FICTION: A Limp Boy Fitted for Idle Boots by Conor O’Sullivan

The bone ended Rory Byrne’s career at thirteen years of age. At first, it seemed like a persistent muscle injury had beset his pre-season for the Midlands Schoolboys League. The pain above his right knee, intermittent and dull for the summer, sharpened when training resumed for the Tullamore Town U-14s.

Rory arrived at Leah Victoria Park, the club’s home ground, in good time on the final Tuesday of July with his father and manager, Michael. They carried the black duffel bag containing footballs, luminous bibs and a crate of water bottles. He laid out the cones ten metres apart while his father jotted down notes in a black notebook that he kept in his back pocket. Dried paint stained his father’s navy polo, the cotton loose on his sturdy frame. Farmland spread beyond the unyielding pitch and flanked the dual carriageway. Rory’s teammates arrived on their BMXs, stretching their elongated limbs on the touchline. Their skin was dark and unblemished from coastal holidays. The group had been together for seven years and he was convinced there was a title in them.

‘The work starts now, Freckle,’ he said, flicking Alan Lyons’s earlobes during the first lap. His father raised the black whistle to his thin, dry lips and ran them to the verge of retching. The shriek of metal was relentless in their pursuit of conditioning. He ceased the torment after an hour with sweat pouring from their bleached crew cuts.

‘I hope you’re wearing shin pads, boys,’ Rory said after the teams were picked. He made up for his small stature with a boundless energy and lack of fear, which had led to running feuds with rival players.

‘Stay on your feet,’ his father shouted after he clattered Freckle’s calves from behind. The boys played with an abandonment in the long, warm evening, surrendering possession and shooting from a distance. Rory prowled outside the box, watching the ball emerge from a cluster of players. He timed his burst and, using his favoured right foot, rolled a shot past Declan Kearns.

‘Nice finish,’ Dec said, smacking the ground with his gloves. Rory came off for the last five minutes, swatting midges hovering around his neck. In the next training session, he pulled out during the suicides drill and a week later limped through the warm-up before a friendly against Dunboyne.

‘We’ll book an appointment with James Foley,’ his father told him, slowing the Volvo Estate into their driveway. ‘He prolonged my career by a decade.’

Rory’s lder sisters’ bikes were parked in the side lane and he saw their shadows on the living room wall. Their semi-detached house on Thornsberry Crescent, a mile northeast of the town centre, stood in a row of eight and faced a communal lawn. They put up football nets in the summer, playing games until they lost count of the score and the streetlamps flickered. His mother, Siobhan, propped his leg on a kitchen chair before feeding the family a dinner of barbequed steak, coleslaw and potato salad.

‘Your knee has exploded,’ Rachel said, tying her blond hair in a bun.

‘That’ll keep you out for a while,’ said Jess, the eldest by a year, after handing Rachel a clip.

‘Shut up, you two comment on everyone.’

‘Calm down,’ his father said. ‘We’ll get this sorted in the morning.’

The next morning, his mother drove Rory over to Foley’s practice after shopping in Tesco. It was on the second floor of a Georgian townhouse beside the Central Hotel. She filled out forms in a waiting room with old magazines, copying down the digits from their insurance card. His father was meeting a client in Portlaoise. He sold office furniture, spending his days driving between county towns searching for leads and appeasing old clients. Rory often walked to training and met him near the club gates. His father had captained the senior side for five years and let Rory into the dressing room before matches, placing him on his lap during team talks.

‘I’m afraid he’s running behind schedule,’ said the thin, pale secretary. He was called in after another twenty minutes, walking down a carpeted hallway to a windowless treatment room. Foley rolled up Rory’s tracksuit bottom and inspected the knee. He winced with the flesh wedged in Foley’s large, smooth hands before being sent for an X-ray. They sat in his office afterwards, discussing the framed pictures of county athletes hung on the wall. Foley returned a short time later holding a large manila envelope which he placed on his desk.

‘I’m going to send you for a CT scan at Midland Regional,’ he said, pulling his chair back. ‘I’ve contacted their oncology department and they have an opening today.’

