Authors: Erin Kaye
To my big brother, Jim
‘So, have you told your father about us yet?’ Cahal lay on his back, head propped up by two pillows, staring at a patch of green mould on the ceiling. A chipped saucer, full of ash, balanced precariously on his athletic chest.
‘Have you told yours?’ said Sarah, tracing her finger around the whorl of thick, black hair that surrounded his left nipple. The room smelt of cigarette smoke, stale beer and sex – the smell of sin. Golden February sunshine filtered through the thin floral curtains and ‘Goodnight Girl’ by Wet Wet Wet played quietly on the radio. The laughter of high school kids on their lunch break floated up from the street below.
‘Yep.’ He brought the stub of a roll-up to his lips, pinched between nicotine-yellow finger and thumb. His chest rose as he inhaled, stilled, then deflated slowly as a plume of grey smoke escaped from the corner of his mouth.
Sarah propped herself up on her elbow, and pulled the slightly musty duvet around her naked, shivering shoulders. She tucked a lock of long, blonde hair behind her ear. ‘What did they say?’
He stubbed the cigarette out on the saucer with a faint fizzing sound and carefully placed the saucer atop the bedside table. ‘Not much.’
‘Oh,’ she said, disappointed, and sank back down on the bed again.
He rolled onto his side and the well-defined muscles beneath his pale skin flexed. ‘Don’t take it personally. They aren’t that interested in anything I do.’ But though he smiled, his eyes, the same blue-green colour of the sea in Portstewart bay outside, were sad.
Sarah frowned. ‘Not like my Dad. He rang the flat the other day, you know, asking me what mark I got in that psychology paper. He’s always ringing me. Or if not him, Aunt Vi. I wish we didn’t have that phone. You manage perfectly well here without one. He insists that I come home every weekend. You’d think I was twelve, not a grown adult.’
He cocked his head in reply and was quiet for a few moments. Sarah waited, used to the way he always thought before he spoke, a trait that lent everything he said an air of authority. ‘I wouldn’t knock it. At least he cares about you.’
‘He cares too much,’ grumbled Sarah. ‘He didn’t want me to leave Ballyfergus. He wanted me to go to Queen’s in Belfast and live at home.’
A pause. ‘So why didn’t you?’
‘I had to get away. Living in that house was suffocating. I had to attend church twice on a Sunday and my father always had to know exactly where I was, and who I was with. My aunt was even worse. And if I was ever late, oh, what a carry-on. You’d have thought Jack the Ripper was on the loose.’
He grinned lopsidedly, a dimple appearing in his left cheek, and revealed the crooked tooth in his lower left jaw that would’ve been an imperfection in anyone else. He placed a hand, rough and hot, on her hip. ‘So you escaped?’
‘Something like that.’
The smile faded from his face. ‘I did too.’
‘What were you escaping from?’
He stared at the wall for a few moments and said at last, ‘My family have lived in Ballyfergus and worked on the docks for three generations. I’m not knocking the town, or them, but I wanted something more out of life. It wouldn’t have been possible before for people like me to go to university but the grant system’s changed all that. So long as I work every holiday and keep my job in The Anchor bar, I should be all right.’ He smiled and looked at Sarah. ‘You should’ve seen my Ma and Da’s faces when I told them I was going to university.’
‘They must’ve been pleased.’
‘They were astonished. No one in my family has ever got past O levels, Sarah, never mind gone on to uni.’
Sarah stared at him thoughtfully. ‘There’s far more to you than meets the eye, Cahal Mulvenna.’
‘You think so?’ he laughed, his dark eyes twinkling.
She knitted her eyebrows together. ‘You give the impression of being one of the lads. You act like all you want to do is get pissed and have a good time.’
He grinned. ‘Well I do want to have a good time. You’re only young once. And sure there’s nothing wrong with that.’
‘But you’re not the pisshead you pretend to be. Beneath that exterior, you’re actually quite determined and focused, aren’t you?’
‘This is my chance to make something of my life. I’m not going to screw it up.’ He paused and twirled a lock of her hair around his index finger. ‘You know I’ve never met a girl like you before.’
‘But there have been other girls?’ she teased, looking at him from under her eyelashes. Beneath the covers she found his leg and rubbed his hairy calf with her foot.
