Chapter One: Blood Sacrifice
(Chapter Two and Three follow)
“These wee bombs don’t look like much, but I’ve seen them in action. Lethal, like.” Bernard whispered, head tilted close to Declan’s ear.
Declan didn’t respond. Pulled his chair tighter against the narrow kitchen table, gaze fixed on the device carefully being assembled upon it. Tendrils of cigarette smoke lacing the ceiling around a solitary lightbulb’s sickly glow.
“Amma wastin’ my friggin’ time here, or what, eh?” Vincent Quinn said, sat opposite them as he plucked his cigarette from where it rested on an ashtray. Stabbed it between his thin lips from where its tip crackled red. Vincent was an Irish Liberation Army bomb-maker, one of four operating in Belfast. All the ILA’s bomb-makers liked to be referred to as ‘the engineer’, though, and that’s how he’d been introduced to Declan and Bernard.
Vincent tutted, continued the clay-like dynamite into an empty Lyle’s Golden Syrup can, mumbling, “cud weh not get decent stuff? This here’s – ”
“Is good enough for this job,” Colm Burke, the local commander, said. He stood, back turned to them, eyes fixed out through the kitchen window. “You boys be sure an’ pay attention, now. No fucking around.” Night slid, shadow-skinned, down over the yard wall. Light from the bulb above bleached Colm’s fair hair as he turned around, saying, ”look lads, listen. For once in yer lives, this is no game, right? Youse hav’ta watch’ an’ listen to what we’re tellin’ youse. That’s if youse still intend to become a volunteer. If so, you’ll be expected to know how ta put somethin’ like this together.” Declan and Bernard both murmured an affirmative. Colm creased his forehead, nodded to the bomb, “well lads, this here’s no toy. If yeh’s don’t listen now, one of youse’ll be who ends up dead from it, Sol help me.” Colm considered them, his eyes shone like wet stones. He sighed, teased a smile, softening his tone, “look, all ye’s haveta do is just heft it at the friggin’’ Brits, easy as … just like throwin’ a brick. ‘Stead this brick’ll do far more damage.” Chuckled. “Piece a piss, eh.”
Declan felt his ears warm with colour. He avoided Colm’s eyes, stared at the can as Vincent thumbed a small cylinder of silver metal into the clay. “What’s that..?” he began.
“Tell’em what yer doin’ Vince,” Colm said.
“Aye, aren’t a doin’ that,” Vincent said, rolling his shoulders back, sitting upright, withdrawing the cylinder from the dynamite between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, clasping the can with his left. Vincent held the cylinder up at Declan and Bernard’s eye level. A thin, black cord dangled down from one end of it, coiling onto the table. Motioning the cylinder he said, “now, see this, this is the detonator – what makes it go bang, alright.” Setting down the can, Vincent traced a forefinger along the cord, saying, “and this here’s the fuse what you light. Now, I’m gonna cut this shorter. Youse know why you do that?” Vincent narrowed his eyes, darting them slyly from Declan and Bernard who both shook their heads. He grinned, sucked heavily on his cigarette then crushed it into the ashtray. “Well, it’s like this: youse – the thrower, like – sparks up too long a fuse and its gonna burn long enough for all the Brits in Belfast to get a shot aff at you. They know enough that the sight of someone in a crowd with a wee flame taperin’ up to their hand is gettin’ ready to fling a bomb of sorts at ‘em. So, a short fuse will let ye get up close enough to light’ and throw it before the Brits know what’s commin’, alright?”
Colm grinned, said, “see lads, nothin’ to it.” Side look at Bernard, “you thrown one a these ..?”
Bernard went to speak, words stumbled, mouth parched, tried to clear his throat, “ … nah – ”
“Take that as a no, then?” Vincent said, snorting his amusement, smirking, darting a glance at Colm, then back to the device, saying, “now, I’m tellin’ yehs … ” fixing his eyes on Declan and Bernard’s, “see an’ make sure it’s lit only when you know you’re ready to throw it, otherwise you’ll be lucky if all you lose is a hand.”
Colm planted himself down on a chair at the end of the table, leaned forward on his elbows, said, “good advice, Vince.” Tapped out a fresh cigarette and sparked it up. His expression became pensive through the blue swirls of smoke.
Vincent set a narrow strip of corrugated cardboard and a handful of three-inch nails beside the can, saying, “just for added effect – bitta shrapnel.” Carefully taking his time to slide each nail into each of the cardboard’s thin flutes.
Declan watched on as Vincent then rolled the strip around the can with the nails on the inside, before securing it with a roll of gaffer tape. Declan lifted his eyes to Colm who was gazing back out the window, cigarette smouldering between his fingers Noticing a tattoo on the back of Colm’s left hand. Some kinda warrior, oul Conall Cernach, probably? Declan thought, we’re all warriors, aye. All equal in our struggle. He felt more relaxed at the thought. His heart no longer raced, definitely not as it had earlier that evening when Niall Kennedy – a neighbour and verteran member of the organisation – had brought him and Bernard to this cramped, end-of-terrace house a couple of streets away. Niall had cautioned them about Colm’s temper. ‘Runs hot and cold, lads. Just show yer keen … youse’ll be fine.’ Declan thought he recognised Colm, the area commander, as being one of the officials when he’d been formally sworn into the ILA five months ago. Just kept me amongst the messengers, or bein’ one of the lookouts for operation. Till now, Declan smiled to himself, now, I get to be a proper volunteer; a freedom fighter. Get mehself a bitta respect, fer sure.
“Right,” Vincent muttered, “all done. Slouched back in his chair, inhaled a satisfied nose of air, let indifference soften the lines of his face.
Declan stared at the assembled bomb. Reading the can’s faded label again, wanting to say out loud that they should write shrapnel in black marker over where it says syrup. Not having the courage. Seeing Colm shouting in his face that it wasn’t a toy. Bernard snigger. Declan’s da gettin’ to hear and seein’ him embarrassed and angered by his son. Reshaped his thoughts into him one day commanding a fleet of car bombs, sending them into Belfast. Gazing intently the televised pictures of twisted steels as well as whole panes of shattered glass rippling down through the throats of bomb blast like autumn leaves. His fame within Ireland rising like the phoenix.
“ … throw it before you’re seen … ” Colm was saying.
Declan’s mind traced itself back from the images of cheering faces upturned to his own, back to the smoke-matted shades of the kitchen and the steady pad of water dripping into the sink like the hollow heartbeat of irreversible fate. A voice in his head – not sounding like his own – bled through his thoughts in calm brutality. After tonight, nothing will be the same.
“ … your time to shine, do the organisation proud. Am I right, Vince?”
“Right,” Vincent said, rolling his cigarette from one corner of his mouth to the other. Eyes motioning to the bomb, “that’s her all ready to go.” Flicked his eyes up from under his eyebrows, searched Declan and Bernard’s mischievously, “look I’ll show ye’s.” Grinning he fetched the cigarette from his mouth and held its red glow close to the fuse.
“Mithras’ sake,” Bernard said, half rising from his chair. Declan froze.
Colm sniggered, said, “right, right, Vince, enough clownin’ around. This is on for tonight, don’t be fergettin’ that.” Thumb-crushed his cigarette into the ashtray.
Declan swallowed hard, tried to smile. Bernard scraped the feet of his chair back, elbows on the table.
“Don’t light it too early, nat if ye’s don’t want shat. Fling the thing at the Brits – that’s all their is to it.” Vincent said, then gave Colm a I’m done shrugg.
Colm leant back, clapped his palms together once, said, “right lads, just so ye’s know: if for any reason ye’s don’t get a chance ta throw it – and it’s not lit – just keepa houl of it and bring it back fer our quartermaster.”
“What if we’ve already lit it an’ – ”
“Youse shouldn’t be lighten it, Vincent snapped, “lessen ye’s are gonna throw – “
“Throw it onta wasteground or somethin’,” Colm said, “an’ friggin’ scarper, ok, eh?”
Declan nodded, his teeth clamped together. Biting down the shiver of nerves hooding him. They’re all watchin’ me, seein’ if I’m gonna bottle this – maybees I should? No. But he knew that once he strode out into the damp-dark neon of the streets he might be treading into some Brit’s ‘sight-picture’ at least that’s what they’d call a target in all those books on the British Army he’d read. Sensed the frailty of clothes against a soldier’s bullet; only the naked night between the rifle and his skin. Knew his mum would be wondering where he was. ‘At least knock the front door now and again. Lemme know where you’re going, who you’re with.’ She’d be sitting alone in the living room now – his dad, no doubt, still out at some meeting, or the pub more like. Sitting in front of the TV, pretending to watch it. Worrying about him. I’m doin’ what meh ancestors did, he told himself, what you and meh da hav’ talked about over and over: how the Brits invaded and oppressed our people. Meh granda an’ meh da fought ‘gaist them, an’ so will I.