‘But it’s a muscle injury,’ his mother said, her nostrils and green eyes widened.

‘It may be a tumour,’ he responded. Rory rang his father from the car after rooting through her handbag in view of the tiered, white building.

‘Any news?’

‘We’re at the hospital,’ he said, handing the phone over and stepping out of the car. They put him on a trolley bed and took his blood pressure.

‘Da is on the way,’ his mother told him, tugging his forearm before they were separated. Two nurses wearing turquoise scrubs rolled him down a hallway and into a dim, spacious room with a cylindrical machine. A middle-aged female doctor with curly red hair injected a dyed liquid into his left arm. His mouth dried and he became lightheaded. She left the room, his chest tightening once the machine’s metallic slab slid backwards. Rory pretended he was an astronaut plunging into space lying in the dark tube. The doctor told him through a microphone that he was a good boy after following her instructions.

‘You’re a United fan?’ she asked when it was over, pointing at his jersey with a clipped, painted fingernail.

‘Yes, same as my da.’

He went into the oncologist’s office ten minutes after his parents and sat on a black leather armchair. Dr McDaid was a tall man with fair, thinning hair. The veiled clouds were splintered by gentle winds. His father rubbed a callused palm over his short, fair hair and his mother’s bottom lip quivered.

‘Rory, we found a tumour in the bone above your right knee,’ McDaid said, clicking his retractable silver pen. ‘I was waiting to bring you in before going through all the options available to us.’

‘When can I play again?’

‘Our priority is to prevent amputation.’

He was given a pair of crutches on the way out. His parents changed radio stations on the way home, sighing after each upbeat voice greeted them. Traffic was slow on the Arden Road with sunlight spread across carpet fields. His father lied about work commitments to Mr Lyons who assumed training duties. Rory walked outside and laced up his Adidas Predator boots, leaving his crutches on the path. His parents brought him into Elverys Sports on his last birthday and he scored against Clara that Saturday. He retrieved a ball lodged under the gas tank. His sisters’ voices carried over the gate, gossiping about their classmate Jenny Mahon and her new boyfriend. He volleyed it off the wall with his left foot, counting his streak, before being called in for dinner.

‘Do you want more pizza?’ his mother asked.

‘No thanks,’ he replied, chewing the crust.

‘Girls, there’s something we need to tell you,’ she said, breaking into a sob. His father reached for her hand and knocked over the water jug.

‘I have cancer in my bone and they don’t know when I’ll play again.’

The family stayed at home for a few days after the diagnosis, researching the condition and ordering his favourite takeout. His father mowed the grass and his sisters raked leaves. Rory stayed in the living room, compressing the bone with his fist. An MRI scan confirmed the diagnosis, Rachel asserting that he was fortunate the cancer was contained. His father returned to training the week of their opening game despite his mother’s disapproval and the long argument that followed in the kitchen. He went outside and sat on the front wall with his sisters, watching children play chase on the lawn.

The match was left unspoken at breakfast that Saturday. He fell asleep during a lunchtime draw between Aston Villa and Tottenham. His father returned by mid-afternoon, carrying the duffel bag outside with a Smithwick’s can in his spare hand. Rory saw him glance at his boots before he went upstairs and took a long shower. The chemotherapy began on the last day of summer holidays. A nurse led him to a medium sized room containing two brown woollen chairs and ushered him onto the bed.

‘Dr McDaid will be in soon.’

‘Are you from the town?’ his mother asked, lifting his back and adjusting the pillow.

‘Edenderry.’

‘Not too far a commute then,’ she said, forcing a desperate smile. Rory bit his lip as fluids trickled down the tubes attached to his left arm. The nurse checked his vitals while his mother flicked through a magazine. She wheeled him through the fluorescent halls afterwards, the smell of disinfectant compounding his nausea. He vomited during the night and remained in bed all day, washing down his medication with flat 7up. The team all signed a card with their messages scribbled around a get well soon imprint. He stayed in the living room most afternoons, switching between sitcom reruns and games of FIFA on his Play Station. His sisters arrived home in the dim twilights, finishing their homework at the kitchen table. Rory ventured out to the garden when his mother was in the town running errands, swinging on his crutches and hitting shots off the gable wall.

