James had thought she was pretty the first time he saw her. Before Michelle yelled out to them, before Erin had asked who owned him and Orla had been thoroughly lost by his accent. Pretty but a tiny bit mean. Not Michelle mean, but certainly not as kind as Clare would turn out to be or even Orla, whose kindness was arguably unintentional. He very quickly realised Erin was a lot of things. She was stubborn, a little arrogant, creative, a little mental, funny and definitely more naïve about the world then she would admit to anyone. She was also the only one who ever seemed to be able to rein Michelle in, even if only a little, which he appreciated. But he had also relieved himself in a waste paper basket that first day they met, when he had thought she was pretty, and he was certain he would only ever be a friend to Erin after that. Besides, he had noted that Clare and Orla were both rather pretty too, in their own ways. Noticing, acknowledging, that she was a pretty girl, didn’t mean James fancied Erin.
The first moment he had really felt anything for Erin was when Toto had died…or at least, when Ma Mary had told Erin that he did. They’d been studying, well he and Clare had been, and she’d moped about, going over how unfair it was and holding that picture in her hands. Even though it seemed like she was exaggerating maybe hoping it would mean she could get out of the exam, James could tell she really was hurting. It was in the silences, in the moments she thought her friends were too busy to pay attention to the few tears that managed to slip down her cheek. He wanted to hope up on the bed beside her and hug her, holding her tightly until she felt better. Of course, he would have done that for any of the girls if they were sad, probably even Michelle. That’s what he told himself.
The second moment was when Katya had come. It wasn’t so much that he felt anything for Erin then, more so that he was just a little pleased Erin was jealous. He didn’t really know whether it was her being jealous of Katya or that Katya had chosen James. He wasn’t even sure Erin knew the answer to that. But even when she had gotten them kicked out of Jenny’s party and insulted Katya so deeply she would never speak to any of them again, including him, something about the way she’d cared so much made him feel special. It crossed his mind that he wouldn’t have minded Erin being in Katya’s place. And then he told himself that was a ridiculous thought and unless he wanted to be murdered (either by Michelle or Granda Joe), he’d never think like that again.
The third moment was the day of the bombing, the day Orla had performed on at the school talent show. He’d been frustrated with her after the way she’d reacted to Clare coming out. When Clare had told them, he actually believed Erin had reacted in that way, mostly because while he knew she acted worldly and understanding, she wasn’t always quite so good at putting that into practice. But he’d also seen how upset Erin was, that she clearly felt badly for her reaction and wanted to make things right. Even still, he’d gone off to sit with Clare, knowing Michelle would always choose Erin and that Orla was off preparing her talent – she’d refused to tell them what she was doing. When Orla had started her step aerobics routine and the other students had laughed and teased, he had tried to sink into himself. He wished he could make it stop for Orla.
“She might be a dick,” he heard Erin saying loudly. “But she’s my dick!” And then Clare stood up beside him and said “She’s our dick!” He’d watched the girls look at each other and nod, then make their way to the stage. Michelle had cursed at them but followed and James knew he had to join them too. And as he danced up there with Erin, he realised he was proud of her and that he admired her, the way she was always there when you really needed her. He told himself, one day, he’d make sure he repaid that.
But the moment that really sealed it for him, made him realise he might just be in love with a particular Derry Girl, was the night of Prom. And it wasn’t because he felt good about being able to be her knight in shining armour, although he did feel good about it. It was the way she’d smiled when she asked about his Doctor Who (creep, as he’d said) convention. The way she didn’t seem disappointed that it was James at the door instead of John Paul. When she’d gone off to change and come back in the Easter dress, because James was comfortable. And then when she’d taken his arm, squeezed against him happily on her way to the dance. After they’d been, for lack of a better term, Carrie’d, Erin had still willing danced with James while Michelle begrudgingly danced with Clare and Orla happily continued to dance with Granda Joe.
He had wanted to tell her how he felt when he had decided to leave but it had all been so sudden. He didn’t want to tell her in front of everyone, and even if he did, he had no idea what he could say that would be fair followed up by “Oh and I’m leaving.” He was grateful in the end that he hadn’t told her, because he’d decided to stay after all. Michelle’s words had hit home and he couldn’t get Erin’s face out of his mind. Now though he knew he fancied Erin and he had no idea what to do about that.
* * * * * * * *
Erin could honestly say she’d never really noticed James until the night he’d turned up on her doorstep. The thing was Katya had been odd, and she still couldn’t entirely explain to herself what had made her react in such a way, because really why should it matter to her who wanted to ride James. But that night, as she’d sat there and hated herself for not just going with Clare like she’d promised to do in the first place, Erin had felt more alone than she thought was possible. Resigning herself to the fact she would just be missing out on Prom, she had left her family in the kitchen to go and take off the monstrosity of a dress she had thought would be cool and trendy enough for John Paul. He had been dating a model before her after all. She heard the doorbell just as she passed by the door and with a quick check to make sure the tears she could feel coming hadn’t actually made a mark on her face, she had opened the door to see James. Somehow in that moment, it didn’t feel wrong or strange that it was James. She didn’t want it to be John Paul standing there, and she didn’t want to be in this stupid fancy dress. She just wanted to be with James. He was safe, comfortable, family almost. But also decidedly not family.
It was when he’d pulled her into dance, the pair of them covered in tomato juice (and not thankfully pigs’ blood), that she’d realised perhaps she felt something more than friendly for James Maguire. The song was slow, enough that she could comfortably rest her head against his shoulder as they swayed to the music. Orla was dancing with Granda, either unaware or uncaring about the rest of them. Michelle, having given up on the boys who’d left her behind, danced with Clare. Although it was more Michelle stood at arm’s distance because she was already up for murder for the dress she couldn’t return, she wasn’t taking the chance of Clare’s also being ruined. Erin had noticed that she could, just barely, hear the beating of James’ heart. He held her waist and a little part of her wanted to reach back and move his hands just a little lower. If the song hadn’t ended at that moment, Erin was almost certain she could have, would have, kissed him. But it did end and Orla joined them, complaining that there were not enough sweets. Michelle was still ranting about why they had even bothered to try to help Jenny and poor Clare just listened and took the verbal assault despite having played very little part in the whole thing. Suddenly, they were all heading home and Prom was over.
The moment he’d told them all he was leaving, Erin had understood how deeply her feelings went for this English fella she’d barely known just over a year ago. If she thought she understood heartbreak when John Paul had stood her up, it was nothing to the crushing feeling she had as he walked away from them. Michelle had gone after him, and it was a good thing she had, because Erin was frozen. Never before had Erin been unable to find words but in that moment she wished she was anywhere but in the middle of that huge crowd. If she was wishing, she wished she was with James, hand in hand. Worse, she was so certain he had felt something for her too but he mustn’t have if he was able to walk away so easily without even a proper goodbye. As she tried to imagine Derry without him, Orla had said she could see him and when they realised she didn’t mean Clinton they’d all turned to see Orla was talking about James. As happy as she was that he was back, that he was staying, Erin hated that she now had no idea where she stood when it came to him. And so she tried to push the feelings she was becoming more and more aware of aside. Just be his friend, she told herself. But she was finding that increasingly harder to accomplish.