It started from someone else’s idea and grew until it had become bigger than all of us. Tribal and ancient, it had drawn us from the four corners of life for a purpose that won’t be clear until we are all old – perhaps some of us will be dead. And then in the memories of the survivors it will become an epic.
We were perfectly ordinary men – if anyone can really be ordinary. Most of us were Irish but had come together over here. I had known Ryanaldo from the old neighbourhood we had grown up in but we had not seen each other in years. He had survived Ireland’s disastrous Lunar Program and had moved to Canada to avoid the notoriety of it all. He did the ‘Talking Circuit’ with John Glenn but in time he had to answer the inner voice: “Return to the game”, it whispered one night as he stood in his cornfield – the only one in Leaside, “Return to the game!”
So he and Finbarr joined the team. Finbarr is a thespian because his real interest in life does not pay the bills – he was a corner boy. He had served his apprenticeship in the back streets of Cork and was so successful that the Irish Catholic Church had exerted its considerable influence on the craven Irish government and had him deported.
In the game, he would stand against the post and whistle as girls walked by.
Sean heard about us from the two lads, one night in McMurphy’s. He was on the run from the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to the Homophobic and had received a life long ban from Ice Dance. Sean brought to the beautiful game that ‘Charles Manson stare.’
McMurphy’s also gave us Pat who had danced with Baryshnikov and looked best in fishnet stockings. Pat also brought an unusual element to the game, he could run.
Some of us had been there from the early years; I was there when Greg took his boots down from the hook. Greg’s professional career had ended in ignominy. He had left Schillaci un-marked and cost Ireland a chance to embarrass the Italians at home. Greg remains adamant to this day that it was the midfield coverage that broke down but you’ll never see him sit down to a bowl of Pasta.
Greg brought Doug and we try to not to remind him of that. Doug gathers body parts for sale on the black market but keeps the nicer pieces for the project he has secreted away in his basement.
“It is a maid to help around the house,” he tells his wife but she began to wonder when he started buying things from the La Senza catalog.
He brought the prototype to Ottawa one year but the damn thing developed a short circuit and went to the bar and spent the whole evening buying drinks for lonely sailors. But Doug could always make good from bad so he kept the La Senza stuff for himself. “I play better in it; I have learned to breathe out of my third eye!”
We play to be liberated from doubt and denial. We had grown up into a world where, despite all the avenues that were opening to our children, we were still men and men have a narrow path to walk in life – you have to be careful not to step out of the norm.
In our neighbourhood all men were successful and all families were perfect and every child is gifted. In our neighbourhood retired parents gave down payments, looked after our children and could be relied upon for monetary handouts when life got tough. We controlled our kids environment and went everywhere with them.
I suppose it was because we did not have that as children. Most of our fathers were separate and apart from our growing up. My father had died when I was 13.He was not that much older than I am now.
We played because there was no one there to tell us not to – to grow up and act our age. We play because of the honesty. No mistake, no error in judgment went un-noticed. A moment’s hesitation – a thought that should never have been spoken aloud; the revealing – of the true nature of ourselves were all grist for the mill. We played because we were part of something that was missing in the world, pure, heartfelt, and un-adulterated contempt for the straight jacket.
Trimmer was a debt collector on Bay Street and, along with the Greek goddess he married, was raising his kids in the bleakness of the nice streets about his house. Fate wanted Trimmer to move to a small island in the Aegean to raise beautiful children but he couldn’t find a men’s hockey team there. Trimmer was a time bomb but he was our time bomb and, after pounding his opponent into the ground, always came back with that boyish smile to inquire if the injuries were life threatening.
DZbar was once a part of the Flying Kelzmo Brothers Trapeze act until that fateful night in Istanbul. He got very drunk one night and told me the whole story: “I was hanging from this bar,” he explained, “and was swinging back to catch my brother, who was just starting his tumble from when an inner voice called, ‘Go play with the Irish,’ it said. I hadn’t been searching for the meaning of life but I knew what the voice was telling me and in that moment, in that milleKelzmo brothers’ heels vanished from sight she fled the circus and moved to Tahiti to live off the re-directed funds from her ex-husbands Swiss bank account.”
