I still don’t even know what ‘fandom’ is. I should look it up, I suppose. Not that it really matters, either. When Dinny Young phoned me last week and asked if I would talk to this girl who was friendly with his daughter about her Masters, I thought it would be something to do with physiotherapy, my field; or even something relating to pain, which is what I specialise in. More specifically, the perception of pain, and its impact on performance.
Anyway, when Dinny Young asks for a favour, you just do it, though he half-laughed when he mentioned it – perhaps with embarrassment, though that’s not really him. I’d have met her anyway, even if I knew from the start, I suppose. I have a fair idea why she’s studying Darren O’Sullivan, too. I better explain.
When, in the summer of 2014 – five years ago now – Cork won the All-Ireland Hurling Championship for the first time in nine years, I was physiotherapist for the team. So I knew all the players. And I knew Darren very well, because I’m from Na Piarsaigh, his club, too. We more or less grew up together. And for those of you who don’t know, that year Sully (let’s call him Sully, that’s what he’s mostly known as) scored nine goals in five matches in the Championship, including two in the final, and the song that was on all Cork hurling supporters’ lips that summer was ‘Sully’s scoring goals, he’s scoring goals’. I think it was taken from some soccer song, but I’m not sure, to be honest. Sully had a bit of a cult following at the time – hence the M.A., I suppose. It was the old story: men wanted to be him, women wanted to be with him. I guess it helps when you’re six foot four and apparently look like ‘a mix of a darker, younger Chris Hemsworth and a taller Adam Driver’ – not my words. And not that I’d know. But there was more than that to Sully, too. A lot more.
I met her in Café Alchemy, which is just across the road from my clinic on Prosperity Square. It’s a student haunt, which probably suited her, being near UCC, even if the coffees are a bit on the expensive side. It has a bookish feel, doubles as a second-hand bookshop, with large couches and little nooks and crannies. Nice place, good wifi, lovely Portuguese tarts, and I like to get out of the surgery when I don’t have a patient, to get a bit of headspace, and look at the latest issue of Sailing Today. I was early and she spotted me straight away. I offered to buy her something but she wouldn’t have any of it.
She was pretty, but not overly so, mid-length dark brownish hair, medium height. I put her at twenty-five, a bit older than I expected. Anyway, it looks like I was right: according to her Facebook page (I friended her straight away, it’s still the best marketing tool out there, bar none) she is twenty-five – I’m very good on ages, I think it’s a physio thing. She carried herself with a lot of confidence, I’ll give her that. Very good posture, that’s something I noticed immediately – I’m sensitised to posture, it tells a lot. She was wearing oxblood Doc Marten boots and leggings (thin calves) but with a dress over them, and a small white denim jacket over that, and some part of her hair was tied up strangely in a knot, and she had a piercing under her bottom lip. Pale blue eyes. Nice eyes.
“Hi, I’m Emma,” she said, holding out a narrow hand (no rings) with some bangles at the wrist. I took it. I could see she had torn the extensor tendon of the middle phalanx of her index finger at some point, and it hadn’t really healed. It looked like she had a small tattoo going up her wrist, it might have said ‘Gran’ in ornate lettering, but I didn’t get a good look.
“Sean. Sean O’Neill,” I said. I stood up to shake hands, I’m old fashioned that way.
She sat down and took out her phone.
“Do you mind if I record what we say? I'm really crap at taking notes and I’ve a terrible memory.” She looked a bit embarrassed, her cheeks flushed a little. It was very attractive I must say. I was taken with her from the get go, I know that now.
“Not at all,” I said.
“Did Mr. . . Did Dinny tell you what my thesis is about?”
“Actually, no. Is it something to do with pain?”
“What?” she said, surprised. The scleras of her eyes were extraordinarily white – a sign of good health. They also accentuated the rich blue of her irises.
“Pain perception and its influence on performance. That’s my main area of research,” I said.
“No, no. Oh, this is embarrassing. I’m doing an M.A. in Sociology. I’m. . . I'm studying the phenomenon of fandom. Have you ever heard of it?” She turned her head slightly to the right, when she asked this question.
“Eh, no,” I said. “What is it?”
“Well, it's the study of fans. You know, music fans, sports fans, gamers and so on? Mainly the extreme kind? Who group together? Harry Potter, Star Wars, CreatureX, that kind of thing?”
“Oh, right. So why did you want to talk to me?”
“Well, I’m looking at fandom in one specific case. At its application in Cork hurling fans towards Darren O’Sullivan.”
Now it was my turn to be astonished.
