He should have known, really. Clare had come out to Erin, and everyone in the group had found out the next minute. Had Clare ever told Erin that she was a lesbian in confidence? Did anybody say anything in confidence around here?
Sometimes, he really missed England. That he liked a girl would have gone unnoticed over there.
It had been the most unconscious thing in the world. All he was really doing was watching Erin while she chewed her pencil. She was trying to start writing – he knew this because just when she was thinking, she’d be chewing the damn thing, and playing with her hair.
“What on earth are you staring at Erin for?” asked Michelle rudely. Or perhaps she was saying it normally. The distance between a rude Michelle and a normal one was not a very big one.
“Oh – um – nothing,” he said.
“Go on,” said Michelle.
Clare looked up. “Is James staring at Erin again?”
“Again?” said Michelle, disbelievingly.
“I caught him at it, too,” supplied Orla unhelpfully.
“Well?” said Michelle, in a tone that meant business. Either she was going to beat him within an inch of his life for having the gall to ogle her friend, or she was going to beat him within an inch of his life for being English and having the gall to ogle her friend.
“Nothing!” said James, grabbing his books. “Unhappy coincidence!”
“You better hope it was,” said Michelle in a low voice.
At least that was where that conversation ended. He swallowed the lump in his throat that promised the fact that his stupid crush was far from going away. Later, before Maths. Michelle was walking with him, and Clare and Erin were up ahead. Again he sneaked a look at her – her hair looked lovely from over here, and he was only human.
“You’re staring, James!” accused Michelle. “My god – are you having a look at my best friend?”
“Oh god – please be quiet,” he said, when several backs turned to look at them. He really didn’t fancy Jenny finding out that he had a crush on Erin.
“Well then tell me what the fucking matter is, you tit!” said Michelle. “I swear to God –”
“Shutupshutupshutup,” he said, clapping his hand on her mouth. “I might fancy your best friend okay? That’s what the matter is.”
“Oh my god,” said Michelle, even more disbelieving than before, if that was possible. “You fucking like Erin – Jesus Christ, James, you really have to be joking! You want to ride Erin?”
“Please, I am begging you, be quiet,” he pleaded. “And I don’t want to ride her – that is – I wouldn’t mind – but that’s not primarily what I want – I mean –”
“Oh my fucking God. You actually fancy her?”
James huffed. “Why is this so far from the realm of possibility?”
“Jesus, James, don’t get me started,” said Michelle, looking away.
“This is in confidence, right, Michelle?” he fretted. “You won’t tell anyone, right?”
“You ninny,” said Michelle, some of her good humour returning. “Fine, I won’t tell a soul.”
The next thing he knew, he was being ambushed by all his friends in gym who were calling him out for liking Erin. What were secrets amongst the group?
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “What part of ‘in confidence’ did you not understand, Michelle?”
“I didn’t think it included Clare and Orla!” she said defensively. “Anyhow, how were you going to avoid telling them?”
“By not saying anything!”
“But we already noticed you staring at her, James,” said Clare conspirationally, as if this was tantamount to a confession of murder.
“Why am I even arguing with you about this?” asked James. “Please, please do not let Erin find out.”
“Why not?” asked Orla innocently. “Aren’t you gonna ask her out?”
“Yeah, right,” said James sarcastically.
“No, she would never like him back,” said Michelle, making a face. “He’s too English.”
“True enough,” said Clare thoughtfully. “I suppose we could talking about him nicely around her. Compliment him and the like.”
“Over my dead body,” Michelle declared.
“We could try making him less English?” suggested Clare.
“How?” asked Michelle. “The lad can’t manage an accent.”
James looked at them. “Does anyone want to know what I think?” he asked ineffectually.
“No,” said Clare and Michelle together. “Maybe,” Orla added kindly, but he decided not to test Orla’s kindness.
“Do we even want Erin riding an English?” asked Michelle. “Aren’t they worse than the Protestants?”
“I say we give him a chance,” said Clare. “He isn’t all that bad, after all.”
“Thanks, but your opinion really doesn’t matter,” sighed James. “Anyway, it’s just a crush. I don’t need your help dating Erin, I need your help forgetting my crush.”
