It was all the giant, pulley-type things and strange machinery painted in thick yellows and blues that came first, riding high on the front of the ship, hijacking the best spot like it was more important than all us people paying to get to Fishguard; they looked kind of blobby and like those fancy Lego pieces you get to add reality to your brick-made rockets and tractors and things. I suppose that ferry-boat junk was important, but I didn’t care, I was riled; my right to stick myself at the very tip of the water-slicing prow was stolen away.
Not that I wanted to be one of those figurehead girls on the front of the ship, nothing stupid like that.
What I wanted was to be lost in the atmosphere, to be absorbed into the elements of wind and ocean; I wanted to be outside of myself. And bigger. Bigger than my life and all the messed up stuff of it. To get away from being told what to do and where to go and who I could see.
And I realised that all that rubbish I’d told him, about being made up of the same stuff as nature and everything, that first day on the Irish moor, I realised it was true.
The best I could do was go along a metal walkway down the side of the ship with a million nipples of non-grip grippy-things digging into my white plimsolls and making me slip all over the place. I leant over the guardrail. Everything was freezing to the touch. On tiptoe I extended my vision across the dark curve of the hull, at last got to feel I was forging into the open ocean.
We rose up and plunged down. A fine misty drizzle came at me, smacked my face in irregular rhythms.
I let it slowly soak into my every pore, right through my vest and my cut-offs, puddling in my canvas shoes; felt myself gasping at the sting and the cold, pushed myself further into it. My long hair was so wet it fell heavy, sticking to my face and throat, plastering my scalp.
I wasn’t sure if it was actually raining or whether it was the splashed up spray that was hitting me. Or both. Licking my lips, I found them salty. And I looked down, right into the frothing, surging sea, saw a wide arc of white droplets rise up, then come crashing into me with a rushing sound.
Breaking and coming together again, the way only liquid can.
Every part of me wanted to get lost: lift myself into a handstand on the sopping handrail and somersault off, eyes closed, to meet the swell.
As something touched me from behind, fright leapt in my chest. It was my sister, wide-eyed, staring at me. I laughed, short and shrill, then fell serious, gazing at her through salt-bleared eyes. I couldn’t make out what she was saying. She looked impatient. It was clear she resented the pummelling cold and having to come and find me and I realised she was insisting I come inside. But I just stood there, dumb.
And then she was shouting, her face all messed up and reddening.
I nodded quickly, and when she got a hold of my arm, I didn’t resist, just let her lead me along the slippery deck. We stepped over the sheet-metal of the raised doorway, through the rubber-edged hole. The oval door was held open by a large rust-laced clip, its peeling paint covered in a sheen of moisture.
‘What the hell’s the matter with you?’ my sister was saying. ‘You’re such a brat sometimes. Just because you’re going home. You had a good time, didn’t you? Can’t that be enough?’
I smiled wanly, staring down at the blue and red diamond-patterned carpet as we trudged up the stairs and reached the upper deck.
‘You should be glad to get away from all that weird talk.’
Her friend was waiting at a table, minding our bags. ‘What were you doing?’ she said. ‘You look like a drowned rat.’
‘She was hanging over the side of the ship,’ my sister told her. And to me, she said, ‘Idiot.’ But she gave me a smile that showed she cared, her eyes going soft. ‘Didn’t want to leave the horses, huh?’ She was unzipping her purple nylon sausage bag, extracting a grubby pink towel. ‘Here,’ she said, passing it to me. ‘Dry your hair for a start. Why didn’t you wear your coat?’ She turned to her friend, said, so I could hear, ‘She always does things for attention. Likes danger, huh? Don’t you?’
I tipped up my head, rubbed roughly at my hair and scalp.
‘Don’t you?’ she said again, sort of laughing.
I wheeled round with the stinky towel still over my head, hands reaching out like monster claws, made some kind of deep groan. I could see her browned knees sticking out of her flowery skirt and I lurched into her. She shrieked. Her friend burst out laughing and then we were all laughing and it was nice.
‘I got you a cake,’ my sister said, as she slid along the black vinyl banquette. I slipped in beside her, my skin sticking to the plastic. ‘A Chelsea bun. Your favourite.’ She passed it to me on a scratched-up industrial plate. ‘Here,’ she said, delivering a squat cup and saucer of tea, which chattered and splashed and tinkled with the spoon as I took it and put it down in front of me.
‘Oh,’ I said at the sight of the milky brew.