“Darren?” I said.
“Yeah, sorry. I thought you knew.” She squirmed in her seat. It was a nice squirm. She blushed again, it was a very nice blush.
“Oh. Well in that case, I guess you have come to the right man.” I was a bit miffed, if I'm honest. I’d hoped I could impress her with my knowledge of the science (the very young science, in which I have five peer-reviewed papers published) of pain perception.
“Okay, thanks. I have a few questions I wrote down.” She pulled a well-thumbed spiral note-pad out of a battered old backpack that might have been white once.
“Fire away,” I said. Despite my disappointment I was also intrigued. An M.A. thesis on Sully. Well, well.
When people bring up Sully to me – and my clients still do (he’s been a rich source of mystery and rumour since 2014; every second year we keep hearing about a comeback – if only they knew), they are thinking of the grown man who got all the goals. And that’s who Emma was thinking about in the café. But I mostly think about Sully as a boy and what growing up with him was really like.
Hero worship doesn’t come into it. He was a God, full stop. Whatever he did was the job. He wore brogues, the rest of us wore brogues. He switched to Docs, we all suddenly had Docs. He wore those long basketball shorts, so did we, even though they looked ridiculous on most of us – we weren’t tall enough. He grew a ‘tash at fourteen, the whole lot of us had miserable efforts at ‘tashes – his was perfect, of course, and the young-ones loved it. He played for The Piarsaigh, we all played for The Piarsaigh – or tried to. He lost his virginity to Mrs. Keane over in The Glen at fifteen, we all trooped over there to pop our cherries. Christ, she thought all her Christmases had come together. No pun intended.
The mystique wore off for me a bit when I went to UL to study physiotherapy. I was a bit of a swot to him in the AG, a nerd, and that hurt, but I persevered – I knew the degree would get me out of The Hill and I wanted that. Sully wanted to get out too I think, and maybe he thought the hurling would do it for him. I don’t know, really, but I was glad of the distance by then – heading off to Limerick every September. And I was glad when he fucked-off to America too, though I wasn’t about to tell Emma that, any time soon.
“So, I’m not sure if you know that Sully had a kind of cult status in 2014?” she asked, settling down to her task. There was a determined set in her mouth, and her forehead wrinkled up a bit, in concentration.
I nodded and shrugged. If only she knew.
“Anyway, he generated a lot of online activity: fan fiction, discussion groups, hashtags, memes, GIFs, Facebook pages, and so on.”
“Fan fiction?” I said.
“Oh, yeah, that’s people writing fiction online with characters from movies, or books, film stars or sports people. It’s very typical fandom behaviour, especially among girls.” She coughed. “So, I’m wondering what you can tell me about Sully? Why do you think he generated so much attention?”
I stretched my arms behind my head.
“Jesus, where should I start? The goals? The good looks? The confidence? Not giving a shit?”
“Oh, oh,” she said. “Can you tell me about the confidence and not giving a shit?”
“You never met him?” I said.
“No,” she said, and shook her head with a faraway expression that made me wonder if this was all personal. And I was jealous. Wouldn’t have been the first time, when it came to Sully. Christ, there’s Claire for starters. I sipped my coffee and thought about what I would and would not tell her.
Firstly I wasn’t going to tell her the real reason for his cult status, if she hadn’t already figured it out herself. It wasn’t the goals or the looks – it was the disappearing act. Him packing in hurling after the final, not even finishing out the County with the club, heading off to the States just like that, was a shocker. At the very moment he’d reached his peak – an All-Star, nine goals, The All-Ireland – he was gone. That just didn’t happen. And not a sign of him since, not a peep; the odd newspaper article, without a single quote. A lot of people still think he’s in New York.
When we learned that he was actually doing a runner on Claire because she got pregnant, it wasn’t a big surprise. Not to me, anyway, or anybody who knew him.
Me marrying her a couple of years later, when I got my own practice – that was a surprise. Considering I had been going out with her in the first place when she dumped me for Sully, and then I had to watch them together on all those nights out and GAA functions, she all over him like a rash, and me helpless to do anything about it.
I won’t be sharing that information with Emma either.
“Well,” I said. “Sully was one of those people who just didn’t give a shit. But the more he didn’t give a shit, the more things happened to him. For him. He didn’t care about women, he really didn’t – but they flocked to him. He didn’t care about money, but he always had plenty. He didn’t really care about hurling, genuinely he could take it or leave it – but he ended up winning an All-Ireland. He didn’t like training – but he was as fit as a fiddle. He wasn’t as good a hurler as Ray Clarke, he wasn’t as dedicated as Sean Culloty, he wasn’t as tough as Liam Óg O’Callaghan, but he still topped them all that year. He just had it – whatever it is.”