DZbar never saw his brother since but did get a nice postcard one day that bore the simple message: ‘Thanks man, I landed in the lap of luxury.’
DZbar left the circus and sought out the Irish but, because of an under developed sense of direction, ended up in Toronto were he meet me one night searching for coins in the public phone booths. “You play?” he asked from the shadows.
“Maybe?” I answered.
He joined and, except for those evenings when he hangs upside down from the crossbar, seems to have survived the journey, not like Paddy.
Paddy had played with all the greats and, in the most Zen of journeys, had reached his innermost heaven when he met us. He had influenced them all. He had taught Pele how to play, in the late fifties, when he was living in Iceland trying to retrace the route Saint Brendan had taken on his way to Barbados. Pele had taken the wrong flight out of Sweden and the rest, as they say, is history.
Before departing from the world, the gods had selected mortals to receive the gifts that would, forever, remind man that they, the gods, once ruled. Paddy got the legs of Hermes and had to wear track pants for fear of flying. Igor, the referee, forced him to take them off one night and had we not fastened a rope to his ankle – we would have lost him. Igor wore his headband too tight and is still shy fifty bucks.
Paddy used his gift to steal the heart of the daughter of the King of Brittany and to fly off with her to Toronto, where they raised their cherubic children in a nice semi in Leaside, right beside Sergio.
Serge had fled Argentina after the aborted coup and changed his name to Rosa. He pretended that he did not understand German and we went along with it all. He had settled down in the anonymity of a schoolteacher and muttered under his breath a lot.
“Mein Gott,” he muttered to a referee one night and, when he saw that I had heard, turned and pleaded, “Mama Mia, what is his problem?” He wanted to play in the midfield but I think that he has a secret desire to play as striker but if we did that where could we put Garry?
In another time Garry had played guitar with the Stones but claimed he was too cool to hang with a bunch of aging rock stars. The real reason was that when he danced on stage – he caused havoc. You see, Garry has three brains, one to maintain the dour, under stated Scottish thing and each of the others to control a leg apiece. Things went well until the lobotomy he performed with a D-I-Y surgery kit he had picked up on night on a drunken tour of the West End of Aberdeen.
Every night he prayed at the altar he had built in his basement, he prayed to the statue of Denis Law, to the statue of Billy, to the statue of Archie …
“Please?” he prayed, “Put my brains back together and I promise I will learn to play the bagpipes.”
The years went by and his prayers were unanswered until, at last, he had enough.
“I am awae to do mesel’ in!” he told the statues on his altar.
“Why?” they asked in unison, “why not go play with the Irish – they will never know.”
So when Garry came out to play he lined out up front with Roger. Roger had come from New Jersey until the heat was off – but had never gone back. He found the Canadian underworld more refined and polite, and as he often says: “What’s a Jersey Boy to do?” Roger can be a bit of a problem because he thinks about the game, I mean he actually tries to implement planned plays and tries to be creative. However, in his enthusiasm, he is the key to his own downfall. On our team you do nothing that might attract attention – it’s a blood in the water thing. I mean, if you score a pretty goal the defenders say you should have passed and if you miss, go home, go directly home and hope that someone makes a bigger error before next week.
Joe came to North America before realizing that the ‘Equal Opportunity’ thing didn’t foresee a Corkman wanting to become a Vegas showgirl. He had danced in all of the better bars in Cork but could no longer stand the heckling crowd that Finbarr brought to the show. For a second career Joe went undercover with a top secret North American Agency that was trying to negotiate a free trade deal with a consortium of extra-terrestrials. “It’s going all right,” he told me one night after the game, “but what do you tell the wife and kids when they ask how your day was?”
