It’s difficult to say what exactly makes a relationship with certain people so much more special than with others. You shine with them without even trying. They bring out a side to you that you just don’t have access to in the company of others.
Shaun’s face reddened a little the following Monday when Caragh greeted him outside the library with her usual cheeky smile.
“What did you get up to at the weekend?” she inquired.
“Nothing special,” I lied, avoiding looking at her directly.
The library breaks got longer and passed over into the coffee breaks. Caragh stayed longer and longer in my company and soon I was being asked if we were a couple. I knew I looked forward to Monday and seeing her in her tight denims and watching her pulling on her cigarette and blowing smoke around the courtyard in front of the big reading room windows.
One Friday evening, we sat across from the college reception, sitting in the comfortable, leather armchairs, just watching couples coming and going.
“Hi Caragh,” an pretty girl greeted in a strong Kerry accent. “Any plans for the evening?”
Our eyes followed the handsome student with the dense curly black hair as he led her towards the doors and they disappeared into the night..
Caragh turned back towards me and I could sense that she was waiting for me to answer the girl’s rhetorical question.
“What do you lot get up to at the weekend?” I ventured, trying to gauge her attitude to us taking things to the next level.
“It’s about time I started on my English essay,” she sighed, showing little enthusiasm at the thought.
“Wouldn’t you prefer to spend the afternoon in the company of a Dub who could show you his city?” I risked,
“You mean just me and you?” she asked pretending the thought filled her with terror..
“Don’t worry Caragh, I promise to bring you home safe and sound.”
We met the following day on the opposite side of O’Connell Street, outside Eason’s Bookstore. She arrived in tight jeans and a green jumper. I didn’t have to wait long for the cheeky smile when she recognised me standing there and from then on I was sure that it would be a very special day.
He thought about giving her a kiss on the cheek, but knowing her attitude to everything fake or over-forma, he went in for a quick hug instead. A sudden downpour drenched them as they walked towards O’Connell Bridge. A watery sun tried to insinuate itself on the gloomy Dublin skyline, but a sky full of bulging black clouds gave it little chance. Their lack of raingear made them conspicuous as they splashed on, in a sea of umbrellas, towards the bus stop on the other side of the bridge.
Shaun took her hand as they crossed the bridge and kept hold of it when they reached the other side of the road.
“Don’t you feel a little over-dressed?” she teased as they got to the bus stop and got a better view of the brown suit with the matching baize shirt and tie.
“How was I to know that you wouldn’t arrive in an evening dress?” he countered. “Now you’ve forced me to rethink my plans completely. I’ll have you know that the opera is definitely out of the question.”
Left for once without an answer she settled on a punch on his shoulder and a look which suggested that he had serious concerns about his sanity.
The bus splashed even more water onto them as it halted in front of the stop. The next hour was spent on the top deck breathing in cigarette smoke in an already incredibly stuffy atmosphere. All the tiny windows were closed and the glass was completely steamed up. The fact that they were staying until the bus reached the terminus outside the town hall in Dunleary freed Shaun from having to continually clean a small patch of window to check their whereabouts.
They both fully enjoyed the banter as they traded insults and used the current Jackeen/Culchie prejudices to score points against one another.
“It must be great for ye culchies,” he attacked, “drivin around the farm in yer land rovers while we Jackeens pay all the tax for ye.”
“Scitter off out of that,” she defended, “Jackeens me eye. Aren’t half of ye drawing the dole and robbing cars from law abiding citizens who are tryin to make sometin out of the country. Typical Jackeen anyway, thinking everyone outside of Dublin has to be a farmer.”
Before they arrived in Dunleary she had told him all about her family and this time it had put him at his ease. Her dad was a furniture salesman and her mother stayed at home. They lived in a small bungalow rather than a council house, but couldn’t boast about an excess of money and had always worked hard to make ends meet.
She had two brothers and a sister all reasonably close in age. It was obvious from the way she talked about them that they all got on well. Her older sister lived away from home and worked in a bank and her older brother was a salesman like her dad. The younger brother was still at school, but it was clear that she admired him for being so sporty and outgoing. She didn’t have much time for city life and would have preferred to stay at home instead of sharing a dingy flat in one of the many old terraced houses which were so typical for the area around the college.
