7 Taking it to a higher level
7 TAKING IT TO A HIGHER LEVEL
I remember my college years as being filled with wonder and the regret and sadness has only been written over them later when I consider how underappreciated they were as they unfolded. Sometimes even the sweetest memories can be soured by realising how much heartbreak and disappointment they can lead to.
Being accepted for teacher-training was a huge boost for my self-confidence and it enabled me to build a private world, safer from Granny’s negativity. She resented my private world, and never missed an opportunity to poke holes in the little she found out about it. However, her chance to do this became restricted to little more than a few hours over the weekend.
The swap from the narrow world of a Christian Brother school to the magic of a world filled with intelligent and attractive young girls made me feel all my birthdays had come together
By the end of the first week in October, Shaun proudly carried a small green student card in the inside pocket of his jean jacket. He was one of six male Dublin externs out of two hundred and fifty students in his year. They became acquainted in the small untidy locker room allocated to them. This was accessed via the male toilets on the ground floor.
The girls came mostly from small towns or villages. Those from Gaeltacht areas had an advantage, leaving Kerry and Galway well represented. Country students were housed in well-kept dorms on the college grounds during their first year. Meals were served in a spotless refectory which looked out onto parkland bordered by rows of mature oaks.
Dublin externs had it easier with the dinner ladies, who took them into their confidence to complain about the unruly country lads or the stern supervisor who found fault with everything and ruled over them with an iron fist. Towering over her minions, like a mother superior in civvies, she eyed everyone with a look somewhere between disdain and suspicion.
The polished floors, panelled walls, cloistered courtyards and an absence of untidy posters and graffiti, left no one in doubt as to who was in charge. The student union hosted concerts with respectable groups like the Chieftains and the prospect of somebody smoking a joint on campus was less than remote. The church tower cast its shadow over the campus and daily mass was well-attended with the pews over-flowing during exam-periods.
A small number of the more spirited students make the odd attempt to confront this all-pervasive conservatism by introducing rare moments of insanity. One such group attempted to occupy the library dressed in pyjamas and laying out a camp bed blocking access to the reading area. The unappreciative librarian had them ejected straight away with the terrible threat that their library cards would be revoked for a repeat.
Undaunted, they took their rebellion outside, staging a mock orgy behind the bushes beside the large reading room window. Even the most serious students couldn’t hold back a smile as bras, knickers and y-fronts were thrown in quick succession from behind the bushes.
Their final prank was to dress up as “mossies” (dinner ladies) and take some of the unruly country boys to task. The irony of the situation was that while the dinner ladies enjoyed the fun, the college authorities forced the students to apologise to the Mossies for their disrespect. That was rich, taking the daily humiliation they were subjected to at the hands of the supervisor.
The Island Man had ever seen him at lectures, but he was easily found, day or night, occupying a barstool in “The Cat and Cage.” His strong growth of facial hair and his mature physique supported the belief that he had been at the college much longer than some of the lecturers. On his own admission, he financed his lifestyle by poaching salmon along the Corrib. His large, manly mass and his mischievous grin ensured his hero status among the country lads.
Shaun chose Irish and History as his academics, the latter having taken on a new importance due to his left-wing interests. Irish turned out to be more of a challenge than he had anticipated. He was out of his depth coming into direct competition with students from the Gaeltacht and others from all-Irish schools. He was never going to shine no matter how much passion he brought to the language and he dropped it, with a certain regret, after the first year.
History became his true love. Both priests, who taught them, were very able and easy to listen to. The History students were predominantly male and all had a keen interest in politics. The lecturers inspired them with their depth of knowledge and their skill as teachers. Although it was a demanding subject, Shaun couldn’t get enough of it.
Jonathan had also continued studying and was taking an arts degree at UCD with History as his main subject. They met regularly, exchanging ideas on politics and religion. Jonathan made sure to fill the many gaps, which Shaun’s course left in relation to the negative role of the Church in history.
“Who forced Jews to stitch a Star of David to their clothing and locked them up in ghettoes?”Jonathan asked with a knowing grin.
