. Such fun. Still miss her – always will do I guess.”

“Yes, of course.”

“You know, Boy, I always think it such a shame you didn’t have more time to get to know her better. You’d have got on so well. I think there’s a lot of her in you, you know.”

I realised this was the best compliment I could ever have from him.

“Shall I try to sneak you another little whisky, Grandad?”

“You must’ve read me mind, lad. Not so keen on the ‘little’, though.”

We both chuckled.