O’Keefe awakes to steady hammering on the rear, garden access door of his flat. A bar of October morning sun cuts through a gap in the curtains and carves light across his blanket.
The black tide of despondency laps at his consciousness and he forces it back for the second time in as many days, knowing he is riding his luck, aware that when the tide chooses to rise and wash in, it will come, and there will be nothing he can do about it, even if he cared to try.
He sits up and checks his watch—half past seven—and rubs sleep from his eyes.The knocking resumes and then stops. O’Keefe can hear the whispered conversation from behind the door, and relaxes as he rises from his bed, pulling on a pair of corduroy trousers and a cotton vest.
‘His bike is under the front steps, so he has to be in.’
‘His bike was here last week and he wasn’t feckin’ in.’
‘You said “feck”, I’m tellin Ma.’
‘Yeh rat. Informer! You wake the Ma and you’ll get a clatter, you will, yeh thick shite.’
O’Keefe can hear the sound of a slap and another given in return. ‘Lads,’ he says, opening the door. ‘It’s fierce early for visits, isn’t it?’
The younger Cunningham boy, Henry, his school uniform shirt misbuttoned so that one end of it hangs low over his short trousers and the other rides up over his pale belly, says, ‘I know. Ma would reef us out of it if she knew. Come here, look …’ Henry nudges his brother, who takes out a deck of cards. ‘We learned how to play Twenty-five off Granny.’
‘Did you now?’
The elder brother, Thomas, takes over. ‘And …’ the boy has large, brown eyes and hair that will not stay combed if it were glued down and varnished, ‘… will you give us a game? We can’t play each other ’cause Henry’s always cheatin’.’
‘You’re always feckin’ cheatin’.’
O’Keefe smiles, helpless. He wonders was he and his own brother like this pair, the best of friends and never not fighting. ‘All right, lads, one game and then I’m off for work. Let me make tea and some beans.’
‘Can we have some?’ Henry says.
‘See, I told yeh he was awake,’ Thomas says.
O’Keefe loses four hands of Twenty-five to the boys. He is, he thinks, the world’s worst card player. Or perhaps Henry had been cheating. He smiles a little as he dresses and shaves.
As he mounts the Trusty, patting his trenchcoat pocket for the photo of Nicholas Dolan, he hears his name called. He turns, startled, to see the woman from the reception desk at Burton’s Hotel coming towards him on the footpath. He summons her name. Nora Flynn.
‘Mr O’Keefe,’ she says, stopping on the path in front of him. ‘What a coincidence. Do you live here? I’m only up Leinster Road myself. Up at the top in digs.’
‘Yes, the basement rooms here. Room, really,’ O’Keefe says. Unconsciously he removes his leather helmet and smooths his hair with his fingers. Lost for words, he repeats hers. ‘What a coincidence. I was just on my way to get the photograph copied. I was going to call in at the hotel with copies on the way to collect my friend.’
The woman smiles, and something wells in O’Keefe’s chest. She is wearing a long, blue linen skirt and white blouse under a navy jacket, and carries a worn leather satchel bag. The simplicity of the outfit highlights her beauty, O’Keefe thinks, his eyes fixed on the woman’s voluminous red hair, which is gathered into a neat French roll. There is a smattering of freckles on her nose and O’Keefe restrains his gaze from lingering on her shapely figure. He concentrates on her eyes—sea-green he notes, framed by thick, dark red lashes. She is tall, but she carries her height with grace and confidence.
There is a momentary but not unpleasant silence between them, as if both are thinking that whatever either one of them says next will be of some significance. Nora looks thoughtful, as if deliberating the wisdom of befriending this stranger. Then she smiles and nods at the Trusty.
‘Is it yours?’
‘It is. I bought her in Cork. After the war …’ O’Keefe stops, suddenly feeling he has said too much. As if he has admitted something shameful. Nora looks at him and appears to sense this, her eyes settling briefly on the scar on his face.
‘It’s lovely. You must give us a spin some time. I’ve never been on a motorbike before. My brothers are mad about them.’
O’Keefe smiles. ‘I am as well. She’s my one true love, she is.’ He stops. How ridiculous he must sound—how pathetic—to a woman as poised and lovely as this Nora Flynn. Another rootless, jobless war veteran on the make.
But Nora laughs and her cheeks bloom with colour. ‘Surely that can’t be true, Mr O’Keefe.’
‘Sad but true, Miss Flynn,’ he says, trying to make light of his awkwardness. Somehow, he has lost his easy way with women. The war, he thinks. He knows.
Again there is silence but this time neither of them glances away.
‘Would you …’ O’Keefe feels he should stop himself before he goes on but finds he is unable, ‘… Would you like a lift into work? I’ve only to stop at the printer’s … there’s one on Camden Street, and then I could drop you. Only if you’d like. If …’
‘I’d like that very much, Mr O’Keefe. Thank you.’
They smile at each other and Nora mounts the bike side-saddle, taking a tentative hold of O’Keefe’s waist.
‘Here,’ he says, handing her the goggles. ‘Wear these. Just in case.’
‘Just in case of what, Mr O’Keefe?’ she asks, but smiles, and there is something lovely and wicked in the smile that O’Keefe is meant to see and does. ‘Am I in danger?’
He shakes his head as he kick-starts the bike.
‘Not too fast!’ she shouts.
O’Keefe laughs. ‘Not too fast, so.’
Nora Flynn watches the smiling Seán O’Keefe roar away from the hotel, swinging left onto O’Connell Street. Her own smile in return is genuine. She has enjoyed the jaunt on the motorbike despite herself, but her smile fades when she remembers the duty to which she has been assigned. A job of work, girl, and no summer holiday.
Her ‘chance’ meeting with Seán O’Keefe; the small, safe-house room she had been moved into in the middle of the night in the home of a family with a son in the Free State army—all of it possible, necessary, because she had rung her colleagues waiting in the Flowing Tide. What she had not imagined when she rang them was that O’Keefe would become her work. Her target.
It had come to Carty that O’Keefe, in his hunt for the boy, might lead them to O’Hanley, and was thus worth marking. And she would be the marker. She catches herself using the language of football in her mind, and recalls how she has only started doing this since joining CID. In sport, men employ the terms of war; in war, the words of sport. And in a war, women fall into the same habits, talking, thinking like men. Yet still treated as women, sure as God.
But female detectives have their uses, Nora knows well. Much of her work in CID involves the tracking of women aiding and abetting the Irregulars. Active ones, carrying messages or even weapons to the gunmen. Passive ones she searches on the streets or minds on silent raids, when she and her CID or Army Intelligence colleagues take over the houses of known Irregulars and wait—schtum—with their families as hostage, in the hope of snaring a returning gunman come home for a mother’s feed. In these raids, Nora is mostly tasked with tending to the women and children, and many of these women call her a Free State whore, traitor bitch. Others are resigned and silent, and their silence digs at her conscience more than the harsh words. Why their dignified acquiescence bothers her is a mystery. Her conscience is clean. She has done her work and no more, no less.
And this Seán O’Keefe will not be a burden or threat to her conscience. He will be easy. The way he looks at her—even she can see it. A dandy-doddle, this job of work that is Seán O’Keefe, she thinks, the unexpected thrill of the motorbike ride giving way to something harder, darker inside her.
At the hotel switchboard, she rings and reports her morning’s progress to a fellow detective officer at Oriel House, knowing Carty will be pleased when he hears of it.