“And why do you think he stood out so much from the others?” she said. Here we go again. In reality, he didn’t stand out so much from the others – except maybe to young women. Until he was gone, that is – then he stood out alright.
“I’ll tell you the main thing about Sully that year. He knew he was going to score goals and he knew we were going to win. I don’t know how or why but he just knew. Did you ever see the film Apocalypse Now?”
“Well, it’s set in the Vietnam War and there’s a famous character called Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall and he’s a colonel in the American army. And, em. . . well he’s a bit mad, afraid of nothing, wants to go surfing in the middle of a battle. And the main character, Willard, played by Martin Sheen, says that the reason he could do crazy things was because he knew he was untouchable, he knew he was going to walk out of that war without as much as a scratch. He wasn’t brave, or mad, he just knew. And Sully knew too.”
She looked at me a bit funny then, with an intelligence behind her eyes. I’d given her something – I wasn’t sure exactly what, but she seemed to know.
Then she said something I wasn’t expecting: “Would you say it was destiny? His destiny, I mean?”
I paused. “That’s exactly what it was, Emma. Absolutely bang on. Put that in your thesis. And the destiny of the whole team hung on it too – the whole county. We shouldn’t have won that All-Ireland, but we did. We were meant to win it. And Sully was meant to win it for us – in the final, especially. So he did.” I drummed my forefinger on the table for emphasis.
Yes, Sully was meant to score goals and win an All-Ireland for Cork and I was meant to marry the girl with the kid he left behind. I don’t think I’ve ever really known why I married Claire and agreed to rear Sully’s child. Maybe it was just because I could, and she was desperate, or maybe I was glad to be getting his cast-offs. I don’t know. And she’s not the worst either, unless she’s in one of her moods, even if she did ‘settle’ for little old rebound me.
Truth is that they broke the mould with Sully – he’s one of those people that leaves his mark on you. There’s only a few people in your life that really, really make a difference, in any meaningful way. I guess my father was one of them, and Dinny too. Pat, maybe. And yes, the kids. But Sully’s another one, and that’s why Emma’s chasing him down now and she never even met him.
I was a bit embarrassed by my ‘destiny’ speech in the café. It wasn’t really me – I was probably trying to show off. But when I looked at her for a reaction I could she was close to tears. Then she stopped herself, and busied herself writing something down even though she was recording the whole thing on her phone.
And that was the exact moment I fell for her – that mixture of knowingness and vulnerability was too much for me. That was when I lost my safe mooring and ran adrift. I was caught in some current, and I still am, though I don't know where it’s bringing me. The anchor that was keeping me in place no longer holds any weight, any connection. I’m drifting. And I may or may not land on the shore where Emma is standing – you never know with currents. But what I am sure of is this: it’s taking me away from where I am now. Somewhere downstream – life is always downstream. Somewhere away from my ‘happy’ marriage with Claire and our two kids Gavin and Saoirse, my practice, and everything that ties me down. And you know what: I feel free. Frightened too, but free.
I think I’d always felt certain that the tether to my world, my life, was strong and safe, but it turns out that the firm new rope I’d been trusting was actually frayed to shit and there were just a few strands left holding me in place. And apparently Miss Emma Cronin is now holding both sides of the frayed rope with her thin hands – I imagine them now with rings and her nails painted a vivid red and bangles on both wrists – and I picture her placing her mouth over the strands of cord, and yes, of course, her lips are a matching glossy red and her teeth are white under them, and her piercing is now through her tongue and she wets the strands, let’s say there’s three, she wets them with a glistening studded tongue and then she calmly cuts them, one, two, three, with deft little flicks of her sharp white teeth. Flick, flick, flick. And then she looks up, smiles broadly, licks her lips and throws down both ends. And then she laughs, casting me adrift in the process.
Truth is, and I’ve been lying awake thinking about this too – I must have been close to upping sticks for a while, if this is all it took. It’s not like I didn’t have opportunities. Beautiful women come in to the practice all the time. Some serious athletes too – Jesus, the conditioning on some of those camogie players. And Jenny made it perfectly clear that she was available for some no-strings-attached extra-curricular fucking on the old therapy beds after-hours too, if I was interested. But I backed off. And I’m glad now that I did.
Anyway, Gavin is probably the reason Sully agreed to meet me last year when I was at that conference in San Diego. He did want to know how the kid was – he’s not a total monster, and he has two of his own with Kim now, living the life.
