“Well” by by Sarah Gilmartin

My father burnt the ball with Packie Bonner’s fake signature on it the morning after the accident. He carried it to the middle of our back garden and showered it with lawnmower petrol, stamping the cheap plastic into the ground with ugly words I’d never heard him use. When the ball finally disappeared, there was a hole in the ground and the grass around it was a dirty black like coal streaks on a clean carpet when the bucket spills on the way to the fireplace.

It stained my fingers.

“No point having a cremation too, is there James?” said Uncle Timo.

“Well.”

That’s what my father said back to him. Or maybe to someone else because he was looking at the flames, not at us.

He said it twice, with a minute’s pause between each word. There was an emphasis on it the second time which, even at ten years of age, I understood signalled the end of the conversation. And so, despite Timo’s earlier protests, for a long time after that none of us spoke while we watched the fire and felt its heat on our faces. A hopeless trinity standing like statues as the ball went up in flames. Before it exploded, plastic spraying as far as the hedges, the ball expanded and although I didn’t think of this at the time because my eyes were on my father’s eyes, I imagine the flames orbited in such a way that it appeared to him as if he had created his very own circle of hell. Ignoring the cries of my mother and aunts from the house, we continued to stand there as the ball kept burning and Packie Bonner’s name melted to nothing.

“He’s the best goalie Irish football has ever seen,” Timo said, as if we were mourning Packie instead.

Well.

That was the most popular word in Newport when I was growing up, maybe even in the whole of Tipperary because my cousins used it too and they were from Clonmel. Paulie picked it up when he was still a baby. My mother joked it was his first word, and maybe it was, I don’t remember. It covered a multitude of greetings and inquiries – hello, how are you, did you shake that cold, how’s the land, did she calve at all, will you have a cup, did you hear the news about the Egan’s young one, is there no dinner to be had in this house before we starve of the Hunger? Well?

Tom the postman, who would only come as far as our gate because he was afraid of Scrappy.

“Well, Marianne,” he’d shout in at my mother as he dropped the post on the grass.

“Well, Tom, well.” People said it in their sleep.

When she would walk myself and Paulie into town after school, strangers that passed would get the solitary word in acknowledgement and those my mother knew but didn’t want to talk to would get, “Well, Helena or Fionnuala or Siobhán or Father Maguire,” as she pressed hard on the back of our necks so we knew to look straight ahead and hurry along. As children, we never had to worry about it. Nobody expected ‘well’ from us.

Years went by, aeons it seemed like then, where we could run down Main Street to get Wham bars or fizzy cola bottles, or blackjack penny sweets from Mrs Gilhooly’s post office that stained your tongue blue like a liar, without anyone noticing us. We wore an invisible cloak. Our eyes flashed with secrets of broken glass and stolen stockings, the silk ones with the lace trimming that my mother had to go to Limerick to buy. We stuffed tennis balls inside and made Paul jump them until his legs went from under him. That’s what younger brothers were for. The fine line between fun and torture. Whizzing past Mrs Noonan and her slow sister from the bungalow as they made their pilgrimage to clean the church. We ran so fast that grazed knees weren’t noticed till bedtime. Past the older girls from the convent with their maroon skirts rolled up at the waist, school ties pulled down to bony chests and plumes of smoke coming from sticky mouths that hadn’t yet learnt how to inhale. Irish flags hanging out of every window on the street that summer, the green and white and gold melting together as we rushed past. Flying by Bull Henry the Butcher, with his pigs’ heads and sawdust floor.

“Bull Henry, Bull Henry, chops off heads with his knife!”

“Bull Henry, Bull Henry, please don’t murder our wife!”

Sometimes we’d shout out the song as we ran past but if he heard us, he never showed any sign. And that summer he probably wasn’t even there, but we moved too quickly to notice. Down the pub like everyone else, eyes glued to the match. As Ireland’s World Cup success shocked a nation only comfortable with losing, stripping the country of complaints so it was free for once to taste the sugar, we just kept on running, completely unaware of the future that was opening up for most of us.

Over the bridge that crossed the stony, shallow waters of the Mulcair. Down through the park where the merry-go-round and see-saw no longer worked because the Wrong Crowd had ruined them for everyone. Running so fast along streets that we owned. Jumping over Spasto, the lame dog who slept on the mat outside the bun shop. Pushing past our Granny’s friends who waited at the lights for the man to go green. Past Mr Conroy on the corner, guarding his wheelbarrow of empty bottles, as his former friends outside McCoy’s shouted abuse at him while they sat in the sun drinking pints he could no longer afford. As children, the town was ours in a way no adult could ever understand and that June in particular, when Ireland made it to the quarter finals of the World Cup for the first time, all they cared about was football and we could do as we liked.

