October 6, 2012
Marie McCracken clutched at the kitchen sink to steady herself against the stab of pain that wrenched her breath away. Mouth open and hunched over in anguish she held her hand against her cracked ribs and futilely willed the torment to subside. She dared scarcely breathe. The ferocity of the pangs did not abate. Then, slowly, agonisingly slowly, they ebbed, diminished but did not end. As she attempted to stand erect and breathe normally, she caught sight of her misshapen, swollen features in the wraith, shrouded in the damp darkness of a Belfast winter that was reflected by the kitchen window.
“God h’ull kill me dead one uv these days, so he wull,” she thought. The drunken beatings had increased in frequency and ferocity. Even when she feigned unconsciousness on the floor, eyes screwed shut and teeth clamped fast into her lip to stifle her cries, he would continue to kick her upper body until only sheer exhaustion halted him and he would fall, out of breath, into one of the ragged armchairs. Within minutes, his turbulent snores would fill the room and then, and only then, did she risk moving.
Last night had been particularly horrendous. Prone to flare up at any time when he had been drinking he had come home yesterday livid with anger. The soldiers had stopped and questioned him on his way back from the pub. This was bad enough but what incensed him most was that the patrol had laughed and mocked his attempts to involve them in a fracas.
The whistle of the kettle broke into her thoughts. Protecting her hand with her apron, she poured a measure of the boiling water into the teapot. She could hear the murmur of voices behind the closed door of the living room and knew that their meeting was nearly over. She swilled and emptied the teapot, dropped in three teabags and poured the remaining water over them. The mugs were laid out on the tray. As she stretched painfully to the shelf in the cupboard for the biscuits, she heard the door open and Billy’s voice.
“Is that tea reddy yit, wuman?” She turned stiffly and slowly knowing that he would not look at her.
“Ah’m just bringin’ ut”, she whispered through bruised, engorged lips.
“Aye, well git a move, wull ye’s”, he growled over his shoulder as he left the kitchen. Marie braced herself against the shaft of pain as she lifted the loaded tray and shuffled towards the living room.
“So that’s ut fer tonight. Don’t fergit what each of ye’s got to do. Musgrave Hospital. Three o’clock. Thursday,” said Billy as she came round the door. He broke off as she came into the room. She heard the uneasy movement of the men as one by one they caught sight of her battered face and arms. There was a hurriedly swallowed, “Jesus!” from Paddy Coyne as she placed the tray on the table. The uneasy silence continued until she closed the door behind her.
She returned to the sink and gazed mindlessly into the darkness. After a few minutes the noise of the men preparing to depart brought her back.
“Oh, God no!” she screamed silently as she heard one ask her husband if he was going with them for a “wee half”.
“Not agin, sweet Lord, please not agin.”
“Ah’ll be back efter ten,” said Billy to her stiffened back. She did not reply and waited for the sound of the front door closing. As a reassuring silence filled the house, she turned from the sink and limped into the living room.
She lowered herself gingerly into her chair. Almost immediately hot salty tears coursed unhindered down her faded cheeks. After a few moments she wiped her eyes and face with the bottom of her pinny.
“Why does ut have to be like this? Why?” she asked herself without hope. She stared into the comforting warm red coals of the fire.
It had not always been this way. Once they had been lovers and friends; warm hearted, caring lovers and close, inseparable friends. They shared everything, the good times and the bad times. When he had been ill with pneumonia before that Christmas when they were facing eviction, he had been as helpless as a child. Unable to get out of bed, unable to stand much less walk, she was his crutch. He had needed her then and she had revelled in his dependence on her. She needed more than anything to be wanted again. There could be no drudgery in a relationship where they both relied on each other.
She raised her eyes to look at the sepia-tinted photograph on the mantelpiece. He had changed, slowly but inexorably, after that night Seamus Flaherty had come for him, three years ago. He did not come home for two days and then he would say nothing. Almost immediately, he lost his place at the factory and his disappearances became more frequent. She dreaded the arrival on her doorstep of Flaherty. God, how she dreaded the visits. Those were bad times with the riots and beatings and killings. She knew intuitively that Billy had become one of the hard men. He had always sympathised with them. They all did. It was only natural. But, he had become totally committed to the Cause. That’s when the drinking increased beyond all measure followed by the fist beatings then the kickings. As a crutch, to keep up her morale she had scrimped and saved almost two hundred pounds from the meagre benefits they received, so that if she ever did find things so bad she had to leave, she could. She knew she never would, but now she didn’t even have that ‘out’. He’d found her savings and, well, that was that.
The news last week that Flaherty had been wounded in a failed bomb attack on Montpelier police station had filled her with an unholy but short-lived joy. That same day Billy had taken over the position of the incapacitated Flaherty.
In spite of it all, she still loved him. She couldn’t stop. She felt that the violence he showed towards her was born of guilt and unease. Maybe he could not smother the remorse he suffered from the brutality and evil of the things he had had to do for the Cause. If only there was some way that she could help him stop. She felt she was drowning in her own powerlessness. The futility of it all swept over her. She held her face in her bruised hands as she rocked back and forth. Now they were set to go again. Thursday it would be. That much she had heard. When would it ever end? Maybe he wouldn’t come back. God, she thought she would die if that happened. But, somehow this cycle of brutality had to end. At least as far as Billy was concerned. When would he come back to her as he used to be?
