Ron McConnell was the only boy I liked in school. As usual, though, I had picked the wrong person to drool over secretly, or so Stevie told me. He was 17 to my 15 and was the official bearer of news, whether good or bad, in my life. At that time it was generally bad.
“He’s cute, isn’t he?” Stevie said immediately when I mentioned that I thought Ron was cool. (It had taken such courage to do that.)
That word. That bloody word, I thought. It meant my brother was interested, had established his rights in some way. Well, that was it for me and Ron McConnell.
“Is he gay?” I asked. We were in Stevie’s room, the only place we could talk about such things.
“Well… ” Stevie sighed and looked away from me. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he is.”
“But not dead sure.”
“He has to be.”
“How do you know?”
I really was curious. Had they talked? We both went to St. Fintan’s, a gloomy concrete block on the South side of Dublin. Ron had been in my class for a year and for some reason I could not imagine him knowing Stevie. The swots and misfits (we discussed them often, affectionately) whom my brother hung around with were not in the same league as this dark-haired attractive boy. He was articulate. Shy, but he could talk. In English class, that is. He always seemed interested, and he raised the level of class discussion to something approaching sense. I loved that, because then I could chip in, add my comments, and Ron and me and Mr. Casey, the English teacher, would share something, would seem to be really learning from each other. It was a unique experience in my otherwise dreary and perfunctory round of classes.
“How do you know?” I repeated impatiently.
He blushed. “Er—the way he looked at me the other day.”
He lit a cigarette.
It meant a lot to him, I could tell. So I shut up. Stevie was the only person who would actually talk to me about sex. I often felt, even with him, that I was treading on shaky ground, that I was somehow annoying and embarrassing him with my questions. But I had to ask. Books were my other resource. Novels, I mean. They were helpful in a way, but what I really enjoyed doing was comparing the two. It seemed to me that a look between two people was usually the start of something. How would they have looked at each other? I tried to imagine. It was fascinating. Especially in that dark narrow corridor with everyone chattering and milling around…
“God,” I said, shaking my head. “I would never have guessed.”
Stevie was in a typical pose, lying on the bed with a cigarette between his lips. He was good-looking, my brother; he had my mother’s light thin hair and gray eyes. (I, unfortunately, had my dad’s tangled dark hair and big frame. At fifteen, I was bursting out of my school uniform. To me, this was no joke.)
Between drags he said, looking up at the ceiling, “Yep … there you have it. What happens now remains to be seen.”
“Well, keep me informed,” I said, getting up clumsily from my position on the floor. With forced cheerfulness I added:
“I want all the details.”
“There may not be any,” he said quietly. He reached an arm over and stubbed his cigarette out.
* * *
The days passed. I watched Ron in English; he usually sat across from me. There was something secretive about the way he kept his eyes fixed on his desk. When people spoke he listened and did not talk. Only when Mr. Casey asked a question that it seemed no one else could answer, only when the silence became painful, would Ron volunteer a reply. As I talked I often caught him gazing at me, but he would never meet my eyes, nor would he talk directly to me. If we carried on any sort of dialogue, it was through Mr. Casey, who, fresh from teacher training college, still listened to his students with interest.
Today Mr. Casey was trying to get the class excited over Othello. Running his hand through his thick red hair he began to speak about the mysterious nature of the character Iago.
“The character can be read as an allegory,” he said earnestly. “Does everyone know that word?”
An awful silence fell upon the class, the usual reaction of apathy and non-comprehension. It looked like nobody knew that word. I did not know it.
“That is, Iago is an allegorical character,” continued Mr. Casey, rubbing his freckled face, which, I noticed, was sweating slightly. “I’ll write it on the board.”
He did so. Meanwhile, Ron had raised his hand.
Turning, Mr. Casey smiled at him. Ron rather hesitantly said that he thought that allegory meant someone—a character in a play or poem—standing for someone else. A virtue or vice. Like Falstaff in Henry IV. Or the character of Despair in The Faerie Queene.… He trailed off.
Someone giggled. Jeff Blake, slumped by the window, his chair tilted back, muttered scornfully: “Fairy queen.”
More giggles. Mr. Casey frowned and sat down. Ron’s eyes were fixed on his desk. He asked for it, I thought, but I felt a little anger spark inside me.
“Very good,” said Mr. Casey crisply. “The one alternative is to see Iago’s treachery as a purely allegorical act. Evil for the sake of evil. The other is to see him as psychologically compelled to betray Othello, by jealousy perhaps. It could be sexual jealousy of some sort. Or racially motivated. There have been some fine modern interpretations. Olivier, for example, portrayed Iago as Othello’s spurned lover, determined to destroy his friend’s happiness with a woman.
More giggles, more blank faces. Uneasy silence.
“Think about it,” said Mr. Casey as the bell rang.
