A Story by PETER LENNON
ANYWAY, I met her at a dance in the tennis club behind the Protestant church off Rathgar Road. She was a nice girl. At first, of course, I just wanted to see how far she would go, and she knew it. She told me afterward. Women always know these things, but you’d never realize it looking at their blank, demure faces as they sit along the wall waiting to be asked up.
She agreed to dance with me all right, but she was awfully careful. She wouldn’t let me hold her close or anything. The truth is, I was drunk.
Not terribly drunk, but drunk. When we were dancing the second time I asked her if she would like to go and have a drink, a club orange or something, out in the pavilion. That reminds me, it was an At Home. They had a big marquee set out on the grounds with the band sitting in the draft at the end and smart fellows trying to wriggle in under the canvas.
She wouldn’t come out with me. She said she was with a friend.
“A female friend?” said I.
“Yes,” she said.
“And why do you want to be bothering with her?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” said she. “Isn’t she my friend?”
“And what do you come to dances for?” I asked with a sly drunken look.
I shouldn’t have said that. God knows, we all know what we go to dances for. Anyway, she was hulled. After all, I was a complete stranger — although I didn’t feel in the least strange with her, and I knew already she liked me. But then she wouldn’t let me take her home. She said I could give her a ring at the office, the G.P.O. in O’Connell Street, so that she could see what I sounded like when I was sober.
She was a country girl and, like most of them up in Dublin, in the civil service. They are the best, the country girls. The Dublin ones, at least the ones I have known, nearly strangle themselves with deviousness when you try to get them to come out on a date. I thought about her a little during the week, but by the end I had decided that she was a dead loss. She was obviously a nice girl. That is to say, I’d like her and she’d like me, but it wouldn’t do my needs any good. Not soon enough, anyway.
Those nice girls carry on at such an even, undisturbed pace, as though there was no time, no passing, no loss, nothing but an inevitable supplying of their decent needs in God’s own good time. The funny thing is, the supply is even recruited from fellows like us, suitably straightened out and steadied and placed like reasonably reliable old posts along the road of matrimony.
I really wanted to go out with her, but I got a terrible gripped feeling when I thought of the way her mother and father and her red-brick house and first cousins might close in on me. I always think the worst of people before I know them, and I had terrible sinister thoughts about what would happen to me if I got into one of those little group families I saw going to Mass on Sunday mornings.
I positively decided that I wouldn’t ring her up, but that afternoon, when I was walking past a tobacconist’s, I had a sudden swell of astonished pleasure at the thought of seeing her in a couple of hours. So I went in and rang up, in great spirits. But, of course, she couldn’t see ine until the next Sunday afternoon. She didn’t even want to come out with me after dark, I suppose. I agreed sourly and hung up.
SHE was a bit surprised when we met at St. Stephen’s Green Big Gate, and, instead of crossing to the bus stop, I took her over to the cinema, stopped outside, and opened the door of a car.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“What do you mean, what am I doing?” I said and gave her a little shove toward the car.
We moved into the traffic. I was tempted to pretend that it was mine, and it would have been reasonable enough for a clever young fellow in the printing trade to own an Anglia, but then, how was I going to keep it up?
“I take it out once in a while,” I said. “You can get them from Nolans.”
“Oh, is that it?” she said, but then very nicely added, “That must be expensive.”
“Not too much for me,” I was able to say.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked, when we began to cross O’Connell’s Bridge.
I liked the way she said it, as if she were putting herself contentedly in my hands.
“We’ll go up and have a cup of tea with the archbishop,” I said. “He’s always glad to see a Protestant.”
“Oh, are you a Protestant?” she said, and I could see she was disappointed. But she wasn’t going to let a thing like that upset her, so she got cheerful again straightaway. I think the first thing a woman thinks when she goes out with you is, “Maybe, now, this is the fella I’ll end up with,” and if you are a Protestant, they say to themselves, “What would the priest say? There’d be an awful lot of bother about the children. Maybe he’d turn contrary in the end and not let them be brought up Catholic. There are enough stories about that — fellas who seemed decent enough at the time, but it was a different story later.”
But as long as you don’t take too much notice, you can get around them all right. I told her I wasn’t really much of a Protestant; I never went to church or anything.
