It was a soap smell, that’s what it was. He couldn’t pin it down. He was never good at that. People could tell the only soap ever touched his skin was the carbolic soap his mother scrubbed him with on a Friday night when he and his brothers got their weekly bath. Then he smelled like he’d been through a cattle dip.
She had the smell of soap, or, at least, what he thought was a soap smell. It was like soft, warm water and a gentle breeze in a field of blossoms, a spring meadow. He met her in Bertie’s Amusements, behind the fish’n’chip shop, just off Main St.
He didn’t really ‘meet’ her. They didn’t exchange numbers or names. They never even spoke. She was buying candy floss from the stall by the door. He was pushing pennies into a machine that promised to pay him twenty or more, if only he could manoeuvre his coins so they landed where the big metal sweeper would push the rest into the tray below.
She was wearing a yellow dress that matched her unruly shock of curly blonde hair, set off by the deep tan colour of her skin. Her two friends wore shorts and teeshirts. They were a cacophony of giggles and chatter.
He gave up on the machine and decided to walk up the town where he could stare at the gew gaws and gadgets in the shop windows and listen to the night sounds of the town before he went home. She stepped back from the candy floss counter just as he was leaving. They bumped. She got a faceful of fluffy, sticky, pink sugar. He got a smell of her and red hot ears.
She squealed. Her friends giggled more. He ran away.
Two days went by before he saw her again. He wasn’t avoiding her. It was a small town and there was only so many things you could do, places you could go. He didn’t have any friends there. His cousins were too old and worked in his uncle’s factory. Two weeks in a seaside town is every boy’s dream, isn’t it?
He did dream about it before he was packed off on the bus for the twenty mile trip from the city. His mother packed his bag and slipped an orange ten shilling note into his hand as she saw him on the bus. She kissed his head and told him to mind himself. Then she spoke to the driver and told him he’d be picked up by his uncle at the station on the other end. It was his first time away on his own. He waved at his Mammy and pushed back the tears, as the bus pulled away. He sat alone and stared at the bright orange ten shilling note.
She was playing golf on the putting green down by the shore. She wasn’t wearing the yellow dress but he recognised her hair. She was with the same two friends and he guessed they were sisters, maybe even twins. They dressed alike and both had lank manes of nut brown, shoulder length hair. All three of them wore shorts and flip flops. She wore a blue teeshirt.
He wanted to play, too, just to get near her, to find some excuse to speak to her. Then the terror of that struck him. His ears got hot again. No words would form in his head. Paying sixpence to go putting alone was out of the question; it was either an indulgent extravagance or pathetic. Either way, the local boys, who all knew him to see and never seemed to play on the putting green but were always there, because it was near the amusements and the beach, well, they’d jeer him for being a show off or a billy-no-mates.
Anyway, he told himself, he was carrying a sack of periwinkles he’d just picked and putting with them would be silly. So he walked on home past the putting green and its wire enclosure. He stared at his feet and felt his cheeks burn as he passed the ninth hole which her party was negotiating. Then her friends saw him and they began a chorus of jeers and giggles, as they teased and goaded her and he looked up, a swift, surreptitious glance and their eyes met. He stumbled, periwinkles spilled from his bag and ignoring them, he ran, feeling tears sting his eyes.
Later, he forgot the stumble and the periwinkles but he remembered her eyes. He remembered that moment when their eyes met. He ignored the amusement there, the mocking jeer at a gauche boy. There was only those eyes, the promise and pledge of unfathomed wonders, the mystery of all he didn’t know but always, unbeknown before, had longed for.
He spent the afternoon in the front room of his aunt’s house, stacking Beatles’ LPs on the family gramophone. He loved that machine, a modern marvel in a lush walnut and cherry cabinet and a radio spectrum with dials and magic names like Hilversum, Luxembourg and even Athlone. He loved it like it was a personal friend and confidant, it’s lacquered wood finish and scent of polish. But it was his cousins’ collection of Beatles’, Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins and Skeeter Davis albums that caught his interest. After lunch he feigned an upset tummy so his aunt let him stay at home while she went up the town to do her shopping. He knew this would take up half her day as she’d chat to her neighbours and catch up on gossip before she went to the chapel for afternoon prayers and confession on her way home.
