Robert McDermott has been writing fiction and poetry for most of his life. He has published poetry in magazines such as Coffee House, Orbis, Ancient Heart and Obsessed with Pipework amongst others. Recently he won the inaugural INOTE short story competition judged by William Wall and this success has given him the notion to send his short fiction out into the world. He lives in Dublin with his wife, son and two cats.
Boats against the Current
It was the trail of her scarf, like the rhythmic movement of a sea anemone that caught my eye. Trinity College mid-October with me only passing through on my way somewhere else. Long odds, or fate, though that was itself a longer shot. Either way it happened and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I glimpsed her face in the crowd and lost every other detail except the wheat-yellow scarf signalling to me. It was both seductive and ambiguous like a word within a whispered sentence. Could it be the same scarf, I wondered I followed, or at least tried to. Moving among the threshing throng and keeping eyes on her was difficult. I narrowly avoided bumping into people and the whole time C3PO’s voice rattled in my head telling me the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720-1. Stupid nerd stuff like that always came to mind, to my mind anyway. It was one of the many reasons I had a hard time in school. I pushed my way through the thick wall of bodies and snatched conversation and would have lost her but for her stopping just before leaving the Arts Building. She was looking at her phone. She put it away quickly, but it was enough for me to refocus.
In that moment, when I could see her the most clearly, I hesitated. Was it her, could I have mistaken her for someone else, was I following her more in hope than expectation? It had been eight years and an entire adolescence since we’d last spoken. There was a lot of room for error as my father would say. I opened my mouth to call her name, but all that came out was a click of strangled words. A heavyset guy with a strong Limerick accent asked what my problem was and that I was a right dope. There were giggles from his company and I felt a familiar heat rising in my face. I moved away and went quickly out of the Arts Building and towards The Quad. She was heading towards Regent House and I realised that if she got out onto College Green before I could catch up I was sure I’d lose her in the bustle of the city.
‘Now everybody, this is Kate Molloy,’ said Mrs. Bradshaw our form teacher. I was thirteen and my eyes lifting and landing on the new girl was like water rinsing away the final dust of my childhood. I felt a sudden pleasing lightness and readjusted my legs under the desk and sat with the quiet amazement you sometimes see on the faces of people at the theatre or galleries. Kate Molloy, the sound of her name found a place in my mind like a bird flying into the upper reaches of a bell tower. ‘Kate has moved here from Newbridge in County Kildare,’ said Mrs. Bradshaw, ‘tell them about yourself Kate. Go on girl, don’t be so meek.’
It was then, that exact moment where every star in the galaxy conspired and Kate Molloy looked directly at me making me feel as if I was the only person in the world. ‘I like horses,’ she said, ‘and I like hockey and I like Madonna.’ Her voice was high and a little nasal as if she were pinching it slightly. Three girls down the back of the class giggled in unison. One of them said something derogatory about hockey but Kate Molloy despite her nervousness carried on undeterred. She told us that her father had been offered a job in Dublin. I could have listened to her all day. To me her voice sounded like it had come from the top of a mountain bringing with it sheer air to pierce my soul. ‘Has anyone got a question for Kate?’ asked Mrs. Bradshaw. There was total quiet and I wondered why everyone was looking at me. ‘Are you going to ask your question Mr. Kelly or is your hand being moved by some unseen forces of which we are not aware?’ Mrs. Bradshaw’s voice had the echoey reverberation of sound in a dream. Kate Molloy’s eyes fixed on me. I thought I saw the flicker of a smile. ‘What colour is your horse?’ I asked. ‘Grey,’ she said, ‘he’s a grey named Gandalf.’
For three months I said nothing else to Kate Molloy. The girls who giggled at her interest in horses and hockey welcomed her into their clique within a week and soon afterwards the boys in second and third year began to take note of her, revelling in her shiny hair, gregarious nature and willingness to laugh at their stupid jokes.
Just before the Christmas holidays she passed me a note in English telling me she had liked my poem. I had written something that I thought was deep and meaningful for an assignment and when Mr. Merrill coerced me into reading it aloud to the class I barely managed to get it out. The effect of my hesitancy and the poem’s title What’s it all about? combined to produce a cacophony of heckling laughter that culminated in Sean Morrissey saying ‘What’s it all about? It’s about time Kelly shut up.’ I saw Mr. Merrill chuckle to himself before turning on his teacher face and reprimanding Morrissey. It was too late, the damage had been done. I was marked as an outcast and would never return to the unobtrusive shadows from where I’d come.
The next day Kate Molloy’s note heaped more misery on my already fragile state. It read your poem was really good, I hope you write more and while I was over the moon that she had taken the time to tell me that, it came with the realisation, the powerful and immediate realisation that I couldn’t share it with anyone, that it had to remain secret and therefore deepen my isolation.
There were no more poems or notes after that and every time I looked at Kate Molloy she was unaware of it or ignored me. At least once or twice a day I’d pass by her and her friends. Sometimes there’d be a teasing comment about my poem and sometimes there’d be giggling but every time I walked by Kate Molloy’s face was turned or obscured in some way and once I was beyond them, I never dared to look back. Several times I thought to shove her note into the faces of the giggling mob but I knew that was a last resort and would have the same effect as smashing a glass ornament with a hammer. And so, the distant one-sided affection continued until just before the end of the school year.
