The Cave was invisible to outsiders. It was grubby and obscure. A passing parent might give its door a sideways glance but they never warned their teenagers away. It was off their radar.
Once a grown-up wine bar for discerning couples, it had quickly degenerated until its design as a Mexican cantina – white stucco walls and moulded vine leaves – was the only indication of that original intention. The Cave was dirty, rough, bathed inside by a dim orange light, the haunt of bikers, rockers, hippies, punks, hookers, and the occasional gay man seeking a safe place; somewhere no questions were asked. Anyone entering the bar for the first time could be forgiven for thinking they were the cleanest thing in the place. They probably were.
It was St Patrick’s night and a haze of smoke clung to the ceiling. ‘Hey Joe’ blasted from the jukebox at the back of the room and Paddy McLaughlin sat, trapped, his big frame squeezed between the table and the wall behind. His younger sister, Elizabeth, ignored him from the other side of the table, her conversation moving between her boyfriend, Kevin Thompson, and her friend Orla. Paddy twisted painfully in his seat and shouted across the table.
‘Swap seats with me, Liz.’
‘Stop asking,’ she said, without turning her head. ‘It’s not goin’ to happen.’
Orla sipped demurely at a half-pint of beer, nodding as Liz continued describing the coat she was trying to persuade her mother to buy her.
‘It’s got these metal buttons running down the front, and big lapels.’
But Paddy wasn’t done.
‘It’s my birthday,’ he said. ‘And you’re smaller than me.’ Shifting heavily, he shoved the table, jolting it forward an inch. The glasses on top juddered.
‘Hey!’ said Kevin, quickly lifting his.
At the other end of the table, Christy Meehan was drunk and lecturing on his pet subject, Vietnam. He had stolen a book from a local shop where the staff were too ‘right on’ to complain, and it offered new insights on the war, insights beyond the tales of experimental drug-taking he revelled in.
He stabbed at the table with his finger.
‘The Vietnamese were organised, you see? But the Yanks – them boys didn’t give a fuck. They only wanted to get home alive. See in Vietnam? There are tunnels everywhere.’
He swung his arm above the table, inviting them to visualise swathes of jungle and endangering the glasses that had survived Paddy’s ill temper.
‘The Viet Cong used them to move around the country. There’s this part, about Khe Sanh, the Tet O ensive – crazy stuff. You have to read the book, Noel – Coppola based Apocalypse Now on it.’ He paused to take a drink.
‘Heart of Darkness,’ said Noel, raising his voice over the noise. ‘That’s what the lm’s based on.’ He leaned back in his chair, the loose neck of his washed-out shirt gaping around skeletal collarbones. ‘Joseph Conrad – I read it at university. I didn’t like it much.’
There was nothing as pleasant as using your degree to impress your less educated friends, and Noel Baxter made use of it as often as he could. But his languid, bohemian image fell apart when he opened his mouth, a broad country accent betraying his Protestant farming background.
Christy ignored the correction. Baxter might be older than him, he might have his own at, but he was still a bit of a wanker sometimes.
‘The Vietnamese definitely produced a better class of war,’ he said, checking out the room over the top of his glass as he took another drink.
‘Looks like you stole the wrong book, Meehan,’ said Kevin. ‘Hi, “Charlie don’t surf . . .”!’
Christy laughed. ‘“I love the smell of napalm in the morning . . . Smells like . . . victory.”’
Both could spool off a dozen lines like this: between them they had seen Apocalypse Now five times.
‘“The horror . . . the horror . . .”’ mouthed Kevin softly. ‘“How you feelin’, Jimmy?”’ shouted Christy.
‘“Like a mean motherfucker, sir!”’ replied Kevin. Suddenly, Liz stood up. ‘I’m going to the toilet.’ She pointed to her brother. ‘Don’t let him take my seat.’
‘I’m coming too,’ said Orla.
Moving chairs and squeezing past bodies, they made it to the girls’ toilet and pushed at the door. It was held firmly closed by someone leaning against it on the other side – there was a queue.
Liz stood against the jukebox, cupping her hands over her eyes. ‘They’re really burning,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to rub them.’
‘Put your glass over your eye – the moisture will help,’ said Orla.
‘I’m not doing that,’ said Liz. ‘It’s disgusting. This bloody mascara’s running.’
She took her hands away to wipe under her eyes, then looked across the bar to the corner where their friend Sinéad was involved in a passionate session with a large biker.
‘Do you think we should rescue her?’ she said.
They could just about make out Sinéad’s blonde curls behind his leather jacket, ponytail and muscular neck.
Orla stuck her head around the corner to have a look. ‘I can’t believe that – he’s minging,’ she said. ‘Leave her.’
As several girls came out, they pushed through the open door and took their place in the dingy toilet, where someone had been sick in the sink.
There were two cubicles, both occupied, with no locks on the doors. Another girl had her hand on top of one, holding it closed for her friend inside. The cubicle beside her opened and two large biker girls came out, big-chested, in too-tight jeans. Everyone shuffled around to let them out and Orla and Liz found themselves with their backs to the sink. Liz ran the tap to clear the vomit.
‘Do you have your lipstick?’ she said, checking herself in the mirror. Orla reached into her handbag and handed her the plastic tube.
‘I love this colour,’ said Liz, smearing the scarlet cream on her lips.
When the door opened again, Sinéad bounced in, sporting a grubby denim waistcoat.
‘What?’ she said, as her friends rolled their eyes. ‘Dave let me wear it.’
As she swung around to display the eagle, wings outstretched, sewn onto the back, she banged her elbow on the edge of the door. Liz and Orla winced, but nothing registered on Sinéad’s face.
‘What do you think?’ she said.
‘You’ll probably catch something off it?’ said Orla.
One of the cubicles emptied and they were next. Sinéad was too fast for them.
‘I’m really busting,’ she said, running into the toilet. ‘Hold the door for me, Liz.’
She slammed it behind her. Obediently, Liz stood guard, her foot hooked under the door.
‘Do any of yous have a tissue?’ called Sinéad.
‘No,’ said Liz abruptly. ‘You’ll have to drip-dry.’
Liz read the graffitied door while she waited for Sinéad to finish, her arms folded, reviewing the scrawled genitals and biro’d phone numbers. There was a hole put through one door, stuffed with paper to keep out peering eyes. Inside, neither toilet had an actual seat, just the rusted remains of the two hinges, and only the bravest customer would consider sitting down. Most people hovered – not easy when sober and near impossible when drunk.
‘You and Kevin are going with each other three months this week,’ said Orla, retouching her own lips.
‘How do you know that?’ said Liz.
‘I remember the night,’ said Orla. ‘It was icy. Noel slipped on the road and fell.’
‘Was that three months ago?’
‘Nearly to the day,’ said Orla.
‘Ooh, going steady,’ said Sinéad sarcastically from behind the door. ‘Hope you’re on the pill, Liz.’
‘Jesus, Sinéad, shut up!’ shouted Liz. She pulled her foot away and the door swung open.
