© Tomas Coffey
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TWICE BITTEN by Tomas Coffey
Let me take you back in time for a moment, back to those sepia-tinted, small-town days in Ireland, when the girl-meets-boy ritual still had a certain air of dignity, a time-honoured formality about it. Back then, you might come across some unsuspecting young lad on his way home from school, harnessed into his book-laden shoulder-bag. Or he could just be kicking a cocoa-tin along the street ahead of him without having to keep a look-out for speeding motor cars and the like. And then, lo and behold, he finds himself confronted by one of those carefully chosen go-betweens, commonly known as the Gooseberry.
"I have a Message for you." the Gooseberry would murmur solemnly in the lad’s ear. Ah, those six magic little words, always guaranteed to grab the attention of any normal, puberty-stricken teenager.
"Who from?" he’d enquire, trying his best to hide any signs of those inner stirrings.
The Gooseberry would half-whisper the girl's name and then proceed to pass on the all-important Message: "She says to tell you she was asking for you."
There were only two possible answers to such a declaration of intent. One would be, “Well, I don't know about that now.”; a delicate way of making it known that he was either already spoken for, or that his ma would kill him stone dead for even thinking of consorting with a girl. But this diplomatic turn-off didn’t come to the fore very often; after all how could any warm-blooded young fellow be expected to turn down the prospect of a close encounter of the feminine kind, even if he WAS already committed or in mortal dread of his ma.
“Well," and nine times out of ten this would be the boy’s answer, "tell her I was asking for her too.”
Mission accomplished. All that remained was to arrange a time and a venue for the first get-together, and let nature take its course from there.
I was sixteen and a bit before one of those vital Messages ever came my way. Not that I was a late developer or anything. At the time, I was madly in love with five different girls. The truth is, I was mortally afraid of girls, which shows how smart I was for a sixteen-year-old.
Then, one cold Friday in November, came the first blood-stirring Message. No. Wait. That was actually Message number two. Don’t even ask about the first Message. Total and utter disaster.
I was bent down outside our front door pumping the back wheel of my bicycle which had a slow puncture and I’d have to keep on pumping ‘til next pocket-money Friday when I'd be able to afford a new puncture repair kit. There was a bitter wind blowing up the street and my hands were blue with the cold.
“Conor,” the voice came from behind me, “I have a Message for you.”
I took a quick look over my shoulder. It was Alice Kelly, the blonde young one who lived just up the street from our house. I ignored her and went back to the job in hand, working fiercely on the pump.
“Are you deaf or what?” she asked me, “I said I have a message for you.”
“Pull my other leg." I told her.
“I own to God!”
I turned and took another look at her, ran my eyes up and down the boxy convent-girl uniform that left too much to the imagination. The pale eyes half-squinting through the wire-rimmed glasses. The breath from her mouth forming pale clouds in the cold. The thin, serious face. Ah, no, this one wasn't the type to go around pulling people's legs.
“Who from?” I mumbled out of the corner of my mouth. Still doubtful, but maybe a little bit hopeful.
“Pauline Harris. She says to tell you she was asking for you.”
“Pauline Harris?” No. The name didn’t ring any bells.
“Yeh. She’s a boarder in the Convent. You know her. She has long red hair and-“
“’Course I know her.” To tell the honest truth, I didn’t know this Harris one from Eve, but why would I want to hurt the feelings of a girl who went to the trouble of sending me a Message.
Maybe my luck was changing. Maybe.
My heart was beginning to jump around a bit and I could feel the blood surging up to my face. I turned back to the bicycle so that she wouldn’t notice any giveaway signs of excitement.
“Well,” It wasn’t easy to sound real casual, “Tell her I was asking for her too.”
“Right you are, so.” And Alice was gone like a flash.
It took a while for the butterflies to settle down in my stomach and for my mind to clear. Only then did I begin to wonder about the next step. Things might turn out to be a bit complicated. Those boarders were always kept under lock and key behind high convent walls. They were only allowed out into the big bad world if the bishop was presiding over a solemn high mass in the parish church or their camogie team was playing a match over in the Sports-field. And even then, they were always trail-herded by a posse of prefects, drunk with power.
