Warriors – Maureen Fielding
“Ah, Bridget, I’m liking those rainbow socks,” Simon says, pointing at the bright stripes peeking out between the bottom of my pants and the top of my clogs.
“What about my socks?” Carla asks, hiking up her bellbottoms to show a brown sock.
“Brown! Brown! Me favorite color!” Simon enthuses. “You American girls have got real style!”
We all collapse in laughter. Simon with his silver tongue, drapes an arm around Carla, smiles down at her meaningfully, adding, “And brown eyes like yours are really me favorites.” I see Carla’s laughter turn to a pleased smile at the flattery.
Ginger, named for his fiery hair, peers at me. “Ah,” he says, “brown is sweet, but I love a pair of lovely, green eyes meself.”
I feel the blush rising, but looking into his own green eyes, I manage to say, “Well, that sounds like a man who likes his own reflection.” He chuckles.
Then Liam and Sean take up the topic, debating whether Liam’s green-eyed ex or Sean’s brown-eyed ex was the bigger harpy.
“Jesus!” says Liam. “She took a scissors to all my old pictures!”
“You’re lucky, man, she didn’t take the scissors to your balls. What kind of shit-for-brains keeps the old girlfriend’s pictures and letters in his underwear drawer?” Sean asks.
“Where else should I have kept them?”
“Not with your undies, you eejit! Too personal, and that’s the first place they look,” Sean says, rolling his eyes.
Simon weighs in. “Under the sink, behind the plumbing. She’s not going in there. If there’s a leak, she’ll fetch you.”
“Nah, man—you’ve got to pry up a floorboard,” Sean asserts.
Ginger moves closer to me. “I don’t have any old girlfriend pictures stashed away. Maybe I haven’t met that girl yet.” I feel a frisson at his nearness.
Drifting around London on spring break, Carla and I are after-hours in another pub with these Irish lads we’ve just met, and we’re glittering with these men with their lovely accents and caressing syllables. Perched on stools at the bar, we’re basking in their attention, feeling so grown up, and we’re laughing and drinking Babychams, smoking Dunhills, flirting with the danger that is man, not boy. They banter among themselves, shouting over the music to joke and insult each other. They offer sideways compliments to us and keep the drinks coming. I feel like I’m one of them, like I belong among a crew of half-drunk, twenty-something Irish men.
But somehow, we miss it—that moment, that word, that look that must be met with fists. The men stiffen and place their beers on the bar. Despite the thumping music, our little circle suddenly feels very quiet.
“Take the girls outside,” Ginger orders in a low voice, and without a word Simon takes our arms and begins herding us through the crowd toward the front door.
“Wait,” I say confused, not wanting to leave my drink on the bar, my just-lit cigarette in the ashtray.
“Move! Hurry!” Simon urges, driving us forward, pushing people out of the way. Then all hell breaks loose behind us. I can’t see who threw the first punch, but Simon shoves us away from the breaking glass, the crashing bar stools, the curses and shouts, the sickening sounds of fist against bone. When I look back, a kaleidoscope appears behind me of arms and legs and ginger hair.
Then the three of us hurtle from the club onto the wet sidewalk under the streetlights, and the door slams shut. Silence. Dazed and helpless, we stand staring at the door. What’s happened? What now? Carla and I turn to Simon and search his eyes for an answer.
I hear someone repeating, “Oh my god. Oh my god.” And realize it’s me.
We wait on the sidewalk. Simon still holds our arms, but he reassures us that it’s nothing. He smirks when he says, “Ginger can take care of himself” and “They picked the wrong lad to mess with.”
Then Liam explodes through the doorway, turns back, raging, hammering at the locked door, spins to the street, arms outstretched, shrieks up at the sky, “Crucify me! Crucify me! You bloody English bastards!”
And I realize it’s Easter.
Simon rushes to him, gives him a handkerchief to wipe blood from his nose. Now we are four in the night under the streetlight, the sound of Liam’s panting loud in our ears. Then from the side of the building Ginger appears running, Sean and two friends at his heels. “Let’s go!” he shouts, waving at us madly, a man flailing at wasps. Simon grabs Carla and me again. We fly down the empty streets, my heart pumping in terror until I hear Ginger laughing.
“Did you sort him?” Simon asks.
“Broke his fuckin’ nose!” Ginger exults, arms raised like an Olympic medalist.
We round another corner and stop, apparently out of danger. Simon produces another handkerchief and hands it to Ginger for the blood running down his face. Then he pulls his half-full beer bottle from his coat pocket. “Slaínte!” he says, takes a drink, and shares it around.
