Chapter one of The Wild Colonial Boy
Jimmy Coogan kept his eye on the road behind him all the way out of Belfast, watching the blue-black ribbon raveling away in the rearview mirror as he drove up the valley of the River Main. He was aware of his own caution, and that annoyed him, for after fifteen years as a guerrilla his watchfulness ought to have come as easily to him as walking or breathing. In town, in the gray and crumbling streets off the Falls Road, he knew when the Brits were looking and when they were not, and he could watch his back and mind the edges of his peripheral vision without thinking, all the while doing something else—talking, eating, whistling up a tune—as if it were the only thing on his mind. Out here, though, driving past flinty Protestant farms under a scrubbed blue October sky, there was no telling who might be watching him, unseen, from the broad, brown hills on either side. The tight warren of lanes and secret border crossings in South Armagh were as familiar to him as the cramped streets of the Falls, but here, north of Belfast in open moorland, he didn't know the signs, and that rattled him. Glancing again in the mirror at the empty road behind, he caught himself wondering what it would be like to visit, say, America, where he wouldn't have to watch his back all day and night. A dangerous thought, and he nearly smiled, as if at the naiveté of a child: he was as liable to see America as he was the dark side of the moon.
Until he left the city he had even felt calmed by the routine of evasion. Maire had rented the car for him, a nearly new Ford Escort smelling of cigarette smoke, and had dropped the keys at their safe house. He had carried the plastique himself, wrapped tight in an old gray blanket and stuffed into a leather Adidas carryall, from the arms dump in Turf Lodge to the safe house, then across town with the keys to the car that had been parked in Ormeau Road. It was breaking the rules for a battalion commander to do his own fetching and carrying—moving the stuff himself in broad daylight, renting a car instead of hijacking one—but he was a commander without any men, the members of his Active Service Unit shot to death at the border three months ago by a suspiciously lucky Brit patrol. But even that, Coogan thought bitterly, worked to his advantage. At least he didn't have to worry about the rest of Belfast Brigade; they would not miss theplastique for several days. And by then, he thought, it would be too late.
All he had to worry about were the Brits, and God knows he was used to that. Still, he had a bit of a fright just outside of Ballymoney, when an army lorry loomed up suddenly behind him, arousing for an instant something as close to panic as Jimmy Coogan ever knew. But he resisted the urge to floor the accelerator and did his best to ignore the canvas-covered grille of the lorry in the rearview mirror. He tried not to think of the Adidas carryall on the floor behind his seat, as though thinking could give him away. Beyond the town he pulled into a lay-by and watched as the lorry, full of bored and gaunt-faced squaddies, turned north up the road he'd intended to take. He waited a moment, gripping the wheel tightly and taking deep breaths; then he started off again, twenty miles out of his way, through Coleraine and then back northeast to the coast.
In Portballintrae he drove to the carpark at one end of the village and stopped the Escort. There were no other cars in the carpark, but even so he reached over the seat and fussed with the carryall for a moment, wishing that he had at least a blanket to throw over it. Then he glanced at his watch and saw that he was late, and he opened his door and turned sideways in the seat, wondering if he ought to move the bag into the boot. But if anyone was watching, that would arouse even more suspicion, so he simply got out of the car and closed the door, locking it and slipping the keys into the pocket of his mac.
He started east along the beach through a fine mist of sea spray, and he pulled the wide lapel of the mackintosh all the way across and buttoned it. The mac was an expensive one, a Burberry. He had tried it on in a post men's store in Bond Street, turning this way and that in front of the tall mirrors like a woman while the clerk fussed around him and tugged at his cuffs. Coogan'd had no intention of taking it until he realized how Maire would scold him for it—and she did, telling him it was his business to remain inconspicuous, that the mac made him look like a bloody television correspondent—and even then he'd had no intention of paying for it; he'd sent the clerk into the back for a box, and when the man was gone he had slipped out the door as someone came in, disappearing skillfully into the crowd along Oxford Street, feeling an uncommon pleasure at using the arts he'd cultivated as a guerilla to do something for himself.
