THE helmet is gone by the fifteenth minute. Gabriel’s wife would not approve – she always worries about the possibility of injury – but he can’t see properly, and he knows she isn’t watching. It’s too warm, the sunshine is too shrill. His skull fills the helmet, pressing against the padded rim. He can feel a tightness in the mind, a pulsing reminder of last night’s drink. The helmet has to go.
This skinny little whippet at number thirteen has the legs on him, and Gabriel knows it. Three balls sent in so far – one fell away into a larger confusion, the other two gathered by the young fella and popped over the bar. And he has goal on his mind. Gabriel recognises the look, the single-minded arrogance, that expectation of success. He assumes he was like that fourteen or fifteen years earlier. He can’t quite remember. He feels his age now: thirty-four years young and beginning to spread in the middle. His own fault, really: a relaxing pint last night drifted into cards, shite talk and many more pints, and he didn’t hit sleep until after one. This is the habit on Saturday evenings. Not a bad habit, not necessarily a good one either.
Another ball; higher this time, thank God. He’s banjaxed on the low ones: he hasn’t the flexibility he used to, that sinuous equilibrium. Gabriel gives the lad a little nudge with the handle of the hurley, not hard but just enough to discommode him, tilt his sense of balance. Number thirteen shoots up the arm and claws, but misses – the sliotar grazes his fingertips and runs harmlessly through to Kiely in goals. The young fella rests his hands on his hips, a sulky sort of stance, and turns to Gabriel. Don’t catch his eye. Don’t let him read the guilt there. His opponent shakes his head, pissed off, and mutters something under his breath.
That’s okay – he has the right to be annoyed. Gabriel remembers his own days at corner-forward, concave chest and white legs like pistons. He could run all day and had that killer change of pace, the little jink, the shoulder tilt. He made a fool out of enough crotchety old defenders to allow himself a wry smile at the present reversal of fortune. This lad is good: he’s fast and direct, stronger in the upper body than most teenagers, and he’s not afraid of taking a few belts. Gabriel isn’t the dirty sort, but he’ll dish out a little pain if needed, a test of mettle. If the kid is clattered and hops back up for more, he’ll have earned those scores. Gabriel will shake his hand and say well done.
The parish is losing. It’s only league, a late spring warm-up for the championship group stage, but it’s a local derby so it has meaning. Bragging rights and renewed boldness for the year ahead are the prizes. And it has an added meaning for Gabriel: he isn’t sure of his place anymore. He’s on trial for his own position. The selectors were ambiguous when naming the team last night. Connolly said, ‘The usual line-up, lads. Gabriel, we’ll leave you in at four, see how you go.’ See how you go? There’s encouragement. He’s philosophical about these things, deep down – if his time is up, it’s up – but he has pride. A stubborn inclination to make it harder for the selectors to drop him.
The townie midfielder comes charging through, the focus point of a wave of attack. He’s cleaning up; the two boys can’t get a handle on him at all. He lays it off to the centre-forward, a looping hand-pass. Gabriel braces, glances behind him, peripheral vision on high alert. His man is gone. The centre-forward flicks it, neat-wristed. Gabriel stretches out the hurley but he’s right-handed, reaching across himself. He misses. The sliotar skims along the grass, thirteen pops it up, one touch and cracks it at goal. Kiely is taken by surprise but instinct juts his hurley out. He makes the block, the sliotar dribbles out for a ‘65’.
Gabriel trots to position, self-conscious, swearing under his breath. The full-back, a shovel-handed ignoramus called Pettit, shouts over, ‘Will you fucking stay close to him, Gabriel. That’s three times now.’ Gabriel nods and gathers his resolve. He stands close to thirteen; their hurleys make vague jabbing motions toward each other’s ribs, a half-hearted sort of intimidation. The opposition full-forward looks over at Gabriel’s man and says, ‘This time, now, Lukey. You have him this time.’ Luke: that’s obviously the kid’s name. Gabriel nestles in closer, one knee bent inside its support bandage. The ‘65’ is whistled and struck – it sails wide.
