Saturday, November 30, 2013

Do You Like Oranges?


Kevin Doyle with an extract from his short story Do You Like Oranges?  It was an  Ian St James International Short Story Award prize winner and appeared in the anthologies Pulse Fiction (London, 1998) and Snapshots (London, 1999). 

Almost ten years ago, on a warm May afternoon in the town that I come from: that is where all this began for me. The year is 1981 and it is the height of the hunger-strikes. I am walking alone, along a terraced street not far from my home. It is late afternoon, nearer to five o clock than four, and I am thinking about moving out of home, of getting away from my father. But he’ll take it badly. Why? he’ll ask. What is wrong with here? You don’t have a job yet, he’ll say, and you don’t have any money. Stay a while longer, he’ll plead, until you have work at least. This is what I’m thinking when a voice says, ‘Hey!’

I look. A car pulls along the kerb, goes ahead of me a bit. A heavy-engined car, purring warmly. Black. Well built.

‘Is your name Michael McCarty?’

I walk over to the car. The man who called out to me is in his late forties, I guess. He has a well-receded hairline with tight ginger curls on the sides and on the back; his locks are silver-white. He hands me an open black wallet: Detective-Sergeant J.P. Coughlan it says. There is a picture of a much younger man and a badge: ‘An Garda Síochána: Special Detective Unit.’ Underneath the badge is a harp crest.

I see another man beside him, in the driver’s seat: much younger, in his thirties maybe. He smiles. Coughlan speaks.

‘Would you mind if I asked you some questions, Mr McCarty?’

The backdoor of the car on my side opens. A man gets out: more middle-aged. He is wearing a grey‑black suit and a shirt and tie. He has wavy, black hair. He’s stocky but short.

‘About what?’ I ask.

‘That depends.’

Coughlan gets out of the car. The door swings shut behind him. He’s reasonably tall, about my height, five-eleven maybe six foot. He’s casually dressed, in a bomber jacket with cords. It looks wrong, not quite the thing for a man of his age. The two men close around me. Across the road a woman stops to look. She moves on again.

Coughlan points at the badge on my lapel. It’s green in colour. The writing, in black, says, H-Block: H for Hunger and H for Hell. He fingers it. I step back.

‘Been busy?’ he asks.

‘Not really,’ I say.

The shorter man lifts my knapsack from my shoulder. I hold onto it with one hand. He yanks it from me, roughly. Coughlan smiles. ‘What were you doing at the Exchange?’ he says.

‘Giving out leaflets,’ I reply. I look at the stocky man. He has my knapsack open. He removes a bunch of leaflets. He hands some to Coughlan. Coughlan sifts them. He stops at the leaflet about the hunger-striker, Bobby Sands. He holds the leaflet out for me to see. ‘A bit late in the day for Sands isn’t it?’ He smirks; Sands had died two days earlier. I don’t say anything.

‘And you’re on your way home now, is it?’ the other man asks. He feels the side pockets on the knapsack and reaches inside; he doesn’t take his eyes off me.

‘What’s it to you?’ I say.

‘Answer the fuckin’ question,’ Coughlan says.

I nod. The car engine revs.

Coughlan holds up another leaflet. It says, Political Status Now! ‘Give out many?’ he asks.

‘A few hundred,’ I say.

The stocky man hands me back my bag. He indicates towards the car door. ‘Get in,’ he says. I back away more but Coughlan grabs me by the arm. ‘In,’ he says. The other man grips me as well. I’m pulled towards the car. Coughlan shoves my arm backwards and up. The sullen man whispers: ‘Your bones are bending son.’

I get into the car.

I am put into a large room on the third floor of the Garda station. My clothes are taken, everything except my underpants. I am told to wait. The room is empty apart from a small formica table and a chair in the centre; there is a long wooden stool like a church pew, against one wall. At the far end, diagonal with the door, there is a fireplace that has been closed off.

I wait for a very long time or so it seems. Maybe it is an hour or two or three. I begin to feel cold.

When Coughlan returns he is alone. He has a briefcase and the leaflets that were in my bag. He tells me to get off his chair and stand. He points to a place in front of the formica table. ‘Stand there,’ he orders.

His appearance has changed. His hair has been re-combed, and there is a smell of after‑shave. He is now wearing regulation police pants and an ordinary blue shirt. The shirt is unbuttoned at the neck. His whole manner is more brusque, more business like; he is deliberate.

He arranges the leaflets on the table and sits. He stares at me. He doesn’t say anything. A long while goes by. He continues to stare at me. Then he takes a typed document from his briefcase. He puts it in front of me and without any preamble places a pen beside it. He asks me to sign the document. I shake my head. He takes the manuscript back and pages through it. He appears to read it. He asks me if I understand why my clothes have been taken. I say no. He tells me that they’re being checked for explosive residue. He pushes the document along the table, towards me again; he holds the pen for me to take.

‘Sign,’ he says. ‘You might as well.’

I shake my head again.

Coughlan talks about the H-Block Campaign. He reads from the leaflet about Bobby Sands. He asks me to tell him what the ‘Five Demands’ are. What does ‘Political Status’ mean? Why should murderers be given political status? Answer me, he demands. I still won’t say anything.

