Friday, 21 June 2013

Chapter Fourteen


Chapter Fourteen

 
 

At last I was getting somewhere. Now I had something I could hang my hat on, something which told me what had actually happened to Marie. Overall, it didn’t make me feel any happier but it sure made me a darned sight more determined to get to the rock-bottom truth about why.

One other thing I was sure about: if I was ever to unearth the full story, I had to find that Englishman called Whiteman.

Satisfied, I turned away from the priest and took a step towards the door. On a momentary impulse, I suddenly stopped and said, “Can I ask you one more thing, Father O’Hagan? The way I see it, you’ve come over here to dig into these people’s problems. So you’ll have seen how the troubles have affected them. You’ll have seen what harm’s been done. The pain and the suffering.”

“Well?” He gave me a suspicious look. Wary like an animal used to life in the wild and ready for the killer lurking in the undergrowth.

“Well” I tried to sound nonchalant, “It must have had some sort of effect on you. You’re a priest. A man of peace. Don’t you want to see all this violence stop?”

“Of course I want to see it all stop.” His face took on a more pained expression. I couldn’t determine if that pain was for himself or the people he was trying to help. “Hell, son, we all want to see it stop. But I want to see it end for good, not just a temporary lull in the killing. D’you not see that? I want to see it end for good. But that won’t happen unless there’s a just settlement. Something acceptable to all the Irish people.”

It was a remark well designed to turn on an element of cynicism deep inside me. The sort of thing I would expect to hear from Adams or McGuiness in a television interview. I shook my head. “You mean you want the IRA to get their own way?”

“No. Not at all.” He ran his tongue across the front of his teeth as he allowed himself a few moments of thought. “What I mean, son, is that I want to see all the people of Ireland get the justice they deserve.”

The sense of cynicism grew stronger and, again, I began to walk away from him, slowly, so that I had time to make my point. “I somehow get the idea, Father, that you’ve lost sight of what your words really mean. You’re a Republican and you know well enough that the Protestant Loyalist solution means oppressing all Republicans. But the IRA solution means the total opposite: everyone submitting to the rule of Catholic Republicanism. There is no middle ground. For all your words of reconciliation, that’s the reality of it. Isn’t it?”

“No, it is not. We Irish will be better off as one united people.” His words sounded bitter, as if they were worn by years of intense frustration. But they also had a certain ring of determination about them. As if he really believed what he said.

I tried to remain composed. Memories flooded back. “That’s what they used to say about the people of Yugoslavia. They’d be better off united. It didn’t work out in practice though, did it? When it came to the crunch, both sides didn’t give a damn about one another. They all tried to knock ten shades of shit out of one another. Dammit! They’re better off living separate lives.”

“Hah! You know too little about it, son. What makes you think we Catholics don’t care about the Protestants? I know for a fact that the Republican movement in Belfast has contacts with Loyalist groups. Why, behind the scenesbehind all this violence, we’re” He stopped suddenly, realising he had said too much. He gritted his teeth and looked away from me.

“Yes?” I encouraged him, anxious to glean more information. I waited, expectantly, hoping for him to continue.

After a moment, he said, “Just take it from me, son, that there are Irish Republicans who do care about their Protestant neighbours. And there are moves to ensure they don’t ride roughshod over the Protestant’s feelings. There are contacts. People trying to mend fences. Right now, there are people working real damn hard at it.”

I stared at him, willing him to let slip more information. “People like Christine Fisher? She was here, wasn’t she? Here in this place. And she also went to Loyalist haunts like the Blue Taboo Club. And she had contacts in the States. Is that what you mean, Father O’Hagan, about people working behind the scenes? People like Christine Fisher?”

He compressed his lips and said nothing and then I knew that I had got from him all I was likely to get. I turned away and walked slowly out of the place, hoping I had left the priest with food for thought.

I felt pangs of bitterness as I left the Irish American Woman’s Aid Centre. And even deeper pangs of anger. I was getting close to the truth now, but not close enough yet to know who was likely to give me that final piece of the jig-saw. I was so close and yet still the full truth evaded me.

Much later, after I had walked the streets deep in thought and made a protracted evening meal of a Big Mac, I decided to tackle Rourke once again. I didn’t really expect to find him at work that late but what was the point in hanging around, wondering? I went directly to the police station and asked for him by name. It was worth a try.