“Why would you want to forget your crush?” asked Michelle, offended again. “You think yourself better, do you?”
“No!” he said vehemently. “It’s just – really inconvenient. Don’t you think I know that she doesn’t like me?”
“God, James, there’s no need to be such a sap about it,” said Michelle. “You aren’t all that bad looking, you know.”
“Yeah,” nodded Clare. “And I’m a lesbian.”
“This is a lost cause,” said James. “I’m leaving.”
“Aye, it might be,” said Clare sadly.
“Bullshit!” said Michelle vehemently. “Nothing is a lost cause, don’t be an arse, James. We know you’re English, but Christ if that’s an excuse!”
James turned around, and he couldn’t quite stop a smile. That was probably why the people of Derry found him so unnerving – it wasn’t just the accent, it was the tendency to be nice.
If he was being completely honest, it was a little unnerving for him as well. No matter how rude or cruel they were – everyone in Derry was so much more… perceptive. Even Mrs Quinn had a better idea of how things affected him than anyone in England ever had. He had wondered if it was because all the women were in charge of everyone, but he had his doubts about that.
“Either way, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say anything to her,” said James.
And of course, they didn’t. But they must have told everyone else.
James noticed it when Mrs Quinn started serving him an extra sausage during breakfast sometimes, or when Mrs McCool had pointedly done a reading while in his presence and promised her a rather silly but well meaning boyfriend in the coming three or four weeks. Then there was his own Aunt Deirdre, who had looked to the sky and promised him that if he treated an Irish girl as poorly as the English were wont to do, she was going to make him wish he had never been born. He was certain Mrs Devlin had been hinting at his crush whenever he met her, and it seemed to be almost fact that Erin’s Grandda had been more menacing than usual lately.
It seemed everyone in Derry had an idea of what was happening, apart from maybe the slightly more insipid people like Jenny. Fionnula had invited him – him – into the chippy, looked at him with as much sympathy as an Irish person could muster, and told him the Quinns were still banned, but perhaps he would like to take something for any of his friends, given that he was still somewhat bearable manners-wise, even if he should be English. Mind, the Quinns were banned – but it was Friday, wasn’t it? Did James have anyone he could give this particular package too – which also just so happened to have all the Quinns favourite food.
James hadn’t said no, because Erin seemed genuinely heartbroken over not being able to go to the chippy. Mrs Quinn had looked like she could kiss him when he brought the food right before the ordered pizza. This made him happy for entirely different reasons – making Mrs Quinn happy seemed to just automatically make him feel more cheerful, if he was being completely honest.
“Do you people not have any notion of a secret?” he demanded, then, right before they had English.
“Well I didn’t think a secret meant keeping it from her Ma,” said Clare indignantly. “Why shouldn’t her Ma know? If you’re to ride her, she ought to have an idea of it.”
“I am not having sex with her!” said James. “I was trying to ignore my crush and keep a secret!”
“Keeping a secret?” came Erin’s voice from the door. “What on earth are you keeping a secret for?”
Michelle was smirking. “Nothing important, Erin.”
“Well, I ought to know!” said Erin crossly. “I’m as much a friend as they are, if not more! Was it Clare that helped you with your history homework?”
“No – it’s not – I’m not trying to –” James struggled.
“He fancies you, Erin,” said Orla thoughtlessly.
James was rooted on the spot then, frozen something absolutely alien seemed to be churning in his stomach. He couldn’t even bear looking at Erin in that moment, and he could hear Michelle sniggering.
Erin snorted. “Sure enough, Orla,” she said. “Next I know we’d be going out to the chippy for a date.”
Relief flooded through him, but it was a temporary relief.
“But Erin –” began Clare, determined to correct her misapprehension. “She isn’t –”
James grasped Clare’s hand and shook his head tightly, his eyes wide.
“My goodness, you dickhead,” Michelle said dismissively.
“Are you lot not coming for class then?” asked Erin, who had already turned away. “Sister Michael will have our hides.”
