The game was a piece of shit dropping slowly off a stick. It was ten minutes into the second half and the players were strutting around. Entitled. ‘End of a long hard season,’ said Byron, like he invented it. His face was wise and sore and just laughing at the shitness of it all, wise because he thought that only he understood what it meant. He was tracking Rooney. James often wanted to punch Byron, because he wanted to call him out sometimes, but he couldn’t, it just translated as wanting to punch him. James, his face was like Winston Smith’s in the rat cage in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he was sure, if he’d been able to see his own face. Because they’d spent money on this shit. They were in the middle of exams and they’d spent money on this shit. He kept repeating it until it meant nothing. He looked at Rooney’s raw head and thought, that’s the thing you do, you get angry at footballers who make a million a week. Did he feel angry? Aidan, who was sitting beside James, kept turning his toes inwards like he had bone disease. He’d spent most of the game looking at his shoes. You get angry at people who spend two hundred on a pair of New Balance. Not that he was angry at Aidan and his New Balance, he was merely making an observation about Aidan, how bored he was. He could not hate Aidan or Wayne Rooney like he hated Byron. Man, he did not hate Byron. That’s what you do too: life was a competition and you didn’t take out the top dog, you took out the guy most like you, because that was your role he was taking. Once you thought about that, everything was simple and ridiculous. You felt okay to hate, or that it was okay to hate, but you could not hate. The thought itself became something and put itself in the way. You thought about it, it was the Byrons of this world you should be teaming with.
He did that thing he always did when he was bored, and only knew he was bored when he noticed he was doing it: he blew out his cheeks till he could feel his vein with his tongue. He imagined inflating his head so much that he floated among the white tubes of the roof. Even the stadium was bored: it was like a dried dead louse behind glass. James imagined moving one hand over the other along the tubes, into the network, and climbing up on one of them and banging it with a hammer, making all the tubes clang. Or klang—better. ‘Why do we keep calling it the Aviva Stadium and not Lansdowne Road?’ Aidan looked at James as if James had just come out. Actually he didn’t look at James, he kept his face on the game. ‘What?’
‘Like, Lansdowne Road is better. As a name. More classy, as a proposition.’ After a second Aidan’s face relaxed. ‘Yeah, but Aviva has “viva” in it. It’s… joyous.’
James gave a disbelieving tut, inviting Byron, who leaned forward the other side of Aidan but looked straight across to James. ‘The media isn’t allowed say Lansdowne Road. If a journalist said Lansdowne Road instead of Aviva, the FAI and IRFU would ban every journalist from that organ.’
‘Organ. Bullshit,’ said James.
Byron shrugged. ‘That’s the policy.’
‘Ah bullshit, like, we’re not the media. We don’t have to call it the Aviva.’
‘I prefer Lansdowne, Hanno, it’s the classier proposition.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Byron, sitting back in his seat. Then he said, ‘Ah, you couldn’t revert. This stage, no one remembers the old name.’ He looped his thumbs into invisible elastic braces and said in the poshest Downton accent: ‘Lens-daaauuuun Rade.’ James found it funny.
But James remembered the old name, that’s why it came naturally. Or it could have been that these last two weeks he’d read it and heard it so many times. A big thing in the build-up had been what happened the last time Ireland played England at home. ‘The old Lansdowne Road,’ they kept saying, ‘the old stadium’, like old was bad. The old stadium was made of wood and nails. Old was bad: this was true. The whole thing was degraded. The colour was weak. Something about the red in the Union Jacks. The hooligans sang “No Surrender“—it was like they were making a point about the North. The papers said the seats they threw were missiles. Everything was given glam names in all those struggles. You read about the IRA and how they were the world leaders in bomb making, and it made you proud, and then you looked into it, and those bombs were made of wood and nails too. You read about these elite fighters, but the pictures showed beer guts bursting out of old army tops, spilling over jeans, and one guy’s army top was different to the other guy’s, from a different army, put through the wash more times.
In a clip he saw on YouTube, guards in riot gear were stooped behind a low concrete wall. They were waiting for the hooligans to come down. You could see, even through the shine of their visors, and in the way they jiggled their clubs, that they were loving it. James, too, he found himself getting really into it, like it was happening live. The hooligans were skinheads, and they were wrapped in Union Jacks and looked racially a different species. They sang ‘No Surrender, No Surrender, No Surrender to the IRA‘. When you hear something like that, look at the faces of the people singing it, you can’t help it, your blood literally boils. You sit forward with your nails dug into your hands. He was sitting forward now, with the remembrance, and now he was alert, though not quite. The air was so dead, and there was no movement. Back in those days you knew your enemy, and your cause. You listened to the English fans here today, and the best they could muster was ‘Oh Sepp Blatter, he paid for your ground’.
