‘Wake up!’ says Mammy Roarty.
‘Jesus Christ, Ryan,’ says Daddy Roarty.
She shakes the lad vigorously as he startles up off the couch and scrambles to fix his sunglasses. But it is too late. He fell asleep in the muggy apartment, under fan-draft, and the shades have slid down his thin nose. A big black and brassy bruise encircles his left eye rippling up the side of its socket and across the eyelid through which he squints.
‘I slipped climbing out the pool,’ says Young Roarty.
Five days earlier, in the shallow end, Young Roarty watched his ball skitter across the hot beige concrete leaving a wet wake of pool water glistening, past bickering children and rows of grownups lounging like seals. It wedged itself under a deckchair. Her deckchair.
This was not his first sighting of her. She had been sighted, scoped, swooned over for three days. Swooned internally it must be added, for Young Roarty was a taciturn lad when not among his school peers. And his school, being an all-boys establishment — as so often is the case in Holy Ireland — bestowed him with peers only of his own gender. Girls were another race, an extraterrestrial species, an utter mystery. He had, through peripheral and cowardly glances, etched her form into his mind — bikini’s cling, hip’s curve, navel’s tuck — and frenziedly recalled it all in the humid dead of night.
In the scorching heat of day he would malinger by the pool, the epicentre of his holiday, wishing his pesky parents to be elsewhere and finding himself gutless anyways when they were. What is there to do by the pool all day, every day? How much chlorine can one splash? And yet that is where he was to be found: bored-anxious when she was not around, tingling statically when she was. He became an avid reader; reading her every move over the parapet of the novel he had borrowed from his mother: every reapplication of sunscreen, every switch of pod playlist, every re-bunching of hair. His sunglasses certainly helped: no incriminating pupils. He also played darts in the cool shadow of the poolside bar, pricking chunks out of the plaster around the dartboard. There was a pathetic phallic symbolism in these unobtrusive missiles.
And every evening he would trudge back across the poolside, past the deckchairs bedecked in their cotton — Union Jacks and spread-eagled Handelsflagge — an only Gaelic urchin amongst the Anglo-Teutons. He would ponder his demographic limbo, this abyss between childhood and adulthood he inhabited alone. Not alone, but with her; the other teenager. The comradery this should have espoused only caused him more consternation, added more pressure to his uninflated vigor.
And he would attend dinner, at some nearby bistro, twirling his fork and emitting the occasional grunt to punctuate his parents riveting conversations — his mind still at the poolside. Her father was often about: bald, burly, sunburnt; with a paratrooper tattoo on one shoulder and three lions on the other. A British bulldog if ever there was one. Young Roarty was intimidated by him, but was more intimidated by his daughter.
And now the ball was wedged under the deckchair. Her deckchair. She put her magazine aside and looked about. He hunched lower: up to his neck in chest deep water, feeling ridiculous but helpless all the same. She plucked the ball out and stood up, her eyes following the trail of drips up to the edge of the pool, over its lip and across its lazy wavelets, resting on him for an instant before she started marching forward; a sway in her hips, a quiver in her bosom; bronze and brunette and bewildering. He panicked, he submerged.
When the oxygen supply finally expired, he gasped to the surface. His eyes stung from the chlorine and the direct sun against which she was silhouetted, standing over him like some amazonian colossus.
‘Here,’ she said, holding out the ball.
‘I’m… name is Ryan,’ he stuttered.
‘Do you always play on your own like this?’
‘No. But its only old folks here. And kids.’
‘Not true,’ she said. ‘I’m here.’
‘Seems a bit rude, Ryan; not to invite me?’
‘I was going– ’
‘Especially if you’re going to stare at me all day.’
‘I wasn’t. I was reading.’
‘Do you always read books upside down?’
‘Ha, got ya!’ She grinned. ‘Do you always read romances?’
‘It isn’t. It’s… historical.’
‘What was your favourite part?’
Young Roarty recalled the book cover and tried to extrapolate some likely scene but a call sounded out from across the pool: her father the bulldog summoning the pack for dinner.