Well, we went to Howth. It was a lovely day. A lot of people had come out, but they only drive their cars to the top of the hill, a little beyond the tram line, and then sit out beside the front wheel cluttering up the place. Whether it’s because they are afraid someone might steal their motor tires or not I don’t know, but they never seem to go over to the cliff edge for more than a minute, and never down the slope. So we went down there in the direction of the lighthouse, where there are wide hollows tipping toward the sea. It’s not as steep as it looks, and you can lie there comfortable and unmolested.
I love Howth. A rocky hill jutting out and above Ireland. It’s like being in another country. And you can lie there with your back to the sloping grass, and all you can see is the sea spreading out shifting and winking before you and the sound of it falling against the rocks down under the cliff beneath. Looking up, you get lost in the sky high and cool and flying and you are your own master.
Anyway, I kissed her on the cheek.
“Now stop that,” she said.
“Why?” said I.
“It’s too soon,” she said.
So I rolled her over, took her shoulder in my two hands, and kissed her seventeen times while she wriggled and blubbered and got cross and breathless, and frightened, too, for a moment. And then, finally exhausted, and with no one to turn to but me, she put her arm around my shoulder and said “Stop” very softly, and when I did she lay there with her face down out of sight in my coat collar as if she were going to go to sleep.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“What do you expect,” she said, “after that terrible demonstration?”
She didn’t say anything for a long time, and then she looked up at me with a kind of curiosity and said, “You’re a strange fella.”
“I’m not so strange.”
“You like to act the ruffian,” she said, “but you’re nice.”
“Do you drink a lot?” she asked after a minute.
“A bit,” I admitted.
“Why do you do that?” she said. “Wouldn’t it be time enough when you are old and tired and disappointed? Why do you do it?” she insisted.
To tell the truth, I don’t know why I do it. It is something to do with the way people disappoint you. The way they begin to fade when you come close to them or the way you lose every time you are talking and you care about what you are saying.
“I get fed up and restless,” I told her.
“Do you like the printing business?” she asked.
“You get good money,” I said.
“But do you like it?” she insisted.
“For heaven’s sake, I’m not supposed to love it,” I said. “It’s a job. It’s interesting enough, and some of the fellows are nice.”
“Would you like to have done something else?” she asked.
“Like go to a university?”
“Yes, I wanted to, but we couldn’t afford it at the time.”
“It wasn’t money in my case,” I said. “We aren’t rich, but we have enough. My father has a couple of grocer shops. My brother went to the university. He’s a dentist now.”
“And why didn’t you go?” she demanded indignantly.
“I didn’t want to,” I retorted. Even when they only know you a couple of days they start that stuff.
“I’m sorry if I annoyed you,” she said haughtily.
I laughed. “It doesn’t matter,” I reassured her. “It’s just I didn’t feel like going. I didn’t want to be taking money from my father all that time. I wanted to be independent, and I wanted to know what life was about. I liked being with workingmen. Not just with laborers, but men who are working and doing something. They talk in a way I like.”
“In pubs,” she mumbled.
“What?” I said.
“Aren’t students doing something useful?” she challenged, ignoring my “what.”
“They annoy me. A lot of them,” I said.
“Oh, everything annoys Your Lordship,” she exclaimed.
“And what about the fellows who are always trying to take you out?” I demanded. “And the other girls in the office? You’ve no time for half of them. And what about your family? Are you delighted with all of them?”
She sat up with a jerk and glared at me. “I think you’re going a bit too far,” she said frostily.
So, to make her a little more easy I told her about those round-looking fellows in pubs I don’t like, with the purply-red still-cheeked thicknecked look, standing there at the bar fingering their small Irish. They’ve got it all worked out. “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. That’s the way the cards are laid. That’s the way life goes.”
It isn’t their dishonesty I complain about, I told her, but their minds; the way they think we are all like that but haven’t the guts to own up to it.
We had to go back then. She had to be home before seven, because some relations were coming up from the country to see how she was getting on and report to the family. We said good-bye at the corner of her road. She wanted to see me again and willingly kissed me good night.
She was living in digs and I was at home, and although I brought her home a few times there was no pleasure in it. They’d put us in the front room and leave us, but you never knew when they would come in to ask if we wanted a cup of tea or something. So we would sit there watching the sun come in the bay window, talking in low voices.
We’d do a bit of necking too, but she would be stiff as a plank in my arms, her eyes roving to the door all the time. If there was a sound, she’d shove me off quickly and jump up. I kept telling her to relax, but she was uneasy the whole time, and to tell the truth I wasn’t too easy myself.