So he swung back the arm and stacked With the Beatles, Please Please Me and Beatles for Sale on the stacking turntable, then set the arm to secure the stack, before clicking the lever and the first album dropped. These records were a treasure for him that glittered when he held them and gazed at their covers. Now they just mocked him. John Lennon goaded him, chanting ‘it won’t be long,’ and ‘all I’ve got to do,’ as if it were that easy. When Paul sang ‘till there was you’, he wanted to cry. He skipped to another LP and stared, wistfully, out the front room window until John sang, ‘I’m a loser’ and then he’d had enough. He turned off the gramophone, grabbed his jacket and ran out the door. He rushed from the house, ‘Words of Love’ ringing, tauntingly, in his ears.
On the street, he realised he had nowhere to go where he couldn’t see her face, her smile or hear her laugh. She haunted him through the town’s streets and lanes. He heard her order milk and a newspaper in the corner shop but when he turned around it was his aunt’s neighbour, Mrs McGavigan. He saw her reflection in the window of a passing bus but when he turned around she was nowhere to be seen. He cursed his lack of courage as he sat on the banks of the river, skimming flat stones across the surface of the calm water in the dark pool, where local fishermen cast enticing flies to catch brown trout. Then, sensing their displeasure, he gathered all his confusing sorrow and walked away, along the riverbank and towards the sea, to hide in the abandoned military fort that once filled his imagination with daring deeds. But now, its grim desolation and crumbling disorder made him shiver, not with cold, but an unfulfilled sense of loss.
The last time he saw her was on the last day of his holiday. His bus departed at six that evening so he got up early to pack his day with all the memories he could carry. Apart from two days in the first week when rain fell, the sun was always shining but that day was the hottest of them all. He rolled his swimming trunks in a towel and headed for the beach. He vowed to start his day with a dip, well, a paddle, really, then a walk in the dunes before he’d go to his favourite spot by the river. He’d have time to linger at the amusements, too, for a while.
The beach was packed. The local boys were diving noisily from the rocks beneath the high board. There was a natural, deep pool there when the tide was in and occasionally one of them would answer the jeers of his friends by climbing the ladder and taking the high plunge.
She was standing with her friends, the same two girls, Mary and Collette, the twins, by the ice cream stand. She was wearing a pink bikini; they wore matching turquoise blue swimsuits. She was holding a 99 in one hand. Her other hand was behind her back, half covering one cheek of her pink suited bottom.
Her name was Debbie. He learned that just the night before when he went to see the film in the local cinema, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. He was sitting alone, as usual, in the fourth row of the stalls, the thrupenny seats. She came in with her friends and he heard them giggling before he saw them. Then they were sitting in the row beside him and the twins, Mary and Collette, giggled as they pushed their friend, Debbie, into the seat beside him. There wasn’t much said while they watched the film but at the interval, when the girl came around with the ice lollies and the tubs of ice cream and they all got up to buy something, one of the twins, Collette he guessed, pulled his sleeve, giggling and asked his name. He was glad it was dark in the cinema and they couldn’t see him blushing but they’d all laughed together there and he didn’t feel so bad or tongue tied, so he told her and she introduced her sister, Mary and then, Debbie and their eyes met, again, before she looked down and away. They sat down again and watched the film and when it was all over, the girls went into the toilet and he waited around outside but left before they came out; afraid, suddenly, that had nothing to say or, if he had, was afraid to say it.
Down on the beach on that last day, being a non-swimmer and, embarrassed about that, he paddled and dipped in the shallows, far from the rocks and the diving board where the other boys dived and jeered each other. In the distance, he saw her step out of the water where she swam and for just a moment, a split second, she forgot the hand that protected her pink cheek and he could see why. There was a tiny hole, near the waistband and he caught a brief glimpse of white skin, untouched by the sun.