The summer I will never forget: A long ago holiday that brought love and loss
As her new novel, revolving around one of those memorable distant summers that changes everything, is released, Emily Hourican remembers the holidays 25 years ago when she learnt who she was
It's the summer we all have - the one that lives in memory and seems to grow more radiant in retrospect, as the years pass. But even though it picks up extra glory as it recedes, it's not that we don't know at the time that this one is something special. We do; we feel it. As the days and nights slip by, golden dawn followed by velvet dusk, we know this one is not like the others. That it stands apart - bathed in the seductive light of infinite possibility; a voice that whispers 'anything can happen' on a warm evening breeze.
It's summer like a shot of sambuca; sweet, faintly sickening, utterly intoxicating. Summer written by Ella Fitzgerald or Don Henley.
It is always summer, not Easter, or Christmas. This kind of naissance needs light, and heat, and long days without responsibility. It can happen at any age, probably, although really, I think we are talking a time frame of late teens into early 20s. It is a summer of love, and learning, and new things, new people; on a beach, in a city, in the countryside. Mostly, it is a summer of us.
It's the summer we learn who we are - or, far more importantly, we learn who we could be. And even though it is, for many of us, bound up in the idea of love - a boy or girl, a gang, a city, a situation - with the wisdom of long hindsight, I think that really, what we fall in love with in those months is ourselves.
The selves we suddenly understand we can be. The possibilities we discern, the future we see in front of us. It isn't the guy with the intricate snake tattoo on his upper arm after all, it's the idea that it could be him, if we wanted it to be. The giddying knowledge that, after all, we don't have to be the person we were brought up to be, or even the person we have been until now. That there is more, and more exciting possibilities out there. If we want it.
That summer, we finally understand that we do want it. And that we can have it.
For me, it was the summer of 1993. The year I finished my BA in University College Dublin, a golden pause in the until then relentless cycle of school-home-study-college-exams; a hiatus in the exhausting process of becoming; a shelf on which to rest and take stock.
That June, I went back to Brussels, which was, then, still home, despite the three years I had spent in UCD, and for the first time I fully understood that there was more in front of me than behind me.
I was 22, and I felt like someone had flattened all the walls around so that I was free. The long years of school, at which I far from excelled, followed by the years of my English and history degree, were over. I had survived. I had made it. The final exams were finished, and I was confident I had done well in them (for someone who had been academically rocky, that alone was a dizzy feeling).
I had succeeded in getting through the education system, where I had not thrived, and was now looking towards the world of work, where I had a feeling I would do better. But before that, there was... nothing. A long, glorious nothing. Three months of freedom and anticipation and luxurious enjoyment of every hour and day, because they all belonged to me. I had earned them, now I would spend them exactly as I wished.
I had a temp job - deeply undemanding, some kind of low-level archive administration that paid me, just enough, and gave me a place to sit during the days, while I waited for the far more exciting nights.
At first, my co-workers hated me, because I had failed to grasp the fundamental rule of lowly jobs in European institutions - there is always more work. I believed that I could somehow, by charging fast and furiously at my data-entry, get to the end of the pile, and go home early (I also failed to realise that going home early was not a thing that needed to be earned).
And so, as part of a human chain of co-workers, I was putting pressure on those around me with my over-eager keyboard-tapping. I'm surprised they didn't kill me. Instead, I gradually understood the drill, and slowed down to the appropriate crawl. After that, we all got on much better.
I also had a house. My parents and younger siblings were in Kerry for the summer, which meant that I had the run of that beautiful house in Brussels with its magical garden, a place of dappled shade and birdsong; a perfect kind of Tennessee Williams-inspired backdrop to play at the life I dreamed up. There were friends from school, ready and waiting, and new friends who showed up, had the same interests (basically bars, nightclubs, late nights, indolent hedonism), and stuck around. We had a gang. Some had cars, one guy had a pool; mainly, what we had was a sense of purpose in each other.
And I had, as I recall, limitless energy. Nothing could stop me, from going out, staying out, going out again. I loved everyone I met, no one annoyed me or bored me; they were all delightful, just as I was delightful.
We were drunk, often, but it wasn't that that accounted for my enthusiasm, instead, it came from within, from a new belief in myself. The self-consciousness of my teenage years seemed to have melted away like the wax casing from a sculpture.
