Marie was that type of girl whom you never paid much attention to in class. She was not classically attractive, or particularly outspoken, heck, I didn’t even know her surname. But she sat in front of me in Latin class, next to two young woman, Lindsey Cunningham and Lisa Rodgers. It didn’t feel right to call them girls, for at a young age, they were already championing the dominance of their sexuality over boys. So naturally, my attention fell elsewhere than my textbook.
We were in the third year, our class being a conglomerate of whoever wanted to study Latin, and those who had opted for the plainer, straight-forward, Classical Civilisation. Although I had excelled in Latin for the past two years, I had never truly enjoyed it, and was looking for an easier ride. So I sat dolefully at the back of the classroom, the teacher, Mr. Armstrong, never suspecting my boredom. We in turn suspected him to be a drunk, as his teaching skills were quite skeletal.
I still commanded an admirable knowledge when it came to Latin, and this skill had given me access to certain conversation rights with the girls in front. At that time, Marie was nothing but an always-present entity, the back of her head being a globe of black locks filling my immediate vision. Lisa and Lindsey, “the two L’s”, were the main attraction, catching the imagination of every guy, it should be said, without much effort on their part.
My fascination with Marie was really triggered, not my either of us, but by Richard McGuckin, who was a total failure at Latin, as well as most other subjects. I could imagine his school report; “Never really applied himself.” It would serve as his epitaph. He saw himself as the class clown, but no one was laughing.
“Marie, your tits are so small, you might as well be a boy. Hahaha!” Richard spat out vulgarity randomly, being your average imbalanced delinquent. Yet he lacked the necessary charm of the rebel, the attractiveness of the non-conformist. Basically, sad to say, he was just another loser.
“Shut it, Richie!” I had instantly bolted up and stared him down. The force behind my demand was surprising, even more so when he actually obliged, retreating meekly to his seat at the front, where the bad boys are put. This earned me respect for facing the class bully, a gratifying power in the room that went beyond my fluency of a dead language. I felt strong, gaining the strength and prosper of a champion. Bow down before me Richard, I am your king.
Now as I said before, I possessed no urgent fondness for Marie that may have spurred my defence of her. She was regarded, unfairly perhaps, as an extra behind the leading roles of the two L’s (only I called them this), a part which she had never striven to push out of. But I had been bought up with good manners and taught respect. Not to the extent of my young, fragile spirit being oppressively crushed by a prison-like household, but enough to bluff my way through the facade of good breeding. So no one got away with disrespecting a lady. During primary school, if a guy had hit any girl in the playground, deserving or not, I always made a point of forceful interjection. I was tall for my age, indeed, had shot up five inches between second and third year. Therefore I was in a position to tell people like Richard McGuckin, a big enough lad himself, where to go.
I sat back down, my eyes following Richard back to his seat. When I knew he would keep quiet I turned to Marie, starting out our first real one-to-one conversation.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” She gave me a look that suggested both hurt and contempt for her abuser. I could only agree.
“What an idiot.”
“He’s always like that.”
“Unfortunately. That was an ugly thing to say to someone.” I hardly knew how to behave in a case such as this, but at this point, Lisa and Lindsey seemed to be a million miles away. Steven, a small lad who sat to the left of me, and who had often been the brunt of Richard’s ignorance, spoke to us, interrupting our awakening connection.
“Good on you, man. He needs someone to tell him to wise up.” Marie and I nodded in mutual agreement. I wondered where Mr. Armstrong had disappeared to.
The next three days were strung together by quick-fire rumours and possibilities. Teenagers being as desperate for gossip as they are, news of my confrontation with Richard spread throughout our school year faster than the staff room’s supply of alcohol flowed through Mr. Armstrong’s liver. Unintentionally, but welcoming the praise it brought, I had become something of a minor hero, transformed into such by the loathing Richard had attracted to himself from fellow classmates.
Misusing this newfound prestige, I took it upon myself, aided by a few others who begrudged and personal vendettas against young McGuckin, or those just willing to see a sick kind of justice being served out, to give him a hard time in class. Unfortunately for him, He already had it hard enough, educationally speaking, as he had failed to grasp even Classical Civilisation. Perversely enough, I was dancing very close to actually becoming the bully myself, a role-reversal of sorts. Thankfully, my friends being more alert to this growing change than I was, pulled me back from this strange experience.
