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BLOOD RED RABBIT by Tom Bryson ©

Chapter 1

 

 

 Kill Tony?

      Mary sprang up in bed, the hair at the back of her neck wringing wet.  The evil thought burned through her mind.  A thought?  Or a memory? 

      The bedside clock glowed three a.m.  Wide-awake, she stared into the darkness.  She was weary, God, how weary.  Dreaming?  It must have been a dream.  Not a memory, surely?  Her heart pulsed.  She exhaled.  Jesus!

      Tony slept beside her snoring lightly; a shallow, breathy whoosh like sea riding up a shoreline.  His snoring once irritated her.  Now it paled in significance to zero point, a non-issue.  Her stomach felt hollow and sickly.  She lay on her side and studied his profile.  He slept lying on his back nearly all the time now: passive.  In the past his sleeping was restless, energised– but that was before... before what?  His illness?

    That’s what Doctor Sweeney called it  – an illness.  Not a broken limb, mind you; no malfunctioning organ or clogged artery; not even a maggoty tumour.  No, not those kind of …illnesses.

      When asleep he seemed lessened; his fourteen stone and six-foot body deflated like an air mattress with the stopper pulled.  But in repose at least, his face showed he could smile again – would smile again? 

    Time, time, she thought; yes, she knew it was a cliché; but time healed.  She wanted life back to how it was; safe, secure.  Leaning closer to him she thought she saw some grey in his beard.  No, a trick of the moonlight through the window, deep ginger-red just like the hair that tousled his forehead and matted his chest.  She pulled her own, gypsy-black hair forward and stared at it.

      His chest barely moved with his breathing.  His pulse ran slow in rest: unlike when awake and his demons visited…

      He no longer talked about the future, his plans, no - their plans.  He had wanted to start up on his own, leave the security of paid employment; be his own boss. 

      “We’ll never get rich, Mary, with me slogging my guts out for a tin-pot engineering company only interested in pushing up profits  - and you on a teacher’s pittance.”  His eyes smiled as he added, “I mean, we’re getting on now, Big Three-Oh behind you as well…”, soft teasing that always succeeded in getting her goat.   

      “I might not earn as much as you but I work just as bloody hard.”  She pushed out her tongue, softening argument.  “Sure you wouldn’t last five minutes at College – the monsters would reduce to a gibbering wreck in no time.”

    Gentle teasing; prophetic words.

    His voice had dropped to a guttural bass.  “I’ll bring you home some real money; megabucks.  I’ll take good care of you, Mary - and Ciaran too.”  He was serious.  Of course he would; Tony the Strong was how she thought of him then; protector, provider.

    For an instant she thought she heard a cough from the bedroom across the landing where two-year old Ciaran slept.  She moved to push herself out of bed, but a weight of apathy seized her.  She listened hard; she couldn’t hear a sound.

    So quiet.  In many ways Ciaran’s passivity baffled her; that he should remain unaffected by the atmosphere that hung over the house these days.  Certainly, she was affected; suffering panic attacks; at times breathing as through cotton wool.  But perhaps a mood was bedding in Ciaran’s psyche, a mind-wound that would fester over time; a black dog in the making.

    She lay awake, feeling alone, thinking about life in this divided community, among a people torn.  Her mind went into a spin…people torn apart, limbs torn from bodies.  To bring up a child among violence was bad enough, but to feel so alone as well, alienated - even in your own home?  She felt her small world slithering into a pit.

    Sure, she understood Tony was ill but more and more, anger grew inside her. When would he get well?  Get over his damned nerves?   

    She pressed her fingers against her inflamed cheek, feeling pain as she probed around the bruising.  Remembered earlier blows, now healed.

    Her dream-memory returned, this time forcing tears that she tried to stop by squeezing her eyes shut, only for them to ooze through like tiny breaches in a dam.  Tears of heartache that turned to tears of anger, a malign cousin and more frequent caller as her hurt deepened. 

    When the evil thought first came to her as she startled from sleep; it came strangely.  As a memory, not as an original thought.  It came as the end picture in a sequence - not a single climactic vision, but the end of a staggered chronology: like a film.

    Scene One…opening shot – her face porcelain white, freckled, sliding her slight body out of bed…

    Scene Two…standing at the top of the stairs, head slightly cocked, listening, hearing his life breaths ripple from the bedroom…

    Scene Three… moving on silent tiptoes across the kitchen, …a close-up shot -

pulling open the kitchen drawer on its silent runners…

    That was when she actually awoke, halfway down the stairs.  Disturbed, she spat a small gasp; frightened.  Not by sleepwalking – as a child she had done that.  Once her parents found her asleep, standing at the bottom of the garden.  No, what frightened Mary was the climax of the film strip story.  Once awake on the stairs, she knew what would follow – how it would end.

    Scene Four…close focus inside the drawer, the silver armoury nestling in silent domesticity…shock cut to – her hand reaching for the black-handled knife with glinting blade…

    Awake on the stairs, she had shivered.  What was this? A dream within a dream?  Sub-conscious wish-fulfilment? Weak with fear, she had crept back up the stairs to the bedroom, silently crawled under the duvet.  

    Now, lying awake in bed, again and again she short-circuited to the end picture, the denouement.

    Final Scene…arcing overhead camera shot - the long kitchen knife poised above her head, held by both hands, plunging down into Tony’s shallow-breathing chest. 

*

With one hand, Neil Dunn pushed against the brass knob of the entrance door to the St Vincent de Paul social club, his other hand shoved deep out of the cold into the pocket of his zipped-up black denim jacket.  The door opened a bit then stuck halfway.  Neil banged his shoulder against the door, unwilling to take his free hand from his pocket.  He snorted wet snot that had flooded his nose, stimulated by the wet northerly wind that had gusted all day.  The cold bit through his grade one haircut to his scalp.