Shaun paused before venturing an answer, knowing Jonathan’s tactics and having fallen into his traps on many occasions.
“Adolf Hitler of course,” he answered at last, convinced his answer was correct.
“Wrong,” laughed Jonathan derisively, “it was the Pope. Jews were confined to ghettoes in the Papal States and forced to wear a Star of David. This only ended when the Italians unified in 1870 and confined the Pope to the Vatican.”
Over the three years at college Shaun learned to avoid sweeping statements and course generalisation. However, thanks to the socialist bookshop, the Christian Brother version of history had been replaced by the James Connolly version. The Irish martyrs had become exploited workers left to the mercy of the British capitalist class.
Caught up in the Gaelic atmosphere, he became an active member of the Cumann Gaelach. It seemed to Shaun that the main aim was to avoid speaking English whenever possible and to wear a fainne to demonstrate this intention. The most extreme insisted on paying their fares through Irish. This annoyed bus crews no end, who knew full well they could speak English, but were intent on making a point..
Even Shaun overdid it at times. The demonstration of have more Gaelic programmes was a good example: He stands in a group of about three hundred Irish fanatics with his fainne and a Connolly badge pinned to an Aran sweater. Everybody chants some silly slogan in Irish and Shaun parrots them with the most ridiculous Irish accent imaginable. It wasn’t my finest moment.
If you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.
I had started college as a smoker and coffee drinker, breaks often being extended at the cost of numerous classes. This would have continued had a very direct Kildare girl called Sinead not decided to become my conscience.
“How is it I’ve never seen you on the sports field?” she accused.
“You’re always lazing aroundHh, drinking coffee and smoking Major. Keep it up and that little bulge under your shirt will soon turn into a pot belly. Nobody is ever going to fancy you if you don’t get fit.”
Finally, the hard words got through and I agreed to join her for a jog.
Sinead was already starting her third lap when I joined in. Her smug grin showed clearly what she was thinking.
Soon, I was sweating more that I thought possible and my heart felt like it was ready to explode. This gave Sinead the chance she was waiting for to drive the nail home:
“Look at you! You’re not a man at all. Who would want someone who can’t even run around a football field? Is that the way you want to spend the rest of your life?”
The next day I was out training again and within the month with a proper pair of runners. The smoking also stopped and the coffee breaks were replaced by weight training. Life was changing for the better.
Declan, a fair haired Dub from Kilester had become my closest friend at college. We conspired to miss religion lectures every Friday afternoon by cycling off to the local public tennis courts. Shaun would never have risked learning to play tennis with anybody other than Declan. He made no exhibition of his own skill and showed great patience. The high point of the afternoon was the visit to the Vienna Bakery for cream cakes and the pint in The Cat and Cage.
The only thing missing was a girl-friend. There was certainly no shortage of attractive, intelligent girls. He knew enough of them and found more than a few very attractive. He could talk with them
and make them laugh, but he had no idea how to take it to the next level.
Shaun hoped that two or three pints before the Friday disco would give him the courage, but it didn’t seem to work. Few of the boys he knew stayed for the disco and he felt like an outsider with the country boys. It was obvious that country girls felt more at ease with their own and the Dublin girls were scarce on the ground.
Months passed and Shaun felt his optimism sink further and further. Admittedly, none of his friends had girlfriends either and it didn’t seem to bother them unduly, but it didn’t prevent him from envying the lucky few.
Georgina was the first girl to really catch his eye. She was very pretty and had a private school accent. Shaun liked the tasteful way she dressed. Everything about her was very feminine and the mixture of shyness and beauty captivated him. He feasted his eyes on her every chance he got. He sat close to her in the library and found it impossible to concentrate on his work. The challenge of the posh name and her reserved manner made her all the more of a challenge.
On Friday night a group of girls tried to persuade him and some other Dublin boys to go with them to a student disco in the city. Shaun showed no interest until Georgina appeared and sat next to him.
“Hi Shaun,” she greeted as if they were best friends,
“it would be great if you were to come with us to the disco.” “I hadn’t planned on going,” he admitted, “but if you are going, I’m sure it will be fun.”
