The upshot of Diarmuid’s dinner with the Powers was that Ciaran’s parents invited him to a drinks party during the evening of December 23. Diarmuid didn’t know how to refuse them, as he equally didn’t know how to ask Ciaran what one wore and did at a drinks party. Drinking, presumably, was heavily involved – but that begged the question of what, and how, and how much.
In a quandary, Diarmuid found himself beseeching Aidan’s help. He didn’t reveal the whole story right away – Aidan’s voluble nature was such that Diarmuid merely said, “I need something decent to wear” and Aidan’s imagination got to work, incorporating into Diarmuid’s social diary a Big Date with a Girl.
They stood in Aidan’s bedroom, which, since he was the youngest of three, was far larger and better stocked than Diarmuid’s, although still nothing to the opulence of Ciaran’s. Rather, Diarmuid lolled on the bed, while Aidan dug through the piles of clothes festooning every surface rather like a pig on the scent of a truffle.
“I have these jeans –“ he brandished a miniscule pair with what looked like floral transfers on the back pockets “– but maybe denim isn’t formal enough?” Without waiting for an answer, he fell upon a black shirt: “This is great ... Jesus, but it stinks. Never mind.”
“Just a black trousers and a shirt will be fine,” protested Diarmuid, in vain. Aidan went off to raid his oldest brother’s wardrobe, leaving Diarmuid in temporary peace.
Yet peace was fleeting, for no sooner had Diarmuid relaxed back on the pillows to contemplate his confusion over Ciaran than his phone buzzed. Puzzled as to who would be messaging him – Aidan was too stingy to text from down the hall, his sisters never bothered, and his parents didn’t know how – Diarmuid pressed ‘Read.’ The number was unfamiliar to him.
“Hey Diarmuid,” it ran, “Ciaran here. Got ur no off ur fone. Hope u don’t mind. Tues nite shud b fun rite? Dress caj. xxx”
Dress casual. Diarmuid felt relief mingle with apprehension in the pit of his belly. What did the little ‘x’s mean? His mother put those on Christmas cards. Were they some archaic form of expressing affection? Did Ciaran want to express affection? That was weird, but what was even weirder was the pleasure Diarmuid took in the thought.
He text back: “Sure, mite b interestin 2. C u there. Gud luck wit ur results.” Diarmuid had got his that morning: a string of Cs, one or two Ds, and an A1 in Art. He was delighted with that, and deliberated adding the information to the message before deciding he’d rather tell Ciaran in person. He wondered if the polite thing to do was to return the ‘x’s at the end of his message. He’d typed in one x when he heard Aidan’s cloven hoof in the hall.
Diarmuid hurriedly pressed send – just in time. Aidan swished into the room, almost swamped by material and the scent of Lenor.
“Result!” he crowed, his crown of curls bursting through a stack sweaters like a fox through a hedge. “Mark’s gone off to his girlfriend’s for Christmas and left a whole bunch of stuff behind. We can nick whatever we need.”
“Won’t he notice? What if he comes back early?”
“I’ll just tell him Mam’s washing it.” Aidan dismissed these paltry concerns. “Here’s a pair of chinos, get them on you. Where are you going, anyway?”
This was the question Diarmuid had been dreading, for no reason he could name. “Ciaran Power’s parents invited me to a drinks party.”
Aidan went very still. The result was uncanny, like an action film paused at the penultimate moment. “His parents? When did you meet his parents?”
“I stayed for dinner one night after helping Ciaran run lines,” said Diarmuid. “Don’t stare at me like that. It’s not a big deal.”
“It is if it turns out to be some kind of coke-crazed swingers’ party!”
“That’s not very likely, is it?” Diarmuid shook his head. “Honestly, you come up with the daftest ideas sometimes.”
Aidan still hadn’t moved. The last time he’d stayed in one place so long it was because he’d cemented his shoes to the carpet. “And what about Ciaran? What is he to you?”
“What kind of a question is that?” said Diarmuid. “He’s a friend. He is, to me, a friend. Like you are.”
“Oh. Okay.” Slowly, Aidan relaxed. “Just checking.”
“I’m sorry, next time I’ll submit a birth cert and family tree for your perusal,” said Diarmuid. “You have a glittering future ahead of you in the FBI, by the way.”
“I’d prefer the CIA,” and Aidan bounced back to life. “They’re the ones that cover up the alien landings.”
“I thought that was the Men in Black?”
Aidan sent him a pitying glance. “Diarmuid, that movie wasn’t real.”
Diarmuid shrugged slightly. Aidan was off again, and would need very little input from Diarmuid for the rest of the night. A few conversational nudges steered Aidan into the realm of his love-life.
“Marisa is truly the jewel of the Raj,” declared Aidan, striking a dramatic pose.
“Why, is she English?” Diarmuid looked over his shoulder, trying to see what he looked like from behind in Mark’s cream cords and a navy polo shirt.
“What? No. What has that to do with anything? Her nationality is nothing to me. Although I wouldn’t fancy her if she was English.”
“Still haven’t got over Kate Blumfield, have you?”
Aidan scowled. “I have no idea to what you are referring. Did you hit your head hard recently? That would explain a lot. Anyway, as I was saying –“
“It’s getting pretty late,” Diarmuid interrupted hastily. “I have to get home to mind the kids. But you can tell me all about it tomorrow.”
