First-Person Accounts Magazine

Coming of Age

The unforgettable feeling of first love.

If I ever did come of age, a thing which frequently I have cause to doubt, it was thanks to the women in my life. Anything I learned of the civilising values I learned from them, beginning with my mother. And in the matter of becoming what I am, emerging from the chrysalis of callow youth into at least the rudiments of manhood, one woman – or girl, really – was the onlie begetter. I shall call her C. We were 11 when we fell in love.

She was not my first girlfriend. There had been a precursor, B., daughter of one of the grander families in our little town in the south-east of Ireland. They were horsey people, and our assignations were usually conducted on open grassland. She would emerge through a five-barred gate, mounted on an enormous brown stallion, looking excitingly severe in her skintight jodhpurs and hard hat. I remember in particular the horse’s huge glossy eye regarding me with what seemed sceptical amusement. It couldn’t last, and didn’t.

C. was from Wallasey, a ferry ride across the Mersey from Liverpool. She used to come with her family each summer to stay for four weeks in the little seaside village which has featured in two or three of my novels under the name of Ballyless. She had relatives in one of the holiday chalets in a field just behind the beach where, also in a – smaller – chalet, my family and I spent our summers.

I must have been aware of C. before I met her properly – though at that age children do not so much meet as congregate. There were games of rounders, of charades, of hide and seek, and a more violent version of hide and seek which we called ‘hunt’. I think of hunt as a dionysiac rout, with swarms of miniature maenads fleeing amid shrieks of wild laughter before a herd of ruddy-cheeked satyrs in sandals, shorts and singlets. What we did with our quarries when we captured them I can’t remember. Very little, I’m sure.

We spent so much time in the sea we were practically amphibious. We swam at morn and noon and eve, in sun and storm, under blue skies and grey, under warm rain, in the chill gales of mid-June. In the first clear recollection I have of C., she is wearing a one-piece black swimsuit. This elegant item marked her out from the others as a nymphet in the true Nabokovian sense. The others wore togs made of crimplene – remember crimplene? – which looked like limp chainmail, and, in some sad cases, wool, even. She was as sleek as a seal.

Her accent was a great draw. It was the standard middle-class English variety, which to us rough post­-colonials was far above standard. When she wished to be funny, as she often did, she would descend into rich, singsong Scouse, or deepest Bumpkinshire, which she was very good at – Ar, I cum oop from Soomerzet where the zider arples groaw. She in turn found our broad Irish brogue hilarious, while our piously euphemistic expletives made her shriek. Japers? she would cry, what do you mean, Japers? and who on earth is Janey Mac?

Indeed, it was through C. that I first came to appreciate the uniqueness of Irish Catholicism. She and her family were Catholic, but not at all in the way that we were. Compared to theirs, our religion was a lot of superstitious hokum, as primitive and mysterious to her as Zoroastrianism or the Kabbalah. Her concept of sin was essentially frivolous, certainly compared to our scrupulous and tormented eschatology.

‘You mean you really believe,’ she said to me once, ‘that if you don’t go to Mass next Sunday and die on Monday, God will condemn you to Hell for all eternity?’ And when I said yes she shook her head and did that incredulous whistle that I can still hear, as clear as the sound of pan pipes on a burning noon in the stillness of an Attic grove. Ah, my Chloe amid the laurels, my lost Atalanta.

Our love lasted for seven years, even though over those years we saw each other only for four weeks each summer. In consequence, it was mainly an epistolary romance. I can still feel the leap my heart made when I heard the clatter of the letter box and went into the hall and saw on the mat the longed-for pale pink envelope, Basildon Bond’s best, which when I opened it gave off, I swear it did, a faint whiff of her perfume – no, a faint whiff of her. What news, my downy darling? what pranks have you been up to? and how much, how sorely, are you missing me?

In Ballyless, I am sitting in the sun beside a wooden chalet – creosote, hot grass, the salt breeze from the sea – and she is lying on her front beside me, eyelids fluttering, a strand of auburn hair caught at the corner of her mouth. I am reading Keats to her, and eyeing, between verses, the sunspot gleaming on the taut curved roundel of her bare shoulder, the rose-pink indentation left by the buckle of her bra – the years have moved on – the milk-blue backs of her knees, the twin trim hillocks of her rump. Crickets spurt out of the grass, drunken butterflies blunder about the lupins, and I care not a fig for Provençal song and sunburnt mirth, since my Flora is here beside me, a vision, aye, but no waking dream.

Her relations, in their chalet over there across the field, were a large cheerful rackety family consisting of three or four tomboy daughters, a jolly, red-faced father, scatterbrained mother, and a rather louche and very old grandmother, who smoked Balkan Sobranie ‘ciggies’, wore slacks and slingbacks; her glistening and always slightly smudged lipstick was the colour of freshly spilled blood. What a wonderful, secret pleasure to be among them with C., my secret sweetheart, catching her eye betimes, or managing to touch her hair or brush my hand against hers.

I should say that she was not at all the swooning romantic that I was. Her sense of the ridiculous was too highly developed for Keatsian transports. One day she enquired of me if I did truly, troooly, love her. Of course I did! – how could she ask? ‘Well,’ she said, ‘see my mother over there? She’s as big as the back of a bus and about as handsome. Someday I’ll be like that. Will you still love me then?’ And she laughed loud and long, and gave me a push, then grabbed my arm and kissed me, still half laughing, mashing her strawberry lips against mine.

Seven years, seven summers, and then I made the fateful mistake of spending Christmas with her and her family at their home in Wallasey. She had an older sister who disliked me intensely – I admit I was a pretentious little twerp – while her mother saw me, quite rightly, as an altogether too immediate threat to her daughter’s honour. I stayed for a fortnight, the week before Christmas and the week after. All went swimmingly, or so it seemed to me, until Christmas Eve, when C. informed me, with characteristic briskness, that she no longer loved me, and that our years-long idyll was at an end.

Reader, I wept. How I wept, every night, throughout that agonising week between Christmas and New Year. In Liverpool I had purchased a precious copy of Ulysses – in those days it wasn’t to be bought in Dublin – which I have still, and which still has a few tiny blebs in the paper of the opening pages, which are the abiding marks of my salt tears.

Some years later I met C. again, and asked her why she broke with me on that terrible eve. ‘Don’t know, really,’ she said, doing her clown’s upside-down smile that broke my heart all over again.

I returned home to a new year and a new resolve. I remember standing with my older brother in the living room of his flat in Dublin, trying out a putter – why do I remember the putter? – he had just bought and telling him of the sad end of the affair. He was sympathetic, but I shrugged, and said something blasé about experience, and the shoals of other fish awaiting me in the sea, and the myriad of maidens waving to me from the sunny uplands of the future. I was 18. I would not be 18 again, ever.

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