The summer is a washout. Every day the heavens open and the rain comes down; not the usual summer showers with their skittish, shivering drops but heavy, dull, persistent rain; true dreich days. The sky is low and grey and the ground is waterlogged, the air cold and damp, blustery.
We don’t care. It is the best summer of our lives.
We go to Cutters Wharf in the evenings because nobody we know goes there. It’s an older crowd, suits and secretaries, some students from Queen’s. Usually we sit inside but one evening when the clouds lift and the rain ceases we take our drinks out onto the terrace. The riverfront benches and tables are damp and cold but we put plastic bags down and sit on those. It isn’t warm but there is the feeling of sitting under the full sky, that pale high light of a Northern evening, and there is the salt freshness of the breeze coming up the Lagan from the lough.
After we leave Cutters Wharf that night we walk. We walk along the Lagan and through the Holylands: Palestine Street, Jerusalem Street, Damascus Street, Cairo Street. We cross the river and walk the whole sweep of the Ormeau Embankment. The tide is turning and a two-person canoe is skimming downriver, slate grey and quicksilver.
When we reach the point where the road curves away from the river, the pale evening light still lingers so we keep walking, across the Ravenhill Road, down Toronto Street and London Street and the London Road, Willowfield Drive and across the Woodstock Road and on, further and further east until we are in Van Morrison territory, Hyndford Street and Abetta Parade, Grand Parade, the North Road, Orangefield.
There are times in your life, or maybe just the one time, when you find yourself in the right place, the only place you could possibly be, and with the only person.
She feels it, too. She turns to me. ‘These streets are ours,’ she says.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, they are,’ and they were. The whole city was.
She was a celebrity in our school, in the way that some girls are. She was the star musician and always played solos at school concerts and prize days and when a minor royal came to open the new sports hall. One year in the talent contest she played the saxophone while another girl sang ‘Misty’. They didn’t win – some sixth-formers who’d choreographed their own version of ‘Vogue’ got more votes – but they were the act you remembered. She wore a white suit and sunglasses, but it wasn’t that: it was the way she bent over her instrument and swayed, as if it was the most private moment in the world.
It was a few weeks later that her mother was killed. She was out jogging when a carful of teenage joyriders lost control and careened up onto the kerb. They didn’t stop: if they had stopped, or at least stopped long enough to ring an ambulance, she might have survived. As it was, she died of massive internal haemorrhaging on a leafy street in Cherryvalley, less than a hundred metres from her home. Her husband was a local councillor and so it made the headlines: the petite blonde jogger and the teenage delinquents.
Her entire class went to the funeral, and the older members of the orchestra, too. I was only a second year and had never even spoken to her, so I just signed the card that went round. She didn’t come to practice for several weeks and there were rumours that she had given up music for good. You’d look for her in the corridors, her face pale and thin with violet bruises under the eyes. Then one day she was there again, sitting in her usual place, assembling her clarinet, and if the teacher was surprised or pleased to see her he didn’t let on, and none of the rest of us did, either.
She smiled at me sometimes in orchestra practice but I knew she didn’t know who I was. I was two years below, for a start, and she had no way of knowing my name because the music teacher called all three of us flutes, Flutes. She smiled because he would make silly mistakes, telling us to go from the wrong place or getting the tempo wrong, and there’d be exaggerated confusion in the screeching, bored, lumbering ranks while he flustered and pleaded and tried to marshal a new start. People were cruel to him, sometimes even to his face. She never was: she just smiled, and because of the way the music stands were laid out I happened to be in the direction of the smile.
I used to say her name to myself sometimes. Angie. Angela Beattie.
What else? She cut her own hair: at least, that’s what people said, and it looked as if it could be true, slightly hacked-at, although the mussed-up style made it hard to tell. Her father was a born-again Christian – he belonged to a Baptist church that spent summers digging wells in Uganda or building schools in Sierra Leone – and when our school joined up with another in west Belfast to play a concert at St Anne’s Cathedral, she wasn’t allowed to take part because it was a Sunday, even though it would be in a church, even though it was for peace.
There was so little I knew about her then.
