Robbie Gilmore

A Tough Game

Robbie Gilmore

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The first time was after the junior cup final. He’d made a tackle in the last ten minutes of the game – an important tackle, a try-saving tackle – but misjudged the technique, so instead of burying his shoulder into the flesh of the oncoming players thigh, his face had ended up between churning knees and flying studs. In some ways it didn’t matter whether he made a good tackle or a bad tackle, just that he made A tackle; the player was felled, the try was saved, the match was won, and he was a hero, and really, who cares about anything else?

At the time he’d thought the black eye was a trophy in itself – a declaration of his dedication to the team, in indigo blue and plum purple and there was even a little yellow crinkle or two, right at the corner of his eyelid. But when he made it home, muddy socks now hanging loose around his ankles, his mother cradled his face in her hands.

“William. Oh William. What have you done?”

“We won mum!”

“I know you won William. I know.”

She stretched her arms out, pressing his face away, looking at him from a distance, shaking her head.

“I know you won William. I know you won. But God. What a stupid game.”

After his shower, she brought him into her bathroom. When it’s sweet smell hit his nostrils a vague feeling filled inside him that he could not explain. If he’d had the words, he’d have described it as a quiet reverence. If he’d been more perceptive, he’d have realised he was being quietly reverent because he was in an adult space; a space normally barred to him; a space whose existence, once known, ever so slightly diluted the simplicity of everything else he knew in the world. Like coffee. Or perhaps beer.

But he knew about neither of these things, really. He knew a little about beer, which he’d tasted for the first time an hour earlier from the edge of the trophy as two of the other Lads lifted it into his grinning mouth.

But adult things generally? Not much.

His mum opened a drawer and lifted out a few small cylindrical cases, some short and wide, others long and narrow. Like people, he thought.

She unscrewed the cap of a short wide one. Inside was a brown paste. She took a little white pad from a plastic packet, picked up some of the brown paste on one edge, and started to smear it onto his cheek. In one hand she held his head, tilting it back, ever so slightly. With the other she applied the makeup. His face throbbed as she pressed, but the smoothness and coolness and rhythmic touch of that soft white pad were calming, and he felt guilty at the pleasure of it.

A few more cases were opened, their lids scattered onto the shelf. Then she stepped back. Her eyes looked down at him, flicking from cheekbone to cheekbone.

“Have a look yourself.”

She turned him to face the mirror. A little shinier. Perhaps a little more, defined? Was his face more defined? Perhaps. He liked the heavy feeling of it. Hanging on his skin. Its weight reassuring.

When he woke up the next morning even the faint throbbing of his first hangover couldn’t dull the euphoria. Sophia. Sophia. He remembered how she’d walked coyly over to him; how they’d talked; how suddenly she’d leant in and kissed him. Boy. He must have said something good. Some cracking one-liner. What had he said to her?

He actually couldn’t remember what he’d said to her, so he decided that it didn’t matter, and decided to focus on the memory of her kissing him, the feeling of her body pressed up against his, how The Lads had cheered as he walked back inside.

Oh boy oh boy.

The next season was his first season in the senior league. They way he played relied on agility, fitness, and honesty – he could make up for his size by being hard, and honest. Hard and honest. He prided himself on those two things, and played as if to tell everybody about it with actions rather than words.

He was a wing forward – one of two. The other wing forward – Tobias – was cut from a different cloth to William. A rougher cloth. A thicker cloth. If William was a fine Kashmir scarf, Tobias was a knitted Aran sweater.

When Tobias took his shirt off, his pectorals hung from his chest like sirloin steaks. When he flexed his arms, his biceps swelled like water balloons. His play was focussed on…. Strategic Interventions. Singular, unmissable, spectacular, Strategic Interventions.

His playing style was nearly as direct as his talk:

“Me and you make a fuckin’ good team, don’t we bone-headed Bill?”

“Yes Tobias.” William replied. “We do.”

“Fuckin’ good team. You and me Billy. Fuckin’ good team we are.”

He was right too. Although different, their skillsets and attitudes were complementary, and a kind of telepathy started to develop between them. By the midpoint of the season they could offload the ball to each other without even looking; knew that the other would be running a supporting line; knew when the other was in trouble and needed a hand.

