G M Anton Out of the Dark

 

Chapter 1

The stench of stale ale and tobacco smoke slapped Charley in the face as she

walked into Feeney's. Even for a Friday evening, the bar was busy. The ‘Craic’ was

always good in here and that drew the crowds in. It seemed that tonight, the entire

populace of the Fall's Road were out celebrating the end of the working week.

A disco thumped out its tunes in the back room, but here in the bar the chatter

was loud and cheerful. Searching the room, she couldn't see Rory anywhere. Despite

her delay, she had arrived before him. She wasn't surprised, she adored her brother,

but he was more than a little feckless.

It was that devil-may-care attitude that was causing his marriage difficulties.

Four jobs in two years wasn’t a great record, and he hadn't lasted long in any of them.

Mary had finally reached the end of her tether. If he didn't sort himself out, he was

going to end up in a divorce court.

Escaping the bar area and Paddy's disapproval, she lent against the rough artex

wall. Her Mateus Rose was warm and too sweet, but it would do. It was still frowned

upon for any woman to stand at the bar in this town. If Paddy, Feeneys landlord had

his way, women would be banished to the lounge bar. It had only been five short

years since he had reluctantly given in to their demands. This may be the late

seventies, but it took time for things to change in West Belfast.

As a young mum, it was rare for Charley to escape for the evening. With only

Gerry working, each penny had to be scrimped and spent wisely. When Rory had

asked her to meet him this evening, Gerry hadn't been happy. After a long week at

work, he was too tired to babysit their brood. Even now she was still smarting from

his castigation.

“Why the hell do you have to go out tonight? If that wastrel needs to talk, why

couldn't he come round while I was at work. It's just an excuse to drag you down the

pub and cadge some money. You tell him 'No' from me.”

“That's not fair Gerry. He's my brother. I don't care what you say. I'm going

whether you like it or not.” She had stormed out, unwilling to accept the truth of his

words.

Stood in the pub, she knew deep down he was right. Rory would expect her to

pay for their drinks. He always did. She was a fool. She'd had a row with the man she

loved. A good husband and more than that, a wonderful father too. She shouldn't have

argued with him, not about Rory.

She abandoned her glass of cheap wine and moved away from the smokers,

puffing like chimneys nearby. Gerry didn't like her smelling of drink and smoke. She

decided she'd make it up to Gerry somehow. Maybe she'd cook his favourite meal, or

ask his mum to babysit and take him for to the cinema. That was a rare treat for them.

It was hard trying to walk the tightrope between Rory and her husband.

Thankfully, she and Gerry believed that family came first. Their faith confirmed that

belief. They had met in chapel and their shared commitment to the Catholic doctrine

had been the foundation of their life together.

Tonight, Rory needed her shoulder to cry on and she would be there for him.

She hoped he would listen to some home truths as well as the advice she would offer.

If not, she couldn't part with their hard-earned pennies. Gerry was right about that.

They had little enough, especially with Christmas just round the corner. If he needed

money, he would have to get a job, and keep it.

Rory sauntered through the door, scanning the room for her as he did so. His

entrance drew a few admiring glances, but he wasn't interested in one of them.

Raising his hand in the universal sign for another drink, he headed for the bar.

Charley was disturbed by his apparent affluence. After such an extended

period of poverty? How? Rory certainly wasn't working, Mary had confirmed that.

Charley's heart sank. He was up to no good. Would he never learn? She had warned

him about the bad company he kept. Like a moth to a flame, he seemed unable to

resist.

The bar was too public to discuss her suspicions, but it wasn't long before

confirmation strolled through the door, side by side in their matching green bomber

jackets. Rory excused himself to greet two of the most unsavoury characters in West

Belfast.

Paul Donovan and Seamus Gallagher had bad reputations. A space opened

around them, which was even more noticeable in the crowded bar. It wasn’t long

before he returned, but not on his own. Uneasy in their company, she tried to escape.

Rory laughed off her feeble attempts to leave.

“Don't be silly Charley, I've only just got here. I'll have a quick chat with the

guys and we can go through to the disco. I know you love to dance.” He looped his

arm through hers, effectively trapping her. Raised on the idiom, 'If you can't say

something nice, say nothing at all', she remained stonily silent as they chatted.

