She lies there, uncomfortable, sleepless, trying to listen to a wind that won’t blow. Listening out for other voices in the field, the gentle lap of the sea, anything other than the slurping humming noises coming from her friend and the man. Not that he’s a man of course, probably twenty one, twenty two at most, but man enough to have won Síle over and make her forget there are two other people in this tiny old tent. Ciara tries thinking louder, thinking about things far removed from kissing and feeling. Things like her exams, and where she’ll be when the results come out, back in the city maybe, or even London, working hard and saving money. But the kissing noises keep drowning out her thoughts, as they get longer and louder. And she must face again the inevitable question – what if the other fella, this Christopher, decides to copy his friend and make a move. What will she do then? Pretend she’s asleep? Tell him straight out – no, no thanks. Or maybe go along for a while and see what he’s like. He was handsome enough, for what you could see through the hair with his face pointed down when he walked, or sharply up when he sat on the beach looking at the sky talking about the stars and Roman gods and the heat of the sun, and sun spots and nuclear bombs and Icarus’ wings. Perhaps he is as good a kisser as he is a dreamer. Síle always called Ciara the dreamer, the floater, which suited them both as Síle was full of plans and energy and spontaneity. Which must be how these two fellas ended up here in their tent. Síle, talking, flirting, provoking. And yer man, Declan, up for it, on for it, and the quieter one happy to follow along, talking to Ciara in the other two’s wake. He must be listening too, must be thinking about Ciara and the obvious question as to whether he kisses her or not.
Christopher tries not to close his eyes too tight, which would give away the fact he is pretending to be asleep. He needs some time in which to think. The kissing shouldn’t have taken him by surprise, but it did. The sound is unpleasant – fine when you’re watching a film and caught up in the atmosphere and the characters, and even better when it’s you and her and there’s music playing, but not here. Not somebody else, right beside you, their movements bumping off you, their noises the only noises. With that strange humming sound she’s making. What will happen if they keep going and eventually other body parts get kissed, other fluids come into play? Will they go out, to some soft dune where the moonlight will show them all they need to see, with a silverblue kindness that inflames them further? Or will they stay and force the others to hear every grunt and moan, and every laugh and sigh, every press of flesh and the most intimate noises of body, of voice? Christopher has a choice to make, and choices were never his strong point. All the thinking about the issue at hand has turned him on physically – he is nineteen after all. But should he leave? Be something of a gentleman and walk back to the city, to the far side of Galway where, perhaps, his friends are still awake and willing to open the door. But he reckons it must be after three, he wouldn’t be there till five. And if he got up to leave, should he invite the other girl, Caroline, to join him. Or Ciara? Ciara, that’s it. She would of course conclude that he was asking her outside for sex, with no build up or charm or kissing or pretence and she would naturally refuse. So the only other option was to lean over and kiss her cheek and run his hand down her long dark hair and bring her lips to his and kiss again. And Christopher, with only one previous and brief girlfriend to his name, has no idea how to go about that.
Ciara, though dreading Christopher’s approach, is beginning to resent its non-arrival. Why won’t he kiss her? Is she that plain? Her mother made her feel plain, as did her older sisters, and she felt it when walking beside the vivacious Síle. But her father always told her she was special, a beautiful princess, and if she waited and was nice to people then sure enough one day her prince would come. What horseshit. Parents told you so many things that you believed were true and lovely, only to discover in the end they were the constraints of guilt, or hypocrisy, or outright lies.
Three boys had asked her to the Grad Ball, long before anyone had dared to ask Síle. She told the first two she’d think about it, and after both of them tried to feel her up at the school disco, she turned them down. The third, Pat Maguire, was the most handsome, and had heard about the other two, and how they were now saying she was frigid, and he called to her house and asked her, there in the kitchen with her mother just by the open back door hanging out the washing. And Ciara accepted, delighted to have such a desirable date, and Síle was a little jealous and pleased at the same time but ultimately too busy between flings to give it much thought.
