Kernan Andrews is from Galway.
He is the Arts Editor and Political Correspondent for the Galway Advertiser newspaper.
He holds an MA in English and a H Dipp in Applied Communications (Journalism) from NUI Galway.
SITTING IN a café on Dominick Street, my mind could not let go of the notion that it had all been a wonderful, though delusional dream. It was only a small part of me, but it was enough to cause doubt. Since the morning, I kept turning the event over and over in my head, an indulgence as much as a way of reassuring myself.
“I’ve really enjoyed the conversations we’ve been having,” she had said as she got ready to leave for her lecture. “It would be nice to hang out, get to know each other better. Does Saturday suit?”
It is what I have wanted, longed for, since I first met her but never dared hoped would happen, and not like this, with her asking.
She told me to meet her at half-twelve. In my excitement I had arrived about fifteen minutes early. I also needed time to let the butterflies in my stomach, frantic and hyperactive, time to settle down. I thought about buying a newspaper, just to have something to read, to check the previews for todays matches, as a way of taking my mind of my nervousness, but I never did. My head was too all over the place to concentrate.
The waitress came over, asked if I wanted anything. I said not yet, that I was waiting for someone. My eyes were fixed on the café windows. Staring out into the street, waiting for Clodagh to arrive, I must have thought every woman who passed by was her. Hope and disappointment in the space of a moment.
The café was not busy. It would have been eerily silent but for the two women sitting by the counter, talking animatedly. Their voices almost drowned out the radio. Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ was just about audible over their chatter. I wondered if Clodagh was a ‘Laughing Lenny’ fan. I suspected she was given she was into all that poetry stuff and playing the guitar. I never saw the appeal of him myself, and could never hear his name without thinking of that time Billy started singing, to the tune of ‘Suzanne’: “My name is Leonard Cohen/I can’t sing but I can moan.”
I might keep that one to myself, I do not think Clodagh would appreciate it.
The only other person in the café was an elderly man, wearing glasses and a tweed suit. He was sitting in a corner, sipping from a large mug and reading a book.
I kept looking at my watch. It never made the time go faster, just made me feel more anxious. It had started to go past 12.30 and my anxiety only increased. I tried to reassure myself it was not a cause for worry. Nobody in Ireland places any importance on being punctual – especially in Galway. We have our own idiosyncratic form of GMT in operation here – Galway Maybe Time. It is most extreme form occurs in August, when people asked to do anything reply, “Oh It’ll be after the races!”, kicking the said request not so much into touch as into a semi-permanent limbo.
I was drumming my fingers on the table. She was only two or three minutes late. In anybody else it would have been nothing, but I was already thinking ‘She’s not coming’.
I was about to order a coffee as a way of justifying my presence when the door opened and Clodagh entered, that incredible smile across her face. My utter relief at seeing her was thrown off course by the violent lurch in my stomach as it tied itself up in several knots.
“Hey, how are you?” she said, taking an olive green army cap off her head and laying on the table. “I’m so sorry I’m a bit late.”
Her long auburn hair was tied in a plait which fell over her left shoulder and trailed down almost as far as her waist.
“No, no, you’re OK,” I said. I am sure she could hear the relief of tension in my voice and inside I cringed a little. “Eh..I…I’m not long here myself.”
The waitress, who was bringing two scones to the chatty women, gave me a puzzled glance as she passed by. I thought I heard her emit a faint snort of derision. I did not care though. Clodagh was finally here and I became so lost in her large green eyes that I did not even hear what she was saying.
“Sorry?” I said.
“I said it’s freezing outside! Oh my God it’s soooo cold!”
The Christmas had been mild but the New Year had seen a sharp dip in the temperature, with the nights often becoming frosty. Walking to the café I noticed for the first time that winter how I could see my breath each time I exhaled.
“Yeah it’s pretty nippy out there,” I said. “Coldest it’s been in ages.”
I was thrilled though to see Clodagh had one of her extremely short skirts on. Despite the winter tights – black, wonderful, my favourite type on a girl with legs like hers – they were perhaps not the most practical given the temperatures. Visually though? Let’s just say Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’ made a lot of sense to me right then.
The waitress came to take our order. Clodagh asked for a coffee, then flashed her sparkling eyes at me.
“Uh…Uh, the same!” I said.
Did I really need coffee? I was hyper enough as it was, the butterflies having come no nearer to calming down.
I took a deep breath to steady myself.
Clodagh smiled at me.
I needed to take another.
I am no expert in these things, but at least I had the explanation my friend Lisa Sweeney gave me once; a situation like this would be classed as a ‘date’. It in no way signified we were going out. It did however mean it was a possibility, provided the dates when right. But it was Clodagh who asked me here, who had given me that mix tape before Christmas, surely they were enough signs that she was interested? Or maybe they were preludes and today was the test?
