Few people turned up at the requiem mass the next morning and I guessed that only a small handful of them had even heard of Marie, let alone met her. I’d sent a message to Pat Mulholland through the parish priest, but he didn’t come either, which was a pity. I could’ve done with a few pointed words in his ears.
Surprisingly, Penny Hamilton was there, hiding at the back of the church and trying not to look out of place, which is no mean trick for someone in her line of business. She was dressed like a high school kid on a first date, fancy but not over the top in a flowery dress beneath a pink coat. Hardly the sort of thing for a requiem mass, but it looked pretty good to me. I approached her after the service, when the priest had hobbled away and we were both left standing in drizzly rain in the churchyard. She smiled apprehensively.
“I’m glad you came, Penny. I didn’t think you were a closet Catholic.”
“You know perfectly well I’m not.” She glanced around, eyes searching. Strange to see a kid of her age frightened of being in a churchyard in full daylight. “I was feeling a bit uneasy about it, but it seemed right to come. You know what I mean?”
In truth I didn’t know, but I let it pass. Across her shoulder I saw a graffiti-splashed wall sporting the words PROVISIONAL IRA—WE WILL WIN. A republican flag was painted underneath, flanked by pictures of two hooded mobsters in battle fatigues.
I put a hand lightly to her arm. “Mrs Gidley…” I paused to consider what I wanted to say about Penny’s employer.
“Big Tessie? What about her?”
“Tessie? Is that her name? She didn’t know Marie was a Catholic. Or… at least… she said she didn’t.”
Penny blinked, like something had suddenly bugged her. She took a step back, breaking the contact between us. “You mean you talked to her about your family being Catholics? God, you’re green about the gills, Henry Bodine!”
“You think I should have figured out that people like the Gidleys eat Catholics for breakfast?” I tried to look subdued.
She fingered her shoulder bag nervously. “Tessie Gidley knew the form anyway, the lying bastard. She knew which side of the fence your sister got her religion. The real name’s a dead giveaway. You won’t find many prods in Ireland called Marie.”
“So why did they take her on?”
“Because she was good. One of the best.” She took a moment to compose her words. “The Gidleys would take on any girl if she was good. They made money out of it and they paid well. There’s another agency in the Falls Road, run by Catholics, but they don’t pay nearly as well and Marie needed the money.”
“Because she was pregnant?”
“And to pay the rent.” She shrugged. “Did you go and see Pat Mulholland?”
“Not yet, I thought he would come to the mass. Maybe I’ll see him later this morning.” I felt an urge to hesitate, get the words clear in my head before I let them out. Instead, I ran straight on. “Look, I’m flying back to the States tomorrow. I’m taking Marie’s body now it’s released for burial. Could we meet again this evening, just to talk? Have dinner, maybe?”
She blushed and replied in a confused voice. “Have dinner with you? Are you kidding? After what you had to say about strippers?” She laughed self-consciously, but broke off when she saw that I was deadly serious. “You’re not kidding, are you? You really are asking me for a date.”
“A date? Well, call it what you will. I need to talk to you some more about Marie. How about you come to the hotel and have dinner with me. Say, about eight o’clock?”
After a long pause with her eyes half closed, she flicked open her lids. “Okay. You’re quite sure you want me to come?”
“I asked, didn’t I? Yeah, I want you to come.” I enjoyed the feel of the words on my lips but I couldn’t explain why, not even to myself.
“Right. Eight o’clock, then. Which hotel?”
I told her where I was staying. She nodded, smiled and backed away. I could have sworn that blush still lingered on her face as she hurried out into the busy street. I didn’t think emotions like that came easily to girls in her sort of trade, but I must have been wrong. Inwardly, I warmed to her.
On the third attempt, I found a cabbie willing to drive me to the Divis Flats. The first one pointedly sneered something about Fenian bastards, the second simply ignored me and the third wanted a premium payment. In advance. I should have got the message that this was going to be no fun ride, but still I wasn’t prepared for the reality of the Divis Flats. Neither could I figure out why they call them flats when they’re actually high rise apartments.
The locals called it ‘the Divis’, which was a simple name for a complex place. Republican slogans were daubed everywhere on the walls, like tribal graffiti designed to intimidate anyone who stepped over the reservation boundary. Wall murals on an epic scale marked out the tribal hunting grounds with scenes of powerful young braves in battle fatigues. By contrast, groups of surly, sour-faced youths lounged about on the street corners, smoking incessantly, eyes red with the effects of pot. The smell of it hung heavy in the air.