Igor, the referee, and the rest of his breed, had refused to let Joe play with his glasses, and as he possessed a great shot, which he would let go from the half way line, one had to be careful which direction he was facing before passing to him. When he did shoot, he would peer after the ball and ask his nearest teammate “Did it go in?” On those occasions when he faced the wrong way we always answered, “Yes!”
After the unfortunate events in Taipei, Liam stopped using the name Roy and returned to his off-season home. He played with us because his heart compelled him to do so, like Father Damien with his lepers. But his compassion had a limit. “Call me John,” he insisted and we all agreed. “I don’t want anyone to know who I really am.” In a private moment he admitted to me “I always wanted to be called Cato but when you grow up in Galway, some things can be too contrived. I mean what parent could live with themselves after naming a child Cato.”
Phil-Lip had brought Cato, the only Mexican in the world who couldn’t play football but when you’ve spent the last twenty years as the photographer for the Victoria’s Secret Catalog, there is little time for games. We kept him around because he looked great in the team photographs – he has this really cool Latin Revolutionary thing going, especially when he smokes my cigars.
Mark, who runs a private clinic for men who want to be called Shirley, had studied brain surgery in Paraguay. He had recently fallen in love with a lovely young lady from the Philippines. Her name is Catherine and Mark would have us believe that it is true love. However, those of us who notice things are convinced that the real reason is that she is a Healer. I say this because, one night, during a game, Mark became discombobulated! He had received the ball and turned up field. Well the top half turned but his feet were grounded. He ran for about five yards, looked down and saw his own arse, commented on how tight and firm it looked, realized he had pretzeled and fainted. We dragged his body to the sideline and agreed to pilfer his personal effects after the game when she arrived.
Now I have been to Fatima, Lourdes and Knock but even I was unprepared. She walked over to his distorted body, knelt down, blew a kiss in his ear and Mark was straight!
“Holy Shite!” bellowed Phil-Lip, “did you see that?”
“No!” I lied, not wanting to get into conversation.
Phil-Lip was a rock and roll accountant. He had moved to Leaside after the mix up. He was a visionary, but like so many, was ahead of the times. When Axel Rose had exploded, Phil-Lip was the main man behind the effort to have Brittany Spears front Guns ‘n Roses. Garry thought it was a good idea but most of us hadn’t moved on from the passing of Roy Orbison! I had found Phil-Lip, one night cycling along the 401.
“I need to play ball again.”
“Right, you’re in.”
And then there was me! I was on the verge of greatness when my blue period began. I traded in my boots for a guitar and a typewriter, which I carried all over Europe, except for the times that one or both ended up in the pawnshop. When my blue period ended I was older and less wise so I returned to the game.
Igor blew his whistle and we sent Greg up for the coin toss.
“Think he can win it this time?’
And as the game started I looked around at all the green shirts and smiled. It took a little imagination but we were back in Dalymount Park. It was the World Cup final and Ireland, with the help of a few outsiders and a Scot, were playing the Franco-Anglo-Italian-Hispanic confederation. This was it; this was the apex of my career
“Is there anywhere you would rather be?” I asked Phil-Lip.
“Yup! I’d rather be playing golf in the Algarve.”
“Yea, well you can piss off anytime you want. Sergio can play sweeper too and he doesn’t make so much fucking noise!”
“Shut up you, ya bollocks.”
And the game was on. The other team was a shower of wankers. Their first ball was long and high – our central defenders all stand above six feet, and we watched it sail over our heads.
“I got it lads!”
“Good Man, now give it a ride!”
I watched the ball sail over my head and thought about Herman Hesse. I loved the story “Wandering” and had found so many …
“Git yer head in the game, ya Bollocks!”
“What?” I answered as the ball struck me on the forehead and bounced left. Sean took the ball on the run, sucked in his gut, ran over someone and looked to make the pass.
“Lookat, lookat,“ Greg encouraged but Sean had deftly tackled himself and the ball rolled out of play.
