Falling in love for the first time means the great big rush of emotions, the sweet torture of waiting between dates, hopes and dreams and insecurities and the feeling that no one has ever felt like that before - or, as the song "Love is all around" (Wet Wet Wet) goes:
I feel it in my fingers,
I feel it in my toes
Love is all around me
And so the feeling grows
It's written on the wind
It's everywhere I go
So if you really love me
Come on and let it show
This story directly follows upon "Stormy Sunday".
We sat like this for a while, hands entwined, heads not quite touching but very close, not speaking, just being there, in each other's company. An unknown but utterly pleasant warm feeling spread inside me, very different from the embarrassing sudden heat that had shot through me on the beach. A calm kind of contentment I had never experienced before, a wonderful innocent intimacy.
When Eliza suddenly drew back her hand, I was baffled for a moment, thinking I'd done something wrong unconsciously or she had become bored after all. I gave her a questioning look, and she whispered, "I think your grandparents are coming back. I thought I'd heard the key in the door."
I had been much too engrossed with her to notice, but she was right. Grandpa's heavy footsteps were approaching, Grandma's lighter ones not far behind.
As the kitchen door opened, I took a deep breath, not sure how they were going to take Eliza's unanticipated presence.
I should have known them well enough not to worry. They weren't of the puritan, moralizing kind. Still I felt it was appropriate to explain the situation before any questions could be asked.
I jumped up from my chair to greet them at the door, blocking Eliza from their line of vision for the moment. It didn't take Grandpa more than a second to see right through me, and he tried to catch a glimpse of what I sought to shield from view.
"Um, we've got a guest", I announced. "This is Eliza. She's staying with her aunt in the village for a few weeks. I met her on the beach, and then this storm broke loose and she couldn't have made it to her aunt's in time, so I offered her to wait here until the weather had calmed down."
I knew I had been speaking far too hastily to sound remotely normal, and Grandpa's blue eyes twinkled knowingly before he walked over to Eliza who sat at the table rigidly, not sure of what to expect.
"So the lad saved you from getting soaked?" he boomed good-naturedly. "That's our Mick, ever the gentleman. Well, who wouldn't be around such a pretty young lady."
I blushed while Eliza gracefully thanked Grandpa for the compliment.
Grandma hurried to shake Eliza's hand and shower her with questions. Had we made it to the house before the rain set in, had she got wet, did she feel cold, did she want to borrow a cardigan to wear over her thin dress?
As soon as she had established that Eliza had not suffered any damage or inconvenience in the storm, she went on to ask about her aunt. "Why, you're Ruth Wilson's little niece?" she exclaimed in delight. "You may not have any memory of it, but I remember very well when you and your parents came up here for Ruth and Luke's wedding. Actually, you and Mick and some of the other kids were playing together in the garden after lunch. You were such a sweet little thing in your pink dress and matching bow in your hair, Eliza, and Mick was cute as a button in his little white shirt and bow tie and his lovely curls."
"Oh, Grandma", I groaned. I didn't want her to get started in front of Eliza on how charming I had been as a three-year-old! I did have a vivid memory of that wedding, and I hoped Grandma wouldn't …
"Oh, and wasn't that when you were sick all over your mom's good dress after stuffing yourself with cake and whipped cream you'd been secretly nicking from the cake buffet?"
"Grandma! Please!" Mortified, I wished for the floor to open and swallow me. I didn't even want to guess what Eliza was thinking of me and my family. Much as I loved Grandma – her penchant for telling oh-so-cute childhood stories to friends and virtual strangers alike could be a real pain in the neck sometimes!
In fact, Eliza laughed along with Grandma until tears were streaming down her cheeks.
I was relieved but also a bit annoyed because it felt like she was laughing at my current embarrassed uneasiness as much as at my past misfortune. I pulled myself together nevertheless because this certainly wasn't the moment to get huffy.
I looked to Grandpa for help, but he was grinning, too. So I gave a somewhat forced laugh and was glad when Eliza changed the subject and asked what time it was. "Auntie Ruth must be wondering where I've gone off to. I guess I should go home now that the rain has stopped."
"Yes, better do that, Eliza. We don't want Ruth to get too worried!"