Although it was late, a burly sergeant put me through the usual interrogation process and then led me through the maze of corridors inside the building. Despite my obvious impatience, he kept me waiting for ten minutes or so in Rourke’s empty office. Finally, Rourke came into the room clasping a clip board which he set down on his desk.

He sounded pretty hacked off. “Back again so soon, Bodine?” The Mister wasn’t dropped by accident. He remained standing, gaze lowered. Threatening.

I jumped up from my seat. “I think I know where she may be.”

“Who?” He looked at his clip board and started doodling with a ball point. Playing me along, deliberately working up my frustration.

“Penny Hamilton. I think I know where she may be.”

“Really?” He shook his head and then sat down, motioning me to do the same. He had yet to look me in the eye.

“The Blue Taboo Club,” I told him. “She’s there, I know she is. There’s a basement passage leading from the club to another building

“You’ve been at that club again?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve been making enquiries elsewhere?” His voice was calm but touched with more than a hint of insistence. “Out in the countryside. Bandit country?”

I paused before replying, not sure just how much he knew about my meeting with Felan. Eventually I said, “Yes.”

“Bodine, I think I’m getting rather fed up with you.” From the way he said it, I knew he was more than just fed up, he was downright pissed off. He looked up and grimaced. “I asked you not to interfere in our investigations. But you didn’t listen, did you. You ignored me just as you ignored that warning threat you received. Haven’t you any sense of responsibility? Just who do you think you are? John Wayne leading the seventh cavalry against the Indians?”

“Don’t you want to know where she is?”

He let out a long, exasperated sigh. “We already have a good idea where Hamilton is. We don’t need the likes of you to do our job for us. With a bit of luck, we’ll pick her up later tonight.”

“Tonight?”

“I told you, we’re working on the case.” Another sigh followed. “Look, unless you have something really important to say to me, I can’t stop to talk to you any longer. We have our work to do here and, quite frankly, you’re wasting my time. Please go back to your hotel and have some serious thoughts about going home to America. Will you do that?”

“Are you going to raid the Blue Taboo Club?” I tried to sound insistent.

He suddenly jumped to his feet, turned on his heel and strode to the door. “Good night, Bodine. Someone will see you out.”

Damn the man! I left the police building and stood outside on the sidewalk in a mood of intense anger. I figured that if he was going to find Penny I had a right to tag along. But where the hell would he find her if it wasn’t the Blue Taboo Club? I could think of only one possible way for me to find out.

I parked the hire car nearby and nibbled on a sandwich and a candy bar until darkness began to fall. The busy street traffic had died away to nothing when a small convoy of vehicles left the police station. Throwing caution to the wind, I simply tagged on behind them in the hope that it was Rourke and his men.

It was.

At first I thought I was getting away with it remarkably easily. I didn’t even lose them at an army checkpoint where I was waved through without a search. By the time they reached the outskirts of Belfast on the Downpatrick Road I had a pretty good idea where they were going. I might even have continued to the Gidley’s house under my own steam if the driver of the car in front of me hadn’t suddenly slammed on his brakes, slipped back into the outside lane and boxed me in. That driver sure knew what he was doing. He waited until he had me trapped in the inside lane then veered violently across my bow so that I had to swerve into the grass verge.

“Hell!” I braked suddenly as a hedge came up to meet me and stopped with just inches to spare. Before I had finished applying the handbrake, a uniformed police constable, looking burly in his flak jacket, was out of the car and ramming a revolver in at my side window.

“Get out slowly.”

It was like something out of a Stateside cop movie. Maybe that was why I had the sense to do as he said. His gun looked like it could do some real harm. Outside, in the semi darkness, I didn’t see the second occupant of the vehicle come striding up alongside me.

Not until she spoke.

“You really are one hell of a pain in the ass, Mr Bodine.”

I wasn’t too surprised. I’d already worked out who had tipped off Rourke after my first visit to the Blue Taboo Club. I peered into the dark shadows and Molly McNamara glared back at me. It was her trident tones that gave away her identity. I would never have recognised her in her police uniform without hearing that voice. She filled the uniform to overflowing, but she looked little like the stripper I’d seen at the club.

