A full year past, and the lingering stench of dampness and wood smoke hung in the air. People said that basements were smouldering in the city centre, small fires re-starting, oak beams glowing red in the dark. I nudged Farren, slowed my pace, coughed into my hand. He knew the drill.
‘Don’t look round, don’t speed up, and try not to sweat,‘ Farren whispered. ‘Remember your training. Don’t signify guilt. To an experienced observer, furtiveness is proof positive of nefarious intent.‘ That’s the way the man talked. I think he was a Latin teacher in a previous life.
It had been a busy week. For four days, I’d attended intensive classes in the derelict cottage on the outskirts of the city. Small-arms and explosives lectures in the afternoon, military theory after tea, and, to test our mettle, mock skirmishes with an imaginary enemy after dark. Farren was the Training Officer, and for some reason, he’d taken a shine to me. I think my father and he had once worked together on some bilingual sketch-show or fund-raising amateur dramatic production.
On the fourth night, Farren took me aside and handed me a ten-pound parcel bomb with a length of fuse inserted in the middle stick of dynamite. He told me not to look for risky targets, but to place the device in the first available back-alley, light the fuse, and get away as quickly as I could. According to him, I was too valuable an asset to be used as cannon-fodder. Certain gentlemen, he claimed, had big plans for me. They were always on the lookout for well-spoken, well-educated young men. The war wouldn’t last forever, and opportunities were endless.
The houses looked deserted, so I placed my bomb on a bottom step, touched a match to the fuse, listened to the sulphur hiss and catch, and walked away.
It’s true what the experts say. In moments like that, your mind goes blank. In a second I’d lost all sense of myself and my plans. I didn’t faint, or run, or freeze but I imagined myself a recalcitrant racehorse in need of blinkers to get from A to B. I could see ahead of me a cobbled street and a pale light. Nothing else. I had no peripheral vision, no consciousness, not even a premonition of imminent extinction. My mind was a snow-shaker, full of flurries and scudding clouds. No grand medieval cathedrals, no hallowed grottoes, no pine-trees bending in a gale.
And now, I was having a similar sensation. ‘I think you’re imagining things,‘ Farren said. I hoped he was right, but saw little sense in arguing. If a bullet was coming, let it come, and let it enter my skull swiftly, accurately, and painlessly. All the lads were agreed on this point. If you ever get the choice, the best way to die is to be shot point-blank in the brain. You won’t feel a thing.
For an older man who’d already spent time in prison, Farren was gregarious. He hadn’t stopped yapping since we’d crossed the footbridge. For a blooded operator and senior officer, he possessed little awareness of danger. Once the river was behind us, he relaxed, considering the area we’d entered a safe territory, a zone of watchful sympathisers. I could see few signs for optimism. No flags flew on lampposts, no rowdy, bosomy women in hastily smeared lipstick ran to embrace us. It struck me that the groups of ill-dressed, lethargic men at street corners might harbour enemy agents.
After a minute, Farren glanced around, covered his mouth, and whispered. ‘You’ve never met the big fellow, have you? That’s why he wants you for the job. You’re anonymous, no one knows your face. An unknown quantity. That means you can go anywhere. He leaves nothing to chance, the big fellow.‘ If there’s one thing in this world that I detest, it’s a man whispering in my ear. It’s unhygienic, that heat-swarm of breath, and the millions of germs that splatter on your face. I turned my head away from Farren.
‘He’s a massive man, you know, built like a tank, all chest and neck! And he was only a wisp like yourself in his youth. As a boy, he’d sit up half the night licking stamps for election literature. And deliver the letters before dawn. Hail or shine. He’s also a genius at mental arithmetic. Your own mother, God rest her soul, was very fond of him.’
I’d never been to this part of town. My mother would have killed me if she’d thought I was frequenting the slums. I stared at the narrow street and the nose-tickling turf smoke spiralling above every chimney pot. Plaster statues of the Virgin and Saint Anthony flaunted their robes in uncurtained windows. A raggedy Papal flag flew from a pole nailed to a window frame. Not a paving stone remained intact. Farren led me over a jigsaw of cracks, weeds and crevices, past dirty mongrels with crudely docked tails cavorting with troupes of unwashed children.