I had been doing a line with her about three months by that time. I started to see her about four times a week, and, fool that I was, we mostly went to the pictures, and afterward we’d have a cup of sticky coffee in one of those milk laboratory parlors in O’Connell Street and sit and look at the other fellows and girls being harmless to each other.
We’d walk home at night if it was fine and kiss in a side street. Sometimes I’d start to go a bit far, and she’d let me for a while and then get outraged. I tried going for a swim, but every time we made up our minds it rained and we ended up at the pictures.
We were starting to get a bit edgy with each other. I was alternately brutal and indifferent with her, and she began to be tricky in a way I hated. Sometimes she’d try to take over and tell me what to do, and when I suggested something she always thought out something else.
Then nothing was settled. Every now and then she’d say seriously that we shouldn’t be carrying on in this way and we’d talk about breaking off, and honestly, there seemed to be no shape nor purpose to what we were doing, and I could nearly agree. But we hung on, at least getting more used to each other.
At the back of my mind all the time was the uneasy feeling that I wasn’t handling her the right way. I wasn’t doing it the manly way. If I was, she’d nearly ask me to go to bed with her. Like girls do with sleek commercial travelers with a car and a lot of smooth, soothing talk. Women think that’s a man.
But when I began to think about her as if she were that kind of woman I was ashamed of myself, and then I’d be contrite and get too soft.
WELL, it went on. She’d challenge me, and sometimes when I was tired or ill at ease she’d mock me. I knew what I should do with her — take her home and throw her into bed.
But I didn’t want that either. I wanted to make love with her one day when she wanted to, willingly and lovingly. But, of course, that never happens.
So I began to take the precaution of having a few drinks before I met her, and then I’d hint brutally at all kinds of things, and she’d cry and say I was self-indulgent and I shouldn’t be drinking like that, it made her ashamed of me, and so on and so on. Everything but what was really wrong.
One Sunday evening we had stopped the car, which I had hired out again to escape from icecream parlors and picture houses, and we got out and went for a walk along the canal. She started to be tricky and teasing again. Looking at her, I had a sudden terrible vision of how cheap she was with her tricks, and I got completely savage.
I told her things I shouldn’t have. I told her about her stupidity and silliness and how little it all meant to have to put up with her empty nonsense that had nothing to do with life and even less with death. I touched her in the corners of her shallow feminine soul and forgot for those few moments how much I liked her — or loved her, really.
She burst into tears and hurried on in front of me, completely desolate, her shoulders shaking with sobs.
I went after her, but she was blind to me and to everything. I couldn’t even put my hands out to comfort her, she was so shut away from me, and my own anger had hardened and emptied me so much that I didn’t know what to say.
Anyway, I was afraid of softening and making the whole thing meaningless, and she would never learn.
After a while I asked her if she would like to sit down on one of the benches, but she shook her head and hurried on. But there was nowhere to go along the long empty concrete way, running on beside the canal. She began to slow down, and stopped, looking at two swans drifting on the still, green water. She stood looking at them, blinking away her tears and sniffling a little. I stood beside her in silence for a minute, and then, tired out, she turned to me and put her cheek to my shoulder and slipped her hands around my waist.
I asked her if she would like to go for a drive. She nodded.
WE WENT out toward the south side along by the railway line and the sea wall. The tide was out; we could see its margin curving thinly far out over the sand, and Howth, blue in the distance. It was a lovely evening.
Then suddenly I got an idea. “Let’s go up and see Jim Tierney,” I said.
“If you want to,” she said unenthusiastically.
I cut in off the main road, and we bowled up the long, shaded avenue at Booterstown and then around again into the narrow road where he lived
When we turned into it I could hardly control my excitement. I knew he wouldn’t be in.
We got out, crossed the gravel path, and went down the few stone steps to the basement door, I banged on the knocker a few times. There wasn’t a sound.
“He’s not in,” she said.
“Oh, maybe he’s in the back,” I said casually, and with a feeling of exultation swung the old knocker again.
And, of course, there was no answer.
“We can see him some other time,” she said indifferently, and turned to go, but I said, “Wait a minute. Now, why don’t we —? Yes, he leaves the key inside the window here, so if I just lift it up like that and — there, there you are now. Funny-looking old key. I wonder why he never got a Yale lock put in. That would be better; mind yourself there, it’s very hard to turn in the lock.”
