Nuala eyed the road from the window. Her right thumbnail chewed to the quick, she moved to the forefinger, spitting the random bits over the lounger.
Fainche set a firm scowl on her daughter. “I doubt you’ll be cleaning up that bit of mess.”
“Aye, Mam.” Nuala rolled her eyes.”Damn post, always late.”
“Language, girl.” Fainche swatted Nuala with the Telegraph. Everyone knew Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, and one should never get hopes up for mail coming out. “Maybe it will come today.”
“Aye, Mam.” Nuala bit too deep on her pinkie and let out a yelp. “Damn!”
Fainche feigned a bit of anger, “Language!”
“Ma, I’m nineteen.”
“And I’m still the mother in this house.”
Nuala left the room to her mother and found a dry spot of porch. It had been a full month since the last letter from Liam. He had written they were being tripled up, in cells only big enough for two. Some prisoners were on the Blanket and Bobby Sands was on his twenty-third day of the Hunger. The stink, Liam had added, was the worst. The lads refused to empty their buckets, smearing their shite all over the walls. Nuala had been worried sick with no word after that. When she spotted the Postcar two blocks down, she shouted, “Post coming!”
Fainche came to the door wiping her hands with her dish towel. She prayed the man had a letter. Liam was from good enough people, and she liked the lad. He was the Republican son of a Nationalist. Everyone was divided these days. One always had to choose which side they were on. The real truth of the matter was that one was either for English rule or one was for Ireland. It was as simple as that. Liam had tried to prove himself with one too many sides, but he looked after his Mam and Da, his younger brothers well enough. If he had been involved in any killing, well, he hadn’t as far as was proven and not according to Liam himself. That was truth enough for Fainche.
Nuala spotted the postman parking his car under Killeen’s tree. It wasn’t only herself waiting on news. Almost all families waited for someone’s letter. Everyone had a lad who was locked up in Ireland’s Troubles one way or another. Each day found them all waiting at doors or windows for his post truck. Nuala tried not be such a nuisance, she understood what the postman meant when he had told her once that he could feel all their eyes on his back, their hands rummaging in his letter sack. If he passed them by, it was either doors slamming or women crying. He wanted to bring letters to all of them. He looked at Nuala, positioned to spring up at him, and shook his head. No good news today. Nuala sat in the dark until Fainche turned on the lamps. Her father’s whistle broke the silence and she bolted out, flinging herself at him, his hand still on the doorknob. “Da!”
“What is this?” Seasil Cluney’s big arms reached around and gave his daughter a tight squeeze, shuffling her back into the house. “What about you now? No letter today then?” Nuala was his only child, a young woman now and with a young woman’s problems.
Nuala pulled her father to the lounger and forced him to sit. She cuddled up next to him, burying her face in his shirt. He smelled of woodchip and Guinness. “I’m not waiting anymore, Da. It’s torture.”
Fainche peeked in from her baking. Seasil was a doting and careful father. Too many families put more stock and love in the Troubles than they did their young ones. He was kind and sturdy, but there were limits to his gentleness when he thought Nuala was in danger. All Ireland’s young were in danger. “Wheesht. Let your Da be. He’s only just come up from the mill, hasn’t he?”
“Sorry, Da.” Nuala pecked his cheek.
Seasil rubbed her head with his beard. “Nothing important is easy to figure. He’s a good lad, either you love him or you don’t. Either you keep waiting or you don’t. Only you can decide.”
She couldn’t decide. Not yet. Liam’s final sentencing had came and went. She didn’t know if they had tacked on more years or how many that might be. She knew he expected her to wait. Most girls waited. Some lads were getting thirty years, some life. Liam was facing ten for possession, less his ten months remanded. England could tack on a new sentence for one small thing or another. One extra charge, true or not. She loved him. She thought she could wait ten years, though life could change drastically by then.
Liam pushed his face between the bars of the cell door and the guard cracked his stick against them as he walked by. Liam jumped back with a curse.
