When that place blew up, it took with it more than his old protector, his surrogate Pa, his quiet buddy. Also gone was his only hope to be caught and pay for his cowardice.
Not long after they both stepped in, and the bomb went off, all he managed to accomplish was to run away. Run, run, don’t look back, don’t let the sirens stop you. Go straight to bed and hide under the blankets. Soon enough, no one will ever know it.
But he never managed to fall sleep, not completely anyway. And he never really disappeared. He just faded away for a few years, but as soon as he was back in town, so was the memory of that raining night in Belfast so long ago.
Maybe he could now exhale, so to speak. But to be completely relieved, that was not to be.
Life took its course and sweet loving aunt Sylvia arranged for him to attend Yorkshire Coast College and off he went. Behind were left both his lives: his broken-hearted schoolboy life and his grief-stricken lookout life.
He’ll always miss Paddy, though. For someone without a Da, Paddy was the only one who ever came close. Together they fished, they hunted for squirrels, they camped. His first cigarette, his first swirl of Guinness all came from Paddy’s hands. Who Sylvia never really liked, by the way, despite their every Sunday morning together at the pews of St. George’s on High Street.
There was never a question about his allegiance during the Troubles. But even if it wasn’t for those times, there was Peter John, whom he secretly named Peejay. He and the love of his life, Maddy, who PeeJay stole from him. They were the same age and grew up within the sight of one another. But the thing they really shared was an ingrained hatred for each other.
It was during middle school that they reaffirmed the split, he being what he could never change from being: a Protestant born and bred in Belfast. And Peejay, a despising Catholic, an avowed enemy who’d do anything to destroy him and everything he believed.
And who was also luckier than him: despite all his efforts to lure Maddy, she wound up becoming Peejay’s sweetheart and together they went on to become an item in local parties and Saturday night dances. That really stung him for years.
So what if she was also a filthy Catholic? She was always different, he could tell. She was kind, she wouldn’t discuss politics, and she was beautiful. But she made a profound mistake when she picked Peejay as a mate and not him. That indeed killed him.
One day, he got to express at least part of his broken heart, when the boys crossed paths in the wrong way, he couldn’t really remember why anymore. They went at it and had it good for each other, until right before being split up by Mr. Johnson. That’s when he landed one single, straight, good, bloody left in the middle of Peejay’s kisser. Oh, that felt good, that he won’t forget. Ever.
But life went on and he took off to England, while his nemesis remained behind and, later he found out, joined the incipient police force, one of the first signs the Troubles were to be left behind for good. The new cops had been recruited from both communities on purpose and went through an extensive training period, just so they could embrace what apparently was what the majority wanted: peace.
Another reason, then, he would never get caught for what he did. But he had always this fear, this terror, this constant nightmare that they would come for him and the truth would come out, and he’d wound up being raped at the Maze.
He also knew Peejay had his own suspicions, even if he never told him about them. He just knew by the way Peejay would always look at him since his cousin James was arrested and did time for a few years for helping the IRA. Yeah, Peejay must’ve suspected something, he could tell just by the way he looked at him.
But as long as this usurper had Maddy, eye contact was not really an option for him. He never did anything to give himself away and now, for all he knew, all of that was on its way to forgetfulness.
Sylvia was there to welcome him at the bus station when he finally came back, ages after many he knew had already fallen out of this earth. Hard to believe how it all had changed so much. It took months before he could walk around, reacquainting himself with this new town that, for all purposes, was now sitting on the ruins of his place of birth.
Now more than when he was a wee boy, the feeling of having been born in the wrong spot, of being illegitimate compared to the ‘real,’ truly Irish, was stronger within him. Just like the feeling of never having met his dad, said to be a British son of a bitch who never cared for him one way or another.
