This is actually about 6,000 words, hence the caveat “short(ish)”. Part of a novel called There is a light and it never goes out (see Books section), it’s set in 2002, and tells the story of two best friends, a tiny girl and tall boy, who dress like Goths, are sweet-natured and studious, withdrawn though not troublesome, and spend all their time together. This naturally draws the malicious attention of other students. For three years they’re maligned and harassed; for three years they basically ignore it. Then one day, for no conscious reason, they begin to respond by throwing out random song lyrics, plucked from the ether. And the bullies don’t know how to react…
I’m quite fond of this story. I have real affection for the main characters – if my kids turned out like that, I’d be fairly happy – not to mention the songs they reference. I’m also (he said humbly) rather smug about the unusual structure: the story is told by two narrators simultaneously, in a sort of “address” to the world, at some unspecified later date. I’m not sure what you’d call that style of narration: first-person plural?
The honest testament of Weird and Weirder – freaks, social outcasts and notorious gruesome twosome
THIS is our experience; this is our small testament to whoever cares to read it.
We were known by various names: The Freaks, Weird and Weirder, Dracula and Vampirella, The Cureheads (though neither of us ever wore their hair in a Curehead style), Fag and Fag-hag, The Gruesome Twosome. Childish or spiteful or amusing or just plain inaccurate. Our real names were Caimin (his) and Robin (hers), if anyone had bothered asking. Of course our classmates knew them – they heard teachers address us by our given names, they saw them in lists on the notice-board – but nobody, excepting teachers and our parents, ever used them. Little first years, on asking someone older who were the couple who wore black eyeliner and always hung around together, would be told to run over to where we sat on the grass and yell, ‘Hey, Freaks!’ at us. We never made any effort to react; we never even looked their way. We stayed within ourselves.
Ah, yes – we always hung around together and stayed within ourselves, and there lay part of the problem. The great thoughtcrime of those happily mindless years. The desire which must not be countenanced, never mind acted upon. The love for solitude that dare not speak its name within the scrubbed corridors and musty cloakrooms of conformity. To ignore the fatuous rituals of adolescence and eschew acquiescence to an accepted, but never examined, norm. To ‘just say no’ to discussions about TV shows and make-up, about sports and applying for a provisional driving licence. To refuse to engage in hypocritical debates about which girl was ‘easy’ and which was ‘frigid’ (the laughable use of a term barely comprehended), in round-table bragging about conquests and the nature of conquests and the sordid details of indiscriminate conquests. To want something grander, something otherworldly, something opposed to the sapping mundanity of the mainstream.
Because we chose, sometime in our early teens, each other’s company over the conversational static of our peers, we were marked down as difficult, different, someone to be watched.
It should be stressed that the school’s figures of authority never had any problems with either of us. We were courteous to teachers, we always presented homework on time, we smiled respectfully at the principal when passing and were friendly to the janitor. Our parents, sporadically worried about our contentment and social development, would be reassured by school staff that we seemed like nice young people, really, reasonably level-headed underneath the kooky dress sense and idiosyncrasy and exclusivity from our peers. They could understand those concerns, naturally, but really there wasn’t that much to be concerned about. They grow out of these affectations, and we’ve seen nothing to suggest that they won’t turn out to be fine adults.
That was a semi-deliberate decision, to be mature, deferential to an extent, with adults. We wanted everyone to know that a teenager could be wilfully distinctive, eccentric even, without buying into all the clichés of the Troubled Youth: drug abuse, licentiousness, facial piercing and body art, a surly manner, half-assed rebellion against ‘authority’ through vandalism, any of that infantile bullshit. We didn’t especially want to ‘rebel’, anyway, or at least not until older and wiser, when it might have had some concrete results; we had no interest in illicit drugs (although both smoked cigarettes from time to time), and felt too young and emotionally unfinished for sexual encounters of any seriousness. We were enthusiastic, in a distracted way, about our futures, and did not feel like jeopardising that just to pay self-injurious lip service to someone else’s jaded iconography of individualism and revolt.
Ultimately, we had no desire to make a statement of any sort to parents and teachers and other adults. They had always been fair and obliging; they had indulged our little quirks and opaque, internalised relationship with each other, as long as we stayed within the limits of acceptable behaviour and didn’t neglect our studies and music lessons and familial obligations and such things. The grown-ups were alright; it was the kids who needed to be taught a few lessons.