‘I can give it up if you want,’ his father said to him one evening when they were watching a United game.

‘No point in both of us suffering.’

He met Niall on a leaden October afternoon when they were placed in the same room due to a bed shortage. Rory laid on his side waiting for his mother to return from the cafeteria.

‘Do you want to play snakes and ladders?’

‘Sure,’ he said, facing his hollow cheeks and dilated blue eyes. ‘It will pass the time.’

‘The nurses keep it stored for me when we’re coming in,’ Niall said, spreading the tattered board on his over-bed table. ‘You can go first.’

‘Right,’ he said, climbing up on the bed and noticing Niall’s frame took up a fraction of the mattress. He rolled a four and marched his red disc across the cardboard. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Banagher,’ he replied. ‘You?’

‘Down the road,’ he said, climbing a short ladder. ‘Did you play for their football team?’

‘Never.’

‘We used to play them a lot. How long have you been coming in here?’

‘About a year,’ he said, rolling a six and overtaking him.

‘Where’s yours?’

‘In my head,’ he answered, turning and revealing a surgical scar beneath his bare crown. ‘Your roll.’

‘Five,’ he said, spiralling down the longest snake. Niall won before the nurse came in a few minutes later and wheeled him off to a different room. The session ended late, his mother driving him home through mist.  Rory watched chat shows with his parents that evening, sipping 7 Up through a straw. His United cap never came off once the chemo took his blond hair. They put him in a chair a week before Halloween and installed a stair lift.

‘We can open a nursing home when this is over,’ his father joked after helping him into bed. He regurgitated servings of dry toast, chunks of vomit floating in the wash bucket. His ribcage protruded over withering flesh. The clocks went back on a cold Sunday morning with rain streaking the window panes. Games were called off and his father stayed around the house on weekends finishing DIY projects.

‘Will we go for a walk?’ Jess suggested.

‘It’s too cold,’ he said, turning up the television’s volume. Rory was in the hospital a week before Christmas. Patients wore Santa hats with tinsel hung in the rooms. Tullamore flickered beneath them and he squinted for the clubhouse across clustered, damp rooftops.

‘All done now, love,’ his mother said, stroking his forehead.

‘Tell Da I’ll be ready in ten minutes,’ he responded, drool spilling from his mouth.

‘I’m here, son.’

Rory broke tradition by staying home on Christmas Eve when the family went to Digan’s. Fairy lights sparkled off the tree, their presents wrapped and arranged beneath pine branches. The team were in the snug, drinking minerals and glancing at girls wearing new dresses. An old film’s closing scene had faded to a festive melody and framed credits. He crawled to the garden, lying face down on the frosted blades of grass. His wails were heard only by the stars in a moonless sky. He was in bed before they came home, hearing his mother make toasted sandwiches. They gave him a spaniel puppy on Christmas morning with a brown coat and dark, beady eyes. He posed for pictures holding Otis, named after his father’s favourite singer, and replaced his cap for a paper crown.

‘This is farcical putting me and Da on the same team,’ he said, removing a Pictionary card from the stack. ‘We can’t draw a straight line.’

‘Come on and we’ll get this one, son.’

His sisters let him pick films during the restful afternoons before New Year’s Eve. The fire crackled and Rachel handed him broken squares of Dairy Milk, his knee pulsing under the duvet. They returned to the hospital on a teeming Monday morning, dropping his sisters off at the school gates. Pupils marched by the window in hooded coats that concealed their grim expressions.

‘We’ll persist with chemo for the time being,’ McDaid said, clicking his pen and making a note in the chart. Rory watched the misery of January elapse in a state of sleep and pain, spending his fourteenth birthday in the hospital.

‘I couldn’t find any candles at home,’ Jess said, removing the Tupperware from her rucksack and dispensing brownies.

‘No need,’ he said, chewing the crumbled chocolate. He went to bed every night before his father returned from work, acting asleep despite hearing his breaths in the doorway. They remained facing each other before he cut the hall light. Silence lingered between them after exhausting analysis of United games. Niall came into his hospital room on a crisp morning holding the cardboard box against his gown.