“Last stop,” they heard the driver call from below and when they got off it was still raining.
As you know, I spent many wet afternoons here with Dad, but we had sheltered for a while in the car and had always packed a large umbrella, only venturing down the pier when the rain eased off.
Dunleary was special in the same Dad was special and he wanted to share it with Caragh. But this wasn’t how he had imagined it. Nonetheless, she impressed him by her attitude.
“Don’t worry Shauneen,” she reassured, “compared with the West Coast this is nothing more than a light mist coming in from the sea.”
She had determined to see the funny side and tease him any chance she got.
They walked towards the Jewman’s Carpark, hoping the rain
would clear off. A look at the sky would have told anybody that this was unlikely, but Shaun was determined.
“So this is what ye Jackeens call a beach,” she jibed when he took her down the steps and they walked carefully over the rocky beach strewn with seaweed.
They were soaked by the time they climbed up the steps at the side of the sea baths. He had taken this way so often with his father and he always knew that they would end up queuing for ice cream at the little window on the other side of the road. Today there was no queue and the shop was closed. Shaun was probably the only one in Dunleary that day who would have happily stood eating a Ninety Nine in the pouring rain, but it was not to be.
He stood motionless for a minute or two, having no idea what
to do next. Caragh rather than being annoyed at having to stand in the rain just assumed an Oliver Hardy expression and grinned at him:
“That’s another fine mess you’ve got us into.”
“I’m sorry,” he apologised, “the next time I’ll make a point of looking at the weather forecast first.”
“Don’t worry Shauneen,” she consoled, “anything is better than doing my English essay and I can’t imagine anyone I would sooner get drenched with.”
Before he knew it, he was inviting her for lunch in what looked like quite an expensive restaurant, just down from the ice cream shop. Caragh caught the slight hesitation in his voice, as he worried about having enough to pay.
“We’ll go in,” she agreed, “but only if I can pay for myself. After all you’re only a poor student just like me.”
He was already regretting the all-telling gap in his invitation and it made him insist all the more.
“I don’t know how it works in your part of the country, but here in Dublin if the guy asks you out then he pays.”
“Oh, I didn’t know this was a date,” she said teasing him.
“You know what I mean,” he left off, his face reddening.
As they went through the door he tried to catch a glimpse of the menu, but Caragh was between him and the display and he could feel the flush rising in his cheeks as they were seated at a table set with a crisp white tablecloth and silver cutlery.
The couples around them were all much older and dressed in elegant clothes which hadn’t been spoiled by the weather. They sat down shyly and could soon hear a steady drip from their clothing as they waited for the waiter to arrive with the menus, Shaun fingering the notes in his pocket while they waited.
The relief was tangible when he spotted a special lunch menu which included coffee and a glass of wine.
“Should we both go for the special menu?” he asked. “It looks like a good offer.”
“Are you sure you have enough money?” she asked with concern.
“Don’t worry,” he answered, “I earned plenty of money during the summer on the buses.”
This seemed to satisfy her and Shaun ordered for both of them.
“You can have my glass of wine as well,” she told him when the waiter had gone, “I don’t drink.”
Shaun intended staying in the restaurant as long as possible knowing he would just have enough left to cover the bus fares back to Dublin. He sipped the wine slowly, trying to avoid the waiter’s eye. He had already cleared the coffee cups away and he had asked them twice if he could get them anything else.
Caragh sensed his predicament and enquired if there was a cinema in Dunleary.
“The Pavilion is just up the road,” he replied fearfully.
“Right then,” she said, “you have invited me for lunch so it’s my turn to invite you somewhere.”
“Are you sure?” he asked in a tone which made it obvious that he would be easy to convince.
Within minutes they were sitting in a threadbare, half empty cinema. Remembering his recent visit to the Savoy he just couldn’t help appreciating Caragh all the more.
“Is it alright if I hold your hand?” he asked shyly.
“As long as you promise to take good care of it,” she cautioned with a trusting smile on her face.
When they arrived back in Dublin he offered to leave her home.
“No way,” she insisted, “you live in the opposite direction.”
“Let me at least leave you to the bus,” he pleaded.
“Thanks for making it a really special day,” he told her with conviction as the bus pulled into the stop.