Of course he stopped by Roselawn. Not to visit that Queen’s ass kisser, god, no. He wouldn’t know where the old fool finally laid down his sorry sac of bones, nor he ever cared. Not there to see ol’ Georgy, the very Best, as they called him then either; later, perhaps. No, it was all for dearest Paddy. And he did confess it all over again to him. And he did cry but a little bit by his graveside.
How he hoped to be forgiven for having survived. How he hoped he had, somehow, done something to save his old champ, as if that was not enough, to be accused of having accidentally been killed by a bomb of his own making. Which was true, but still.
What no one knew was that, in that darkest of the nights, he was the lookout. And when the place blew out, he ran away as fast as he could. No one saw him. It was very dark and he was still very small. And he ran fast, right before the rain started. And the sirens went off.
But he had to take a moment, the following morning, when he read it all on the paper. No longer he’d share weekend trips to the woods with his surrogate old man. Or at least, his trusted elder brother. Who Sylvia never liked, but he didn’t care. No more listening to his drunken tales.
No more smelling the lonely sod’s unwashed trousers. And his rotten boots. And his boozy breath.
Of course he cried. But he would never tell a soul, that’s for sure. His secret would die with him. But then there were the crows.
He remembers them very well, how they looked at him on the day of Paddy’s burial. He could tell they knew. He always hated crows. They love to hang in cemeteries for a reason: to spy on people. To make them feel guilty. To serve as vessels for the departed. To remind the living they know.
They were still there. It took him a while before he noticed they all had gathered to watch him from their high perches. Once again, he had that feeling they could betray him and tell the world what really happened at the drop of a feather.
Back on that night, many Februaries ago, he doesn’t remember seeing them. But the club was a few blocks of the cemetery. And crows are known for being light sleepers. Yeah, they must’ve been there, watching everything.
They probably saw when Paddy and Rory and Mullen and Little rushed out, job completed, and they all scattered in the night, back to their homes as if nothing had happened. They all had good alibis, so all it’d take was to sit tight and see it all happen.
They didn’t see the point in stalking the group, when they were supposed to get to the club, as they used to do every Thursday late at night. They knew all they wanted was to course the English, those oily bastards. They’d get what they deserve, that’s for sure.
Slowly, he re-adapted himself to life in a small city. Got himself a cement-engineering job in a factory practically across his flat, which Sylvia’d practically never leave these days. She still could cook a mean boiled potato soufflé, but now it was his turn to take care of her.
He saw Peejay a couple of times too. He already knew that Maddy had since left him and moved to Wales, that she now had a couple of wee ones too. So somehow, at least in part, he fell happy that life hadn’t been too kind to Peejay either. He, himself, never married. Maybe one day, maybe never.
Actually, the only one for him was Maddy, and Peejay had destroyed that. So, yeah, he still hated his guts. But now Peejay was a cop, a fucking Irish cop in Belfast, no less. So he had to stay away from him for that too.
But there were the crows. He couldn’t believe that some started to hang by his window, right by his bedroom. At night, they’d make this bloody noise that, at first pissed him off, and then began to scare the hell out of him. He had to do something about these winged rats with pointy beaks.
He tried a few oldwife tricks but none really helped. They’d still gather outside, on the roof of the rest of the building and make their godamned cracking sound that sometimes would disrupt his late afternoon readings. And they seemed to be growing in numbers, if he could even fathom it.
In the back of his mind, of course, he also feared they would, somehow, someday, squeak on him. He was terrified that one day he’d have to choose either seeing them spilling the beans on him, and ruining the rest of his life, or making them spill their guts before having a chance to talk. Or rather, croak. Or crock, whatever the hell they call when crows tell bloody tales.
So he did come up with a way. He was an engineer, after all, methodical, rational. And murderous too. He’d do away with these rancid birds, even if it were the last thing he’d do in this life.
That night, long ago, the last one, the boys had gathered as soon as they heard the news. Since that piece of shit of a device didn’t go off, someone would have to go back there, before something terrible would happen. As it turned out, something did. A local group of mothers decided to have a discussion on the Troubles right at that godamned spot, where those lucky bastards gathered for three successive Thursdays now and didn’t get killed.