They are all laughing then, except Carla and me. We’ve never seen a barroom fight except in old cowboy movies, and we’ve no knowledge of an ancient feud. We are just flaming youth, feasting at the table of the present, with no history, no politics.
They flag down taxis, and they decide that Carla will go with Simon and the others. Carla and I look at each other but don’t object, and the four of them squeeze into the taxi, Carla on Simon’s lap. I watch their taxi roll away. I go with Ginger to the emergency room, sit on grey plastic chairs in a packed waiting room until they call him, and then watch as an Indian doctor cleans up his knuckles, also bloodied in the fight, and stitches up a gash on his cheek. The doctor is laughing with him. “I hope you thumped him good. Bloody arseholes,” the doctor says as he works. Ginger tries to keep still, but he keeps breaking into laughter.
“Maybe you’ll see that bastard in here later. He’ll be the one with the smashed nose and a purple eye,” he says through clenched teeth.
The doctor snorts.
Afterwards, Ginger asks if I want to go to his apartment and have another drink, and I say okay. In the taxi he pulls me to him, and I realize again that he is a man, not a pink-cheeked, downy-fuzzed boy from school. He has a man’s body, the muscles of a workingman. He told me in the bar that he does construction work. He kisses me like a man, and I feel suddenly that I’m drowning in something more serious than a barroom brawl.
In his apartment, a third-floor walk-up, small, a bit shabby, but clean, he points to a flowered couch and tells me he’ll be right back. I settle on the soft couch as he disappears into the kitchen, and I hear the fridge open. Returning with two bottles of beer, he sits next to me and hands me one. I touch his bandaged face. He doesn’t wince.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m fine, luv. It’s nothing.”
“Have you been in other fights?”
“Sure,” he says, as if fighting is the most natural thing in the world, the way a boy at my posh high school would answer if you asked him if he had ever played sports.
“What do you fight about?”
“Well, like tonight. What was that about?”
“A couple of wankers made some comments.”
“What kind of comments?”
“The usual stuff.”
“What’s the usual stuff?”
“Insulting the Irish. God bless William of Orange. Shit like that.”
“Who’s William of Orange?”
“Bastard who slaughtered a lot of Irish and stole the land.”
“When did that happen?”
“Oh darling, you don’t need to know all this,” he laughs, putting down his beer, and begins to kiss me again, more ardently now.
I feel very young.
“How old are you?” I ask.
“I know. I asked your friend.”
He kisses me again, tenderly this time. “Are you a virgin?” he murmurs his breath hot against my neck.
“Do you want me to stop?”
Confused, I say, “I don’t know, but I want to know.”
“About everything. About William of Orange. About why you fight.”
He sighs and leans back. “Well, Bridget—with a name like that, didn’t your folks tell you anything about Ireland?”
“We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day,” I tell him.
“Yanks!” he guffaws, throwing back his head.
I frown. “What’s funny?”
“It’s like they’ve forgotten their history when they crossed the ocean. What do they teach you in the fancy international school over there in Brussels? You know the fucking English tried to conquer the world, don’t you?”
“Well, sort of,” I mumble, not really knowing what the fucking English had done to the world, but I do know something about the IRA and the bombs. They’d bombed a bus full of soldiers in February.
“Are you in the IRA?” I ask.
“Jesus! No! I’m a peaceful man!”
When I look at him doubtfully, he adds, “Unless some arsehole pushes me too far.”
“What does the IRA want?” I ask finally, admitting my ignorance.
“They want the British to get the fuck out of Ireland.”
“So why do you live here?”
“There’s no bloody work in Ireland especially for Catholics who live in the North.”
“Yes, but I’m not a fan of the Pope and all the rules. What about you? I’ve never met a Bridget who wasn’t a Catholic.”
“Yeah. I was raised Catholic.”
“And do you obey the rules?” he asks, his eyes gleaming.
He is amorous again, and I let him kiss me, this man, this patriot, this distant kin. I close my eyes and let him caress me. I don’t resist when he leads me to the bedroom, unbuttons my shirt, peels off my jeans. In the bed, I run my fingers in wonder through the thick mat of golden curls on his chest and shiver as he strokes my body with calloused hands.
Better, I think, to have a warrior—barrel-chested, pugilistic—the first time, than a pale imitation, some teenage football player full of imaginary manhood. But this is not love, I know. This is a history lesson, a memory for later in life when I’ve buried myself in an ahistorical world. This will be my history—the mouth of the ginger haired man filling me with a past.
Maureen Fielding is an associate professor of English and Women’s Studies at Penn State Brandywine. Her work has appeared in Adanna, Westview, Black Fox Literary Magazine, and other journals. She is working on a novel inspired by her experiences as a Russian intercept operator in West Berlin during the Cold War.