Vinny counts his blessings after battle of Clontarf


AGAINST THE ODDS:Vinny muses on life’s strange wheel of fortune after an impromptu race occurs in St Anne’s Park

THE FAT, grey squirrel looked at the fat, grey man in the wheelchair and continued chomping on a nut with an air of insouciance that irked Vinny Fitzpatrick. It must be close to 15 years, reckoned Vinny, since, in the role of Sean Citizen, he’d called Dublin City Council to report the sighting of a grey squirrel in St Anne’s Park.

Vinny’s fears for the future of the long-standing native red squirrel had proved prophetic as the marauding greys now governed St Anne’s, just like the Botanic Gardens and many other parks in Dublin too.

On Monday morning, Vinny was out for a wheel around St Anne’s in an effort to maintain some form of aerobic exercise as he recovered from badly strained ankle ligaments, following his mishap in “SportsKonnect”.

As he couldn’t walk or drive for a while, Angie had spun him up Sybil Hill to the gates of St Anne’s Park and said she would return in 45 minutes. Vinny’s route was a straight one mile down the main avenue of the park and back up again. He thought about doing two circuits but decided one would be enough; there was no point in overdoing it.

As Vinny flexed his shoulders, he looked about the place he still called his “back garden”, where he’d skinned his heart, skinned his knees, learnt of love and ABCs, to the tune of Terry Jacks’s hit single of the 70s.

He’d had his first snog in St Anne’s, his first fag, first drink and very nearly his first experience of the forbidden fruit only Ginny Durr, a corker from Killester, had done a midsummer runner by the old bandstand.

He used to know every nook and cranny of St Anne’s, not least because he played GAA there for Dollymount Gaels on Sunday, and ghosted as a “banger” for Clontarf Casuals on Saturday.

His route today was as plain as his 54-year-old face; down what was the old entrance road to the former estate of Lord and Lady Ardilaun. Unlike other parts of St Anne’s which carried splendid monikers, the Naniken river, Red Stables, Simpson Walk, and Rose Garden, the Main Avenue sounded as dull as dishwater.

Vinny felt it was high time to start a campaign to rename the stretch as Ardilaun Avenue, after the park’s creators.

As he pushed his body forward, with Pitch 17 to his right and the grounds of St Paul’s to his left, Vinny spied another wheelchair down the avenue, no more than 50 yards ahead. It was moving at a snail’s pace and became the target for his gimlet eye.

He pushed his flabby hands quickly over the wheels and soon gathered up a fair speed with the prevailing westerly at his back. Within a couple of minutes Vinny cruised past the other chair, “like a Ferrari overtaking a Minardi”, he thought to himself, wearing a cheeky grin.

Slowing a bit, Vinny was now parallel with the Par 3 golf course, which would always hold a special place in his heart for his hole in one at the seventh in the Foley’s Christmas Turkey Shoot of ’98.

Everywhere was frozen off that year but Bugsy O’Byrne, one of the bar regulars, worked for the city council’s parks department and had smuggled the lads in for a round.

Vinny was studying the greens, noting they had been cut recently, when he heard a whirr close by. As he half-turned, he was aware of a wheelchair passing by – it was the one he’d overtaken earlier.

He was vaguely aware of a tanned, white-haired figure in the seat, arms pumping away as he flew past. He thought he heard a chuckle, but couldn’t be sure. Either way, it didn’t matter.

Instantly, the handbrake went off in Vinny’s mind and the throttle went down – the game was afoot. He bent forward, arched his back and started driving the rim of the wheels hard between forefinger and thumb.

At the end of the rose garden boundary, Vinny was 20 yards down but closing. As sweat formed on his beetle-brow and he fought for breath, Vinny found a rhythm and kept it, aware the gap was shortening.

By the Clock Tower he was in the slipstream of his wheelie upstart rival. He had the whip hand now and drew level inside the final furlong. Without glancing at his rival, Vinny initiated another surge of power before running off the grass where the avenue came to a halt.

“Put your ace of hearts on that,” he roared at the top of his voice, fist punching skywards.

As he slowed down, he heard the brakes of his rival who had turned his wheelchair and was beginning the mile-long haul back up the avenue.

“Hey Mr bus driver,” came a shout on the wind. “You should know all about return journeys.”

Vinny cursed, puffed his cheeks and pointed his chair back towards his starting point. “It’s only a mile. I can do this,” he said to himself.

It was only a mile but it was slightly uphill and into a freshening breeze. Vinny was also giving weight, and probably age away, to his rival. He was also asking himself to wheel at full speed over a distance he was unproven. If Boru Betting were doing match odds, Vinny had drifted from 4 to 5 on to 6 to 4 against. It didn’t stop the ageing heavyweight from taking on the challenge. Again the head went down, the shoulders hunched forward and the flabby arms, began to fire like pistons.

By Pitch 30, Vinny had clawed back to within 10 yards, by Pitch 25, he was within five. Breathing far harder than he ever did chasing Ginny Durr’s skirt, he pulled out from the slipstream, drew level with the rear wheel of his adversary and prepared to put the gas down.

But then, to Vinny’s chagrin, as he asked his arms for a final heave, the strength wasn’t there. For some reason, Vinny thought back to Seán Kelly in the 1989 World Cycling Championships in Chambery when the great man’s great legs failed him in the sprint against Greg Lemond.

Vinny almost cried aloud as the string between him and his wheelie foe broke. At Pitch 20, he was five yards back, by Pitch 19 the gap was out to 10 and passing the end of Pitch 17, which marked the start of the Main Avenue, he was close to 20 paces adrift.

Broken and beaten, he rolled to a halt, stopping beside his conqueror. “Vinny Fitzpatrick. Fair play to ye,” he said, offering a red-raw mitt.

The hand that clasped Vinny’s was firm and strong. Vinny took a closer appraisal at his subjugator. He was in his early 40s, prematurely grey, supremely fit-looking and was breathing far easier than Vinny.

“Sylvie Copeland,” he said. “I recognise you from Foley’s. I used to drink there. Thanks for the exercise, I needed that. If only I was pushed that hard in London.”

“London?” queried Vinny.

“Yeah, London. Just back from the Paralympics. What an experience that was. Right,” he said, glancing at his wrist. “Got to go. Thanks again.”

With that his rival steered his chair through the park gates. As he did so, Vinny noticed something – Sylvie had no legs.

As Vinny waited for his pick up from Angie, he thought about life’s wheel of fortune and how it spun. He was, he knew, one of the lucky ones.

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