The guard retraced his steps. “What’s that? Filthy Irish. I wouldn’t use you for a toilet.”
“Fack clean off.” Liam moved to the farthest wall. The guards could break out on them at any time. Everybody was on the edge, some past it, with most prisoners either on the Blanket or the Hunger, some on both. When the first prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms, no one thought it would last. When they refused to slop out, when they were writing their names with their shite on the walls, the guards made their own protest against Her Majesty’s Prison. The stink made everyone mad, and guards often turned their hoses and last nerves on the prisoners. But they held fast, using their bodies as their voices. They looked like Jesus with their blankets, and Bobby Sands was ready to martyr in the fight. He said the Five Demands would come about if he had to give his own life to see it happen. But the situation was fragile, and Her Majesty was not giving in, and no one eating. The guards were feeling evil from the stink, the protest, the hatred of everything Irish.
“You ugly screws, pushing heaping plates of food into the cells of the Strikers. Hairy beasts what bore you even uglier than you are.”
The shouting came from a nearby cell. It sounded like Paddy O’Reilly. Liam’s ears pricked for responses. One man’s shouts instigated others, until one or all had to be given a stick to the belly to quiet them.
“Gov’s old lady, I wouldn’t have that hole. Not even the tide would take her out.”
That was Tunney. The guards respected Brian Tunney. He had connections that could wipe out an entire family. They were always careful when meting out frustrations on Brian. Liam jumped the distance to the top bunk and stretched out. He had a few clever cracks for them, but he was thinking about Nuala.
He’d asked for her loyalty like anyone would ask of his girl. She was young, he was nearing twenty-six. Old enough to know better, still too dumb not to have taken the boat. His ma had pleaded with him, his Da had as well. “Get out of Ireland altogether,” they had begged. He had done nothing wrong, stored the cache of guns, but he had refused to stash the Semtex. What kind of lad didn’t fight for his country’s freedom? Who would refuse to do their part? It was a small part, but it was the contribution that counted. He had known the consequences. England had remanded him without charge almost ten months. Corrupt oppression was what he hid the guns for. For the murders, the lies, the dirty Orange traitors.
Someone sang out, “Hey, you fierce hoor! Wasn’t that old Liz I saw on telly last week shagging young Prince Chuck?” It was always tricky spitting on about the Queen and it was deadly wrong now, but maybe they were all itching for something to happen, guard and prisoner alike. The deafening whistle shot for more guards was given, and they all braced for the worst.
Fainche sat stuffing the last of the seasoning into the roast duck, finishing her first glass of wine. Seasil had forbidden Nuala out after dark. It was almost that, and she hadn’t come in. He would be at the pub now, having the last of his two pints before making his way home to supper. He was patient enough, but Lord help that child if she came in after dark. She guessed any young girl would go a wee crazy. She drained the glass and poured another. With the snipers stepping it up again and the riots breaking out nearly every day, it was enough to drive the Pope to the pub.
Fainche spoke a toast, “Hasn’t the whole of Ireland gone crazy now?”
And when Bobby Sands died, Belfast would explode.
Siobhán pulled Nuala’s hair to get her attention. She didn’t want to be seen chatting with the Brit in public. She shuddered to think what their families might do, what the lads would do to both of them if they saw. Someone was always watching.
“I wanna talk to you. Now.” Siobhán pulled Nuala away from the soldier, dragging her by a stretched sleeve.
“What are you on about? You have to pee?” Nuala yanked her arm free.
“You want to get us both killed? I’m not dyin’ for no stinkin’ Brit, I’ll tell you that.”
“Get off of it. Nobody’s gonna kill you. Who’s gonna kill you?”
“He’s a British soldier. The enemy, remember? What about Liam? What about your Da? What about all the eyes on us right now? I’m not gonna stand with you anymore.”