"Right, Mrs. Walsh. Thank you for your hospitality. And thanks for inviting me in, Mick."
I nodded and smiled. "My pleasure", I said a little stiffly, debating with myself whether it was OK to suggest that we meet again.
"Feel free to pop in at any time, Eliza. I'd be glad to have you over again soon", Grandma said. "And give my best wishes to Ruth. Here's a jar of strawberry jam for her. Tell her to come and pick up some more if she wants to. We won't be able to eat it all anyway. Oh, and do put on that cardigan of mine. It's rather fresh outside after the storm."
Eliza wrapped the cardigan around her shoulders obediently.
"Do drop by again, Miss Eliza", Grandpa said with a conspiratorial wink. "Best do it on Sunday when Mick and me won't be at work. Maybe you and Mick can go for a nice walk and then have a cup of tea with us old folks."
Eliza beamed at him. "I'd love that, Mr. Walsh! Wouldn't you too, Mick?"
"Oh, of course, yes, I would", I stammered, feeling stupid. I wanted to add "Very much so", but refrained from saying it in front of my grandparents.
"Fine, then! See you next Sunday, fisherman!"
She whirled out the door with a fluttering little wave of her hand, and I felt at once elated by the prospect of seeing her again and weighed down by the prospect of having to wait for a full week.
The following days were sweet torture to me. I knew every minute would bring me closer to seeing her again, but time, that fickle thing that had moved much too fast on the beach with Eliza, appeared to have slowed down to a maddening snail's pace now that I was back in my daily routine on the boat, getting up at dawn and returning home late, bone tired.
Still it was good to have such a load of work to do. At least it kept my hands busy while my mind was elsewhere.
All the birds seemed to chirp Eliza's name, the seagulls' cries seemed to sing her praise. My heart was overflowing. I felt like shouting my joy from the rooftops. This tingling warmth had settled in my belly, ready to stay. And although I was hungry when I came home after a long day's work, but I found I couldn't eat as much as usual.
I went about my work with a permanent smile, whistling little tunes and using every chance I got to stare dreamily into the distance for a moment. Dreaming of her fine brown hair, her sweet fair-skinned face, her gracious movements, and yes, also of the softly curving mounds of her breasts that had stretched the grey fabric of her dress so enticingly.
The other fishermen were quick to realize what was going on. "Hey, dreamer, what's her name?" inquired Alfred, a middle-aged father of three who liked to tease me. It was the question he always asked when I appeared distracted, and I always replied, "Whose name? There's no 'her'."
This time, my answer was different and came without a second of hesitation. "Eliza!" I said softly, and my smile broadened involuntarily.
Everyone laughed, the companionable laughter that follows good-natured banter. I let them laugh and kept the smile on my face. I knew most of them were married and the others had girlfriends, but I was certain not a single one of them had been so much in love as I was now, had felt it so deeply.
Twice, Grandma told us in the evenings that Eliza had dropped by during the day to help her in the garden and to chat a little. They seemed to get along like a house on fire, and after her second visit, Grandma gave me a sealed little note from her. It said "Looking forward so much to our walk on Sunday. Love, E." in a boldly curved handwriting. Below, she had drawn an exquisite little flower with a smiling face.
That night, I was very glad that I wasn't sleeping on the kitchen sofa any longer now that I had permanently moved in with my grandparents. In the small room upstairs that had once been my mother's, nobody would accidentally see me kiss the folded little paper goodnight before going to sleep.
Sunday. Finally. I woke up far too early, but I couldn't go back to sleep. After a while of tossing and turning senselessly, I got up, drew back the curtains and opened the window to breathe in the fresh morning air and cool my face.
The alarm clock on my bedside table said just seven thirty. Almost seven endless hours to go. I sighed, almost bursting with anticipation and a small cold fear that she wouldn't want to see me.
To kill time, I offered to accompany Grandma to church, something I hardly ever did. My mother would have been horrified, but although Grandma occasionally appeared a little sad that I kept my distance from organised religion, she never made me come along. Grandpa usually went with her just to humour her, but not always. He and I agreed that there was a God out there, but that we didn't necessarily need a priest and congregation to worship Him.
