by Michelle McAdoo
You put a pillow over your head and bury your face in the duvet so that you don’t have to hear the sounds coming up from the street to your bedroom window. Your duvet smells faintly of the washing powder your mother has used all your life to launder clothes and sheets and sports gear and the scent should be comforting to you but it is not. It makes you want to throw up.
You can only muffle the noises from outside by putting the pillow over your head, you can’t completely block out the whoops and shouts and car-horns that tell you Bally have won the county.
In your mind you play out what has happened before the team arrived in the village.
The cup is handed over down at the pitch. Speeches. A train of cars, horns blaring, snake along narrow roads back to the village. Small bonfires on the ditches. Neighbours waving green and white flags. Honking horns. Flashing lights. Children jumping about in the fading evening light. Crudely-drawn signs.
‘C’mon the Bally boys!’
And now outside your bedroom window, you know the whole village is hollering and cheering and slapping the boys on the back as they parade up the street.
Later, Kevin Reilly will fill the cup in his pub and it will be passed around. You can imagine tee-total women, like your mother, taking a sip and then laughing as they hand the trophy back to the men on the high-stools at the bar. Danny will make a speech and toast ‘Everyone who made the win possible’ and the sing-song will go on long into the night and all the old, maudlin tunes will be sung and you know that very late down, someone will say, ‘We won this one for Billy Mac, boys,’ and for a minute there will be silence.
In the kitchen your mother is moving tea things around. You can just make out the clatter of cutlery as it is deposited onto the table and you know that soon she’ll bring a tray up and leave it outside your bedroom door. Sliced-pan, a hard-boiled egg, some salad leaves, a cut of ham.
You start to cry then and you hate yourself when you can’t stop the big, wet, salty tears coming. You sit at the edge of your bed with the pillow on your knees. You put your head in your hands and you let out terrible sobs that come from the pit of your stomach. You feel the tears and the snot on your face and you drum the heel of your hands against your forehead while you rock yourself backwards and forwards as you try hopelessly to dull everything.
Suddenly your mother talks through the door.
‘Can’t you open up, John, love?’
‘No, not tonight, Mam.’
‘Please, pet, let me in.’
‘No, Mam, I don’t feel like eating tonight.’
There is a pause before she speaks again.
‘I’ll just leave the tray here so.’
You hear the rattle of the tray as she places it on the floor and you listen for the creak of the broken floorboard as she pads back across the landing to the top of the stairs where she waits for a moment just in case you do decide to open the door. Then she is silent.
You have only left your room once in the last three months. You have been here since Podge and Con Moloney found you in the cold-store in the fish factory curled up in a ball, sobbing like a baby and didn’t know what to do with you. It is three months since Dr. Twomey gave you something to help you sleep and told you it was just your nerves. Three months and nothing feels any better.
Your room is small and plain. You have old posters of soccer players ripped from the pages of Shoot! magazine sellotaped to the wall above your bed. Giggs, Skolsjaer, Beckham, Keane, all smiling down at you as they pose in the old United kit. You have a number sixteen jersey with ‘Keano’ emblazoned on it still hanging in the pine wardrobe in the far corner of the room. Your father bought it for you when you were thirteen and you wore it every day for that entire summer.
There is an L-shaped crack in the ceiling that you spend time tracing in your mind. It runs the width of the ceiling and you wonder why your father has never re-plastered it. You know every corner of this room and you hate it, yet you don’t know how to leave.
You played football last season with the boys celebrating now outside your window. You played left-corner forward for Bally. In the semi-final last year you missed a free and lost the game by one point. You remember the sound the crowd made when you missed that score. It seemed to you, as if the whole village, standing in pockets behind the wire, inhaled as one while you stood over the ball and prepared to kick. When you missed and the shot sailed to the left and wide of the bar the crowd breathed out again and you left the pitch with that whistle echoing in your ears.
You remember your father patting you on the back as you came out of the dressing room and saying, ‘It wasn’t your fault, John,’ like he said to you the day Billy Mac was crushed and you knew he was lying to you that day also.