‘So,’ she said, ‘I have to go.’
He relaxed in the water as she walked away. The relief soon waned into mortification. She had made a fool of him. Not without some help from himself. He slid into a rut for the evening, emitting even less lucid grunts than usual at the bistro. He got narkier when the mother asked how the book was going. In bed he rolled and roiled, too sticky under the sheet, too breezy under the fan. He felt sick and sweaty. And then, sometime around two-thirty, it dawned on him: she had known he was reading. And what he was reading. And if she had known that much, she must have noticed him. He was not invisible.
Comparisons he made: although they were the same height, she seemed immeasurably taller, more elevated. His limbs were lanky, his ribcage a xylophone. Her state of development was advanced, her curvature full. She was a woman, he a boy. Could she possibly be interested? It seemed unlikely. And yet.
Next morning, the Roarty’s stood in conclave on the footpath out the front of the complex (the pool was in a central square out the back).
‘Yerra,’ said Daddy Roarty, ‘was there any point at all in me renting the thing?’
‘Sure it’s grand,’ said Young Roarty. ‘Aren’t ye two using it?’
‘Ah but Ryan, you should get out and about,’ said Mammy Roarty. ‘See some of the culture.’
‘Sure I’ve seen a load of castles before.’
‘This is an aqueduct.’
‘I’m tired Mum, I just want to relax.’
‘“Tired,”’ said Daddy Roarty. ‘Do you hear him? Like an auld biddy, knitting in the corner.’
‘Please. I’ll go tomorrow.’
Daddy Roarty was about to launch into a tirade but Mammy Roarty interceded: a knowing, sympathetic, mother’s look in her eyes.
‘Its space he wants,’ she said. ‘That’s fair enough — we all need space now and again.’
Young Roarty grumbled appreciatively. Daddy Roarty was about to fume but then caught the significance of what his wife had said, the wink she had given. She hurried back inside for the picnic.
‘Dad,’ said Young Roarty. ‘Can I have some money?’
‘Sure I gave you some yesterday. Have y’it all spent?’
‘Not all of it. Can I just have a tenner?’
‘Jesus, Ryan, if you’ve started smoking– ’
Young Roarty had hoped it would not come to this, but he had little choice now:
‘It’s for… I was going to buy an ice-cream… for a girl.’
His father’s face lit up.
‘Haha, is that it? Ya boy ya! Here, take twenty.’
He took the notes and blushed at the grass while stuffing them into his pocket. His father was chuckling, he was muttering and then his mother was back out.
‘We’ll be back in a wee bit,’ said Mammy Roarty.
‘Behave yourself,’ said Daddy Roarty.
Young Roarty blinked.
His parents sunk into the rental and drove off. He jogged back into the apartment and squeezed off twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty push-ups; brushed his teeth most diligently; pulled on his coolest t-shirt and checked the mirror — hair-gel intact, pimple on temple popped.
She was stretched in her usual deckchair so, before he could muse on the enormity of his actions, he strode up.
‘Hi,’ he said.
She turned up off her stomach, propping on an elbow.
‘Alright,’ she replied, smiling. ‘Where’ve you been all morning?’
‘The auld pair wanted me to go with them. They’re away off to look at some old bridge or something.’
‘Ah, parents. An old bridge? Sounds cool.’
‘Yeah, I know, fairly gay but I got out of it.’
She seemed to wince at his choice of adjective and suddenly there was nothing to say and a pause that was lengthening its stride.
Young Roarty blurted: ‘Do you want to get ice-cream?’
‘Ok,’ she said.
As easily as that. She went inside to change while Roarty sat and waited. And waited. Feck it, he thought, she’s probably taking the piss out of me again. He scanned the rows of windows, half expecting to see a giggling face disappear behind a curtain. He rubbed his forehead, felt the sun bleaching doubt into his crown. Then she was back, in denim shorts and a red tank top. Her hair was loose now, a great mane trailing down her shoulders, wild and exotic.
‘Hey up,’ she said, breezing by. Roarty upped and followed her along the deckchairs.
‘Roasting today,’ he said, ‘isn’t it?’