*

Uncle Timo put his arm around my father that morning. It was the only time I have ever seen them touch as they stood in a trance by the burning ball. My eyes played stuck-in-the-mud with my face. Not at the flames, dancing together blue and orange, but at the tears running down my father’s face. He didn’t seem to notice them. They fell in thick straight lines like the time I left the garden hose on and drowned my mother’s crocuses. I had never seen him cry before and until that moment I didn’t realise that tears could be different. They were different from all the times I’d seen my mother cry. When she couldn’t get the machine to work, when my long hair was knotted after a bath on Sundays, when Paul was a baby and looking for a bottle, when the bread didn’t rise, when the key didn’t fit, when the shower wasn’t warm, when Scrappy went missing for an afternoon in the back fields, when there was no ham in the fridge. My father was one who dried the tears. He was the one who made everything ok again and as the ball burnt down to a puddle and the sulphur stung our noses, his tears made me shake until I could stand no more and had to kneel beside the ash.

“James, come on now. The child is watching you,” Uncle Timo said, as if I couldn’t hear him.

“Bring her inside,” said my father.

I asked him if he was all right.

“I’m still here Daddy,” I grabbed his hand.

He didn’t say anything, just kept looking at the plastic soup with its bubbles like chewing gum in the sun. Then he pulled his hand away and Uncle Timo told me to go back inside.

*

 

I’d seen plenty of women’s tears in my life. The day of my ninth birthday the summer before, my mother and five aunts roared red-faced to outdo each other at Granny’s funeral though they’d called her ‘a thundering bitch’ when she was alive. Granny’s waxy face, shiny like the coffee table on Sunday mornings after I Mr Sheen’d it, remained unmoved by this newfound affection. She stayed completely still in her coffin, taking in her banshee daughters with the same grim expectation she’d perfected in her last few years in the home.

“Well.” The men who came to the wake to shake the sisters’ hands looked down at their feet, clinging to the only word they knew to offer.

“Well, Francis. Thanks for coming. You’ll have a sandwich, won’t you?”

At home I always did the polishing and Paulie did the dusting. He was four years younger than me so I could tell him what was fair. The smell from the Mr Sheen made him dizzy. My mother didn’t mind either way, as long as the work got done and we were out of her way so she could cut the turnips in peace in the kitchen.

After Granny’s funeral in the summer, there’d been more women wailing when Nana died the following November.

“Couldn’t have gone in summer like mine,” my mother shivered beside my father at the graveside, while he watched the last of his mother sink into the ground.

“She loved the hard road Jimmy. But that’s the last of them gone now. No more for a while, thanks be to God.”

“Well,” said my father as he reversed out of the graveyard and that was the end of that. It was always more of a statement than a question, even when you were looking for answers.

*

We forgot about death a few months later when the excitement of the football took over. I remembered sitting on my father’s lap for the qualifiers the year before, and the screaming in the pub when Ireland got through, so I had some idea of what the fuss was about. We spent our last month in fourth class colouring everything we could get our hands on in green, white and gold. There was a run on green markers in Mrs Gilhooly’s and I heard her
tell our teacher that she’d had to order them in bulk from Musgraves to keep up with the demand. Art paper, photocopying paper, crepe paper, newspaper, plastic bags, old t-shirts and all our faces – anything that could be coloured Irish got the full treatment and by the time we beat Romania and got through to the quarter finals, having completely run out of colouring material, there was talk of dying the Mulcair green to show the boys over in Italy that even the small town of Newport, who hadn’t turned out a proper football player since 1952, was fully behind them and praying for their success.

It was the most eventful experience of Paul’s life.

Too young to recall the slog that led to Italia ‘90, he turned six on the 31st of May and was thrown headfirst into the sweaty highs and lows of football mania. Scared initially by the frenzied air that smothered the town that June, he embraced it like the rest of us after a few days.

“Come on Paulie, we named you after Ooh-Ahh McGrath!”

Even if it wasn’t true.

Paul McGrath, the first black man ever seen in a green jersey, melted thousands of hearts that summer in Ireland. Our town was full of grown men hugging each other, collapsing on pub floors while their wives ordered more brandies at the bar.

“Sure we’ll take the bottle, Johnny!”

“You’ll have me drunk dry,” said John McCloskey, the bar owner who wished there was a World Cup every summer.

Football took over our home as well and when the pub ran out of scampi fries, Paul and I were shown for the first time how the buttons worked on that mystical machine – the microwave – so we could heat the battered burgers from the chipper, or the three-in-ones from Wok ‘n’ Roll, and not go hungry.

