January, 2003 - Glasgow
Glasgow has taught me so much -
Erin Quinn liked to consider herself a worldly woman. Her mammy would roll her eyes, and laugh, if she heard that, and her dad would shake his head, a quiet, fond smile on his face. The girls - well, Michelle might make fun, but she knew Clare would agree. Clare liked to think of herself as a worldly woman too, now - shaped by her years spent living in London, away for university and a different girl to the quiet, shy teenager she had been.
Erin was different too, she knew. Deciding to move to Glasgow for university had been a bit of a spur of the moment decision - the application, at least. Deciding to accept her place and actually go had taken a lot longer, and had involved a lot of tears, plenty of deep and meaningful conversations, and a few encouraging words from her mammy.
That had been four years ago.
It had been a busy few years, was the thing - Erin had settled into university life faster than she’d expected, joining the English Society, getting a part time job at a bookshop on the Caledonian Road, and she’d event spent a year studying abroad in Boston - much to her mammy’s near constant anxiety - and so she felt like she was allowed to consider herself a true woman of the world. She’d travelled, and she was a few weeks out from finishing her degree, and she had so many wonderful friends -
Erin Quinn had it all.
Except one thing.
It was ironic, really, that someone who was as much of a hopeless romantic as she was hadn’t fallen in love yet. She’d tried - God, she’d tried, going on some truly horrendous dates in the pursuit of love and happily ever after, but nothing had ever turned serious. No, the closest to serious she’d gotten was a third date with Connor from her Thursday morning tutorial, and even that had fizzled out when Connor had dropped out of university and moved home to Aberdeen.
Erin had all the real world experiences she could dream of - except love.
Which led her to now: lying on Clare’s couch, bemoaning the fact she was entirely unloveable. She’d sat on a dingy coach for hours, watching the world pass by for hours as she made the tortuous journey to London for a dose of certified Clare Devlin TLC.
“I don’t think you’re unlovable, Erin,” Clare said matter-of-factly, placing a fresh glass of wine in Erin’s hand. Clare shared a flat with three of her coursemates in East London, and the couch was uncomfortable and it was always just on the wrong side of freezing, but Clare liked it, and she thrived - in her flat, and in London. She’d chopped all of her hair off - much to her mammy’s horror - and she wore bright blue eyeliner and too many bracelets and she clanked and clattered with every move and she was exactly the kind of character Erin would write a book about, one day.
“I am,” Erin sighed, relying on the overly sweet white wine (Tesco’s finest, Clare would have you know) to soothe her shattered soul. “I am twenty-two years of age, Clare, and I have never, ever had a boyfriend.”
Clare gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m sure you’re not the only one,” she said, tucking her legs underneath her. Erin knew her friend didn’t mean to sound condescending, but it was hard to take that statement seriously from a girl who was in a long-term relationship of almost two years with an art student named Maya who had purple hair and apparently spent her spare time drawing saucy pictures of Clare which Clare vehemently refused to show anyone else.
“Clare!” Erin shook her head. “I don’t care about anyone else - I care about me, and the fact that I am twenty-two years old, and there’s not - there’s not a man in the world willing to love me.”
Clare’s smile was soft, as it tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Well,” she hummed. “That’s not true, is it?”
The James Maguire of it all had always been complicated - ever since he’d kissed her for the first time in that dusty house in Donegal, things had been complicated. It was sort of always destined to be, when you developed feelings for a close friend. Michelle hadn’t been the only one to freak out: when Clare had discovered that James and Erin had locked lips, she’d near enough had a meltdown, talking all sorts about how it would tear their friendship group apart, and she simply didn’t have it in her to make new friends at this age.
It was hard to decide to date when it felt like your hypothetical relationship was only destined to cause havoc for the people in your life.
James had been her date to their leavers ball, and he’d been by her side for all of their final few years of school, Erin and James a package deal that no one had ever attempted to understand or make sense of - Erin couldn’t have him, she knew, but she could have him as a friend, and she’d made the most of that, right up until the day her friends and family had waved her off at the airport, Erin stepping on a plane to Glasgow and to the rest of her life.
James had stayed.
James had stayed, and Erin had left, and the length of the Irish Sea between them had stretched to feel as wide as the Atlantic, their lives taking different directions as they got older.