They all crowded out, more hurriedly than usual. I hadn’t spoken a word in the entire class. Noticing how tense I felt, I looked over at Ron. He was putting his books away with a similarly grim expression. Mr. Casey was still in the room, wiping the board with harsh strokes. Now was my chance to speak.
“Have you read it, then?” I asked.
Ron looked up. “What?”
“The Faerie Queene. It’s so long. We have it at home.”
“Have you read it?” he asked coolly.
“No. Only bits, when I was a kid. I thought it looked interesting, but it was way over my head.”
“Religious allegory,” said Mr. Casey with a grin. He looked from me to Ron, with some fondness, I thought. “Wait until first year at college. You’ll be ready for it then.”
That was easy for him to say. College was years away. Both Ron and I watched as our teacher left the room, cheerful again. I sensed we both envied him.
* * *
Walking home alone, swinging my heavy leather schoolbag, I shuffled through the brown leaves on the ground. It was a cool autumn evening, darkening rapidly. Stevie was at soccer practice. Usually we walked home together. I knew it caused comment, but it was the best part of the day for me. We would mull over the events of the past few hours, softening the impact of the day’s minor crises and failures. Stevie coped with St. Fintan’s better than I did, but he could understand my hatred of it.
We sometimes talked about schoolwork.
“You’re more intelligent than I am,” he had said a few months back. “D’you know that, Cathy?”
It had never occurred to me. “Oh, come on,” I said indignantly. “At Maths and Science you’re far better. And Irish.”
He had shrugged. “Yeah, but you read a lot more. And you write better. You’re creative.”
We passed on quickly to something else. I was not used to praise and I did not know how to deal with it. My first impulse was always to deny it. Yet I treasured the words.
Stevie was saying I thought more than he did. That was true. I did think about things, and as a result I was continually depressed. I was a confirmed pessimist, and rather proud of it.
* * *
“Any more luck with Ron?” I asked. We were sitting in his bedroom watching the news. Downstairs in the living room our parents sat viewing it on their big color TV. Stevie had been given the old black and white.
He sat on the edge of the bed, his legs dangling. He smiled but said nothing.
“Jeff Blake gave him a hard time in class today,” I said, looking at the ruins of the Grand Hotel in Brighton. The IRA had blown it up; Mrs. Thatcher had escaped unscathed, but furious.
“I tackled that fella Blake this afternoon. You should have seen how hard he hit the ground. Should have heard what he said.”
“He’ll never forgive you.”
“Yeah. I know.”
He didn’t seem too worried. Wondering if I should go this far, I asked:
“So, did Ron tell you what Jeff called him? Was that why you did it?”
I looked at him resentfully. “What’s the point in saying “Maybe”? Either he did or he didn’t.”
Silence. Then Stevie said: “He told me that you talked a bit after class.”
“Yeah. Just a bit.”
He nodded. “Ron says you’re bright.”
“He’s the know-it-all. He must do loads of extra work.”
Stevie shrugged. “He says he has to, to keep up with you.”
I burst out laughing. Stevie did not smile.
“That’s a good one! I’m flattered.”
“No. It’s not flattery. He wouldn’t flatter you.”
“He doesn’t talk to me. He doesn’t know what I’m like.”
It was impossible to keep some sadness out of my voice.
Stevie, looking awkward, said: “He told me today that if he didn’t know me, he’d like to be friends with you. But as it is, it makes him feel really strange, that you’re my sister and you know things about him, things I’ve told you. He says … he doesn’t feel good about coming over here if you’re around.
“And I always am,” I said.
“And you always are.”
I got up rapidly. Thatcher’s imperious tones were filling the room as she described her escape from the terrorist threat.
“Goodnight,” I said.
* * *
So Ron was jealous of me. Not just of me and Mr. Casey (which was nothing), but of me and Stevie. Why? It was so stupid. I sat in my cold little room, thinking. What did he expect? Why feel so guilty about Stevie and himself that he couldn’t bear to face the fact that I knew. Was he afraid that I would spread it around? That was the last thing I would do. It would cost me my brother’s friendship. He would never trust me again.
I had noticed the way we competed in class. I had thought we complemented each other, but perhaps we didn’t. Perhaps he hated it when I gave a good answer. Maybe he loathed sensing that I knew he was gay. But everyone suspected. It wasn’t fair. Now Stevie had stopped telling me things, because Ron had become more important.
I closed the shutters and drew the curtains. Our house had no central heating. Shivering, I climbed into bed and switched off the light. Muffled sounds reached me from downstairs: my father shouting something in his hoarse voice, my mother’s shrill tones. What were they on about?
It was of Mr. Casey that I thought as I fell asleep. He would not change. He was kind to me, and he liked me. He would always like me. I just said what I thought in his classes, and that was all he asked of me.