Vincent saying, “piece a piss, eh?” Chuckled. Gathered his unused materials into a bag. “Youse’ll be leavin’ out the yard door,” Colm said, standing as he lit another cigarette, blew smoke from pursed lips.
Declan stood, hesitated. Unsure if should appear confident by lifting the bomb, or wait until Vincent handed it to him. Bernard had walked over to the sink, filled a cup with water and supped. Declan’s pulse drummed in his throat.
“Now’s the time ta speak up, Deccy … ” said Colm, “if there’s somethin’ not sittin’ right with ye about the job, like … ”
Declan shook his head. Thinking Colm’s tone disdainful. Smiled weakly. Felt Bernard’s eyes on him. Carefully picked up the bomb. Surprised by the firm texture of the fuse as it draped itself over the back of his hand. Looks nearly like somethin’ I’dda made in school, he thought, tensing the muscles in his legs against the apprehension which threatened to buckle them. Sure, isn’t this what they toul us in training: ‘don’t be gettin’ too worked up ‘bout an operation when yer time comes, this square-headed guy from brigade staff’s tellin’ us new volunteers, ‘it’ll have been worked out ta the nth degree. Yer target’s just that – a target, nothin’ more. Youse’ll just be carrying out orders comin’ down till ye from Command. Youse don’t wanna execute those orders … well, then, a better man than you will. Trust me.’
“Oh aye,“ Colm said, unlocking the kitchen door into the yard, “iffan for whatever reason yeh don’t get an opportunity teh light the thing, case the Brits maybe looked as if they could outflank youse, then don’t fret … ”
Vincent saying, “you gonna mollycoddle the child cause his da’s mister politician?”
Colm kicked the side of his empty chair against Vincent’s, keeping his eyes fixed on Declan’s. “Your da’ll,” slamming his sole against his chair again causing Vincent to grab the table edge with both hands to prevent falling. “Your da’ll think no less of you if you’ve least gone out and gave it a try. Remember youse two – get them as they start to come down the wee alleyway at Glasheen. That’s best cover for yees.” Checked his watch, “right, is already a quarter past ten. Time ta make a move, lads.”
Bernard yawned. Vincent muttered under his breath, bagging the remainder of his bomb-making materials. The moon was a lustrous skelf hooking clouds. Night pitched its cold face against the kitchen window and the threshold of the open door. Chill waited there.
Declan held Colm’s gaze, made sure he’d spit in his mouth before uttering a convincing, “nat a problem.” Worried for a moment that the chest-punch of his heart would betray him.
“You out first, Bernie boy, see that alley’s clear,” Colm said.
Declan knew to wait. Remained just inside the kitchen beside Colm, both watching Bernard quietly unbolt the yard door and step into the alley, seconds later his upturned thumb hung like a ghost in the darkness. Declan felt himself walk forward, cool air folded around him. Thought he heard Colm wishing him luck. Maybe not? With the dead heat of the bomb against his palm he lurched into the alley.
Martin Doyle walked alone through the Pater Hospital’s main corridor, connecting the larger wards to A&E. He felt good having just finished his second shift working as a cleaner there. It’s a busy place, he frowned, carefully considering the thought. Like a city. Recalling the shoals of faces from earlier which glided past him, submerged in chatter or their own silences. I wanna stay. This is the best job for me. Martin’s granny and Maeve, his social worker, had sorted the job for him. It wasn’t his first, but; so far, the best. Anyway, Maeve says I’m just as good as anyone else. ‘Just you wait and see,’ she’d told him as he’d been sat in her office supping tea and munching on a plate of Jaffa Cakes. ‘You’ll see, Martin, you’ll enjoy it, and I know Mr McShane – who’ll be your boss – he’s a lovely man and’ll look after you well. And just you wait and see, you’ll just be like everyone else who works. So now, promise you won’t worry about anyone looking at you in a funny way or teasing you – and if they do … well, you just ignore them and you tell Mr McShane.’ He would. Mr McShane had been nice to him. Showed what being a cleaner here was about. I won’t let Maeve down again. She’d been patient and understanding when he’d not liked the two jobs before this one: stacking shelves in a newspaper shop, then helping Mr Stewart, the fishmonger, do deliveries. Martin had noticed the cruel glances of some customers. Heard them being told, ‘ach, pay no heed, he’s alright. I’m watchin’ him anyway.’ He knew he could do those jobs as well as anyone else, but seeing people look at him coldly, or him being made to feel as useless as one of those oul fish was just like school all over again. Even then he’d tried to show those teasing him that he wasn’t stupid all the time, just because they said he talked funny and sometimes saw him crying because he couldn’t keep up with the rest of his class in lessons. Forget it, forget it, forget it.This job will work. All kinds of people here – so many people. He felt a sort of comfort seeing all the visitors and staff pour by, much too busy to notice him. And sure, that girl Pamela … Mr McShane said I’d meet her tomorrow, that we would get on. She has a social worker too. Martin smiled shyly, opening the door to the cleaner’s store, fetched out his duffel bag. A mist of light rain glittered in the evening air as he left the hospital, strolling past the dull bronze glow of the streetlights and towards the bus stop.
“Thank you,” Martin said to the bus driver before steadily measuring his steps down onto the pavement. He watched the bus drone into the distance. Dug around in his trouser pocket until his fingers clasped the key for his granny’s house, the rasp of its teeth against his skin reassuring. Don’t want to wake granny up case she’s sleepin’. Needs her sleep. Has to look after Martin the working man, now. He’d moved in with his granny just as he’d started big school. Mum and dad stopped liking each other. Dad didn’t like me anyway. Toul me I wasn’t his real son. I am real. Too ugly he said. Not like my brothers and sister, they’re smart. The sound of voices scattered his thoughts. Dark figures funneled out from one of the streets up ahead on the right. Soldiers. Be outta the peeler’s station. A flood of anxiety shortened Martin’s pace. Just let them soldiers go away on. Don’t wanna get stuck in between them. That’d happened before and been scary. Soldiers here to make Belfast same as London, something like that? Reformists want them here. We don’t, seems. Lots of bombs. Better to keep out of it all. Not for me. Not interested. Working man, now. Don’t like strangers getting too close to me, and them soldiers are strangers with guns and restless eyes. Let them get away on ahead. But the soldiers halted, A few crouching down. Radio voices crackled. Martin lowered his head, concentrating on walking past one of the kneeling soldiers. Not far to granny’s, he repeated to himself. Hoped the soldiers wouldn’t start walking again until he was far away from them.
“Here, lettus see it again – just fer a minute, like?” said Bernard to Declan as they both threaded their way along the narrow alleyways which would eventually lead them out onto Whitehart Park.
Declan walked with the bomb held down by his side, fingertips clasping its top rim, claw-like. “Wise up,” he hissed through his teeth, he would’ve told Bernard to walk on ahead, but he was biting down on the fear rising in his throat. Tried to focus. Just a wee op ‘gainst the Brits. Yeah. It is, isn’t it – a military operation, and this time I’m the main man. Just needin’ to stay calm. Not mess thing’s up. Wanting Bernard to be quiet, stop intruding on his thoughts.
“Sure, be like that,then,” Bernard was saying. “Just cause yeh – ”
“Just ‘cause whah? ‘Cause meh da’s – ” Shout ta fuck up, will ye.”
“No, nat yer da. Just wannat another luk at it, ‘sides … ” he chuckled, “yer still a cub.”
Declan kept his gaze fixed ahead as they neared the end of the alleyway, he recognised the section of brickwork visible across the road from the alley’s mouth, dipped in amber light. Wall’a the oul factory where Auntie Myrtle used to work. Was a distillery … something to do with bottles, anyways?
“Be seventeen in a coupla months,” said Declan, finding his voice. Juggling feelings of nausea and excitement.
“Here, don’t be rushin’ on out,” Bernard said, motioning for Declan to slow.
Declan stopped, remaining in the shadows which clung inside the alley’s mouth. With his back pressed against the alley wall he craned his neck towards the opening, scanning the expanse of Whitehart Park and along to its junction with Glasheen Road. Brits’ll be comin’ down from there. Declan squinted until his focus sharpened patches of darkness. No one about. Good. He shivered. Cold air crept along his arms.
Bernard waited, slouched against the alley wall beside Declan, said, “remember: ignore any cars and people if they appear. We’ve a few spotters about. Any probs and someone’ll blow a whistle twice. Hear that an’ then yeh better scarper. Ditch the bomb somewere if yeh hav’ta. Alright?” His words snipped, tone flat. A thin bar of light gliding across one side of his face as he followed Declan’s gaze.
