By Clayton O'Driscoll

 

Saturday evening.

They stepped in out of the sun and for a moment he couldn't see. Louis blinked and felt his father's warm hand on his shoulder guiding him through the tables to one in the corner. The smell of fried fish and garlic filled his nostrils as his eyes adjusted to the shade inside Sylvie's Restaurant.

"Finally!" said his father, beaming. "I thought we'd never get here."

"There you go Louis," said his mother, putting her sunglasses on her head and handing him a menu. "First meal of our holiday. Isn't this lovely? Right, what will I have?"

"I'm having a steak anyway," said his father closing the menu and slapping it down on the table with a flourish. "And a cold beer!"

"Steak, what a surprise." said his mother not looking up. "Louis?"

"Don't know yet."

He looked around. It was nice. Only eight or nine tables, close together. They'd got the last one. Blue and white check tablecloths, red and yellow squeezy things of ketchup and mustard. Shiny silver salts and peppers. He liked it. He had been nervous walking down the street after checking into the hotel. He was always nervous in new places. But the little bubble of butterflies inside him had settled now and he was hungry.

He studied the kids menu. Chicken & Chips, Sausage & Chips, Burger & Chips….

He looked at the regular menu. He was almost thirteen now and he longed to order an adult meal but nothing ever appealed to him. Either that or he was never brave enough. Steak? He'd probably need help cutting it. Fish? Ugh.

His mother was talking.

"….and they have fish, lovely. We're beside the sea, why not? A glass of wine too I think. Louis?"

"Chicken and chips."

"Good man." said his father. "And a Coke?"

Louis nodded.

The family at the next table were getting up to leave. Mother, father, two girls, younger than him he guessed, but they were just as tall. All four of them had the rosy pink faces of people not used to hot sun. Their chairs made loud scraping noises on the floor and they spoke at each other without listening. They continued their wall of conversation as they left. Another family, this one with three children, was waiting to take their place.

Louis wondered what the week was going to be like.

The thought of making friends with other kids in the hotel made him feel sick. It's not that he didn't like other kids. Of course he did. But the shyness, the awful shyness that enveloped him made it so hard. It gripped him with such venom sometimes it made him weep. Weep with sadness, with frustration, with loneliness.

He loved his Mam & Dad dearly. He knew that they knew he was a quiet boy and they never pushed him into situations he didn't want to be in. But they didn't know, nor could he bring himself to tell them how much it upset him. How much it gnawed at his heart until it hurt. How much it felt like a cold, tight fist in his stomach.

"I was thinking…" said his father, "…after this we could take a walk around town, see what it's like, I don't think there's much of it, then maybe go down and have a look at the beach?"

His mother was nodding. "Sounds good. What do you think Louis?"

He nodded back.

A waiter came over, smiling. His shirt was too big for him. The sleeves bunched up at his wrists. He had a pen behind his ear and another one in his hand. His name tag said Ivan.

"Hi folks! Ready to order?"

"Yep! I'll have the steak please and a bottle of beer."

"How would you like that cooked?"

"Well done."

His mother sighed.

"Well… done... And for you madam?"

"What's the fish?" his mother said in her restaurant voice. It was similar to her on-the-phone-to-a-stranger voice.

"Plaice"

"Lovely. I'll have that please and a glass of chardonnay."

"Char… donn… ay….. and for you little man?"

"He'll have chicken and chips…" his mother said. "…and a Coke."

"No problem!" said Ivan still smiling and gathering up the menus.

His shirt hung out at the back.

Outside, the air was rippling in the heat.

Six days of weather no one could quite believe had gone by and it wasn't loosening its grip. Footpaths baked, tar softened capturing shoe prints and tyre marks, women wore summer dresses and men dug out khaki shorts last worn for some rain soaked barbeque.

