Reading in Northern Ireland
Nick Miller

Runner-Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Shane Dugan reads Irish whenever he can, although he is no good at it. Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste / Broken Irish is better than clever English. He read a lot of things, poetry and prose, truth and fiction. He tried to stay away from newspapers; they often miss the most important parts of the story. For example, they never mention how hot rubble is when it rains down upon you.

The first piece of concrete was the hardest to move, but once it was gone, the young man reveled for a moment in the sweet oxygen that rushed in from above, like an angel pulling him into the light of a future where bombs were to be replaced with nights at the dance hall and motorcycle races and records so cheap you could pick them up by the handful. That was not real. Real was smoke billowing into dead air that rang with screams of women and children and men bawling a perverse chorus. After he emerged from the island of rubble, Shane listened and watched as if he were a spectator to the attack rather than a victim. It all went silent once he staggered forward, the sight before him too much to comprehend.

A man in a tattered shirt tried to put his little boy’s arm back on his body, the frail arch of his back hanging over the man’s shaking knee. The lump of a human laid dead in his hands as he tried to stop the blood with same tweed coat the little boy wore when grandma and grandpa gave him his first hurley on the Donegal beachhead last spring—the day he stuck out his chest and beamed. The man in the tattered shirt held his boy’s body together, refusing to let the ambulance take his universe entire. From him came a wail of pain unimaginable, the utter and complete loss of something one cannot comprehend until it rips through you. My boy. My boy. My boy.

 

Shane awoke to the murky light of a hospital, slowly, that faded to reveal a hideous mustard yellow room with old, rumbling medical equipment shared between three other victims. They were in the Catholic hospital. His father, old and lean, looked out a window, elbow above his head on the window overlooking the city as if he himself were planning where to plant the retaliatory bomb. He was silent without anyone to complain to as his wife had gone for a bite to eat. He knew that Marianne would never give a fair listen to any of his thoughts. Marianne, Shane’s steady from their first days at university, noticed him first, jumping at him, holding his bandaged head in both her soft hands, running her fingers through his curly black hair. She started to cry.

“Jesus Shane I tought they took you …”

He was still too dazed to speak; his head rang from what he was sure was a concussion at the very least. Marianne barked at his father to get the doctor. He didn’t listen, instead turning around and lumbering over from the window hurriedly. He slapped his son on the shoulder with an empty jubilance, feigning that everything was okay. “There he is, there’s the man! I knew it! Too strong to be taken down. How’re ya feeling?” You may imagine that Shane would have asked what happened. He didn’t need to. That was Belfast in 1978 when you were a Catholic, or a Protestant, or just a person.

Soon enough, a doctor walked briskly in and glanced at him, reviewing the details of his injuries with an inhuman nonchalance. A twisted ankle, gash in the head, concussion, nothing horrific. The rubble did most of the damage; he was lucky to be in the alley rather than the pub itself. With that, the doctor got up to leave, likely tending to something far worse, perhaps the man in the tattered shirt himself. The silence opened a hole for his father to speak once more, this time refusing to bow to Marianne’s distaste for politics.

“And you know the police won’t do a damn ting about et, that’s for sure. No such thing as justice in this community.”

Marianne ignored him completely and took Shane’s hand as they looked at each other while his father’s words melted into the nothing they were. Her lightly curled strawberry blonde hair was a lovely mess, bouncing and swaying off her head like mountain water. If he looked like more of a Spaniard than an Irishman, she was Queen Maeve herself, the goddess of Connacht there to tend to his wounds or slash them again if she wished. This former would prove difficult.

She asked him if he was okay, and he said he was. This was a lie. He wouldn’t be okay, not for some time, not until long after the little boy with the tweed coat and hurley was buried and blessed by the parish priest with the whole neighborhood in attendance; not until long after the man in the tattered shirt was free of his pain, whether it be through time, a bottle, a bomb made himself, or maybe even until the soldiers go home forever.

 

Five days after the incident, he sat in their shared flat sipping muddy tea after Friday classes, staring at a wall as she walked in with produce and a bottle of cheap wine. He didn’t acknowledge her.

“You alright there, Shane? Starin’ at the wall like it’s the cinema.”