It was a January day. Both standing side-by side in the defensive line. And a big man came at them; the biggest of the opposition; a player who had run clean over the top of several players earlier in the game; thighs like beer barrels, face like a crushed tomato. So they lined him up, and smashed him, each using their inside shoulder to pin him in a pincer-like tackle, only the pincers came too tight, and Tobias’s forehead came – smack! – into Williams cheekbone.

“Fuck me Bill.” Tobias said afterwards, sitting in the mud and rubbing his head. “You really are boneheaded.”

That night William’s mother showed him how to do it – first the primer, then the foundation, then concealer, and last, if needed, a little blusher and bronzer.

“But be careful on the bronzer,” his mum said. “That’s the one that most of the girls at school get wrong, and they end up looking like Oompa Loompas. You know what I mean?”

He knew exactly what she meant.

That was the second time.

The hangover the next morning was not as novel as it had once been; he’d learnt more than rugby skills in his senior year. The rhythm of the Saturday afternoon game, drinks at a teammates house, and partying in the local disco until the small hours had become routine. Beer suddenly made sense. People were talking about university applications in the changing room after games.

But first the cup. Saturday afternoons were for games, evenings were for The Lads. Drinking. Dancing. Snatching at youth, as yet unaware that it was running through their fingers like sand. Drunken kisses outside the disco at two am. Beery Sunday mornings trying to struggle through maths homework. Monday mornings and Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday’s and Thursdays too with Tobias and The Lads, tackle pads and the weights room and shuttle runs up and down the lawn outside the headmaster’s office.

The third time was a Tuesday afternoon. His mum was still at work. He gently smudged the layers on, one at a time, like she’d shown him. He washed it off before he looked in the mirror, as if doing so denied the fact that he had ever put it on.

Once they were past the midpoint of the season, they were closing in on the cup. The school knew it. Suddenly their results were posted on the boards outside the locker rooms. The crowds beside the pitch on a Saturday morning started to thicken.

Tuesday afternoon again. This time he looked in the mirror and almost laughed at himself, the thick layers smudged against each other like they’d been applied with crayon. He danced a little pirouette and pouted at himself in the mirror, laughed, and washed it off quick again.

“Nice tackle at the weekend,” his French teacher said. Not privately. In front of the whole class, like he’d scored top marks in last week’s vocabulary test. “Thanks,” William squeezed out between embarrassed lips, looking down at the table in front of him with burning cheeks, listening to the whispers of his classmates – yeah, that’s him! Bone-headed Bill! The Hardest Man on the team! – feeling their eyes turning towards him.

The cool touch of the foundation brush. More complete this time. He didn’t laugh when he looked in the mirror. A mask of burnished gold.

Buying his own felt like a big step.

“It’s for my girlfriend,” he said to the pharmacist, with the same tone he used when the bouncer at the disco asked him if he was really 18.

“Your girlfriend?”

“Yeah. For my girlfriend.”

“Cool. That’s a big order.” The pharmacist looked down at the containers on the countertops. “Sure I’ll throw in some free Mascara for you too.”

That was a challenge. Nearly as difficult as collecting a chip-n-chase kick – required coordination, a steady hand, confidence. He batted his eyelids at himself with shock when he looked in the mirror. There was a depth there he’d never seen before. Suddenly he was looking at somebody else. And he liked them.

Then he tried to wash it off. His mum called up the stairs; “William! Dinner’s ready!”

“Fuck it. Fuck it!” he mumbled under his breath, black smears running down his cheeks like he’d seen on girls who’d just failed an exam. “Fuck it!” Eventually a pair of black socks did the job.

When they won the quarter final he came home afterwards and did himself up properly. Completely. For the first time, he really put the effort in. Then he scrolled down his Spotify until he found Marvin Gaye. He shimmied around the room until the lyrics kicked in. Oh what lyrics. And he knew them all. You bet he knew them all.

He sung the two parts – male and female – backwards and forwards between himself:

                                                                                                                                                Listen, baby,
                                                                                                                                Ain't no mountain high
                                                                                                                                       Ain't no valley low,
                                                                                                               Ain't no river wide enough, baby!

If you need me, call me,
No matter where you are
No matter how far,
Don't worry, baby
Just call my name, I'll be there in a hurry
You don't have to worry!