Across the street a man was standing in the shade of a shop doorway holding an ice cream. He had on a red Hawaiian shirt with huge yellow sunflowers, dark baggy shorts that almost reached his ankles and green trainers with no socks. His long black hair fell in shiny wet curls on to his shoulders and his eyes were hidden by a huge pair of mirror lens sunglasses. He appeared to be staring straight into the restaurant. In the two minutes that Louis watched him he hadn't moved a muscle and he hadn't tasted the ice cream.

Louis was vaguely aware of his Coke arriving when there was a sudden flurry of movement behind the man. The shop door opened and a large woman in a huge straw hat came out. The man burst to life, handed the ice cream to the woman and they disappeared off down the street.

"Louis!" his mother was saying. "The girl is talking to you!"

"Sorry." he said. "What?"

"So..." the girl said. "We've just run out of chicken. Really busy today! But we still have burgers or sausages?"

Louis looked up.

And his heart almost fell through the floor.

Her name tag said Emma.

She was standing, smiling at him.

The most beautiful smile he had ever seen.

The restaurant seemed suddenly quiet and empty.

She was 17 or 18 and wore the white shirt/black jeans uniform like Ivan did but Louis hardly noticed. She had bright blue eyes that sparkled like the sea behind glasses with purple frames. Her strawberry blonde hair was loosely held up with… was that a pen? It stuck out like a Japanese hair stick he'd seen in a book once.

She was still smiling at him.

He had no idea what to say. His breath caught in his throat. Something fizzed behind his eyes.

He heard his father's voice come from somewhere.

"Louis buddy? Would you prefer a burger or sausages?"

For a long, long moment he said nothing.

Finally he said… "Burger."

It came out as a whisper.

Emma's smile broadened. She reached up and took the pen out of her hair. It didn't tumble down as Louis would have expected. It stayed perfectly where it was.

"Pardon Louis? What was that?" she said, bending closer to him.

Jesus… she said my name!

He coughed a little cough and said… "Burger." Louder this time. More like his normal voice thank God but still small and timid. "A burger please."

She wrote it quickly on her pad, looked at him and winked.

"Burger it is!"

Then she spun on her heels and went in through the kitchen door.

Louis thought his heart had jumped up into his mouth. He looked at his parents. They were carrying on as if nothing had happened. His father was taking a big gulp out of a beer that had appeared from nowhere and his mother was looking at her phone.

How could they act so normally?

How could they not see that his world had just fallen on its side?

He looked down. He could actually see his heartbeat through his T-shirt.

His Batman T-shirt.

God!

He stood up.

"I'm going to the bathroom."

They didn't hear him.

He looked around, spotted a Gents sign and headed for it in a daze.

The toilet was like a steam room.

He wiped condensation off the mirror and looked at himself. His cheeks had turned a deep, apple red. He could feel them burning. His heart was still thumping so loudly he could hear it. He wanted to go. Just leave now and never come back. He considered telling his parents he felt sick but something held him back.

Something was telling him no. Stay.

Grow up.

He splashed cold water on his face to try and douse the flames.

It didn't work. If anything they grew hotter. His eyes fell to his T-shirt. There was nothing he could do about that now.

He dried his face with paper towels and took a deep breath. And another.

And another.

Then he did the bravest thing he had ever done.

He went back out to his parents and sat down.

 

Sunday morning.

The dawn heat was already enough to wake him. He opened his eyes and looked around. A shaft of pale gold sunlight shone through the gap in the curtains and sliced across his bed like a light sabre. He could see dust particles floating almost pure white inside it like they were being prevented from spreading to the rest of the hotel room.

His hotel room.

His first ever all to himself. Well, almost. His parents had booked adjoining rooms with a connecting door. There was no way out from his side except through theirs but still… a wall separated them, he had his own space, his own TV and that was certainly a positive sign that they were aware he was growing up.

He got out of bed, walked across the soft carpet to the bathroom and felt another little bang of pride knowing this was his own too. He lifted the lid and sat down.

Sitting down to pee, there was something he'd have to work on. But for now, what the hell, no one could see him. He looked at the toiletries he had neatly laid out beside the sink. All of them new, specially bought for the holiday by his Nan. Toothpaste, facecloth, comb, hair gel, toothbrush. His toothbrush was a Batman one, same as his T-shirt….

