Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 33
Next: Chapter 35

34

O’Keefe hires a jarvey hack at the corner of Sackville Place and O’Connell Street and drifts into a restless sleep as the driver flets his horse, clopping the silent streets of Dublin, shades of pale purple dawn beginning to leech into the night sky. Nightmares of boys in laneways and a Turk soldier swinging his bayonet lance his slumber, and he kicks out as the jarvey wakes him in front of the Cunningham house.

‘For the love of God, Mister, only you’re bleedin’ home. Don’t be playing the mick now.’

Blinking away sleep, O’Keefe pays the man, unsure of what he has done but tips him too much anyway. He stands at the top of the steps down to his flat listening to the fading chucking of hooves as the hackney heads back to town. Silence then, on the street. He half expects to hear the din of gunfire, revving engines, drunken singing—the music of a city at war—but there is no sound at all except his breathing, and for a moment O’Keefe has the impression that he is the last man alive in Dublin. As if he has been spared from some great cataclysm that has taken the people of the city and left him alone. He grips the iron railing at the top of the steps, his breathing shallow, knowing the feeling is merely an echo of the nightmares he has suffered since the war, his thinking tainted and catastrophic. He pities and hates himself in equal measure when he is like this. An image of the Keegan man sailing out the tenement window flares in his mind and he hates himself even more.

‘Mr O’Keefe.’ The voice is a loud whisper, and he looks up to see Mrs Cunningham, standing on the top steps, the front door to her house open. ‘I’ve been waiting up for you. Are you … are you all right?’

O’Keefe swallows and forces himself to smile. ‘I am. I was only lost in thought, Mrs Cunningham. You shouldn’t have … why did you wait up for me?’

The woman comes down the steps to where O’Keefe stands on the footpath, her dressing-gown clutched tightly around her.

‘Your mother,’ she says, taking hold of his forearm, ‘sent a boy round earlier. You’re to go home at once. The boy said it was urgent.’

Panic wells again in O’Keefe. What could his mother want with him this late—this early? ‘Did he say …?’

‘He said nothing but to make certain you got the message.’

 

Minutes later he is at the door of his parents’ house on Fumbally Lane. His mother looks tired, O’Keefe thinks, but not distraught.

‘Mam, is everything all right? Is Da …?’

‘We’re grand, son. Come in. It’s not us at all. It’s a friend of yours. Your father is with him upstairs. Solly has been to see him, and thinks he’ll live, and of course Solly would never report …’

‘Report what? Mam, tell me what’s happened.’

His mother reaches out and touches his face. ‘You go see for yourself. I will say you’ve interesting friends, Seáneen. But I’m not one to judge.’

O’Keefe makes his way to the stairs, and mounts them with growing dread.

 

His father sits in a halo of candlelight, morning seeping slowly through the curtains.

O’Keefe enters the room, and is about to speak when his father shushes him with a finger to his lips. Again, his father’s face is troubled and blank for a long moment before settling itself to a warm smile. ‘He’s sleeping. Let him have another few minutes.’

‘Who is it?’ For a panicked moment, O’Keefe thinks that it is Peter in the bed, and memories from childhood crowd into his tired mind. He blinks the memories away and sees, in the dim light, exactly who it is.

‘Holy Mother of God. Jack Finch. He’s a friend of mine, Da, from the Peelers. I’m sorry about this. I gave him the address when we demobbed from the Peelers …’ He turns to his father. ‘When did he come?’

‘Around nine. There was a knock on the front door and there he was, slumped down on the steps. Back from the war, thank God. I was worried about him. And you. Peter is no scrapper, doesn’t like a fight …’

‘It’s not Peter, Da,’ O’Keefe says, sadness replacing the fear for the moment. ‘Peter’s …’ He cannot bring himself to say it.

The blankness returns and in an instant is gone, and this time annoyance, anger. ‘Of course it’s not Peter, Seán, for the sake of God, Peter’s long dead. Do you not think I don’t know that? Jesus, boy.’

‘And who brought him, Da?’