I might never get a chance to make my move until the girls were turned loose for the holidays. Maybe not even then, because Convent boarders mostly came from out of town. Her parents would be on the spot to whip her away to some out-of-the-way place beyond my limited reach.
In spite of myself, I felt my mind flashing back to that first disastrous Message. That was three months ago and it came from Kathleen Casey, one of the half-dozen girls I was madly in love with at the time. Donal Fitz from Church Street was the Gooseberry and he helped to set everything up for nine o'clock on a Saturday night, under the conker trees beside the courthouse.
I showed up an anxious half-hour early. It was late August and there was still some daylight left. My heart was beating like the hammers of hell and my mind was working on all the witty things I might say to keep Kathleen amused until the time came to go into action.
I spotted another fellow leaning against the wall further along. On a similar mission, for sure. It seemed right and proper that we should make a point of ignoring each other.
Nine o’clock. I saw the female figure approaching in the twilight and I felt a strong inclination to run for my life.
But it wasn’t Kathleen. It was Nellie O’Grady from Henry Street, another of the ones I happened to be in love with. The same Nellie had the reputation of being fickle and fast. The fast part was fine with me, but fickle was bound to lead to heartbreak and humiliation, which was why she had slipped to the bottom half of my wanted list. She went strolling past me, looking as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth and then, out of the shadows comes the other fellow and falls into step beside her.
I watched out of the corner of my eye as they walked away, not a word out of either of them, and a space of three or four feet between them. I could tell they were heading for the same spot that I had in mind myself: River Lane, where the white-thorn grew thick on both sides, and where there were plenty of dark and inviting gaps between the bushes. River Lane had fallen out of fashion as a him-and-her hideout lately because Father Meehan had taken to patrolling the area at night, beating the bushes with his blackthorn stick and yelling ‘Go home out of that, ye dirty things.’ But right now, the reverend father was flat on his back beyond in the Nursing Home recovering from a stroke, so God was in His heaven and all was right with River Lane.
Half past nine. The street lights came on and I shuffled back into the darker shadows for cover. The yellow light reflected off the spines of the conker-shells on the trees above my head. In another few weeks we’d be throwing sticks up to knock the chestnuts from the branches and take the shiny brown kernels home to cure them and drill them for our conker competitions. Though, now that I was going out with girls I’d have no time for childish stuff like that.
What the blazes was keeping the girl?
Ten o’clock came and went. By half past ten my hopes and my heart were beginning to sink. But still I hung on. Kathleen was not the kind of girl who'd stand a fellow up like this. Something must have delayed her.
Then, a tiny seed of suspicion began to sprout inside my head. Kathleen might be above suspicion. But what about Fitz? Sure you couldn't trust that maggot as far as you could throw him. Oh, God! I should have known. There was never any Message in the first place. Fitz had made a right-looking eejit out of me. One thing sure, that sneaky thicko would be going home wearing a fat lip tomorrow. Ah but wait, if I went and hammered the shite out of Fitz, wouldn't that be admitting that the guy had made a complete sucker out of me. Forget that for a lark. Just let on that I never went next nor near the bloody Courthouse, that I wasn't fooled, not for one minute.
And now, Message number two. A convent boarder, no less. I couldn’t hold back a sneaky feeling that this had the all the makings of another disaster.
Then, one week later came a ray of hope.
“I have another Message for you, Conor.” Alice Kelly was standing in her own doorway, waiting to ambush me on my way home in the rain after evening study. “’Tis from Pauline again.” she added.
“Next Saturday is the feast of the Immaculate Conception.”
What the blazes had the Immaculate Conception got to do with anything? I stood there with the rain hammering down on me, waiting for more.
“The boarders are being let out to the matinee at the Gaiety.”
Haha! Opportunity knocking?
“The Song of Bernadette is on.” she added.
I remembered seeing the picture the first time it came around. Deadly. To my way of thinking, Esther Williams in her swimming togs or Jane Russell in profile offered a lot more inspiration than Jennifer Jones in Bernadette.
