We crowded around the screen and watched him putting ‘J.C.’ into the Hall of Fame. He had got the top score in Street Fighter and we’d never even seen him here before. It was raining again, so we were in the Café. The Café was a tin roofed shed at the beach that belonged to one of the Cavanaghs from up the road. In the back there were a few arcade machines and a worn pool table. Out the front they sold bucket-and-spade sets and rectangular wafers filled with hand cut slices of HB ice cream.
«What’s the JC stand for? Jesus Christ is it?» asked Ozzie, and we burst out laughing.
«Johnny,» he said as he left.
«The state of him, hi,» said Owen, Ozzie’s brother, when Johnny was out of earshot.
The only black person I had met before was a missionary priest at my granny’s. I had turned his hands over and back, fascinated by the contrasting white of his palms, while he stood politely smiling. Johnny wasn’t actually black, more like a golden brown. His soft curls were dyed blonde and he wore one small gold -hoop earring.
Mick, my second cousin, who was in the year above me in school, said he’d seen Johnny before at the caravan park near the pitch and putt. There were about twenty caravans and some portaloos, there was no planning permission but the County Council did nothing. My father swore every time we drove past.
Ozzie, Owen and Majella had a green three-berth caravan across from the beach. We hung out there during the week when their father wasn’t around. If their mother was out too we would listen to recorded skits of Northern Ireland politicians having imaginary fights. We should have known who they were as it was all going on a few miles over the border but we didn’t. We laughed anyway. Politician’s names were just an afterthought on the news reports coming from the Northern Ireland TV channels.
I can still see the newsreader, more hairspray than hair against a cream background, a face too old for her age, headlining the anonymous body counts divided into three sections: soldiers, unionists and republicans.
Every year, to escape the troubles, they came to us, the summer refugees in caravans, and a privileged few in summerhouses. Two of the summer homes had tin roofs but caused less offence to our parents than the caravans. We enjoyed the novelty for the summer months, but in the winter we’d break into their caravans and wreck them for something to do.
The sun was out when Johnny turned up again. We were all at the edge of the crumbling, unmarked tarmac that passed for a car park, glaring at day-trippers and listening to Metallica ‘Master of Puppets’. When it wasn’t raining we nestled into the grooves above the edge of the sand dunes, with our back to the sea, the Marram grass scratching our faces.
«Nice stereo, hi,» he said.
It was a black and red Phillips that needed clunky batteries that cost a fortune and didn’t last long. The batteries were running out and warping the sound, but I’d no money to buy more: summer jobs where limited to the Café and reserved for older local girls.
«Are yous going swimming or something?» he asked looking at our towels.
«Aye, well jumping off the side there, are you up for it?» I asked.
«Naw, I can’t swim but I’ll come with yous.»
No-one raised any objection so Johnny and I walked behind the rest. When we got past the beach we climbed up the jagged rock formation that jutted out into the sea and bombed off the edge. Johnny sat in his navy shell suit by the side of the rocks, squatting, his coffee coloured arms wrapped around his legs. I climbed to higher heights than usual in a bid to show myself off. Afterwards we hung around the darkening carpark, occasionally throwing stones at steamed- up parked cars and then running off behind the sand dunes.
Later in the caravan, when Johnny had gone home and their Ma had gone to The Ferryport Bar, the rest of them slagged me off for fancying him. I changed the subject by getting Majella to do her impression of a Goth. She was always happy to oblige, and would suck in her cheeks, pull her fringe over her eyes and hum the beginning of ‘Soul Kitchen’ by The Doors. I actually liked the Doors but pretended not to during the summer.
«I seen a bunch of Goths getting searched by the Peelers, hi, the other day, I nearly felt sorry for them,» said Ozzie, darkening the tone.
We nodded grimly, pretending to understand what it was like, when the closest we had come to the troubles was when a few years before the Gardaí had searched our houses looking for kidnapped businessman Don Tidy. I was already in bed when they called. I watched them open the large built in wardrobe and look at the dust and old carpet ends. The year before the UFF had planted a bomb up the road but it hadn’t even gone off. The troubles were just a mild inconvenience for us.
On Saturdays we had our cars searched by British soldiers on the way in to the city and by Irish customs on the way out. We might have to leave Boots for a while if there was a bomb scare.
We were secretly Republican, and so almost jealous of the exploits of our summer friends. We reveled in their stories of being hassled by the British army, outcasts in their own country. In Donegal, the most Northern part of the South, we were cast out from the Republic by our accents, and from the rest of Ulster by the borders. When I went to Dublin to see my granny, people always asked me was I from Belfast. Sometimes it was easier to say yes, and repeat the stories Ozzie had told us as if they were my own.
