I ripped the door off the petrol tank and drenched the old cloth in its contents. Lighting it and stuffing it in the milk bottle, I tossed it from behind the car and watched it go. It landed right on a panda car, and exploded, probably killing the policemen inside who watched it coming towards them. Tadhg also saw my minor victory.
“Go mhaith, mo dheirfiúr. Iontach mhaith!”
“Go raibh mhaith agat, a dhearthair.”
“Here, take this, girl; you’re fair ready for it.” He handed me a rifle, stolen from the dead man lying in a bloody heap beside us. There were so many holes in him, he looked moth-eaten.
I just knew what I was doing with it. “Ready...” I held my breath.
“Aim...” Tadhg matched my position.
“Fire!” We yelled together, shooting at another police car, the bullets catching the young driver several times in the face. It was disgusting (it reminded me of a plate of watery strawberry jelly dropped on the floor), and I was very nearly sick, but I rattled on, firing at whatever I saw as a threat, including a policeman about 20 feet with a huge yak of a gun pointed directly at my brother, and I’ll be damned if I let anyone kill my brother, especially any Hun. I adjusted the rifle on my shoulder and gently pulled back the trigger. He spun round and slammed onto the ground, bouncing once before finally being still. Some young rogue decided to steal his gun and, before making off with it, shot the dead man twice with his own bullets. The young man was clearly petrified at being out there, in No Man’s Land, between his friend and his foe. I was fascinated by his real Irish bravery, however, at deciding to work against his fear to help his side. I stared at him, transfixed. He ran towards his former position. He was about 4 feet away from it, and minor safety, when he suddenly fell to the ground. I assumed he’d tripped over one of his dead commorades. It took me several seconds to realise he’d become one. I was instantly heartbroken – I realised then what we were doing, what I had done. Those men I killed; my enemies though they were, they were still humans. Young men, with wives, children. I’d ended their lives for nothing. Silly, selfish, petty actions on my behalf now had them dead. I felt sick at having widowed their wives, half-orphaning their children. I couldn’t stop the tears rolling steadily down my face.
“Jesus, what’s wrong?” Tadhg asked, concerned. I hardly ever cried.
“That man’s dead, Tadhg! So many men are dead! Just shot dead, bang! Just like that, their lives are finished as though they never started, just another statistic, another victim to the sectarian violence. I can’t believe any human being can happily do this.”
“Erin,” he fired another bullet as he spoke, “it’s just the way it is. I’m not happy with killing people either, British as they may be, but it has to be done. No silly auld Daniel O’Connell-esque speech is gonnie win us independence. Not now. We have to fight. This is how we fight. Deal or die. That’s just the bottom line. And sure, it was their own choice to be out here. They knew the risk. Now fire or I’ll shoot you myself.”
“You’re an animal.”
I blinked the last of my tears away and tried to find a viable target. Considering the full-blown battle that I was in the midst of, it was not hard.
The ground soon began to rumble beneath my feet. I was absolutely terrified – it wasn’t an earthquake because we were slap bang in the middle of a tectonic plate, so what the hell was it?
I soon found out.
A massive, dirty olive-green Army tank came sauntering and rolling towards us, its gun seemingly directed right at me. I screamed as loud as I could, and so did Tadhg.
“JESUS CHRIST ALMIGHTY!” He scrambled to his feet and ran, with me hot at his heels.
We hopped into someone’s front garden, short of breath as we leaned against the wall.
“Jesus, Lord Almighty.” Tadhg blessed himself as he sat with a thump on the grass. I soon joined him.
The owner of the house, a small, pruned old man, came to the door. “Hie, youse,” he whispered, “’mon in here, be sif.”
We gladly followed him inside.
“What in under good God is happenin’ out there?” The teacups the elderly man held in his shaking hands were overflowing and spilling onto the saucers. Tadhg jumped up from his seat at the back of the dining room, right up against the wall, and took the cups from him. The man thanked him and came back to the table with another cup and a plate of biscuits, but I sure was in no mood to eat anything, not after what I’d seen out there.
“They’re bloody startin’ up again.” Tadhg muttered.
“Eejits, the lot of yese. Out gettin’ yersels shot fer suh-hin that, let’s fice it, yese’ll nah get wi killin’ wan anoller.”
