“Away Game” by John O’ Donnell

Paul had just stepped out of the shower when he heard her call his name. He towelled himself down and reached for the bathrobe hanging on the back of the door, pausing in front of the mirror for a brief, approving look.  Again Maggie called him, from the bedroom. “Your plane” she said. “I think your plane just crashed”.

She had the TV on, turned up loud. Sky News. A man clutching a microphone was standing with his back to Terminal One, recounting anxiously what had happened. Irish Plane Crash-Lands In Heathrow, the red text said below. Maggie had been flicking through the menu for Room Service; it lay open on the bed beside her. “Awful” she murmured. “It’s so awful”.

He stared at the TV screen, trying to understand what the man with the microphone was saying. Flight EI 166. It was definitely the same flight; the flight he’d taken the trouble even to pay for, the computer printout details stuck by a fridge magnet to the door of the fridge at home. He could hear the urgent whine of sirens as emergency vehicles streamed towards the stricken fuselage. A diagram of an aircraft came up on screen, with a circle around the wheels of the landing gear, and an arrow to the fuel lines. “Flight EI 166 was full of Irish fans,” the reporter explained, “all travelling to cheer their team on in tonight’s World Cup play-off game. Now it’s being suggested that the game should not be played.”

The team were already in London. They’d qualified three weeks ago, in Tel Aviv. A goal in the last minute; Robbie Keane. The first leg of the play-offs was tonight: Ireland against England, at Wembley. But Paul would not be there. Despite what Paul had loudly told just about everyone: Jane, their two boys James and Richard, the office staff; despite all that he had said, Paul would instead be here, in Paris, for one night with Maggie, in a small bedroom in this over-priced hotel. But it was her idea, Paul reassured himself, tightening the cord on his bathrobe. This whole trip had all been her idea.

He stood near the left side of the crumpled bed, the same side he had recently lain on. Maggie shifted slightly to her right and tossed the Room Service Menu to the floor, making room beside her. But Paul did not sit down. “That’s Spidey’s plane” he said. And Hogan. And Munnelly. They’d been standing a little bit behind Paul and Maggie in the security queue at the airport earlier that day, Spidey smirking and winking at Maggie while Hogan and Munnelly hurriedly conferred. “She’s a cracker, Maggie. A real cracker”, Spidey had said, a strange look in his eyes when Paul had told him, the night before, about Paris.

Although it was still late afternoon, the light coming from outside seemed then to falter slightly.  Maggie stiffened. She inclined her head towards Paul but did not make eye contact with him; she was still looking at the screen. “Not Spidey” she said, a little quickly. “Awh no, not Spidey. I really liked Spidey”. She was leaning forward now; her hands were pressed against her face. Paul glanced at her; were those tears? He looked away, studying instead a watercolour of the Eiffel Tower on the opposite wall. He’d seen them flirting in the office; Spidey churning out those stupid jokes while Maggie’s dumpy body wobbled as she giggled. Spidey and Maggie? Spidey? Paul felt a surge of temper. He snatched up the remote control and turned the volume down, but the sound of the sirens persisted faintly in his head. He could hear another sound as well, a familiar cheeping tone; his mobile phone, pulsing in his jacket. Paul allowed it to ring out. The phone bleeped twice then, an accusation. You have 1 missed call. Neither of them moved.

 

“We need some air in here”, he said. The room was not much wider than the double bed; in three strides he was over by the window. He turned the handle and pushed the window outwards, but it would only open a few inches. He closed it and yanked at it again, harder this time, but the window would not budge. “Just leave it, Paul” said Maggie. He did not look at her, but instead tried the window one more time and managed to prise it open, although no more than six inches. Paul pressed his face into the gap and tried to feel the air of the city on his face. The side-street the room gave out on to was narrow and silent, though Paul could hear not far away the noise of cars and horns and motorbikes. He stood at the window, looking out, his back to Maggie and his hands spread either side of the sill. Below him, to the right, a succession of boarded-up doors and windows. Opposite, a clothes shop selling cheap T-shirts, piled in mounds in the front window. To the left, an elegant wooden door covered with graffiti, above which hung the name in long-dead neon:  “L’Oignon Restaurant”. And at the corner where the side–street met the thoroughfare, a little store, with outside a single table and two chairs, both of which were empty, under a sign that said: “Café –Bar-Tabac”.