Pat Mulholland lived with his mother on the second floor of a block that was just as dingy as all the rest. I trod warily, constantly watching my back as I made my way to the front door. It wasn’t the lumps of dog shit that made the place smell bad, it was the atmosphere.
It was Pat himself who opened the door to me. I recognised him from the photograph even though he wasn’t exactly smiling when he saw me. His eyes held a wary expression, which was hardly surprising as he didn’t know me from Adam. The photograph had given me a clue to why Marie fell for him: what he lacked in social niceties, he made up for in good looks—ruggedly handsome in a Harrison Ford sort of way. Lean and clean-shaven, he stood about six foot tall in his trainers, which were as worn and dirty as the rest of his clothes. His ragged jeans and sweat shirt hung lifelessly from his slim frame.
Behind him, in the dim interior of the apartment, I made out the elfin outlines of dirty children crying, shouting, running bare-foot over naked floor boards.
“Yeah?” Pat peered past me, taking in the watching faces behind a dozen twitching window drapes. You didn’t need a degree in gun law to see that the only security in the Divis lay in each inhabitant minding his own back.
I held out a hand. “Hi, I’m Henry Bodine, Marie’s brother.”
“Yeah. I heard about you.”
“Word gets around.” Pat sucked through his teeth and continued looking beyond me to study the hostile world outside. “God save us, why the hell did you want to come here of all places?”
“To see you.”
He ignored my hand and stepped back. “Shite. You’d better come inside, so you had.”
I followed him into the apartment but should have known better. Already I was getting the creeps up my spine, and that was a warning I’d experienced in other hostile places. A strong stench of unwashed bodies reached out as he showed me into a small living room. Two women, one old and wrinkled and the other young, fat and slovenly, were watching television. Both were smoking and a heavy grey cloud hung in the air, fighting for supremacy over the body odours. The room was unfurnished, except for a settee and the television. Even the floor was bare. A faded drape was stretched across the window.
“Me sister and me mammy.” Pat gestured towards them off-handedly. He seemed more easy-going with the front door closed. Like a master in his own manor.
The two women stared at me as if I was the beast from the Black Lagoon, eyes narrowed into slits, mouths clamped tight. Neither moved nor spoke. I’d seen the same sort of silent, hostile caution in Bosnia where a word out of place could cost you your life.
“This is Marie’s brother, so it is,” Pat explained and the tension eased marginally, but no one moved. I was left standing just inside the door.
“Hi.” I smiled awkwardly.
Still neither of the women spoke.
Children had been shouting in the background from the moment I entered the house, presumably Pat’s sister’s kids. Now they began to spill into the room, the unclean refuse of a family on its last legs.
I grabbed at Pat’s shirt sleeve. “I need to talk to you about Marie. Is there anywhere we can be alone?”
He took a half-finished butt from his pocket, stuffed it into his mouth and lit up. “You’d better come through to the kitchen. Through here.”
The closet-sized kitchen smelled of stale food as well as dirty people. Pat shut the door behind us and we were as alone as we were ever going to be inside the apartment.
I got straight down to business. “Penny Hamilton gave me your address. I’m going back home to the States tomorrow with Marie’s body. Did you get the message about the requiem mass?”
“Yeah. Couldn’t get away.” A dull look of resignation crept round the corners of his mouth. “You know how it is.”
I figured he was about Marie’s age, no more than early to mid-twenties. His black hair was tousled, his sweat shirt ripped and dirty. And yet, despite the ragged appearance, I detected something that set him apart from the crowd and I couldn’t immediately pin point what it was. It wasn’t just the easy-going Southern Irish lilt in his voice, nor the girl-grabbing good looks. It was a personal ‘presence’, outwardly compelling at first glance and yet suspiciously unreal if you knew what to look for.
“What happened, Pat? Why was Marie killed?”
He stared at me, open-mouthed as if I had accused him of my poor sister’s murder. After a moment’s awkward silence, he cast his eyes to the floor, drew deeply on his smoking butt and spoke slowly. “I don’t know why you’ve come here, Bodine, but whatever it is you can lay off me. How the hell should I know why she was killed? Christ, I wasn’t there, was I?”
I stood my ground and soured up my voice. “Why was she in the taxi that evening?”
“She was goin’ out to work. Didn’t they tell you that?”
