Read Tender Online

Authors: Belinda McKeon


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For K

He was the friend of my life. You know, you only have one friend like that; there can’t be two.

James Salter,
Light Years


reams fled away,
and something about a bedroom, and something about a garden, seen through an open window; and a windfall, something about a windfall—a line which made Catherine see apples, bruising and shriveling and rotting into the ground.
Windfall-sweetened soil;
that was it. And, the flank of an animal, rubbing against a bedroom wall—though that could not be right, could it? But it was in there somewhere, she knew it was; something of it had bobbed up in her consciousness as she lay on the lawn in front of James’s house, a wool blanket beneath her, one arm thrown over her eyes to do the job of the sunglasses she had not thought to bring.

The French windows were open. They were to the left of the front door, which seemed a bit strange, or pointless or something—if you wanted to walk out to the front of the house, wouldn’t you just use the door? Still, they were nice—elegant, that was what they were, and modern—and through them now came the noise of James and his parents, talking in the loud, excited way this family had. His mother shrieked at something James had said, and James swore at her—the fond, gleeful kind of swearing they did all the time, this family; Catherine could not get over them. They were talking, probably, about the local wedding James’s parents were going to that afternoon; James was also expected to go, but James was staying home, using Catherine’s visit as an excuse. Catherine was not sure how she felt about this: a mixture of panic and guilt and flattery, which did not make it easy to relax, lying here in an old bikini belonging to James’s sister, not that the fact of lying here in a bikini made relaxation easy in the first place. If her parents knew…But her parents did not know, she reminded herself once again, and once again she put the thought out of her mind.

Arrah, for fuck’s sake, Mammy.
That was James now, really roaring, and next came Peggy, her Cavan accent laying the words down like cards:
I’m telling you, Jem, I am telling you.
James was a desperate wee shite, that was something else Peggy had said to him a moment ago; Catherine laughed again at the thought of it.
Desperate wee shite;
she’d say it to him when he came back out here. It would become another of their lines. Already they had their own way of talking, their private phrases, their language, and they’d only known one another since that morning in June; though it seemed like so much longer, it was only six weeks ago that James had shown up in Catherine’s flat on Baggot Street, the flat she shared, during term time, with James’s old schoolfriends, Amy and Lorraine. It was them he had been looking for, of course, when he had arrived that morning, back from his time in Berlin, but instead he had found Catherine, because Catherine had moved into the bedroom he had left empty the previous October. He had been working for a big-shot photographer over there, someone Catherine, at the time, had never even heard of, but someone big, someone with whom James, despite not even being in college, had managed to get himself a job as an assistant—and this was so typical of James, that he could just go and get something for himself in this way, and it was so unthinkable for Catherine, the guts it would involve, or at least it had been, before meeting James…

There, now, was James’s father, wry and lovely and long-suffering, asking James if he would not get back out into the garden and give James’s mother and himself a bit of peace.
That lassie,
he said—and Catherine knew he was referring to her, and she thrilled to hear herself mentioned—
That lassie will be dying of the thirst.
Then he added something in a lower tone, inaudible to Catherine, and Peggy shouted his name, sounding outraged, and James told him he was very smart, very fucking smart, and
Now for you,
James said then, and Catherine knew that he had done something—maybe had clipped his father on the ear, or pretended to, maybe swiped the last piece of ham from his father’s plate. Something, anyway. Some little moment of contact. The previous evening, she had seen James bend down to where his father was sitting at the table and plant on the crown of his head a quick, firm kiss, like a kiss for the head of a baby; just in passing, just as though it meant nothing at all. Catherine had actually blushed. She had felt as though she had done something wrong, something too much, just by having witnessed it. This family. They were just so—they were
. They were just
. And it was so strange, because in so many ways they were so much like Catherine’s own family—farmers, the house on the hill, the kitchen smelling of the same things, the bedsheets in the spare room the same sheets that Catherine’s parents had on their bed—and yet, they were so—

. That was what they were. That was a James word; that was one of the words she had got, over this summer, from James. From all the talking they had done, firstly in Dublin, those intense days after he had returned from Berlin, and then—after Catherine had returned to her parents’ home in Longford for the summer and James had reclaimed his old Baggot Street bedroom—over the phone, James had given her so many new ways of saying things, so many closer, sharper, more questioning ways of looking at the world. They had talked on the phone almost every evening this summer; Catherine would call the pay phone in the hallway on Baggot Street, and James would be there waiting with a cheery
and they would be off, sometimes for hours, and in those conversations James had given her so much, so many new things to think about. And so many new things to worry about—or, not new things, just things it had never really occurred to her to think about before. Like how little she knew about, well, everything, really. That had been obvious all this past year—college had made that obvious—but James, her conversations with James, had forced her to see it so much more clearly. James had not said this to her directly—James was not like that, not blunt in the way that, say, her classmate Conor was, ripping the piss out of her, making her feel humiliated and small. It was more that in talking to James, listening to him talk, Catherine had come to realize just how much more carefully she needed to think about everything: about her life, about what she was doing with it, about what she was doing at college, about what she was doing with these summer days. About her relationships, of which there were none; Conor was not a relationship, no matter what James said, however often or hilariously—she loved the way he insisted on talking about the dramas of her life as though they were actually interesting, as though there was actually something happening where there absolutely was not. She even loved when he insisted on talking about her relationship with her parents, which was something she had never even thought about in such terms before—she really needed, James had told her, to start thinking about her parents as
instead of just as her parents—and about the way things were with them, and about how this influenced pretty much everything she did. Psychology; James was not at college, because James, as he had told Catherine that first day in Baggot Street, had not wanted to go to college, had wanted to do something different, had wanted to go his own way, but if James
gone to college, he told her, it was psychology he would have liked to study. That or theology, he had added, and Catherine had burst out laughing, assuming the theology part to be another of his jokes, because he was hardly religious; but James had insisted: he wanted to understand, he said, what it was, exactly, that people believed.