James was capable of tuning out all the noise and hearing, now, the English players joke among each other. Byron going, ‘System, system, system.’
Byron said to Aidan, ‘I just need a break from all of it.’
‘All of what?’ said James.
Byron looked up from Aidan. His face calmed and then he crossed his eyes at James. He said in a Scottish accent, ‘The murder machine.’
‘Fair enough,’ said James.
‘Fair enough to what?’ said Byron, uncrossing his eyes.
‘That you would want to do that.’
James and Byron were going into Transition Year after the summer while Aidan was going straight through to Fifth Year. Transition Year was a year out of school, in effect. They would canoe on the Boyne and help out disadvantaged kids.
‘The thing is, I actually believe in education, seriously,’ said Byron.
‘I believe in angels, seriously,’ said Aidan.
‘I mean… yeah. But it’s a grind. There is actually a system.’
Where was he getting it from? He waited for Aidan to jump in, then couldn’t help himself: ‘What are you talking about, man?’
Byron didn’t stir.
Seriously, though. Where was he getting it from? Yeah, there was a system, but no one played the system like Byron. James’s mother even said about him: he’s a very mature boy. He was the class representative in second and third year. The staff loved him. He once personally formed a cordon around Mister Mahon when he tried to fish a condom out of a drain; he held back a hundred boys. Earlier, the man in front of Byron had asked him to take his feet off the top of his seat, and Byron had lifted his hand as if to say, ‘Sorry, Buddy’, man to man, and took his feet down, and that was Byron all over.
He was getting it from Mister Poole, probably, because that was Mister Poole. The students’ friend. Mister Poole was young; even looked young. In the yearbook, when James was in second class in the junior school, Mister Poole had been in Fifth Year in the seniors. He could fill your head with shit, because he had a way. Because he was young. He had that rapport with everyone—‘Call me Dan.’ And he had this shit in him himself. He had ideas, ideals. He liked music. But it was the way he talked. He would be the class master for the Transition Years next year, and Transition Year would be no different from any year to that point; a step along the system, but a doss, James was sure.
‘So—’ said James, ‘when you say murder machine, that’s what you’re saying: school, right?’
Murder machine was one of Mister Poole’s sayings.
‘Ja,’ said Byron.
‘It’s not exactly murder though, is it, I mean.’
‘Depends on your definition.’
‘What’s your definition?’
‘They try and strangulate you slowly. They train you up to fit into their world and then you just crank away for life. And then you rust and fall off and die.’
‘They kill your soul.’
‘Get out of it, man.’
‘You don’t think so?’
‘Yeah, but. You of all people, Hanno, come on. You were the one saying you didn’t care this place was called Aviva. You’re the one all geared up to be a fucking…’
‘I dunno—a banker.’
‘How in fuck does that make me a banker?’
‘If you say fuck the system you can’t just take the system lying down. You got to do something about it and take action.’
‘Two separate things, mate.’
‘Lads, lads, I’m trying to watch the game,’ said Aidan.
James let Byron go on, but he didn’t.
‘You’re struggling, man,’ said James.
‘Sport’s a corporate shill. Has been for a long time. As long as you know that, everything’s fine. I’m talking about the system at a more basic level.’
‘He says school should treat people like children more,’ said Aidan.
‘Sh’tup, you,’ said Byron. ‘I’m saying school should have a better attitude to ideas and imagination. They see imagination as childish. They don’t think adults with big ideas is a good thing, because they see it as childish. Because only children will listen to big ideas, only children have the patience. You see it in their attitude to Transition Year, giving the gig to Dan Poole. Guarantee you he was the only taker. Nothing wrong with a bit of time out though. Tread on our dreams and you tread on us.’
‘Dan Poole is a child,’ said James, but no one reacted and he repeated it, and the crowd let out a roar, and no one reacted again.
He waited for everyone to sit back in their seats. The players reverted to tapping the ball around sideways.
‘Do you think Dan Poole is a pederast? Remember the time he said he was a pedagogue, and there was a wave through the class? Do you think he was trying in a fucked-up way to admit something?’
