datbeardyman

Less about the world, more about me.

Month: September 2011

Breaking

Margaret paused as Sister Josephine unlocked yet another door. They walked through and Margaret paused as Sister Josephine locked it. They walked, paused, walked and paused. Margaret flexing her bleached prune hands nervously. She did not waste her breath asking the Sister where she was going. She had already guessed. Annoyed at her own nerves, she pushed her hands under her arms and kept them there. She would not show these people fear. They would not break her. Her back ached, her knees ached, her eyes ached and though only twenty-one, she had begun to see grey in her closely cropped auburn hair. She had washed countless tons of strangers’ clothes in her two years at the laundry, but she was not broken. She was slim, beautiful and unbroken, but she had never been sent out on service before. She had heard stories from the other young women about what happened to those who were rented out by the Sisters. She was scared, but she would not allow them see it.

Finally Sister Josephine opened the last door and silently ushered Margaret through. Margaret heard the door close behind her as she looked at the empty office she’d entered. As she was about to exhale her tension another door opened and The Mother walked in, all fat ugly superiority and false bonhomie. With her was a man in his late fifties, a priest, he was deeply tanned, well dressed and more than willing to be entertained by The Mother’s good humour. Margaret stood to attention. The Mother did not acknowledge her, neither did the Priest. Money was handed over and the Priest rose to leave. He looked at Margaret and indicated with his fedora, that she should go before him. She looked at The Mother, who gave Margaret the merest of nods and a look that was at once sneering, knowing and gleeful. Margaret was untouched by the woman’s behavior, she could not hate The Mother anymore than she already did. She walked out into the sunlight and felt momentarily free.

The Priest, walked towards a car and opened the rear door for Margaret. She looked at him in confusion. She did not see it as kindness, he was renting her after all, but the experience of politeness had been almost forgotten by Margaret. She slowly got in and sat on the leather seat. He closed the door and rounded the car to the driver’s door. He sat in, started the engine and drove off. They drove in silence for an hour. Margaret allowed herself to look at the countryside speeding by and to imagine what it would feel like, to again wander a field, or enjoy a stroll through a wood. Then the dream began to turn to hope and she had to stamp it down. It was not safe to hope. She had seen too many of the other women go mad on hope. Hope was a dangerous thing. She squeezed her hands into tight fists and addressed the Priest.

“Am I to be doing your cleaning or did you get me to use me?”

The car swerved. The Priest fought to regain control of it and when he did so, he pulled into the side of road and stopped the car. He got out and walked to the bonnet. He sat against it hard and searched his pockets. He found cigarettes and a lighter. He lit a cigarette and slowly smoked it. Margaret watched him silently. He was no taller than she, at about five and half foot. Hewas over-weight and though his tan could not disguise his love of drink, he still looked fit. She would not be able to fight him. The question was, should she fight him or should she keep her battles in her head. He finished his cigarette and got back in. He started the engine and continued their journey in silence. Margaret’s tension grew.

She began to lose track of time and drifted in and out of sleep. The Priest did not speak and Margaret was content to leave him in silence, though she knew that the further they drove, the worse things were probably going to be for her. She jerked awake as the car left the road and drove up a narrow, gravel track. The road led up a steep hill and the car was beginning to struggle with the surface and the incline. She judged it to be sometime in the afternoon when the Priest parked the car among some trees. She fought to control her fear. This was it then. He got out of the car and opened her door and sat in beside her. She pushed herself as far away from him as possible and waited for him to indicate what he was going to do to her. He held out his hand to her and smiled reassuringly,

“Hello Margaret, my name is Father Phillips. Robert sent me.”

He spoke in a rich Donegal brogue, an accent that Margaret had always liked. She sat there, unmoving, looking at his hand and wondering if a particular accent could make a man more attractive or conversely less attractive. He kept his hand out, waiting for her to shake it.

“Did you not hear me girl, Robert sent me.”

Tears began to roll down Margaret’s cheeks. This was a game too cruel, even for one who had endured the loss of lover, child and freedom. Why would he not just use her and be done with it? What sick joy could he find in mocking her like this? Father Philips, looked at her with growing concern. He began to move closer to her and she recoiled violently. He quickly moved as far back from her as he could.

“I’m sorry child, I didn’t mean to scare you. I don’t know what those nuns did, but I promise you, all that is over.”

She looked at him, eyes red, tears streaming.

“Robert?”

He nodded at her gently.

“Yes Margaret, he said to tell you that he changed his mind, daffodils are beautiful.”

Margaret sobbed a laugh through her tears. She took Father Philips’ hand and he placed his other hand on top of hers. They sat there as she cried. Her hand in his. When her shoulders stopped shaking she looked at him.

“He never liked daffodils, though they are my favorite. Come the Spring we always fought over it. Were you with him in Spain Father? Were you with him at the end?”

Father Phillips nodded at her gravely.

“We were on opposite sides Margaret, but I was with him.”

“You saw him die?”

“I was there yes.”

Margaret nodded and lapsed into silence for a time, then she spoke again in a wistful voice.

“If he’d waited just another week, he’s have known about the baby. We could have got married, or left the country together. I kept it a secret as long as I could, hoping he would come back in time. Then I got the letter from the Irish Brigade man in Dublin, saying he had been caught and executed. Then I was packed off to the Laundry and when I had my little Daniel, they took him from me. They took my baby Father.”

“I know Margaret.”

Father Philips hurriedly got out of the car and opened the boot. He called out to Margaret to join him. She timidly got out of the car and walked to him. He handed her an overcoat. She put it on as he took out a basket of food and a pair of military issue field-glasses. He slammed the boot closed and began to walk through the trees. Margaret could think of nothing better to do than follow him. After a short walk they crested a hill and they saw a large stone building below them. Father Phillips nodded in satisfaction and placed the basket on the ground. He opened it and took out a blanket. He spread it out and sat down. As he sat, his jacket opened and Margaret noticed that he had a handgun in his belt. She looked away from it, pretending not to have seen it. When Father Philips was comfortably seated, he invited Margaret to join him on the blanket. She licked her lips nervously but began to bend her legs to sit next to him. He looked away and Margaret immediately reached down and grabbed the gun from his belt.