    Through the gap in the stuck door, he saw Tony Kelly and Tony’s pal, Colin.  They were old guys in their thirties. 

    Tony he knew from his last year at school before he started college, when Tony helped train the under-sixteen football team.  He liked Tony, a great trainer, made you feel good.  He’d met Colin at the McQuigan’s house when he’d fancied Colin’s sister, Carol.  Sometimes Colin came for the last ten minutes to give Tony a hand with the training and they’d go for a drink together after.  Yes, Neil liked Tony; good football coach and he didn’t barge you or take the piss.  He was a good singer, too, would burst into opera even; sometimes had the car stereo blasting out churchy music.  Neil didn’t know how he could stand that.  Still.  Colin was a weirdo - he gave Neil the willies.  He couldn’t make out why.  He missed Tony since he stopped taking the footie training.

    Both men sat at a table near the bar with a third man in his twenties that Neil didn’t know.  He had a green harp tattooed on his cheek that Neil thought looked naff.  His head was shaved clean.

    “Have you lost your strength, Neil – or is it the haircut?  You know what happened to Samson?”

    The foul-breath smell of halitosis drifted close to Neil.  Father Mulligan was about fifty, red-faced with a blue-veined nose; he had a quip for every occasion.  Neil hated him.

    “Here, give it a good shove.”  He leaned over Neil and his fleshy hand, twice the size of Neil’s, heaved the door inwards until it jammed to a stop at the limit of the closure arm.  He laughed loudly.  Driving his groin against Neil’s arse, he pushed him into the club bar.  Putting his arm over Neil’s shoulder, Mulligan looked over to the bar and caught the club steward’s eye.

    “Just the man,” he shouted.  “By the way, Neil, how’re the studies going?  I saw you at the enrolment evening."

    Neil remembered him being there.  Several other college governors had been swanning around as well, looking important while the head, Hilary Selhurst, did her ‘mother-hen’ act.

    Neil said nothing.  He didn’t see a need to say anything.

    “Good man, good man.  Sure education’s everything.”  The priest’s eyes darted around the room.  He raised an arm, “Hello there, Tony, Colin, how are y’ese doin?”

    Neil sniffed and walked away from the priest towards the game machines in the assembly room behind the bar.  He fumbled in his pocket for change until he had fifty pence.  Inserting the money, he watched the flickering screen until the warriors appeared, confronting each other with swords held high.  He smiled a wee smile, his first today.  For fifteen minutes he concentrated, his eyes never leaving the screen, his fingers and thumbs twitching in lightning reactions, an occasional explosion of breath.  Neil enjoyed his victory.  It felt good.  Now he was thirsty.

    Back in the bar he sat on a stool and ordered a half-pint of lager.  The steward looked closely at him and Neil gave him his blank stare, daring him to challenge his age.  He’d had this shite before and the steward shrugged, picked up a half-pint glass and started the pump.

    Neil took a cigarette from a crumpled packet and lit up, staring ahead at the mirrored wall behind the bar, reading the labels over the optics and memorising the drinks.  Jameson’s whiskey, White Horse whiskey, Gordon’s gin, Bacardi rum, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Martell brandy, Southern Comfort; he squinted to read the names of the remaining bottles along the line of optics.

    “Neil, come over here.”  Carol and Phil sat together at a table against the wall, a couple of long-standing cokes on the table in front of them.  “Come and join us,” Carol repeated. 

    Neil looked over at her.  Carol McQuigan; it had been a while since he had last seen her.  He’d gone out a few times with her, shagged her on their third date in the back of Colin’s van on the drive when they got back from the pictures.    She’d pulled off him at the last minute; too late to stop him coming, though.  Probably a good thing too, he hadn’t got a condom.

    He’d started the business studies course at college the same time as Carol.  They’d gone out together for a while afterwards but the whole thing sort of petered out; he thought he didn’t fancy her that much, anyway.  But in a kind of way he still did.  He had found her old man a bit of a pain – he was big in politics, Sinn Fein councillor, you sometimes saw him on TV.  Neil always felt a bit wary of him – sure you never could tell knew where these politicos were coming from, his da used to say when he was alive.

    He knew Phil – Phil Cassidy – only from seeing him round the town; he was one of the Cassidy’s from the Milton tower block in the Sheedy area not far from where Neil lived – sometimes Neil thought there were millions of them Cassidy’s.  All looking the same too, round-shouldered, sandy-red hair, Van Morrison faces.  Fat little bastards.

    “Naw, it’s all right.  I’m goin’ soon.”  He didn’t want to join them, listen to their blather.  He just wanted to be by himself, enjoy his half-pint and a ciggy.  No hassle.  He swung around on his stool and looked into the big mirror behind the bar. 

    He watched Carol’s reflection in it.  She always looked younger than she was – now seventeen like him but she looked fifteen.  Pouty lips, a nice round face, blonde streaks in her hair that she was always pushing back out of her eyes.  She still had the nose stud, he noticed – and a circlet piercing in her left eyebrow.  Her short, black leather skirt fitted her well; lost a bit of weight there.  He wondered if she still had that piercing in her navel.  He’d enjoyed licking that.  She’d laughed a bit as well, said it tickled.

    She nudged Phil and gestured in Neil’s direction; she rolled her eyes.  They both laughed when she mouthed a word, but shut up and looked away when they realised he could see them in the mirror.  He remembered that ready laugh - but she could switch mood in a moment, eyes turning to fiery coals; quick-tempered was Carol.  He used to make her lose her rag easily and he smiled inwardly at the memory.  She could be bossy too – but he didn’t mind that.  Maybe he’d see if she wanted to go out with him again.  He knew when they came across each other at college she was always ready to chat.  So was he.  Cassidy was a wanker.