And Pat was a charmer, showed up with perfect flowers and chocolates, flattered her mother, reassured her father and left them like a pair of smiling goons at the front door. At the ball he chatted amiably, bought drinks at exactly the right time, and danced with ease and confidence. No swagger, just ease. While he lacked a certain depth of thought that Ciara needed, he was extremely pleasant company and a far better date for her Grad Ball than she had ever allowed herself to imagine. Afterwards, in the shadows of a back garden at a house party, he kissed her and she responded, tentatively at first and then, enjoying the softness of his lips, the hint of stubble on his chin and the strength in the hands that held her, her hunger and curiosity grew. Her hunger though, was no match for his own and his passion soon turned frenetic and his hands and mouth were all over her. She tried to pull back, to suggest a little patience, but he didn’t seem to notice. There was the alarming sound of a small rip somewhere in her dress, but he was no longer listening nor speaking, only making what sounded to Ciara like animal noises. She became terribly afraid, afraid of what he had become, what he was capable of in the next few moments, and what state he was going to leave her in. She pleaded with him to stop, to slow down, but he planted one hand firmly on her mouth while the other pulled roughly at her breasts; her breasts that had never been touched before, never mind manhandled. Then he pulled the top of her dress down, leered at her exposed pretty bra, then turned her around and pressed himself hard against her. He ran his free hand along the back of her thigh and then through her legs where he grabbed her. Ciara’s mind finally adjusted to the horror and allowed some rational thought to occur and she bit his hand as hard as she could, and as he pulled away from her teeth she screamed with such volume and disgust that people came running out from the house and found them; her crying and trembling and attempting to fix her dress, he shaking his injured hand while drawing back the other to strike her.
Christopher had decided that Ciara was definitely the prettier of the two, even though it was masked by a timidity that was slightly annoying. But he understood shyness, knew it well from the inside out, but it did make it harder to tell if Ciara was in any way interested, or utterly indifferent. He traced back over their walk, the snippets of conversation he could remember, to see if there were any hints to help him. She had come and sat beside him on the beach, had in fact leaned up against him at one point, but that could have been her losing her balance as she followed his pointing finger to a constellation somewhat behind them. She had talked openly enough, admitted that she had had no boyfriend in her year in college, and he gathered that she wasn’t one who played the game lightly, if at all. Síle was far easier to read, as she stood on a rock taunting Declan that his promise to go skinny dipping, delivered back at the night club, was all talk. But Ciara, with her black hair and red lips and shy smile, surely she wouldn’t mind a little kissing?
Síle shrieked with surprise and delight as Declan pulled down his trousers and stood before them naked. Ciara gasped and looked away, while Síle hollered and told Declan he was a fine specimen of a man. He turned his back to them and ran to the water and kept going till it was up to his waist and then he dived in. All the while Síle hopped in excitement and laughter on the water’s edge, while Christopher laughed in disbelieving admiration, and Ciara sat beside him in silence. Síle called out for Christopher to join his friend, to show them if he was a man too, but Ciara’s voice stiffened as she told him not to if he didn’t want. He was pleased by this, both because it revealed a softness he had been looking for, and because he was no swimmer. The idea of stripping off, while not exactly scaring him off, didn’t really appeal to him either, not unless the girls were going to follow suit, and they showed little sign of that. In the pub Ciara had been wearing a vest top and a loose summer skirt, and her body was long and slim and, though somewhat boyish, it appealed greatly to Christopher, once he had got talking to her. Now he sat beside her with the possibility of nudity in the air and he willed her to throw her jacket off and begin undressing. He stared at the side of her face till she turned to him and said ‘I can’t swim’. He stood and walked to the edge where the dying waves fizzed against the sand, swirling around his boots. He watched Declan swimming and jumping around, laughing and shouting how beautiful it was, taunting Síle to join him. She had kicked off her sandals and was knee deep in the water, trying to hold her skirt up and keep her balance, neither too successfully. Christopher wondered whether he should go in. He crouched and felt the water with his fingers; it was freezing. He had only been in water at night once before, back when he couldn’t even doggy paddle and was terribly nervous. The two lads he was with had swam out where to he could no longer see them, and then the two girls sneaked up behind him and began splashing him, great palmfuls of cold lake water hitting his shivering skin, and as he ran away and tried to splash behind him, his foot went into a hollow and he fell underwater. Panicking, swallowing, he could hear the girls’ screams of laughter and triumph. He stumbled to his feet and fell into a painful coughing fit as the girls continued to laugh and splash, and he breathed in lungfuls of what felt like cold hatred as he clambered out of the water and back to his clothes. When he turned to face the girls he had a big forced smile on his face and acknowledged they had got the better of him, and bowed.
