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  • 2. In the Air

    By Colin Barrett

    Colin Barrett is an emerging writer from Mayo, Ireland, whose work has appeared in The Stinging Fly and in the anthology Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails; in 2009 he was awarded the Penguin Ireland prize. The language in this new story is earthy yet exuberant; the moments that propel it are violent and uncertain—except for the steady voice that shares them. I’ll look forward to more from Colin.

    Sunday. Glanbeigh Stephanites boys’ under-sixteen football training. Morning rain, the parish turf soft underfoot, brown water puddling in the rutted goalmouths. It’s May, but a cold Atlantic gale heaves in over the galvanized roof of the north stand, making a noise like continuously ripping fabric. On the touchline, Coach consults his waterproof wristwatch, exhorts the boys to keep the pace up.

    Reserve keeper Danny Tansey sends the ball high and hard into the air. At the apex of its flight, the ball seems to lag for a moment in the grey sky. The boys look up. They watch the ball float and revolve wobblingly in place. Coach blows briny drops of rain from his lips and exhorts the boys to wait for the drop.

    Thirty yards down field, Trevor Devlin frantically waves a gloved hand in the air and shouts “Coach! Coach!”

    Coach looks down the line.

    He’s about to say, What is it?

    But then he sees.


    The ball returns to earth, is lost amid a ruck of bodies. Coach trots down the line. One of the boys, Conor Savage, is face down, spread-eagled in the grass at Devlin’s feet.

    “What happened?” Coach says.

    “I turned round and he was like this,” Devlin says.

    Coach crouches down close to the boy.

    “Did you hit him?”

    “No! No way, Coach,” Devlin says. “He was standing behind me. And he just went down.”

    Play breaks up. The other boys begin to gather in.

    “Don’t move him,” Coach says. “Nobody move him.”

    Devlin wipes his dripping nose with his forearm and announces, to nobody in particular, that Conor is dead.

    Coach hears the words and stifles the urge to leap up and smash his elbow into Devlin’s throat.

    “No, he’s not,” Coach says. He turns the prone boy onto his side, then onto his back.

    “Conor. Conor, can you hear me?” he says.

    The boy’s eyes loll in their sockets beneath half-closed lids. Coach cups his cheek with his palm.

    “Did he say anything when he went down? Make a noise?”

    “Not a word,” says Devlin.

    “We should call somebody,” one of the boys says.

    “Hang on, hang on,” Coach says.

    Coach touches the boy’s temple, his wrist, the nape of his neck. His body is warm but limp. He doesn’t look like he’s breathing. Coach presses his fingers along the bulb of the boy’s throat, under the hinge of his jawbone, seeking the tremor, the fledgling wing-beat, of a pulse. But it’s cold, Coach’s fingers are cold. He doesn’t know what he feels or doesn’t feel. He pulls the boy’s jersey up around his neck, exposing the sunken knot of his bellybutton, the corrugated wings of his ribs. He begins to pump down on the boy’s chest with the flats of his hands.

    He looks up at the other boys.

    “Phone,” he says, “Phone, phone, phone.”

    A couple of the boys turn and sprint toward the clubhouse dressing room. Coach realizes his mobile is in his pocket. He takes it out, and barks at Devlin to keep doing what he was doing to Savage’s chest.

    “Yes, Coach,” Devlin says. Devlin has a narrow, wolfish face and hooded eyes, an on-field proclivity for kicking people that years of regular suspensions and constant verbal reproofs from a succession of coaches have failed to discourage. Devlin kneels beside Savage and breaks into a wild grin, relieved to be promoted to the role of participant in the unfolding drama. The other boys, their faces paling, can only stand and watch, locked in the limbo of bystander-hood.


    Coach rings the emergency number. He bungles through the operator’s questions. She asks him if he knows CPR. He tells her they’re already doing CPR. The phone signal is scratchy. The operator’s voice drops in and out and there is the unrelenting din of the wind whipping diagonally down through the exposed beams and rivets and joists of the north stand.

    “Keep pushing down on his chest, like that, keep going,” Coach shouts at Devlin. The operator tells him an ambulance is on the way.

    The boys who ran to the clubhouse come jogging back across the pitch, waving mobiles like signal flares. The clubhouse barman, Dennis Howlett, is trailing them. Howlett is a squat, broad-hipped man with a purple face and a lopsided gait that makes it look like he’s limping as he runs. He’s carrying a blanket and a First Aid box that’s not going to contain anything more useful than a roll of gauze and a tube of burn ointment.