Now he was glad he had the mac as he left the beach and started climbing the headland; he flipped up the collar with both hands as he came onto a narrow path between a rusty barbed-wire fence and the crumbling edge of the cliff. The coat was warm in the stiff, salty wind blowing off the sea, and it made him look, he decided, not like a journalist, who were pretty seedy as a rule, but like some up-and-coming Sinn Fein politician. Just the sort of thing you'd wear at an Easter rally, Coogan thought with contempt, or if you were running for Parliament. Or, he thought with even more contempt, to a secret negotiating session with a British minister. Which was what it would come to eventually if Joe Brody and his lot had their way. It never failed: let a man of action go public, let him turn political, and the next thing you know he's chatting up the Brits and shopping his comrades to Special Branch.
Not that Brody had ever really been a man of action. His family was Republican all the way back for three generations, true enough, but Joe was always more likely to have his nose in a book than his finger around a trigger. He'd spent his internment in the Kesh reading a lot of bollocks, socialist theory and all that: whatever Republican fervor he owned up to was strictly to please his elders. On the other hand Coogan had learned his politics at the age of sixteen in a harder school than Long Kesh, in the streets of the Lower Falls in the summer of '69. He didn't have Joe's head start, either: Jimmy's own mother had offered tea to British soldiers when they'd first arrived; six months later she was on her knees on her doorstep, banging a dustbin lid to warn the street of a Brit patrol, her husband in the Crum, her Jimmy on the run. Coogan himself remembered his first taste of CS gas, the way it burned his eyes and nostrils and scalded his tongue, the way his windpipe constricted as though someone had him murderously by the throat. Fuck socialism, let Brody read Fanon and Debray and Guevara if he wanted: Jimmy had joined up to drive the Brits out of his country, his city, his street.
Yet Coogan had never had any cause to doubt Joe Brody's commitment to the armed struggle. He could accept the lip service paid to the political side, could accept Brody's dual role as, secretly, Chief of Staff of the Army Council, and publicly as president of Sinn Fein and abstentionist Member of Parliament. He could even accept Brody's overtures to the militant British left, but only grudgingly: as far as Jimmy was concerned, a Brit was a Brit was a Brit. But at the end of the day, Brody's bookish socialism had clearly got the better of him. Something happened to men when they got to the top: they lost sight of the goal. It had happened with Michael Collins in 1921, it had happened with de Valera ten years later. And now it was happening again: there was talk that at the Ard Fheis, the annual Sinn Fein party conference in Dublin next week Joe Brody would propose actually taking the seat he had won in the Irish Dail, throwing in the sponge on sixty years of abstentionism. Coogan tucked his chin down between the raised collars of his mac and tightened his fist around the car keys in his pocket. He had ten pounds of Czech plastic explosives in the Escort behind him that said that Brody had no more chance of taking a seat in the Dail than he did. Vincent Brennan of London Brigade and his ASU were with Coogan in this: get us the plastique, he'd said, and my lads'll arrange something spectacular, just in time for Brody's opening address. Mind you, Coogan had told Maire, we don't want to cause a split. All we want is to light a fire under Joe Brody's arse to help him remember what it's all about.
Coogan paused on the clifftop to look at his watch again. He'd been late getting to Portballintrae; that meant that Billy Fogerty should have been waiting for him in the carpark, or at least should have met him on the beach just beyond it. The plan was for Billy to drive another rented car to the carpark at Giant's Causeway, two miles up the coast from Portballintrae; the two men were to walk toward each other along the coast, exchange keys in passing, and continue on. Then, as Coogan drove Billy's car back to Belfast, Billy Fogerty would drive the rental over the border into Donegal and deliver the plastique in Donegal Town to Desmond Cusack, who would take it the next leg of the trip.
Unless, of course, Billy had lost his way. He hadn't been waiting in Portballintrae, nor had Coogan met him on the beach. Pausing in the wind on the clifftop, waves rumbling against the rocks below, Coogan looked ahead to see a single car in the carpark of the Causeway visitors' center. Below that he saw someone in a dark green anorak walking down the paved pathway that led around the base of the cliffs ahead towards Giant's Causeway. He recognized the anorak: it was Billy, apparently late as well. Coogan could hardly fault him for that, but now the boy was walking the wrong way, away from Coogan, east along the base of the cliffs. Which meant either that he was confused, which wasn't likely, or that something was wrong. Coogan watched Billy disappear around a bend in the pathway, and he considered turning back. But if Billy knew he was being followed he wouldn't have come here. It was obvious that he wanted to talk, that he was nervous and needed encouragement. Coogan drew a breath and cursed the boy for an idiot, but he started down the slope toward the pathway.