Silé’s skirt was getting so wet she decided to take it off, telling Christopher to turn away. He began doing so when he saw her beginning to pull it over her head as she walked back to the sand. He found his heart beating hard as the skirt came up over her thighs, her fine backside, and the dimpled small of her back. She wore white knickers that clung to her skin where seawater had splashed, and as she threw the skirt on to the rocks, she turned and Christopher quickly looked away, hoping she hadn’t seen. Earlier he hadn’t thought beyond her brashness, or her pretty friend, but now he saw that she had a very good body and knew how to move it. He stole one glance at her from the front, and the small sloping rise between her legs made him gulp. He forced himself to turn away again, chiding himself for having to look, for not being a gentleman, and he began walking back to Ciara. She looked at him coolly and said ‘enjoying the view?’
Ciara told her mother what happened in the garden. She hadn’t wanted to, but she knew word would get back – it always did in such a small town. The news was received in near silence, but that night as Ciara lay in bed, she could hear her parents discussing it, like lawyers pouring over every possible angle. Was that Pat Maguire a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or what possessed him at all? Was Ciara’s dress too revealing, should her hair have been let fall in loose strands over her bare shoulders like that? Síle Walsh a bad influence? Had Ciara so much drink taken she couldn’t see it coming? How would her mother face Mrs Maguire in the town? And his father on the Council. This never happened to Ciara’s sisters! The next day Ciara’s mother sat her down and had a talk with her, about men, and their impulses, and drink, and how a baby would ruin her life, and her having the brains to get good grades and a grant for college, so not to throw it all away on some young fella who couldn’t control himself. Ciara’s father avoided her for a week, until her exams approached and he began nagging her to study.
College was a revelation for Ciara. No smalltown bitterness and bitching. No eyes behind net curtains. Nobody to get word back, that so-and-so had too much to drink, or someone’s skirt was too short, or whether a day was spent in bed rather than lectures. But more importantly than the lack of negatives, was the very real presence of energy and freedom and goodwill and fun. All the First Years were in the same boat, here to learn and live it up and make new friends and have the craic. Here to experience all that college offered. And plenty of boys around, and they all seemed so much more mature than her old classmates, and especially the older boys from her town who had left school early and got jobs in the factory or sawmill or petrol stations, with their speeding cars and wallets full of notes and their boots that made a scraping noise when they strode across the pool hall to ask one of her friends out, with one eye on the girl and the other on their group of friends. Those twenty two year old boys who plundered the best looking or most desperate girls from school because none their own age would go near them, having long since grown tired of their boasting and dead-end ways. Here in college Ciara met interesting boys, ones she could talk to, ones she developed friendships with. Of course there were eejits, and drunken fools who thought pinching her arse was an amusing way of introducing themselves, but as the year went on Ciara found herself forgetting about Pat Maguire and his greed and violence; or at least trying to forget and to start looking at boys with hope again.
Rag Week had been the most chaotic and alcohol-fuelled five days in her life. She had never imagined such freedom, such wildness. Too hungover to brush her hair, too excited to care. And on the second night she kissed a boy and on the fourth she kissed two, an hour apart at two different parties. The second was so handsome, a surfer, but she had also seen him in the library, often late in the evening, always in the law section. His studious delving into books contrasted sharply with his tousled look and created an appetising intrigue. And here at the party, in an alcove off the landing, his hands glided around her body like a masseur’s and Ciara kissed him deeply and breathlessly. This was how it was supposed to be; two people giving and receiving, enjoying and being enjoyed. Her body took over, all her fears of men, all her worrying about what she should or shouldn’t do dissolved into the fizz on her tongue and the tingling of her fingertips.