“Good idea, hard luck”
Trimmer won possession from the throw and sent a searching ball in behind the defense. Garry pounced, took control and stroked a gentle ball back into the six-yard box where Liam met it and bulged the old onion bag.
1 – 0 for the good guys.
“That was easy enough,” bellowed Phil-Lip, “I am surprised he didn’t hoof it.”
From the kick-off the wankers tried to play possession and the ball faded from view. I tried to follow what was going on but I got bored. I started to think on Mr. Fennel who had tried to teach me Latin. There must be a factory somewhere that makes Latin Teachers.
I roused from my musings as the striker darted past and was in alone. He moved left, trying to round Finbarr and looked to the far post and never saw Doug coming.
Igor blew his whistle, somewhere off in the distance, and pointed his finger into our half of the field. “Pen-al-tee.”
“No way! It was all ball,” Doug protested and I might have agreed with him but for the clear outline of his studs on the forward’s neck.
“No worries, Finbarr has it.”
Igor took a cab from the other end of the field and as he approached Doug he fumbled in his pockets. He pulled out his little yellow card and held it up before Doug’s face. Doug’s anger melted into shame.
“How could you Doug?”
Igor’s visa card lay un-noticed on the grass and Paddy knelt to tie his laces.
“Beer’s on me tonight,” he winked.
I made a mental note to dock Igor’s pay and went to the sidelines.
“Well, if you are going off, then so am I,” bellowed Phil-Lip, “Alan, Serge, c’mon.”
I lay back under the tree, lit a cigar and thought about Franke Potente.
The wanker drove his shot right at Finbarr who had difficulty getting out off the way and was too late. The ball hit his back heel and deflected to Doug who knew he had to make amends. He hit a short pass to Pat and moved for the return. He collected the ball, feigned a pass to Paddy and saw the gap open. He broke into the box when gravity pulled on his ears and his head started to tip but Doug ran on. With his knees bouncing off his nose, he rounded the last defender, drew the keeper out and fell head over heels into the net.
“Good idea, hard luck”
“Yea, nice run Doug.”
“We shouldn’t let defenders up here, it’s embarrassing.”
“Who is taking the corner?”
“Ryanaldo, go up for it.”
“I’ll never get back.”
“Serge will cover for you.”
“But he’s taking it.”
“Ah, right, never mind, Doug has regained his balance.”
Serge hit a short one to Paddy who found Roger at the far post and with the patented double kick he made it 2 – 0, for the lads in Green.
Trimmer wiped his face in the towel and called for a sub. Somewhere in Turin there is a towel with Trimmer’s face on it. I mean it. It is symbolic of the fact that…
“I am ready, Coach, put me in.”
DZbar ran to the left side, looked back over his shoulder at the grinning McInerny and decided to play at the back.
“I am not left-footed,” grumbled Serge.
“Yea, but you are in the mid-field.”
“C’mon youse Bollocks!” bellowed Phil-Lip and I got up from under the tree and walked to the other end of the field. Igor smelt my cigar and walked towards the sideline fumbling in his pockets.
From the kick off, the wankers tried a shot on goal that never made it into the box. Ryanaldo collected the ball and dropped it off for DZbar who burst across the half way and rolled a pass wide for Pat. Pat bounced a ball of Paddy’s arse, collected the rebound and rolled the ball back across the edge of the box and into the path of the onrushing Greg.
“Don’t hoof it,” bellowed Phil-Lip but it was too late. The ball hit the top of the tree and got stuck on a branch.
“You’re after putting me off.”
“I did nothing.”
“Good idea, hard luck”
“I knew he’d hoof it.”
“Fuck off Phil-Lip!”
“Ah Shite lads, I am just having some fun.”
“Sub?” shouted Paddy.
“Anybody else?” asked Roger.
Mark and Cato trotted out onto the field. “Go Mark,” cheered Catherine and threw her pom-poms up into the tree and managed to dislodge the ball.