His heart pounded as he looked into her perfect face, and he could feel his cheeks going red with the excitement. He drank in her perfume and imagined how nice it would be to run his fingers through her beautiful hair..
“Would you mind holding on?” she asked and he drank in every word.
“The others are about to leave, but it will take me a few minutes to pack my books for the weekend.”
“No not at all,” he stuttered, not believing his luck.
Shaun couldn’t contain his excitement as he waited. She returned puffing a cigarette. He had never seen her smoke before and was sure this was intended to impress him. She had also taken the time to put on lipstick on.
He felt complimented that she had gone to such lengths, even if he was more than happy with the way he normally saw her. It encouraged a confidence which was to prove fatal. He boasted and exaggerated about the girls he knew and must have come across as a total twat.
By the time they got to the Mansion House the icy chill in the atmosphere showed him how much he had messed up. He determined to redeem himself and confess how he felt about her, but the music was too loud. He tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to go outside. She turned her head in his direction, an dashed optimism with the coldest of expressions.
“I’m happy here with my friends,” she answered looking back to the circle she was dancing in.
The unsympathetic looks from the other girls told him she had lost no time sharing her story..
This defeat at the end of the year did nothing to help me face the three week intensive course in the Kerry Gaeltacht. The weather was excellent and the surroundings were beautiful beyond words. We were housed in private accommodation around Ventry. Irish conversation classes took up the mornings and bike trips to local places of interest occupied the afternoons. The local pubs in Ventry or in Dingle, six miles away, provided a meeting point in the evening.
There was no shortage of girls, but the massive blow to my ego made me more reluctant than ever to put my head out.
Having spent yet another frustrating evening at the local pub, Shaun was walking home along a moonlit country road with two other stragglers from the pub. Mick had been banging his head against a brick wall the whole evening, trying to get with the girl who now walked between them. Her lack of interest had been painfully obvious to absolutely everybody in the bar except Mick. Even her body language should have told him that no matter how many drinks he bought her, or how witty he managed to be, he didn’t stand a chance.
Now, walking a few steps ahead of her as she stopped to take her leave of a group of girls, Shaun’s first instinct was to take Mick aside and tell him to accept defeat gracefully.
Shaun made to go on when they reached a fork in the road, but she invited him to turn towards the beach with her and a very disappointed Mick turned sadly homewards.
Most of us fantasize about being picked up, complimented and flirted with, but now that it was happening, I was surprised at what a big turn-off it was. It should be easy not to have to make an effort and for once to be the one sought after, but it was a bit let down.
The summer sky was filled with thousands of stars. They ran across the golden sand. and felt the cool shock of the waves as they took their sandals off and walked barefoot through the foam. The lapping of the waves against the shore echoed in their ears.
One couldn’t have wished for more romantic surroundings, but the I had already understood that girls were meant to be difficult and her enthusiasm was ruining it. Nobody could have argued that she was unattractive, but her persistence was terribly off-putting.
“I’d better be getting back,” Shaun insisted when they finally reached her farmhouse. He was about to turn and go when she pulled him towards her and kissed him. He felt nothing. It was nothing like his first kiss. She was going through the actions, but the magic was absent.
“What do you want?” he asked a little suspicious.
“There’s no need to leave,” she answered, avoiding his question. She took his hand and lead him to the barn.
He had never spent a night in a barn and the possibility of trying something for the first time softened his resolve.
“I’ve never slept in a barn before,” he admitted betraying his thoughts.
“There’s a first time for everything,” she flirted, leading him inside.
Soon he was lying beside her, on a pile of fresh hay. He hugged and kissed her because that’s what you do, but there was no feeling in it. The whole experience left him empty. She had cheated him of something he felt entitled to. I was all her fault and he felt the anger rise inside him..
“Do you find me attractive?” she asked him opening the buttons of her shirt and enjoying the surprised look on his face.. He stared half-excited, half-disgusted and didn’t know what to answer.
