Still sitting there now in The Gather Inn at well past the hour and with a flight to catch in the early morning, Padraig began to wonder when the old man’s rant would come to its conclusion. All the old stories from days long gone and friends resting in the soil.
“And I’ll tell ye this and I’ll tell you no more, your mother is a saint, looking after our family the way she did. Looking after me all these years and I her father for jaysus sake.”
The old man continued, slurring and grasping onto his shoulder like a soft ledge for support, staring into the young man’s forehead, occasionally making contact with his tired stout filled eyes.
“Listen granddad, I may head shortly, I only came in to say hello and farewell, and I saw you through the lounge window there. “The young man said.
“What’s the rush? Are ye running for president?”
“I have an early morning flight to catch and I may head on and get some rest.”
“Sit back down there on that bar stool and finish the rest of your pint for feck sake, sure I never seen ye in years.”
The young man reluctantly took his seat and checked the clock hanging over the bar. 12:45 etching deeper into his eyes. The lights in the room flickered on and off like a power shortage was eminent, but no one seemed concerned until a loud shrill call echoed from behind the bar,
“How are ye now? Last round!”
“Ye’ll have one more Podge!” the old man shouted, specks of saliva sprayed the young man in the face.
“I’ll have a glass and that’s all”
“Sure how many have ye had tonight?”
“Well one more won’t derail your cause!” declared the old man.
With a deep sigh Podge sat and counted the hours of sleep ahead in his mind. Two pints arrived shortly after settling on the counter and still appealed greatly to him, until they were followed by whiskey chasers and a wink from wrinkled grey eyes.
“Thanks granddad, you’re a gentleman…” sweet Jesus he thought to himself.
“…A scholar and an acrobat” added the old man, with a great crackled hearty laugh.
They both took a long sup from their pints of plain and the old man’s gaze returned to Podge. The long gulp seemed to have had an unnatural side effect on him, the tide of inebriation washed away with that last sup. An aging hand came down hard on the young man’s shoulder with unexpected force. His renewed state of sobriety startled Podge. It made the young man feel uncomfortable to a slight degree.
“Listen to me young Podge” his grainy voice urged, the slur having dissipated and with a renewed zest in his manner.
“The game is life and life is a game. You play it as best you can and not always fair.” He said. “Now let’s finish our pints over by the fire there and I’ll tell ye a tale or two”
Both men rose and took a seat in front of the warm hearth. It was late February and the frost had settled deep into the land, turning the soil into mortar and the grass into glass.
They pulled up two stools to a low round table dragging the stools closer with an irritating screech.
“The last Knights of the small round table” said the old man getting comfortable on his chair.
“Ha! Indeed” replied Podge.
“Well it wouldn’t be too far removed from the truth, as knights hold bonds long after the battle, the same can be said for men who take to the field on a cold miserable day and walk off victorious. The ball is your sword and the goalposts are the gates to the castle, you just have to keep knocking until the draw bridge drops.”
Podge said little as he became intrigued by his grandfather’s words.
“Tell me Podge, how do you think of the past? Even from the dungeons of your dreams” said the old man after a sip of his whiskey and water tonic.
Podge sat thinking rooted in the question, the old man letting the question linger while the periphery of banter in the bar drifted away in the sweet pipe smoke filled room.
“Well, now that you mention it, I’ve always thought of the years before I was born as black and white.” Podge said slowly, reminiscently.
“I always remember seeing old photos of the family at weddings and birthdays and Christmases. Even old movies and old repeated television adverts and I always thought that before I was born that the world was black and white, that it did not have any other colour. And then any pictures I see with me or my sister are in colour, I just simply figured everything was black and white. Do you know what I mean granddad?”
“Well there’s a poet in ye after all Podge” the old man said and leaning forward, “and tonight you can call me Con”
“Fair enough Con” replied Podge with a steady laugh and smile.
“Well let me tell ye this, in many ways things were a little more black and white I suppose. And when there was a match to be played in my day, about twenty lads took to the road on their high nellies already togged out, rain sleet or shine. Sometimes we would cycle for an hour or two to play a game and all ye would hear was the spin of the wheels, the wind in your ears and the craic all around. Those wheels spun like bodhrans, now that I think back, with the tipper tapping in rhythm by striking the spokes as we moved. Hardly a car would pass for miles and the only noise pollution was the tractor tending to the land. We moved two by two and the Arc was the field we travelled to, to kick ball.”
“And you call me the poet?”
The fire shimmered in Cons eyes now as he stared past Podge and into the licking flames.