“I enjoyed it too,” she told him kissing him on the cheek and disappearing into the bus before he had the chance to respond. He had already decided to ask her out again, but next time he would come as himself and leave the suit at home.
He thought about the day as he sat alone on the top deck of the Drimnagh bus. It should have been a disaster, but Caragh had made it special. Her honest eyes just cut through him. He felt so transparent in her company. That scared him, but she had only brought the best side out in him and he liked that side in himself. He hadn’t even kissed her in the cinema yet memory of her arm in his was stronger than anything he had experienced before and he couldn’t understand why that should be.
Caragh coming into my life helped me believe in the existence of good simple honesty between people. It was new for me to know someone who expected the best from her friends, took them to task with humour for that which she believed they could change, while tolerating the faults which were woven into their characters.
Physically, Shaun was well on the way to developing a lean, muscular body brimming with energy. He proudly displayed his healthy physique, running between the trees along the main road in the Phoenix Park, his running body free and his singlet bundled up in his hand. He felt the fresh morning breeze against his naked skin, his skimpy running shorts flapping against his thighs. Each week the distances covered increased steadily and he became more and more confident about the marathon.
Early in October, Dublin turned out to cheer the thousands of participants. Everybody was made feel like a hero no matter how fast or slow their finishing time was. Shaun ran an average of eight minute miles up to the eighteen mile mark, but every step after that was torture. He could feel the rawness between his legs each time he took a step and his big toenails had either already been dislodged by the front of his runners or they were about to give way. The crowning humiliation was when an elderly jogger, easily in his seventies, stopped for a few moments to urge him on.
“Your nearly there son,” he encouraged, handing him a glucose sweet before jogging solidly on.
Some lessons in life are hard learned, but the following year Shaun didn’t forget to pare his toenails or to apply Vaseline liberally to limit friction and he succeeded in taking an hour and a half off his finishing time. The dream of finishing in less than three hours followed me well into my twenties and I was within a minute or two of achieving it when other things took on a greater significance in my life.
Shaun and Declan spent most of their free time at college with the two girls and they organised outings together at the weekend. This made the separation during the summer months all the more unbearable and even the double shifts as a bus-conductor didn’t fill the gap. Declan had started dating Helen just before the summer and he was easily persuaded to cycle to Galway with Shaun to surprise both girls.
They set off at ten in the morning on a rainy windswept day in late August. Shaun had a puncture just outside Dublin, delaying their progress quite a bit. They struggled on late into the evening until long after darkness had fallen. When exhaustion finally overcame them they lifted their bikes over a barbed wire fence and pitched the tent in the darkness. They woke early the next morning in a water-logged field, shocked to find, they had shared it with about twenty horses. The sun appeared from behind the clouds as they packed the tent and made a hasty retreat. The good weather helped them on their way and soon they recognised the small stone walls so typical for Galway.
They reached Helen’s house in the early afternoon, having asked for directions from the barman in the local pub. They also used the opportunity to bolster their courage with a pint before venturing further to knock on Helen’s door, fearing their surprise could easily turn into a disaster. Helen’s house was an imposing two storey farm house at the end of a tree lined driveway. Somehow or other, word of their arrival had preceded them and Helen and her three attractive sisters were already waiting expectantly on the front steps when they cycled past the bend in the drive and caught sight of the house.
“Look at the pair of them,” Helen laughed, “they’re like something the cat dragged in. There’s no shortage of hot water,” she told them. “Off ye go and get cleaned up and we’ll have a meal on the table by the time ye’re ready.”
“Don’t go to any trouble,” Declan protested supported by Shaun. “We don’t want to be any bother.”
“What bother,” Helen argued, “We have it all arranged already. I’ve just been on the phone with Caragh and she can’t wait to see you. Daddy will drive you over after you’ve had something to eat..”
The boys were lost for words, the welcome had been most hospitable and the prospect of dinner encouraging, but the plans to ship them off to Caragh’s family immediately after was a bit of a let down which they hadn’t counted upon, being sure that the could pitch their tent somewhere on the farm overnight.