‘Glad we’re getting something cold.’
A call came from the poolside bar and a figure lurched from its shadows, like a bear from a cave: blinking and bellicose, white wife-beater and pink bacon-like shoulders.
‘Oi,’ it said. ‘Oi, where you going?’
‘Getting an ice-cream, Dad.”
‘Oh yeah? With ew?’
He took a swig from his lager.
‘Friend? Another friend, ey?’
Roarty did not like that. There was something to that. He remembered a tight-trousered musical looking fellow, about his age, checking out at the desk as he lugged his suitcase in on the first day. He decided to ignore that and that was the last he thought of that; chiselled from memory like a bad emperor.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘a friend.’
The father glared at Roarty.
‘Be back fairly sharpish, yeah?’
‘Yeah Dad, we will. I will.’
Roarty nodded sheepishly and felt the glare burn two smoking holes into his back all the way out the gate.
‘Never mind him,’ she said, as they strolled beneath the street palms. ‘He can be a propa wazzock sometimes. My name is Lill, by the way. In case you were wondering like.’
‘Lill,’ he said, turning it over in his mind. He tried to form a compliment but gave up. ‘I’m Ryan. Well, ya know that already. Actually, only me family call me that. Me friends call me Roarty.’
‘“Tis,”’ she imitated, giggling. ‘Top o the morning, begorrah.’
Roarty laughed, almost hysterically, patriotism swept aside in an instant for a girl. Probably a Protestant one too, to add insult to betrayal. He could picture his scowling grandmother by a hearth: burn everything British, apart from their coal! When they reached the ice-cream parlour, she pulled him away from the door, nodded onward.
‘You didn’t propa think we were going for ninety-nines, did ya?’
The bar was constructed out of colourful football paraphernalia: Rafters of scarves, masonry of jerseys and buttresses of team photos, volleying strikers and grasping goalies. A couple of barflies slurped and guffawed to themselves.
‘Sit there,’ Lill said. ‘By the quiz box. I’ll sort this out.’
She strolled over to the taps, where a plucky pudgy woman with peroxide hair and skin like leather was huffing on a cigarette while pouring a pint.
‘Alright lovie,’ said the woman, ‘what can I do ya for?’
‘I’ll have a Blue Wicked and… a Strongbow, please.’
‘Righto. Mum and Dad coming down?’
‘Should be, later. Thanks’
Lill returned to the table, placed the drinks. There were droplets forming and streaking down the glass. Roarty wanted to stand erect and applaud.
‘How’d ya manage that?’ he asked, brow hoisted.
‘Easy. They couldn’t care less over here.’
‘Jaysis. This is feckin mighty altogether.’
She cocked an eyebrow dismissively, then giggled.
‘Next one is on you,’ she said.
‘A great pub. And Liverpool are up two,” he pointed to a screen nestled high up amongst replica trophies. “Go on the Pool.”
‘Irish and Mersey mad? Best keep you away from my old Dad.’
She laughed at his subsiding brow.
‘Chin chin,’ she said.
They clinked drinks and drank, her eyes crinkled into a grin over the rim of the glass.
They went for an ice-cream every day after that. Each time they would spend a bit longer, testing the limits of their leave. Before the adults they would joke about the flavours: her getting blue flavour, him apple. He could discard the mother’s novel now, no need for a parapet. His sunglasses he retired from covert operations; they merely soothed his retinas while he joked with Lill, lying on an adjacent deckchair. He imagined himself in a different light now: perhaps his xylophone was trim, his lankiness was rangy. They would cool off in the pool, throwing the ball at each other, splashing about. He showed her the backstroke; she pretended not to know it. In the evenings they would sit at the back of the crowd, while the adults chattered and listened to Bay City Rollers cover bands, dodgy comedians or unmysterious magicians. Into the quiet cranny behind the pool pump station, they slunk on the second evening and she put her hands on his shoulders and her lips on his lips. When they crept back to their chairs he was giggly and his teeth clattered, despite the balmy heat. He grinned alone often.
