All the way home from Lissywoolen, Lionel and Karen talked about revitalising their relationship, the concept of true, unselfish love and whether Philly Hughes would ever be fully fit. Lionel could scarcely believe his luck. He thought he had lost Karen forever, though at 22 stone, she was not a girl who you could lose easily. Yet here she was sitting demurely in the passenger seat, the rolls of fat from her thighs making the gear stick difficult to move.
The smell of her aftershave mingled with her underarm sweat and Lionel had to pinch himself to make sure he hadn’t died and gone to heaven. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl puts boy in a neck-brace, boy finds girl – it was the classic love story.
In his minds eye, Lionel could see himself and Karen queuing up outside Tolka with lots of little Lionels and Karens, waiting to go in and see Real Madrid getting thumped in the quarter final of the Champions League. He could see them living happily in a whitewashed cottage with pictures of all the Shelbourne greats – Gannon, Sheridan, Trebble – adorning the walls.
For her part, Karen admitted that putting Lionel in hospital had caused her many minutes of anguish. If only he could find it in his heart, or even in his pancreas, to forgive her, she knew that they could start to build a relationship that could stand the test of time. Impulsively, Lionel leant over and kissed her tenderly on the cheek and the magical moment only came to an end when Karen screamed “Watch out!” and grabbed the steering wheel forcefully from his grasp.
They arranged to meet the following week at the Wexford Youths game and all through the week, Lionel could hardly contain his excitement. He was so nervous that three times he put his fork through his cheek at mealtimes and got seriously wet when he tried to take a short cut home over the canal on his way home from the chicken factory.
It seemed to Lionel that Friday would never come. He tried crossing the days off two at a time on the calendar but that didn’t work. He had butterflies in his stomach and a ferret in his bowels, excitedly anticipating Friday. Every tree with low hanging branches that he passed he would jump up and head the leaves until somebody fired a warning shot at him.
Love, as Annie Lennox had once told him, is a stranger in an open car, though Pat Benataur had argued that it was a battlefield. Foreigner, remembered Lionel, just wanted to know what it is and John Lennon said it was all you need. According to John Paul Young it is in the air anytime he looks around, though Lionel found scant evidence of this.
Whatever that many splendour’d thing actually was, Lionel knew he felt it as Karen eased herself into two bucket seats beside him and squeezed his hand tightly, fracturing two fingers. All that is needed now was three points, he thought, and I know my life is complete.
Shelbourne pressed hard and Lionel’s hand wandered towards Karen’s thigh like a distracted crab. Problem was, once there, he didn’t know what to do next and played incey-wincey-spider up and down her leg until she told him to cut it out.
Bisto went close, Freeman went close but Wexford Youths belied their tender years and held firm against wave after wave of red pressure. Lionel slid his arm around Karen’s shoulder but could only reach halfway across her back and withdrew it when he found he had nothing to hang on to. Yells for a penalty went ignored and Lionel nibbled Karen’s fingertips until she reminded him where they had been recently.
Scoreless at half time, Lionel could feel the old frustration welling in his loins. One point wouldn’t be good enough to leapfrog Dundalk who had clawed their way passed Lokomotiv Fingal the night before. He hoped Dermot’s team talk would be an encouraging one, accentuating the positive and garnering hope.
Shels continued to press in the second half and Lionel resumed his explanation of Karen’s anatomy. Bisto went close again and Lionel stroked Karen’s cheek and she bit his hand. The Wexford keeper fumbled but the ball was cleared and Lionel, in Section D, sympathised with him. And then it happened!
A cross ball and Bisto was in the clear to stroke the ball home. The place erupted, with rivulets of molten lava flowing down from the back of the stand. Celine Dion in a nearby stadium, paused in the middle of “My heart will go on,” to declare to an ecstatic crowd that “I guess Shels must have scored.”
And Lionel and Karen, locked in a passionate embrace that nearly asphyxiated the former, entwined in a love clench that would have left Bob Marley in no doubt, celebrated the goal in the best way possible.