I sat through the service, my mind occupied with thoughts rather inappropriate for the setting. I was simply not able to concentrate on the boring drone of Reverend Watson's neverending sermon. I did enjoy the singing, though. Joining in the familiar hymns at the top of my voice allowed me to vent a bit of the tension that was almost killing me.
I tried to look around inconspicuously to see if Eliza was there, but I saw neither her nor her aunt. Then I remembered that Ruth Wilson was Catholic, and I assumed that Eliza was, too.
At breakfast, I found that I simply couldn't eat. My throat and stomach felt constricted, and I washed down large chunks of bread with a lot of tea just to stop Grandma from trying to make me eat.
I offered to help with the dishes afterwards, but when I almost broke a plate that had slipped from my hand, catching it just so before it hit the floor, Grandma threw me out of the kitchen. "Go for a run or go swimming or do whatever you want, but get out of the house!" she said. I did, running down to the beach where I swam for a while, wallowing in the memory of the previous Sunday and some sweet promising fantasies of the afternoon to come.
Back home, Grandma had lunch ready, most of which got pushed around my plate listlessly until Grandma sent me off to get changed.
I carefully selected a fresh white shirt and lightweight grey pants. I had never wasted much thought on clothes, but today was special, and I wanted to make an impression on Eliza. I wondered whether I should put on a jacket and tie. It was a warm day but not quite as hot as last Sunday, and I decided to skip the tie but take the jacket so that I could be gallant and let Eliza wear it in case she began feeling cold.
I went over to the bathroom for a glance into the mirror, running a hand through my hair. It was unruly as always, but I decided against trying to tame it somehow. I didn't want to look like an idiot. It felt strange enough to be dressed up like that for a Sunday walk.
Grandpa whistled through his teeth when I entered the kitchen. "Every inch a gentleman", he said with a little wink.
"Oh, Mick!" cried Grandma when she turned around from the sink. "You look fabulous. If I were fifty years younger, I'd fall in love with you on the spot."
I laughed and hugged her, then went out the back door to pick a rose for Eliza, one of those creamy yellow ones with petals rimmed in pale pink. I cursed as a sharp-pointed thorn pricked my finger, drawing blood. I snapped all the thorns off the stem so Eliza wouldn't get stung, popped my finger into my mouth and checked my shirt front. It was still clean, thank God. That would have been just like me, arriving at Eliza's door with blood stains on my shirt.
Eliza opened the front door of her aunt's home almost before I had knocked. "Hello, fisherman!" she said with a big smile. She was even more beautiful than she'd been in my mind's eye, wearing a pleated knee-length tartan skirt in dark shades of blue and green and a crisp white short-sleeved blouse with a little round collar.
I swallowed hard and said, "Hi, Eliza" with my heart hammering away as if to jump out of my chest. "This is for you. I hope you like roses."
Her eyes widened as I presented her with the flower. "Oh, Mick, this is so beautiful." She buried her endearing little nose in the velvety yellow petals and inhaled its sweet scent. "And it smells just heavenly." She closed her eyes and sniffed again, smiling.
At the back of the hall, a door opened and her aunt appeared. I had known Ruth Wilson all my life. She was a slender woman of medium height with brown hair like Eliza's, a little younger than my mother. She had married a schoolmate of my father's who had been lucky enough to survive the war but had fallen victim to the Spanish flu epidemic a year later. Unlike my mother, she had never married again.
"Hello, Mick", she said now with a friendly but reserved smile, "how nice that you and Eliza have met. Have a pleasant little walk. And make sure you behave properly when you're alone, both of you."
"Of course we will", I promised, eager to bealone with Eliza. I would have promised anything at that moment.
"Just let me put the rose in a vase. I want to keep it as long as I can", Eliza said.
"I can do that for you, Eliza. You go and take your walk. Give my best wishes to your grandparents, Mick", Mrs. Wilson replied, and off we went.
The atmosphere was a trifle tense at first, none of us seemed to know how exactly to behave. I longed to hold her hand as I had seen other boys do with their girlfriends, but I wasn't sure if this wasn't too early and she might misunderstand my intention. Again, it was Eliza who broke the ice. "You look pretty good in your Sunday best", she said. "Nice suit. I didn't think you'd be a suit-wearing type."