‘Hi!’ shouted Sinéad, pulling up her knickers and jeans. She came out, still doing up her zip. ‘I was done anyway,’ she said.
Liz rushed in to pee and this time it was Orla’s turn to hold the door.
‘Have you thought about it?’ she said to Sinéad who was admiring herself in Dave’s waistcoat, twisting to see the artwork on the back.
‘Thought about what – the pill?’
Liz came out. ‘I wouldn’t even know where to get it from,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t go to the doctor, not in our house.’
‘You go to the Family Planning,’ said Orla casually. Sinéad and Liz both looked at her. Sometimes Orla was full of surprises.
‘How do you know that?’ said Liz, but Orla only shrugged her shoulders.
‘I heard it somewhere,’ she said, pulling the door open to leave.
‘Do you not have to go?’ said Liz.
‘Naw,’ said Orla. ‘I only came in to keep you company.’
Outside, the crowd at the table was swollen by new arrivals, friends of Paddy’s, and had spread out, pressing into the next table.
‘Oh, for fucksake,’ said Liz, as Paddy grinned at her from what had been her seat. She stormed over, punched him on the arm, punched Kevin on the other arm, then made him move over so she could squeeze onto the seat beside him.
‘It’s his birthday,’ said Kevin. ‘He begged me.’
Orla pulled Sinéad back by the arm until they stood behind the jukebox again.
‘What?’ said Sinéad.
Orla pointed discreetly at the table and one of the boys, a clean-cut youth, out of place in a tweed jacket and a checked shirt. He had squeezed in beside Christy.
‘It’s him,’ said Orla.
Sinéad looked blankly at her.
‘For Godsake, Sinéad, it’s Peter Harkin.’
Now Sinéad was interested and leaned forward carefully to see. ‘So it is,’ she said, smiling. ‘What are you going to do?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t stay here.’
‘Brass it out – you didn’t do anything. You went with him, you didn’t see him again. That’s it.’
Two months earlier, at a concert in Belfast, Orla had, to use the technical term, ‘got off’ with Peter Harkin on the back seat of the bus that brought the crowd back to Derry. It was an hour of fevered kissing that ended at the bus stop, but she was smitten. Oh, he was gorgeous, and Orla, for all her worldliness, was not one to go easily with anyone.
They met one more time, on an arranged date, and spent the evening walking the streets and eating chips, followed by more kissing until she had to go home. Since then, there had been radio silence as Sinéad called it.
‘Mmm,’ groaned Orla, chewing her nails.
‘Jesus Christ, Orla! We can’t stay here all night,’ insisted Sinéad.
‘But what’s he doing here?’
‘I don’t know – he’s talking to Christy. Come on.’ Sinéad pushed her from the jukebox and back to the table, where their seats had also been taken by other drinkers.
‘Budge over,’ said Orla. Liz shifted her bum on the seat, enough for Orla to perch on the edge, avoiding eye contact with Peter.
‘Talk to me, Liz, for Christsake,’ she whispered.
‘What’s wrong?’ said Liz.
‘That’s the boy I went with on the bus, talking to Christy.’
‘Hey, he’s Paddy’s friend from school. He’s a lovely fella.’
Peter must have heard. He looked at Liz, then got up and started to come over. Orla put her head down, trying not to look or smile, or do anything that would make it seem as though she remembered him.
‘How’s Liz?’ said Peter. ‘All right, Orla – long time, no see.’
‘All right, Peter,’ said Orla quietly.
He crouched down beside them. ‘This is the first time I’ve been in here. Your Paddy’s in some form.’
Paddy and Christy were arguing across the table a few feet away from them.
‘Does your da still give people a hard time when they call for him?’
He touched Orla on the arm. She looked over at Sinéad – the move hadn’t gone unnoticed.
‘When we called for Paddy, their da would answer and he’d say, “There’s no Paddy lives here.” Does he still make everybody call him Elvis?’
‘Sometimes, when he wants to wind him up,’ said Liz.
‘Watch this,’ he said to Orla, and shouted, ‘Hi, Elvis!’ across the tables. Paddy didn’t react.
‘Elvis – do you want a pint?’ he shouted again, louder.
Paddy looked over, registering who had called him. ‘Fuck off, Harkin – aye, why not.’
‘See,’ said Peter, smiling at Orla. ‘He’s Elvis when there’s a drink in it.’ He went to the bar to get the promised beer.
‘Aww, he’s lovely,’ said Liz. ‘He fancies you, Orla.’
Sinéad was over immediately. Orla blushed with embarrassment and pleasure.
‘What are you going to do?’ said Sinéad.
‘Shh, he’s coming back.’ Orla watched over Liz’s shoulder as Peter wormed his way through the crowd. He passed the pint to Paddy, over the top of Christy’s head, and came back to them, standing awkwardly beside her.
‘I need another pee,’ said Liz, looking at Sinéad. ‘Are you coming?’
‘We’ve just been,’ said Sinéad.
Liz took her by the elbow and pulled her away.
‘So, what’s happening after this?’ said Peter, squeezing onto the seat beside Orla.
‘There’s a party in a at down the street. Do you know Noel?’ she said hopefully.
‘I do now,’ said Peter with a grin. He sipped his drink.
Orla didn’t know what to say to this and several uncomfortable seconds passed. She looked in desperation at her friends, lurking by the jukebox.
Peter nudged her with his shoulder. ‘I never saw you again, not after the last night,’ he said. ‘I was kind of raging about that.’ He ran a hand over his short, dirty-blonde hair, a sheepish look on his face.
‘What – were your legs broke?’ said Orla sharply. She had spent an agonising fortnight laid out on the sofa, wondering what she had done to put him off. ‘What do you mean, you were raging? It was you that vanished off the face of the earth – not me.’
Peter was about to say something, but she raised her hand and silenced him before stating clearly, ‘It wasn’t up to me to go running after you.’
‘OK,’ said Peter. ‘I should have made an effort.’
‘An effort?’ Orla’s arms folded tight as she turned her back on him. ‘You’re some craic, hi.’
‘Can I leave you home tonight?’ said Peter, to the back of her head.
The girls came back and Liz perched on Kevin’s knee. Sinéad sat behind Orla and Peter. She nudged Orla in the back.
‘Everything OK?’ she said.
‘No!’ said Orla. Peter had his elbows on his knees as he looked the other way.
Sinéad turned back to Liz. ‘Oh, dear,’ she said.
‘That girl’s throwing daggers at you,’ whispered Liz from her vantage point on Kevin’s lap. ‘I think she might be your man’s girlfriend.’
Sinéad looked across to the place where she had left Dave the biker. Six or seven hairy men sat with their girlfriends, in a rough huddle. One of the women, red-haired, bursting out of an Iron Maiden T-shirt, was glaring at her. Sinéad realised that she still had the biker’s colours on and Dave was nowhere to be seen.
‘Shit, I forgot about him – is that her?’
‘Do you know Dave the biker’s girlfriend, Kevin?’