“People have eyes, let ‘em look. And I don’t see Liam, do you? Far as I know, he’s locked up for the next thirty years. That means fifteen tops. Don’t be pushing IRA sanctions down my throat. I’m not a wife.”
“He’s a Brit!”
Nuala gave a dry grin and brushed past the girl. Charles wasn’t like the others, didn’t treat Irish like mongrels. He didn’t treat her that way. Charles was here, Liam was not. Maybe not until half of her life had been wasted. She didn’t know what anyone wanted from her, and everyone wanted something different. Of course she didn’t love the Brit and maybe she was playing with fire, but wasn’t it her own Da who always said there were good Brits and bad ones? Don’t judge a man by his government, he said. People were not governments. Maybe Charles only wanted that one thing, like all lads do, but he had more on his mind than the Troubles, and she liked that. She liked him. And that was the end of it. She was sick of people telling her what to feel, how to behave. Sick of politics. Sick of Ireland.
Seasil needed the bus if he was going to make it in time for supper. Fainche didn’t like her supper getting cold, he didn’t like Fainche getting cold. He walked the two streets up and one over to catch the next bus. That’s when he saw the sniper, perched atop the church, one leg wrapped around the steeple. He followed the line of the sniper’s aim with hyper-alert eyes, to the street. Two British soldiers and a girl. The sniper would pick off the soldier, maybe both, maybe even the girl. It was in one’s own best interest to ignore such things. Out a sniper or in some way alter his mark, you or your family could be found dead in an alley. Damn, the girl should know better talking to a Brit. It was a deadly game. Especially now with the hunger strikers so close to death, the news of what was happening at The Maze. He wished she would turn, remove her pink hood. He might know the girl, drag her by the hair to her parents so they knew to keep a better eye out for her or they would find her in the bog.
The approaching bus chugged to a stop. Seasil hesitated before getting on, looking up once more at the steeple. The sniper was gone. He rushed around the front of the bus to view the scene he was sure had played out. The girl put her hand on the soldier’s arm, the soldier clearly pleased with himself, like any young lad would be when a girl flirts. She dropped her plaid backpack to the sidewalk and the soldier bent to pick it up. The other Brit minded the traffic. Stupid girl. He was hot with anger. The loud horn startled him and he came about. He kept his eye on the little scene, once seated, until they were out of sight.
“Where is the girl?” Fainche served Seasil his supper, but she couldn’t eat a bite. Not until Nuala came in safe.
“I know one thing, she’ll not be forgetting what I told her after tonight.” He had taught Nuala about their own family’s involvement in the struggles. He taught her the safe roads, the safe places to go, who was safe, who was not, but these young ones had no sense of how to exist in their environment it seemed.
“She’s home.” Fainche stood up to fuss.
“Hi, Mam. Da.” Nuala planted a kiss on Fainche’s cheek. She came around the table to give Seasil the same, but stopped cold. The look on her father’s face warned of great trouble and she stepped back.
Seasil scanned Nuala’s face. Her pink hooded sweater now brushed back. That plaid backpack. Pink and plaid. He half stood, half stooped over the table, the fork still suspended in one hand. His own daughter. His little girl. From somewhere deep, the howl erupted. Fainche fled the table with the tablecloth, and with one step, he grabbed hold of Nuala’s hair and flung her into the next room.
“Seasil!” Fainche clasped her chest.
Seasil was upon Nuala as she cowered on the floor.
“Da! What’s wrong, Da?”
He unbuckled his belt and removed it in one pull, and swung the belt down.
“Oh, Jesus!” Fainche came up from behind and grabbed Seasil’s arm. He flung her off with ease.
“No, Da!” Nuala tried to break the blows with her arms, but the belt caught her face. She crawled to the corner and curled up. “What’s wrong, Da?”
“You were with him? I saw you. Tell true and I’ll end it.”
Nuala knew what he asked. If she told the truth, he might kill her. But if she told, it could take his wind out. She had no time to choose. “Aye, Da.” He pulled her from the corner and tossed her forward. She fell into the lamp table, breaking it with the force.