She indicated to the armed guy to back off and then waved a finger in my face. “Lock up your car and come with us.”

I did as she said, meekly getting in the front passenger seat while the armed cop sat behind me. Molly McNamara took the wheel and we set off at speed to catch up with the other police vehicles. She used the radio to call ahead and let Rourke know that I’d been apprehended. It was Rourke himself who acknowledged the call and he didn’t sound too pleased. That didn’t surprise me either.

We hadn’t much farther to go to reach the Gidley’s place, but it was fully dark when we pulled onto the grass at the side of a narrow lane running towards a distant farm house. The Gidley’s house was just a hundred yards off to our left, down a side turning. It looked almost unoccupied, except for an outside light which illuminated the driveway and another light in a single bedroom window. From my previous visit I knew the bedroom was Joanna Gidley’s. I wondered who was in there with her.

Two other police cars were stopped in front of us, lights out and almost invisible if you didn’t know they were there. The police settled down to wait, and the waiting immediately got to me.

“You really figure Penny might be here?” I asked. It wasn’t until I spoke that I realised we had been sitting in silence for some minutes.

“Maybe.” Molly kept her reply snappy.

“So why don’t you get in there? She could be in real trouble.”

“No deal,” She hissed at me in a low voice. She spoke slowly, as if she thought I was a dumb jerk who wouldn’t understand. “Our orders are that we wait until the Gidleys come home. We want to catch them with some incriminating evidence and we can’t risk them getting wind of us and going to ground. Hamilton’s not our main concern. She can wait.”

“Evidence? What evidence?”

“Cocaine.”

“Coke!” I jerked back in my seat. This wasn’t part of what I expected to find. “But I don’t understand.”

Molly’s voice became condescending, still talking to me as if I was a numb-skull. “The Ulster Volunteer Force needs money to keep going, just like the IRA. So they deal in coke. They store the stuff at the Blue Taboo Club premises and pass it on to the street pushers under cover of the strip club. With all those dirty old men constantly coming and going, who’s to know which are the genuine sex perverts and which are the drug pushers?”

“What have the Gidleys got to do this?”

“They run the operation. That’s what I was put in there to investigate, not your sister’s death.”

“Oh God.”

“For what it’s worth, the note you sent Chief Inspector Rourke helped us quite a bit. Fingerprints all over it. It would have been preferable if you hadn’t torn it up, nevertheless we gave it to forensic and they’ve positively linked it to Billy Gidley. He wasn’t that bright, you know, he left his dabs all over it.”

“I didn’t trust him the first time I met him.”

“Quite right too.” She seemed to be easing up, as if it was getting through to her that I did have some sort of brain. “They’re a nasty pair of operators, both of them, and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process of making money.”

I felt a lump in my throat. “Did they kill my sister?”

“They were responsible for blowing up the taxi.”

“But why?”

She didn’t immediately answer my question. “Tessie Gidley was an actress, Mr Bodine. She fooled you like she fooled at lot of people. Did you know she once played the part of a nun in the Sound of Music?”

“Yes. I heard that somewhere before.”

“And she was clever enough to dress up and play the part of a man when she and Billy planted the bomb.” Molly was leaning forward, staring at the house as she spoke. “They were seen, you know.”

“The old lady from across the street?”

I felt Molly’s head half turn towards me. “You’ve been talking to her as well? At first the old biddy convinced us it was two men who did the killing. Just for a while.”

“Why didn’t you tell me all of this before?”

“And have you putting your big American feet all over our operation? Sorry, Mr Bodine, we just wanted you out of the way. You should have left us to sort out these people.”

I stopped to think for a moment. Maybe I had acted too precipitously. Then I consoled myself that I had had good reason. “So who was it they were after?”

“Not your sister, that’s for sure. Their target was Sammy Wilde.” She sucked loudly between her teeth. “God, what a lurid business. You’ve met Joanna Gidley? The school kid who thinks she’s a woman of the streets.”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s what it was all about. Wilde had been shagging Joanna. Stupid thing to do. The Gidleys thought he would be alone in the taxi that night, but they were wrong. He’d picked up his customer early.”