In the summer term of fourth year, everyone took up smoking, or pretended to. The school was strange and empty that time of year, the upper sixth and fifth form on study leave, the lower sixth promoted to prefects and enjoying their new privilege of leaving the grounds at lunchtime. It was ours to colonise. We linked arms and ducked behind the overgrown buddleia into the alley behind the sports hall, boasting that we needed a smoke so badly we didn’t even care if anyone caught us.
The day they did, it was raining and so we weren’t expecting it: but all of a sudden there they were, coming down the alleyway, one at each end. I was holding one of the half-smoked cigarettes and I froze, even as all the others were hissing at me to chuck it away.
The prefect walking towards me was Angie.
I could feel the flurry as those with cigarettes or a lighter scrambled to hide them and others tore open sticks of chewing gum or pulled scarves up around their faces, but only vaguely, as if it was all happening a very long way away.
Angie stopped a couple of metres away. My hand was trembling now.
‘Oh my God,’ I heard, and, ‘What are you at?’ and, ‘Put it out, for fuck’s sake.’ But I couldn’t seem to move.
Angie looked at me. The expression in her eyes was almost amused. Then, ignoring the nervous giggles and whispered bravado of the others, she took a step forward and reached out for the cigarette. Her fingers grazed mine as they took it from me. She held it for a moment, then let it fall to the ground, crushed it with her heel. She looked me in the eye the whole time. I felt heat surge to my face.
‘You don’t smoke,’ she said, and then she said my name.
I felt the shock of it on my own lips. I hadn’t known she knew it: knew who I was. She gazed at me for a moment longer in that steady, amused, half-ironic way. Then she said to the other prefect, ‘Come on,’ and the second girl shouldered past and they walked back the way Angie had come.
‘It’s not cool, girls,’ she called, without turning round. ‘You think it is, but it’s not.’
There was silence until they’d turned the corner. Then it erupted: ‘What the fuck?’ and, ‘Oh my God,’ and, ‘Do you think she’s going to report us?’ and, ‘I am so dead if they do,’ and, ‘What is she like?’ and then, ‘Do you reckon she fancies you?’
It was the standard slag in our school. But out of nowhere I felt my whole body fizz: felt the words rush through me, through and to unexpected parts of me, the skin tightening under my fingernails and at the backs of my knees.
‘Wise up,’ I made my voice say, and I elbowed and jostled back. ‘It’s because of the music. My lungs will be wrecked if I carry on smoking, I actually should think about giving up,’ and because we were always talking about having to give up, the conversation turned and that got me off the hook, at least for the moment.
For the rest of term I agonised over whether to stop hanging out with the smokers at lunch or whether to keep doing it in case she came back. In the end I compromised by going behind the sports hall as usual, but not inhaling, so I could say with all honesty, if she asked, that I didn’t smoke any more. My days became centred on those ten minutes at lunchtime when I might see her again. I would feel it building in me in the last period before lunch, feel my heart start to flutter and my palms become sweaty. But she didn’t raid the alleyway again. There was nowhere else I could count on seeing her: orchestra practice had ceased in the last weeks of the summer term – the assembly hall was used for examinations and there were too many pupils on study leave, anyway – and the sixth-form wing, with its common room and study hall, was out of bounds to fourth years. I passed her in the corridor, once, but she was deep in conversation with another girl and didn’t notice me. On the last day of term I saw her getting into a car with a group of others and accelerating down the drive, and that was that.
The summer holidays that followed were long. My father, a builder, had hurt his back a few months earlier and been unable to work so money was tight: there wasn’t even to be a weekend in Donegal or a day trip to Ballycastle. The city, meanwhile, battened down its hatches and I was forbidden to go into town; forbidden, in fact, from going further than a couple of streets away from our house. All my friends who lived nearby were away; I was too old to ride my bike up and down the street like my younger sister.
‘Why don’t you practise your flute?’ my mother would say as I sloped endlessly about the kitchen. Normally I’d roll my eyes, but as the days stretched on I found myself doing it. I didn’t admit to myself it was because of Angie Beattie, but as I practised I couldn’t help thinking of her. When you first learn the flute, you’re told to imagine you’re kissing it. Now, every time I put my mouth to the lip plate I thought of her. I’d think of her mouth, the curve of it. I’d think of the times I’d watched her at the start of orchestra practice, how she’d wet the reed of her clarinet and screw it into place, test it, adjust it, curl and recurl her lips around the mouthpiece. I’d let my mind unfurl and soon I’d think other things, too, things that weren’t quite thoughts but sensations, things I didn’t dare think in words and that afterwards left me hot and breathless and almost ashamed.