There are barely any photos of that time - we didn't have phones or selfies or filters then. We recorded almost nothing, except on to the blotting paper of memory. Mostly, it is a warm blur, but I recall certain specific moments, in parks, or bars, on streets, late at night or in friends' gardens. Like the time we broke into a park in the dead of night and sang Edith Piaf songs at the tops of our voices, until we were chased out by the police with good-natured threats of violence. Like the time I met the girl I admired most from school; French, a year older, gorgeous and beyond cool; and she, who had ignored me forever, was nice to me. Because now we were grown-up and had left behind the silliness of school and could just talk to each other normally (almost normally... she was still very cool, and that was still a bit intimidating).
In the absence of many images, there are smells - of petrol and hot cobblestones and bleach on early morning streets - and sounds, of traffic slowed by heat, the blurred wail of a siren in the distance, the thump of house music - and a certain type of late afternoon sunlight across pale grey stone houses. These things will always remind me of that time.
And there was a song (there is always a song, the soundtrack of That Summer). For me, it was Show Me Love by Robin S. Even now, the thump of that organ bass instantly takes me there.
I'm making it sound even more idyllic than it was, and not everything was perfect. Rattling around Brussels late at night, not very sober, could be dangerous, and there was a fight one night that started with chivalry - a friend went to the aid of a girl being beaten by the guy she was with - and ended with a knife-cut to the face that required heaps of stitches. Another time, someone drove into the back of the car I was in, deliberately, because, apparently, those of us inside the car were "bitches". No one was hurt that time, but it was a reminder that the back page of the local paper was often made up of accounts of violent incidents that didn't merit more space, only a weary shrug of resignation: Ca arrive…
In my new novel, The Blamed, Anna, the main character, lives through just such a summer. She falls in love, with a city and a guy, and learns to believe that everything she has never dared to hope for is actually there for her after all. She drifts through hot days and hotter nights, fuelled by the secret purpose of her obsession. She learns a new language and a new way of being. Most of all, she learns that she has, after all, a say in herself.
The Blamed is a work of fiction. The people and situations in it aren't real, but some of the places are. There is the nightclub we went to, as often as it was open - the Vaudeville, an old theatre with a curly plaster ceiling and red velvet seats, and a bar we haunted. The streets and squares I send Anna walking through are real too, although most are greatly changed in the last 10 years.
Like Anna, I fell in love that summer. Or I thought I did. Mostly, I fell in love with someone I made up in my mind, who was not the person in front of me, although I couldn't see that until it was shown to me quite brutally.
In The Blamed, that summer ends horribly for Anna, with the death of her best friend.
My summer ended horribly too, with the death of my father. The whole thing came to a sudden crashing halt very early one morning in August, when the sun was barely up, with a phone call from Kerry to say he had died, of a massive heart attack.
It was the end of the summer, and for a time the end of everything. So much so that part of me wondered if his death wasn't my fault - the universe punishing me for my feckless hedonism. For daring to believe I could make it up as I went along. I guess those are the sad, slightly twisted ways in which we try to make sense of the terrible things that happen to us. As if they have a plan, a logic, a rhyming scheme somewhere inside that cruel chaos.
I left Brussels abruptly, for his funeral, and by the time I came back, I couldn't see any beauty in the city at all. I left again as fast as I could, and signed up to do a master's in English in UCD. In the face of so much unwanted change, I needed to go back, not forward; to somewhere I knew well, where I could hide myself among bookshelves and essay deadlines and familiarity.
The guy I fancied myself in love with, seen only ever in the half-light of late nights and my own wishfulness, turned out, in the cold light of a very harsh day, to be of no more substance than a dream. I tried to lean against him, and he simply dissolved. It wasn't his fault, and I didn't blame him. If anything, I was glad to find it out.
I never had another summer like that one, and that's as it should be. I've never wanted one. After all, the most basic quality of those days is innocence - of the full breadth of the world, and the way it can encompass tragedy as well as joy. Once you learn those things, that innocence is gone forever. You swap the dreaminess for a sharper reality and move with purpose instead of drifting. You replace the hedonistic solipsism of 'me' with the broader comfort of 'us'. Probably, you find happiness that is built to last.
Basically, you grow up.
But you don't forget.
The Blamed by Emily Hourican is out now, published by Hachette Books Ireland