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|Gerry McCullough award-winning Irish writer & poet|
Short Stories: Shadows
This story was published in November 2008 in Brazen City online magazine, Belfast, (unfortunately, no longer online).
It was cold tonight, and Danny found that he was shivering in spite of the leather jacket. He began to walk faster, pulling the jacket tightly round his chest. He passed the empty buildings where Mackie’s used to be, listening all the time for the sound behind him that would signal the success of his job.
Suddenly the night was full of it, a whoosh and a roar that poured over his senses and made it hard not to cower down with his hands to his ears.
No time for that.
He began to run, looking back over his shoulder now and then to make sure no-one was watching, or worse still following. The streets were empty, but in a few minutes the sound of the sirens would follow the roar of the explosion, and they would be on him.
In the seconds before then, he needed to be at least round the next corner, and looking for the car.
The sirens pierced through his ears as he reached the turning.
Where was Jacky?
"Danny. Over here!"
He fled across the street. The car door swung open, and he piled in. They roared down the middle of the road and went skidding round the next bend. Then it was the West Link, and on to the M1, and mingling with the other fast traffic.
Danny’s breathing slowly returned to normal.
"Got a feg, Jacky?"
"Sure." Jacky tossed the packet over. "Ye did well, boy. I heard the bang."
Danny laughed. "Yeah."
"Give them something to think about. Gotta keep up the pressure."
Danny felt a sudden, wild exhilaration. He couldn’t remember when Jacky had last praised him. More often it was, "Get a grip, kid. Catch yerself on and don’t be so daft."
All through his childhood, Danny had felt diminished, put down, knowing that Jacky despised him.
At the safe house, Maire gave them a cup of tea. He leaned back, inhaling deeply, and watched her move about the room, her long red hair sweeping her shoulders, her body swaying, as she bent to take the teapot from the low cupboard and stretched up for the mugs and the jar of sugar. The familiar actions were reminiscent of his childhood, when his mother would move about the kitchen providing food and safety. A sharp pang shot through him.
"Better stay the night," Maire advised them. "If there’s no problem, yis’ll be able to get home tomorrow."
Later, she and Jacky disappeared upstairs together, leaving him to the steeping bag on the sofa.
He lay awake for some time. Funny to think that the big, half-built office complex must be in rubble now.
When he had walked past it in the morning, it had been solid, immovable.
It would have been empty at night. He had got in quite easily, scaling the security fencing untroubled by the alarms and broken glass. By the time anyone decided to take the signal seriously, he had already left the bomb and gone. He had been cool, organised. It was only now, beginning to shiver uncontrollably, that he knew he had been under strain.
Well, he had done it. He had set out to achieve something, and he had achieved it. Jacky would think of him as an equal, now, not as the useless kid brother.
Maire turned the radio on while she cooked breakfast the next morning, and they heard the report while they ate.
"A sixty-eight year old night watchman, Mr. Billy Handley, was burned to death last night when a bomb destroyed the new city centre office block under construction for Dobson and McClarin..."
He said nothing as he got up from the table. The bathroom was up a flight of stairs, and he reached it just in time to be sick into the toilet.
"Somebody should have thought of that! Why did none of them know there would be a watchman? Why had they told him it would be empty?"
Jacky shrugged it off when he asked him.
"Sure, how can ye know everything in advance? He wasn’t seen when the boys were lookin’ the place over. Didn’t see him yerself, did ye? Reckon he was havin’ a wee doze somewhere outa sight."
"I shoulda looked better."
"Don't be daft! You did yer job - get in and get out quick, that’s the orders. Anyway, it’s all the more publicity, see? So maybe it’s not so bad."
He had no answer.
There was an article about the watchman in the Telly that night. Danny didn’t read it. He didn’t want to know anything more. The vague shadowy figure trying to get into his conscious thought was bad enough, without allowing it to take on added detail and reality.
It was over a week before Jacky contacted him again.
He dropped in one evening after work, and Danny was glad to see him. He found the house lonely, these days, since Jacky had moved out. His mother had little to say - she had grown quieter and quieter in the years since his father’s accident. As for the Da, he sat in a corner, smoking and staring at the television, though it was a mystery whether he ever understood a word. He had done nothing else since the day he came home from the hospital after his fall from the scaffolding on the building site.
