By Michael Gallager

 

– August 25th 1991 –

If love is indeed a battlefield, then I might as well have been back home knitting winter mittens for the troops. That’s not to say I wasn’t keen on hurling myself headlong into the fray. Oh no, I was ready to give my heart and soul for the cause. Sadly, the spellbinding figure who’d stirred my devotion to that cause was entirely unaware of my desires.

For the past eight months, I’d been desperately in love with my beautiful classmate, Sarah Fallon. Unfortunately, as a naive teenage boy, I’d vastly overestimated the effects of desperation as an aphrodisiac, and consequently, Sarah’s heart and all other desirable regions remained frustratingly out of reach.

Sarah Fallon was the best looking girl in town, maybe even the country. But hey, if you’re going to fall head over heels in love with someone, why not aim high? Her sparkling green eyes were wonders of the world and my heart practically skipped a beat whenever they happened my way. In fact, my entire cardiac system was in such a constant state of tumult that I’d pretty much earmarked a defibrillator as next year’s Christmas present.

Sarah was all dark brooding looks and feline grace. She was a dizzying combination of the doe eyed Winona Ryder and the bonkers sexpot from the movie, Betty Blue. Her blend of the innocent and the downright sexy was a heady brew, and I wasn’t the only one who wanted to drink from her cup, so to speak. My teenage temptress could barely step out of her front door without some lascivious boy / man / teacher / lesbian / lesbian teacher venturing over to flirt and try their luck. I know all this because I was often to be found in the immediate vicinity of Sarah, I wasn’t exactly following her but we did tend to turn up at the same places, with Sarah invariably entering first.

I grew up in the sleepy, almost comatose seaside town of Moville in the wild north west of Ireland. Like many small Irish towns, Moville began life as a road. This innovation proved sufficiently attractive for a few easily impressed souls to set up shop on either side. From there the town spread out across the surrounding hills until it hit a population of around fifteen hundred. At that point someone must have planted a sign reading TOWN FULL UP down by the old stone bridge because the population has remained relatively stable ever since.

Moville was a town where nothing ever happened, and it happened with crushing regularity, so for me, falling in love with Sarah was big news. If I’d had a front page to hold, I‘d have screamed for someone to hold it. Whether I’d have run the story is another matter, because try as I might, I couldn’t seem to get beyond the headline: BOY FALLS FOR GIRL.

The campaign to win Sarah’s love began with my old pal Ray Toland. We’d been friends in primary school, but by the time we hit secondary school we’d long since drifted apart. Fortunately for me, Ray and Sarah were very close. She was quite literally his girl next door, so cosying up to Ray seemed an ideal way to infiltrate the life of Sarah Fallon. I caught him up one afternoon on the way home from school and a tentative friendship was quickly re-established.

At sixteen years of age, Ray Toland was already a striking figure about town, tall, muscular, with blonde hair and blue eyes, he’d surely have been pre-approved for instant platinum membership of the Aryan Brotherhood, had he been that way inclined. But that wasn’t Ray, he was a decent easygoing guy, and the even better news was that Ray would provide little competition in the Sarah boyfriend stakes.

In small towns, secrets are rarely kept secret for long, and Moville wasn’t about to buck that trend. In the rumour filled corners of the school canteen, tongues had been wagging for some time about Ray’s sexual preferences. There was talk of an incident with an older man, and I’d practically jumped for joy at the news. Going toe to toe with Ray for Sarah’s affections would have proved a fruitless undertaking. I wasn’t exactly Quasimodo Von Mutant, the king of the Ugly Tribe, but at the same time, I was no Ray Toland.

My plan began to bear fruit, and within a month or so, Sarah, Ray and I had formed a tight little band. Sarah was everything I’d hoped she’d be. She was sharp as a tack, delightfully dippy and she followed all the hippest bands because she liked their music, and not, as was often the case with me, because they were a cool name to drop.

Nothing ever happened in Moville, and it happened with crushing regularity. Music provided us with an identity and a temporary escape from the cultural vacuum of small town life. On fine afternoons we’d stroll along the shore together while Sarah ranted and raved about some amazing new band she’d heard on the John Peel show. I of course would quickly agree on just how ‘bloody awesome’ those guys were, before rushing home to thumb through my NME’s in order to find a nugget of insider knowledge I could shoehorn into our next conversation.

For a teenage virgin in love, the I-like-everything-you-like plan seemed like it couldn’t fail. But life’s what happens while you’re making plans, or in my case, the dreaded ‘friend’ category happened while I was filing my paperwork down at the planning department.