    He remained facing the bar.  He closed his eyes trying to recall the names of the bottles over the optics and their prices.  He did this more and more often; it was a kind of obsession, this need to remember detail. Voices murmured around him, punctuated by occasional shouts and loud laughs.  Mulligan rabbited away to the steward, something about a raffle and who was donating prizes and who wasn’t.  Neil recalled all of the bottle names and prices but one.  He squinted open his eyes – just a peek.  The bottle’s label carried a picture of a little girl with blonde ringlets.  She looked as if she were skipping down the side of a snow-capped mountain that towered behind her. 

    Jesus!  He opened his eyes wide.  Deirdre – the picture was the spitting image of his young sister, Deirdre.  His face burned.  He sat upright, the cigarette flattened under the pressure from his fingers.  He wanted to jump over the bar, rip the bottle from its mounting and scrape away the offending label.  He wanted to smash the bottle into the mirror that flagged his blazing face, newly pimpled this morning, crease lines like corrugated tin streaking across his forehead.

    He lowered his head so he couldn’t see his blue shadowed skull and poxy face, so he couldn’t see the bottle with Deirdre’s picture staring at him.  He half-turned away from the image, towards Phil and Carol, then to where Tony, Colin and the other man sat.  He fought to calm himself.  He lit another ciggie.

    They talked quietly, much more so than others in the bar.  Neil stole a quick glance at Tony.  He knew what people had said about Tony after the blast – six months ago now – how his nerves were shot, how he’d hit the drink bad.

    He glimpsed Colin’s false hand – a result of the same blast – even if he tried to hide it.  Colin drank his black stout using his right hand to hold the glass, but his left hand he kept under the table, resting on his thigh.  A smear of nicotine-coloured beer froth floated over his top lip; he wiped it with his right hand.  Neil wondered if he could use his false hand for anything.

    He got off the stool to leave, passing their table.  His action drew Colin’s attention; he stopped talking.  The third man and Tony both followed Colin’s stare.  All three men stared at Neil.

    “How’s the football these days, Neil?”  Tony grinned.

    Neil felt uncomfortable,  “Great, Tony, great.”

    “You were a quick player, Neil.  Swifts doing okay?”

    “Second.”

    “Second – sure that’s great.  You’ll be having a trial with the wee Blues yet.”

    “No chance.”

    Tony’s grin left his face, his eyes darkened.  “How’s your ma these days?  Haven’t seen her around for a while.”  

    Neil stared back.

      “Since young Deirdre’s…I mean?”

    Neil shook his head.

    “I know.”  Tony glanced at Colin.  “ I know.”  He reached out and grabbed a whiskey chaser from the table, put it to his lips and gulped it back.  “It’s all ended now, I suppose.”

    “Steady, Tony,” Colin’s voice urged caution.

    “Aye, steady.”  Tony peered into the bottom of the glass.  “Why the rush, Colin?  Why the fuckin’ rush, eh?”

    “Easy, Tony.”  The third man touched Tony’s arm and looked sharply at Neil.  He lowered his voice; his shaven head, moist, reflected the light.  His voice was quiet, but not quiet enough for Neil’s young ears,  “It’s not ended, Tony.  It never ends.”

    Neil threw his cigarette butt on the floor and squashed it with his trainer.  He strode to the door and violently yanked it wide open.  Shoving both hands into his jacket pockets, he walked quickly along the street thinking about Tony’s shattered nerves, Colin with a ‘thing’ on the end of his arm.  He thought about football training when dreams were believable, about the shattered body of his dead little sister whose laugh used to ring through the house when their ma wound up her blonde hair in ringlets.

*

As he stepped out of the club, Tony stumbled.

      “Will you be all right?” Colin said. 

      “Cold air – suddenly hit me.” 

      Colin put out his hand to steady Tony.  A steady drizzle fell and the streetlights oozed shimmering amber as they lit the wet mist.  

      Tony blinked and looked around,  “What time is it anyway, Colin?”

      “Just gone six.”

      “We been drinking all day?”

      “Pretty well.”

      “Mary’ll be home from work by now.  She’ll be wondering where the hell I am.”

      “Do you want to go back inside and phone her?”

      “No, no.” He grinned, “I’d probably forget why I’d gone back and call for another whiskey.” 

      Colin grimaced and rubbed his left arm.  He pulled up the hood of his waterproof.

      “Does it still hurt, Col?”  Tony reached out for Colin’s prosthesis but he stopped short of touching him.

      “Sometimes.”  Colin used his good hand to pull the drawstring tight around his hood collar.  “Worst thing is I think it’s still there, can feel it…as if my fingers are burning.”

      Tony gnawed at his lower lip, “Who did it, Col?  Which fuckin’ lot did it.  You know, don’t you?” 

Colin said nothing.

      His silence stung Tony.  He lunged and caught him by the collar with both hands, fighting to keep his balance.  “Tell me, you bastard, tell me.”  Tears welled in Tony’s eyes.  “All that stuff you wanted…questions about mechanisms…you knew…”

With a shrug Colin turned away from Tony,  “I’d better get back.”  Suddenly he shoved his false hand hard against Tony’s cheek.  “Just remember this, remember this.”  He spun away from Tony and vanished into the murky night.

