I spent my life trying not to be a goody-two-shoes. It is 1974 and I am hurtling across the switchback hills of County Cavan in a fast car driven by a young man who is everything I ever dreamed of, even when I did not know what I was dreaming about. His name is Peter-a reliable name for a very unreliable young man. The car is metallic brown, with a long, gleaming snout, reclining seats and a good radio. At night, when we pull into some laneway or field, it plays Radio Luxembourg. Right now we’re both humming along with Abba and ‘Waterloo’.
Thanks to Radio Luxembourg, I have discovered one important thing about men. They can stop, when they really want to. They don’t have to go all the way, or even part of the way. They are well able to pause in the middle of all that hectic touching and cuddling, even when the Danger Zone is involved, if something more interesting or important comes on the news. Current affairs, it appears, is my main competition.
On one particular evening, the news headlines are all about Intervention. Peter is knowledgeable about Intervention and cattle. Just when I am on the brink of passing out with the pleasure of his kisses, he stops suddenly.
‘Hang on a wee minute,’ says he, cool as you like, turning the volume up.
On another evening, we pass the house in which Senator Billy Fox has been murdered. I do not understand exactly why he was shot, but I know that it was brutal. The house stands darkened, so innocent and ordinary despite what has occurred. On many nights we drive along that stretch, tar and asphalt burning away beneath us as Peter accelerates – fast – to wherever we’re going. I feel as if I’m at the centre of whatever is worthwhile in life. He has made me a woman, not by doing it, which we haven’t so far, but through his kisses, the first of which removed the remnants of my childhood once and for all. The fact that he also wears no underpants beneath his trousers adds to his mystique. Seven years older than me, he is experienced. He has known many girls, but none like me, with what he calls ‘education’. I have outlined my ambitions to him, and even if I am repeating the Leaving, I am determined to be a vet, with my own practice.
‘Yur not a woman, not yet,’ he remarks with gentle authority one evening, ‘yur still a gurl. Gotta Iona learnin’ to do yet.’ He goes on to compare me with a real woman who was older than him, but who would not commit herself one way or another. He says he loves her, that she is the only one. Because I am certain I will die if Peter dumps me, I barely comment.
Even though I am from the border area, there are things I have never noticed until now.
I do not understand the kind of politics that occurs at the end of dances, when some fellows make people stand for the national anthem with their hands clasped behind their backs. The local girls take to the fellows from the North, to the wild-weed streak in them. They arrive in Cavan for discos or for Chicken in the Rough, in cars that play the first notes of ‘Hitler Had Only One Big Ball’ and ‘Yankee-Doodle-Dandy’. The girls that come South are different too. They wear more make-up, and their platforms are higher than ours. The sleeves of their blouses are even more flounced at the wrists, their coloured denim jeans tighter and more flared. They remind me of returned adventurers, their way of speaking somehow smarter, their laughter out-laughing ours in knowingness and sophistication.
Out on the roads again, the Guards are about, checking who you are, where you’re going and what your business is in the South. Peter knows most of them by now. He drives regularly across the border from his town to Cavan. There are discos on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which is where he met me.
‘Well, Payther,’ says one of them in a strong Munster accent, leaning in and looking quizzically at me.
‘Och, yur alright, Jack,’ Peter laughs, ‘No bowms here. Only a blonde bowmshell-ha-ha-ha-ha!’
‘Off with ye so,’ says the Guard.
We roar off into the night, along the shore road, between the lake and the woods. I have drunk too much vodka. I roll my head along the headrest and close my eyes a moment. I’m good for him, he sometimes says after a couple of Pimms No. Ones. Some part of me knows that this will be the night. We’re crossing the border on our way to his house. By dawn, I’ll be his and he’ll be mine. Forever. I know he will love me if I give myself to him. It’s as simple as that. I imagine us at some future point, farmer and vet, cutting a dash at the Hunt Ball, the New Year’s Eve Ball, the Horse Show Ball in the Shelbourne Hotel.