“There’s nothing to tell.” Aidan followed him mournfully to the door. “Can you ask Ciaran to put in a good word for me?”
“Sure, I can ask.” Diarmuid grinned and jumped out into the freezing cold. There was no sense in saying goodbye to Aidan; he never heard it anyway and it would only prolong his departure.
He didn’t delete the message from Ciaran, as was his wont. He received no other communication from him, but went to bed yet puzzling over the two ‘x’s and, if he were to acknowledge it to himself, happy enough to be doing so.
The night was dirty and wet when Diarmuid ran from the nearest bus stop to Ciaran’s house. His efforts at taming his hair into a more civilised style were entirely undone by the sleet-tinged drizzle; the shoulders of Mark’s second-best jacket were speckled with dark drops.
He could hear the tinkle of conversation laid over the muted roar of classical music even through the door. He rang the bell twice, for no one answered the first time. He assumed they couldn’t hear it.
Just as he was raising his hand to ring it a third time, Orla threw open the door. Her eyes were bright with alcohol, her hair loose around her shoulders. She looked like a Pre-Raphelite maiden in a very twenty-first century LBD.
“Diarmuid!” she cried in delight. “Come in, poor boy, you’re drenched to the skin. Ciaran – your friend’s here!”
Orla ushered him inside, and for once Diarmuid was no less keen to obey an order than the one that gave it. Orla fluttered around him – “Do you need a towel? I didn’t realise it was raining! No? How about a jot of whiskey?” Diarmuid paid her little heed. His eyes were scanning the hall for Ciaran.
“Looking for someone?” said a voice from behind him. Diarmuid whirled around, nearly toppling Orla from her heels. Righting herself with the ease of long practice, Orla tripped off to attend to another late arrival. Diarmuid hardly noticed.
Ciaran was dressed in a severe white shirt, with a thin tie hanging open on either side of his collar. The smell of his aftershave hit Diarmuid like a bus, rendering him so stupid he told Ciaran, “You smell nice.”
“Well, I try.” Ciaran was smirking. Diarmuid noticed he was drinking from the neck of an alcopop bottle. “Fancy one?”
Ciaran shook the bottle. “A drink, Diarmuid. Would you like one?”
“Yes, please.” Diarmuid took off his coat. A very few minutes had sufficed to leave him sweltering, what with the numbers of people swarming the house and the tropical heating level.
“Okay, wait here,” said Ciaran. Before Diarmuid could protest Ciaran had insinuated himself between two hugely fat men, and was gone.
Rather disconcerted, and more ill at ease than he’d admit, Diarmuid spied a coat-rack standing near the stairs. He hadn’t seen it before, so he guessed it had been press-ganged into use for the party. He went over to it, and spent as much time as he could hanging his jacket on it.
It was as he was pretending to check his phone for messages that he noticed a girl lurking on the stairs. There was plenty of opportunity for this in the architecture, for the stairs ended on a shallow landing that diverged on to two separate flights leading to the wings of the house. Potted plants abounded. It was behind a large fern that the girl was hiding, every so often popping out as if to check the coast was clear.
She saw Diarmuid looking at her, and frowned before sliding behind the plant once more. Diarmuid had seen enough of her face to note its likeness to Orla’s and Ciaran’s – and also its dissimilarity. This girl’s wing-mirror cheekbones were padded with fat, and she had the sad air of an unwanted puppy.
Feeling a dart of empathy, for she looked as out of place as he felt, Diarmuid glanced up the stairs again. The girl was peering around the fern.
“Is my mother there?” she hissed.
Diarmuid took a quick recce of the hall. Orla was nowhere to be seen, and he thought he heard her voice ringing out from another room.
“No,” he replied, pitching his voice low. “Do you want me to get her?”
“No!” It came out as a small scream. The girl scuttled down the stairs and pressed herself into the alcove behind the coat-rack. Diarmuid was forced to make way for her, as there was not room for both of them and all the coats.
This close, Diarmuid could see the acne scars and the carrot-red hair, which was distinctly coarse. But her face – once relaxed and secure in her new sanctuary – was not unpleasant, and Diarmuid found himself putting out a hand to shake.
“I’m Diarmuid Golden,” he said.
“Rose Power,” she sighed. Diarmuid silently congratulated himself on his discernment. “You must be one of Ciaran’s friends.”
“Well, yes. How did you know?”
“Please, it’s written all over you. Where did he adopt you from?”
“We go to school together. And actually, he didn’t adopt me – he asked me to help him with leaning his lines for the school play.”
“Of course he did. It’s not like he has a photographic memory or anything, or the likelihood of him needing help with learning lines is about as great as me getting picked for America’s Next Top Model.”
Stung, Diarmuid said, “I don’t know what’s up with everyone. First Aidan, now you – is it so unlikely that two people can just be friends with no suspicious reason behind it?”
“Of course not,” said Rose. “Except where my brother’s involved. Diarmuid – that’s right, isn’t it? – my brother is too bright for his own good. Nothing has ever been a struggle for him, unlike me. He likes messing with people’s minds, and you, my friend, are currently top of his agenda.”
“What’s he going to do, fluff his lines just to spite me?” scoffed Diarmuid. “And if what you say is true, which I sincerely doubt, who’s to say he’s after me?”
“Why so defensive?” Rose smiled, a faint echo of the beauty of her mother’s and brother’s. “I fear the lady doth protest too much.”