I jerked round at a sudden movement behind us. In an instant the uniformed man was sitting upright and pointing towards the house. He muttered under his breath, “Something’s happening.”

A big Citroen pulled up in the driveway and the two Gidleys got out. They seemed to be arguing as they walked towards the front door. The light was still on in Joanna’s room and Billy was pointing up at it. Probably, I guessed, making the same sort of assumptions I had already made.

Molly leaned towards me and whispered, “Sit still, Mr Bodine. Chief Inspector Rourke will handle this. Take a look at that bedroom window.”

“Joanna’s room?”

“Right. And Billy Gidley is very protective towards his teenage daughter just like he was protective towards all the agency girls. Didn’t like what he regarded as his own property being soiled with someone else’s dirty fingers… or dirty little dick. What he didn’t know was that Joanna Gidley doesn’t like being treated like a child. Billy just didn’t realise that his daughter was growing up too quickly and she’d been experimenting with sex.”

“That figures.” I recalled what I had seen on my first visit to the house.

“She likes her bit of rumpty tumpty, does Miss Joanna.”

“Took Billy a while to catch on, did it?” I looked again at the lighted bedroom window, remembering with growing detail my own first impressions of Joanna Gidley. “Obviously not too quick on the uptake.”

“We don’t know who’s in there with the girl tonight, but we do know that she gave her favours to Sammy Wilde more than once.”

“Damn fools, both of them,” I said.

She nodded towards the house. “Wilde played about with anything in skirts, just as Joanna plays about with anything in trousers. The agency girls knew all about it. They call her the nympho queen. In all probability at this moment she’s entertaining one of her boyfriends.”

The Gidleys went inside the house. They were still arguing.

“Stupid kid!” I said. “Wilde was old enough to be her father.”

“A sad reflection on the girl’s morals. And it all happened under the Gidley’s own roof. Wilde called at the house whenever he knew Joanna was at home alone. And it wasn’t just cups of tea he was getting.”

“Stupid kid.” I repeated. I breathed out long and loud. “I suppose Billy Gidley had to find out, sooner or later.”

“He found out because Wilde couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Started bragging about it once too often in front of the agency strippers. One of the girls got fed up with it and told the Gidleys what was going on. Billy went through the roof, as you can imagine.”

“Not a man to be crossed, I’ll wager.”

“He threatened to kill Wilde with his bare hands. The girl who spilled the beans heard the whole thing. It was Tessie who kept Billy in check and suggested a plan to get rid of Wilde and make it look like a sectarian killing. Tessie thought it would put us completely off the mark. Which it did, at first.”

“So they cold-bloodedly set him up for murder because he was screwing their daughter.” In hindsight it seemed just the sort of stupid thing the Gidleys would do.

“They used explosives which they got from a sympathetic farmer just down the road there. It’s all farm land around here, you know, and Anfo is only fertiliser and fuel oil. Easily made up.”

At that moment I saw shadowy figures move from the other two police cars. Molly McNamara slipped out into the darkness to join them. I followed, praying to God they would find Penny alive.

“You stay here,” Molly hissed at me. “I’ll come and fetch you if we find the girl.”

I figured this was no time to argue with her so I remained at the roadside, in the shadow of a tall hedge, while the police moved in towards the house. From where I stood I could hear a scuffle going on inside the house, sounds of shouting. A door slammed, then came a woman’s voice screaming vile abuse, probably Tessie Gidley. Finally things went quiet.

I wanted to go on in, but I forced myself to wait. Rourke already had enough to complain about. Several minutes passed and then Molly McNamara appeared out of the darkness.

“Mr Bodine!” She called to me in her sharp, brash voice and it was almost like a command.

I took a step forward. “Yes?”

“We’ve drawn a blank with Hamilton. She’s not there.”

“Damn! Rourke said

“Okay, we were wrong.” In the light from the house I saw her shrug her shoulders. “We honestly thought she was hiding here.”

I felt sick. “I’m worried about her.”

“Don’t be, Mr Bodine. There’s something I didn’t tell you. It was Hamilton who told the Gidleys about Sammy Wilde and Joanna. In an odd sort of way, you could say she was responsible for what happened to your sister.”