Maybe when they were kids, it might have worked out, but they weren’t children anymore, and it was silly, to live a fantasy where James had waited all those years for her, silly to think that he still felt the same as he had back when they were seventeen and he’d fumbled his way through a confession of a crush, and given Erin the best first kiss - and maybe objectively the best kiss of her life so far. But that was almost five years ago, and Erin might be fanciful, but she wasn’t naive, not anymore, and she knew that there was no chance that those feelings that had only begun to grow and develop all those years ago were still there.
That’s what she told Clare.
“Hm,” Clare hummed, in that disbelieving, all-knowing tone she had these days. “I don’t think that’s true.”
Erin glared at her from her position on the couch. “You’re delusional.”
Clare laughed, not taking offence at Erin’s harsh words. “Look,” she paused, looking thoughtful. “I know I didn’t react in the most supportive of ways, all those years ago.”
Erin raised an eyebrow. “I believe your exact words were ‘I will scream myself hoarse and never speak to either of you again if you get together.’” she quipped, remembering the - largely hysterical - conversation all too well.
Clare winced. “I did apologise for that,” she noted, and yeah, sure - she did. Erin wasn’t going to hold a grudge, but she wasn’t going to let Clare get off lightly either. The point of being friends for most of your life, Erin had long since decided, was getting to rip the absolute shit out of each other, no consequences.
“He doesn’t feel that way anymore,” Erin shook her head. “I’d know if he did.”
“Would you?” Clare questioned. “Look, Erin - I mean this with love, but you’re not always the most perceptive person in the world.”
“Aye, thanks for that Clare.”
“I just mean that - well, you and James decided a long time ago not to pursue whatever it is that was between ye, and he - well, you know James,” Clare shrugged. “He’d be loyal to that decision, even if it meant hiding how he really feels.”
“Why would he hide how he feels?” Erin asked, brow furrowed in confusion. To her, love was spoken out loud - a feeling so great you couldn’t help but shout it from the rooftops. You couldn’t possibly sit on your feelings, and hide them for close to five years. No, Clare was wrong.
“Because,” Clare hummed, taking a sip of her wine. “James wants you to be happy,” she explained, as though it was news that they all wanted happiness for each other: it was all Erin wanted for her friends. “Even if that means you not being with him.”
Erin downed the rest of her glass of wine in one go, the sweetness grating against the back of her teeth. Clare did always have terrible taste in wine. “Yeah, well,” she huffed. “I’m not happy with anyone now, am I? James or otherwise.”
“That’s why,” Clare declared with an air of wisdom of someone you’d swear had been married for twenty years, sure and settled in a way Erin was happy for - but hated, all the same. “You should talk to him.”
Erin pulled a face. “That’s why,” she mimicked. “You should pour your poor, depressed, unloveable best friend another glass of wine.”
Clare rolled her eyes good-naturedly, reaching for the bottle of wine. “And people say I’m the dramatic one of this group.”
Maya came with dinner, a few hours later - from some hip Indian restaurant that she and Clare apparently loved. Erin watched from the couch as Maya spun Clare around the galley kitchen, socks slipping against the tiles as the two women laughed, some unfamiliar pop music playing in the background as they moved together, perfectly content and lost in each other’s eyes. That was love, Erin knew - the comfort and familiarity and the way Clare’s cheeks still flushed pink when Maya pressed a kiss to her pale skin, the love they shared still making them giddy with joy.
That was the kind of love Erin had never experienced for herself, someone you wanted so badly that you didn’t know what to do with the feeling, the love bubbling out and manifesting in soft giggles and pink cheeks and eyes so impossibly soft that Erin could understand why Maya spent all of her spare time drawing Clare.
As happy as she was for Clare, Erin was jealous - so jealous that it made her stomach churn - because she wanted that for herself, and she had never been able to find it: regardless of how many dates she’d been on, how many different boys she had given a chance over her close to four years in Glasgow. None of them had ignited even a single butterfly, let alone the army that Clare admitted she felt when she looked at Maya.
She had craved love for so long now -
And at twenty-two, it felt as though she was never further from finding it.