* * *
The next day after school I went to Susie O’Sullivan’s house. She was my best friend. We did not really understand each other, but on occasion she would say something that showed she had been thinking about me a little bit. That was all I asked in a friend; I wanted more, but I had never had more.
We were listening to records, chatting. Susie fancied my brother; she always asked about him. I enjoyed going to long lengths to explain away his disinterest in girls. We discussed Jeff Blake in venomous detail. Bryan Ferry’s solo album These Foolish Things was playing on her turntable. His smooth, lascivious voice was soothing. We talked about Susie’s mother and her fits of temper. “Nag, nag, nag, that’s all she does now,” Susie said.
“Mine’s the same,” I said.
“Ah, your mum’s OK. She lets you stay out as late as you want, Cathy. She trusts you.”
“She’s given up. On both of us.”
Because Stevie and I would never do anything really bad, and both my parents knew this, they seemed to consider adolescence as a time when we should be left completely alone. Left to our own devices, we fumed in resentment at their lack of interest in our lives. They knew nothing about who we were becoming. And that, unfortunately, led us to despise them.
“D’you know what mum said yesterday? ‘Susie, I know it’s going to be hard for you, but I want you to keep the pledge you took when you were confirmed.’ She means no drinking. I said, ‘Ma, when I took it I really thought I wouldn’t want to drink.’ And she went mad. She said: ‘You’re the most thoughtless, ignorant little girl. That vow means something. I know what you and your friends are up to, buying cider from the supermarket, sitting around down by the canal on Friday and Saturday nights, getting smashed and smoking and doing God knows what!’ I told her, ‘I’ve got drunk a few times, like everyone else has.’ She seemed furious that I wasn’t lying to her.”
I smiled. “They always are. You have to lie to them. They feel hypocritical when they give us lectures, ’cos they know how much worse they were at our age.”
“Mum wasn’t worse than me,” said Susie thoughtfully. “She was, what’s the phrase she used, ‘a paragon of virtue.’ She’s always saying, ‘Now, I don’t expect you to be a paragon of virtue.’ But she does. At my age she went to confession regularly, ate fish on Fridays, never swore, drank or went out with guys. You know, all the usual Catholic shit.”
“Yeah,” I said gloomily. “Mum and Dad are still stuck in that mindset. They have a ‘Catholic’ marriage. They basically hate each other and spend the whole time grousing to their friends. They don’t even want us to get married. I don’t think we will, either.”
“How do you know they don’t want you to get married?”
Susie got up and turned the record over.
“Well… ” I cleared my throat. “Just because … I suppose I’m not going out with anybody, and Stevie isn’t, and they seem glad of that. You think they’d be a bit worried, in Stevie’s case….”
“Yeah, he’s so good-looking,” murmured Susie. “The only other guy who’s as gorgeous as him is Ron McConnell.”
The thought of Ron McConnell and my brother sharing this link silenced me. I wondered how long it would be before they managed to have sex. Precious little I would hear about it. It would be the start of one of many relationships for my brother. When would it start for me?
Already my friends were getting serious about people; as they did I found them becoming less interesting. They were putting all their energy into that side of their lives. Perhaps I just couldn’t muster the energy. You had to begin somewhere. But I didn’t want to begin. Soon, though, my peers would despise me for not playing the game. Even Stevie would be critical.
I became aware of the melody that was playing. In a dreamy, nostalgic tone Ferry was singing:
Oh will you ever set me free?
The ties that bound us
Are still around us
There’s no escape that I can see.
And still those little things remain
That bring me happiness or pain
A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces
An airline ticket to romantic places
And still my heart has wings
These foolish things
Remind me of you…
“Ah well,” said Susie with a sigh.
“That’s a brilliant song,” I commented.
Susie, ever the musical expert, grimaced at me. I had said the wrong thing. “That’s a cover of a ’30s tune. You have such bizarre taste!”
* * *
As I walked home, kicking the leaves in my path, I thought about the phrase “bizarre taste.” Bizarre tastes … did I have bizarre tastes? Certainly I wanted to know about things that Susie or Jeff would dismiss with a scornful “Jesus!” Because they were disgusting, not normal, not part of everyday life. Everyday life was so damned unappealing, that was all.
The song had brought up memories, why I did not know, of Stevie and me. Two years ago we had been so happy. I’d been 13, and proud that he listened to me, confided in me, treated me like one of his friends. I’d felt I was his best friend and he was definitely mine. We’d sit together in his room listening to Roxy Music and current chart-topping groups like Culture Club and Softcell. “Tainted Love” was one of his favorites. We’d play it again and again and I would watch him smoking. He wouldn’t let me, though I made it clear I wanted to. One day he came into his room to find me posing in front of the mirror with an unlit cigarette in my lips. I’d opened my mouth, blushed; the cigarette had fallen into my lap. He’d shaken his head in mock despair and put a record on his turntable. Then, sitting down beside me, he’d lit a cigarette and put it into my mouth. I was still blushing. As I puffed away timidly he’d moved to sit against the wall. I moved too, so that my head was resting on the back of his knees. We sat like that for a long time. I remember thinking, with surprise, “This is peace.”
