AT THE LEVEL OF THE HEART
That was the year Colm said we should go to the Continent for our holidays. He had to get away, he said, from the bloody Irish; they were driving him mad. They couldn't make up their minds; did they want peace or did they not want peace, especially since people on both sides of the border were too sheep-like to say or think anything not told them by hooligans or priests.
He would take three weeks off in June from his job with the Electricity Supply Board in Dublin and I would take the same three weeks off from my job as a typist in The Royal Insurance Company on Dawson Street.
I didn't tell Ma I was going to the Continent with Colm. I said I was going with Rosemary, the girl from the insurance company with whom I shared a flat in Palmerston, a suburb of Dublin.
Ma didn't say much when I told her where I was going, but I could tell she thought I must have gone completely wild since I'd left the County Wicklow to go up to Dublin to find work. She'd warned me living in the city I'd be murdered in my bed, or worse.
But I thought Dublin a grand old place, with loads of fashion shops, dances very Saturday night at Trinity College, where I met Colm, St. Stephen's Green where you could feed the ducks and walk among the flower beds during lunch - if it wasn't raining - all the cinemas you could want, and busses to take you out to the country or the seashore in twenty minutes to half an hour from O'Connell Street.
At least the IRA had stopped trying to blow up the shops along O'Connell Street so you didn't have to cross the street if you saw a car with Northern Ireland plates on it. What they thought they'd accomplish blowing up shops full of frocks and cardigans just because they were British owned was beyond me. You never get used to all that.
Colm's Ma didn't mind if he went on the Continent. His Da had disappeared over to England after getting himself in trouble with the authorities, so she'd turned their home down by the sea in Blackrock into a guest house, and was always completely distracted cooking and serving meals and making beds.
The thing was, Colm and I weren't married, not even engaged, although we'd been going together for a year. Nuala Heffernon, who was also a typist at the insurance company said, with a sniff, "The priest'll never let you go. You'd be committing a sin."
Nuala was always worried about committing sin. She wouldn't even walk on the same side of the street as a Protestant church for fear of hearing something she shouldn't. Colm never worried about committing a sin because, he said, he was an atheist, but I knew he was really a Catholic. He had it in for the churches, though, said they were the cause of all Ireland's misery. "Get rid of the bloody churches," he said, "Never mind the bloody British, then we'll have peace in the country."
I didn't think he should speak against the churches, whether they were Protestant or Catholic, but I never said anything. I'm not well educated like Colm and he was always telling me I was simpleminded. I'd only gone to National school in the County Wicklow, so I didn't know how to express myself well, except I could write and speak the Gaelic better than Colm.
Colm even made fun of that; he said Gaelic was a very devious language in that you can't say anything in it directly, you have to come at it sideways. When the English stopped the Irish from using the Gaelic, the Irish got their revenge by being devious in English, which drove the British mad, although he said, they were all mad to begin with.
A week before we left for the Continent, the IRA tried to recruit Colm, in Delaney's Pub on Anne Street, told him they'd put a gun in his hands, teach him how to use it, and he could join in the fight to free Ireland from the British.
"Free Ireland from the British?" he'd demanded. "Blow up the bloody churches. That's where the trouble is."
They lit into him outside, said he was a godforsaken heathen, but he got off with a split lip and bruised ribs because someone called the Gardai.
"Bloody Irish," he told me, looking in the mirror, tilting the black beret with the leather band around the rim and the green, white and gold sewn on one side the IRA'd given him, in case he changed his mind, they said, after the Gardai left. The Gardai were told it was just a friendly disagreement. They left it alone. They knew IRA when they saw them.
I thought Colm looked smashing in the beret, very determined and dangerous. I put it on, once, when he wasn't looking, thought how daring and glamorous I looked. I could see myself waltzing up to some young, handsome British soldier, like the girl in Ryan's Daughter, an unlit cigarette dangling from my lips, asking him for a light, giving him the eye, drawing him away from his guard post so Colm, in his own black beret, could sneak by and blow up the guardhouse. There wouldn't be anybody in it, of course, but the British soldier wouldn't be able to get me out of his mind. He'd desert the army to go looking for me and his last words, as he lay dying in a ditch somewhere, would be, "God Bless Ireland and the Irish."
Colm always said girls on the Continent were far better looking than Irish girls. Certainly, there was nothing continental about me. My skin was too white, my cheeks too pink, my hair too red, to be taken for anything other than an Irish bogtrotter. Colm was a real mick, with his coal black hair and deep blue, eager eyes.
