The end game comes peacefully - Irish county footballer hears the long whistle

Illustration by Caty Bartholomew

Marie met Mahon at the front door of the farmhouse, greeted him with a warm hug while holding his right hand in both of hers as old friends do.

She told him in the hallway that Stephen was awake and alert in the bed and not suffering this evening. He had taken no solid food for two days but had kept down a glass of milk that afternoon. He would be glad to see Mahon for sure.

The door to the bedroom off the living room was open. When Mahon went inside Stephen had his eyes closed, his head a little sideways on the pillow.

Mahon sat silently into the chair beside the bed.  Under the white coverlet he was a little shocked at how significantly Stephen's big body had reduced since he had visited last.

The face was pale but had not changed much. The huge hands which had made him famed in the county as a football full back were as large as ever but white and skeletal, the vein systems on the backs pronounced and very blue.

When Mahon came in the hands and arms were lying limply relaxed alongside the body. The Sacred Heart lamp glowed redly on the wall. An old clock ticked away.

Stephen opened his eyes after a few moments. He greeted Mahon warmly without moving a muscle.  Mahon patted the back of the big white left hand and said he was glad to see him.

He said the perennial bedside lie that Stephen was looking well. They talked for a while about the patient's general condition and family gossip.

Stephen said he was not suffering and was only weak and sleeping most of the time. He grinned slightly as he said, "I think I can hear the long whistle.”

That reference to their football youth easily brought them comfortably back through the years to the time when they brought Gaelic football glory to the parish for the first and only time by winning the county senior football title. Suddenly that Sunday from the long ago was as close as yesterday.

Stephen became quite animated and alive as they relived the excitements of that county final when they were young and strong.  Mahon again touched the back of the big left hand and said. "You had the best pair of hands, and the safest, that time.  There was no better fullback in the county.

“They kept putting the ball in high and you kept catching them all and clearing them. You were mighty. You made the difference for sure."

Stephen was so pleased that at one stage he put the old hands together as if readying to catch a high ball and raised them up above his head in the bed.

"You scored that great goal yourself in the second half that made the difference,” said Stephen.  "That was the score that buckled them altogether."

The famous big safe hands came alive again on the top of the coverlet, moving here and there to illustrate the football points he was making in their conversation.

"I was thinking the other day that there's only seven of us left now out of the 15 players in action that day," is what he said.

Soon to be only six thought Mahon behind his face, but there was no hint of that in his chat as they played the old game all over again.

“Too bad,” said Stephen at one point, “that our sons were never able to do what we did and win the title again.”

And then they talked about sons and daughters and football and camogie generally as the clock ticked quietly on the wall. After less than half an hour it was clear Stephen was tiring, and Mahon knew when to say goodbye.

He patted the big man on the top of the head and said he would call again soon and to mind himself and take things easy.  Stephen nodded a response, his eyes already closing.

Mahon had a cup of tea and a slice of fruit cake with Marie and the family members gathered in the kitchen. Marie left him out to the front door again down the hallway when he was leaving.

She had originally been one of the O'Malleys from the mountain, Mahon's own country, and they were both full still of the old knowledges and lores for which there are no names.  And as tough as old leather underneath the gentle exterior.

What did he think about Stephen is what she asked him quietly inside the front door.

Mahon said, "He's pluckin' and pickin' at the bedspread now, all the time, and with both hands. You have probably spotted that yourself already coming from where you come from.  Don't let the young ones scatter.  He will do well to get through tomorrow.”

She gave him a quick, strong hug as she opened the door and he went away.

The old fullback with the gifted hands died peacefully in his sleep at six o'clock that morning...........

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