‘I’ve no notion who brought him. He was just there, half dead from the look of him. Good thing it was dark or the neighbours would have wondered at it. A bleeding man on the front steps like this was some kind of field hospital.’

‘What happened to him?’

‘Gunshot wound and some cuts around the face and eyes. The bullet went through and out the other side, the doctor … you know …’ Frustration on his father’s face again. ‘Solly! A clean wound, Solly said, and lucky for him it was. It was a big bullet.’

O’Keefe leans down over the bed and places his palm on Finch’s forehead in the same manner as his mother had touched his face moments before. ‘Will he be all right?’

His father shrugs. ‘Solly said time will tell. If no infection sets in, he’ll be grand in no time. If it does … Sure, you know yourself.’

O’Keefe did know. He had spent nearly a year recovering from blood-poisoning after being shot and bayoneted in his two weeks of fighting in Turkey. ‘And did he say how he got it? The bullet?’

‘No, he only said that he was a friend of yours, and that this was the only address he had in Dublin for you and that he was sorry to cause us the trouble. Then he handed us a fistful of banknotes to pay the doctor and passed out. I put what we didn’t need back in his pockets. Sure, Solly wouldn’t take any money. There’s over twenty pound in bloodstained notes in those pockets, along with the tenner odd I put back in there.’

Laughing softly, O’Keefe takes his hand away from Finch’s forehead. It is clammy and warm but not yet feverish. O’Keefe knows this means nothing, depending on when he got the wound and how well the doctor had been able to clean it. Infection keeps a schedule of its own.

‘Solly left fresh bandages and iodine solution to keep it clean and freshly wrapped. “There’ll be all sorts draining out of it in the next few days,” he said. He said someone else had already bandaged him up and stopped most of the bleeding. Most likely saved his life, whoever it was.’

‘I can only imagine,’ O’Keefe says, thinking how strange it is seeing Finch so vulnerable. There has always been something so indestructible about the man that it is difficult for O’Keefe to be worried for him. Finch had been through hell in the trenches of the Great War, and another hell of its own kind in Cork, and had survived both with barely a scratch. He had told O’Keefe how many bullets he’d dodged in Flanders, sniper rounds passing through his helmet brim, bullets striking him in the armoured vest he had bought at home on leave from a fella who’d left his arm at the first battle at Ypres. A bullet that had struck a grenade in his pocket once, the grenade scored by the bullet but the fuse staying blessedly intact. O’Keefe had been in more than one gunfight alongside Finch in Cork, and for a man who seemed to value his life so little, he had seemed invincible; as if minded by an overly vigilant guardian angel. And yet here he is, O’Keefe thinks, suffering a bullet wound in a war he has no place in; in a country he was supposed to have left five months ago. What have you been up to, Jack Finch, since I saw you last?

As if he’d spoken the words aloud, Finch opens his eyes.

‘All right, Sergeant, still velvet then, mate?’

O’Keefe smiles through his weariness. ‘Grand, Finch. Better than you look anyway. And I haven’t been a sergeant in a long time and you well know it.’

‘Odd calling you anything else, innit?’

‘So, you’ve been in some scrap, have you?’

‘You could say that. Finally took a proper bullet for my troubles.’

‘In one side, out the other.’

‘So the doc says.’ At this, he tries to sit up and winces, laying back down. ‘Facking ’urts … sorry, Dads. Forgot you was there.’ He tries to smile and winces again, pain etching lines on his forehead.

‘I’ve heard worse,’ O’Keefe’s father says. He folds the newspaper he has been reading by candlelight and stands now. ‘A few words downstairs, son?’

O’Keefe nods to him and tucks the blanket around Finch again. ‘I’ll be back in a minute and we’ll get you sorted, Finch.’

Night’s darkness is giving way to milky morning light through the curtains and O’Keefe’s father blows out the candle and leaves the bedroom, his boots heavy on the stairs.

‘You rest for the moment, Finch. You’ll be grand. There’s no killing the like of you, there isn’t.’

‘There’s trying, though.’

‘There’s that.’

O’Keefe follows downstairs to the kitchen, where his father and mother sit at the table with mugs of tea. His mother rises and pours him a cup, sets it in front of him with the milk jug and leaves the kitchen.