She was beginning to understand what I was up to. “Oh, don’t do that! He wouldn’t like it,” she protested nervously.
“Oh, many’s the time I’ve come in like this and waited for him,” I said, and at the same time shoved the door open and gave her a little push in front of me. I had a great feeling of strength and confidence. He had told me that he was going to a party on the north side that night, so we had at least a few hours.
She was a bit tense and sat down on the edge of an easy chair.
“We’ll put on the kettle and have some tea ready for him when he comes back,” I said. “He’s probably just gone over to Brophy’s for a drink.”
I went out into the kitchen to leave her alone for a minute, but didn’t put on the tea.
When I came back she was still sitting tensely on the edge of the easy chair, so I went over, sat on the arm, and gave her a light kiss on the cheek.
“No, Harry, don’t,” she said.
So I let her alone and walked around the room a bit, saying nothing. I went over and knelt on the bed to look at the books on the set of shelves above it.
“My God!” I exclaimed, genuinely surprised. “He’s got Ulysses.”
I sat down with it on my knees. “Did you ever read it?” I said.
She came over slowly and stood beside me, looking down at the book. I immediately put it into her hands and knelt up again on the bed. She had to sit down with the heavy volume.
“It’s very hard to get, you know,” I said, still kneeling up with my back turned to her. “It’s banned, I think.”
It was terrible to be using literature that way, but what could I do?
I looked down at the back of her neck, showing smooth and soft, and the white collar of her blouse. With her back to me that way and her neck half exposed she had such a trusting, young look that I was nearly going to sit down beside her and tell her frankly what was on my mind as is the right way between two honest people. But, then, I remembered some of her trickery and the smooth, soothing salesmen.
So I got down beside her, took Ulysses firmly out of her hands, and gripping her by the shoulders, pulled her down sideways on the bed.
“Oh, no, Harry,” she complained, coming down with me. “We shouldn’t always be fooling around like that. It’s not good.”
But there was no stopping me. I pulled her in tight and kissed her with all my strength, and I began to caress her and to open her coat, but she said “Stop,” so I kissed her cheek a little instead and went back immediately to opening her coat. I was going so firmly and so strongly that she became alarmed. Suddenly she began to struggle violently, so, unexpectedly, I let her sit up.
I stretched out on the bed, looking at the ceiling, and said nothing. She started to say something about going home, but I just slipped off my coat and went over and squatted down beside the radio by the fire grate and tried to find some music. I could see her watching me in my shirt sleeves, fiddling with the radio and not taking any notice of her.
She leaned back on the bed, her cheek propped in her hand, a sort of crumpled look on her face. I went and sat beside her and began to stroke her temples. She didn’t look at me or say anything.
“What are you going to do?” she said, still not looking at me.
“Nothing,” I said and laughed a little. “What did you think?”
I felt a great tenderness for her, in a firm manly way. I opened her coat and caressed her, and then, opening her blouse a little, I began to kiss her throat. She lay down with me. She became a little nervous and excited. She began to talk breathlessly about this fellow who had tried to make love with her once and only half succeeded. I told her not to worry about it, that it happens to a lot of girls the first time, and she asked me, did it really? And I said, yes, of course, and I kept on kissing and soothing her. She relaxed and responded a little, but then she started up wildly, like someone waking from a bad dream, but I got her to lie down again and began to undress her. She let me for a moment, but suddenly she started to struggle frantically.
I told her harshly to lie still.
She went wild. She said, so that was the kind of fellow I was, forcing a girl! She began to sob hysterically. I told her that I would never do anything in the world to harm or hurt her. I was terribly distressed to have alarmed her like that. I let her go.
I turned back on the bed a little apart from her. I was sick to the heart. All my manhood was gone again, worse than before, and I was frightened at the realization that I might be one of those hopeless creatures who never succeed in forcing their way through the terrible barriers set up between people; that I would always be useless and unneeded in the real moments of life. I was near tears; instinctively, in my despair, I moved toward her, and she, touched, stroked my forehead consolingly. We kissed and lay together for a long time, and then, as it seemed natural, I began to undress her again and she only protested gently.
Simultaneously we both became excited. We kissed wildly. I opened her blouse and at the same time fumbled clumsily with my belt.