 

*

 

Did we play a thousand matches in the street that summer with parked cars used as goalposts? I was always Ray Houghton because he was my father’s favourite, and I was Daddy’s girl above any footballer’s. Paulie could never choose between his namesake, out of loyalty, and Niall Quinn, Ireland’s tallest striker, or man, if you were to believe the hype down the pub. The town was like a carnival where all the streets were rides. There were teachers without chalk or cautions, singing happily in the street in the early afternoon. Cars driven home at all hours without feelings or fear. Sure weren’t the guards in the pub as drunk as anyone! Sweetshops left unattended, pounced on by my brother and I, and the hundreds of other kids that ran feral in this new jungle that had been our town. Normal order turned upside down and chaos reigned supreme, its theme tune a chorus of Olééééé – Olé, Olé, Olé that even babies could sing by the time the summer was over. “Well” became “Well!” and you could hear the adults shout it over and over as the team from the smallest country in the world, or so it seemed, progressed beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.

 

It happened on the night that Salvatore Schillaci’s goal hit the back of the net and put an end to our World Cup dreams. At some stage during that fateful ninety minutes, we took the ball with the fake signature that my father had bought for Paul in Champion Sport’s and organised a game on the street. Not enough room in the pub for the children to get near the screen. There were no cars on the road and when I think back on it, I don’t understand how we didn’t hear Donal Murray, who had just finished work in the court, in his blue Corolla tearing around the corner to catch the second half of the most anticipated quarter final that Ireland had ever witnessed. Maybe the shouts of Olé deafened us. Or maybe it was Paul’s victory song as he followed his Niall Quinn header around the corner to retrieve the ball.

But even with the cheers bursting from the pubs, filling the adult-free streets with echoes of responsibility, there was a moment of stillness that covered us when he did not return, freezing the game and all our positions before the screaming started.

We were not used to silence and it stretched like an autumn evening taking a final bow as winter crept over its ovation. I heard Donal Murray’s cries first and I believed, somehow, that Paul had injured him. But through the panicked cries of a young man, the high-pitched pain of my brother hit the evening air, a tuneless harmony emerging like sirens that shook us from our statues. He lay on the road, his body stretched in such a way his torso seemed to belong to a taller boy.

The right front wheel weighed down on his chest as Donal Murray shouted like a madman to a stunned group of children, begging us to tell him whether he should move his car.

The blood that covered Paul’s face was not the bright orange-red we knew from TV, but the colour of the uniform the older girls wore in the convent, glistening as it leaked onto the fresh tar. When I touched his forehead to tell him our father was coming, he screamed even louder, about what I can’t remember because his face felt like ice and I could think of nothing else. He was still screaming when my father came running from the pub but had stopped by the time the ambulance arrived. They brought him to the hospital anyway, but I knew there was no point even before they wrapped what was left of him in a bag that was much too big. Designed for an adult, or anyone except him. My father grabbed me face-first against his stomach when they started to pull up the zip, his arm wet and soft as jelly as it curled around my head, so that I saw the bright green of his jersey and nothing more.

*

At ten, I was the eldest make-believe footballer in the game and, therefore, in charge.  Though my father never said it – he was a kinder person than my mother – I knew the next morning when he took his hand from mine as we watched the fire in the back garden with Uncle Timo, that he would find it too hard to ever sit me on his lap again.

“Go in and wash that muck off your hands.”

When I went inside on Timo’s instruction, the accusations that could be heard in whispers through the women’s wailing were too much for me. I escaped down the street, walking quickly through the hangover of a town that had celebrated beyond its means. Head bent down, my line of sight a blur, I felt a hand on my shoulder that stopped me in my tracks. It was a neighbour friend of my father.

“Well,” his face creased in sympathy as my tears fell at his feet.

His eyes were like strange mirrors of my own as he stared straight at me. Looking down at my ash-stained fingers, I knew what was expected of me.

“Well,” I replied and continued walking.

Biographical Note:

Sarah Gilmartin spent four years as a business and features journalist before turning to fiction. She graduated in 2011 from the UCD masters in creative writing with first class honours. Her poem Questions and Answers was published last April in Ropes Literary Journal, launched in conjunction with the Cúirt International Festival of Literature 2011. Her short story Well was one of the winning entries for the Lonely Voice short story competition, run by the Irish Writers Centre, in July 2011. As part of the masters, she helped edit and launch an anthology of short stories and poetry, Everything Its Own, which includes her own story Alarm Bells. Sarah was long-listed for the Fish Anthology in both 2010 and 2011 for the short story category and poetry category respectively. She is currently writing her first novel and works as a facilitator for the Faber Academy creative writing courses in Dublin.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: