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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer in Kilrenane - Chapter One

Tuesday in Kilrenane. Most of the shops are closed now, and the streets are quiet. In the park, people are walking their dogs and their kids, or just enjoying the June evening, watching a gentle breeze blow litter along the concrete paths. The pubs are half-full, the evening half-empty.

In a house at the edge of the town, Clare washes the dishes as she talks to her mother about one of their neighbour's dogs, the one who howls every time he hears the ice cream van. This is as full as the evening is likely to get. When the dishes are done she goes upstairs to her bedroom and she looks down on a field that seems like a green sea when the breeze blows waves through the long grass. The waves shimmer in the evening sun. She kneels on the ground in front of the window, with her chin on her hands on the window board, and she remembers looking down on a lake in winter, last year. It was New Year's Day, walking arm in arm to the top of the hill, Clare and Charlie. But that was last year. This year it's just Clare... long, uncomfortable pause where the 'and' once was.

She's known Charlie almost all her life, for as long as she can remember. His grandparents live a few streets away, and Clare's grandparents used to live next door to them for over thirty years. There's no introduction to Charlie in Clare's memory. He's just there, being attacked by his grandparents' cat. That cat didn't like Charlie every bit as much as Charlie didn't like the cat.

It's a depressing thought, she says to herself. If I had listened to a cat when I was three I could have saved myself so much trouble. Of course, I might have walked into more trouble. Cats have nine lives. They can afford to walk into any kind of trouble without worrying, as long as they've got a few lives left. You shouldn't always listen to a cat's advice, although that cat probably used up most of its nine lives in Charlie's attempts to get rid of it.

Clare and Charlie used to play together at Clare's grandparents' house. Charlie was always glad of the chance to get away from the cat, but sometimes it would sit on the wall and stare at him as they were playing in the back garden. They'd play inside then, or else they'd go to Clare's house, well away from the cat. She used to show him the latest footprints left behind by the leprechaun in their garden. Clare saw the leprechaun once. At first she thought it was just a rock covered in moss, but when she saw it again in her memory a few hours later it seemed to be moving and it had a red beard. She'd already heard her grandmother's stories about the leprechaun who used to get into arguments with the flowers and the trees in the garden at night. Clare and Charlie spent a lot of time searching for a crock of gold. All they found was a teapot, and Charlie convinced himself that the teapot was full of invisible gold, but this currency wasn't accepted in the shop when he tried to buy crisps and ice creams. It was a time when prices for invisible gold were very low.

When Clare's grandfather died, her grandmother moved in with them, and Charlie became a more frequent visitor to Clare's house. Her grandmother was Charlie's godmother. Visiting his godmother was the excuse he used to come over to Clare's place when his parents were visiting his grandparents, but it was really just to play with Clare and to get away from the cat.

They were in primary school together in Kilrenane. She went to a local secondary school but he went to a boarding school in Dublin. They still saw each other often enough, on holidays and at weekends. Charlie was always excited about seeing her again, and showing her the various bruises on his head. Most of the bruises came from playing rugby, and he had a long story about every blow to the head. It was amazing how many details he could remember when he was concussed.

She remembers when they were sixteen, the summer holidays, and the annual Kilrenane festival. There's no particular reason for the festival, but no one really cares about that, especially after a few drinks. After enough alcohol the festival seems like a good idea. In fact, if there's a theme to the festival at all, that's it: keep drinking until having a festival in Kilrenane seems like a good idea. Under normal circumstances, doing anything in Kilrenane doesn't seem like such a good idea. That's why people normally go for activities that are as close as possible to doing nothing, like sitting at home and watching TV. The festival gets people out in the fresh air and actually doing things, like falling off cars. That's another theme to the festival -- someone always falls off a car.

Clare remembers a junior disco in the hall, which the juniors chose to attend in the field at the back of the hall. In? Out? "We were at the hall." The very junior juniors were inside drinking their lemonade. Those who chose the 'outside' interpretation of 'at' then chose the 'near' interpretation of 'outside'. As in, 'the field near the field outside the hall'. A typical teenage night, just one long argument about semantics until they ended up in a field a mile away, well out of view, out of sight and streetlight, and at last they all agreed they were at the junior disco.

A beautiful night, a dance in a field beneath a star-filled sky. A drink-induced sleep in dew-filled grass, Charlie talking in his sleep about his rugby injuries. Wake up in the middle of the night and look around; ye're not the only ones who didn't make it home. A peaceful scene until Charlie says, "I haven't seen this many people unconscious in the grass since the quarter-final of the Leinster Schools Cup." Obviously a continuation of his dream.

After that night, they were officially going out. Lot's of dates with Charlie, nights out and days in. A few nights in, lights out in his bedroom when his parents were away. Or outside, lazy days by the lake during summer holidays.

"What's that bird?"

"I don't know, Charlie."

"What's that tree?"

"I don't know, Charlie."

"What's that carton of milk doing there?"

"I don't know, Charlie."

"What's that bird?"

"You already asked me that."

"No, not that one, the one next to it."

"It's the same type of bird and I don't know what it is. That's why they're sitting next to each other. They're the same type of bird."

Lazy days at the lake that turned into stressful days and came to an end too soon.

"I'm going home."

Charlie's father set up a software company in the eighties. It started with a small office in Dublin. Within a year the office was too small and they moved to a bigger premises. Within ten years the country was too small. They now have offices in England and America. When Charlie left school he joined the family business. He spent most of his time in the Dublin office. His parents moved to a bigger house, closer to the city, but Charlie often stayed with his grandparents to spend time with Clare in Kilrenane.

No one was surprised when the engagement was announced. Five years of going out before he finally asked her that question. She had heard almost every other conceivable question during those five years. What does that button do? Why is that dog black? It your hair meant to be like that? But the question in question finally came and she expected to be married within months rather than years, but Charlie couldn't even agree on a date for the wedding. New Year's Day of last year came by, walking up the hill. They got to the top, sat on a rock and looked down at the cold lake shimmering in the winter sun. They needed the rest after their walk. Neither of them said a word, and this is one of the warmest and most vivid memories she has of their relationship, but now that she thinks about it, all the best memories are silent, those perfect moments that would have been ruined if Charlie had said something. So many near-misses, close encounters with perfection, moments when nothing else in the world existed, brought to an end by Charlie asking where the toilets are.

Two years of engagement before he agreed on a date for the wedding. That was last August, and if things had gone according to plan the wedding would have taken place three months ago, but just after they announced the date in August, Charlie had to go to England on business for a while, just a short while, a week at most. The 'short while' got longer, and the letters arrived explaining how and why the while will last for another week, (technical problems, apparently) or ten days.

His stay in England got longer and the letters got shorter. Phone calls were few and far between. Clare suspected that something was wrong when she got the first letter. Charlie always thought that writing was slightly effeminate. He also thought that saying the words 'slightly effeminate' was slightly effeminate, so he used to say, "It's not exactly rugby."

The letters got shorter, and after a few weeks they were replaced by emails. Clare wasn't sure if this was a good or a bad sign. It was more like the Charlie she knew to send an email rather than a letter, but it's not a good sign when your fiancé sends emails rather than calling you on the phone.

Then another letter arrived. "Dear Clare, I can't marry you. It's not you, and it's not anyone else, and it's not me either. I don't really know what you're supposed to write in these situations. You know me. If I'm stuck for something to say I'll keep rambling on until I say the wrong thing, and I'll tell myself that all I have to do is keep rambling on until I say the right thing, but I'll only make things worse, like the time I asked your uncle how his swimwear collection was coming along. All I can say is that I'm sorry. I don't know if that makes things better or worse. I think the world of you, and the last thing I ever wanted to do was to hurt you. But that's exactly what I've done. Typical me. I think it's for the best for both of us. I hope you'll understand. Charlie."

Everything in the letter was true apart from 'it's not anyone else'. Someone else had entered Charlie's life when he was in a restaurant in London one evening with some work colleagues. He heard a beautiful voice and a laugh coming from the table just behind him. He tried to turn around as casually as he could to see the source of the voice, but he never got a clear view of her. During one prolonged fit of laughter she dropped her fork. Charlie saw his chance. He picked up the fork and gave it to her, taking great care not to make a bad first impression by inadvertently stabbing her hand with the fork. He saw that she had the face to match the beautiful voice and the laugh. She smiled and thanked him, and then she called the waiter to get another fork. Charlie felt stupid. Of course she wouldn't want the fork back, he told himself. What civilised person would pick up a fork?