Paul and Seamus had been in the year above her at school. Even then, they had

hung with the wrong crowd. Neither had been employed since leaving school, but

they were never short of a bob or two. She knew how they made their money, so did

everyone else. Under their pedestrian jackets, they were smartly dressed. It seemed

that the protection money they extorted from the local businesses kept them flush.

True to form, Seamus disappeared out the back with Paddy. The poor man

would be a couple of hundred quid lighter when he returned. The Boys rates weren't

cheap and it was hard for any business to make a profit when you had those to pay on

top of your taxes.

When Seamus and Paul made their excuses a few minutes later, a sigh of relief

escaped her. It was time to talk, but the dance floor was calling Rory.

“Why did you invite me out if you don't want to talk? I could have spent my

evening at home with Gerry.” Her moan was heartfelt. Despite being married for

almost eight years, she still enjoyed her Friday evenings with her husband.

“That's why you have five kids already. I'm surprised you aren't pregnant

again.” She glared at him for that jibe. He disapproved of their large family, but it was

none of his business.

“If I was, it would be our choice, not yours. Gerry's not the one on the dole.

He earns enough to keep food on our plates and clothes on our back.” Enough was

enough, she was going home. She had her arm in the sleeve of her coat when Rory

grabbed her wrist.

“I'm sorry. Please stay for an hour. I invited you out to say thank you for all

your help. You've saved my bacon with Mary on more than one occasion.” He turned

on that dazzling smile of his. He had used it to great affect before Mary had caught

his eye, and his heart. Its enchantment didn't work with Charley, she knew him too

well. Taking a deep calming breath, she forced herself to return his smile.

“Okay, just for an hour, but I want to talk.” Charley put her foot down. She

needed to know if he had sorted things out with his wife.

“A compromise: half an hour dancing, half an hour talking.” He countered,

knowing full well she couldn't resist the pull of the dance floor.

Rory smoothly inveigled his way in to the private Christmas party in the back

room. His rugged good looks and his easy charm worked wonders. Charley hadn't

danced in months and it felt good to cut loose. The disco lights around them flickered

and turned, spinning arcs of colour and light across the floor.

A homebody at heart, she had married at seventeen and was happiest nestled

in their tiny terraced house. Unlike her school friends, she hadn't frequented discos or

clubs, but she wasn't convinced that she had missed much. She preferred the church

organised ceiladh's and their traditional Irish music to this modern rubbish.

When Rory dragged her outside for another drink, an hour had passed. Tucked

away at the end of the bar, she insisted on having that chat. Hauling him closer, she

spoke directly into his ear. “When did you take up with Seamus and Paul?”

He shook his head, refusing to answer her. She changed tack. “Okay, if you

won't talk about them, how are things with Mary?”

His face fell as he glared down into the bottom of his beer glass. “She wants a

baby.” He growled.

A smile lit her face, but she was well aware this wasn't good news for him.

“So she wants a baby and you don't? Do you still love her? Want to keep her?” His

sullen nod and glower answered her.

“Of course I do, but she knows I never wanted kids. Why is she doing this to

me?” Catching the barman's eye, he ordered a finger of whiskey.

“Marriage is about give and take, Rory. Mary has put up with so much over

the years. If you don't give her something in return, you'll lose her.” Mary was at her

wits end. In some ways, Charley wished he would just let her go. That woman

deserved to be treated better than this.

The high trill of the phone rang out behind the bar. Paddy answered it and

scanned the room. He caught her eye and motioned her forward. Charley's heart sank.

Only one person knew where she was. They didn't have the luxury of a phone at

home, so it had to be Gerry's Mum.

Paddy had to shout in order to be heard. “Come into my office.” As she

followed him into the silence of his inner sanctum, he continued. “You're an evil

woman, Charlotte, leaving that poor man with five kids. He's frantic. I'll transfer the

call.”

Although he was joking, guilt ate at her. Gerry worked long hours at the

garage, so the day-to-day childcare was down to her. She'd given him instructions, but

he must have asked his Mum for help. If it was Maureen, she would have to go home.

“How the hell do I put Ryan's nappy on? I folded it the way you showed me,

but it just falls off him. He's howling the place down and the others won't go to bed.”

On another occasion she would have laughed, but not tonight. Where the hell was he

calling from?

“Gerry, where are you?”

His hysterics stilled at the tone of her voice. He could feel the cold fury all the

way down the line. “I just popped down to Mrs Sullivan's for a minute. Now __.”