I gritted my teeth. Whatever Marie had been doing, she wasn’t on her way to any legitimate job. She was there so she could strip off in front of lecherous old guys with nothing better to do. “Come on now, Pat. Think. What really happened, and who could have done it?”
“I told you. I dunno. How should I feckin’ well know who did it or why they did it? She was killed and I wasn’t there to see it, was I? Jesus! Don’t you think I’ve spent hours wonderin’ who the feckin’ hell did it! Don’t you think I’ve gone over it time and again to try to work out what the hell happened?”
“You spoke to the police about it?”
“You’re jokin’. You don’t talk to the police here in the Divis.” He snorted loudly. “It’s more than your feckin’ life’s worth.”
I tried to keep the astonishment from my voice. It wasn’t easy. “You didn’t go to the police! And they didn’t come looking for you?”
“They looked. They didn’t find me. Not yet.”
“You mean… Marie was blown up and… shit! You didn’t even talk to anyone about it?” Anger started to show through and I paused to bring my patience back under control. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Shows how feckin’ little you know about what’s happenin’ here.”
Change the subject, I decided, while I still had some self-control. “What about this stripping game? Why the hell was Marie going to places like the Blue Taboo Club? Why was she doing that sort of job?”
“’Twas her choice, so ’twas. Stupid feckin’ bitch.” His self-confidence was now slipping away and he dragged at the glowing butt with a short, sharp hissing sound.
I held myself in check. “Okay. I get the picture. She needed a job. But wasn’t there some other way to earn…”
That was when he snapped, like a dry twig suddenly cracking underfoot. The self-confidence he had displayed earlier evaporated in seconds. “For Chrissake! She didn’t have to do it! We could’ve lived here with me mammy and saved the rent money.” The butt had gone out and his hands shook as he tried to relight it. “Me mammy said we could live here. We would’ve managed, so we would, but Marie wouldn’t even consider coming to live in a dump like this.”
I glanced about. “Doesn’t seem like your mother has much room to spare.”
“We would’ve managed some way. But she wanted to rent some expensive place we couldn’t afford. She said… she said she wouldn’t ever come and live in the Divis whatever happened. She said it was a feckin’ shite-house.”
“Okay, so she wanted a proper apartment.” The situation was beginning to get at me again. I was fighting hard not to hit out at the bastard. “But… for Chrissake… how much does an apartment cost to rent?”
“Costs enough, so it does. Too feckin’ much.” He was holding back on something, I could sense it. And I wanted to know what it was.
“You’re saying she had to do it? You reckon Marie had to go stripping to earn enough money? Was that what it was all about? Earning enough to pay the rent?”
He shrugged. “There was other expenses. But so what?” He had his smoking butt in his mouth again and drew in deeply once more. Smoke streamed from between his lips and his tension began to increase. “We just couldn’t afford to live, the way things were. We were having trouble.” He paused reflectively. “We argued.”
“Go on.” I clenched my fists.
“We’d had arguments before. This time she told me… told me feckin’ straight she was goin’ back to the strippin’ game. I told her I wouldn’t stand for it, so I did. Told her only feckin’ whores did that sort of thing. Bitches and whores!”
Pain shot through my hands as the fists tightened. “And what happened?”
“You know feckin’ well what happened. Marie went straight out and got work with them Gidleys. Proddy bastards!” He dropped his hands to his side and stared beyond me, like he was seeking answers I couldn’t give him.
“But you knew she was going to do it. She told you.”
“Didn’t think she’d go through with it. But she did.” A brief silence followed. Then his words picked up again as his mind ran riot. “Christ! She was droppin’ her knickers in front of a bunch of feckin’ loyalist bastards. That’s what your sister was doing, Bodine! Droppin’ her drawers at the Blue Taboo! In front of all them feckin’ Prods. Playing the whore…”
“Okay, buddy. Just calm it!” I could feel my patience wearing too thin. I knew for sure now what he was not telling me. I could smell it in the smoke hovering about him. And it wasn’t the smell of tobacco. I breathed loudly, but not too deeply. “It seems to me she was doing it to support you, Pat. To keep you in smokes and put a roof over your head!”
“Who the feckin’ hell—”
“Who the hell am I to talk to you like that? I’ll tell you who I am, buddy. I’m the guy whose sister was killed while she was out earning money to keep you in bread. That’s who I am!”
I thought then he might lash out at me. But, instead, he lowered his eyes and turned inwards on himself. “She shouldn’t have been doing it. I feckin’ told her… and we had rows about it, and all. I said I’d leave her if she didn’t stop.”