Joe McCool lived up to his name - he’d always been a cool character (her father’s begrudgingly respectful words, not hers) and the only thing that had ever made him soft around the edges was his love for his family, and for his wife, most of all. Erin had been small, when her nana had died - barely seven and wide-eyed as she tried to understand why suddenly, her mammy was so sad, when she had once been so bright and happy. Her whole world had changed in a matter of months, her grandad taking the spare room down the hall by the Christmas of that year, the McCool household rattling empty with the loss of their matriarch.
‘He’ll never love anyone else,’ her mammy would say, and as fond as the smile was, it was sad, too, and Erin had only come to understand that with age - how beautiful it was, to love the same person for your whole life, and how sad was it to think that now they had died, the person they left behind would be alone forever?
Maybe that was why love scared Erin so much - this idea that you could find the one, the person you were meant to be with, and you married them, and you had kids with them, and you loved them with every fibre of your soul, and then they died, and they left you behind. How could you even begin to cope with that loss, Erin wondered? To have the love that they wrote books and music and poetry about, and then lose it all to the unchanging passage of time.
Erin didn’t know if she could do it.
“What’s on your mind?” Joe asked with a hum, setting a bacon sandwich down in front of her. Her parents and Aunt Sarah were at work, Anna at school, and so it was just her and her grandad in, Erin here for another couple of days before her return flight to Glasgow to finish out her final semester.
Erin gave him a grateful smile, glancing down at her sandwich before she spoke. It was perfectly made - as always - the bread was the thick, crusty loaf from Reilly's down the road, the bacon just the right side of crispy, smothered in brown sauce. It was a comfort sandwich, if Erin had ever seen one.
“Do you miss nana?” Erin asked, wincing as the words left her mouth. She didn’t want to make her grandad feel sad.
Joe looked thoughtful for a second, sitting in the kitchen chair opposite her. “I miss her every single day of my life,” he admitted solemnly, a fond smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. “Some days, it’s a sad missing her - I miss her and I’m sad about all she missed out on, with our family, how she missed out on seeing her first grandchild go to university, and how she never even met wee Anna,” he explained. “And some days, I miss her and it doesn’t make me sad, really - it makes me glad, for all the years I got to have her. I feel lucky to get to miss her, because it means I got to love someone truly, truly special.”
Erin gave her grandad a watery smile. “It sounds painful,” she commented, heart straining in her chest as she desperately tried to remember more than just a blurry outline of the granny she had never really gotten to know. She wondered, sometimes, if Marie was proud of her - if she’d have waved Erin off to Glasgow with proud tears in her eyes if she had still been alive. She’d never know, was the thing.
“It is,” Joe inclined his head. “But life isn’t without pain, hm? We - we can outlive the people we love,” he said. “My parents - I miss them every day too. But you can’t escape that pain, Erin, love - it’s as much of a part of life as love is.”
“So the pain is worth it?” Erin asked. She had to know - had to confirm with someone who had done it, who’d fallen in love, and gotten married, and had children and grandchildren, and then lost their great love, had to confirm that love was worth all of that grief.
“I wouldn’t change any of it for the world,” Joe smiled softly. “Marie and I, we had a good life - a happy life. I lost her, sooner than I would have liked to, but I would never regret it, not a minute of it. Love is - well, it’s a special thing.”
Erin nodded. “And you don’t get to have love without the pain?”
Joe gave her a sympathetic smile. “If you’re lucky - like I was - life will be more love than pain.”
Erin wasn’t sure what to say.
The pain, the potential loss - that had always been the thing about love that had scared her the most. When James kissed her, and the bright, shiny excitement had worn off, and Erin had time to mull it over, she’d dreamt up a whole host of scenarios - all of them ending with her losing James, and his absence leaving a great, massive gaping hole in her life. Even the imagination of that pain had been too much for her to handle: the reality would kill her.
“What’s this all about then, love?” Joe asked, nudging a cup of tea toward her - because nothing, Erin had long since been taught, couldn’t be fixed by a good cup of tea and something to eat. “Is there a fella in Glasgow who’s legs I have to break?”
Erin laughed, shaking her head. “No, granda,” she reassured.