‘No,’ he said, turning to Sinéad. ‘But you might want to get rid of the evidence – give the mouse-eater his vest back.’
‘I don’t know where he is,’ said Sinéad. Very slowly, she shrugged it off her shoulders, letting it fall to the floor.
‘Who calls him the mouse-eater?’ said Liz, as Sinéad kicked at the waistcoat until it was under the table, out of sight.
‘He’s the man who found the mouse on the floor in here and ate it for a bet,’ said Kevin.
‘That’s not true,’ said Liz.
‘I’m going to boke,’ said Sinéad.
‘It is,’ insisted Kevin. ‘The mouse was lying under that seat.’ He pointed to the table around the corner.
‘Somebody dared him, so he held it up by its tail and dropped it into his mouth. It was a Saturday afternoon. All you could hear were bones crunching.’
A shudder convulsed Liz and Sinéad.
‘Was it alive?’ asked Liz.
‘No, it was dead.’
‘And you had your tongue stuck in that same mouth, Sinéad,’ said Liz. ‘Lovely.’
Kevin and Liz left the party early and were standing in the derelict building that had become a kind of home to them, en route to Liz’s house. It offered privacy and darkness, a place that belonged to no one else.
‘I have to go,’ said Liz. Kevin wasn’t listening.
‘Kevin,’ she said, pushing him away. ‘I have to go.’
Her bare stomach caught the chill of cold air as he reluctantly took his hand from beneath her jumper.
‘What time is it?’ said Kevin, before returning to the curve of her neck with a muffled, ‘Do we have to?’
‘Yes, we do. I said I wouldn’t be late.’
Taking her hand, he helped her over the stony ground and they walked through the back streets, their steps guided by light from the windows of the surrounding houses that cast yellow squares on the ground.
‘Do you want me to meet you tomorrow?’ said Kevin.
Liz was eighteen and still finishing her A levels at the local tech. Kevin, seven years older, had left school when he was fifteen.
‘I was thinking about going to the library,’ said Liz.
They walked in silence, climbing the hill towards her home, past houses that had been built a century before.
‘Do you know . . .?’ said Kevin. She sighed inwardly and waited. He always started with this when he had a nugget of information to pass on, some revelation he had come across in the paper, or on the radio – Kevin loved the radio.
‘Do you know, these houses were built for Scottish dockers, so they could bring their families over here when they worked on the docks?’
He waited for her prompt to go on. ‘Really?’ Liz obliged.
‘That’s why they all have Scottish names – Glasgow Terrace, Argyle Street, Argyle Avenue.’
Liz lived in the new houses beyond these, up behind the factory and beside the school.
‘So where did all the Scottish people go?’ she asked.
‘They married us,’ he said, with a smile.
At her front door, Kevin dipped his fingers between the waistband of her jeans and her soft skin.
‘Your hands are freezing,’ she said, with a thrill. ‘Do you want to come in?’
The thought of making conversation with her mother was enough to put Kevin off.
‘No, I’ll go,’ he said. ‘See you tomorrow.’
‘OK,’ said Liz. She turned the key in the door. ‘See you tomorrow.’
The promise of warm skin lingered in Kevin’s thoughts. He had waited for this girl longer than any other, because she was young and lovely, and worth waiting for, he hoped; so unlike the girls his own age, the single ones and the ones who were not single but were up for it anyway.
He considered her his best chance in a world that had little to offer, the hope that persuaded him from his bed some mornings. He would wait and she could take as long as she needed. He wouldn’t risk this for anything, certainly not for a cheap fuck.
‘Stop there, mate. Where are you going?’
Lost in his thoughts, Kevin almost collided with the heavily padded torso of a British soldier. Suddenly, there was a rifle pushed against his chest.
The rest of the foot patrol spread out behind them, taking up defensive positions as the soldier questioned Kevin’s presence on the street.
He took a step back.
‘Home,’ he said.
‘Where’s that then?’ asked the soldier, his accent hard, foreign.
Keeping his hands firmly in his pockets, Kevin indicated with a nod the direction he was going.
‘Where are you coming from?’ There was a definite Liverpool twang.
He nodded again, in the general direction of behind.
The soldier produced a notebook. ‘Right, smart-arse – name and address?’
‘Kevin Thompson, two hundred and twenty-one Carnhill.’
His tone was dry enough to irritate but not enough to entice a dig in the ribs from the end of that gun.
Kevin knew the routine and stood rigid, arms wide, legs apart. As the Brit patted him down, he watched the rest of the patrol, shadowy figures crouched in doorways along the street, keeping point behind them and up ahead. The soldier’s hands rubbed briskly along his arms, down and around his chest and waist, down each leg.
Hurry up, he thought, with a sigh. This one was younger than him, early twenties, maybe. When he straightened up and they stood face to face, he fell only slightly shorter than Kevin in height. Two grey eyes looked out from a face smeared with black camouflage.
As a final flourish to the search, the soldier stuck two fingers in the top left pocket of Kevin’s jacket, pulling out a foil packet creased from age and lack of use. Looking at Kevin he smiled, then slid the condom away again.
‘We’ll let you keep that,’ he laughed, patting the pocket and stepping back. Kevin was free to go.
He walked on a few steps, his head down, then turned to watch them.
‘Liverpool’ gave the signal. The squaddies on the other side of the street sprinted across and the patrol resumed.
The rearguard moved cautiously past him: the radio operator, burdened with a bulky backpack, a thin antenna protruding and swaying above his head; the final soldier, walking backwards, swinging his rifle from left to right as he scanned the street, bringing up the rear.
The retreating soldier raised his weapon to his shoulder and took aim, keeping Kevin in the rifle’s sight until he turned the corner and Kevin turned for home.
Liz was immediately enfolded in the lights, the noise, the smells of the house. Her mother was still up, ironing a mountain of clothes in the kitchen and listening to a story on the radio. The air hung with the scent of the hot iron on cotton, the almost indistinct scent that was as much a sensation: hot metal, the slightly scorched cover of the ironing board, the lingering essence of washing powder enhanced by steam, dampening the fabric – an ironing air.
‘Are you in?’ her mother called. Mammy was settling herself for the night. Only Paddy was expected now.
‘Where were you?’ she asked as Liz came through the living room and into the kitchen.
‘Just out,’ said Liz.
‘Did you see your brother?’ She had five, but Liz knew which one her mother meant.
‘Yes,’ she said. As they left the party, Paddy was sitting on the floor, rolling a joint. But her mother didn’t need to know that. ‘I think he’s staying in Noel’s, so don’t worry.’
She went into the living room and sat in the armchair opposite the television. Johnny was slumped in the other one, his leg hooked over the arm.
‘Where were you?’ he said. Four years older than her, he thought he had the right to know.
‘Out,’ said Liz, not in the mood for an interrogation.
‘With your man, Thompson?’
‘What’s it to you?’