Billy was waiting for him on the Causeway itself, a low, uneven tongue of gray basalt columns, fitted together like a honeycomb, that descended gradually into the sea like a ramp. Coogan left the asphalt walkway and stepped from column to column toward where Billy stood facing out to sea. Not far beyond him the sea rolled in long, booming waves into the curve of the Causeway, each wave giving up too soon, hissing back into the sea without really trying. Coogan stopped a few paces behind Billy, his hands in the pockets of his mackintosh, the wind driving the skirts of the mac between his legs.
"What's the crack, Billy?" he said, watching the boy's back.
Billy glanced over his shoulder without surprise, then looked back out at the sharp horizon.
"I have to talk to you," he said, just loud enough to be heardover the rumble of the waves.
"Good bloody place for it." Coogan hunched his shoulders against the damp wind. "Very dramatic. Perhaps I should have brought a film crew."
Billy twisted his shoulders and looked pleadingly at Coogan, a child begging not to be teased.
"I can't do it," he said. He watched Coogan uncertainly and looked away again.
"Stage fright, Billy?" What an appalling place to meet; there was nowhere to run. "What me to hold your wee hand for you?"
Billy turned around to face the tall basalt columns of the cliffs above the Causeway, his arms crossed tight over his chest. Coogan looked the boy critically up and down; he was eighteen or nineteen years old, of the generation that had grown up since '69; unlike Coogan he couldn't remember anything other than war in the streets of Belfast. He was thin, sunken-eyed, jumpy; he smoked too much. But Coogan had picked him for this particular job because he wasn’t the sullen sort of incorrigible you saw hanging about on street corners in the Falls. He was no hood, as far as Coogan knew; he had no history of petty thievery or joyriding. He kept himself neat; his hair didn't hang slack the way some boys' did, like unwashed curtains over their gaunt cheeks. Right now, though, he was shivering and red-faced, and even in the new jeans and sweater and anorak Coogan had bought him he looked small and guilt-stricken, as if he had put on an older brother's clothes in the dark by mistake. He snuffled back some snot, and Coogan realized it wasn't entirely because of the chill.
"They know," Billy said in a husky voice, as if he was about to cry.
Coogan felt the first tremors of alarm again, and he stiffened, resisting the temptation to look around and see the lorry load of soldiers lining the clifftop like red Indians.
"You were followed," he said, narrowing his eyes against the wind.
The boy looked away, shuddering.
"I don't mean the Brits." He looked at Coogan, his eyes wide and red-rimmed. "You know who I mean."
"Who, then?" Coogan held himself very still, propped up against the wind with his feet apart.
Coogan felt a freezing cold spreading under his coat that had nothing to do with the wind, but he smiled as if at a child and said, "Idjit, I am a Provo."
"Maybe, maybe not." Billy stared hard at Coogan and sniffed.
"Quit fuckin' me about." Coogan was finding it harder and harder to maintain his bemused grin. He felt colder by the minute.
"Look, you know what I'm talking about," Billy said. He took a step toward Coogan, his cheeks red, as much with anger as with fear or the cold. "Joe Brody says, bring the plastique back and he'll let it go this once."
Coogan hated to show it in front of Billy Fogerty, but for a moment he couldn't speak, and he opened and closed his mouth and made no sound.
Billy watched him, and his look seemed to soften, so that he just looked cold.
"Christ, it's starvin' out here," he muttered in the country fashion, hugging himself. Then he looked at Coogan and said, "Look, he says bring it back and there's no harm done. That's what he said."
"You came alone?" Coogan said in a tight voice.
"Christ, I wouldn't tell him where, all right?" Billy stood very close and peered at Coogan, half pleading, half angry. "I told him I wouldn't tout on a mate. He didn't like it much, but I walked out on my own two legs, didn't I? He told me he'd let me alone if I told you that, that there's no harm done. I fuckin' risked my life to tell you that, so carry your own fuckin' bomb."
