3rd Place: ‘War’ by Mary Coleman

Galway’s pavements were melting. 99s in every hand and the air was thick with the smell of factor 50. Everyone was diving from the Blackrock tower, building sandcastles and talking about football. Everyone except me. It had been a few weeks since I’d had contact from any of the lads. And it would be a few more now that they were in the final.

Maroon and white bunting hung in a zig zag across Shop St. It was the Wednesday before the final. I had taken to walking the streets in the mornings before the city woke up. I walked with no direction. I didn’t need one. I knew every inch of Galway. Every gum stained cobble, every crack in its foundation. Every pub. Every pitch. I felt about Galway the way William Wallace felt about Scotland. Like I would’ve died to save it. That wasn’t necessary, but in the absence of wars, we had football.

Crows and seagulls owned the morning streets. They were relentless in their squawking, like hunters out to get me. I started to tune in to their language, their tongue translating mostly as ‘you’re weak, you’re pathetic, you’re not good enough, and never were’. They were obnoxious fuckers, the birds. Talkative, too. But when I tried to block them out, think about something else, I found myself back in the sludge of Pearse Stadium. Back in a wet, April evening. We were losing light at the end of the training game. The whole team was heavy with rain. We were all sloppy, all sluggish. I did my best. I made a couple of sprints up the wing. ‘Con, on your left, I’m on your left…’ Con was being harassed by Ger Mull, but he chose that over passing the ball to me. He eventually took a shot and hit the ball over the bar with his left foot. He kicked the next one with his right. My father told me that the real players could kick with the left and right. One talented foot wasn’t enough for him.

I suppose I knew that training hadn’t been going well. I was getting less ball. My shooting was a bit off. I knew it, but I knew I turned up for training every week. That was our last training session before the first championship game. I’d never made the starting fifteen, but I was going to this year, they’d all said it the year before. I was blossoming, they said, into the player I was meant to be.

After the final whistle of the training game, we trudged into the dressing room, all thirty-five of us. Con was shiteing on about how he was worried for his place. A few of his disciples strongly dismissed his concerns, validating him and reminding him that he was an All Star last year. Con was one of those people who told you he’d done no study for the exam, but came out with an A.

John Deegan, our manager, who knew me well, and knew how hard I’d trained, stood in the middle of the dressing room. He was sighing. He looked around at us, some of us towelling our hairs, others picking mud off our boots. We didn’t want to pay attention to him because we knew it was going to be the end of something. I didn’t want to have to say goodbye to lads I’d been training with, I didn’t want anyone to be without a jersey on match day. It felt barbaric, like a mutilation of our close knit team. But such was the nature of war.

John gave us the usual spiel about making tough decisions, about feeling bad for the guys who wouldn’t make it, about how regardless of who was on the panel, we were a team, and he expected us all to be at every game in a Galway tracksuit, sitting on the bench. I was desperate to know whether I’d be in the centre or full forward line.

When he didn’t call my name for numbers 10-15, the numbness began. Three years with the squad, and still couldn’t get a starting place. A real player can kick with the right and left and make the first fifteen. I wasn’t sure what kind of player couldn’t make the first 25. When the last name was called, I sat still for a few moments. There was a muted clap. Most of the lads put their hands on my shoulders as they left the dressing room. John came to me, and I heard some words, but said nothing in return. The other losers nodded at him, gave half smiles, one made a joke about it all being for Galway. I wanted to say that. But a real player makes the team, my father said. A real player kicks with the right and left.

Shop Street was deserted. Sweat poured out of me, and it was only 7 in the morning. If the weather kept up, the team wouldn’t be able to play on Sunday. Then I thought about athletes who live in hot places. And then I thought about what those hot places would be like. New York, where I hadn’t gone on my J1 so I could train. Australia, where I hadn’t gone on my Erasmus year so that I could train.

As I passed by The King’s Head, decked out head to toe in maroon and white, I wondered would John Deegan text me before the final, ask me back. Would my father every think I was a real player. It was easier not to ask the questions, or contemplate the answers, so I tuned back into the birds. They hung on a wire of bunting, squawking murderously, saying everything I already felt about myself. I walked on, down the familiar cobbles of the streets I fought to represent. But I lost. Such is the nature of war.

About the Author

Mary was born in Co. Galway. She studied Speech and Language Therapy at NUIG before moving to Edinburgh in 2013. A number of her articles have been published in The Irish Times’ ‘Abroad’ feature. In 2020, she moved back to Galway, and pursued an MA in Creative Writing at DCU which she completed in August 2022. Her fiction and non fiction writing has appeared in Tir na nÓg literary magazine and on Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio 1. She won the Lough Corrib Short Story competition in 2022 and was shortlisted for the Eamon Keane Full Length Play Award at Listowel Writer’s Week 2022. She is currently a student at The Lir Academy, Dublin where she is studying for an MFA in Playwriting.

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Published by sonderlit

New Irish literary magazine reflecting people, our differences and similarities.

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