James was not saying Dan Poole was a pederast, but sometimes Dan Poole could be inappropriate. Like: why did he take James and Cormac Taney down to the sheds that time? It was not a good idea to make lads uncomfortable like that. It was unwise behaviour, even if Dan Poole didn’t know what he was doing. They were made uncomfortable in ways they couldn’t put a finger on, not that they ever said. Not that James would ever mention it now. That would be making discomfort where there was none. But you know what they say. You should say. Maybe they were uncomfortable just because they were aware of certain protocols. James remembered. The second the doors opened they felt uncomfortable because they were invaded by BO. And there was something uncomfortable about the two canoes there, like coffins. Dan Poole said he did not have the trailer that could carry two canoes, that he could only take one canoe on his car at a time. But he said he would get the Transition Years to build the river coracles of the ancient Irishman, which could be stacked on top of each other on a car roof. James remembered him running a shot-putt ball through his hands, dropping it one to the other and back up, like water in a water wheel, and then letting it slip with a bang to the thin wooden floor, but not jumping, because his mind was in another world. There was something dreamy about him—Byron was right—and that’s what would get Dan Poole in trouble. The remarkable thing was no one ever said anything about him. He was just ultimately too sound. Fair enough. Your mind gets poisoned with the news these days, badness.
Contrast with poor old Father Deegan. He didn’t remotely act like a pederast and people said it about him all the time. It was an occupational hazard, thought James. If you choose to become a priest, or stay a priest, what else can you expect? But on every level he was a normal human being. There was cruelty in that. You try your best, and just because of what you are = pederast. He was into his football—there was a rumour he’d been the chaplain for Celtic. He could have been at the game. James had seen someone, far off to the left, in the curve, near the back of the stand, that might have been him. Father Deegan had a very distinctive-shaped head, yellow enough and disproportionately small enough that you could in theory identify it from a hundred metres. There was continuous movement in that area of the stand that was probably heat. It played tricks with your eyes, and the yellow head might not have been him. Maybe James and Byron and Aidan were unofficially banned from the game; after all, they should have been concentrating on their Junior Cert right now. James had a fantasy. The stadium as it was now did not exist. It was a concrete stump with rain seeping down the walls. Father Deegan was standing at the side of the pitch staring up into the crowd. Then he climbed into the crowd waving a stick.
James saw someone he didn’t recognise.
‘Who’s that?’ he said to Aidan.
‘Harry Arter,’ said Aidan. ‘He came on for Whelan.’
‘Never seen him before in my life. Where do they get these people?’
James’s eyes drifted to the empty banks of seats. It made it look like the people on the far side were sitting on a green grassy hill.
‘This is such a shit game,’ he said again.
‘I dunno,’ said Aidan.
‘You don’t think?’
‘It might get better.’
‘It’s gonna take something incredible for that to happen.’
‘I think something incredible is gonna happen.’
‘Rooney will break Bobby Charlton’s goal record with a hat trick.’
‘Or a creature from mythology will turn up. Or a lead zeppelin will drop from the sky and kill everyone.’
James’s granddad had been banned from going to soccer games. He told James once how the bishop warned everybody against going to a match between the Republic of Ireland and CCCP. It was a double warning—against foreign games and communism. He went to the game anyway. Fuck Ireland. Up the Republic. No—fuck the Republic. Up the Stickies. No compromises. The Republic was illegitimate. Granddad Tuite was a political man his whole life. He had a fit when James’s dad said he was going to send his boy to the Marists. Granddad Tuite had had the shit beaten out of him by the Christian Brothers. James’s dad told him to relax, that the Marists were not the Christian Brothers, and that only the laymen taught. Father Deegan was the only priest in the school, and he wasn’t a teacher, and James wasn’t even sure if he was a Marist. His job consisted of saying masses. There was only one time when he ever took confessions. They went in one at a time with a couple of lines learnt off. That was it for confessions, probably for ever. There were protocols in place now with regards child welfare. James and the rest of them were fifteen. Legally they were, he guessed, adolescents, children. Seventeen and up and they were out of school and adults and the world was free to smash them. He looked down at the shining butts of his hands.
Fuck the world.
Fuck the Aviva. Fuck Twix.
‘You know it operates off fear, the whole insurance business?’ James said to Aidan.
Father Deegan was a happy, happy man. He actually suited the word gay. He would have been Mr Viva in the Aviva right now. That Mexican wave earlier, that was him. He would have started it. But people only started Mexican waves when they were bored. Father Deegan found joy and amusement in the smallest gust of wind.
James grabbed a pinch of Aidan’s shoulder.
‘Here,’ he said. ‘Let’s get a Poznan going.’