Alice had the answer to my next question out before I had time to ask it.
“They always have to stay together at the pictures.” she said, “But Pauline is going to fix it so she’ll be sitting at the outside of the back row and she’ll leave an empty seat between herself and the aisle.
“I’ll be there.”
I never had to pay to get into the pictures at the Gaiety because my father happened to be the chief projectionist. Actually he was the only projectionist but my mother was inclined to put on airs and she always referred to him as chief projectionist. In all fairness, it wasn’t an outright lie, because he HAD a kind of helper, Jimmy, who wasn’t the full shilling. Jimmy’s main job was to meet the bus every Monday and Thursday with his bockedy carrier bike. He’d collect the cans of film for the next three nights at the Gaiety and ship out the ones from the three nights before. Small round, silvery cans with the shorts, Laurel and Hardy, Joe Mc Doaks, Leon Errol, my favourite funny guy, Movietone News and so on. Bigger cans, called two-reelers, holding the main picture.
Saturday finally came around and I got myself hunkered down at the very back of the cinema, all scrubbed and shined and Brylcreemed, with a quarter of Liquorice Allsorts tucked away in my pocket. A real date at last. Maybe the beginning of a steady line. There were only two guys in my class who claimed to be doing steady lines. They were older and had more pocket money and much harder necks, but soon now I might be on the way to joining their ranks.
Freddie Glynn and Chubby Collins, two fellows I knew, came strolling in. I let on not to notice them as they picked out a couple of seats nearer to the screen. Why would those two buckos be paying out good money to watch a religious picture? Ah, yes, of course. Hoping for a chance to get off the mark with some of the convent girls. And good luck to them.
At last, the girls arrived, a chattering, black-uniformed stream of them pouring down the aisle. Somewhere among them was the object of my potential affection.
It took them a good fifteen minutes to settle down, swapping places, squealing excitedly, banging tilted seats up and down. Eventually, they got themselves sorted out and there, sure enough, was a head of long, red hair at the edge of the back row. And yes, an empty seat outside her. Halleluia!
I waited anxiously until the lights went down. The captions came up for The Three Stooges. Time to make my move.
My knees felt a bit on the wobbly side as I went scuttling towards the empty space. I reached down furtively and lowered the seat. The hinges groaned agonisingly.
It was one of THOSE seats.
There were times when the film would break half-way through a picture and the place would be plunged into darkness while my father above in his little projection box got out his bottle of Benzene and used it to splice the broken ends back together. Years later it came out that stuff like Benzene could give you cancer, but it was too late to be of any help to people like my father. Anyway, whenever a breakdown happened, there was always a joker or two ready to start jumping up and down on the seats in the dark, acting the monkey. The springs in those seats had not been designed to stand up to that kind of punishment.
But what choice had I? I grabbed hold of the seat arms and began to lower myself very carefully. I could feel my rear end sinking down, down into a deep crater in the half-demolished seat. I craned my neck to get a quick look at the girl's profile. Not bad-looking at all. From my angle of vision, the nose looked maybe a bit on the long side. But what’s in a nose? She was female and available.
I cleared my throat. I had to do it a second time before I could get a word out.
“Pauline?” I whispered. Just to make certain.
The head nodded slightly.
The head nodded again. More silence.
I manoeuvred the little bag of sweets from my pocket. The crackle of the paper seemed to echo all around the picture-house.
“Have a sweet?” I invited.
“Thanks.” The bag rustled even louder under her groping fingers.
We kept our eyes fixed on the screen while Ike, Larry and Moe went through their eye-poking stuff. In actual fact, all I could see from MY altitude was the left shoulder-blade of the girl in front of me.
Feck this for a racket. Precious time was being wasted here. I might be a bit backward but I wasn’t stupid. I knew exactly what a fellow should do next. Sneak my arm across the back of her seat. Casual, like. But, as it turned out, that wasn't as easy as it sounded. Not with my body submerged in the bottomless pit and the back of the seat a good eight inches higher than my shoulder.
