Conor Jarrett was born in Dublin in 1988, and grew up in Naas. He studied French and English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. After spending time a number of years in France and the United States, he returned to Ireland in 2013, where he currently works as a freelance translator. He has been writing fiction for the last four years.
In the light of the day
By Conor Jarrett
When I went to the Christian Brothers secondary school, the only females in the place were teachers old enough to be our mothers. That was the rule; the girls went to one school, and the boys went to another. Even though the girls’ school was just ten minutes’ walk down the hill from us, it felt as remote to us as the clouds in the sky above. My friends and I sometimes talked about going there after school, and waiting by the gates for all the girls to come out at four o’ clock. The gates were old and black, with spikes reaching nearly ten feet into the sky. From there, we could not even see to the end of the driveway. ‘Wouldn’t all the girls be so happy to see us?’ joked Mick Brophy, his round face bursting into a smile at the thought. ‘There’d be so many of them. We’d be fighting them off.’
By the time I reached seventeen, we had still not made the venture. Yet we talked about it all the time in the field where we went after school and on the weekends. It was behind an old industrial yard near the Dublin road. It sloped downwards, and we used to sit in the far right corner, where we could get drunk and scream at the moon until it sank down into the dawn. Nobody ever knew about us being there. New Haven, we called the place. The night we lit a fire was the first time that any girls ever came to New Haven. One of them, Tara Sweeney, sat beside me. She stayed there for most of the night, and my eyes flickered between the flames licking the darkness and the strong body nearby, whose smooth skin that glowed deliciously by the fireside. From time to time, I made obvious jokes, and in the end, I seemed to win her trust.
‘Do you want to go for a walk Joe?’ she asked, taking my hand in hers.
‘Eh, ok,’ I said as she was leading me away.
We left the fire and the others behind, and walked back up the slope, through the field until we arrived at a housing estate. We passed through it until we came to a green area at the end of the road on the right. The sun was almost up, and I could barely make out the silhouette of her body as she walked just ahead of me. I followed her closely, feeling my shoes sweep through the long grass. In one corner, the branches of some willow trees hung so low that some of the tips touched the ground. You could not really see through to the other side. ‘Can you grab these?’ Tara asked me, motioning to the branches in her path.
‘What? Am I your slave?’ I asked.
‘What?’ she asked.
‘Only joking,’ I said, bending some of the branches back.
When we sat down, I left a few feet between us. We sat facing the same direction, out through the gaps onto the green as its gradient climbed gently into a hill, flanking the main road. It was early, so the cars were all sitting in the driveways, and all the lights were off, leaving the windows in darkness. ‘God, it’s mad how we’re out so late. It’s even starting to get bright now,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ said Tara, her fingers pulling at the grass. A moment passed, and she let out a lasting sigh, looking all around her.
‘People will be getting up for work soon.’ I said. When
‘Ha, maybe we could go in and ask them for some breakfast,’ I continued.
‘Maybe,’ she said, in a flat voice. I looked away and back again, to find she had now moved into the space. She looked listlessly off into the same distance that I did. Now and then, I snatched glances at her fantastic body, with its long, athletic legs and sizeable breasts that promised a reassuring embrace. I wanted to bury my head in them, and feel her arms around me. I felt my body grow hot and my heart pump faster. My glances at her became longer each time. Yet the silence grew heavier and she was still just looking ahead, at the same climbing mound of grass ahead of us. ‘What do you think is on the other side?’ I asked, forcing a smile.
‘Do you want to go back to the others now?’ she snapped.
I was struck by her tone, and got up straight away. As we walked back the way we had come, the distance between us was even greater than when we were sitting down together. The fire was down to the last few flames, and the conversation of the others had become subdued. I sat down on one side, and Tara on the other. We did not look at each other again, even when everyone was parting ways at the end.
The following Saturday afternoon I was back in New Haven, sitting under a tree this time, with one eye on the remains of the fire. Drops of rain hung from the needles of the Scots pine branches, and occasionally falling on the heads of my two friends Mick and Seán Ahearn as they probed me for answers. ‘Did she suck you off?’ Seán asked, scratching the stubble on his cheek. His skin was sallow and his features were lean.
‘None of your business,’ I said.
They both smiled. ‘Come on man, what happened?’ asked Mick this time. He had hair down to his shoulders, and a short, stocky build. He twirled a cigarette between his fingers, and constantly tapped it to knock the ash off.
‘Fuck off,’ I said.
‘Did you at least get the shift off her?’ asked Mick.
‘A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell,’ I said,.