                                   'Cause baby, there ain't no mountain high enough
                                                   Ain't no valley low enough,
                                                   Ain't no river wide enough
                                           To keep me from getting to you, baby!

At the end he lay back on his bed, everything in his being exploding with joy.

Then he washed, and put on his Levi’s and brown shoes and checked shirt and gelled his hair down tight.

His phone buzzed. Tobias.

                                                                                               You coming lad? We’re all waiting for you.

Yeah on my way, be there soon.

                                                                                                                                                 Sweet lad.

                                                                                                                       Need you here my brother!


I’ll see you soon!

The semi-final was a tougher game. They were behind until the final quarter. Then Tobias broke free around the side of a tackle – ripped the ball from the opposition player. A quick pass to William who was running a supporting line. William touched the ball down beneath the posts and was overwhelmed by his teammates, all desperate to place a congratulatory slap on the back of his head.

“Fuckin bone headed Bill! Go on bone-headed Bill!”

The supporters carried him off the pitch on their shoulders, king-like, princely. He left the changing-rooms quickly.

“Where you going Bill?”

“Gotta get ready for tonight!”

“Aye he was late to drinks last time. Busy doing your makeup were you?”

The joke brought laughter from all corners of the changing room, and William laughed along with them.

His mum congratulated him awkwardly – “I heard you scored?” – William nodded and scampered upstairs. He rushed it, but it didn’t matter much. Somebody else looked out at him from the mirror. Not bone headed Bill. Who was bone-headed Bill anyway? This person didn’t know bone-headed Bill.

He sat and looked in the mirror for a long time. Then he sat on the end of the bed. His phone buzzed. He didn’t look at it. It buzzed again five minutes later. Then long buzzes – somebody calling him. He turned and looked – Tobias is calling you. He put the phone down on the bed, looking down at his toes. Then he went and washed. Then back to the phone.

                                                                                                                                  Fuck’s sakes William!

                                                                                                                              Where are you William?

                                                                                                                         I’m waiting for you William.

                                                                                                                                   Fucking hell William.

                                           William I just tried to call you, where the fuck are you? We need you brother!

Sorry sorry.

Be with you shortly!

“You alright my man?” Tobias asked when William arrived.

William nodded.

“You sure? You get a knock on the head or something?”

William shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Here, have a beer. That’ll help,” Tobias said, handing him a tin of lager.

Tobias was right. That night William got very drunk. It helped.

The week before the final everybody in the school looked at him like he was a new kid. The corridor hushed as he moved down it, and exploded into excitable chatter once he’d passed – did you see that? That’s bone-headed Bill! He looks smaller in real life, don’t you think?

On Wednesday the first teacher wished him good luck in the game. Thursday afternoon the headmaster called the team in and gave them a rousing speech. He didn’t want to go in on Friday, but he knew he had to. And it was exactly as he’d expected; every teacher nodded respectfully at him and wished him their best.

It’s like a funeral, he thought to himself. All this quiet reverence.

That nearly made him laugh.

The game was easier than all that. He just tackled hard – honestly and hard – and ran around the pitch until his legs ached and his stomach churned. When the final whistle blew everything was a blur and it was only the oncoming wave of scarf-waving flag-bearing supporters that told him they’d won.

They chanted and danced in the changing room, fresh sweat and cold beer washing over his skin. As he dried himself and packed his bag Tobias came over, index finger extended.

“Now don’t you fuckin’ dare be late. You hear me Bill?”

William smiled at him – “I promise I won’t be” – and knew he was lying.

He went all out this time – rouged cheeks, eyeliner, dark red lipstick. Then he lent his back against the end of the bed and let his legs fold beneath him. Then he capsized, and grabbed his knees, and pulled his body into a tight little foetal position. As tight and little as he could possibly make it. A single tear escaped from his right eye and dropped onto the floor. Like a single player breaking through a defensive line.

His phone buzzed. He pressed his hands against his knees. Buzzed again. He pressed his hands against his knees. Long buzzes now – somebody calling him. Short buzzes. Long buzzes. Short buzzes.

He unwound his left hand and fumbled around on the bedsheet. He pulled the phone down and opened the screen.

                                                                                                                                   Fucking hell William.

                                                                                                                                       You promised me.





                                                                                                                                   Fucking hell William!






