Claudio and the Worm: A Fairytale
In the year 2066, an old man reveals the truth behind the improbable, impossible rise of Leicester City to claim the Premiership title. The truth has nothing to do with football, and everything to do with a little magic worm from Japan
Grandfather flinched as the docbot yanked the syringe out of his backside.
“Sorry, sir. Your life signs had fallen below recommended parameters.”
Grandfather’s brow creased. He was probably trying to work out if the docbot was apologising for his fallen parameters or for jabbing him in the culo. Not that it mattered either way at this stage. Talking with that last visitor had exhausted him and he’d only just returned to his favourite pastime these final days of gazing through the infirmary airlock window at the police drones outside. They were busy putting down another cheese riot on the Filbert Street Estate.
“What’s going on, doc?” he said in a hoarse whisper.
“Are you asking for a prognosis?” the docbot said.
Grandfather’s brow creased even deeper.
“Nonno, the doctor’s asking if you want to know your medical condition. Just tell him yes, slowly, so he can register what you say.”
He did as he was told.
The Docbot dinged, then wheeled around to me, as registered sole surviving next of kin.
“My calculations for his odds of living past the next hour are 5,000 to one, Madam.”
Despite myself, I smiled. But the same odds were quoted back in the day for Leicester City to win the Premiership, and everybody knows how that ended. But that was fifty years ago.
“Please engage the funeral arrangement algorithm.”
“A hearse, my kingdom for a hearse,” he muttered from the bed. Nothing wrong with the old coot’s hearing.
“I’m sorry, sir?” the docbot turned back to Grandfather.
I said: “Nothing, thank you, doctor. Please leave us now.”
The docbot dinged and zipped off to the recharging station.
Grandfather turned his head at the sound of the docbot. “Dilly ding, dilly dong!”
“So, it looks as if we have just a little time together,” I said to Grandfather, “there is something I want to tell you. Nonno, I didn’t want to mention it, but the corporation has made me an offer for the family firm. It’s a fair offer, enough to clear my debts and live for a month, maybe two if I’m careful, and then, who knows, I might beat the odds. Start over somewhere new. Don’t worry about me, something will come up, I’ll keep off the streets and out of the riots, somehow. You just lie there and concentrate on getting better.”
Grandfather came to life. He propped himself on one elbow, and the blood drained from his face: “No, you must not give in to our rival. You must fight. You must not sell what we built from nothing. Never to a rival.”
“Well, the only alternative is to change the will. You don’t have to leave all your fortune to charity as planned. Just sign these papers to grant me power of attorney and I’ll take care of everything for you…”
“No, no, no. I beg you, this is the wrong approach…” but his sentence died in a frenzy of coughing.
I pressed the button to raise the bed and another to massage his back until the coughing subsided. Then I pressed yet another for a glass of water to be held in front of his face. He sipped half-heartedly at the drink.
At last the colour returned to his face and he cleared his throat enough to be able to speak in a whisper: “I must tell you my story about a worm, a little magic worm.”
“Nonno, I’m not a child any more, I don’t believe in fairytales. You don’t… I don’t have time for this.”
He smiled. “But this is a true story, the story of the secret to my success. You should listen. You want to know the secret to success, don’t you?”
I rolled my eyes, but what could I do? It’s terribly demanding work looking after the elderly, listening to their stories.
“Make it quick,” I said, “we don’t have much time.” He took what seemed like an eternity to begin to speak.
* * *
Once upon a time, I wasn’t the successful manager that you have known your whole life. I was Mr. Second Best. I never won the title, I was always close, but never the Number One. Roma, Valencia, Chelsea, Monaco, always second best. I was building for greatness, real greatness, but then always the moneyman, the chairman, the man in the stands, always some man decided he is not the right man any more and just like that, I’m out of a job and the next manager takes my place and… so it goes. That is life.
I pick myself up and take another job, and the pattern repeats. But I continue to dream, what if I could be number one, what would that be like? What would it feel like? But then the chosen one comes in. Takes the team I have been building for over four years and wins all the prizes, and me, I am nothing again. Always the way.