It was too large for her to hold with one hand but she was still able to cock it and aim it at Father Phillips. He looked at her calmly, from the other side of the barrel.

“Don’t look so calm priest, I may as well hang for being a murderer as be locked away for being a whore. You were an enemy of Robert and you take me out of that Laundry and you carry a gun, what is it you want?”

Father Phillip looked at her sympathetically and then pointed down the hill.

“I owe Robert a debt Margaret, I owe him my life. Down there, in that sorrowful looking building, is where we’ll find Daniel.”

Margaret’s resolve cracked slightly. Her hands less steady as she held the gun. She looked at the building and then snapped her head back to Father Phillips, though she could not resist looking again at the building. More tears appeared in her eyes. She stepped towards the seated priest and with the gun pointed straight at his head she spoke in a halting voice, part pleading, part deadly earnest.

“If you are playing me for a fool, priest, I will kill you.”

Father Phillips noted how she pronounced priest, as one would a curse and he saw in her eyes the implacable will, to make good her threat.

“I returned to Ireland five months ago Margaret. I have done nothing in that time, but search for you and Daniel and plan your escape. He is down there and tonight, we will snap him up. I promise.”

Margaret examined his face for lies and when she was satisfied that she could wring no more certainty from him, she collapsed onto her knees. She handed him the gun, which he quickly uncocked and put away. He would have hugged her, but he already knew her well enough not to impose too much kindness. Instead he handed her the binoculars. She took them and sat down and began to examine the orphanage.

He watched her for several moments. He took a sandwich from the basket and placed it in her hand. She accepted it and began to eat it, never taking the glasses from her face. He looked at his watch and then at the sky and lay back to take a nap.

He woke up as dusk was beginning to grey the sky and he found Margaret still peering through the binoculars. He sighed in sympathy and looked in the basket for a sandwich. All that had been left to him was an apple and a bottle of tepid beer. Only then did Margaret look away from the building.

“Sorry Father Philips.”

He quickly found a smile to give her.

“Ah sure I can well afford to miss a meal or two lass.”

She nodded at him, agreeing with him and returned to the glasses. Father Phillips tried again.

“When did you eat last?”

“Yesterday lunch time.”

“What?”

“I did not move quickly enough for Sister Marie. A day without food was my penance.”

“Did that happen often?”

“I wouldn’t have starved.”

She spoke as if describing the weather. Father Philips looked at her in the growing dark and had to quickly stifle his curiosity. They had things to do and no time to explore her experiences at the hands of the Sisters. He stood up and Margaret ceased her staring and stood too. He took a flash light from the basket and checked to see that it worked. Satisfied he put the blanket away and nodded to Margaret.

“Ready?”

“It’s been two years Father.”

Father Phillips paused, confused.

“What if I don’t recognise him Father?”

He hadn’t thought of that, but was able to answer her quickly.

“Sure we have his name.”

Margaret looked at him, pity and scorn on her face, at his naivete.

“They always change their names priest.”

Father Philips could only stare at her in silence. During all his planning it had never occurred to him that a mother would not be able to recognise her child. He cursed himself for his stupidity. Two years. Two years. He shook himself and took Margaret by the shoulders.

“Don’t fret Margaret, they’ll have records. Even if it takes all night, we’ll find him.”

Margaret nodded at him, desperate to believe him. They began to descend the hill, darkness now all but shrouding the massive institution. Only a few ground floor windows emitting light.

They approached an open window at the back of the building. Father Phillips pulled it all the way open and quickly climbed through it. Margaret followed. He switched on his torch and examined the room they were in. It was a small kitchen, Margaret assumed it was for the staff. She stood close to the priest and whispered in his ear.

“Do you know where we need to go?”

He nodded and whispered back to her.

“I visited here about a dozen times, the files are in an office two floors up and the children are in wards just above us. Office first, then Daniel.”

Margaret clutched at the sleeve of his jacket.

“How did he die Father?”

Father Phillips looked at her in amazement.

“You ask that here?”

“The Irish Brigade man didn’t know and thought it better that way. But everyone knows what Franco did to prisoners. Did he suffer?”

“Lets get Daniel and I’ll tell you everything.”

She squeezed his sleeve even harder but then let go of it. He sighed in relief and began to walk before she asked more questions. He opened the door onto an unlit corridor and turned left. Margaret followed closely in his wake. They walked by the light of Father Philipps’ torch, for what seemed to Margaret, an eternity. They found the office and went inside. Father Phillips switched on the light and smiled at Margaret.

“So far so good my dear.”

She didn’t return his smile and instead walked towards the several filing cabinets.

“Where do we start?”

Father Philips allowed his shoulders to drop a little. Perhaps only he was feeling excited by this night’s escapades. It was like being back in Spain, but without the horror. He joined her at the filing cabinets.

“I think they file by year.”

They found the 1937 cabinet and opened it. They were too busy examining files to notice Sister Michelle walk into the office. The Sister exclaimed in surprise and it was Margaret who reacted first, by running across the office and punching Sister Michelle square on the jaw. The Sister dropped to the floor, out cold. Father Phillips looked as Margaret as she stood, breathing heavily, fists clenched, staring down at the prone nun. Margaret looked back at him, a guilty smile on her lips.

“Sorry Father.”

“For hitting her?”

“No, for enjoying it so much.”

“Ah sure, once you’re sorry.”

He dropped the files he was holding in frustration and went to examine the nun. He lifted her up and dragged and carried her to a chair. He sat her on it and then moved a chair so that he could sit opposite her.

“What are you doing Father?”

“I can’t make sense of the files Margaret, so I’m going to get what we need from the Sister here.”

“What makes you think she’ll tell you anything Father?”

The Priest smiled at her as he pulled out a purple stole and hung it round his shoulders.

“I will take her confession.”

“What?”

“I will take her confession.”

“You can’t just make someone confess something against their will. It’s not right.”

“It’s not right, but very effective. Would you prefer we left without Daniel?”

Margaret looked at him in horror.

“Is this the sort of thing you did in Spain?”

Father Phillips looked at her coldly.

“Yes.”

“What type of bastard are you?”

“The bastard who is going to get your child back.”

There was a murmur of returning consciousness from the felled nun.

“Robert didn’t believe in God, you could have had no power over him.”

