We played twice a week and I was decidedly dreadful. I was a fullback, so my main function was to prevent the other team scoring, along with the goal keeper. Mark, our goal keeper, and I delighted in our over-the-top double act shows of disbelief and disgust when they did score, which was often. We became good friends and over a period of time, learned how to blame everyone else on the team for our incompetence. Mark was tall, skinny and very charming with over-styled spiky blonde hair that sat upon his long face. He was obsessed with American wrestling; Hulk Hogan was his hero and it was quite often that he would turn on me and place me in a headlock if girls were around.
“The same as hurling, sorta.”
“Like hurling but different”
“Do you play hurling? Well it’s in and around the same thing there or there abouts.”
The plan was that we all get the bus down to Kerry and stay with the family of a player from the opposing team, returning two nights later. Friday morning I stood outside the school with my bag waiting for everyone to turn up. Mark arrived bright eyed wearing his Sunday best, strutting down the street with his hair gelled up like a rock formation on his head. He stank of aftershave and breakfast cereal. How could someone so bad at sports be so confident? At least I had the dignity to not make eye contact with anyone. I said hello and kept my distance. With so many girls around I was likely to end up in a neck brace.
We boarded the bus and began our 6-hour journey to the small town at the very bottom of Ireland. I joined in singing, ate crisps and drank gallons of coke until the roof of my mouth was raw and my voice was hoarse. Somewhere between Mitchelstown and Mallow a girl called Michelle wanted to “get off” with me. I was more than happy to and we innocently kissed each other until we arrived in the town.
Upon arrival we met the families we would be staying with. Everyone on the bus stayed with a family that lived in the town itself, except me. I ended up on a farm up in the mountains a good hour away. I was horrified by this. A tall curly haired woman introduced herself as Maeve. She wore a cardigan and long skirt and even though she smiled a lot I was pretty sure she had no emotions what so ever stored inside.
“Nice to meet you Colm, you’re staying with me.”
We took a long journey through beautiful countryside while she grilled me for information regarding my parents, their jobs and my eating habits. We arrived at a small house surrounded by broken tractors parts, half made fences and frozen car tracks. Being up in a mountain, it was constantly cold and windy.
I was greeted inside by Seamus, Maeve’s son. Seamus was a ginger-haired, heavily freckled lump of a child. He had pale blue eyes, pink–almost red–skin, freckles on his lips and very large protruding teeth set low in the face, like a middle aged man. Unlike me, he was huge, almost 12 and played on the opposing team. Seamus took it upon himself to immediately start berating me for being from Dublin.
“Don’t steal the Lamb, I know you dubs, you’ll steal anything like,” he screamed in his lilting Kerry accent pointing to an actual lamb in a bin in the kitchen. I briefly thought his horse-like mouth would spring towards me and eat my face. It didn’t, he just laughed hysterically.
Maeve explained that they were keeping a close eye on the lamb because it had been ill so they put it in a large bin lined with a black bag. This, of course, was explained to me in the manner that I was being talked down off a ledge; being a Dub I might just go mad at the farming way of life. Did you hear about the kid from Dublin, they’d say. He went mad and tried to eat the house, they’d say. He couldn’t handle the farming way of life, they’d say. He even stole a lamb, they’d say. You don’t say, they’d say. He did, and he fucked a tractor too.
“What if it escapes from the bin?” I said.
“And go where?” Maeve replied nodding to the frozen mountains surrounding us.
“You don’t have a Dublin accent,” Maeve said accusingly, as if I was not from Dublin at all. Desmond slowly nodded with closed eyes in silent agreement as he continued to slowly roast before what now looked like the gates of hell.
“You all have accents,” I heard myself say, not knowing what I really meant.
“Oh he’s a Dub alright!!” he roared before reducing himself to fits of laughter.
Maeve hit him on the arm, indicating for him to behave while Desmond chuckled as he packed his pipe.
‘I want to go home,’ I thought rubbing my arm.
Climbing an old wood staircase, we entered a small room that overlooked the courtyard. It had a short oak wardrobe and a single bed. This couldn’t be right.
“You and Seamus are sharing the bed” she said. It was not up for discussion.
“It’s an early start tomorrow so get a good night’s sleep.”
Before I knew it Maeve was gone and Seamus had stripped down bollock naked and grabbed the side near the window.
“This is my side,” he shouted, jumping in with gutso.
