In the seconds before the visitor pulls a balaclava over his five o’clock shadow you already know he is bad news. A solitary figure slouching up the long farm path, no friendly wave, no shouted greeting. Skin tight denim, drainpipes your father would have called them. No dungarees, no boiler suit, you know this is not the unrecognised younger son of a neighbour, come to borrow a half pound of staples for a barbed-wire fence.
Just before his face swims into focus he pauses and pulls on the mask, taking all your attention, and you gasp in amazement as two other wraiths materialise from the shadows behind you.
Strangers on your land, in your yard. How strange are they? Let’s find out.
“Dia daoibh,” you say, strong and loud. “Dia is Muire dhuit,” replies the first stranger, “God and Mary, be with you.” The words in the Irish language roll off his lips without thought, as automatic as the responses at Mass on Sunday. If you had intoned “The Lord be with you,” he would have chanted back “And also with you.” The man behind you to your left is more fluent still; “God’s blessing upon the work,” is his reply. The third man is silent.
Before, you knew nothing about your visitors. Now you know something. Catholic, Republican, Catholic-educated, Belfast accents. They might be graduates of the University of Long Kesh, where all the Republican prisoners only speak Irish, thwarting their Unionist prison-guards, clinging desperately to this hint of dignity. The prisoners learn the language fast, or remain mute. IRA, INLA, IPLO, someone like that. The bulges in the men’s coats are more obvious now, they have shifted their stance to bring the outline of the weapons into sharp relief against their cheap, nylon bomber jackets, but they have not produced them. Yet.
You are alone on the farm. Where is Boo-boo? He is locked in the shed and you are glad he is safe. You have played many a good game with Boo-boo, but you do not want to play it now.
When the Jehovah’s Witnesses call to the farm, you always give them five minutes to talk. Five minutes is not too long to ask of any man. When the time has elapsed, you gently suggest that you will return to your labours, that they will go home. Two minutes later, if their stiff, black overcoats have not folded back into the red Datsun Cherry, you interrupt them. Sorry lads, I need to feed my little dog. As soon as you call his name, Boo-boo comes charging into the front yard. Saliva drools from his powerful chops and splatters on the ground. Jehovah’s friends gasp, or cry out as the Dobermann slips and slides to a halt, claws grating beside your wellington boot. The pamphlets drop to the ground as the men struggle back into the small car and you pick the papers up and hand them back smiling. Sorry lads, Boo-boo hates waiting for his meal.
Yes, you are glad the dog is locked up. These trigger-happy city-boys will shoot him at first sight, before the first rich, bowel-loosening bay escapes his throat, and they will almost certainly make a mess of the shot, no clean death that a noble animal such as Boo-boo deserves.
You are alone.
The men are slow to speak, they are out of their milieu. You have noted the involuntary wince, the twitch of disgust as Number One planted his shiny, black shoe into a barely-crusted cow-pat on the laneway. Such impractical footwear, winkle-pickers your Dad would have called them.
They do not intend to kill you—you would be dead by now. Why would they kill you, one of their own, minding your business, bothering no-one? What do they want?
At length, Number Three speaks, the sing-song, nasal accent you have heard on the nightly news for two decades now, detailing the litany of woe; hard vowels, missing consonants, no country softness in this voice. “Now, Mr O’Donovan, we’re here for a tractor and a dung-spreader. No need for any unpleasantness. A wee donation to the war effort, is all.”
“The war effort, lads? But I’m not at war. A wee mistake, maybe? Maybe we’ll all go back to our business and forget this wee misunderstanding?”
Number Three replies from the closeness of your right elbow, he does not touch you, but he is close, so close. “Not at war, Mr O’Donovan? The country is at war. The machinery will be put to good use, against the enemies of the Irish Republican Army.”
“Enemies, you say? Yes, enemies. Farmers have many enemies, boys. Drought is my enemy and more-so the endless rain and inundation. Lack of fodder following a wet summer is my battle and the winter frost that turns the poached fields to rutted iron is my nemesis. I have no human foe, unless you mean the men in the Co-op who set the price for the milk so low that I can bare squeeze a living from the good land my father left me. I think you have come to the wrong place.”
Numbers One and Two gawp and titter at you. Their mouths are open, catching flies your father called it. They glance uneasily to their leader for guidance. Slowly and with menace he claps his hands together, a bitter ovation. A thick gob of tobacco-brown phlegm lands on the concrete half an inch from your boot, preceding his words, calm, measured. “All well and good there, Hamlet. Ten outta ten for the composition, nice use of vocabulary there, yer teachers must be proud of you. They might be prouder still if you did your duty, and gave us the weapons we need to progress the war. Nathin’ has been said yet that can’t be unsaid.”