Penny! I gulped deeply. Penny responsible for Marie’s death? I hated Molly McNamara for that because I knew damn well that Penny was not responsible. Even so, I felt a cold hand reach across my chest and grab at my heart. My hands began to shiver. With my mind in a whirl, I didn’t see Rourke until he was close beside me.

“Get back into the car, Bodine. We’ll take you back to the city.” He sounded a might pissed off with life in general and I suppose he had reason.

“You’ve finished here?”

“Yes. Now we have to clean up that den of vice they call the Blue Taboo Club.” He opened the car door and indicated for me to get inside. “If we find your lady friend there, I’ll let you know. You can visit her in the local lock-up.”

I got in the rear seat of the car and an armed constable pushed in beside me. Rourke sat in the front passenger seat of the police car and Molly McNamara took the wheel. As we got under way, Rourke leaned over the back of his seat. “This time you’ll keep out of our way, Bodine.”

“I think he’s learned his lesson,” Molly McNamara interrupted. She sounded like she was talking about some school kid who’d just had a good thrashing.

I snapped at her, ignoring Rourke. “Just why the hell did you think Penny was at the Gidley’s house, anyway?”

In the darkness, Molly’s voice came back clear and acid. “She needed to lie low. Like I told you before, the stupid bitch was making enquires about a narcotics dealer called Felan. It wasn’t a wise thing to do and someone went looking for her. Probably the same people who set fire to her flat. Sure as fate, she’s gone into hiding somewhere. We were certain it was Gidley who was protecting her. Especially after we realised it was Gidley who was trying to warn you away from any further investigation. We reckoned Billy was afraid you might find out too much, but he was a little wary of killing you. Luckily for you.”

“That warning letter said Penny’d been kidnapped.”

This time Rourke took up the story. “She wasn’t kidnapped. That letter was a pack of lies written by Billy Gidley to warn you off. The Hamilton girl is simply in hiding.” He stretched back in his seat. “Quite honestly, I don’t know why you bother with her.”

“She was a good kid,” I said softly. I felt like reaching across and wrapping my hands round his throat, but that would have done me no good. “She came to Marie’s requiem mass.”

“Humm. Not exactly what I’d expect of her. A sense of guilt, maybe.”

“I trusted her. I cared about her.”

Neither Rourke nor Molly McNamara replied to that, and I didn’t expect them to.

The police convoy raced into Belfast city, one car branching off to take the Gidleys to the Crumlin Road police station and the rest making their way towards the Blue Taboo Club.

“This time, Mr Bodine, I’m telling youordering you to keep out of the way,” Rourke said. He gave me on last glare when the car stopped to drop me off some distance from the club. “You understand me? If you don’t do as I say, I’ll have you picked up and banged up in Crumlin Road gaol. There may be some rough play when we go in here, and we can’t risk an innocent American tourist getting involved, can we?”

“You won’t see me again at the club.” I agreed, seeing no sense in arguing with the guy. Not now. “You have my word on it. But you’ll tell me if you find the girl.”

“Of course.”

I didn’t believe him, but I tried to sound contrite. “Okay, Chief Inspector. I’ll call at your office in the morning. We’ll talk more then.”

He gave me a suspicious look as I walked away. I waited until I heard the police vehicles roar off and then I went in search of a cab. I found a ramshackle taxi rank next door to an all-night cafe where the drivers were sat hunched over cups of coffee. It cost me more than was reasonable to get one of the cabbies to take me back to a street not far from the Blue Taboo Club, but I had yet to recover my hire car.

I kept my word and made sure Rourke wouldn’t see me again that night. A short jog took me to the rear of the fire-damaged pub next door to the Blue Taboo Club. A narrow gate led into the small enclosed rear yard and I parked myself in a doorway right opposite. If I guessed right, someone was going to come running out through the same escape route I had used. They would come just as soon as the police went in through the front door.

I hadn’t long to wait. The noise of the police going in at the entrance carried over the buildings and into the dark rear alley. Barely a minute later, the gate opened and a shadowy figure appeared. I stepped closer and saw that it was Brennan, the toothy barman. He froze when he recognised me.

“Is Penny with you?” I asked. My words echoed off the dirty brickwork nearby like some hollow sounding ghost.

