Authors: Bill Nagelkerke
Tags: #coming of age
This edition first
published in 2016 by Bill Nagelkerke
Copyright 2016 Bill
The moral rights of the
author have been asserted. This book is copyright. All rights
reserved. Except for the purposes of fair reviewing, no part of
this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without
permission in writing from the copyright owner and the publisher of
They say some stranger has arrived
From the land of Lydia,
A man with wine-dark eyes,
Sweet-smelling, golden-curled hair,
And all the charms of Aphrodite.
All day and night he tempts young girls,
Holding out to them his joyful
, by Euripides
From where I’m sitting one end of the
airport’s digital clock is hidden by an overlapping sign, so all I
can see are the last two numbers, the ones that count off the
seconds. At that precise moment they read 23, which is weird
because that’s also my age. As I stare at the clock something in my
mind seems to spin and twist and instead of the numbers advancing,
as they should, they click backwards so that 23 flicks to 22, and
22 to 21, and 21 . . .
I blink and when I open my eyes again the
numbers are back where they should be, they’ve moved ahead, 24, 25,
26 . . . relentlessly, on and on. Soon a voice will announce my
flight and I’ll get up, hug Mum and Dad goodbye and with my cabin
bag slung casually over my shoulder I’ll exit through the departure
gate (‘Strictly Passengers Only’) and fly off into the unknown.
But of course I do know, sort of, where I’m
going and why.
I’m starting to close the gap.
It isn’t quite time yet. The olds have gone
for a coffee, understanding that I don’t mind being alone for a
little while. I’ll have to get used to being alone, at least to
begin with. My friends wanted to come and see me off, too, but I
told them ‘No.’
No more airport-goodbyes
than absolutely essential. I don’t like them. I made the mistake of
being here when Chris went (he didn’t know I was there, I didn’t
show myself) and that was
Is he lurking somewhere? Who knows? Who
But that clock. Ticking time in reverse. I
get the illusion (was it
an illusion?) out of my mind. The numbers take
back too, like a time
To that strange meeting late last year, in
the Square. Age 22.
Further. To the South Bank Restaurant. Age
Further still. Gran’s funeral. Age 15.
Even further . . .
Part One: The Sorrowful Mysteries
Naked bodies are often cold bodies.
I discovered this as we stripped off in
Chris’s room above the garage. Maybe it was the cold of
uncertainty, of nervousness, of fear or of all those things. Or,
maybe, it was simply caused by the fresh easterly breeze that slid
between the ill-fitting wooden window frames and laid cold fingers
on our skin.
It was dark but not dark.
We were in a
that was gradually being illuminated.
The first time
How did I get here, to this point, a ‘good,
Catholic girl’ like me? This used to be a favourite phrase of
Gran’s. She liked to hitch the words ‘good’ and ‘Catholic’ and
‘girl’ together. Now I suspect that at least once or twice she was
I always knew I was different. I don’t mean
to say that in a show-off way (‘pride goeth before a fall,’ another
of Gran’s favourites) but for me, fitting in was never very easy. I
guess it was my fault as much as anyone else’s. Maybe I should have
tried harder. Maybe I didn’t want to make the effort.
Here was I, a ‘brought-up-as-a-Catholic’
girl in a family with direct Irish ancestry on the paternal side,
European New Zealand ancestry on the maternal (Mum’s family a proud
mix of Scottish and
Polish dating way back to whaling and
sealing days), eventually choosing to study at a staunchly
sectarian state high school and then falling for an atheist and
classics geek. (‘Geek’, incidentally, was
Chris’s own description of himself. He felt it was better if he
labelled himself a geek before someone else got round to it. Chris
always liked to be well prepared.)
Gran was also fond of saying, ‘once you’ve
made your bed, you’ll have to lie in it.’ As it turned out she was
right, but also wrong.
Deconstruction of the fables
People say that kids, teenagers in
particular, aren’t much into religion these days. Not much, if not
at all. Maybe people are right and I’m wrong. But I suspect there
are a lot more who are like me, the way I was back then: hidden,
camouflaged, not wanting the spotlight to fall on them. Safety only
in numbers, when they can get the numbers together.
So I’ll be upfront and say
right from the start that I
‘into’ religion, if you can put it that way. Or,
. In fact I was never
‘out’ of it even when I believed I was. Why? Well, maybe I just
thought too much about those things. Maybe the unusually rich
combination of coming from a Catholic family that was also deeply
into matters of social justice meant I absorbed religion like
calcium. It got into my bones very early on and stayed there.
Perhaps that’s why eventually I had to deconstruct my skeleton,
pull my castle of bones apart and rebuild it.
So, I’m sorry, but that’s me. And that’s
what my story’s about. You can leave now, before my tale begins,
but you’re welcome to come along for the ride.
Your . . .
OK, here goes.