We turned into a lane half-blocked by an eruption of brambles, nettles and ropey weeds. I could see the crimson glint of honeysuckle tips glowing like Sacred Heart lamps in the gloom. Farren counted the back doors. Satisfied, he dragged back a sheet of corregated tin, rolled up a sleeve and slipped his hand carefully through a punched gap in a wooden fence. With a finger at his lips to silence me, he eased back a creaking bolt and pushed. A mildewed gate scraped open.
The backyard was upholstered with coal-dust mould and discards of hairy turf. A rusted wheelbarrow blocked an open lavatory. The makeshift path to the house was dry, compacted mud, grooved in parallel lines. A child’s vest and a woman’s undergarments flapped from a length of thick cord that ran from the topmost branch of a neighbour’s tree to a six-inch nail embedded high on the fence. The windows of the house were smeared with a streaky, putty-like substance that obliterated the interior. Farren tapped the glass with a knuckle, then wiped his fingers on the windowsill.
I would consider myself a cautious follower of James Connolly. I studied his writings, attended some meetings, grieved at the manner of his death. I give you my solemn word, I am not a snob, but I would never, ever, offer a guest of mine a grey woollen blanket.
Bluish veins stood prominent on the woman’s cheeks. Her face looked raw, scourged by close exposure to open turf fires and constantly boiling pots of steaming water. This was a woman who hung out her laundry in windy, drying weather, who dragged lumpy bags of coke from colliers’ yards, who tramped the streets with a rickety, swaying pram.
I thanked her for the blanket, smiled at the inquisitive child in her arms, and closed the bedroom door. I knew that this was a hard neighbourhood and that life was a constant battle for the poor. I knew that. That’s why we fought for them, to take control of the state and eventually, the means of production, and ensure no more inequality, or poverty or child neglect. Until then, we were taught: be happy with what the people have to offer. They live on pitiable amounts of food. Sometimes, I admit, I was not convinced of the people’s commitment to our cause.
The bed was a narrow cot squeezed between a metal filing cabinet and a wall. In impoverished communities, people furnished their homes with odds and ends picked up in pawn shops or hucksters’ stores. All around the district were buckshee operations, sales of illicit items conducted in back alleys. To supplement their paltry stipends, soldiers from the nearby garrison resorted to stealing from their quarters. Articles that weren’t nailed down eventually found themselves on a stall. Farren, and some of the company commanders, weren’t happy with this, worried about the high levels of collaboration between the military rank-and-file and the local populace. I understood that concern. Once you deal with the enemy, at whatever level, a line is crossed. One thing leads to another and next thing it’s a bargain in exchange for a snippet of gossip.
It was impossible to sleep. The minute hand on my watch entered the hour of midnight. I’d gone straight to bed, preferring not to engage in conversation with the woman. She seemed in awe of me, and I knew nothing of the rearing of children or the many diseases that afflict them.
My usual billets were on the other side of town, in the semi-detached mansions of poets and academicians, language enthusiasts, the occasional genealogist. I enjoyed their company, their nonchalance and cynicism. And I found their preference for expensive liquors stimulating. We’d sit up half the night, talking about freedom, art, philosophy and radical economics. Without sounding immodest, I believed they found me fascinating, dashing, a young man of considerable intellectual stature.
I’m not claustrophobic, but that room was a tomb. I was too tall for the cot and the woollen blanket sparked a rash on my chest and arms. The mattress was damp and the heat of my body drew tiny bubbles of moisture to the surface. My ankles, thighs and waist were covered in a wet sheen. I tossed away the blanket and examined the undersheet, a thin strip of yellow cotton with spreading archipelagos of water, estuaries and canals criss-crossing.