I got good at the flute that summer. When school started up again the music teacher noticed. He kept me back after the auditions and found me some sheet music, asked me to learn it for the Christmas concert. Then he said he’d had a better idea and rummaged in his desk some more. A sonata for flute and piano, he said: we were short on duets. Angie Beattie could accompany me.
‘She might not want to,’ I said.
‘Nonsense,’ he said.
I don’t remember much about the first few lunchtime practice sessions we had together. Each one, before it happened, seemed to loom, so inflated in my mind I almost couldn’t bear it; then, when it was happening, it rushed by. At first I could barely meet Angie’s eye: it was mortifying, the extent to which I’d thought about her, let myself daydream about her, and more. But the music was difficult – for me, at least, which made it hard work for her as my accompanist – and that meant there was no time to waste; we needed to get straight to work. After the first week I found I was able to put aside, at least when I was actually with her, the memory of the strange summer’s fantasies. But sometimes, late at night, I’d be consumed for an instant with an ache that seemed too big for my body to contain.
One evening we stayed late practising after school and, completely out of the blue, she invited me back to her house for dinner. My heart started pounding as I tried to say a nonchalant yes; I’d imagined her house, the rooms she lived in, so many times; I’d imagined so often a scenario in which she might ask me back there. I phoned my mum from the payphone in the foyer and then we walked back together, down the sweep of the school’s long drive, through the drifts of horse chestnut and sycamore leaves in the streets, swinging our instrument cases. There was mist in the air, and as we turned off the main road, the taste of woodsmoke from a bonfire in a nearby garden. The Cherryvalley streets were wide and quiet, thick with dark foliage, lined with tall, spreading lime trees. It was a world away from my street, its neat brick terraces and toy squares of lawn. The gnomes and mini-waterfall in our neighbour’s garden that I used to love and show off to school friends, before I realised they weren’t something to be proud about. Cherryvalley seemed to belong to somewhere else entirely.
‘It’s nice around here,’ I said.
She glanced at me. ‘D’you think so?’
There was something in her expression I couldn’t read and I remembered – of course, too late – that her mother had died here, maybe on this very street, or the one we just walked down. The streets felt not quiet, but ominous, then, the shifting shadows of the leaves, the plaited branches.
‘I meant,’ I said, flustered, ‘the streets have such pretty names.’
She didn’t reply and I tried to think of something else to say, something that would show I was sorry, that I understood. But of course I didn’t understand, at all.
We walked on in silence. I wondered what had made her ask me back and if she was already regretting it.
The Beatties’ house was draughty and dark. Angie walked through flipping on light switches and drawing the curtains. I thought of my house, the radio or the TV or often both on at the same time, my mum busy cooking, the cat always underfoot. Angie made me sit at the kitchen table, like a guest, while she hung my blazer in the cloakroom and made me a glass of lime cordial, then hurried about getting dinner ready. She turned on the oven and took chicken Kievs from the freezer, lined a baking tray with tinfoil. Boiled the kettle to cook some potatoes, washed lettuce in a salad spinner and chopped it into ribbons. I had never, I realised, imagined how her home life actually worked. I felt shy of this Angie: felt the two years, and everything else, between us.
When Mr Beattie got back he looked nothing like the man you used to see shouting on TV or gazing down from lamp posts. He was tall and thin and washed-out-looking; his shoulders were stooped and his hair needed cutting. He shook my hand and I found myself blurting out, ‘My dad used to vote for you.’ It was a lie: my dad never bothered to vote and my mum, even though Dad teased her about it, only ever voted Women’s Coalition. I felt Angie looking at me and I felt my neck and face burning.
‘Good man,’ Mr Beattie said. ‘Every vote counts. These are historic times we’re living through.’
‘And history will judge us,’ I heard myself say. I have no idea where it came from. The car radio, probably, the talk show Mum always had on and always turned off.
Mr Beattie blinked and Angie burst out laughing.
‘Indeed,’ he said. ‘Indeed.’