He trots back to position, staying within a three-yard radius of Luke. There isn’t much of a crowd here, though the pitch looks well in the noon sunshine, a neat rectangle of green with smartly whitewashed walls along three sides. The sod is a little lumpy, winter’s hardness still to ease itself out; the ball isn’t running true. Play is at the other end now, and Gabriel takes a rest. Time catches up on the body, he knows. His chest burns slightly, the poisonous lacquer of two decades of cigarettes restricting his breathing. Every year it gets that bit harder to overcome the effects of smoking, and every year he promises to quit in time for the championship. He shakes his head to clear the fuzziness, the solar haze.
Shouts drift on a light breeze, across the field, from management and supporters, from hurler to hurler, along the military lines of play. Pettit yells over, ‘Come on, Gabriel. You’re doing alright. Stay with him.’ Gabriel smiles sarcastically, and is sure he sees the young fella smiling also. Mucus has accumulated in his lower throat, but he knows it won’t come up yet. Thoughts pop into his head of a match he played, two or three years previously, when brutally hungover from a birthday party. The sweet stench of alcohol leaking through his skin, the embarrassed surety that his marker could smell it. Nausea and bone-deep tiredness, a dread certainty that he was going to vomit at any moment. But he made it to the end.
His man is moving again, spinning away from Gabriel’s shoulder. There’s the sliotar, leisurely passing his head, spinning white against an azure backcloth. He curses his inattention and stretches his arm skywards, desperate. It’s just enough: he tips the ball off course and Pettit and his man tussle for it. Pettit shoves the full-forward away with his brawny arse and the sliotar squirts out of the ruck. Gabriel’s instincts are sure: he lifts and clears without catching. A cluster of aficionados behind the goal cheer appreciatively. Gabriel allows himself a discreet smile. The half-time whistle blows and he walks slowly to the huddle, stopping to eject that mucus from his throat.
Connolly is somewhat self-important; he brings the asinine jargon of business to his team-talks. Gabriel has done some work for Connolly’s haulage firm, networking their offices and so on. Connolly is like this all the time. Some of the lads sit on the grass, but Gabriel stays standing. He doesn’t admit that this is because he’s afraid of stiffness setting in, ageing muscles losing their elasticity. He ambles around the group, aimless and purposeful, keeping his legs limber. Connolly’s voice rises; he says, ‘One big push for the first ten, lads. Keep to the game plan and it’s plain sailing after that.’ The captain adds a few words, a little sheepish, and players stroll to their reversed positions.
Forty seconds after the whistle has blown, and Luke has already poached another point. Gabriel wasn’t caught unawares this time. He was sharp and intuitive, he followed the flow of the move and knew exactly what to defend. He just couldn’t do it. The kid was that half-second quicker off the blocks, his feet too assured in their directional changes. Gabriel is simply relieved it was only a point. He looks to the sideline, squinting, where Connolly and his team of selectors confer. Frowns, scribbles in a notebook. Gabriel feels his time drawing in. Connolly won’t give him another five minutes.
He sees the selectors write and remembers a letter of complaint he had sent to a Sunday newspaper, years before. A bitter, vindictive columnist had trashed hurling as a sport, making unfair comparisons with professional soccer and castigating hurling folk as horny-handed, god-fearing rednecks. Gabriel had thought of his college degree, his trips to South America and the Middle East, his agnosticism and penchant for French cinema. He had thought of his Weltanschauung, modest and progressive, and been angered. He fired off a fifteen hundred word screed in defence of his game, his peers and himself. It wasn’t published, but Gabriel was proud he had done it.
One paragraph had read, ‘Controlling a sliotar travelling at high-speed towards your face, killing it dead just enough to drop into your hand, is a sublime coalescence of brain, eye and muscle. As is doubling on the ball overhead, calculating that quantum moment when ball and arc of swinging hurley meet. Or snapping the sliotar into your hand from a static position on the turf, or making a flying block on an opponent. Sir, hurling is often good, and very often great. Even the lowliest junior C match will throw up the odd moment of magic or flash of brilliance. I know this because I’ve produced one or two myself. Even as an average teenager slogging around a muddy field, the possibility for greatness was always there and sometimes realised. I remember vividly one game, aged about fifteen, standing near the sideline as a high ball banked towards me in a huge curve. I waited for a moment, stepped in and met that ball bang on, connecting just as it touched the ground and driving it forward by eighty yards. Apparently the scientific term for what I had done was “calculating the parabola of an ellipse”. But your columnist knows nothing of such things. He is an ignorant man.’
He smiles in remembrance; that moment is still, unbelievably, fresh in his mind, twenty years on. He had been playing poorly, was out of position, angry at the coach for perceived slights. That ball had risen into the air and Gabriel had followed its flight, vowing to himself that he would claim it, a private, redemptive act. It took an age to drop, and he knew, long before it landed, that he would connect with it. It was a simple and inviolable truth, a feeling as if stepping outside himself and observing all the elemental parts of this moment come together: he knew. He didn’t even have to think about swinging his hurley at exactly the right time: he knew he would. It was an inevitability. He felt euphoric.
Gabriel snaps back to reality as the referee’s whistle signals a free for the opposition, on the halfway line. He glances around – nobody seems to have noticed his absence. Players jog backwards into vaguely defined zones, readying themselves. Kiely barks orders to the defence as a whole, to Pettit directly in front. Pettit catches Gabriel’s eye and nods, a command, an encouragement. Gabriel stoops and faces the play, half a yard behind his man. The free lands – a knot of players fight for possession on the twenty-one yard line – the centre-back half clears it. The sliotar fizzes along the grass, out on the left. Gabriel reacts a split-second too late.
Luke is ahead of him, and accelerating. Gabriel thinks he hears one of his teammates roar, ‘It’s mine!’ but ignores this. He runs, the bad knee actually creaking under his weight. The kid bends, scoops the ball into his hand, a quick look at the posts, a second look for a better-placed colleague. There are none: the goalmouth is bustling, chaotic. Gabriel is within a few yards now, sweat beading under his eyebrows, that salty wetness blurring his vision. Luke tips the sliotar once on the bas of his hurley, takes a step forward, throws and swings. Gabriel crashes down on the arc of the swing, hurley an extension of the body following through. He feels Luke’s hurley crack on his ribs, that ashy snap. Nothing broken, though he knows there will be bruising. The ball drops between them, tired in the sod. Gabriel grits his teeth and flicks it away, eight or ten yards. A herd of other players chase it. Eventually one of the parish defenders clears.
One of Luke’s teammates is shouting at him: ‘Why didn’t you take the fucking thing in? There was a goal on there!’ Luke shoos him away, shakes his head angrily, fiddles with the metal hoop on his hurley. Gabriel stands, pain oscillating from armpit to hipbone, then subsiding. He breathes a few times, wills himself back to normality. Pettit slaps his back hard, bellows, ‘Great block, Gabriel! Great fucking block!’ Gabriel nods his thanks, holds the hurley over his head for a few seconds. He looks to the sideline: a substitute is warming up. A young lad, Hayes, the fourth generation of his family to play for the club. The boy jogs to the referee, hands him the slip of paper. Gabriel starts walking towards him before he reaches their position.
The boy tells him, ‘Connolly says I’m to come on for you, Gabriel.’ Gabriel smiles, shakes his hand, says, ‘Alright.’ He turns back – Luke has trotted out with him. Gabriel gives the opposition thirteen his hand, says, ‘Good game.’ Luke shakes, a bit distracted, and replies, ‘Yeah, yeah, good game, mate. Best of luck to you.’ Gabriel walks to the sideline, Connolly nodding towards him, almost sincere, and grabs a towel and bottle of water from a communal bag. He wipes the back of his neck and closes his eyes, feeling the sun as it dries the sweat across his forehead. Gabriel runs a hand back through his hair and sprinkles his face with water. The tightness in his head is gone now. He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes. He sits on the concrete steps and wordlessly cadges a cigarette off someone. He turns back to the pitch. The game goes on.