By then there were nine of us left in the minibus. The others had got out at Portbane, with shouts of ‘See you tomorrow,’ and slaps on the side and the back doors. If we’d looked we could have seen them through the back window; we could have watched them walking away into the night, Sammy and Davy and Tommy and Harry T., the glow of Harry T.’s cigarette rising and falling as he limped alongside the others into the darkness. We could have said goodbye. But we didn’t; we sat back, spreading ourselves into the spaces left and continued the banter we’d been at all the way home from Bests, and we were still at it as we came to the top of the hill when Stuey let one go. It was definitely Stuey; a small self-satisfied trumpet blast, the stink quickly filling the air inside. ‘Jesus, Stuey,’ said Steven, waving his hands theatrically to get rid of the smell. Others joined in, Billy and Gerald and Gordon and Harry O., all groaning and fanning the air. ‘Open a window, Dickie,’ said Johnnie. He’d worked longer in Bests than any of us, Johnnie, he was just about to retire. ‘For Chrissakes, open a window.’ Stuey just kept laughing and saying it wasn’t him, though he knew we knew it was. Dickie wound the driver’s window down half way, and as the January night air rushed in we all leaned forward, even Stuey, inhaling with exaggerated relief, and it was then we saw at the bottom of the hill the light in the middle of the road.

*

Stella says I never talk about it. But I do, I do talk about it; I just don’t always want to talk about it when she wants to talk about it. Anyway, what’s to talk about? He’s gone.

Talking won’t bring him back.

*

The light swung back and forth as the minibus came closer; it was a torch, signalling to us to slow down. There were no other lights out here; the road was dark and very quiet. ‘What’s he doing out here at this hour?’ said Dickie, half to himself as he crunched down through the gears and prepared to stop. ‘Police,’ said Harry O. But as we neared we could see it wasn’t the police: it was a man dressed in black, with some kind of hood covering his face, except for two big holes cut out for the eyes. ‘Drive on, drive on,’ shouted Johnnie. But the minibus had almost stopped, the headlights lighting up the road and the hedges on either side, like a stage, and under the beam of the headlights the hedges seemed to dissolve as more and more figures emerged out onto the road, in front of us and beside us and behind us as well. Dickie was trying to get the minibus into gear again, to get it going, but already there was someone at the driver’s door, trying to yank it open. There were others at the passenger’s side and the back doors as well, pulling at the handles and banging and shouting. Harry O. tried to hold the inside handles shut but he couldn’t. The back doors were flung open and there were four of them outside, pointing what looked like guns and screaming ‘Get out, the lot of youse, get out.’

*

Sixteen years ago. Just around the time all this other stuff started. We’d bought a pram, a cot, lots of things; so that we’d be ready. He lived for four days. The doctor knew as soon as he was born that he wasn’t going to make it. I saw him once, in the incubator. I don’t know about these things, but he looked long, lying there; one of the nurses said he was going to be tall, like me. I liked that. I never cried once, though Stella couldn’t stop crying. The hospital allowed her to stay in an extra day. On the last day I was sitting beside the bed while she was asleep, just looking at her, when the main doctor came in. The tie he was wearing had lots of golf balls on it. ‘This one just wasn’t meant to be,’ he said. I couldn’t think how to reply, so I just said ‘Ach sure I know, doctor.’ He looked at the chart at the end of the bed, and then at Stella; she was still asleep. ‘Ye were lucky to have gotten as far as ye did,’ he said. He shook my hand, and said goodbye, and then he left. I think I knew what he meant. Stella’d been four weeks short of full term when it happened. But it didn’t feel like we’d been lucky.

*

We clambered out into the night and they were shoving us round the side between the minibus and the ditch until we got to the front. Johnnie and Dickie were already there, with two men either side of them. The engine was switched off but the headlights were still on, making Johnnie and Dickie look very pale; and I thought, Jesus, if someone doesn’t start the engine the lights’ll soon drain the battery right down, and then one of them—the Hood, I think—said, ‘Right, which of youse is a Pape?’

*

One of the other doctors, a younger one, did say it would be good if we could talk about it. But who would you talk to about it anyway? Not the boys in Bests. There was enough going on in Bests anyhow. Morgan, the foreman, was a right bastard to our lot, though there were less and less of our crowd working there; just me, and O’Neill up in Orders, and McCollum in the wages office. But you wouldn’t be talking to them, nor to the other lot either. The younger ones, Gordon and Harry O., would be sniggering as Morgan stomped red-faced up and down the factory floor bellowing about production numbers and how he could find plenty to replace us. ‘He just doesn’t like you, Ollie,’ Gerald said in the canteen, looking at me with those big sad bloodhound eyes. ‘You could come in here on a white horse wearing a Rangers jersey and an Orange sash shouting “Up King Billy,” and “Fuck the Pope,” and Morgan still wouldn’t like you. It’s nothing got to do with you not being a Prod.’ I like Gerald. But I didn’t talk to him about it either.

*

Gordon and Harry O. were shaking their heads as we all stood on the side of the road, while one of them, a boy no more than sixteen, though big enough all the same, walked up and down the line, stopping in front of each of us to shine a torch in our faces. Gerald was second last; I was last. As the torch came closer I felt Gerald tug my sleeve, once, quickly. ‘Say nothing, say nothing,’ he said. The boy came to Gerald and gave him a little shove as he jiggled the torch in his face. And then he came to me.