‘A few,’ he acknowledged, letting go of her hair and slipping his hand under the covers.
‘Tell me about them.’
‘Ach, now, you don’t want to know that.’ His hand made contact with her ribcage, then moved swiftly down her smooth, boyish hip. ‘You must’ve had your fair share of boyfriends,’ he said, looking up at her questioningly from under long lashes. ‘I bet I’m just one of many.’
She stopped rubbing his leg and stared at him. Didn’t he realise what he meant to her? She’d dated a few boys, but she’d never loved any of them. ‘I’ve had boyfriends,’ she said, looking at his chest, and feeling her face colour. Her voice dropped. ‘But I never slept with any of them.’
His hand stilled and his voice softened. ‘What?’
She raised her eyes to meet his. ‘I never loved any of them, Cahal. Not the way I love you.’
‘Oh, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘You never told me.’
‘You never asked.’
He gathered her to him in his hard arms, and pressed his lips to her temple. Coarse dark stubble rasped against her face with painful, exquisite discomfort. ‘Sarah, Sarah, Sarah,’ he intoned like a prayer, his voice breaking up like static on the radio. ‘I love you too.’
Sarah’s heart swelled with happiness and with the sense of power and protection that his love instilled in her. Every breath was in time with his as if they were one, and in that moment her world contracted. Everything she’d ever wanted, everything she would ever want, was in that small square room, with the tired wallpaper, the wardrobe with one door missing, the creeping mould on the ceiling.
‘If you’d loved someone before me,’ he said into her hair after a long silence, ‘I’d be jealous, you know.’
She laughed. ‘How can you be jealous of someone who happened in the past?’
In reply he kissed the top of her head and held her closer. The still afternoon wore on and they lay for a long time, listening to the sound of traffic and conversation drifting up from the promenade below. And yet she was not at peace. She pressed her face into his chest and closed her eyes but all she saw was her father’s face, sporting the reproachful, wounded expression she knew so well. A police detective, he saw the world in terms of black and white, and was crystal clear about who was on the side of good – and who wasn’t. And the Mulvennas, low-class and of dubious background, would, she suspected (though she had never asked), fall on the wrong side of her father’s carefully calibrated moral fence. Cahal’s father had even served time in prison.
His voice broke through her thoughts. ‘What’re you thinking?’
She blushed, glad that her face was pressed against his chest, so he could not see. ‘Isn’t it weird that we grew up in the same town and never so much as spoke to each other before?’
He pulled away and looked into her face, smiling. ‘I suppose so. But that’s Ulster for you. Two different cultures, not so much rubbing along as steadfastly ignoring each other.’
‘Except when they’re trying to murder each other.’
‘Yeah,’ he said and gave a little laugh. ‘I saw you once, you know. In your grammar school uniform in the library. Last year, when I was home for my gran’s funeral.
‘I used to go there for peace and quiet to revise for my A levels.’
‘I thought you were beautiful even then. I watched you for ages, pretending to choose a book off the shelf. I never thought a girl like you would look at a guy like me.’
‘Because you’re an uptown girl,’ he said, referring not just to the fact that she lived in a house on what locals called ‘The Hill’.
‘Well, maybe I like a downtown guy,’ she said playfully.
Cahal sat half upright, his elbow digging into the pillow, and looked down at her. His face was serious. ‘You haven’t answered my question.’
‘What question?’ she said, knowing full well what he meant.
‘Have you told your family about us yet?’
‘I told my little sister that I was seeing someone.’ She raised her eyebrows in the faint hope that this might satisfy him.
‘And the rest of the family?’
She twisted a lock of hair around her forefinger and examined the split ends in the shaft of sunlight that sliced through the ill-fitting curtains. ‘Not yet.’
‘You said you would.’
‘The right moment hasn’t … presented itself.’ He opened his mouth to speak but she silenced him with a smile. ‘But I will. I promise. But back to your parents. They must have said something about me?’ His left shoulder twitched. She sat upright and stared at him. ‘What? What did they say?’
He stared at her for some long moments as if weighing something up in his mind. ‘My Da asked me if you were David Walker’s daughter.’
‘He said I had no business walking out with the daughter of an RUC man.’ RUC stood for Royal Ulster Constabulary.