She interrupted. “You left our children at home? Alone? What the hell do you

think you are playing at Gerry?”

He spluttered for a few seconds, but she didn't give him time to make his

excuses. “Get your ass back home and ask Sinead to help you with the nappy. Even a

five year old can manage it. You gave Ryan cold milk. It needs warming, I told you

that. He'll have colic. Find the gripe water and give him a teaspoonful.” She paused

for a moment to take a deep breath and calm herself.

“This is your job Charlotte Ann Murphy. You're their Mother and where are

you? Galavanting down the pub with your wastrel of a brother. Get your ass back

home now, where you belong.” She was shocked at his tirade and stunned by his

order. Anger flooded through her.

“Where the hell do you go every Saturday night, Gerry? Down to the club to

play darts with your mates. Do I object? Don't you dare order me around. I'll come

home when I am good and ready.” She slammed the phone down on its cradle and

marched into the bar.

Paddy took one look at her face and poured her a finger of whiskey. “You

okay, girl?” She nodded as she choked on the unexpected raw bite of the alcohol. She

dragged out her purse to pay, but Paddy shook his head. “Don't be daft, love. I

offered. It's on the house.”

Paddy wasn't a believer in drinks on the house, so she was touched by his

kindness. “Thanks.” She clapped his shoulder and pecked his cheek before rejoining

Rory.

He dragged her back to the party and she allowed him to do so. He didn't

bother to ask who had called and she didn't want to discuss the row she had just had.

When they next popped out for a drink, Seamus and Paul were waiting for Rory. Not

about to be trapped again, she made her excuses.

“Liam has his confirmation class at nine, so I need an early night.” As she

backed away, she collided with someone. Turning quickly, she apologised. The man

pushed roughly past her, as he threw her a filthy look. Charley's nostrils flared angrily

at his insolence. Colliding with him had been an accident, but he had all but shoved

G M Anton Out of the Dark

3 December 2014 6

her out of his way.

As he shook hands warmly with Seamus and Paul, he greeted them in Gaelic.

She dismissed him, if he was a friend of theirs, then she didn't want to know him. Nor

should she be surprised by his discourtesy.

Rory grabbed her hand, holding her in place. “Just stay for another drink Sis.

We've had a good evening and the boys don't need me for another hour.”

“Not tonight Rory. We have Gerry's Mum booked for New Years Eve. We

will see you and Mary then.” She pulled her hand free, kissing his cheek in farewell.

“Stay safe Rory.”

“Night Sis. We'll do this again soon.” The arrogant asshole watched their

exchange as Rory returned her hug.

Wrapping her coat tightly around her, she headed out into the night. Her

breath, warm and moist, steamed like smoke in the chilly air. Most revellers were

sensible, heading home in the black cabs that trawled these back streets. Her cosy

little house was barely half a mile away. With Christmas just two weeks away, the cab

fare would be better served as a few extra treats for the children.

The streets were deserted and the frost sparkled like diamonds on the tarmac

below her feet. The reflected moonlight created a glittery avenue, a boardwalk to the

stars. Even the green, white and gold curb stones had been transformed into shades of

silver and black.

Humming a show tune, she spun and twirled along its path, giving into her

childish delight at the glory around her. She laughed at her foolishness. Lord, it was

liberating to behave like this every once in a while.

The clear chilly night only added to its beauty. In the centre of the town the

stars are often lost in the ambient light. Tonight, the local vandals had knocked out the

street lights. The pinpricks that twinkled against the deep blue sky were so pretty, as if

the angels above were shining down upon her. She hadn't seen them so clear since

their holiday in July.

Each summer Gerry's Mum and Dad lent them their caravan near Ballycastle.

A tiny seaside town, with its views across to Rathlin Island and on a clear day to the

Mull of Kintyre and Islay.

It was their only break. More often than not it poured with rain, but this year

they had been treated to a week of sunshine and idyllic summer evenings. Even the

onshore breeze hadn't forced them in search of their woollens. In the ninth month of

her pregnancy, it had been a little warm for Charley, but she'd taken a refreshing dip

in the freezing sea to recover.

This year, Gerry had taken the older children to Rathlin Island to see the

puffins, but Siobhan was too poor a sailor to make the crossing. Sinead and Liam had

come back bouncing with excitement about their boat trip.

That was the last time she had been dancing. She missed the intimacy of a

smoochy dance with her Gerry this evening. Maybe she could persuade him to stick a

tape in the recorder and lead her round the floor for a few turns.