The following morning Seamus and I were driven to the town where we would all meet at the club house and get to know the locals before the day’s events. Michelle was making calls from the town’s payphone just outside the front door and she ignored me as I passed her. Inside, the adults huddled together in clouds of cigarette smoke as the rest of us ate crisps and drank coke. Mark seemed highly disturbed.
“How is your house?” he asked.
“I don’t like it, I’m up the mountains and they seem a bit weird. Last night…erm…I had to sleep…” Before I could explain Mark exploded.
“There’s been a mistake,” he said “You’re meant to be staying with me”. He was all smiles but his eyes looked anxious.
“Really?” I was relieved. I wanted to tell him about the lamb and Seamus sleeping naked and Desmond’s apparent immunity to fire and the whole accent fiasco but I wouldn’t have to now. I listened as Mark explained everything.
“They keep asking where the other one is. They had another bed made for you and everything.”
My own bed! Oh the joy.
“We should ask Grogan if we can get you to switch to my place,” Mark said, grabbing my arm and pulling me towards the nicotine cloud of laughter and deep booming voices.
Mark explained the situation again, the whole mix up. He was always charming, my mother especially loved him, but at this moment it was a performance that would have shamed the greatest of Shakespearean actors. Hands on shoulders, fake laughing, smiles a plenty. It was something to be seen. When Mark was like this, he could get anybody to do anything. But not this time.
“No way lads, I can’t do that. The game is only a few hours away, besides they never came to me about it.” Grogan was stern and final about it.
“You can’t be serious!” Mark pleaded, towering over him. He looked desperate. His mood suddenly soured.
“Mark, I’ll look into it. For now just focus on the match okay!” Grogan was not backing down.
Mark’s face was red with fury. He stormed out of the clubhouse leaving me alone with the men and their cigarettes. I found him outside, head in hands sitting on the short wall that separated the car park from a large ancient graveyard. It was raining so faintly you could barely notice.
“Don’t worry about it Mark, it’s just one more night.”
Mark just shook his head. I had never seen him so upset. We sat for a few minutes on the wall listening to the boisterous laughter inside the clubhouse. The rain picked up a bit but Mark wasn’t moving. Something wasn’t right.
“Is that true what you said about the mistake?”
He shook his head again.
“Then why did you say that?”
He pulled his hands away from his face. It was back to its pale color but his eyes were bloodshot.
“They’re awful,” he said. “They hate me.”
“When they brought me to the house, we all sat down for dinner. Nobody really said anything to me, they barley speak. Then they brought the food out in bowls and one was filled with all these carrots. When they passed me the bowl I told them I don’t eat carrots and the man shouted, ‘What do think this is? A fucking hotel?’ ”
Mark buried his head in his hands again. “They hate me,” he mumbled through his fingers.
“It’s just one more night Mark.” I decided to tell him about the farm I was staying at. He seemed somewhat relieved. He even laughed about naked Seamus.
“We have to beat them today, I mean really beat them. Like 20 goals to nothing or something,” Mark said, his mood now elevated by our shared misfortune.
“Yeah,” I said with all the enthusiasm I could muster with one hours sleep. I just wanted to go home.
As part of the trip, much to our surprise before the match was to be brought out to Valencia Island’s weather station to watch the launch of a weather balloon. Mark sulked through the whole thing but I was utterly amazed. It was explained in great detail the height it would rise to and how the balloon would grow far bigger because of air pressure. Once it left the ground I stood for as long as I could keeping my eye on it as it disappeared into the dark morning’s overcast sky. I was last back on the bus. Amazing.
The changing room smelled like every other one I’d ever been in, damp earth-like musk with a tinge of deep heat spray. We donned our boots and stood around Grogan as he told us what to do. I couldn’t understand a word of it. All I had to do was help Mark keep the ball out of our end of the pitch. If we failed we had our theatrics. We walked out to the field to see the other team at the far end kicking a ball around warming up. They really looked like they knew what they were doing. The ground was waterlogged and it was hard to walk through it, let alone run. There was a sizable crowd all cheering on the local team.
I took up position as the right back and chatted with Mark in the rain waiting for the game to begin. The game had been under way for a few minutes before we even noticed. Unlike sports on the television, there was no discernible structure or plan. A large group of eleven- year-olds formed a swarm around the ball and followed it around the pitch as managers and the crowd shouted at us. It was absolute chaos. Suddenly a player from the opposite team broke from the scrum of frantic kicking legs and charged towards our goal. The crowd went crazy as me and Mark looked at each other panicked. It was just the two of us and this guy was getting bigger by the second.
“Run out and tackle him!” Mark shouted, pointing to the oncoming player with a shaky hand.