Coogan stared blankly at Billy for a long moment, his mind stuttering uselessly while Billy looked nervously away and then back again to see if Coogan was still watching him. Somebody had seen Jimmy leave the arms dump; it was as simple and as stupid as that. He felt frozen through and unsteady; a good strong gust of seawind could blow him over and shatter him on the rocks like a block of ice. He was scarcely out of the gate and Brody already knew. He felt anger bloom in his chest like a flower, but it was a cold emotion, calculated for maximum effect. He raised his hands.
"You useless little shit." Coogan grabbed for the front of Billy's anorak. "You fucking told him!" he shouted, but Billy threw up his arms and knocked Coogan's hands away. His face was red; in a street-corner reflex he shoved Coogan in the chest with both hands.
"I didn't have to tell him, did I!" he shouted. "He fucking knew already!"
Coogan was going numb all over. He couldn't feel his hands and feet, but he felt a kind of euphoria, like a freezing man in his last moments. Without thinking he swung at the boy, missing him by inches. Billy staggered and fell anyway. Coogan checked himself and took a step back. He pushed his trembling fingers back through his hair, the boy at his feet scrambling away crabwise across the damp, uneven stone.
"Hang on, Billy, I'm sorry." He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again.
"You lied to me!" Billy shouted, his voice shaking. "You said this was Provo business and it's not. You lied, you fucker."
Coogan stepped unsteadily toward him, only the wind holding him up, and Billy jumped to his feet and skipped sideways from column to column, a few feet away from the soughing green water.
"That's what you said," he shouted, red faced. He stopped with his back to the cliff, shivering in his too-large clothes, dancing on the toes of his new white running shoes, ready to bolt at Coogan's slightest move.
"You didn't tell me you'd gone off on your own." He was crying now. "I don't want no part of your family squabble. I’m lucky now if they don’t kneecap me."
You're lucky if I don't, Coogan almost said, but he caught himself. It wouldn't do any good; the boy was more scared of Brody than of him. He lifted his palms to the boy, to show he meant no harm.
"Joe Brody's not your friend, Billy." His voice sounded thin and high against the rumble and hiss of the waves behind him; he felt numb with the wind at his back, pressing the collar of his mackintosh along his chin. "I know you didn't tell him anything, and that's good. He's not fighting for Ireland anymore."
He stepped toward the boy, but Billy started to run. Coogan felt his knees weaken at the sight. He wanted to fall down and plead with the boy, he wanted to run after him and break his arm, but all he could do was muster his voice and cry, "Wait!"
"Fuck off!" Billy shouted, skipping backward now over the broken columns. He turned and leaped onto the asphalt pathway, running for all he was worth back up toward the carpark.
Coogan jammed his hands in his coat pockets and watched him go, his mind blank and cold. It was pointless to go after him. When the boy disappeared around the bend Jimmy started back, stepping unsteadily from column to column, his mind unable to work, grinding uselessly like a cold engine on a winter's day. At the top of the path he found the visitors' carpark empty, a crescent cut in the gravel where Billy had spun the wheels of the car in his haste. Coogan shivered and turned away, starting back up the headland toward Portballintrae. He didn't feel warm again until his was stumping along the clifftop. For a moment he wondered if the boy would tout on him now; then he decided that Billy was too scared and too smart to do anything that stupid. Even Joe Brody would disapprove. Then he wondered if Brody had had the boy followed, and he stiffened at the thought of a bullet coming out of the tufted grass around him. But then, walking faster, he decided that Brody wouldn't do that, that it pleased Joe's vanity to sit back and wait for Jimmy Coogan to come back on his own, all humble and contrite, on his knees, bearing the parcel of plastique in his arms like a bastard child he was owning up to. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Coogan jogged down the slope of the headland toward the little curve of beach below the carpark, and he started to laugh. St. Joe would love that, surely, the opportunity to soften his steely ideologue's demeanor and slip into the stern compassion of the confessor, shepherd to his flock. Christ, what a priest he'd have made! First he'd forgive me, then he'd bless me, then he'd break my legs. Then he'd kill me. Coogan smiled and opened the front of his mackintosh, and he started to run along the beach, spitting sand after his feet like clods of turf at the racetrack.
"Fuck Joe Brody," he said out loud, and he laughed, thinking, Billy Fogerty's not the only fish in the sea. I'll find someone else.
Copyright © 1990 by James Hynes