There was something broken about her, but it didn’t make him feel any sympathy for her. He knew if he stayed any longer he would despise himself as much as he despised her at that moment..
“I’m leaving,” he decided, getting up abruptly to his feet and looking back at a scene that should have excited him, but it left him cold and he couldn’t have explained the feelings that were going through his head no matter how hard he tried. The first light of day had just dawned and he felt dangerous eyes burning into his back as he made for the gate.
When he returned from Kerry at the end of June, he applied for summer work with CIE and was lucky to be selected. Life as a bus conductor was relatively undemanding and the rate of pay was excellent. He was rarely with the same driver two days in a row. Some drivers made their dislike of students obvious, but most were friendly and happy to share their insights about life.
The weeks double shifts passed quickly. He was proud of the growing bank balance. He handed up a wage each week during the three remaining months of summer and saved almost everything else. By the end of his contract he was confident of being able to pay his fees and have a generous living monthly allowance over the coming year.
Shaun was more than optimistic about his chances starting his second year. The morning cough from cigarettes was a thing of the past and this year would be his chance to get even fitter. He would prove to Granny that he was every bit as good as his adult brothers. He joined the debating society and pushed himself into debates in English and Irish. Politics gave him the vocabulary and the passion to overcome all his many inhibitions.
The visits to the gym increased to three a week and he continued lifting heavier and heavier weights. It was jogging that gave him that immediate sense of achievement. Marathon running was becoming the new craze and Dublin Corporation planned to hold its first street marathon. This motivated Shaun to train now that there was a definite aim in sight. Nobody he knew had ever run a marathon and he was determined to be the first.
His visits to the Cat and Cage were rare and then only for a single pint. Girls had proven to be disappointing and that was his excuse for avoiding the Friday disco. However the prospective arrival of busloads of new girls from the training college in Blackrock broke his resolve. Rumour had it that there were only about seven males in the whole college and that the girls were mad for boys. Setting his previous experience aside, he decided to give it a chance..
The Dublin gang met up at eight in The Cat and Cage. and got talking to a group of Galway girls from their year. The boys drank beer and the girls ordered soft drinks. They complained about the heavy workload and swapped stories about the schools they had visited for their first real teaching practice.
It was past ten as they darted across the main Drumcondra Road, in twos and threes, risking the small gaps in the traffic. Two busloads of Blackrock girls halted in the car park as they reached the front steps of the college. The incessant giggling together with whiff of perfume gave Shaun no reason to doubt everything he had heard.
Caragh, a Galway girl from the pub, stood just inside the auditorium door. She gave him a friendly wave. It was easy to talk with her. One could rely on her high spirits. He liked the casual way she dressed. She was wearing the same sweater and jeans he had seen her in during the day and she never bothered with makeup.
She was from Lochreagh in Galway and he was sorry he hadn’t spoken more to her over in the pub. She was petite, with a sallow complexion and a head of long dark hair. She drew on her cigarette, tilting her head back a little and she met his stare with a cheeky smile.
“What ye lookin at?” she challenged, her eyes coming alive. “I like the cute way you smoke,” Shaun flirted.
“I’ll cute you,” she answered showing him her fists. “That’s the way Galway girls take compliments is it?” he continued raising his hand as if to slap her on the bum. She pulled quickly away, using one of the other girls as a shield.
The dance was in full swing. The other Galway girls were dancing in a circle in the middle of the floor. One or two of the Dublin boys were drinking beer from bottles and hanging around with some of the country lads.
“No use going there,” he thought. “Football will be the sole topic of conversation and I would stick out like a sore thumb.”
He considered asking Caragh to dance, but he knew he would feel stupid asking her in front of the other girls.
He couldn’t help but envy the sought after guys with all the right moves. They looked cool, while he always felt stupid and awkward and it didn’t take a genius to read that from his expression.
“Would you like something to drink?” he asked, ducking the challenge.
“No,” Caragh replied, “but you go and get something.”
“All right then,” he agreed, “see you in a while.”