He turned back into the room.  Maggie was still naked, looking at the screen. She clung to the bed-sheet, two small white bunches in her fists. She was weeping. “Oh God” she said. “Oh God”. There were cameras out by the runway now as well, showing the ambulances and fire engines hosting towards the smouldering plane, their blue lights flickering in the bleak autumnal air. Paul’s phone thrummed again; a text message. He reached over to his jacket. “We love you so much. Please please be OK. XXX”. Jane’s mobile. She’d heard a news-flash, maybe, on the radio in the kitchen. He tried to imagine it: the two boys sitting at the table still in their football gear, squabbling over sausages, and in the background the murmur of the Saturday afternoon sports programme, interrupted by the news from Heathrow coming in. He put the mobile phone down on the bedside locker. Beside it the champagne-glass was still half full, though the bubbles had disappeared. He raised the glass briefly to his lips; it tasted sweet, and flat. “Poor Spidey” Maggie was saying. She had her knees up to her chest and was rocking back and forth. The bed creaked slightly. “I don’t believe this” muttered Paul. “I don’t fuckin’ believe this”. He could hear another sound in his head now; the raw, red sound of rage. He hated Maggie; hated her fat ass and her stupid mid-Atlantic drawl and her big brown tear-filled eyes. “I know” said Maggie in a whimper, clutching the bed-sheet even more tightly. “All of them just gone. Isn’t it so awful?”. “I don’t mean them” Paul said, his voice rising. “I mean…”. He tailed off then; Maggie was looking over at him. Her smudged mascara made her look like she’d been punched in both eyes, hard.  “What do you mean?”. “Never mind, Maggie. Never mind”. Maggie heaved herself up off the bed; he watched her as she waddled towards the bathroom. “Jesus, Paul” she said stopping to look back at him. “You’re such a… such a ..”.

The door of the bathroom clicked shut. Paul slumped onto the bed and briefly closed his eyes. Sky News had gone into full disaster mode; unceasing, relentless. An aeronautical engineer was talking about struts and rivets, and how much fuel a jet this size would carry. A woman spoke, almost in a whisper, about death and families. Bereavement Counsellor, the caption said. Beside the TV the wardrobe’s opened door revealed the green silk dress she’d looked so good in on that Wednesday after work, when they’d first met. Ireland had been playing an away game that evening; the bar had been thronged, anxious faces in shiny replica shirts craning upwards, watching the TV. “Guess I’m wearing the right colour tonight, huh?” she’d grinned. Another dress waited on its hanger. All the other hangers in the wardrobe were empty.

Out in the street the light had faded further; the room was now almost in gloom. Paul reached over and flicked on one of the switches. From overhead the light of the cheap three-bulb fitting suddenly filled the room, soaking everything in its merciless yellow glare; the bed, the clothes tossed together on the single chair, the half-drained bottle of sparkling white wine. He rose and squatted at the mini-bar, opening the door to peer in briefly at its contents before slamming it shut. Again he stood, hands on his hips. He shook his head, once, at the injustice of it all. From inside the bathroom he could hear water running; and also the sound of angry breathless sobs. Paul dressed quickly. “Back soon” he said, very quietly, to the locked bathroom door as he left. At the desk in the lobby a tiny TV was showing the press conference which had just begun: the two football associations were postponing tonight’s game as a mark of respect for the dead. The receptionist grimaced perfunctorily at him as he went through the entrance and out onto the little street. The pavements were empty. Cars were parked along one side. He turned left towards the corner and crossed over, nearing as he did the little sign for the tabac.

It was colder on the street than he had expected. At the counter in the tabac the Algerian assistant greeted him with indifference, shrugging when Paul asked for café au lait outside. He sat back in one of the spindly metal chairs. The Algerian brought the coffee and the bill; E3.50. Paul handed him E5 and with an exaggerated flourish waved away the change. The Algerian nodded, almost imperceptibly, and disappeared. Paul placed his phone on the little table and stirred in sugar from the sachet. Any moment now Maggie would call, but he would not answer. She would leave a message, demanding to know where he was and what did he think he was doing, walking out of the hotel room like that. Later, much later, he would perhaps explain. The shock, he might say. Or, that he needed space.  He would not mention Spidey’s name. But he’d come up with something. A goal in the last minute; something.  Paul sipped his coffee; it had cooled already in the early evening air. A street lamp brightened suddenly beside him, then another and another. His phone began to pulse, vibrating slightly on the table as it sang out its tinny little tune. Paul leaned forward slightly to see the caller’s name flashing on the screen. Home, it blinked, again and again. Home. Home. Home.

 

© John O’Donnell 2011

Biographical Note:

John O’Donnell has won various prizes for poetry, including the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Award, the Ireland Funds Award and the Seacat National Poetry Prize. He has published two collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Icarus Sees His Father Fly (Dedalus Press). His first short story Promise was short-listed for the Hennessy/Sunday Tribune Award in 2010.  He lives in Dublin.

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