“No I didn’t, but he had power over me. We made a bargain he and I, my life for your rescue.”

Margaret looked at Father Phillips in disgust.

“My Robert would not make any sort of deal with the likes of you.”

“He was going to die Margaret, I was all he had.”

“How did he die?”

“After we get Daniel.”

“And you can make her talk?”

“That was my job in Spain.”

Sister Michelle murmured louder and Father Philips stood up and faced Margaret and began to speak very quickly.

“After I was ordained, I was posted to Paris. There I discovered, art, architecture, literature, wine and women. I lived the high life, until I was caught in the company of a widow, who ran a rather large and popular brothel. As punishment I was sent to serve in Franco’s army. My job was to mine the peasants for intelligence on the rebels. So thats the kind of man and priest I am. Now, do you want me to take her confession?”

Margaret backed away from him, shock written on her face, but she nodded her head.

“Good, now hide behind that curtain and don’t make a sound.”

He turned and sat down again and took Sister Michelle by the hand and stroked it as she came to. Margaret could hear his soothing coos. How could Robert have trusted this man?

Sister Michelle opened her eyes and saw a priest, with his stole, holding her hand. She whipped her hand back and sat up guiltily.

“You’re that Father Phillips. You’ve been around here a few times.”

“That’s right Sister.”

“I’m not a Sister.”

“What?”

“I’m not a nun.”

“My apologies child, I just assumed that you were. And what is your name?”

“Michelle Father.”

“Ah Michelle, named for the archangel Michael, who led God’s armies against Satan. A fine name.”

Michelle looked at him uncertainly.

“Thank you Father.”

“Now my child, I am ready to hear your confession.”

“What?”

“Why else would I be here child?”

“But, but, I don’t understand?”

“Let us just say that a mutual friend has expressed worry about your immortal soul.”

Michelle looked at him in dread.

“What did they say?”

“Will you give me your confession child, then all that can be put behind you?”

Michelle looked around her, seeking escape.

“You have no reason to fear me child, what passes between us is only heard by God.”

Margaret felt pierced through the heart for her part in this betrayal of trust. Michelle began to cry silently.

“There is a burden on you child that I would lift from you, all you have need do, is open your heart to God.”

Michelle began to speak, hesitantly at first.

“Bless me Father for I have sinned, it has been two months since my last confession.”

“That’s it child, the healing has already begun. Tell me about him.”

Margaret had to stifle a gasp of shock as Michelle began to sob.

“His name is Mark, Father.”

“And you love him?”

“I do Father, but he is a second son and neither of us have the money to emigrate and no prospect of it neither.”

“And have you been less than modest with this boy Michelle.”

“No Father, but I’ve been fierce tempted.”

“You are a good woman Michelle, but I suspect, not wholly pure.”

Michelle looked away in shame and murmured her reply.

“No Father, we would do a lot of kissing and it made me want to do more. I had to break from him Father, or risk shaming myself. That’s why I work here, to remind myself what would happen if I gave in.”

“You are an example to womanhood Michelle.”

Margaret snarled in silent disgust.

“Now tell me of the sins in your mind, child. How did you turn away from God?”

Michelle stared at Father Phillips in silent horror.

“Unburden yourself my child and God will forgive all.”

“I had thoughts Father.”

“About Mark, about that which you were so strong to resist?”

“Yes Father, I dreamed and sometimes imagined giving into his lust.”

“Was there touching Michelle.”

She began to cry in earnest, nodding a yes to his question.

“Satan is ever searching for those thoughts in us Michelle, once one surrenders to them, Satan is in us.”

“I’m so sorry Father.”

“I know you are child, but this sickness must be tackled. Tell me, do you find yourself out of countenance more and more?”

MIchelle nodded.

“Have you allowed your temper to rule you?”

Again she nodded.

“Have any of the children here suffered your temper?”

She squeaked an answer.

“Yes Father.”

“That is grave my child. And your penance must be equally harsh.”

What colour was left in Michelle’s cheeks fled.

“How much money would you need to get to America with Mark?”

Michelle stared at him in confusion.

“What?”

Father Phillips put some steel into his voice.

“I am sure you have done the calculations child, when you have not been defiling the Temple of God that is your body.”

“Seventy-eight pound, three shillings Father.”

“Behind you is a locked cabinet. The key is in that desk drawer over there. Get the key and open it.”

Michelle rose and retrieved the key. She opened the cabinet and revealed a safe. She looked back at Father Phillips.

“You may sit again child and begin to recite the Rosary for me, with your eyes tightly closed.”

Michelle sat, squeezed her eyes shut and began to pray. Father Philips stood and approached the safe. He looked at it for several moments before taking a small bag from his pocket. He took some metal pins from it and began to work on the lock. In a very short time he had the safe unlocked. Inside it he saw several stacks of cash. He carefully counted out eighty pound, put it in his pocket and closed the safe. He returned to his seat.

“You may stop praying child.”

Michelle stopped and opened her eyes.

“Tell me child, how long have you worked here?”

“Three years Father.”

“You must have seen a great many children in that time child?”

“Hundreds Father.”

“And these files record them all?”

“Yes Father, by year and the name of the Priest and local Garda who had the mother committed.”

“That is good to know. Are you ready for your penance child?”

Michelle nodded. Too terrified to speak.

“You have allowed lust into your heart, mind and body child. There is no remedy for that except the sacrament of marriage. You must marry this man who has enflamed your loins.”

“But Father.”

“Whist now child, this very night you will take an infant from this place and go straight to Mark. By morning you must be on a boat to America.”

He handed Michelle the cash he had taken.

“Your soul lays on a precipice my child, Satan is waiting for you to fall. And he is certain of his prize. He has made the sex-act a thing of pleasure to tempt you into the destruction of your soul. But God gifted us Holy Matrimony to thwart Satan’s vile designs.”

Michelle looked at Father Philips in rapt awe.

“On the very day you land in America, find yourself a Priest and be married. In the marriage bed there is no sin, no fault and no reason to fear Satan’s siren call. Do you hear me child?”

“Yes Father.”

She looked at the money in her hand and then turned to look at the safe.

“No child, you will never be able to return.”

Michelle nodded. Understanding.

“That’ll be no regret for me Father.”