‘Oh,’ said Sarah, feeling slighted, and her head sank back into the pillow. Having a father in the police had always been a point of pride, of honour. Never before had anyone attempted to make her feel as if it was something to be ashamed of.
‘It’s not personal,’ said Cahal, seeing her unease. ‘You have to understand that my father has a certain, how shall I say it,
for the law and those who enforce it.’
‘Hmm,’ said Sarah, only partly mollified. ‘And what did you tell him?’
‘You really want to know?’
‘I told him to mind his own effing business.’
She blinked, suddenly so proud of him for standing up for her against his father that her throat swelled up and she found it hard to speak. ‘You did?’ she squeaked.
‘Pah,’ he said, brushing off his father’s objections like dandruff. ‘I’m not having a layabout like him telling me what to do.’ He smiled then and placed his palm on her cheek, his big hand curled around her face like one half of a shell. ‘I know what I want, Sarah. I want you. And I’m not going to let anything, or anyone in this world, come between us.’
‘Me neither, Cahal.’
‘Do you mean that, Sarah? Do you really, really mean it?’
Her heart pounded in her chest. ‘With all my heart and soul. I have never loved a man as I love you and I never will again.’
‘Stay there,’ he said, as a wide, triumphant grin spread across his face. He jumped out of bed and crossed the room in two strides, the gluteal muscles in his tight, stark white buttocks flexing as he walked. Above his backside, a narrow waist widened into a deep, strong back and broad triangular shoulders. She propped herself up on both elbows and butterflies born of lust, not nerves, made her stomach churn.
He crouched down and rummaged in the bottom of the wardrobe, his muscled body vulnerable in a crouched position, like Atlas preparing to take the weight of the world upon his shoulders.
He stood up, faced her front on. ‘Found it,’ he grinned, holding out his closed right fist. His knuckles bore dark red crusty scars from hurling, a game she’d never seen until yesterday, when she’d stood on the sidelines astounded by its pace and warrior-like qualities, the sticks brandished like swords.
He came over and knelt on the bed, seemingly oblivious to the chill in the room, which the early spring sunshine did nothing to dissipate. If she breathed out hard enough, her breath misted. She sat up, leaned against the pillows and pulled the covers up to her chin.
‘I want you to have this,’ he said and he held out a small gold ring in the palm of his calloused hand.
‘Go on. Take it.’
She picked it up and examined it. It was a curious design featuring two hands entwined around a heart with a crown on top, all wrought from pale yellow gold. The edges of the ring were worn with age, like the weathered sandstone gargoyles on Ballyfergus town hall that had fascinated her as a child.
‘It belonged to my grandmother on my father’s side, Sarah. It was her wedding ring.’
Sarah breathed in sharply and her heart began to pound.
‘She left it to me when she died,’ he went on. ‘By tradition Claddagh rings get passed down the female line but she never had a daughter of her own, and she never got on with my sister. So I got it.’
‘It’s … it’s beautiful.’
He smiled, his eyes all glassy and bright. ‘I want you to wear it, Sarah.’
‘I … I can’t. It’s a family heirloom.’
‘Exactly.’ He stared at her intensely, and the quietest of silences settled between them. And then he said, ‘That’s why I want you to have it. You are my family now.’
Her whole body flooded with happiness. ‘Oh, Cahal.’
He plucked the ring from her open palm. ‘Will you wear this ring as a token of my love?’
She gasped and, letting go of the covers to reveal her naked torso, clapped both hands over her mouth at once. Under her fingers, her face burned, and she felt foolishly giddy. She stared into his eyes, steady and calm and the giddiness evaporated. Her hands dropped onto the bed cover and she said solemnly, ‘I will.’
He took her right hand and slid the ring onto her third finger. ‘There,’ he said and grinned. ‘You see the way the heart faces inwards towards your heart?’
Her hand trembled. ‘Yes.’
‘That means your heart is taken.’
She smiled. ‘Oh Cahal, that’s so sweet.’
‘And it is taken, isn’t it?’ His right eyelid twitched.
‘Completely and absolutely. Forever.’
He squeezed her fingers tightly in his and kissed the back of her hand. ‘You understand what this means, me giving you this ring?’
She looked at him blankly.
‘Claddagh rings are passed down from generation to generation. And one day I hope it will seal our marriage.’
She looked at her hand but she could not see the ring, only the blur of tears in her eyes.