‘He was three years ahead of me in school – I remember him,’ said Johnny, not trying to disguise his disapproval. He made every effort to let her know, at every opportunity.
‘And what?’ said Liz. Johnny had never had a girlfriend, would never leave the comforts of the family home. He had no life.
‘Where’s me daddy?’
‘Out,’ he said.
It was after midnight. With a sigh, Liz got up again.
‘I’m going to bed, Mammy,’ she shouted, already halfway up the stairs. ‘Night night.’
She lay under the covers and thought about school the next day, and Kevin. Something in the back of her mind niggled at her, making her feel sad; so what if he was older? It didn’t matter to her. Although sometimes she wondered why was he with her, when older girls could offer more?
The sex stuff scared her and though she tried to ignore it, she knew that he wouldn’t wait for ever. She wasn’t consciously saving herself, the way the nuns in school suggested they all would, or should, for her husband – like they’d know anything.
She pulled the blankets up to her chin. She was eighteen. This was coming, and she would have to decide about it. But the idea, the physicality of it . . . she rolled onto her side and turned o the bedside light.
‘I’ll have to do it sometime,’ she said, her voice muffed by the blanket. ‘But not yet.’
The following morning, Christy woke up on the sofa in Noel’s front room. He reached over the side, lifted a half-full can of Harp and took a drink to loosen his tongue from the roof of his mouth. He had pulled his leather jacket over his shoulders during the night, but there wasn’t much warmth from it.
Lighting a cigarette, he tried to piece together the end of the evening, raising himself on one elbow to see the chaotic room. Paddy lay under the window, his arm wrapped around the waist of some girl, his head resting on a bundled-up coat. Empty beer cans littered the floor. An ashtray had fallen from the coffee table, spreading butts, ash and matches across the filthy carpet. The room glowed red, as early sunlight forced its way through the stained curtains.
He lay down again, trying to ignore the queasy hangover pangs in his stomach and the pains in his head, but it was no good. Finally, he went to the kitchen to put water in the kettle. Noel was nowhere to be seen, and the debris of the party continued into the kitchen where a bin had keeled over, spilling cans and empty cider bottles on the grubby floor. An empty whiskey bottle sat by the sink; Christy put it to his mouth, seeking the last drops, but it had been drained.
Dozens of people had crammed into the small flat and the joints had circulated through the crowd quicker than he could smoke them. The place thrummed to deep bass reggae and people sat or stood everywhere, talking, drinking. Couples, new and old, vanished into the bedroom, returning later crumpled and smeared.
As he stood watching the kettle fill, he could still see Orla, pressed against the sink, wrapped around that straight-looking friend of Paddy’s. Great craic.
With three teas in hand, Christy went back into the living room and nudged Paddy with his foot.
‘McLaughlin, wake up.’
Paddy muttered something and rolled against the girl, who turned out to be Sinéad. She raised her head, hitting it on the underside of the table.
‘Ow, shit, what was that?’ she said, rubbing the sore spot.
‘Do you want tea, Sinéad?’ said Christy, putting the mugs on the table.
As they struggled into a sitting position, Sinéad looked at Paddy. ‘We were just talking, right?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Paddy, getting to his feet and slumping quickly into the chair, still perfectly drunk. Sinéad stayed on the floor. ‘What time is it?’ she asked.
‘After eight, I think,’ said Christy. ‘Here, have your tea.’
But Sinéad was on her feet, frantically searching for a missing shoe and repeating, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead.’ She found the shoe, put it on and was out of the flat before they could stop her.
‘Did you get off with her last night?’ said Christy.
‘Not as far as I remember, but who knows? And what about you and our Liz? You were well into her.’
Christy remembered Liz laughing. He maybe even remembered trying to persuade her to go upstairs with him, when she passed him on her way to the toilet.
‘I was stupid drunk.’
‘Tell that to Kev, ’cause he was watching you. They didn’t hang around, did they?’
‘Throw us a fag, for fucksake, and shut up,’ said Christy.
If Kevin and Christy’s friendship was marred by anything, it was their continual, competitive sparring; their desire to outdo each other made for some entertaining nights, and some violent disagreements. Christy was in his final year at the local boys’ grammar, but he still saw himself as Kevin’s equal in every sense. This flirtation with Liz was his latest challenge.
Paddy gave him a cigarette.
‘I wouldn’t push that button, Christy – he looked seriously pissed off last night,’ he said.
But Christy wasn’t listening. He was on his knees, studying the books on Noel’s shelf. He pulled one from the collection.
‘Sombrero Fallout,’ he read aloud, sitting back on his heels. With the cigarette between his lips, he sat down to read the blurb at the back of the slim novel. ‘What is this?’ he said, flicking through the pages.
‘Let me see it,’ said Paddy, trying to snatch it from him.
‘Wait a minute,’ said Christy, still reading. ‘Look – there’s only three words on this page.’ He flashed the book at Paddy. ‘I might take this,’ he said.
‘Noel won’t like that,’ said Paddy. ‘He’s my heart broke about his Freak Brothers comic – I keep forgetting to give it back to him.’
‘You have it?’ said Christy, looking up from the page. ‘That’s not just a comic, Paddy – it’s really rare. And I’ve been waiting to read it for weeks.’
He got to his feet, pulled on his coat and shoved the book into his pocket.
‘I’ll leave him a note,’ he said. ‘Are you ready to go?’
They stuck two Rizla papers together and Christy scrawled a brief note, ‘Took your book,’ then left the flat, stopping at the bakery on the corner to buy four sausage rolls. They ate them as they walked. Red sauce ran between their fingers and down the front of Paddy’s coat.
At the end of William Street, they paused and reflected on the smouldering remains of a Transit van and someone’s precious Cortina: two scorched carcasses, stretched across the road, slumped on the steel rims of their melted wheels with smoke and ash still rising around them.
Paddy lay on his back, looking at Ian Curtis’s pale, sombre face.
The slats on the bed above him were permanently bowed by the weight of Gene’s bulky body and curved down unevenly towards him like crooked floorboards. Lying under the blankets in the dim light, he was reluctant to move. Ian stared into the distance, mic grasped in one clenched fist, and, once again, Paddy tried to comprehend the singer’s death at the age of twenty-three, hanged in his own kitchen when he had everything going for him – it was all to live for. Apparently not.
The photo was starting to yellow. He had cut it from the pages of the New Musical Express, and a rip had appeared along one corner, where the soft newspaper had begun to disintegrate. Reaching up, he moved the tack to pin it back in place, then ran his finger around the Anarchy sign, scored into the wood with a black biro, and picked at the grey lump of hardened chewing gum.
Five brothers had shared this bedroom, as boys and men, until Jerry, Carl and Gene married their girlfriends in quick succession, leaving Johnny and Paddy with the pick of three sets of free-standing double bunks.
It never occurred to his parents to dismantle the beds, just as it never occurred to them to take away the extra bunk; it was always there, never used but kept in readiness. Perhaps Bernie expected her boys to return some day; abandon wife and wains for the comfort of their mother? Perhaps she believed there was a remote chance of another one?