They shuffled out of the gym then, and Michelle seemed to be on the verge of just dissolving into laughter. James glared at her openly while Erin’s back was turned to them.
It was dark in Erin’s room. Michelle was snoring, and clearly hogging most of Erin’s blankets. James had a feeling she was awake, but he never asked. Clare was sleeping in Orla’s room, thankfully – it was always packed in Erin’s room on exam nights. At least today they were sleeping over because the electricity was out, and despite the ceasefire, the Quinns didn’t want to take a chance. Which also meant that they slept around two.
Even if he was still awake.
Then, he heard a shuffle from the bed. Erin woke up and seemed to be biting her lip. She got up and padded to the door. James propped himself on his elbows and quietly said, “Erin?”
She jumped. “Jesus Christ you scared me.”
“Sorry,” he said ruefully. “Why are you awake?”
“Why are you awake?” she countered irately.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he confessed.
One foot went behind the other, and she seemed to be contemplating something. “Me either.”
James rubbed his eyes.
“D’you – d’you want to go down and get at some of the cake?” asked Erin cautiously.
He blinked. “Yeah, alright.”
They slipped downstairs, and Erin pulled out two plates. The leftover of the cake had been put in the fridge, and she quickly sliced two pieces while he took out two glasses of water. Erin clambered on the counter and grabbed her plate. James stood next to her, and was doing his best to ignore the crease of her pyjamas around her thighs.
“Why can’t you sleep?” she asked, as her fork broke into the cake.
James took a bite. “Dunno.”
She sighed. “Michelle always hogs the bed.”
He chuckled. “It didn’t look very comfortable there, no.”
“Didn’t look very comfortable on the floor either.”
He laughed. “Maybe you should write about it.”
Erin made a face. “I’m trying to be a serious writer, James,” she scolded. “I have to write about serious things! I’m living in the middle of a civil war, for crying out loud.”
James frowned. “I know,” he said. “But you know – the lack of sleeping space during jumbled sleepovers is as much a part of your life as the bullets are.”
She paused, unable to think.
“There’s a lot of… truth in mundanity,” he continued. “You could try there. Maybe write something funny about it – guns on the streets, no space between the sheets.”
She giggled. “What would you know, English.”
“Hey, the English have some of your favourite writers.”
“No, they don’t,” said Erin quickly. “I hate all English writers.”
He smirked. “I must have been mistaken when I saw that Jane Austen buried in your cupboard.”
She looked like she would readily kill him.
“Why were you going through my things?” she demanded.
“Clare wanted that choker of yours you wore on Tuesday. In my defence, I tried to stop her.”
“Did she also see it?” asked Erin.
“No, I hid it,” promised James.
She breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re a good lad, James.”
He smiled. The moonlight on the side of her face made her look even prettier, which just did not bode well for him. Erin seemed to have noticed him, and became conscious. He stared at his cake after that, and she cleared her throat. “What?” she asked.
He was feeling oddly bold. “You looked pretty, that’s all,” he said more to his feet.
She looked pink then, and he really wondered. Really wondered.
“D’you know, I’ve never even kissed a boy?” she said.
“Orla told me.”
Erin muttered a curse under her breath.
“S’alright,” he said. “Not everything it’s cracked to be.”
“And how would you know?” asked Erin.
“Contrary to popular opinion, I have kissed girls,” said James acidly.
“Go on then,” she dismissed.
“I’d show you if you wanted me to,” he muttered under his breath.
“What?” she asked sharply.
James’ ears went red. “I’d show you. If you wanted,” he said. “Not like you’ve kissed a boy,” he taunted for good measure.
She was already pink, and he was certain she’d gone some shade of orange. She hopped down from the counter. “Go on!” she challenged.
He stepped in front of her, and she glared up at him. “I will.”
“Do it,” she said under her breath. “Ninny.”
That last word did it. He knew he shouldn’t – he’d be so much in trouble – in the middle of her kitchen, surrounded by people who wouldn’t hesitate in killing him if he so much as made one wrong move – but he did it. He nearly forgot, for a second, what he was supposed to do, but he pressed his lips to her’s and kissed her.
His hands were firmly placed on the counter, and he had decided, before anything went too far that this would be nothing more than a small kiss – a small, small one – but her mouth seemed to open a little as soon as he pressed into her – his lips were between hers, and James made a small, strangled sound when her teeth seemed to brush against his bottom lip.
Was she trying to… prove something to him?
And without thinking, without dreaming of the consequences, something in James seemed to flare up. He sucked on her bottom lip gently, and she actually moaned. He smirked to himself when she did that, which had her becoming cross and tangling her fingers into his hair with a renewed fervour.
Were hands allowed?
As soon as he thought it, it seemed like stupid, stupid idea. He wouldn’t touch her – but he held her. His hands touched the curve of her waist, one hand on her jawline. Her tongue swiped across her mouth, and she shuddered – see? He’d told her he’d done this. Some part of her seemed to have forgotten the competition, some part of her seemed to just like kissing. When she pressed against him even more, her hand at the back of his neck, he almost automatically held her by the thighs and lifted her to the counter.
There was the sound of something falling from upstairs.
James broke from her. For a moment, he couldn’t help glancing at her lips. They seemed mildly bruised, and definitely swollen – he might have gone a little far. But so had she – she didn’t smile, but she was breathing heavily.
“Right,” he said. “I’m – um –”
“Must have been – Michelle –” mumbled Erin.
“Yeah – of course –”
“Kicks over things –”
They looked at each other again, and James became keenly aware that he was still between her knees. He jumped back instantly, staring at his knees. When he looked up, she was laughing.
Instantly, they both started giggling – the adrenaline was really kicking in, at least in James’ case. He’d been kissing Erin under a roof with her grandfather. Anybody could have walked in – and they’d been challenging each other. His laughter was uncontrolled.
“Not bad, English,” said Erin, finally.
He blushed – actually blushed – and looked at his knees again. “Thanks,” he said.
She kicked him lightly from the counter. She jumped down, and seemed to be planning to go upstairs again, when he held her by the wrist.
“Could we – could we try this again sometime?” he asked.
She’d gone pink again. “Would be a shame if we didn’t.”
“Oh, absolutely,” he murmured, as she seemed to crawl a little closer. He tugged her wrist again, and she was flush against his body when they kissed again – this time a little more gently, a little more cautiously, a little more carefully.
“James Macguire, you’re a right prick,” she promised him.
“I know,” he said ruefully.
“I’m going to bed.”
“I will kiss you tomorrow.”
“Oh, good,” he said, unable to keep the relief from his voice.
Her lips twitched. “And you are not to tell anyone! This is a secret.”
“When you say ‘anyone,’” said James.
“Nobody, James Macguire!” she said fiercely. He wondered if his full name was going to become a new thing for her to use.
“Not even Michelle?” he questioned timidly.
“Absolutely nobody,” she said vehemently. “I can’t have people knowing I’m riding an English. God.”
Saying that, she flounced upstairs. Although he knew he should rest easy – he decided to do the dishes quickly. He didn’t want anyone catching on, after all. His heart seemed to be bursting with excitement – it just refused to calm down.
When he went upstairs, Erin’s bed was occupied and she seemed to be sleeping.
When he lay down on his camp bed, he couldn’t stop smiling. He tried to breathe slowly to slow down, but it just didn’t work – the minute his brain seemed to be ready to rest, he’d remember how she kissed him – her hand in his hair, everything that just raised his blood pressure.
And then, there was another sound from the bed. Erin got up, towered above him even as he smiled at her, and said “Budge up. Michelle’s taken up all the space.”
James couldn’t stop grinning now. She curled up under his blanket, and instinctively, James wrapped an arm around her. Her heart was racing too, but that wasn’t something he was going to point out to her. They’d have to wake up early tomorrow, but that was alright, wasn’t it?
“Jesus Christ, who are they kidding?” Michelle said to Clare later.
“Crawling from his bed at six in the morning,” sighed Clare. “Good thing Mrs Quinn didn’t catch them.”
“Oh but she knows. It’s as plain as day.”
“Not very good at this, are they?”