Declan glanced around at Bernard. Lanky bastard. All soft eyes and sharp cheekbones. No trouble gettin’ girls. Considered his own failings trying to get a girlfriend. Just don’t have that confidence. Get led on too easy, anyways. Think they like you and yeh ask ‘em out on a date, or sorts, and they say no, then run an’ tell their mates. Aoife was nice ‘n’ all. Declan recalling her tumble of red hair, the dark of her eyebrows. The feeling of his soul’s cool salvation in her blue eyes.
“Fuckin’ Earth to Deccy … ” Bernard was saying, “yeh fallen asleep, or what? I said, want me to dander on up ahead of ye?”
“Aye, hang on,” Declan said, inhaling a noseful of air. Having another sidelong glance along Whitehart Park.
“‘Til I’m happy.”
“Right, I’m forgettin’, this is your show. Take it yeh got all yer needin’?”
“What yeh on abo – ”
“Like matches, y’know.”
Declan felt lightheaded. No. Canna’ve fucked this up ‘fore’av even hadda chance. Be a friggin’ laughin’ stock, an’ mah da …
Bernard’s coat rustled against brick as he shoved himself off the wall. Sniffed. Said, “aw, mate, yeh musta brought matches, eh?” Smirked. Hand plunged into a pocket and shook it gently. A dry rattle sounded faintly from it. “Hey, aren’t I here ta look after ye, afterall.”
“Sol Mithras,” Declan said, breathily, sweat beaded on his forehead despite the chill of the breeze. Spat a bitter taste from his mouth. Saw Bernard holding out a box of Ship matches.
“You worry about hurling that at the Brits,” Bernard said, nodding to the bomb, “I’ll spark it up for you when yer ready, fair enough?”
Declan forced a smile, “frigger…” he managed to say, lips dry. Rolled his shoulders. Raised the bomb to his waist, regarded its crude form as if in doing so he could slow time somehow. Bernard clapped a hand on Declan’s shoulder, “right, let’s go. Stay about ten feet behind me,” he said as he stalked out onto Whitehart Park, hands sunk in his trouser pockets, shoulders hunched and strode off towards Glasheen Road. Declan decided to wait until Bernard was about twenty feet away then pushed himself out under the dull faces of the streetlights. Tightly blinking a skin of moisture from his eyes. Moments later he was standing at the opening of the alleyway running up behind one side of the houses on Glasheen Road. Bernard a few feet across from him, one shoulder leant against the edge of his side of the opening. Still smirking. Declan sided a glance into the alleyway, up into its black throat. Smoothed a forefinger and thumb along the fuse and waited.
Martin raised his eyes to the charcoal sky. The sound of a helicopter, chopping through the velvet skin of night, was carried to him on a pulse of wind before the grumble of its rotors seemed to dwindle away. Martin pictured himself behind the helicopter’s controls, skimming over Temple Hill and down across Belfast’s stubble of slate roofs. Seeing his brothers and sisters excitedly waving up at him. Maybe even mum and dad, too? Yeah. It’s okay to pretend, sometimes, he told himself. No one would look at him with sad or angry eyes if he was a real pilot. Maybe then he could just fly his family away from all this fighting? I wish. He studied the cold solitude of some stars which bristled brightly above, those that set themselves apart from the faint clusters; blazing silently. The muffled screech of a soldier’s radio suddenly crackled in the air behind Martin. No, no. Soldiers. Closer? Walking again? Still behind me. Martin quickened his pace, the top of his street getting nearer. He didn’t want the soldiers overtaking him. Not now. Not far to go. Can’t let them get in front and behind me they’ll do that stop-start thing and stare at me, or say something, and I don’t understand their voices ‘cause they’re strangers – they’re … no, I can nip down the wee alley; quicker, I’ll disappear from them when I nip down through it. Then only a minute or two and I’ll be in granny’s. Overhead, the helicopter resumed its noisy vigil.
Declan shifted the bomb from his right hand to his left, and then back again to measure its weight one last time. He was standing, side-on, to the alley’s mouth. Bernard had moved beside him. The ebb and flow of a helicopter’s whine had troubled him, but Bernard reassured, had said, ‘ignore it. Be buzzin’ ‘round all night, ‘sides, sounds ta me like it’s away over the north a the city.’ Declan returned his gaze along the tenebrous symmetry that plunged into the alley’s heart. Air, lightly scented by the smoke of coal fires dipped around him. Darkness filled his eyes and pulsed like fragments of black static. Expanding. Contracting. Am I breathing? He gripped the bomb with both hands, level with his stomach. He would never really see the Brit – not properly – just a dirty uniform. Just another operation against the imperialist forces. Scum of Albion. Get bloodied. Get a scalp. Then I’m a somebody. Nat just ‘cause a who meh da is. He watched as a part of the darkness congealed, still fluid-like, but appearing to move within that of a lesser form. Fuck. Fuck. Nervousness rippled through Declan’s body. Heat pin-pricked over his flesh. Later, he would remember vaguely the bitter smell of sulfur and Bernard’s face, briefly illuminated by the sickly flame from the fuse. His right arm carving through the air as he threw the bomb, shadow quickly consuming its tapering light. Declan pushed against the sudden weight of fear pressing down on him. Willed himself to turn away. Run. Fucksakes, run. Felt as if his ribs were crushing his heart. Realised Bernard had already started to sprint back towards the factory. A rawness scratched in Declan’s throat. He fought to push his legs into a run. Every stride paid for in fear: fear of not being able to outrun the Brits; fear of the bullet that may be spearing towards his back, splitting through his flesh, exploding within. But he concentrated on shortening the distance between himself and Bernard just as he heard the thunderous racket of his bomb as it devoured silence with the chemical hunger of its birthing. Then a sweet surge of euphoria sugared his blood, propelling him on.
“Want summa these crisps?” Bernard asked, offering the open packet to Declan, “‘fore I finish them, like.”
Declan didn’t reply, kept the binoculars raised to his eyes, gaze fixed out through the dormer window across the room. His back pressed against a tall mahogany wardrobe, which stood about six feet back from the window.
Fine, thought Bernard, crunching a mouthful, saying, “well, wadda yeh think?” Silence. “Is it doable?”
“Mithras’ sake, mate,” Declan said, lowering the binoculars, sighed heavily, glanced at Bernard then back to the window, “Brits heading back in now.”
“Here, lettus see, like.”
Declan handed Bernard the binoculars, saying, “could easily nut one of ‘em, alright … ?
“Nut one – listen to you, like,” Bernard smirked, watched as the remaining two soldiers of the foot patrol paced steadily backwards through a slab of sunlight which fell palely across Mullinoran Road, rifles probing the spaces along the busy road. The soldiers then turned, jogged in through the heavy steel gates of the police station which fronted onto the road. “Take it’s one of the last’uns in yer gonna – ”
“Could take both out,” Declan said as he planted himself down on the room’s single bed. “An AK should do the trick.”
“Ach, wise the frig up,” Bernard chuckled, “Oh, okay then. Take it yeh know that the army jeeps with that patrol are just rollin’ into the station now, what if they..?” Frowned, said, “since when ‘ave you even seen a bloody AK, let alone fired one, eh?
“I … sure, when … when I was down trainin’ in Limerick. Fired plenty of weapons there.”
Declan shook his head, face reddening, glared at Bernard, then wove his fingers behind his head and lay back on the bed. Stared at the ceiling, said, “you know rightly.”
A muted thunder of metal briefly troubled the air outside as the station’s gates clamoured shut. Bernard lifted his gaze beyond the station, on down to the junction with the Falls Road. A group of kids wove between the traffic. Running from something they’d done, or just daring themselves to be braver than their mate? What the fuck am I doing? Suppose, a soldier here would be an easy hit? Surely, but they’d have someone scanning these windows? Maybe not – who knows – who cares, won’t be me with the rifle. What the fuck am I doing? Just little-big-man, here. He followed the path of an old flatbed lorry as it drove up from the junction, a bar of sunlight glancing off its windscreen; the baggy white polo shirt of the guy driving it, thick forearms daubed with faded tattoos. A incandescence, white-hot and forming, flickered up to Bernard’s eye from the pavement opposite the lorry. What the fuck am I … The intensity of light softened to a nightdress – to a woman, her stomach, heavily bloodstained, stared back up at him like a blind, crimson eye. Bernard trembled. Adrenaline coursing through him. The air droned loudly. His eyes met hers. She seemed always to be searching for him. Between the faded threads of his dreams. Those sharp contours where dusk brewed into night. Amongst the spilt light of day. Always the same. The distance between them was measured in silence.