Sarah’s categorization came as a desperate blow. In years to come, I would realise that escapes from Alcatraz had a higher success rate than break outs from the average woman’s friend zone. But I patched up the wounds from Sarah’s friendship bombshell and clung desperately to the hope that if I persevered long enough, I would surely come up for sex parole.

 

And that’s how things stood on that fine August morning as I headed up the hill to meet Sarah and Ray in the town square. New York rockers, Sonic Youth were coming to Ireland, or to be more precise they were coming to Dublin. Bands with any semblance of a career and an ability to read maps rarely strayed within a hundred miles of Moville. Our plan was to catch the early bus to Derry, and board the specially chartered coach later that afternoon. Ray and Sarah were already in the square, chatting on a shop window sill as I approached.

‘Hello gorgeous,’ said a smiling Sarah.

She leapt up from the window sill and greeted me with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Although I immensely enjoyed the physical contact, I ruined the moment by overanalysing her phraseology. Sarah habitually greeted me with the words ‘hello gorgeous’ and I couldn’t understand why she bothered. Surely if the word gorgeous was worth an airing, it was only fair to follow it up with something a bit more passionate than a peck on the cheek. Bandying the word around was almost cruel. Wouldn’t it have been kinder to greet me with a simple ‘hello average looking person’ instead? It might have sounded somewhat incongruous to a passing pair of ears, but it would have been a truer representation of our relationship status.

‘Isn’t it a beautiful morning?’ said Sarah. ‘This is going to be a day we’ll be talking about years from now; I can feel it in my soul.’

‘You might want to be careful, I felt like that the other day. Turned out it wasn’t my soul at all; it was just some trapped wind.’

I had a worrying tendency to turn into a babbling idiot around Sarah. Thankfully, she let it pass and linked her arm with mine as we joined Ray on the window ledge. He was rolling a few cigarettes for the journey.

‘Hey Neil,’ said Ray distractedly.

Ray’s enthusiasm for our rekindled friendship had waned in recent months as he’d sussed out my ulterior motives. He was never overtly rude or confrontational, Ray was too much the gentleman for anything like that, but we both knew I’d been more than a little manipulative.

‘You look nice, Neil,’ said Sarah. ‘God, if I’d known everyone was getting dressed up; I’d have made more of an effort.’

Sarah looked amazing, as always. She wore a figure hugging, mid length black dress with small white polka dots and a pair of battered black army boots. This was a typical Sarah outfit. It was a look that wouldn’t work for everyone, but Sarah carried it off with the effortless grace of the drop dead gorgeous. Although I was hardly the harshest of critics when it came to all things Sarah, if she’d turned up in full Waffen SS regalia, I’d undoubtedly have shelved any protestations and complimented her on her Iron Cross.

I was about to reassure her that she looked more than presentable when she became distracted by a vehicle from the Inishown Luxury Coaches fleet as it came trundling down the hill towards us.

‘Fantastic, we’re on our way boys,’ said Sarah as she pulled Ray upright and corralled us both over to the bus stop.

The ancient rusting coach pulled up with a squeal of brakes and struggled to a halt at the bus stop, where it sat belching all kinds of noxious fumes into the atmosphere. Obviously, the owner of Inishowen Luxury Coaches had a well developed sense of irony.

We hopped aboard and after an uneventful forty minutes of Sonic Youth themed chat; we arrived safe and sound at Derry Coach Station. With the first leg of our journey complete, it was time for Operation Vodka Buy (One of the less cryptic operation titles of recent times).

Ray looked the eldest so he adopted his legitimate off licence customer persona and strode manfully into Shortt’s Wines & Spirits, where he demanded ‘a bottle of your cheapest full strength vodka’. Subtlety and subterfuge weren’t necessary when you looked like Ray.

Within the hour, we’d been inducted into the Sonic Youth travelling army and shipped out on the chartered coach for the four hour drive to Dublin. The back seat was quickly occupied by some higher ranking cool people so we were forced to split up and find seats where we could, and due to our odd number, I ended up sitting on my own. Sarah and Ray sat together and I went into a bit of a mini sulk after that, but by the time we hit the outskirts of the capital my mood had lightened considerably. This change of heart could be attributed to the sterling efforts of Mr. Karkazov and his surprisingly palatable vodka.

 

‘You’ll love these guys, honest, they’re really amazing,’ droned Ray in my ear as we waited for the support band to get their set out of the way.

