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The Heineken Cup was full of chips and the lock-in was confirmed.
Paul O’Connell cuddled it close to him as he stalked down the alleyways away from Luigi’s, opposite the Station. Three tittering teammates followed him to a public house whose name we can’t disclose for legal reasons. The gold and silver of the European trophy never looked as sexy as they did reflecting the sodium yellow of Limerick’s streetlights.
Into the pub they went, the owner locking the door behind him as he left. “I’m sure ye can pull your own pints, lads, help yourselves. We’ll settle up tomorrow. Oh there’s a big hen party in the back, Jimmy’s minding ‘em.”
“Ah handsome Jimmy, a fine caretaker,” said Paul.
“That’s right, so pay the girls no mind. I’ll be back to let ye out in the morning.”
The sound of the tumblers clicking into place was as sweet as that final whistle had been.
“Pints and fags and banter,” said Jerry Flannery.
“And chips,” said Alan Quinlan.
“Into the snug with us so,” said Peter Stringer.
Paulie got the pints on after they had a wander around the near-empty pub. After saying hello to handsome Jimmy and chatting with the hen party, they huddled round the brimming trophy, greedy for its glorious warmth. Their eyes were filled with its sparkle, their gobs with its piping-hot chips. Their lips dried out for all the salt and they recoiled at the bang of the vinegar. O’Connell brought four pints and placed them on the table. “Drink up, lads.”
Himself, Fla, and Quinnie swamped their glasses, Stringer picking away at the food.
“You can’t be serious,” said Fla through a burp, eyes on Strings. “What kind of a world is it at all when a European champion won’t have a pint with his mates?”
The lads chuckled, Peter rolling his eyes. “Ah leave off, Fla, will you?” Paulie said, before heading to the jacks.
“You’re not getting any more chips until you drink your pint,” said Quinnie, taking the cup hostage.
“I’m fine, thanks,” sighed Stringer.
“Ah ya dry shite.” Flannery was having none of it. “You’ll have one.”
“C’mere to me, lads, who scored that sneaky try and made a fool of that poor French fella?”
Jerry plastered on a sly smile and lowered his head. “You did, Strings.”
“Damn fuckin’ straight I did, ye orcs, now give me a few chips!”
Quinlan relinquished the cup and Peter devoured a handful of crispy ones.
Paulie returned. “That hen party’s getting fair rowdy.”
“Where they from?” Flannery asked.
“Cork, I think,” said Quinlan.
“Oh balls,” said O’Connell, “do they like their rugby?”
“I hope not,” whined Alan, “I’m sick of being seen.”
“Chalk it down,” the lads chorused.
They pinted (three of them anyway) and chatted and ate their chips, revelling in their grandeur. Hours passed in singsong and laughter and an endless waterfall of beer, six eyes of the eight growing bleary.
A gushing stream of laughter flowed all the while from the back bar, punctuated here and there with a smashed glass, a roar of “Taxi!” from two dozen voices, and handsome Jimmy’s vain attempts to calm the girls down. They mangled all manner of queer songs the likes of which the lads had never heard.
“What in the Christ is a ‘vengaboy’?” said Quinlan.
In the darkest hour of the night – not that they’d have known it – a woman’s pretty blonde head rounded the corner of their snug. She wore a nurse’s outfit so tight the lads were concerned for her circulation. “How ye doin’, boys?” she sexily garbled.
“Not too bad, love,” boomed Fla, “’mon in.”
The girl staggered sultrily inside and plonked herself in Stringer’s lap. The lads were all a-giggle at this, Strings grimacing, careful to keep his hands at ten and two. “Ah here, love,” she said, “just imagine I’m a big rugby ball!”
Stringer laughed as he slid her off his lap and onto the seat beside him. She turned her attentions to Paulie, and whispered something in his ear.
His eyes went wide. “Doubt the missus would like that now.”
“Ah, what she doesn’t know, love…” she slurred eloquently
As if a signal, three more women appeared at the snug’s entrance and a dozen more piled into the front bar behind them, each wearing a variation of the nurse’s costume and in diverse states of inebriation. “Jimmy said he’s givin’ us no more drink,” one of them declared, indignant.
Before the lads knew what was on them, a swarm of hands were digging the cold chips out of the cup and stuffing them into make-up smeared faces. The other girls were raiding the front bar for taytos and peanuts and spirits.
“Fuck, I’d best get handsome Jimmy,” said Strings to the lads before sidling out of the snug.
In the back bar, a circle of older women consoled the bride-to-be, whose mascara was running onto her white nurse’s uniform and smudging her L-plates.
“Handsome,” said Peter, “any chance you can hunt the women or leave us out?”
“Neither, I’m afraid,” he said gravely. “Tommy’s properly locked us in.”
“Balls anyway. Give me a coke.”
Stringer downed his drink and slipped off to the bathroom. He sat in the stall for a few minutes, having a little moment, listening to the carnage downstairs, shaking his head. When he came down to the back bar the young one with the L-plates was mauling the face off handsome Jimmy, so he was no more good. The auld ones clucked and tutted.