After Billy Mac things seemed to change. You remember how Master Bernie fell apart one day when he was reading a poem to your class. It was the Heaney poem, ‘Mid-Term Break’ from your Treasury of English, page 67. You remember he stopped reading half-way through and nobody in the room moved for a minute but then you all started glancing up because he had paused for a moment too long. You all looked at him then, just standing there at the top of the room with the book opened in his big hands, staring out the window, tears streaming down his face. Then you all looked around at each other, confused, until Podge put up his hand and said, ‘Sir’. He kind of snapped out of it then and asked Con Moloney to read on and you were glad he hadn’t asked you because your cheeks were burning and you felt like you were going to cry too for no reason.
He finished up with the teaching shortly after your class left primary school. He took early retirement. He’s in the nursing home in Castletown now, a breakdown, your mother said and you feel that was your fault too.
You hear the soft creak of the stairs as your mother comes up again later. You hear her sigh because you have not eaten anything and then the clatter as she gathers up the tray. In the kitchen you know she will throw the bread into the dog’s dish and put cling-film over the rest of the meal and return it to the fridge in the hope that you will take it tomorrow.
Your mother doesn’t know how to fix you so she brings you food. Sometimes you let her into the room to sit at the end of your bed and you both cry together. She sits there tracing the patterns on your duvet with her stubby fingers. Once she took the piece of kitchen paper she always has folded up her sleeve and went to wipe your face with it, but you recoiled from her so she knows not to try to touch you anymore.
Two weeks ago, she asked you to come with her to the community hospital. She said that she had made you an appointment with a specialist. You said you didn’t want to go but in the end you went.
It was your first day outside the house in the months since you lost it at the fish factory. Your stomach heaved in the sickly, coconut- scented air of the car as your mother drove you through the narrow roads to the hospital in her small Ford Fiesta. You were glad she didn’t try to talk to you or switch on the radio.
You were surprised by how muted everything seemed to you as you passed by the tangle of fields and ditches in full summer growth. You were surprised too, that the field beside the primary school was deserted and that the grass had grown so high around the goal-posts at either end, until you remembered it was August now and school was off for a few more weeks.
You had never been to the community hospital before. It was an old building that reeked of the chemicals your mother used to get rid of very deep stains. All the doors were closed and that unsettled you because you didn’t know what was happening behind any of them.
It was a grey place and the greyness seemed to cling to everything, to the chairs, the walls, the floors. Any other colour was sucked up into the drabness and all that was left over was something kind of faded and dull.
In the distance a telephone rang incessantly, so that you wondered if there was anybody else in the building but yourself, your mother and the psychiatrist.
When you left the psychiatrist’s room with a prescription in your hand, you walked back down the corridor and one door was open into a room where spastic adults were sitting at tables doing puzzles. You watched for a moment as one man tried to fit two bright red pieces together. You could see his tongue sticking out of his mouth slightly as he concentrated. Then someone came over and closed the door.
You hear yells from the street again but you don’t bother to cover your head now. You wish you could feel something, even disappointment, that you are not down there celebrating with the boys. You wish you could remember a good time. You wish you could remember a moment of joy that made you want to shout on the streets.
You can’t feel anything though. It’s as if someone has drawn a black veil over you and forgotten to remove it.
You never made any more friends after Billy Mac, not at school, not in the fish factory. You preferred to stay outside the group, just on the fringes. That way people knew you were there but you didn’t stand out.
Anytime you tried with people it didn’t work out. You remember last summer before you lost the semi-final; you went out for the night with some of the lads. Your mother was thrilled, she even ironed a shirt for you as you washed and your father threw you twenty euro before you headed across the road to the pub. You went to the hall after the pub and it was nuts. The dance floor was heaving and some of the girls from the fish factory were dancing near you and the lads; all short skirts and fake tan and hips and hair. Julie Maher pushed Lucy Ring into the middle of your group at one stage and said, ‘Fuck sake, Johnny, you going to score with Lucy or what?’ The lads started making low whooping noises but you went bright red and looked over nervously at Lucy and you couldn’t say anything. Lucy stayed five seconds too long in the middle of the group, kind of waiting, until Julie caught her by the elbow and pulled her away out of it and hissed ‘Frigid’ at you as she passed you by. The good was gone out of the night then so you finished up your drink and walked home, alone.
