“Well, if I needed you, would you come to me? Would you come to me and ease my pain?” Drifting in and out of consciousness, these words kept sweeping through his mind like scattered clouds across a hazy sky. His eyes opened slowly and reluctantly, not wanting to come back to reality; he could make out the music gently carrying along the words; “If you needed me, I would come to you, I would swim the seas for to ease your pain.” It was a beautiful sound, slow country, gilded with the clear refrain of the steel guitar. The melancholy voice drew his attention for a fleeting moment of serene calm and then his mind drifted again on a wave of exhaustion and pain; a hazy image of a face contorted in anger and screaming obscenities flashed in front of him, “Tout bastard, yer fucked now mate! Dirty tout, you’ll wish fer a bullet te yer head when we’re done with ye, so ye will” The violent image jolted his mind out of its dreamy state. He couldn’t say how long he had been in the back of this van. His arms which were tied roughly behind his back, and they had gone numb, all he could feel was the unsettling sensation of pins and needles sweeping through them. He could tell that he had pissed himself; the smell was pungent and foul. His jeans sodden and cold, clung to his crotch. The discomfort he felt was nothing compared to the fear he was experiencing. The foggy confusion was beginning to clear and the realisation of how he had found himself in this situation began to unfold in his mind. A frustrated, weary rage came over him, “Stupid bastard, stupid bloody bastard”, he thought to himself. He remembered it all, splinters of memories pierced his mind. They were vivid but disconnected, all of them though were laced with fear and remorse.
A voice spoke, “Dec, turn this shite aff and put some proper tunes on”, even though he was blindfolded he instinctively turned his head and looked towards the front of the van. He recognised the distinctive Belfast twang in the voice but couldn’t place it to a name. A second voice spoke, not from Belfast; at a guess he thought it might be Armagh or Monaghan. “Tony lad, what would you know about proper tunes? This is classic Country. Townes Van Zandt, genius, just open yer ears and listen! I’m driving so I choose the music, alright?” The accent chilled him; he now knew he was out of the city and heading into the border counties, ‘bandit country’. His head throbbed; he vaguely remembered the beating he had taken. Two or three of them had laid into him and they had made the most of their opportunity. He slowly moved his tongue around the inside of his mouth; he could feel that he had lost three or four teeth. Dried blood encrusted his mouth like rust on scrap metal and stung from his dried sweat. It felt like he had a broken rib, he remembered the bastards hanging him up by his arms and pummelling his torso, “Twenty quid to the first o ye that breks a rib” a voice had announced above the spitting and abuse. Well, somebody earned himself twenty quid, hopefully it’s counterfeit he thought. He smiled to himself and then winced in pain. He knew things were going to get a lot worse and that he needed to control his feelings and manage the pain. Knowing he could do nothing he closed his eyes behind the blindfold and allowed the sweet gentle country music to draw him back into dulled unconsciousness; “In the night forlorn, the morning’s born. And the morning shines, with the lights of love”, like a veil it drew across him.
“We going te be there anytime soon?” said Tony; he was a young man, no more than 19 or 20. He was small, maybe five foot six in height but with a stocky build; his fair hair was close cropped and lathered in gel. His face was oval shaped, and his pallid skin gripped his cheekbones like a sheet pulled tight across an austere table. His grey eyes were sunken and vacant, black patches lay engrained under his eyes, magnified by his pale complexion. When the moonlight lit his face, lines of worry and anxiety could be seen etched across his brow, like scratches on an icy window, only these did not melt and fade in the warm morning sun. He had rarely ventured out of Belfast and always felt uneasy on these dark country roads. He hated the dense smothering darkness of the night in the countryside, it felt heavy and restrictive. He found himself constantly clearing his throat and taking deep breaths as if the chilled air of the dark night was choking him. Outside all he saw were dark fields, lined with scrubby hedges and the odd scraggy tree, their misshapen branches silhouetted in the moonlight, like malformed giants lost in the darkness. Along the roadside he heard the splash of puddles as they drove through the night. Every now and then he would catch sight of a startled pair of eyes caught in the headlight as a fox or badger, their paws frantically clawing at the hard surface, scrambled across the dangerous tarmac; fixated on reaching the sanctuary of the dark fields and continuing their nights hunting. He missed the sickly glow of streetlights feebly illuminating the rows of terraced houses, with their tattered doors and fogged up windows. Streets were flotillas of litter swirl in the air, careering between parked cars and buffeting along dirty pavements before settling in the corner of an ill kept garden amongst its like who have also been marooned here by the bumptious wind. Moonlight and hedgerows felt alien and confused his senses. He knew what to be aware of in the city; a car tailing you, an area that was off limits for fear of a petrol bomb through the rear window or worse, a bullet in the head. Out here in the sticks he wasn’t in control, he didn’t know these roads, his instincts betrayed him out here, made him look weak and foolish. In the city he was in his pomp; people knew who his Da was and they had respect for him. He could walk tall and know that people feared him for who he was. Tony knew his Da protected him; he was tolerated because of him. Tonight though was his opportunity to show others that he could step out of his Da’s shadow and this terrified him. He knew he had to prove himself to others; his Da’s influence and power were waning, and he couldn’t rely forever on the fading reputation of an old man to protect him. There were others starting to step forward and assert themselves and Tony knew he had to push himself forward into their plans. It was his birthright, even though he wasn’t politically minded; this was just what he was expected to do, fight the Brits and the Prods and keep the cause alive. “Aye, we’ll be there shortly, ‘nother 15 minutes and we’re there. Calm yersel lad; the Brits were through here a week ago, they’ll not be back near here for another month or so,” said Dec; an older man in his mid to late 40’s, as he spoke, he never took his eyes from the road. He was an unremarkable looking man, if you passed him in the street, you wouldn’t notice him; his demeanour didn’t demand or encourage attention. His thick rimless glasses sat neatly on his long face, pushed back tight against the top of nose, almost disappearing into his eye sockets. He sat upright and rigid, his senses on full alert, energised with apprehension and irritation. Apprehension at how this night might develop and irritation with the situation in which he found himself, playing nursemaid to Tony, again! He scanned the road ahead, even in the darkness he knew every dip and bend in these roads, roads he had traversed since he was a boy. He had cycled them on childhood adventures, playing in the fields and climbing the trees, lost in a world of imagination and youthful inquisitiveness. Now though, he was lost in a world of violence and terror, a world he once actively embraced, but which now held him prisoner, shackled by fear and mistrust. His brooding anger and frustration seeped from him and bled through the van like the suffocating murky mist that permeated into the blackened and wizened crevices of the landscape as it silently floated across the bog. They drove quickly, with headlights dipped, smashing through the mist, sending it swirling in all directions, a tumbling amorphous mass of particles dancing with the mizzle and the moonlight, creating vivid ghostly spectral forms that flailed and swayed in the night air, trying to reach upwards to the night sky, before descending slowly, almost mournfully, as their chance of release was lost, before disappearing as the carpet of milky white mist enveloped and constrained them, submerging them in into its voluminous mass once more.
There may not have been any Brit patrols but their watchtowers on the mountains three or four miles away were always casting their mechanical gaze. It was now approaching 1am and they’d been driving for close to two and half hours. Getting out of the city had been chaotic; a riot had been orchestrated to provide cover for their exit. Cars were set alight to draw in the RUC and army, once they had arrived the young lads took over; raining down petrol bombs on their heavily fortified vehicles and charging forward as a raucous rabble, cat calling and gesticulating. When the RUC snatch squads charged them, they splintered into smaller groups, like marbles dashed across the floor. They ran seeking refuge in the back alleys, leading the snatch squads a merry dance through the dark backstreets. Some were caught and kicked and screamed obscenities as they took a hammering while being manhandled into the police vans. A petrol bomb crashed against one of the vans and the crowd celebrated wildly, whistling, cheering and laughing as the sticky flames licked the exterior of the van. Like all riots though it had gotten out of hand; some of the young lads had brought a rifle out and took a few pot shots at the police. It was getting harder to keep the young lads under control, they had grown weary of the older Provos and liked to take matters into their own hands. The radio news had reported that two rioters had been injured by plastic bullet rounds and six RUC officers were injured, one with life threatening injuries. “Happy days,” shouted Tony when he heard this, “hope the black bastard dies”. “Oh aye, that’ll unite Ireland, one dead peeler will make all the difference”, retorted Dec, the weariness in his voice choking his sarcasm. He had seen years of conflict and his humanity had hardened like weathered timber. His tolerance for these young lads like Tony was threadbare; they were all talk but had no idea of the realities of the conflict they were in. He knew Tony’s Da from years back and from personal experience, knew he was a man to be feared, this made him hold back on being too hard on Tony. He had seen too many lads let their mouth run off and end up permanently silenced; he wasn’t going to be that foolish. They were now in a desolate, empty landscape; surrounded on all sides by bog. It was a dark primordial place, with sporadic outcrops of broken-down stone walls, the scattered boundaries of long abandoned homes; where families had once eked out an existence, if it could even be called that. The dilapidated stone walls were silhouetted in the moonlit night sky, like craggy crippled beasts resting on the soft bog, seeking comfort from the ancient, rotted landscape, against the stinging rain and slashing wind. They lay there watching as the years passed and the land slowly reclaimed them back into its black paludal bossom. “What the frig would ever have ye livin out here?” asked Tony. “Planters” shouted Dec, his patience wearing thin, “The bloody planters; do you not even know your own history? Took all we had and left us weh the shite land and damn all else. Even took our language!” He accelerated in anger, forcing the gearstick and cursing it under his breath. “All right aul hand, don’t lose the bap. Don’t you fuckin worry, I know plenty about our history and I’ll be the boy te set it right. Don’t worry about that!'' Tony fidgeted in his seat, agitated; he had been an active member from the age of 14 and it pissed him off when the aul hands doubted him, ‘he wouldn’t say that in front of me Da’ he thought to himself. He bristled, angry at himself for his childish thoughts. Dec stole a look at him and could see him getting wound up, ‘I need him settled for the next bit’ he thought, ‘we can’t have any fuck ups, his Da will hold me responsible if this doesn’t run smoothly’. “Fair enough lad, fair enough. I know you’ll play your part. We all will, don’t doubt that.” Tony nodded his head in agreement, “We’re nearly there now, another mile or two and that’ll be us. The other boys will be waiting on us; hopefully weh some turf on the fire.” Tony nodded his head again, he took his hands and rubbed his face roughly, trying to clear the sleep from his eyes; “Aye, better fuckin have, it’s friggin baltic, so it is.”
“So, when do ye reckon these boys will turn up, hey.”
“Joe, how the hell would I know, depends how hairy things were in the city. It’s not just a case of freewheeling down the Westlink and away on down the M1.”
“Alright Micky, I was only asking. No need to be an arse about it.”