He responded accordingly. This was his new, special talent. Telling people that you are all right is a real challenge at first, but then it gets real easy, like a dog learning to chase a rabbit on cue.

“Oh yeh, just grand, love.”

She rubbed her hand through his hair again like in the hospital, casually this time, almost like he was a good dog, a good boy who could do whatever was asked of him. Now he was asked to be okay, so he was.

She smiled a real smile—that warm type of smile that is reserved for the quiet moments, when it is raining hard and you and the one you love are close to one another in the street—like the pair on the cover of that Bob Dylan record they listened to when they sat inside and read books together. It was a lovely, lovely smile there for a moment and gone like a flash in the pan. Shane didn’t bother looking at it.

Marianne put the groceries down and left to put the record on and roll a joint on the cardboard cover, returning to the kitchen where he sat as the record spun from “Blowin in the Wind” to “Girl From the North Country.” She leaned her shoulder on the doorway, crossed her left ankle over the right and craned her head down so that brilliant hair fell over, out and about all down her tight red sweater. She interrupted Shane’s date with drywall. “Between my finger and my tumb the squat joint rests, snug as a gon.”

She continued, stepping towards him, taking a seat next to him, hand slapping his thigh. “Under my window, the clean rasping sound of a match burning and falling to the ground … oh feck off that’s brilliant!” She paused as he looked over and forced a smile so poorly she could tell it was forced. Bad dog.

The trouble with dead little boys is that they have a way of sneaking up on you. They find ways to catch you with their blooddrained faces in drywall or showing you their burnt, crispy shoes on a roach. Shane watched her take a big hit and let the stench sneak up his nose and crawl into each crevasse of his head, his eyes still fixed on the dying flame as it gently fell apart. Before, he would have laughed, loudly and freely, but not today. He was in his own postlapsarian world.

Was it wrong to take it? Was it wrong to see a little boy cut down and pretend that he could just go on and indulge in everything under the damn sun because fuck-it-I-don’t-want-to-think-about-it? Was this any different than getting on a plane for London or Trieste? Fuck if he knew. Fuck if anything was going to get better. Fuck if it even could. As Bob Dylan dipped into “Masters of War” Shane lost the strength to even hold his head up and dropped his it into Marianne’s lap, crying for the lost boy with the hurley. He cried for all the lost people buried beneath hot rubble, all the once beautiful and ugly people reduced to tally marks on the nightly news. He paid the price of being human in a world that serves tragedy once a day and twice on Sundays. He tried to articulate it, this mess, this weight to Marianne, which only made her start to cry too as Bob Dylan’s voice died without resuming. He cried until he had nothing left to give to God or the ether. That was being human in Belfast.

 

What you need to know about the Irish is that they have an uncanny way of speaking for hours and saying nothing while managing to impart the greatest wisdom in the Western world between gulps—you never sip Guinness, you gulp it. Shane emerged from his short sleep with messy hair and a thirst for a pint. The outburst was cathartic, a moment of humanity that allowed him to return to normal, but now he needed a pint. He needed to chat, he needed to argue and laugh and be the human part of him that was still free. The reason that the Irish go out as much as they do is that going out does not feel like you are out at all—a good pub is an extension of the home. Shane joined up with his friends at their spot to raucous applause. It was the first time they had seen him since he first left the hospital. Drinks were on them, which was just grand, and for a time, Shane felt like he was normal again. They moaned over the calls in the latest match and pined over girls across the bar. They didn’t talk about anything serious, either because it was too sad or too boring. Eoin joked that he didn’t want the argument to get “explosive” for Shane’s sake. Cillian slapped him upside the head as an awkward silence filled their area for a moment until Shane laughed along, claiming that he would be the only one that would survive.

Just then, as if on cue, a tall man in fading tweed approached with his hands in his pockets. He stood with his shoulders back, bottom lip drooping in a casual, authoritative look on his face, sizing up the casualty before him. If Shane didn’t like what he was about to say, it wouldn’t matter much. “Shane Dugan. I’m glad to see you’re still in one piece. I’m buying you a drink.” He began to turn away with an assurance that would have compelled Christ himself to follow. The lads gave Shane a look that urged him to go along, and he obeyed as the chatter of the busy bar faded away. The man didn’t introduce himself, and he didn’t need to. They passed the traditional band and sat down in a dimly lit room in the back.