I just wanted Richard to cringe like Marie was forced to, so he would know the taste of belittlement. This aim, regrettably, was only achieved by the abuse of my reign. Yet this unfortunate incident had not spoilt my erstwhile valiance in protecting Marie. As far as I could see, I was just doing a gentleman’s job, minus my own bout of quasi bullying. However, some saw further than I could. Something had been pushed into motion that would prove to be to life changing.
Now, at the age of fourteen, as I was at the time, receiving new football boots, or beating five guys in a row at arm-wrestling, are seen as major lifetime events. But the situation with Marie would be an occurrence that every guy never forgets. Your first girlfriend. Oddly enough, if I remember correctly, the news first came from the two L’s. I had never attracted, or went out of my way to attract, much female attention before, still being at that age when messing about with the guys is always preferable to being with a girl. It’s weird to look back and think that that could have never been the case.
Yes, I carried around my fair share of youthful crushes, not once daring to expressed my feelings to any of the girls involved, probably explaining why I became so emotionally sensitive in later life, fearing rejection and hiding my feelings in a hundred bad poems. I even wrote one once to Lisa and Lindsey during Latin, in front of Marie. It came disguised as a commentary on a television show. Needless to say, that plan failed miserably.
“I hear Marie was impressed by your recent display.” It took me a moment to decipher this alien girl-language. What had I displayed exactly? Manliness? Honour? Despite my confusion, I sensed that my affections were going to be dramatically shifted away from the two L’s.
“Is that so?” I offered by way of a reply, not being familiar with these custoMarie proceedings.
“Yes,” their two voices radiating as one, “I think she might like you.” Might. Why throw that word in there, suggesting only a possible, instead of a definite, interest? Was it a defence mechanism used by girls, in case the guy did not care to oblige her interests? So she could turn away from her failed flirtation by saying “Oh, I never really liked him to begin with.” I was learning that the fear of noncompliance ran deep in both sexes.
How was one to play this game anyway? Notes were passed. Middlemen were employed. I found out that she had band practice on Wednesdays, and skipped lunched to be there. Was it just the fact that someone was noticing me, and I was content in being noticed? Or was I genuinely interest in her? I can’t even remember what instrument she played. Maybe it was the clarinet, or the violin. I don’t know. Afterwards we walked down to the nearby garage shop. Even though I was starving, my stomach could only manage some mineral water, this health craze already in bloom even back then.
We chatted constantly to familiarise ourselves to the other on the way down. This was new, exciting, terrifying. Grotesque boy-girl interaction I had only previously seen on TV. I began to doubt my ability to be part of this relationship, of any relationship, not knowing how to appropriate my behavior. Panic became to disturb the fluidity of my school-life as I wrestled to juggle time with the guys around blossoming with Marie. I failed.
It lasted all of one, maybe two weeks. I can’t tell you how it ended, as it never really started to begin with. Awkwardness remained for the rest of the school year. A month later I moved away to another school, in a different town. We were sad to say goodbye to each other, feeling closer than any time in our fumbled friendship, during that one embarrassed departure in the school corridor. Both of us tried desperately to be as casual as possible about it, but it was useless considering our history. Heck, I even made friends with Richard before I left; such was the emotion of my leave-taking.
Marie and I phoned each other every week for months, punctuated by the occasional letter. She even wrote to be once on lavender scented notepaper, the smell driving me wild long after the affair was over. Eventually, we met other people, getting on with our separate lives and drifting apart as ex-lovers do. I try not to psychoanalyse it too much. We lived thirteen miles apart, yet neither of us ever visited the other. I still think of her today. No one forgets.
We never kissed.
Colin Dardis is one of Eyewear Publishing’s Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 His work has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA. His work has won competitions with Glebe House Harmony Trust 2015, Fun Palaces #WriteScience 2015, and Edit Red Writers’ Choice Award for Poetry 2006. Colin is also the founder of Poetry NI and editor for Lagan Online. www.colindardispoet.co.uk