“Leave her? Even though she was pregnant?”
“You think I didn’t have qualms about it? God, I loved that girl, really feckin’ loved her when she was behavin’ reasonable like. But I couldn’t live with her when she took it into her mind to do whatever the feckin’ hell she wanted. You’ll know how strong-willed she could be. You’ll know what she was like.”
Yes, I knew, but I didn’t want to admit it openly. Not then. It was too soon to take hold of that sort of truth. Strangely, and somewhat against my better judgement, I believed him when he said that he loved her. Despite everything, how could anyone not love her?
I tried to take the subject deeper. “Let’s get this straight. You were living off the money she earned even though she was pregnant, and yet you were prepared to leave her?”
“So? Just what the feckin’ hell is this?” This time he really flared back at me. He threw the remains of the butt to the floor, stamped on it and bared his teeth. “Have you come here to give me a balling-out, Bodine?”
“No. But maybe someone ought to. I came here to find out what happened to my kid sister and I find that you were living off her earnings.”
“We lived together. That ain’t no crime.”
“But you had no way of supporting her.”
He reached into a pocket for another smoke. “You’re too naive, Bodine. You think your sister was some sort of innocent feckin’ angel and you think I led her astray. You do, don’t you? The truth is I wasn’t the first man in her life, you know. She was no innocent virgin. She’d slept with others before she met me! Too many others. The last one was a Brit, so it was. A feckin’ English Prod over there in London. Did you know that? Did you?”
“Well, it’s true.” His voice suddenly dropped a few decibels. He pulled out another smoke and tried to light up, but his hands were shaking too much and he gave up. “Once, when we was havin’ a row, she told me how he kept her like a feckin’ mistress. Gave her a place to live, somewhere he could go to shag her. Did you know that, Mr feckin’ High-and-Mighty Bodine? Did you?”
“No. I didn’t.” The revelation shook me deeply but I tried not to show it. “But it makes no difference. It’s what you were doing that bothers me.”
“Really? So you came here to take it out on me, did you? Just what is it about me that gets up your feckin’ nose? Is it because I’m Irish? Is that it? A no-good feckin’ Paddy!”
I tried hard to keep my cool while I replied, “I presume it was Marie who paid for the dope you’re smoking. Well, was it?”
I saw his arm coming up long before it got close to me. It was so easy to grab his wrist and swing it behind his back and stand there listening to him whimpering with pain. I leaned close to him and hissed, “My sister was working to pay for your drug addiction. If you ever say so much as one more word against her, I’m gonna come round here one dark night and break every bone in your body. You got that?”
I could hear him crying when I let myself out the back door. I felt no sense of satisfaction in what I had done because he was right. Marie was too strong-willed by far: more strong-willed than the likes of Pat Mulholland was able to handle.
I asked the cabbie to take me through East Belfast on the way back to the city. It was a big detour, so why did I ask to go that way? I suppose I was intrigued to see the one connection my family had had with Belfast before Marie came here: the shipyard. I should have guessed it would be no scenic tour. We drove through narrow streets of red-brick terraced houses where the front doors opened straight out onto the sidewalks. The huge shipyard cranes towered over the skyline, menacing and silent.
“’Tis where they built the Titanic,” the driver told me as he pulled up near the entrance to the Harland and Wolff yard.
“Yeah, I know.” I decided to say nothing about Jacob Bodine. He died a long time ago and nothing was to be gained from resurrecting his memory in public.
“Grand ship, so she was,” he went on. “Best in the world. You know why she sank? ’Cos that stupid English captain ran her too fast. We built them a perfect ship and the English had to go and destroy it.”
“Take me back to the hotel,” I replied testily. I had no intention of getting myself tied up in racial arguments.
I met Penny in the hotel lobby spot on eight o’clock. Secretly I’d been worried she might not turn up or, worse still, she might arrive dressed like a stripper, but I should have had more faith in her. She had on one of those smart suits that make a girl look like she’s a director of some big combine—neat cut, quiet check pattern, skirt that almost covered her knees but not quite, and a white, high-neck blouse. She smelt like strawberries and white wine.
She cut a trim figure in the dining room and the waiter treated her like a real lady, shaking out her napkin before placing it on her lap.
“You look good enough to eat,” I told her as I sat down directly opposite. A pretty corny opener, but it was true and I had nothing better up my sleeve.
“Thank you.” She took it as the genuine compliment it was meant to be. “Sweet or savoury?”