Two hours later, Helen’s father turned the car into a neat estate of well maintained bungalows, which bordered a spacious green on the edge of a large town, some thirty miles closer to Galway city. Caragh already stood on the front step. Several weeks of home cooking and clean fresh air had only improved the Galway girl he knew. Her hair had a healthy shine and her teeth looked even whiter against her tanned face.
“What are ye doing here?” Caragh asked in her direct way.
“We missed our Galway girls,” they both answered in unison as if they had planned their answer in advance.
The following few days were special. Her father and mother were friendly and welcoming. All three spent a lot of their time telling stories about the summer, walking in the woods and down along the river.
The mystery about Helen’s strange behaviour soon became clear when Shaun got Caragh alone.
“She was a local lad on the go,” he was told and then it all made sense. It has been a bigger surprise for Helen than they had intended.
“Should I tell Declan?” Shaun asked.
“Declan is no fool. I’m sure he’s already worked it out for himself,” Caragh replied.
“There’s always the one who loves more and doesn’t want to see the truth even if it is obvious,“ Shaun thought.
They left Declan reading in the garden and sneaked out for a few private moments. Shaun held her firmly in his arms and kissed her more earnestly than he had done before. The sun’s light penetrated the thick covering of leaves on the upper branches in places and cast magical rays of light across the forest floor.
“I never thought I could miss anybody as much,” he admitted.
“You feel that way now, because you spent you summer working and you missed the company, but look at Helen. A few weeks and everything is changed..”
“Why should we change?” he argued. “We are different. We are honest with one another.”
“I don’t want to get hurt,” she told him. “There’s so much you want to do with your life and sometimes I feel that there’s too little space left for me.”
“I enjoy every minute we spend together Caragh. There wasn’t one day during the summer when I didn’t think about you. I would never do anything to hurt you.”
Her face had an expression he hadn’t seen before. She put her arms around his neck and pushed him back against a tree. They kissed as before, but somehow it felt deeper and more intense. He put his hands under her cotton shirt and felt the warmth of her naked skin. His arms folded around her body and he held her tightly against him.
“I’ve imagined holding you like this, but the reality is so much stronger than the longing” he told her.
He saw the joy in her eyes and he felt it himself. He lifted her easily and her legs curled around him. They laughed heartily with joy on their faces as they danced around and around. The more they spun around the more they laughed until they finally fell over and Shaun rolled her over on top of him. She stared down at him and a serious expression came across her face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, confused at how quickly a look of absolute joy could dissolve so far.
“Nothing at all,” she insisted, “I’m just so happy to see you.” .. and as she spoke a tear rolled from her cheek and splashed onto his face.
All too soon, the two boys mounted their bikes again using the kerb at the side of the green to steady themselves. Caragh and her parents stood at the front gate.
“Tell that shower up in Dublin to do something for the West for a change,” Caragh’s dad shouted after them in mock annoyance.
“Don’t mind him,” Caragh called, “I’ll see you in October.”
In that instant, Shaun recognised the love in the man’s eyes as they came to rest on his daughter and then turn back towards him. Shaun turned away, but not before he saw the worried expression in
Shaun was waiting with a small bunch of tulips when the bus
pulled into Aston Quay, late on a Saturday afternoon in early October.
“What’s all this about?” Caragh asked, kissing him on the cheek, but her smile told him how much she appreciated the effort.
“I’ll take that,” he said, grabbing her back pack and taking her hand.
“My parents want you to come to dinner tomorrow,” he told her as they walked down O’Connell Street on the way to the bus.
“Oh,” she uttered in panic before she could cover it up with a smile.
“Don’t worry,” he consoled, “they’re not that bad.”
Caragh arrived at the door the following day, looking nervous and ill-at-ease.
“It’ll be okay,” Shaun promised taking her by the hand and leading her into the living room.
“Come in love,” Granny greeted. “We were wonderin when we’d ever get a chance to have a look at you.”
“Ma,” Shaun interrupted, giving her a disapproving look.
Caragh shook hands with Dad.
“Nice to meet you,” he greeted, standing up from his armchair beside the two bar electric fire in the corner of the living room.
“Come over and sit at the table,” Granny directed, “before the tea gets cold.”