The beds gave the room the look of a prison cell, like Cool Hand Luke but without the good weather. The atmosphere was never light or airy, despite the two large windows that looked onto the street. The dark wooden bed frames, the brown-and-orange bedspreads, killed any light that filtered through to reach the blue linoleum floor. A lingering scent of farts and antiseptic, accumulated over the years, was woven into the fabric of the walls.
Paddy reached over to the windowsill where he had left his tobacco and papers. He rolled a cigarette, lit it and lay back on the pillow, flicking ash into an ashtray balanced on his chest. As he smoked, he thought about the night before.
Christy had stayed for dinner, lured to Paddy’s home by the thought of Bernie’s spuds. They were listening to records, passing a joint between them as they lay on parallel bunks. The smell of dinner, cooking below, drifted up the stairs; cabbage and sausages and rich gravy.
‘I’m starving,’ said Christy.
‘You can stay if you like – she always makes too much,’ said Paddy. He went to the landing and shouted.
‘Mammy, is it OK if Christy gets his dinner here the night?’
‘That’s all right,’ said Bernie, from the living room. ‘It’s ready now, so you’d better come down.’
‘See, I told you it would be OK,’ said Paddy.
‘Thanks, Mrs McLaughlin,’ said Christy as they walked through the living room to the kitchen where they found Johnny at the table, reading the paper, and Liz preparing the potatoes.
Bernie and Jim sat, side by side, on the sofa, watching the news.
‘You’re grand, Christy,’ said Bernie, trying not to look too closely at the state of the boy. He was a looker, for sure, but thin. He needed a good dinner inside him.
No mother in the house, she thought, getting up to put the dinner out.
Christy watched Liz standing over a huge pot of buttery mash, to which she added splashes of milk and liberal sprinkles of salt.
‘Look at you, all domesticated,’ he said.
‘I wouldn’t go that far,’ said Bernie, lifting a sausage from the pan with a fork and dropping it onto the nearest plate. ‘You’ll send her to town for a loaf of bread and she’ll come back with a bunch of daffodils – she’d need to buck up her ideas.’
Christy snorted with laughter, then put his head down as Liz shot him a savage look.
The McLaughlins, Jim and Bernie – the Teddy Boy and the Good Girl.
After twenty-seven years together, each kept to their role: Bernie set the rules and Jim kept the faith, in the form of a Brylcreemed quiff and a record collection in the bottom of the hot press.
They met when he was the coolest guy in the dance hall; he worked at it, getting his hair just right, perfecting his hunched- over ‘James Dean’ stance.
His cousin Jim (their common grandfather was James, and so every branch of the family had at least one Jim), who had emigrated to America, sent him records that other people couldn’t get, from Memphis mostly where he worked as a store man on a farm; rock and roll platters made of heavy vinyl with the Sun label’s yellow cockerel in their centre. The songs made his stomach lurch and came accompanied by visions of long cars and dry, dusty streets.
He had stalked the shadowy edges of the dance floor and saw Bernie, small and neat, with her dark hair curled and clipped to one side and her skirts as voluminous as she could afford and her mother could make. He walked across the floor and asked her, ‘Do you want to dance?’
After that it was every weekend, jiving on the dance floor, kissing in the dark, between stacks of crates behind the hall. He bought her a mineral to sip while the band took a break, and sat with her instead of the other men, smoking a cigarette, his arm draped around her shoulders.
After much searching, he found a job and proposed within a week. ‘Yes,’ said Bernie, without hesitation. When she told her mammy, they both cried.
The babies started coming within a year of the wedding and it was then that Bernie realised the extent of Jim’s musical passions, because he had vowed that any child of his would have a great name, a name of significance, something to live up to and inspire.
Their firstborn, a boy, they named Jerry in tribute to Jim’s hero, bad boy Jerry Lee Lewis. Bernie told her mother and the priest that it was short for Gerard. But at the christening, Jim made sure that the origin of the name was no secret when he announced, by the font, that his son was to be called Jerry Lee Lewis McLaughlin. The priest mentioned that it wasn’t exactly a saint’s name, but Jim got his way: the child was Jerry Lee Lewis McLaughlin or there would be no christening, that day or any other.
Jim had many heroes and the next child, also a son, was Carl (Perkins). Bernie didn’t mind so much; it sounded like a Hollywood cowboy.
In the year that followed she gave birth to yet another boy, and now she was faced with a choice; she could accept little blue-eyed Gene Vincent or face another font-based debacle.
So she said nothing and longed for a girl.
It was not to be. Gene was followed by Johnny and then Elvis Patrick – the baby was born on St Patrick’s Day.
When Liz arrived, to the relief of her mother, Jim was stumped until it occurred to him that Priscilla was a nice name. But enough was enough, and this time, Bernie stood her ground.
‘That wain will be called Elizabeth, for my mother. That’s her name, Jim, not Priscilla, not Betty Lou – aye, that’s right – and I know the way you’re thinking. There will be no second name.’
Recognising defeat when it stood in front of him, in the form of his wife’s dead mother, Jim could only submit. Elizabeth it was.
‘Here,’ said Bernie, handing Liz a plate piled high with food. ‘Take you that in to your father.’
Liz held the hot plate in a tea towel and carried it to Jim, who was still on the sofa, immersed in the latest hunger-strike news.
‘I don’t know where this is going to end,’ he said quietly, taking the plate from her hand without looking at her.
Liz glanced at the screen and said nothing, before going back to the table to sit and eat with the boys.
Dinner was over, and Paddy and Christy went for a walk, talking and smoking, whiling away an otherwise dull Monday evening.
In the centre of town, a man stopped them in the street. They couldn’t see his face, but he clearly wanted something.
‘Give us a light, hi?’ he asked.
It was risky, since ‘Give us a light’ meant one of two things: either a straightforward request to light a cigarette, or a threat, the precursor to a slap in the mouth.
Paddy weighed up the situation, before pulling a matchbox from his pocket and taking out a match. He struck it and held it out to light a cigarette. The flame lit up the stranger’s face; he was eighteen, maybe nineteen, the same age as Paddy. There was no cigarette.
‘I meant the box, if that’s OK? We’re trying to get something going,’ he said.
Paddy thought he looked vaguely familiar: they might have been at the same school or passed in the street, too often to remember. Reluctantly, he handed the box over, the slap in the mouth seeming more likely if he was to stand and argue over a box of Swan Vestas.
Christy stood back and watched. Neither he nor Paddy were the fighting kind – more the give-them-what-they-want-and- run-away kind – and the two joints they had rolled and smoked left them softened like happy drunks, without the reflexes to put up any kind of defence if one was called for. And in this tense city, there was no need for another potential confrontation; the grumble of a riot echoed a street away from where they stood handing over their matches to a stranger.
The fella turned.
‘Here, try these,’ he shouted, throwing the matchbox at two figures squatting at the base of a doorway. Littlewoods, the store, full of clothes, food and birthday cards, was about to be burnt – again.
