Away Game, a story by John O’Donnell

Getting caught out on a trip away forces a man to think of home

John O’Donnell: his debut story collection, Almost the Same Blue, has just been published by Doire Press.

John O’Donnell: his debut story collection, Almost the Same Blue, has just been published by Doire Press.

 

The fitting was one of those shower/bath affairs. He’d pulled the plunger up to the shower setting, but it kept slipping back.

He tried to jam it in position with one of the little bottles of shampoo the hotel provided; the water briefly sprinkled his hair before cascading once more over his feet. He jerked the plunger up again and held it there; he almost had to crouch to keep it in place. This wasn’t going to work, he thought. Maybe he should have a bath instead.

He put the plug in and let the plunger down, and as he did he heard her call his name. The bath was filling quickly. He reached down to swirl the water; it was silky, warm. When had he last had a bath? He couldn’t actually remember. As he lowered himself she called his name again, more urgent this time.

‘Paul!’

He leaned back against the enamel. The bath’s dimensions did not allow him to stretch out full-length. Over the sound of the flowing water he could hear the TV in the bedroom being turned up loud.

‘I’m in the bath!’ he said.

‘You might want to see this,’ she replied.

He sighed and turned off the taps. Hauling himself out of the tub, he reached for one of the bathrobes, pausing to consider his reflection before opening the door.

The TV was blaring; the sound of it filled the room. Maggie was sitting on the bed, the room service menu she’d been flicking through open beside her.

‘This is awful,’ she said. ‘So awful.’

He stared at the TV. The man with the microphone had his back to the terminal. A ribbon of red text ran along the bottom of the screen: Irish Plane Crash-Lands in Heathrow. Paul could hear the whine of sirens as emergency vehicles streamed away. The reporter was struggling to make himself heard. ‘Flight EI 166 was filled with Irish fans,’ he said, ‘all travelling for this evening’s play-off. But in light of this,’ and here he turned to gesture towards the runway, ‘already it’s being suggested that the game should not be played.’

The remote: where was the remote? He scanned the room; the crumpled bed sheets, the tiny bedside lockers, the dresser where Maggie had laid out her make-up, hair-brush, perfume.

‘Can we turn this down?’ he said.

‘Ok, ok,’ said Maggie. She began rummaging between the sheets. The remote was under the room service menu. ‘Here,’ she said, pushing the control over to the side where earlier he’d lain. She looked up at him then, and patted the empty space beside her.

He muted the sound. The screen was showing a diagram of the aircraft, with a circle around the wheels of the landing-gear, and an arrow towards the fuel lines. Equipment failure, said the tickertape below. It was definitely the same flight. He’d printed out the details, sticking them underneath a fridge-magnet in the kitchen so Jane could see them. In the hallway of their home, when he’d kissed Jane and the two boys goodbye, and told them that he’d see them all tomorrow, he’d been wearing the green-and-white supporters’ scarf, the scarf now stuffed inside the coat he’d thrown on the chair in this room when they’d arrived.

Maggie shifted slightly to her right. ‘You wanna sit down?’ she said.

He squeezed past the dressing table and perched on the edge of the opposite side of the bed, facing away from her. The remote was still in his hand. He dabbed the volume button once, twice, and the sound came back, the voices in the studio now a murmur. Kelly, he thought, and Ryan. And Clarkey too, Clarkey went to all the games.

‘I know them,’ he said.

Maggie turned towards him. ‘Know who?’

‘The plane,’ he said. He kept looking at the screen. ‘A few from work. We’d said we’d go.’

He hadn’t actually explained to them why he’d pulled out. ‘Something’s come up,’ he’d said, and when Ryan asked was it to do with home he’d said, ‘Yeah, that kind of thing.’ They’d nodded then, and let the matter drop, though later Clarkey’d asked him if everything was alright. ‘Fine, fine,’ he’d said, and Clarkey’d slapped him on the back and said sure they’d all be going to the finals when Ireland won, and that already he’d been checking out the prices. ‘Yeah, definitely,’ Paul had said, ‘put me down for that, for sure.’

An aeronautical engineer was onscreen, talking about struts and rivets, and how much fuel a jet this size would carry as the newsreader listened gravely. The wardrobe beside the TV was slightly open. Paul could see inside a sliver of the green silk dress Maggie’d brought to wear to dinner later, the dress he’d so admired when he’d first met her. It hung there in the wooden darkness, an emerald ghost. This had been her idea: a night together in this city. ‘Paris,’ she’d whispered, after they’d done it for the first time, in his car, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could go to Paris?’

He tossed the remote back onto the bed and tightened the cord on his bathrobe. He was aware of her beside him; she’d scooched across the bed to where he was sitting.

‘That’s terrible,’ she said, and she put her arm around him. He could smell the drink off her breath. ‘Oh Paul,’ she said, nuzzling his cheek, ‘I’m so sorry.’

Her arm felt meaty on his shoulders. Was she drunk, he wondered. She couldn’t be; they’d only ordered the one bottle, and they hadn’t even finished it.

She leaned in. The heat of her, the weight, surprised him.

‘We need some air in here,’ he said, shrugging her arm away. He stood up. The room was not much wider than the bed; in three strides he was at the window. He turned the handle and tried to push the window outwards, but it would only open a few inches. He pulled it shut and yanked at it again, harder this time, but still it would not budge. ‘Just…leave it, Paul,’ Maggie said. He tried it again, managing this time to prise the window open a little further. The street was narrow, quiet, a side-street really, though he could hear not far away the sounds of cars and horns. He pressed his face into the gap and tried to breathe deeply.