“M16, an’ all, like … ”
Her mouth became a twisted meditation of words, dissolving like tidal pools under a returning sea. Her dark eyes lifted to his; their blackness glazed with burning accusation. Bernard recalled the smells of that room in which she’d sat: the television’s static hiss, the chipped wood panelling and the blanket, which she’d carefully placed over her knees, heavy with sorrow.
“Earth to Bernardo – you friggin’ still with us, like?” said Declan.
Declan’s voice fracturing the image in Bernard’s head. The woman had melted into his gaze. He squeezed his eyes shut. Blinked away a film of moisture. Glimpsing down to the street he saw she was gone. She was never there. What the fuck am I doing? Two women stode through his gaze, one pushing a pram, both engrossed in conversation. The lines of the room in which the apparition had once sat sparked in his mind, then drowned in its darkness.
“You bin on the wacky-backy again, like, arsehole?”
Bernard swallowed. Gave Declan a sidelong glance. Waited for the lightness in his head to subside.
“There he – ”
“M16 ..?” Bernard said, coughing the dryness from his throat.
“What? Aye. Like I said, M16. Right oul kick … ”
“Was just keepin’ a look case there was any other opportunities for our shoot,” Bernard said, his thoughts clear once more. Untroubled. Moved to the bottom edge of the bed. Sat. Stretched his legs out. Tried to relax. Forget.
“Our shoot? Frig off, I’m runnin’ this job, an’ I’m triggerman.” Declan said, rising onto his elbows, “you back from dreamland yet?”
“M16?” Bernard repeated, trying to sound derisive. “Take it no one else hadda chance till fire anything ‘cause you – ”
“Isn’t that whatta said ..? Are yer friggin’ ears open, like?” Declan paused.
Bernard didn’t reply. I can’t be arsed bein’ constantly stuck with this bloody cretin.
“Meh da was down wit’ me, so they made a bit of a fuss of us … let me shoot AKs, and this wee thing called a … an Ingy … Inger … ”
“Ingram,” Bernard spat.
“Aye, like I said, fired loadsa things. Guns are meh things, am better usin’ one – ”
“Yeah, let’s hope yer better with them than yer are with bombs, eh?”
“Arsehole,” Declan sneered as he planted the sole of his shoe firmly against Bernard’s back and shoved him forward off the bed’s edge, causing Bernard to stagger forward as he regained his balance.
“You lookin’ another hammerin’?” Bernard said, snapping his head around to Declan, chewing back rage. “Yeh got off fairly friggin’ light fer killin’ that wee lad, y’know.” Bernard was too young in service for the Belfast ILA’s security team – not that he’d have wanted to be a part of it, anyway. Bunch of scary bastards. Bate this runt when Command court-marshalled him after him messin’ up the Whitehart bomb op, killing that wee fella ‘stead of a Brit. So no-one in the community could say the ILA had let the mistake go. Was six months ago, now. Frig, where does the time go? Course his da saw to it wee Deccy gets off light: a few bruises and a broken nose. No surprise there. Hadda been me, or anyone else, we’d a had iron bars till our bones and both knees done. He bit down on the last of his thoughts as he righted himself and went back to the window. Lent on the sill. The air outside had cooled. He took a mouthful. Grey light bent itself up to him as he closed his eyes. She hadn’t returned to accuse him. Declan muttered. Traffic droned and grumbled. Bernard sighed. Closed the window, turned, said, “when do you want to do this, then?”
“Do what … ?”
“Whadda yeh think? Kill a Brit.” Wee runt’s got me talkin’ as stupid as he does.
Declan swung his legs over the side of the bed. Sat upright, pinched the bridge of his nose.
Bernard said, “still not right, eh?”
“No big deal.”
Bernard shrugged. Studied the wall behind the bed; faded woodchip wallpaper tattooed with paintings of Sesame Street characters. Big Bird not lookin’ in the best of health. Friggin’ frog’s like something a rhino sneezed out. Bored now. Could be out with meh mates ‘steadda here. Gaze caught by Declan’s. “‘Mon, we best be headin’,” Bernard said, “you happy enough, like? Seen all you need?”
Declan scooped up a can of Club Orange, he’d bought on the way, off the floor, cracked it open and flicked away the ring pull. Took a long gulp. Burped loudly. Chuckled.
Sure, anytime you’re ready, thought Bernard. Thinks he’s in charge. Wee ars –
Declan stood. Narrowed his eyes. Tilted his head, curled up the side of his mouth.
Don’t be a dick.
“You happy enough, eh?” Declan asked, tone mocking, then becoming measured, “aye. I’m happy enough.” Smirked, said, “you’ve not whacked a Brit, like, have ye? Who’d yeh do … oh, aye, some woman – “
“That wasn’t my doing. I’ve toul ye – ”
“You were there, weren’t ye? What, yeh tellin’ me yeh didn’t execute that woman after Mal did her Brit boyfriend? That’s what I heard … ”
“You hear plenty, don’t ye?” Bernard spat, heat splashed around his heart. Trembled the air with his fist. Poured darkness onto his thoughts before her face could rise from them. Felt the substance sucked out of him as he watched Declan smirk, shake his head then swallow the remainder of his drink. Seemingly nonplussed by Bernard’s outburst. “Not friggin’ worth it,” Bernard mumbled.
Declan walked towards the door, without turning, said, “just fuckin’ wit’ ye, big man.” Beginning to start his chatter about the guns he’d fired again, but Bernard had stopped hearing him. Instead, the hush of a woman’s voice stroked his neck.
“Is meh da not home yet?” Declan said as he strolled from the front door of his home and into the kitchen. Aoife, his little sister, was perched at the kitchen’s fold-down table. She grinned at him, took a bite from her sandwich. Declan threw her back a saucer-eyed expression on his way to the cupboard.Their mother was clearing the last of the dishes from the sink.
“You eaten yet?” She asked, tugging the sleeves of her sweater back down to her wrists. Straw-coloured hair tied back. Glancing over her shoulder at him. “Well, if you are, you can make yourself something.”
“Nah, am ok,” Declan sighed. Scanned the cupboard. Grabbed an open packet of water biscuits. Planted himself down beside Aiofe, saying, “here, when’s da gettin’ home, like?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, son.“ She scrunched a tea towel, drying her hands. “Sure, he’s most likely still stuck in a council meeting ‘bout all those wee lads out riotin’ the other night. Did yeh hear they hijacked Kenny Hanrahan.” Folded her arms across her chest, hip resting against the counter. “There’s no need for them wee bucks to go wrecking round here; hurtin’ no one but their own.” Held Declan’s gaze, eyebrows arched, saying, “wouldn’t like to think you’d go gettin’ yourself mixed up with the likes of ‘em, now. You’d have – “
“Course not, ma. ‘Sides, they’re all wasters, stupid wee kids.” Declan crunched another water biscuit. Brushed crumbs off his shirt. Thought, I’m a man, now – a volunteer, a freedom fighter. Quickly drowned the images beginning to play in his mind; running through the small belt of woods at the foot of Temple Hill with his mates, playing hide-and-seek, and feeling like they lived outside time, outside the city’s grime. Memories like this broke the surface of his thoughts now and again, but he pushed them under again. Had to. He’d been bloodied, after all. Summers belong to children, not men. “And anyways,” he continued, “da’s keepin’ me busy doin’ work experience in the party office. I‘ll not be gettin’ mixed up with the likes of them’uns.”
She moved closer to him, a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth, yet concern clouded her eyes, her voice hesitant, “you will talk to me, won’t you..?”
“I mean, you know … like what I’m saying is, those Reformists who mugged you a while ago … ”
“Doesn’t annoy me, ma.” Stop talkin’. Wee lad shouldn’tta walked into a warzone. Shouldda known better. Saw himself casting the blast bomb into the darkness. The heat of that room when he was being court-martialed for killing some wee fella who was a local. Wasn’t fair. Not all my fault. Team effort. I just threw the fuckin’ thing like I was toul to. Over now, forget it. Just orders from Command. Could happen to any volunteer. Enda the day, it’s the Brits’ fault fer invadin’ here.
“You’d tell me but, I mean, if it did – wouldn’t you?”
‘Hold yer head up high, son,’ his da had said to him when Declan had been allowed to take part in an ILA commemoration march. His mum hadn’t been too fused on him taking part, but his da talked her round. He’d marched as well as he could for an eight year old. Carried an ILA banner in memory of volunteer, Peter Lynch. Remembered his da’s hand on his shoulder, the proud look in his eyes as he’d told him, ‘Peter was an inspiration, son, he took the fight to the Brits.’ Declan never forgot that day. He wanted that same look to stay in his da’s eyes, knew he’d join the ILA, someday. Until then he’d tried getting his head down at school, staying out of trouble. Building Airfix models and messing around with his mates, playing soldiers with sticks for guns. Not a wee kid anymore. Kids can’t take the fight to the Brits, men like me could, though. He smirked.