“Huh, to think I felt sorry for you before because you were alone at your own party,” said Diarmuid. “I’m beginning to get why that is, now.”
“This isn’t my party, make no mistake about that. This is a chance for my parents to show off their wonderful lives, their wonderful home and their wonderful son. They’ve always made it clear I don’t make that list. Once I finish college I won’t sully their wonderfulness any longer.”
Real bitterness and hurt laced Rose’s words, and Diarmuid relaxed his guard slightly. “Ciaran said you’re doing law at Trinity – that’s pretty wonderful, isn’t it?”
“No, Diarmuid. Not wonderful enough,” said Rose. “But I am sorry to be such a misery-guts. I’m not usually like this, but being around my family always gets my back up.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re so sure Ciaran’s up to something.”
“Eighteen years of evidence, perhaps? Not to mention that you brought it up again already – rather too keen for a disinterested party.”
“I just don’t think it’s fair – on him,” said Diarmuid, blushing. “Or on me, because you’re making me sound like a fool.”
“You’re not a fool now,” said Rose, “but spend much longer with Ciaran, and you soon will be.”
At that moment Diarmuid heard Ciaran’s low, husky laugh. His stomach tightened, and his gaze travelled unwittingly to the door where Ciaran was chatting to a distinguished older man.
“Look at you,” said Rose. “You’re like a hound with a scent. Perhaps it’s already too late.”
“I can take care of myself,” said Diarmuid.
“I hope so.” All the levity dropped from Rose’s face. “You seem like a nice kid. Let me give you one piece of advice: don’t let Ciaran talk you into doing anything you don’t want to do. He’s very good at that, so good you won’t realise until after it’s happened. Just be on your guard.”
“I will,” promised Diarmuid, half his mind already at Ciaran’s side and willing him to look over. At length he did, and signalled Diarmuid to come down to him. Diarmuid turned to say goodbye to Rose, but she was already gone.
“I saw you talking to my sister.” Ciaran handed Diarmuid an icy bottle, which Diarmuid blamed for the shivers coursing through his body. “Some bore, isn’t she?”
“Oh, she’s all right.” Diarmuid flicked his eyes back to the coat-stand, but Rose was nowhere to be seen.
“Generous to a fault,” said Ciaran, “literally. Go on, get that down you. I happen to know where my mother’s hidden the snacks for later.”
Diarmuid hovered in the kitchen, picking over the remains of a cheese plate. Ciaran had gone off again, talking to yet more family friends and business acquaintances of his parents. He’d barely spent half an hour with Diarmuid the whole night, and had shown no compunction about abandoning him with people he didn’t know – or indeed, no people at all. In vain Diarmuid had searched for Rose, who was nowhere to be seen. With the excuse of visiting the bathroom, Diarmuid had gone upstairs; but the room with the ‘Rose’ name-plaque was firmly locked, and the faint chords of Pearl Jam dribbled through the door.
Diarmuid checked his watch again. Eleven-thirty. The party was only beginning to wind down, but Diarmuid had already missed the last bus. He’d been on the point of leaving at eleven, having been on his tod for over an hour, when Ciaran materialised again and protested his leaving so vehemently that Diarmuid consented to stay a bit longer. As soon as the minute hand hit twenty past Ciaran spotted someone he ‘had to say Hi to’ and Diarmuid hadn’t seen him since.
He was now seriously starting to worry about getting home. His father’s mate was a taxi driver who could sometimes be prevailed upon to help out in these situations, but he’d be up to his eyes on the night before Christmas Eve. Diarmuid’s only option was to call a hackney and pay for it himself, and he knew he had exactly five euro in his wallet. This meant asking Ciaran for a loan – if he deigned to turn up again, that was.
Rose’s warning and Aidan’s worry circled Diarmuid’s brain like vultures over a dead carcass, tormenting him into frustration-fuelled anger. By the time Ciaran returned to the kitchen, it was midnight, Diarmuid had eaten all the cheese, and was just about ready to eat Ciaran.
“I need to borrow a fiver,” he said curtly. “Pay you back soon as.”
“Steady on,” laughed Ciaran, weaving over to him. Every time Diarmuid had seen him he’d had a different bottle in his hand. He was clearly very drunk. “What’s the rush?”
“I have to get home.” Diarmuid turned his head away as Ciaran fell over a stool, with his hand outstretched placatingly.
“You have a curfew or something?”
“No, I just want to go home!” Diarmuid heard his voice stretch with resentful fury. He sounded like a cross child.
“All right, don’t cry about it,” said Ciaran. “I’ll drive you home.”
“You can’t possibly, you’re pissed off your skull,” said Diarmuid. “Just lend me a fiver and I’ll get a taxi.”
“Okay, come up to my room and I’ll give it to you.” Ciaran held out his hand again. “Come on, sourpuss.”
Diarmuid stalked past him, ignoring the hand that Ciaran probably wanted him to take to keep his balance. He heard Ciaran chortle behind him as they went up the stairs, which only served to heighten Diarmuid’s indignation.
He sat stiffly on the sofa as Ciaran rummaged through a drawer. Below, the sounds of the party raged on unabated.
“Ha, knew I had some dosh here somewhere!” Ciaran triumphantly waved aloft a twenty euro note.
“That’s far too much!”
“Clearly you’ve never taken a taxi in this town. You’d sell your liver for less.”
