The first day is the hardest to bear. That's what they had told him, and after just eight hours without food, Nick was beginning to regret his decision to join the hunger strikers in the prisons. He looked at his fellow captives. One was at twenty three days and it showed: his stomach was so thin that his ribs protuded above it like cliffs, and his arms were skin and bone.
"Please, Nick, think about this," his mother Sinead had pleaded when she came to visit, bringing with her a hot meat pie which cast its beautiful aroma around the room and made many of the strikers bite their lips to resist the temptation.
"Don't let them kill you, Nick," said Mikey, fourteen years old with a child's look on life. How could he not see that it was Nick's own decision to let go this way? He would be happy to die for the cause, if only his people would get their way. He knew, of course, that there would be no going back from this.
"They won't get me," he told his brother, trying to reassure him and his mother too. "Don't you worry about that. I'll live through this." Lies, empty lies, echoing around the small visiting room like the footsteps of the guards who arrived and tried, without success, to cajole their prisoners into eating.
"Where's Father?" he asked presesntly, noticing at last that not only his sisters but one of his parents, too, was missing from the party. "Is he at work?"
"He didn't want to come." Sinead blinked back tears. "He doesn't want to see you like this, his own son. I think he feels ... well, he feels that you've brought shame on the family, actually." She hadn't meant to admit that, and didn't know what made the words come out.
"And the girls?"
"Still at school. I wouldn't let them come. They wanted to, you know. They think it's not so bad -- they haven't seen you like this." He had lost weight already, but then, he had put some on in prison and so perhaps it would be a good thing.
"Like this?" Nick laughed hollowly. "This is my first day, Mam, not my twentieth. I'll be looking a lot worse by the time you next see me." She gulped, and Mikey looked away. "Don't be sad. It's for the best, isn't it? Don't you want freedom for our people? We won't take it from the English no more."
"It's too high a price to pay! My own son..." Sinead was beside herself and, with keys clinking officially, she was escorted from the room by the guards. Mikey hung back from a minute.
"Nick. You don't have to do this, you know. You could --"
"Could what? Give up?" He looked at his brother. "No, Mike, I couldn't. I can't give up. I can't let the others down." Slowly, sadly, the teenager left the room, leaving the prisoner in his cell alone.
Nick looked at the floor. He was even hungrier now that they had gone, and there was no warmth or friendliness left. But he couldn't give up; that was ridiculous! He had to carry on, right until the end.