“Sweet. Like peaches. Quite definitely peaches.”
She shot me a genuine and infectious grin. “These days it’s not often I get asked out to a place like this. I wasn’t sure what to wear.”
“You chose well. You’re attracting attention for all the right reasons.”
I ordered the wine and then we spent some time discussing what we would eat. For someone who didn’t get many dinner dates, she sure knew her food and she didn’t learn that at the Billy Gidley Agency. I got this sudden intuition she was used to the better things in life.
She didn’t turn to more mundane matters until we’d ordered, and the waiter had left us alone. “When do you go back to America?” she asked.
“Tomorrow. Early morning Shuttle flight to Heathrow. Then a 747 to the States.” I didn’t mention about the corpse that would be going with me.
“So this is the last time we get to see each other? First date and the last.”
“That’s life.” I thoughtfully twisted the stem of my wine glass between finger and thumb. Despite the beauty sitting across the table, I still felt kind of twisted up inside and I guess I was none too careful with what I said. “I go back home and try to help my folks get over this while you stay here in this Godforsaken place and just carry on stripping as if all this never happened.” I deeply regretted the words as soon as they were spoken. But it was too late by then.
Her eyes opened wide and a hitch caught her voice, as if I had knocked her to the floor before we really got to know one another. “That was a pretty damn mean thing to say. You did invite me here, you know. I didn’t have to come. I’m a dancer, Henry, and that’s all. I didn’t come here as a prostitute.”
“I never imagined…”
“Yes you did, I can see it in your face. It’s an expression I’ve seen many times before, in better men than you. You think that dancing and prostitution mean the same thing.”
A chair leg creaked at the next table, telling me we were being overheard, but I didn’t give a damn about other people. Only her. I fiddled with my glass again. “Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. It was unfair and I’m a louse for saying it. Okay? Will you give me a chance to get the right words out?”
“Sorry… or something like it. And let’s start again.”
She sighed and then drew a deep breath. “Henry, d’you know what unemployment is like here in Northern Ireland?”
“They tell me it’s as bad as it can get.”
“It’s worse than that.” She spoke straight from the heart, cool but insistent. “It’s bloody impossible. I have two options. I can take the Social Security payments and sit at home on my backside all day, or I can go out and get a job which few other girls would be prepared to do.”
“So that’s why you took up stripping?”
“It’s a job, dammit. I pay my own rent without scrounging on others. I don’t owe anyone anything.”
“Put that way, it sounds quite laudable.”
She sniffed loudly. “Don’t be so condescending, Henry. It doesn’t do you any credit.”
Again, I knew I was treating her unfairly and I cursed myself for it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have raised the subject. I just don’t seem to be able to come to terms with things just now and I’m making a mess of this evening. All screwed up inside my head and not thinking straight.”
She leaned back in her seat and sighed. “You’ve every reason to be screwed up, I suppose. Hell, I would be in your shoes. But you’re overdoing it.”
She deserved an explanation, so I gave her one. “I went to see Pat Muholland and it left me feeling really uptight. Angry. You know what I mean? I shouldn’t take it out on you. I’m sorry.” I felt a spasm of guilt wash over me and wished we could start again. But life ain’t like that.
Maybe she understood, because she mellowed slightly. “I told you that you wouldn’t like him.”
“Yes, you did. But the odd thing is, Penny, I can see why Marie was attracted to him. He has the sort of looks young women go for. And there’s a sort of compelling air about him, even if it does function on the strength of drugs.”
“You sussed that out too?”
I nodded. “Couldn’t really miss it. Anyway, let’s change the subject. Talk about something more enjoyable. Tell me about yourself. Tell me something that’s going to cheer me up.”
She lowered her eyes and a soft smile crept across her lips. Maybe, for the moment, I was forgiven. She inclined her head coyly. “What’s to tell? My life must be pretty dull compared to yours.”
I doubted that, but she knew little about my own background beyond what Marie might have told her. “You ever thought of getting into some other business?”
For just a moment she looked taken aback and I knew I had goofed again. She opened her mouth as if about to make a sharp retort, then, seemingly thinking better of it, she shrugged. “Jeez! You just can’t let it go, can you?”
“Forget I said it. Let’s talk about…”
“No. If you want to know all about it, I’ll tell you. I do the exotic dancing because it’s all there is on offer for girls like me.” Back in her apartment she would have carried on calling it stripping, but here in the hotel dining room she turned to calling it exotic dancing. That told me a lot about her. Told me she had reason to appease her own conscience. And what did she mean by ‘girls like me?’