You’re killing her!” Fainche had never witnessed her husband in such a fury. A man never realized his own strength before his rage. She grabbed the milk pitcher and smashed it against the back of his head.
Seasil stood momentarily stunned. Nuala lay silent. He stood above her, the heat slowly ebbing from his eyes, the milk dripping from his neck onto her face. He had never struck his daughter. Never once laid a cross finger to her. He stood heaving, the belt hanging slack by his side. “Do you know what she’s done? Your daughter? Almost killed tonight, Fainche. By a sniper!”
“Why?” Fainche lifted Nuala’s head to her lap.
“I saw it true with my own eyes. She was with a Brit, Fainche. Do you hear me?” Both his women were wailing now. His anger finally spent, he recovered his emotions and lifted Nuala in his arms. He carried her to her room, laying her gently on the bed. “Call the Doc.”
“Aw, Seasil.” Fainche stood in shock at both the beating that took place and the words her husband had spoken.
“Your daughter could have been dead tonight. My daughter.”
“Seasil. . .”
“Call Doc, woman. Now!”
Liam lifted his head from the release form, signed and sealed by the Governor.
Liam tucked the envelope under the mattress and stuck his head out of the cell. Brian Tunney leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. Brian knew everyone’s business, came from a family of snipers and bombers. Whatever you wanted to know about a person or thing, you went to Brian. You didn’t cross him, you didn’t question him, and when he talked, you listened. If he gave information, you kept it to yourself or you wound up crippled or dead. “What about you, Brian?”
“I heard the word, mate.”
“What’s that, mate?”
“Heard you were out in a week.”
“Aye.” Liam stuck his hands in his pockets. A lad never let on he was glad to be leaving H Block. It was a badge of honor and someone was always watching to see how honor was handled.
“Heard another word, too.”
Liam knew bad news was coming when Brian leaned in close. “I’m listening.”
“The word is Nuala turned traitor.”
“Says who, mate?” Liam felt hot and itchy. He wanted to smash Brian’s face against the wall because Brian was never wrong about anything or anyone. He trusted Nuala. Was he being tested? No one knew he had been commuted, and the thought crossed his mind that it could be snatched away from him with no one the wiser. Fourteen months was easy enough for a prisoner’s girl to wait.
“Word is Brit. Nuala turned traitor. End of word, mate.”
Brian walked off and left Liam to it. He liked McNally. Not top post material, but he had done his part. You could only fault a lad if he tried to shirk his obligation, and everyone had one, big or small. All Irish were in it together or they were standing on the wrong side. Brian had seen Nuala around the Falls a few times. Pretty girl. His brother had recognized her right off in his sights. Took the wind out of him, he’d said. And so close to offing that Brit.
Fainche shook Seasil awake gently. It was 4:36 AM, Tuesday morning. “Bobby Sands is dead.”
He sat up on the side of the bed. He stroked his beard and reached for a smoke. “Aye.”
An hour after Bobby was martyred the news came down from Brian. Any releases scheduled for the month had been stepped up, twelve in all. They were smart to get as many out as they could now, the prison would be in chaos soon, already the shouting and bucket clanging threatened much worse. Liam was told to gather his belongings. He took two letters and his pack of smokes. The guards rushed him through processing. Bobby’s death was a death blow to Ireland and she wasn’t about to let it go without revenge. The prison could be heard erupting in violence as Her Majesty’s Prison Maze gate was closed behind him.
Liam walked the fourteen kilometers back to Belfast proper. His legs, having lacked the stretch for so long, were sore and throbbing, Brian’s words to him before they had escorted him out, throbbed in his ear: You’ll do one for Bobby on the out, mate, for Ireland. He leaned against the dented rubbish cart until breathing no longer hurt, then stepped to the street spilling over with crowds who had come to petrol the Brits. He spotted Mickey Doolan ragging a bottle.