“Don’t you have anything smaller?”
“No.” Ciaran smiled insolently.
“Fine.” Diarmuid couldn’t imagine how he’d repay him, but Ciaran was obviously in no mood to barter. “I’ll be going then.”
“Hang on a sec, I want to give you your present.”
“Have you so soon forgotten the day on which our dear Saviour was born? A Christmas present, you doofus.”
“I didn’t get you one.” In his current frame of mind, Diarmuid wasn’t even sorry.
“That’s okay. It’s more a thank-you present anyway – for your help with the play and all that.”
Diarmuid squinted at him. Ciaran’s tie was long since vanished, his shirt open halfway to his belly-button. His hair was in disarray and his cheeks were flushed – he was totally gorgeous.
Diarmuid’s heart plummeted as he realised what he’d just thought. Distantly, he said, “You didn’t need to.”
“Good. I so hate doing things I need to – I much prefer doing things I want to.” Ciaran was sending him that brilliant, teasing smile, but Diarmuid was in too much shock to be moved by it.
Ciaran delved into his drawer once more and retrieved a package wrapped in rich red paper. “You can open it now – in fact, please open it now; I want to know what you think.”
“Okay,” said Diarmuid, barely hearing his own voice over the rushing in his ears. He undid the paper carefully, thinking he could save it for his own presents. Ciaran had used twice as much as he needed.
Inside he discovered a moss-green cashmere scarf tied in a bow around a pair of leather gloves and a slim bottle of Gaultier².
“That’s what I wear,” said Ciaran into the heavy silence. “I just had the scarf and gloves first, because you don’t seem to have any, then you said you liked the aftershave and I had a new bottle of it and ... you’re not saying anything.”
“Thank you,” said Diarmuid mechanically. “I’d better be going.”
“Diarmuid, is there something I should know? You’ve been odd with me all evening.”
In an instant, anger smashed through the floodgates of Diarmuid’s shock. He opened his mouth to upbraid Ciaran, but was foiled by Orla opening the door.
“Just checking on you boys,” she said, her voice slurred. “You’re very welcome to stay the night, Diarmuid; I can’t imagine that you’d get a taxi. You’ll pull out the sofa bed for him, Ciaran?”
“I wouldn’t –“ Diarmuid began, but she had already closed the door.
He looked up to find Ciaran towering over him, his eyes hooded but his gaze steady on Diarmuid’s face. “Well?” he said. “Are you going to allow me to defend myself?”
“You left me alone half the fucking night,” mumbled Diarmuid, realising even as he said it what a pathetic complaint it was. “Why’d you ask me over if ...” He couldn’t bear to finish the sentence.
“Diarmuid. Diarmuid!” Ciaran’s fingers found his chin and tilted it upwards. “This wasn’t just a party for my parents, it was a social networking occasion. They need me to help them. I couldn’t just run off and play with you ... no matter how much I wanted to.”
Diarmuid jerked his head away, fancying he’d only imagined the way Ciaran’s hand had turned suddenly caressing. “Rose said –"
“Oh, Rose.” Ciaran’s fingers were stroking the shell of Diarmuid’s ear now. There was no way the gesture could be construed as merely friendly, although it definitely fell under ‘drunken.’ “Rose still holds a grudge against me for breaking her Barbie Beach House when I was five. Everything she says is coloured by sibling rivalry. Don’t tell me you took it to heart. Diarmuid?” The fingers crept under his chin again. “You did, didn’t you? Rose is always prophesying doom and gloom on all my friends. Nothing gives her greater pleasure; she’s like the Oracle of Delphi only less amusing and kind.”
“I – I don’t –" Diarmuid batted Ciaran’s hand away and stood up. “I have to go.”
“But you want to stay, don’t you?” Ciaran’s breath was hot on the back of his neck. “You want to thank me for my present, and sleep on my sofa, and let me make you breakfast in the morning ... the most fantastic pancakes you’ll see this side of Starbucks.”
“That sounds like a chat-up line.”
“Maybe because it is?” Ciaran put one hand on Diarmuid’s waist. “I like you, Diarmuid. I want you to stay the night. But if you’re afraid I’ll impugn your manly virtue, by all means leave.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” complained Diarmuid, relaxing a little against Ciaran. His arms immediately came up to trap Diarmuid in their embrace – but Diarmuid was by the second growing less eager to depart.
“It means ... you’ve got to stop looking at me the way you do, or I won’t be held responsible for what happens.”
“What way do I look at you?” asked Diarmuid, confused.
“Under your lashes, like you don’t want to but you just can’t help it.” Something wet touched the skin under Diarmuid’s ear, and he jumped. He realised it was Ciaran’s tongue.
Ciaran was kissing his ear, tongue bathing it in delicate little licks. Diarmuid shuddered, helpless with desire.
“You’d better tell me quick,” whispered Ciaran, “sofa or bed?”
“What?” The word came out as a strangled moan.
“Do you want,” said Ciaran, his hand slipping lower as he traced circles on to Diarmuid’s belly, “me to make up the sofa bed for you or do you want to,” lower, “sleep,” lower, “in my bed?” And he squeezed, once, gently.
Diarmuid let out a shaky sigh. He couldn’t find the words to speak, so he took Ciaran’s hand in his, revelling in the strange feel of someone else's palm against his own –
And lead him to the bed.