And then one time, I was between jobs, it was the winter of my discount Benz. I took a trip to Japan. There was an opportunity at a town outside Tokyo. But my performance was so-so. I didn’t get the job, that’s not so important now. But that night I found myself in a bar with just a counter and six or seven stools. It was a bar run by an old woman and her niece, Hana. The girl could speak English. They didn’t see so many foreigners in their bar. I told the girl my story in between scoops of ramen noodles. She translated a little to her aunt and before I knew it, I had poured my heart and soul out. Her aunt listened carefully, then dried her hands on her apron and held my hand in hers. She said I just needed a little kodoku.
Huh? What’s that?
Hana smiled. “A magic animal that will make you invincible, according to my aunt.” But she said if it really worked, she wouldn’t be stuck here serving bowls of greasy ramen noodles to a drunken foreigner late at night. I laughed, we all laughed, it was a good night. So I said to her, go on, tell me more about this magic creature. And through the night she did.
A kodoku is an insect or a worm. But it has powers far beyond anything you can imagine, or so the aunt believed. It gets its magic from competition. It works like this: a priest takes two of the fiercest creatures he can find and puts them in one bottle. There is no escape from the bottle and they fight until one is dead. Then the priest puts another challenger in the bottle, and again they fight until one is dead. Eventually, after a day of battling there is one champion and this is the kodoku that will grant its owner unlimited power to win, but on one condition: the owner must never forget to feed it. If he forgets, the creature will destroy all its owner’s good luck, leaving only failure and… death.
“What do you feed it?” I asked Hana, but she only shrugged. I was having a good time, what did I really care? I didn’t push it. The next day, I woke up on my hotel futon, still fully dressed and with a terrible headache. In my back pocket was a napkin from the noodle bar. On it was a little hand-drawn map to a shrine close to my hotel. On the other side was a little note:
1. Ask Uncle Kentaro for a kodoku.
2. Don’t forget to feed it.
I smiled to myself. I had half a day to kill before my flight back, and I thought why not? You might think your Nonno was soft in the head, but I thought it might be fun. And who knows? Maybe I could change my luck? I couldn’t lose.
So I walked the fifteen minutes to the shrine. Then I walked a hundred steps up a wooded hillside to the temple grounds. A gnarled cherry tree had shed most of its blossoms, the fallen petals spreading out like a pink and white blanket in between the overgrown gravestones and cracked statues of foxes. In the middle of this wood, a grand red wooden temple stood with all the doors open. I was alone. I cleared my throat and shouted a hello, but nobody was there. Well, I thought I was wasting my time, it had all been just a silly bar-room story to entertain a silly old tourist. I turned around to walk back to the hotel when a little bald Japanese man came towards me, bowing. He was wearing a purple kimono. He had a cigarette in one hand and his fingers were gnarled like the cherry tree.
I showed him the map Hana had drawn and tried to explain why I was there. He listened to me in silence then smiled a toothy grin. He threw his cigarette down on the ground and kicked dirt over it with his flip flops. He gestured for me to follow him into the gloomy, windowless shrine, to take my shoes off and kneel on the straw mat floor. I did what he showed me to do, then he clapped his hands together.
I bowed my head as he had done to me. I thought he was summoning the gods, that’s how they do it in Japan, but no, he was rubbing his fingers together. He was expecting to be paid. I took out some notes and handed them to him and he bowed again, bid me stay where I was and disappeared into the shrine. I looked around, I couldn’t believe what a silly old fool I was, that I had fallen for a classic tourist trick and then I started to worry: what if he ran off with my shoes, how would I be able to get back to the hotel if it started to rain?
But then he came back. In one hand he had a glass jar with a brass lid, the kind you store pickled vegetables in. And in the other he was holding a small wooden box wrapped in a dirty grey towel. In the jar was a hornet buzzing around with two wings and a great big black-and-yellow striped body. He slid open the wooden box, then reached into it with his hand wrapped in the towel. He removed whatever was in the box, opened the lid fully and dropped the creature from the wooden box into the jar. Then he rapidly screwed the lid shut. He chanted and clicked his fingers three times. He then reached for a stick topped with white feathers and waved it about above his head.
It took the hornet a few seconds to realise there was something else in the jar, about the same amount of time it took for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. The something else wasn’t exactly a worm, it was more like a snake, a colourless thing with black eyes. I don’t think it could see. Its forked tongue darted out, tasting the air, and the hornet buzzed and whined then dived down and stung the creature. But that only had the effect of telling the creature exactly where the enemy was. In a flash, the creature’s body was wrapped around the hornet and it opened its mouth and ripped the insect in two.