“Tell me more about it,” I said.
“You’re judging me?”
“No way. I’ve no right to judge anyone.” I tried to grin, knowing that I had a lot to be ashamed about: the death of Carrie-Ann, and the innocents on the ground in Iraq. My past was no saintly story. “Hell, Penny, I’m nothing to write home about. I just want to know more about you, and about Marie, and why you both ended up as… exotic dancers. What makes you tick?”
“I suppose when you’re buying the dinner you think that’s a fair question.”
“I’m buying you dinner because I want to. You’re cute. And I want to talk to you about what happened to my sister and…” I looked into her eyes and added, lamely, “Apart from that, I guess I must like your company. I guess I just happen to like you.”
“Even though I earn my keep the way I do?”
“There’s something appealing about you. Something different. You remind me of someone I once knew.”
She eyed me cautiously. “Someone you were attracted to?”
“Yeah. She didn’t look like you, but she acted a bit like you.” I recalled Carrie-Ann’s long golden hair and her infections smile. It wasn’t difficult to bring them to mind.
“She found someone else?” Penny said quietly.
“No. She died.”
“It was a long time ago.” Hell, I was getting maudlin. I made an effort to buck myself up before I continued. “Today my attention is all yours. And you’re one hell of a girl to grab my attention.”
She softened, and a blush crept up the side of her neck and spread across her cheeks. “It’s a long time since I heard anyone said something nice like that. Do you mean it, or is it your usual chat-up line?”
“I mean it. Tell me more about yourself.”
“Dangerous subject, Henry. Might be better if we talk about Marie. That’s what you really want, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.” I leaned back in my seat. “Who would want to kill—”
“Oh, for God’s sake, forget that part of it. Let the police work on that. It’s their job. You seem to be obsessed with the idea that someone actually planned to kill Marie.”
“The bomb was aimed at that car.”
She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “The taxi, yes. But it didn’t have to be because of Marie. If it was deliberate—and I’m not saying it was—then it’s more likely that the bomb was aimed at Sammy Wilde. Do you know how many taxi drivers have been killed in Belfast? It’s not exactly a healthy job.”
“Why taxi drivers?”
“Partly because they’re easy to hit, out in the streets on their own. Partly because the taxi companies are divided into sectarian gangs just like the rest of the country. One company pays protection money to the Provos—the Provisional IRA—and another pays up to the UVF—the Ulster Volunteer Force. Maybe Sammy Wilde welched on his protection payments to the UVF?”
“Or maybe the Provos took a dislike to him?”
“Could be. You see, it needn’t have been an attack on Marie. Probably wasn’t.”
I leaned forward, arms across the table, and clasped my hands together. “Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I’m out of my depth and unable to see straight.”
“Too right. You’re totally out of your depth over here. You’ve no idea what sort of people you’re dealing with.”
“So enlighten me some.”
“Okay! I’ll enlighten you” She suddenly leaned forward across the table until only inches separated our faces. I felt her breath feather against my lips and wished she would stay like that. She spoke quieter now, huskily. “Some years ago the UVF were trying to put together a hit squad to take out some of the senior provos. They were looking for the sort of person who’d have no qualms about blowing another guy’s brains out.”
“The Brigade Leader got together a group of thugs who said they’d do the job and he set up a test to find out if they had the guts to go through with it. He put them all in a room together and told them there was a hooded IRA gunman in the next room. He said there was a loaded pistol on a table next to the provo and he wanted one of them to go in and shoot the bastard. Then he went next door and put the hood over his own head.”
“No. The gun wasn’t loaded, idiot. It was just a test. To see if any of them had the guts to go through with it. Anyhow, the first guy went into the room, picked up the gun and aimed at the hooded Brigade Leader, but he couldn’t pull the trigger. No real guts, you see. So the second guy went in and the same thing happened. Couldn’t bring himself to shoot someone through the head. Well, this went on again with the third and fourth man. No guts. Then the fifth one went in. He was a real killer. Came from a family who were all solid bone from ear to ear and this guy was the family dickhead. He picked up the gun, pulled the trigger and, of course, nothing happened. Not loaded. Well, he was pretty mad because he thought the gun had jammed on him, so he grabbed it by the handle and beat the hooded guy about the head. Killed him before he discovered who it was he was beating the hell out of.”
