There was no hope for him this time: the liver was beyond all repair and they didn’t give new ones to people like him. I passed by his classroom everyday and studied the substitute sitting behind his desk with his shoulders slumped timidly like a brae that slips and slides into a river. Surely, I thought, they would announce it over the intercom if he had died. I remember him saying to me all the time: “I dunno if there’s much left in the tank,” and I supposed he was just talking the same shite as he always had, speaking of his own mortality with the same amount of exaggeration he used for performances on the hurling field. Now I know he was right. The last few weeks of training, I couldn’t concentrate as I stood in the field, hurl in hand, some other obscure figure standing there, whistle in mouth trying to marshal the panel and I would look towards his classroom and throw words like cirrhosis and depression around in my head. They had always sounded weird to me, like when he used to shout muascail or meatachán, but now it was as if they were some omnipresent monster duo that filled me with dread; leaving me heartsore yet wanting to reach out and see first hand the damage they caused.
My auld lad was sitting at the fire shuffling logs around when I came downstairs for dinner. He turned around while my mother was dishing out the food, as if he was picking up on a point he had just dropped and said: “Ah I’m not sure… there was something a bit off… he was a bit of a quarehawk. D’ya know something…” He turned back to the fire when he saw me looking at him, arranging the logs and his thoughts. That auld bollox; I used to laugh at his stories about breaking hurls and drawing lines in the ground that full-forwards weren’t allowed to cross, but I eventually got sick of his endless fables about back in his day.
“The way I look at it,” he said, “he was one of those, y’know, one of the odd, unsolvable cases…” He started staring deeply into the fire without ever expanding on what he meant. My mother saw me staring and said to me: “Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but the auld man is gone.” I turned and asked: “Who?”
“Is he dead?”
“Yes love, Mr. Twomey just sent out a text to the senior team.”
I knew that my father was watching me, so I started eating my stew as if the news had meant nothing to me, but I could feel my face drain and I sat wordless and etiolated in my heartbreak. My older brother looked at me from across the table and said quietly: “He thought the world of you. Taught you everything we couldn’t; Twomey says he was convinced you were going all the way.” My mother ran her right hand over her face and cupped her chin. “Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis,” she sighed before walking away. My father’s low, sinister eyes examined me, but I refused to give him the satisfaction of looking up from my plate and he eventually turned back towards the fire.
“He took too much of an interest in him if you ask me,” he spat into the flames.
“How do you mean?” my brother asked and I wished he wouldn’t indulge him.
“There’s too much coaching going on these days. Too many young lads thinking too much about what they have to do once they get on the field. The way I look at it is this: the way to get young lads to understand the game is to get them on the field playing games. Never mind this one-on-one shite. Am I right?”
“Well, the one-on-one stuff is to make them understand the game better,” my brother answered him. “Like, there’s no point in playing games if you don’t know what to do in the game. So many lads even on our team haven’t the slightest clue what to do with themselves because they didn’t have someone like O’Donnell.”
“Why do you think it’s bad for them, love?” my mother asked as she served my brother a second helping of stew.
“Young lads are so impressionable that if they’re taught to analyse every step and every swing from such a young age, they’ll never learn how to enjoy the fecking thing. Too much thinking and not enough doing; that’s all these boys’ problems.”
I shovelled my stew into me for fear that I might tell the old-fashioned prick to fuck himself. I went to bed early that night, but couldn’t sleep until late. I agonised over what my father had left unsaid in his unfinished sentences while he faced the fire. Memories of games and trainings past kept appearing to me and I pulled my blankets over my head to try to get away from them. Still, O’Donnell appeared at the side of my bed, a diaphanous wraith, just as he had been on the sideline. His shouts seemed urgent, but they made no sense now. I fell into a deep sleep and he appeared to me there too, but he wasn’t roaring and bawling anymore; he was talking in the reserved manner that he used while giving me lifts home. I couldn’t figure out why his eyes were so red and his beard so messy. His hair looked longer too. I smiled along as he tried to explain something to me, but he still made no sense.
Training was off the next day so after breakfast, I put a hoodie over my uniform jumper, changed my school shoes to white runners and went into the town, down to Patrick Street, to the house in which he had lived alone. The door was lying open and there was an assortment of Mass cards on the table where he used to leave his keys in a crystal bowl. I walked inside and picked up a card that read:
In loving memory of John O’Donnell
July 1st 1950 – January 30th 2016
Funeral mass held at St. Patrick’s Church, February 2nd at 9:30 A.M.
Internment at Foulkstown Cemetery
O gentlest Heart of Jesus, ever present in the Blessed Sacrament,
Ever consumed with burning love for the Poor captive Souls in Purgatory,
Have mercy on the Soul of Thy departed servant.
Be not severe in Thy judgment, but some drops of Thy Precious Blood fall
Upon him, and send, O merciful Saviour, Thy Angels to conduct
Him to a place of refreshment, light and peace. Amen.
May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
The card was the last bit of persuasion that I needed to accept that he was dead. If he weren’t dead, I wouldn’t have gone past the doorway. Usually I just knocked and he would rush out to meet me, grab his keys from the bowl on the table and we would go to the school’s fields. Sometimes my mother would send enough sandwiches with me for him to have some. They always shook him from the stupor in which I often found him during those mornings. It was me who had to go and gather all of the sliotairs because he said that his knees were too creaky, even though he was well able to bend them to show me how to take sideline cuts once I had gotten them all. Maybe it was all those days spent in the rain that had weathered his skin; giving him the beat-down and constant under the weather look he wore for all the time I had known him.