I heard through a fellow outcast that Kate Molloy was moving back to Kildare. I decided I had to act but had no idea how. If I was brazen, it could backfire and make things worse and if I was timid I would be eaten alive. As it turned out, an opportunity came my way. We were in science class about two weeks before the summer break and I found myself at a sink cleaning a conical flask when she moved in beside me. She smiled and said ‘move over’ in a playful way before indicating she wanted to clean her flask. The sun reflected in her eyes and I almost dropped my flask. It slipped like it was covered in oil but I managed to grab it just before it hit the cold steel of the sink. ‘I’m going to miss this place,’ she said before delivering a bombshell that scrambled my mind. ‘I’m having a party next weekend to say goodbye to everyone, and I’d like you to come,’ she said in a tone that was perfectly sincere. My instincts were to consider her invitation a cruel prank engineered by one or all of the giggling mob. Her eyes widened as I stared at her. ‘Don’t think too hard about it,’ she said with a hint of incredulity. ‘Sorry,’ I said and then added a hasty, ‘I’ll be there.’ ‘Good,’ she said, ‘I’m looking forward to it.’ She moved closer nudging me aside with her hips. I dropped my flask. Luckily it didn’t crack but the noise and subsequent wobbling rattle brought Mr. Byrne over to the sink to lecture me about being careful with laboratory equipment. By the time he was through with me Kate Molloy had returned to her seat.
The party was awful. There were too many people and I only got to speak to Kate once when I gave her a wheat-yellow scarf as a gift. Flanked by the giggling girls she opened the box and one of them said ‘who gives someone a scarf in the summer?’ Kate gave me a half smile and said thanks. They were the last words I heard from her. I moved around the house for a short time but there was no-one I knew and after trying and failing to catch Kate alone I gave up and called my dad to bring me home. Just before he arrived I was sure I saw Kate going down to the back of the darkening garden with one of the boys from the Junior Cup team. On my way out of the house I saw the scarf lying on the floor in the hallway, exactly where Kate Molloy and her friends had been standing when I had presented it to her. I felt an impulse to pick it up but Kate’s mother called me at that moment and the chance was gone. My dad was full of chat and he and Kate’s mother yapped for a few minutes about whatever nonsense adults felt necessary to say to one another in social situations. I stood there dutifully waiting for them to finish. All the time my eyes were on the scarf. On the way home dad continued to blab on but I barely spoke, preferring to look out the window at the last light being sucked from the evening.
I upped my pace as I got to Regent House and almost ran into a tourist who said ‘goddamn watch it son.’ I apologised to him but he had already moved along. The doorway to College Green was busy with other tourists and I had to be polite but firm as I made my way through. I saw the scarf flickering in the fading October light. She was heading towards Grafton Street. I was beginning to formulate questions and a conversation in my head … are you studying in Trinity? No, I’m out in DCU … where are you based in the city? Wow, I’m not too far from there … have you plans for later? are you free now?
It was within the pleasurable mix of nostalgia and anticipation that a claw of doubt grabbed my gut and wrenched me from my daydream. Suppose it was her, would she recognise me and if she did would she want to talk? After all we had barely shared a hundred words during the year we were classmates. Was that all it would come to, a hesitant hi and a vacant look or sorry, I thought you were someone else? I pushed the rising fear into the deeper reaches of my being and followed the scarf that was now a faint Willow-the-Wisp in the tumult of autumnal colour surrounding it.
‘Did you enjoy the party?’ asked my dad. I shrugged and continued looking into the thickening dusk. ‘Her mother said they’re moving back because they couldn’t really settle in Dublin. Sometimes that happens to people who aren’t used to cities, they just find it hard to get used to the noise and the pace and all that.’
I said nothing.
‘Sure,’ said my dad after we passed through the disco glow of another set of traffic lights, ‘why don’t you ask her for her address or phone number when you see her in school next week, maybe you could keep in touch?’
I looked at him with the sort of disdain only a teenager can muster.
‘It’s just a thought,’ he added.
There was near silence for the rest of the journey but for my dad reaching across and tousling my hair.
‘Don’t feel too bad,’ he said, ‘you’ll have many nights like this.’
I was less than ten feet away from her. I had dispelled almost all doubt. There was a stillness in the air as if before rain. She was matching my pace but I pushed forward now, sensing that timing would be key.
I turned to face my dad. ‘How many?’ I asked.
‘God knows,’ he said.
His chuckle made me feel worse.
I don’t know what compelled me to grab the scarf. Maybe because I was so close, maybe because my mind was preoccupied with a muddle of excitement and my heart felt like it was trying to make its way into my mouth. My fingers inched ahead of my moving body and in my imagination mirrored the fluttering tassels of the scarf. Two hands about to touch. I reached and felt its smooth softness on my fingertips and then as soon as I held it, it was gone.
Who gives someone a scarf in the summer? The tone of the comment is reproachful and sardonic. Maybe you’d like to read your poem Mr. Kelly? Get up there and share your wisdom with us, I don’t care if you don’t want to.
I’m sure Mr. Merrill was in on it.
Yeah, that’s a stupid gift someone says as I retreat into a shell of embarrassment. I turn and move away and despite telling myself not to, I look back and see the scarf fall to the floor, folding on top of itself like a gymnast’s ribbon. I get a glimpse of Kate’s face but it is obscured by the baying pack. I turn away once more and as I do, her head moves in my direction. Our opposite movements are so precisely in tune, like gears moving in a machine or stars rotating around the centre of a galaxy, that I never see the look in her eyes telling me how she wished things could be different.
© 2020 Robert McDermott