He didn’t answer but tried to edge away from me. Then a low voice rapped out from the doorway. “Yes, I’m here, Henry. For God’s sake, let’s get the hell away from this place.”

When my attention turned towards Penny, the barman took off along the alley. I grabbed her by the arm and propelled her away in the opposite direction. She felt stiff and unresponsive in my grasp. Her hand, when I found it in the darkness, was cold and clammy.

“We need to talk,” I told her, my hand firmly gripping hers. But then I ran out of words and she made no attempt to reply. So we remained silent.

I led her back through the empty streets to the same all-night cafe. Still, neither of us spoke until we were off the streets. Safely inside the café, I bought two coffees and we sat just inside the door, well away from the cab drivers.

“How did you find me?” Penny asked, staring into her cup as she stirred the coffee. Her voice quivered, but that wasn’t surprising.

“A man called Felan gave me a clue.”

Penny looked up suddenly. “You saw him? Joe Felan?”

“Uh-huh. Not very nice company. But he talked. Pointed me towards the Blue Taboo Club.”

“You shouldn’t have come back here, Henry. You’re only building up more trouble for yourself.”

“Maybe. But I want to know everything, Penny. No more evasion.” I gave her a moment to think and then went in with the sharp end of the knife. “Were you involved in Sammy Wilde’s murder?”

“Involved? You mean was I responsible?”

“No. I mean involved.”

“What’s the difference?” She sat, frozen, with her hand rigidly holding the tea spoon. Her eyes went cold and black. A crease formed across her brow. Her mouth went rigid and she said nothing more.

I waited for her to recover her composure, but she continued to sit there, saying nothing. Eventually I drew a deep breath and said, “Okay. Let’s start at the beginning. I know the Gidleys planted the bomb that killed Sammy Wilde. I know it for a fact. And I know why they did it. I’ve met Joanna Gidley and seen the sort of person she is. The Gidleys weren’t after anyone else, only Wilde. That’s right, isn’t it? The girl in the cab was a mistake.”

Penny compressed her lips before replying. She knew what I was getting at. “You’re right. It was only Sammy Wilde they were after. No one else. When Billy found out the stupid bastard had been screwing his daughter, he went berserk. Tessie wasn’t much better.”

“How did they find out?”

“Someone told them.” Penny’s voice quavered again.

“You. It was you, wasn’t it?”

She lowered her head so that I couldn’t see the look on her face. “Yes, I told them. But I didn’t know Marie would get caught up in it. Honestly Henry! She wasn’t

“Wasn’t supposed to be in that cab?”

“No!” Her head jerked upright. “No. She wasn’t supposed to be in the cab. But, in the event, she was in it and you can’t blame me more than I already blame myself! You once asked me what I had to feel guilty about and I couldn’t tell you. Can you understand that? Can you forgive me, Henry?”

“I don’t blame you, Penny.” I reached out and grabbed her hand. It was still cold and shaking. “Listen to me. Marie wasn’t in the cab that night. It was Christine Fisher who was in the cab with Sammy Wilde, not Marie.”

She looked at me like I was crazy or something. Eyes bulging from her head. “What the hell are you talking about? It was Marie. You identified the body.”

“I saw a body, the body of a girl with red hair. There was another killing that night; later, after Wilde had been blown up. Marie was in that other cab. The bodies must’ve been switched. It was Christine Fisher who was killed with Wilde, not Marie. I’d swear to it.”

“Why?” She pulled her hand away from mine. “Why would anyone want to switch the bodies?”

“Something big, that’s for sure. Something much bigger than a small-bit cab driver screwing a teenage nympho. If I’m right, you had nothing to do with the Marie’s murder. If she wasn’t in Sammy Wilde’s cab that night, what you told the Gidley’s didn’t lead to Marie being killed. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

Penny picked up her coffee cup and nursed it between her hands. Her thoughts were confused, sending puzzled expressions into her face. “I was so sure I’d been responsible. I thought Marie died because I opened my mouth to the Gidleys. You don’t know how much I’ve blamed myself these past weeks. If you’re right

“If I’m right Chief Inspector Rourke is hiding one hell of a lot from me.”

“So what will you do now?”

“Go back to square one and find out why that second cab was blown up. And I’ll keep on searching for answers until my time here runs out and I have to go back home again.”