He asks me if I know a Jimmy Murnane? He describes him: red hair, glasses, a married man. I don’t answer. Patricia Glavin, do I know her? I don’t answer again. He wants to know why I won’t talk. I say, why should I. He laughs.

He takes a beige-green folder from his briefcase. He opens it and looks through it. There are copies of letters inside: photocopies. They look familiar. He turns the folder around so that I can see better. The letters are letters that I’ve sent, some that I’ve received. One of the letters is from a Mr Jim Murnane letting me know about a bus trip that is being organised to Dublin for a march in support of the hunger strikes. Another is from the local section of the National H-Block and Armagh Committee. Patricia Glavin’s name is at the bottom of this letter. There are others too, some are personal. He lifts the photocopies page-by-page. I stop looking. I hear him laugh.

‘Michael,’ he says, ‘look at me.’ I don’t.

The sullen, smaller detective comes into the room. His name is Mallin. He stands beside me but he doesn’t say anything; Coughlan continues with the questions. He lists off an array of organisations, and then more names. He asks me about my father. Why have I no brothers and sisters?

I don’t answer these questions either. I look at Mallin. He sticks his tongue out at me. I look away. I’m shivering.

Coughlan asks, ‘What’s wrong?’

I tell him that I’m cold. Mallin walks to the pew-seat. There is silence in the room. Coughlan stares at me and then down the length of my body. An orange rolls across the floor, from Mallin. I watch as Coughlan picks it up. A second orange is also rolled along the floor. Coughlan picks this up as well. He holds the oranges in both hands. He smiles at me. Have I ever been asked to join any political organisations? I ask him again if I can have something to keep myself warm.

‘You can fuckin’ freeze for all we care,’ he replies.

Coughlan places the oranges on the table. He doesn’t resume the questioning. He leaves the folder of letters open but he takes a notepad from his case. He begins to write in this.

A good length of time goes by again. No one says anything. I wonder at first what he’s writing down but I have trouble concentrating. I feel very cold. I have my arms wrapped around me. During this, as he writes, I think I hear him ask ‘Do you like oranges?’ I am not sure. His voice is barely audible and, in any case, the question seems odd. I don’t say anything. After a few minutes he literally jumps from behind the table, at me, knocking it over completely. I move out of his way but this makes him worse. He shouts at me to stand. He points at the original spot, at where I had been. I go there.

I look instinctively to see where his hands are. He shouts, ‘Do you like oranges?’

I reply ‘Yes’ and look over at Mallin.

Coughlan’s voice booms again; his face is red and flustered. ‘Did I tell you to look at him?’

‘No,’ I say and look away. This seems to calm him.

Coughlan goes to the formica table and sets it back on its feet. He is breathing heavily. He picks up his pen, the pad and the folder. One of the oranges has rolled into a corner. He gets this. Then he arranges everything as it was, meticulously, not paying any attention to me. He sits again and begins to write.

A long time goes by. I am very cold. I keep rubbing my arms with my hands to keep warm; neither of them pay any attention. Mallin stares from the side seat. Coughlan reads and makes notes. Eventually Coughlan stops. He gets up and walks over to the far side of the room opposite Mallin. Then he walks out of my field of vision, to the back. There is quiet again for a long time. The room is very still. No noise. I hear nothing until I feel him right behind me, against my buttocks. I stand as steady as I can, motionless.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. His tone is soft, even apologetic; his breath is in my ear. ‘About the oranges.’

I nod.

‘It’s nothing personal.’

I say I realise that. He laughs quietly behind me. I am very unsure. I think about what he might do. There is two of them and I am alone. The room also: I have heard no outside noises in the whole time that I’ve been in here. Who knows that I am here?

‘You see, I won’t be giving Detective Mallin one either,’ he continues. I say nothing. I just feel him move against me, behind – the poke of his crotch. He asks me, do I understand. I say yes. I feel his hand move around my waist. It is near my belly button. He is beginning to enclose me, and press. His breathing is close.

‘I don’t think you do,’ he says.

There is silence. Suddenly he turns me. An orange is put under my nose. Its skin is coarse and cracked and I can smell the essence when he squeezes it. It is fresh in the room.

‘See now?’

I shake my head. I’m confused and cold and I don’t understand why he is asking me about the orange.

He pushes it into my face, jerking my head backwards.

‘It isn’t an eating variety,’ he says and laughs.

Coughlan walks over to where Mallin is sitting and indicates to me to follow. ‘Come,’ he says. He sits down and points to a spot in front of them both, ‘Here.’

I walk over and stand in front of the two sitting men. I ask them again for something to keep me warm. Coughlan crosses his legs. ‘You’re very skinny,’ he says. He turns to Mallin. ‘Do you think that that’s why he’s involved in the hunger-strike campaign?’

Mallin looks at me. He considers this. He says that he had been under the impression that I was the martyr type, that I would die for Ireland. He looks me up and down. ‘It has merit’, he says, ‘this skinniness theory.’ He stares at me again. I stare back at him. Quite suddenly, Mallin breaks into laughter. Coughlan interrupts, ‘Would you?’ he asks. I don’t understand, I say.