“Then away with you child, love that baby as if it was your own, Find happiness and may the Grace of God go with you.”

Michelle paused only to push the fistful of notes into her pocket, before fleeing the room. Margaret left her hiding space and walked to Father Phillips and slapped him hard across the face.

“I hope there’s a special place in hell for the likes of you priest.”

Father Phillis rubbed his reddened cheek and shrugged.

“At least now we know what we are looking for.”

“How did you know about that Mark fella?”

“There’s always a Mark.”

Margaret looked as if she would strike him again.

“And why steal a baby?”

“Tomorrow they will discover two children missing and money gone from the safe. I’ve just bought you a whole heap of breathing space.”

She allowed herself only a sneer of contempt for the priest before returning to the files. In under five minutes they found Daniel, his new name and the bed he was in.

They walked towards the wards where the children slept and silently walked past a sleeping nun. They found the correct bed and Father Phillis went to pick the small boy up, but Margaret held his hand back.

“How can we be certain it’s him priest?”

Father Phillips looked at her in consternation, but he paused. He looked at the child closely and then reached for his collar. He pulled it back slightly and shone his torch on it. The name matched the file. He turned Margaret for agreement, but all he saw was her looking at the boy, with tear glistening eyes. She gently lifted Daniel from his bed and they quickly retraced their steps.

Daniel did no more than murmur as they collected the picnic basket and reached the car. Margaret sat in the back, cradling him, crying softly. Father Phillips drove fast and hard. He was two counties away by the time dawn began to light his way. He stopped in front of a house in a large town and they got out. He opened the front door and ushered Margaret in.

“I rented this place a month ago. Your name is Mary and you are my house-keeper, your husband is in England.”

Margaret nodded and went upstairs to find a bedroom. She carefully laid Daniel on the bed, but could not bring herself to move away from him or even stop stroking his hair. In time Father Phillips joined her in the bedroom. She spoke without turning.

“We had an agreement priest.”

“Yes we did. What do you wish to know?”

“How did Robert die?”

“Are you certain you want to know that Margaret?”

“One day Daniel will ask about his Father, I need to be able to give him the truth. Robert was a man who always put great store in the truth. I don’t believe in truth anymore, but I won’t allow Daniel grow up like that. He will be his father’s son.”

“It was a nasty death Margaret.”

“He was tortured?”

“Yes. Horribly.”

“Did they break him?”

“Is that important?”

“It is the truth that I want priest, not an argument about what is and isn’t important.”

“Is it not enough for Daniel to know that his father fought well and died bravely?”

“The truth priest.”

“I didn’t see him die Margaret.”

She gave him a withering look.

“They tortured him, did they break him?’

Father Phillips flopped down on a chair, defeated. Staring at his hands, he began to speak in a gentle monotone.

“He died screaming Margaret. A whole night they worked on him. No one in the prison slept for his screams. In the end he would have told them anything they wanted. Anything to stop them, anything to hasten his death. The thing is you see, the thing is, he had nothing they wanted. All that they did to Robert was for to break the man in the cell next to his.”

THE END

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The Couch

James pushed his hands deeper into his pockets, as he was hit by the full wrath of the winter wet gale coming up the Liffey, crossing the road onto O’Connell Bridge. He walked along the central island of the bridge, heading north. He grimaced in disgust as he stepped around the second splatter of vomit to interrupt his journey. He had to stifle an urge to reach for his shoulder-holstered Beretta 92. He inhaled deeply, regained his calm, before moving on to cross the road onto O’Connell Street. He stopped at the Monument that gave the street its name and reached down to adjust his shoe laces. As he did so he checked behind him. He did not expect to be followed tonight, but he took pride in his professionalism. One did not long survive as a hit-man by being casual about one’s security. Satisfied that he wasn’t being followed he rounded the Monument and began to walk up O’Connell Street.

He kept his face neutral when forced to make a detour around two inebriated couples who, oblivious to the approaching Paddy Wagons, were punching and pulling each other’s hair. He closed his ears to the feral women’s screams and the bovine grunts of their men folk. He hated them more than he had words to express or explain. Oh to be paid to rid the world of such scum. With the sirens and the Dublin detritus to his back he passed the Spike. He was careful to avoid allowing his attention wander to that 400 foot of meta-idiocy. He kept walking, his short black hair soaked by the incessant rain. He felt the icy drips crawling down his back, but he maintained the upright posture that his 6’1 frame was accustomed to. A man does not bow to the elements, they are subject to him.

An ambulance sped by, all blue lights and self importance. No doubt rushing to the aid of another drunken parasite. Two girls dressed in the prevailing fashion, whore, approached him. Their staggers told him they were drunk. He judged them to be fifteen or sixteen years old and they were making every drunken effort to intercept him. He schooled his lip not to curl. He did not want draw attention by provoking these churls. Oh shit, the little bitch is going to ask me for something.

“Hey Mister, do you fancy a ride?”

Oh dear, being propositioned by a sexually aggressive child. Dublin by night. He kept walking as they collapsed into the cackles that marked their herd. He kept walking.

“Hey, are you a fucking faggot or something?”

Again the vile volumes of joy in what passed as wit. His back stiffened but he kept walking. Killing them would be a pleasure and a duty to the species, but it would not be professional. He left them behind and approached the statue of Parnell. He paused again to check who or what was behind him. No one was following him. He gently flexed his left shoulder to adjust the holster and he felt the counter weight in his right jacket pocket. Two hundred neatly packed €50 notes filled the envelope he was carrying. The money made him sneer.

He had borrowed it from Scarred Eddie. How had he been reduced to borrowing money from men with such self-importantly stupid names? Well, being an inveterate gambler didn’t help and owing the Russian Mafia half a million euro played a part. None of the more respectable money lenders would extend him credit now that his level of debt and more especially, who he was in debt to, had become common knowledge. He kept walking. Further and further north. He saw fewer people and he began to relax. All that he needed to do now was concentrate on the coming meeting. Would these new players in Dublin’s Crime World accept ten grand as a down-payment on his debt? He was well aware of their reputation for exacting payment from those who were slow to repay what they owed. His community was small and when a petty drug pusher here or a pick-pocket there vanished, the rumour mill quickly joined the dots. These Russians were here to stay and would be playing the game by their rules. He was not however, scared. He would be treating with fellow professionals. Men with standards. An accommodation between the civilised was always possible. He was also confident that his particular skill-set provided him a valuable bargaining chip in the negotiation to come.

