Almost ten years ago, on a warm May afternoon in the town that I come from: that is where all this began for me. The year is 1981 and it is the height of the hunger-strikes. I am walking alone, along a terraced street not far from my home. It is late afternoon, nearer to five o clock than four, and I am thinking about moving out of home, of getting away from my father. But he’ll take it badly. Why? he’ll ask. What is wrong with here? You don’t have a job yet, he’ll say, and you don’t have any money. Stay a while longer, he’ll plead, until you have work at least. This is what I’m thinking when a voice says, ‘Hey!’
I look. A car pulls along the kerb, goes ahead of me a bit. A heavy-engined car, purring warmly. Black. Well built.
‘Is your name Michael McCarty?’
I walk over to the car. The man who called out to me is in his late forties, I guess. He has a well-receded hairline with tight ginger curls on the sides and on the back; his locks are silver-white. He hands me an open black wallet: Detective-Sergeant J.P. Coughlan it says. There is a picture of a much younger man and a badge: ‘An Garda Síochána: Special Detective Unit.’ Underneath the badge is a harp crest.
I see another man beside him, in the driver’s seat: much younger, in his thirties maybe. He smiles. Coughlan speaks.
‘Would you mind if I asked you some questions, Mr McCarty?’
The backdoor of the car on my side opens. A man gets out: more middle-aged. He is wearing a grey‑black suit and a shirt and tie. He has wavy, black hair. He’s stocky but short.
‘About what?’ I ask.
Coughlan gets out of the car. The door swings shut behind him. He’s reasonably tall, about my height, five-eleven maybe six foot. He’s casually dressed, in a bomber jacket with cords. It looks wrong, not quite the thing for a man of his age. The two men close around me. Across the road a woman stops to look. She moves on again.
Coughlan points at the badge on my lapel. It’s green in colour. The writing, in black, says, H-Block: H for Hunger and H for Hell. He fingers it. I step back.
‘Been busy?’ he asks.
‘Not really,’ I say.
The shorter man lifts my knapsack from my shoulder. I hold onto it with one hand. He yanks it from me, roughly. Coughlan smiles. ‘What were you doing at the Exchange?’ he says.
‘Giving out leaflets,’ I reply. I look at the stocky man. He has my knapsack open. He removes a bunch of leaflets. He hands some to Coughlan. Coughlan sifts them. He stops at the leaflet about the hunger-striker, Bobby Sands. He holds the leaflet out for me to see. ‘A bit late in the day for Sands isn’t it?’ He smirks; Sands had died two days earlier. I don’t say anything.
‘And you’re on your way home now, is it?’ the other man asks. He feels the side pockets on the knapsack and reaches inside; he doesn’t take his eyes off me.
‘What’s it to you?’ I say.
‘Answer the fuckin’ question,’ Coughlan says.
I nod. The car engine revs.
Coughlan holds up another leaflet. It says, Political Status Now! ‘Give out many?’ he asks.
‘A few hundred,’ I say.
The stocky man hands me back my bag. He indicates towards the car door. ‘Get in,’ he says. I back away more but Coughlan grabs me by the arm. ‘In,’ he says. The other man grips me as well. I’m pulled towards the car. Coughlan shoves my arm backwards and up. The sullen man whispers: ‘Your bones are bending son.’
I get into the car.
I am put into a large room on the third floor of the Garda station. My clothes are taken, everything except my underpants. I am told to wait. The room is empty apart from a small formica table and a chair in the centre; there is a long wooden stool like a church pew, against one wall. At the far end, diagonal with the door, there is a fireplace that has been closed off.
I wait for a very long time or so it seems. Maybe it is an hour or two or three. I begin to feel cold.
When Coughlan returns he is alone. He has a briefcase and the leaflets that were in my bag. He tells me to get off his chair and stand. He points to a place in front of the formica table. ‘Stand there,’ he orders.
His appearance has changed. His hair has been re-combed, and there is a smell of after‑shave. He is now wearing regulation police pants and an ordinary blue shirt. The shirt is unbuttoned at the neck. His whole manner is more brusque, more business like; he is deliberate.
