Righteous Times

  • 12 Nov - 18 Nov, 2022
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

It was about six o’clock when we got to the Long Bar on Leeson Street. There were five of us: The O’Leary twins from Belleek, one thicker than the other in my humble estimation, big Finbar Laverty from some dot on the map of Co. Tyrone – he looked a bit like Superman in his Clarke Kent outfit, and had a brain in his head too – myself of course, about whom the least said the better, and the only girl on the course, Lindy Farrell from Larne in Co. Antrim. Now Larne is a bit of a hole at the best of times, in fact Larne on a wet Sunday has always been a cliché phrase for dullness, but if it could produce a girl as pretty as Lindy it couldn’t be all bad. She had a perfect face with long dark eyelashes and a pointed chin, high cheek-bones like a Chinese girl in a Kung Fu film, and the long straight black hair and even the slightly upturned eyes to go with it. But she wasn’t Chinese of course, she was full-blooded Larne, through and through. I said she had a perfect face, but I wouldn’t like to give the impression that there was anything imperfect about the rest of her. I’ll leave the details to your imagination.

Lindy was not only the best looking girl I’d seen anywhere around the College; she was probably the smartest as well. She already had enough “A” levels to get into Queen’s University, but she wanted to do more so that she could get into Oxford and study Politics, Philosophy and Economics. It seems if you study those three at Oxford you’re all set for a life at the forefront of politics anywhere in the world. And as if all that wasn’t enough she had the voice of an angel and could play the guitar and sing like Joan Baez or Mary Hopkin. She knew all the old Irish rebel songs that the nuns and priests had brought us up on in the Roman Catholic church schools, and when she sang them she brought the tears to our eyes. She was a kind of goddess really. Are you getting the impression that I was a bit smitten with Lindy? Well, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

But like any shy Irish nineteen-year-old I knew my position in the male pecking-order. I was about a B-minus, but with some redeeming personality traits. The twins wouldn’t rate an honest C, but big Finbar with his square chin and his tree trunk biceps was right up there in the A league without any question. I had little doubt whose arm Lindy would be leaving on that night.

Of course things don’t always work out the way you think they will, and they didn’t this time. Lindy seemed to want to talk to me more than Finbar. The twins talked, or in most instances grunted, to one another, which was quite normal for them. But Lindy seemed to be interested in why I was at the College, and what I thought of the exams we’d just done, and what I wanted to do if I got good grades. I told her I wanted to do medicine, like my father, but that I hadn’t got good enough grades in chemistry or maths the first time around. Not many people found it as easy to learn things as she did, I told her. She pooh-poohed all that of course. Said she found it no easier than the rest of us. It was nice of her to say so, even if it wasn’t true. I told her that it was sad that after tonight we probably wouldn’t see each other again. I think that was when she said she needed a bit of fresh air.

The others looked surprised because it was still quite early, but she had been downing the drink-and-orange and of course her body weight would have been a lot less than the rest of us. Anyway I stood up to go with her, expecting to be told that I wasn’t wanted, but she put her arm through mine and said goodnight to the others and led me towards the door.

Outside it was one of those perfect late June evenings, with the sun just hovering along the line of the Antrim hills. One of the nice things about Belfast is that no matter where you go you can’t lose sight of the mountains or the sea. I never saw Divis and Cave Hill and Black Mountain look better than they did that evening.

We didn’t say anything at first. I let my hand slide down until I was holding Lindy’s. She didn’t pull away. “Do you still live with your parents, Danny?” she asked me after a while.

“Just my mother. My father’s dead.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“He died in England when I was seventeen. We’d just moved there. The sale of our house in Belfast hadn’t gone through so we were able to pull out of the deal and move back. What about you? Will you be going back to Larne until you go to Oxford?” She laughed. “It’s not certain you know. I’ve got to have four ‘A’s.”

I assured her that it was certain. She didn’t try to argue. “But we’ve still got the whole of the summer,” she countered, with an ambiguity that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

It took me a while to stop feeling awkward with Lindy. I wanted to ask her what she thought she was doing, if she realised it was me, Danny, she was walking with, and Superman was still back there propping up the bar, but she seemed comfortable with her decision. Thank heavens I managed not to say anything too self-effacing. As I relaxed I began to tell her more and more about my life. She seemed genuinely interested. It was my most wonderful dream come true.

We walked on and on, out of the city centre and up the Antrim Road, past the White City Estate, towards Belfast Castle and Cave Hill. I don’t know how long it took us, it must have been hours, but it didn’t seem to cost us any effort. We just strolled along, arm in arm, and talked about our dreams and our fears, as if we had known one another all our lives. She even asked me if I had a girlfriend and I told her the truth. There had been only one real girlfriend in my life and it had only lasted a few months. I had been too juvenile for her, too clumsy and unsophisticated. I had never been her one and only, but I had accepted that, on the principle that half a loaf is better than no bread. She moved in more elevated circles now. There was a strong rumour that her latest conquest was her English teacher, and frantic efforts were being made to cover it up. I didn’t doubt that it was true. He was a lucky man, in most ways. I wished him no ill.

