Saturday, June 3, 2017

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Beyond the Blackthorn Tree

Derry writer and artist Thomas Dixie Elliot with a short story rooted in the IRA's failed campaign to secure British withdrawal. Its central theme contrasts volunteer-commitment with politician-opportunism.

Two ancient Tilly lamps were all that lit the farmhouse parlour, the light casting long shadows in the room. One Tilly lamp had been placed upon the mantel piece of a smoke stained inglenook fireplace and the other gave light from where it was positioned on a heavy oak kitchen table.

The man seated on the busted armchair was lean and had the look of one who worked the land about him. He was someone who cared little about his personal appearance, the heavy stubble on his face attested to that.

His younger companion who paced the stone floor seemed to be the cause of his apparent annoyance. His head rested back on the armchair and his hands gripped both arms tightly. Although his eyes followed the toing and froing of his companion his mind was obviously elsewhere.

“Where the fuck’s that bastard Brian Daly?” The pacing youth looked to the older one seeking an answer. “He said he was popping out to check on something.” He then threw a sidewards glance at a clock on the wall, as if that might have the answer to his question. “How long ago was that? Eh?

“Those lads won’t take too kindly to your swearing,” said the older man nodding at several pictures which hung side by side on the far wall. The youth looked at them, he was fresh faced, his thick dark hair was long at the back, short at the sides; the fashion of the time. His eyes could barely make out the pictures in the gloom, but he did recognise John F Kennedy straight away and of course the same image of Christ that his Mother kept on the wall at home. He wasn’t sure who the Pope was however, he could never remember their names. The Catholic teaching of his childhood had him make a hasteful and hopefully unseen Sign of the Cross on his chest.

The older man wasn’t looking, he leaned to the side and picked up an Armalite rifle which he had propped against a wall within reaching distance of the armchair where he sat. The click he made by unclipping the magazine made the youth flinch. He didn’t even check the magazine but clicked it back into place. A deliberate act done for his own amusement at his younger, inexperienced comrade’s expense.

“And you’d better not let your OC hear you calling him a bastard. Even if he is one.”

The curtains were drawn tightly as rain lashed the window panes. The wind rattled the doors and made it’s way down the chimney to chill them both to the bones.

“Can’t we light the fire John Joe?” Asked the Youth.

“That fire died with old Sha Johnston.” Replied John Joe, “and it’s staying dead, Michael lad.”

“Sha Johnston? Who was he?” Asked Michael, staring at the hearth as if he’d see the dead man in the ashes.

“Sha was an old timer, did his part in the forties, was interned back then and led the IRA in these parts during the Border Campaign.” John Joe paused to reflect before continuing. “The Brits raided this place more times than enough over the years and dragged him from his bed on many’s an early morning with the balls freezing off him. They never got so much as a bullet but kept the farm under surveillance. We knew to stay away so they eventually put him down as an old shit who the IRA never bothered with anymore. And they left him alone.”

“May he rest in peace.” Said Michael, before adding, “but why can’t we light the fire?”

“Because the Brits know he’s dead and this farm is no longer in use. If it’s no longer in use the bastards will kick the door in if they see smoke coming from the chimney. Use your bloody head and fucking well think lad.”

Michael looked like a school child who had been chastised by his teacher for making a basic spelling mistake.

“And that’s why we can’t turn on the lights as well.” John Joe put the Armalite back where it had previously been. “They’ll be seen through the curtains.”

Michael studied a calendar which hung from a nail hammered into the wall nearest the Pope. March 1985 had been the last time anyone had torn a month from it. “I take it old Sha died around that time?” He asked.

“A good observation Michael lad. It’s a year since he shuffled off this mortal coil to be once again reunited with his wife in eternal nagging. A right old bat she was. May she rest in peace and may she give him peace as well. But I seriously doubt it.”

Michael smiled. John Joe hadn’t seen a smile on his face that wasn’t a nervous one since they had set out on this operation earlier in the day. Not a bit wonder, ferrying a landmine concealed inside a milk churn in the back of a van when the British Army and the RUC could be lying in wait anywhere along the route wasn’t a smiling matter. Digging it in at the side of the road and running the fuse wire up the track leading to the farmhouse wasn’t something that amused a person. Not a bit of it.

“Don’t worry I still shit myself the odd time as well.” He said.

Michael spun round, connecting with the old dresser as he did so. Several of the old plates fell and smashed on the concrete floor.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He muttered.

“Damn you Michael do you want the Brits to hear you?” John Joe looked towards the door as if he expected it to be kicked in at any moment.

“They’ll hear nothing with that wind howling outside.” Snapped Michael back at him. “And I’m not shitting myself either.”

He then glanced back at the clock on the wall, the hands hadn’t moved, it was stopped. “Where’s Brian Daly? He should have been back by now. Do you think the Brit’s got him. Do you for fuck’s sake think he’s been caught? What time is it anyway?”

“If that’s not shitting yourself.” Interrupted John Joe.

Michael didn’t answer him, he stood in the centre of the room and listened to the rain and wind raging outside. Somehow it seemed to have worsened.

“Where did that storm come from?” He turned to face John Joe. “Right up until after we had set things up the skies were clear and the moon lit the whole countryside. There was no mention of a storm in the weather forecast. You said it would be clear and we’d see the mobile patrol coming from miles away.” His voice was growing desperate.