He arranges the leaflets on the table and sits. He stares at me. He doesn’t say anything. A long while goes by. He continues to stare at me. Then he takes a typed document from his briefcase. He puts it in front of me and without any preamble places a pen beside it. He asks me to sign the document. I shake my head. He takes the manuscript back and pages through it. He appears to read it. He asks me if I understand why my clothes have been taken. I say no. He tells me that they’re being checked for explosive residue. He pushes the document along the table, towards me again; he holds the pen for me to take.
‘Sign,’ he says. ‘You might as well.’
I shake my head again.
Coughlan talks about the H-Block Campaign. He reads from the leaflet about Bobby Sands. He asks me to tell him what the ‘Five Demands’ are. What does ‘Political Status’ mean? Why should murderers be given political status? Answer me, he demands. I still won’t say anything.
He asks me if I know a Jimmy Murnane? He describes him: red hair, glasses, a married man. I don’t answer. Patricia Glavin, do I know her? I don’t answer again. He wants to know why I won’t talk. I say, why should I. He laughs.
He takes a beige-green folder from his briefcase. He opens it and looks through it. There are copies of letters inside: photocopies. They look familiar. He turns the folder around so that I can see better. The letters are letters that I’ve sent, some that I’ve received. One of the letters is from a Mr Jim Murnane letting me know about a bus trip that is being organised to Dublin for a march in support of the hunger strikes. Another is from the local section of the National H-Block and Armagh Committee. Patricia Glavin’s name is at the bottom of this letter. There are others too, some are personal. He lifts the photocopies page-by-page. I stop looking. I hear him laugh.
‘Michael,’ he says, ‘look at me.’ I don’t.
The sullen, smaller detective comes into the room. His name is Mallin. He stands beside me but he doesn’t say anything; Coughlan continues with the questions. He lists off an array of organisations, and then more names. He asks me about my father. Why have I no brothers and sisters?
I don’t answer these questions either. I look at Mallin. He sticks his tongue out at me. I look away. I’m shivering.
Coughlan asks, ‘What’s wrong?’
I tell him that I’m cold. Mallin walks to the pew-seat. There is silence in the room. Coughlan stares at me and then down the length of my body. An orange rolls across the floor, from Mallin. I watch as Coughlan picks it up. A second orange is also rolled along the floor. Coughlan picks this up as well. He holds the oranges in both hands. He smiles at me. Have I ever been asked to join any political organisations? I ask him again if I can have something to keep myself warm.
‘You can fuckin’ freeze for all we care,’ he replies.
Coughlan places the oranges on the table. He doesn’t resume the questioning. He leaves the folder of letters open but he takes a notepad from his case. He begins to write in this.
A good length of time goes by again. No one says anything. I wonder at first what he’s writing down but I have trouble concentrating. I feel very cold. I have my arms wrapped around me. During this, as he writes, I think I hear him ask ‘Do you like oranges?’ I am not sure. His voice is barely audible and, in any case, the question seems odd. I don’t say anything. After a few minutes he literally jumps from behind the table, at me, knocking it over completely. I move out of his way but this makes him worse. He shouts at me to stand. He points at the original spot, at where I had been. I go there.
I look instinctively to see where his hands are. He shouts, ‘Do you like oranges?’
I reply ‘Yes’ and look over at Mallin.
Coughlan’s voice booms again; his face is red and flustered. ‘Did I tell you to look at him?’
‘No,’ I say and look away. This seems to calm him.
Coughlan goes to the formica table and sets it back on its feet. He is breathing heavily. He picks up his pen, the pad and the folder. One of the oranges has rolled into a corner. He gets this. Then he arranges everything as it was, meticulously, not paying any attention to me. He sits again and begins to write.
A long time goes by. I am very cold. I keep rubbing my arms with my hands to keep warm; neither of them pay any attention. Mallin stares from the side seat. Coughlan reads and makes notes. Eventually Coughlan stops. He gets up and walks over to the far side of the room opposite Mallin. Then he walks out of my field of vision, to the back. There is quiet again for a long time. The room is very still. No noise. I hear nothing until I feel him right behind me, against my buttocks. I stand as steady as I can, motionless.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. His tone is soft, even apologetic; his breath is in my ear. ‘About the oranges.’