We initially met on the first day of secondary school, corralled into the assembly hall with 150 equally nervous, skinny brats, cut adrift from the pacific moorings of primary school and floating unaccompanied over the alien topography of a less predictable place. The principal spoke with a sort of stuffy gentleness, assuring us that, while adjusting to such a different environment would not be easy, he felt confident that each and every one of us would settle into five enjoyable and profitable years of study and friendship and extracurricular advancement. It was the usual vaguely meaningless waffle, but we both appreciated his obvious sincerity.
The assembly wore the school uniform – navy sweater, blue shirt, navy tie and black shoes, with grey slacks for boys and a grey, calf-length skirt for girls – but Caimin bore a string of reddish-brown love-beads tight around his neck, a gift from an aunt recently returned from a foreign holiday. With his shirt buttoned up, they were barely perceivable, peeking through against the white of his neck. Robin stood five or six places away, and glanced over from time to time, grinning and looking down at her feet. Caimin eventually noticed that she wore boots, not shoes, with metal toecaps and gold-tipped laces, and smiled back. She slyly pointed to her left eye, its bottom lash inked in black mascara. He loosened his tie and began flicking at his necklace, a delicate movement which could be mistaken for light scratching. We both continued smiling.
Later we discovered that we had been streamed in many of the same classes: English, French, Religion, Science. In our first English class, the teacher, a beautiful fair-haired young woman from somewhere in the North, asked everyone to write a brief essay on a book they had enjoyed. Robin chose Swiss Family Robinson, saying she had admired the closeness of the family members, how they had helped each other in tough times. Caimin said he had enjoyed reading Wuthering Heights, and another boy, a prematurely developed lunk with a thick neck and doleful eyes, laughed and shouted, ‘Ah ha ha, you poof, you like a girl’s book! You’ll get Aids, you poof! Wankers’ cramp!’ Robin whirled around and casually informed him that he was an idiot and didn’t even know what Aids meant. The teacher ordered him to stand in the corner but not before he was forced to admit that, yes, it was true: he did not know what Aids meant. It was something he had heard his father say about a person on television. We smiled at each other across the classroom and listened to the next child speak of their favourite book.
And there it was: we were friends, and stayed that way. As we got older – thirteen passing into fourteen into fifteen – we grew closer to one another and further from the rest. We each occupied an exclusive little bubble while in class, wherein we would politely engage with the teacher or, if absolutely necessary, fellow students, but always holding back, always detached. We passed every morning break and lunchtime in each other’s company, eating sandwiches or smoking a shared cigarette butt or sitting on the school’s outside wall, quietly chatting and watching the traffic hush by in a flurry of dust and litter. We walked to and from school together, rucksacks hoisted over one shoulder, discussing songs we liked or interesting magazine articles or ideas for killer movie scripts that had come to us the previous night; the usual silly kids’ stuff.
We called to one another’s houses most evenings, making dutiful small talk with parents before retiring to the sitting-room, where we would watch videos with the sound turned down and invent dialogue for the characters as we went along, or go upstairs to make compilation tapes and plaster the walls with posters of musicians and cult films and political posters which we never fully understood but found visually captivating. Sometimes we would take a stroll by a torpid stream which ran behind Robin’s house and stop some way down where a massive severed trunk made a natural seat for two; we would each then pull out a notebook and pencil and scribble poetry – shapeless, melodramatic stuff, really – and read our meisterworks to each other, secure in knowing that, despite recognising oneself that it was doggerel, the other would never denigrate and, especially, never tell anyone else. We were self-contained and impervious, and we would never tell.
If that had been the limit of things – two kids engrossed in each other, not needing or wanting the attentions of anyone else – we probably wouldn’t be writing this now. But human nature being what it is, and such small-minded, petrified little creatures we are, that our divergence from the inflexible median was bound to have unpleasant repercussions. Because people just can’t mind their own business and leave others be.