When they left the restaurant, Charlie and his colleagues went to a pub on the same street, and half an hour later, the woman who had dropped her fork came into the pub with her friends. Charlie waited until she went to buy some drinks, and he followed her to the bar. He stood next to her and said, "Hello."

She responded with a smile and a 'hi'. Charlie got the impression that she didn't recognise him, so he told her who he was. "I'm the guy who picked up your fork earlier this evening." He felt like kicking himself for saying something so stupid, the first sentence he'd ever said to her and it was about picking up a fork. The second one better be a big improvement. "Of course, I should have just left it there."

She laughed, her laugh, and it took possession of his mind before he had time to realise that his second line was worse than the first. Only on the following day when he was replaying the evening in his head did he realise how stupid that sounded, but he didn't mind then because the rest of their conversation had gone so well.

They talked for over an hour. She talked for most of that time and he listened, and he pretended he was listening when he was distracted by the mere sight of her. Her name was Isobel. She was nearly twenty-one, and her father was the head of a shipping company, a family business. When Charlie asked her if he could see her again, she said she couldn't stop him from looking at her. He came to the conclusion that this was a joke, so he laughed. She laughed as well, and then she said, "My parents are having a party at their summer house on the coast this weekend. Come along to that."

The weekend arrived and Charlie headed off to the coast. He would have gone to the other side of the world just for the moment when he met her again. She put her arms around him, kissed him on the cheek and said, "Hello sunshine." Those words had an intoxicating effect on Charlie. With her accent and with the warmth in her voice as she said them, he always thought they were the most beautiful words she could possibly say. And he really needed to go to the toilet after a long car drive, but he was speechless.

A perfect night on the coast; leave this party behind and go for a walk along the seafront with Isobel. Sit down till sunset, and then set out for the lighthouse on the rocks, to watch the moon's reflection across the sea, and talk. Talk about anything and everything.

Well, not quite everything. Rugby, horses and the quality of plastic cups. But they could have talked about anything, anything at all. It didn't matter what they said. It was the warmth and the excitement in their voices that mattered. These were the things they'd remember long after they had forgotten what they were talking about, and it didn't take long for each of them to forget what the other was talking about. There were many beautiful, vivid memories from that night, like the greeting, the walk, the moon's reflection on the sea, and it's just as well they couldn't remember what they said. The perfect memories that Isobel kept safe in her mind would not be spoiled by a description of what a dislocated shoulder feels like, and Charlie's collection remained unspoiled by stories of how she lost her hat at the races. He remembered the sound of that beautiful warm voice, and the sight of Isobel. There wasn't room for anything else in his mind over the next few days.

He spent a lot of time with Isobel, and her friends and family too, and so the 'while' grew. He didn't want to call Clare on the phone because he had a habit of taking on the vocal characteristics of the people he was spending time with. This was more noticeable to himself than it was to others, because when he imagined himself talking -- and he often imagined instances of his dazzling wit -- he always heard himself speaking in the accent of those people he was around. He was already nervous about talking to Clare on the phone, and when he thought about what he would say to her he imagined himself speaking like Isobel. He even imagined himself saying 'Hello sunshine' to Clare. He couldn't go through with a call to his fiancée sounding like the woman he was having an affair with, so he decided to write a letter instead. She might even think it was more romantic than a phone call, he told himself in Isobel's voice.

He started with 'Dearest Clare.' Well that's not rugby anyway. "Dear Clare, I hope you get this letter." That's a bit of a stupid thing to say. If she gets it, she gets it, and if she doesn't she doesn't know that I hope she gets it. "Dear Clare, I hope you're having a good time in Kilrenane. Sorry I haven't been able to call, mad busy, out of the office all the time, lost my mobile in a storm."

And then at the end: "Love, Charlie." Love? He was able to tell her he loved her, but that had taken a lot of practise. He wasn't sure he was ready to say it in writing yet. But was he really saying he loved her with a simple 'Love, Charlie'? Still, it's not exactly rugby. That's not even hockey. Just use 'Yours sincerely' instead. No, too formal. 'Yours'. Perfect. He was hers. Wasn't he? Or was he? Yes, he was still hers, but it didn't feel like the hundred percent certainty it once was. Back to 'Yours sincerely'. But that's worse than 'Yours' now. 'Yours insincerely' would be more accurate. Just use 'Charlie'. That's one thing he could be sure of. He was definitely Charlie. It was everyone else he wasn't sure about.