Peter’s mother is Italian. She will not be at home because she is visiting her sisters in Italy. I have never met her, although Peter has met my parents, neither of whom approves, but who manage to humour me in the hope that Peter will pass out of my life like a temporary, upsetting virus. At the end of our second date, my mother leaves out slices of chocolate Swiss Roll and cups and saucers on a tray for us, even though Peter’s father was a half-tinker who, years ago, pulled the wool over a visiting Italian girl’s eyes, even though Peter himself is a Wheeler-Dealer farmer, and on no account to be trusted.
Peter is in awe of his mother. She has an octopus-like grip on him and his feelings. When he speaks about her it sounds as if he is referring to royalty, or to someone who lives on a very high pedestal indeed. I am not good at paying homage to invisible women of influence who get in my way, neither the former girlfriend-the real woman-nor his mother. But I am curious. He is the first man I have ever met who fears and needs women in equal measure.
There’s a ten-minute delay as we go through the checkpoint. I sit dead still until we go clear. Some people say the soldiers can hear every word that’s spoken in a car. Frequently, when I go North with my mother, we deliberately speak to one another in crumbling Irish while crossing the checkpoint. I observe the khaki faces and bodies, the huge rifles, bullet-proof vests, aware that to my left two more soldiers are crouching down behind a bush. As I can clearly see both of them, that surely defeats the purpose of their hunkering down like that.
‘Noime please, suh,’ says another, squinting at Peter’s licence.
‘Wot’s y’business suh?’
‘Dealer. A’m on m’way home.’
‘And the young loidy?’ He bends and takes a good long look, then winks at Peter.
‘Gurlfriend. From Cavan. She’s a nice wee gurl, don’t worry Corporal,’ says Peter. The pair of them laugh, like boys who have just peeped up my skirt and are about to run away.
Finally, we get the all clear. The car zooms down the last stretch of road and Peter turns sharply into the gateway of his house, up the short, stony drive. It reminds me of pictures of houses in former British colonies, an old stone bungalow with gable windows and a south-west facing veranda painted dark green, except that it’s not half as smart. Little effort has been made to preserve outside appearances, and ragwort sprouts all over the drive and the front lawn.
First, he shows me his horses, a chestnut hunter and a Palomino. Then he lets three liver and white pointer bitches out of another shed and talks to them as if they were women.
‘Oh, my loves,’ he croons, ‘oh, my great wee darlin’ gurls … ‘
Finally, he walks me around the house a couple of times, because I’m still feeling woozy from the double vodkas I didn’t ask for but which he bought anyway. ‘Inside, sweetie.’ He guides me into the hallway.
The house smells damp and uncared for, yet the peeling and bubbled classic wallpaper in the long hall suggests former glory. But this is where he lives, so it is important.
I wait in the sitting-room, while Peter goes out to the kitchen. He has switched on a transistor radio and my all-time favourite song comes on, The Hollies singing The Air that I Breathe. Immediately I want to dance, to hold Peter close. But I wait, assuming he is making tea, getting the biscuits out, maybe even laying a tray with a couple of mugs. To pass the time, I examine some photographs on the mantlepiece. One shows Peter when he was a little fellow, dressed up in a sailorsuit. A wave of pure love sweeps over me as I pore over this image of him. Adorable! is all I can murmur, adorable! It reminds me of a photograph in my school history-book the year before, of Alexis, the haemophiliac son of the last Tsar of Russia. I pick up another picture, this time of his mother and dead father. The frame is tarnished. Peter strongly resembles his father, a medium-sized man with sallow skin. Even though the photograph is in black-and-white, I guess by the tone that Peter’s father’s eyes were also an intense blue.
The mother is terrifying. Now that I see her, I do not ever want to meet her.
Tall and thin, beautiful in a tight-skinned way, very unsmiling and poised. I remember Peter having said that she was sixty-three. I do a few quick calculations now and decide that, by the look of her, it will be another twenty years before she has gone to her heavenly reward and relaxes the clench of that jaw.
Instead of tea and biscuits, he arrives back with a striped bath-towel.
‘Who was a good little sailor boy then?’ I tease.
‘Och now,’ he smirks and rolls his eyes, ‘Mother wouldn’t have it any other way.’ I’m sure she wouldn’t, I stop myself from saying, further evidence to me that I am almost a real woman, capable of mustering some savage sarcasm when necessary.