About three weeks into third year Caimin was punched in the mouth by a classmate as they walked, changing classes, from one prefabricated building to another. He had come to school wearing some of Robin’s eyeliner on his right eye, inspired by the cover artwork of a copy of A Clockwork Orange which he had recently read, and garnered some stifled giggles and the odd menacing stare which lingered a fraction too long. This boy was called Rory and had never, to the best of our recollection, spoken to either of us prior to this moment. He seemed quiet and studious, even a little nerdy. He walked up behind Caimin and swung a fist into his mouth, cutting the lower lip and loosening a tooth. He then stalked off, muttering, ‘That’s what you get, faggot.’ Caimin didn’t report the incident to the principal – the all-pervading code of schoolyard omerta wasn’t broken by anyone, and we preferred to disregard things rather than make an issue out of them – but wiped the blood from his mouth and the kohl from his eye and went to class.
Later that week Robin was accosted by a group of fifth year girls in the toilets, who surrounded her in a corner, leaning their faces towards hers and slowly blowing smoke into her eyes. A heavyset girl with permed hair, obviously the ringleader, jabbed her forcefully on the chest with one finger and said, ‘Who do you think you are, coming to school with your eyes all painted up like that? She looks like a fucking panda, don’t she, girls? A little fucking panda! No animals allowed at this school, girl.’ Robin turned her face from them and stared out the window which looked down onto the lawns below. The janitor, a thin, florid man, was mowing the grass, his mower making an erratic drone. The heavy girl jabbed Robin again and was about to speak when the door swung open and several sixth years strode in, chatting and laughing and offering one another cigarettes. Robin slipped through the knot surrounding her and left.
That was the start of it, and though it became familiar and expected, we never quite got used to it. We wanted to be left alone, but were not; as simple and inescapable a fact as that. Caimin grew his hair like the singer in a certain rock band, a short-back-and-sides topped with a voluminous, foppish fringe which fell over his eyes and halfway down his face, and had ‘Queer’ written all over his schoolbag in indelible marker. Robin got her nose pierced, a gorgeous, delicate diamond stud which was almost unnoticeable, and was reported to the principal for violation of the school dress code, but not before her books were stolen and sprinkled in pieces across the basketball court.
Caimin bought a new bag and decorated it with painstaking recreations of the sleeve designs and logos of his favourite bands, and the bag was stolen and cut into shreds on one of the machines in the metalwork room. The shreds were then posted to his parents’ house, addressed to ‘Gayboy’. Robin spent four hours sifting through second-hand clothes shops for a full-length leather coat which was taken from the cloakroom on the first day she wore it to school and returned, two days later, minus the sleeves and with ‘Die U Fag-Hag Bitch’ scrawled on the back in Tipp-Ex. She wore the coat to school the next day anyway.
Robin was asked a question one day in Maths class and her answer was accompanied by muted catcalls of ‘slut’ and ‘freak’. The teacher, a lanky old gent who looked permanently depressed, reddened in the face and held up the class for fifteen minutes until the culprits identified themselves. He then wrote an angry note to their parents, asking them to refrain from sending such ignorant louts to school in future. Caimin was sporadically beaten up, desultory punches, though never again on the face; his ribs ached and his arms were a patchwork of deep-purple bruises. Once, in the boys’ toilet between classes, he was kicked hard in the testicles, and doubled over in pain; his crime had been to make a brief defence of the rights of homosexuals in a discussion in religion class, which the teacher applauded but his peers obviously did not.
Anonymous letters were sent to both our parents, claiming that we had been having sexual intercourse, with each other and a myriad of disreputable local characters, since first year; that we were regular drug users and terrorised younger students; that we brought books on black magic and Satanism to school and tried to indoctrinate classmates in our wickedness. (That was partly true, though grossly exaggerated: Robin had purchased a beginner’s introduction to witchcraft and casually mentioned it in school one day.) Funnily, neither set of parents ever believed these accusations; they seemed to understand us fairly well, that we were quite innocent in our behaviour, that our friendship never strayed beyond that, and that we had neither the inclination nor the fitful, neurotic energy for drugs or animal sacrifice.
So it went for a year-and-a-half, a steady procession of jibes and property defacement and threats, spoken and implied, and intermittent bouts of violence, and we managed to stay at a distance from it, to feel the blows and flinch at the insults but remain enclosed in our private place, whether through practise or necessity or force of will, we didn’t really know. It seemed to enrage the wider populace even more that we rarely reacted, remaining unresponsive to their gauche stratagems of terrorisation. We both felt, in a weird way, that the ultimate aim of this abuse was not our ostracism, but rather its opposite: our inclusion into, and grateful acceptance of, their petty structures and worldview. Our indifference to these, and the fact that what we desired most was the privacy to be ourselves as we saw fit, seemed like a blatant, very public rejection of everyone else’s beliefs, both as individuals and as a collective.