I wanted to go into the room where he lay, but wouldn’t have felt right imposing on the family members I heard inside. This stupid little boy incapable of words or tears coming to gawk at their dead loved one. The day was weird for January; the sun was just fading away after a bright, cheery start to the day and I felt nothing. There was blankness where any mourning or sadness should have been. There was some hint at a sense of relief, but nothing substantial enough to be called a feeling and certainly not one that I intended on developing. I didn’t want to feel as if his death had given me some form of independence, because my brother was right, he had taught me everything. He had played with Kilkenny and told me stories about Leinster and All-Ireland finals. He described how the dressing rooms in Croke Park had been then and what it was like marching behind the Artane Boys Band during the parade before the games. He taught me when to take on my man, when to pass and when to go for the point. He would put scenarios to me, asking what I would do if given a penalty while one point down in the last minute of a game. He showed me how relatively simple hurling was if you just “cut out the bullshit”; he was always screaming at the team to cut out the bullshit. The duties of the coach toward the beauty of the game seemed so solemn to me because of him that I wondered how anybody could find it within themselves to be so committed. His brain was an encyclopaedia; he remembered every hurler to have ever passed through the school’s doors. You knew you had done well on the field when his eyes, with their craquelure of broken veins, ignited and he smiled enough to show you his flaxen-dyed and chipped teeth. Walking home, I tried to remember my dream from the night before, but all I could think of were the vague shouts and a set of goalposts. I still couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was saying and I couldn’t remember how it had ended.
After dinner my mother took me back into town and to his house again to pay our respects. It was fully dark by then and his sister received us in the hall. Her macerated eyes were red like his; only you could tell that it wasn’t permanent in her case. We shook hands with her and said our sorry-for-your-losses and she invited us into what had been his sitting room, where his body now lay in his coffin, on a bier. His pale, stiff hands were interlocked on his stomach and my mother placed her own hand on them when she walked up to the coffin. Sensing my hesitance to enter as I hovered in the doorway, his sister beckoned me closer. I went in, light on my toes – like he always taught me – and sat in one of the seats that encircled the coffin, pretending to pray as a decade of the rosary was said. He had what looked like a grin etched in the recess of his grey gossamer beard. His now even whiter complexion drew more attention to the damson spots from blood vessels bursting throughout his face as he remonstrated with players and referees alike from the sideline. I blessed myself as I walked out of the room and into the kitchen; O’Donnell’s sister followed and turned on the kettle for what was probably the hundredth time that day. As I sipped the cup of milky tea that she insisted on me having, I heard his two selectors, Flynn and O’Keefe, enter the empty sitting room behind me.
“Heard it was peaceful enough in the end,” I recognised as Flynn’s voice saying.
“So they say,” O’Keefe answered. “The Lord cut out the bullshit for him.”
“He looks happy in a way.”
“Yeah, like he’s smiling.”
“Probably was happy, knowing him.”
“Delighted to finally get it over with, I’d say.”
O’Donnell’s sister sat down into a chair that had been moved into the kitchen. Her arms sagged over the sides as she slowly wilted down into it; the way she sat reminded me of how O’Donnell used to sit into the wheelie chair behind his desk after returning from a match. She was depleted. She put her hand to her forehead and my mother set about making her a cup of tea.
“We won’t be bringing the water bottles anymore,” Flynn started again.
“Or that little bottle of Paddy either,” laughed O’Keefe.
“Jesus, do you remember how he used to get if you forgot?”
“Oh Lord have mercy on us all, it was a nightmare. He was a divil if he didn’t get it.”
“He needed it, in fairness to him. Couldn’t deal with the young lads otherwise.”
“Couldn’t deal with himself more like.”
“Yeah,” Flynn sighed and there was an interstice of silence. “Ah… He was a disappointed man. You could see that.”
I gestured to my mother that I wanted to leave and once she had O’Donnell’s sister sorted with a few sandwiches – all ham and butter – we made our way out into the hall. My mother stopped again to check back and see if there was anything that needed to be done the next day or for the funeral. I paused in the hallway just as we were leaving, I leaned against the doorframe and heard Flynn say to O’Keefe:
“C’mere, did you ever hear the story about the time Twomey found him out on the field?”
“Well, Twomey got into school one day around his usual time, half seven or so, to open the place up. And d’ya know the way he usually goes for a bit of a stroll around the fields at around eight? Shur didn’t he find O’Donnell leaning up against a goalpost talking to himself about the perfect free-taking technique and he stinking of the drink.”
“You’re not serious,” O’Keefe said. “Shur how did he keep his job?”
“Well, he didn’t, in a way,” Flynn told him. “That was the day Twomey decided that he’d take over the senior team.”
The next day, after the funeral, I went to the school’s hurling field to hit sideline cuts. I imagined O’Donnell behind me. His vitreous eyes, his mouth lolling open, drawling at me. “Bend,” over and over again. Bend the knees. Cut out the bullshit. I cut and cut for about an hour, but every shot dropped short or went wide.