They had both arrived at the farmhouse about one hour earlier after getting a call from the local brigadier to, ‘get the house tidy’. They arrived just after midnight, cold and tired. The house hadn’t been used for a couple of months at least and it was colder inside than outside. It was an old two storey, stone farmhouse. Its walls were made up of intricately stacked stones that formed a jagged protruding defence against the elements. The stones were of all shapes and sizes and had been expertly organised into a formidable redoubt by skilled hands many years past. How those stoic builders would recoil and object to the horrors that took place now in the confines of these walls could only be imagined. The roof was made of glistening black slate and two identical chimneys teetered on the roof ridge, fighting a constant battle with gravity. A twisted malformed weed grew out of one of them, its twisting creepers enveloping the chimney, like a grotesque parasite in a greedy embrace. Many of the slates had long since loosened their grip and were scattered in shattered fragments on the cobbled yard below. The roof bowed in the middle like an old grey donkey, its back broken by years of heavy burden. Most of the windows were boarded up, some filled in with bricks, others with a jigsaw of odd timber pieces, mostly broken up pieces of pallets. In the yard there was an old brick pigsty and a collection of outhouses that projected out in an L shape from the far end of the house. The outhouses were barely standing; their open doors drew your eyes into a black vacuous emptiness where the wind whistled and weaved through long abandoned farm machinery that lay broken and silent. On the other side of the house there was a small rectangular garden. There were vague outlines of borders where an abundance of carefully selected flowers once grew, but in their place now there was a bleak orgy of choking brambles and weeds. A wooden summer seat sat at the edge of the garden, its frame was splintered and fragile. Long grass disguised its legs making it look like a crippled boat aimlessly sailing on the waves of grass. A faltering stone wall ringed the garden; its form silhouetted against the night sky looked like a mountain range of valleys and peaks. In the far corner of the garden stood a Hawthorne tree; it was bent and crooked like an old woman waiting by the wall. Its branches crawled along the wall as if it were holding on against the wind which blew through them making a rasping noise like a cursed wretch drawing a last breath. It had no canopy of leaves, all its branches stood bare and exposed. Its colour was as black as the night sky and when the moon shone on it, it cast a glassy shimmer back up towards the heavens as if rejecting the light. The trees’ bark was craggy and broken, like the skin of a decrepit corpse that had slowly dried and started to flake away from the body. The cracks in the bark were filled with thick furry moss that spilled from the crevices, sneaking insidiously along the branch. The moss blanketed the lower part of the tree trunk, wrapped tightly around it in a fetid embrace. The base of the tree was ringed by a collection of large stones, not fallen in ill order, but purposefully placed one against the other. These stones sat in solemnity, like prehistoric menhir, placed there with respect and fear. They were a deep greyish blue in colour, with swirls of brown embedded and running across the rugged surface. They were all of similar size, no more than six or seven inches in height and the same in width and length. Like silent sentries they stood guard. The aggressive bramble and voluminous weeds which oppressively dominated the rest of the garden stopped precipitously at the ring of stones; none stretched beyond the foreboding stone boundary or touched the tree.
“Micky, we may get this friggin fire lit, I’m not sitting here all night freezing me balls aff!” said Joe as he walked into the kitchen. The kitchen and one small adjoining room were the only parts of the house still habitable. The kitchen was a large room with an open fire at the far end set into the gable wall, the once white wall had become stained and discoloured over the years from the smoke from the fire. The fire grate was a large black cast iron monster that revelled in the intense heat of the fires’ coals and flames. Its welded parts standing firm in the fireplace like the ramparts of a long forgotten fortified keep; battle scarred but unbreeched. Set above the fire was a rough obtrusive wooden mantlepiece. It was etched with years of wear and the faded graffiti of the various occupants some of whom had whittled initials and dates into it in moments of boredom or childish petulance. On the mantelpiece sat a small foggy mirror that cast back distorted reflections. There was a small sash window to the right of the fire that looked out onto the garden at the back of the house. The paint was flaking from the window frame, fluttering like a bedraggled flag in the cold draft that whistled through the single paned glass. Around the window a tatty curtain hung limply, its colours faded, and edges frayed. A large deep Belfast sink sat below the window; it too was ingrained with years of neglect. Its edges were chipped, and a large diagonal crack ran jaggedly from the top left corner for about seven or eight inches before fading from view like some minor tributary disappearing into the vastness of an immense gulf. One small rickety tap extended from the wall, its handle proudly displayed a crusty crown of rust that engorged on the aged metal, slowly destroying that on which it sat so proudly. A lethargic drip eased itself from the end of the tap in rhythmic monotony. A work-shelf ran along the rest of the wall, the screws that secured it to the wall had loosened their weary grip and the shelf hung crooked like a crumbling ledge on a cliff edge. A solitary tin mug sat on the shelf. Below the sink there was a row of three cavernous cupboards with a collection of battered pots and pans randomly scattered in chaotic abandonment, undisturbed in their troglodyte existence.
Micky was sitting at a large kitchen table that was placed in the warmest part of the room, next to the fire. His feet were resting on the table edge as he leaned back on one of the five chairs that sat around the table. He was heavily tattooed; his right arm had a sleeve of tattoos that stretched all the way to his large bony knuckles; an elaborate display of Celtic crosses and symbols. His body language gave the impression of an easy-going nature; someone who preferred not to let the small things in life bother him. But his eyes told another story, they were blank and devoid of expression. Like those of a caged animal, broken by and weary of its interminable torturous existence. When he smiled his eyes remained cold, the warmth long extinguished. On his left hand, between his thumb and forefinger a clumsy attempt to erase a tattoo had left an ugly patch of scarred skin. The vandalised tattoo was still just about visible, it read ‘Da’. The faded letters could be deciphered through the damaged skin like the faint outline of ruins in a wasteland of cracked and scorched earth. He would often scratch and rub this part of his hand especially when something was bothering him, but always the word remained there, a testament to pain, disgust, regret and to his horror, love. Micky pulled the zip of his brown leather jacket further up towards his chin in a vain attempt to keep himself warm. He pulled the collar up and buried his chin into his chest, as his hands burrowed into his jacket pockets, seeking some respite from the biting cold air. He cursed himself for not bringing his heavy fleece jacket. ‘
“Always advisable to make yourself comfortable for these long evenings in” replied Micky, the words dancing from his crooked mouth. “You work away” continued Micky, who was taking delight in antagonising Joe. He moved around in the seat in an effort to find a comfortable position, “I’m not stoppin ye.”. The chairs had probably once been someone’s pride and joy, bought after months of determined scrimping and saving, of doing without and managing. Now though they were tattered and worn and offered little comfort to anyone sitting on them. Their scuffed legs resolutely and stubbornly continued to hold steady, despite the insufferable strain. The material of the patterned cushioned seats was now threadbare and ripped by decades of use. The colours of the intricate patterns that had once decorated the material were reduced to a random smattering of shabby dull blotches of colour like the sporadic little tundra islands of a cold archipelago. The chair pitifully creaked as Micky shifted his weight again in another futile attempt to find some comfort. He flashed a self-satisfied smile at Joe as he stomped across the kitchen like a scolded child.
“Not friggin helpin me either '' muttered Joe under his breath as he walked outside to get some turf for the fire. He pulled up the hood of his jacket over his head as he stepped outside. Like Micky he too was now bitterly regretting not wearing a warmer jacket. The rain was now reduced to a gentle mizzle, but the air had gotten cold; it was a damp cold, the type that sat on your skin and seeped into your bones, drawing out and extinguishing any warmth your body may have held. He gingerly made his way to one of the outhouses, trying not to slip on the wet cobbles; in this weather they were as smooth and slippery as black ice. Joe took his time, picking his steps carefully. Some of the cobbles had become loose over the years and Joe petulantly kicked one, sending it skittling across the yard. It clattered loudly as it bounced along directionless, before trundling to a halt in some dark recess of the yard. When he reached the nearest outhouse, he shone his torch into the gloom. Its thin beam of light struggled to pierce the blackness that sat thick in the outhouse. He scanned the inside, the beam of light slowly moving across the room, like a lighthouse scanning across a dark empty seascape. He could make out the thick stone walls, matted with wet tangled moss, which was alive with an array of insects that hurriedly buried themselves deep into the moss as the light passed across them. Their frenetic escape made the moss twist and contort almost as if it had been upset by Joe’s intrusiveness. Joe hated bugs and insects and the noise from their evacuations made his skin crawl, an involuntary shiver ran down his back and he shook himself in response. “Don’t any of you wee bastards come anywhere near me, or I’ll friggin stamp on ye, alright?”, having given his warning to the cowering insect hordes, Joe continued further into the outhouse. He could feel the ground below him changing from the hard slippery cobbles of outside to a softer surface. The cobbled floor inside had been usurped and conquered by damp grassy carpet. Each of Joe’s steps created a sodden squelch and he could feel his feet getting wet as the dense carpet of grass enveloped his flimsy trainers. “Fer fuck sake”, said Joe, who was now deeply regretting his decision to go looking for the turf. He stopped in the middle of the outhouse and once again panned the light around the room. Inside was empty apart from three or four skinny pieces of turf. “Shite!” shouted Joe as he angrily kicked one of the pieces of turf across the room. It spiralled through the darkness and smashed against the far wall, shattering into dozens of sharp shards of dry black turf that sprayed back off the wall and littered the floor. There they lay haphazardly abandoned like miniature daggers dropped in haste as a miniature army retreated terrified from the battlefield.
“Lousy gits, lousy bloody bastards” roared Joe as he barged back into the kitchen.
“Wha’s the problem?” said Micky.
“There’s no friggin turf teh burn that’s the problem. No one has bothered teh restock the turf. How the frig are we meant to do a job in these conditions? The tout bastard ill freeze teh death before we can get anything out of him!”
Micky snatched the woollen hat from his head and scratched vigorously at his shaven scalp, “Fuck sake, there’s bound to be turf out there Joe. Are you sure there isn’t any?” he asked.
“There’s a couple of aul shitty bits, wouldn’t warm frig all. But here, you tear away and have a look if you want big lad. But I’m fucked if I’m tramping round that friggin yard again. Fuck that shite!” Joe sat down opposite Micky but didn’t look at him as he spoke. He knew Micky wouldn’t bother and would inevitably cajole him into going back to the yard, but Joe was in a thran mood now and was going to make a fight of it.
“Sure those bits would do, away on and get them. You wouldn’t want me getting cold and bad tempered” joked Mickey, with veiled menace.
Here we go thought Joe to himself, always the bloody same. Joe had known Mickey for years, they were like brothers, but Mickey held sway over Joe and could always get him to dance to his tune. It angered Joe, but he feared Mickey too much to challenge him. He had seen what Mickey was capable of in this very building and had seen him take his violence to another level of depravity and viciousness in the room next door. He knew there was a darkness in Mickey that went beyond his thuggish brutality, that when revealed was cruel and sadistic. Joe also knew where this darkness came from, it had been put there by Mickey’s Da. He had been a nasty bully of a man who had terrorised Mickey and the rest of the family. When Joe first encountered Micky’s Da as a teenager he was in his late forties and spiralling into serious alcoholism, but still a bull of a man. Joe remembered during his early teenage years how Mickey regularly turned up at school with a varying collection of ugly bruises. Often he would be so sore he could barely carry himself, but he would never speak about the horrors of his family life and if anyone asked, he would lash out. In their third year at secondary school a substitute teacher had taken an interest in Micky, trying to be kind and talk to him about the bruises on his face. Micky attacked him in a frenzied explosion of pent up rage, dislocating his jaw with a vicious kick to his head. After that he was sent to borstal and Joe lost touch with him for about a year and half. When Micky returned home, he had been further hardened by the borstal’s brutal regime. But with it he had acquired confidence and a cockiness, he had found respect there through his inherited talent for violence and he embraced it. His first action when he got home was to lay in wait for his inebriated Da as he came home from the pub and beat him to within an inch of his life. At 16 he was now the boss of him. His Da withdrew further into his drinking and never again laid a finger on the rest of the family. He died a couple of years later, choking on his own vomit in a drunken stupor. Joe remembered the funeral and Micky spitting into his Da’s open grave in front of the mourners, he also remembered that no-one challenged him on this, they knew better.
