There was a thing teenage boys and girls did among themselves. They called it having a court (pronounced 'coort'), but it wasn't courting with a view to marriage, nor even a strong line. It had to do with getting a physical feel of one another. It was forbidden, but it had to be done. You were nothing if you didn't do it, though the point of it was obscure. There were recognized places where it happened: down the river behind the bushes, up Chapel Lane in a derelict cottage, in the back row of the cinema. The words spoken at these sessions didn't fit well with the actions. A frenzy of intense groping was followed by a lull in which the couple passed the time of day (or watched a bit of the film), before they set into one another again, with further prolonged French kisses and bodily explorations.
I found myself taking part in this rather puzzling ritual a few times during the last weeks of the summer holidays, but unfortunately not with Helen McKay, because my brother Anthony, who knew everything about the romantic life of the town's youth (although he was a year and a half younger than me), assured me that she was spoken for; she was doing a steady line with someone much older and tougher, so I'd want to look out for myself.
This was a great disappointment, and I fantasized about taking on the unnamed boyfriend of the girl who had given me my first kiss. I imagined being seriously injured in the fight, and Helen suddenly deciding that it was me she loved after all, and getting into the ambulance beside me as I was driven off to hospital with a broken jaw. At the same time, I was rather proud that I had got away with an act forbidden twice over, both by her shadowy hulk of a lover and by the town's narrow code of conduct. Perhaps I walked with a new aura hanging around me after that meeting with Helen, because one day the elder of the two Wexford sisters who skivvied in the pub next door to our shop asked me out for a court.
She was standing in the doorway of the hall that led to the pub's living quarters, leaning on her mop, and I was standing on the street. We were talking for a while when out of the blue she said, 'I'll meet you up Chapel Lane.'
I couldn't believe what I was hearing, because she was so much sought-after. I remembered being in our backyard several times earlier that summer and hearing boys who had gone round to the back of the pub shout over the wall to her: 'Nancy, will ya come out for a coort?' And sometimes she'd shout a reply: 'Go 'way, ya sex maniac,' or words to the same dismissive effect.
My session with Nancy in the derelict house up Chapel Lane was a wrestling match, divided into fourteen or fifteen rounds. 'Round six,' I joked after a period of chat and a smoke, and leaned into her again. There was a thrill, a pleasure, a liking in the holding of her, but also a cloudy sense of let-down. For some reason, I held myself back. I think that, apart from my shyness and ignorance, it must have been the artificial rule-bound nature of the arrangement that restrained me.
I don't think she was very impressed with me. There was a hauteur in her bearing towards me afterwards, and she wouldn't go with me again. I was vaguely hurt, a bit infatuated for having touched her.
The whole issue of being attracted to someone, of actually liking them, was avoided by the teenagers in our town by making statements like 'I'll meet you up Chapel Lane' and 'Maybe I'll see you at the pictures' rather than something such as 'I like you' or 'Will you go out with me?'. These last kinds of declarations were regarded as embarrassing. Another point is that in these assignations you kissed and petted purely as a matter of course, because once you were in the right box, the designated place, these were the only things you ought to be doing, especially seeing as you weren't supposed to do them anywhere else. A kissing and petting place was like a buffet lunch: you were under pressure to get in as much as possible when you were there. There was nothing spontaneous about the manoeuvres that occurred; they were totally unlike my encounter with Helen McKay. And then there were the rules about how far you could go - touch her breasts over but not under the bra, touch her bottom outside but not inside the clothes, and so on - which made it all rather stop-start and mechanical. And finally, there was no candour about the whole business, and it didn't really lead anywhere, because you went to a secret place to do it, and pretended you barely knew one another until the next time you made a furtive arrangement to go to another secret place, into another box.
Later I had a few courts with Nancy's younger sister, Rebecca. I lasted longer with her. Perhaps by then I had more experience of operating within the limits of the boxes, or else I was more relaxed because Rebecca was more vulnerable, not as pretty. She was attractive enough, though, and I liked her (kind of). She had more of a sense of humour than her sister, who practised hauteur. I think Rebecca mightn't have stopped me if I had tried to go the whole way, whatever that was. But she didn't make it happen, either.
One night we walked a good bit down Chapel Lane, and went over a wall into a cornfield. We lay down together in the corn for a long time, but very little happened. It was a dumb kind of thing to be doing. Literally dumb, because we hardly spoke. And something unspoken hung over the whole event. We were like two layers of rock, one lying inert on top of the other.
I stand behind a trunk of the banyan tree of imagination and watch my former self walking down Chapel Lane with Rebecca, on their way back to the town from that long, restricted grope in the cornfield. I can hear them talking, but cannot catch a single word of their conversation. Perhaps I cannot hear what they're saying because I don't remember, or perhaps because it is private, between my former self and her, and I am different now. On the other hand, maybe I can't hear it because it isn't important. They are saying this and that; whatever. They are just two teenagers doing their forbidden, obligatory, unspoken, voiceless thing.
From memoir in progress, 'The Hungarian for Cheese', © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2011