Joe was quiet, for a second. “A boy from Derry, then?” he asked, and Erin knew, in that second, that Joe knew - she thought she’d done well to hide it over the years, but her grandfather was a perceptive man. He had to be, she knew, because Orla had to get it from somewhere. It felt like a strange thing to admit to her grandfather, of all people, but Erin had gone too far in the conversation not to.
“He hasn’t broken my heart,” Erin reassured. “I’ve never given him the chance to.”
Joe looked thoughtful, for a second, taking a sip of his tea. “And why not?”
“Because if I give him the chance too, he might break my heart for real,” Erin said, as if her fears were entirely obvious. She felt as though they were, at least - obvious, that is.
“And what if he doesn’t?” Joe quipped, the words reminiscent of a conversation they had a long time ago now, a referendum looming and a big decision to be made. Now, while Erin wouldn’t compare her love life - or lack thereof - to the Good Friday Agreement and the beginnings of peace in Northern Ireland, but it did feel as monumentally important.
Erin rolled her eyes. “You can’t just answer with a question, granda.”
Joe grinned. “I’m old, I can do what I want,” he joked, leaning forward. “Erin, love - I can’t tell you what to do, or how to feel. But I can tell you something for nothing, some things are worth a risk - even if they end up causing you pain in the end.”
Joe nodded. “Though,” he continued, and the sincerity of the moment was broken. “If that English prick breaks your heart, they’ll never find his body.”
Erin snorted into her steaming cup of tea. “He doesn’t even know yet, granda.” Yet. Yet, as though Erin had somehow subconsciously made the decision to tell him - which she definitely, definitely hadn’t.
“Well,” Joe huffed, sneaking a corner of the bacon that was sticking out from the edge of her sandwich. “He’d be bloody lucky to have you.”
Erin gave Joe a grateful smile, picking up her sandwich, taking a generous bite. She could feel the brown sauce clinging to her chin, and she couldn’t help but grin. “Even when I look like this?” she inquired, delighting in the way her grandad laughed heartily.
“Yes, love,” Joe beamed. “Even when you look like that.”
James was an attractive man. Erin had known that for a long time - even as a teenager, James had been attractive, unruly curls and a bright smile. He had only grown into himself over the years, his hair shorter now, but still curly - and damp with sweat, as he ran around with his and Michelle’s cousins, the game of soccer happening in the Mallon back garden a particularly intense one. Life had changed so much over the last few years - Niall was out, for one, and he had a toddler and a baby on the way, the Mallon clan expanding year on year.
“If you stare any harder,” Michelle commented, sliding into the seat next to Erin, pressing a cold beer into her hands. “You’re going to burn a hole in the back of his head.”
“I’m not staring at anyone,” Erin shook her head, taking an aggressive sip of her beer. She didn’t even like beer all that much, but it was the best of what the Mallons had chilling in a bucket of almost melted ice, given she felt lunchtime was a bit too early to get started on vodka sodas. Though, depending on how this conversation was going to go, vodka might be her best option.
Michelle rolled her eyes. “You don’t have to pretend, Erin.”
“I’m not!” Erin tried to defend, softening almost immediately. The annoying thing about Michelle, Erin had long since discovered, was that she was a particularly perceptive person, and her three years at Ulster University studying law had only made her more perceptive. She liked to think of herself of the most grown up of their gang, and Erin didn’t feel like she could argue against that - Michelle was in the first year of her training contract, and saving up to move out, and she was even in a relationship, a potentially serious one, if the way she talked about Darren was anything to go by. And she was still perceptive as fuck.
“Talk to me,” Michelle encouraged, leaning back in her chair.
“I guess - I guess I’m feeling a little nostalgic lately, what with the end of university on the way,” Erin picked over her words carefully. “And I think that maybe there is a part of me that’s starting thinking in what if’s. Like - what if I had stayed in Derry, or what if I had gone to London with Clare, or…”
“What if you’d dated James, like you wanted to?” Michelle supplied.
Erin hated the way her eyes welled up with tears. “I didn’t - I didn’t know how much I wanted it, until I started looking back,” she admitted, rubbing roughly at her eyes, careful not to smudge her meticulously applied mascara. “I just - I can’t help but think about what might have been if I had figured out how I felt back then, instead of now, when it’s too late.”
Michelle looked thoughtful, for a second. “What do you think might have happened?”