The priest stood and lit a bundle of incense sticks. The white smoke made my eyes sting. He took another creature from another box and put it in with the worm. This time it was a beetle with a giant horn, but again it was no match for the white worm, which tasted the air, then bit into the flesh of the beetle, snapping the beetle’s horn in two.
One by one, the priest put spiders, centipedes, even a scorpion in that jar until there was barely enough room to close the lid for all the dead. After each death he would light another bundle of incense. It was getting hard to see what was happening in the jar through all the white smoke and grey gloom. As far as I could tell, the worm beat everything in the jar. Time passed. It could have been minutes or hours, I couldn’t be sure, but finally the priest undid the lid and pulled the worm out wrapped in the towel. It was not moving, and I thought it was dead. He dropped the worm back in its box and hammered the lid shut. He half wrapped it in the dirty cloth over the box and held it out to me. The box was engraved with two foxes, one with its mouth open, the other with its mouth closed.
I took the box from him, and he clapped his hands together again. But he stood expectantly, not moving, and I realised he wanted more money. I gave him the change in my wallet. And he shrugged. He then spoke the only words I heard him speak in English. I couldn’t believe what he said. I shook my head. Was he saying what I thought he was saying? I put my ears close to his mouth and he spoke clearly and crisply in a hoarse smoker’s voice: “Four. Four. Two.”
So I carried the little wooden box back to my hotel and threw it in my suitcase. And I flew back to Europe and got busy. I forgot all about the business with the worm. A week or so later, I had a phone call. Come to this country they need a new manager, and I did. Well, I thought it was due to my own efforts and to an old friend who had found me the job.
So, of course I took the job, and it became a tragedy. I was sacked after only four outings. It was the worst performance of my career, and I went from being Mr Two to being Mr Zero. How could I explain my downturn in fortunes? Could it have been just bad luck? And let me tell you, the job offers were not exactly pouring in. And that was how I ended up in Leicester. The city with the third lowest wages in the English Premiership, while my oldest rival, the chosen one, was up there in Chelsea, there with the champions. My friends thought this was madness. Taking on all of that at my age.
And they were right, it was madness. It was a crazy season, we soared, and the chosen one struggled so badly he was sacked. My biggest rival destroyed. And me finishing in first place for the first time in my life? How could it be? I told anyone who cared to know that it was truly a fairytale. And I was not lying, because that is what it was. But I can tell you the secret. I’ll give you the secret to success, it’s all I have left to give you, if you want to know.
* * *
I leaned forward on the stool. “Was it the magic worm, Nonno? I get it, you learnt the secret of how to feed the worm, it was hard work and believing in yourself, right? I understand that, but I have some papers you really must sign now…”
He laughed, a belly laugh that turned into a coughing fit. When the coughing subsided, he continued in a rasping voice, one more suited to a 114-year-old. But he kept talking.
“No, my nipotina, the truth is much simpler. I never did figure out how to feed the worm, and it began to worry me that it was getting its revenge on me, that I would never succeed again. And that’s when I realised the solution that I had been missing my whole life.”
He coughed. I pressed the button for the glass to refill with water. “Go on Nonno, tell me the secret.”
He took a shallow sip of water and waved the glass away.
“Simple. I met my rival at the beginning of the season and gave him the damned worm. I told him it was a lucky charm from Japan and it was his. He just had to feed it. And just like that, his fate was sealed, and I was free to make my own.”
He pressed the remote control and lowered himself until he was lying flat on the bed. He raised his right arm and pointed at the bedside cabinet. I hesitated for a moment but then opened the chipboard door. Maybe his pen was in there and he would sign the papers. I reached in but the only thing beside his teeth was a filthy old cloth. Wrapped inside the cloth was a wooden box, the size of an antique pencil case, with the face of a fox on one side with its mouth open, and on the other a fox with its mouth shut.
“I don’t understand. How come you have this now? I thought you gave it to your rival.”
“I did. But he returned it to me today. He visited me just before you came.”
Grandfather closed his eyes. His breathing was becoming laboured.
“Wait, I don’t understand. What do you want to do with this worm now?”
The words came with difficulty, but he rolled his head towards me and whispered: “It’s yours, I give it to you but…” he smiled, “…don’t forget to feed it.”