“Yer father told me you’re doing all right, but I tought I’d check in myself.”

“I’m just fine really, more shaken about the others to be truthful.”

He nodded a nod that he had done many a time before. He was the type of man who knew what true terror and death was. He leaned forward and gestured with his finger, pointing at him and the rest of the bar.

“Good. I’m not going to waste yer time, Mr. Dugan. You’re feeling a pain we all feel, son. All of Ireland feels it and has felt it for so long it’s a part of our psyche—700 years of that pain and humiliation and suffering in this community in particular. I want ye to know that we are taking care of it.” The stress in Shane’s eyes shifted the man’s pitch as he backed off, less confrontational. “The families, I mean. They’ll be taken care of, funeral expenses, the whole lot of it. I offered some to yer da, in fact, but he said you would likely be more interested in making sure the father of the little boy was all together. Is that right?”

“Yes sir. That was the worst part.”

“I bet it was, it bet it was.” He looked down at his shoes for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “He was foive, ya know. Foive years old a week ago; they went to a beach in Donegal and he got his first hurley. It barely goes up to my knee, knob to head.”

Shane could only manage to nod silently as the old man leaned back in his chair and crossed his knee over the other, placing his old, rugged hands atop the boney knob extending through corduroy. Just then, the door opened and the barman brought two full pints into the room, set them down and left, the door standing slightly ajar. Music began to leak into the room. Go on home British soldiers go on home, have ye got no fuckin homes of yer own? The lanky man continued, his voice as dead as a living man could be. “One day, Shane, there won’t be a need for bombs or for men to protect us from the police. It doesn’t end through song though, not through song alone.” He started to unfold himself from his position in the only way a man broken from war could: painfully. He took a gulp as he stood up, reaching into his coat pocket slowly, his hairy hand reaching for God knew what. “Your father tells me you’re a reader.” Great Men of Ireland: James Connoly fell with a dead thud on the table. “Take care of yourself, Mr. Dugan. The world won’t do it for you.”

He shuffled out back into the bar, opening the door once again to allow the songs to flood back in. So fuck your Union Jack, we want our country back … The book was dog-eared to page 16, which had an address just around the corner from his flat scrawled across the bottom. Shane looked at it for what felt like 800 years.

 

The bed was cold and empty as the morning light crept between the blinds and the window, striking a fine line across the linen. Marianne had been gone for some time, likely having tea with her gran as she did on Saturdays. Shane pulled himself out of bed and lumbered into the kitchen for an egg, flipping the sitting room radio on along the way. He gathered the eggs from the fridge and caught a glimpse of the book as he closed the door. Jesus, that book.

The address wasn’t far from where he stood, not far at all. The man in tweed was convincing last night, much more convincing Shane would have liked. Everything he said was, in one way or another, true. The little boy’s hurley was short, only up to his knee at best, ripped apart and splintered like bones that were still growing into a man. In a momentary lapse of reason, Shane left the sizzling egg on the pan and reached for his jacket.

He didn’t run. He walked with fury, his feet clopped the sidewalk as if he was leading the volunteers in Dublin himself. He was falling, nay, charging into a tradition bold and brave. No real man could curse or compel him to do anything else, not today. He rapped on the door before placing his hands in the front pockets of his jacket, subconsciously puffing out his chest to appear as though he was a tough son of a bitch who had been there from the beginning, as though he’d laid every brick in the house.

A stout woman with a skeptical, angry look to her opened the door as far as the chain allowed. She peered out with one eye at him, speaking up after a moment of stale silence. “Well, what is it you’re wanting?”

It was in that moment Shane realized that he had no idea what he was doing. He stammered emptily before simply telling her who he was, banking on the prospect she was in on the meeting.

“Is that name supposed to mean somting to me?” He paused again, crippled by both fear and mere social ineptitude.
Just in time, the man in tweed appeared and shooed the woman off, opening the door to him. “Shane Dugan. I tought I’d be seeing you. Come in.”

Shane followed him into the house and hung his coat behind the door, still feeling the woman’s eyes slicing straight through the back of his shoulders. The man gestured towards the sitting room and Shane followed.