 

And then there she was. Like a tap on the shoulder, appearing in his thoughts like a vision.

Emma…

His heart burst like a firework and then quickly sank.

She didn't come back to their table after that last night. Every time she walked by he held his breath, then let it out with relief when she didn't stop. Ivan brought their meals and Ivan brought the bill. Emma had been at the pay desk when they stood up from their table but by the time they got there, she had moved again and someone else took their money.

There was however one moment.

One electric moment that even now, made him want to scream out into the empty room and jump up and down on the bed.

As they were leaving he heard her voice.

"Bye now, thank you!"

It sounded like music.

He turned.

She was standing by the desk, holding a small silver tray down by her side and blowing a strand of hair out from behind her glasses. His father was already outside and didn't hear her. His mother turned at the door and said thank you back.

He just stared.

Emma then looked straight at him and smiled. When their eyes met he couldn't breathe.

"Bye Louis!" she said.

He was absolutely certain the whole room could hear his heart roaring. It was deafening. He opened his mouth to say something. Anything. But nothing came out. All he did was raise his hand and wave.

He couldn't remember much of the next hour or two. He recalled walking along the beach. He remembered passing things like shops and other restaurants, his parents taking note and saying things like "Oooh we must go there." and "That looks nice!"

Then they were back in the hotel.

He said he was tired. He was going to bed. They kissed him goodnight. He went in to his room and closed the door. He undressed and slipped in under the cool, white sheets. Then he closed his eyes and dreamed of the most beautiful girl in the world.

 

In his bathroom he stood up, splashed cold water on his face and brushed his teeth. Then he went out to the wardrobe and chose a plain red T-shirt, combat style shorts with pockets and his blue trainers. Back in the bathroom he put gel in his hair and combed it as best he could. He checked himself in the mirror. For a moment, a young man looked back at him. Then he thought of Emma. She was so much older. She had a job, probably a boyfriend too. A big guy more than likely, with a car and money. He pictured her racing along with him in that car with the windows down and the wind blowing her hair.

His heart sank.

His reflection was a little boy again. A little boy he knew deep down would never have the courage to talk to a girl like her. He checked the time. Still early. He lay on the bed, turned on the TV and waited for his parents to get up.

 

Sunday afternoon.

They sat at a table outside a pub they had found at the far end of town from the hotel. They'd had lunch inside and then came out to sit and watch he wasn't sure what. His father was fanning himself with a menu while his mother wrote postcards. Louis had a huge, bright orange drink with umbrellas and other things sticking out of it. He said he just wanted a Coke but his mother ordered it anyway saying something about When in Rome!

"We're not in Rome." Louis had said. "We're not even that far from home." But the ridiculous drink arrived and his mother took pictures telling him to smile, which he did. Several times.

One picture of him holding the drink, one of him not holding the drink, one of him hiding behind the drink. His mother was loving it and his father just sat there fanning and smiling.

Louis was actually trying.

He liked being on holiday and he knew how much his parents had been looking forward to this week. It was a nice hotel. Expensive. He knew that because he'd heard them discussing whether they could afford it or not. He loved his room and he supposed it was a nice enough town too. It had a beach and a fairground and stuff. Plenty to do. No, he wasn't going to ruin this for them by being miserable. They were good parents. They chose this place for him and he was going to enjoy it.

But how could he have known she would appear?

How could he have expected to be knocked sideways like that?

Sylvie's was just around the corner from where they sat. He'd suggested, casually, that they should go there again for lunch but they said they should try somewhere else. He left it. He didn't want them knowing what he didn't know himself. Why was he feeling like this? Why could he not stop thinking about her? Her hair, her smile, her eyes. The deepest blue he had ever seen behind the purple of her glasses. A blue so deep he felt he could fall into them. And why did it feel so bad? Why did it hurt so much? Every time he thought about her he felt exhilarated and then, almost at once, heartbroken knowing that he was probably just a child to her.