A homemade apple tart and a bowl of cream sat in the centre of the table and a Black Forest from the Kylemore was had been squeezed between the teapot and the bread basket. The best china was decked with slices of thick ham garnished with a slice of tomato together with salad and coleslaw.
Shaun was surprised to see the good silver cutlery from the china cabinet which was normally reserved for Christmas Day. All in all, it made everything far too formal and Dad looked anything but comfortable when he took his seat at the table wearing his best navy blazer.
Shaun spotted the disapproval in his mother’s eyes as she looked at Caragh’s threadbare jeans and took in her strong Galway accent.
“How do you like it up in Dublin, Love?” she enquired, putting the teapot back onto its stand.
“Not much,” Caragh answered honestly. “I’d sooner be back in Galway, but I don’t have a choice.”
“I’m sure you’ll get used to it Love,” Granny told her. “They all do. Dublin is full of culchies,” she added choosing her words awkwardly.
Shaun frowned in her direction, knowing that Caragh was being reduced to the term Culchie. Caragh caught the undertone and turned to Shaun, giving him a cheeky smile.
“Shaun thinks culchies are the best don’t you Shaun?” she teased with that typical grin on her face.
Granny, for once, was lost for words, but Shaun knew from her expression that she felt mocked.
“Let’s go upstairs Caragh and I’ll show you my books,” he suggested when the conversation showed little sign of recovering.
“You could have been friendlier to Caragh,” he complained when Caragh had left and Dad had gone up to change back into his normal clothes.
“Another little Culchie,” she countered, shocking him with the venom in her voice.
“Is that the best you can do for yourself? Dublin isn’t good enough for her, but she’ll be bloody glad to live here like the rest of them. They’d live in yer ear. They come up here with the arse out of their jeans and within a few months they’re runnin the place. There are plenty of Dublin girls to be keepin company with, but I suppose you are two high and mighty for them.?”
“Her name is Caragh,” Shaun interrupted.
“Two foot nothing,” she started, spitting out the words.
“Look Ma,” Shaun interrupted, raising his voice, “You took her up the wrong way. Her family welcomed me when I turned up on their doorstep in Galway. I knew you would let me down. That’s why it took me so long to invite her home.”
“That the thanks I get,” she raged, “spending the day in the kitchen for my brat of a son to be ashamed of his mother. If we’re not good enough you can go and stay with your Culchie.” She threatened.
“Its new for me to be with someone who like me the way I am,” he retaliated, regretting his words as he spoke.
“She isn’t always comparing me with my older brothers, telling me how great they are and how incomplete I am.”
I should have known by then I would never win and argument with Granny. She would just change the goalposts every time I had my shot lined up.
“I haven’t an idea what you’re talkin about,” she dismissed,
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about,” he spat out in anger.
“No matter what I do is wrong in your eyes. I’ll never be able to compete with Joe no matter how hard I try.”
“Look,” she challenged, holding up her small finger. “You’re not worth the smallest finger on your brother’s hand and you never will be.”
I felt the tears welling up in my eyes and if it killed me, she wasn’t going to have the satisfaction of seeing them.
“If that’s all you think I’m worth, I’m going,” I shouted, turning on my heels and slamming the door behind me, leaving her alone in the living room.
You never understood or shared the coldness I felt towards her. Four months after we had left her in her eighty seventh year and moved to Munich left you devastated to get the bad news. She looked forward to your visits every Saturday, stuffed you with Wagon Wheels and never forgot your birthdays. She had solidly stood on your side every time I had tried to impose discipline on you.
“When is the removal?” I asked coldly. I would attend her funeral alone. You all had a new school to settle in to and that had to take preference. For whatever reason, I could never do anything to please her. My mistake was to keep trying even when she has ceased to be. Her hand words were still finding their mark even beyond the grave and I continued trying to prove her wrong.
“She loved you more than any of us,” I heard in the pub after the funeral. “We were fed up hearing about her son the teacher.”
I sat with my mouth open and couldn’t fathom what I was hearing.
“But all she did to my face was complain about me,” I answered, my eyes filling up with tears as I spoke.
“She denigrated everything I ever said or did.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I heard. “You were the only one who really counted for her.”
Those words should have been a great comfort, but they made me very sad. I had never forgiven her for her cruel words and she was too proud to ever take them back.
After all, what goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you.