‘Fancy losing again?’ he asked, sliding his Batman slippers across the floor.

‘Sure,’ he said. ‘My Mam’s outside on the phone. You should tell the nurse to buy us a Play Station.’

‘I can ask if you want,’ he said, sitting up on his bed and handing him the red disc.

‘Don’t bother,’ he said, clenching the dice.

‘Niall,’ said a short woman who walked over and took his hand. Embedded wrinkles lined her forehead beneath a cropped, highlighted fringe. ‘You can’t go running off like that.’

‘We were finishing our series,’ he said, packing up the board. ‘It’s best of three.’

Dec called up to the house unannounced one afternoon in March, wearing a new training top with his initials stitched above the crest. Rory was napping in the living room and reached straight for his cap after being woken. His mother carried in biscuits and squash on a tray before they picked teams for FIFA.

‘We have Colgan for maths this year, he’s a total drip.’

‘Who’s playing up front?’ he asked, sprawled on the couch with Dec behind him in an armchair.

‘Liam and Dessie, they’re both scoring for fun,’ he answered, stuffing a chocolate digestive into his mouth. ‘You’re wiping the floor with me here.’

‘I have a lot of time to practice.’

‘My parents took the console after seeing my Christmas results. Michael begged my da to let me keep playing since we’re going for the double.’

‘I better get back to bed,’ he said, pausing the game.

‘Sound,’ he said, picking up his rucksack. ‘I’ll call over someday with Freckle.’

He scrolled through the team’s results on his laptop, seeing they were five points clear in first place. Both Liam and Dessie had beaten his tally for last season. The dog licked his tears, offering a dusty paw. Training was moving back to the grass before midweek games began, the residue of winter muck scraped from their boots.

‘I heard Dec was up to the house,’ his father said at dinner.

‘He mentioned that we’re top.’

‘Yes, by a slim margin.’

‘Well, you’ll be in my prayers,’ he said, flipping his plate and rolling into the living room.

‘Don’t you walk away from us, we’re trying…’

‘I can’t walk.’

Rory watched X-Men with his sisters that evening who took turns microwaving popcorn. Otis laid across his lap and his parents argued upstairs, their retorts filtering through the ceiling boards. He relished afternoons on the ward, finding a sense of purpose in the pain. May came with open skies along with a final session. His mother was filling out a form at the nurses’ station and told Rory she would catch up with him. He peered through the rooms, tapping his knuckles on the door once he saw him.

‘We never did settle that series,’ he said, entering the room.

‘There’s time now,’ Niall replied. ‘I’m idle for an hour.’

‘We’re meeting McDaid.’

‘Are you done?’

‘For now,’ he answered. ‘What about you?’

‘They’re talking about another surgery,’ he said.

‘I can come in over the summer, we can play a proper board game.’

‘You’ve suffered enough,’ he said, turning his frail aspect to the window. Swallows circled the car park before flying north. He turned the chair around and found his mother.

‘Your prognosis is promising,’ McDaid said, his elbows propped on the desk.

‘What about playing?’

‘Rory, you must accept that playing football is not a possibility.’

His mother collected dinner at Carmine’s on the way home. He waited in the car, hanging his arm out the window when he heard Declan and Freckle’s voices. They walked inside passing a ball between them and approached his mother. He crouched in his seat until his forehead brushed against the glove compartment.

‘Rory, the boys just walked in,’ she said, holding the door open. ‘Are you up for saying hello?’

‘Get in,’ he said, pulling her sleeve.

‘They’re your friends,’ she said, reversing the car.

‘Not anymore.’

‘Think of that poor boy in the hospital…’

‘He’s the lucky one.’

Rory stayed in his room that evening, eating fried chicken and wiping his greasy fingers on the duvet. He took a shoebox out of his closet, rummaging through medals received at birthday parties before finding the yellowed Tribune clipping. It was dated two years since a balmy April evening in Birr, a picture of the team below the headline – ‘Smith bags hat-trick in Town’s late win.’ He ran his fingers over a copse of cherry blossoms in the background. They travelled south after a stifling day in school and he joked away his nerves once Birr’s players stepped on the pitch in their royal blue jerseys and white shorts. His father handed out the red away strip, telling them they were in for a battle.