He raised his mouth to a straw and took a sip.

Sadness threatened to overwhelm him.

He fought away the tears.

 

Wednesday afternoon.

The heat seemed to drip from everything like blobs of honey.

He sat on the windowsill of a post office eating an ice cream. His parents were inside buying more postcards and more stamps. His clothes clung to him and he couldn't remember the last time he felt a cool breeze. But he was getting a tan now and he liked it. He wondered if Emma would like it. If it would make him look older.

If….

His chest fluttered violently like a trapped bird.

There she was!

Looking in the window of a small gift shop across the street.

Oh God she's lovely. She's so lovely.

She wore her hair down and he could see now how long it was. It poured over her shoulders and fell halfway down her back like burnt gold. She had on a denim shirt and jeans that stopped at her knees. A small yellow bag hung over her shoulder. She was bending, looking closely at something in the corner of the window. She straightened, looked in her bag, then bent and looked in the window again. Louis could feel the blood pounding in his head. His heart was in his throat trying to get out. She looked as if she was going in to the shop. She was moving towards the door. He stood up. What was he doing? He was about to cross the street when he heard a car horn beep twice.

He stopped.

She stopped.

She turned to face the street and for a second he thought she looked at him.

He felt dizzy.

A red car was pulled up at the footpath beside her. She was talking to the driver.

He felt his heart dissolve as she opened the passenger door and got in.

Louis stood and watched the car drive away from him. He watched until it was just a red speck at the end of the street.

Then it was gone.

He crossed over and looked in the corner of the window.

He saw it.

It was beautiful like her.

A little blue box, no bigger than a matchbox. It was the colour of the sky after a storm and when he looked closer he could see twinklings of silver dust peeking through the blue. On the front was a tiny silver clasp holding it shut. He looked at the price tag hanging from it on a piece of string.

Six euro.

 

Wednesday night.

He switched off the television and lay on the bed looking at the ceiling. He could hear his parents' TV on low behind the door.

Emma filled his head.

He thought of her standing there at the shop window. He had never seen anything so wonderful in his life. He pictured the moment, the fleeting moment he thought she was looking in his direction. He pictured her face and then remembered something he was too thunderstruck at the time to realise.

She looked sad.

 

Friday afternoon. Last full day.

"So… what do you think Louis? Want to give it a go?"

They were on the beach, his father and him, watching an older boy with a white pony. For three euro you could sit up on the pony while the boy walked him a hundred yards or so along the strand and back again. Louis had never been on a horse and he was desperate to try it. But fear had its hold on him. He watched as boys and girls half his age sat up and laughed as they bounced up and down on the animal’s back. How come other kids never seemed to be afraid of stuff?

He watched as a little girl no more than five or six was taken off the pony by the boy with a loud Wahoo! He wanted so much to try it.

"Now's your chance." said his father. "Your mother will be back from the shop any minute and you know she won't much like the idea."

He was going to do it. He was going to be brave for once.

"OK!" he said.

"Good lad!" said his father rummaging in the pocket of his Bermuda shorts. "Here."

Louis took the money and felt showered with heat as he walked.

The boy was much bigger up close. He was stroking the pony's ear and staring off out into the sea. Louis thought he looked like a boxer. He wore a pair of jeans that were ripped off just below the knee and that was it. His bare feet looked like leather and his body was tanned and rippled with muscles. When he turned and looked down, Louis realised he was staring with his mouth open.

"Wanna get up on him?" said the boy. "Three euro." His eyes were the colour of rainclouds.

Louis forgot to answer. He simply handed up the coins. The boy took them and put them in a small leather purse that was tied to his belt loop. He then grabbed Louis by the waist with hands that felt like shovels and plopped him into the saddle as if he weighed nothing. He pointed to a thing that stuck up between Louis' legs like a handle.

"Hold on to that. Put your two hands on it." He took Louis' left foot and slid it into the stirrup. Then he walked around by the pony's head and did the same with his right.