      Tony walked along the paved footpath.  He tried to keep in a straight line but veered right and left.  His mind fogged again, he hummed Grieg’s Morning from Peer Gynt, one of his favourites; he liked classical music, it was like a pattern, as in the engineering tools he made.  A vector diagram came into his head, a mathematical formula.  He thought of angles, forty-five degree stagger, adjust ninety degrees, on the straight and narrow again.  I’m rat-arsed; the realisation crowded in among all kinds of thoughts bumbling around in his head.  Young Neil’s football prowess among them.  “Dunny”, he’d nicknamed him.  Got him kicking dead balls for a solid hour one day until they bent and dipped like guided laser weapons.  Once he tried to explain to him the effects of spin on a football in aerodynamic terms – the blank look that he got made him realise engineering was a lost cause on Neil.  Instead, he simply made him practise the same shot over and over, ten times with his instep, then ten with the outside of his foot.  Over the next few games Neil took the corner kicks, penalties, free kicks; scored and made no end of goals for the Swifts.  His pride over Neil’s improvement in skill was transparent.  Mary took to laughing with him when his enthusiasm bubbled over at home.  “Sure maybe they’ll let you follow in the legendary big Jack Charlton’s footsteps yet as the Irish team coach,” she’d said, kissing his head.  He’d smiled at that, knowing how easily Mary could read him; that used not bother him in the slightest.     

      He reeled heavily and his shoulder smacked against a lamppost.  What the fuck’s happening, he thought.

      Little Ciaran was going to be the best footballer this country produced since Georgie Best, Tony knew.  Bestie, the best.  After a day’s work, he used to help Mary get Ciaran ready for bed.  Before he was dry, even wiping him clean and changing his nappy; feeding him as he sat perched on his high chair, reading a story as he tucked him up.  He’d point out the animals on the wallpaper he’d hung – calling them by their pet names – dragging out the story-telling because he got so much pleasure from it.

      What was happening?  He hadn’t done a stroke of work for over six months and kept getting pissed.  He knew they were running out of patience at Precision Engineering; that bitchy personnel woman kept coming round and asked too many personal questions.  And her psychobabble cheesed him off.  “You’ve suffered from trauma, Tony.  Try and get some professional help, it’s out there.  We all have to move on.”  Father Mulligan was just as bad, only with him the answer was prayer.  Prayer; Jesus Christ Almighty.   

      He couldn’t remember since the bombing the last time he’d kissed Mary – or hugged Ciaran and told him a bedtime story. 

      Stretching out his left arm, he extended his fingers and wiggled them.  That was something Colin would never do again.  Tony blinked a couple of times. His hand began to shake uncontrollably.

      A car shot into view, headlamps on full beam, fog-light beaming, temporarily blinding him.  He covered his eyes and heard the car wheel hub clip the kerbside with a loud bang.  He fell backwards on to the pavement and as he tried to break his fall, his head cracked against the ground.  He staggered to his feet and now his whole body trembled.  Placing his hand against the back of his head, he felt hot, sticky blood.  He went to pull a hankie from his pocket, but first couldn’t find the pocket, then struggled to get the hankie out because his hand was wet and kept sticking to the lining in his pocket.  He turned and looked back along the road in the direction of the vanishing car and yelled curses after it.  He dabbed the back of his head with the hankie.  In the artificial light and gloom, the blood on his hankie looked brown and jelly-like.  Tony raged on until, shivering, he staggered to his feet and steadied himself against a wall.

      He wanted to be home, to be with Mary and his son, Ciaran.  Most of all, he wanted to stop remembering, stop seeing Colin’s false hand and something else that he kept remembering every time he saw a football.  A head, a severed policeman’s head spinning through the air, bending as if Neil had struck it with a deadly instep kick; then the head rolling down the road, bouncing over and over.




Chapter 2

 

Detective Chief Inspector John Keys raised his artist’s brush up towards the near treetops and the hills beyond, gauging proportion.  He squinted up at the bright sky.  Stretching his long, taut frame to its full, he held the brush above his head and yawned, not a tired yawn, a contented yawn.  He put down the brush and examined the autumnal colours of the tree line, then mixed more paint on his palette.  The sky hung smoky-grey behind a line of rowan, across the river the hills climbed steeply where a solitary tractor stuttered on the lower slopes, a faint trail of blue drifting from its exhaust.  The throaty roar, although disturbing what otherwise would have been total tranquillity, was homely, anchoring.  Life goes on, people must earn their daily crust. 

      Life – he pushed on the palette knife a little too firmly and a sliver of paint spurted onto his jeans.  “Shite,” he muttered and wiped away the smear with a cloth. 

      Emma’s easel – set up a few yards away from his own – was tilted at an angle so he couldn’t see her work and vice versa.  He looked up and she smiled at him; she laughed, “You put the paint on the canvas, dear, not your jeans.”

      John rolled his eyes at her and resumed his painting; he was pleased with what he had done so far.  The touch was lighter now than in some of the work he’d produced in earlier months; there were fewer shadows, less melancholy.  Turning a corner?  Liz at the Arts Centre had said as much during the last exhibition she’d put on which included several of his canvases.  “There was a heaviness in what you were doing, John, a brooding.  Did you know that?  This is healthier.”  He hadn’t known; but when he thought about it, it wasn’t that surprising.  Then she’d pouted and asked him why he was neglecting her.

      Emma and he liked to paint together, but they preferred keeping their work as it progressed away from each other’s eyes – Emma was the one who had put it into words saying there was something dissatisfying, almost inhibiting, about knowing your every brush stroke was being observed.  Like those dreams where you want to get away from prying eyes and cover your nakedness.

John thought how much Emma disliked being caught off-guard; when she became aware of him watching her she would say, “What?  What is it?”  Once she said she feared he was telepathic.  “Probably the policeman in me,” he’d replied.   