“So he got the job?” I had a vague recollection of hearing the story somewhere else. It was apocryphal: part of the myth and legend of Northern Ireland. It didn’t get any better with the retelling and it worried me that Penny believed it. Then I told myself that the whole damn problem with Northern Ireland was that everyone was too caught up in urban myths.
“Damn you! It isn’t funny, Henry.” She was angry now, but not because of me. That was pretty obvious form the look on her face. I guess she was angry because the story reminded her of what was wrong with the society she lived in. She leaned closer still and hissed, “I’m trying to show you what sort of people you’re up against.”
I didn’t reply and we stared deep into each other’s eyes. She pursed her lips silently and a faint breath kissed my face. It must have been only a few seconds but it seemed like eternity and I had this strange urge to hang on to the moment.
Then she suddenly drew away from me and smiled awkwardly. “Look, let’s talk about something else. What about you? What do you do to pay the rent?”
I was ready to change the subject, but not too keen to put the spotlight on myself. “I was in the US Air Force. Flew different types of aircraft.”
“That’s it. I flew different types of aircraft. Now I don’t. Temporarily out of work.”
“Don’t want to talk about it, eh?”
“I wish I could, Penny. I wish I could tell you all about it and get the whole thing out of my mind. But I can’t. State secrecy and all that nonsense.” The word ‘guilt’ also hung inside my brain but I wasn’t ready to let it escape.
“Were you in Vietnam?” Her sense of age and place was not too hot. Outside of Northern Ireland, she was not a political animal.
“No, that was before my time. But I got into something that was pretty nasty.”
She eyed me reflectively, as if she was trying to make sense of something she could never hope to understand. “Is there something in the story that makes you feel bitter?”
“Angry at the way you were treated?”
“Why do you ask?”
She smiled and I felt a sudden urge to open up to her. “Just a girl’s intuition. It isn’t just Marie’s death that’s bugging you, is it? There’s something else inside that head of yours, something that’s eating you alive. Something big.” She was perceptive, I’ll say that for her.
“One day I’ll tell you about it, if I get the chance.”
“You could tell me now.”
“And spoil a perfectly good meal?”
The first course arrived at that point and that helped me change the subject once more. She was more relaxed now and so I told her about home, about mom and dad, and I filled her in on things she’d never found out from Marie. I told her then how I’d always wanted to be a pilot and fly big aircraft and how proud mom and dad had been when I got my air force wings. I told her about life at home in the unbearably hot suburbs of LA. I told her about when Marie and I were younger and how we’d enjoyed our lives up to the point where I went away to fly for the Air Force and Marie left home to make it as a dancer.
But I never told her about Carrie-Ann. Couldn’t bring myself to tell her about that. Not then. Nor did I tell her the part I played in the First Gulf War. Dropping bombs and killing people.
What I did say seemed to help her open up more about herself and she began to talk about her own parents who had fled to England years before to escape the violence of Belfast. She told me how her father, once a proud and capable engineer in the Belfast shipyard, had been unable to get any sort of work in England and had died of a heart attack, a broken man. Her mother had not lived long after that, so Penny had brought them home and buried them both in a graveyard on the outskirts of Belfast near to where they had once lived. The more she talked, the more I understood what had motivated her into taking any sort of job to keep herself employed. And that helped me to come to terms with the sort of life Marie had been leading.
As the conversation continued, the earlier tension eased and then melted away. At the end of the meal I didn’t want to see her go. “You know, you’re quite a girl, Penny. You sure you got no steady boyfriends?”
“Right now? Not a single one.” She was caressing her coffee cup between her hands, smiling across the table at me with a look that said it all. She was available if the right man asked her. In the right way.
I shook my head. “I guess in different circumstances I’d pluck up enough courage to ask you out for another date. And later, when we’d got to know each other better, I’d ask you to stay the night with me.”
She put down her cup, leaned forward across the table, set her hand on mine and smiled. “What different circumstances?”
“Me with a regular job and you living close by.”
“You make it sound like you fancy me.”
“Maybe I do. Maybe I like you enough to want you to spend some time with me. Maybe stay the night…”
“So what’s stopping you asking?”
That clinched it.
We turned to idle chit-chat while we finished our coffee and then I took her up to my room. She began to slide out of her dress even before I’d shut the door and what came into sight was even more of a turn-on than I’d imagined. She was naked perfection. A slim waist, a tight little ass, and breasts that looked ripe and ready to be hand-picked. Her skin was pure peaches, just like I’d imagined and when I put my hand to her chest I could feel her heart pumping like it was getting ready for a marathon.