We also noticed that it was the school’s lower castes, to use an apt phrase, the ugly and unintelligent and socially inept, who tended to attack us with most vitriol. This wasn’t like a hackneyed television show, in which the popular gang – the jock and cheerleader and bitchy fashionista and their coterie of hangers-on – are the bullies. The school’s top dogs had serious issues with our dress and attitudes, there was no doubt, but they seemed to lurk in the background, smug in the foreknowledge of an easy life of sexual adventuring and enduring adoration, sliding into respectable, ostentatious middle-age. We joked that they were like the orchestrators, the ideologues, of a peculiar kind of juvenile movement, pulling the strings of the great unwashed but always lingering on the fringes, as they waited to see what happened in a vaguely disinterested way.
One day in fifth year, as late winter gave way to spring and we both, already, started making plans for the summer ahead, events took a new turning. It wasn’t something planned or foreseeable; it just leaped out of the unconscious into our lives. Caimin was strolling down the main corridor to meet Robin for morning break, dressed in that season’s fashion choice – black painted fingernails, a slim silver bracelet, heavy brown mascara and a huge school sweater with tears in the elbows and neck – when he was accosted by three or four of the usual suspects. The leader of the pack, a butty thing with spiked hair and a wispy approximation of a moustache, hopped in front of Caimin, blocking his way. Caimin moved to the side, his aggressor moved with him, and so on to the other side.
The guy just stood there, smiling stupidly, basking in the unfamiliar sensation of being the centre of attraction, as his friends skulked behind him, chuckling and swaying in that self-conscious adolescent way. Caimin sighed to himself; he felt worn-out and didn’t want to keep Robin waiting. He moved to push past the boy but was halted by a hand on his chest; the boy grinned and said, ‘Gotta say the password, faggot. Come on. Givus the password.’ Caimin scratched his head, gathering a flake of dried hairspray under his fingernail. He flicked it at the boy’s face and said, ‘We walk through the city for a remedy; a poison to stall our ancient enemy.’
It was a line from a song – he couldn’t remember which one at that moment – and had just popped into his mind from nowhere; the words were spoken before he fully realised what he was saying. The boy stared at him, mouth agape and with such a stupefied look of confusion on his face that it was almost endearing. Caimin laughed, a stifled burst, and stepped around the group. The boy turned to his friends with a continuing expression of bewilderment, saying, ‘What the fuck did he mean by that?’
Ten minutes later, as we sat talking under a beech tree near the school’s front wall, two second year students, psyched-up and keen for some playground approbation, threw a tennis ball into our midst and hollered over, ‘Hey, Gruesome Twosome. Throw us our ball back, you clowns.’ Caimin stood up wearily, catching the ball and raising his hand to return it, then stopped and thought for an instant; he flung it onto the road and turned to them, declaiming, ‘Let us waste, let us squander our money – no reason to adore it.’ Another lyric, randomly selected. The younger kids scrunched up their noses and looked at each other, perplexed, then shrugged their shoulders and scuttled off, already bored with the ball and the two outcasts and their incomprehensible ways.
We smiled at each other under that tree, smoking a cigarette each and gazing at a man changing a flat tyre across the road. One of the nuts was twisted in too tightly, and he was forced to jump down violently on the wheel-brace in an attempt to loosen it. He did this once, twice, then slipped on the third try and fell, soaking his suit trousers in a slurpy, muddy puddle. For a moment he glared at the mess, then shook his head and burst into laughter. We laughed too.
We finished our cigarettes and returned to class – Honours English – taking our usual place in the top corner of the room. The sun flashed in the window on that side, a real hard, pure winter sun. The teacher began a discussion about the Romantic poets and touched on Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister. From the middle of the room, a handsome boy called Seoirse, with bronzed skin and a vicious aspect to his smile, remarked, ‘Hey, does that remind anyone of two other space-cadets not a million miles from here?’ Everyone sniggered, and the sound was beginning to die down when Robin stood and spoke directly to Seoirse, saying, ‘It’s cold; I’m bored; I don’t mind sleeping on the floor.’