Little knew his shit, so no one could understand why it didn’t go off. It had taken him a while but he managed, he said, to bury it under the parquet in a very specially chosen place, so when someone would step on it, the whole place would go up in smithereens.
But it hadn’t happen, god knows why, and now they were concerned it’d kill the wrong people. In fact, it was a miracle it hadn’t yet. But it’s a testament to the lucky of the Irish cleaners that, without knowing, they never touched the deadly spot.
So Paddy and Rory volunteered to go back there and get rid of the stuff, before the old women would get hurt. He had a bad feeling about that, but he was a wee lad. Paddy would make fun of his concerns and, who knows, maybe even lose respect for him. So he didn’t say anything. Forever now, he wished he had.
He’d just lit a cigarette to keep himself warm, when the explosion threw his body several feet away. From then on, it all happened as if in a bad dream. He immediately realized what had just happened and thought he had a choice: go in and see if he could save the guys or run, run, run.
The fact that he chose the latter will forever haunt him. Even though he’s known for the longest time, there wouldn’t be anything anyone could’ve done; the explosion leveled the place. But he still doubts and berates himself to this day.
Sylvia was half-asleep but she’d heard something. She didn’t ask him anything and he went straight to his room and had a few hours of sleep. He never slept more than that for the rest of his life.
The following day, at school, he had this funny feeling that Peejay knew it. But he wouldn’t give anything away, specially for that motherfucker who, by now, was getting closer and closer to Maddy. Rumor had it that they had already even kissed. Oh, how she broke his heart she’ll never know. Glad she did the same to him, a few years later, but it was worst for him, because he was supposed to be her first.
He was this close of being the one, when he asked her out to the dances and she agreed. He, godamn it, got sick, terribly sick, though, and never showed up at the party. That was the night Peejay made his move. Oh, the little things that kill us every single day of our lives.
He knew what he was going to do. It’d involve a medium-size net, some bird ration and a bit of a poisonous mist he came across at his job’s warehouse. It’d probably take a few times. Oh, and he found the perfect place to hide the little carcasses. Just for a while, until he’d have a chance to bury them, which was what they deserved, those crackling snitches.
He’d never forgot about Mullen and Little. That was mean, the way they went. Paddy always said they must’ve been given away. They were found gagged, bounded and with bullets to their heads by the Lagan. They never told a soul anything. For sure, they never hurt a soul either. They definitely didn’t deserve to go the way they did. It was the only time he saw Paddy’s choked but just a bit.
He could see those two, and Paddy, and Rory, and all the others pretty much every night. He’d talk long and hard with them. They’d talk about everything. Except for one thing: they wouldn’t let him off the hook. He could still see them all, squirting their eyes, lips twisted, deep sulks on their foreheads, avoiding his gaze, avoiding his question.
He loved them all dearly, but they still would look away whenever the time would come when he’d ask, he’d beg for their understanding, their forgiveness. The time to beg would always come, but the time to be blessed by them never did. And he’d always choke but just a bit. Just like Paddy and the others. They’d all squeeze out a few drops of that undying grief, under the freezing rain, back in the time of Troubles below Black Mountain.
Sylvia was taking a little break, half-asleep again. He heard the dogs barking. When he got to the window, he could see the commotion and the little crowd in front of the factory. And he could see Peejay too. And Peejay turned his head and looked up back at him, exultant. He was smiling that kind of gotcha smile he feared all his life.
They’d discovered the little room full of rot carcasses. For just one day, he missed getting away with this one too. He’d planned for weeks that tomorrow, Sunday, would be the day. Damned dogs. He’d lost, this time. Big time. He’d finally get the punishment he always knew he deserved. He could run, run, run, but not this time. Soon they’d be coming for him. Soon it’d be all over. And he knew it; it was the crows, of course.