‘You what?’ James was already half-stood up, half-turned around. Byron was staring, only half-amused.
‘I’ll give you all the cash in my wallet if you can get a Poznan going,’ said Byron.
‘How much have you got?’ said James.
‘About a hundred. And thirty euros of Microsoft points.’
‘Well you join in so.’
‘You need Aidan to make the link.’ Aidan was sitting there with his arms crossed and a Roy Keane scowl on him.
‘You get up and Aidan will get up.’
‘Why would I do that? I don’t want to lose my money.’
‘I wouldn’t have asked you to join in only to gouge you.’
‘Sit down, James,’ said Byron. James looked at the woman to the right of him. She was unamused. She was not giving James any encouragement. Mere encouragement would not have been good enough anyway. That was not how the Poznan worked. She needed to let James’s hand on her warm sticky pink Helly Hansen, ye-hoo.
James stretched to full height and felt beautifully light-headed. Maybe he’d try drugs in the next year. He tilted back his head and yawned, closing his eyes. When he opened them again he was looking straight up into the white bars and it all had a purple blissed-out tinge.
Constructivism. The people in the rows above were considering him. He must have looked like a tool. Fuck ’em. There was a whole row of pretty-hot girls in 98FM T-shirts. Their miserable faces dragged at and cracked their happy make-up. Below them a fatberg melted into folds. Just looking down at James caused the fatberg’s folds to pour and ooze. He was trying to look irritated but his big folds just made him look sad. Christ.
James sat down again. Nill-all still. Null. Negative. Void. Reichs canceller. The atmosphere now was like a crypt. The English fans weren’t singing anymore. The only truly happy-seeming man he knew was Father Deegan. He supposed priests were freer now to do what they wanted. They were left alone because protocols prevented them from doing their old duties. Maybe this would be a new time for them. They were happier people now and wouldn’t commit crimes. Imagine the old days. Day after day, their heads filled with the sins of the world. Their ears pressed to grilles like food stuck in drains. The sins going in their ears like worms. No wonder there were so many bad apples. But it would do a person good to have someone to upload your shit to. You knew it would be taken away even if you didn’t know what happened to it. And that was enough. The net result being that people were happier in the old days. And priests had been bad. Now people were unhappy, and priests were clear and mellow.
James imagined himself spissing a wide gloopy spiss on a grille, and a wasp billowing about where the spiss splashed and entered. An ear scoured around beneath the grille and made sniffing sounds. The sunlight came in warm jelly cubes just like now, and it was pleasant to loll there. He would flick matches off the side of a box at the wasp. They would flare and then extinguish on impact. In the movies the grilles were black. He supposed that was meant to represent hell.
‘Well this is a waste of an afternoon,’ he said to the boys.
‘No shit,’ said Aidan.
‘If I was you I’d be really fucked off,’ he said to Aidan.
‘Why me especially?’
‘Because me and Byron have the doss year ahead, but you’re head-down straight into the murder machine. You need to be getting every ounce of value out of this summer.’
‘Don’t you start. And it won’t all be a doss for you.’
But pretty much it would. James’s brother Jordan had done Transition Year three years before. There were the normal lessons, of course—Maths, Irish, English etcetera—but everything was turned down by four or five speeds. Mainly the year was about personal development rather than personnel development. This was another of Mister Poole’s sayings. This was why James was doing Transition Year.
James asked Byron if he had any more of the Lucozade left. Byron passed it to him, and James took a few slugs.
‘Shit, what’s in this?’
Byron turned slowly to face James, his eyebrows ramped. ‘Eh, Lucozade?’
Bollocks it was only Lucozade.
Part of Transition Year involved work experience. Jordan wanted to become a journalist, and he got a placement in the Sunday Independent. At the start of the week Jordan was allowed sit with the journalists at a meeting where they decided what articles to write for the Sunday ahead. One of the women said, ‘Well, Jordan, have you got any suggestions?’ Jordan’s suggestion was: ‘I think you should always put inverted commas around the word queen.’ Apparently the whole room just completely cracked their shit. One of the journalists asked Jordan what gave him that idea. He said, ‘My granddad.’ ‘What’s your granddad, a Shinner?’ said someone. The rest of the room shushed the journalist who said that, but Jordan went on, saying, ‘Probably, I don’t know. My granddad’s political.’ ‘Do we know him?’ someone said. ‘I don’t know,’ said Jordan, but he said ‘Nobby No-Clarke Tuite’ anyway, and it turned out pretty much the whole of the room had heard of him. ‘A Sticky,’ they said. ‘Sure, half of us were in the Stickies at some point.’ Anyhow, he had a great old crack with them. But of course, when he got home he was all stressed out about this word Sticky.