He wondered how ‘telepathic’ she was.  If she had any inkling when he strayed off the rails, if she always believed him when a shift at the station extended into the small hours.  But then, he always came home, that was the certainty.  However, a pretty face and perhaps a drink too many after a tough day – or night – and he played away from home.  Detective Sergeant Davey Crawford, a long-time friend – when they were boys they attended the Orange Memorial Hall dances together – said to him one day, “Time you kept that bloody thing between your legs under control, Johnny.  Letting your dick rule your head is for the rookies.  Someone could do you – one way or another.”

      Sometimes John wondered if Emma ever played away from home.

      He rubbed his eyes and put down his brushes.  Wiping his hands on the stained, multi-coloured cloth, he flexed his shoulders.

      “Had enough for today?”  Emma asked.

      “I think so – fancy a leg stretch along the river?”

      She started putting her things away.  “Will these be all right here?”

      “Never been a problem in the past.  Anyway, hardly anybody comes along this stretch of river.”

      They walked quietly along the riverbank, exchanging the occasional word, stopping here and there when something caught their eye.  Half an hour downstream, they paused and looked into the river at a point where it was narrow and fast flowing.

      “Never slows down, does it?”  John said.  “Busy, busy.”

      “Just like you,” she laughed.  A small frown showed on her forehead.  She tightened her lips a fraction.  “Maybe you’ll feel able to take more time off soon?”

While she waited for his reply, he felt the familiar wave of irritation.  He disliked talking too much about work, about the ‘situation’. 

“Surely things have moved on now?”  She said it as both a question and a hope.

      “I’d hoped so,” he said.  He tapped his head, “But you can’t blank this out.”

      A rabbit emerged from a thicket and shot into a field adjacent to the river.  Emma pointed and started to hum Brighteyes.

      John laughed, “Come on, we’d better get back.  We’ll pick up James from your parents after we’ve dropped these things off home.”  At the mention of James’ name, John felt a familiar surge of pride.  Their boy, ten years old now, growing up fast.

      “You haven’t forgotten we’re eating there this evening – daddy’s birthday?”

      “Birthdays and anniversaries, high days and holy days – why do your parents always need a reason to invite us round?”

      Emma laughed, “I’d never thought of that.  A residue of Puritanism, maybe?”

      “Anyway, I had remembered.”  John stopped in his tracks.  “I do still think about it, you know.”

      “I know, I understand”

      “Christ, I was lucky.”

      “Fate.”

      “Fate – don’t be fucking crass.”  His face flushed and he hated it.  Hated his loss of control; the unnecessary rebuke.  But there was no stopping it.  As if a cage across his chest sprang open and his heart and organs shot out, angry words spurting from his mouth like a burst artery.

      He leaned forward and shook his head,  “I’m sorry, Emma, I didn’t mean…”

      She put her arms around him.  He felt her warmth and they remained in a silent embrace.  John broke it first, “Come on, let’s go.” 

      Across the river, the tractor stopped and the engine was cut.  The driver climbed out and waddled slowly up the hill in a clodhopping stride, heading for lunch. 

      Above the stilled engine, hot air twisted and turned in the sunlight, distorting the trees visible through it, telling lies, and deceiving.

Deception.  That was some deception – a phone message that led you into hell and beyond.  A bomb warning – giving the wrong time and the wrong place.  Some said they’d cocked it up.  Perverse minds – perverse souls.  Shites. 

      The ambulance and police car sirens grew louder and went on and on like there was never going to be an end to their keening and then stopped.  A silence so deep you fell into it like a black hole and went spinning, spinning into it, into a place that sucked you down until there was nothing.  Nothing – no thing. 

*

Johns’ eyes shot open from sleep.  One hand went to his chest that was soaked in sweat and blazing hot.  The fingers of his other hand lay across his mouth and he could taste salt on them.  He reached across and switched on the bedside lamp.  Emma was fast asleep, her breathing slow and easy.  He got out of bed carefully, trying not to wake her.  He checked the time – four-thirty, he needed to rise at five anyway, no point trying to get back to sleep now.  He stepped out of his boxer shorts and went to the bathroom.  Under the shower, he rubbed shampoo into his black hair that he noticed showed signs of greying.  Signs of mortality – his mortality.  Forty next birthday.  Mortality beckons.

      He should be dead.  Swept up into a body bag.  But no, not him, Gilmore was the one swept up.  Gilmore, the most cautious man ever to walk on this earth.  Gilmore, who said when John asked for a favour, “I’ll have a wee think about that and come back to you, John.”

But Gilmore will come back no more.  Gilmore did John the favour, a big favour when he thought about it.  “He that layeth down his life for a friend…” Except Gilmore hadn’t intend laying down his life for anyone.  H simply weighed up John’s request for a duty swap and thought it would be better for him – he could get a few consecutive days away in the country with his wife and see the grandkids.  So Gilmore swapped a duty with John and it was John’s old mentor – Inspector Sammy Gilmore – whose body was swept into the body bag.  Whose head was found later.

      John closed his eyes and felt the cleansing water smack into his face and splutter against the shower panel.  He stepped out of the shower and vigorously rubbed himself down.

       “Bollocks,” he said into the mirror, his face set hard.  He cleaned his teeth and thought about the day ahead.  Tonight he’d call in on Liz, he hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks.  He knew she was always glad to see him, to move quickly into his arms, to smile powerfully as she felt his erection press against her belly.

*

From when he entered Liz’s apartment, it wasn’t more than ten minutes until they fucked and their sex spilled over and only after a while, smoking a ciggy did John relax and not be visited by Gilmore’s soft voice saying, “That’ll be fine, John, you can owe me one.”