‘He likes you,’ Angie said, when Mr Beattie had left the room. ‘He really likes you.’
I wasn’t sure what there had been to like, but before I could say anything, she said, ‘If he talks about church, don’t say you don’t go.’
‘OK,’ I said. ‘Why not?’
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘It’s just more trouble than it’s worth.’
When everything was ready and the three of us sat down at the table, Mr Beattie bowed his head and clasped his hands and intoned a long grace. I looked at Angie halfway through but she had her head bowed and her eyes closed, too.
I took care to chime my ‘Amen’ in with theirs.
As we ate, Mr Beattie asked questions about school, about music. Often Angie would jump in with an answer before I had a chance and I couldn’t work out if it was for my benefit or her father’s. When he asked what church I went to, Angie said, ‘She goes to St Mark’s, don’t you?’
‘St Mark’s Dundela,’ Mr Beattie said.
‘That’s right,’ Angie said.
‘That’s the one,’ I said. St Mark’s was where our school had its Christmas carol service, the only time of year my family ever set foot in a church, and only then because I was in the choir.
‘Good, good,’ Mr Beattie said, and I made myself hold his gaze. All that nonsense was just hocus-pocus, is what my dad liked saying. Once, when some Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on our front door and asked if he’d found Jesus, my dad clapped his forehead and said, ‘I have indeed, down the back of the sofa, would you believe.’ My sister and I had thought it was the funniest thing ever.
‘St Mark’s Dundela,’ Mr Beattie said again. I started to panic then, trying to remember something, anything about it. But he didn’t ask any more. ‘C.S. Lewis’s church,’ was all he said, and I smiled and agreed.
The meal seemed to go on forever. The St Mark’s lie had made me feel like a fraud: but it wasn’t just that, the whole situation was putting me on edge. Angie was more nervous than I’d ever seen her: in fact, I couldn’t think of a time when I had seen her nervous, not when she confronted the smokers, not even before a solo. I must be doing everything wrong, I thought. I had the horrible feeling, too, that Mr Beattie could see through me, or worse, could see into me, into some of the things I’d thought about his daughter.
For dessert there was a chocolate fudge cake, from Marks & Spencer, shiny and dense with masses of chocolate shavings on top.
‘Dad has a sweet tooth, don’t you, Dad?’ Angie said. She cut him a slab of cake and they grinned at each other for a moment.
‘We used to have chocolate cake for dinner sometimes, didn’t we?’ she said. ‘Or cheesecake.’
‘Strawberry cheesecake,’ Mr Beattie said.
‘We reckoned,’ she said, turning to me, ‘that because it had cheese in, it was actually quite nutritious.’
‘A meal in a slice,’ Mr Beattie said.
‘Protein, fat, carbohydrate and fruit,’ she said, turning back to him.
‘A perfectly balanced plate,’ he said, and they smiled that smile again, intimate, impenetrable.
When the meal was finally over, Mr Beattie said, ‘Well, after all this talk of the duet, you must give me a concert.’
Without looking at me, Angie said, ‘Another time, Dad, we’re both played out today,’ and I knew she was embarrassed of me. I felt tears boil up in my eyes and I stood up and said I needed the toilet. I took as long as I could in there, soaping and rinsing my hands several times over, drying each finger. I’d say I had homework, I decided. I’d say my mum didn’t like me being out after dark. Both of these things were true.
When I told Angie that I had to go, she looked at me, then looked away. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Right.’
Mr Beattie brought my blazer from the cloakroom and said he’d see me to the door.
‘It’s nice to see Angie bringing a friend back,’ he said. ‘I look forward to hearing this duet of yours one of these days.’
The whole way home I felt a strange, fierce sense of grief, as if I’d lost something; a possibility; something that wouldn’t come again.
After that I avoided her, concert or no concert. I went with the smokers at lunch, half-daring her to come and find me, half-dreading it. Thursday and Friday passed without my seeing her. An awful weekend, then Monday and Tuesday, and on Tuesday afternoon I knew I had to skip orchestra practice. On Wednesday she came to the mobile where my class did French, in the middle of a lesson, and said to the teacher she needed to speak to me. She was a prefect and it was known that we were both musical; the teacher agreed without any questions. The shock and relief and shame of seeing her coursed through me and I had to hold onto the desk for a moment as I stood up. As I followed her out of the classroom and down the steps and around the side of the mobile I couldn’t seem to breathe.