“I don’t - I mean, I don’t know,” Erin admitted, as though she hadn’t cycled through every fantasy possible in the last few months, thinking back to James, and that kiss in Donegal. Versions of the universe where they got together, and went long distance - or James followed her to Glasgow, or they made the decision to go to Belfast together. There were a whole host of scenarios that might have been, and Erin had chosen the loneliest path: the one where she had never taken a chance on James. “I just - I guess I worry, sometimes, that I let my chance at love pass me by at seventeen because I was too scared.”
Michelle gave her knee a squeeze. The last couple of years had mellowed Michelle, her friend calmer and more empathetic now - but never having lost that bright spark that made Michelle, Michelle, boisterous and loud and unapologetically herself. Given the way old boyfriends had tried to stamp that out, Erin was glad to know that Darren embraced it in the way Michelle deserved.
“There really hasn’t been anyone since him, has there?”
Erin shook her head. “I tried - God, I tried, Michelle, I really did,” she said. “I thought there was something fucking wrong with me, for a long time, because I just - I never got those head over heels feelings for anyone. You know? Clare would ring every other week with a new crush, and she just felt so much - and I didn’t, and I felt so broken for it. I go on, and on, about being a woman of the world and all that, and I have never even been in love.”
“You’ve never let yourself be in love,” Michelle corrected.
Erin gave her a funny look. “You what?”
Michelle shifted in her seat, the plastic of the garden chair squeaking underneath her fake leather skirt. “I know this is going to sound hypocritical, given how I reacted to finding you and James snogging the face off each other,” she said. “But do you ever think that it never worked out with anyone in Glasgow because you were still hung up on him, and didn’t let yourself acknowledge that?”
That was -
“I didn’t think about that until you said it, just now,” Erin admitted, glancing back toward James, who was holding a giggling, delighted Ryan upside down, the toddler wriggling in his grasp. It was funny, really, to think that once upon a time, James hadn’t been a part of their lives - Erin couldn’t remember a Derry before James Maguire, and she was sure the Mallon’s couldn’t either. James was a Mallon in all but name, and he’d confided, late one evening, the girls asleep and he and Erin last two standing at a sleepover, that he would change from Maguire the first chance he got: a final shedding of the remnants of his broken relationship with his mother.
He’d quietly, quietly - and absolutely - become a central part of their lives.
Central in ways Erin was only just beginning to understand.
“Love is weird,” Michelle said, definitive - and Erin knew she spoke from experience, Michelle having declared, standing right in the burning wreckage of her relationship with David Donnelly (that had been a surprise - and an adjustment) that she was never, ever going to fall in love again. She’d stuck to her word, right up until she’d met Darren, a tall lad from Donegal with a lopsided smile and a wicked sense of humour and Michelle had met her match.
“And?” Erin prompted.
Michelle shrugged. “That’s all I’ve got,” she admitted. “Love is weird,” she repeated. “It feels good, and it can feel horrible - but you know what I think must feel worse?” she asked, Erin shaking her head in response. “Regret.”
It was a big word.
Erin would throw it around as a teenager, talking about how she’d regret not going to some ridiculous party, or how she’d regret not going to Paris - but now, it felt bigger, and like something that could really impact on her life. If she didn’t do something about it, if she didn’t find the words to explain how she felt, then she would regret it for the rest of her life - she’d have to sit back and watch James marry some nice girl, and have a few wains, and be relegated to the role of best childhood friend for life.
Even if she did find the words, and she did tell him, the answer could still be know: and then she’d have to watch the rest of James’ life pan out knowing that he knew how she felt, and he didn’t want her anyway, and Erin wasn’t sure if she could deal with that.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” Michelle began, which was a sentence usually followed by Michelle telling you exactly what to do. “But you should tell him, Erin. The truth will set you free, and all of that.”
Erin took another swig of her beer, rolling her eyes. “I’m not paying you for this advice,” she warned. “You’re not a solicitor yet, Mallon.”
Michelle grinned. “That’s fine,” she said. “That means I can’t be held responsible if it all goes tits up, because this wasn’t sincere legal advice.”
Later, as she was leaving, Michelle gathered her into an uncharacteristically tight hug, squeezing the air out of Erin’s lungs. “For what it’s worth,” she murmured into Erin’s ear, her breath hot, and smelling slightly of beer. “It’s definitely not too late to tell him, Erin.”