The waitress came back with the coffees. She smiled at Clodagh as she left the steaming hot mug in front of her but when she turned to me her look said: ‘What is a girl like that doing with someone like you?’ The coffee tasted equally bitter. I put three large spoons of sugar to take the edge off it, but it hardly made a difference.
Clodagh was having no such problems.
“Oooooh that hits the spot,” she said. “Lovely hot cup of coffee.”
She was wearing her German army surplus jacket. The left lapel was still sporting that odd badge with the MP5 over a red star. As she took the jacket off and left it at the back of the chair, my eyes kept darting back and forth between her soft, pale, face, framed by the deep red of her hair, my lap, and the floor. The smile never faded from her face.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “You seem very nervous.”
Her gaze was directed towards my hands. It was only then I realised I had been playing with the serviette on the table, parts of which I had ripped and torn, and the remainder I was now twisting around my left and right index fingers.
“Eh, no, no, I’m, I’m fine,” I said, hurriedly pushing the wreckage of the serviette away from me. Clodagh let out a small laugh. She could see right through me.
THE COLLEGE week started the same way it always does; Muggins stuck in that auld prefab which was more like a World War II POW camp than a lecture hall, freezing me nuts off listening to Prof Mulvehill drone on and on. Today he was talking about some set of statistics and how they compare to some set of other statistical data, and how they both relate to some Venn diagram of population movements or Gaussian Curve of population distribution or some such auld shite. I was furiously taking notes but could not make head nor tail of any of it. My brain was getting fried. I needed to take a break and do a different kind of research.
My eyes scanned the lecture hall. There must be someone who knew what was going on, whose notes I could cog later, or who could make sense of it all for me. Then I spotted her – Susan Murray. She was in one of my soc’n’pol tutorials. She was always getting A’s in her essays and assignments, always had the answers before anyone else, and was the only person I knew who genuinely found exams a breeze.
The girl had brains to burn, but in the spirit of the old fine line between genius and madness she looked completely nuts.
You could not miss her. Perched on her nose was the most enormous pair of thick, horn-rimmed glasses. Buddy Holly was not in it. Then there were the elaborate hairclips – usually with a big flower, peace sign, or once, a skull on the end of it – placed always, only, and ever, behind her right ear, partially keeping her, long and slightly unkempt, black hair in place. More than any of that though, it was the clothes she wore that really attracted attention. Although I could not see from where I was sitting – Susan was down at the very front of the hall, I could only make out her head – it was a safe bet that whatever she was wearing would be loud and quirky. Whether this was her just looking for notice or an expression who she really was, was a mystery.
Susan had a thing for Paisley tunic dresses with patterns that looked as if the dressmaker was prone to seriously bad flash-backs from too acid trips. Then there were her Doc Martins. She had an array of them – white, yellow, floral patterned, even velvet – any colour but the traditional black; but topping all this off was her penchant for luridly loud pink tights which made her legs visible from about a mile off they were so bright.
I will never forget the first time I saw them. It was at a party at Seán’s gaffe last year. For some reason I found myself sitting beside her. The party was in full swing but I needed a serious sit down having overdone it on a combination of Tennants and the particularly lethal punch that was on offer. Goodness knows what went into the making of that witches brew. I suspected, but unfortunately it was only afterwards, that it contained foul levels of Buckfast, a beverage memorably and accurately described by my mate Billy as “the sweat from Satan’s scrotum”.
I headed for – or rather fell into – the sofa in the middle of the living room. I was a bit out of it so that may be the reason I did not fully register the gingham pink, purple’n’dayglow orange dressed entity beside me until it spoke.
“Hhhheeeyyyyy!” said this lazy drawl of a voice. I could not tell immediately if it was a greeting or an expression of distain.
This girl was a bit out of it as well, but I imagined it was as a result of quite different substances to the ones flowing through my bloodstream.
“You’re Darragh, aren’t you?” she said. Again I had difficulty reading the tone. Was she being polite or looking to pick an argument?
My second thought was, ‘How the hell does she know me?’.
“Eehmm…have we ever…met before?” I asked.
“We’re meeting now, aren’t we?” she replied, not that she sounded sure herself.
“How do you know my name?”
She gave a derisive snort and regarded me through her heavy lidded, almost narcoleptic eyes, which were magnified to twice their actual size behind her glasses. I could not help but think that those horn rims could do some damage they were that sharp.
“There’s nothing I don’t know!” she pronounced with a wave of her hand. There was no ambiguity in her voice this time.
With no warning she leaned right up close to me, her right arm all but touching my left. Her face was directly before me. She had glitter on one of her cheeks and two small stars painted on. Less than an inch separated the tips of our noses.
“What’s your star sign?”
That was a demand.
“I, I, I don’t know,” I stammered. There was too much drink in my system to be able to make any rational guess as to where this conversation was going.
“Well when were you born?”