Mickey gave a toothy smile, and handed the bottle to Liam. “You’re out.”
“Aye.” Liam lit the rag, aiming for the tallest Brit he could see.
Seasil took the corner table farthest from the pub entrance and sat with his back to the wall. Out of respect for Bobby, the mill had shut down an hour after the workers had punched the clock. He’d come to the nearest pub to the mill because he’d needed a pint. After the beating, he and Nuala walked on eggshells around each other. The house was quiet, each afraid to look at the other. He didn’t know if Nuala still had contact with the Brit, but IRA knew. Nothing was hidden from IRA, their web spread far and wide and everyone stuck to it. All would settle down between them soon enough. He heard Eames before he saw the man, the swallow of Guinness falling flat in his belly.
“Cluney. You’re looking well.” Eames was tall and gangly, greasy and full of the shite, like all RUC were. His hands were well greased with the blood of every faction. He made dirty deals with both IPLO and INLA, all of them offing the other and Eames’ name attached to everything in some way.
“What do you want, Eames? You take the froth off my glass.”
Eames pulled a chair from an adjacent table, scraping its legs across the floor. He sat down, resting his black bowler between Seasil’s pint and the one brought to him from the ready bartender. His men, three of them, stood nearby. “How’s the family, Seasil?”
“What displeasure is this?”
“Nothin.’ I’ve come to see how the lads are faring. So sad to hear the news about young Bobby.” He put his hand on Seasil’s shoulder.
Seasil shook the arm away. “Fack off.”
“Indeed. Now, I really am concerned about your family. Especially young Nuala, is it?”
Seasil stormed up out of his seat, sloshing Eames’s untouched pint over the rim of his mug. Two men immediately appeared, one of them with his hand inside the flap of his jacket.
“I have your best interest at heart.”
“Aye, don’t you?” Seasil spat on the floor in front of one of Eames’s watchdogs, then took a swig of his Guinness before sitting back down.
“Reliable word has it that your very pretty daughter has a thing for British soldiers.”
“No. Says Belfast. Listen, I completely understand the infatuation. We both know the pickings are rather small around these parts.”
“Speak your shite and be done, Eames. Then fack clean off.”
“Liam McNally’s out.”
Seasil glared at him over his pint. One could never predict Her Majesty’s politics or agenda. “So?”
“I don’t have to tell you the trouble your daughter is causing with this little infatuation. There are a lot of angry people. Now, word from my man in one of the ASUs is that your daughter was almost snipered.”
Seasil knew Eames cared nothing about Nuala or anyone else who carried out his dirty work. Whatever the game, God help him and all of Belfast if Nuala was harmed. “Out with it.”
“Get Nuala on the boat. Word is the ASUs are after blood. I don’t control the snipers. And they are oh, so angry right now. I can’t protect your daughter from her own people, now can I? She’ll get the crossfire. Is that what you want?”
“She’s one little girl, Eames. You’re one big, filthy screw.”
One of Eames’ men drew his handgun from his jacket and pointed it at Seasil’s temple.
“Here, now put that away lad. It’s only business. He understands. Don’t you, Seasil? They’ve got sights on her. Do you trust my word? Get her on the boat.” Eames stood and nodded to his men. He placed his bowler on his greasy head and strode out of the pub.
Seasil’s pint shook in his grasp. He did trust the slimy bastard’s word. Eames himself had dug the deepest trenches in Belfast. He knew where the bodies were hidden, and the ones that would be. His word was gold.
“I won’t say it again. Pack your daughter’s bags.”
Fainche paced the room. “You know I trust you . . .”
“Pack. Now. She’ll be leaving in the morning.”
The loud knock startled them both. Seasil took his pistol from his waistband and ordered Fainche to remain. He stepped quietly down the stairs. At the second rapping, he cocked the pistol, easing his left eye to the side of the door glass. Liam McNally stood with hands in pockets, head bowed to the porch. Seasil kept the pistol ready behind his back and opened the door.