Chapter 3


 Over breakfast, Tony’s hand trembled as he raised a spoonful of egg yolk.  A faint dribble ran from the corner of his mouth.  Mary wanted to reach across and wipe it away.  Like she used to when they ate out at Carney’s bistro or that little Cantonese restaurant just over the border.  Then she would reach over and flick an offending crumb or a stray piece of rice from his beard and remark, “Tony, sure you can’t even eat properly.”  So they would laugh out loud, often drawing the attention of other diners but not caring in the slightest.  Not now, though, no, not now.  It must be more than six months since they’d eaten out together.  Or laughed together. 

      She glanced at the clock, seven-thirty.  She must get ready for college; and clean up Ciaran’s breakfast mess.  But what to say about last night?  About the future?

      She recalled again how he no longer talked about the future – plans to go it alone and set up his own business.  Although his bulk still filled the kitchen chair there was something diminished about him these days.  Once more Mary felt the impulse to reach across and touch him but felt it fade before she acted.  Her mind drifted to the past – increasingly she thought about the past.  She thought about a day early last summer on the beach.  Only a little over six months ago – just before the hateful blast. 

*

She’d watched the gritty sand flow through her fingers in golden trickles.  The Atlantic breeze was soft for a change, barely disturbing her black, but lightening hair.  It always changed colour in the summer, even if there was little sunshine, as if hair reacted to the seasons through some kind of built-in clock.  She also knew her freckles would deepen; that happened too.  Her mother once told her that was the Celt in her fighting with the Spanish and she would turn into one big freckle if she didn’t cover up.  But Mary loved the pale sun on her face whenever it made its rare excursions over this north-west corner of Europe.

      She looked towards the sea and watched Tony run back and forth into the blue water, egging on Ciaran.  As the little boy’s feet hit the cold water his shrieks echoed along the nearly empty shoreline.  The weather was mild and she was glad Tony had suggested a day out.  He did that kind of thing – acted on impulse – and when he did his enthusiasm carried all before him; there was no saying no when he was in that mood.  It was good to do something without thinking too much about it. 

      Announcing he wanted to set up business on his own was much like that.  Mary had felt her heart jump – practical and fearful considerations slid over her mind like cars on a skidpan.  The mortgage, the risk, what about his company pension?  Sure he was easily led.  And who would do the books?  He was hopeless with money; she would have to look after that.  After all, she taught accounting.  She had opened her mouth to speak but the objections stuck in her throat. 

      There would be three of them in the start-up business, Tony said.  They had thought a lot about it and decided to give it a shot.  “Great, isn’t it?”  Then he lifted her high into the air, his shoulders rising like boulders and he laughed so long she shook her head and said, “Tony, what am I going to do with you?”

      They came up the beach towards her, Ciaran staggering to keep his balance.  Tony chanted a nursery rhyme about Doctor Foster as he strode into beach pools roaring the punch line; “He stepped in a puddle right up to his middle…”  Ciaran jumped into the pools with him, stamping his feet and squeezing his eyes shut as the water splashed up against his face… “And never went there again”.

      Mary lay still as they approached.  A dark cloud flitted across the sky scarring the beach briefly; in the shadow she imagined she saw a falling figure; then it was gone.  She shivered and stood up and, for no reason she could understand, a wave of anxiety shuddered through her.  She picked up a towel and wrapped it round Ciaran, drying him off as he laughed at the antics of Tony, who now sat in the middle of a pool and kicked his legs up and down sending shafts of water in all directions, moving his hands and fingers as if playing a grand piano, humming an aria.  Her two children – her two boys.

*

“More coffee?”

      Mary glanced again at the clock – seven thirty-five.  He nodded and she tilted the percolator flask over his cup.

      She tightened the lid on Ciaran’s cup and wiped cereal from his chin.  “I need to drop off Ciaran a bit earlier this morning with Shirley.  I’ve got a meeting in college first thing.”  She hesitated, “I’ll call in on mum and dad on my way home.”

She caught his glance at her cheek, carefully camouflaged with foundation cream and blusher, her entire face more made up than usual.  He winced, his eyes were pained, and she could see that.  But she did not want to ask him about it again; why he had lashed out, what made him so angry?  She had not got the courage to ask what made him increasingly prone to his raging outbursts.  Instead, she wanted to touch his hand, offer support and hope.  But his constant rejection was like an ill-fitting shoe; after the blister came the pain and then the accumulation of corn, of scale, the deadening of feeling.  Deadening love, stifling sorrow; it was getting harder for her to forgive, to love – and so she honed razor-sharp her guilt. 

      Guilt and forgiveness.  Mary remembered her childhood trips to confession along the city streets.  Striding ahead was Sister Magdalene of the Holy Trinity Convent School for Girls, her black robe flowing about her like a blustery sail, her projecting voice piercing the heads of her sin-laden charges.

“First feel guilt for your sins, girls, then you will know true sorrow and can pray for God’s forgiveness.” 

      Yes, Mary had felt the guilt – and the sorrow – rehearsed the Act of Contrition and later after she left the confession box and knelt to say her penance, basked in the deliverance of absolution.  “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.”  Five times repeated.

      On one occasion, Father Downey had given her as many as ten Hail Mary’s and three Our Fathers for her penance.  Impure thoughts; subsequently she scaled down the number of times she confessed to impure thoughts as they became more frequent.  When she first found pleasure from her own body, he’d asked her how often.  She’d settled for “Once a month, Father…about.”  Mind you, Mickey O’Kane told Bridie Murray who passed it on to Mary that once he had been given a penance of five decades of the Rosary!  Mary was shocked.  What magnitude of sin had he committed to get a penance like that?  What degree of sorrow had he needed to gain forgiveness? 