“Virgo!,” she drawled, drawing out the ‘o’ for as long as she could. Then, with great urgency, she announced: “I’m a Taurus!”
Well fair play to ya, I thought, but did not see in what way this little nugget of information was useful, and besides, I don’t believe in any of that Horoscope stuff anyway.
“A Taurus…and a Virgo…” she said, before sinking back onto her side of the sofa, a funny, satisfied little humming sound coming from behind the coy smile that had spread across her face.
We did not say anything for a while, just sat on the couch and let the party rage on around us. ‘On A Plain’ by Nirvana was playing on hi-fi system. It was a near continuous rotation of Nirvana, Happy Mondays, and Primal Scream. It was really getting on my nerves but I knew this was the kind of party where asking to hear Guns’n’Roses or Mötley Crüe would get you ejected out the door with the sole of someone’s boot imprinted on your arse and a ban from invitations to all similar future events. Still, how many times tonight had I heard Nevermind already tonight?
Eventually, some merciful soul changed the CD, and put on something I actually knew, or could at least tolerate – Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. It was another of the records my dad had, but never listened to anymore. As ‘Breath’ flooded into the room, or what I could hear of it over the babble of voices and shouting, I felt myself relax completely.
“Oh, that’s a great song,” I said. “What an album.”
“Really?” said Susan, who was somehow under the impression I had directed my last utterance at her.
“It’s not as good as Meddle…or Piper at the Gates of Dawn…”
Her nose wrinkled up in disgust as she said it.
“Sure whatever you’re into yourself,” I said. I really did not want to get into a debate with these music geeks I seem to be forever stuck meeting. “I just like the song.”
As I said it, I was looking at the tights she was wearing, and part of me started giggling. They were a shocking shade of pink. They were near luminous – as was the pink headband she had on. I could not get the image out of my head of her walking home at night, lighting up the road as she went along. She saw me giggle. I stopped immediately. She was looking directly at me again.
“Huh! Dark Side’s got nothing on Syd Barrett,” she muttered, before her tone became interrogatory. “D’you know Syd Barrett?”
“Eh, well not personally,” I said. She ignored or did not hear that.
“He was a fucking genius! The lost child of Swinging London.”
She was now drifting off into her own world.
“Who is this Syd guy?”
Susan gave a sigh of exasperation. She scratched her knee and shook her head slightly.
“The original leader of the Floyd!” she said. “Oh you need to experience Syd. He was…he was…Oh I’m going to have to make you a tape of his stuff.”
She was wagging a finger at me. “I’m going to have to educate you Darragh Kyne!”
For a few moments there was silence between us again until she began looking around her.
“This party has peaked!” she declared, and not exactly quietly. “It’s just flattened!”
I could not figure out how Susan had come to that conclusion. The party was roaring all around us. Everyone was talking and laughing, the place was crowded and Bernard Dempsey was due in a while. He was bringing a stack of house and rave albums with him and that was going to take the whole shebang up several notches from where it was already. Maybe though when your brain is stranded on some far flung astral plane out in deepest space it is hard to get an accurate perspective on what is going on back on planet Earth.
“D’ya wanna split?”
She was back giving me one of her stares again.
“What?” I blurted.
“It’s boring here. D’you wanna go?”
“Eh, eh, w-where?”
“D’you wanna come back to my place? We can listen to some music, I can introduce you to Syd Barrett. We can just…hang.”
I always dream of being at a party where some girl comes up to me and wants me to go home with her, but a geeky freak intent on giving me a musicological lecture on some acid-casualty was never part of the fantasy.
Yet her eyes were really staring into mine, almost boring a hole through them. No one had ever looked at me with such intensity before. Our faces were very close now. Her mouth was partially open. Her lips were full and moist. I’m sure it was just the effects of the drink, it must have been, but for a brief moment I really wanted to kiss her.
“You interest me,” she said.
I was suddenly very confused.
“We can just hang,” she said again. “Just chill. Everyone else is so boring.”
It was all getting too much for me. I was torn over what to do. She was a freak, but there was something about her that was beginning to excite me. She just wanted to hang, but I was not sure I could trust myself. I do not know what I said but I made up a host of excuses. I am sure none of them were convincing, but I made them and got out of the living room as fast as I could, decamping to the kitchen where Mickey and Seán were and there I hid in the corner for ages.
Some time later I ventured back to the living room. Susan was no longer around. I admit I felt a bit bad about the whole thing, but she was so baked that there was not much chance of her remembering anything from tonight, least of all talking to me. My suspicions were confirmed as she never made that Syd Barrett tape for me. I still say ‘Hello’ to her, and sometimes chat, when we’re waiting outside the soc’n’pol lectures and tutorials – after all she does claim she knows me – and though she always replies, and is very polite, a look of confusion never leaves her face. It is as if she wonders why we are engaging in this ritual. Still, it is enough, because hey, I am going to need to pick her brains, and notes, later on today.