“C’mon Cato, git yer finger out,” bellowed Phil-Lip.
Cato looked embarrassed so I could only presume his finger was somewhere it shouldn’t have been. Trimmer wiped his face in his towel and Finbarr leaned against the post and blew smoke rings. “What’s the point in playing in a girl’s school if there are no girls around?”
“Lookat, Lookat Liam,” Greg encouraged and we all looked at Liam who was overcome with shyness and yelled for a sub.
“No!” said Igor.
“Fuck you.” We yelled in unison and Joe trotted on.
“How’s it going lads?” he politely asked of the midfield.
“Not bad, Joe, how are you doing?”
“Can’t complain, ya know?”
“Not too bad, all things considered, I just finished a deal with a man from Pluto that…”
“Stop fucking talking and get on with the game,” bellowed Phil-Lip.
“Would somebody ever tell yer man to shut the fuck up?” asked Ryanaldo.
“Fuck you too Ryanaldo.”
“C’mon,” bellowed Phil-Lip, “get yer arse out there.”
“But I haven’t finished my cigar.”
“Bring it with ya.”
“A new FIFA rules says you cannot play with a cigar,” admonished Igor.
“He can’t play without it either.”
I handed the stogie to Trimmer’s boy.
“Hold on to this for me, will ya?”
“Wow, cool.” He went behind the tree and when came back a few minutes later his face was green.
Some wanker was charging straight me but Phil-Lip dispossessed him.
“Go for a run.”
“At my age?”
“Lookat, Lookat Cato.”
“At my age?”
“No! Fuck youse, I am going for it myself.”
“Fuck off, I got skill and I wanna use it.”
“I’ve seen shite with more skill.”
“Yea, but they were my shites.”
“Lookat, Lookat Cato.”
“But you are not even on the field.”
“Sorry! Mark’s ball.”
“Lookat, Lookat Mark.”
“Yea, Mark’s is good.”
“I am not passing to him, he never passes to me.”
“That’s ‘cos he can’t pass.”
“Ah fuckit, yer right, Go Mark, go in behind.”
Mark met the cross behind the defender and drove a low shot right off the keeper’s chest and the ball deflected to the unmarked Pat on the right.
They say you never hear the bullet and it was true. Pat, who standing alone, went down in a windmill of arms and legs and before anyone could laugh was on his feet pleading. “Awh! Ref-er-ee?”
“Pen-al-tee,” Igor whistled from the other end of the field so I made a mental note to undock his pay.
“Who is taking it?”
Liam hid behind a tree and pretended to pee. Greg re-adjusted his bandaging and somewhere else in the city, Dion barked at the unheard whistle.
“I’ll take it!” said Doug and we all played deaf.
“Let Mark take it.”
Yea, Give it to Markie.”
“Somebody take the fucking thing for Christ’s sake!” bellowed Phil-Lip.
Mark looked at the keeper. Mark looked at the ball. Mark looked at Igor. Mark turned to Catherine. “Get a picture, Honey,” he called as he stroked the ball inside the left post.
“What’s the score?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Are we winning?”
“I think so, Ask Igor.”
“I am not talking to that little Bollocks.”
“Is it half time yet? I need another cigar.”
As we made our way off the field Igor asked for his money.
“Youse are playing great!’ said Pat “but let’s keep it simple.”
“Ya know, lads, easy ball, and simple passes.”
“How’s she cutting lads?”
“Ah! Finbarr, didn’t see ya there.”
“Did ya go to McMurphy’s last night?”
“I did indeed, yea, did you?”
“I did yea; I went in for a few.”
“Geeze, I didn’t see ya there.”
“What are you talking about? Wasn’t I drinking with you?”
“Oh, last night, I was thinking of some thing else.”
“Ah, yer just getting to old Ryaner, was Sean there?”
“Was he fuck… he’s always there.”
