James leaned on the parapet, looking out over Derry as the sun slowly set behind the hills to the west. The girls were quietly chatting and laughing behind them, their euphoria over seeing their Wee English Fella back and standing on the Walls still very much evident, but he was content to rest there, soaking in everything, and to just be . Distantly he could hear the hubbub of the city, louder this evening due to the day’s historic event, but he was enjoying the personal landmark moment for just the five of them.
Someone had gotten a hold of fireworks to celebrate the Presidential visit and was letting them off somewhere near Celtic Park. Showers of red and green sparks were visible even in the evening sunset, and he watched as they slowly sank and burned out. He breathed deeply, enjoying the crisp, undefinably Irish, November air, and the smile that had been on his face since he’d spotted his friends in the crowd deepened. He’d made the right decision, staying.
He turned his head slightly as he felt someone come to stand next to him. Orla’s messy brown curls cascaded down his shoulder as she rested her head on it and took his hand. They stood side by side for a moment, gazing out at the signs of celebration they could see.
“Why did you leave?” she asked, softly. The conversation behind him stopped; he was sure the other three members of their pack had turned to look at the pair of them, but he didn’t turn around. At the very least they were all listening attentively.
“I didn’t, did I?”
Orla shook her head. “You did leave. But you came back.”
What she had said was true enough, but trying to articulate why he had felt he had to get in the taxi, and why he’d decided to then get out again, was difficult. He paused, mouth opening and closing as he tried to find a way to start, before shaking his head.
“Later,” he said, slowly. “I need to channel my inner Erin to find the right words.”
He heard Michelle snigger, followed by what he assumed was a playful slap from the resident poet herself.
Even though they had school the next day they had all bundled into Michelle’s room for an impromptu sleepover. Deidre had apparently been overjoyed to see that James had stayed; she’d uncharacteristically pulled him in for a brief hug, before shepherding them all upstairs with a rare smile. A row of uniforms hung in various states of neatness along the wall, ready for the morning.
He was the only one still up, having been standing at the window for hours with Orla’s question running through his mind. They had insisted that he was to stay with them and not to return to his own room that evening "in case you lose all sense and try to fuck off back to London again", a decision he was more than happy to comply with.
Night had long fallen (he assumed it was well past midnight by then), but there were still distant lights of parties and people on the streets. Occasionally he’d focus on the reflection of the scene behind him, the girls spread out across the room asleep.
Michelle let out a loud snore, one with more than a passing resemblance to a chainsaw cutting through a particularly solid log, and turned over in her bed. His relationship with her was complex and antagonistic (on her part at least), but oddly he liked it.
He’d been dropped into her life at a particularly bad time; one brother had been in prison for a few months, the other had left home just before James arrived. She’d felt abandoned, and resented being saddled with a relative she barely knew; someone who she obviously had considered a lesser replacement.
The tension had soon thawed from absolutely Baltic to merely a bit foundered, he believed the slang was. That was partly because he’d known how to use a fire extinguisher on Fionnula’s curtains, and partly due to covering for her when she’d snuck out to get wasted during the subsequent grounding.
They’d continued to understand and tolerate each other over the year and a bit he’d been there, through stowaway Provos and stolen tents, a hectic and event filled trip to Belfast to see the Take That concert (they’d shared his Aunt’s ire when they’d got back), the scone disposal debacle, and getting absolutely covered in tomato juice at prom. It had culminated into what was (for her) a heartfelt plea for him to stay earlier that day. She, of all people, hadn’t wanted him to leave.
He let out a content sigh, and it struck him that he thought of her as his sister now, more than a cousin (not that he’d tell her that, for fear of reprisals). And perhaps she felt the same; her final attempt at keeping him with her at least partly so another brother didn’t abandon her. So he resolved not to, and if that meant bearing endless mockery for being English and being the butt of her jokes, well, he’d gladly suffer through it all for her. It was the least he could do.
His gaze drifted over to her bedmate, the ever enigmatic Orla. She’d laid one of Dennis’ dodgy flags on her pillow, and was twitching slightly in her sleep in an oddly co-ordinated way. James thought it would be impossible not to like Orla; she was like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces fit together properly, but when you stood back you realised they weren’t all for the same picture. Sometimes though, those pieces made a frighteningly coherent pattern.
He’d worked out Orla (as much as anyone could work her out) over time. He’d provided a reassuring solid presence for her when she had trouble processing things, and a comforting hand on the shoulder when she needed grounding. He also did his best to stop her escalating situations, like when he prevented her from admitting the suitcase was theirs on the bus to Belfast (that backfired spectacularly, in the end, but it was the thought that counted).
Occasionally she could say cruel things, such as mouthing he was a dick when his back was turned (she’d forgotten about the mirror), or voting to kick him out of the group when Mae had arrived, but all of them took the piss out of him - and each other - to be fair, and he’d learnt to make allowances for her.