“You run out and tackle him!” I said defensively.
“I’m the goalkeeper for fuck sake!”
“Fine, I’ll do it then, Jesus.”
I proceeded to run through the sodden pitch and towards the lone player. I had only gone a few feet when I got a good look at him. This isn’t happening! I turned to Mark and my face told him before any words met his ears.
“It’s Seamus, that’s the guy I told you about!”
“That’s him? Really? You have to sleep in a bed with that guy?”
“Keep your fucking voice down Mark you fucking arsehole, shut the fuck up, shut your fucking mouth!” I screamed turning to the crowd to see if they heard. They hadn’t. There were a few strange looks and odd glances but they had brought them from the pub earlier.
This scenario repeated itself in various forms throughout the game until the final whistle blew and although I don’t remember the score I did hear my manager say that it was the biggest loss his side had accrued in the history of the school.
The whole team showered and dressed in silence. Grogan told us we played well but were beaten by the better team and all that stuff you tell losers. It was clear to everyone that my inability to tackle and actually run away from Seamus along with Marks panic attacks lead to an embarrassing defeat. Mark done his hair up with copious amounts of hair gel and I used the aftershave he stole from his father. Everyone spilled out without saying a word to either of us, muttering under their breaths as they left. Alone, Mark and I packed our bags and just sat their in the changing room together.
“They’re giving us food down the pub. I won’t need to eat diner tonight,” said Mark.
“We should head down, they’ll be giving out medals and all that,” I said.
“Lets just hang here for a bit.”
I nodded and settled back on the bench and we listened to the crowds dissipate outside.
“…and this fella like, this fella right here right, he runs the opposite way,” Sheaus roared. Desmond closed his eyes and chuckled to himself.
“The rain was in my face,” I offered as my pathetic excuse.
“Not in the second half, it stopped like.”
“The wind was…”
“Wind, rain, for the love jaysus Colm do they play football indoors up in Dublin?”
“Mind that tongue Seamus, you we don’t like any bad language in this house,” Maeve shouted from the kitchen. Desmond nodded in agreement, throwing another log on his towering inferno. The rain outside picked up from a patter to a sharp stabbing at the window but inside it was burning hot.
“Sorry mam!” he screamed before turning impatiently to me, “What?”
“Get up and help your mother,” Desmond mumbled eyes closed laying back listening to the crackling fire. He left for the kitchen and then returned with Maeve carrying steaming bowls of food to the table. I looked at a large bowl of carrots and thought about Mark and the hotel he wasn’t staying in.
Over dinner we talked about the long bus trip back to Dublin in the morning, if I liked the town, which I did. It was really just a long street that ran all the way down to the sea and was filled with churches, pubs and small family run shops. I had enjoyed walking through it in the parade before the slaughter, but now that we were the joke of the town it seemed a somewhat embarrassing memory.
“Hard luck today Colm,” Desmond sighed as he reached the bowl of steaming carrots.
“Colin.” I said sulking. Maeve shot Seamus a look as she passed him the potatoes.
“Y’know Colm, with the weather and everything, I don’t know…I suppose its kinda hard to…” Seamus struggled to find the comforting words to ease my ego and make the last nights dinner palatable.
“Yeah, Colm…” Desmond chipped in, but he was lost too.
“Colin,” I repeated slowly.
“What?” Desmond said.
“Colin. My name is Colin.”
“Is everything alright with you Colm?” inquired Maeve. She had a worried look on her face.
“My name is Colin, you all keep calling me Colm.” I was breathless for some reason, and shaking.
“But that’s what we said,” pleaded Maeve.
“No, you say Colm but its Colin.”
“Colm, yeah we know” agreed Seamus, albeit mistakenly.
“Colin, Colin, my name is COLIN.” I screamed then spelled it out “C.O.L.I.N.”
Silence, except for the rain on the window.
“I think it’s time for bed,” said Maeve, then she swiftly began collecting plates while Seamus cleared the table.
I buried my head in my hands. Desmond got up and walked to the fire. I could hear him in the silence. I could hear everything.
The last night anywhere is always the quietest. The house creaked and the wind occasionally picked up but besides this there was not a sound. I had been lying in bed for about an hour playing back all the days events. I could not stop thinking of the weather balloon. Were is it now? Would it be somewhere directly overhead or far off over the Atlantic? Perhaps lost deep within dark clouds or soaring high wrapped in stars.
“Seamus,” I whispered. Not a stir.
“Are you awake?”
“You’re a fucking bastard.”
I closed my eyes and slept like a baby.