“When will you go?”

“Soon.”

She lowered her voice. “I’ll miss you.”

“Come back to the States with me, Penny. Leave all this behind and I promise I’ll make an honest woman of you. I’ll marry you.” I reached out and grasped her hand. It still felt icily cold, almost lifeless.

“Oh, Henry.” She lowered her head and stared intently into her coffee mug. The noise of the cabbies continued around us, but Penny didn’t speak for what seemed like a long time and I began to get embarrassed at the protracted silence. Eventually she removed her hand from my grasp. “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it to you, Henry. I can’t let you get yourself involved in something you don’t understand.”

“I understand that I want to be with you. Some people might call it love.” I left my hand on the table, hoping she would make the move back towards me, but she didn’t.

“Maybe you do love me,” she conceded. “Or maybe you just think you love me. But you don’t understand what it would mean, what it would really mean. I’m not a Catholic, Henry, you know that. And I’m Irish.”

“That’s nothing serious. We can work out any religious differences between us. Other people have done it before, so why not us?”

“No! You still haven’t understood! I’m Irish! I was brought up here in Belfast where we still have a system ofwhat did they call it in South Africa? Separate development? Apartheid. That’s what we have here. We loyalists don’t mix with the Catholics and they don’t mix with us. People have been knee-capped or shot because they married into the wrong tribe. We don’t even allow our kids to go to school together. Don’t allow them to grow up together. That’s how all this bigotry gets passed on from generation to generation. You must have worked that out for yourself by now.”

I sighed. The truth was that I was only just beginning to see the real meaning behind her words. Even so, I still tried to bring her round. “I don’t see how that could make any difference to us living in the States. It’s not the same over there.”

“Of course you don’t see what I’m getting at. How could you? Sometimes I come out and say things about Catholics and Nationalists… things that are not very nice. I don’t mean to be offensive, it’s just that it’s the sort of remarks I’ve been brought up with, so I tend to come out with them now and again. Things I’ve heard other people say. They’re the same on the other side, the Catholics, they say things about us that are rude and offensive and they don’t realise what they’re doing either. One day I’ll say the wrong thing to your friends or your parents over there and you’ll hate me for it. You’ll hate me for it as much as I’ll hate myself when I realise what I’ve done, but I won’t be able to stop myself doing it because that’s the way I am. Can you understand what I’m telling you, Henry? Can you?”

“No.” Despite all that I had seen, I could not bring myself to understand what she was telling me. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to understand it. “But I get the general drift of what you’re on about. You’re telling me that you don’t want to see me again.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to. I just can’t. You’d hate me if you discovered what sort of people I came from.” She gritted her teeth and stared at me. “Do you want to know why your great-grandfather died?”

“Jacob Bodine? He drowned. Nothing to do with you.”

She shook her head. “Several of my ancestors worked in the shipyard when the Titanic was built. One or two of them were in the management team. They built her with poor quality rivets.”

“What are you saying? I thought the ship hit the iceberg because she was going too fast.”

“Too fast? No, that doesn’t make sense. If she arrived early in New York it would have been an inconvenience to everyone. And she should have survived the impact with the iceberg. The reason she sank was because the rivets they used were not up to strength. The iceberg didn’t rip a hole in her. The plates came apart when the rivets popped.”

“Are you sure about this?”

“It’s what I was told. They built the Olympic the same way. She was Titanic’s sister ship and she was involved in a collision the year before Titanic went down. The same thing happened. The rivets popped off and the ship’s plates came apart.”

“How do you so much?”

“I told you I had a boyfriend who worked in the design office. He found some examples of the original metal they used and he had it tested. It wasn’t up to scratch. He told me she would never have sunk if the rivets had been stronger, as they should have been. If he’s right, your great grandfather died because of what we did here in Belfast, and my ancestors were involved. They played their part in the death of Jacob Bodine and that’s just one more weapon you’d be able to use against me if we ever quarrelled.” She stood up and then leaned across the table towards me. “I’m sorry, Henry. I really am. You’re one of the nicest men I’ve ever met and I really hate myself for doing this to you. But I have to say goodbye. I’m sorry.”

With that she turned on her heels and walked out of the cafe. I just sat there and tried to make sense of it all.

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