Please don’t wear red tonight
Listen what I said tonight
Red is the colour that my baby wore
She was not my baby, but she did wear red and I danced with everyone except her. I was cool; we were all cool, small town cool. I danced with everyone except her. Only looked when she was not looking. Only glimpsed her hair, her back, her ankle as we danced and laughed and sang. There was not a moment when I did not know where she was in that room. Each time we passed close, I could smell her perfume, can smell it now, can see the sheen on her black hair.
It was her party, her house. The dress is what I remember best. Flaming red, tight with a row of buttons in front from low-cut top to hem. A girl in a woman’s dress, exquisitely awkward.
I could be happy with you by my side
I could be happy and Oh I tried
She blushed when she proffered the tray of neat sandwiches.
‘No thank you,’ I said. She passed on and did not insist or ask a second time. Ask me again I thought, please ask me again. Too late. I was cool then, real cool.
I instantly recognised Jean’s brother amongst the throng of summer holiday home-comers. We both hesitated, poised between a simple passing nod of recognition and stopping to talk.
‘Peter,’ he said and held out his hand as he approached. He still looked like her, even after so many years; those dark eyes, that dimpled smile.
‘You haven’t changed,’ I said. He grasped my hand warmly.
‘Nor you. God, how many years has it been? Fifteen, twenty?’ he was shaking
his head from side to side, smiling that smile, her smile. I wanted to run, wanted to say, ‘I’m sorry, I must go, let’s meet later,’ anything to escape. But I could not speak. In that unguarded moment, twenty years of forgetting were obliterated and I felt the ache of longing as raw and urgent as on that warm Summer night so long ago.
The exhausted dancers sat in happy disarray and sang along with Scott Walker.
Joanna, I can’t forget the one they call Joanna
We owned that Summer hand in hand Joanna
I love you but nothing in this world could make you mine
But still in time, Joanna you may remember me and change your mind.
We weaved our own anxieties and imagined heartaches into the music that drifted out and away on the warm night breeze. I imagined that, somehow, she would know that the words had a special meaning, that she would know that that was how I was feeling about her.
‘Peter, are you alright?’ He was looking urgently at me and shaking me by the shoulder.
‘Yes, yes I’m so sorry, just a bit distracted, work you know.’
‘Oh, no need to tell me. The world’s gone mad.’
‘Too true,’ I said.
‘You’re going out on this flight,’ he stated the obvious.
‘Yes, heading home for a few days. The mother’s on her own now.’
‘Same here,’ he said, ‘visiting home I mean. Both mam and dad are gone, but Jean stayed on in the old place. You remember Jean?’
‘Jean. Yes of course. How is she?’ I tried to be offhand, amazed that even this casual mention of her could precipitate such internal turmoil. I felt like a schoolboy.
Passengers for flight EI906 occupying seats 1 to 16 please commence boarding.
‘That’s me. Listen,’ he said, ‘in case we miss each other at the other end, don’t forget to drop in on us. Jean would love to see one of the old gang. Don’t forget, we’ll expect you. Oh do you have a lift from Dublin Airport? Jean is collecting me and if you…’
‘No! no, thank you Brian, a friend’s collecting me. Good luck.’ Still terrified at this age. Christ does it never end.
I was also terrified that night, twenty years ago. I could hardly breath when she sat down next to me on the sheepskin rug. Though we were facing in different directions, chatting and laughing with those all around us, every atom of my body was conscious of her presence and still I feigned indifference. Why? She leaned back casually and brushed against the sleeve of my shirt. Was that on purpose? Was it simply me, reading all kinds of hidden messages into her every move and gesture. I still don’t know. I wanted to touch her, to say something clever, but all I could do was speak out loud so that she could hear me. ‘I love that song,’ I said hoping that she would know the words of the song revealed what I was so abysmally incapable of saying.
I don’t remember the flight home to Dublin or the bus journey home. I can’t remember how I greeted my mother, but at breakfast on the first morning after my return she said,
‘You’re not yourself. Working too hard I’ll bet.’ I felt guilty and selfish. I was home to see my mother, to cheer her up and here I was moping like a love-sick teenager.
‘Mam I’ll be fine after a day here with you. I am so happy to be home and to see you looking so well. Has Mick Dutton proposed to you yet?’
‘Go on with yourself. Your father was the only man I ever wanted.’ She gave me a gentle tap on the back of the head with the knuckles of her left hand. We both laughed.
‘Mick Dutton, how are you, that aul divil should be saying his prayers and doing penance if he wants to stay out of hell. God forgive me.’
‘You’re a hard woman, mam.’
‘Not half hard enough. Now me bucko, are you just going to mope around here all day or are you going to clear out of my way. I’ve work to do.’
‘OK I can take a hint. I’m gone’.
The town seemed smaller than I had remembered. It was simply a place where my mother lived but, more importantly, I must admit, it was the place where Jean lived. It was her presence in this ordinary small town that made it special. I could not banish the sense of her presence, could not dismiss the recurring questions and imaginings of what she was doing at any odd moment of the day. I did not belong in that town anymore, but I also knew that I could not simply leave and not see her.
The days drifted relentlessly by and still I hesitated.
‘Peter, Peter you’re miles away love.’
‘Sorry mam, what were you saying?’
‘Ah nothing much son, but you look troubled. Is it that you’re leaving in the morning? Sure you’re not that far away and you can come back any time.’
‘Don’t mind me at all, mam. I’ve had a great time here and sure, as you say, I’m not that far away. It’ll be no time ’til I’m back again. Mam … would you mind if I stroll out for a while, I know it’s the last evening and …’
‘Go on, go on, and don’t be such an aul cod.’
It was a beautiful placid evening of stars as I strolled through the People’s Park. Her house looked exactly as it had twenty years ago.When I approached, I could hear music filtering out from the open sashes of the windows. I stood just out of range of the soft lighting from those same windows and tried to quell the turmoil within. Just be casual I thought. She might not even recognise me.
The front door opened. It was her. I moved quickly into the shade of the big chestnut tree that had always stood directly in front of her house. Though I could not see her properly, I knew, even from that limited view, that she had not changed. She lit a cigarette and stood there, partially illuminated by the light from the doorway. She was talking to someone from within the house. Her voice was still like a young girl’s. She laughed out loud, throwing he head back and running her free hand through that dark hair.
I stepped out from the shadows. She turned her head slowly in my direction and, though it would have been impossible for her to see my face at that distance, I sensed from the curious tilt of her head that she knew I was no stranger. She began to walk slowly towards me. I could hardly breathe.
‘Peter?’ That soft velvety voice that had haunted me for twenty years made me gasp with pleasure.
‘Jean,’ I said.
‘What are you doing here?’ I felt foolish. If she only knew that this moment was the fulcrum of my life and yet, and yet somewhere deep inside a voice was saying, ‘she does know, she knows. Don’t falter. I reached out and took her hand. She did not resist.
‘I had to come,’ I said, struggling with each single word.
She stopped smiling. I felt that everything in my life, every achievement, every triumph was toppling down into the dust around me and there was nothing left of me. Slowly she reached out her other hand and took mine.
‘Peter.’ There was a lifetime’s regret in her voice. As I looked into those soft dark eyes I knew that she had not forgotten and my heart soared.
It was only when she cried, Mama, did either of us notice the small dark girl standing halfway between the open hall door and where we stood. Then she turned and ran back towards the house ‘Dada, dada, there is a man with Mama.’ Moments later, a man’s voice,
‘Jean, Jean love who is it.’ I was already walking away.
‘Jean ?’ the voice called a little more urgently.
‘It was only a stranger … he was lost,’ she said.