Something was definitely wrong, Lionel thought, as he sat with Karen in Section D. He could not put his finger on it, but that was because she was covering it tightly with her programme.
She had gone to the away games in Kildare and Monaghan without him, while he had been having his ears syringed and this was the first time they had met up since the frustration of the fumbled draw against Dundalk.
Somehow she seemed different. Maybe it was the red hair, the fishnet tights, the nose stud and stiletto heels. Maybe it was the words “I love Nigel” tattooed on her left breast but somehow she did not give off that air of lust and longing for Lionel’s body that had characterised their first couple of dates. He hoped Shels would run rings around Athlone and get back that lovin’ feelin’ that Scott Walker was crooning about over the tannoy.
“How was Monaghan?” he asked nervously, mindful of the devastating result.
“What is this? The Spanish Inquisition?” snapped Karen and Lionel fell silent.
Her mind, it was clear, was not on the game at all. She kept glancing longingly over to the New Stand, where the lads were crooning “Give us a song, Robbie Hedderman” in an upbeat jazz-funk sort of style that would have had Billy Joel hopping up and down with excitement, had he been able to hear it from his New Jersey brownstone.
“I’m going for a sausage and chips,” she said suddenly. “Beat the halftime queue.”
“But we’re only ten minutes into the first half,” he replied but it was too late. She had bounded down the steps two at a time and was half way to Burdock’s before he had even finished the sentence. He watched her go, smiling wistfully as her ample derriere sent small boys flying with every stride.
A rare Athlone attack dragged his senses back to the game and he yelled abuse at Davy Byrne for no other reason that it felt good, though he was surprised when Davy Byrne rounded on him vituperatively, questioning in ringing terms both his parentage and sexual orientation.
The minutes ticked by, as minutes habitually do, and there was no sign of Karen. He craned his head towards the Drumcondra end and was suddenly assailed by a sudden and very loud roar that seemed like the end of the world to his recently syringed ears. Bisto had scored! And he’d missed it!
He joined in the jumping and scarf waving, wishing passionately that Karen was there to wrap his arms around (at least, as far as they would go.) How he’d yearned to share such an ecstatic moment with her and she’d gone off to the far end of the ground for some sausage! Life was like a green iguana eating a plate of mushrooms, he thought, though he had no idea why.
She didn’t reappear during half-time, nor at the start of the second half. He thought about going down after her in case she had got lost or broken her heel but he knew from past experiences that it was not a good idea for men to use some initiative.
Bisto scored again – his third League goal in four matches – and again Lionel celebrated on his own, resisting the temptation to clasp Vinnie and his two teddy bears to his bosom. Shels were surely safe now, he thought, as the outpouring of joy washed over him in hot flushes. But where was Karen?
She returned, at last, three minutes before the end of the match. Her clothing was dishevelled, her lipstick was smudged and she had a large red mark on her neck but at least her mood seemed to have improved, for she was smiling beatifically as she resumed her seat.
“It was a very long queue,” she said by way of explanation, as he eyed her quizzically.
“Oh, I see,” he laughed in relief. “For one moment there, I thought... No, that would be too far-fetched! Good Lord! It looks like you’ve been stung by a hornet. There, on your neck!”
Karen felt her neck wistfully. “Oh that!” she smiled. “Yes, it was a hornet, all right. Biggest hornet you ever saw.”
But despite the perfectly reasonable explanations, somewhere at the back of Lionel’s mind, in a deep recess just south of his left ear, a large furry question mark with two big chipmunk-like teeth was gnawing incessantly at his brain.