Tony’s fork clattered down on his plate, the angry sound smothering her wry, rising smile of memory.  Recently, she found it harder to feel sorry for Tony, to offer sympathy let alone forgiveness – her feelings grew more sluggish as her life coasted by in neutral gear.  Except for last night – no neutral gear or coasting then, no: full throttle ahead as Tony’s clenched fist sending her sprawling on the polished study floor.  The final scene of her plunging in the knife in last night’s dream-wish blazed through her mind; she forced it away like heaving a door shut against a firestorm.

      She poured herself more coffee; “Do you need anything?”

      He pushed back his chair.  He walked to the first aid cabinet where he kept his medication and stopped, opened the door and stared in for a long time.  She waited, her hands closed around her coffee cup, hoping.  His head dropped; he closed the cupboard door, the medication untouched, then shuffled off into his the small study and closed the door behind him.  

      Mary felt the churning start inside her.  She heard him switch on the CD player and once more Handel’s Messiah blared out, shutting down the external sounds from the neighbourhood; the droning early-morning traffic on the bypass, car engines starting and doors slamming, the shouted greetings of children on their way to school.  Her eyes did not need to penetrate wood to know what would happen next.  When he had first started walking off without a word, she had dashed in behind him to see what was the matter, to ask what was going on.  Not now, not any more.  She knew he would settle into his chair so that he looked out of the window to the west, where the distant hills peered over the horizon like squat heads.  Tony always looked west now, away from the city, away from the people and their troubles. 

      His voice was strong when it erupted suddenly from the study.  “No, no, fuck off, fuck off the lot of you.”

      She hated this.  She wanted to shout at him to be quiet.  She wanted to rush to him, to comfort him.  But she resisted the inclination, this time letting her head dictate her actions.  That had been part of the problem last night, acting from the heart.  The sound of her voice offering help, trying to understand – but cutting across his own preoccupations had helped trigger his flare-up.  He had looked for something to hit her with but there was nothing to hand.  So he balled his fist and swung.  And not for the first time recently; that was the hardest thing; each time she would not believe it could happen again.

      She listened to his tirade through the closed door.  Foul language was not natural with Tony; yes, occasionally he would let fly an expletive at an unexpected bill or a foul-up at work.  But never this madness.

Biting her lip, she got up and cleared away the breakfast crocks and cutlery.  She wiped Ciaran’s face and put on his coat, gathered her college things.  The day had barely begun and already she felt weary, debilitated.  She saw a spoon she had missed and went back into the kitchen.  She stood alone in the kitchen letting the hot water run down the back of the teaspoon, waiting for the congealing egg yolk to soften and wash away; like an absolved sin.

*

      Mary found it a wrench to walk out of Shirley’s house and leave Ciaran.  She had no concerns about his safety or wellbeing; in fact, Shirley was a gem, she really cared for and enjoyed the children in her charge.  But still: this morning she lingered at the door of Shirley’s living room.  The place had a lived-in look, something Mary liked to see.  To her, excessive tidiness implied a clinical obsession with order, a disturbed mindset.  She worried that Tony had started to show those signs, forever tidying up, moving scatter cushions on chairs so that they were always squared off, adjusting ornaments on shelves to make them equidistant; even putting on his clothes in a distinct sequence.  He had not used to be like that.

      “Right, I’m off now, Shirley.”

      “Bye, Mary,” Shirley held Ciaran’s hand.  “Say bye-bye to mammy, Ciaran.”  The boy looked up from a yellow and blue plastic train engine and pressed the black, domed smokestack.  He pressed the dome a couple of times making hooting sounds and laughing with delight.  Mary watched him, wondering.

      “Go on, you’ll be late,” Shirley turned to Mary.  “Think of all those eager students waiting to hear your pearls of wisdom.”  Shirley’s eyes twinkled and Mary forced a smile.  Some chance. 

Ciaran pressed the hooter again in a sequence of notes; the sound was like that of an old music hall comic turn’s refrain, following the delivery of his punchline, his arms outstretched, “Dada – di – da – da -da.”  Mary’s eyes widened and she laughed aloud for the first time in days.  “Wherever did he get that from? Right, I’d better go,” she said.  She closed the door behind her, drew a deep breath and walked quickly to her car.

*

      It was gone five-o’clock when Mary, having collected Ciaran from Shirley’s, arrived at her mother’s house.  She let herself in with a well-worn Yale key and immediately sagged into an armchair.  Ciaran ran towards the kitchen where he could hear his granny clattering around.

      “Is that you?  Be out in a minute.”  Annie Brogan’s Ulster vowels floated through the half-open kitchen door.

      “Granny, granny,” Ciaran cried as he shot into the kitchen. 

      “Hello, Ciaran, give your granny a big kiss.”  She wiped flour from her hands and prised open the kitchen door with her backside, picked him up and waddled into the living room.  Mary glimpsed through the window her dad in the garden working a hoe.

      “God, what’s the matter with you?  You look like death.”  Mary felt her mother’s shrewd stare drill into her as she carefully lowered Ciaran on the floor.  She then went to a cupboard and got out a wooden box, tipped it over spilling toys onto the floor.  The boy dashed towards plastic pigs and ducks; orange, yellow and white letters and numbers; soft toys, an imitation telephone, story books, pens and colouring books; he plonked himself squarely in the middle of the pile of riches.  Concentrating, his eyes darted from one item to another and back again; he twisted and turned, unable to choose.