He had been a semi-skilled labourer - that was the technical term. Now he was nothing.
Jacky never spoke to him. Danny thought that Jacky found the sight too much - the big strong man of his childhood reduced to this. Instead, Jacky went up with Danny to his room, filled him in quickly about the new job, and then went.
"Has Jacky gone again?" his mother asked, coming out of the kitchen as the front door slammed. "Oh - I was makin’ him a cup of tea."
She was quieter than ever for the rest of the evening.
Danny went back up to his room and thought. It began to get dark, after a while. Shadows crept about the room.
The wind whistling in the chimney sounded like a voice from far away.
He got up quickly and turned on the light.
This was a straightforward job - picking up a suitable car and then waiting to act as a getaway vehicle while Jacky and someone else raided an off licence.
He suspected that Jacky had deliberately given him an easy one to help him get his nerve back, and was glad to accept. He had a couple of strong drinks before going for the car and felt okay.
It was a long wait before the boys showed up. There were too many noises and shadows about. He was finding it hard to be relaxed. When they came belting along, he almost forgot to have the door ready open, and skidded badly at the first corner.
"Whoa, boy!" Jacky said, and laughed. Danny managed a sort of grin.
A second later, he swerved wildly across the street, and Jacky made a grab at the wheel, but saw that it was unnecessary.
"Sorry - but I thought I was into him, there."
"Into who? I didn't see nothin’."
"The old fella - crossin' without lookin’ round. I only just missed him."
Jacky said no more.
"Fancy a trip down the country, Dan?" he asked after a while. "Get a bit of fresh air, relax a bit, pick up some useful stuff?"
"Fine by me. When do I go?"
"I’ll let ye know."
The word came a few weeks later. He was to meet up with a fella he had never seen before, Teddy MacCartney, and go on a trip out Fermanagh direction to pick up some things that were needed. No point in asking what it was - Jacky kept very close mouthed about details, and it could only be weapons or explosives, in any case. Danny was glad to be doing something.
The drive down the Ml, past Dungannon and out into the beautiful low bushy country to the West, soothed Danny's spirit. Teddy MacCartney was silent most of the way, and that suited Danny fine.
It was a bright, clear winter’s day, the sky a pale frosty blue, when they set out in the early afternoon.
They stopped at a pub along the way for tea, as evening began to come on, and by the time they had finished, the light was going.
Danny felt a heavy weight descending on his shoulders again as he got into the car. Long shadows stretched out from the trees and bushes at the edge of the car park, and a cat, brushing silently past his leg, made him jump uncontrollably.
Teddy MacCartney continued to drive without speaking.
For some reason, this was no longer soothing. Danny wanted a friendly voice, chatter about nothing important, something which would occupy his mind.
The pick-up went smoothly. Teddy knew where he was going - a lonely farm-house out of sight of its nearest neighbours, up a narrow, twisting lane. The car pulled in beside a dilapidated outhouse, and two shadowy figures, who must have been waiting for them, came out quietly.
It was as much as Danny could do not to scream.
Teddy got out of the car, and went round to open the boot.
"Come on, gie’s a hand there, can’t ye?" he growled.
Danny got out quickly and went to help him. There were two heavy sacks to be stowed in the boot.
For the first time, Danny wondered what they were collecting, and what would be done with it. As Teddy slammed the boot door heavily down, someone spoke softly out of the shadows.
He swung round, not sure which direction the voice had come from.
Teddy and the two strangers noticed nothing. They were talking quietly, checking that everything was safely stowed away.
For a moment he stared into the blackness.
"Right," said Teddy’s voice briskly, in his ear. "Time we were heading. Hop in the car, then."
They were stopped just outside Armagh at an Army checkpoint. Teddy was calm, showing his licence and cracking a joke. The soldier waved them on without a search.
When they had driven on some distance, Danny asked, "What happens if they search the boot next time?"
"We get in trouble, sunshine, that’s what."
It didn’t seem a satisfactory answer. Danny wondered if MacCartney had a gun handy.
Soon after, they turned off the main road. It was a part of the world strange to Danny, he was lost by the third turn-off, and had an idea that this had been done deliberately. Teddy MacCartney didn't trust him, was that it?
They bumped slowly along a road little better than a country lane. It was dark, not like the well-lit motorway. Branches of over-hanging trees brushed against the windows of the car with a strange, swishing sound.