* * *
Stevie was at his desk, scribbling away. “What’s up?” I said brightly.
At dinner he had arrived in late, curiously flushed. He had said little, but laughed when my Dad made a stupid joke. When he moved his arm to pour some milk into his tea a leaf fell onto the table from his sleeve.
“You again.” He didn’t look up.
“Yeah, me. Listen, where were you this afternoon?”
“Nowhere special,” he said with a grin.
“Liar. Come on. What happened?”
He swung around to face me. “Look, give me a break. OK?”
“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” I said bitterly. “You’re not going to give me that satisfaction.”
I did not understand the way he jealously hugged to himself what he was up to. I knew he wasn’t doing it to spite me on one level; on another, I was almost certain that he was. To spite me and make me feel excluded.
“Don’t make a big deal out of it,” he said sharply.
“But it is a big deal.”
That seemed to touch him. He said, more gently: “All right, if you want to know, we finally …” he paused, “got together.”
“Where?” I asked. It seemed important.
“If you must know,” he said shortly, turning back to his work, “down by the canal. Now piss off, will you. I’ve got lots to do here.”
I stood, staring at his shoulders and his bent head. Glancing around his room in an effort to bring myself back to reality, I noticed his gray diary lying beside his bed.
* * *
Next day I stood by his bed.
I had attempted to read it once before, but had been repelled by his terrible scrawl. Also, I had felt too guilty to persevere. It was when he’d told me he was gay and I wanted to know what he’d written about it. I’d decided that it didn’t matter.
It mattered now. I picked up the book, turned it to the last page. Yesterday he had written just one word.
I turned the page back, caught my name, read. The words were frighteningly easy to decipher.
R. asked me was I worried about Cathy. Yeah, I am. Nothing I can do, though, and it’s best if I just stay out of it. I’m worried already that I’ve changed her somehow. She said she liked R., but it wouldn’t have worked. I don’t feel guilty about that. She’s like Dad. Clumsy with people. Anti-social. The way she talks is so inappropriate. She’s heading for some kind of disastrous relationship, with God knows who.
I don’t think she knows what it’s all about. So much for her great mind. Maybe she’ll never feel anything for anyone. I can see her in ten years — a lonely drunk, maybe. Like Dad again. It’s not my responsibility and I want her out of my hair. R. agrees.
I read it a few times. “R. agrees” was the worst. Fuck him. Fuck them both. The paragraph dared me to destroy it. Grabbing a pen, I began methodically to black out each word. Vivid epithets raced through my mind. At the same time I began to cry. I wouldn’t put any of them down. I couldn’t. He would hate me forever if I wrote anything like that. I stood holding the book for a long time. Then I turned the page. Faced with the last entry I simply tore it out, crumpled it into a ball and put it on top of the diary. I put the diary back on his bedside table. Somehow I felt I would never be able to walk into his room again.
At the door I was faced with a feeling of terror. What had I done?
Why? He would have to rewrite now, both his judgment of me and his triumph. Would his judgment of me be even harsher, his triumph more lovingly detailed?
A bang. Front door. My father back from work. He clomped down the hall to the kitchen. My mother’s voice. Then my father’s loud summons:
“Cathy! Your ma wants you to peel the spuds.”
I went downstairs.
* * *
The water ran cold over my numbed hands as I scraped away at the dirty potatoes. It was dark outside. I could hear my parents’ voices from the back garden; they had gone out to have a quiet row. The walls were so thin in our house that it had become a habit for them to use the garden as their arguing ground.
Stevie would be in any minute. I felt sick. My anger had all gone. I could never stay angry for very long. The only thing I felt now was guilt.
In he came; the front door shut. I stared at my hands, trying to fight the sinking feeling. I kept on working mechanically. He would go upstairs first, no doubt. He always did.
But this time he didn’t. I did not look up as he came into the kitchen, whistling.
“Where’s Mum and Dad?”
“Out there,” I mumbled.
He came and stood beside me. He put his hand lightly on my shoulder, and gave me a squeeze.
“What’s up, Cath? Anything new?”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I shook my head; he took his hand away.
“Something is,” he said gently.
The words “I read your diary” ran over and over in my brain. I knew I would not say them. Better to deny that anything had happened. We would both do that quite well.
Clearing my throat, I said shakily: “Would you give me a hand?” Anything to keep him there a few minutes longer.
“Of course,” he said. He rolled up his shirtsleeves and joined me at the sink.
I looked up at him briefly, at his puzzled eyes, and looked away.
We stood at the sink in silence as the dirty water drained down the plughole.