We took the mailboat out of Dublin, headed for Hollyhead in Wales, Colm's old, rattly, 500 cc Triumph motorbike stowed away below deck, bundled up with our sleeping bags, pots and pans, macs and Wellington boots.
We were leaving Ireland virgins and would return that way and, to prove it, we also brought along two little tents.
Not that we were angels. Colm was a great kisser, could hold one for as long as five minutes. He liked to tickle me up between the legs and I didn't always stop him. Sometimes he lay on top of me, my skirt up around my neck and we'd pretend we were married, but I never let him inside my knickers. That was what I remembered from the only time Ma spoke to me about the facts. "You'll be all right so long as you don't let them inside your knickers."
We landed at Dunkirk and headed south, bypassing Paris. We wanted to get to Nice as soon as possible, where we planned to lie on the beach and get a tan. You could never get a tan in Ireland. The sun didn't stay out long enough.
Our first night in France, we set up the two tents in a field. As I crawled into mine, Colm called, "Make sure you keep the doorway closed. There're snakes in this country."
"Mother of God. Snakes?" The dirty creatures, always wanting to slime their way all over you, tempt you to all kinds of dreadful sin. Wasn't it a snake that tempted Eve and, God knows, women had been paying for it ever since.
I clambered into Colm's tent. "I'm afraid of snakes," I said.
"Well, then, here," and he opened up his sleeping bag, but I unrolled mine next to his.
"This will be all right," I said.
In Nice, we found a campground right on the beach and spent the next five days lying out in the sun, swimming and eating long, thin rolls of bread and butter.
Sunburned and peeling, we rattled our way along the French Riviera and decided to cross the border into Italy, running the coast road through Monaco and Monte Carlo, skimming along the top of bright cliffs that plunged away into a crystal, clear, aqua-colored sea. I'd never seen such a sea. All the sea in Ireland is grey and restless, flailing away at fierce, black cliffs.
The campgrounds along the shore road were full of Germans with big tents and fancy caravans. There was no room for a pair of poor Irish. At one of them, the
proprietor told us he'd heard of a new campground opened, some ten miles inland, just before Genoa.
Following his directions, we were soon in the country, running past bare, white stone houses, squat, darkleaved trees, an occasional bony cow.
Late evening, we saw the cardboard sign on which was written, in pencil, CAMPO, with an arrow pointing towards a big, square house.
"There it is," Colm said. "It's inland, all right. In the bloody middle of nowhere."
A little, old, brown man came out of the house, bald, all smiles and beckoning, followed by his even littler, older wife, excitedly clapping her hands.
Their campground, if you could call it that, lay in the back of the house, a great tangle of weeds and long grasses, surrounded by a high, stone wall.
"You camp?" The little, old man made patting gestures with his hands over the long grass.
"Looks like we're their first customers," Colm said, looking around.
"There're no toilets," I told him, but I was tired from the long ride, wanting only to lie down and go to sleep. "Set up only one tent. A place like this will surely be full of snakes."
We set up the tent, the wife chattering in Italian, clapping her shriveled hands every time she caught my eye, showing her yellow teeth. "You camp, you camp."
I felt something run across my foot, then another, and another. Colm shone the torch in the gathering darkness. I looked down - and let out a screech that would have stopped the heart of Finn McCool himself.
Ants covered my foot, running up the sides of my legs, milling around my toes. We found them racing about inside the tent, all over our sleeping bags, clothes, food. Millions of them. I let out another screech and the welcoming smile disappeared from the man's face. The wife began to wail.
"Don't be screeching like that," Colm scolded. "You're terrorizing the poor woman. They're only ants."
I shook my head, gulping with fright. "I won't stay here. They'll eat us alive. I won't be made to stay here."
"Ants," Colm said loudly to the man, pointing.
The man peered downwards. "Ah. Piccini?"
"Bloody right, piccini. Too many piccini."
They brought us into a big, old, dark kitchen, the wife alternately wiping her tearful face and serving us dry bread, sour tasting cheese, bitter wine. Colm asked the man about the ants.
A best Colm could make out, the man said that when he was a boy, German soldiers came to their village. Because the villagers hated the Germans, they hid whatever food could be stored and destroyed the rest. A big hole had been dug in their garden and all the bread from the village buried there. The bread attracted the ants.
"But that was thirty years ago," Colm exclaimed. "Have you not tried to get rid of them?"
The man shrugged.
"Si, si. Guerra, Guerra," the wife cried, suddenly, tugging at my arm. She led us around to the front of the house and pointed.