I asked him if he ever missed hurling, and he laughed.
“I play golf down at the country club, most days. Have a swim and a couple of drinks afterwards. Then Carlos drives me home,” he said. “It’s usually 70, maybe pushing 75; sunny. What do you think?”
I asked him why he never came home, or visited Cork. He shrugged.
“Mam comes over a couple of times a year, we’re working on a green card for her.”
Fact is, he doesn’t need Cork, he never did. And he knows he could rock on up outside the house in Grange in a big fuck-off Jeep anytime he wanted, and give Claire another one. I wouldn’t put it past him. And don’t tell me she wouldn’t drop her drawers at the very first opportunity with him too, or run off herself to L.A. if he said the word. We both know it – I’m not totally fucking stupid.
I’ll miss Gav – he’s a great kid. Looks more like his mother than his father, thank God, but he worships the ground I walk on. I’ll miss putting him to bed, and reading to Saoirse, my one and only. Claire will go ballistic when she finds out what I’m up to – or when I tell her, I don’t really have a plan. She’ll use Gav and Saoirse to get back at me and squeeze me dry. I’m under no illusions and I can’t say I won’t deserve it. I hope I can still bring him out on the boat, he loves that, and I’ll surely get some custody rights. But I know the way the courts treat fathers, too, and it’s wrong.
So, why am I even doing this? I'm not quite sure. It's not as if Emma’s drop-dead gorgeous, or anything. Or even that sexy, even if I have been fantasising about those lips and that tongue.
She asked me a few more questions in the café, before leaving. Mainly about sociological issues to do with fame, reputation, group behaviour and leadership; I didn’t even attempt to answer them – what do I know about that stuff? But she never asked me about Sully leaving and I did wonder if she knew something more than she was letting on. Dinny wouldn’t have told her, but his daughter might have. I’ve met that girl, can’t remember her name – I guess she’s not a girl anymore, she’s a woman too – but she’s a bright spark.
After Emma left the café, I rang Jenny and told her to cancel my next client, that I wasn’t feeling great. I ordered another coffee and tried to make sense of what had just happened. Then I rang Jenny again and told her I was taking the rest of the day off, and I left Alchemy and headed up Barrack Street. And as I was walking around The Lough a few minutes later, I had an idea. I remember stopping and just staring into the water. It was one of those light-bulb moments.
Maybe in the same way that I was glad of Sully’s cast-offs, Emma would be too. Maybe I’m as close to Sully as she can get – in a way I’m another cast-off, we all are, really. Maybe that’s really what she wants, so I could be in with a chance.
Yes, I had a lot more for her, but I held it all back. Before she even left the café, I already knew why. I wanted to meet her again, I wanted to look at those eyes, I wanted to hear her story, and I needed an excuse. Or maybe I didn’t need an excuse – this is all a bit new to me.
And that’s why I’m sitting here now in front of this laptop, looking at this email. Trying to click SEND. She gave me her email address – two addresses, in fact – one for UCC and one gmail. The gmail address is email@example.com – I guess the 14 comes from Sully’s year, 2014, but I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter now; nothing does, really, except meeting her again, getting out of this drifting current and moving in the direction I crave.
Here we go Piarsaigh, here we go:
Nice to meet you the other day and to hear about your very interesting thesis. Brought me right back, I can tell you. Actually I have a few other things about Sully you might like to hear about, if you’re interested. Especially the whole destiny thing – I’ve been thinking about that. And I forgot to tell you where he is now, and what he’s up to.
I’m busy during the day this week and next – how about we meet in Tom Barry’s some evening, after 6? Let me know what day suits. All are good for me except Thursday. You can get me at 082 2249083 too, or you can message me on Facebook.
All the best,
It’ll have to do. I want to reel her in and I hope she’ll take the bait to get as close as she can to Sully boy. But I don’t want to sound desperate, either. She probably has a boyfriend, though it doesn’t say so on Facebook. She accepted the friend request straight away. And she gave me those email addresses. I wonder, too, if I’m the one doing the fishing or if it’s her. Only one way to find out, I guess.
Click the SEND button, you coward. Click it. Do it.
Why am I hesitating? Like I said, I’m frightened. Well, nervous, maybe. I’m giving up a lot. And I know, I just know, that by moving the cursor over the button and by clicking that mouse, I’ll be setting in motion a series of events over which I won’t have much control. A lazy, drifting current can turn into a raging torrent pretty damn quick. There’s the cursor. There’s the button. There’s my finger, hovering.