The rooms of our house are guarded by effigies of the saints. Anthony of Padua and the Virgin Mary greet any visitors I try to sneak in under cover of darkness. For added security, St. Francis of Assisi perches on the dresser with a kestrel on his wrist. Under the covers we sail free, fueled by alcohol and desperation, the pair of us anticipating the whistling call of the hunting bird. Her name is Gemma, blond, with prominent teeth and an overeager way about her. She plays the piano with skill, she tells me. In the taxi from Annabel’s Nightclub we neck in the cloud of cigarette smoke created by the driver, who listens to Big Tom and the Mainliners and casts a backward eye in the rear-view mirror every now and then, to see if he can catch a glimpse of her bare legs, or more. At two in the morning the house is quiet, the ma and da fast asleep, but their ears attuned to the unfamiliar tread of feet on the stairs. They could wake at any moment and I’ll be caught red-handed.
Soft-shoed on carpet so well worn by the years you can almost see your reflection in its fibers, we creep up to my bedroom. I make her wait by the door as I pull dirty socks over the watchful saints. What if she sneezes, or cries out from delight? Neither option is something I consider after asking her if she wants to come home with me. We could have gone to Gemma’s place, but her mother has a new baby and will be awake every hour for to stick its mouth to her tit, she said. From the cottages behind the Irishtown gasworks, she is. A working-class girl, her old man works in Guinness’s unloading hops and malt day after day. We kiss and fumble in the dark, in front of the blindfolded saints, every now and then uttering whispered prayers of blasphemy: Oh, God! Oh, my Jesus! God Almighty!
In the early morning light I trace the tracks of her bra, whiter than the rest of her skin. Next door the mother stirs to make the old man’s breakfast, and her footsteps on the landing have the pair of us in fits of giggles. She taps on the door and sticks a head in. “What in the name of God are your socks doing on the sacred statues?”
Beneath the eiderdown I can feel Gemma tremble, ready to burst into laughter.
“Sorry, Mam, I wasn’t thinking.” She shakes a head, sniffs the musty air, and says, “We’ll be off to ten o’clock Mass if you’ve a mind to go.”
Nod of the head, and I say, “I think I’ll sleep in and go to twelve o’clock.” Down she goes to stoke the embers in the Aga, the wool pulled over her eyes, at least for the moment.
“I have to get home,” Gemma says, her hair wild, her mouth crusted with sleep. “Wait until they head off to Mass,” I say. A taxi, she tells me, her hand reaching beneath my underpants. “I can’t walk the miles to Irishtown in those shoes,” she says pointing to the white stiletto poking out from under the wardrobe. I don’t know how the mother missed it, what with her beady eyes noticing the shrouded saints immediately. I kiss sourness, her teeth rimed with cigarettes and rum and cokes, and we disappear under the billowing sails again.
Whilst the ma makes breakfast and the da uses the toilet, I fish a tenner from his trousers, the Sacred Heart of Jesus imploring me to reconsider my thieving ways. Whistling from the bathroom, then the slapping of the belly, means I have to leg it back to the young one hiding in my bedroom. At 9:45 footfalls echo on the pavement as the Sunday faithful walk to prayer. Our front door-knocker rattles as the ma and da join the procession. Curtains shut, she dresses in dimness, her plump behind a reminder of mortal sin. From under their hoods the saints scream indignant, and I go downstairs and phone her a taxi. “Pick her up at the Protestant School on Rathgar Avenue,” I tell the man. And at quarter after ten the unnamed girl does the walk of shame, out the front door, down the avenue to the corner, and right for the waiting taxi. When she’s gone I remove the socks from the prisoners’eyes and in the soft light of my bedroom say a decade of the Rosary for the salvation of my soul.
Friday night at the Old Wesley dance, and “Stand By Me,” plays as we move slow circles in the cigarette smoke. As we turn in narrower and narrower spirals I try for a kiss and her warm mouth locks on mine. She tastes of Juicy Fruit gum, all sweet and sugary, and I hope she doesn’t notice my excitement.
Next thing I know, I’m on the flat of my back in the center of the dance-floor, my nose tingling, and someone laying the boot into me. Bouncers appear from the smoke and pull the guy off me, dragging him by the legs off towards the exit. “You bastard,” he yells at me. “You’re a dead man. I don’t know what Gemma’s doing with you.”
The girl I was dancing with has fled to the safety of her friends and I’m left to wipe my bloody nose and worry about Gemma’s friend jumping me on the way home. I don’t know what his problem is, I mean, We’re not even boyfriend and girlfriend, really. In the toilet I check my nose to make sure it’s not broken. The blood is all over my white cotton shirt and if my ma sees it she’ll throw a wobbler. I try to sponge the blood out with warm water and tissue paper, but all that does is create a giant pink circle on the shirt. Some lads taking a slash at the urinal are laughing at me, and shout at me, “Was she on the rag, then?” I don’t say anything, the last thing I need is another punch in the snot.
All the way home I look over my shoulder every few minutes. When I get to our road I go around the back and climb over the wall, shin up the drainpipe onto the roof of the shed, crack my bedroom window open and slip inside, praying the parents won’t hear me.
The fruit of thy womb, the shrapnel embedded in her belly, the damage done, the Lord have mercy. Seagulls throw themselves against the North wind, again and again, a perpetual motion of disappointment. We are on Sandymount Strand, the tide so far out it looks as if the water is gone forever. Dog owners walk the ribbed sand as their pets sniff kelp and cock legs to answer the call of nature. “I might be pregnant.” Her hands blue in the cold, her cheeks acne-scarred, the look in her eyes as faraway as the distant waves.
“Jaysus. Are you sure? Is your period late?” My questions are as useless as the soft drizzle falling on the wet sand.
In tears, she bites a lip, blinks mascara-ed eyes, and says, “Yeah. Two weeks. What’ll I do if I am? Me ma and da will kill me, and they’ll murder you.”
“Maybe you’re only late, and you’ll get it at the weekend?” I offer. “Are you sure it’s mine?”
She gives me a look that answers my question. “I can’t believe you’d even ask me that.” Her eyes are filled, ready to pour. I mumble an apology and rub her shoulder.
“I want to go and light a candle in the church across the road,” she says. “Will you come with me?”
“’Course I will,” I say, shitting bricks. I lead her by the hand to the steps that go up to the road. We cross Beach Road and walk up Leahy’s Terrace to the church grounds.
In flickering light we kneel on hard wood and endure the stare of the blue-cloaked Blessed Virgin and the baby Jesus. she feeds pennies through the narrow slot, the coins dully clinking on the prayers of others in dire circumstances.
Outside, the gray sky muted can barely match our mood as we take the narrow footpath back to her neighborhood. The squat red-bricked houses of Irishtown are like our own house in Rathgar, but smaller, only one-story, and tighter, and the curtains in the windows more yellowed and threadbare. We stop at the corner of Philomena Terrace and Rosary Terrace, and she kisses my cheek and says, “Will you call me tonight?” I nod, and head off towards the bus stop for town. I don’t want to call her tonight, nor any other night, not if she’s up the pole, not if she’s going to have our baby. I don’t even know her, really. The night out at Annabel’s was our second time out together, and the sex, the first time. Beginner’s luck.