They roared with laughter. I sat in silence, waiting for them to gather themselves. Knowing I might as well wait for the rain to stop, I contented myself with a cigarette. I had smoked half of it when the laughter began to die away. They breathed easily again, the word ‘gentleman’ echoing between them before Seán said to me ‘Jaysus Joe, you’re a hard man to break down. A lot harder than Mick anyway. He was only too happy to spill the beans after he got off with Tara.’
‘What?’ I exclaimed. I looked at Mick. Just like me, he was holding a cigarette. I watched the massive, muscular shape of his hand, and the thick veins bulging through the skin and running all the way up his forearm. I imagined them cradling Tara’s breasts in his palms, and the fingers brushing her long, black hair smoothly back.
‘She was a good fuck alright,’ he said, as if his achievement were as trivial as switching on a light or making a ham sandwich.
‘What? When?’ I asked.
‘Maybe a month ago. I don’t remember exactly.’
He did not remember. Had I accomplished what he had, every circumstance of the event would have been tattooed onto the skin of my conscious life.
‘That was in my house, wasn’t it?’ asked Seán.
‘No. That was when she got off with Aido Byrne,’ answered Mick.
‘She was with Aido as well?’ I asked, astounded.
‘Yeah, but she was only doing it to make Phil Mahon jealous,’ answered Seán.
‘Phil Mahon?’ I asked, fearing the possible avalanche of more names that might topple me.
‘Yeah man. She used to go out with him for a while. Did you not know that?’ Seán asked incredulously.
‘No,’ I said coldly, looking around me, at the thick green hedges lining the field, so thick I could not see through to the other side, and I dreaded the nasty secret hiding away in the darkness of it. As I looked between Seán and Mick, there was something in the way that they looked at each other, in the way they moved their eyes, like some concealed line of dialogue ran parallel to me. They might have been sitting there beside me, but they felt as far from me as Tara Sweeney. I took my cigarettes, lighter and phone as I got up to go.
‘See ya,’ I said.
‘Good luck man,’ one of them said.
‘You might want to stop at the hospital on the way home, and get yourself checked out,’ I heard Seán shout after me. Their laughter buzzed in my ears, and I wanted to turn around and scream at them that nothing had actually happened. But instead I just walked home, catching glimpses of myself in car mirrors and shop windows and looking with contempt upon the sickly pallor of my skin, and the flimsy, girlish size of my hands.
I began spending less time with my friends. After school and on the weekends, I often wandered up and down the main street. That was when I used to see them, the couples about town. I used to look at the girl first, and then the guy, to see if they matched each other. I was often shocked at what I saw. I knew some of the guys from school. There was Michael O’ Brien, a tall, skinny lad with skin every bit as pale as mine. He was from way out the country somewhere, who when he talked sounded like an old Planxty record of my dad’s, stuck on repeat. ‘Ya pup ya,’ he used to call everyone. He was usually seen hanging around town in his dull grey school jumper, waiting for a lift home. Yet his bright, blue eyes could sparkle with such ease and freedom as he laughed and charmed his way from one girl to another until one New Years’ eve, he was kissing Lorraine Kearney amid flashing lights and looks of awe from the rest of us. Lorraine had an elegance about her, like a black and white movie star in her heyday, and had a sweet laugh to go with it. I had seen her at parties, and wanted to talk to her. ‘Hello’ came easily enough, but after that my heart pumped and my legs clamped with such intensity that all I could do was try and stay upright.
What did Michael say to her? I mused over this question instead of those put to me by teachers in school. I always sat in the far corner by the window and gazed outwards, from atop of the hill the school was built on, by the soaring oak trees, whose shaggy branches blocked any view of the girls’ school. They were never to be cut down, as they were planted by the Christian Brothers when the school was first built. My economics teacher Mr. Casey was nearly throwing chairs at me just to get my attention.
‘Joseph Moran,’ he would say.
‘What does the law of diminishing marginal utility say Joseph?’
Yet when walking to English class with Mr. McLoughlin, I found myself going at a quicker pace so that I might get a seat closer to the front. Whenever I got there, my book was straight out on the table, and even when Mr. McLoughlin had not arrived, I would muse on his battered, blue locker in the top left corner of the room, or the swirls in his handwriting on the board from a previous class. Minor details like these were what he had told us to look out for in life. ‘A good writer wants you to think about these things lads, even long after you’ve put a book down,’ he told us once.
One day as we read John Donne’s poem “The Sunne Rising”, Mr. McLoughlin walked around the classroom in his usual manner, with his thick, muscular legs striding at a leisurely pace. His thick shoulders rolled with ease as one of his large, powerful hands pushed the rims of his glasses further back, and he sat comfortably in his high stool at the front of the classroom with his own book, and slowly scratched his tanned, bearded face while we read. ‘Does anything jump out at you?’ he asked gently. While his voice was deep and strong, he never had to shout. ‘Behan,’ he said, focusing on a stocky, blond guy by the door.