*

And sure who’d want to listen? Back when it happened, there were lots of people calling to the door. Eileen Leahy carried round a big pot of stew, and the Donohoe girls brought over plates of sandwiches and cakes, but no one mentioned it. Father McElhone said how sorry he was, and on the altar he’d gone on about God’s will. But no one ever once asked, ‘So Olly, how does it feel to have lost your baby, your son?’ Only baby, as it happened. I think everyone was just afraid to talk about it. In McGeeney’s shop there were shy nods from other customers, and old McGeeney came out from the storeroom to shake my hand and say it was ‘a bad business.’ The day after the funeral I went down to the Dew Drop Inn on my own, just to get out of the house. It was late afternoon and there was no one in the place except for Traps McFadden, sitting on his usual stool at the far end of the bar. Traps bred greyhounds and was a bit touched. I’d never spoken to him, but as soon as he saw me come in he saluted me, and beckoned me over. ‘Sorry for your trouble,’ he said hoarsely. ‘But they’re good stock, the O’Tierneys,’ he continued. Stella’s family. ‘Sure, she’ll whelp again.’ ‘Hush now, Traps,’ said Brendan behind the bar, setting down a glass in front of Traps, ‘don’t be bothering the poor man.’ I sat down at one of the tables. Brendan brought me over a whiskey but refused to accept any money, and went back in and sat up on a stool behind the counter in silence, drinking a mineral. Nobody said anything. Sure what was the point? Talking wasn’t going to solve anything.

*

I could smell the beer off him. But there was something else, another smell; the smell of chips. That smell I remembered, nights outside the takeaway when I first started out with Stella; the two of us with a skinful on board, each holding a warm bag of chips, the vinegar slathered on and already beginning to stain the bag in patches, and the salt glistening like little snowflakes on the golden chunks as we ate them, Stella and me. Sometime this evening, before he’d hidden in the hedges on the side of this road, waiting, this boy had got his hands on some beer, and then he’d had chips. The torch he was carrying wasn’t really a torch; it was a bicycle lamp and he was shining it in my eyes. The he turned to the Hood, the light still jiggling over my face. ‘This one here,’ he said, his voice rising in excitement. ‘The big lanky fella. This here’s one.’

*

The last time it had been mentioned, we were sitting on the couch, watching telly. The news was showing a funeral; more than one, actually, there were three of them. They were carrying them in to the graveyard, coffin after coffin, like they were coming off an assembly line. ‘Why do you never go?’ she asked. ‘Go where?’ I said. ‘You know where,’ she said. ‘The grave. James’s grave.’ James had been Stella’s father’s name. The cameras were showing the crowds around the opened ground, crying and sighing and dabbing at their eyes. ‘Ach, don’t start this again,’ I said. ‘But you don’t,’ she said. ‘Like an ostrich, so you are, Ollie, with your head stuck in the sand.’ She was shouting now. ‘A big ostrich, that’s what you are.’ I didn’t say anything. The telly showed the priest saying some prayers, and then it was back to the newsreader, who was talking in front of a picture of a building that had been blown apart earlier that day. A minute or two later she got up from the couch and went out of the room. I could hear her clattering around with the kettle and the teapot in the kitchen, and I knew she was crying.

*

How did this boy know me, know who I was? There must have been a moment when he’d seen me. In McGeeney’s, perhaps. Or the Dew Drop Inn, he could have been there one evening when I’d been there. Maybe he’d been waiting anxiously at the counter, hoping to be served. But how did he know? Unless he’d seen me outside St Mary’s, in the carpark, after Mass. I don’t remember ever seeing him before, anywhere. Maybe he worked in Bests once, though I don’t think so. But he knew me somehow, knew me well enough to know. The Hood came over to me, and I could hear shouting as he grabbed me and dragged me back down behind the minibus; Gerald’s voice. ‘Leave him be,’ he was saying. Dickie was shouting too; ‘It’s alright, he’s one of us!’ Gordon and Harry O. said nothing. ‘Right,’ said the Hood. He adjusted something on his gun; there was a little click. He stepped slightly away from me, as if to get a better angle. There were still two of them standing on either side of me, but when he motioned to them they stood apart. ‘Right,’ he said again. ‘Now get you down that road, and don’t look back.’

*

She’s wrong. I did go, once, about two months after he died. Outside the gate a man was selling flowers, and just inside the entrance there was a woman in a little hut who asked my name and directed me, though it still took me a while to find the grave again. There were flowers there from the last time Stella’d been, laid carefully at the foot of the little headstone that gave his name and the date when he was born, and the other date, days later, when he’d died, and then underneath the words With The Angels Once More that Stella had wanted. I knelt down by the grave and started to say a little prayer, and then I stopped. None of this prayer stuff would make any sense to him, I thought. So instead I just said his name. ‘Well, James’, I said, ‘you poor wee fella’. I could feel my eyes starting to well up. ‘You poor wee mite’, I said. A woman at a grave a few rows down glanced over at me and then turned away. I stood up and headed for the entrance. And I never told Stella. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her, but I didn’t.

*

I started running away from the minibus into the darkness. I could hear gunfire. Any moment now, I thought, one of these will hit me. The shots kept coming, little muted whipcracks. But there was another sound as well I could hear, over the sound of the gunshots and the sound of my shoes slapping the tarmac as I ran; it was the sound of men screaming, crying out in pain. I kept running, though. I didn’t dare turn round to see what was happening in the dip of the road that was still lit up by the headlights of the minibus. I kept running on my big long ostrich legs, and I never looked back.