    “The fucking cavalry,” Coach says, and bends back down to the boys at his feet.


    When they arrive, two or ten or twenty minutes later, the paramedics perform more CPR; they bind the boy to a stretcher and lift him in through the rear doors of the ambulance. Father Cafferty, the senior parish priest, arrives in time to watch the emergency vehicle tear out of the parking lot, lights woop-wooping. Cafferty asks Coach what happened. Coach tells him what he can. Cars are arriving, parents at the wheels. The boys mill by the chain link fence, boots clinking against the gravel.

    The Father removes his wire-frame spectacles, wipes the lenses with a monogrammed hanky. He tells Coach he will deal with the parents—with Conor’s parents—if he wants him to, and Coach tells him that that would probably be best. The Father tells Coach that there will be more to deal with, a lot more, but that right now he should go home and get some rest.


    Coach slips into the familiar concrete gloom of the dressing room. He peels off his wet gear, showers. He sits naked in a towel on the bench opposite the door and performs the usual crude dentistry on the soles of his boots, cutting away the lumps of drying mud caked between the cleats with a penknife. The excised dirt drops in tufts around his feet, crumbs the blanched knuckles of his toes. He watches and does not watch the door. He hears and does not hear the procession of cars leave, arrive, leave. After a while he puts on his jeans and stands in front of the cracked mirror. He spritzes himself pit to pit, neck to navel, with anti-perspirant, buttons his torso into a dazzling white shirt. He watches his fingers deftly manipulate the buttons of the shirt, as if it has nothing to do with him. The clean bright fabric swallows his chest in increments, up and up and up, until it has him by the neck.


    He steps out into the parking lot. Everyone is gone.

    Coach drives. He leaves Glanbeigh, takes the lakeside road along the edge of the Drumalee woods. The sun flickers through the black spokes of the branches. Coach keeps one eye squinched against the light. Above the treeline, gouts of yellow gorse fur the spines of the hills, and the slopes of the hills are darkly stubbled with scree.

    He pulls in at a roadside pub the far side of the lake, Quillinan’s, not a regular haunt of his. In the parking lot he slaps midges from his hair. There is only one other car. Inside, a young lad—mid-twenties, maybe—is hunched on a stool at the bar, sipping a pint. He’s in a blue boilersuit, the upper half unbuttoned and knotted around his waist, a grime-smutched T-shirt on underneath. A grey-haired barman leans against the counter, kneading the bottom of a pint glass with a dishcloth.

    The barman acknowledges Coach with the merest agitation of his eyebrows.

    “Jameson, no ice.” Coach says, taking a stool three down from the young man. There’s something wrong with the young man’s left hand.

    The barman twists the dishcloth, drapes it over his shoulder, and pours Coach the drink.

    “Pour a second while you’re at it.” Coach says and swallows down the Jameson. He sneaks another look at the young man’s hand; the hand is missing three fingers—the pinky, middle, and ring. The young man clears his throat.

    The barman says, “Night shift is only a bitch, all right, Jamesie.”

    “Can’t dispute that,” the young man says, “but Deasey and the rest of them reckon there’s layoffs in the wind.”

    “Can’t say no to overtime, so,” the barman says.

    “Aye,” the lad says.

    “Can I get another?” Coach says.

    “This man ain’t stinting himself, is he?” the lad, Jamesie, says.

    Coach skulls the third Jameson.

    “Slow down, cowboy. There’s all evening to get through yet,” Jamesie says.

    “No, there’s not.” Coach says.

    Jamesie shifts around on his stool.

    “Ah, what’s wrong, fella? You’ve some face on ya. Doesn’t he have some face on him, Paudi?” he says to the barman. “Face on him like a slapped pussy.”

    Coach says nothing.

    “Eyes like saucers. Eyes out on the end of their stalks.”

    Coach says nothing.

    “Ah, c’mon man, things could be worse,” and he raises his damaged hand. “You can’t tell, but I’m giving you the finger.”

    “There a story behind that?” Coach finally asks, nodding at Jamesie’s hand.

    “There’s a long one. A middling one. And a short one.” Jamesie chuckles. “But we were talking about you and your problems.”

    “Were we?” Coach says.