“What about you, Mr. Cluney?”
“About you, Liam? You’re out.”
“Aye. I had to come, Mr. Cluney.”
Seasil brought the pistol around and un-cocked it. He ushered Liam inside. Fainche had come down and when she saw Liam, rushed to embrace him.
“Get inside the both of you.” Seasil pushed them both forward and shut the door, returning the pistol to his waistband.
“Nuala’s not here, Liam.” Fainche went to the kitchen for glasses and whiskey.
“Mrs. Cluney, I’ve come to tell you . . .”
“Sit down, lad. We’ll have us a glass for Bobby. And for you getting out.” Fainche poured three glasses and handed them around. When they were all seated, she looked to Seasil for a toast.
“God rest you, Bobby Sands. You were a fine lad. A fine Irishman.” They all took a healthy taste.
“Here’s to Liam, he did his part and paid his debt, too.” They downed their whiskeys, setting the empty glasses on the server.
Liam stood as if to leave. “I’ve come to say, I’ve decided to take the boat.”
Seasil and Fainche exchanged glances. It was considered traitorous by many to run from the Troubles, but with young men and women getting themselves in too deep or dying, the families with means were choosing to get them out. There would be a little bit of a mess, a family might even be shunned, but it was no price to pay at all for keeping the ones you loved alive. Nuala and Liam could leave together. He loved Nuala, and would look out for her.
Seasil motioned for Liam to sit. “Where will you go?”
“We got cousins in Crieff. Ma’s sister’s kids. Mr. Cluney, I need you to know I heard . . . I mean, I know about the Brit. I want you both to know I understand and I don’t have any bad feelings. I love Nuala. Mr. Cluney, I feel like something bad is coming. I’ll be dead by tomorrow if I don’t go.”
“I know, lad.” Seasil wrapped his arms around the boy. He and Fainche nodded to each other.
It was a beautiful morning. The rain had stopped, the rainbows curling around the patio of the pub like bows. Both of them were sick at heart yet hopeful. They’d be gone in two hours.
“I heard you were taking the boat?” Nuala didn’t know how he could look at her after what she’d done.
“Aye. You got a boat as well?”
“I do. A fast one. Scotland.”
“Same here. I always wanted to live in Scotland.”
Nuala stroked his arm. It was going to be all right. They were going to be all right now, the two of them.
“Well, you’ll have to wear a kilt now. Funny, isn’t it? How things turned out for us? You in Crieff and me in Dundee. Not even an hour apart.”
He had been thinking the same thing. He loved his country. Ireland was his mother, his friend. But she was acting the enemy and he knew she would eat him alive. He smoothed Nuala’s blonde curls from her forehead. “Listen. Let’s not talk about leaving. Let’s just say we’re on holiday.”
“I like that. Yeah. A holiday. We’ll be home before you know it.” Nuala took his hand and brought it to her cheek. “I love you, Liam. You know that?”
Liam jerked backward. He came to rest arms bent, one leg behind him on the patio. Nuala struggled out of her chair, her mouth opened to scream. The barmaid threw herself beneath the table when Nuala grabbed her throat. Nuala stood gasping for air before her head snapped sideways, her blood dotting the tablecloth where the barmaid crouched. She dropped to her knees and fell forward.
Still crouched beneath the table, the barmaid watched the slim stream of the girl’s blood pool at the bottom of the bone-colored curb. The boy, too, was a broken puppet; surely the Troubles had made puppets out of them all. She could only think how pale a person looks when they are surprised by violence.
Outside, Eric and Brian Tunney quickly gathered the spent shells and pocketed them.
“Damn shame, that.”
“Fackin’ traitors. I guess they got the boat all right.” Brian Tunney blew his stuffy nose onto the ground and slapped his brother on the back. “Ireland.”
Photo credit: The image depicts a mural is in Belfast titled “The Son of Protagoras” and is by French hyper-realist street artist MTO.