More days and nights with Isobel, and days that went on into nights and back into days again. A weekend together, highlights include: waking up on Saturday morning and realising that she's still there while her clothes are elsewhere; Saturday evening, going out, just the excitement of it; and Sunday morning, a repeat of Saturday.

Charlie always told himself that it was just a fling; it meant nothing. He would bring it to an end when it ran its course and he'd go back to Ireland, to Clare. This was the official position he came up with when he was explaining it to himself. From the very first moment he saw Isobel he knew at the back of his mind that she was out of his league. When he asked if he could see her again he was just chancing his arm. Even when it became more serious, there was always the thought at the back of his mind that it had to come to an end sooner or later, and when that would happen he had his Clare in Ireland to fall back on. But it didn't come to an end. The thought that she was out of his league made him try harder to impress her. He did more for Isobel than he had ever done for Clare. He bought her flowers and jewellery, and he took her for picnics in out-of-the-way places where they could be alone. This sort of behaviour was so out of character that his friends would have sought professional help for him if they saw the picnic basket he'd bought or the sandwiches he'd made. He did all of these things that were a million miles away from rugby just for Isobel, things that were so far away from rugby that he considered them to be a little bit gay, even though their end result was the sight of her next to him on Saturday and Sunday mornings, which was anything but gay. Now that's rugby.

The weeks went by and he felt as if he was getting closer to Isobel all the time, drifting further away from Clare, from Ireland, letting the whole country float away into the Atlantic, goodbye. And then one Saturday morning Isobel woke up and told him she loved him. He was shocked. Gone was the thought at the back of his mind that she was out of his league. No. After years of battling against relegation from Division Two, one spectacular season and he was promoted to Division One, in amongst the elite of Irish rugby. The delusion that this was just a meaningless fling was gone too, and his relationship with Clare followed shortly afterwards.

Isobel's head was resting on his shoulder and he couldn't see her face but he got the impression that she was waiting for a response, so he said, "I love you so much." That was the gayest thing he'd ever said in his life, but he didn't care. She looked at him, with that smile, and the morning that followed was one they'd never forget. If Charlie was compiling a list of the most heterosexual things he's ever done in his life, that morning would definitely be in the top ten.

Clare suspected that he'd met someone else. She knew he wouldn't have said 'it's not anyone else' in the letter if no one else was involved. He just wouldn't have mentioned it at all. Four months later, Clare's grandmother heard from Charlie's grandparents that he was engaged to Isobel.

Clare's family were relieved that Charlie had left her. They thought it was the best thing he had ever done. They always believed she could do much better than him, and that's what they told her when he left. Clare was devastated at first, but as time went by she started to believe the idea that she was better off without him. Only slightly better off, though.

So forget about Charlie. No more 'Clare and Charlie.' Get out of the habit now of mentioning himself. He who comes after 'and', or used to come after 'and' until you-know-he went after you-know-who. No ring on ring-finger on ring-finger-hand, and no 'and'. It's just 'Clare' now.

She kneels on the ground, looking out of her bedroom window, and she never thought she'd still be looking out that same window at the age of twenty-four, or still working as a secretary in an estate agent's office in Kilrenane. She lives with her parents, her grandmother, her brother, Andy, and her sister, Ciara. She has an older sister, Emma, who's married and living in London. Andy is nineteen and he just finished his first year of college in Dublin. He's studying chemistry. Ciara is seventeen, and she'll be doing her Leaving Cert next year. Right now, she's probably rehearsing with her band -- she's the lead singer.

As Clare looks down on the field, the sun descends to meet the horizon. She looks to her right, at her alarm clock on the bedside locker, and she goes downstairs. She watches TV with her parents, some programme that's so forgettable she has trouble remembering what she's watching as she's watching it. Make some tea, talk about the weather for a while, say goodnight, and go to bed. Still a little light-blue left above the horizon; higher it gets darker and deeper. The field is completely still now. She turns off the light, and as she lies in bed she stares at the space on the wall where the photo of herself and you-know-who once was, in memory of a memory.