"Now. Here we go."

He grabbed the reins and started walking, making clicking sounds as he went. The pony responded by blowing air out through his nostrils so loud it took Louis completely by surprise. He gripped the handle white knuckled. It was much rougher than Louis had imagined. It felt like the pony was trying to buck him off but surely not. The other kids didn't look as if they were uncomfortable. Just be a man! he thought. Just be a man and stick it out!

He held on and stared at the back of the boy's head. The bouncing up out of the saddle became almost uncontrollable. By the time they turned and started heading back, he was terrified he was going to fall off.

"Slow down…" he managed.

"I'm not going fast." the boy said, looking straight ahead. Louis glanced at his father who was still standing where he left him with his hands on his hips. He was smiling broadly.

Louis closed his eyes…

…and then they were back.

And he was off and standing in front of his still smiling, proud father. Louis breathed a huge sigh of relief. He did it. He did something brave and he felt a gush of pride.

When his mother arrived he told her all about it in one long rush of words and she was thrilled to see him so happy.

And he was.

He was happy.

****

He was looking for crabs in a rock pool a little way up the beach when he heard a raised voice behind him. He turned.

For a second or two he was sure his heart stopped beating.

Emma!

And she wasn't alone.

She was standing on a raised footpath about twenty yards away wearing her uniform from Sylvie's. She was with a tall, tanned guy in dark glasses and a green and white hooped football shirt. Something on his neck caught the sun. A gold chain. Louis knew immediately this was the owner of the red car.

He sat absolutely still. He knew they probably couldn't see him and even if they could, why would they care about some stupid kid?

Her’s was the raised voice he had heard. The guy didn't seem to be saying anything. He was just standing there grinning.

He couldn't make out their words but Louis was certain she was crying.

The guy was standing arms folded, legs apart. He looked like he was sneering now. His lips were moving but Louis still heard nothing. Emma was moving constantly. Emotion was pouring from her. She kept taking a step towards him. Then she would turn away and put her head in her hands. Louis felt his insides melt.

The guy reached into his pocket and took something out. A phone. He looked at it and yawned while Emma seemed to crumble in front of him. Louis heard clear words for the first time.

"Please." she was saying. "Please don't." She tried to take the phone from his hand but he snatched it away. His head shot up. He took off the glasses and glared at her. He leaned in close until their noses were almost touching. His lips moved again. What he said took no more than a few seconds but it seemed to suck the life out of her. He turned and walked away.

Emma sank to the kerb and sobbed.

Louis felt like he was in a dream. He was frozen to the spot and his head was whirling. Should he go to her? The idea frightened him out of his mind but surely this moment was made for him to step in and comfort her? What would he say? How would she react? Would he startle her? Would she scream at him to leave her alone? Would she know who he was?

No… of course not. She doesn't even know I exist.

In the end, he did nothing.

He couldn't.

He sat there, tears burning his cheeks as she sat there broken. More than once he tried to find the courage to approach her but each time the fear consumed him.

Eventually she stood, dried her eyes and left him.

The first cool breeze in almost two weeks floated across his damp face.

And he watched her disappear.

 

Saturday morning. Check out day.

The lady in the gift shop was nice.

She smiled and said "Hello" when he entered. She smiled again when he knew exactly what he wanted from the window.

She waited patiently as he counted out the change from his pocket. She didn't mind when he went wrong, whispered "sorry" and started again. She noticed his hands were shaking. She took them in hers and softly said "Let me pet." She only took five euro and said he could keep the last one. She showed him the different coloured paper bags and asked him which one he would like. He chose purple. Then she smiled again and said "Bye bye darling."

When he stepped outside a single drop of rain touched his nose.

He ran all the way back to the hotel.

****

He was packed and ready to leave. His parents were still busy gathering things together on their side. He had carefully chosen his best clothes to wear this day. His most grown up. Red trainers, charcoal grey jeans, red check shirt. He'd put just the right amount of gel in his hair and combed it perfectly. He went to the locker beside his bed and picked up the purple bag. He delicately opened it, reached inside and took out the little blue box. The tiny silver clasp clicked as he lifted the lid. He read the note again.