“You’d stand there in the changing room and every Tom Dick and Harry who ever kicked ball for the club would come in and tell ye how to play, self-selected selectors. Tobacco breath and musky coats, old fingers prodding ye in the chest and the sound of studs stamping on the hard concrete floor sounded like a herd of horses, ready to charge, possessed and full of spirit.”
“When the changing room door opened and the light peeled in at an angle and the blast of cool air blew through your soiled jersey. I miss them days Podge.”
Podge sat silent, the old man’s constant gaze penetrating the heart of the fire.
“Number one, that was my number, my responsibility. Any breaking balls I had a duty to claim and no one else. I’d scream from the top of my lungs and come claim it, taking out my own full back if I deemed it necessary. Fourteen men straight ahead of me at every kick out and when I think back to that day or an amalgamation of days I can’t be sure, it actually does seem black and white.”
The old man moved to his pint and Podge followed suit.
“There was a game when I played outfield, I can’t be sure of the position but it must have been somewhere in the forward line. It rained heavy that day, the cackling and roar from the side line reverberated across the puddled pitch. I can only say the water amplified the sound somehow. It was deep into the second half and a ball broke to me from a kick out, and I could feel the greasy leather slap against my palms and fingers. The sting was awakening; my hair was a saturated mop good enough to scrub the floor. I turned goal bound, played a quick one two off the “Trad” Murphy as we used to call him on account of all his singing and then I let my boot fly with a leather on leather belt. The ball blasted through every rain drop smashing them and rose into the bleak black and grey sky. I can still see it rise.”
Con turned back to eyeball Podge again, locking on to his glance like a wise old kestrel.
“And I’ll tell ye no lie, when that ball cruised straight between the upright the rain stopped in an instant, the clouds split open with Gods almighty torchlight and beams of light rained down instead of water and a rainbow appeared directly overhead and arched across the pitch. Silence held everyone’s breath and all you could hear was the squawk of a distant bird of prey hunting from its high plateau.”
Podge sat speechless with his mouth agape staring into Cons face, into his words.
“You’re pulling my leg?”
“Indeed I’m not!” said Con with great sincerity.
“Never did I win a county medal and here I sit, the last one from that team and still sucking in the air today.”
Cons words resonated with Podge, a sadness and a proudness meshed into one.
“Now let us finish off these whiskey chasers and get you home to your leaba. I’ve a quick stop in the gents before we go.”
Con walked off to the toilets, Podge stood up and stared straight into the dying embers of the hearth, the occasional licking flames reflected upon his eyes. The fascinating short tale meandering through his mind, with a warm swill of the drink, fact or fiction he disregarded due to his grandfather’s veracity.
The orange glow from the fire brightened, turning yellow again and round. He peered peripherally towards the sun; it brought him back now, brought his consciousness back on-board.
“This is your captain speaking. We are currently twenty minutes out from Shannon Airport and as you can see to your right hand side the rain shower has dispersed and a rainbow has formed just below us. Quiet beautiful and it looks like there might be more than one.” The crackled voice from above his head said.
Passengers from around him leaned over there fellow fliers to catch a glimpse, their American twang rhymed in soft echoes. It was five years since he had been home, the coincidence of the view from his port-hole window struck a chord inside him.
Above the rainbow he glimpsed a bird soaring high in the new blue sky and thought of the bird of prey. A squawk reverberated somewhere in the din of the cabin.
All his relations would be there from far and away, gathered together for the first time in “ages” as Con would say.
When Podge arrived at the house and was welcomed with open arms with a deep embraces from aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, brothers and sisters, mother and father and grandmother.
Con lay motionless and peaceful in the casket. His thick silver grey hair combed to perfection to one side, a black suit that was out of character. His closed kestrel eyes still holding some power, his old hands clasped a silver rosary beads in cupped palms and fingers and in there Podge placed a gold medal with USGAA carved on its shiny surface. “United States Gaelic Athletic Association.” Pushing it down hard into the old mans callused closed hands so no-one would see it.
“Now Con, ye have your county medal.” Podge said quietly as bent forward to kiss the old man on the forehead.
Later that night, surrounded in song and laughter and back in The Gather Inn where he supped his last drink with his late grandfather, every relation in the land and those who returned from overseas gathered around in the celebration of Cons life. Podge stood again by the fire and gazed into its fiery cave when an old hand fell upon his shoulder once more. He turned to see his father Cormac examine him with a smile and slight watery tears washing in his eyes.
“If it’s not a wedding, it’s a funeral.” His father said referring to the crowd.
“And either way he’d want us to celebrate it considering how far ye’ve all travelled and gathered here. Now come over here to the rest of us and I’ll tell ye a tale or two.”