Michelle’s words rang in her ears the whole way home.
Leaving Glasgow was -
Well, it felt like leaving behind a limb. Erin had grown to love the city so much over the last four years, in ways that surprised her - she had never imagined anywhere in the world might rival her love for Derry, but Glasgow had captured a piece of her heart and Erin knew she would never get it back. She was learning to be okay with that.
Leaving Glasgow was hard, but she knew it was the right decision to make - Erin couldn’t really explain why. It didn’t feel as though Derry was calling her home in the way she expected it to - she’d left, promising herself that when the homesickness and the pull back to Northern Ireland got too strong, she’d go back - but she didn’t feel like she wanted to stay in Glasgow either.
The world was big, Erin decided - and if she was to be considered a true woman of the world, she had to explore it more.
Her final day in Glasgow, she sat in the grounds of the University of Glasgow, and she wrote - pages and pages, scribbling her way through the final sheets of the journal she’d bought herself to see her through her final year of university.
June, 2003 - Glasgow.
Glasgow has taught me so much - I have fallen so madly in love with the people, the university, the country. I have made friends that I will carry with me for the rest of my life; people who are responsible for so much of the woman I am now, four years on from when I first arrived in Scotland. Glasgow has taught me how to love myself, how to be confident in myself - and for that, I owe this university, and this city so much.
But there is one thing Glasgow hasn’t taught me anything about -
Love. Real, true, forever after kind of love - or even the kind of love that breaks your heart. I thought I might learn all of that here, but I haven’t. In four years, love hasn’t even begun to feel as though it was in touching distance, and it’s making me think that maybe - just maybe - love, for me, was supposed to be found elsewhere.
Moving back to Derry felt strange. It was a stop-gap, she knew - a moment in time she was allowing herself to indulge in as she figured out what came next, where she would go next. Erin had always assumed that her path in life would feel easy, and be so clear, that every step would fall perfectly into place as soon as she’d been awarded her degree, but life was infinitely more complicated than that - she was learning to accept that.
Derry felt the same, and it felt different - it felt familiar, but Erin knew it had changed more than she could comprehend in the four years she’d been gone. Being home for Christmas, and for summers, it wasn’t the same as living here full time, and so Erin knew she had plenty to learn about all the ways her hometown had changed.
There was something she needed to do first, though.
“Hi, Mrs Mallon,” Erin greeted, smiling at the woman in question. “Is James in?”
The genuine smile on Michelle’s mother’s face was all the answer Erin needed - she knew, like everyone in their lives seemed to, and she had been waiting for this day too. James, Erin knew, was like another son to her - it was Mr and Mrs Mallon who’d been standing either side of James in his graduation photo, not his mother.
“Hi, Erin,” she greeted. “I’ll get him for you now. Come - come in.”
Erin nodded, stepping into the front porch, closing the sliding glass door behind her. The Mallon home was as familiar as her own, bright and cluttered and full of life, and love, and noise.
“James! You’ve got a visitor,” Mrs Mallon called up the stairs, winking at Erin. If anyone asked where Michelle got her cheekiness from, most would assume it was from her hilarious, often rowdy, father - but Erin knew the truth, and she knew Michelle got it from her mammy. She didn’t stay, heading back into the kitchen, closing the door behind her.
It only took a minute for James to appear at the top of the stairs, taking the steps two at a time. “Who is -” he paused, a few steps from the bottom, looking carefully at Erin. “Erin,” he breathed. “I didn’t know we had plans today.”
“We don’t,” Erin reassured. “But I wondered if you were up for going for a walk? With me?”
James hadn’t changed a lot over the last few years - well, okay, he had. His accent had changed, for one, the London almost gone and replaced with a familiar Derry twang. He kept his hair a little shorter these days, short at the sides but still curly on top, falling over his forehead in a way that made Erin’s heart skip a beat in her chest when he didn’t bother putting gel in it. He had gotten taller too, somehow, a few inches on Erin, tall enough that Erin imagined her head might fit neatly underneath his chin.
James’ face broke into a bright smile. “I’d love that,” he agreed easily. “Just - let me get my runners on.”