The air was clammy with the milky-scented urine of an incontinent child. The soiled perfume of boiled cabbage rose through the floorboards. I could smell lino peeling, dishcloths steeping, sodden wood murmuring as it warmed. The crayon slicks on the walls were infantile stick-people, horses, cows. I dried my legs on the corner of the blanket and pulled on my clothes, bone thirsty, a headache thumping. Despite the house’s microscopic dimensions, I knew I’d get lost looking for a glass of water. I also knew what was causing the migraine. The countless sticks of dynamite wrapped in greaseproof paper under the bed and the hundredweight bags of fertiliser mix beside the door.
I sat at the bedroom window and stared at the fields behind the house. As dawn broke, squares of trampled grass grew bright with heather and thistle, and on a slope, black indentations where fires had ravaged the earth resembled the mascaraed eyes of the women who gave recitals for the cause. On a leafless tree, creamy-feathered birds swayed like clothes pegs on a washing line.
Defiled by another’s urine, and agitated, hungry and thirsty, I searched the small room to kill slow time. In a cardboard box behind the metal locker, I found a .38 Webley revolver and four rounds of ammunition. I loaded and unloaded the gun. I wasn’t happy to be here, but a job’s a job, and an order’s an order, and I was proud to have been selected. I had no real complaint about my assignment. It’s only for a day or two, Farren had promised, and to complete it, the big fellow needs you close at hand. All the same, given my present unhygienic situation, there was something inhospitable about the lodgings afforded me.
‘Memorise that,’ the Big Fellow said.
I was disappointed that it wasn’t Mick. Just another big fellow. Oddly, since the reorganisation of the Army, it had become common practice for any officer over five-eight to be described as a Big Fellow or a Long Fellow.
I studied the scrap of paper he held before my eyes.
1 J XL, 1 PT, pleated, 34W, 31IL. Green, military cut.
A code, I assumed, the internal dimensions of a barracks, or vantage points for an ambush. Eleven words, none too complicated. I concentrated for a few seconds, and nodded to him.
He struck a safety match, touched the paper and held it between his thumb and forefinger as it burned to ash. He didn’t flinch when the flame puckered his skin. I stepped back a pace, saluted him. He smiled, and punched me on the upper arm. The muscles froze, a local anaesthetic, paralysed from shoulder to wrist. Farren was laughing. Where did he learn to punch like that, I wondered.
‘Never salute a superior officer in public. A sniper could be watching. Don’t acknowledge my rank or address me as sir. You’re not trying to have me whacked, are you? Not being paid to set me up?‘ He winked at Farren. ‘I thought you’d trained this cub better? We’re just the same, son, skin and bones, cut from the same cloth, and with a bit of luck, we’ll both be buried in wooden caskets when we snuff it of old age in our family beds.‘
Most reassuring, I thought, but kept my mouth shut. He didn’t seem the sort of man who’d appreciate a touch of irony. He rooted in his tunic pocket and offered me a hand-rolled cigarette. I hoped it wasn’t his last. His ashy fingers had transferred a line of grime to the gummed paper. I sucked in the harsh nicotine of shag tobacco under his unsettling gaze, like that of a mature predator gauging my meat potential.
He shook my hand in dismissal. His grip was firm, the palm cold. He could sense my fear, conscious of his effect on me. That, I supposed, was why he treated us all so casually, like drinking companions or old pals casting a leisurely fly on a slow-moving river. He was ruthless, Farren had warned me, a man who’d shoot his own mother in the head if she stepped out of line. Farren’s words were typically exaggerated, but not uttered as a criticism. He admired this big man, and that anecdote was an ultimate tribute from one soldier to another.
The Big Fellow whispered something to a teenager at the door. He had something actorly about him, the consciousness of a man who’d perfected stagecraft. Beneath the melodrama was a smart, coiled operator who knew exactly what he was doing. A violent man who understood the play and had learnt his lines.
There’s nothing wrong with that, nothing aberrant or transgressive. From my own studies of military theory, I’m convinced that all successful leaders must be single-minded. The sternness, and occasional brutality they show their own troops are necessary when conducting wars of apparently insurmountable odds. Unlike a regular army, our forces have no recourse to legal niceties, no opportunities for debate on the morality of our actions. Insurrectionists cannot engage the enemy on the open field. We have neither the personnel nor the armaments for such engagements. We are, at best, a part-time soldiery left to our own devices. So, to maximise resources, we rely on tight internal discipline.
