Nora Flynn says yes. She tells O’Keefe she’d only be delighted to share a drink with him and isn’t she dying with the thirst and gumming for a nail? She appears to regret saying this, and O’Keefe catches her sudden shyness and tells her that he is of the same mind himself.
They decide on the Shelbourne Hotel bar, O’Keefe sipping Jameson and Nora Bombay gin and tonic water with a slice of lime. It is a nice touch, the lime, O’Keefe thinks, and is glad they have come here. The Shelbourne has been all but taken over by members of the new Free State government—Dáil representatives from country constituencies holed up in Dublin as much for their own safety, O’Keefe imagines, as for any legislative purpose—but the hotel retains its grandeur. O’Keefe wonders will it continue to be Mecca for the Protestant Ascendancy in this newly independent Ireland—hosting its débutante balls, hunt club dinners and wedding parties for the former ruling class of the country—as it has been for the past hundred years. He wonders will there even be an ascendancy any longer. He has heard of Protestants burnt out of their homes, some murdered. Many, he has heard, are selling up—or are trying to—and heading home to England. O’Keefe catches himself. Home. Many of these families had been in Ireland for centuries and are no more English than he is. Yes, many may have kept flats in London and married into families across the water. But not all of them, and not all Irish Protestants are wealthy landowners. He remembers the small farmers he would meet in West Cork when he served there in the RIC, poor as any of their Catholic neighbours. And how many regular coppers who had served alongside him had been Protestant? Many, and many fine men. He hopes the new Free State government will remember this, despite the treatment being meted out to Catholics in Belfast and the newly partitioned northern counties.
Nora returns to her seat across from O’Keefe. ‘Marble!’ she says. ‘The whole of it, from the stairs to the sinks is all marble.’ She smiles as she speaks. ‘I can’t believe I’ve never been in here before.’
They have already spoken of Nicholas, and O’Keefe’s difficulty in finding the boy, O’Keefe omitting details of his employer and her business, and Nora agrees with him—though what would I know?—that the boy will most likely turn up when he tires of the hard bread, the strange beds and damp ditches of the guerrilla fighter. Or when he misses his mother enough. She asks him if he has discovered anything about where he might be and he tells her no. He lowers his voice when he says it, and tells her that the boy is reputed to be working for Felim O’Hanley. The very man himself. Her eyes widen, and he is pleased with himself for sharing this vaguely scandalous nugget with her. Taking her into his confidence.
‘He’ll turn up,’ she tells him again, ‘please God, none for the worse, when he’s good and ready.’ They raise their glasses to it.
O’Keefe smiles back at her. ‘I’ve only been in here myself once before, for a friend’s wedding.’
‘A happy union?’ Nora says, taking a sip of her drink.
O’Keefe turns away. ‘He … died. He was killed at the Somme. God knows why he went at all. Why anyone did.’
‘At least he had the happiness of a fine wedding here. And a fine wife, I’m sure.’
O’Keefe senses the effort she makes to be cheerful and smiles. ‘He did. He had that.’
They speak now of other hotels, of weddings they have attended. Of meals served and speeches made by drunken fathers and best men. Of the dresses and the cost of things. They smile and laugh as they speak.
She tells O’Keefe when he asks her that she has worked in Burton’s Hotel for the past year and a bit, and before that as a typist in Dublin Castle. Nothing interesting about it but it’s paying work, she tells him, and O’Keefe tells her about his life in the RIC and how he is unsure of what to do now. He had taken the job of finding Nicholas, he tells her, as much for something to do as anything. He does not speak of his father’s illness. Instead, he tells her he has plenty of savings, because it feels important to him that she knows this. More than enough to tide him over until he finds proper work, whatever that will be, when he finishes this job for Mrs Dolan. ‘And I could always hire myself out,’ he says, ‘to people who don’t want somebody found.’
Nora laughs at this. ‘A Pinkerton man who helps you stay lost!’
But O’Keefe is not listening. His eyes are tracking a group of men as they enter the bar and take several tables against the back wall, facing the entrance. One of them eyes O’Keefe, staring at him for a long moment before O’Keefe looks away, not wanting a challenge from the man to spoil his time with Nora.