In the morning Diarmuid awoke with a stale taste in his mouth, an army of jackhammers in his head, and alone.
As he shifted across the crumpled bedclothes to switch on the light, he realised with a flare of embarrassment that he was completely naked. He could see Mark’s chinos inside-out beside the bed, and what looked liked his boxers hanging off a loudspeaker. There was a peculiar smell in the air and a patch of crusted sheet under his hip, which meant that he definitely hadn’t dreamed everything about last night.
The door swung open, and Diarmuid cowered. He had about five seconds to bolt for the bathroom or pretend to be asleep, but his brain wasn’t up to making complicated rational decisions like that.
“Only me,” said Ciaran, looking disgustingly perky. “Everyone else is dead to the world, don’t worry.” He quirked an approving eyebrow at everything Diarmuid was failing miserably to conceal. “I see you’re not.”
“Oh god.” Diarmuid had never been so embarrassed in his life, not even after he and Aidan had been caught trying to fill the showerheads in the girls’ locker room with blue dye. He grabbed two handfuls of blanket and clutched them to his chest.
Ciaran had the jump on him, as usual. He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, not looking the least bit hung-over, and fully dressed in grey tracksuit pants and a hoodie. Diarmuid checked his watch, the only item still remaining on his body. It was eight-thirty: not exactly late. Not four hours ago Ciaran had still been up – in all senses of the word. How could he possibly look so refreshed?
Ciaran placed a tray on his desk, and Diarmuid’s stomach growled. “Coffee, French toast, some very kinky hors d’oeurves and a muffin. Sorry about the lack of pancakes – I couldn’t find any flour in the entire kitchen.”
“That’s okay,” said Diarmuid. Ciaran handed him some toast and he bit in eagerly, realising too late that he’d also released his hold on the blanket. Ciaran was staring – not in an ‘oh my god what is that?’ way, but rather in an ‘I know what I want for my breakfast’ way.
Ciaran crawled into the bed with Diarmuid, accidentally brushing his leg with icy toes. Having Ciaran watch him eat was enough to make Diarmuid fumble, but when Ciaran began slowly running his tongue along Diarmuid’s collarbone he lost his appetite entirely.
Tossing the toast approximately towards the desk, Diarmuid slid down so that his mouth was level with Ciaran’s and hesitantly kissed him. Ciaran didn’t force it; he lay with his head propped up on one hand as Diarmuid grew bolder, letting his tongue flick across Ciaran’s lower lip.
“You’re so cute,” mumbled Ciaran, as Diarmuid drew back, a little shocked by his own daring.
“Yeah, cute, all shy and scared.” Ciaran traced Diarmuid’s face with his finger. “And last night you were shameless, don’t you remember? Ordering me to go down on you ...”
Diarmuid blushed. He had been pretty drunk, on nerves as well as alcohol. The night was one long ecstatic blur. “I don’t remember that.”
“I do.” Ciaran’s dark eyes brimmed with laughter and – something else. “It was incredibly hot.” His hand was stroking Diarmuid’s bare hip now. “I don’t suppose you ... no ...”
“What?” Ciaran moved his hand away, and Diarmuid’s skin felt cold.
“You could ... return the favour? No, it’s too much to ask.” Ciaran sat up. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Wait.” Diarmuid pushed him back down. “Do you mean you want me to ...” He couldn’t say it. Ciaran looked up at him, all the laughter now replaced by searing lust.
“Suck my cock, Diarmuid.” It wasn’t an answer; it was a command. “I want your pretty mouth around my dick so bad.”
Even as the thought disgusted him, the words – spoken in a voice aching with longing – thrilled him. And it was only fair; Ciaran had done it to him.
“I guess – okay.” He hooked his fingers around the waistband of Ciaran’s tracksuit pants, which were already strained by his burgeoning erection. Diarmuid felt an iron fist of fear close around his throat.
“Hurry,” urged Ciaran, lifting his hips. “I’ve been wanting you for so long.”
Afterwards Diarmuid was surprised to find it was the tears that choked him more than anything else. He buried his face in a pillow. Eventually Ciaran’s hands found their way to the taut curve of his back.
“That was so good,” he whispered in Diarmuid’s ear. “Your turn?”
Diarmuid violently shook his head.
“All right.” Ciaran dropped a kiss on his shoulder. “I’m gonna say hi to my parents. Take a shower if you want.”
Diarmuid did. He brushed his teeth until his gums bled, but he could still taste it – feel it – smell it everywhere.
It was New Year’s Eve, and opening night.
In the intervening time Diarmuid had only seen Ciaran once, for one last ‘rehearsal.’ Diarmuid still felt an uncomfortable twist in his stomach whenever he thought about it. Ciaran’s hands had been sure and supple on his skin, but he couldn’t get the better of a distinctly plundered feeling.
He hadn’t been able to convince his parents to come to the play, not even to see his sets. His mother had vaguely promised to ‘look in during the week.’ Diarmuid was disappointed rather than surprised. His parents’ New Year routine was set and unvarying: hours at the local pub, with the chicken goujons and cocktail sausages distributed at midnight being the sum and sole highlight of the affair.
Diarmuid was spraying on a last squirt of Gaultier² in the bathroom when Siobhan barged in, without so much as a by-your-leave. She was dressed in a denim miniskirt over hot-pink leggings, with matching pumps and a camisole top that left nothing that should have been to the imagination. Diarmuid thought it was considerably OTT for a night in minding three little girls, and said as much.