Sarah had wandered off somewhere and I was stuck talking to Ray. It’s not that he was poor company, quite the reverse to be fair, but he wasn’t Sarah, which was a failing I found in a lot of people. How was I supposed to win her heart if she kept wandering off? My whole plan for this particular day involved spending as much time as possible with Sarah and the vodka was meant to provide the necessary Dutch courage I’d require to finally make a serious move. However, on this occasion Ray wasn’t letting up about the upcoming support band and his boundless enthusiasm was beginning to get on my nerves.

What did Ray know about music gigs? I was an experienced concert goer. I’d attended a grand total of two, and with this depth of experience under my belt, I’d firmly concluded that support bands were never really amazing.

The as-bad-as-it-sounds Seamus McGinty’s Accordion Big Band was one such lowlight. They’d opened some years back for Irish country music legend Big Tom. I’d accompanied Mum to this musical horror show when Dad conveniently came down with flu. This was of course back in the days before socialising with a parent became credibility suicide, but technically, it was still a gig so I was counting it as such.

Ray the human publicity machine wasn’t letting up.

‘They’re from Seattle, where it rains nearly as much as it does here-’

‘Yeah, okay Michael Fish, I get it. They’re a decent support band. And speak of the devil; here they come now, about bloody time.’

They were a three piece called Nirvana and they didn’t look like much as they shambled onstage. From what I could see, this miracle band consisted of a human beanpole, Animal from The Muppets and a homeless guy. I re-evaluated the homeless guy when he turned around. He had good hair; and that was certainly a tick in the plus column, the follicle factor can be very important to a fickle sixteen year old when it comes to evaluating a band’s worth, but he was wearing a revolting green jumper. Oh dear, oh dear. I put a tick in the minus column.

That was the last I heard from Ray or anyone else for the next forty minutes. Homeless guy rolled up the sleeves of his hideous jumper, strapped on a cheap looking guitar and bashed out the opening chords:

Der de der - chiga chiga chiga - der de der

The band launched into the song I would later know as Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was raw and punky, and more than a little reminiscent of The Pixies but the sheer energy emanating from the stage was staggering. At times it was a bit of a mess, but it was a life changing mess.

The rest of their set was stuffed to the gills with incredibly powerful punked up rock songs that any band would kill for. I was blown away. I’d even forgiven the singer his dreadful jumper. This guy was the real deal. He played his guitar like it was a life or death struggle, had a rasping voice that could strip the paint from the walls of your soul, and of course there was the aforementioned good hair, most of which was plastered all over his face by the time he threw his guitar to the ground, smiled to his latest converts and slouched off the stage.

Within minutes Ray resurfaced looking shell-shocked but happy.

‘That was really amazing,’ I said excitedly.

Ray fumbled in his pocket and took out a packet of cigarettes.

‘‘Told you you’d like them, want one?’

He placed a cigarette into the corner of his mouth and offered me the packet. I took one, even though I rarely smoked.

‘Yeah thanks, definitely need something to calm down.’

Ray lit my cigarette and then his own.

‘I’m gonna be like that guy someday,’ he said.

‘How’d you mean?’

‘I’ve been writing some songs and I’m gonna put a band together.’

‘Yeah, definitely, you should go for it,’ I said.

‘D’you fancy giving it a go with me? Only I’ve seen you wandering around town with a guitar.’

This was true. I’d persuaded my parents to buy me an acoustic guitar the previous Christmas. It was intended to be the first step on my road to rock stardom; unfortunately, I’d received the guitar only weeks before falling head over heels for the delicious Sarah, and from that point on, the acoustic guitar lay gathering dust in the corner of my room while I lay on the bed pining for my new love.

Ray must have spied me with the guitar on the rare occasion I’d lugged it round to Sarah’s. I’d carried it there in the hopes of impressing her, and I suppose she’d been about as impressed as anyone would when a friend pops by with a musical instrument they can’t play.

These were definitely the kind of circumstances in which great bands were formed. I imagined myself telling the story of our formation to music journalists on a hedonistic American tour. I’d probably be going through my cocaine phase by then, and I’d be irritable and rude during the interview, but they’d be secretly impressed that I wasn’t the kind of rock star who kowtowed to the music press. Then I’d usher the journalists out of my room and beckon in a gaggle of adoring groupies to attend to my every sexual desire. If I wanted to keep that potential wet dream alive, then keeping schtum about my nonexistent guitar skills seemed prudent.