“That’s not true, lads, I wasn’t there on Thursday.”
“Where were you?”
“I can’t remember but I know I wasn’t there. I would have remembered that.”
“Anybody know the score?”
“I think it’s 2.”
“Nay! Liam got one…”
“And Roger got one…”
“Right, that’s two…”
“Oh and Mark got one…”
“Yea guys, how could you forget my penalty kick.”
“Right, so that’s four!”
“Four, my bollocks, can’t youse count?”
“Ask Phil-Lip, he’s an accountant.”
“I didn’t come here to work ya bollockses! Ask Murphy, he’s the coach.”
“I am not the fucking coach and beside, we don’t need to keep track of the score. It’s about having fun.”
“Right, this from the guy who wouldn’t pay the referee last week.”
“He was a bollocks.”
“That wanker? I wouldn’t have paid him either.”
“So who was he?”
“No more questions, Serge.”
“Paddy, could you ask Murphy who he was?”
We started the second half playing into the setting Sun and I couldn’t see a thing. Here and there legs moved but there were no bodies attached, just a golden glare.
“Can you see anything?” bellowed Phil-Lip.
“Nay, but I don’t have my glasses on.”
“Your ball, Murphy.”
“Git up for it,” bellowed Phil-Lip.
I jumped up to meet the ball in the air but as a result of a slight miscalculation I collected the ball with my testicles.
“Oooohhhh!” said both teams.
I decided to suffer later when no one was looking and sent a delicate chip to the right wing.
“Ah c’mon Paddy,” I roared, “Make the fucking effort.”
Paddy looked at me, and looked at the ball as it sailed over the trees and out onto the road and looked back at me. “What the fuck was I supposed to do with that?”
“Jump?” I answered in falsetto. “Sub?” I managed before crumbling to the ground.
By the time I got the cigar lit I realised that I would live and we had just scored again. Garry, on a header from a cross by Greg, or was it a shot? You never can tell.
“C’mon,” bellowed Phil-Lip.
“Will you shut the fuck up?” said Ryanaldo, who was standing beside him.
“I am just trying to have a little fun.”
“Well can’t ya do it quieter?”
“C’mon Renmore’s bohemian Firbolgs,” urged Liam, “Let’s get it together.”
“That’s right,” said Roger, “Let’s keep it together.”
“You can fuck off too,” said Paddy.
“Ya can all fuck off, ya bunch of Irish heiders,” added Garry.
“You watch what you are saying, ya Scottish bastard,” fumed Cato.
“Who let the fuckin’ Mexican speak?”
“Why can’t we all get along?” asked Mark.
“Just twenty five minutes to beer time,” said Doug.
“That’s too long,” said Sean.
“C’mon,” Pat yelled, “Youse are playing great! But let’s keep it simple.”
“Did it go in?” asked Joe.
“No, Finbarr got a hand on it.”
“Thank Christ for Corkmen.”
And so it goes, each week the same thing, the endless game, the circle we cannot break out of. Each week, a different shower of wankers but it doesn’t matter, we always beat them. Unless of course we don’t – in which case we don’t keep score. But it is not about winners and losers. It is about Renmore’s bohemian Firbolgs and losers.
“Why do they do it?’ asked Igor as I paid him his fifty pieces of silver.
“Because we all made a mistake; we built a world with little room for laughter. We gave up on childhood too soon and lost something a long time ago, and have searched the world for it ever since.”
“And is this it?”
“Hell no! Or at least I hope not. Imagine if this is all there was. Could you hack it? I mean, there has to more to it than this? Right?”
I lit another cigar and looked back at field as the shadow of the trees crept out from the ravine.
“Why do you do it?” I asked myself.
“Because there is not enough laughter in the world and because I just don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
And as I drove away I thought about changing gears and I thought about juggling, how we keep all those choices we made in the air, and I thought about how obvious it was and how delicate it was. If you put it into words it might shrivel up and blow away.