‘You look like you’re miles away.’
He smiles. ‘Only as far as the back of the bar.’
‘Who are those men?’ she asks, taking a cigarette from her bag and allowing O’Keefe to light it. It is the third time he has done so, and he feels now an easy familiarity in the act.
‘They’re protection of some sort. For the nobs from the Dáil staying here, I imagine. Protective Corps from Oriel House, maybe. Keeping an eye out for anyone who might not wish the best for the men in the Free State government.’
‘Who could that be?’ she says, a cynical edge under the music of her voice.
O’Keefe shrugs. ‘I’ve never much liked politicians myself.’
‘But you hardly support the Irregulars, do you?’
O’Keefe drinks. ‘No, of course not. I’d support the Quakers and pacifists if they were in the running, I suppose, though I hardly imagine any of them would be much better if they were to get a taste of power.’
Nora sighs. ‘Even in the hotel bar of the Shelbourne, imagine. It feels sometimes as if there’s no place you can go where the war isn’t.’
‘This table here,’ he says.
‘How do you mean?’
‘We’ll declare this table to be a ceasefire zone. We’ll officially banish belligerence of any kind from here. You did leave your weapon at the door?’
Nora smiles and thinks of the Webley in her bag. ‘Did you?’
‘I’ve come unarmed this evening, madam. I’m at your mercy.’
‘You’re mad, Mr O’Keefe,’ she says.
O’Keefe agrees and sips more whiskey, smiling again at Nora, unable to help himself, and she smiles back.
‘What?’ she says.
‘What do you mean, “what?”’
‘You’re smiling at me.’
And O’Keefe wonders how long it has been since he has smiled as much or as easily.
‘I like the look of you. But I’ll stop if you like.’
‘It’s better you smiling than frowning at me.’
‘Much better, altogether.’
And O’Keefe keeps smiling at her as she sips her drink, and for the moment, he feels, their table in the Shelbourne is the one place in Ireland where the war is not.
‘This is it,’ Nora says, stepping off the Trusty and smoothing her skirt. Her hair has come loose on the short ride from Stephen’s Green to Rathmines and she gathers it back and holds it to her head before giving up, letting it fall free.
‘So it is,’ O’Keefe replies. A two-story redbrick house at the top of Leinster Road. Hardly three hundred yards from his own. Blessed coincidence? Fate? He smiles. Jesus, listen to yourself, Seán.
‘I’ve had a lovely evening. You’re a gent to stand for the drinks. The Shelbourne is the dearest place in the city.’
‘My pleasure,’ he says, unsure of whether to dismount or stay on the bike. Nora stands close by on the footpath, close enough to reach out and touch. He lowers his goggles and lets them hang around his neck.
‘I’d ask you in for a cup of tea but …’ Nora looks away, brushes red curls from her face and then looks back at O’Keefe.
‘I know,’ O’Keefe says, hearing how daft he sounds, the nervous longing in his own voice. ‘Sure, it’s late.’
‘And my landlord, he’s terribly old-fashioned about … visitors. Even a cup of tea would set his mind turning over.’ She smiles, and in the light from the street lamps, O’Keefe imagines she is blushing.
‘Some people are like that. Always thinking the worst.’
Nora laughs lightly, and it is a beautiful sound to O’Keefe. She says, ‘“Nothing good ever happens after midnight.” One of my father’s favourite sayings.’
‘And do you believe him?’ he asks. ‘Your father?’
‘I don’t know, Mr O’Keefe. Should I?’
‘I’m not sure, Miss Flynn. Should you?’
Nora takes a step closer to him. Standing above him on the footpath, a head taller than he is on the Trusty.
‘Well …’ she says.
‘I should be getting in. I’ve work tomorrow.’
‘I have as well.’
She leans into him and presses her lips against his. O’Keefe is as surprised as he is happy, feeling Nora’s heart beating fast under the soft press of her breasts against his chest. They kiss for a long minute, O’Keefe breathing in the lavender smell of her clothes, her hair, the sweet tartness of lime and gin on her lips.