First Love

Published in the Sunday Tribune, 9.2.1997

I joined the Otter Club, a nine-year-old, and to impress Marie jumped off the diving board into the deep end. I smiled wanly and attempted a limp wave as the lifeguards carted my consumptive body away on a stretcher and out of her life forever.

At five-hairs-on-my-chin I arranged to meet Theresa at a quiet spot, outside a funeral parlour, but she failed to show.

After school hours I worked in McGivern’s butcher’s. One Saturday I embezzled my employer. For doe-eyed Marian, the sixth of fourteen planned children, I made up a huge meat parcel of beef sausages, vegetable roll, fillet steak, loin chops and pork roast. Her brothers and sisters were entitled to legs without rickets.

“Hey, Clean-the-Chickens!” she shrieked, all over the shop. “You’ve given me the wrong parcel! Where’s my mince!”

Still looking for love, I dated one of the enigmatic Crawfords, Kate, the identical twin of Kay. I took Kate to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The following night she says, “Know what I wouldn’t mind seeing?” What’s that, I ask. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Mental problems affect one in ten of the population, but in my case both of me.

My grandmother moved to England and I had a spare key to her empty house – the key, fingers crossed, agreed Jimmy and I, to some serious fornicating at last. We persuaded Brenda and Pauline to come and stay. “Of course, there are beds in every room,” I lied. They each told their parents they were staying in the other’s house. They arrived with two teabags and no nightdresses. It was late November, minus six degrees, and we had no coal nor electric fire. When they discovered there was only one double bed they accused me of being a dirty bastard, took Jimmy under the sheets between them whilst I lay covered in  a coat, shivering on the living room floor.

“If only he had told the truth,” said Jimmy to the girls with no nightdresses. The next day I discovered that on her way out Pauline had stolen my granny’s Sacred Heart picture for her bedroom wall. She repeatedly denied it but her brother touted on her and she only handed it over after an investigation, with the local Eye Our Ay threatening to go in and return it to its rightful, virgin curator.

And then it happened. After all the false starts.

She was standing under a tree at a Falls Road bus stop, before the trees were felled for barricades. Fifteen-years-of-age, long fair hair, the reward of the loveliest smile on the assumption that the tangle of your eyes with hers was innocent. The magic of innocently beholding her.

Even now I can still force my finger deep into my sclerotic heart to that soft spot where the pleasure and pain flared and flamed. Though it defies elaboration, that memory of love at first sight vaults the universe and in its stature encapsulates how the earth was poised, where all lives stood, where every atom was frozen, at that very second.

She was a friend of Rosemary who went with my friend Tony. One day, to my delight, he asked me to make up a foursome. That night we went into his parlour, paired off, played records – the Stones and The Beatles – and put out the lights. Kissing her was like floating in the sweetest dream.

And then I blew it.

Lying on the sofa, her shirt had become partially undone. Suddenly, my fingers were running over her stomach and the sensation for me was electric. Full of passion I decided to explore North’s East and West and as soon as I did I was rebuffed in no uncertain terms by her elbow. I just died with shame at my foolhardiness, and like Adam banished, but without Eve, I woke up desolate. We still kissed but her feeling for me had withered. Later, I walked her home through that summer night’s light drizzle, and I draped her shoulders with my jacket gentlemanly, but was speechless.

The following day I told Rosemary to tell her I was sorry. For months afterwards I dreamed about her, though there were nights when I couldn’t sleep and days when I couldn’t eat or think straight. I would go out of my way to cross her path coming out of Mass or going to school. During this period I was supposed to be studying Maths and Physics but instead would seek succour in Anna Karenin or Wuthering Heights.

“… for what is not connected with her to me? And what does not recall her? I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object, by day I am surrounded with her image!… The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!”

My obsession lasted for about three years and though we eventually became good friends, and I loved being in her company, we never once spoke about what happened on 13 August 1969 in Number 4 Iveagh Parade. I even dated her younger sister once, perversely trying but failing to reconstitute the alchemy, as if such magic could run in a family. Around 1972 we disappeared from each other’s lives, she happily marrying a mutual friend, going on to have three children, and moving to the countryside.

For a score of reasons it is obvious that we could never have made a lasting, happy couple – it was a sliver of life we shared: and, besides, I am restlessness incarnate, impossible. But once, last summer, when she was shopping in the city, serendipity introduced us.

Having once jumped in with both feet to six feet; taken, I suspect, both Gemini to see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; had Our Lord’s frame taken in vain; being now self-assured and forthright, but probably less likeable, I broached the subject of that August night and how stupid I had been to spoil it.

“At least I apologised,” I said.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I told Rosemary to tell you I was sorry. For trying to grope you.”

Her old radiant smile lit up the world and she burst out laughing. “Are you serious? I thought you meant you were sorry because you didn’t want to see me again!”

And I looked at her for a second, or for eternity, and I too laughed at that old Devil called Love.