There were a lot of people waiting to be served. Standing at the bar, he caught sight of Brid, from the Gaeltacht. They had exchanged one or two letters after they had returned home, but with the unlikelihood that they would ever meet again, contact had fizzled out. Now she was standing in front of him, looking older and more attractive than ever. Her dress flattered her figure, her short curly hair suited her pretty face and the make-up highlighted her healthy, youthful complexion.
“Stop the lights! Could it be you?” she called incredulously.
Shaun tightened his body, hoping she would notice the many hours in the gym.
“How about a dance,” he suggested, trying to sound as casual and confident as possible.
“Why not,” she agreed, smiling over towards a group of Blackrock girls who were sizing him up from a distance.
“So you managed to get in,” he confirmed as he put his arm around her shoulder and led her onto the dance floor.
“Yeah, I finally managed it,” she admitted humbly. “My Irish wasn’t good enough the first time so I repeated the Leaving and got in this September. I must have spent too much time in Carraroe speaking English with Jackeens instead of working on my Irish,” she accused.
She searched his face for a reaction and the look in her eyes brought him back to the shadows after the ceili
. “How do you find Dublin?” he asked remembering her fears.
“I haven’t seen much ,” she admitted.
“There has been plenty to do in college.”
“We’ll have to do something about that,” he promised, putting his arms around her and feeling lucky.
The slow set finished and he swung her around as the following tune got faster and faster. He caught her by the shoulders as she fell against him and stole a kiss He was really enjoying himself and it looked like she was too. Someone’s eyes were fixed on him from the other side of the room. Looking around quickly, he caught Caragh’s head turning away. He was pleased she saw him dancing with such an attractive girl.
Brid didn’t leave his side for the rest of the evening. He was introduced to her friends and they all chatted and laughed together. Soon it was time for the kiss on the steps outside the main door and they agreed to meet under Clery’s clock in O’Connell Street the following Saturday evening. Shaun stood waving up at the girls on the bus alongside the sought-after boys who never missed a disco and always had a girl to wave back at them.
Unlocking his bicycle and turning his collar to the wind, he promised he would be himself and not forget to pay honest compliments. He would dress up in his best suit and give her a proper night out.
After that evening, he found himself in the company of Caragh and the other Galway girls as they took regular breaks for a cigarette outside the library. Declan could be relied on to tag along and his good humour helped the conversation.
Shaun was tempted to take up smoking again, just the excuse to meet them more often. However, it was soon obvious that they enjoyed each other’s company and that was that.
“That was a pretty girl I saw you dancing with the other night,” Caragh dropped into the conversation trying to make it sound as innocent as possible.
“She was just someone I knew from the Gaeltacht. I think she comes from Mayo,” Shaun answered dismissively.
“Why does God do that?” he asked himself. “It’s either a feast or a famine.”
He had started to have second thoughts about Brid or rather the hardships involved in dating a girl who lived so far away. Nonetheless, the following Saturday he stood under Clery’s clock dressed in his brown suit with the wide lapels and the flared trousers, smelling of Blue Stratus and checking his watch nervously. The half hour crawled by, as did the extra ten minutes it took her to arrive. She looked elegant and he was glad that he had decided to wear a suit.
“You look really lovely,” he told her, kissing her on the cheek.
“Thanks very much,” she replied, blushing a little.
“Have you any special wishes for the evening?” he asked, feeling a little stupid as soon as he said it. It sounded like something a forty year old would say.
. “Would you like to go to the cinema?” he suggested, freeing her from her predicament.
“That sounds nice,” she replied.
He took her hand and led her down O’Connell Street towards the Savoy. He had checked the listing in advance and had already decided on a love story.
“I heard this is a good film,” he suggested before she had a chance to suggest something else.
“Let’s give it a go then,” she agreed.
He hoped she would offer to buy her own ticket, but she just took it for granted he would pay for everything. They had a half hour to kill before the film started. They sat in a deserted auditorium drinking cola and sharing popcorn from a huge bucket. Shaun was thankful to have the food as a distraction as his attempts at making conversation didn’t seem to be going well. He remembered the little group outside the library and wondered how it had been so easy for Declan and himself to entertain Caragh and her friends.