Presently they jerked to a halt.
Something moved in the bracken at the edge of the lane.
A rabbit, maybe, or a cat hunting late. Somewhere quite close he could hear the noise of running water.
"Sit where you are," MacCartney said. "Don’t be making any sound, now." He glanced at his watch, twisting his arm up to see the numbers in the faint moonlight coming through the window. "We don’t want any mistake to be made about this."
They sat silently in the car, while all around them the night was full of soft, animal noises. Suddenly a stick snapped, and a shadow loomed up beside the driver's door.
It was hardly more than a breath.
MacCartney opened the door and got out.
"Stay here," he ordered Danny. He went round to the boot of the car and opened it. By the sound, he was hoking in one of the sacks for something.
Danny sat silent and resentful. There was something more planned, and he was being kept in the dark. Jacky might have told him. He wasn’t a kid any more. He had shown them what he could do, hadn’t he?
Teddy and the other man slipped quietly away into the darkness.
It had been a mistake to let himself think about what he had done, the way he had proved himself. There were too many shadows and rustling noises about. Something was moving in the undergrowth beside the car, an animal of some sort, of course.
He felt carefully along the compartment under the dashboard. His fingers touched something cold and metallic, but it was only a spanner. He reached further.
Ah! Yes, it was a gun this time. He had been right to think that Teddy would not have come out unarmed.
Holding the gun carefully, Danny checked to see if it was loaded. He knew a little about guns, he had always taken an interest in them. With the loaded weapon in his hand he felt safer. The night noises were less threatening. The shadows were only shadows.
What was that?
He jumped, nerves on edge again. Over past the low hedge, half-way across the next field, he could see movement. But whether it was a man or a beast there was no telling. Danny gripped the gun tighter.
There! There it was again!
He must keep calm. He was imagining things. It was the branch of a tree waving in the breeze. And that faint sound - an owl, or a fox.
Then why did it sound like a voice - a faint voice calling his name, hardly loud enough to be heard above the mutter of the stream?
He had heard it before, calling to him out of the dark at the lonely farmhouse where he had helped to collect the two sacks.
"Danny! Danny! What are you doing?"
He knew now whose voice it was - it was the night watchman - Billy Handley - the man he had killed.
"I didn't mean to - I didn’t know you were there!"
He stumbled to his feet, pulling at the handle of the car door.
The bitter cold stung his face as he plunged out into the darkness.
The shadow moved again across the field. He could see now what it was - a man, a huge, menacing shape, looming over him, coming nearer.
Danny clutched at the uneven hedge, found a gap, began to push himself through. He started across the field.
"I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t my fault, Da!"
He hardly noticed that the voice in his ears had changed, and now it was his father’s voice, remembered from early childhood.
"Danny! Why did ye do it, son?"
Danny gave a half groan. He looked up at the wavering figure, and saw that it was coming nearer.
Fear possessed him.
His hand tightened on the gun still clutched in his hand.
He raised the gun and pointed it at the vague movements he could see across the field.
"Leave me alone, can’t ye!" he yelled. "I tould ye it wasn’t me!"
He pulled the trigger, and went on pulling.
There were screams in his ears, now, and the sound of something falling.
Danny sank to the ground. The tears were streaming down his face.
He was lying there when the man who owned the field came by in the morning, bringing out his cows, and found him with the gun still clutched in his hand.
Two men sprawled out not far away. Both had been shot. The police had no trouble confirming that the bullets which killed them had come from the gun which Danny held.
The reporter on the news that evening said, "ÖÖ.The two men were identified as Teddy MacCartney, twice convicted of terrorist offences but currently free, having served sentences of one year and eighteen months, and Seamus Donnelly, wanted by the police for his part in the murder of two members of the RUC. It appears that the two men may have been engaged in setting up a booby trap bomb on the nearby road, one which is frequently used by Army vehicles on patrol. The booby trap has been dismantled without damage."
They found the rest of the explosives in the car boot, and guessed that all three men had been together. They would have liked to be able to get more information from Danny. But when they tried to question him, they found that it was useless. Danny would only say one thing, over and over again.
Then. And for all the years after. For all the time that he spent in the care home."It wasn’t my fault, Da! It wasn’t my fault! It wasn’t me!"
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