Joe held his tongue and forcefully restrained his annoyance. He stood up, walked to the sink and wrestled with the tap, it slowly loosened, noisily grinding as he turned it, it’s rusty crown crumbling in his grip. A small trickle of ice-cold water began to run from the tap; Joe gripped the tap harder and forced it another 15 degrees anti-clockwise and the water flowed. He filled an old tin cup and drank the cold water in a slow measured manner. The cold water slipped down his throat, like an icy river flowing under a glacier, its chill focusing his mind. He lowered the cup and looked out the window, with the rain now gone the night sky was cloudless and clear. The moon shone brightly, reflecting on the deathly black pools that pock marked the bog, their stagnant water stained by centuries of turf and choked of life. Joe’s gaze followed a shard of moonlight that lit up the old haggard Hawthorne tree in the corner of the garden. There it stood, tired and broken. “I’ve got an idea” said Joe.
He had regained consciousness about 10 minutes previously and could tell by the bumpy surface that they were driving along a dirt track. The van had slowed considerably and was gently manoeuvring between large crumbling potholes. The rear tyres of the van dropped hard into one or two of them and the shudder jolted through his whole body, reverberating agonisingly in his broken rib. He felt them drive down a steep incline and heard the crunch of the grinding gears as the driver slowed the van even more. His limp body rolled slightly across the cold floor as the incline grew steeper and the van slid momentarily on the loose gravel track and then regained traction as the ground levelled out again. It must have stopped raining as he could no longer hear its ceaseless tinny timpani on the roof. They rattled noisily over a cattle grid and then the van came to a halt. His whole body was in pain, partly due to the beating he had taken in Belfast but also, and this he feared perhaps more than any beating; it was his body craving a fix. He hadn’t taken anything in about 12 hours and his polluted body; ravaged and broken by his addictions, was vengefully inflicting its suffering onto him. His head felt like it was being squeezed by an invisible icy grip and yet the sweat was streaming down his face. He hoped they would beat him again soon and he would pass out quickly, at least it would give him some refuge from the incessant attack from every fibre of his body. He listened intently to the conversation between the driver and the passenger, and heard them mention each other’s names; Dec and Tony, who the hell were Dec and Tony?
Slowing down, the van carefully pulled into the yard, which sat in almost complete darkness. Dec saw that Joe’s car was parked up beside the pigsty and he could see light peeping from the edges of the front door. “Tony, don’t be startin any shite with Joe in here, ye here me?” “Aye, no bother” replied Tony. “I was only messin weh him the last time. He needs to wind his neck in”. For the first time of the entire journey Dec turned his head and looked Tony square in the face, “I don’t give a damn whether you want to wind him up, kiss him or kick his head in! We’re here to do a job. Yer Da would be proud of what you’re doing for yer country, so don’t blacken that family name of yers. You’re not stupid Tony, time te step up; alright?” Dec never broke his gaze; he grabbed Tony by the back of the neck and gave it a forceful squeeze, “Alright?” he repeated. Tony cleared his throat and manoeuvred his neck, loosening Dec’s grip, “Aye, dead on Dec, I get ye man, I get ye. I’ll not let me Da down, or you.” Tony deliberately rubbed at the back of his neck and muttered to himself as Dec stepped out of the van and walked slowly across the poorly lit farmyard, disappearing into the looming shadows of the house. “You’ll not be the big man forever Dec, time enough I’ll have the upper hand.” Tony seethed with a boiling anger, anger at Dec for treating him like he did and anger at himself for not standing up for himself. Tony had been dreading seeing Joe again; he knew Joe didn’t care who his Da was, he just saw him for what he was, a young lad who was all front and living off his Da’s name. Joe had made a fool of Tony at a previous meeting a couple of months ago, he had called Tony out when he was making some fairly big boasts. Tony had offered him outside for a fight only for his Da to tell him to ‘wind his neck in’ and stop being ‘a big wain’ Tony could still hear the laughter that followed, especially Joe’s rasping laugh and could see the mocking smirk that remained on Joe’s thin hollow face for the rest of the meeting. What had made matters worse was when he saw his Da take Joe aside and speak to him at the end of the meeting, he saw the smirk on Joe’s face falter and collapse as his hollow cheeks grew paler with each word whispered in his ear. Tony knew Joe had been warned never to speak to him like that again, but this only made him feel more worthless and even weaker than he already had. He’d have rather taken on Joe and suffered a beating than be bailed out again by his Da. When Joe had left the room that night, he passed Tony without looking at him, his head bowed and his mood cowed by fear. Neither Joe nor Tony had seen each other since; Tony had imagined what he would do and say when they met again. Now that he was moments from meeting him his stomach was in knots and his mind was racing; ‘What would me Da do?’ he thought, before scolding himself for thinking that ‘You’re not your Da, you’re your own man!’ He looked out of the van and in the dark gloom he could just about make out the door of the farmhouse which was now open; the weak light from inside struggling to penetrate the darkness of the farmyard. Stood in the doorway was Joe, smiling and laughing as he spoke to Dec; ‘Bet they’re laughing at me’ thought Tony, his confidence melting away like spring snow on the lawn. He just wanted this night to be over; to keep his head down, do the job and get back to Belfast. He knew Micky would be there, he had heard the stories about Micky, and he knew he and Joe were like brothers. He didn’t want to feel the wrath of Micky, but he also knew Joe would abuse his friendship with Micky and play the ‘big man’. Micky’s fierce reputation had saved Joe from many a beating and had fuelled his cockiness and arrogance, while seeking sanctuary in the vicious reputation of his mate. In many ways Joe was very similar to himself,thought Tony; both were in above their heads and protected by a stronger and feared individual. Tony hated to think that he was anything like Joe, it made him detest Joe even more.
Dec approached the farmhouse slowly. He firmly gripped the handgun in the right-hand pocket of his coat. When he got to the door, he knocked it and called out, “Micky, Joe, it’s me, Declan, and young Tony McIwee is in the van. Mon give us a hand shiftin this boy”. A friendly voice spoke from out of the silent darkness behind him, “Good to see ye Dec, stinkin night to be doing deliveries”, it was Micky. A few minutes earlier Micky had heard them coming down the gravel track and had hidden himself in the old pigsty, armalite at the ready for any nasty surprises. Then the door opened and there stood Joe taking a greedy gulp from a large bottle of Jamesons’; “Alright Dec, welcome teh the party! Is that wee frigger McIwee gonna behave himself the night?”, said Joe, his eyes dancing with glee. “Aye he’ll give ye no bother, but don’t you be startin on him Joe. I mean it; any aul shite and his Da will finish you.” Joe’s smile froze and turned to a grimace as he contemplated the wrath of the elder McIwee. “I’ve no beef with the wee lad” said Joe, “I was only messing weh him that last time. Just a bit of craic, ye know?” Dec stepped forward, his face close to Joe’s; “Fair enough Joe, but you’ll not be told again. You know what I’m gettin at, don’t ye?” Joe looked towards the van and nodded. Then laughing he said, “I’m not dyin for thon we shite, don’t you worry about that lad. I had me fun; there’ll be no bother from me.” Dec, relieved that the issue seemed settled, laughed as well and shook Joe by the hand and turned to beckon Tony from the van. Tony reluctantly stepped out into the cold night air and zipped his jacket up to his neck before burying his hands deep into his pockets. He walked across the yard trying to look confident, but he was terrified. He could see Joe had been drinking and started to get a bad feeling about what was happening. What had his Da whispered to Joe that night a few months ago, was he being set up? What were Joe and Dec laughing about and why was Micky there? “Alright young Tony, what’s the craic with ye?” said Micky as he stepped forward and offered Tony his hand, “We don’t often see you city slickers out in these parts.” His mood seemed jovial and friendly, but Tony still felt uneasy; “I’m dead-on Micky, what about yerself?” Tony tried to sound calm and relaxed, but he could hear the tension in his voice as he spoke. “Grand, Tony lad, just grand; sure, how else would ye wana spend a Friday night.” Micky laughed and threw his arm around Tony’s shoulder ushering him towards the farmhouse. He spoke again, this time his tone was less jovial, “Tony don’t be worrying about Joe, I’m here to keep an eye on him. There’ll be no bother from him the night, alright.” Tony looked at Micky, trying to read his face for a trace of deception but he couldn’t read him, his face was stoic and flat like a granite slab laid down centuries ago and weathered to a blank stare. “Dead on Micky, I don’t want any bother either. I just wanna leave all that shite in the past.” Tony was doing his best to say the right things, he didn’t want to alert them to his suspicions. “Good lad Tony, you’ve got your Da’s brains; don’t be wasting anytime on Joe. He’s a mate an all, but he’s not worth giving yerself a load a grief over. None of us wanna be out in this shithole any longer than we need to be, so we’ll all behave ourselves and get outta here as soon as.” Micky had just finished talking as they entered the farmhouse. Tony stepped through the door and could see Dec at the far end of the room, his back to him, warming himself by the fire. Suddenly he felt Micky grab him from behind and push him into the centre of the room, Micky kicked the back of his legs and he dropped onto his knees. Joe rushed from the other room holding a pistol; Tony closed his eyes and waited for the bang of the gun and let out a high pitched screamed. His scream was quickly drowned out by loud raucous laughter. Tony opened his eyes and saw Joe standing in front of him doubled over and laughing so hard he began to cough and choke. Micky pulled Tony to his feet and shook him wildly, “We had ye lad, we friggin had ye.” he laughed and laughed, continuing to shake Tony like a rag doll. Tony was in a daze, still not sure if he was dead or alive; he tried not to sob as waves of relief, embarrassment and anger swept over him. “For Christ’s sake, will you two fuckin wise up, do you not have an ounce a brains between ye.” Dec’s angry voice quickly stifled the laughter and brought everything back into perspective, he strode across the room, taking the pistol from Joe’s hand and pressing it hard against his forehead, “Yer not laughin now are ye big man, eh? Not so funny when you’ve a gun in yer face is it!” as Dec spoke, spittle sprayed from his seething mouth and his hand shook with fury. “Easy Dec, easy now; we’re only having a bit of craic with the lad, we thought it would break the ice” said Micky as he slowly moved towards Joe and Dec, his hands raised in the air. Dec without lowering the gun or taking his eyes off Joe spoke, “You ok Tony?” Tony, still in a daze answered slowly and unsure of himself, “Aye, aye; I’m ok Dec.” Dec stepped back and pushed Joe toward Micky; continuing to point the pistol at them both, then he spoke “I warn you now, I will not hesitate to put a bullet in each of you clowns. I have killed better men than you for less, so do not fuckin push me! This shite ends now; Joe and Tony, shake hands and both of ye apologise to each other '' Joe and Tony remained motionless, neither wanting to move first. “NOW!” roared Dec, his voice reverberating around the small room. Reluctantly Joe and Tony stretched out an arm and exchanged a limp meaningless handshake as both mumbled a hesitant apology. In a sudden movement as quick as the lunge of an angered viper, Dec reached across and held both of them roughly by their hair, pulling them towards him, “Now get out there and fetch the tout from the van.”