I thought better of it, smiled. ‘Nothing. Thank you.’ I had only last week given up milk in my tea, and I supposed she’d forgotten.
I knew my sister was looking after me, had been told to keep an eye.
Gazing into the soft spool of dough that was the Chelsea bun, into its sticky,
bronze-glazed spiral dotted with currents, I began to unravel it, peeling away its outer layer.
We were in a café, and beyond the ancient window glass, the rolling heathland of County Cork cast its blanket of tufted green, lush with memories of what we did there. Out of sight of others. My hands hugged a mug of black tea with its filmy reflection of distorted shapes and the muted, drizzle-patterned light. As he came over, carrying our second helping of coiled buns, my eye went to him, eating up his burly maleness. I smiled at him without showing my teeth, pretending like I was cool inside.
When he handed me my Chelsea bun, we deliberately brushed fingers and the energy of his touch travelled all the way down to right between my legs. I let him see the spark in my eye.
‘Shhh,’ he said. I saw he looked kind of nervous.
The smile I gave him was innocent. But contained all our secrets and more.
‘You’re too much,’ he told me in a whisper. ‘But what an angel face.’ As he sat down, he flicked his sights over the room, the people. ‘Now stop it.’
‘Stop what?’ I said, and laughed, cupping my chin as I leaned my elbow onto the red Formica table. I watched his large square hands, loving the wiry black hairs that sprang from the first phalange of each finger. I liked that word. Phalange. It could be anything, I thought. Phalange. Phalange. Phalange. It could be rude. It could be a water bird. A wild flower.
He took up his bun and tore off a strip.
How I wished for his hands to be on me. I envisaged him lying below me, me astride his narrow hips, knees in the grass, crushing blue speedwell, the flesh of me squidging between his fingers, nails digging in.
He put the piece of dough into his mouth and I imagined putting my tongue there, in his mouth, and my lips.
‘I want to go,’ I said.
‘I know. Eat your bun like a good girl.’
‘Can’t we take them away, our tea and cakes?’
He indicated the landscape through the wavy glass with his head. ‘Still raining,’ he said.
There was an elastic band in my pocket, I was absently fiddling with it, and I took it out, strained the flesh-coloured fibre between my forefingers, aiming it at him. He watched me. I flicked it. It hit him in the face. He didn’t flinch.
‘You’re such a kid,’ he said.
‘I am a kid. What the fuck did you say that for?’
He shrugged, picked up the elastic band, caught an edge of it in his mouth, under an eye tooth, and kept pinging it against his lip. My sights grazed his craggy face, refused his blue eyes. He put the rubber band in his pocket, took a sip of my black tea; black like his, but mine; he took a sip.
‘Hey,’ he murmured, leaning forward. ‘I know you’re not a kid. What you are, is – don’t you know? You’re everything.’
I could smell him and it threw me and I flinched.
The ferry lurched, like it was hit by a huge wave at a funny angle.
My tea slopped over the side of my cup, spilled over the saucer and splashed my bare leg. It was tepid and rather pleasant, like warm fingers. I was eating the bun right up to my mouth, nuzzling at its entrails in one continuous consummation.
‘You’re disgusting,’ my sister said. ‘Anyone would think you were five, eating like that – not fourteen.’
I grinned, still with the bun in my face. I said, ‘No one thinks I’m five.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘I don’t actually.’
She tried not to laugh. ‘I think you were put on this earth especially to get on my nerves.’
‘No, to teach you,’ I told her, as I stuffed the last bit of bun in my gob. I tried not to think of chips, of his fingers mashing them into my mouth, down on the quay, that day, before we did it for the first time.
My sister gasped, all theatrical, and was laughing and saying something about how it was her job to teach me, older is wiser, experience is knowledge, something like that.
I wondered what she would think if she realised just how experienced I was. I wondered if she would hate me for lying to her. And for getting there before she did.
And then I swear I could smell him, like he was there. I had to take a quick glance behind me to check. And I thought I heard the scream of a seagull, my eyes drawn to the window, frantically in search of it, remembering the chips I’d thrown on the water and the gulls diving in and fighting each other for them.
‘Was that a gull?’ I said.
I didn’t know why at the time, but obviously I seemed stupid.
‘Not a seagull!’ her friend squawked.
This sent my sister off, and her friend too, the two of them wrapping their arms around themselves, clutching their sides. Laughter rippled through me despite myself. I realised I was blinking a lot and that tears were spilling out of me. I wanted to howl. So I copied them, bent over double, wiped at my eyes. It was easier that way.