                                                                   William if you don’t pick up your phone I’m coming to get you

                                                                        I’m giving you five minutes and then I’m coming to get you

                                                                                                                       Right, I’m coming to get you

William’s stomach turned. He pressed his hand into the floor, levering himself up quickly like he did after a big tackle, trying to get back into the defensive line with The Lads. He started to type, frenetically, desperately, fingers shaking and hitting all the wrong keys.

Tobias, don’t. I’m not feeling so good tonight. Sorry brother but I…

Before he had time to press Send the doorbell rung.

Ding dong!

“Fuck.” William said under his breath. “Oh fukity fuck.”

He sat down on his bed and put his phone beside him, shoulders slumping. He heard the voices in the hall – “Tobias, so nice to see you! Well done today.”

“Oh thanks Ms. Kane. Thanks. We’re having a bit of a celebration tonight and William’s late, so I’m here to pick him up. Is he still here?”

“Yes he is. You know where his room is?”

“I think so.”

“Just up the stairs and to the right. William!” she shouted his name up the stairs. “William! Tobias is here to see you!” Then in a quieter voice. “You head on up there, I’m sure he’s just getting ready.”

William jumped up. At the door in two steps. Lock twist. Thunk. Locked. He stood back and looked at the door. Footsteps. The handle locked.

“Oi. Bill. It’s Tobias. You’re late man! Come on we need to get to the party.”

The words came softly out of William’s mouth. “I’m not coming Tobias.” As he uttered them, he realised there was no way Tobias was going to hear them through the door. This almost made him want to laugh, then it made him nervous, and he felt hot and cold and these emotions rattled through him in half a second like punches.

“I’m not coming Tobias.” He said louder.

“You what?”

“I’m not coming Tobias.”

“That’s funny William. Real funny. Now you’ve got that one out of your system, can you open the door and we’ll get going?” The handle rattled. William jumped.

“I’m not coming Tobias. I’m serious.”

“William is there something wrong with you? Did you bang your head again? If you don’t open the door I’ll smash it down with my shoulder. You know I will. If you don’t open this door I’ll assume there’s something wrong with you, and I’ll smash down this door. I’m going to count to five. One.”

“Tobias I’m serious. I’m not coming. There’s nothing wrong with me I…”


“Tobias please don’t do this. Please don’t. Please, my mum will go crazy. She really will. She likes you and everything now. Honest she does.”


“Tobias please. Please. Please don’t do this.

“I’m warning you William!” Tobias said in a louder voice. “Four!”

William stepped forwards smartly and there was a thunk as the lock turned. He twisted the handle to see Tobias, body twisted, shoulder lowered, standing on the landing.

It took some time for Tobias to stand up and see William’s face. In the interim he talked: “Jesus thank fuck for that William. My shoulder’s already in pieces after that game and I think one more big collision might have dislocated it. I…” Then he saw his face. His eyebrows furrowed. “Oh.”

William was shaking his head. “I’m not coming Tobias.”

Tobias’s eyes looked at William’s face, eyes scanning left and right, eye to eye, cheekbone to cheekbone.

“I’m not coming Tobias.” William repeated. “I’m not.”

Tobias pursed his lips. “Can I come in William?”


William stepped aside as Tobias’s big frame came through and sat down at the edge of the bed.

“I’m not coming Tobias.” William said, leaning himself up against the dressing table.

Tobias sat there, big hands on big knees, big chest heaving. There was silence between them for ten seconds or so.

“Why?” Tobias eventually said.

It was the single most difficult question he could have asked. And the one William needed to hear the most. It’s simplicity was galling, and drove William to approach it with respect.

“What will They think?”


“You know what I mean.”

“William. Who gives a fuck?” Now Tobias turned his head to look at William, jaw set like at the start of a game.

William shrugged. “I…”

“I don’t give a fuck.” Tobias said. “I don’t give a flying fuck. Sure, it surprised me a little. But fuck it. It doesn’t matter to me.”

He nodded, and William nodded back.

“Interesting.” Was all William could think to say. “That’s interesting.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Tobias replied, still nodding. “Real interesting.”

They stayed there in silence for a while.

“You really don’t care?” William said.

Tobias shook his head. “Nope.” Then, after a pause, “but I do care that we are missing precious disco time, on the night that we’ve just won the senior cup final.” He turned and looked at William, a faint smile playing on his lips.