He had been in the room now for at least an hour, he thought. When they first brought him in they kicked and punched him relentlessly. One of them was especially vicious, the one called Tony, one of the older voices had told him to ease off a couple of times. Not out of sympathy for him, he just wanted him conscious for the interrogation. He had hated him for stopping him, ‘let him beat me till I pass out or die’ he thought to himself. He prayed for it to end, not just the beating, but all of it. During the tumult of the beating his clouded mind drifted to his dead parents. He saw them sleeping peacefully in a small, wooded glen, they lay on grass so green it sparkled. They lay side by side, holding hands, their features were faded and hard to see but he knew it was them. Above them a large leafy canopy swayed in the gentle breeze; its rhythm was hypnotic. A tranquil shimmering light that ebbed and flowed in intensity surrounded them and strange whispering voices that never quite formed words that he could understand floated slowly through the air like feathers. He could smell the grass and trees, their heavy damp aromas wafting across his face, encircling him and permeating his pores. It confused him to see his parents in this unusual setting, he had no memories of being in the countryside with them, their idea of a day out was the cinema and a burger and maybe a game of ten pin bowling. He wondered was it a combination of fatigue and the drugs in his system making him see these strange images of his parents. He wanted to step onto the lush grass and run towards them, to throw his arms around their bodies and lie next to them in peaceful solitude. He saw them sitting up, they were smiling and looking straight at him. Their eyes bore into his soul and he could feel their love as it tingled through his blurred subconscious. They held their hands up and waved, beckoning him toward them. ‘Am I dying?’ he thought to himself, ‘Are they angels in Heaven?’ his mind was confused, and thoughts bounced around his muddled mind like a blue bottle caught in a glass jar. Then cutting through the strange whispering voices that were still swirling around him like a cool breeze, he heard a voice speak as clear as a cloudless sunlit summers day, “We can help you go to them; we can ease your burden and give you passage to them.” The voice echoed through his mind, its tone was curiously listless and unsettling in its lack of emotion; not automated but strikingly inhuman. All the while his parents continued to smile, beckoning him with their waving hands. The grass and trees now too seemed to be beckoning him as they swayed back and forth, the whole scene felt alive and his senses were overwhelmed by it all.
‘Who recruited ye, ‘what names have ye given’, ‘who are the other touts’, the questions crashed through his dream, like a brutal cold winter wind battering waves against an unprotected shore. On and on they went; never relenting, never losing their vitriolic ferocity. One of them got up close; lowering his head and breathing slowly; he could smell whiskey and cigarettes on his breath. He didn’t move for an age and then suddenly someone from behind was forcing his head back and pouring freezing cold water over his blindfolded face. The water cascaded down his torso, splashing noisily on the floor. He felt the water soak through his clothes, its’ damp grip taking hold of his skin and draining it of any warmth. He gagged and choked, his legs kicking frantically as his heels sought purchase on the wet lino floor. He struggled for breath, gasping in pitifully small amounts of air. He was sure he was going to die, in his mind he desperately tried to get back to the wooded glen, to see his parents just one more time. The water crashing onto his hooded face finally stopped and the rough grip that had held his head back released him. He sunk forward, bent over double in the chair, coughing and crying. He took long deep greedy gulps, and he felt the air rush down his throat and fill his aching, stinging lungs. His first few breaths were sharp and painful as the violent deluge of cold air flooded his narrow trachea, pounding remorselessly against the sides like the rapids of an angry swollen river. His breathing slowed and the coughing eased and as he regained his senses, he could hear himself crying and calling out for his parents, “Ma, Da where’d you go? Please come back”. A mocking high pitch voice replied, “Sure I’m right here wee darlin, Mammy’s lookin after you” as Joe finished the sentence he burst into a vulgar cackle, high pitched and cruel. Then Micky spoke, cutting through Joe’s cackle with his loud deep voice “Your Ma’s not going to help you lad, you’d be better answering us and sayin some prayers, don’t be wasting no more time crying after yer Ma and Da.” “Now tell us who else was toutin?” screamed Micky as he pushed the muzzle of a gun against the touts left knee. “Do you feel that, that’s a gun lad and it’s gonna blow a huge friggin whole in the back your knee, if you don’t start tellin us what you know.” Micky leaned in closer and whispered into the tout’s ear, his tone was now soft and calm, “Listen, you’re no fool, you know you’re a dead man, but it can either be a quick end or a very very long and painful end, do you get me? Nod yer head if you understand.” The tout slowly nodded his head. “Ok, so now we have an understanding of where we are, we can move things forward. My mate here, is a sick twisted bastard and he wants to hurt you. I don’t, I just want to talk and then we can end it quickly and cleanly.” Micky placed his hand on the touts left shoulder and squeezed it supportively, “Make the smart decision lad, yer not helpin yerself.” He patted his shoulder menacingly, as he stepped back he glanced at Joe and nodded. Joe lunged forward and landed a sickening blow on the tout’s chin, his head flew backwards, and then slowly rolled back forward again. “We’ll give you a few minutes to think over what I said to you, now you think it through lad and be smart,” said Micky. “See you soon wee pet” called out Joe, mimicking his Ma’s voice again. `Mammy won’t be long '' Joe cackled loudly, who was slightly drunk on alcohol and adrenaline. The tout could hear the shuffle of their feet as they walked across the room and then the door closing with a bang that echoed loudly around the cold dark empty room.
Left alone in the room he gently sobbed like a child that was lost and afraid. His head was pounding and with every tired sob he winced in pain. He thought of his parents and concentrated hard to try and transport himself back to the beautiful, wooded glen so he could see them again and escape from his terrifying reality. But it was futile like trying to return to any dream, it was impossible. He couldn’t find the glen, he saw it and imagined it, but it wasn’t real, not like it had been. It wouldn’t reveal itself, no matter how hard he tried to focus his mind. Engulfing sadness overwhelmed him, and he felt bereft of hope. His thoughts instead drifted to the events that had put him here in this derelict farmhouse, his life in the hands of murderous strangers.
He’d only ever wanted to make a few pounds to keep his head above water and fund his own habit. He knew things had been getting out of hand, but he always thought his luck would hold. He had spent the night doing the rounds of the pubs and clubs in and around the University, he had sold close to a grand’s worth of gear. The streets were teeming with the usual Friday night clientele, groups of pissed up office workers, letting off steam by drinking themselves stupid. He was intrigued by the dynamics of these groups, there was always a couple straggling along at the back of the group, pawing each other, trying unsuccessfully to hide their feelings; a heavy hand wandering unsubtly across her back towards her ass for a furtive grope, then a stolen snog as the rest of the group rounded a corner. Their distorted laughing faces, reddened with alcohol and the cold air, sickened him. He found their behaviour vile and it angered him to know that society looked down on him and judged him harsher. He would occasionally do some business with these types, but they generally were an annoyance to deal with, they were never discreet and drew too much attention. His main buyers were the students, of which there were thousands in the city. They were in his age group and had a better understanding of drug buying etiquette. He knew they judged him as well though, some of them tried to pretend they were his mate, but they didn’t care if he lived or died, they just wanted to keep him on side. Some of the girls would flirt and offer all sorts for a free gram, but he never succumbed, it was cold cash or nothing. Anything other than cash just got messy and besides a half-hearted shag with a manky student didn’t do it for him.
He was on his way to a house party just off Shaftesbury Avenue; it was going to be crammed with students and he knew he was guaranteed to sell at least another couple of hundred quid’s worth of gear. The twisted part of him took great satisfaction in selling to these middle class students, in his cold embittered logic he found a comforting pleasure in watching them over time come down to his level, needing their fix, begging for it, offering all sorts for it. He always thought of drugs as a great leveller, all the money, privilege and education in the world doesn’t save you when you’re a junkie. ‘If I’m going down, I’m bringing plenty down with me’ was his attitude.
He had just turned off the main street and was heading toward the student house where the party would now be in full flow. The night was cold and damp, a constant mizzle of fine rain hung in the air, coating his clothes and face in a glistening shroud. The long narrow street was all student housing, old Victorian townhouses; red bricked with ornate details along the ridge tiles and elaborate brickwork above the windows. Most of the intricate details were now festooned with moss and weeds that hung precariously from the once grand facades. Satellite dishes and cheap cladding that had seen better days diminished the grandeur of these once dignified emblems of Belfast's glory days of industrious shipyards and clattering linen mills. He could hear the music from the party; the house was on the other side of the street, at the far end, about 600 yards from where he was. Crossing the street, he headed towards the nearest streetlamp; he needed to check what he had on him before he got in there and he also wanted to make sure he had his nights earnings well stashed down his boxers. The streetlamp cast a grimy pallid light that struggled to project into the darkness, the weak insipid light barely broke through the damp dark night. He checked his pockets and stashed his cash, drawing on the last embers of his joint he threw it into the overflowing gutter and set off again toward the house. He was tired and hungry and just wanted to get home and sleep, but he knew this was going to be a fruitful hour or so. He stepped forward and unwittingly placed his right foot into a large puddle, “Fer fuck sake!” he said angrily to himself as he felt the icy water seep into his trainers and absorb into his sock. ‘First thing the marra I sort out a new pair of trainers’ he thought to himself. He walked on trying his best to ignore the cold damp discomfort that accompanied each step of his right foot. He was less than 150 yards from the house when he heard a car approaching slowly before stopping not far behind him and its door opening. He pulled the hood of his coat up over his head, trying to appear nonchalant and unconcerned, all the while deceptively quickening his pace. “McGuckin, you’re wanted wee lad. In the car now”, he walked on pretending not to hear, but his heart rate quickened when he heard someone running toward him, splashing through the puddles at the side of the road. Then he heard them step up onto the pavement, their shoes scuffing the irregular concrete paving stones. He knew there was no point running, that would only make whoever it was even more pissed off. He slowed his pace and let them catch up with him. He felt a cold, hard object dig into the back of his neck; its angular edges pressing sharply against his skin. It wasn’t the first time he had felt the nozzle of a handgun in the nape of his neck, he expected this would be the usual threat of a kneecapping if he didn’t hand over some of his night’s takings. “I already pay you boys yer fair share; what’s the friggin problem?” His voice betrayed no fear and a distinct lack of respect for the bearer of the gun. “You’ll wish it was only yer dirty drug money we wanted wee lad. Now shut yer mouth and get in the motor.” The gunman roughly gripped him by the shoulder and pirouetted him around so that he was facing onto the road, all the while never moving the gun from the back of his neck. A nondescript saloon car pulled up alongside him and he was expertly bundled into the backseat. No sooner was he in the car than a grizzled voice from the front passenger seat commanded him to “Sit tight and don’t say a friggin word”. The same grizzled voice then barked at the driver, “Right, put the foot down, let’s get this wee bastard on his way.” In the past it hadn’t really fazed him; he had got to the stage where he didn’t give a shit if they kneecapped him; ‘maybe it will help sober me up’ he thought as they drove through the deserted streets. This though felt different, and he knew he had gotten himself into a very precarious set of circumstances, was this the ‘endgame’ he thought to himself, ‘has my luck run out?’ His habit had gotten a nasty grip on him; like most of the young lads round his way he had dabbled a bit with weed and glue when he was younger; but his life changed forever at 14; his Dad was killed, an innocent victim randomly shot by a loyalist gang; it destroyed his Mum, she couldn’t cope with it and she had drunk herself to death within two years. At 16 he was on his own, running wild on the streets. He had started doing a bit of dealing to get by, firstly to his mates and then it just escalated. Before he knew it, he was supplying; weed, coke, e’s, speed, pretty much anything he could get his hands on to what felt like half of Belfast. The clubs were full of drugs and the punters couldn’t get enough of them. Problem was he couldn’t get enough of it either, especially heroin, it was the only thing that dulled the constant consuming sorrow he felt for the loss of his parents. This time though he was scared; he’d been dreading those footsteps in some dark deserted street; he knew it would come. About a year earlier he had been lifted by the peelers one night and chucked in the back of an army ‘meat wagon’. On the way back to the barracks he got into conversation with one of the squaddies; and before he knew it, he was dealing to the Brits. It wasn’t long though until the ‘Ra got wind of his arrangement with the Brits; he thought he might take a beating and be told to knock it on the head, but no, the ‘Ra saw an opportunity. He was ordered to use his position to get information from the Brits. That had been his life for months, dealing, informing, medicating, dealing, informing, medicating. On and on it went as he spiralled into an abyss of fear and addiction. Things had gotten even more complicated when he was picked up again by the Peelers and this time handed over to the Army intelligence unit; they had been watching him and knew who he was working for; they offered him a way out; start working for them, giving them information on his IRA handlers and they’d let him continue dealing and keep him out of prison. He took their offer and had led this double life for the past six months. He knew at the time it would be the end of him one way or the other; either the ‘Ra would finish him or the Brits, but there he was stuck in the middle. Now it looked like that time had come; he was resigned to his fate, just another dealer who had crossed the Provos and paid for it with his life.
He gazed out of the rain dappled window, the city looked decayed and broken like a dying beast, wounded and viscous, dangerously conscious of its final moments and willing to destroy everything in its final bitter gasps of life. He hated the city, despised it with all his being, it smothered him with its grey, soulless tapestry of boarded up shop fronts and the squalid entrails of a decrepit industrial behemoth that now littered the city, rotting and poisoning the land. A city once alive with the cacophony of industry, now a silent mausoleum; where only the curious ghosts of a once great past dared venture into the dangerous streets, wondering what had become of their magnificent city with its grand buildings that had been a bold statement of wealth, power, progress and pride. Who had pulled down the mills and closed the factories, where was the industry that had been the lifeblood of the city? In the distance he could see flames clambering skyward, their glow hanging menacingly in the dark night sky. Thick black smoke, blacker than the night sky, swirled between the flames, a primordial dance stretching across the city skyline like the tentacles of a subterranean beast. They turned a corner, and he could see that the smoke and flames were coming from a burning Citybus. It was parked horizontally across the street and either side of it on the pavements there were teetering stacks of tyres burning on the pavements. The acrid fumes from the burning tyres drifted through the air and their poisonous particles hit the back of his throat and pierced high into his nostrils as they approached the blockade. He could see a group of about thirty young lads eerily shrouded in foul haze of the belching burning tyres, some looked as young as nine or ten. Most of them were stacking crates loaded with petrol bombs, while a few others were tossing down bricks from the top of a broken wall of an empty, abandoned factory that stood at the corner of the street behind their barricades. A small group of taller figures stood further back, marshalling the eager youths, pointing them to various part of the street. They huddled together in furtive conversation, then one or two would move forward and bellow orders, this was orchestrated violence at its finest. The young lads scurried about in calm intensity, each carrying out their orders with an air of disturbing normalcy. Just before the barricade on the left there was a narrow alley, just wide enough for the car to enter. The car carefully turned into it and slowly made its way down the alley. As they disappeared into the darkness, the entrance behind them was barricaded with an assortment of tyres, pallets and bus parts and set alight. The explosion of light lit up the tail of the car as it continued slowly down the alley. The car drove along the alley for fifty yards and then slowed to a halt in front of what looked to be a dead end. The driver gave the car horn a short sharp blast and a large wooden door slid open, the car started again and trundled in through the door. They had driven for about twenty minutes and not a word had been spoken by anyone. When they stopped, he was bundled from the car and dragged across rough stony ground, his feet ploughing through puddles. He was manoeuvred by a clutch of hands, they quickly lifted his hands above his head and tied his wrists together with rough itchy rope and then he was lifted off the ground, his feet dangling. His shoulders ached as the weight of his body pulled down on them. He raised his head and his eyes slowly adjusted, and he could see where he was and who had him. He was in a derelict factory; he could see remnants of machinery dotted around the vast empty space, they were rusted and broken; their industrious days long gone. There were workbenches running the length of the building and what looked like offices or a canteen at the far end. Above him there were steel girders and seated on these an audience of pigeons, watching with their beady eyes, their nights roost thoughtlessly disturbed. He could hear the wind driving the rain across the corrugated tin roof, in a symphony of relentless tapping. In front of him stood a group of four men; two of which he recognised. He knew one of them, Brendan Garland, it was him who had recruited him to get information from the Brits that he had been dealing to. The other one he knew was Stephen Lavery; Brendan’s muscle and a man to be feared. The other two he didn’t recognise; one was an older man; maybe mid-forties and the other was not much older than himself. No sooner had he caught sight of them than Lavery stepped forward and landed a barrage of vicious blows to his midriff. He coughed and choked trying to catch his breath as he swung in a circle; his arms feeling like they were any moment going to rip from their sockets. “What’s goin on Brendan, what the frig have I done?” he tried to sound sincere in his confusion. “Don’t you try it on with me ye wee junkie tout” replied Brendan as he stepped forward. “We know what ye’ve been at, do ye think we’re friggin stupid?” he spat, the hatred in his tone spilling out as he raised a hammer above his head and landed a series of heavy blows onto the touts knees; the sickening thuds echoing around the empty factory only to be drowned out by wailing guttural screams of pain. “We know ye’ve been talkin teh the Brits. We fed ye a load a shit information about a couple of ‘safe houses’ and sure enough weren’t they raided within a couple of weeks! Funny that, eh tout? Why aren’t ye laughing?” Brendan turned and spoke to the others, “We’ll get ye laughin soon enough, just ave teh find yer funny bone.” As he said this, he spun the tout around and Doherty smashed a piece of timber across his left elbow. His body shook uncontrollably as the pain seared through him; Lavery laughed, a childish giggling laugh. “Well tout what’s going to happen is this; we’re gonna knock lumps out of ye for a wee bit and then these two lads,” he jerked his head backwards at the men behind him, “they’re gonna take ye fer a nice wee drive and have a wee chat. The quicker you tell these boys what ye know the better for ye.” Brendan turned and walked away, as he passed the older man, he stopped and whispered into his ear, then he shouted; “Fill yer boots lads, ye’ve got 15 minutes! Twenty quid if ye break a rib!” Lavery and the younger man surged forward and unleashed a torrent of punches and kicks. With sadistic intensity they rained down blows on his torso, his face and his testicles. All the while, above his screams he could hear Lavery delivering a continuous commentary of where his punches were landing, “Ribs, kidney, chin, nose” he said, struggling to catch his breath. Lavery could only sustain the frenzied attack for a couple of minutes “Go ahead, you keep at him, I need a fag”, he said as he stepped back reaching into the back pocket of his grubby jeans. He was repulsive, his large flabby gut hung over the front of his jeans and the tatty fleece he was wearing rode up above his stomach showing rolls of pale sweaty flesh. He ran his fat hand through his greasy hair, pushing it from his forehead. His face was bright red and sprinkled with sweat. He slowly placed a cigarette in his mouth and his thick lips wrapped around it in an odious pout. As he lit the cigarette he laughed and did a ridiculous jig like an over excited toddler, shouting encouragement to the younger man who continued to throw punches, “That’s it lad, keep er lit, knock the shite outta him!” The younger man heard nothing; he was lost in a frenzy of violence. Every punch was a release of pent-up frustration, anger, sorrow and fear. His eyes were closed, and he swung wildly, many of his punches missed the target and those that landed were tame in their ferocity compared to Lavery’s. He didn’t care what this person had done and what punishment he deserved, he just wanted to unleash his pain on someone else. The older man who had stood back and not got involved stepped forward and placed a hand on the younger mans’ shoulder “That’s enough, he’s had enough.” he said. The younger man raised his hand to land one last punch, but the older man grabbed his fist in mid-air and pushed it down to his side, “Enough, we need to be on our way. You can have a few more digs at him when we get to the farm.” “Ok, ok, but don’t be telling me what te do” replied the young man breathlessly. “Spoilin the young fellas craic, so ye are” shouted Lavery as he stepped forward with a twisted cruel smile on his fat swollen face and delivered one last blow. The sickening dull crack of a rib breaking echoed heavily around the vast empty space.
His mind returned to the present and he was back in the cold room tied to a chair, he could tell even with the blindfold on that the room was pitch black. If there had ever been windows in this room they had long since been bricked up. No light had entered this room for many years. In its constant darkness there hung a menacing, unsettling sense of pain and fear. It seeped from the walls and dripped from the ceiling, polluting the air and the minds of those who entered the room. The smell of musty damp in the room was so strong it was almost sweet; the smell reminded him of some of the squats he had frequented in his younger days when he was living on the streets. He wished he was back in one of those squats now with a bag of glue. He could also smell wood burning and hear the crackle of a fire. He felt none of its heat though; thinking of it made him feel even colder and his body shuddered violently as if shocked by the thought of a warming heat. From the depths of the darkness, he heard a whispered voice, “Help us and we will set you free from your pain.” The voice confused and terrified him, ‘am I starting to lose it’ he thought to himself. He sat perfectly still and listened intently, trying to sense if someone was in the room with him. ‘Are these bastards trying to freak me out’ he thought. He knew his situation was dire, but he was determined to not make it easy for his captors. “You do your best lads, whatever turns ye on” he called out cockily, but he was unable to disguise a tremble of fear in his voice. The whispered voice spoke again, “Help us and we will set you free from your pain”, this time it was louder and closer to him. He knew something was there in the room with him, but it was silent, it didn’t breathe, it had no footsteps. An image flashed through his head, it was him lying in a shallow grave, broken and bloodied. He screamed. Within seconds he heard the door open and a voice he recognised from earlier spoke, “You startin teh lose it already, ye junkie tout? You ought to be scared wee lad.” The door closed hard, and he heard the lock turn.
Micky stepped back into the kitchen, closing the door forcefully behind him and locking it. “Might be a short session the night boys, he’s freakin out already,” said Micky as he returned to his seat. Once they had gotten the tout in the other room and had given him the first taste of what was to come, they had all returned to the kitchen to discuss how they would carry out the remainder of the interrogation. The North Belfast brigade had set the plan for his kidnap and transport to rural Armagh for interrogation that night. He was to be mined for information and disposed of. A simple, clean operation; one that Dec, Micky and Joe had done many times, but this was the first time for Tony. Now that Micky was back in the room they continued their discussion, “Right Micky if you’re content, I’ll lead this one?” said Dec “I wanna bring young Tony in on it and show him the ropes.” “Not a bother,” replied Micky, who was now once again reclined uncomfortably on one of the rickety kitchen chairs with his feet on the table. “I wannatop him” said Joe who was stood at the fire, which was now lit and burning with a warming intensity. Dec, still looking at Micky said with an agitated tone “Well ye may start sobering up then Joe, wouldn’t ye? Ye’ll not be fit teh see straight enough to shoot him, the state you’re getting yersel in! Anyway, it’s decided, young Tony’s doing this one, no discussions.” Tony who was standing back from the group leaning against the wall, shuffled his feet uneasily and acknowledged Dec’s decision with a nervous and lacklustre “No bother.” Micky looked at Dec and gave him a slow nod, then he looked at Joe, “Aye Joe, knock it on the head for now lad. We’ll get a carryout on the way home. Ye can drink yer fill when this is done. And here, don’t be letting that fire go out, it’s only startin te warm up in here. I think I can actually feel my feet again”. Micky laughed as he said this. Dec gave Micky a pat on the shoulder as he stood up, “Aye Joe, chuck some turf on there, cheers.” Joe brandished a piece of wood above his head, “No turf left Dec, we’re burning wood the night. Thank God for that shitty aul tree in the garden. Aul thing fell apart as soon as I took the axe to it!” Joe shouted and then followed up with an exaggerated roar of “TIMBER!!!!!” as he tossed the wood onto the fire. In that moment Dec felt his blood run cold and every hair on his body stood erect in response to the adrenaline that was now rushing through his body. Dec charged across the room, his face ashen, “Put out the fire; PUT IT OUT!” he screamed. Dec ripped the old, tattered curtains that hung either side of the kitchen window, tossing them in the sink and turning on the tap. The water thundered from the tap, which rattled violently as it struggled to cope with the torrent that now flowed from it. Water splashed over the side of the sink and splattered onto the floor, forming small pools on the uneven surface. Dec was frantically dowsing the curtains in the water, with a manic intensity. He muttered to himself as he did so, “Fuckin hell, fuckin hell” he repeated to himself through gritted teeth and a rigid jaw. In one swift movement he lifted the heavy sodden rags from the overflowing sink and sharply turned on the spot before stepping forward and throwing them onto the open fire. The fire hissed demonically, mortally wounded by Dec’s actions. A cloud of thick black smoke billowed out labouriously, enveloping Joe, who was stood open mouthed, leaning on the mantelpiece, “Jesus sake Dec, whada ye playing at?” he said, coughing and frantically waving his hand to clear the smoke. He stumbled toward the sink, spitting into it as he reached it and then cupping his hands under the water that still tumbled from the tap, tossed it up into his face, which cleared the smoke from his stinging eyes and blackened nostrils. He looked back over his shoulder, calling out “Dec, are ye friggin wise enough, ye looper!” Dec was oblivious to Joe’s protestations and was now kicking at the fire, knocking the dying embers onto the kitchen floor and stamping on them. Tony ran over and tried pulling Dec back, but Dec turned to face him and pushed him across the room, “Get the frig off me!” he roared, his eyes wild with fear; he staggered back and steadied himself at the sink, he turned and looked out through the window, his eyes fixed on the stump in the corner of the garden; “Ye friggin stupid bastards.” Nobody spoke in response; the only noise was the thunderous rattle of the water running into the sink and the slowly dissipating hiss of the dying fire. Dec lifted his head and looked in disbelief at Joe who was stood next to him at the sink, “That was a Fairy tree that you cut down Joe, you’ve cursed us.” Across the room Tony stifled a snorting snigger, “Jesus Dec, are you taking the piss?” he said, unable to contain his laughter any longer. Micky kicked a chair across the room; it tumbled and clattered into Tony’s legs, “Shut up Tony, not another word from ye!” Micky set forward on his chair, “Dec, are you serious?” he said, the change in his tone was palpable. Dec looked him straight in the eye, his gaze unblinking and sombre “I’m serious boys, you might think it’s aul wives tales but I’m tellin ye now, it’s not.” Dec walked back to the table and slumped on a chair, leaned forward and held his head in his hands; part of him hoped this was a dream and he’d wake in a moment. “Not being funny Dec, but what’s the worst could happen; are we talking a puncture on the way home or what?” said Joe as he wiped his wet face with a threadbare tea towel. Dec rose from his chair and made his way across the room again; this time though his pace was slow and measured. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled a small pistol from it. In a swift movement almost invisible to the eye he shuffled the barrel of the pistol into the grip of his hand, as he reached where Joe stood, he raised his hand in the air and struck down on Joe’s temple with a sickening blow. The sound of the blow was thick and ugly, a nasty gash erupted on Joe’s temple as he slumped to the floor, “Always the smart ass aren’t ye Joe, always the fuckin smart ass!” bellowed Dec as he knelt down on one knee next to a dazed and confused Joe, “Are ye laughing now?” Dec grabbed Joe by the collar of his jacket and dragged him across the floor, kicking him as he did. Micky stepped forward, blocking Dec’s path, “What’s the craic Dec? Ease up a minute will ye.” Dec stopped, he was breathing heavily with anger and fear, “Micky, I know he’s your mate; but he’s had this comin to him. He’s pushed it too many times. Don’t try and stop me or we will have a problem.” Dec’s stare never dropped, unwavering and uncompromising. “I’m just going to have a word with him; I wouldn’t waste a bullet on him.” Micky stepped back allowing Dec to pass, Joe coughed and spluttered as he started to come around; he reached out to Micky as Dec dragged him out of the farmhouse and into the yard. Micky took a long-measured intake of breath and looked away; fixing his gaze on the now cold fireplace and exhaling slowly. He knew he had the measure of Dec physically, but he was smart enough to know to choose his battles and that this one wasn’t worth the grief. “Micky, what the hell is the craic here? Is it just me or is this fuckin nuts, what’s the big issue, is Dec havin a friggin breakdown?” asked Tony who was walking towards the front door. “Houl on, where de ye think yer headin? asked Micky, as he put his arm across the door to stop Tony. “I wanna see what’s kicking aff between these boys”, there was palpable excitement in Tony’s voice, as he struggled to hide his satisfaction at watching his tormentor receiving a beating from Dec. Micky shook his head and pushed Tony forcefully back across the room, "Yer goin nowhere Tony, sit yer arse down and behave yerself” instructed Micky, his huge hands gripping Tony’s shoulders like giant pincers. Tony started to scuffle with Micky, but quickly realised he was making a mistake as Micky’s grip tightened in vice-like intensity. “Alright, alright, fuck sake, I was only gunna have a quick shufty” said Tony as he petulantly raised the palms of his hands in the air in morose acquiescence. Tony sat down continuing to protest like an embittered child. “Shut the fuck up Tony or I will knock the shit out of ye, Dec or no Dec. You need to wise up son and see what’s happening around ye, this isn’t a fuckin game,” said Micky, “Now I don’t know what the fuck is going on right now, but what I do know is that Dec is gonna give Joe a going over and there’s no point getting involved.” Micky paced the room menacingly, “Just let Dec get it out of system and then we can sort this shit out. Is that clear enough?” Micky paused, his back to Tony and waited for a reply, “I get ye Micky, but this is a bit fucked up, eh?” “It’s no more fucked up than what we are here to do, which is torture and kill that wee fucker next door,” retorted Micky as he looked towards the door into the other room. “Jesus, aye, I forgot about thon wee prick” replied Tony, his face contorted in a comical look of incredulity.
“Get up ye wee prick, get up and walk to the shed,” shouted Dec, his voice rumbling like thunder across the still night air. Joe stumbled to his feet slipping and falling, before steadying himself against the farmhouse wall and slowly stepping forward again. “Not that shed, the next one up. Get in there and tell me what you see,” commanded Dec who followed Joe, towering over him like a thunderstorm casting its shadow across the sky, ominous and terrifying. Joe staggered across the yard, holding his head; he could feel the warm blood trickling through his fingers. “Dec, I don’t want any bother, can we not just go back inside. You’ve made yer point” his voice faltered over the words as he chose them carefully, fearful of reigniting Dec’s anger. “Joe I’d shut yer mouth, unless ye want another slap te the head”, said Dec as he roughly shoved Joe along the wall, which Joe was leaning on to keep himself upright. The shed wall was wet and Joe’s fingers struggled to grip the jagged edges of the roughly hewn boulders that jutted from the wall. He lost his footing again and fell forward onto his hands and knees, as he struggled to get up his righthand felt a large stone on the ground. He gripped it tightly, feeling its solid heaviness and sharp edge. Dec watched as Joe tried to find his feet again, in the low dim he saw Joe’s righthand furtively search the ground below him and grip something. “I dare you boy, I friggin dare you,” said Dec as he released the safety on his pistol. The sound of Joe’s short shallow breaths was silenced by the click from the safety release and quickly followed by the sound of a large stone dropping to the ground and clattering noisily on the cobbled yard. “That’s the first smart thing you’ve done the night Joe, maybe we’re making progress,” said Dec in a sullen mocking tone. Joe got to his feet and continued forward, he reached the shed door and looked into the darkness, his eyes struggling to make anything out in the darkness. He tentatively moved further into the shed; a familiar smell pierced his nostrils and then he felt a hand in his back shoving him forward violently, “Get in there” shouted Dec. Joe tripped over his feet and fell face forward into a soft pile of turf; he buried his face into it, not wanting to turn around and face Dec again. “If you weren’t such a lazy piss head ye might a thought to check out all the sheds, but naw, lazy bastard that ye are cuts down a friggin fairytree instead.” Dec pulled Joe up so that he was looking at him; through the darkness Joe could see the anger and fear in Dec’s eyes. Dec stooped down and looked Joe direct in the eyes, “What was yer wee quip in there about worst could happen, a flat tyre wasn’t?” Joe nodded, “Aye Dec, but I didn’t mean anything by it, honest I was just having a ....” Joe stopped what he was saying and dropped his head. “Sorry Dec, I don’t want any more trouble.” “Well too late, cos trouble is all we’ll be getting now,” said Dec as he pushed Joe across the yard again. Dec’s anger had passed like a winter storm, leaving an uneasy threatening stillness in the air that could become a violent maelstrom again in seconds. His body began to relax, and his shoulders and neck ached as his tensed muscles released their fear induced grip. He felt his breathing return to normal, deep slow breaths drew in the freezing night air and his mind cleared, the sharp icy air calming his thoughts, sweeping out the cloud of panic that had darkened his thinking and reasoning. He reached his hand to his brow, wiping away a fine line of cold sweat. His grip on Joe’s upper arm loosened as they approached the front door of the farm. Joe did not speak nor raise his head as they crossed the yard. All he could do was silently pray. He still didn’t really understand what he had done that was so wrong, but he was smart enough to know that he needed to keep his mouth shut for now. He had taken enough beatings in the past from bigger boys and then bigger men to know there is a time to speak up and a time to just take the hammering; and this was one of those times. He knew if he could ride this out his time would come again and this score would be settled, but for now he was letting Dec have his moment. Micky stood at the door of the farm and watched as Dec marched Joe back across the yard; he had poured himself a whiskey and sipped from the glass as they approached. He could see that Dec had calmed down, but he knew he had to tread carefully with him. Joe raised his head and looked toward the farmhouse; he saw Micky leaning against the door, his forced nonchalance betraying his true feelings of fear and apprehension. Joe caught Micky’s eye and gave him a wink and a jerk of the head, hoping his bravado wouldn’t be spotted by Dec as he pushed him along in brooding silence, Micky stood aside as they both stepped back into the farmhouse, “Are we all good?” he asked as they passed him. Dec, without breaking stride, answered, “We will be as long as you all listen to me and follow my instructions.” Joe took a seat and sat silently, like a scrawny mongrel that had just been savaged by the alpha male of the pack. Micky passed him a glass of whiskey, “You alright lad?” he asked as he sat down beside him. Joe responded in a faltering whisper “Grand, grand. Don’t be worrying about me mate. Like the man said, we need to listen to him.” Joe straightened himself, his elbow resting on the table; he took a slow glug of whiskey and spoke, “Dec, I’m sorry mate. If I’ve fucked up, I apologise; but and I’m not taking the piss here, but I still don’t get what the problem is.” Dec, who was now seated at the far end of the table with his back to the door into the other room tilted his head backwards and then purposefully brought it forward until his chin touched his broad chest; as he did a loud brutal crack sounded from his neck, all his tension filling the silence in the room. He looked over his shoulder and beckoned Tony to come and sit at the table, “Tony, sit down,” he said, his manner now seemed much calmer following his violent outburst not ten minutes earlier. But like an ominous black cloud that rumbled in the distance, the others in the room where still wary of him and what might yet rain down on them. Tony set down next to Micky with a downcast Joe sat opposite him. Secretly Tony had hoped Dec would kill Joe in the murderous maelstrom of his temper. He knew Joe was going to be a constant thorn in his side, he was like one of those wee runty yapping dogs that no matter how often you kick it or throw a stone at it, it will always come back for more, teeth bared and nipping at your ankles. Dec began to speak, his voice low and his words heavily laden with seriousness and fear, “Firstly Joe, don’t ever push me again or next time I will finish you; I don’t want this to become an issue, but you need to friggin wise up and stop acting like a big wain.” Joe nodded as he dabbed at the wound on his head with a damp towel that Micky had handed him and replied calmly, “Dec, what’s done is done, no bother.” ‘Aye right’ thought Joe as he forcibly gulped down the insincerity of his words, feeling them sit heavily in the pit of his stomach. ‘I’ll see you in the long grass Dec, I can wait’, Joe thought as he concentrated on not letting his face giveaway his true feelings. Dec meanwhile turned to Micky and Tony and spoke, “Boys, I’m only interested in sorting this mess out and getting us out of here safely.” Micky and Tony nodded, but neither spoke. “Right,” said Dec “my reaction there now might have looked a bit over the top,” he paused waiting to see if any of them would speak, no one did “well I can tell ye, when ye’ve grew up around these parts, ye know a Fairy Tree is not to be messed with.” Micky interrupted, carefully choosing his words and watching his tone, “That’s fair enough Dec, I’ve heard stories about Fairy Trees, but no disrespect an all but is it not just that, stories?” Tony drew back from the table as Micky began to speak, in fear of what Dec’s reaction might be and conscious of his close proximity to Micky. As he did, he caught sight of Joe looking at him with a knowing sneer. Dec took in another deep breath and slowly released it, everyone at the table braced themselves, Micky clenched his fists; he wasn’t going to take a beating like Joe. Then Dec rested his hands on the table, subliminally each of them knew the danger had passed. “Well, it’s like this Micky” said Dec, “there was another farm about three miles from here, just on the slopes of Slieve Bannon, an aul fella McBride owned it. He was a thran aul frigger, got on with no-one, but had a great wee farm and was worth a pound or two. There was just him and his son, Thomas; he was the same age as me at the time, must have been about nine or ten when it happened. He was a nice wee lad; the complete opposite of his Da, he was always full of craic and could get on with anyone. His Da doted on him; McBride’s wife had died when Thomas was just a wain and so he was very protective of Thomas. We used to keep him going at times about his Da, but he always took it the right way, never got thick or bad tempered. He would just laugh it off; you couldn’t help but like the cub, despite who his Da was. Anyway McBride, he took a notion one day to plough a field further up the slope, but it had a fairy tree in the middle of it. Ugly aul thing, all twisted and knotted; bit like the one that had been out there.” Dec flicked his head back towards the window that looked onto the garden and gave Joe a mean stare. Joe dropped his head and gazed at the stained tabletop, waiting for Dec’s stare to pass by him. Dec continued to talk, “Well he was told to plough around it, warned that it would only bring him bad luck if he touched it, but he wouldn’t be told and he tore the tree out, not only that he had Thomas help him do it. Thomas drove the tractor they used to pull it out of the ground. I remember him coming into school the day after and him telling everyone about the great job he’d done driving the tractor. He was as happy as Larry with himself.” Tony interrupted impatiently, “Well what happened to McBride?” “Nothing happened to him” said Dec, “but Jesus, poor wee Thomas.” Dec’s voice dropped off and he stopped talking; the others remained silent, waiting for him to speak again. “But aye, wee Thomas,” Dec said, the words catching in his throat, “It was a couple of days after they pulled the tree up, McBride, had sent Thomas out to check on the sheep in the lower field after he’d finished up his schoolwork and he grew concerned when he hadn’t come back in after an hour or so. So he took himself on up there to see what was keeping him. He must have run the four miles into the village, my Da was one of the first to see him; he was wailing and screaming, something about the sheep and Thomas. Nobody could make sense of what he was saying and then they noticed the blood on his hands and clothes. '' Again Tony couldn’t help himself from interrupting, “Did he kill the wee lad?”; “Hold yer weesht and let him tell the friggin story.” said Micky. Dec ignored Tony’s impatience and continued the story, he was lost in his thoughts, as his mind drifted further and further into the memories of his childhood, like a leaf slowly floating into a deep dark well. “My Da and a couple of other men from the village jumped in our car and drove out to McBride’s farm, McBride went with them, my Da said he just whimpered like a scolded child the whole way there, they couldn’t get any sense out of him. When they got up to the farm they asked McBride where Thomas was and he just pointed them towards the field, with his head turned the other way, he couldn’t even look towards it.” The room had faded away and Dec was back in his childhood bedroom, he could see out the window and his Da stepping out of the car and collapsing into the arms of his Ma. He’d never seen his Da cry and it had unsettled him that day all those years ago and the memory of it unsettled him once again; his stomach felt empty and ached and sweat trickled down his brow. “I wasn’t told at the time what they found up there, my Ma and Da kept it from me, they just told me there had been a terrible accident at McBride’s farm and poor Thomas had been killed. Aul McBride sold the farm and moved away, we never heard what became of him. That was the story all us wains were told. It wasn’t until about 5 years later that I was told the truth; I got talking to my Da about it one day when we were driving up to Derry, he transported livestock and he used to take me with him during the school holidays for company. I don’t know what got me thinking about Thomas that day, but I did, and I asked the question; ‘What happened to Thomas McBride?’ I remember my Da pulled his lorry over at the next layby and he looked at me in a way I had never seen before, a mixture of fear and confusion. He told me that what had happened to Thomas haunted him every day and they hadn’t told me because I was so young, they didn’t want me upset as they knew I was very fond of Thomas. He said I was old enough now to hear the truth, if that’s what I wanted, but that I was never to raise the matter with my Ma or to be telling anyone else. My Da told me that the day they drove up to McBride’s farm none of them were prepared for what they saw, nor could they believe it. When McBride pointed them towards the field they set off running, they didn’t know was Thomas alive or dead, so they weren’t wasting any time. When they reached the field they saw the sheep first, it was a flock of about forty Galways; all of them dead, slaughtered. Their stomachs ripped open, and their insides scattered across the field, he said it didn’t look real, it was like something out of a horror film. Then they found Thomas, he was at the far end of the field, up where they had dumped the fairy tree that McBride and Thomas had torn out of the ground a few days earlier. My Da said the first fella that found him, let an awful scream out of him and then passed out, dropped to the ground like a sack of spuds; he said he wished he’d done the same when he saw him.” Out of the corner of his eye Micky saw that Joe was about to speak, he quickly stretched his leg under the table and tapped Joe on the shin and as Joe looked across at him he shook his head and pursed his lips, warning him not to interrupt. Joe remained silent and leaned forward to hear the rest of Dec’s story. Dec was oblivious to the others at the table; he was now completely consumed by memories and conversations he had long ago suppressed and locked away in the deepest recesses of his mind. Even though he had not witnessed the horrific fate of Thomas, his Da’s description of it had terrified and shocked him to his core and he never forgot it. It was a memory he had never planned to revisit again, and he only did so because of the seriousness of the situation he now found himself, in this cold bleak farmhouse marooned in the remote bog, veiled in its grey mists. “My Da had tears in his eyes when he told me about Thomas,” said Dec, “I could tell what he had seen that day still haunted him. I told him he didn’t need to talk about it if it was too upsetting, but he just ignored me. I think he needed to tell me; to pass on some of the horror of what he had seen, he couldn’t carry it on his own anymore. I remember feeling proud that he obviously thought I was ‘man enough’ to hear it and share his burden. I’ll tell ye, I wasn’t long wishing he’d thought otherwise.” Dec pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes tightly shut; he shuddered as the cold air chilled the room and jokingly remarked, “No chance of lighting a bitta thon turf lads?” He smiled and suppressed a sarcastic laugh, he glanced toward Joe and the two men held each other’s gaze for a moment and then he hesitantly started to describe the fate of Thomas. “My Da said at first he thought it was one of the sheep at the tree, but as he got closer, he could see that it was Thomas. McBride had cut the tree into bits, large pieces maybe a dozen at the most, just to make it easier to move the tree. On each piece of tree there was a piece of Thomas; me Da said it looked like he had been ripped apart by a wild animal. The skin on all the body parts was flayed and flapping in the wind like bloodied rags.” “Holy Jesus,” whispered Joe, who was now starting to understand Dec’s reaction to what he had done, but still not forgiving his actions. Tony stood up and paced across the room, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket. “I’m ringing me Da, he needs to get down here and sort this shit out!” His voice veered wildly with unrestrained panic and confusion, and he walked with a spring in his step as the adrenalin flowed through his body, his mind urging him to run from the room and keep running until the muscles in his legs burned like hot coals. “Tony, sit down and settle yersel, we are not draggin your Da into this. As scary as this shit that Dec’s tellin us, I’m still more scared of your Da,” said Micky as he turned in his seat and pointed his finger at the seat Tony had just vacated. “It was his head though, that’s the bit that me Da said he could never forget,” continued Dec, ignoring Tony’s histrionics. In his mind he was back in the truck with his Da, he no longer felt the cold of the empty farmhouse. He could hear the rain lashing against the windows just as it had lashed against the windows of the truck’s cabin that day, where he sat immersed and gripped by terror as his Da relived the horror of Thomas’s violent death. It was all returning to him as if it had only happened yesterday. He could smell the diesel and the fetid reek of the livestock in the back of the truck as it stung his nostrils. He could hear the clattering hoofs and rasping bleats of the livestock, a cacophony of fear and impatience. His Da’s gaze never left the rain splattered windscreen as he described Thomas’s head. He stared out the window with an unnerving intensity, as if searching for something or someone. The lights of passing cars lit up the cab as dusk drew in around them, casting eery shadows across his Da’s face as he drew forth memories from the darkest corners of his mind. He described how Thomas’s eyes had been gouged out, leaving bloodied sockets that stared through you. The pain and fear of Thomas’s final moments caught in the black ragged craters where his eyes had once sat, the dark pits drawing you closer until you could feel the fear running through your body, a surging wave of horror that silenced your heartbeat and stole your breath. His nose had been split in two and pulled apart, a gaping wound that now teemed with fat alabaster-coloured maggots, greedily feasting on the mangled flesh, writhing in gorging waves that spilled across his face. His lips barbarically sliced off and the thin pink flesh pulled back, leaving his clenched teeth, stained in blood. Dec’s Da had completely broken down at this point, he sobbed and choked on his words as he tried desperately to finish the horrific description. After a minute or so he had composed himself enough to continue. He went on to describe how the teeth were bared in a fixed maniacal smile that completely belied poor Thomas’s final moments. He said that the ‘smile’ had never left him, and he still woke in fear of that image. But what had torn him apart more than anything all these years wasn’t what he had seen, horrific as it was, but what he did, or I should say didn’t do. Himself and the other men were too afraid to remove Thomas from the tree, fearful of upsetting the fairies and they or their families suffering a similar macabre fate; and so they left him, they gathered up the man who had passed out, carried him to the car and left McBride the gruesome task of removing the slaughtered parts of his son’s body. He told me that McBride admitted to them before he left the farm that he had stood there for hours calling to the fairies asking for their permission to take poor Thomas. He insisted to my Da that they had appeared to him, tall misty figures, like ghosts rising from the wet grass, singing a mournful refrain. One of them said they would grant him his wish to take Thomas and that McBride’s punishment had been served. McBride carried Thomas bit by bit and laid him in his bed, the wretched man was beside himself with grief. The final insult was Thomas’s funeral, no-one attended, for fear of insulting the fairies, it was just McBride and the priest, and they say even the priest was reluctant to do the service. I remember watching the hearse pass by our house, it was a pitiful sight. I never asked why no-one went; I just accepted it was what happened in those circumstances. We all stood and watched out of our windows, cowering but intrigued, wanting to catch a glimpse, to catch a fuckin glimpse, of what?” Dec’s voice rose with anger, and he looked around the table, “You have to understand boys, this stuff is taken deadly serious around here and there’s good reason for it. Anyway, they buried young Thomas in the farthest corner of the graveyard. McBride left the next day, Thomas’s grave was never cared for, it became overgrown and what grew beside it?” Dec paused, catching his breath, “A friggin fairy tree, fair to say no frigger went near it and it’s still there now. Us wains always assumed McBride had planted it as some loving memory to Thomas, we got that one wrong didn’t we. The fairies had the last laugh, they’re twisted beings, cold and without feelings; me Da always said, they hate us the way we hate the Brits. We stole this land from them and forced them into the earth and they have no compassion for our suffering. Anyway, the fella that bought the farm from McBride never used the field, he just let it grow wild again and paid his respects to the fairies any time he passed by it and he never had any bother.” Dec stopped talking, he slowly and rigidly sat back in the chair, it creaked as his weight pushed against the spindles. The only other noise was the shallow breaths of the three others in the room as they sat silently processing and trying to rationalise what they had just heard. Dec’s body shook gently like a branch in the wind, and he began to laugh quietly to himself, a smile, wounded by fear broke across his face as he said, “And that boys, is what we are dealing with.”