Stringer poked a head into the front bar, where things had likewise deteriorated. He moved to hide behind a coatrack and watch the debauchery unfold.
“They’re drinkin’ the place dry and eatin’ all our fuckin’ chips!” Paulie shouted over the din to Quinnie and Fla.
One girl was straddling Fla and performing a drunken gyration while he looked at a point on the far wall, repeating the mantra, “No hands in the ruck, no hands in the ruck.”
Quinnie was similarly indisposed.
After some deliberation, the girls started whipping the lads with their stethoscopes, some of them wrapping poor Paulie in bandages. There were giggles galore when they were stood up and frogmarched to an open space.
“Dance, dance, dance!” the girls chanted.
“I don’t think these girls are qualified nurses at all!” said Flannery.
“They bring the entire fuckin’ operatin’ theatre with them?” said Quinnie.
“Shup you dopes and dance!” said Paulie.
Fla was soon stripping for dear life while Quinlan was mixing cocktails like a man possessed, his mistresses’ whips cracking all the while.
Paul O’Connell had called a timeout and was sobbing in a corner. “Peter, where’s Peter?” he kept saying.
“The little fella?” barked one of the girls. “Slippery fecker, that one, he’s gone.”
O’Connell collapsed into himself. “No, no, no, he’d never abandon us.”
“No way out,” Stringer murmured to himself from his hiding place. “Hang on, the jacks!”
He slipped away and up the stairs.
Minutes later, Paulie got a message and after the double tribulation of fishing the phone from his pocket and focusing his eyes, he read: Skylight in the jacks, get the lads up here and we get the fuck out!
He cried with relief. “Ladies, ladies, ladies, myself and the boys must retire for a moment to the little boys’ room,” he pronounced. “Come on, lads.”
The three of them staggered upstairs into the bathroom, dishevelled. Stringer was nowhere to be seen. They looked up and, sure enough, there was the skylight, open, their stairway to heaven, or at least out of hell. Only there was no easy way up.
“How did that little fucker scamper up there?” said Fla.
“Up the pipes and the cistern, maybe?” said Quinnie.
“The little ninja,” said O’Connell. “Right, Quinnie, you’re up first.” He cupped his hands and Quinlan put a foot into them, Paulie hefting him up with Fla’s help, until he was grasping for the window. There was a power of cursing and shouting and grunting.
“What’s going on in here?!” A demented nurse barged in on them, Quinnie still short of salvation.
“Oh bollox!” said Fla, succinctly.
The woman scuttled out the door and called the hoard from the top of the stairs. “The lovelies are trying to escape, stop ‘em!”
The screeches froze the lads’ blood in their veins. Fla grabbed the only thing in the bathroom that wasn’t nailed down – the bin – and wedged it against the door. “Come on, Quinnie, climb for fuck sake!”
“Can’t, it’s too far!”
At this moment Stringer’s smiling head appeared in the window and he reached a hand down to Quinlan. “There’s a clump of moss soaking my crotch, come on you fucker!” With a heave and a scramble he was up and out and free.
“Come on, Fla, you’re next.” Paulie’s hands were clasped together again.
“What about the cup?”
“Forget the cup, damn it, we can always win it again!”
“My captain,” Fla said with a tear in his eye.
“No, Fla, not until 2008, now come on!”
Paulie boosted Fla up as far as Quinnie’s arms, and he too was pulled free. The door was pounding, the barbarians at the gates, screaming and hollering, whistling for blood and degradation. O’Connell paced back and forth, head in his hands. “No, no, no.” He tried again to climb up the pipes and cistern but it was impossible – the sheer size of him – without a boost from below.
He looked up at the three faces in the unreachable window, dawn’s light dripping through. A tear ran down his cheek as the door burst open, and there was handsome Jimmy, wearing a nurse’s outfit with L-plates on it and clutching the Heineken Cup, his face destroyed in make-up. He slammed the door behind him and wedged the bin against it, pushed the trophy into O’Connell’s hands, and put his back to the wall.
“It’s ye they want, Paulie, up you go now.” He cupped his hands.
“Thank you, handsome Jimmy, I’ll never forget this.” Paulie planted a slobbering smooch on his cheek.
Up climbed O’Connell, handing the trophy ahead of him, and the three lads pulled him free. The four of them sat there on the roof as the sun peeked its rays over the city. The door below finally gave and the frenzied nurses swarmed the bathroom, ripping poor handsome Jimmy to shreds while they shrieked.
Quinlan pulled the skylight closed and blessed himself. “Poor handsome Jimmy,” he said.
“It’s alright,” said Flannery, “He went down doing what he loves.”
“Getting’ mauled by drunken young wans?” said Paulie.
“Precisely,” said Fla.
“Told ye,” said Stringer, “pays to have a sober head around, get ye out of sticky situations.” He nodded to the cup sitting between them as it caught the morning’s sunshine.
“Jesus Christ,” said Paul O’Connell, shaking. “If this is the life of a champion, I hope we never win this fucking thing again!”