He stood as well, squaring his shoulders and cocking his head aggressively. He barked, ‘What did you say, Vampirella?’ The teacher pointed her finger at him and declared, ‘Sit down, Seoirse. Now.’ Caimin sighed loudly and drawled, ‘She said, “All you gave me was one-and-a-half minutes; ninety whole seconds to say: we’re finished.”’
The light shone past our shoulders and Seoirse couldn’t see us properly; we were glowing silhouettes against a harsh blue background. He blinked into the sunshine and mumbled some sort of threat, then returned to his seat after a second command from the teacher. She turned to us and asked, ‘Robin? Have you something to say?’ Robin smiled sweetly and chirped, ‘No, miss. Sorry about the interruption, miss.’
After class we trooped out in the usual sheepish, deflated way and Caimin was stopped in the corridor by a boy and girl, a couple whose longstanding relationship made them something of a rarity in school. They owned their own cars and holidayed together in Austrian ski lodges and were as insufferable as that would suggest. The boy put his hand on Caimin’s shoulder and said, ‘S’pose you think you’re pretty funny, queer.’
Caimin smiled and replied, ‘She’s got eyes of crooked smiles, flawed has far more beauty.’
The boy slapped his cheek, not very hard, and said in a louder voice, ‘Hey. I’m talking to you, you fucking freak. I said you must think you’re funny.’
Robin stood on her booted toes, drawing herself up to her full five-foot-two height, and said softly, ‘Seems life is a corner, angles of a stage.’
The boy looked around, grinning, and lifted his hands in the air as if to say, ‘Look at this. What can you do with people like this?’, then dragged his girlfriend by the hand towards the front door. Caimin hollered after him: ‘It’s hotter than hell but baby this could be heaven; you’re rocking my brain, you got it turned up to eleven!’ We put our arms around each other’s waists and laughed uproariously, while a few students walked round us warily and a few others whispered among themselves.
A few weeks later Robin walked into the Science lab and saw ‘Robin is a filthy slag’ chalked on the blackboard in fat geometric letters. She looked at the rows of people sitting at their benches, smirking and darting glances at each other behind fitted Bunsen burners. She put her bag down, rubbed the board clean and wrote ‘To disbelieve is just so boring today, to turn away and down is such a cliché’ in a large script, then added a postscript: ‘Signed, Robin, the filthy slag.’
We continued to repeatedly reply in this way and it was strange, this new power we seemed to have, merely by choosing a path of controlled absurdity. This was a new paradigm, neither indifference nor angry retort, and people seemed at a loss as to how they should react. The self-confident kids offered it as proof of our limitless oddness and encouraged others to ignore this idiocy. A few individualistic sorts broke the habit of a five-year life-cycle and quoted back, little snippets of song lyrics or movie dialogue or poetry or self-invented gobbledegook. We didn’t respond in any particular way, but we didn’t ignore it outright. If they wanted to speak with us, that was fine, whether through conversation or something a little less conventional.
For many, though, our responses merely drove their antipathy to new heights: Caimin was attacked in the toilets one dead afternoon by a group of five third years who had decided to ‘teach this queer a lesson’. They forced his head into the urinal until he retched on the sickly-sweet ammoniac stench of piss and urinal balls.
One shouted, ‘Whatcha got to say now, huh?’
Caimin muttered, ‘Ain’t it a bitch when you can’t sleep? Your head starts to swim, you wanna swim deep.’
They looked at each other in slow unison, then forced his head down again as his hands scrabbled behind him, reaching for purchase on their jackets and trouser legs and that sweaty place’s slick walls.
‘Whatcha got to say now?’
‘Words are best when spoken, wine unspilled and unbroken.’
‘I said, whatcha got to say now?’
‘Young dog daddy thought himself he knew it all.’
‘Whatcha gotta say now!?’
‘Red! Eyes! Move over, I want to learn to drive.’
‘Guess I assumed too much from the way you designed to touch on my face all the while we kissed in the height of our recent tryst…’
Fifth year turned into Leaving Certificate after a lovely summer of camping trips with parents and part-time jobs mowing lawns and hanging out on hot dusty pavements, sucking on ice-pops and reading imported American comic books and discussing college plans. Robin half-wanted to study pure Chemistry; Caimin was undecided, and thought he might take a year off to have a proper think about it. He had grown a lot over the past four months, a voracious spurt that saw him touch six foot by his seventeenth birthday in June. Robin remained dark and petite with a round face and probing brown eyes. We looked an even odder couple now, walking with arms linked and swinging our bags in the evening air: a lanky fellow with messy hair and a short girl with ink-black Pocahontas plaits and raggedy flares.
Robin went to visit a cousin in Galway towards the end of August, and Caimin killed the time by reading his parents’ books, drinking tea with his mother, watching cheesy movies on video and painting a mural on his bedroom wall, a mishmash of Soviet propaganda images copied from a book he’d borrowed from the library. It didn’t have an especial political resonance, he just liked the look of the work: monstrous silver-black machinery and impassive blonde peasants, Lenin’s strident arm reaching out to address the millions.
We returned to school for those quickening last nine months before release into new, unknown places. The other kids seemed to have developed also during the break; they were bigger and more serious of aspect, settling into a strict routine of study and revision, fretting about university applications and seminal life choices. They seemed more like adults-in-waiting than the spiteful children who had left the previous June, and we were left pretty much alone. We put our heads down, like them, and worked systematically towards our futures.
On one occasion, nearing the Christmas holidays, Seoirse made an unkind comment to Robin during a History class discussion on the English Civil War. The teacher had asked us to imagine what today’s world would be like if Cromwell’s Roundheads came to power, enflamed with their narcotic visions of purity and restriction, the cauterising power of devotion to God. Seoirse snorted and looked at Robin, saying quietly, ‘You’d be hung for a devil anyway, you bitch.’ The teacher had turned to the blackboard and didn’t hear him speak.
Robin moved her lips as if to reply, then stopped, a little thoughtful. She turned to Caimin and smiled, a huge beam that took over most of her face, and said, ‘Hey, handsome. Wanna come round to my house to study later on?’ He smiled back and nodded acceptance. Seoirse stared at her with a look that was half stunned rage, half frustration, and the curious thought occurred to Caimin that Seoirse was partly in love with Robin. A thwarted love, something he had denied to himself, losing sight of its truth and eventually forgetting it ever existed. He’s like a latent homosexual overcompensating through rampant homophobia, Caimin thought; he’s small and scared and hates himself, and he’s killing himself because of it. He felt some pity, but no empathy, for Seoirse. He felt detached from the boy’s problems, rising above such things; they were fading from view like horses fleeing over distant hills, becoming smaller and further and less and less real, until they ceased to matter at all.
Caimin was dragged from his reverie by the sound of a chair scraping. Seoirse had stood up, red-faced and breathless; he was about to speak when someone muttered, from the back of the class, ‘Ah, sit the fuck down, will you?’ He paused, bent over like a parody of an infirm old man; then another voice, from his right: ‘Yeah, give it a rest, will you? Shut up for once.’ Seoirse seemed to actually deflate, sapped of energy; he resumed his seat, blushing, and stared down at his textbook.
The discussion recommenced and a freckly, fat-faced girl, sitting in the corner, declared, ‘I think they’d take away our rights, you know? Our right to do whatever we wanted.’ People mm-ed and uh-huhed in agreement as the teacher nodded earnestly, and then a good-looking guy with a prominent Adam’s apple said, ‘Yeah, I mean, they wouldn’t allow us to be who we wanted to be, would they? They’d force us to be someone we weren’t.’ And so on, in this unfocused way, until the bell went for the end of class. We laughed in bemusement at this new, caring side to our classmates’ personalities, and returned to our late nights with books and study planners and each other’s company.
Time passes more quickly as you approach the end of a specific period, and the following summer and impending exams sort of reared up on everyone from over the crest of some temporal dip and rise in the road. About a month before the first sitting – English, morning and afternoon – Robin told Caimin, in her candid, soft-spoken way, that she had met a boy on a weekend trip, a friend of her cousin, whom she liked very much. Nothing much physical had happened between them yet, but he had given her his address and asked her to write. His name was Peter and he was sweet-natured and bright and didn’t sneer at her or try to shove his hand up her top. He was a gentleman, and Robin would like to see him again if that was okay. Caimin touched her arm and ensured her that, of course, he would have no problem with that; we were friends, and surely the first obligation of that was to desire happiness for one’s friend?