But no way was I going to let this golden opportunity slip through my fingers. I raised my arm up in the air, full stretch, my fingers pointing towards the ceiling. That brought my elbow more or less level with the seat back. The next move was a bit tricky, though. I had to twist the elbow sideways in a direction that elbows were not designed to go and try to force my forearm down until it was lying across the back of Pauline’s seat.
It wasn’t what you might call a natural position and I wasn’t too sure how long I could stand the pain. But at least I was making progress; the girl didn’t take a swing at my jaw or anything.
“Have another sweet.” I fumbled for the sweets with my left hand and the bloody bag escaped from my fingers and landed on the floor with a loud explosion. Oh, God, now what? If I went groping around down there I’d surely be suspected of ulterior motives. I could end up with a black-stockinged knee in the face and minus a couple of front teeth.
Why couldn't herself just lean forward a little bit so that I could slide my arm down behind her back and get my badly twisted joints back to normal. Was she stupid, or what?
The big picture was just starting up when the answer came to me. God had given me two hands, hadn't He? What was to stop me from reaching my left arm across her middle in a kind of pincer movement and pulling her towards me for a bit of cheek-to-cheek stuff to get the ball rolling. Though, from our present positions, my cheek would end up somewhere around her collar bone. Ah, but she'd surely have enough cop-on to bend over and meet me half way.
I was trying to summon up the nerve to make my move when I began to realise I had another problem. A sudden, paralysing pain went shooting across between my shoulder blades. Circulation cut off in my contorted arm? No. This was a different kind of pain. More like as if someone was gouging a set of knuckles into the middle of my back.
I did my level best to ignore the pain, but it wouldn't go away. And next thing, I thought I heard muffled, giggling sounds coming from the row behind me. Oh, shite! Someone was digging a set of knuckles into my back. And now another someone grabbed a fistful of my hair and began trying to yank it out by the roots.
I took a quick look around. Glynn and Collins. The pair of maggots had changed seats and were all set to ruin my chances of getting off the mark with Pauline.
“Do you think,” I whispered, “we could move to different seats?”
“Do you want to get me expelled, or what?”
The gouging and the hair-pulling went on without letting up, and the snickering sounds seemed to be spreading all over the cinema. The girl on the far side of Pauline was laughing fit to burst. One by one, other girls along the row joined in. I could see their pale gloating faces, all aimed in my direction.
The only one not laughing was Pauline. She just sat there looking straight ahead. As if she didn't care one bit about the torment I was going through. Or maybe, just maybe, she was feeling as badly-done-by as I was? Or simply being contrary? Didn't somebody once tell me that contrariness came naturally to all females, regardless of age or religion?
At that point, something snapped inside my head.
“I’ll be back in a minute.” I whispered.
I levered myself painfully to my feet and left the Song of Bernadette, trying to massage the circulation back into my right arm as I went. I never came back.
Three days passed. Three days full of shame and torment and dreaming up vengeance on Glynn and Collins. And wondering who ended up scoffing my Liquorice Allsorts. As far as I was concerned, this romance stuff was greatly overrated. Maybe I should be thinking seriously of going for the priesthood.
I was coming out of the Sports-field after football practice the third day, when I saw Alice Kelly cycling her bicycle straight at me, full speed. I ducked out of the way before she could mow me down, and then she braked suddenly with front wheel less than six inches from my belly-button. She dropped one foot to the ground to steady herself.
“Why don’t you look where you’re going?” I shouted.
“I have a Message for you.” She sounded a bit out of breath.
Another Message? No way! No more of that kind of punishment for me. But hold on. Couldn’t the Roman Collar be put on the long finger for a little while longer without doing any harm.
“Pauline, who else?”
Pauline! Well, now. Food for second thought. Here was a girl who really knew what she wanted. And what she wanted was little ole me. And the Christmas holidays were coming up soon. Third time lucky and all that.
“What's the message?”
“She says to tell you," those pale eyelashes fluttered like a pair of small butterflies with nowhere to go, "She says to tell you," the girl repeated, "‘tis all over between the two of ye.”