It was Uncle Ronnie whose kick sent it into the Donegal sea. But I’m not sure he was even there.
I watched my ball land in the water, drift away from me. The spring current sucking it into the horizon. Bobbing there, it treaded water like a forlorn swimmer before it sank beneath the waves.
My ball’s flight had been so brilliant and so beautiful. Its landing and what followed knifed me.
I was sure I’d never see it again.
We left the seaside, me without my ball. And I didn’t play during that time. Aged 5, I just knew I had lost something.
Ronnie was the one who had played football, who had always played. I was the one who kicked and chased, always hoping for a soft landing.
The one who always got caught in the hedge, the brambles, the drain, hoping his ball wouldn’t fall too far.
I don’t remember the weeks that came after; I just know they were spent.
Then the Sunday came for us to visit Uncle Ronnie and Auntie Mary, to go to Sligo.
So I told him my story, or I had told him already. Or Ronnie just knew.
Strandhill was wet, windswept. It always was. And I had no ball to follow, no dream to chase. Until Ronnie emerged from the shop, my ball in his hand, freshly packaged. His smile was wide, his forehead crumpled like a leaf.
“When you told me what had happened, I rang the man who owns the shop straight away.
“Mr. Matthews is an old pal of mine. We used to play together. He said he would check the beach every day, in case your ball washed up.
“At first there was no sign of it. But then he saw it rolling along the beach last Tuesday morning, covered in seaweed and other things I won’t tell you about.
“He took it back to his shop, cleaned it off and put it in one of his spare wrappings. He wanted you to think it was as good as new.”
I took my ball, dropped it, and hugged Ronnie, holding him tight, tears staining my eyes.
Then we ran the length of the strand, kicking, catching, chasing, until I couldn’t run any more. Me and my ball, Ronnie there too.
I remembered Ronnie’s story for years. How he and the friend I’d never met rescued my ball. I never thought to question it, nor what it meant to Ronnie. To us both.
I don’t know why my ball was so important, why another just wouldn’t do. But Ronnie did.
Even now when I try to piece together what he must have thought, how well he knew the 5 year-old me, I still can’t.
I don’t remember a day of my ball’s life beyond the one of Ronnie’s story, nor what happened to it. I just hope that when my 5 year-old loses something, I’ll know exactly what to do.
Like Ronnie did.
Neil Slevin is a writer from Co. Leitrim, Ireland, whose poetry has been published by various Irish and international journals. This flash piece appeared in The Incubator and is part of Neil’s work-in-progress flash collection, Flashes. You can read more of Neil via his Twitter account — https://twitter.com/neil_slevin