In a way, you envy Billy Mac. He’s the one with no worries now. He was your best friend when you were eleven. You played football with him every day in the field by the school. He was the goalie and you were Roy Keane. Three days after your class made their confirmation, Master Bernie bought real goal-posts for the field so that you didn’t have to take off your jumpers and use them to mark the goals anymore. Master Bernie said no one was to play in the field after school until he got proper hooks to secure the posts to the ground. You couldn’t wait. You told Billy’s mother you were going down to sit on the wall by the playground that day, but you both hopped the gate and went into the school field instead.
You had only taken three shots when you knocked it. It was a pretty good kick and the force of the ball made the goal-posts wobble. You remember that Billy looked around him as the steel bars rattled and you wanted to say, ‘Never mind, just kick the ball back out.’ Then there was a sudden gust of wind that caught everything up and the cross-bar slammed down on Billy and broke his neck.
After Billy died nobody talked about what had happened. You asked your father one day, a few weeks later, if Billy had died straight away. Your father said he didn’t know and that you shouldn’t ask questions about Billy anymore because it would upset your mother, so you never talked about him at home again.
In school Danny asked you what Billy looked like with his neck broken. ‘Did it just split in half? Was there much blood?’ he asked. You told him you couldn’t remember, but you lied.
There isn’t a night in the last three months, as you reach for sleep in the darkness of your bedroom, when you have not heard that crack and the piercing scream that followed. You have somehow lived with that horror all your life but after the day in the fish factory you couldn’t subdue it any longer. Now you can’t remember ever feeling anything other than the hellish despair and misery that you feel now. You wish that you could have died too, that someone could have knocked over a great big steel bar and crushed you to death. You think that would be the answer to this misery, not the pills or the appointments at the hospital but something more final.
You hear your mother and father moving around downstairs. You hear them flicking switches and locking doors and murmuring as they come up the stairs. Your mother knocks on your bedroom door and says ‘Goodnight, love’. She waits for you to answer so you mutter “Yea, goodnight, Mam,’ through the door to her and, satisfied, she heads on in to her own room.
You think it would be better for your mother if it was all over now. Then she wouldn’t have to be ringing up doctors looking for appointments for you or bringing trays of food up to your room and worrying when you didn’t eat it or sitting on your bed crying with you. She could move on.
You hear their bed creaking as your mother and father make themselves comfortable and you think it would be better for your father too, that he wouldn’t have to be embarrassed in Kevin Reilly’s pub anymore when someone asks him how you are.
Then, except for the sound of the water heater purring in the hot-press the house is silent.
Outside the street is quieter too. You know the boys have taken their celebrations to town now and there will be calm until the mini-buses return them to the village in the early hours.
You are used to this time of night, the never-ending quiet of it. You rise from your bed then and walk through the shadows to your pine wardrobe in the corner. You open it and the hangers inside jangle on the steel rod. There is your ‘Keano’ jersey, your good shirt and, thrown on the floor, your bag of football gear. You unzip the green bag with the words Bally Junior A Football Team printed on it and fumble in the tangle of shorts and socks and tins of Deep Heat for the rope you took from your father’s shed two weeks ago, the day you had been to see the psychiatrist in the community hospital.
Then you go to the bedroom door and turn the key in the lock to open it. You walk across the landing, careful not to stand on the broken floorboard and steal down the stairs to the back-door. You stop for a minute, about to take your windcheater from the peg on the wall and then shake your head at the stupidity of the idea. Why would you need a jacket tonight? The rope feels coarse in your hand, twisted into as neat a coil as you can make it. You close the door behind you, quietly.
The air outside feels cool; there is an autumnal bite to it. You walk quickly, decidedly, along the back road hoping not to meet any stragglers from the pub.
At the wall you throw the rope over first and then jump yourself. The drop is steeper than you remember. You see the goal-posts looming up into the shadowy darkness at the far end of the pitch and you make your way through the dewy grass towards them. When you reach the posts you touch the cool steel of the bars. They are rigid in the ground.
You need something to stand on, so you stop for a moment in the darkness to consider. You curse yourself for a moment thinking you can’t even plan this job properly. What if you can’t find something, what if you have to turn back?
Then you spot a boulder near the undergrowth that will do and you roll its dead man’s weight over to the spot. You lob the cord over the cross-bar and begin to make a knot.