‘How long are you planning on keeping this up?’ she said.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.
I could see her pulse jumping in the soft part of her neck. A horrible, treacherous part of me wanted to reach out and touch it.
‘Angie,’ I said, and from all of the things that were whirling in my head I tried to find the right one to say.
The trees and glossy pressing shrubs around us were thrumming with rain. All the blood in my body was thrumming.
‘Look at me,’ she said, and when I finally did, she leaned in and kissed me. It was brief, only barely a kiss, her lips just grazing mine. Then she stepped back and I took a step back, too, and stumbled against the roughcast side of the mobile. She put out a quick hand to steady me, then stopped.
‘Oh God, am I wrong?’ she said. ‘I’m not wrong, am I?’
Two weeks later, in my house this time, a Saturday night, my parents at a dinner party, my sister at a sleepover. In the living room, in front of the electric fire, we unbuttoned each other’s shirts and unhooked the clasps of each other’s bras. Then our jeans and knickers: unzipping, wriggling, hopping out and off. We kept giggling: there we were gallivanting around in my parents’ living room in nothing but our socks.
‘Here we are,’ she said, as we faced each other, and my whole body rushed with goosebumps.
‘Are you cold?’ she said, but I wasn’t: it wasn’t that, at all.
Afterwards we pulled the cushions off the sofa and lay on the floor, side by side. After a while we did start to shiver, even with the electric fire turned up fully, but neither of us reached for our clothes, scattered all over like useless, preposterous skins.
‘We’re like selkies,’ she said, ‘like Rusalka, do you know the opera?’ and she stood up and struck a pose and sang the first few lines of the aria, the water nymph’s song to the moon, she told me later, and I jumped to my feet and applauded and we started giggling again, ridiculous bubbles of joy.
‘Here we are,’ she said again, and I said, ‘Here we are,’ and that became our saying, our shorthand. Here we are.
All love stories are the same story: the moment that, that moment when, the moment we.
We were we through Christmas, and into the spring. It was so easy: the music had been the reason, and now it was our excuse. We used one of the practice rooms each lunchtime and sometimes after school, and no one questioned it. Sometimes we’d play, or she’d play and I’d listen, or we’d both listen to music, and sometimes we’d just eat our sandwiches and talk. I’d go to hers after school, although I never quite felt at ease there, and I preferred it when we’d go for drives in her car, up the Craigantlet hills or along the coast to Holywood. I drifted from my friends, and she from hers, but the music practice hid everything.
And then we had the summer and we were freer than ever, completely free, and I lied blithely to my parents about where I was going and who with, using a rotating cast of old friends, and neither of them ever cottoned on, and I assumed it was the same for Mr Beattie, too.
I don’t want to think about the rest of it: the evening he finally confronted us; walked right in on us. I don’t want to give any room to the disgust or the revulsion. To the anger and the panic that followed, and the tears, our tears, our wild apologies, when we should have been defiant, because what was there, in truth, for us to be apologising for, and to whom did we owe any apology?
Both of us, tears streaming.
‘I have to do it,’ she keeps on saying. ‘I’m all he’s got. It won’t change anything. But I have to do it.’
I don’t want to think about any of that, either.
That winter, my English class studied Keats. I wrote a whole essay, six, seven sides, on the final stanza of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. And they are gone: aye, ages long ago / These lovers fled away into the storm. In the stanza before, the lovers are gliding like phantoms into the wide cold hall and the iron porch where the porter lies in a drunken stupor. His bloodhound wakes and shakes its flabby face but doesn’t bark. The bolts slide open one by one, the chains stay silent and the key finally turns, then just as they think they’ve made it the door groans on its hinges. You think it’s all over for them but then you read on and you realise they’ve slipped away, out of your hands, before your very eyes, a miracle, a magic trick, a wormhole to another place, another time, where no one can ever follow.