One of the hunkered men held a plastic bottle full of liquid. He was pouring it gently under the shutter, through a gap where the metal grille met the concrete pavement and where they had pushed a piece of rag.
The rich smell of petrol rose around them and the liquid ran down the shutter, along the ground and back in the direction of the arsonists’ legs. It bubbled against the plastic soles of their shoes, splashing the hems of their jeans. As one tried to push the flooding liquid back under the door with his foot, the other frantically fumbled with a lighted match, flicking it at the puddle. It was promptly caught by a swift breeze and extinguished. After watching this sad attempt at destruction repeated twice more, Christy and Paddy walked on.
‘The only thing them boys will set alight is themselves,’ said Paddy.
There were eight thousand men and women unemployed in the city, but that wasn’t the reason for the riot that had kicked o around the corner. It wasn’t why the three men in their anoraks were burning a business and no one was trying to stop them. It was more fundamental than that – more tribal. In a prison near Belfast, the Republican hunger strike was in its second month.
As they turned a corner, the lower part of the street ahead was dark and quiet, curving towards the violence along a pathway littered with debris and rubbish, and splashed with dried paint. ‘Do you want to go back?’ said Paddy. It sounded fairly fierce, up ahead.
‘Wise up,’ said Christy, walking on.
They reached the corner at the other end. Christy looked left, then right. ‘It’s not too bad,’ he said.
To the right, two army vehicles sat side by side, their doors open wide. A grey police jeep was parked beside them. Together, the three Land Rovers closed the road to any traffic brave enough to try and enter the Bogside. The helmeted heads of the army and RUC could be seen moving behind them, happy to withstand the barrage of whatever the fifty or so combatants in the street had to throw at them.
Suddenly, Christy ran across the road and picked up a brick.
‘Here,’ he shouted, throwing it to Paddy, who caught it awkwardly in his arms. Then he picked up a second one and ran into the road, throwing the brick at the Land Rover barricade, before searching the ground for another.
Paddy ran across, swinging the stone with both hands. He hurled it as hard as he could, laughing when it hit the ground not five feet away. The crowd surged around them. Caught in the energy, he reached for a plank of wood and threw that, watching it sail through the air and land, nearer the mark, right in front of the shielded enemy.
Soon they were both sweating. Paddy paused, doubled over, his hands on his knees. They had come to the fight unprepared. His overcoat and jumper were heavy, and he had a stitch. He was also, crucially, aware that the rioters around them had their faces covered with scarves and masks, while he and Christy were easily recognisable without even a handkerchief to cover their identity.
‘This is a mistake,’ he said, looking for Christy to tell him so.
The energy of the fight had dissipated. The Guildhall chimed ten o’clock. There he was, talking to a couple of lads not far away, even easier to pick out in his leather biker jacket. A huddle of women walked, arm in arm, along the pavement on the other side of the street; it was the bingo crowd, heading for the bus home. Suddenly, there was a rattle of gunfire. The women grabbed each other and ran, grasping their handbags. A cheer went up from the boys in the road.
Paddy ran over to Christy. ‘Hey, me and you are out of shape,’ he said. ‘This is hard work.’
‘I’m going home,’ Christy said. ‘I’ve school in the morning.’
‘All right, college boy,’ laughed Paddy.
‘Patrick, aren’t you meant to sign?’
It was eleven o’clock. Jumping out of bed, he stood in his underpants and gave himself a long, satisfying stretch. Then he pulled on jeans, T-shirt and jumper and sat on the bed to put on his shoes and socks.
He reached under the bed, feeling for the tin caddy where he kept his savings, a few quid each fortnight that would, one day, get him across the water, and a round nugget of cannabis. Leaving the money, he took the dope and pushed it firmly to the bottom of his jeans pocket, then ran downstairs, two steps at a time.
In the kitchen, Bernie gave him a piece of toast and a mug of tea. She looked up at her youngest son, licked her thumb and rubbed at a smudge of dirt on his round cheek. Then she tried to smooth the tuft of dark hair at the back of his head.
‘You haven’t even washed your face,’ she said despairingly. ‘What were you at last night?’
‘I’m nineteen, Mammy – you do know that, don’t you?’
‘I’ll keep asking until you start acting like it,’ she said, gathering a load of clothes for the twin-tub. But Paddy, coat half on, mouth full of bread, had disappeared through the door. He slammed it behind him. His mother flinched as she felt the house vibrate.
The concert, in an art gallery, had attracted a lot of attention.
Anyone who could string two chords together on a guitar, had a friend with a drum kit, and the nerve to sing in front of people, gave themselves a name and called themselves a band. Half of them were friends, the other half were people they sort of knew. For some, tonight was the first time they would entertain a crowd.
‘What does this look like?’ said Sinéad, pulling on yet another top. This time she had changed her red stud earrings for large silver hoops she had bought in the market the Saturday before. The woollen sweater, with its broad grey and blue stripes, t-ted neatly at the waist, and the sleeves just met the tops of her wrists: it was one size too small and it suited her.
Orla turned her head to see Sinéad’s skinny bum, twisting in the reflection of the mirror.
‘That looks great,’ she said. Her interest had waned after the third change of clothes and now she lay across the bottom of Sinéad’s bed, her feet on the covers and her arms behind her head, looking at a crack in the ceiling and thinking about Peter.
Last night had been their third date; proper dates, that didn’t involve her hanging around the bar at the end of the night, waiting for him to notice her again and leave her home. They went to the pictures and he paid; they met up for a walk when the evening was warm, and the sky was light, after the clocks went forward. He held her hand.
And last night, Peter arranged to babysit for his sister. They curled up on the sofa, watched TV and kissed. As the night went on, she let him put his hand down inside her jeans and, although she felt kind of guilty, like it had gone too far, if she was honest it was strange and exciting. She had spent today in a haze of blissed-out imaginings. She really liked him.
This was her first proper boyfriend. The boys at the youth club, when she was thirteen, didn’t count – just stupid wains. Half of them didn’t know how to brush their teeth, never mind kiss a girl. Those small boys, with their wide parallel trousers, short enough to show their skinny ankles sticking out from broad, black brogues, their hands dug deep into their trouser pockets or their orange-lined parkas. They sucked on butts and tried to look hard, standing apart from the girls, huddled together. Until someone sent his friend over to say, ‘My friend really likes your friend.’
There had been boys as she got older: those she liked for a while until they irritated her, and she dumped them after a day or two; those who finished with her in the same way, but were easily forgotten after an hour of mourning.
Then there was the one she went with one night but, in the cold light of day, thought, ‘Good God, no . . .’ That had been a fun fortnight, avoiding him until he got the message that it was not going to happen again.
‘I’m changing these jeans.’ Sinéad rummaged through the pile of clothes on the bottom of the bed, pulling out a pair that differed from those she was wearing only by the width of the legs; these were tighter, the kind that end up inside out when you take them o . She lay on the bed beside Orla, flattening her already at stomach and pulling at the zip as she held her breath.