Farren was angry that I hadn’t bothered to shave. I told him I’d forgotten my razor and that the woman didn’t have a man about the house. When I stepped out of the car, he handed me a folded envelope for my contact and warned me to stay out of the public house at the corner of the street. I guessed, from the feel of the envelope, that it contained discs of metal, detonators or primers of some description. I placed it in my shirt pocket and buttoned the flap.
I remembered my training, tried to make myself invisible. My coat was belted, my collar up, my flat cap pulled forward. In my waistband was the Webley I’d borrowed from my billet. I didn’t know why I’d taken it, but it made me feel good. There’d be ructions, but the cold barrel felt reassuring against my groin. I lingered at a fruit stall in the outdoor market, weighing fat oranges and dark plums, sniffing them, doing my best to avoid the trader’s eye.
The street was mid-morning busy, women swinging netting bags, women exchanging greetings and pleasantries with neighbours, some pushing prams, some escorting cantankerous toddlers by the hand. A couple of middle-aged men stood in doorways, sucking juice from overripe peaches. Golden liquid dribbled down their chins onto knotted scarves. They might have been waiting for wives, but I had my doubts. I watched one of them read a hand-printed card in a shop window, and the other shuffle his feet as he sucked greedily on his cigarette, anxious to be rid of the noxious distraction. Farren had told me that the city centre would be under covert surveillance. I was sure that these two men, the bargain hunter and the smoker, were aware of my presence and expecting me. When they first saw me, they had become animated, bouncing on the balls of their feet, rubbing their hands together.
When a high-sided furniture-delivery van slowed at the kerb, I ducked behind it and raced across the road, into the building, up a flight of uncarpeted stairs and along a narrow, dimly-lit creaking corridor. No one appeared from the rooms, no one heard my carefully placed footsteps. Cobwebs shimmered on the ceiling. Third door from the left, Farren had said. Which side was left? I stopped outside a black door and prayed that I’d memorised correctly the entry code. Two palm-slaps, two knuckle-raps and two cracks with a closed fist. Some of these codes were pointless. A rake-thin man in baggy dungarees ushered me into a high-ceilinged room, as spacious and echoing as an empty warehouse. A circular porthole in the ceiling admitted a column of light onto a long rectangular table. Two boys emerged from an annexe, carrying on their shoulders a rolled length of cloth. As they tramped across the room they reminded me of pallbearers at a pauper’s funeral, impassive and dutiful. They placed their bundle on the table and stepped away as a stooped little man brandishing a curved knife sliced the bindings, pocketed the cords and unrolled the material. He spat blue-headed tacks into his hand and nailed each corner of cloth to the table edges. When he’d smoothed all the creases flat, he beckoned me forward.
I handed him the folded envelope and recited the code I’d memorised. He listened intently, then, with a pencil stub, scribbled on a sheet of thick brown wrapping paper. I found it impossible to believe that this unassuming, unprepossessing little man was an expert in military strategy. Of course, it was none of my business.
I found the atmosphere of quiet, purposeful concentration very impressive. These workers were serious men, and they glided from table to annexe to cupboard like acolytes preparing a holy ritual. And not one of them was tall. It must be the darkness and the constant exposure to dust, thread and dye that stunted their growth. The little fellow with the knife took my arm, held it out, manoeuvred me into the beam of natural sunlight. He laid a sample of cloth on my sleeve, studied it.
‘What colour would you call that?‘
‘Green,‘ I hesitated, ‘bottle-green or… dark olive, or… is there a colour called Lincoln Green?‘
I was struggling to remember my greens.
His compatriots were smiling. They knew their boss was testing me, playing with me. I might be young, but I’m not as green as I’m cabbage-looking.
‘Good lad. Green it is. Nothing but green for you boys. Is it for the big man? That fellow’s chest’s out of proportion to the rest of his body. Did you know that? He needs his jackets specially tailored to hold all the medals he’s expecting to win. Don’t tell him I said that. He’s a fine soldier, but… well, no sense of humour.’