‘Eh, no sir. Nothing yet anyway,’ said Behan.
‘Well when then? Next week?’
We all laughed. ‘Eh, can I get back to you in a minute please sir?’ asked Behan.
‘You can. Rooney.’
Rooney was puffy-cheeked and red-haired. He was sitting right in the middle of the room, shaking his head.
‘Lordy lads, wake up. I can’t be sitting here doing it all for you. You’ve got to take a risk or two,’ said Mr. McLoughlin, his voice beginning to raise the longer he spoke. I searched the poem for some sort of insight, and hoping I had found it, I slowly raised my hand. ‘Moran.’
‘The poet seems to be asking a rhetorical question sir,’ I said.
Mr. McLoughlin nodded in agreement. ‘Can you tell me where?’ he asked.
‘“Must to thy motions lovers seasons run?”’ I said, my voice quivering a little.
‘Good lad. Now, can you can tell me why the poet might be doing that?’ he asked.
‘Eh, he wants to make us think about something, instead of just answering right away. It’s like he’s challenging us, but in a good way.’ The more I talked, the more natural it felt, until the words were just rolling off my tongue.
‘And in this poem Moran, what does the poet want us to think about?’
‘That the sun is not very important sir.’
‘Correct. So Behan, if the sun is not important, then what might be instead?’
‘The woman in the poem sir.’
‘Where does it say that Behan?’
‘“She is all states”,’ replied Behan.
‘Yes, exactly. Good man. So there you have it lads. Donne is questioning the importance of the sun, which represents a break with poetic traditions of the time. In doing this, he gives himself an angle, from which he is able to describe his love for his mistress.’
After other elements of the poem were discussed, Mr. McLoughlin gave us a few questions as homework and left us the last few minutes to start on them. But nobody ever did, as we all preferred to talk to Mr. McLoughlin. It was at times like these that he predicted the outcome of football matches at the weekend, discussed his taste in music or told stories about his time spent on the continent. It was on this day that he went over to his battered, blue locker in the top left corner of the room. He took out two or three small, red, paper strips and approached me first. ‘Here, take this Moran. I know it won’t be wasted on you.’ It was a book token for ten Euros. I felt my whole self grow soft and warm as the joy sparkled within me, and I was invincible. I looked around at all the others and smiled at the blankness of their faces. ‘Read as much as you can lads,’ Mr McLoughlin said, ‘I’m telling you now. If there’s one thing that women love, it’s a man with a bit of culture. One minute, you might be sitting here like Joe Moran in a dull grey uniform with your mates all around. Then the next, you might be like me, sitting on a terraced bar on the Left Bank of Paris, with a stunning Italian girlfriend and you want to have something to say to her then.’ Mr. McLoughlin did not blink as his message was delivered in his usual, assured tone. Word for word, I took this down in the back page of my poetry book. I read them over again, underlining them twice. Yet I hardly needed to do this, as the words hammered in my head for days and weeks afterwards.
The following weekend I went down to the local bookshop, and spent hours thumbing through the pages of books in the literary classics section. I marvelled at the different names of the authors, like Jack Kerouac or D H Lawrence. I repeated their names to myself in silence. I happened upon one entitled The Grapes of Wrath. I held the copy and passed my hand over the sleek, smooth cover, opening it up to smell the freshness of the unread pages inside. I read some of the lines: “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolise.” What did it mean, I wondered as I queued to pay. Mr. McLoughlin would know. He had probably read it already. Maybe he might talk to us about it one day, while his own dog-eared, musty copy sat in his battered, blue locker.
I started reading as soon as I got home. I read for hours. The door was shut tightly behind me, and I was guided into a new world, where families left their homes forever, risking poverty and death and family unity to try and make a better life somewhere else. Even though their lives were hard and their world was tough, I felt safe there, and I trusted the writer. As I read the descriptions and dialogues of his characters, I knew that this was somebody who knew and understood people. He felt the truest expression of their speech and their actions, and he articulated it in the most beautifully turned sentences. It was all so clear. If only I could display such knowledge and understanding, I thought. I promised myself that one day, I would be capable of such a craft. It was at that moment that I resolved to be a writer. Maybe then I would not be fumbling around in the dark of my mind for things to say to Tara Sweeney. I would just know, and she would just feel every bit as impressed and secure with me as I did when I read The Grapes of Wrath. Just as John Donne had his angle, I would have mine.
I sat at my desk with paper and a pen, and started to write. The craft did not finish for several hours. Again, the door was shut tight behind me, as I made for another world. This one was different to the one I read in, but they were certainly linked, and each was every bit as special as the other. When I finished my masterpiece, I read it many times over, as if I were reading to her.