“Duh, that’s because I’m not,” she said, elbowing him aside to apply lipgloss to a mouth already stickily glazed.
“I’m going out tonight.” Diarmuid could barely conceal his alarm. “It’s the play’s opening night.”
“You should have thought of that the night before Christmas. Mam ended up working late and Dad was out, so I’d to mind the kids. Kev was not very pleased that I stood him up.”
“You’re not serious!”
“Deadly.” Siobhan capped her lipgloss with an ominous snap and darted out of the bathroom. “Happy New Year!”
Diarmuid followed her, intended to thrash the whole matter out with his parents. The front door slammed before he’d made it down the stairs. In mounting horror he called for his parents, but only Aoife appeared.
“Where’s Mam and Dad?” he shouted.
Aoife unplugged her thumb from her mouth. The only way to tell the twins apart was by their teeth. “They left ages ago. Dad said he’s got his mobile if there’s any trouble.”
Diarmuid sprinted back upstairs for his phone, intending to warn Aidan and Ciaran that he’d be late before ringing his father. He wrote a simple ‘Runnin l8, cu later’ to Aidan, but the screen threw up a ‘Message Unable to Send’ banner. Cursing, Diarmuid punched in *100#, only to be informed that he possessed 0.10 euro credit.
Utterly defeated, he went downstairs with a heavy heart, made only heavier by watching all three Home Alones in succession.
Diarmuid lay slumped in front of the TV, on which an old Clint Eastwood western was playing. One by one the girls had dropped off and he’d carried them to bed. Too dispirited to retire himself, he stared unseeingly at the screen as the house chilled around him.
At two am, the doorbell rang. Assuming it to be pranksters, Diarmuid didn’t stir until his phone began to buzz as well.
He blearily opened the door to Aidan’s apple-cheeked face. He was dancing on the spot. “Let me in, let me in! I’m half murdered with the cold. My extremities shall shortly drop off. You’ll be finding bits of my fingers strewn across the garden when the place thaws.”
Diarmuid held the door open and Aidan wriggled inside. “Why the hell didn’t you come? Everyone was asking for you.”
“Siobhan decided she was going out, and told me too late to do anything about it. Then I realised I had no credit.”
“How brutal,” said Aidan. “Jesus, this place is like a tomb. I’d have been better off outside, it’s marginally warmer.”
“The heating’s gone off.”
“For the last century, it feels like.” Aidan paused. “Diarmuid, don’t take this the wrong way, but you looked like death warmed over. The play is on every night this week, you haven’t missed much – except a stellar performance from yours truly, of course.”
“I guess.” Diarmuid’s phone was full of messages – five from Aidan, a couple from the other set painters, even a missed call from Mrs McCarthy – but nothing from Ciaran.
“Sit down,” commanded Aidan. Diarmuid obeyed automatically and Aidan smothered him with a blanket. “I’ll make tea.”
“I don’t want tea.”
“You’re getting tea, so shut up and act grateful!”
Diarmuid closed his mouth and tried to look suitably appreciative. It was hard, what with the way his mouth kept wanting to slide off his face.
Aidan returned with two mugs of tea swimming in sugar. Diarmuid could feel plaque building after just one sip, and tactfully set the mug aside.
“You can get cross again if you want,” said Aidan, after snorkelling down four cavities’ worth of sugar with tea, “but ... does this mood have anything to do with Ciaran?”
Diarmuid looked at his hands.
“It does, doesn’t it? Oh, shit.”
“It’s not what you think,” mumbled Diarmuid.
“Really, it’s not? Why don’t I tell you what I think? Then you can try to tell me I’m wrong.”
“All right,” said Diarmuid. He didn’t feel he had much of a choice in the matter; Aidan had on his determined face. Greater men than Diarmuid had quailed before it, particularly when it was accompanied by some sort of gardening implement.
“This is what I think: I think he seduced you. I think he got you to pay attention to him and flirted like crazy with you. I think he got you drunk and I think he convinced you to have sex with him.” Aidan plinked his nail against his mug, staring down into it. “Anything sounding familiar?”
Diarmuid couldn’t speak. He nodded.
“Before you ask, I haven’t been hiding my psychic talent. They’re not about to ask me to write scripts for CSI either. This was not what you’d call an educated guess.”
“A rumour?” suggested – hoped – Diarmuid. Aidan shook his head. “Then – how?”
Aidan’s voice was barely a whisper. “Because he did all that to me.”
Diarmuid didn’t realise he’d jumped to his feet until he felt warm tea soaking his socks.
“The –” Aidan cleared his throat “– the summer before second year. Remember that school tour to France you couldn’t aff – you couldn’t go on? Well, yeah. The third years came too, Ciaran was one of them and we ... yeah.”
“Oh my God.”
“And I wasn’t the only one,” said Aidan. “I went to visit my cousins in Kerry last summer. Ciaran goes to Irish college in Dingle every year, and every year he pulls the same trick. He did it to one of my cousin’s friends –”
“I can’t believe this, Rose was right!”
“Who’s Rose?” asked Aidan, confused.
Diarmuid ignored the question. “But why? What’s in it for him? And more importantly, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I tried!” shouted Aidan. “But I was too mortified to tell you when it happened, never mind now. I’m not gay, you know! I like girls, I fancy girls, I want to fuck girls. I don’t want to be fucked by –”
“You – he –”
“Aidan.” Diarmuid’s hands made frantic shapes in the air. “I’m so sorry.”