He had no regrets. It had been an exhilarating game of poker and a full-house was always worth the punt. One doesn’t often get to see a royal-flush and there was no shame or cause for complaint in being beaten by one. He had heartily congratulated Alexander and was assured by the Russian Don that he would be afforded the time required to settle his account. James was charmed to see such old-world values appearing in Dublin.

James abruptly crossed the road and walked towards a broken street-light. He stopped and looked around him: hidden in the dark he could see the full length of the street, bathed in glowing drops of rain. There was no one. He turned and quickly walked down a path between two rows of suburban terraces. At the end of the path was an unpainted concrete wall with one iron door. He used the flat of his hand to bang on the door twice. A small portal opened in the door and a tattooed face peered out at him. James nodded at the face, but said nothing. The face appeared satisfied and closed the portal. Moments later the sounds of locks being turned could be heard and James stood back as the door swung out. He walked in quickly and as his eyes adjusted to the smoky atmosphere he heard the door being locked behind him.

A hostess in gold bikini briefs, sporting massively enhanced bare breasts, greeted him. Her pale body was marred by goose pimples, over prominent ribs and the forced smile on her face. She spoke with a thick Russian accent.

“Mister James, Mister Balabanov has been expecting you, will you please follow me?”

She turned without waiting for an answer and he followed her. He gave her near naked arse a look: he was not impressed. The poor girl was too skinny for his tastes. She led him into a bar. The mix of tattooed men in vests and naked women marked this place as a criminal den, almost as clearly as the cigarette smoke that clung to every corner and naked bulb did. There was silence as he walked through the bar. He looked back at every stare and saw mostly brainless thugs and the occasional stare of animal cunning. These were not his equals and he dismissed them from his mind.

At the end of the bar an entire wall was dominated by an enormous table. One man, fit, grey haired and in his fifties, sat at the table. Two men in suits stood behind him and two men in suits stood in front of the table. James gave them a quick professional appraisal and he recognised men who merited being taken seriously. The girl stopped.

“Will I take your coat Mister James?”

James nodded, took his coat off and handed it to her. She walked away and James opened his suit jacket and pulled the left side open, showing the body-guards his weapon. One of them reached for his own gun while the other looked at the seated man. Alexander Balabanov spoke, with near accentless English.

“Keep your weapon James, we are all friends here.”

The body guards relaxed a fraction and stood apart to allow James through to the table. James walked towards Balabanov and reached out to shake his hand. Balabanov took his hand and then indicated a chair to his right for James to sit on.

“Would you care for a drink James? I recall that at our previous engagement you were partial to some good Bordeaux.”

James smiled at him.

“Yes indeed Mister Balabanov. I fear a less becoming vintage and I may not have been so cavalier with my cards.”

Balabanov laughed long and hard and as he did so he clicked his fingers for a hostess to take their orders. When he stopped laughing, he ran a hand through his hair to straighten it. He looked at the hostess and gave her instructions in Russian. James recognised the word Bordeaux and nothing else. She walked away and Balabanov looked at him.

“I have been in your country long enough to know that the traditional greeting is a complaint about the weather. Is this not true?”

James grinned as he nodded.

“Yes it is Sir. Anywhere you get two Irish people speaking, the subject invariably is the weather. It is a limiting habit, but it does avoid argument.”

Balabanov nodded with a smile.

“Of course we people of the Steppe look at your weather with bored amazement. Your weather lacks the colour and evil of ours. So we find it difficult to speak of.”

Again James could only grin.

“I think it is the insipid dreariness of our weather which fascinates us so. Perhaps if we had a less temperate climate we would find something even less interesting to fill our conversations.”

Balabanov pondered this, he kept silent as a bottle of wine arrived and was opened with a flourish. Two glasses were poured and tasted. Only then did Balabanov speak.

“You do not share your countrymen’s fascination with the banal James.”

“No Sir, I don’t.”

Balabanov nodded at this and savoured his wine for several moments.

“Shall we then speak of business?”

“If it will fill the time necessary to finish this bottle Sir. It is another wonderful vintage. You must tell me where you source it.”

Balabanov dismissed the request and barked out an order in Russian to one of his bodyguards. Then he turned back to James.

“A case of this particular wine will be delivered to your apartment before the end of the week.”

James kept his face relaxed as he thanked Mister Balabanov for the wonderful gift. He knows where I live. He knows where I live.

“So to business James. Have you come to settle your account?”

James reached into his jacket and pulled out the envelope of money and placed it in front of himself on the table.

“I am embarrassed to say Sir, that I come with a downpayment only. Ten thousand euro.”

Mister Balabanov pursed his lips thoughtfully and regretfully. He looked at the envelope.

“That unfortunately is a problem James. Ten thousand amounts to no more that one week’s interest.”

James nodded his understanding.

“Of course Sir, but you have my personal guarantee that I will keep paying that interest until I have the opportunity to pay off the principal.”

“You are presuming much James to think I could allow such a debt remain outstanding for any length of time.”

James felt the beginnings of tension. Mister Balabanov continued to speak.

“I have been in this city for a year. I have had to compete with the native criminals, with Eastern Europeans and bloody terrorists, but I am now established and expanding. But that expansion means continuous and bloody effort. In those parts of Dublin where I have control I rely on my reputation alone to keep order. I do not have the resources to fight my enemies and to police every piece of shit that owes me their loyalty or money.”

James sat back on his chair, calculating his chances of escaping the bar in a bloody shoot out. He wondered how far he would get if he had a gun to Alexander’s head. He thought fast and hard and still he could not see a way out. Even if he was to get out of here he would need to leave the country. Possibly America. Definitely all of Europe would be closed to him.

“So we have a problem James. If it had been a private game then possibly I could have allowed you some leeway, but too many people saw you lose to me, for me to risk my reputation.”

“Do you intend killing me?”

Mister Balabanov shrugged his shoulders as if in deep thought. James put his glass down, the wine now vinegar to him.

“To kill you would be the usual motif of a man in my position James.”

“You propose a less usual alternative?”