Sometime later, lying in bed, I picked my head off her chest and looked deep into her eyes. “That was the most fantastic sex I have ever had. Thank you, Sweetheart.” Those were the words I used because I could find no other earthly expression that could convey what had actually happened between us. So what if it all sounded trite? Nothing else could describe what we’d experienced.
She smiled back at me and her eyes blazed with joy. I could have sworn it was the sun shining as it had never shone before.
“I thought it was pretty amazing too.”
“Did you feel it? Did you feel the way our whole beings joined together?”
“I felt it. Dear God, but I felt it.”
We lay back in the bed for some minutes, side by side, two spent people who wanted nothing more from life than to enjoy the aftermath of our joint ecstasy. She was like a small, sleek pussy cat purring alongside me, her hair splayed out on the pillow. When my pulse rate began to subside, I turned towards her.
“Thank you again.”
“You don’t have to keep thanking me, Henry. I enjoyed it as well.”
“I guess it was all kinda sudden, wasn’t it?”
She laughed, “You bought me dinner, remember? But I did it because I wanted you. I was desperate for you.”
“Yeah. Really. Haven’t had a man in a long time and you looked too good to pass over.”
“Pity it has to end here.”
“Yeah. Pity. You could grow on me, Henry Bodine.”
Then common sense took over. I wanted her to stay the rest of the night, but she insisted on leaving and I didn’t question why. Despite that glorious period of pure sex, I’d made too many goofs already that evening and I didn’t want to spoil the ending of a great experience.
Shortly before midnight I took her down to the lobby and called a taxi. We stood on the front steps of the hotel and when she leaned towards me I gave her a gentle kiss. At least, that was how it started but I guess we lingered over it more than was polite.
“Can I call you?” I asked.
“From the States? No. Don’t make things difficult for both of us.”
“You’re something special. What else can I say?”
“Nothing. You’ve said all you need to say.”
I stayed there on the steps while the taxi eased out into a dull stream of traffic and began to melt away into the night.
For some seconds, a feeling of emptiness lingered inside me, as if something had gone out of my life, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I stared out into the darkness and felt confused in a way I hadn’t been confused before. Dammit, she was only an… an exotic dancer.
I was still standing there when a sudden bright bomb-flash ripped through the city streets and a deep crash of thunder split the night air. I felt a blast of air hit me in the guts, staggered backwards and fell on my ass on the hotel steps. For a full minute I just sat there, dumbfounded, mind rocked sideways by the force of the blast.
By the time I had recovered from the shock, a pall of smoke was billowing up from a burning vehicle some way down the street. Flames licked up into the night air and lit up the surrounding buildings. I jumped to my feet and ran unsteadily out into the night, crying out soundlessly. People were running in all directions, elbowing me aside.
I shouted out, “Penny!” knowing it was a damn stupid thing to do. And yet I couldn’t help it. Nor could I afterwards explain the intense feeling of relief when I saw her coming back towards me. White-faced, stumbling, not sure where she was or what the hell she was doing. I grabbed hold of her and held her tight, not able to find the words to comfort her. Not even sure if she was injured.
“It was two or three cars in front…” she blurted out. “Just a loud bang and then… then… oh, dear God, then…” She was sobbing hysterically and no more words came out. Emotion and shock together wracked her tiny frame. I helped her back into the hotel, the chaos still erupting about us. Fire vehicles, ambulances with their sirens wailing, police running along the street, military vehicles appearing from nowhere. People were standing around, looking dazed and disbelieving.
“Are you hurt?” I asked. “Should we get you to the hospital?”
She answered in a frightened but far-away voice. “No. I’m not hurt. Just shock, I think. Legs feel like jelly. Just need to sit down.” Her lips began to quiver.
We sat in the lobby for some minutes, both stunned. My mind raced to and fro between the bomb blast outside and those other explosions I witnessed in another country where people couldn’t live together in peace. Memories drifted back: images I wanted to forget, but couldn’t.
Ten minutes passed before I bought us both a stiff drink and took Penny up to my room once more. I guess I still wasn’t thinking straight, didn’t really come to my senses until hours later when she was fast asleep in my bed and I was spread out on the counterpane alongside her, nursing a very large rye.
Only then could I slowly begin to sort out in my mind the sort of existence these people had to accept as a normal daily life. And I wondered what the hell it was that made Marie get tied up in it.