In the small haggard beside the house a full line of washing flutters in the wind. The empty trouser legs and the flapping shirts bring into sharp recall a woodcut you saw long ago in an old book; a gibbet, its swinging, decaying scraps of bird-pecked humanity and wind-torn clothing blurred indistinctly into one. Will you end up as a propaganda woodcut for a new generation, a photo in tomorrow’s Irish News, a misshapen heap on a wheeled gurney on the bedtime news program?
Under the laden clothesline a swoop of swallows, a hundred-strong, frantically pecks, seeking worms, seeds, roots, anything that will sustain them on their journey back to Africa, away out of this mad hell-hole. You know that any moment now, this massed gathering of rats on wings will take fright and take flight and with a sound like the rattle of distant machine-gun-fire will wheel up and away over your heads. You know that the visitors will jump and flinch, taking their eye off the ball, your father called it. If you are to take a chance, a fight or flight, it must be then.
“What time is it, boys?” Whatever is to happen, it must happen before Cormac comes cycling back from the Sacred Heart College in Omagh. What time is it? You know that if the boy comes home, you are lost. You know that if the men speak to your motherless son, if they casually touch one inch of his precious skin, or ruffle his hair in jest, you are lost.
You see it unfold in your mind’s eye in slow motion, a premonition of the certainty of things to come. The man reaches out to touch your child, to take his bicycle from him, to inspire him in this heroic adventure against the enemies of God, motherland and nature. You see yourself pivot and turn. Your teak-hard fist falls, like the sledge-hammer you wielded all day yesterday, against the skull of this frail city-weakling. Number Two you take down with a kick to the back of the knee, stamping and grinding your heel into his face, crushing his Belfast whine with your toe on his windpipe. Number One is lifted from the ground by the impact of your shoulder, massive from five decades of bullock-wrestling. Or else he has managed to extract his gun by now and has ended you. Either way, dead or in prison, murdered or murderer, you leave the boy behind, alone. Orphan.
Whatever is to happen, must happen soon.
“Mr O’Donovan, we don’t have all day. There is an easy way and a hard way. We need the keys. Giz the keys, Mr O’Donovan and then take a wee sit-down in a chair with a hankie in yer mouth for a few hours. It’s not much to ask.”
You know that these men have never set foot on a farm before. It is no easy matter for a novice to hitch a muck-spreader to a tractor, working by instinct, one toe on the accelerator, the length of the body at full stretch, twisted and hoisted, head out the rear window. If you are clever, and brave, this could work out.
“The keys are in my pocket, boys. I won’t give them to you. I daresay you will be able to take them, eventually.” No-one has drawn a gun yet, but the faceless men are sighing and flexing their fingers. Whatever happens, you must not get shot. You must not go to hospital with a six-pack, bullets lodged in your knees, elbows and ankles. You must get away with a clean deception.
“Alo! Quit acting the fuckin’ maggot. Giz the keys, and you won’t get hurt. Three armed men, against one? No need to act the fuckin’ hero, no blame on an innocent farmer tied up and threatened by three masked men with guns.”
No more Mr O’Donovan, then, is that good or bad, you wonder.
“Lads, I feel sure it won’t be necessary to get the armoury out. What would people say? Shooting one of your own? On his own land, leaving a child orphaned? No, lads, there’s nothing to be gained by shooting me, that can’t be obtained with a few slaps.”
Number Two is twitching now, impatience reeks off him like steam off fresh dung on a frosty morning behind the cows on their slow walk to the parlour. “I’ll cover you, get on with it,” he says, producing a sawn-off. He holds the gun surprisingly still, you were expecting a bad case of nerves, the gun-barrel to execute frail, trembling circles in his shaking hands but he is steady as a rock. He has pointed a gun at a man before.
You stand like a statue as the first blow sinks into your solar plexus. You will not fight back— it is essential not to get shot— but you are hard and strong as a bull in his prime; this is not going to be quick. You finally sink to your knees as the blows rain down one after another. Your eye is closing fast. A concerto of kicks plays out upon your torso, ringing dull in your ears, mingling with the sounds of the men’s demands.
They are wary, afraid to put their hands in your pockets. Is it a trap? Are you going to spring back to life from your bloodied mess, like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western, and turn the tables? You know you are not, you are not acting, you are close to the edge, blackness is creeping in at the sides of your vision. Soon you will be unconscious. You can barely hear yourself now— your first stoical grunts quickly turned to roars, but at last all the sound that is left to you is automatic, each breath thumped out of you is producing its own soft, chordal moan, as primal as a baby’s sob.