“Aye, well.” Tadhg had nothing to say back – this old man was right. Clearly far more experienced to half of those fighting, he’d seen a lot in his lifetime. He was a quare age anyway – born in 1902 (making him 87 at the time I first met him), he witnessed and remembered the Rising, the civil war and the subsequent partition; in fact he’d been in Dublin visiting his auntie for Easter when the Rising began. Terrified, he and his auntie barely left the house during the whole week, watching snippets of the affair from the kitchen window. His auntie made him promise never to involve himself in ‘all that fighting nonsense’. True to his word, he’d never picked up a gun in his life.
“And what’re you doin’ out there, young lady? Out gettin’ shot at when you’re only a wee girl.” He looked at me, his voice softening towards the end of the sentence.
“I’m at no disadvantage being a girl, sir, no disrespect. I loved being out there fighting alongside my boys.”
“She’s a great warrior, too, sir,” Tadhg punched the top of my arm, “She took down some fella about to shoot me.”
“If I were a hooligan like youse,” the man laughed, “I’d be proud of you.”
All went suddenly quiet outside. Tadhg decided to investigate, but I had a sudden revulsion at going, so, because it was okay with our new friend, I stayed behind.
Some time passed in a comfortable silence before I decided to ask the old man what I’d been dying to ask him since the first time I laid eyes on his wizened face.
“Sir, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but; would you tell me about yourself?”
“That’s not being rude,” he smiled, “that’s being inquisitive; being willing to listen to what someone else has to say and learn from their experiences; being a caring and loving person.” I could tell from those few words that he didn’t have a lot of visitors.
Listening to this man telling his life story had me in awe; he had such an interesting tale to share, filled with so many experiences, both sorrowful and joyful, most heartachingly depressing and sad. He’d been in America for a few months, fell in love with an actress on the verge of ‘making it’, had his heart broken when she did make it, ironically after all his support and soothing when she didn’t land a role. He’d found love again, “managing to hold onto this one”, when he moved back home, where he’d lived since, but always had the soft spot for the “girl with the Betty Boop face”. He’d seen both World Wars, losing his uncle Patrick in WW1. He’d married the ‘silver medal’, Valary, from Magherafelt who “had the weirdest yet most beautiful voice in the world”, and had six children, well, eight counting the ones who’d died in infancy. His youngest son, Seán, had been amongst the first to do the 11+ exam, and managed to get a place in the new school, St. Columb’s College (which was up and running in the same building for about 50-odd years before transferring the grounds to Buncrana Road, after which the building became Lumen Christi College in 1997, eight years after my first encounter with this man), going onto to be a successful author and musician. He hardly ever visited his daddy nowadays. Just like his other children: Sheila, a hairdresser near retirement; Joanne, a somewhat unsuccessful chef in a café in the town; Michael, a columnist for the Journal; Catherine, or just Caty for short, a nurse in a surgery outside the town; and Sarah, well, she just flitted between jobs. He was immensely proud of all of them, but he missed them so much. He would ring them often, but usually they were too busy to talk to him. When he became a great-grandfather, thanks to Michael’s son Eddie, he didn’t know until the baby, called Edwin after his daddy, was 1½. His wife died of natural causes in 1984. It was only then that he “truly appreciated her. She’d done so much for me, never complained but listened when I complained, but worst of all, she always knew she was second best to the Betty Boop girl. It was then that she became number one, and I truly regretted every single comparison, every single argument. We’d had over 50 years together, but I just wished for one more day with her, one more chance to tell her how much she meant to me and how much I actually did love her. I hate waking up every morning because it’s another day without her, but I love it because it’s another day closer to seeing her beautiful face again in paradise.”
I stopped asking questions then. I just thought I’d gone too far – he was in tears, and so was I. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s okay. I’m glad I had someone to talk to.”
Someone knocked on the door, completely ruining our moment. The man got slowly up from his chair and lumbered to the door. It was Tadhg.
“Hi, is Erin still there?” he jumped about nervously.
“Yes, she is; what’s happened?”
“Nothin’, just, the fightin’ is over! For now, anyway. I’ve come to take her home.”
“Thank God it’s over.” The man blessed himself, as did I.
I went to the door and, just before I left, I hugged the man, kissing him on the cheek and whispering in his ear. “I’ll be back tomorrow, same time.”
He smiled a massive grin. “See you then, scamp.”
We were halfway home when I realised something.
I left that man’s house knowing his entire life story, cover-to-cover.
But I didn’t even get his name.