Lindy snuggled up to me and my arm slipped around her waist. I was almost but not quite certain that I had her permission to venture a kiss. I didn’t need to worry. As we reached the bottom of the path that goes all the way to the top of Cave Hill she stood on her tip-toes and pulled me down and took care of it herself. I wanted that kiss to go on forever.

We didn’t say anything else for a long time after that. The sun had set now and we were walking in the moonlight, arm-in-arm, up a steep rocky path, helping one another over the difficult bits, the lights of Belfast filling the valley below us like a multi-coloured star cluster. I realised that I was helping her when I didn’t need to, just for the thrill of touching her lovely body and feeling her close to me. After a little while I could no longer bear to let go. I stopped climbing and held her very close. “We don’t have to go all the way,” I whispered in her ear. She gently released herself from my embrace.

We were quite close to the top, on the last flat ledge before the final ascent. “You’re right,” she said, taking off her coat and laying it flat on the ground, “we don’t have to do anything.”

The lights of the city around the great arc of the Lagan Bay made Belfast look like something out of a story book, too beautiful to be real. I took off my own coat and put it alongside Lindy’s. Then I realised that she hadn’t stopped taking things off. I don’t think I need to go into details about what happened next. I will just say that I have lost count of the number of years that have passed since then but I still remember it as one of the high points of my entire life.

I think I was completely asleep when the distant explosion brought me to my senses. It echoed from the mountains around the city so that it seemed to sound half a dozen times from every direction of the compass. Lindy was still in my arms but she was wide awake. She had raised herself up on one elbow and was staring out at the lights of the city, an expression on her face that I had never seen before – ecstasy, perhaps.

“Lindy? I asked dumbly, “are you okay? What the hell was that?”

“Look,” she said simply, “turn over and look, Danny.”

From somewhere on the other side of the Lagan valley a plume of black smoke was rising slowly and steadily into the night sky, blocking out the streetlights and the house lights behind it, widening as it rose. Then, what looked like a flare seemed to go off at its base and flames that must have been hundreds of feet high erupted upwards and outwards, and lit the roofs of the surrounding houses like daylight. It was almost too bright to look at, like a special effect in a film about Hell. I looked back at Lindy, that strange, joyous expression still on her face. Ecstasy, but no surprise. “What is it, Lindy?” I demanded, “What’s happened?”

“It’s the Alverno Hotel, Danny. The Alverno Hotel on the Springfield Road has gone up.”

“The Alverno Hotel on the Springfield Road? How on earth do you know that? What are you talking about?”

She looked more delighted, and more beautiful than I had ever seen her look before. But her ecstasy had nothing to do with me. “The Alverno was a Protestant shit-hole,” she said happily, “they used to say ‘Protestant’ in all their job adverts. Now they’ve got what’s coming to them. Tonight the patience of the Catholic people of Northern Ireland came to an end. They’ll all get what’s coming to them now – one after the other.”

I felt my heart racing. “Lindy, what the hell are you talking about? How do you know about these things?”

“This is the beginning of something bigger than any of us, Danny! The second Irish War of Independence. They did it in the South in 1916. Now we’re going to do it in the North.”

I looked at her lovely naked body and wide dark eyes and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Lindy,” I blurted out, “people must have been killed down there. People must be burning right now. You’re talking about murdering innocent people. What kind of fantasy are you living in? What war? You knew about this, didn’t you? You were waiting for it. That’s why you came up here. What’s going on, Lindy. For God’s sake, what’s going on?”

A distant siren sounded. Almost at once it was joined by several others.

“What’s going on Danny? The Plantation scum are getting driven out of Northern Ireland. That’s what’s going on. You’ve got to come along with us. This will only happen once in a lifetime. The birth of a nation.”

I stood up in a trance and started to put my clothes on again. Lindy stayed where she was. “You’re going to come along with us, Danny, aren’t you?”

I looked down at her. She was sitting up now, her breasts bare, her loveliness as breathtaking as ever, but reflected in her eyes were dancing red flames, like the eyes of a demon. I was too numb to think, but I felt myself hesitate, tremble for a moment as if on the brink of a precipice, then draw back.

I shook my head. My throat was too tight to allow me to say goodbye.

I started down the path towards the wounded city. More and more sirens were joining in the cacophony.

I had learned a bit of basic first aid from my father. My medical career had just begun.