Aidan smiled weakly. “So was I, especially the morning after. Everyone thought I’d spontaneously got rickets.”
In helpless curiosity, Diarmuid asked, “What did you tell them?”
“Oh, that I’d pulled a hamstring falling off my trunk.” Aidan shrugged. “It happened on the last night in Paris, and of course Ciaran had nothing to do with me after that, so no one suspected.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, he still hasn’t ...” Aidan bit his lip. “Once he gets what he wants he’s gone, Diarmuid. Total loss of contact, man. I reckon that’s half the reason he does it. You’d never get away with treating a girl like that.”
“But we haven’t – you know.” Diarmuid blushed.
“You will,” said Aidan, “or you’ll say no, in which case the end result is the same.”
“I can’t believe this,” repeated Diarmuid. “I feel so used.”
“I should have taken better care of you,” lamented Aidan. “Most of the time you hardly know you’re born. Ciaran’d have the trousers off you before you thought to ask why.”
“I’m not quite that bad,” said Diarmuid. “So, what do I do now?”
“It doesn’t really matter. He’ll be gone from your life soon. He’s not interested in you, or going out with you, or anything like that.”
Diarmuid peered into his friend’s face. “Would you have liked that?”
“Well ... maybe a little, at the time. He’s so ... yeah, okay, I fancied him. It was one of those thingies, a ‘phase.’ But I’m not really into boys. It was just him.”
“I wasn’t into boys either.”
“You weren’t into anyone, you great asexual freak.” Aidan heaved a gusty sigh. “This is not how I’d envisioned spending New Year’s.”
“Marisa didn’t put out?”
“The girl hasn’t realised I exist.” Aidan sounded momentarily disheartened, and almost entirely as if the preceding conversation had never happened. “But never fear! I have a plan ...”
Ciaran was cool to Diarmuid at the next night’s show, but it was of no significance because Diarmuid was glacial towards him.
Diarmuid sat in the front row with Dervla, Sorcha and Aoife, and willed himself not to fell the old curious ache in his chest whenever Ciaran appeared.
Afterwards, he was invited backstage. He extorted his sisters not to stir further than four feet from the refreshments table and left them gobbling down his share. Quite a few people were pleased to see him, and even more were pleased with his sincere compliments on their performances.
Aidan rolled his eyes expressively towards first Ciaran and then Marisa before haring off in search of a ham sandwich. Marisa caught Diarmuid smiling in her direction and beckoned him over. He checked first to see who else she might be signing for, then made his way over.
“Hi, Diarmuid.” Marisa smiled. She really was enchantingly pretty, in spite of the distinct odour of onions on her breath. “How’d you like the play? We missed you last night.”
“I had to babysit my sisters,” said Diarmuid. “The play’s great. It looked great. You were great, too.”
“So it was really great, then?”
“Yeah.” Diarmuid smiled in relief.
“I love kids,” Marisa informed him, apropos of nothing.
“That will ... come in handy,” said Diarmuid.
“Listen, I wanted to ask you what you thought of the frogs,” said Marisa. She was twiddling with her fringe.
“Yeah. You know, the origami frogs? From your ‘secret admirer?’ That was me.”
“Oh, the frogs. You made the frogs? But they’re really great!”
“As are many things, it would appear,” said Marisa. “Thanks. I’ve been doing origami for years now, but I’m best at frogs.”
“But why have you been giving them to me?” asked Diarmuid.
“Oh, I – I wanted to ask – that is, would you like to go out with me?”
Diarmuid stayed in shocked silence a little too long.
“Never mind, forget it,” mumbled Marisa, sporting a blush Diarmuid didn’t think even he could top.
“No! It’s not that I’m not interested, it’s just – well, you see, my friend fancies you.”
“Oh yeah, whatever.”
“Seriously – it’s Aidan. I can’t just go behind his back. Let me talk to him first, please?”
“All right.” Mollified, Marisa took a pink phone out of her pocket. “I’ll give you my number. Call me, okay?”
Slightly dazed, Diarmuid wandered back to the refreshments table in search of his sisters. He found Ciaran holding court among them, doling out sandwiches like king’s largesse. Diarmuid’s blood boiled, for more than one reason.
“Derv! Aoife! Sorcha! Time to go.”
“But I’m not finished yet,” protested Dervla, turning adoring eyes on Ciaran. At twelve, she was just starting to get crushes that were as fierily intense and short-lived as fireworks. Clearly her latest had been bestowed upon Ciaran.
“Mam wants us back by nine,” said Diarmuid crisply. It was a blatant lie, but he couldn’t bear to be around Ciaran one second longer, much less make small talk with him.
Ciaran caught up as Diarmuid herded his sisters towards the exit. He smiled with such charm that Diarmuid’s knees turned to water under him. “Any chance you’ll be excused from babysitting duty any time soon?”
“None at all,” snapped Diarmuid. He stalked away, not even saying goodbye.
Diarmuid and Aidan both emerged stretching and yawning from their second-to-last summer exam. It had been Geography, and a discussion of Norway’s main exports had formed the main essay question. Diarmuid didn’t know whether to be amused or afflicted by the coincidence. It was the only answer he knew well, having weaved so many fruitless daydreams of explaining it to Ciaran. Why Ciaran would be remotely interested he didn’t know, but his mind slotted Ciaran into every possible situation. Diarmuid would have been impressed by his own ingenuity if he hadn’t been equally annoyed by it.