The smell of smoke had gotten stronger, and he heard something clatter onto the floor in the other room, followed by a volley of raised voices, it sounded like they were arguing among themselves. He knew from experience that there was often bad blood between the various ‘RA units, especially the Belfast and Armagh units. He listened intently trying to hear why they were arguing, it might be something I can play on and exploit he thought to himself. “Help us and we will set you free from your pain”, the same whispered voice floated past his ear. This time he didn’t respond, fearful of drawing the attention of his captors. He straightened himself in the chair, rigid with fear, he could feel his heart pounding in his chest and the sound from the short gasps of breath he took chimed in the darkness like a ghostly metronome. “We only seek revenge on your tormentors, help us and we will set you free from your pain”, the voice was slow and calm and filled the room. He couldn’t place the accent; it had a lilt to it but not one he recognised. “Who the fuck are you?” he said quietly. Despite the intense cold of the room, he could feel meandering droplets of sweat traversing the contours of his back. They trickled at a leisurely pace along his spine, each nerve on his skin reacting to their damp touch. He felt sick, as an all-consuming nausea swept over him, and it felt as if his head were floating up to the smoked stained ceiling above him. Disturbed thoughts galloped through his panicked mind, trying to understand was this his body suffering withdrawals from the heroin or was this real, these voices and the strange sensations he was experiencing. Even in the pitch-black darkness he could feel the room violently spinning, like a cruel twisted carousel. Voices were all around him now, whispering strange words that he didn’t recognise. The voices mixed together into an indecipherable melee that grew louder and denser, and it felt like the room was imploding around him. Vivid images flashed through his mind, streaking out of the darkness, these images showed other worlds, cast in long shadows, with high vaulted rooms that felt claustrophobic in their immensity but strangely confined as if buried beneath the earth. He saw figures dancing in these vast vaulted rooms, to a hypnotically serene music. A tall grey, faded figure stepped from the fog of the images and beckoned him forward. He felt himself move toward the figure, carried along on the air, paralysed by fear and shock. As he approached the tall figure, he could see its features more clearly. It was a man, an ancient man, with a long solemn face, his features were sharp, high cheekbones and a sculpted jawline, and eyes that pierced through the darkness, belying his other aged features. His forehead was lined with thick folds, that disappeared under faded reddish hair, the colour of embers in a dying fire. His thinning hair hung to his shoulders and down his back. He wore a long simple grey garment that covered his body from neck to feet, its material rippling as he motioned him closer. Speaking slowly and clearly the tall figure said, “We are the Tuatha De Danaan and we wish to make a trade with you. Help us and we will set you free from your pain. Grant us your being and we will bring you peace” No sooner had the words been spoken and he was suddenly dancing, embraced by a forest of arms he moved through the vast hall, faces flashed past his eyes, like marble statues, their expressions hard and cold. He was lifted in the air and carried along; a bright light glowed, warming his face as he was raised higher and higher. In the bright light he thought he saw his parents again, smiling down on him, beckoning him to them, arms outstretched. This felt better than any high he had ever experienced on heroin. The music became an ear-splitting squeal, the pain in his head was unbearable; like an intense heat was boiling his brain. The light vanished and he saw himself again in a shallow grave. This time he saw more, his body broken and bloodied; half his face was missing, in its place was shattered bone and flesh that hung loosely all torn and shredded. Standing around the shallow grave were four men, hooded and laughing, one of them spat on his pitiful broken corpse and fired a volley of shots into it. The crack, crack, crack of the gunshots rose through the air drifting upwards to the heavens. Then just as suddenly he was back in the empty dark room. His mind was lost in a storm of confusion, not knowing what was real and what was imagined. The voice returned, this time it did not unnerve him, he felt an acceptance of its presence and a calmness that he had not felt for a long time. “Help us and we will free you from your pain. Grant us your being and we will bring you peace”. He was scared of dying, but something deep from within him sensed this wouldn’t be death as he understood it, he felt sure this would bring him the peace he craved. He didn’t want to go back to the life he’d had. He couldn’t face that life again, the emptiness of his addiction; the tortured fear that every day held and the aching emptiness that filled his heart in grief for his dead parents. He lifted his head slowly and whispered, “I will help you.”
Joe passed Dec the bottle of whiskey, but he pushed it away with a trembling hand, “No more friggin booze Joe, we all need to keep our heads clear, so we can get this job finished and get the hell out of here.” Joe had regained his composure and was feeling brave again, he noisily placed the bottle on the mantelpiece and replied, “But sure we’ve not mined him yet, we need teh get the names of the other touts out of him?” Dec, concentrating intently on holding his temper at bay looked up at Joe and then turned his head, gazing at the door to the other room, he spoke firmly, “We finish him, and we go, forget the interrogation.” Tony started to speak, “But what about....” Dec stood up and with a threatening calmness repeated, “We finish him, and we go.” The fire was out, and the cold air had penetrated the room, Micky pulled his coat on and stood up saying, “Dec, if we do what you’re asking and the shit hits the fan, it’s on you, alright?” “Aye'' replied Dec, “it’s on me, but that’s the least of our worries.” Dec knew that despite what he had just told them, they still didn’t fully appreciate or understand the danger they were in. ‘I can’t blame them’ he thought to himself, he had found it hard to comprehend it when his Da had told him all those years ago. It was only the fear he saw in his Da that day that convinced him it was all true.
Outside the wind had picked up and the belching rain clouds had returned, their spewed rain tapping the kitchen window as if begging to be let in. The moon was gone now, blackened by heavy clouds blown over the mountain and down across the bog, like a black ink staining the sky. The old beams of the house strained and creaked as if waking from a slumber, an unsettling sound that lingered in the air as if waiting for something or someone to restore it to its peaceful sleep. Micky opened the sports bag that lay on the kitchen table; inside there were two handguns. He lifted them out and placed them on the table. He looked at Tony and asked, “You still up for doing it?” “Aye, no bother; time to top a tout,” he laughed and looked around expecting the others to join in. He was met by silence, “What’s up weh ye’s?” he shouted, his feigned bravado faltering mid-sentence.
The instant he had spoken the words “I will help you”, everything changed. He was no longer in the room but laying on grass in a dazzling bright sunlit forest. He could feel the warm dew that lay atop the deep lush grass seep into his pores and rush through his body, he could visualise it coursing into every muscle and sinew. Like a bloated river breaching its banks it flooded across his body, washing him clean of all impurities and weakness. It crashed into his cortex and a complexity of magnificent vibrant colours exploded in his mind, waves of strange noise intertwined and clashed into the colours creating twisting vortexes that spun and spun ever faster. Then the noise and the colours faded, and he saw the Tuatha De Danaan dancing around him, their bodies dappled by the bright sun spilling through the forests canopy, they sang slowly and sombrely, and he heard what he must do. As he listened, he felt a terrifying strength surge through his body, he felt as powerful as a mighty oak that had stood for centuries gazing on the flitting lives of mortal men. He could hear every sound, birds’ wings breaking through the air, worms turning the soil below him, bees scratching in flowers for their precious pollen. He welcomed it, all fear had left him, all sense of self was lost in the mystifying melee of swirling particles of everything that ever existed and that now coursed through him. The trees closed in around him, their branches intertwining and forming a solid mass, shutting out the sunlight and squeezing the air out, and then he was back in the room, cold, bloodied and ready.
Micky handed Tony one of the pistols, “Tony, no pissin about when we get in there, no playing the big man; you just walk straight over to him and put a bullet in his head. Then we throw him in the bog, the usual spot, where all the others are, alright?” Tony cleared his throat, “Aye no worries, Micky, I’ve got this”. He sounded unsure of himself as he spoke, his tone was flat, gone was the normal brash cockiness. He felt nauseous and light-headed and didn’t move in case he stumbled. He cursed his Da and wished he’d never been born to this life. The gun felt heavy, and he was fearful he would drop it from his sweaty grip. He didn’t dare look at the gun, he felt its contours in his grip and his other hand cradled the smooth barrel of the gun. Instead, he stared intensely at the door into the other room, and it filled him with deepening dread. He thought of the generations of normal family life that had passed through that door, he imagined a mother carrying a small child, siblings shouting and chasing each other, celebrations and singing, mourning and tears. Now he stood; about to pass through it and commit coldblooded murder. He turned away, his head pushed against the wall, gagging as his body convulsed. “Are you fit for this Tony?” called out Dec, as he spoke, he looked at the others in the room and moved his right hand slowly up and down, gesturing to them to be quiet. Wiping the sweat from his brow Tony turned and nodded, “Aye, aye, I’m dead on. Just give us a mouthful of that whiskey.” He grabbed the bottle from the table and drank the whiskey, gritting his teeth as the burning brew hit the back of his throat. He shook his head and exhaled loudly, he could see his breath drifting through the cold air, then fading and disappearing; extinguished and gone in an instant, leaving no trace on the world around it. He checked the gun, released the safety and walked toward the door, “Right‘mon, get this friggin done!”