The others laughed. I refused to acknowledge his contemptible stab at humour and was just about to chastise the midget for his effrontery when one of his apprentices issued a high-pitched, single whistle. We gathered round the boy at a window. Down in the street, a troop carrier blocked traffic and armed soldiers unloaded crossbeams of wood decorated with coils of barbed wire. A trooper ran into a fruit stall and overturned it, wheels buckling, striped awning touching the gutter, wooden trays skidding on the kerb. Apples, oranges, cabbages, tomatoes and carrots rolled and bobbed and sank in a rivulet of filthy brown drain water.
‘Out the window,‘ the leprechaun screeched at me, ‘Out the window, down the fire escape, down the lane and across the wasteland. They’ll be there for an hour or so. Be back in, say, two hours.‘
He returned the unopened envelope to me. ‘Take that bloody thing with you. Trying to get us all hanged, is that the game?‘
Fifty minutes to kill. My trousers were ruined, muck to the knees and one of the seams had split. I stood in the lane, splashing dirt from my clothes with handfuls of rain water. No one to blame. My own fault. If I hadn’t brought the gun, I could have simply strolled past the soldiers, nodded to them, doffed my cap, inquired as to the time, borrowed a light for a cigarette, passed the time of day with a captain or lieutenant.
Unfortunately, I had in my possession a loaded weapon and that was a capital offence, so I had to resort to alleys, untended back gardens, rough fields, high brick walls topped with points of embedded glass.
The pistol would have been useless. I wasn’t even sure how to operate the safety catch. I’d never been in a gun battle, never fired a gun in anger. I had a basic knowledge of the Thompson submachine gun, could strip it down blindfolded, but that was a training procedure. As Farren would say to us all, there’s a world of difference between firing at tin cans and firing at a target that can shoot back at you.
Farren had said that the pub was out-of-bounds. Well, he wasn’t here. With my pint, I ordered a bowl of vegetable soup and a ham sandwich. I lifted the bread and stared down at the pink veined slab of meat wearing an overcoat of thick yellow mustard. The stout was sour and sharp, drawn too quickly by the barman, and the froth had bubbled itself flat. Through the window I could watch the roadblock. The soldiers seemed relaxed, ready for lunch, impatient to be off. Some of them whistled at passing convent-school girls. At least they had something to occupy their minds. The pub was quiet and the only other customer had buried his face in a newspaper. When I looked up, a soldier was squinting through the window, rapping the glass with the foresight of his rifle. The instantly animated barman stuck a bottle of whiskey under his apron and hurried to the front door.
I slipped the folded envelope from my pocket and weighed it in the palm of my hand. I picked at the seal and hooked back the flap with a fingernail. The soldier had vanished and the barman was changing a barrel, so I cautiously emptied the packet’s contents onto the table. Some of these new-fangled detonators can be so ultra-sensitive, a dirty look can set them off. I opened my eyes and stared at six brass buttons, each identical and each embossed with a tiny harp and shamrock.
Uniform buttons! I had no problem with uniforms. In fact, I’d hope, in time, to have one of my own, something dark green with square pockets, epaulettes, and a discreet flourish of cut and tuck, a touch of colour to offset the blandness of plain cloth, crossed rifles or swords in silver, or a tiny tricolour stitched above the breast pocket or across the shoulder. I’d be telling a lie if I denied that the thought of promotion hadn’t crossed my mind, but, given my socialist credentials, I wanted nothing capricious or ornamental, nothing ceremonial or copied from comic opera, no plumes or feathers, no cocked hat or regimental cap.
The barman was watching me and the boozer had folded his paper. Medals and badges and buttons, strips of coloured cloth, discs and triangles of brass and imitation silver. I could hear Farren’s voice. ‘Image and presentation, boys, image and presentation. Keep that in mind. More important than rifles and field-guns. Don’t believe that wars are won on firepower alone. We’re not a rabble, or a posse of cowboys. One day the Big Fella will be kissing the Bishop’s ring on the steps of the pro-Cathedral.’