James already knew what he would need to do, but Mister Balabanov held all the cards so James could only be polite and allow himself to be strung along until he was given his target. He would be no more than an employee from now on. His stomach knotted as he saw his freedom slipping away. Death or slavery? Yesterday he would have said death, but being this close to death made slavery seem that bit more attractive.

Mister Balabanov reached under the table and retrieved a file. He put the file on top of the envelope in front of James.

“You can return that money to Mister Scar tomorrow James. One creditor is more than enough for you now.”

James nodded at the Russian and opened the file. The first item was a large photograph of a female Garda, in dress uniform. James froze. A woman and a cop. A woman and a cop.

“I think you understand what is expected of you James. An associate of mine was witnessed, imposing himself, on a woman, by this person. Ordinarily a couple of bribes and this would go away, but we are far from Mother Russia and the cop arrested the man I sent to try reasoning with her.”

“And the victim?”

“The silly bitch has been taken care of, but that appears to not be enough. I would prefer to put a bullet in my associate’s head and just move on, but he is the son of man who has the power to arrange my death and the deaths of my entire family.”

“There is always someone bigger.”

“Just so James. Take care of her and make it look like an accident. Anything else and even your dullard police force would make my business almost impossible to run. And if that happens both my competitors and sponsors would seek to remove me, permanently.”

“And if I do this…?”

“If? You speak to me of if,” Mister Balabanov’s voice rose, causing his body-guards to tense and reach for their weapons, but he raised his hand to them and they relaxed. He lowered his voice.

“You will do this and I will not remove your limbs with a hammer. You will do this and I will not push your eye balls up your ass before I pour petrol over your head and watch you burn.”

James couldn’t keep eye contact with Mister Balabanov. From another man those threats would be comic-book nonsense. From this man though, they were merely the facts as he would make them.

James returned to his apartment in the early morning. He had committed the contents of the file to memory in Mister Balabanov’s presence and then had watched the file be destroyed. He stood across the road from the four-storey building he lived in. The ground floor was occupied by a large Chinese Restaurant, the proprietor of which owned the entire building. The second and third floors compromised of a dozen or so apartments. The entire fourth floor belonged to James. Mister Zháo had bet fifty grand on two pairs and then had the temerity to offer his daughter to James, in payment. James had removed the little finger from Mister Zháo’s left hand for grossly overestimating the value of his daughter’s charms. He then held a gun to Mister Zháo’s head while he signed the lease for the fourth floor over James.

He took his time watching for signs that he had been followed, though he was aware the exercise was now pointless. If Mister Balabanov already knew where he lived then there was little point in having him followed. Plus anyone else who may be following him would know that James now worked for Mister Balabanov. Few people would be prepared to risk the ire of the Russian gangster. He quickly made his way through his private entrance and up the six flights of stairs to his floor. He unlocked the door and stepped inside, closing and locking the door behind him.

He looked at his apartment. It was just over 400 square yards of empty space. The several thin pillars and walls were painted white. Beside him were two metal cabinets and in the middle of the empty space, a large brown leather couch with a green knitted throw. In the far corner was a door into a tiny bathroom. That was James‘ apartment.

He turned to the first cabinet and unlocked it. Inside was a safe of almost the same size as the cabinet. He pressed the six digit code into the key-pad and opened it. He looked at the hand-guns, two light assault rifles, sniper rifle, munitions, grenades and explosives that were the tools of his trade, before taking off his jacket. He opened the second cabinet and hung his jacket inside it. He took off his shoes and trousers and placed them neatly in the cabinet with his jacket. He returned to the first cabinet and taking off his holster, he put it in the one empty slot in the safe. He closed the safe and locked the cabinet and unbuttoning his shirt, he walked to the bathroom. He threw his shirt, boxers, vest and socks into a laundry basket and standing nude, at the washing basin, brushed his teeth.

Teeth brushed he walked to his couch. His bare feet sliding on the highly polished wooden floor. He slumped down on the couch and put his head in his hands. He had made 28 professional hits. Always men and always men from within the community. He had rigidly kept to these rules, to the point of forgoing very lucrative contracts. This Susan Whelan was a woman and outside the rules. Without rules, without a personal code, one was merely an animal. One would be no more than those creatures that emptied their stomachs and bladders onto the street. He sighed in frustration. Maybe she would visit tonight. She always made it easier to see things clearly. He lay down on the couch. Pulling the throw over him and carefully pushing his back against the back of the couch, he closed his eyes and thought of her.

He felt the pressure of the couch on his back, he pushed back against it harder. Then she was there, holding him like she always did. He sighed, the comfort of her embrace.

“I knew you would come, my love.”

“Don’t I always James?”

“Yes, always, my love”

“You are troubled by this woman?”

“Killing her is wrong, my love.”

“Oh James, I always found your morality so charming.”

“Are you mocking me, my love?”

“Was I not proficient with a gun?”

“You were extraordinary, my love.”

“Did I ever fail any of my employers?”

“No, my love. None of your targets ever escaped.”

“This police woman is not some hapless bystander. She is a professional, like you. She chose a side and wears their uniform, she is part of your world James. She freely chose to play.”

James smiled contentedly in his sleep. He felt her arms close tighter about him. They went to Paris and relived that weekend, until he was jolted awake by a car alarm from the street below. He slammed his feet onto the floor in anger and punched the back of the couch several times. He then looked at the couch in horror and muttering sorry, stroked the point he had punched. The car alarm abruptly ended its intrusive blare and he turned from the couch. He stood and walked towards the bathroom, but not before carefully replacing the throw on the couch. He caressed it smooth and then whispered goodbye.

James watched Susan leave her small semi-detached house. She lived alone and he was already familiar with her work schedule, but he was still unhappy about the time scale. Two weeks was not enough time for a thoroughly professional job. One week of observing her had given him the basics of her life, but it took months to learn the idiosyncrasies that would allow him to fulfil the contract as specified. He knew what gym she used, what shops she bought her groceries from and the pubs she drank in. He knew the name and address of the married colleague she was having an affair with and girlfriends she partied with, but that was not enough. Two weeks could not give him enough. He was going to break into her house to get more information. Her night shift wouldn’t end until 8am, which would give him the opportunity to work out the details of this too quickly planned operation.