He stands by my side, smiling, swinging the towel like a lassoo.
‘Ming Dynasty?’ I enquire as casually as possible, stroking a large blue and white Chinese-looking vase. I have read a short story which involved a precious Ming vase only recently.
‘Eh-‘ he hesitates as if unsure what to say, ‘Eh, yeah. Ming. Ming she is-‘ He pauses again. A lustful smile steals over his lips and he approaches me, his blue eyes soft with need. I feel myself begin to melt.
‘Sit down thur, thur’s no hurry, sweetie, no hurry at all,’ he whispers, then kisses my lips. I melt some more.
‘Now, sweetie.’ He catches both my ankles firmly in one of his hands.
‘This is what happens-‘ The effort of binding my ankles in the towel makes him grunt. ‘-to naughty gurls-who enjoy too much kissing-‘
I laugh as he sweeps me off the sofa, ankles bound, and carries me through the sitting-room door, down the long hall and across a broad wooden threshold into a bedroom. Triumphantly, he deposits me on the side of the bed and undoes the towel.
‘My wee slave-gurl!’ he murmurs fondly.
An image of his mother flashes through my mind. I sit up.
‘Whose room is this?’
‘So what? She’s gone till the weekend. Relax, baby, enjoy yourself. You need to let your hair down! Please?’
Naturally, I am well able to block out illumination of any kind, using the word LOVE as a mental shutter to prevent the slightest ray getting through. As it turns out, I have far more bedroom theory at my disposal than he does, thanks to Cosmopolitan magazine, but he has the practical mileage up and that’s what counts.
‘My wee slave-gurl!’
‘Slave-gurl!’ he growls back.
‘Sailor-boy,’ I whisper, ‘but don’t go in!’ I warn.
‘Don’t worry, sweetie,’ he sighs, his ardour increasing by the second as we lurch around the bed and I think of his Italian mother and what she would think and say if she should see the pair of us, him working me over, guzzling my flesh, twisting my long hair in his fists, telling me not to be shocked or surprised. It strikes me that he will probably not even bother to change the bedsheets afterwards. Then he rolls to one side, his expression satisfied, his mouth curling upwards in a smile. It is over.
He dozes for about five minutes while I stare at the ceiling.
‘We’d better move, sweetie,’ he sighs then, hoisting himself out of the bed again in a busy way I do not like. He is not in the least bit interested in looking at my bare body, or in watching me reassemble my garments. Already, he has disappeared into the kitchen.
When dressed, I gather my bag, my jewellery, my scarf, and follow him. In the kitchen, I perch on a low stool in order to fasten the sandals which, earlier, he so enjoyed removing. He has opened a pound tin of Italian plums with the word Mangiamo on the label. Leaning over the big Bell sink, he forks them quickly and greedily into his mouth. They are deep, sunset-red-tinged-with-purple plums. The juice dribbles down his chin. I would just love one of them, because I am parched from vodka and courting. But he does not offer any. He stands slurping plum after plum, his mouth crammed full the whole time until they are all gone. Then he drinks the juice straight from the tin.
Everything becomes clear. My mental shutter flies open and a new, icy illumination blows through me. His mother probably suspects this kind of carry-on. She lets her twenty-six year old son have his fun, so long as she doesn’t know too much about it, so long as he doesn’t ever leave her. I tell him I’ve forgotten something, then cross the hall again to the bedroom. Quickly, I unclasp one pearl ear-ring and fling it far down beneath the sheets. Then, just as he calls my name with a new and unfamiliar impatience, I take the pillows and rub them thoroughly along my neck and chest, then sniff. Good. Then I take my mother’s bottle of Nina Ricci Eau de Toilette from my bag and sprinkle it randomly on the sheets, the bedside rug, the mattress. Even better. The delicious odour wafts around me gently. Now Peter’s mother need never more suspect what her son gets up to in her absence. She’ll know for certain.
‘I’ve made the bed,’ I tell him.
As we set off back across the border, the southern sky is full of stars. Cars coming north whizz by the lake to our right, windows rolled down, headlights flashing, horns tooting.
‘Must’ve bin a good night in Belturbet,’ Peter remarks.
‘Yeah,’ I say, watching a white hook of moon on the water.