There was a light knock and Liz’s head appeared around the door.
‘Your mammy said to come up,’ she said, out of breath from the run upstairs. She threw herself on top of the clothes and surveyed the mess that was Sinéad’s room. ‘So, you still love Adam then, Sinéad?’ she said.
One wall of the room was dedicated to the magnificent Adam Ant, from his Kings of the Wild Frontier phase to the current ‘dandy highwayman’ ensemble. The wall was a patchwork of photos torn from Jackie and taped to the wallpaper. Several, Liz noticed, were stained red with lipstick; there were little scarlet puckers on Adam’s lips. Sinéad paused, mid-eyeliner, and looked at the wall.
‘I’m besotted, but he doesn’t know I exist – it’s so sad, Liz. What am I going to do with him?’ She returned to the precise task of getting a clean black line on the inside of her lower lid.
‘So?’ said Liz, nudging Orla. ‘How was last night?’
‘I think I’m besotted too,’ said Orla.
‘So it was good then?’
‘His sister’s house is lovely,’ said Orla.
Her friends laughed. ‘Right, that’s what you did all night – admire the decor?’ said Sinéad.
‘No,’ laughed Orla, embarrassed by their interest. ‘It was great. He said he’d meet us up the town. What time is it starting at?’
‘First band’s on at eight,’ said Liz. ‘What are we waiting on?’
‘Her,’ said Orla, rolling her eyes in the direction of Sinéad, who was backcombing her hair into a rough beehive.
‘I’ll be five minutes,’ said Sinéad, ignoring the bored tone. ‘Let me brush my teeth.’
Liz made space on the bed by pushing more clothes onto the floor.
‘Me mammy’s still fighting with Paddy for throwing stones – it’s nearly every night. She says she can smell the rioting o his clothes. He was shouting that he’s leaving to go to England and she’s all, “Over my dead body.”’
It was true. In the intervening weeks since that first night, Paddy and Christy had caught the rioting bug and they weren’t alone. The hunger strike continued and the young men of the city were gripped by an urgent need to get involved. They turned out in higher numbers and took greater risks as each day passed.
‘What’s that about?’ said Orla, sitting up on the bed. ‘I don’t get it, Liz – they never cared before.’
Liz shrugged. ‘I think he’s bored. If I was a boy I’d probably do the same.’ She stood to examine herself in the mirror. ‘I’m thinking of getting a fringe,’ she said. ‘Look.’
She pulled a strand of hair forward from the back of her head, and spread the fine dark hair over her forehead, turning to Orla. ‘What do you think?’
‘It makes you look like your mother,’ said Orla, lying down again. This boy thing, this need to fight, irritated her. ‘It’s all that “White Riot” crap,’ she said, following the crack in the ceiling until it reached the wall. ‘Anyway, I thought the whole point of us was, we didn’t believe in the Provos?’
Liz let her hair fall and sat down on the bed again.
They listened to Sinéad in the bathroom, rinsing her mouth, spitting out, the water running into the sink. ‘Hi, Liz,’ she called. ‘Do you remember Deirdre Doherty that sat behind you in school?’
‘Aye,’ said Liz, picking a shirt off the floor and folding it. Deirdre was a plump girl with thick red hair. Never had a pen with her and was always borrowing one from Liz. ‘Why?’
‘Pregnant . . . apparently.’
‘Nooo . . . really? Who to?’ said Liz, stopping mid-fold to listen.
‘Don’t know,’ said Sinéad. ‘I never heard that part.’
Orla and Liz looked at each other. Once, in the toilet in the Cave, Liz heard a girl, an older girl, a woman really, talking to one of her friends. She thought she might be pregnant. She said she would go to England, if she was. Liz thought that she meant to have the baby over there. But Orla told her it meant going over to get an abortion. Liz was uncomfortable just knowing someone who knew about this stuff – not Orla, but the girls in the toilet.
Of course, like all of Orla’s acquired knowledge, she had ‘read about it somewhere’, probably a magazine her mother had. You wouldn’t read that in Ireland’s Own, that was for sure, thought Liz. Ireland’s Own was the only magazine Bernie ever bought.
‘Are you two ready?’ said Sinéad, standing expectantly in the doorway. ‘Come on!’
The gallery was full of sweaty men throwing each other around the floor. Onstage, the band thumped out a deep bass line and heavy drums, all a bit Siouxsie, a bit Gang of Four. It was ten o’clock and Kevin hadn’t arrived; Liz was not a happy girl.
She was about to leave when she saw him coming down the steps at the gallery door. He didn’t look drunk, but agitated. He stopped to talk to Noel, who pointed her out to him, and came straight over.
‘Where were you?’ she said, immediately angry.
‘I got held up.’ He tried putting his arms around her, but she shrugged him away and pushed past him. ‘I’m going home.’
‘Come on, Liz. I’m sorry. I’m here now.’ He could feel the night slipping away, and he needed it to be a good one. He had to retrieve it, to tell himself that it was all here, all OK. ‘You weren’t on your own. Paddy’s here, and Orla and Sinéad.’
She was starting to relent; it was stupid to be angry, childish that she felt like crying. He put his arms around her.
‘What happened – where were you?’ she said.
‘In the house,’ said Kevin. ‘I fell asleep.’
He had been standing at the bus stop, with the warm sun on his face: blinding as it dipped towards the west. A man was walking along the street with a suggestion of a stoop to the shoulders; Kevin felt a shiver of familiarity as he came towards him.
It was Brendan, Ciaran’s brother. They were very alike: the slight build, the same dishevelled brown hair, the same eyes. Brendan was fourteen when his brother was killed on active IRA service. Kevin hadn’t seen him since, but he knew him immediately. He was expecting him to nod and walk past, but Brendan stopped at the bus stop and spoke to him.
‘How’s things, Kevin?’
‘All right, Brendan. What about yourself?’
It’s like looking at him.
There was silence until Brendan spoke again, friendly, wanting to chat.
‘I think the last time I saw you properly was at our Ciaran’s funeral – it’s six years this summer, you know?’
‘I remember,’ replied Kevin, not knowing what to say next. He needn’t have worried; it seemed Brendan had plenty to say.
‘So you’re into music big time, these days? I always remember you and our Ciaran, playing records in our house, in his room – I used to sit on the stairs, listening.’
Kevin smiled, remembering the tussle at the door as Ciaran stopped Brendan entering the bedroom they shared. Brendan would wait, at the halfway point on the stairs, until they left to go out on the prowl.
‘You were involved then too, weren’t you? You did everything together,’ said Brendan. Kevin smiled and said nothing.
Where was this going? Even in known company, some things were not discussed. But the tone of the conversation had changed. With little tact Brendan began.
‘Had you thought about signing up again, with the hunger strike and all?’
There was no stopping him.
‘Seriously though, we need everybody we can get right now. Would you not think about rejoining?’
‘What do you mean, “we”? Are you serious?’ said Kevin.