If I seem a little random, and rambling,
especially to begin with, bear with me. It’s the only way I can
tell my story. Time, as represented by the fantastical airport
clock, may give the illusion of moving in a straight, direct line,
backwards or forwards but in reality when you look at where you’ve
come from and where you’re going the line wavers and shifts, like a
mirage, resembling a bendy highway with lots of side roads, some
long, some short, some with dead ends.
Time past is memory time and everyone
remembers differently. Maybe this comparison will help to clarify.
Picture a set of prayer beads, Catholic rosary beads to be exact.
Imagine scrunching the beads loosely between your palms and then
letting them flow like water through a gap you make between your
hands. Feel their texture on your skin as you close that gap, as
you suddenly press the rosary hard into your flesh so that one bead
in particular leaves a firm mark, a dent, whose impression remains
until the skin smooths out again. That small, self-created crater
is what you focus on, what has meaning for that moment. The choice
of bead to make the mark is random even though all the beads of the
rosary are connected.
The Square. In an up-and-coming small city,
in a small country, far away from anywhere else.
Gray granite pavers slippery with sunlight,
from which the silver and blue sculpture rises looking very much
like a fantastic ice-cream cone or, better still, an Olympic torch,
a tangible link to past times, ancient traditions.
Summer trees boxed in by squares of
The full-swing hum of the weekday
An oily smell of roasting nuts.
A band tuning up for the lunchtime crowd.
Irish, being so near to St Pat’s Day.
As graduation looms exams already seem long
ago; a new life waits in the wings.
Or in the winds?
Like Odysseus, that great Greek traveller, I
have them all trapped in a bag but, unlike him, I will make sure to
set them loose as and when I need them. And I know where they will
blow me first.
And then everything suddenly spins, turns
topsy-turvy, bends and fractures like light, changes. The way
things have a habit of doing.
Extracts from Chris’s notebook
This is what I’ve decided
I will one day inscribe onto the ancient stone of the Tower of the
Ho bios mython
. Ancient Greek, transliterated and
minus the accents, meaning ‘Life is a story’.
She’s beautiful. She
doesn’t think so herself but I think, I
, she is. She is a
goddess-statue, pale marble, smooth-skinned, her short dark hair
tight against her head, her ears curving through the strands like
soft sea shells in fine sand, her breasts reminding me of the
goddess Hera’s golden apples, falling from their tree into my
outstretched hands. Today we were Daphnis and Chloe, characters out
of history, mythology. A story come to life. The past
now. The future was here already.
(It seems a bit random, even to me, to be
writing these pretend letters, letters which you’ll never read, but
I’m the sort of person who has to write things down, partly so as
to make them real, partly because it means I can have a
conversation with you, one-sided though it is, anytime and
anyplace. Anyway, here goes.)
The first time I saw you, cars were lining
the grass verges of the narrow country road. Because of this I had
to slow down and, opposite a church, I was forced to stop quickly
when some old people suddenly crossed over not looking where they
were going, oblivious to everyone and everything, not expecting
much extra traffic in this quiet rural backwater. Taking their
lives in their hands.
At the same time, both Dad and I glanced
over to the church to see what all the fuss was about. A country
wedding perhaps? Not, as it turned out.
Even after the wayward pedestrians had
tottered by, we were still staring.
Dad said it looked like something out of the
dark ages. ‘Catholic no doubt,’ he added with his characteristic
People in black exited from the front doors
of the church, swelling into the small cemetery, following a
You were hefting one corner of it, angling
sideways with the strain. You were what stuck in my mind. I noticed
you were tall, that your hair was long and black like the clothes
you wore. You were striking.
Dad was speaking. ‘Somewhere in Ireland
perhaps.’ I asked him what he meant by
It could be a scene from
rural Ireland,’ he said sardonically. ‘Last century.’ He pointed to
the church name on the sign beside the road. ‘See. What did I tell
you? St Brigid’s. It’s a Catholic Church all right.’
As you in due course discovered, Dad had no
time for Catholics, nor any religious denomination. He was focused
on work, achievement, success.
But I thought the whole scene, although
incredibly depressing, was surprisingly moving. Even from the
distance, I could see that you were sad. Sad, and beautiful.
Beautifully sad. I couldn’t help feeling sad for you.
And I couldn’t help wondering . . . what
were you thinking of at this time? What were you hoping for, if you
were hoping for anything . . .?
Drive on,’ said Dad,
impatiently. ‘You’re blocking the road. That’s no way to get a
Unsettled, I drove on. Fiddle music slipped
in at the open window. It faded as we rounded a bend and drove
I couldn’t get you out of my mind. Stupid
really. I was never going to see you again.
A small, nearly-full church way out in the
Green-brown fields, orchards, dairy farms.
Macrocarpa hedges, white gates, wire fences, farmhouses with red
roofs. Dogs barking in the distance.
And a small, stuccoed, white-painted