We both sat up quickly and began to undress. I reached out to help her, but she said sharply, “Leave me alone, take care of yourself.”
She took off her clothes quickly, threw back the covers of the bed, and slipped in between the sheets, pressing her cheek hard into the pillow. I slid in beside her and pulled her against me. I was terribly excited and moved to be so intimate with her. And like that we made love.
Afterward she looked troubled and mock-tragic and clutched at me and said she wanted to cry. I was a little amused at her and said, “Well, cry, then.” But she said she couldn’t. Then she said, “Hit me. I don’t mind.” She had a very earnest, anxious look. I leaned over her and slapped her cheek, but not too hard. “Hit me again,” she said urgently, and before I knew what I was doing, I had walloped her across the face.
She began to blubber and cry. I was amazed at my own violence and the real desire I had to hit her. I felt stronger now, and well.
Later on we made love again, and it was much better.
We lay there for a long time, talking a little. She was very affectionate; every now and then she would rub her cheek against mine or suddenly put her arms around me and squeeze me hard, and then she would let me go and look at my eyes and nose and mouth and my black hair with great curiosity. Or she would just lie quietly close to me.
She had relaxed wonderfully; her face and shoulders and arms were radiant with softness. I suggested we should go in case Jim came back, but she only snuggled closer to me and began to bite my left shoulder with great interest. I said we really would have to go in case he came back with some friends. “I suppose so,” she said, but she made no move to go.
It was very curious. It had been so hard to get her to make love, and I was sure that I would have trouble with her after, especially since she was a Catholic. I thought she would be terribly disturbed and blame me, and that I would have trouble trying to console her. And I thought she would be ashamed at the thought that someone might find out. But she didn’t seem to care one way or the other.
She seemed to take it much more naturally and easily than I did myself.
We talked about it while we were dressing. I asked her if she was sorry she had done it; she told me not to be silly. “But aren’t you taught it’s bad in the Catholic Church?” I insisted. She had her back half turned to me, and was fixing her stockings. She just gave a sly little grin and said: “Sure, after all, it’s natural enough, and then it’s a great relief to get it over.”
But then she became thoughtful, and after a moment she asked me if I thought she was going to have a baby. I said I hoped to God she wasn’t. She wanted to know how the safe periods work, and I told her.
“Then we can make love during all those times and there’s no danger at all?” she said.
“More or less.”
“That’s great,” she said enthusiastically.
I couldn’t help laughing.
We left a note for Jim and put the key back in the window. Going out the gravel path, she wanted to kiss me half jokingly every second step. It annoyed me a little; I didn’t want all the people seeing us.
“So I’m your mistress now,” she said when she had settled herself comfortably beside me in the car.
“You’re nothing of the kind,” I protested, scandalized. “We’re lovers, that’s all.”
We backed out the short street and drove down the wide, shaded avenue toward the sea. Just as we were turning into the main road she exclaimed, “Oh, my God!”
“What’s wrong?” I slowed down. “Have you forgotten something?”
“No,” she said. “It’s just I’ll have to tell the priest.”
“Tell the priest what?” I asked.
“Tell him that we made love. You know.”
“What!” I shouted. “You’ll tell him no such thing.”
“I’ll have to go to confession sometime,” she said, reasonably. “Before Trinity Sunday anyway.”
“And what’ll you tell him?” I asked, confused.
“Everything, of course.”
I was wild at the thought of her telling a curious old priest what we had been doing; then I got a cold sweat when I thought maybe it’d be a young priest. I had a terrible feeling that she wouldn’t be too unhappy about telling a young priest. The thought made me sick. I told her furiously that she wasn’t going to tell anyone about us, especially a dirty old man skulking in a box. She told me not to be silly, he was a priest. She tried to explain the difference between a priest and a man, but I couldn’t see it any more than I could see the difference between a postman and a man.
Finally she said that there was no use arguing about it; she needn’t go for a while yet, and we could discuss it when the time came. But she said she hoped she wouldn’t die in the meantime, because then she’d go to hell. Already, I thought bitterly as we turned back toward Booterstown, we were having trouble, and only a few moments before I had been full of elation and excitement, bowling up this same shaded avenue. What kind of trouble now was she going to cause me? — probably for the rest of my life. I glanced furtively at her sitting placid and radiant beside me, and I was nearly as desperate again.