John Joe rose from the armchair and headed across to the dresser, the broken plates cracking under his heavy boots. He opened the dresser doors and rifled around inside. “Old Sha should have something in here to soothe the nerves and keep out the cold.” He said. “Old Sha was fond of a drop or two, he was.”

“Ha!” He produced a whiskey bottle which he shook to test how much it contained. “It’s half full. Get a few glasses Michael lad.”

Before Michael could respond he unscrewed the top and put the bottle to his head and took a swig. He looked confused at first then anger crossed his face as he sniffed the bottle. He poured some into a cup and checked it.

“What’s wrong?” Demanded Michael.

“I think that old bastard pissed in this bottle.”

“Does it taste salty?”

“No. No, it’s tasteless, like water. Try it.” He pushed the bottle into Michael’s chest.
Michael looked reluctant but tried a sip anyway. He then took another one. “It’s definitely not piss and it’s definitely not whiskey either. Maybe it went flat?”

“Whiskey doesn’t go flat you eejit, it matures with age.”

Michael placed the bottle on the dresser while John Joe returned to the armchair where he slumped down and tossed his head back once again.

“The landmine.” Said Michael.

“What about it?"

“It must be soaking wet in all this rain. It might not work when and if the time comes.”

“It’s inside a milk churn.”

“Will that keep it dry?”

John Joe stared at Michael for a few moments but did not answer his question. Then he directed his attention towards the door still creaking as the wind pounded it like hammering fists.

“I never trusted that bastard.” He said suddenly.

“Who?”

“Daly.”

“Brian Daly?”

“I was told to shut my mouth and stop bringing the name of a good volunteer into disrepute whenever I raised questions about him.”

Michael was no longer listening, his attention was drawn to something outside.

“Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?"

“I thought I heard a car approaching.”

John Joe rose from his seat while Michael moved towards the window. As he touched one of the curtains he felt John Joe’s hand on his arm.

“Fucking careful lad it could be the Brits.”

Michael started to ease the curtain aside when John Joe gripped his arm tighter.

“Hold on till I put out the Tilly lamps lad” He said moving away.

The room was thrown into total darkness as Micheal looked out the side of the curtains. He stared long and hard into the pitch black night before moving to try the other side.

“Can you see anything?”

Michael’s face was pressing against the dirty glass. He shook his head, then looked again.

“I can see nothing beyond that old Blackthorn tree. It’s too dark out there.”


****

The black BMW eased it’s way along the narrow winding road, the sun reflecting off the year old paint work. It’s tires easily gripped the road as the driver rounded the occasional pot hole.

Time wasn’t on his side, he had been forced to detour off the main road because of a traffic accident. He was now running late for his appointment. He knew these roads only too well he had grown up around here. Grey and thinning hair was a sign that those youthful days were but a distant memory. He was now an important man, that’s why he wore a well pressed white shirt with a green tie. It had to be green. An expensive jacket hung on a hanger in the back seat.

His mobile phone rang, he touched the brake pedal and slowed down almost to a crawl. It wouldn’t do to be caught breaking the law, not someone in his position. Flicking the phone open he immediately recognised the name of a well known journalist. He eased the BMW into the side of the road and stopped before responding to the call.

“I’m sorry to bother you Mr Daly, I’m sure you must be busy.” Said a voice from the other end.

“Not at all Peter and less of the Mr Daly, Brian will do.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard about the latest shooting?”

“I heard a brief mention on the radio.”

“As MLA for the area could you comment on it?”

“Indeed I will Peter. These micro groups are enemies of our peace process but we will not allow them to drag us back to the dark days of the past...”

As he spoke Brian Daly turned and for the first time he caught sight of where he had stopped. His eyes followed the dirt track to the ruined farm house on the hill, the roof had lost many tiles and had begun to sag inwards. Nature was invading it from all directions and crept up it’s walls. Few windows remained intact and the front door hung by a hinge. At the corner where the dirt track met the former farm yard an old Blackthorn tree stood solemn guard, just as he remembered it always had.

He heard the voice speaking to him from the phone, he was still holding it to his ear. He ignored it.

What had brought him along this road and made him stop here? Here of all places?

Several crows rose to the sky in annoyance, something had disturbed or frighted them. Brian Daly saw a curtain moving ever so slightly. The glass in that window was still intact and not a leaf was disturbed by any breeze, so who or what had moved that curtain? Then it moved again, this time the movement occurred on the other side of the window. A cold chill ran down his back.

He turned off his phone and flung it onto the passenger seat. His hand trembled as he turned the ignition key. The BMW purred and he hit the accelerator and roared off down the road.

Two names pounded at his brain; John Joe and Michael. Young Michael.

A clear moonlit night yet they never saw them coming.

How could he ever forget those names? John Joe and Young Michael.

They never saw them coming.

1 comments :

sean bres said...

All I can say to this is, 'wow!' Amazing read. Like others who've come across this elsewhere have remarked, it almost feels like you're there at the scene and the Volunteers within touching distance. Am I the only one who wanted to warn them to get the hell out of there?

I wonder did the real Brian Daly's treachery ever catch up with him before his death and did he ever reflect on what he done, I wonder? Sadly, it's more likely that he bought the image which others packaged for him and went to the grave deceiving himself - as he did countless others. Deep inside though...

Dixie, a chara, you are a gifted though obviously pained man. I see a sadness written all over your face at times and it's no wonder. The suffering you have been through should never be endured by anyone. You have my respect and always will. I hope you find the peace you deserve.