He waited for thirty minutes after she had left, before moving. He went behind her house and picked the lock of the back door. He switched on the lights. He never used a torch, as a beam of light, seen through a window, aroused suspicion. All the house lights on, gave the impression that whoever was in the house, was entitled to be there.

He walked from room to room. He was impressed by the spartan appearance. This woman was indeed another professional. He checked the kitchen. He was relieved to see her cooker was run on gas. That was key to his plan. Now how to ignite the gas without arousing suspicion. He stood with his back to the front door and looked along the length of the hallway. The stairs to his right, the door to the sitting room to his left and the door to the kitchen in front of him. There was a door under the stairs. He wondered if she had candles in case of a power cut. He opened the door and saw a vacuum cleaner, a raincoat and a shoe-box. He opened the shoe-box. Jackpot. Susan was a secret smoker. Cigarettes, a lighter and an ashtray all laid out neatly in the box. Perfect.

James woke in angry frustration. She had not visited again. Every night since she had given her to consent to Susan’s killing, she had failed to hold him and comment on his efforts. He sat up and stared at the case of wine that marred his otherwise pristine apartment. It had been delivered yesterday by one of Mister Balabanov’s henchmen. He had reminded James, in broken English, that Mister Balabanov awaited the completion of James’ task with eagerness. Or more accurately, ‘kill the cunt soon or we kill you slow.’ James had smiled in response and had politely thanked the monkey for the wine. James may have to interact with these knuckle-dragging monstrosities, but he spoke to them no more than one would with a beast of burden. He was however aggrieved that Mister Balabanov felt a reminder of the terms of his contract was necessary. He was going to have to find a way to eliminate this Russian. It would take time and James would need to jump when ordered, until he worked out a way, but he would find a way. He looked at the couch regretfully. A visit would have been welcome.
He stood, replaced the throw and walked towards the bathroom.

James was behind Susan’s house. He checked his watch one last time: she was not due back from work for an hour. He again picked the back door and put the lights on. He took out his Beretta and attached a silencer, aware that if he had to use it, then his plan would have failed. He placed the gun on the counter next to the cooker. He retrieved the shoe-box and went to the kitchen. He opened the box and left it on a chair near the hall door. He then took out a box of matches and a roll of masking tape. He attached a dozen matches to the bottom of the door, the heads pointing down, and then taped the edge of the box to the floor. He opened the door and two of the matches sparked into flame. He nodded in satisfaction before taking the matches away and placing them, the tape and box in a bag, which he put in his pocket. He left the kitchen and switched off the rest of the lights. He returned to the kitchen and took out another box of matches. He set up the ignition process again. He took laundry from the utility room and dropped a towel in front of the door. He did not want gas escaping and alerting her to a leak.

He checked his watch again. It was almost time to start the gas. He eased the cooker out from the wall and looked down the back of it with a torch. He reached down and began to twist and pull at the pipe., taking his time to make it look like a defect.

The kitchen door opened. The matches sparked as Susan walked in. She was distracted enough by the matches to not immediately notice James. He turned, gun in hand and without pause, shot her once in the head. She dropped, face frozen in surprise, her life ended too quickly to even register fear.

James stepped towards her body and kicked her in the belly. He shouted at her in anger.

“You were not supposed to be back for another twenty minutes.”

He kicked her again.

“Fucking two weeks was not enough time. Fuck.”

He took some deep breaths and took stock of the situation. There was nothing he could do other than delay the inevitable. He switched on all four rings of the cooker. He could immediately smell the gas rushing out. He took Susan’s cigarettes and lighter upstairs. He lit three cigarettes and threw them on her bed. He closed all the doors and left the house. He had walked a mile before he heard the explosion. He kept walking. He would have to kill Balabanov.

James sent word to Balabanov that all had gone to plan. He was congratulated and an invited to a celebratory game of poker. James had gratefully accepted. This was his chance to strike before his error was discovered. Then disaster. It had taken the Gardai less than twenty-four hours to launch a murder investigation. James had heard the news while eating at a restaurant close to his apartment. In the five minutes it took him to walk home he saw three of the pond-scum that were part of his world run away from him when they saw him. They already knew that he was a dead man walking and they did not want to be caught in the cross fire.

He ran up the stairs to his couch. Now it would be a race between the cops and the Russians, to see who got him first. He stripped off and with his clothes in an untidy pile beside the couch, he tried to sleep.

As his breathing deepened and his body relaxed he felt her arms around him.

“You are in trouble James.”

“The worst I’ve ever been in, my love.”

“What will you do?”

“What can I do, my love?”

“Have you already given up?”

“The odds are stacked against me, my love. I’m all in, holding nothing and the river card can’t help me.”

“This Russian cannot be negotiated with?”

A smile creased James’ sleeping face.

“He and I already negotiated, my love. I have broken the terms that were agreed. I am at fault here.”

“Two weeks was not enough time.”

“This is true, my love. Two weeks made the contract almost impossible.”

“If the contract is unreasonable, then it is no contract at all. Fuck the Russian.”

“You are of course correct, my love, but he will not agree with your logic.”

“Kill him.”

“Impossible my love. He has resources far beyond my ability to penetrate. I am in his power.”

“What of the police?”

“They probably already know my name, my love. Informants will be falling over themselves to give them my name, now that they have no reason to fear me.”

“What can you offer them?”

“I could destroy most of Dublin’s organised crime, my love.”

“You have always kept to the rules.”

“Yes I have, my love. I have never killed a civilian.”

“You are a good man.”

“Yes I am, my love. The Russian would kill me and the cops keep me in a box for the rest of my life.”

“You deserve better.”

“Yes I do, my love.”

“They are not good people.”

“They are not good people, my love.”

“What will you do?”

“I will not live in a box, my love.”

“You are a good man.”

“I will kill them all, my love.”

“They deserve it.”

“Will you be with me, my love?”

“Always.”

“Then I know what I must do, my love.”

“And then we can be together forever.”

Her arms tightened around him and he sighed in contentment. He awoke gently and sat up with a smile. He stroked the couch absently as he stared at the crumpled suit on the floor. He reached into the jacket and took out his phone. He tapped two text messages into it and sat back contentedly.