They sat on upholstery that was faded and loose to the touch, creaking and straining beneath the modest payload that was Shane’s lanky body. The man sat in his tell-tale position, head back and pointed slightly up towards the ceiling as he struck a match on the bottom of his shoe to light a pipe. These were only sounds populating the room. Finally, after taking a puff and leaning back once again, the old man spoke up.

“You’re a quick reader.”

“I’ve heard a thing or two on him before.”

“And tell me, how do things go for Mr. Connolly?”

“Not well.”

“Tied to a chair and shot like a dog because he was too wounded to stand. No, Shane—not well at all, but some things are bigger than we are.” He sat up and leaned forward, resting his sharp elbows on old, bulbous knees, looking him square in the eye and pointing to him with the mouthpiece of his pipe. “And you know that. That’s why you’re here.” He reached into his pocket and grabbed another book, or rather a leaflet bound in string at the sides and nothing more. “I’ve got some other pressing affairs today, so I haven’t much time.” He chuckled and took another pull from his pipe as he handed Shane the booklet. “I’m not supposed to give this to you yet but I trust ye. Now, when you leave, stuff it in your coat pocket or your jocks. It’s a manual for our operations, not a copy of Oliver Twist. Take the quickest way home and read it front to back tonight. Bring it back here next week and we’ll swear you in. That’s your new bible; you’ll find all kinds of salvation.” He grinned at the brilliance of his final thought.

The pages were crinkled and hard, yet the book could have only a hundred pages at most. Shane took it and felt its massive weight in its hands, each word and page both sacred and terrifying to the touch. A faint noise from upstairs leaked through the ceiling as he tucked it away, prompting the woman to scurry into the room and whisper something in the man’s ears. The old man took her words with no visible emotion—at this point, anything she could have told him was old hat. He nodded and heaved himself up from the chair, still a picture of nonchalance, one hand casually resting in his pants pocket while the other removed the pipe, punctuating the final thin cloud of tobacco smoke that ran from his crooked mouth.

“That’ll have to be it for now, Mr. Dugan. Read that and read it well. Make sure your head is together before you come back here. There’ll be no going back then.”

Shane nodded and stood up as well, shaking the man’s hand. He turned to the door and grabbed his coat.

Upon arriving home, Shane tucked the book under the mattress and took a shower to think about anything else. Instead, he thought about Ledwidge’s “Ireland” that he had studied last term.

And then you called to us from far and near.
To bring your crown from out the deeps of time,
It is my grief your voice I couldn’t hear
In such a distant clime.

Ledwidge was blown to bits by a German shell while sipping tea. It’s been said that he was convinced he was fighting for Ireland rather than for its oppressors, but people tell themselves lots of things when they are killing other people. Now Shane was one of them. He stepped out of the shower and killed the water—Marianne would have his ass for the heating bill. He wondered why she hadn’t said something already as he stepped out from the bathroom with just a towel around his waist, reveling in the cool air for a moment as he walked into his bedroom, changed, and returned to the small sitting room adjacent the kitchen of their shared apartment. Marianne stood in the doorway between the sitting room and the kitchen barring him from the hot tea, her arms crossed while holding a copy of the little green book. Her eyes were lovely daggers that plowed into his chest, pulled his heart down into his stomach, through his shoes, and into the floor. Her voice shook with a profound disappointment as she stormed him and dropped the book on the coffee table. “Please tell me, somehow, that this isn’t what I think it is.”

He wished he could say that it wasn’t, he wished that very badly.

She continued, “I know that what you saw and what you went trough was hell, Shane, I really do. But not this. You have seen it, Shane, we have both seen it. We have both seen people eaten aloive by this—I thought you were better, I thought we were better.” She raised her hand from the table and gestured towards the sky. “You fooled me into believin’ you were above the politics, some sort of artist, a lafty intellectual, but here ye are falling for the same shit everyone else does.” She paused for a moment and looked down at the ground, sighing loudly. “Not me. I will not be another helpless, pining waif who watches the people she loves daye and kill women and babies. I will sooner leave you right here and right focking now than stick around to watch you become—”

“Become what? Become a man? Become more than chattle taking everything without as much as a—”

“A focking statistic! That’s what!” She forced the book into his chest and stormed off into their bedroom. He tried to reach out to her, to grab her and explain.