Erin smiled, the expression fond. “I can wait.”
“Not that - not that I don’t love walking along in silence,” James commented, his shoulder brushing against Erin’s as they approached the steepest incline of the city walls, Derry rolling out for miles ahead of them. This would always be her favourite view of Derry - the view she thought they should put on postcards. “But it seems like there’s something on your mind.”
“There is,” Erin conceded, pausing as they came across a quiet spot, tugging James to the side. “I - I’m not sure how to say this, actually,” she admitted, which felt almost embarrassing to have to admit: she was Erin Quinn, an English Literature graduate. She was supposed to know what to say, what were the right words to use - she had read enough books, and poetry in her lifetime to know all the great, big fancy words that had been assigned to love by authors over centuries - but apparently, when it came to James, she was at a loss for those big, bright, brilliant words.
James leaned against the wall, his expression so soft, and open, Erin wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. There had been a bit of distance between them, these last few years, and it felt like she’d only really recognised that distance now that James was acting like this - the way he had back in secondary school, back when he’d kissed her for the first time, and it had felt as though they had a world of possibilities at their feet.
He’d been guarded - and she had been, too.
“Any words will do,” James hummed, his smile soft, and affectionate. “They don’t have to be fancy.”
Erin knew James meant that - he didn’t need fancy words, or deliciously floral poetry. James Maguire would probably be okay with a ‘I fancy you’ if Erin was being really honest - but she didn’t want to be overly simplistic, or undersell the way she felt. She’d had a fair few months - January to June was, frankly, a long stretch - to get used to the reality of her feelings. After years of ignoring them like it was an Olympic sport, Erin felt as though she’d opened floodgates: she’d been half in love with James Maguire since she was seventeen, and she knew the other half would come easily, if they gave things a chance.
God, she hoped he would want to give things a chance.
“I like you,” she started, deciding simple was a good starting point at least. “I’ve liked you for a long time, James,” she continued, and Erin knew her words were reminiscent of their first kiss in Donegal - James didn’t mind all that much, if his smile was anything to go by. “I know - I know that I should have told you all of this years ago, and that if I had, things might be different, and you and I might have ended up together - and I don’t expect you to feel the same, after all this time, and that’s my fault, for being scared.”
Erin sucked in a nervous breath. “I was scared,” she said. “Michelle gave me an out, and I took it, because I was scared, James. For - for all the ways I talk about love and boys and these big grand feelings, the thought of it really happening to me, it terrifies me - because I, well, I could let you in, and it could all go wrong, and like - maybe it makes me a control freak - but for so long, I couldn’t imagine giving anyone, even you, all the power they needed to break my heart. But the thing is - I made myself lonely, being scared, and I made myself lonely by not letting myself embrace the way I think I’ve probably always felt about you.”
“How do you feel about me, Erin?” James sounded nervous - and bless him, he was doing his best to cover it up, but Erin knew him too well, and she knew he was nervous, his eyes wide and his breath catching in his throat as he spoke.
“I think I’m half in love with you James,” Erin admitted, and the words came easier, now she had finally admitted it out loud. “And if you kiss again, I think I’ll be all the way in love - because I’ve been almost there since you kissed me in Donegal, and for so long I didn’t let myself have the person I wanted most in the world - you.”
“You want me?” James sounded dumbfounded.
“I want you,” Erin reassured, reaching out and brushing a hand against the bare skin of James' forearm. “God - James, I want to kiss you every single day of my life, and I want to go dancing with you, and I want to do all the boring stuff, too, like go to the supermarket and pay bills and I want to deal with our crazy friends and families as a team - because I think we’d make a really good team, me and you.”
James was terrifyingly quiet.
“It’s okay, if you don’t feel the same anymore - I know it’s been a long time,” Erin began, moving to take her hand away from where it was resting on James’ elbow, James catching her wrist in a gentle grip.
“Erin,” he shook his head. “I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to hear you say that. Of course I feel the same.”
“Well, your whole life feels a bit dramatic, seeing as you only met me when you were fifteen,” Erin countered, because apparently she couldn’t help herself, even at one of the most important - and romantic - moments of her life.