‘Would you die for Ireland?’

There is a knock on the door. The young detective-driver comes in. He hands Coughlan a sheet of paper and stands beside me, waiting. Coughlan glances at the page. ‘These results can be relied on?’

The young detective nods.

‘And they’ve been double-checked?’

The detective nods again. Coughlan stands up. We are almost face to face. I back away a step.

‘We weren’t wrong, Michael,’ he says.

He walks around me, over to the centre of the room. He pulls a long stocking from his trouser pocket – not as long as a woman’s but long for a man’s. He points to a spot about a metre away from the formica table. ‘Kneel there,’ he says.

Mallin pushes me. I walk but I am reluctant. Coughlan points again. I watch him stuff one of the oranges into the stocking. For the first time I think I know what is going to happen. I look around. Mallin is now standing as well, about to come in my direction; the younger detective is taking off his jacket. Coughlan has difficulty getting the second orange into the stocking, because of its size. He comes towards me, jostling it. The orange begins to drop along its length. He stops; he’s about a metre away. He wraps the neck of the stocking around his palm. About fifty centimetres hang below his hand, the two large oranges bulge in the foot.

I say that they are wrong. I say that I have never been near explosives in my life. Coughlan tells me to kneel again. I don’t for only a second. It goes through my mind that I will be vulnerable kneeling; I hesitate.


  • End of Excerpt

12 comments:

Great piece of writing Kevin. Evocative and atmospheric. I can feel the cold of that room to the point that I am going to turn the heating on here now! It sends a shiver through me.

Brilliant piece. Your right Mackers you can visualise it as it unfolds.

Agreed, great piece.
Reflects the reality of how republicans were treated by the Southern Free-State establishment.
Probably indicative of what republicans can continue to expect from the Northern Free-Staters too.

Perhaps the insults and harassments of the counter-revolutionary phases are as painful to bear as those borne during times of actual struggle?

Kevin , that caught me by surprise.

Just a few sentences in and everything went blank, I ended up being the one Questioned.

Unbelievable to say the least.

Just had to take a look around the living room to make sure were I was.

Thanks Kevin

A good piece of writing like this makes us understand the type of predicament the main character found himself in much better than any newscast.

Mick

Thanks for all the great comments on the piece. I guess breaking people's resolve and their spirit is often what the police/ Gardaí are most intent and interested in doing. I know many many people who read this will know it far better than me that facing down repression (and surviving it later) is an individual journey as much as anything else. But often also the worse is being told it didn't happen/ or it doesn't matter or 'you deserved it'. In truth there's been a bit (!) of that going on down here over a long time now ...

remind you of hasting street or millhouse st barracks in the 70s good read.

What a great article. Very good. Great insight.
I am reading the book by Sean O'Gallaghan called the Informer. A wee bit of an insight to the Gardai.

Kevin

"Across the road a woman stops to look. She moves on again." The unjust becomes normal, the normal cannot talk.

A fine piece of prose, Mr. Doyle, reminds me of Ciaran Carson's poem "Campaign" with its line "They took him to a waste ground somewhere near the Horseshore Bend, and told him / What he was."

I will hunt down your work, Kevin, all respect from Kentucky.

Back in 1990, while walking along Broadway off the Falls, two RUC land rovers zoomed up beside me and from a tiny hole came the nasaly, "What's yer name? What's yer name?" I froze. Surely as an American I was safe, no problem, just no jerky moves. The constables piled out. I produced my passport.

A peeler with a tiny mustache asked, "You're not with Noraid or something stupid like that, are ye?"

"No, no."

"Good. Look, you're not safe here. The people around here, well, they're like blacks, they'll rob ye."

Acting dumb, I took back my passport, assured him I was a tourist and would be heading that way, east, over to the university area to Eglantine, and began to walk with my head down to the roundabout. That night, totally broke and not yet family on Broadway, I slept under a shrub in the Botanic Gardens, then a door well of the C of I church on Lisburn. Tried to sleep at least.

Michael,
Another interesting read.
I think stories like this give people a flavour of what the North was like and continues to be like.
More and more I hear people use the expression, 'back in the day'
What you experienced hasn't gone away. Just sad that you were left like that, given the fact people would have been queuing around the block to help you.

Fionnuala,

Suffice to say, the local constabulary that evening did little to win one American's support for the maintenance of a "Protestant state for a Protestant people." This Yank, baptized Episcopalian though with a rural Catholic father (family long removed from Ireland), had his eyes opened wide. There's a great deal of back story, and the after too: the Falls tribe who, as you said, ran over themselves to surround and befriend and protect me on subsequent visits to West Belfast. Eternally grateful for that, can never repay the kindness. But this is a space for Kevin, the space that Mackers has so graciously provided. Thank you, Fionnuala.

Related recommendation: Colum McCann's novella "Hunger Strike" in the collection Everything In This Country Must.

You had to sleep rough. That is harsh in itself. My wife always said that the vast majority of the community in West Belfast are very friendly. Which they are.

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