The teacher kept me after class. She didn’t believe I’d written it, at least not alone. I opened my lever arch and showed her my notes. Page after page in my crabbed, self-conscious writing. Ending rights the focus, I’d written, does not leave us in too cosy a glow but reminds us of age/decay/coldness of religious characters. I left this part out: I finished my essay with the lovers escaping. We talked about the real ending, Keats’s ending, and we talked about his drafts of the ending, some of which were printed in the footnotes of the cheap Wordsworth edition.
‘You’ve really thought about this,’ she said. ‘You’ve really taken this to heart.’
I started to cry.
‘Oh dear,’ the teacher said, and she found me a tissue from a plastic pouch in her desk drawer, and she came round and sat on the front of her desk and asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about. I shook my head and held out my hand for my essay, and I wondered how much she knew, or guessed, my whole body liquid with shame.
I looked up Angela Beattie on the Internet just once, some months ago, on impulse, spurred by the Marriage Equality march in Belfast. It instantly felt too easy: too much. She’d never made it as a solo or even an orchestral musician but she was a music teacher – and she was married; she and her husband ran a small music school together in Ayrshire. There were pictures of them both on the website, taking group lessons, conducting ensembles, standing with students from the most recent woodwind summer school. She was still whippet-thin, no make-up, choppy hair. He looked younger than her: Doc Martens and skinny jeans, spiky hair, an earring. I clicked from one picture to the next. I don’t know why I was so taken aback. I was engaged, after all. Engaged, happily engaged, and about to buy a flat. I just had never imagined it for her.
A memory came to me: one time in Ruby Tuesday’s, or The Other Place, one of the studenty cafes across town in south Belfast where you could sit and eke out a mug of filter coffee for a whole evening. We’d said I love you by then: maybe for the first time, or maybe very recently; we were huge and important and giddy with it, with all of it, with us. I felt as if my blood was singing – that sparks were shooting from me – that everything I touched was glowing. I could have done anything in those weeks. I could have run marathons or swum the length of the Lagan or jumped from a trapeze and flown. And yet I was happy, happier than I thought it was possible to be, just sitting in a cafe, talking. We sat in that cafe and talked about everything and nothing, talked and talked, and we were us. I remember that; I couldn’t get over that. The room and everything in it – the scuffed wooden booths, the chipped laminate tables, the oversized menus; the fat boys in Metallica T-shirts and Vans at the table beside us, the cluster of girls across the way still in their school uniforms, the waitress carrying a plate of profiteroles; the rain on the window, the yellow of the light – it seemed a stage set that had been waiting our whole lives for us and at last we were here.
The waitress at the table, splashing more coffee into our mugs: ‘Anything else I can get for yous, girls?’ and we say, ‘No, thank you,’ in unison, then burst out laughing, at nothing, at all of it.
For all the waitress knows, for all anyone knew, we’re just two students, two friends, having a coffee.
‘I want to tell her,’ I say. ‘I want to stand up and tell everyone.’ And for a moment, it seemed as if it might just be that simple: that that was the secret.
‘I don’t want us to have to hide,’ I went on. ‘I want to tell everyone – my parents, your dad. Everyone. I want to stand in front of the City Hall with a megaphone and shout it out to the whole of Belfast.’
Suddenly neither of us was laughing any more.
‘I wish we could,’ she said.
We were both quiet for a moment.
‘When you were older,’ I said, thinking aloud, ‘you could team up with a male couple and the four of you could go out together and people would assume, assume correctly, you were on a double date. Only the couples wouldn’t be what they thought.’ I was pleased with the idea, but she still didn’t smile.
‘Hiding in plain sight,’ she said.
‘You could live together,’ I went on, ‘all in one big house, so your parents wouldn’t get suspicious. If you had to, you could even marry.’
I started laughing again as I said it.
‘No,’ she said, and she was serious, more than serious; solemn. She reached out and touched one finger to my wrist and all of my blood leapt towards her again. ‘We won’t need to,’ she said. ‘By then we’ll be free.’
It all flooded back to me and made me indescribably sad.
That night, I walked the streets of east Belfast again in my dreams. Waking, the dream seemed to linger far longer than a mere dream. These streets are ours. I was jittery all day, a restless, nauseous, over-caffeinated feeling. I could email her, I thought, through the website. I wouldn’t bother with pleasantries or preliminaries, I’d just say, There we were. Do you remember?
Photograph © Eamonn Doyle/Neutral Grey