I looked where she pointed and an icy hand lay itself across the back of my neck. Across the front of the house ran a line of holes, starting at one side of the front doorway, abruptly halted by the opening, then continuing on the far side.
"What are they?" I asked, certain they must be snakeholes, but the little, brown man raised his hands, as if he were holding a gun.
"Bulletholes," Colm said, quietly.
I stared at the line of holes, a straight and deadly killing line, and made the sign of the cross. "Who?" I whispered.
Colm looked grim. "Whoever it was, they never stood a chance."
Back in the kitchen, the man said four armies came through their village; the Italians, the Germans, the British, the Americans.
I wanted to know more about the bulletholes across the front door; if whoever it was had been coming out of the house, or going in, but the wine made me dizzy and sad and I was afraid if I asked, I might cry.
I laid my head down on my arms. Someone had died in that doorway. They had to have. The line of holes was at the level of the heart. Four armies. Dear God, no matter where you went.
"She needs her sleep," I heard Colm say, above my head. "Riposa?"
The wife and husband whispered together, then led us upstairs into a great, high-ceilinged room, bare, dusty, stonewalled. A dark wardrobe loomed against one wall, a table with two chairs stood by the tall window, a faded pink patterned rug lay on the floor by the bed.
There was only one bed, a double bed and, over it, a picture of the Virgin Mary, her eyes lowered to the bed below.
"I think it's their room they're giving us," Colm whispered.
"Ah, no. Sure where will they sleep?"
But the man and his wife insisted they had another place to sleep.
"Buona notte," the man and his wife called from the door, giving me, Colm, and the bed the eye, and giggling.
"Yes. Buona notte," Colm said, with a glance at me.
"We'll have to sleep in our clothes, seeing there's only one bed," I told him.
We climbed onto the bed, fully dressed. Moonlight streamed through the tall window, spilling white light across the floor, but I couldn't sleep for thinking of that doorway and wondering who'd been running through it.
Had he been young and handsome, smashing in his soldier's uniform? Did he have a sweetheart whose picture he carried next to his heart and what had happened to
her when he was struck down in the doorway of a stranger's house, in the middle of nowhere?
I turned to Colm. "Will you kiss me?"
He did, a long, slow one and I was ready, sin or not.
"I'm taking my clothes off," I said.
Colm sat up, his face shadowed by the white moonlight. "Are you sure?"
He reached for his wallet and pulled out a small packet.
"A sheath," he said. He tore it open and something small and pale lay in his hand.
"You never," I breathed. "Where did you get it?"
"In France, just in case. I have to be hard to put it on. Do you know about that?"
"Yes, yes. All right, then." I didn't really, but wasn't about to say so.
We took off our clothes. I'd never undressed in front of a man before, in front of anyone, not even my own mother. Then, I saw the Virgin Mary watching and it almost ruined me.
"I can't be doing it with the Holy Mother watching."
"It's a bloody picture. I'll take it down."
"No, no. Just cover over her eyes."
He stood on the bed and hung his shirt over the picture, tucking the collar over the top to stop it falling down in the middle of things. His back was nut brown from the sun, but what hit me so hard was his little, white bottom, half the size of mine, a baby's bottom. I could have reached up and given it a smack. All those times he'd told me I was simpleminded and him with such a little, baby's bottom.
We sat on the bed looking at one another. Colm leaned over and kissed me again. We lay down and he ran his hands over me. "Aren't you the lovely darlin'."
I felt so differently about him, more sure of myself, thinking there might be a few things I understood better than he. Strange, how a little thing like seeing somebody's bottom could change the way you felt about them.
He had a terrible time getting the sheath on, fumbling away down there, but he managed and I felt him come up inside me, firm and full. I knew, at that moment, I'd marry him in a heartbeat if he asked me.
"Are you all right?" he gasped. "I'm not hurting you, am I?"
"You're not hurting me at all. Go on, darlin'. Go on."Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee, blessed art though among women, and blessed is the Fruit of They Womb…"
I kissed Colm until he lost his mind, and then I let him do whatever he wanted, wrapping myself around him, holding him tightly, thinking, if I'd known it was this lovely, I'd have let him inside my knickers sooner.
Afterwards, he slept against me, one hand on my breast, but I couldn't sleep for thinking about that line of bulletholes across the doorway, thinking, thinking - what if it had been Colm? All the lovely young men brought to their graves with a bullet in the heart before they ever had a chance.
What did it matter which army they came from?