“Don’t touch me, Shane. Get out of here, take yer damn book with ye and don’t bring it back. You with yer tears for the little boy—crocodile tears.” She was pointing at him forcefully, her outstretched finger digging into him, scooping and unearthing everything nasty beneath as if he had already pulled off a hit or twenty. She slammed the bedroom door behind him, leaving Shane in a crater.

He stormed out through the kitchen like he was cavalry again, plowing down the apartment stairs and into the night air. He kept walking, book tucked tightly in his side pocket, down this street and that street, still never registering where he was, why he was, or where he was going. The smiling dog who could play along with the world was now a wolfhound angry enough to free Ireland himself, lifting her above her oppressors—Eire’s Atlas.
Damn if anyone could tell him that he was wrong to fight that for his people, that he didn’t have a right to break everything and everybody that snapped that little boy’s spine, that he was some sort of villain for resisting and raging against death. All of this and more clogged his mind with rage until he winced in pain at his ankle, the only thing still rooting him in reality. He looked down at it as he hobbled over to the curb, forced to take stock in his surroundings.

It was rubble, cool to the touch now but the same, unmistakable rubble, much of it still strewn about with nothing but thin rope separating what was once a real place full of real people from the street. A memorial display sat where the door once was, the once warm stoop still rooted in the good earth. By now, the candles were extinguished and filled with stale rainwater, the flowers brittle.

Shane sat straight down and confronted the display and all of its hollowness. The pictures had been crinkled with dirty rain water. He saw the little boy as if god himself had put Shane on this earth for no reason other than to stare at a polaroid. He sat there alone for some time, just staring. Shuffling dress shoes interrupted his enraged meditation, kicking rocks about as they moved. A well-dressed man took a seat next to Shane on the ground, knees drawn in like an upright fetal position with his back arched over it all. Keeping his eyes straight on the display, he spoke up.

“I haven’t seen you here before. Did you lose someone?”

“Nobody in particular. They almost got me though.”

“Aye.”

The wet, rotten air went cold. Shane asked the man who he lost.

“There he is,” he said, smiling the saddest smile Shane had ever seen, that smile just forced enough to be clearly fake.

Shane tried to match it. “I heard he loved his sport.”

The man chuckled. “Yes, yes he did. Just like his old man.” More pounding silence sat between them. The man in the tattered shirt, now the man in the suit, continued with his casual tone receding. “I’m guessing the men from the brigade had a word with yeh then.”

Shane played dumb.

“Yeh can stop with that, trust me. I know all that well. I even know where you hide the damn book.” He outstretched his hand for it. Shane complied like a schoolboy caught with chewing gum. Taking it, he brushed through the pages, nodding with a sad familiarity, before sighing again, looking up to the sky as if the stars spelled out what to say next.

“I was 27 when I joined up after Bloody Sunday, too young for kids of my own.” He sighed again, unsure how to relay the weight of his words. “When you have a child, you recognize that your life is not yours anymore, that a human you made is running around totally at the mercy of the world. And now he’s gone. He’s still gone every morning when I go and look at his little empty bed and wonder whether or not the other parents keep them unmade too.” He finally turned to look at Shane, who couldn’t bear to look back as the image of cold blankets and sheets in crinkled, chaotic positions engulfed him. The man held the book out to him.

“I’ll be keeping this then, yeah?”

Shane nodded. The man stood up once again, tucked the book into his small of his back, and extended his hand to Shane. He didn’t take it, still too ashamed to move. The man gave him a pat on his shoulder before striding down the street into darkness. Shane covered his eyes from the world and wept into the damp pavement.

 

Shane closed the door slowly and shuffled into the kitchen, flipping the light on as he placed his keys in the bowl. Marianne rounded the corner gently, crossing her arms once again as she lowered her head and looked down at the ground, speaking softly.

“Yer not taking another step if have that focking book on ye.”

Shane took his jacket off and emptied everything from his pockets, dropping it all on the ground with his shame in tow, unable to look at her. His shoes came off next, then his socks and sweater, stripping nearly everything down until he was there in just his trousers, no book in sight, clothing and pocket change and pieces of paper scattered about on the floor, desperate to prove he didn’t have it, desperate to prove that his bare skin could undo it all.

Nick Miller is a student at UVM majoring in English and Political Science.