    “Jamesie, c’mon lad,” Paudi, the barman says, “you’ve had a long night, you’re tired—”

    “I am,” Jamesie says, his voice rising, “I’m tired and wrecked and haven’t slept straight in a month and I’m trying to enjoy a drink in peace and this fucking oddity wanders in here and starts sly-glancing at my hand and I try talking to him but he won’t extend the courtesy of fucking talking back to me like I’m a human being!” In his excitement, Jamesie slips from his stool. He grips the lip of the counter with his good hand and steadies himself.

    Coach closes his eyes, exhales through his nose, and asks in a quiet voice for another whiskey. The barman says nothing, but presently Coach hears the measured trickle of liquid into the glass. Eyes still closed, he sees again the ball revolving in the air. He sees Conor Savage piled on the ground, Devlin standing over him. Then his perspective switches, and Coach is looking down at the pitch from an indeterminate point overhead. He watches himself, Coach, trot along the line to the two boys. He sees himself exchange words with Devlin then bend down and begin to pump on the fallen boy’s chest. He sees the other boys congregating. Then the pitch and the accumulation of figures on it grows smaller as his viewpoint begins to recede, up and up and up, and he is rising away at great speed into the air, into infinitely thinning and curving whiteness—


    Coach opens his eyes.

    Jamesie, perched on his stool, is staring unwaveringly into the side of Coach’s face, waiting for the next thing to happen.

    Coach decides to give him what he wants.

    “I think you should know,” Coach says, “you’re mouthing off like someone pining for an almighty welt to the jaw.”

    Jamesie takes a sup of his pint.

    “It wouldn’t be the first time,” he says.

    Coach turns on his stool, to properly face the young man. He sees the yellow teeth of Jamesie’s grin and then the good arm snaps forward. Coach ducks and the pint glass just wings him above his left eye, a contrail of Guinness splattering cold along his shoulder. Coach is up off his stool, quick, and he watches Jamesie’s mouth slacken, become an O, become a gormless black cavity Coach stoves his fist straight into. The impact reverberates up his arm like a jolt of electricity, squeezing tears of exertion from Coach’s eyes, and they are tumbling together, toward the carpet, Jamesie beneath Coach. As they drop, Coach is able to hook his other hand behind Jamesie’s head. Braced and splayed, his hand bears the successive impacts of the floor and the back of the boy’s skull. Coach rolls off the young man, gasps.

    “Out! Out to fuck!” The barman shouts, brandishing the bristly end of a broom ragged with floor-lint. “’m I going to have to call the Guards!?” he roars.

    “No,” Coach says in a mild voice, reaching for the rungs of a stool and hoisting himself up off the floor. His heart is racing, his legs are like jelly.

    “Is Jamesie all right?” the barman says, leaning out over the counter. The young man’s mouth is bubble-bloodied, his eyes shut. Coach toe-pokes him in the ribs and he groans groggily.

    “He’ll live.”

    “He’s a good lad,” the barman says. “I know what sort he’s come from. He’s not had it easy, you know.”

    Coach takes out his wallet and places all the notes he has—three twenties and a five—down onto the counter.

    “When he comes back to himself, make sure he drinks this up.”

    The barman thumbs through the euros.

    “Are you sure, fella?”

    Coach looks at the barman.

    “He deserves it. He saved a life today.”


    Coach steps out into the evening air, into the great gravel lake of Quillinan’s carpark, flooded in late spring sun light. Coach can feel his heart beat in the steady throb above his eye where the pint glass glanced him. He turns the key in the ignition, takes the winding road back through Drumalee forest, and thinks of the days to come; and in the days to come Coach will learn that Conor Savage suffered from an undiagnosed heart condition, that despite Coach’s valiant attempts at resuscitation, the boy was always a goner; dead, essentially, the moment he hit the ground. Coach will think back over things, and will again and again be unsettled by the weird prompt certainty with which Trevor Devlin proclaimed Conor dead. Coach will no longer attempt to curb Devlin’s on field aggression, will instead promote him to squad captain, and encourage the other boys to follow his example. He will double up on training sessions. He will push the boys harder and harder, and they will incur the collateral in pulled muscles, twanged hamstrings and twisted ankles. He will tell the boys that there is something worth finding on the other side of suffering, if you can only stand to hunt it down, and he will be proven right; though they will collect a record disciplinary tally of cards and player suspensions, Glanbeigh Stephanites boys’ will win the under-sixteen county championship with two games to spare, on a balmy night at the very end of September, the heat of the day lingering in the air even as a cold rain begins to fall out of a low and a heavy sky.


    © by Colin Barrett. Used by permission of the author.

    Read more about the anthology Sharp Sticks, Driven Nails here!

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