His father takes his time filling his pipe. O’Keefe takes out his cigarettes and lights one, holding the match to the bowl of his father’s pipe.

‘How are you feeling, then?’ he asks, to break the silence.

‘Oh, I’m grand, nearly ready to take over that job, if you’ve had enough of it.’

O’Keefe looks away. ‘What job is that?’

Anger flares in his father’s eyes. ‘I’m not thick, son, so don’t act like I am, right?’

O’Keefe nods, shame warming his face.

‘But I’m not well,’ his father says, leaning back in the chair and talking around his pipe-stem, the anger leaving his eyes. ‘Not well in the head. Solly’s explained it to me. And your mother …’ his father smiles sadly, ‘… your mother couldn’t keep a secret from me if she was paid to. When she told me she’d taken care of the job, I knew what she meant.’

‘She’s looking after you.’

‘I know. And I … I’m grateful to you for taking it off my hands. I get … I get so’s I can’t remember where I’ve been or what I’m supposed to be doing betimes. Other times, I’m grand. But I owe Ginny Dolan.’ He looks up at O’Keefe as if seeking permission to tell O’Keefe the reason for his debt to the woman.

‘It’s grand, Da.’ O’Keefe interrupts him before he can continue. He does not want to know what ties bind his father to Ginny Dolan. There is nothing to be gained from it. ‘I’m happy doing it. A job of work. Keeps me off the gargle by nights.’ He smiles and his father smiles back and O’Keefe notices how small his father suddenly appears. His illness has diminished him physically somehow, his broad shoulders now stooped, his head bowed.

‘The job’s going all right. Ginny Dolan’s man, Albert …’

‘… Ah no, not that fella.’ His father looks away. ‘She’s not landed you with him has she?’

‘She has, but it’s no bother. He’s a grand fella, most of the time. Sometimes, not so grand a chap.’

Worry clouds his father’s face. ‘He hasn’t … he hasn’t said anything to you about …’ His father’s eyes turn away and he busies himself relighting his pipe.

O’Keefe says, ‘No, we only talk about the job of finding the boy. That’s all.’

His father nods and puffs on his pipe. After some moments, he says, ‘You’re friend is welcome to stay, Seán. You know that don’t you?’

‘Of course, but it’d be bad news for Mam if a mob of soldiers came bursting through the door looking for him. Tracking muck on the carpets,’ O’Keefe says, as he stubs out his cigarette in the ashtray. ‘I thought he’d gone home to London months ago, to be honest. Still, I’m glad he came here. He saved my hide more times than I can remember down in Cork and I owe him.’

His father nods. ‘He’s a pal of yours and that’s what matters. You’ll take him with you so?’

O’Keefe nods. ‘What will you tell the troops if they come? Someone might report him, might have seen him dropped here.’

‘I’ll tell them I’m not right in the head, tell them we went to sleep and he bunked off in the night.’

‘Grand so. I hope he can manage riding pillion.’

‘He’ll be grand. And let us know, son, if you need a hand on that job.’ His father is smiling, and O’Keefe forces himself to smile back. ‘Before the lights go out altogether.’

 

Finch clings to O’Keefe on the Trusty, and O’Keefe can feel him shuddering with pain on the short ride to his flat at the Cunningham house. Finch breathes through gritted teeth as O’Keefe helps him down the steps and onto his own bed before going back up to stow the bike. When he comes back down, Finch’s eyes are closed and his breathing is laboured, a sheen of sweat on his face.

‘Right,’ he says, and Finch opens his eyes and tries to smile.

‘A good skin, Sergeant, you are.’

‘Enough of that, Finch. Let’s get you into bed.’

Finch is undressed and tucked under the blankets, and O’Keefe sits down on the floor with his back to the bed. He smokes, and waves of fatigue crash over him. He glances at his watch. Seven a.m. He should eat something. Instead, he smokes a final cigarette and closes his eyes. Just for an hour, he tells himself. Or two. Tired … Jaysus-tired, I am ….

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Next: Chapter 35