“And what about Them?” William asked.

“If anyone fucks with you William, they’re going to have to fuck with me too.” Tobias said, pointing a sausage-like finger at his chest.

“Oh yeah?” William said, smiling.

“Oh yeah.” Tobias said, nodding.

“That’s interesting.” William said.

Tobias nodded.

“Well I guess I’d better get ready then.” William said.

“I guess you’d better!”

William was only wearing boxer shorts and a t-shirt. He turned to the dresser and started to fish for jeans and a shirt. The absence of conversation made the room tighten with awkwardness.

“Did you know William, that George Bush has 11 toes?”  Tobias said suddenly.

“I did not know that Tobias.” William replied, as he shuffled through the drawers.

“Yeah. He has all the normal ones, just like us, and then there’s another one, poking out from just below the joint of his baby toe on the left foot. Like another little toe. They say he’s had it all his life, and down in Texas, apparently, they say that’s good luck. So that’s why he kept it – because they think having 11 toes is good luck down in Texas and all. But when he got elected into the senate, George Bush told some Massachusetts senator that he had 11 toes, and the Massachusetts senator looked at him like he was crazy, and told him that people get creeped out by things like having 11 toes. So after that George Bush kept it a secret. Until one day after he’d retired – after he’d been president and invaded Iraq and everything – he was walking on the beach down in Florida somewhere and the paparazzi got him. Took a picture of his 11th toe. And it came out. Now, I haven’t actually seen the 11th toe myself, obviously. Or the picture of it. But apparently it’s a widely known thing now, that George Bush has 11 toes.”

“Oh yeah?” William said, pulling on his Jeans.


“That’s pretty fuckin’ weird Tobias.”

“I know right. Seriously fuckin’ weird.”

“How did you know about that?”

Tobias shrugged. “Just one of those things, you know.”


Both boys nodded their heads.

“Why did you want to tell me that George Bush has 11 toes?” William said.

“Fuck knows.” Tobias replied. “Actually, I know exactly why,” he said after a short pause. “It’s because I’m so fuckin’ nervous I don’t know what to say, and in the absence of anything better to say, George Bush’s 11th fuckin’ toe just popped straight into my thick fuckin’ head.”

He looked up at William with wide eyes of confession.

A snort escaped from Williams nose. Then another. He started to laugh; a short little laugh that came out of his throat in sharp pulses.

It took a moment for Tobias’s face to crumple, but after it did, his whole body followed; bent over a stomach convulsed with waves of laughter. Both laughed for what seemed like a lifetime.

“Fuck’s sakes Tobias.” William said when he caught sight of himself in the mirror afterwards. “You made my mascara run. I’ll just go and touch it up. Just give me a second and I’ll-”

“Jesus William. We’re gonna be fuckin’ late!”

“Just wait a second Tobias. It’ll only take a second.”

When they entered the Disco, William felt the eyes swivel onto him; felt the thump of his heart louder than the heavy music. Tobias stood beside him.

“Shall we go and get a beer Bill?”


They drunk their beers quickly, both of them leaning up against the bar. Two shots of tequila landed beside them.

“I didn’t pay for these!” Tobias shouted at the barman.

“On the house!” the barman replied. “I watched you boys play today. Well done. And that tackle at the end!” He pointed at William. “Fair fucking play!”

William nodded with gratitude.

The liquor stung his throat as it went down. Afterwards he looked at Tobias, who was looking left and right, over each shoulder.

“Tobias, you don’t have to…”


“You don’t have to…”

“Nah don’t worry William. It’s just… You see that chick over there. God. I mean… Here Bill. Will you come and dance with me. I think my dancin’ would impress her. You know what I mean?”

William smiled and nodded.

They walked over to the dancefloor together, eyes following them all the way. The music changed to that Kanye West song they both liked. Tobias caught Williams eye, raised his arms, and roared. The chorus kicked in. And they danced. 

Robbie Gilmore

 Born in Dublin and raised in Belfast, Robbie Gilmore now lives on the shores of Strangford Lough and can usually be found in, on or around the sea. A geographer by trade has previously written nonfiction for a variety of outlets, focussing on environmental issues and climate change. This is his debut work of short fiction.