We planned the future of our unnamed group for the rest of the evening, and for the first time in months, I had something on my mind besides Sarah Fallon. It felt like the great weight that had been crushing my heart for eight punishing months had been temporarily lifted. Somehow, I’d become a guy in a band. I was a young man with a creative outlet. It remained to be seen whether I had any creativity to bung up the outlet, but it was a start. And more importantly, it was something that didn’t involve following Sarah Fallon around like a lovesick puppy. And as far as I knew, girls tended to like guys in bands, so adding some creative mystique to my otherwise rather feeble armoury couldn’t hurt.

We gave the final encore a miss and fought our way through the crush on the main floor to the street outside, where we smoked another couple of cigarettes before Ray spotted the coach pulling into the far corner of the car park. As we ambled off towards it, the beautiful hot and sweaty goddess Sarah jogged over to join us. I immediately added her hot and sweaty look to all her other breathtaking looks, happy, sad, fluey, constipated. It was all one enormous collection of gorgeousness as far as I was concerned.

‘I’m so happy to catch up with my boys at long last. We were down the front for Sonic Youth, didn’t see you guys at all,’ she said.

‘We’ve been making plans for our new band,’ I said proudly, studying her reaction for signs of uncontrollable lust at my new change of status.

‘Oh wow, that’s brilliant. I knew you two would be a good match for a band. What are you going to do in the group?’

‘I’m going to play guitar and Mark’s gonna sing and play rhythm guitar. We’re still trying to nail down the sound and- hang on, who’s we?’

‘Sorry?’ said Sarah.

‘You said we were at the front for Sonic Youth.’

‘Oh Neil, I’ve got some great news as well. Me and Simon are getting back together. He was at the gig too. Simon knows I’m a huge Sonic Youth fan so he came all the way down to Dublin in the hope that we might meet up and -’

She sighed and flashed one of her world beating smiles.

‘-we did. Isn’t it fantastic?’

Simon was still on the scene when Sarah first appeared on my radar. He was a couple of years older than me and had a motorbike, the ownership of which seemed to make him unfathomably popular with the opposite sex.

To me, he always looked like he was in a really crabby mood or spoiling for a fight but Sarah seemed smitten with this smelly borderline criminal. I’m not especially proud, but at night I’d tune into the local news and pray for a breaking story about a grumpy motorcyclist who’d tragically crashed into a tank of sulphuric acid. What can I say? I was jealous and quite vindictive when it came to imagining Simon’s agonizing demise.

Thankfully, just after Valentine’s Day, Sarah saw sense and gave the filthy reprobate his marching orders, leaving the way clear for yours truly to step in and play the long game, a game that was scheduled to reach its conclusion on this trip. Simon’s unexpected appearance had thrown these precious plans into disarray.

‘That’s brilliant news. I’m so happy for you,’ I said with as much conviction as I could muster.

I could feel my heart struggling to beat, the crushing weight had returned with a vengeance.

‘I’m gonna leave you guys here if that’s okay. Simon’s staying with some friends and they’re having a party so we were going ride over on his bike and see how it goes from there. You understand don’t you?’

‘Of course we do, don’t worry about it. You take care though,’ said Ray.

‘I knew you guys would understand. I’ll see you on Sunday. You can tell me all about the band.’

I didn’t get a chance to advise her against going to parties in strange cities with scummy bikers who weren’t worthy of her love. She simply waved, turned and ran off into the throng.

Ray knew I was hurting and on the seemingly endless journey home he did what he could to lift my spirits. He conjured up all kinds of fantastic life-in-a-band scenarios involving non-gender specific groupies and their loose moral code, friendships and rivalries with other cool bands and rather less excitingly, a list of potential guitar teachers for yours truly. And as the miles of blackness zipped past the coach windows I consoled myself with the fact that even if our songs didn’t make Sarah fall into my arms (which of course they would) then I’d still have the consolation of being a cool dude in a band.

Perhaps music would offer me a way out of my Sarah Fallon love rut. I took solace in this vision of a contented musical future as the road stretched off into the night. Fame and fortune in the music industry would bring me the happiness that love had always promised but failed to deliver. After all, that singer from Nirvana looked happy enough.

 

 

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Before switching to prose, Michael Gallagher enjoyed considerable success as a scriptwriter. He has written comedy for the both Channel Four and the BBC (nb. - that's proper funny BBC, not BBC Northern Ireland). In 2014 he won the Galway's Great Read creative writing competition with his short story, First Light. Michael lives in Galway and is currently shopping his recently completed first novel around while working on a second. More info: facebook.com/whirl-jack