‘Totally serious. It’s important, Kevin – we need to support the men inside. The hunger strike is just one strategy. They can’t do it on their own. The Brits think they can ignore them, so it’s important we keep the pressure going on the outside. This is going the whole way and we need as many boys as possible to keep it up. Think about it, Kevin.’
He listened in silence, watching Brendan’s earnest face, remembering how the fourteen-year-old boy had cried at his brother’s graveside, had clung to his father, devastated and confused. He sounded like a recruiting officer, so sincere, so sure that Kevin would understand and accept what he was saying. There was no fear, no nerves, no embarrassment at this intrusion into Kevin’s life, and it was this certainty that made him suddenly so angry.
‘Don’t give me that crap, Brendan. I listened to all that shite years ago and I fell for it then. I’m not falling for it again and I’m fucking surprised at you, after what happened to Ciaran.’
If Brendan was shocked by this, he didn’t show it. ‘Ciaran would have been with us one hundred per cent, if he was alive,’ he said. ‘He’s an Irish martyr – he gave his life for his country.’
‘You’re wrong, Brendan,’ said Kevin. ‘He didn’t give his life for Ireland. Ciaran was a wain and so was I. He gave his life for fuck all.’ He caught his breath. ‘Your Ciaran – your brother – should be here now. Not dead – here! Do you think any one of them bastards that recruited us gave one flying fuck for him after he blew himself up – really? Get the fuck out of my way.’
Brendan backed off as Kevin pushed past him. He was shaking. By the time he stopped, he found himself by the river, shaken and upset.
The Foyle stretched out on his left. The broken sheds of the derelict docks were empty and silent. Sitting down on top of a stack of rusted steel girders, he thought about what had just happened. Tears rose, and he tried to shake them off, to button down this bloody trembling in his body. The lump in his chest threatened to suffocate him with anger and fear. Across the river, the green bank of trees caught the final rays of light as the sun finally dipped behind the hills. He heard their leaves rustle in the cool breeze, and he shivered.
Sound carries across water. His father had told him that.
For many years, he had refused to think about Ciaran Rafferty. Ciaran was the one with the looks, the one all the girls wanted. They were best friends. For two years they did everything together, even briefly joining the Fianna, the youth wing of the IRA, once they decided they had had enough of being harassed in the street. The official term was that he died ‘on active service’, a romantic facade that glossed over his death at seventeen, two weeks after he took the oath.
When Kevin lost his friend, he lost everything for a while. He was a shadow, a stammering wreck, dragged in for regular questioning by the army, helplessly abused, confronted with photos of Ciaran, his bloodied remains – the boy he thought of as his brother. And abandoned by the organisation he had signed up to, which saw him as damaged goods.
He created a new future for himself when he discovered punk; a future that came with carefully constructed defences. A future that relied on never looking too closely at the past.
‘Are you OK there, son?’
A man stood above him, looking worried. His dog sniffed around the rusted steel and lifted its leg to pee against it. Kevin looked at him, but couldn’t make out his face in the now dim light.
‘Aye, I’m fine,’ said Kevin. He didn’t want a conversation.
‘Don’t you be thinking about jumping, now,’ the man went on, pointing to the river with the stick he held in his hand. ‘There was a boy went into there after Christmas, and sure they haven’t found him yet. He’ll be down there by Moville, by now,’ he said, moving the stick along the length of the water, as if to trace the progress of the body, swept away by currents in the direction of the village that clung prettily to the mouth of the Foyle. Kevin’s eyes followed it sadly.
‘I’m not jumping,’ he said, smiling at the man. He forced himself to stand, and realised that he towered over him.
The stranger tugged on the peak of his at cap, nudged the dog with his stick, and walked away, whistling softly in the night air. The dog ran behind him obediently. Kevin remained by the river for a long while, looking down into its depths, wondering what it must be like to lower yourself into the cold water and then not struggle to live.
As one group ended and another prepared to perform, music was played to fill the gap until the next live act, and the crowd milled around waiting for them to start. Paddy stood by the stage with Peter and Orla, watching them set up. Suddenly, Orla turned on him, her arms folded.
‘Why are you and Christy rioting? You never did that before, so why now?’
Orla’s big eyes were edged with spiky eyelashes, dark like her black hair. She looked like a very angry doll, frowning up at him.
‘Why are you shouting at me?’ he asked.
‘Because I want to know,’ she said. ‘Because I thought we were different.’ She waved her arm at the surrounding crowd. ‘I thought we didn’t do that stuff?’
She was waiting for an answer, but Paddy didn’t know why.
Peter answered her before he could. ‘He’s doing it for the boys inside, Orla.’
Now she turned to him. ‘Really, is that it?’ she said.
‘It’s for people like our Liam,’ said Peter quietly.
‘Well, if that’s the case, Peter, why are you not out there?’ she said.
Peter was silent.
‘It’s just a laugh,’ said Paddy.
Kevin came over to them. ‘What’s wrong here?’ he said.
‘Nothing,’ said Paddy. ‘Do you want to go up the street for a pint?’
‘I really do,’ said Kevin.
Liz wasn’t happy at all about that. ‘You’re really going to leave me here on my own again?’
‘One pint, Liz – that’s all. I’ll be back.’
She watched them leave. ‘Night Boat to Cairo’ blasted out, and Christy dragged her out to a space on the floor. They danced around and the song ended in laughter and hugging. Liz felt Christy hang on, his arms embracing her for perhaps a second too long.
‘You know he fancies you,’ said Sinéad when she returned to where they had been standing.
‘No, he doesn’t,’ said Liz. ‘Christy’s like that with everybody.’
She watched him move through the crowd, chatting to people. She liked how he looked, his broad shoulders. Kevin was taller but hadn’t that athletic frame.
Sinéad was watching her. ‘Aye, right,’ she said.
As the next trio of young desperados lashed out with their guitars, Christy hung around, whispering smart remarks in her ear about the people in the audience, the boys on the stage.
When Kevin came back he stood at the top of the steps, getting his bearings. He saw them through the haze of sweat and smoke, saw Liz near the front of the stage, saw her laughing as Christy whispered, saw something in her attitude, in her eyes, and he knew – bastard.
He pushed his way through to them. ‘All right, Christy?’ he said, not smiling. He pulled Liz close. She felt the tension in him, the threat of violence – what was wrong with him tonight?
‘You decided to come back then. Did you enjoy your drink? Was it really nice?’ she said, pushing him away.
‘You were having fun,’ said Kevin, watching Christy.
‘Oh, fuck off, Kevin,’ she said. ‘You left me and now you have the cheek to be jealous? I’m going home.’
Liz stormed away. Christy stood with his hands up, as Kevin turned on him.
‘I was just being nice, mate . . . there was nothing going on. I know the score between you two.’
Kevin went after Liz, looking up and down the length of the street, but she was gone. How could the night sour so quickly? In the choice between going after her or going back to the bar, the bar won. He turned and walked up the hill to the Cave.