Christopher thought he heard a little moan from his right, though it was perhaps hard to distinguish from all the noise on his left, where Dec and Síle had obviously given up caring about discretion. Certainly, Ciara had turned to face him, or at least lie on the side that left her face very close to his. Her breathing seemed to have quickened – maybe she really did want Christopher to kiss her, despite her walking off at the beach when he had looked again at Síle splashing through the water, her top now so wet it clung to her just like in the movies.
When he had pulled himself together, and turned back to Ciara, she was gone, and she didn’t return until the others had finally come out of the water and dressed. She was sullen and had her arms folded tight across her chest, though she looked far from cold. She ignored Christopher and waited for Síle to catch up with her before walking again. Declan and Síle were obviously energised by the water – the night was filled with their laughter and loudness, and neither noticed the demeanour of their friends. Christopher manoeuvred himself so that he was beside Ciara, and he spent the next ten minutes walking in silence, trying to think of something to say, something to ask her, anything at all to bring her back.
Ciara and the surfer kissed their way down the stairs and out the front door. They were talking and laughing and kissing and holding hands and each other, when they passed a group of lads sharing a joint in the garden. ‘Night Robbie!’ the boys chorused, but Robbie didn’t answer, instead he smiled and rolled his eyes for Ciara to see. Then one of the group called out ‘and goodnight Olive!’ Ciara felt Robbie tense up as the gang burst into stifled laughter. He tried to quicken his pace as Ciara heard the lads whispering furiously, till this time they all chorused ‘night Olive!’ and now there was no restraint in their laughing – one of them actually fell to the floor holding his sides such was his merriment. Ciara looked at Robbie’s face and she could see it reddening in the dark, he forced a smile and said not to mind them – bunch of stoneheads. But Ciara was searching her memory for someone called Olive, and a brief image flashed like a photograph of Robbie standing outside the library with a tall redhead. ‘That’s over and they know it’ Robbie said with anger and hurt in his voice. He stopped walking and turned to face Ciara and began explaining – that Olive had been his girlfriend but they had split up, there had been a row at the weekend, all the lads knew it, she had gone home for Rag Week, they hadn’t spoken, and the more he explained in broken phrases the more Ciara felt pity for him and his confusion, but the more she realised that she did not know this boy or his motives and she could not go back to his room. When finally she was to let herself go, even only a bit, it had to be with trust, with knowledge, or at the very least with such abandon that she could face whatever doubts the memory of Pat Maguire would throw at her, and move on regardless.
A tear fell from her eye and rolled stop-start down her cheek. Christopher watched it with guilt and fear. Whatever was going through this girl’s mind had one moment been causing her to moan in apparent pleasure, and now was causing her a sorrow that visibly gripped her and forced this tear to well and roll and leave a trail glistening across her face. And they had been getting on so well, finally, on the long walk from the beach. Not as well as before of course, a cynicism had crept in to her voice, a wariness that Christopher had heard so often from girls but had never known how to counter. He always felt lost when facing such harshness or suspicion, when he was doing his best to be childishly honest and everything he was saying was being disbelieved. He hated to be doubted, and more so, to be regarded as just another man with only one thing on his mind. He had plenty of things on his mind when it came to women; sex was one of them of course, (of course!) but there were so many others. He loved their sincerity, their ability to face up to things and talk about how they felt, and to ask him, even if he was unable to answer. He loved their gentle sense of humour, their grace and consideration, their pursuit of all the senses, not just one. And it struck him that the kind of girl who didn’t care if he was only after sex was Síle, and he could never imagine chasing it from her. He looked again at Ciara and affection flooded through him, he reached out and put his hand on her shoulder, leaned forward and said ‘goodnight Ciara’. She didn’t answer or open her eyes, but she turned around and nestled back against him, in warmth and safety, and finally convinced that this was not a ruse on Christopher’s part, she whispered ‘Goodnight’.
And there they lay, not together, and not alone. Outside, dawn brightened silently from the east, and a morning breeze picked up and the shoreline sang its endless song of crest and fall, of sea and sand, and the tide turned once more.