      Annie watched him settle, then she moved closer to Mary who looked up into the hooded, eagle-sharp eyes that scrutinised her.  Annie stood stiffly and lowered her voice;  “He’s at it again, isn’t he?”

      Mary heard the scrape of her father’s feet on the doormat.  “Mum, please, not now.” 

      As Danny stepped into the kitchen, Annie touched Mary’s hand.  She dropped her voice.  “Okay - for now, but I want to talk to you before you leave.”

Mary silently nodded.

      “I’ll put the kettle on, you’ll have a cup of tea?”  Her dad’s clipped southern Irish brogue always struck Mary like a light being switched on.  Despite a lifetime of hearing it, the accent still carried sparkle; a playfulness that she found missing from the declarative tones of her mother. 

Her friends often teased her when a girl because she consciously practised her dad’s accent.  “Sure where did you learn to talk like that, Mary Brogan?” Bridie would say, “You sound just like a southern culchie.”

      Mary stood up and approached the kitchen door.  Her dad’s tea making was a ritual, ever since she had started calling in most evenings on her way home after picking up Ciaran.  Danny had sold the shop and retired a few years earlier and his beloved garden occupied most of his time these days.  She knew he delighted in her visits with Ciaran; she had always been close to him and could almost read his mind.  He had stopped talking about Tony some time ago; that was his way.  Close your mind to a problem and it just might go away.  So unlike mother who took problems by the balls and squeezed them until they hurt. 

She offered her cheek, which he kissed noisily.

      “How are you, love?” he said.  He looked at her face then glanced quickly away.

      “Fine, dad, fine.  Are you doing a bit of weeding?”

      “I am, a constant battle.”  She watched him make the effort to pull the crow-line smile around his eyes.

      “But from the looks of it, one you’re winning.”

      “I think so, mind you I ought to be.  I’ve got the time now.”  Once more he looked away from her heavily made over cheek.

      “Maybe you’ll find the time to make that cup of tea you offered us,” Annie gave him a look of mock disapproval.

      “Aye, aye, Cap’n,” Danny said, rubbing his hands together as he backed into the kitchen.

      Annie rose and softly pushed the door shut behind him.  “So, what’s been going on?”  She steered Mary away from the kitchen door, out of earshot.  Engrossed, Ciaran hitched a series of alternate blue and red carriages to a train engine.  He dragged the set away towards the hall. 

Mary lowered her voice so it was barely above a whisper.  “I don’t know what to do, mammy.  He’s drinking a lot as well.”  Her voice caught.  “It’s not just that.  I think he’s getting worse – in his head.” 

      “What’s Doctor Sweeney say?”

      “He still says depression; but he’s stepped up the strength of his anti-depressant pills.”

      “But that’s not doing any good?”

      Mary shook her head.  She accepted and squeezed her mother’s outstretched hand.  She didn’t want to tell her all - that Tony missed out on medication, how he hated being dependent on any kind of drugs.

      Annie raised her eyes heavenwards,  “Doctor Sweeney’s about as much use as a nun in a whorehouse. We’re on our own here, daughter.”  She indicated in the direction of the kitchen, “No good asking him what to do either.  Your father’s a fine man but he hates this sort of thing.”

      Puzzled, Mary frowned, her eyes narrowing.

      “No, I don’t mean to do with understanding depression, I mean facing problems.”  She took a deep breath and shook her head slowly from side to side, her vice softening.  “No, that’s not really fair.  I mean, taking tough decisions.”

      “I don’t follow you – what decisions?  I mean, this is to do with Tony – with me.”

      “I know, I know.  Exactly.  I mean – but I think you’re going to have to…think things through, maybe take some hard decisions.” 

      “What decisions, mammy, what’re you talking about?”

      “Tony battering you last night was the third time in a month.  And it’s going to get worse.  You’ve got Ciaran to think of as well, you know.”

      “But the depression, once the pills start to work he’ll change, get right.”

      Annie turned her head a fraction and listened to the sound of spoon against cup as Danny noisily stirred the tea.  She shook her head; “At least you had a sister.”

      “What?”

      “I said at least you had a sister.”

      “Mammy, what on earth are you going on about?  What’s Kate got to do with anything?”

      “I’m saying Tony was an only child.  I never believed it healthy for a child to grow up without brothers or sisters.”  She looked up at the ceiling, her head nodding, “Not enough playing, too much spoiling.”

      “Mammy, sometimes I could brain you.”  Mary hammered her closed fists against her thighs.  The rattle of cups on tray came from the kitchen.

      Annie spoke in a fast whisper; “It’s a shame his parents died so young – he needs a mother and father to fall back on at times like this.  Maybe you should move out.  Once they start, wife abusers never change their spots.”

      Mary leaped to her feet; her fists clenched white.  She trembled, “Shut up, will you, just shut up.”  She closed her eyes tightly.

      Annie sucked in air, her face tightened.  She slowly expelled her breath.  “You’re right.  I should keep my big mouth shut.  But what I think is neither here nor there.”  She gently steered Mary back down into her chair,  “ I know it’s hard, I only want to help. Listen,” she said, “I think he’s sicker than you believe.  It’s been nearly six months since the bomb and he’s still going down.  I think you need to get him some psychiatric help, a specialist, not Doctor Sweeney.”

      Mary gasped.  “Jesus, Tony would never accept that.  He’d go mad.”

      Annie smiled the smallest of smiles, her face grim.  “I think we - you - should get him looked at.  In his own interests; as well as yours and the wean’s.  Or somebody, God forbid, will get badly hurt.”

      Danny entered the room carrying the tea tray; he avoided eye contact as he placed the cups and saucers on an occasional table, trying not to make them rattle.

Copyright Tom Bryson 

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