Balabanov sat at his chair, listlessly sipping wine. The bar was nearly deserted, but his four body-guards remained around him. Another man in a suit approached him, whispered something in his ear and handed him a phone. The Russian read what the phone said and his lips tightened in anger. He handed back the phone and nodded the man away. Reaching under the table he took out a hand-gun. He checked the clip and put the gun in his jacket pocket and stood up. He left the bar, his four men following him.

Detective Chief Superintendent FitzMaurice sat as his desk poring over reports. Every piece of shit had been dug out from under every slimy rock and shaken down hard, in the search for information about the murder of Susan Whelan. He was interrupted when a detective burst into his office and wordlessly handed him a phone. He read the message. He nodded and dialled a number on his own phone.

“John, we have him. Have your chaps ready to go in five minutes.”

He hung up and took his service revolver from a drawer in his desk. He looked up at the detective, who was standing staring at him.

“Get me a car now.”

The detective rushed out the door, FitzMaurice followed at a more measured pace.

James stood looking at his bathroom mirror, his toothbrush poised close to his mouth. He was wearing a fresh suit and his hair was neatly combed. He continued to stand still, looking at his reflection, until he heard car-brakes screeching. He finished brushing his teeth and then rinsed his wash basin clean. He carefully closed the bathroom door behind him and walked to one of the windows that looked down on the street in front of his building. Several vans had parked there, blocking both sides of the street. Armed Gardai were rushing out of the vans, some clearing the street and others pointing their weapons at his building.

He turned away from the window and slowly walked to the other side of his apartment and looked at the alley behind his building. He saw Balabanov and his body-guards getting out of a large BMW. He turned his head back to the couch and smiled at the woman sitting there. She smiled back at him. He unlocked his front door and opened it slightly. He returned to the couch and sat next to the woman. He sat there, his arm around her, smiling at her. He nodded at her in amusement when the shooting began. Several dozens of shots, from automatic weapons, could be heard over several minutes. Then there was silence and he kept smiling at her.

FitzMaurice stood over the body of Mister Balabanov, breathing heavily, his revolver in his hand. He had to rest his hands on his knees in the effort to not pass out. He could feel his heart beating painfully fast. An officer, armed with an automatic rifle, approached him.

“Is that him Sir?”

FitzMaurice looked up at the officer, not bothering to straighten up.

“This bastard didn’t pull the trigger, but I bet he’s the man who paid to have it pulled. The man we want is on the top floor.”

Only then did FitzMaurice stand up. He carefully reloaded his revolver and nodded at the other officer to lead the way.

James watched as his door was inched open. He saw the rifle barrels before he saw the uniformed men holding them. He remained seated, watching and waiting. FitzMaurice entered the building and saw the six flights of stairs, that led to the top floor, crowded with armed Gardai. An officer at the bottom of the stairs listened to a message through his ear piece and turned to FitzMaurice.

“The subject’s door is open Sir, we are going in now.”

FItzMaurice nodded but immediately felt that something was wrong. He looked at the stairs again and began to shout.

James watched as more and more armed uniformed officers entered his apartment. All had their rifles aimed at him. There was none of the usual shouting, of ‘hands-up’ or ‘on the floor now.’ James could see in their faces the desire for any excuse to shoot him. He smiled at them and then looked away as the woman took his hand. He nodded at her before reaching up a hand and slowly, ever so slowly, allowing the Gardai to see what he was doing, he unbuttoned his jacket. He pulled the jacket open. The Gardai nearest to the door began to push and shove their way back to the stairs.

“I am a good man.”

“Now we can be together forever.”

Several shots rang out, leaving James’ head a bloodied pulp. He slumped from the couch. As his weight left the couch, a switch was released.

THE END

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The Case for Secularising our Schools

As appeared in Letters – Kerryman – 7 September, 2011 edition

In April last, Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn announced his intention to facilitate the reduction of National Schools, operating under Catholic patronage, from 90% to 50%. Understandably, many Catholics may feel unsure about such a development. The vast majority of us, Catholics and non Catholics alike, went to Catholic schools and again, for the majority of us, it was a positive experience. Today, we remain for the most part, Catholic and may be concerned that our children will not receive the grounding in our faith that we did, if the schools are removed from the Catholic Church’s control. We may even fear that schools will become godless institutions in this race to secularism.

These are legitimate questions, especially as we do not know how this process of divestment is going to proceed. I would however suggest, that a greater understanding of the aims of secularisation would go a great deal of the way in allaying any fears that Catholic parents may have. Secularism is not an attempt to remove god from the classroom, it is instead the creation of shared space for all faiths and those without faith.

National Schools are more than arenas for the teaching of multiplication tables and reading. A National School is both a self-contained community and that place which teaches us about the larger community. Until recently we were one large community. We were Catholic and Irish. There may have been divisions between town and country, Cork and Kerry, but we were all Catholic and Irish. It was natural then, for the Catholic Church to be the educator of our youngest children. This they did very successfully, contributing greatly to the production of well-educated Catholic Irish.

Things are now different now. Ireland is different. Our Irish community is now a community of multiple parts. We are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, agnostic and atheist. We are many colours, many languages and we are many aspirations. We are an Irish community of many communities and this brings with it new challenges. The biggest challenge being, how to ensure that this diversity of Irishness becomes the wonderfully positive thing that it can be.

If this inclusiveness is deemed a worthy aspiration, then the process must begin in National Schools. Children this young are incredibly open to the messages we adults transmit. How we behave is the biggest teaching tool there is. Children will model themselves on our behaviour. If we create environments where difference is investigated, lauded and embraced then we will have begun the process of building a future Ireland today. The alternative is to choose exclusion; the couple of non Catholic children sitting in the hallway during religious instruction.

This inclusiveness and diversity can include faith, indeed it can celebrate it. Our children will grow up understanding the many faiths and non, that contribute to our Irish identity. They will become as familiar with Moslem ritual as they are with evolution and the importance of Easter. They can and will know more than us and they will become the Irish community of communities. As for the teaching of the minutiae of whatever faith we wish for our children? Let us remember that our schools lay idle every evening and every weekend. Imam, Rabbi, Priest or philosopher, whoever you wish to instruct your child, should be given access to these buildings. Let us allow our children become more Irish and more Catholic, but let us allow them know that one need not be Catholic to be Irish.

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