“Oh, look,” said Aidan, who’d edited all the town names on his OS map to read as swear words, “afters tickets for the debs are on sale tomorrow.”
“And we care why?” Diarmuid stared at the notice board as if it would provide him with a clue.
Aidan performed a two-step shuffle. “You don’t, but I do. Perhaps there’s a certain lady who might care to accompany me there.”
“Still think you can wear her down with your persistence?” said Diarmuid. “I’m not sure it works that way.”
“I’m not sure either,” said Aidan with unaccustomed seriousness. “But it’s the only way I have.”
“Maybe I could come too, and ask that girl who did costumes for the play – Moira?”
“Mary, but why would you do that?”
“Marisa might be more inclined to come if people she knows are going,” said Diarmuid. “Otherwise she’d be stuck with a bunch of sixth years.”
“And me,” protested Aidan.
“Exactly,” said Diarmuid.
“Diarmuid, I don’t know ... after all, she still fancies you a bit. She might consider it a great opportunity to get off with you, not me.”
“Don’t worry about it – just be your fabulous self and you’ll turn her to putty.”
“That hasn’t really worked that well so far.”
“It might when alcohol is added to the equation.”
“I think you’ve really hit on something there!” Aidan was much struck. Diarmuid hid a smile and the fact that Marisa possessed some choice information that forestalled any efforts on her part to become involved with him. The only way to let her down gently had seemed to be to tell the truth: that Aidan was mad about her, and that Diarmuid was (most likely, from all recent evidence) gay, or at least confused.
The latter part of Diarmuid’s confidence hadn’t served to make her better disposed towards the former, but it had with alacrity ended her interest in him. Aidan was free to pursue her till the end of time, had he but known it. Marisa regarded them both as friends of a sort – Diarmuid moreso; once she was reconciled to the loss of her hopes she was beguiled by the idea of having a gay, albeit secretly so, friend. Aidan amused her with his antics and grandiose statements, but Diarmuid couldn’t detect any symptoms of attraction in her behaviour towards him. Still, there was time yet.
“I’d better go,” said Aidan. “I promised Marisa I’d lend her my History notes tonight.”
“Don’t you need them to study?”
“God no. What do you take me for? Hey, you don’t happen to have any History notes I could give her, do you?”
“I don’t take History.”
“Oh well. I’ll scrounge them up from somewhere.” Aidan marched off whistling, with spirits as ever undaunted.
Diarmuid watched him go with a faint smile, and turned back to the debs notice. He thought he recognised Ciaran’s hand in the design of the flyer. Afters tickets were fifteen euro each; thirty for Diarmuid, if he carried out his benevolent plan. He hated to break into his college savings, but it was the least he could do for both his friends.
His thoughts were still fixed so on Ciaran, as he studied the drawing of a couple waltzing, that he thought he imagined a soft voice saying, “Hey, Golden.” He could not, however, have imagined the distinct tang of Gaultier² in the air.
Diarmuid stiffened, but forbore to say anything. Ciaran, coming to stand beside and brush shoulders with him, didn’t seem to expect a reply.
“Not my best work, I admit,” he said. Diarmuid felt a pang of triumph that he tried his best to quash. “I suppose I’ll have to see to getting a date for the debs soon.”
Diarmuid echoed Aidan. “I’m sure you’ll scrounge one up from somewhere.”
“I’m sure I will too.” Ciaran leaned back slightly. “You’ve cut your hair.”
“Yeah.” Diarmuid had recently got it cropped to a silky cap that barely reached his ears. More of his college money down the drain, but he’d been assured of a summer job in the art supply shop Miss Starr had recommended him for, and he intended to save every bit of his wages for university fees.
“You have enough talent to try for colleges in England, if you apply yourself,” Miss Starr had said. “A good, well-rounded portfolio is essential. That’s where Ciaran Power fell down – great skill, but too little effort. The effort is worth an awful lot to the admissions panel.”
“It suits you,” said Ciaran. His smile kept flashing on and off, shaky at the corners, as clear an indication of uncertainty as Diarmuid had ever seen. “Chester misses you.”
“He’ll get over it,” said Diarmuid, without rancour. Six months had whetted the edge from his anger, and allowed regret to seep in. Not enough regret to make him wish he’d acted differently, but enough for him to find shaking Ciaran from his head extremely difficult.
“Yeah.” Ciaran reached out to smooth down a corner of the flyer, and Diarmuid was momentarily enthralled by his five fingernails: one on each finger, neat and slender and perfect like the rest of him. “You could ... come over, some time. To see Chester.”
Diarmuid let a moment pass before he answered, a moment in which he considered agreeing and forgot how to breathe. “No. No, I don’t think so.”
“Fair enough. You can’t blame a guy for trying,” said Ciaran. He sounded more irritated than hurt, but Diarmuid could still see the shakiness at the corners of his mouth.
“No,” said Diarmuid thoughtfully, “you can’t.”
He left Ciaran standing there and went to collect his bag from his locker. Occupying pride of place among the curling bread was a stack of multi-coloured origami paper. It had been damaged by transit, so the shop let Diarmuid have it for free.
He was getting rather good at cats.