“Shut up,” James shook his head, his grin bright as he pulled her closer, confident as he kissed her this time - it was different, to how it had been in Donegal, James nervous and hesitant then, more confident in himself now, but the spark that ignited in the pit of Erin’s belly felt the same, her toes curling in her runners as he kissed her, long and slow.
This, she knew, was the kind of love she’d pined over her whole life - genuine, and romantic, the kind of love they wrote books, and movies, and poetry about. Maybe one day, Erin would write about this love, their love, too - the love that begun when they were barely more than kids, seventeen and pretending to be so sure of the love, love that had burned long, and slow, just waiting for its moment to ignite and fill every inch of her body with feeling: love, and safety, and something unfamiliar that might just mean forever after.
“I love you,” James breathed into the seam of her mouth, sure and certain of his words as they kissed, the noise and hustle and bustle of Derry continuing around them, as though Erin hadn’t just experienced one of the most important moments of her life, twenty-two and finally in the arms of the boy she’d loved since he’d let her copy his maths homework on the school bus every morning.
James might break her heart, Erin knew - or she might break his. But something about this, them, and the way they had waited so patiently to be ready for this, for them, made Erin think that this was the kind of love she’d tell her grandkids about one day, gushing stories about the boy who’d swept her off her feet before she’d even been ready to know what love, real love, was.
That was something for the future.
For now, Erin was kissing the boy she loved, and she didn’t want to think beyond the next five minutes.
(Ten minutes - it would be ten minutes before some old biddy shouted at them for making a scene in the middle of the street, James wrapping his fingers around hers and tugging her down the street, the two of them giggling like schoolchildren as they chased each other through the streets of Derry, wrapped up in a bubble of love that Erin had been convinced wasn’t destined for it: she’d been so sure she wasn’t built to be in love, and she’d never been more glad to be proven wrong. She was built for love - for loving James Maguire, at least.)
July, 2003 - Derry
Glasgow taught me a lot - but the place that taught me about love, will always be Derry. Derry taught me the meaning of family - the family you’re born into, and the family you make for yourself. Derry taught me the value of love, the importance of it.
And Derry is the place I fell in love.
It’s strange, how I didn’t see it before now - and as much as I regret that the realisation took so long, I know it happened at the right time, when James and I were ready for it. He’s asleep next to me - don’t tell Mammy, they’re away at the caravan for the weekend and okay, yes, I did sneak him in. James is asleep next to me, and he looks so peaceful, and happy, and I’m sitting here, writing in my journal, trying to put into words all that Derry has taught me about love. I used to think that when I fell in love, real love, I would think obsessively about the future - and don’t get me wrong, I think about the future, about where it might take me, and James. But I think about the ‘now’ more - I think about how James is going to look so ridiculously sleep ruffled, when he wakes up, and how it’s adorable how it takes him a few seconds to really wake up. I think about how he’s going to kiss me, and tell me he loves me, and how we’ll spend the day together, and maybe even get dinner - and how he’ll kiss me breathless, at the front door, and I’ll watch as he leaves, and walks home, and how he’ll call me, in the morning, and propose another adventure - a beach trip, or a shopping trip in Belfast.
I’d follow him anywhere - to the beach in Donegal, or to Victoria Square, or just down the road to the local cafe.
He’d follow me anywhere too, I know.
Maybe that’s how I know it’ll work - because even though I haven’t figured out what comes next, after university, and I haven’t figured out what the dream job is, I know he’ll be there, and the rest? Well, the rest we’ll figure out.
It’s me and James, after all. It might have taken us a while, but we figured it out in the end.
James' breath was warm, against Erin’s neck, his embrace slowly growing familiar the longer they were together. August had rolled into September, and autumn was slowly taking hold, green leaves beginning to yellow. It was the first autumn in four years she wouldn’t be going back to Glasgow, and as much as she missed it, ached for it sometimes, Erin knew the next adventure was on its way.
“Where to next?” he inquired, Erin holding tightly to the arm that was wrapped around her front.
Erin grinned. “I don’t know,” she hummed, twisting in his arms, moving so she could look at him properly. “I hear Barcelona is nice this time of year.”
James laughed. “Paris, maybe.”
“Amsterdam,” Erin proposed.
James kissed her, soft and slow. “Anywhere you go, I go, love.”
And that, Erin knew - was the stuff fairytales were really made of.