The year I was 13, my mother sent me to my aunt in Kerry for the whole of the summer holidays. ‘She’s looking at boys and they’re looking at her,’ I heard her tell her friend who came for afternoon tea every second Thursday. My mother envisaged hordes of ‘looking’ boys around every corner of Dublin’s suburbs and her mantra was: ‘don’t be encouraging the boys’.
My aunt ran a pub in Tralee and as she didn’t consider the streets a suitable summer playground for her children, she shifted them and me to Fenit. We were minded by Lizzie and Briany, a childless couple who adored us to the extent of Lizzie making chocolate cake with crackling white icing for breakfast and big, gentle Briany introducing us to the mysteries of harvesting carrageen.
There were other distractions in Fenit too, mainly Johnny Mac. Keep away from him,’
Lizzie cautioned, sending us off with togs rolled up in towels and warnings to be back for dinner at one o’clock.
Johnny Mac was the local bad boy or heart-throb, depending on your viewpoint. He was gorgeous – brown cords rolled up to his knees, shirt sleeves flapping, moody eyes and a lick of dark hair hanging over his forehead. He hung around doing nothing.
He sized me up with sideways glances, called me a Dublin Jackeen, and dared me to ‘borrow’ my uncle’s kayak. When I hesitated, he offered me a Woodbine from a crumpled packet, and, like the best of movie heroes, he lit it. But my spluttering and coughing confirmed I was no Hollywood heroine. He was two years older than me, and my cousins said he’d a reputation for being ‘fast’. In Dublin I didn’t come across fast guys, and other than being drop-dead gorgeous, Johnny Mac wasn’t that different. I asked him why should I borrow uncle’s kayak.
He took my hand, raised it to his lips, kissed it and said he’d introduce me to the local dolphin. A likely story, I thought, being well indoctrinated by the nuns in the evil ways of men while wondering sinfully what a proper kiss would be like.
‘Right,’ I said.
Later, as he rowed us out into the bay, the pink-streaked sunset turned to gold. We were quiet, neither of us speaking. I thought of a thousand things I wanted to say but I didn’t know how to put words on them.
When we stopped, we seemed to rest in a pool of cold flame and I put down : my hand and stroked the sea’s calm surface. After a few moments of glittery silence, a dorsal fin, curved liked a gondola, broke the smooth water. In the early twilight, as the dolphin arched upwards, its body was burnished bronze. I watched in wonder as it romped near the boat. I had never seen anything more beautiful, and Johnny’s eyes were shining. Bending, curving, the dolphin emitted shrill sounds of what I knew to be pleasure.
With a sudden movement, Johnny Mac yanked off his shirt, kicked off his shoes, and started undoing his fly. Omigod. Everything I’d heard about men rollicked around in my mind, and I averted my eyes as he slithered out of his tight, black drainpipes. His togs were blue. The same as my father’s.
With a rocking movement, he disappeared over the side of the kayak – not quite diving, but not quite falling either. In the water he was immediately joined by the dolphin. ‘Come on,’ he said, one hand grasping the side of the kayak. I hesitated. But only for a moment.
Kicking off my sandals, I jumped in as I was and I knew the meaning of freedom as my dirndl skirt umbrella-ed around my legs.
With a great whoosh, the dolphin was in front of me, treading water. He was so close that I could have reached out and touched his snout.
His eyes were soft and gentle, and his mouth curved in a smile. He was full of playful cavorts; balletic leaps and joyful trumpets. This one sure likes the wimmin,’ said Johnny Mac, looking at me with what I took to be new respect.
The dolphin kneaded water, watching through button eyes and his mouth was wide open in a laugh. He had little pearly teeth, just like a baby’s. And I laughed back at him. Switching mood, he gave off a series of squeaks and high- pitched sounds.
‘He’s talking to you,’ said Johnny Mac, swimming beside me, his limbs long and pale in the water. ‘Answer him.’ I talked back with incomprehensible soundings that came from I knew not where. But, at the time, they made sense.
Then the magic was over. The dolphin hooted, leapt once more into the air, dove into the sea and was gone. Johnny Mac wrapped his arms around me, we clung to each other. With one hand he stroked back the hair from my forehead, and slowly kissed my lips.
Our return journey was silent too, but it was full of stolen glances and half smiles. And my uncle waiting on the pier.