Only the ticking of the clock broke the silence as she eased herself painfully out of her chair. In the kitchen she felt the teapot and found it still warm. Maybe if something happened to prevent his being of any use to the organisation she could have her Billy back again. As she filled the cup, she heard the swish of the tyres as the Army’s patrol vehicle passed.
She remained motionless, with teapot in hand, her face flushing as the seed of the idea grew. She felt giddy with the enormity of the idea flooding her consciousness. She had the answer. She scuttled into the living room as fast as her aching legs would allow and rummaged through the sideboard drawer for the seldom-used writing pad and envelopes. With a pencil from the mantelpiece, she sat down and, ignoring the pain from her fingers, started to write.
“Did anyone see who left this?” the inspector asked.
The desk sergeant raised his head from the night register and glanced at the letter.
“Afraid not, sir. It was lying on the desk when I came on duty. I brought it in to you unopened and….”
“Yes, okay,” the inspector interrupted. He turned from the desk then paused for a moment. “Get me the Intelligence Officer at Army HQ Lisburn. Put it through to my office.”
Billy stopped in mid-sentence as two uniformed RUC men made their way past the group at the bar. The others at his table followed his stare and turned as the police officers approached. They remained silent and hostile as the two stopped and stood over them.
“Sorry about this, Billy,” the elder of the pair mocked,” but ye’re wanted down at the station. Finish yer beer .”
“What’s ut about, “Billy scowled.
“Finish your bloody beer and come with us. Now!” the other policeman snarled. They stepped back and watched alertly as Billy stood up.
“Tell Marie,” he said over his shoulder to the table as he made his way, between his escorts, to the door.
“. . . returned to Westminster from Paris today. Now, for local news.” Marie put her hand to her mouth and stood in the doorway to the kitchen as the radio announcer continued.
“Here in Belfast it was announced that the Provisional IRA had claimed responsibility for the attack yesterday at Musgrave Hospital where all four men involved were shot dead by the security forces. A police spokesman would not confirm that it was an attempt to rescue suspected IRA member Sean Flaherty who had recently undergone an operation to remove bomb fragments from his left lung following his arrest after a failed bombing attempt. Flaherty, whose condition was stated to be stable, remains in custody. The spokesman also refused to comment on whether the security forces had prior warning of the attack. In Lurgan today …”
“I believe we have identified the leak,” said McMahon as the Commandant stubbed his cigarette out. There was a brief silence before he looked up. “Tell me.”
“Monday evening, McCracken was taken into custody. Tuesday morning he’s out. Bright and sparky. And no bruises.”
“How did he do on his debrief?”
“A” Company commander paused before he replied.
“I’ve got reservations. He wasn’t charged and maintains he was not even interviewed by the police nor was he given a reason for being detained. Just fed, bedded and watered for a night and put back on the street. But, conveniently out of danger’s way until the op went down.”
“You’re not happy?”
“No. Flaherty getting hurt on the Montpelier op could have been bad luck or they could have set it off if somehow they knew the detonating frequency. Who knows? But, at Musgrave, they were definitely forewarned and consequently prepared. They knew about the attack beforehand, I’m sure of it.
“Who else knew about it?”
“Apart from you and me and the four we lost? Dermot O’Herlihy, but there are no valid grounds to suspect Dermot since two of his brothers were killed there. And before you ask, yes, we did interrogate him—thoroughly. He’s solid. That leaves McCracken. His attitude has been worrying of late. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be involved. Just the contrary, a little too keen for my liking. His drinking has definitely increased but somehow he’s able to pay off his tabs at McGinty’s and the bookie’s. Something doesn’t jell.”
“I’ve always respected your intuition, Kevin. And when in doubt, we know which side to err on. We won’t take chances.
“Take the usual steps for suspected collaboration. Is he here? OK, carry out sentence immediately. Oh, and document these Board findings for the record.”
Billy watched the door nervously. Something was wrong upstairs. This wasn’t normal. He had been here for two hours and the others had only made desultory responses when he had spoken to them. He knew they were uneasy and it seemed as though they were on guard.
He started, as the door opened and McMahon walked in.
His stomach lurched as dread filled his throat. He stood. At a nod from McMahon, the two closed in and held his arms.
“You have been found guilty of failing to fulfil the trust placed in you by your commanding officer. In accordance with the authority vested in me by the Army Council, you are to undergo the prescribed punishment forthwith. Take him out.”
He could not speak. His legs gave way and he had to be dragged across the room. He raised his eyes to McMahon’s stern face in silent plea. A stony stare answered it.
The door to the room across the hall was open. Billy erupted in sheer terror struggling, violently but futilely, to break free, at the horror of the naked iron bedstead and the fourteen-pound sledgehammer leaning against it.
Dermot, jacketless and with his shirtsleeves rolled up, came towards him with the handcuffs and leg irons.
Marie ran the brush through her greying hair as she stood before the hall mirror. Taking the hairgrip from her teeth, she pinned back a stray lock.
Now that Billy had come home again, and to stay, she felt she had to make the effort to look nice. It was heaven to have him here all the time now. He didn’t take her for granted anymore and she knew he needed her more than ever. No more drinking, no more violence. She looked at the kitchen clock. Four. Time to put the kettle on. He’d be knocking on the bedroom floor any second now, wanting his tea.