The men stop, you can hear their laboured breathing; it has not been an easy task to fell you, a giant country oak full of knots and sap. “Alo, there’s no call for this. We’re not animals. Give us the keys.” You can scarcely see, you can just about speak, “I don’t think you’re animals, you’re doing what you think is right, it’s in your nature.” You gasp and drag another hacking breath into your burning lungs. “But I can’t give you the tractor to plant your bomb. I just can’t, it’s not in my nature.”
Number Three bends down and kneels on the concrete beside you, a priest’s genuflection before the final benediction. In slow motion you see the handgun approach your left temple, lazily whipping you towards blessed oblivion.
You wake in the hospital bed. Cormac is on a plastic chair beside your locker, upon which rests an incongruous bunch of grapes. Your son’s face, still innocent of the razor, lights up at your first moan. Has it worked? The deception? Is it complete and clean?
You wake again tomorrow, you swim in and out of daylight. Hospital is wonderful you think, until you notice the spiders. The spiders are coming from behind the wallpaper, from cracks in the lino on the floor of the South Tyrone Hospital. Black-and-orange hairy, they surge from the locker drawer and out of the half-eaten grapes. The spiders swarm over you, making you claw and tear at your skin. The nurses hold you down, they murmur in your ear, they hush your screaming. “No more morphine,” you beg, “I’d sooner the pain than the spiders.”
One day the Polis come. They toss their hats, with RUC emblazoned, onto your bed; Nurse tut-tuts and removes them. Cormac is to give his evidence in your presence, he has no other guardian. He came home, he found you in the yard, he called the ambulance. That’s it. He has nothing to add. Neighbour men are taking care of the milking, he is feeding the calves. He is sharing a bedroom with Phelim McNeill. Mrs McNeill is a good cook, better than you. All is well. He looks to you for confirmation, you nod. “Good man yerself, son.”
Now it’s time for your statement. The Polis-man turns to a fresh page of his notebook, licks the nib of his biro pensively. At first he makes a few desultory notes, then pauses incredulous. “The bull? The bull? You’re telling me the bull trampled you? D’you think I came down the fuckin’ Bann River in a bubble, man dear? Someone beat the livin’ shite out of you… pardon me, Ma’am…” He blushes and looks quickly at the nurse. “I’ve heard worse,” she shrugs, “I used to be a midwife.”
You struggle to speak more clearly, every fibre holding your spirit to your body burns with a fiery ache. “The bull. He turned on me. Quick as can be. It happens. I was lucky to drag meself back til the yard.” You are coarsening your speech, acting the bumpkin. “He turned on me and the cows panicked. God alone knows how many trampled me. I’m a lucky man.”
“You’re a damn fool liar,” the officer’s outraged face is puce, a vein throbs in the very centre of his forehead. “The tractor was in the middle of the shed, the doors near ripped off, the slurry tanker couped on the floor. We found the keys in a ditch. Explain all that, I’d love ta hear it.”
“I can’t explain none of thon, officer, I dunno what I was doing. I daresay I’d lost a bit of blood, had I, Nurse? Mebbe I was trying to drive meself to hospital—”
“In a tractor? In a tractor, and a Ford Escort in the yard, half-full tank? Do you think that because the uniform’s green we’re all cabbages? We’ll be back—and you can think about obstructing the course of justice, and wasting the time of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, while you lie there.” The door slams back on its hinges, shaking a fine, sparkly film of dust from the top of the lintel onto the shiny, peaked hats as the men stalk out.
Cormac looks at you like you are the second-coming-of-Christ. “God, Da, that’s amazing. You got back from the oak-tree field on your own? That’s a-maz-ing. Fuckin’ Rambo you are.” He takes your hand and a tear falls down his cheek. Your son is a toddler again, standing at the side of your bed, roused weeping from sleep, by a dream of his Mammy in Heaven. You blink and come back to the present, with all its pain and its joy. You have survived, you are here with him, he need not know about nor fear the shadows of the men in the masks. Nothing else matters.
“Will we have ta kill the bull now, Da? Now that he’s dangerous?”
Your fingers fall weakly from his hand; the joy of holding it is outweighed by the pain.
“We won’t be killing him, he’s no more dangerous than he was last week, and no less. Animals are always dangerous, son. None of us can change what’s in our nature.”
Orla McAlinden is an emerging writer of fiction and short memoir. Her stories have been published in The Chattahoochee Review, Ragnarok, The Fish anthology, A New Ulster, Wordlegs.com and Numberelevenmagazine.com. Her work has won or been shortlisted for several prizes including the Fish Short Memoir, the Valhalla Press short prose, the Wasafiri New Writing and several on-line contests. Orla blogs at http://orlamcalindenwrites.wordpress.com.