The reality of their spat intruded into her dreams. There would be no waltzing

round the front room for her. Gerry would be sullen and irritable. If she had been just

an hour, he would have forgiven her, but it was almost eleven o'clock.

Guilt, such a catholic trait, whipped through her. She shouldn't have gone out.

He worked so hard. He didn't need her dumping him with the kids. He was most

likely tucked up in their warm bed. His broad back would be turned to hers, refusing

any attempt at reconciliation.

The screech of tyres made her flinch. An army Land Rover hauled to a stop

beside her. She had been so lost in her thoughts, she had been oblivious to their

approach. Two men jumped out and closed on her warily. She froze, holding her

hands away from her body. The British army didn't care who they stopped and

searched. More often than not, they saw a lone female as an easy target for their

questions.

“Where have you been this evening Miss? And where are you headed?” The

soldier was older than she'd expected, a seasoned veteran. His grim face was smeared

with cam cream in shades of black and green, but it was his accent which caught her

attention. A local from nearby Lisburn, if she wasn't mistaken. She would watch what

she said to this one.

“Feeney's Bar. I'm on my way home.” She replied curtly.

He kept his distance. Rather than physically search her, he asked her to

remove her coat and open her bag. That kindness made her less hostile towards him,

but he was a representative of an occupying force. The longer the Troubles continued

in Northern Ireland, the more her side of the divide hated and resented the British

Occupiers.

The flash of his teeth, white against the cam cream betrayed his grin. “The

republican bar on the Falls Road?” His suspicions confirmed, she waited for more

questions. She was certainly not about to admit who she had been with. If they caught

a whiff of her being near Paul Donovan or Seamus Gallagher, she would be in for a

night of questioning down at the local police fortress. They weren't police stations in

Northern Ireland, ten years of the Troubles had seen to that.

“Where's home?” His smile was meant to reassure her but she glared at him

stonily. She was a staunch republican, there would be no fraternizing with the enemy.

“Locan Street.”

He didn't reply, but watched her closely as his colleague whispered something

in his ear. Whatever it was, his eyes widened and his face hardened into a frown.

“Who were you with this evening?” His sharp question told her he already

knew.

“I'm sure your informants have already told you who I was with.” She snapped

back. “Have I done anything wrong? Did you find anything interesting in my bag? If

not, I want to go home. My husband is waiting up for me.”

“You're married?” He couldn't quite stop his shocked query. She looked young

for her years. Five pregnancies hadn't added any meat to her bones or lines to her

face. With her elfin features, slight frame and petite stature, it was difficult to judge

how old she was.

“Didn't I just mention a husband?” Her sarcastic reply didn't please him.

“Kids?” He smirked at her nod of confirmation. “I should have known. You

Fenians all breed like rabbits.” Before she could open her mouth to reply, another

man moved forward from the shadows.

“Enough. That was out of order Barnes. Another comment like that and you

will be up on a charge.” There was a crack of authority in his voice.

As with the Lisburnite, this man's accent betrayed his background. Rich and

plummy, only achieved by years at public school, then on to the academy at

Sandhurst. This was the man in charge, the officer. Her attention turned to him.

The boy, and that is all she could call him, looked as if he didn't need to shave.

He couldn't be twenty years old. Meeting his gaze, she lifted her chin defiantly. “Have

you finished with your questions? May I put on my coat and go on home.”

The Lisburnite wasn't happy when his officer politely agreed. A snide

comment was all he could manage. “We'll meet again Mrs Murphy. Maybe next time

we can have a longer chat about the company you keep.”

She hurried away, ramming her arms into her sleeves as she walked. Eager to

escape them, she took the short cut through the alleyway at the end of the last terrace

of houses. Gerry wouldn't approve of her taking this short cut after dark, but she was

tired and cold. She just wanted to get home. There was no-one around, except the

army, and they wouldn't lay a finger on her.

As she entered the alley the darkness closed in. She felt trapped, as if she'd

fallen into an unlit coal mine. These houses were condemned, due to be pulled down

and replaced in the next few months. There was no warm, cosy illumination to filter

down into the passageway. She muttered a curse at the young idiots who had

sabotaged the street lights. Her hand reached out to the side, seeking the reassurance

of the brick wall. She relaxed a little as she inched her way forward, allowing her

eyes to adjust to the deeper gloom.