The next day I ditched the others by pretending I had to babysit my wee cousins. I put the dog on a lead and wandered down toward the pitch and putt. Johnny was out the front of a caravan playing swing ball by himself. He smiled as if he’d been expecting me and came out to pet the dog. The dog didn’t want to stop and yanked me on down the road. Johnny followed. We turned into Port Salach. It was empty as usual, the local fishermen used it for lobster pots and crab lines so you couldn’t swim there and the beach itself was too stony for sunbathing.
We sat on a big rock. Johnny offered me a smoke and when I reached for it he leaned in to kiss me. His lips were soft and he smelled of summer-mowed grass. He took my hand and pulled me down on to the grass on the side.
«I’ve wanted to do that all summer hi,» he said.
«Me too,» I giggled, «but if the ole boy finds out, I’m dead.»
«I won’t walk you home then,» he said.
I retrieved the dog from the remains of a washed up lobster pot and we arranged to meet again the next night. I smiled all the way home, relieved he hadn’t lived up to his Derry reputation and tried to get my shorts off. He had been gentle and content to kiss slowly and softly, not like the Donegal boys I had kissed before, awkward and hurried down the back of the school hall at lunchtime, my arms worn out from pushing their hands out of my school jumper.
I met him down at the Pilot’s Port most nights after that, and we sat in an abandoned grey concrete pipe staring at the sea or kissing, our bodies as tight as only teenagers can get with their clothes on. He rubbed his knee between my legs and I when I came for the first time, the stars had never seemed so numerous.
He left with the rest of them at the end of the summer. I stayed near the landline, only going out to smoke a few times a day. I went to Derry that Saturday to buy stationary for school hoping to catch a glimpse of Johnny. He hadn’t rung to meet up like he said he would. I cried, though I knew the rules, we’d never meet with the Derry wans in the autumn and winter. We were summer friends only, when different rules applied. Even if we met by chance in the Richmond Centre they’d avoid us, we were rednecks and they didn’t want to be seen talking to us in front of their friends. As we went back over the checkpoint the soldiers came on the bus with their guns, one of them blacker than Johnny.
There was a heatwave the following Easter, so I walked the roads hoping he’d returned. The first person I saw was Ozzie, his hair was longer and he was taller.
«Yes Maria, what’s the craic around these parts? Long time no see.»
«No craic,» I said. «What about yous?»
«Not much, just the usual hassle with the peelers. But wait ‘til you hear about that Johnny boy who was staying down at the pitch and putt last year hi!»
My red face betrayed me.
He laughed and said, «I knew you fancied him. Well you’re not going to fancy him now when I tell ye what happened.»
«Aye right,» I said rolling my eyes, bracing myself.
«Swere te God …he’s not called Johnny at all, he’s called Claire, because he’s a fucking wee girl hi! The Boys hadda step in when they found out. Threatened her to stop going around like a wee boy or get out. Fucking Pervert. So he, or she or whatever it is, is gone, and the ma has disappeared too, up to Belfast or London or somewhere.»
«I have to get back or my da’ll kill me,» I said desperate to get away.
«See you down the Café later then,» he said and winked at me.
He was telling the rest of them when I got there. «Here’s the lezzy who fancied Johnny Claire,» he shouted and they all turned around laughing.
«Fuck off, hi,» I said, Derrying up my accent again for the summer.
« knew he was a pervert or something,» said Mick.
«Aye, that’s what’s written on the house now,» said Owen, «burnt to a crisp so it is. I seen it myself.»
Then Ozzie regaled us with more tales of burnt out houses, more random street searches by the army, how his new Nikes had been slashed. I got off with him later in an old caravan we had smashed in the winter. He rubbed himself against me before we had even kissed and then his hands were everywhere. I let him do what he wanted because I had something to prove.
I avoided them all for the rest of the Easter holidays. Mick called up and I pretended I was grounded because my da had seen the purpling love bites around my neck.
My mother said I should ring the Cavanaghs to see if there was a job going in the café that summer. I couldn’t face it so I followed my sister to London in June and got a live in job in a pub in Pimlico for the summer. Once at Victoria Station I thought I saw Johnny.
«Johnny!» I shouted angrily, «Johnny Claire!» running up the escalator after the dyed blonde hair.
The usually oblivious London crowds turned at the sound of an angry Northern Irish accent in a packed station. It wasn’t him. I sat down at the top exhausted, trying to remember his soft lips against mine and allow the stars to open up above the London Streets where they were hidden from me now.
Here you can read other short stories by Aoibheann McCann: