‘Swept Away’ — a holiday romance memoir.
This piece originally appeared in the Sun-Herald, December 2007. They asked me to contribute a story about an encounter. I’m a bit embarrassed about the naive writing now, but oh well!
Thanks to a reader for reminding me of the existence of this piece, which I’d totally forgotten. But I’ll always remember how much I regretted that I never had the nerve to take a photo of this beautiful young man.
The sky was grey and the sea around the ferry was grey and my heart was grey. We were heading towards a low grey scrap of land across the grizzled waters of Galway Bay, off the west coast of Ireland. I was twenty years old and, far from home and lonely on my first backpacking trip, wondering why I was heading even further from home, to the rocky island of Inis Mor.
‘Hey sweetheart. Hey sweetheart. Why so sad?’
I was too glum, as I hunkered on a bench on the deck of the ferry, to take out my diary and whinge about how lonely and tired I was. I just sat there, watching the sharp peaks of water pass, the skewed veins of white on black, dully waiting to arrive.
‘Don’t you talk? I won’t bite.’
It was six months since my first love had thrown me over for a more exciting girl and I’d scraped together the will to get out of Melbourne and go adventuring. A week ago, after months of my peevishness, my travel companion, a boy I’d known in childhood who also wanted to see Europe, had finally had enough and said loudly, ‘Well, I’m going to Cork. Where are you going?’
Then, last night, a wild-eyed guy at the hostel had taken me out for a drink, greeted my refusal to sleep with him with a ‘joke’ about raping me, and left me to find my way home across Galway with three pints of Guinness inside me.
So here I was, nursing bitterness against perfidious men in my horrible heart, bloody-mindedly taking my loneliness to an island of rock, just to prove to myself that I could do it.
‘There’s only five of us going to this island. Come and talk to us?’
I glanced up resentfully. The young man who was speaking to me in a soft American drawl had the boyish look of Michael J. Fox, whom I’d had a crush on when I was thirteen. He had the tanned, freckled clear attractive face, the sharp nose that would look adult on a boy and childlike on a man, a neat smiling mouth. He held out an arm to beckon me over. ‘I’m Chris. This here is Dave.’
Backpackers have their blessed conversational clichés to get them started. The boys had ‘done’ Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and now they were in Ireland for a week before heading back to South Carolina. Their voices were quiet and confident and they knew how cute they were, I was sure, but they wore their American ease generously. Dave, a lanky dude with skewed features like a crushed plastic cup, let Chris do the talking. Chris joked and laughed and by the time we got off the ferry half an hour later along with two Swedish girls, he was clearly the one who would make sure we would have a good time.
Inis Mor Town was small, with white cottages and a messy quay. A bus was waiting to take us all to the hostel on the other side of the small island, but first we had to stock up at the supermarket.
‘Dave and me are making spaghetti. Why don’t you just share with us?’ He put his arm around my shoulders. ‘You seem a bit shy, sweetie. I’ll feed you.’ He laughed, gave me a sidelong glance, squeezed my shoulders harder. I blushed, I admit it. And, riding in the near-empty bus to the hostel, I was proud in front of the other girls to be pulled down to sit next to him.
The five of us, already a merrie bande, went for a walk. The island was a knot of rock in the iron sea, bare of trees, a mesh of stone fences strewn over it like a tight fishing net to hold it together. The air itself tasted of stone, fresh and metallic as it bucketed across the naked surface of the island. I wanted a photo of this nice boy but was too shy to ask; instead I sneaked a couple of the back of his head. The five of us rambled across, enjoying the rough terrain, helping each other over heaps of crumbling stone, feeling brave and bold and young, until we reached Dun Aengus, a prehistoric fort vacantly guarding an empty sea. ‘Let’s sit to ponder the yonder,’ Chris said. ‘Sit near me, sweetheart.’ As I swung my feet out over the great fall of ferocious cliff below us, he seemed absorbed in thought. He wrote something in a notebook, a poem, stared out to sea. I feared I was intruding on some solemn moment. But then he reached for my hand and turned to me, and in the vast chilly wind I felt so warm, and when he kissed me he tasted of apples.
I had only kissed one boy before, my first love. But something was starting now, and I’d come here to prove something to myself, and so when we all got back to the hostel and the others were brewing tea and cutting cake in the kitchen and Chris met me on the stairs and surged up against me, I was glad, I was glad. In the dorm upstairs he whispered to me, naughty gleeful things, and pulled my coat off and my shirt and when my white body was bare in the cold room he looked down at it and smiled. He had very white teeth. His body was warm, and in me rose a kind of fearful thrill, to be wanted and to be so bold, to triumph over that other boy, and to find this new beautiful one. It was two and half hours since we’d met.
We all went out that night and drank pints in the local pub. Chris was drunker than I, and yanked me into the men’s dorm where Dave and another man were already getting ready for bed. ‘We can’t do it here!’ I hissed, but he didn’t listen. Drunk, he was rough and careless; Oh, I thought as I held on for dear life. He fell asleep. In the dark, listening to the other men snore, I swallowed my disappointment and as he breathed against my throat I stroked his face, tenderly, forgivingly.
The morning was grim, everyone hung over and tired from the uncomfortable hostel bunk beds. Chris had got up without a word to me and was non-communicative. The Swedes smiled at me sympathetically, to my chagrin. The weather was worse: blustery and spitting rain from a dark sky.
Chris found me in the girls’ dorm, picking up my pack, which I’d never unpacked. I was supposed to be going on, back to the mainland but if he asked me to stay on, I would. ‘Hey sweetheart,’ he said, folding me in his arms. ‘You’re precious. It’s been just great to meet you.’
‘You’re beautiful,’ I mumbled, kissing him. ‘You’re really beautiful.’ I was dumb for what to say to a boy like this. How small and foolish I felt suddenly. I crouched further into his cuddle. Warm, woolly scent, the sinewy arms of a boy. ‘Take care, yeah?’ he said. He hesitated, seemed about to say something else.
‘I’ll be fine,’ I said, and picked up my pack. ‘Oh, you bet.’