She’d also share sweets without him needing to ask, present him with surprisingly good drawings - he’d especially liked the portraits of him, once she started using green for the eyes - and seemed to have a sixth sense for where he was at any given moment; she’d started turning around as soon as he’d spotted them earlier, as if she knew he’d be standing there. He thought Orla was the most fun to be around; she was “good craic,” as the girls kept trying to get him to say.
“Y’ma’s got Stockholm Syndrome.”
Clare was talking in her sleep, apparently re-living him saying goodbye and dreaming of the cack attack (thank you, Derry, for all the new slang he’d learnt) she would’ve had, had she not been shocked into silence. She’d camped out beside Michelle’s bookcase (which contained a total of five books, all Stephen King), and her cheeks still had the tell-tale flush of being blocked from the celebratory vodka that Michelle had brought out.
He and Clare had hit it off early in his time in Derry, mutually bonding over their less laissez-faire attitude to schoolwork than the rest. He’d listen and be a sounding board for her when she’d panic, and she’d keep him company in the periphery of their escapades when he was near forgotten about. On exam prep nights he’d also taken to stealthily draining her energy drinks when she wasn’t looking, in order to prevent another Holy Smirk incident.
Perhaps his favourite memory of Clare was the day they’d published her essay in the school newspaper.
He’d felt guilty that they’d done so over her objections once he’d found out she’d written it, and had sincerely apologised. They had sat on a bench outside the school, him holding her hand and listening to her rage against Erin for her reaction; he’d been upset for Clare, considering the absolute rubbish Erin had come out with, but he had followed her lead in the conversation, sympathising and reassuring her that nothing had changed between them, at least.
He’d been invited in after walking her home, and was honoured that she’d let him be the one supporting her and holding her hand when she had come out to her parents.
And she’d voted to come back to get him from the travellers, he’d found out later, and not just because he’d still had the tickets to the concert (the “No” vote from Orla still stung a little). James had a lot of time for Clare, and hoped she’d go far in life once she’d learnt to chill out a little.
And then there was Erin. He wasn’t sure when he had gone from “she’s fun to be around” to “I wish I could be with her”, but on prom night he had finally admitted to himself that he couldn't keep excusing the way he felt towards her. Her lips were parted as she slept, and he found himself wondering what kissing them would taste like.
She’d turned in later than the rest, wishing him a fond goodnight, after writing a rather lengthy entry in her diary (and what he thought was a letter on a sheet from one of Michelle’s many unused notepads at one point). She’d glanced at him several times while writing, her cheeks and ears getting steadily pinker every time he’d met her eyes. He was sure his face was as red as hers by the time she’d put the diary away.
Erin was the most interesting of the girls in James’ opinion, and not just because of his wee crush on her. She’d grown as a person since he first knew her; the casual racism and intolerance she’d shown to Katya and Clare was wearing (mostly) away, revealing an insecure young woman who tried to cover it with bluster, overconfidence, and feigned worldliness. True, she was sometimes vain, self-centred, and selfish, but they were all idiotic teenagers - it came with the territory.
Oddly, he’d gravitated to her more closely after he’d forgiven her for cockblocking him at Jenny’s Ukrainian party; the somewhat strange concern she’d shown him was the first he’d really experienced in Derry outside of Michelle and his aunt and uncle, and they’d become close confidantes as a result. Their shared love of artistry (literary and cinemagraphic) compounded their friendship; he was thinking about making a documentary about their life in Derry when he could get his hands on a camcorder, and would ask her to write it with him.
She smiled in her sleep, and he thought back to Prom night. She’d looked extra beautiful when she’d opened the door; he couldn’t tear his gaze away from her hair, her lips, her eyes. He had no regrets about skipping his Doctor Who convention; she was much more important to him, and the evening at the comic book shop paled in comparison.
When she’d appeared at the top of the stairs, the uncomfortable blue dress replaced with her much more flattering (in his opinion) Easter one, he’d briefly forgotten how to breathe. She’d smiled at him (a proper Erin smile, not the overly toothy ones she did when she was nervous or trying too hard to impress someone), and gave a little wave as she came down; he’d not been able to stop his dopey smile, and knew for certain at that point she’d stolen his heart.
He hoped one day he would be brave enough to tell her how he felt, but until then, he would support her in any way he could.
The four women behind him were more than just his best friends, they had become his family - much more than his mother had ever been. He could say with certainty that they were the reason he’d come back; they were the best people he knew, that he could know, and he’d finally admitted to himself that things would never really change with his mum.
They’d shown him more love and support in fifteen months than she had in fifteen years, and he adored them back just as much. They were the perfect mix of caring and crazy - rougher and blunter than anyone he’d known back in London. They wouldn’t hold back from speaking their mind, and were much more likely to give him friendly abuse, but that only gave more purchase for him to grow around them.
They had been moulded and shaped by Derry, and James had realised that she and he (for Derry was obviously a woman herself - the Original Derry Girl, if you would - every bit as wild and wonderful as his girls and their mothers) had worn out a groove together too, which he now finally fit in.