“Your parents are farmers aren’t they? he asked in desperation.”
“Well, Mam runs the bed and breakfast and takes care of the holiday cottages and dad manages the farm. They would have been disappointed if I hadn’t got into teaching. It would have killed me to let them down. I have something to live up to. My older sister is in her last year of medicine at UCG.”
“Why had he started this?” he asked himself.
“What about your family?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m the youngest of six and my siblings are all
married,” he answered avoiding detail.
Should he tell her that he had used all his savings to get through the first year and that the summer job with CIE had saved
him at the last minute? Would she be impressed to hear that his father drove a twelve year old Morris Minor or that his council estate was never mentioned in the press for a good reason. It was always in connection with somebody appearing in court.
“Great the film’s finally starting,” he said, relieved that he could end the conversation.
The film and the couples around them had the effect he had hoped for. He helped her to retrieve her ear ring from underneath the seat when the lights came on again.
“What do you want to do now?” Shaun asked as they stood on the pavement outside the Savoy.
He had spent a small fortune already, but her pride in how well her family were doing had made him feel inferior and he didn’t want to let himself down. He had intended leaving her for the last bus, but it fell short of the role he was trying to play.
“How about going to a night club?” he heard himself suggesting. “You don’t need to be home early, do you?”
“No,” she responded. Of course she didn’t, she had no parents to answer to.
They crossed O’Connell Bridge and turned down Fleet Street. The queue outside Sloopy’s was smaller than he had expected, but he had forgotten that most people didn’t go to a night club until the pubs closed. He paid the admission and went to put their coats into the cloakroom.
They stood alone looking onto a deserted dance floor. He had checked what remained of the cash he had left in his inside pocket and he was shocked.
He wasn’t about to be the first to get up on the floor and anyway he could already feel drops of sweat on the side of his face due to the poor ventilation.
“Let’s sit down over here,” he suggested, finding a dark corner far from the loudspeakers.
They had only sat down when the waitress approached.
“What will yis be havin to drink?” she asked in a rough unfriendly tone.
Shaun turned towards Brid hoping she wouldn’t want to order anything.
“I’ll have a Martini,” she answered without hesitation.
Shaun did a mental count of the remaining funds, but felt forced to order as well.
The waitress waited impatiently.
“I’ll have a beer,” he finally answered.
“A glass or a pint?” she demanded.
“Just a glass then,” he agreed as if it had been her suggestion.
Shaun found it difficult to find topics which wouldn’t put him at a disadvantage. He tried to impress her with his passion for sport, but she didn’t express any interest. In desperation he opted for kissing just to fill the lengthy silences.
“Should we head home?” he suggested after less than an hour, before the waitress had a chance to take their empty glasses and ask what else they wanted to drink.
Caragh was in his head as they waited for a taxi. He was sure that a date with her would have been easier. She would have been anything but passive and her constant teasing would have brought out the best in him. He was still regretting when the taxi pulled up beside them. He sat into the back seat and realised he didn’t have enough money to get them both home. He felt his heart racing and had no idea what he was going to do. He took the red traffic light at Grand Canal Bridge as a sign. It was now or never.
“Sorry, Brid,” he said, pushing a five pound note into her hand, “That should get you home. My parents will hit the roof if I’m not home by three.”
Suddenly the pretence was over. He was an eighteen year old with an empty pocket and an even emptier feeling in his heart. He knew it wasn’t the most chivalrous thing to do, but at that moment he couldn’t see an alternative. His heals were sore in his new shoes when he opened the front gate about two hours later. An angry voice greeted him as he mounted the stairs.
“Where the hell have you been until now?” Granny demanded.
He made no attempt to answer, but knew it was a story he wouldn’t be telling any time soon. I was fortunate that I didn’t meet you love until I was a good few years older. Other poor girls had to suffer before you had the pleasure to sample the mature product. I can remember you telling me that I had passed my peak long before I met you. You had an evil smile on your face when you said it, though you still trusted me and my plans for our future.