‘You’re just playing because of your daddy, Midget,’ their tall, muscular captain said, stamping on his right ankle. He scored twice in the first half with sharp finishes. The sides were level with ten minutes left and he stood on the penalty spot for a corner, dashing between two defenders with the ball in flight. He halted at the front post and leapt from his bruised heels, pivoting his forehead towards the rotating stitches. Rory stayed in the air seeing the net ripple before running to the line where he was swarmed by teammates. When the final whistle went, he was the last person left on the pitch. The team emptied water bottles on his head and droplets fell down his back. His father put on Van Morrison for the drive home with moonlight striking the peatlands.

‘You’re going to lead our line now,’ his father said, taking a handful of chips from the bag.

‘I’m ready, Da.’

He closed his eyes and waited for a sleepless night. The dawn was early, feeding sunlight to rose petals in their swinging pots. He went downstairs and waited for his family in the kitchen. They came down in their pyjamas before his mother made breakfast. His hair began growing back, white strands curling over his scalp. He joined his mother and Otis for walks along the canal, acting polite upon meeting family friends on Church Street.

‘I’ll tell Declan to organise a sleepover during the summer,’ Mrs Kearns said, patting his shoulder.

‘That sounds nice.’

Rory watched a game with mild interest on a fine Saturday morning while his sisters bickered over sharing their new car. His father sat on the couch scribbling in his notebook ahead of the season’s concluding fixture.

‘We better get going, Siobhan.’

‘We’ll be home this evening, love,’ she said.

‘Fine.’

He listened to the car shift into gear. Sunrays covered the screen and gave him a headache. He bit skin peeling beside his thumbnail, sucking blood pooling over the cut.

‘Rachel, will you give me a lift to the pitch?’ he asked, attaching Otis’s leash to the wheelchair. His sisters played chart music cruising into the town past glinted buildings. People walked down Church Street at a casual pace, their arms bare and sunburnt. Rachel indicated and turned off the roundabout on to the slip road and he heard cheering through the window. The club’s phoenix crest was severed by parted steel bars. They rolled him to the pitch and let Otis off his leash. The players were strewn beneath Rory, lithe and gallant on the ageless meadow.

‘Mam,’ he shouted, waving her over. Her sunglasses hid any tears and the parents cleared a path for him to the barrier. His father stood on the touchline with arms folded in his polo and faded blue jeans, passing on instructions to the defence.

‘Great to see you, Rory,’ Mr Lyons said, shaking his hand. ‘The place hasn’t been the same without you.’

‘Dec’s playing a blinder,’ he responded, squinting up at his round, bearded face. He shouted words of encouragement to the players, slapping their palms at half time. They beat Birr by a comfortable margin and danced in a huddle at the centre circle. Dec accepted the trophy, his jersey drenched in water.

‘It’s all down to Michael,’ he said, leading a round of applause. ‘We couldn’t ask for a better manager.’

They bought Rory onto the pitch for a picture and placed the trophy on his lap. Two parents carried him up to the bar where he sipped minerals with the team. They joked about the Birr players, going over old games like men who have seen too much of life. Rory ordered another Cidona from the bar, waiting beside his father who drained a Smithwick’s then placed it on a coaster.

‘We made light work of that.’

‘Birr were never in it,’ Rory replied, peering over the mahogany.

‘Not at all,’ he said, finishing his pint and facing him. ‘You did well today.’

‘I know, Da. I know.’

Conor O’Sullivan

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Conor O’Sullivan’s short fiction has been published in the Lakeview Journal, the Bitchin’ Kitsch and Dual Coast Magazine. The Short Story will publish his work, ‘Out to Wreck’, as a chapbook in 2018. He lives in London where he works as a sports journalist.

If you enjoyed A Limp Boy Fitted for Idle Boots, leave a comment and let Connor know.

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