On the fourth evening they thought fuck it and went out the gate altogether. They were a long time kissing, walking, talking and kissing some more, all along the waterfront, way after the sun had dipped into the Mediterranean. Behind them the town terraced up into the hills, slumbering or, in a few humming hubs, partying. Through the daze of this perambulation, Roarty finally realized they were back at the complex, outside her door. She hugged him tightly, sadly.
‘I’m going home the day after tomorrow, early. You know that?’
‘Yeah,’ he said.
Some fowl lilted amongst palm fronds.
‘We’ll hang out tomorrow though, yeah?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Course.’
‘I want to have fun on my last day.’
‘We could go to that waterpark, it’s got this massive steep– ‘
‘I want to have fun on my last day.’
She bore into him with her eyes, dipping her head when he looked at the ground so as to maintain the contact. She gave him one last peck and then was inside, the door clicked shut. He stood alone, perplexed on the doorstep, then heard the bulldog raving inside and shimmied away home.
There was little slumber that night: Sheets, fan, sweat.
In the morning he could not finish his cereal — he already had a bowl of butterflies inside him.
‘You’ll always remember this holiday,’ she whispered, tingling his ear.
They were alone in her family’s apartment, sitting on her bed, the long cotton curtains billowing gently. The afternoon bustle of the poolside drifted up to them in peters, seeming much more remote than four stories. Her parents and wee sister had just left for the afternoon, something about shopping for a present for the grandmother.
‘Shouldn’t we get a…’
‘A condom? Haha. We’re not having sex Ryan! I’m keeping that. We can still have a lot of fun though.’
She kissed his mouth, then his neck, then her hands wandered and Roarty sank backwards and watched sunlight and shadow dance upon the textured ceiling. In geography class, the light had slatted across the desks, glinting through shutters and dust: one of those last lessons before the Junior Cert, when nobody really cares anymore. Not even Mr. Scullion:
‘Geothermal activity, lads: geysers and the likes. Shush lads, this could come up in section four. So you get ground water percolating downwards, it gathers in a reservoir, where it gets heated by aul magma and– shuddup Sheedy or you’ll be up to the office! And, where was I? The pressure increases and increases until it becomes superheated.’
Mr. Scullion spun his laptop around, clicked the mousepad to reveal clouds of steam, drifting off a mound, building, blossoming, the depths of the earth groaning, scree rattling and a vast scalding plume erupted and seared into the blue blue sky and her father the bulldog was standing in the doorway then charging and cursing — little slut — punched him, pushed her backwards onto the bed and she was wailing and Young Roarty was being dragged through the apartment, his ankles shackled by his shorts. One huge arm wrapped around his armpit, another clenched the back of his t-shirt and a table clattered over, shattering a jug before he was pushed headfirst through double doors, which swung open and banged — he was thrust out beyond the parapet of the balcony, hovering. His feet scrabbled desperately on tiles but the iron clasp of the bulldog shook him outward still further. He felt himself tilting, felt the gravity clawing. The pool far below was all turquoise shimmer, it could cushion a plunge, but its radiant ripples were too distant: directly beneath there was only hot hard concrete to meet him.
He gasped at the clarity of it.
Then he was swung around, thrust through the double doors and bundled back through the apartment, bits of the shattered jug scratching his soles, Lill continuing her screeches for clemency and then, with one last burst of brawn, he was ejected out the apartment door. He stumbled straight across the corridor and cracked his head off the opposite wall. The door behind him slammed like an airburst. Dazed, he scrambled away, yanking up his shorts en route.
Young Roarty wakes. He has slept late, past noon, but his bruise still throbs. He lies in bed, staring at the patterns on the ceiling. He stuck to his story yesterday, about slipping on the pool ladder, though his parents questioned him endlessly. Eventually, they had tired, unconvinced but resigned. Why had the bulldog returned early? Young Roarty has many theories but he will never know the answer. He rises, showers, changes, eats, peers outside.
The sun is shining, the weather is sweet: children are messing in the shallow end, birds chirp in the cypresses and there is a whole week of holiday ahead. But she is gone now, and the poolside is a sorry place.