“Declan. I’m speaking to you … ”
Aye, da was prouda me when I took the ILA Oath: uphold the ILA’s objectives and obey all orders. Again, the image of the blast bomb vanishing into darkness intruded. Again he submerged it. Fuckin’ … just a fuckin’ order, not my problem. After taking the oath, Declan was busting to be involved in an operation. But he’d stayed patient. Done what had been asked of him; carried messages and the like to and from other volunteers or commanders, maybe a bit of dicking; keeping a watch for any unwanted Brits or peelers while an operation went down, weapons maybe moved. He knew he was being tested. The Organisation was testing him, seeing if he was trustworthy, stuff like that. ‘Course I am, and more besides. Next job I’ll show Command how good I am. Next Job I’ll – ’
Aiofe was slapping his forearm. Shouting his name. A small tear of orange juice wobbling on her bottom lip. He became aware that his mother was smoking a cigarette, glaring at him.
“Sometimes I think that muggin’s affected your brain,” she said before pursing her lips, blowing out a ribbon of smoke. “Sure you don’t want something more to eat?”
“Nah, am ok,” he said, chewing a mouthful of biscuit, swallowed, “got something when I was out earlier with Bernard.”
“Aiofe”, Declan’s mother said, lifting Aiofe’s empty plate as she was spreading tomato sauce over it. “Is his mum still poorly?”
“Think so ..? didn’t say.”
“You mean; you didn’t ask.”
Declan shrugged. Why the frig would I care?
“What’s he doing with himself – has he got a job, yet?”
“Toul me his uncle’s gonna try and get him a job in the butcher’s, or somethin’.”
“What, the one up near the garage?”
“Aye, maybees. I’m gon – ”
The front door rattled open. Declan’s father’s laugh sounded up the hallway, it was joined by another man’s voice talking excitedly. Declan smirked, crooked an arm over the chair and turned to watch his father’s chubby face chuckle into the room adjoining the kitchen. A slim man in a baggy polo shirt followed. Declan didn’t recognise him.
“True as the day is long, swear,” polo shirt.was saying.
“Have a seat,” said his father, motioning polo towards an armchair, then caught Declan’s mother’s questioning gaze, tone breezy, saying, “alright, love?”
“Aye, Cathal,” his mother answered after a moment, “want tea, somethin’ to eat?”
“Ach, aye, tea’d be grand.” His father, hands in pockets, strolling into the kitchen. Saying with a jolt, “here, what am I like, you’ve not met Aiden, sure you haven’t?” Glancing back at Aiden, saying, “Aiden, this is the wife: Erin … ”
Erin nodded, smiled weakly, said, “Aiden … you’d take a tea, too?
“Please,” Aiden said, half rising from his seat, exchanging a quick glance with Cathal.
Cathal said, “Aiden and me were just havin’ a laugh about a coupla ‘em royalists tablin’ a motion for a statue of their king ta be put up in the City Hall.”
“Soon put those eejits straight, eh,” Aiden said, then to Erin, “sorry, yes, tea would be grand.”
“Aye,” Cathal said, hands resting on the edge of the worktop. “Aiden says to them that there’s already enough statues of imperialist criminals fer the pigeons to shite on.” Chuckling. “Fairly shut ‘em up, eh.”
Aiden opened his mouth to reply.
“Take sugar?” Erin asked Aiden as the kettle finished boiling.
Aiden grinned, said, “am sweet enough … ”
Erin ignored him, lifted milk out from the fridge.
“Da … ” Declan began, twisting around in his chair, trying to catch his father’s gaze as he shifted past towards the empty chair beside Aiden.
Cathal fistled a cigarette packet from his jacket pocket. Pinched one out and offered it to AIden who frowned. “Ah, forgot, you’re tryin’ ta stop,“ without looking at Declan, said, “for Mithras sake, what son?”
“Needin’ to talk to you ‘bout a new wee job I’m linin’ up – “
Cathal’s eyes narrowed, shooting Declan that ‘no business talk’ look, instead saying, “just let me relax fer a while, eh?” Slumped onto the chair. Sparked up his cigarette and took a thirsty suck, nostrils venting smoke. Wet his lips, said to Aiden, “ another meetin’ tomorrow, then?”
Declan frowned. C’mon, just needin’ the green light fer meh op. Can’t keep puttin’ it off or I’ll be back to running errands and still bein’ called a daddy’s boy.
Erin handed Cathal and Aiden their tea, said, “never known as many meetings to be goin’ on.”
“Ach,” Aiden smirked, “never a minute, y’know. Just about kids bein’ a nuisance, burnin’ stuff on the road an’ the like. I just asked Cathal to come along with me as I’ve not chaired a meetin’ before.” Glancing at Cathal, “big man’ll keep me right, wont ye.”
Erin tutted, stood with hands balled on hips, said, “just been tellin’ our Declan here I don’t want to be hearin’ of him gettin’ mixed up with the likes of them. That’s the road to a prison cell. Always sayin’ that, aren’t I, Cathal?”
“That you are, love.” Cathal took a slurp of tea, thumbed his cigarette onto the ashtray at his foot. Looked over at Declan.
“Da, even tonight, like – just five minutes is all?” Declan said, standing. Aiofe repeating, “da, da, da.”
“Maybe, maybe, son,” Cathal sighed, “later, sure.”
Maybe nothin’. “Aye, okay, da,” Declan said, sulking out of the room into the hallway. He’d better not forget, or be away down the pub tonight and come in stocious. Slammed the front door behind him as he strode, bull-headed, towards the Falls Road.
Rain lashed frayed gowns of grey against the windows of the Party’s first floor office. A flint-darkened sky dulled the air. The afternoon slowly sank towards evening. Blonde light played across one side of Aiden’s face as he tilted the reading light. He sat slouched in a chair behind a desk in one of the upstairs rooms. A thick metal sheet had been roughly secured to the rear of the office door. DOOR NOT CLOSING RITE had been penned on the metal in large letters. Aiden smirked. Aye, that would be because all that weightta metal’s made it wrecked the hinges. Probably not stop any bullets if need be, anyway. Friggin’ eejits. He sat upright. Rhythms of rain still knitted across the windows. He idly flicked through yesterday’s newspaper, heard someone entering the main office, which the one he was in adjoined, glanced up, saw Riona, the receptionist. Aiden cleared his throat loudly enough for her to hear. She noticed, hand hesitating over one of the phones. She smiled, avoiding his stare. “Oh,” she said, “just checking the phones … forgot you’re up here. Need anything?” Up havin’ a nosey around, no doubt, thought Aiden, “no, I’m good. Thanks, Riona. You and Emma okay? Won’t be too much longer and you can let our visitors in then youse both can head on, like.” She nodded, face flushed. Aiden had heard that her hubby knocked her about. She didn’t seem that bad, just a bit clumsy – and nosey, probably why she gets knocked about? She muttered a thanks and left. He waited for the sound of her footsteps fading down the stairs before dandering out into the main office. Aiden had left instructions that the top floor was to be kept empty for the day. ‘Let ’em have the day off, or something,’ he’d told Niall Kennedy, the office manager. ‘Army Council business, tomorrow, okay. You get the picture, eh?’ Palmed a Tictac mint into his mouth and rolled it with his tongue. Cathal, where the fuck are you? Nearly ten after three. Fingered his watch strap as he walked to one of the windows and looked down onto the road below. Cars and lorries twisted by the channels of rainwater zigzagging down the glass. Four people stood huddled and soaked at the bus stop opposite, edging towards the kerb as the blue and cream livery of a bus joined the flow of traffic. The sight of a coat held over someone’s head as they jogged towards the office’s caged entrance door caught his eye. The buzzer on the cage door sounded briefly before Aiden heard the inner door being opened and Cathal’s voice loudly devouring the silence with shouts about the state of the weather. ‘Bout time, Cathal, he thought, leaving the window, pacing over to the floor’s only toilet. Left its door open. Took a piss. Fixed himself, and tried the handle of the storeroom a quick check. Locked. Can’t leave anything to chance. Walls have ears, and all that crap, well, so do storerooms.
“Friggin’ hadda sort Aoife out … “ Cathal shouted up as he clumped onto the stairs.
Aiden shouting back, “Be sure an’ get the keys offa Riona before they leave – ”
“Hadda leave her over with her granny,” said Cathal, coming into the office, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. “Damnable day, ay?”
“The keys …?”
Cathal widening the collar of his wet shirt, saying, “needa … huh?”
“You get the office keys offa them?”
“Oh, aye, aye. Here,”
Aiden took the keys, said, “they away, then?”
Cathal hesitated, screwed up his face.
“Emma and Riona – you tell ‘em to head on, like I said?”
“Yes, yes,” Cathal said, beginning to sound irritated, thrusting the bunch of keys into Aiden’s hand.
Aiden rattled several keys in the storeroom’s lock until he found the right one. Stuck his head in. Shelves on the wall to his left, some boxes of stationary on the floor opposite. Fridge, humming quietly against the far wall. Knew it, but needed to be sure. Chuckled to himself as he closed and locked the door. No wires, microphones or touts stashed inside, like. Cathal was still blethering on about being delayed because he had to ferry Aiofe to his ma to look after. Aiden didn’t respond. He was glancing at his watch when the gate’s buzzer sounded downstairs. He noticed Cathal had plumped himself down on a chair. Said to him, “that’s them, now,” Arching his eyebrows expectantly at Cathal. Cathal sighing, pushing himself up from the chair and jogging down the stairs.
‘Will see yeh there, around one o’clock, say,’ Richard Corvin had informed Aiden on the phone two days earlier. Corvin was Northern Command’s chief and a senior member of the ILA’s Army Council. Aiden chewed his lip, thinking, Corvin’s up with the makers and shakers now, forgets where he came from. Still, you get on the wrong side of him and you may pick a ditch along some wee road down round the border. Is what it is… besides, frigger spends more time in America than here. Fancy mansion in California, I hear; wining and dining with senators. The eager padding of shoes, up the bare wooden stairs, broke Aiden’s thoughts. Craig Whelan striding into the office, his thick comb of red hair darkened by the rain, acknowledging Aiden with a nod, grinning widely, blue eyes glinting brightly from his bloodless face, wearing an expectant expression.
“Craig,” Aiden said, nodding back. Or should I call you ‘wolf’? Can never take anyone who calls himself ‘The Wolf’ seriously. Dick. ‘The Tool’ was how he was better known within the organisation. ‘Watch what you say around him,’ Aiden had cautioned some of his unit, ‘he carries everything he hears back to Corvin. Maybe just paranoia, but Whelan always made Aiden uncomfortable; just the way he left you feeling as if you’d told him too much, despite thinking you’d just been talking crap to each other for the sake of passing time. Suppose that’s why he’s boss of Northern Command’s security team.
“Place clean?” Whelan said.
Aiden bit his lip, said, “clean as a whistle.”
“You know who’s coming don’t you? Spooks’d love to listen in … ”
“Haven’t I just said – ”
“Just up here, gents,” Richard Corvin announced in a confident tone as he ushered two in from the stairway. Cathal behind them. Aiden, recognising the man who was wearing a grey jacket, looking about fifty, or thereabouts, a quiff of black hair with streaks of grey. What the hell’s his name? The other man was taking off a navy trench coat. This guy must have been late thirties, light brown hair in a middle shade and a square jaw of dark stubble.
“Make yourselves comfortable,” Corvin said as he mouthed a silent ‘alright’ to Aiden who’d planted himself on the edge of a desk. Cathal in a chair immediately to his right. The two men sat opposite; middle-shade stretched out his legs, quiff folded his hands behind his head, smiled at the room.
Corvin dragged a chair over beside the two men, flicking through a small notepad as he sat, looked up, saying, “okay, we’ll get introductions over with, then down to business. Time’s not on our side I’m afraid.” Glancing at the two men before casting out his hand in a small arc towards Cathal and Aiden, “two finer volunteers you’ll not find anywhere else in the north … Aiden Drennan and Cathal McCarthy; Cathal here’s our local councillor, too.”
Cathal sat upright, managing to sound a syllable before Corvin spoke again. “This is – ” – a nod to quiff – “Hugh Ryan and … ” – to middle-shade – “Callum O’Dwyer. Our colleagues from Southern Command.”
Aiden raised an open palm as a hello. From the corner of his eye he saw Whelan skulking around the room holding a small black box – about the size of a transistor radio – in one hand. Every so often stopping to raise it toward a ceiling light, or hover it over a phone.
Friggin’ balloon, thought Aiden, I’ve cleaned this place for listening devices every week. Clown’s just doing it for show, now. Eejit.
“Right, do you want me to …?” Corvin was asking.
Ryan shook his head, leant back. crossed his ankles.
Aiden considered Ryan: oblong face descending from under a thick knot of hair. Deep-set brown eyes perched aside a sharp nose. Aiden began to think it was just another operation against the Brits. Nothing new in that. Must be in England – some spectacular, maybe? Just the usual case of Southern Command coming north to remind us all they call the shots.
“What do youse think about Eoghan O’Dea?” Ryan said, looking from Aiden to Cathal.
Aiden shrugged, glanced at Corvin, “never heard of – ”
“C’mon, you have so,” chuckled Ryan, adding, “you’ll be kicking yourselves – big Hollywood star, he is, an’ all.”
Sighing loudly, Aiden shrugged, said, “no offence like, but what the fuck are we here for?”
Corvin glared, made to rise from his seat.
“Ah, C’mon now, gents” O’Dwyer said, keeping his tone playful, “was in ‘The Big Racket’ and that other one with …?”
“Gene Hackman,” Ryan said, seeming to relax, “great actor.”
Corvin swallowed, shifted his feet, saying, “all good?” to Whelan who was now standing beside Aiden.
“Aye, aye,” said Whelan, tapping the box lightly.
“Can we talk business now, rather than shite?” said Aiden, annoyed by how close Whelan was to him, smelling his musty aroma.
Cathal smoothed a hand across his forehead, mind elsewhere. Corvin flushed, cracked his knuckles.
Ryan smirked, drew in his feet, brushed something off his thigh, eyebrows arched, said, “but we are, Aiden, we are.”
Get to the friggin’ point, like, Aiden thought. “Look, I appreciate youse comin’ up here, an’ all, but I’ve – ” Whelan clapped down a hand on Aiden’s shoulder, fingers probing under his clavicle. Aiden flinched from Whelan’s grip, “what the fuck, like? Don’t touch me yeh friggin’ spacer.”
“Right, enough,” shouted Corvin.
“My fault, my fault,” Ryan said quickly, expression contrite.
“Heads needin’ coolin’.” Corvin was saying, scowling at Aiden and Whelan. “Egos in check, gentlemen.”
Ryan continued, “Mr O’Dea is coming to Ireland, more to the point: here, to Belfast, to do some … research, something like that, for a film he wants to make.”
“A film about us,” said Corvin, smiling, finger-stabbing his chest, “about our struggle … against Brit imperialism.”
“He’s been in touch with our Press Department,” O’Dwyer said, “this film he’ll be making … well, he’s the star anyroads, so he’s going to come to Belfast to be shown what it’s like to be a volunteer fighting against the British war machine.”
Corvin began, “yes, I met with his studio executives when I was last over -”
Ryan saying, “when Mr O’Dea arrives in Belfast I need …”
Corvin cleared his throat.
“ … we need … ” O’Dwyer went on, “the organisation needs him well looked; taught our Cause, as it were – but, and this is important now – not by anyone who’s gonna have the peelers or Brits on their back every two minutes. I … we want clean skins; no criminal records, no short-fuses, no one who brings themselves under notice because they’re dicks, okay? Just a couple of clean skins to who’lll not attract any attention and can be trusted to escort Mr O’Dea about. Show him the ropes, educate him and keep him away from nosey friggers – youse know the type.” leaning towards Aiden and Cathal, “we want to make sure he’s goes back home happy, and,” stressing each word, “in one piece, alright?”
“My men here will more than see he’s well taken care of,” Corvin said.
Aiden sighed, realising Corvin was including Whelan. Great.
O’Dwyer stood, said, “It’ll be a boon for the organisation. Great for morale. America’s always been a good friend of our struggle, let’s not do anything to upset that, eh?”
Cathal, seeming to have collected his thoughts, said, “will this affect any ongoing operations in Belfast, or – “
“No, not one jot,” Corvin said, “let me worry about like kind of thing. Youse just ensure Mr …?”
“O’Dea,” Aiden said. Clean skins? What the hell. We’ve enough going on without all this bollocks, an’ how’s Corvin goin’ to look after things here. I do that. He’s no clue. Friggin’ waste a my time.
“And when’s all this happenin’?” Cathal asked.
“This weekend – two days from now,” Ryan said, “has to be like this, can’t have let him comin’ be broadcasted out too early. Happy?” Not waiting for an answer, rising to his feet, “he’ll be here in two days.”
Una was in the stillness of her own heaven. A sea of ivory mist curled around her shoulders. Her gaze held by that of the silver girl in front. She studied the torn, powdered moon of the silver girl’s face. Smeared in the pale light from an ashen sun, pulsing above her right eye. Cheeks honeycombed by black blisters with coronas the colour of straw. Sometimes the skin of the silver girl would stir, like a breeze moving across the surface of a lake. Sometimes the skin bled its silver all around. Una smiled at the silver girl who returned a broken smile. Eyes as black rimmed and weary as her own.
“Still don’t think you’re old enough ..?”
Una giggled. The question slurred in her head. It was a man’s voice, older than her, yet familiar enough to untangle Una from her reflection which was still grinning in the mirror behind the bar. “Aye, you know it,” she tried to mumble above the waves of conversation flowing noisily through the crowded bar. Sol Mithras. I am a silver goddess. I am … “I’m bloody eighteen … ” Una said, head cocked towards Brendan who was serving behind the bar.
Brendan smirked, nipping his moustache between nose and lip. Pointing briefly at the half-smoked spliff Una held, “old enough for that, too?”
“Dick. Just gimme my drinks – snakebite an’ cider, like I’ve toul ye already.” Una lifted the splif to her black lips. Sucked heavily. Felt the vapour stroke move inside her like a lover. Silver girl glanced back through a daze of smoke.
Brendan clinked up two glasses from under the bar, saying, “purple nasty, again?”
“Blackcurrant in the snakebite, huh?”
“Aye,” Una said, resting her naked forearms on the counter, an elbow finding spilt beer. Mithras sakes.
“Here, like … ” said some fella swaying against her, skinny faced, hair greased into a brittle helmet. “What you ’posed ta be, eh, witch, er summin’?”
“Nine-seven pee,” Brendan was saying, glancing at the crowded faces waiting to order drinks. Clunking Una’s drinks between the beer taps in front of her.
She rolled the spliff between her lips, crackled a breathful, fumbled two fifty pence pieces into his open hand. Grabbed the glasses and swung round into the heave of denimed youth and flat-capped grumbles
“You not get me any ice?” Julia said when Una awkwardly set down the glasses on their table.
“Ach, friggin’ Mithras,” Una said, “Am not goin’ up there again, friggin’ weirdos. No ice – there’s no-oo-oh ice.” Laughed. Looked up at the ceiling, watched the lights form bright icicles.
Julia eyed the bar then Una. Cupped her cider, “feels coul enough, anyroads.”
Una stubbed out the spliff, took a swig of her snakebite, and regarded Julia over the rim of the glass. Copied my look, she thought, studying Julia’s tussle of dyed black hair, pools of kohl eyeshadow, and black mesh top. It’s flattery, sure. Another Mrs Fiend, aye, she giggled, something for wasters to gawp at and say stupid things to their mates about. The drug’s giddy carousel slowing. “So … ” Una said, lowering her glass, putting in order the words she wanted to say before slurring them out, “you still wanna … go be a teacher then, eh?”
Julia shrugged, “Aye, but ‘cause I’ve said till meh ma an’ da that all the teachin’ jobs are over in, like Scotland, or England, an’ I’m needin’ to go there – ”
“Them not wantin’ yeh goin’, right?”
“Somethin’ like that.” Julia looked around the bar. Una lazily followed her gaze. On their left, extending away from the bar, are three crowded booths. Over Julia’s left shoulder is the main door. The narrow spaces between punters stood in conversation, or glassy-eyed solitude, became carefully navigated thoroughfares for other punters and bar staff. Webs of smoke gracefully floated amongst pools of pale ceiling lights. The Corner Inn was its proper name, but to Una and the rest of its locals it was just ‘the snug’; sat at the junction of Hillfort Street and Clontarf Gardens at the end of a row of cramped terraces.
“Dunno,” Julia sighed, resting the side of her head against her hand.
Una picked at the edges of a beermat, “well, least you’ve got an option.”
“Are you happy just cuttin’ hair ..?”
“Nah, not fer me,” Una said, “do fer a while, maybe.” At sixteen she’d left school. She hated English lessons. Getting left behind in classwork all the time, teachers couldn’t care less. Stupid readin’ and writin’ never made sense, words all friggin’ wrong – mixed up crap. Music was Una’s outlet: her escape. Fuck the bombin’ and the killin’. Fuck this place. “Gonna go to London. Gonna DJ.”
Julia frowned, crinkling her nose she held Una’s gaze, saying, “since when? This is new, what – ”
“No serious, like …”
Julia slid a cigarette from the open packet on their table, “ach, wise up.” Lit it, shook out the match flame. “Sure, how’re yeh – ”
“It is a thing,” Una sulked.
“Didn’t say it wasn’t, just hadn’t heard you mention it before.”
Una leaned back letting the last chemical clouds of the spliff gather over her senses.
“Like, is there any, y’know, money in it?” asked Julia.
Una closed her eyes, said, “Aye, decent money.” Watched colours wash down the inside of her eyelids. Smiled.
“What happened to becoming a teacher..? That all forgot – ”
I don’t want to talk about this right now, thought Una before saying, “just wanna … ach, just lettus listen.” Someone had selected ‘Maid of Orleans’ to play on the jukebox. Una puffed in time to its opening notes through pursed lips. Julia was quiet. The song poured through the noise of the bar and coiled itself around Una. She felt weightless. Invincible. Assured that somehow the life which lay before her would be fine. Can go learn ta do something else music doesn’t work out, but it will, I know it will. Plenty a time.
Julia sniggered, said, “hey, maybes I should go to London with you, get a job teachin’ there.”
Una blinked open her eyes, letting them focus as some oul fella stumbled against her chair as he passed, steadied himself then continued on towards the bar. The aroma of stale carpets followed him. She looked at the fading photos hung on the faded walls. ‘Maid of Orleans’ had finished, the music this time was by the band Fiddler’s Dram droning on about going to Bangor. A crowd of fellas in one of the booths shouting the word, ‘bombed’ in place of ‘went to’ everytime the chorus came round. Around three weeks ago the ILA had detonated a carbomb in Bangor’s main street. It was late evening, and despite a warning, it killed two people, maimed a few others and levelled most of the shops.
This is boring, Una thought, glancing at Julia who stared at her glass. Robbie better not show his face in here tonight, ‘specially if that wee tramp Niamh’s hangin’ off his two-timin’ arm. Bastard.
“You wanna ‘nother,” Julia said, rocking the bottom of her empty glass on the table.
Una puffed out her cheeks, grinned, “aye, why not.” Julia rose towards the bar as Una thought about lighting another spliff, then realised she’d smoked her last one. Glimpsed around the other tables. Frig it, no dealers in tonight, no more smokes fer me. Thought about leaving. Nah, couldn’t do that to Juls. Still, the thought gnawed at her. What’s keepin’ me here? Where was here anyway? She closed her eyes, cast her mind further out over the peaceful seas the skunkweed had stirred. She floated there, under a bronze sun and a wide sky of unbroken blue.
“Friggin’ sleepin’ …” Another voice, distant, chuckled. “Aye, weirdos,” added another.
“Una,” the closeby voice repeated, its tone slowly turning familiar. “Una …”
Her mind poured into the blackness behind her eyelids, leaving the sea to its fragmented light. She opened her eyes. Waited for the fog of the room to thin. Sawa clutch of faces sat opposite, grinning at her. “Aye, she’s awake now, like,” said one, “‘way an’ haunt same graveyerd, aye .” mumbled his mate.
This time the sound of her name caused her to glance up at its speaker. She saw it was Bernard O’Sullivan, stood to her left, hesitant, holding a pint of beer. He opened his mouth, “saw – ”
“Ach, Bear, here havva – ”
“Jules up at the bar, said you where down here.”
“… seat ..?” Julia lifted her head, craned around for an empty chair, “is there ..?”
Bernard set his glass on the table, saying, “here, I’ll grab one.”
She watched him hulk off around the other tables, exchanging nods with a few punters who caught his eye. Friggin’ big brown grizzly’s lookin’ yer seat, smirking at the thought, seeing an empty chair shoved towards him from a table of middle-aged men, their elbows slouched around one of the tables.
Julia clinked down two glasses on their table, saying to Bernard, “getta seat alright …” as he hauled the chair over and planted himself down on it.
“Youse hear ‘bout the riot down Sheehan Street the other night?” Bernard asked in a low voice, picking at a ragged edge of his thumbnail.
Una wrinkled her nose, tutted.
Julia saying, “sure there’s always bloody riots, what’s so – ”
Bernard shushing her.
Una thought Bernard almost flinched, his eyes wide, fanning the shush with his palm. She sniggered, “what’s so great about this one, this … ” almost whispering, “this riot of yours?”
Bernard screwed up a corner of his mouth, then said, “Brits plastic bullet hitta petrol bomb outta fella’s hand just as he was gonna throw it .. ”
“Happens,” Julia said, “least he wasn’t killed, and sure – ”
“Don’t I know that, but it was knocked outta his hand and went all over ‘Worzel’ Harkin …”
Una took a drink. Bernard leaned forward, cupped his elbows, an expectant look on his face.
Julia shrugged, glanced at Una who smirked back, saying, “the dickhead who was expelled in third year, one who punched our art teacher, Miss Caughy.”
“Aye, and didn’t he break my arm afore that,” Bernard said, rubbing his right forearm.
Una said, “ach, fer God sakes, Bernard, man-up, will ye. How long ago’s that now?”
“Five, but – ”
“Well then, dry yer eyes.”
Julia said, “he was always bullyin’ you. Was he hurt, or somethin’? What’s the big deal?”
“Aye,” Una says to Bernard, “who cares, hope he got roasted. Used ta torture you, sure, didn’t he – jumped on yer arm ‘cause you … can’t remember now.”
“‘Cause I nothin’, just toul him to fuck away aff one day when he kept jumpin’ on my back as I was walkin’ home. He kicked the legs from under me then stamped on my arm when it was hangin’ over the kerb. Tell yeh what he’ll – ”
“Why’s he riotin’ anyways?” Una askes, shrugging. Thoughts turning to London and visualizing herself DJing in some big venue.
Julia saying to her, “‘cause he’s alway binna friggin’ dick. Probably thinks doin’ that’ll get him into the ILA, or somethin’.”
“Got him into intensive care,” Bernard said, arching his eyebrows, smirking.
“Burns?” Una asked absently, not really caring.
Bernard clasped his hands behind his head, said matter-of-factly, “aye, might not live, like. Petrol went all over him. Went all on fire.”
“Never heard about that,” Julia was saying.
I don’t care. I don’t care, Una was thinking. Belfast is a deadland. She glanced around the tables, through the thin swirls of cigarette smoke and thin smiles of faces betrayed by their eyes. Shifted in her seat and felt the sudden urge to pee. Una slid back her chair and stood, her head light, neck stiff. A fist of nausea floated up from her stomach. Just the spliffs. “Away fer a leak,” she said, stepping awkwardly towards the toilets, trying not to collide with a table or some hard-nosed punter. Wishing she could just find herself in her bedroom; the music from her cassette player guiding her thoughts, lulling her to sleep.
A Black Taxi’s exhaust belched and grumbled past Declan as he strolled along the Falls Road towards the town centre. He scowled through the dissipating fumes. A pallid sun hung motionless, nailed to a skin of cloud. In the park opposite, a group of children played tig around the blackened silence of a burned-out car. A suitcase lay open on the brown grass beside the car, the breeze plucked at the edges of a newspaper inside the suitcase. Declan had left home early. Planned on getting into town and being back around lunchtime. Maybees getta paintin’ done, he was thinking. Might see if Brian wants to have a game a D&D, sure. He was headed to The Modeller’s Nook in Winetavern Street. They’ve hopefully have something new – bound to. Clear meh head, too. He’d been forcing himself to hide any thoughts about Martin Doyle with those of himself painting the small metal fantasy figures he would buy today. Soft-headed frigger, Declan had reflected, arsing into the middle of them Brits. He’d argued enough times in his head about how it was Doyle’s own fault. Head up his backside, walkin’ into a warzone, fuckin’ up my operation. Least I was man enough to take the beatin’. Meh da toul me things like this happen in the war. Not to take it personally. Was the Brit’s fault Doyle was killed: ‘nat your’s son, collateral damage, but wee fella was a local so Command wants ta show that we’re takin’ responsibility.’ Da had said that he’d steered it that the punishment team wouldn’t shoot his knees or elbows, though – that was for criminals. ‘You’ll have ta take a bitta a beatin’, though,’ he’d told Declan, ‘keeps Command and the locals happy. Toughen yeh up sure, just think of it like that.’ There’d been some bad press for the ILA immediately after Doyle’s death, but a fews days, and Declan’s beating, later and nobody gave a damn. Still, hadn’t needed ta hav’ known ‘bout mah bomb blowin’ the wee frigger’s stomach out, well as the top of his face. Declan put any further thoughts of Doyle’s moonlit guts out of his head and sniffed back a noseful of air. He was crossing Lachtcarn Street when his ankle gave a little, causing him to almost stumble forward. Fucksakes. Pain bladed the side of his foot as he steadied himself and continued walking. Friggin’ shoes –
“Here. Dec … Declan,” a girl’s voice shouted from behind.
He glanced over his shoulder. Saw Una Strohane, kohl-framed eyes sparkling through black curls of hair. She wore a long black skirt and black tee shirt with the word Cure on it in tall white letters.
“We’re … yeh goin’… town?”
“Aye, just fer a dander, like.” He waited for her to catch up, feeling the pain fade from his ankle. It was ok again. Glad he’d have Una for company. Just might have ta skip The Modeller’s Den for today. He didn’t mind though. Be nice just lookin’ through the records in Caroline Music or so; she’s always jabberin’ on about music. He chuckled to himself. His mood already lifting.
Una walked beside him, saying, “I’m just goin’ inta ta have a look around.”
“You goin’ to look at records ..?” Declan asked, “hearin’ you’re gonna be a DJ in London, or somethin’ – that right, like?”
Una frowned, “bloody Julia … ” then smiling, “I’d be a good DJ.”
“Aye, I can see you in one of those dark rooms with all yer goth mates dancin’ to the latest whatever yeh call ‘em – all … ” he hunched his shoulders and rocked side to side as he walked, “all Frankenstein like.”
“Eejit. ‘Sides, there’s a lotta money in it, an’ goth music’s the next big thing.”
“Well I’ll just stick ta OMD an’ all – ”
“They’re a bit goth …”
“No they are nat. They’re – ”
“Sure aren’t you inta D&D and that kinda stuff?”
Declan mouth flopped open. Frig, bet she’s thinkin’ I’m weird. Wet his lips, said, “ach, well, it’s just a hobby thing … ”
“It’s okay,” she laughed and gently slapped his arm, “I think it’s cool. Sure, look at me … “ Una said with a giggle, “I dress like death an’ all.” Her tone buoyant, “an’ sure isn’t good we’re a bit different – in a good way, like? Nat like all ‘em friggers who go gettin’ themselves mixed up with the paramilitaries and stuff.
Declan swallowed, said, “aye.” in a soft voice, looked to talk about something else then noticed Una had gone quiet and was staring ahead, her eyes sombre in spite of her smile.
“So who toul yeh about me likin’ fantasy and stuff?”
“Ach … don’t remember … ” A passing bus drowned the remainder of her words. He felt her jerk the arm of his sweatshirt between finger and thumb and gesturing for him to follow her gaze onto the road where he saw some fella – thirty-odds, shaven-headed, wearing only a pair of dirty jeans stride from the opposite pavement into the middle of the road where he stood waving a hurley stick above his head. This turned his back to them. Declan felt the weight of Una’s body as she pressed herself closer to him. Her arm hooked his. He liked the texture of her presence. They were almost level with the skinhead. Declan looking out the side of his eyes, watching with a mixture of amusement and apprehension as the skinhead babbled loudly at the traffic while rotating the hurley above his head. Declan could only make out the words ‘Jasper’ and ‘murderer’ from amongst the gibberish, he made a dismissive grunt under his breath; wanting to reassure Una and liking the feeling that he was her protector.
“Fuckee lukkin’ tat?”
Declan sensed the skinhead was shouting at them. He locked his gaze straight ahead. Maybe not, maybees he’s shoutin’ at some driver? The hairs on his neck rose. Palms tingled. All it takes is for friggers like that ta make eye-contact and they’ll be over in your face in no time. If I’d a gun I could just stiff him, nah, thattad be stupid in front of a roadful of people, and Una. Getta pistol an’ do him later, aye. He told himself knowing he’d do neither. He felt Una quicken her pace. Other voices joined the skinhead’s and Declan glimpsed back to see three men run over to the skinhead. They grappled with the skinhead before hauling him back towards a side street. The skinhead shouting, “Jasper put the devil in me.” Una clutched his hand as he noticed a large tattoo of a dragon covering the skinhead’s back. The three men silenced any further shouts from the skinhead by punching him, the hurley stick lying on the road. Declan turned his mind to Una’s hand in his just as she let go, but the closeness of her body, and her touch, would stay with him for the rest of his life.