I was shocked when I learned girls grow up faster than boys. While I worried about how to buy the bone handled penknife in the souvenir shop on the Main St my sister and cousin linked hands and giggled. It was like they were sharing something to which I was excluded. It wasn’t as though I paid them much attention. They were girls, after all and I had more important things on my mind.

Our annual two week holiday in the seaside town on the northernmost tip of the country was two weeks of small town life, playing on the putting green or hanging out in Bertie’s Amusements with the one armed bandits.

There were long walks around to Father Hegarty’s Rock where the stone had split into the shape of a crucifix after the soldiers had slaughtered the poor priest. We loved to hear the story and in the evening twilight of a saffron sky, we’d squint and point at the rock in the distance and draw the line of the giant crooked cross on the shoreline rocks.

I loved to play in the old fort, a remnant of the British occupation and one of those handed back to the Free State before The Emergency. I was never sure what that meant but I loved the sound of the words so I never tired of hearing them. On those long walks when the grownups would pause for a flask of tea and a few scones, I’d stand on the crumbling ramparts and scan the horizon for enemy invaders.

Two rivers ran to the sea from either side of the town. One was at the bottom of the Main St hill, the residential end of which, my uncle never tired of saying, grew mainer the further you went up it. That river was behind a walled orchard and there were rocks, fish pools and a waterfall.

Every summer I scaled the walls of the orchard with my two friends, local lads, and dared each other to make the leap into the garden below to shin a tree and scobe some apples. We never did it because of a neurotic dog who barked at the rustle of leaves. We satisfied each other with tales of adventure and mishap, especially the one about the boy who made the leap, got savaged by the dog and beaten senseless by the owner, a bearded, friendless ogre who lived a solitary, bitter life tending his apples and chasing children.

The other river ran through a park and was packed with nooks and copse. The water flowed fast through the shallows and there were stepping stones for rushed crossings. There was an old stone keep on one bank, rank with rotting seaweed and human excrement. We fought battles there, held the banks, chased raiders, rescued helpless villagers and stalked monsters from the deep.

As the evening drew close to teatime and we had our dip and a go on the swing boats, we wound our way home with a stroll on the upper end of Main St ogling the huckster shops and the souvenir treasures like that bone handled penknife that became my holy grail that summer holiday by the beach.

When it rained I liked to stay indoors in the front room of my aunt’s house, playing the gramophone, the lacquered oak case with the turntable and the bakelite knobs and the lit up coloured display of radio broadcast stations like Hilversum and Athlone. I played my cousins’ record collection until I knew all the songs of the first four Beatles’ albums off by heart and Elvis Presley and Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Skeeter Davis singing about silver threads and golden needles and how they couldn’t mend that heart of hers. I wasn’t entirely sure what they were singing about but I could feel their pain and  shared their hurt and confusion.

Friday night was cinema night. I sat with my little cousin and bought him drinks and popcorn and bags of sweets while my sister sat with our other cousin, whispering and giggling through the show, watching everything going on except the film. We never sat in the back row because that was where the older boys sat with their girls and they didn’t watch the film either.

When the girl with the tray around her neck came out at the intermission the boys got up and bought their girls an ice cream, usually a tub with a wooden paddle spoon. You had to be quick and get to the girl before the boys because they spent all their time giggling and whispering in the queue and bought all the ice cream. So every night it was a race to anticipate when the girl would come out and when to make our run for the ice cream line.

One day my cousin and I took a stroll  to the beach where we weren’t allowed to swim, the beach where, every summer, people drowned. The tides are treacherous , my uncle warned. But the older boys and girls went there and spent their sunny days in the sand dunes. They looked like fun to play in so we went there because there was nothing else to do we hadn’t done and we didn’t bring our towels or our swimming trunks because that way we weren’t breaking the rules. And no-one would know where we’d gone.

We played ‘commandos’ and hid in the dunes and tossed grenades at the enemy we imagined were lurking over the next hill. And so it went on until the enemy really did appear from over the sand dune and it was the dune we were attacking. And he was angry and waved his fist about while he held his towel with his other hand. So we ran and ran and laughed and ran some more until we collapsed, exhausted and scared and then we laughed and laughed, again.

We went back. Not that day because the chase scared us enough to hide for the rest of the day. We went to the other beach and when it was close to teatime we played on the putting green and before we went home to our uncle’s house I went to the toilet beside the fairground.

It smelled of sour pee and the wooden door, painted white and green, was cracked and rotting. There were poems on the walls and dirty words. There was a drawing of a girl with no clothes and a boy who was bare too and his willy was pointing where she didn’t have a willy. So I finished my business fast and walked home, quiet and didn’t tell my cousin what I saw because I didn’t understand it. But I couldn’t get the image of the girl on the wall of the toilet out of my mind because she was all spiky there, between her legs, like she had hair or something.

So the next day we went back down to the beach with the sand dunes only this time we played a different kind of commandos. We were on a secret mission and sneaked to the top of the dunes instead of storming them with a frontal assault and all guns blazing.
We peeked over the top into their sheltered golden valleys rimmed with spiky sea grass and we watched the couples grappling together on their towels and  wondered why the boys lay on top of their girlfriends.

We soon got bored with watching them and went back to playing real commandos only we sneaked to the rim of the dune before we attacked so we could be sure there was no-one on the other side who might chase us away.

Our summer holidays were split in three. For the first few days we’d do everything — the amusements, the shops, the parks, the rivers, the beaches, the fort, the walks. When we exhausted those possibilities our aunt put us on the Lough Swilly bus for Derry and we bought a return ticket and travelled in to the city. We went to the pictures in the Strand cinema and visited all the shops we didn’t have at home like Littlewoods and Wellworths and Woolworths. We walked up Shipquay street and though the big arch at the Diamond to Bishop street and our uncle’s shop and he gave us a bag of sweets and a ten shilling note. Then we walked down the hill and along the Strand again, stopping at the fish and chip shop with the black and white tiles and the wooden booths to get a fish supper on a milky white plate before we caught the bus home.

A sort of ennui set in during the last few days of the holiday as we felt by turns homesick and regret for going home. Our cousin put us to work in the bakery because twice a week their vans delivered the bread to the shops in other towns and the night before they worked late in the bakery, baking the pan bread.  Before they could do that the loaves were laid out on giant bread trays in the yard to cool. We were given pennies and when the bread cooled enough we scraped the tiny black crusts off the bread before it was sliced and packed.

On our last day that summer it rained. And as we waited for our parents to collect us, my sister and my cousin, took off up the town, their arms linked giggling and whispering together again as they had for the entire holiday. I guessed it had something to with the loose elastic in my cousin’s knickers they joked about before they went out. They asked me to go with them but I wanted to stay to listen to the music for the last time that summer. And as they walked out the door I saw my cousin’s knickers slip to her knees and the pair of them, my sister and my cousin, creasing up with laughter as though there was nothing funnier in the whole world.

And later when they came home and Skeeter Davis was singing ‘Your Cheating Game’ they sat in the front room where I was listening to the music and chattered so loudly they annoyed me. They chattered and they giggled and they chattered and giggled even more when I told them to stop. And they giggled so much my cousin said she was likely to wet herself and I didn’t know where to look except as she splayed herself on the settee my sister hiked her skirt up and pulled my cousin’s loose knickers aside and I was transfixed because she was all hairy there and there was nothing else I could do but look and stare.

That was the last holiday I had there. The next summer I was too grown up to play commandos in the dunes anymore.

3 thoughts on “Commandoes in the Dunes, a parable of puberty

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