Your dark hair is as beautiful as that of an Arabian night,
Your breasts are mountains that I would love to undertake,
Your legs are as strong as those of a Grand National champion horse,
I love you.
Why do you walk the canal?
You and I should be sitting on the terrace of some bar on the Left Bank of Paris ,
Our talk a setting our lives alight,
And our hearts flowing like the Seine.
I love you.
Will not we be the envy of all of them,
When they hear our vows of love for each other,
Our poetic praise surpassing theirs.
I love you.
I know the nature and I know the way,
You don’t need to fear the end of the day,
Just to listen to what I say.
I love you.
When I had finished, I started to plan the encounter. I could not do it in the field, with the others around. They would ruin everything. It had to be in private. I could surprise her somewhere. But when and where? Both the boys’ and girls’ schools had half-days every Friday. When school finished one Friday, I bolted down the main street, and waited just inside the door of an AIB branch, where I had a good view of the tall, black spiked gate. I saw Tara come out with two friends, and they walked slowly up the main street, stopping into Hanrahan’s coffee shop. They were there until about a quarter to three, before Tara left to go home to her house on the canal, that ran almost parallel to the main street. It was just three o’ clock when she was crossing the bridge to the other side of the canal. I followed her home every Friday afternoon for the next month, and every time it was same routine: Hanrahan’s coffee shop and walking over the bridge at three o’ clock. The following Friday I would wait for her. I looked about for a good place to make my entrance, and saw the shadows extend from underneath the bridge, and knew it was the perfect place.
The next Friday I was waiting for her, watching the canal water flow gently along, brushing the reeds slightly. I wondered if it might be my last time alone in that place. We might watch the water together, or be too captivated by each other to even notice it. I found my reflection smiling back at me, and I was on the lookout again. My watch said just after three o’ clock, and there was still no sign of her. I felt myself grow taut as a rope with the anxiety, but it soon subsided when light steps could be heard going over the bridge, and I saw her head upside down in the reflection of the water. I let her go ahead of me for a few moments, and then I rushed out. ‘Tara!’ I said. She jumped, and then turned swiftly to face me.
‘Eh, hi Joe,’ she said. She bore a thin smile, while her eyes were wide open, and scanning me frantically.
‘Eh Tara, I have something for you,’ I said.
‘Oh right. What is it?’ she asked.
Saying nothing, I began to fumble through my pockets. Even though I knew the poem was in the back one, I first searched through my front ones for a few seconds, then my back left, and finally my back right. The paper shook violently as I extended it forward to her. Initially I kept it close to me, and then I was shoving it into her hand.
‘Poem. It’s a poem,’ I said.
‘A what?’ she asked.
‘A poem,’ I said.
‘Ok, well thanks very much,’ she said.
For a few seconds, she held the paper limp in her hand. Eventually she opened it, and began to read, her eyes panning slowly over the words. They started to move faster over the lines, her eyes flickering occasionally between me and the page. Several times, she mouthed words from the poem, nearly breaking into smile. She dropped the paper from her view, and let her head hang downwards, and my heart lilted as long waves of her hair drooped and covered her whole head. All I could hear was the wind hissing through the grass beside us, and then I heard her. It was like a whimper, as if she were crying. She raised her head to reveal a grin, a little hushed until the laughter was totally unrestrained. Her eyes were shut, and I waited for them to open again. Between breaths she turned to me, saying ‘Oh my God.’
‘What?’ I asked, leaning in.
‘You’re some gobshite,’ she said, and fell back into her fit of laughter. It was then that I looked and saw in the light of the day the large, red blotches just inside her blouse. I could now see that her legs were flabby and lumbering. Her dark hair was still dark, but in all the wrong places: black whiskers stuck all over her face. She could boast more facial hair than a lot of my classmates.
I started to walk, slowly at first. Then I was running up the lane, as fast as I could. Yet I could still hear the word ‘gobshite’ echoing in my ear, as though she was running alongside me. It was like a pulse, pounding in my head, louder than the beat of my heart. At the top of the lane, I got to the main street. Cars hummed gently along in the afternoon traffic. A few people waited at the bus stop, shifting their feet and lighting another cigarette. Then, coming out of a side street, I saw him. There was the face blackened by years of Mediterranean sun. The stocky bulk of him rolled along like a barrel full of whiskey. His eyes peered down the street, and there was a momentary light of recognition in them when he saw me. I jumped with fright. ‘Moran-’ was all I heard him say, for after that I was gone, running so fast that the cars on the main street, and the people at the bus stop all became a single mass, a thick fog to pass through, away from any bar on the Left Bank of Paris.