And again.

Then he folded it, slipped it inside the box and gently returned it to the bag.

He felt sick. His stomach was a cold knot.

But he wasn't stopping now.

He simply couldn't.

He put the bag in the breast pocket of his shirt and walked out past his parents.

"Hey buddy, where you off to?" said his father.

His mother was in the bathroom.

"Just a walk around before we go."

"OK but we're checking out in twenty minutes. Don't make me come look for you Louis."

"I won't."

He didn't like the idea of getting into the lift on his own so he went down the stairs, past reception and out on to the street. His heart felt like it was squeezed into a ball as he headed towards Sylvie's. A sudden, awful thought struck him. What if she wasn't there? What if she was off today? Or on a break?

Too late to worry about that now.

He walked on.

He didn't notice the rain start to fall, gently at first, then bigger drops. He barely heard the sky crack open and the heavens tumble down. He was running. But not for the same reason as everybody else. He was running because he was afraid if he didn't get there right now, he'd be overtaken by terror, the tears would come and he would just turn around, go home and never do this. Never have this moment that would be the biggest of his life.

He reached the corner and there was Sylvie's.

He could see her standing inside with her back to the door.

Relief flooded through him.

He walked in and stopped in the middle of the floor, rain dripping from his hair, shirt stuck to his skin. It felt like a storm was roaring in his head. His mouth was dry and sticky. She hadn't heard him come in and she still had her back to him.

For a long moment he didn't know what to do. Then from somewhere he found it. He swallowed hard and said… "Emma."

It came out as strangled silence.

He straightened himself, took the bag out of his pocket and said clearly….

"Emma…."

She turned.

She looked tired. He could see the sadness in her eyes. Like a shadow had passed through her light.

"Hi there." she said.

For a full five seconds, Louis had no idea what to say.

When she spoke again, he thought he would burst.

"Louis isn't it?"

He felt like the sun had risen inside him. He was sure he was glowing.

She knows me!

Then, nerves fading, heart thumping wildly, he did something neither of them were expecting. He reached out and handed her the little lilac bag and said…

"This is for you Emma. I have to go now. Goodbye."

She took it.

He stepped forward. He was just inches from her now. Her perfume completely filled his senses. He got up on his toes as high as he could make himself… and kissed her lightly on her cheek. It felt warm and soft on his lips. Electricity flew through him but he turned and walked calmly out into the downpour before she could say a word. He didn't want to hear anything that could ruin his perfect moment.

He walked past the window like a man until he was sure he was out of sight.

Then he ran.

****

In Sylvie's Restaurant, waitress Emma Stanley had no idea what had just happened. A boy, Louis his name was, had just been standing there soaked to the skin. She remembered him because he had been in recently with his parents and she was good with names. He had handed her a little bag, kissed her on the cheek and ran. Just… ran!

She sat down at the nearest table and opened the pretty purple bag. She frowned, puzzled at what she saw. The little blue box! The gorgeous little box from the gift shop. She had seen it in the window only the other day. But how….? Why?

She took it out and clicked open the little clasp. A small piece of paper lay folded inside. A note? She put down the box and unfolded the paper.

It was written in a child's handwriting and it was short.

But the words...

The words touched her so gently she almost melted.

 

Emma.

Everything will be alright.

I know it will.

Love, Louis.

 

Her heart warmed.

And for the first time in quite a while, she felt the clouds lift.

---

 

Clayton O'Driscoll is Kilkenny born and bred. Hurling, words and music are the first things that gave him goose bumps. In the early nineties he moved west where he met and married Christina. They live near Loughrea, County Galway with their two children Emmet and Rosie. Clayton's piece 1979 was broadcast on RTE Radio One's Sunday Miscellany. His short story The Phone Call was shortlisted for the 2016 Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Award and his short story In A Wildflower Garden was published in the first edition of The Rose Magazine.