This short story is for Sacha Black’s weekly writing prompt.
By the time I was in Junior III I’d had several love affairs. None of them had meant anything to me though. The boy I really longed for was Martin O’Donoghue in Junior IV, the top class. All the girls were in love with him, but I used to catch his eye and imagine that he looked at me in a special way. I dreamt of holding his hand, having him whisper in his soft voice just for me. I dreamt of being his partner for dinner duty. In fact, fantasizing about dinner duty was almost like fantasizing about marriage and children.
At my school, the older children did the dinner service. There would be two older children on each table of eight to serve out, keep order, clear away and clean up afterwards. Just like Mam and Dad. We were keen on family values in those days. I longed with all my heart to be chosen to be ‘Mam’ at dinner service, and to have Martin as ‘Dad’.
At the beginning of my penultimate and Martin’s last year at primary school, the head of Junior IV paired up the couples for dinner duty and called out my name with Martin O’Donoghue’s. I can’t say I couldn’t believe it, because I did. We believed in miracles in those days. Martin smiled at me as if he’d expected it. Maybe he’d asked to be paired with me. Maybe Sister Theresa just recognized young love when she saw it. The nuns were like that. Romantic.
For the whole of my last year at primary school I lived for dinnertime. Martin and I sat next to one another, shared the chore of feeding a couple of wingey Big Babies and some obstreperous eight-year-olds. We didn’t speak much but we sat close and exchanged glances full of warmth and promises we could never keep. We held hands on the way into the dinner hall because Martin claimed that Sister Theresa had said all the dinner servers had to. Nobody else did, though. Nobody else was on cloud nine like we were.
But it wasn’t until the evening of the Nativity play that we had our first and only kiss. We were both there as spectators. My little sister was an angel and Martin’s Patrick was Saint Joseph. It was dark; the only lights were in the school hall. As I wandered up to the door in my parents’ wake, a soft voice called my name. Martin. He was standing in the doorway with his dad, a man so massive he blocked the double doors completely. With a word of greeting to my mum and dad, the massive silhouette moved, walking with them to the hall, and light appeared in the doorframe.
I stepped to one side, into the shadows. Martin was there, with the big grin he kept just for me. He took my hands and bent his head. He was tall and I was tiny. He kissed me and I kissed him. Our lips fluttered together, brushed like butterfly wings, and I filled up with the most glorious feeling, as if I was bursting with light. He said my name again but I don’t remember being able to say anything at all. We moved apart because more people were arriving, and my parents were waiting for me inside. Our hands lingered, fingers clutching, slipping.
We never had another opportunity to be alone. For the rest of the year, holding hands became the most intimate of gestures, and the tone of voice sent the most intimate of messages. At the end of the school year, Martin went on to the grammar school and out of my life. For dinner duty, I was paired with Aidan Lynch and his loud voice and rough gestures, Aidan Lynch who kicked my shins and soon put me straight about what eleven-year-old boys were really like. It was several years before I kissed another boy and, with not a little sadness, came to accept that the slobbery, groping, pawing was real life. Martin’s gentle butterfly kiss was the stuff of fairy stories and dreams.