‘It’s nothing personal.’
I say I realise that. He laughs quietly behind me. I am very unsure. I think about what he might do. There is two of them and I am alone. The room also: I have heard no outside noises in the whole time that I’ve been in here. Who knows that I am here?
‘You see, I won’t be giving Detective Mallin one either,’ he continues. I say nothing. I just feel him move against me, behind – the poke of his crotch. He asks me, do I understand. I say yes. I feel his hand move around my waist. It is near my belly button. He is beginning to enclose me, and press. His breathing is close.
‘I don’t think you do,’ he says.
There is silence. Suddenly he turns me. An orange is put under my nose. Its skin is coarse and cracked and I can smell the essence when he squeezes it. It is fresh in the room.
I shake my head. I’m confused and cold and I don’t understand why he is asking me about the orange.
He pushes it into my face, jerking my head backwards.
‘It isn’t an eating variety,’ he says and laughs.
Coughlan walks over to where Mallin is sitting and indicates to me to follow. ‘Come,’ he says. He sits down and points to a spot in front of them both, ‘Here.’
I walk over and stand in front of the two sitting men. I ask them again for something to keep me warm. Coughlan crosses his legs. ‘You’re very skinny,’ he says. He turns to Mallin. ‘Do you think that that’s why he’s involved in the hunger-strike campaign?’
Mallin looks at me. He considers this. He says that he had been under the impression that I was the martyr type, that I would die for Ireland. He looks me up and down. ‘It has merit’, he says, ‘this skinniness theory.’ He stares at me again. I stare back at him. Quite suddenly, Mallin breaks into laughter. Coughlan interrupts, ‘Would you?’ he asks. I don’t understand, I say.
‘Would you die for Ireland?’
There is a knock on the door. The young detective-driver comes in. He hands Coughlan a sheet of paper and stands beside me, waiting. Coughlan glances at the page. ‘These results can be relied on?’
The young detective nods.
‘And they’ve been double-checked?’
The detective nods again. Coughlan stands up. We are almost face to face. I back away a step.
‘We weren’t wrong, Michael,’ he says.
He walks around me, over to the centre of the room. He pulls a long stocking from his trouser pocket – not as long as a woman’s but long for a man’s. He points to a spot about a metre away from the formica table. ‘Kneel there,’ he says.
Mallin pushes me. I walk but I am reluctant. Coughlan points again. I watch him stuff one of the oranges into the stocking. For the first time I think I know what is going to happen. I look around. Mallin is now standing as well, about to come in my direction; the younger detective is taking off his jacket. Coughlan has difficulty getting the second orange into the stocking, because of its size. He comes towards me, jostling it. The orange begins to drop along its length. He stops; he’s about a metre away. He wraps the neck of the stocking around his palm. About fifty centimetres hang below his hand, the two large oranges bulge in the foot.
I say that they are wrong. I say that I have never been near explosives in my life. Coughlan tells me to kneel again. I don’t for only a second. It goes through my mind that I will be vulnerable kneeling; I hesitate.
The first blow comes across my stomach. He shouts something like ‘Kneel down’ or ‘Didn’t I tell you to kneel down.’ I feel my insides explode. I collapse. He keeps shouting at me to kneel. I’m not able to move. I feel a sharpness right across my centre as if all my insides are about to rise.
‘Provo bastard,’ I hear. I curl up. I shout at them to stop. One goes to either end of me. I am held out-stretched, on my side. The blows begin again. The oranges are swung into my belly. They shorten the length: Coughlan holds the stocking at two points and aims the blows more. He beats me on my ribs and lower back. I feel sick and I smell orange juice. My legs are held apart and I’m hit repeatedly in the testicles. I feel very hot. I know I will pass out. I am pulled along the ground by the hair. My head feels light as they drag me. I feel an awful pain. Someone is holding me by my testicles and twisting. They take turns. All the time: admit it, admit it, admit that you’re a ‘Provo’.
I show Ricardo the newspaper clipping from Ireland – the report about Coughlan. He reads it and says what will you do when you go back? I shrug my shoulders and say I don’t think I can go back. You will I think, he says. What would you do? I ask. It’s easier for me, he says. It’s abstract – because I can’t go back.