The sky was beginning to lighten as he thought more about why he’d got into the taxi. He caught his own reflection in the window, and stared at his eyebrows.
On one hand it was obvious; his mum had finally come back to get him, and London was where he had wanted to be since he arrived.
When he’d lived back in England, all he’d wanted was his mum’s love. She’d missed so many school assemblies, left him alone at home an uncountable number of evenings, and had almost always given him birthday presents late. His stepdad had been the one that made an effort, introducing him to classic SciFi and doing his best to keep childhood magic alive with things like the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.
He’d tried an experiment once, when he was seven. He’d lost a tooth at school, and had only told his mum about it. He’d placed it under his pillow that night, and come the morning he was disappointed, but (even then) unsurprised, to see the tooth hadn’t been taken away. He’d then told Paul, and lo and behold the next day a shiny fifty pence piece was there instead.
Then she’d dumped him in Derry, leaving without a word and not phoning or writing for weeks on end - even when she made the effort she would rarely ask about his life. Sometimes he felt that she considered him an easily dismissed afterthought, instead of a son she loved.
So when she’d turned up out of the blue, fawning over him and promising to put him first, he had to believe she’d changed her ways for his own sake. He’d been swept along with her plan to return to England and sell self-adhesive labels, and before he knew it he was standing in front of the girls bidding them goodbye.
He had wanted to leave quickly to minimise the pain, like ripping a plaster off of a wound, but he hadn’t expected any of them to follow him, least of all Michelle. He’d tried to defend his mum, but even as he did Michelle’s words fanned the doubt that had lurked in the back of his mind.
He’d paused getting into the taxi, taking a last look around and trying to convince himself he wasn’t as sad to leave as he felt. It wasn’t until his mum pointedly asked if he was ready to go that he sat down and closed the door. He’d stared out the window as they drove, trying to memorise every detail of every mural, the faces of every person they drove past, every roof and spire of the skyline.
They’d just passed Free Derry Corner when she’d spoken.
“You’ll be glad to get out of this dive, love. I know I am.”
With that comment, everything had fallen into focus, and the rose tinted glasses he’d been wearing since the previous afternoon faded. He wasn’t glad to leave Derry. He wasn’t going to leave.
She was wrong, it wasn’t a dive; he loved Derry more than he could ever remember loving London. It was a rougher and sadder city, bearing the scars (literal and metaphorical) of centuries of violence and oppression, but it was more intimate, and held the people that mattered most; Derry may have been too small for his mum, but was the perfect size for him. In London he’d be a spare part, but there was a Wee English Fella shaped hole in Derry that was his to fill.
True, there were armed soldiers everywhere, there were certain areas of the city he couldn’t go to for his safety, and he got better service in most shops by miming rather than speaking due to his English accent, but there were also lazy walks along the Walls with the girls, noisy meals around crowded dinner tables, and people who actually looked out for him.
And really, what was there for him in London, when he thought about it? Even if his mum actually made the effort, he’d have still slipped back into the bubble of awkward anonymity that he used to live in sooner or later, and would have just been one easily forgotten face in seven million. He’d have filled his days with school, and selling adhesi- flogging stickers , and watching Doctor Who videos, and walking through town alone and ignored. And he would have hated it. He hadn’t realised what he was missing until he lived in Derry; here he was valued and cared for.
He’d told the driver to pull over (on Little James Street, ironically - when he regaled the girls later he would feel a small amount of disappointment that it wasn’t named Wee James Street), and had hurried out onto the street with his suitcase the moment the taxi had pulled to a stop.
She’d looked disdainful, more than upset. He’d raised a hand in goodbye.
“I’m sorry, Mum. I love you, but…”
She just shook her head and leant over to shut the door. “Goodbye, James.”
At least she’d said goodbye this time.
When the girls awoke, sun just peeking over the horizon, James was nowhere to be seen. Clare’s cack attack spilled over from her dream into real life, Orla immediately started looking around the room for clues to where he’d gone, and Erin and Michelle were just organising a search pattern as the bedroom door opened.
James walked in, uniform on and hair still damp from the shower, but with the dark circles around his eyes of someone who hadn’t slept. He recoiled in surprise as Michelle punched him hard on the arm.
“Jesus Christ, Dicko. Don’t do that to us.”
He threw his hands up in surrender, face nonplussed. “I’m sorry?” he said, slowly.
“Too right you should be. Now, get out so we can change.”
He couldn’t help the grin that came to his face as he left the room and leaned against the landing wall. He turned his head towards Michelle’s door and called out.
“I came up with an answer by the way, Orla.”
The door opened, and her head stuck out. She fixed him with an inquisitive stare.
He could hear the quiet rustling of the girls changing clothes as they eavesdropped again, and let out a chuckle. “Aye. I left because I thought if I did I’d get the one thing I’ve been wanting all my life. I came back because I realised I already have it.”
She nodded, smiling. “Cracker.”