James hardly needed to go to college, anyway; James already seemed to know about everything. Art, obviously; Catherine was a year into a degree that was half art history and he knew ten times more than her. He seemed to know more about her other subject, English, too, though on poetry she thought she had the advantage. But when it came to people and the way they behaved, James could talk for hours, and when it came to other things, too; politics, for instance. One night a couple of weeks previously, Catherine had found herself lying awake for hours, thinking about the North—or rather, thinking about the question of whether, if you talked about the North on the phone—as she and James, or rather James, had for a long time that night—your call was likely to be picked up on, to be noted, along with your name and your whereabouts. Because James had said that this often happened; at the end of the call, James had mentioned, as casually as though it were nothing at all, that he and Catherine were probably on some list now, the two of them, that phone calls all over the country were monitored for conversations just like theirs.

Catherine had rung off as quickly as she could, pleading some obligation or other, and she had sat for a long moment afterwards, staring at the phone, at the cord pulled through from the hall, at the plump, cheerful-looking digits on the buttons, her head feeling as though it was pulsing in and out of something unreal. Then she had gone into the sitting room, where her mother was watching television with Anna, Catherine’s six-year-old sister, and she had been unable even to look at either of them, worrying about what could happen to them now, because of what she and James had done. Which was the height of paranoia, of course it was, but James had had an answer for that too, the next night, when she described to him the stress she had gone through. And it was true. It didn’t make it any less real, all of that; that she thought they were being paranoid didn’t make it any less real at all. Catherine had not been able to change the subject quickly enough, that night, to get onto something that was not dangerous, and she did not want to think about it now, either. She did not want to think about it anytime. She wanted lemonade, which was what James had gone into the house for, glasses of cold lemonade for the two of them, and he would be back out with them now, she thought, squinting up at the sunlight; he would be back out any minute. The glasses would be gorgeously cool, would be glistening with ice, and Catherine would sit up on the blanket to see James as he came towards her from the house, and
you desperate wee shite,
she would call out to him, and he would pretend to scowl at her, stepping through the metal archway his mother had set down at the edge of the lawn. Roses—or at least Catherine thought they were roses—were trained up the archway, a vivid red against the paintwork, and now she heard him; she heard, close to the patio door and now coming across the driveway, his footsteps, and yes, there it was, the ice, the clinking, and Catherine clenched all the muscles of her arms and her shoulders and her thighs, just for the pleasure of it, just for the loveliness of releasing them again, stretching out on the blanket so that her fingers and toes touched the grass now, its cool, clipped pile. She sighed, as the sun bleached white the world shut out by her eyelids, and once again she tried to train her vision—was it still vision if your eyes were closed?—on one of the tiny black floaters swirling in and out of view. But there was no holding them; they came and went like birds.


This was her second day in Carrigfinn.

*  *  *

James’s hair had grown over the summer; it rose in an unruly quiff over his forehead. He had the reddest hair of any boy Catherine had ever known, which was probably down to the fact that, until James, she had had such a dislike of red-haired boys that she had not even wanted to look at them, let alone talk to them. They made her think of misery, somehow; of small houses and V-neck jumpers and of that helpless, defeated look that came over the faces of some children in primary school when the teacher was humiliating them and there was nothing the child could say or do to change this. She had not articulated this to James, actually, this association; she thought now, as she watched him duck down under the archway of roses, that she must say it to him, that he would find it fascinating, would find it, probably, quite clever, quite funny. Analyzing it, picking it apart, he would make it, of course, much funnier still.
And what’s so offensive about V-neck jumpers?
she imagined him asking, and she laughed in anticipation of it, hugging herself a little with the pleasure of it, so that James looked at her suspiciously now, his lips pursed in a manner that set her laughing harder still. He was so funny, James; it was probably the thing that was most brilliant about him. He was funnier than anyone she’d ever met. Everything about him was so lit up by this brilliant, glinting comedy; he was so quick, and such a good mimic—so good it was almost disturbing, sometimes—and he had this gift for getting right to the truth about people with a single, seemingly casual line. And he was so loud, and he cared nothing for what other people thought of him; more than once during those first days in Dublin, Catherine had cringed at the attention paid to them by people on the street as James, marching along beside her, had held forth energetically on whatever was grabbing—seizing—his attention at that moment. Passersby had glanced at him, or stared at him, or raised a withering eyebrow in his direction, but James never seemed to notice; he just charged on. It had been the same, even, in Carrick the previous evening, as he and Catherine had walked from the train station towards the road for Carrigfinn. No thought to who might be listening. No care for who might say he was a right dose, a right pain in the head, that Flynn fella with the hill of red hair. Even as they thumbed a lift, then—Catherine feeling ill with nerves in case they might be seen by someone who could report back to her parents—James had had her in stitches, and when they finally got a lift, from two old women who were neighbors of James’s parents—two old women who made sure to get a good look at Catherine, as the girl James Flynn was bringing home—it had actually hurt, the effort of keeping the laughter in. James, all the way home, had stayed straight-faced, keeping up a jolly, newsy patter with the two women, gossiping with them about other neighbors, agreeing with their assessments and their complaints; but the whole time, he had been kicking Catherine’s foot, trying to make her laugh, alerting her to intimations, innuendoes, in the things he was saying. Catherine had barely been able to breathe by the time the car had left them at the bottom of the lane.

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