After a while, after we have eaten and have had some wine, Ricardo continues, I’ve often thought about the idea of going back, of what it would be like. What would I do? Would I want revenge? But even now I don’t know. In Chile the rout was so deep – there are so many to seek revenge for. Is it a place to begin?
I am thinking about those words since I came home, since I came back here to Ireland. Is revenge a place to begin? What am I doing by doing anything to this older Coughlan – this retired, seemingly heart-broken man? Who is he or what is he now? Is he a dupe? Is he spent? Is anything to be gained by killing him? As the days pass in my Bed and Breakfast abode, I remain equivocal about what to do. I observe him but I’m unable to make up my mind.
We leave the station some hours later. It is late. I am put into the back seat of the car; the young detective gets in beside me. Coughlan is in the front passenger seat, away from me, something that I am glad of. Mallin drives.
We proceed from McCurtain Street, through St. Luke’s and then out of the city by Dillon’s Cross. From that point on I’m not sure of where we are. We travel on a busy road for a good length of time and then we leave it for a narrow, secondary road. It is dark but I am able to see the ditches on either side by the light of the head-lamps. We meet no traffic apart from a small hatchback car, very early on.
I don’t feel well. I slump in the back to one side. After about thirty minutes, we turn off the secondary road onto what is probably a farm track, continuing along it for another while. The road gets progressively worse, though the car absorbs this: I can feel its solidity and power as we move quickly along.
We pull in close to a verge. The doors of the car swing open. The young detective gets out. He drags me behind him. We mount an embankment. I find it difficult to see where I am going. I feel very tired, like I have no energy but I am ushered along.
We move steadily all the time. Mallin leads. Some distance along, the ground begins to level out. I see a railway track and we join this. I find it more difficult from then on; I have to jump from sleeper to sleeper to keep up. I slip and fall; I’m pulled up. I half fall again. I feel sick. I ask them to slow down but I am told to shut up. After a time I can make out a limestone bridge ahead. We walk out on to it.
Halfway across the bridge, Mallin calls to the others to stop. He grabs me by the hair and pulls me over to the wall. It is low lying, only about crotch height and he shoves my head out over the parapet edge. There is a drop of some fifty metres.
From the time that they have beaten me I have only been addressed as ‘Provo Bastard’. Mallin says now, as he holds me over the wall, ‘This is your last chance, Provo Bastard.’ The others join in: ‘Are you going to talk, Provo Bastard?’ ‘You’re a dead man, Provo Bastard.’
My head is held over the ledge. It is shoved there. I feel the sharp edge of the wall on my sore stomach. My head is forced down again and again. I can see a stream below, in between the bushes going underneath the bridge, and a clot of rocks at one side. Mallin pulls me back. He turns me around and sits me on the wall; he holds me. Coughlan comes closer. His face is almost against mine. I won’t look at him but he catches me by the jaw and makes me. ‘You’re a fuckin’ prick, McCarty,’ he says. His spittle rolls into my eye. I cannot wipe it away.
‘Throw him over,’ I hear Coughlan say. No one moves. I sense their hesitation. I hear his order again, this time more definitely, ‘Throw him over.’
Mallin puts his two hands around my left ankle; the younger detective does the same to my right. I am crying and struggling with them, but it isn’t any use; they are strong. I feel my body weaken as I go over the side of the bridge. My toilet runs down my back and stomach, some of it onto my face.
They hold me steady at first. I remain perfectly still. My head lies against the cold limestone block, and my back rests against the arch wall. Only then do I notice the brightness of the night and light of the moon on the fields. In the far off distance there is a house light, I think. It is faint and flickery. There is an ordinary stillness about and they too make no sounds. Minutes – it seems a lifetime – goes by. Then the shaking begins.
‘Provo Bastard, Provo Bastard,’ they shout.
They swing me from side to side at first, then up and down. Coughlan says something, but I cannot make it out. They begin to count to ten, in unison.
St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Skibbereen is a fine large building, cavernous inside, with a long central aisle leading up to a white marble altar. It is situated on a small hill off North Street on the Cork side of the town. On a Sunday morning I mingle with the throng that drifts sullenly into this place of worship. I know Coughlan is about because I’ve followed him.