‘Sure it’s Lucozade?’ said James handing the bottle back across Aidan.
‘Eh, like, yeah?’ said Byron.
‘I’ll give you an idea how much of a doss Transition Year is,’ James then said to Aidan. ‘When Jordan was doing his work experience, he used to come back with actual titty pics of Georgia Salpa that wouldn’t make the paper that week. That was work experience for him. He went through titty pics. And he was paid in sticky Georgia Salpa titty pics.’
‘What are you going to do for work experience?’
Just as Aidan said that the whistle peeped and everyone lifted out of their seats almost before the peep had finished. Byron swatted his eyebrows up and down as if to say, ‘And that, my friends, is that.’ Then he led the way to the end of the row, up the steps, and through the bars and hot-dog stands. People were weary, some people were happy.
Out on the balcony they decided to hang back for a while. The crowds were a bit much. Everybody was streaming from the exits at once.
‘You know what they call those exits officially?’ James said to the lads.
‘Vomitoriums. It comes from the Romans.’
Mister Poole would do Classical Civilization with them for Transition Year. This was something James was interested in anyway, and he’d read ahead on Ancient Rome. On all history. James was an addict of Wikipedia’s history pages. They leaned on the smooth concrete parapet taking in the sun and watched the crush of green hats and scarves from above.
‘There’s going to be a bloodbath down there.’
‘Hillsborough,’ Aidan muttered.
‘The worst bloodshed of 1916 was in those streets. A couple of hundred British got massacred somewhere near here. Hard to imagine. The wealthiest part of Dublin, the biggest houses, and it was right around here in front of people’s gardens they all got minced. I don’t think I could sleep at night knowing it.’
‘Look at this,’ said Byron. He took his ticket stub from his pocket, held it up in the fingers of two hands, and ripped it into little pieces. Then he let the pieces flutter down to the heads below.
‘What’s that all about?’ said Aidan.
‘I dunno,’ said Byron.
James swept the top of the parapet back and forth with the bare skin of his arm. It was like nougat. The burger vans had fired up again. On the way in the smell of meat and onions had been delicious. Now, it was like it was in bad taste. He didn’t know what he’d do for work experience, that was the truth. He thought that maybe he was exempt. He wasn’t sure what this had meant: a few weeks ago, after the mocks, Mister Poole had taken him aside. James was to look after the play for the year. He was to devote his time to writing a play that was going to be put on the next Easter.
Why James? Because James was a sensitive boy, that’s what Mister Poole had said. The words sat in James’s medulla oblongata like sick. Man, he supposed he was sensitive, but it wasn’t a thing you’d ever say to yourself, and he didn’t like other people to say it. When people see it in you, that’s a weakness, right? But sensitive was a good thing, right?
And what sort of play? Well, that was up to James entirely. Mister Poole would talk about it with him in greater depth once the year started. He suggested this, that and the other—something like The Plough and the Stars. It didn’t matter. For now, James was to know that he was marked out for the job. He was to start thinking about it over the summer. What if James only wanted to write about fantasy?
‘Make a move?’ said Byron.
They slid away from the wall. Fantasy. The escalator down was like a trench cut through concrete. Descending was like cattle descending to the slaughterhouse. Maybe he would write about the murder machine. No— bullshit. He looked ahead and down at Byron’s head. The sunlight making his hair flare red. If he said ‘murder machine’ then Byron would always have that on him. If he said ‘murder machine’ then Mister Poole would think he was one of his boys. Murder machine;—murder machine was their thing. But what if he came at it from the future? A future where everything was robotic metal and the cleanest concrete. No, that wasn’t what he meant by future. When he thought of the future just there he had thought of a time when.
‘You’ll never beat the Irish! You’ll never beat the Irish!’
‘Ooh! Ah! Jeff Kenna! I said ooh ah Jeff Kenna!’
Damn it it was gone. But the word ‘future’ puts things in your mind the second it appears. It was gone before he’d had it—the idea. It would come back. And the word ‘when’. ‘When’ did it happen or ‘when’ will it happen? It referred to all times except now. His dad said now was all times. That the future was already here. If someone had said thirty years ago that the Internet would be a thing he would not have believed him. But here we were. There we are. But it’s just the word ‘future’. You think of it and a whole fixed idea comes into your mind. And the other idea is gone. Anyhow, there was a while to go.