And genuinely, he didn’t mind; he wasn’t jealous because neither of us had ever thought of the other in anything but a platonic way. But he knew, in some part of the mind that offers a hazy, tantalising picture of the future, or potential futures, that our friendship was coming to its natural end; that we were becoming those fine upstanding folk our teachers had promised, and what existed between us was not made for an adult world. It belonged in the world of homework and uniforms and icy mornings and cruelty and burgeoning minds and imminent maturity and some intermittent moments of beauty and delight.
On the Friday afternoon after exams finished, the Leaving Cert class had a party in the assembly hall. Tables were laid with soft drinks and crisps and dips, balloons and streamers were hung from the painted walls, and a banner was strung from one corner to the other at the top of the hall. It read, ‘Farewell and Good Luck!’ Pop music played from discordant speakers and people stood around in loose clusters, babbling about how drained they were and what results they were anxious about and how they wanted to go outside for a sneaky smoke. We sat on the ground near the door, nodding disinterestedly at passers-by who said hello and laying our heads against the wall’s cool shadowed surface. Robin wore a medieval-style dress, dark-brown crushed velvet with flared sleeves; Caimin wore a stretchy hair-band and tight t-shirt with a picture of a 1970s TV cop on the front. We didn’t notice anybody make a comment.
After about an hour the principal took the microphone, clearing his throat in that endearing, clumsy way, and began to speak with a definite choke of sentiment in his voice. He was a good man, we decided; he actually cared about his charges. He spoke about how people grow during their five years of secondary education, how these were some of the best years of one’s life, and entreated us to value our youth, to savour these days of exuberance and possibility and relative freedom. He received a warm round of applause on finishing.
People began handing out autograph books for classmates to sign, to put quirky messages and silly doodles on their unlined pages. We remained at a remove from this; we weren’t interested in anyone’s signature or florid sentimentality. The door drifted open on a rising breeze and a slice of light sneaked in, shining like a projector on the opposite wall. We stretched the kinks from our legs and were about to leave when a pair of students approached us, a diffident, studious pair whom we’d hardly noticed in the entire time we’d spent in that place. Her name was Bronagh and she was tallish with crazy corkscrew curls and soft features; he was called Eoin and had an angular face, slim shoulders and a stoical expression. They stood before us for a moment, as if waiting for the correct words to come.
Robin smiled and said, ‘Hi.’
The girl swallowed heavily and muttered, ‘Um…we’d like you to sign our book. The two of you. We’d like you to sign, if that’s okay.’
We looked at each other for a beat-and-a-half, then Robin sighed and put out her hand, saying, ‘Sure.’
Bronagh looked behind at everyone else, then back at us. She said, ‘Yeah. We’d like that, if it’s okay with you.’
Eoin leaned in, with this private, vaguely priestly air, and said in his strong accent, ‘We’re not bothered about the rest of them, really. Can’t see us keeping much contact with most of them afterwards, to be honest.’
We shrugged and laughed silently and nodded okay, and Bronagh handed over her book. It was a paperback of To Kill a Mockingbird; the pages were dog-eared with copious annotations in the margins. Robin held it up for Caimin to see the cover and said, ‘Good book.’ Everyone nodded in agreement. Robin licked her thumb and opened it at the second leaf, writing directly underneath the title and author’s name for a minute or so.
She handed it to Caimin, and he read what she had written: ‘If a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die…’
He smiled warmly at her: it was the first line in the chorus of a song they both liked very much. He took the pen and wrote the next lines:
‘Oh there is a light and it never goes out,
‘there is a light and it never goes out…’
…six, seven, eight times. He grinned and handed it to Eoin, saying, ‘Your turn.’ Eoin repeated the line underneath in a blocky script, then passed on to Bronagh who slashed it across the bottom of the page in an unruly scrawl. We stood and stretched our backs and Caimin opened the door behind us. Light flooded into the dimness of the hall; people blinked in our direction then turned away again.
Bronagh smiled self-consciously and said, ‘Thanks.’ We linked arms and said, simultaneously it seemed but that was probably just a trick of memory, ‘No problem. Take care’, and walked out the door together, arm-in-arm and with eyes closed against the brightness and warm breeze.
Robin put her head on Caimin’s shoulder and snuggled into his neck, murmuring in a faraway voice, ‘So where to now, Weird?’ Caimin shook his head and tickled her ear. ‘Dunno, Weirder. Let’s just potter along for a while and see how things end up.’ She whispered, ‘Sounds like a plan’, and we walked away, step by steady step, strolling calmly towards those new, unknown places.