It is darker inside than I expect and quite cold, but I find a seat on the left edge of the aisle, a few rows behind Coughlan, directly down from the altar railing. He is already sitting when I take my place: he is dressed smartly in a brown suit. He holds a small black prayer-book in his left hand.
When the priest enters I watch Coughlan stand. I stand as well. A hymn begins and I watch him sing, his eyes closing at one point, piously – former Chief Superintendent John P. Coughlan.
That Sunday morning in St Patrick’s Church, I watch Coughlan take his place in the queue for Communion. There is a steady bustle all around as others gather to receive the sacrament. Coughlan is fifth in line, behind another man, two women and a boy: he stands rigidly, concentrating in prayer. I watch. When his turn comes he approaches the priest and leans forward over the railing to take the Host.
He turns from the altar and comes down the aisle between the queues that have formed. His face is stiff. He holds the Host in his mouth and directs his eyes at the floor. He walks evenly with his hands clasped at the front. This is when he looks. He stops and our eyes meet. There is no expression on his face or to be more exact, none that I recognise. But I realise then that he knows who I am. Or has remembered. ‘You’re Michael McCarty,’ I almost hear him say.
He takes his seat. I watch him kneel in prayer again, giving thanks. I sit there. I’m behind him. But I’ve begun to sweat. For the first time since I’ve come back I feel afraid. I stand up and as calmly as possible, I leave.
Uphill from Coughlan’s house by about fifty metres is a small clump of trees and bush. Ivy is everywhere and it is the perfect cover especially when you are wearing khaki. This is where I am and I’m sure. Everything is right. From the very moment I took up position, I have felt that this day will go well, that this will be my – our – day.
I begin reviewing everything again so as to be sure. Have I done things as I should have, as I planned? I believe my tracks are covered. I believe I can make good my escape. I believe in everything that I am doing – do I not? I do – though the surreptitiousness of it all is a special enjoyment that I hadn’t planned for. I think about this and about my method, about the control that I am exerting over this, the final play – it is good. Here, under the canopy of ivy, I feel powerful about the past in a way that I have not felt before, as if Coughlan is already in my clutches. I think is this what justice is about?
I re-arrange the crate of oranges for the last time – I want them to look presentable. I point all the oval stickers saying ‘Valencia’ upwards, in the same direction. They are uniformly large oranges but the Styrofoam packing is damaged on one side. I hide this by placing some confetti paper around the edges.
I examine my place of hiding again. I account for my accoutrements one by one. I brush the mulch back into place and lift the ivy to one side. Carefully, I step out into the bright sunshine.
I make my way along the ditch at the side of Coughlan’s house. The area remains quiet. I stop and stoop. There is no traffic on the boreen outside his house, right along its length, but I check with the binoculars back and forth to make sure. Further on, below, is Toe Head and more fields sweeping downwards like an inverted crescent towards the sea. The water is flatly calm, and the weather on this, his last day is fine. My view holds. I look out into the distance at the still sea water and think of death, the moment of death to be precise. It is like being out on the ocean on your own on a very calm day. The total silence. The aloneness. Nothing to excite the senses, nothing anywhere to avail of by way of a diversion. Floating. Everywhere, just the calm flat sea: Knowing that you will die. It is nearly ten years since it happened – my nightmare.
Before climbing the ditch, and making my way out onto the boreen in front of Coughlan’s house, I change. The brown, delivery man coat barely fits but it will do. It says, ‘Donovan’s Fruit and Veg’. On the back is the happy reminder, ‘We deliver’.
I lift the crate of Valencia oranges and place it under my arm. I walk up the gravel path to his lovely home. Coughlan’s bike is by the door. I knock. Everything is as it should be. I feel completely confident. I have no feelings of unease, just a pre-sentiment that what has long been wrong will now be put right – at least in part, in a small way. Mentally, I am clear about what I must do: that is what’s important. I hear the door latch move inside; the door begins to open. My free hand holds the steel cosh while my foot slips towards the gap made by the opening door: this door will not re-close.
‘Yes?’ I hear him say, firmly. The first words that we have spoken in all these years.
‘Special fruit delivery, Mr Coughlan. Oranges.’