‘Do I know any of them?’ she said.

He half-turned back into the room. She had the sheets pulled up around her, almost to her chin. ‘Paul?’

Why was she asking him these questions?

‘You might have…met them once,’ he said.

She had, actually. ‘This is Maggie,’ he’d said over the laughter and the chink of glasses in their Friday evening haunt. ‘She works with me.’ Kelly’d just stared at him. Ryan had started making those big oh-ho eyes, and then Clarkey smirked and put his arm around her. ‘God break your cross, love,’ he’d said, flirting with her the way he did with every woman he met, even though he’d never go offside, never. But so what if she’d met them; what did it matter? He turned away again. Across the street a shop was selling cheap T-shirts piled in mounds in the front window, and on the corner there was a graffiti-covered wooden door, with an outside table and two chairs beneath a sign saying Café-Bar-Tabac.

‘Oh, those guys,’ said Maggie. He heard her lift the wine glass, take a sip. ‘They were cool.’

Christ, she was drunk. He spread his hands out either side of the sill.

‘There was a big guy, Clarke…’

‘…Clarkey. George Clarke,’ he said. He could not look at her.

‘Clarkey, yeah!’ she said. ‘Oh, he was lovely.’

Paul spun around. What entitlement had she to talk about these men? They were his friends, not hers; and now, unless they’d been very lucky, they were probably…

His mobile phone was in his coat-pocket. He reached over to fish it out and powered it on. You have 4 missed calls. The phone bleeped twice then, an accusation. You have 2 new text messages. We love you so much. Jane’s mobile. Please please be OK. XXX. The two boys would be sitting at the kitchen-table, still in their football gear, squabbling over sausages as the Saturday Sport radio programme murmured in the background. He imagined his wife suddenly telling them to be quiet please, QUIET, for heaven’s sake as the news from Heathrow started coming in, biting her lip as she checked the print-out on the fridge.

He put the phone down. There was a champagne glass on the bedside locker, half-full, although the bubbles had disappeared. He raised the glass briefly to his lips. It tasted sweet, and flat.

‘Those poor guys,’ Maggie was saying. She had her hands clasped round her knees which she’d drawn up to her chest. The bed creaked as she rocked back and forth. ‘Those poor, poor guys.’ The way she dragged out the word ‘guys,’ in that mid-Atlantic drawl of hers, which made no sense, since she was not American, she’d never even been to America, so far as he knew. ‘I mean, to think that they’re just gone,’ she said, and as she spoke she began to weep.

He stood looking at her, his hands on his hips. His bathrobe had started working itself loose again; he yanked it tight.

‘I don’t believe this,’ he said.

‘I know,’ said Maggie. She clutched the bed sheet, a small white bunch in her fist. ‘Isn’t it just so…’

‘…Can we just stop talking, please?’ he said. He felt it rising inside him, a rolling wave of rage, and he couldn’t stop it, he didn’t want to stop it.

‘What do you mean?’ said Maggie. Her smudged mascara made her look like she’d been punched in both eyes, hard. ‘Paul?’

‘Just…never mind,’ he said. On the TV a woman was speaking in an almost whisper about death and families; he could barely hear her. Bereavement Counsellor, the caption said.

‘Jesus, Paul,’ said Maggie. She heaved herself up off the bed and waddled across the room. At the bathroom door she stopped, her hand on the handle, and looked back at him. ‘You’re such a…such a…’

He slumped back on the bed as the bathroom door slammed. Briefly he closed his eyes; when he opened them the light in the street had faded further, the room now almost in gloom. He reached over to flick one of the switches: the bed, the chair, the room were all suddenly soaked in the overhead lamp’s yellow glare. He squatted at the mini-bar, which was empty.

From inside the bathroom he could hear water running as well as the sound of angry breathless sobs. He dressed quickly. ‘Back soon,’ he muttered towards the bathroom as he left. In the hotel lobby a TV was showing the press conference: the two football associations were postponing the match as a mark of respect for the dead. The receptionist grimaced perfunctorily at him as he went through the entrance and out onto the street. The pavements were empty. He turned left and crossed over, heading for the tabac.

At the counter the Algerian assistant motioned to the seats outside when Paul asked for a café au lait. He sat in one of the spindly metal chairs. It was colder than he had expected. The Algerian brought the coffee and the bill: €3.50. Paul handed him a €5 and waved away the change. The Algerian nodded and disappeared. Paul placed his mobile on the table and poured sugar from the sachet into the cup.

Her fault; this was all Maggie’s fault. Any moment now she’d call him, but he would not answer. She’d leave a message, demanding to know where he was and what did he think he was doing, walking out of the hotel room and leaving her like that. Later, much later, he would explain. The shock, he’d say. He’d mention his dead companions, recite their names. He’d tell her how he’d needed space; still did, in fact. He’d come up with something. A goal in the last minute; something.

He sipped his coffee; already it had cooled. A street lamp brightened beside him, then another, and another. His phone began to pulse, vibrating on the table as it sang out its tinny tune. He leaned forward to see the caller’s name flashing on the screen. Home, it blinked, again and again. Home. Home. Home.

This story is from John O’Donnell’s debut collection, Almost the Same Blue (Doire Press).

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