"Oh, even fishermen do wear suits sometimes", I replied, and there it was again, the light-hearted banter, the ease between us. "Especially when they go out to meet city girls in fancy skirts and blouses. Very pretty city girls, that is. City girls who draw cute little flowers."
"Did you like it?"
"Of course I did! You've got talent!"
"M-hm, that's what many people say. I love drawing, especially portraits. I'd love to do one of you. You'd make a great subject."
"Will I have to sit still all the time?"
"Oh, yes, you won't be allowed to move a muscle for hours so you won't spoil the picture!"
"If you pull a face like that, I'll draw you that way!" she threatened, mimicking me, and I laughed at her rolling eyes and flaring nostrils.
I kept my hands in my pockets while we were walking through the village streets. You never knew what village gossip you might run into. Better not be seen hand in hand with a girl.
When we came to the beginning of the narrow coastal path that led to the lighthouse and nobody else was in sight, I reached for her hand tentatively. Her smooth fingers closed around mine with gentle determination, sending a rush of joy through me.
At our leisurely pace, it took about an hour to reach the lighthouse perched on the end of the narrow headland. We climbed down the path at its foot and sat on a rocky ledge, the monotonous thud and splash of the waves slamming into a hollow recess in the cliff face just a few feet below us.
"This has always been one of my favourite spots. My grandpa and I used to come here when I was little to fish from the flat rock over there, and on our way back, we'd pop down to the little cove where we met and have a swim."
"He's lovely, your grandpa", Eliza remarked.
"Oh, yes, he is. I don't know what I'd have done without him after my … after I'd lost my dad."
"It's so sad that you lost him so young", Eliza said softly. "Auntie Ruth showed me some photos of him and Uncle Luke. You look just like him."
"I know", I said. "I'm glad I do. It's as if there's still a bit of him alive in me."
She regarded me for a silent moment, then said, "You're really a special kind of person, Mick. I know lots of boys your age but I've never met anyone as thoughtful as you. You've got those pensive eyes. You may be a fisherman by profession, but in your heart you're a thinker and an idealist."
I didn't know what to reply. Nobody had ever seen that in me, and I wondered how much of it was accurate.
"In fact, you make me think of a book I read. There's that young artist called Will Ladislaw in 'Middlemarch'. He doesn't look like you from the way he's described, but he's got his own thoughts about things and is a kind of free spirit. There's one beautiful quote about him I liked so much that I memorized it, 'he looked like an incarnation of the spring whose spirit filled the air'. You made me remember that when I saw you coming out from behind that rock, whistling to yourself and bouncing a little as you walked. I thought that if Will Ladislaw were alive today, he might look just like you. And then I start talking to you and find that your character fits the picture, too."
"Oh, that's an … interesting compliment. No one has ever compared me to a character in a book."
"Well, now you know how that feels. And let's get back to the real-life Mick Carpenter now." She drew a fingertip over the scar above my mouth. "What's this?"
"Oh … that's … a reminder of something I don't really want to talk about. Maybe I will tell you later." As open as I felt I could be, wanted to be with her, this was one thing I preferred to keep to myself.
Eliza withdrew her hand and said contritely, "Sorry, Mick. I didn't want to touch upon anything painful. I thought it might have been a childhood mishap, something like that story about Auntie Ruth's wedding."
"Please don't mention those cakes and cream again!" I exclaimed. I grinned, though, relieved about the change of subject.
She grinned back at me. "But I do think you were a cutie when you were little."
"I haven't got any issues with that", I assured her. "I'm sure you were already adorable as a little girl, but you are ever more so now."
I moved a bit closer towards her, facing her, my eyes sinking into the depths of hers. The tips of our noses touched. She chuckled softly, fluttering her eyelids to make her long lashes tickle my cheek, a subtle touch like a butterfly's wings.
A cloud that had half hidden the sun was suddenly swept aside, bathing us in warm golden sunlight.
I kissed her cheek, very gently, pausing for the fraction of a second.
She gave a little encouraging sound.
I ventured further down to let my lips find hers.
She kissed me back tenderly.
Auntie Ruth probably wouldn't have approved. But neither of us cared.