Book: Irregulars

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Next: Chapter 37

36

It is the same dream O’Keefe has had since he was in the army hospital in Cork, septicaemia souring his blood. He is on the deck of the HMS River Clyde, the cargo ship converted to troop carrier and run aground at V Beach, the Turkish rifles and machine-guns grinding to life, like some infernal engine, a mechanical clanking rather than the stop-start stutter of the guns of reality. He is there with Peter as always, but in this version his father is with them in the navy blue uniform of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and holding a photograph of Nicholas Dolan to his chest. Each of them urges the other on, to march down the pontoon bridge to shore, as the men in front of them fall, machine-gun rounds harrying the air like bluebottles over a sheep’s carcass. And now in the dream, the Cunningham boys stand beside O’Keefe and his father and brother, urging them on towards the beach, the water bloody red and bodies floating in the soft wash of waves.

He is awake with a start before the knocking starts. It is the front door this time, but the same voices as in his dream.

‘He’d hardly be sleeping now, sure, we’ve already had our tea and all.’

‘What’d yis have for tea?’ This voice is unfamiliar to O’Keefe, and his bones and muscles ache as he rises from where he had been sleeping on the floor beside his own bed. He remembers why he has slept on the floor and bends down to Finch, who is still unconscious in the bed, feeling his forehead. It is clammy but not hot. Perhaps his fever has passed in the night—in the day, he realises. They have slept since morning and O’Keefe checks his wristwatch and finds that it is seven fifteen. From the quality of the light edging through the side gaps in the blinds, he judges it to be evening.

‘Eggs and Bachelor’s,’ O’Keefe hears the youngest of the Cunningham boys say.

The new voice now, older than the two boys’ says, ‘Wha’s “Bachelors”?’

‘What you mean, “what’s Bachelor’s”? Sure, they’re beans, aren’t they?’

‘Are yis mockin me, are yis?’ There is aggression in this new voice, and O’Keefe crosses to the front door of his flat and opens it. Standing with the two Cunningham boys at the bottom of the steps is another boy, of roughly the same size as the older of the brothers but much thinner and, by his face and voice, older. His clothes are thick with street grime and grease and one leg of his trousers is cut shorter than the other over filthy, road-hardened feet. His cap is the cap of a grown man and it swallows his head down to his ears, the back of it resting on a frayed and hole-riddled knit jumper. His pallor is sickly pale and his cheek-bones jab out under dark-ringed eyes that have seen too much. For a moment, he cannot place the boy.

‘Lads, what is it you want?’ His voice is thick with fatigue, and his words come out harsher than he had intended. The Cunningham boys look up at him, and for the first time since he has known them he sees uncertainty in their faces. They look young and wary.

‘This fella …’ Henry says, his eyes going to the new boy and then back to O’Keefe, ‘… he says he’s a message to give you but I said you were sleeping.’

Young Thomas says, ‘He doesn’t know what Bachelor’s beans are, he doesn’t.’

‘I’ll fuckin’ batter you,’ the capped boy growls, and O’Keefe realises where he has seen him.

‘Now, now, lads, none of that. Sure, there’s loads of people who’ve never eaten Bachelor’s beans and so why would they know about them?’

‘I’ve eaten beans before, by fuck!’

‘Of course you have,’ O’Keefe says, hunger flaring in his own stomach. ‘And you’ve a message for me, have you?’

‘Yis said yis’d gi’s a pound if we laid eyes on Jerry Byrne, yis did. Last night in the lane …’

‘We did, did you find him?’

The boy’s hand comes out now. The lines of his palm are creased deep with dirt.

‘Does Just … does my friend, Mr Albert, know ye’ve found him?’

‘Me scratch first,’ the boy says, jabbing his open palm at O’Keefe in the doorway.

‘Give us a minute while I fetch my wallet.’

‘Who’s in yer bed, Mr O’Keefe?’ Thomas Cunningham says, poking his head inside the room.

‘A friend is all. And he’s very sick at the moment so don’t be knocking him up, right?’ O’Keefe returns to the doorway, cursing himself for his carelessness. Mrs Cunningham is as kind a landlady as a man could ask for, but she would hardly stand for a man sweating out his fever from a bullet wound in her rented bed.

‘Here,’ O’Keefe says to the boy. He places a pound note on the boy’s outstretched palm and the fingers snap closed around it like a mousetrap.

‘Now then. Does my friend know you’ve found the lad?’

‘How should I fuckin’ know? I’m only here and not everywhere, amn’t I? And maybe there’s more than ye lookin’ him.’

Remembering the dead boys in the morgue, a bead of fear runs down O’Keefe’s spine. ‘And who would that be?’

‘Who’m I, Madam Zoraster, the fortune tellin’ gypo?’

‘So you don’t know, then, if there’s others still looking for the Byrne lad.’

The boy shrugs, the shadow of a feral smile tugging at his lips.

O’Keefe considers this. There may be others looking for Jeremiah Byrne and there may not be. Regardless, if he can get to the boy before Just Albert, he can save the lad some considerable suffering. ‘Where is he then?’

The boy shoves the pound note into his pocket and extends the palm once again.

‘I just paid you, youngfella. Where’s the Byrne lad?’

‘Yeh paid me to tell if yer friend knew ’bout where he is. I told yeh tha’.’

‘You told me you didn’t know.’

‘Yeh pay for an answer, yeh get an answer, even if it’s not the one yeh want. Another quid for where Jerry’s does be laying low, before he’s gone from there and yis’re none the wiser.’

O’Keefe smiles at the boy. As sharp in his own way as any boy from the best school in Dublin. Two pounds would feed him and his mates for a week or more, but O’Keefe knows it won’t go on food. The boys will drink whiskey and cider and gin instead of meth spirits and smoke Sweet Aftons tonight, and tomorrow they will still be hungry and working the backs of pubs and public toilets, dipping bags on Grafton Street under the clouting fists of policemen and hackney drivers. He places another pound note in the boy’s hand.

‘He’s at the Achill. The doss-house back the Smithfield markets, on the lane off Bow Street. One of our lads bunked in to tap the punters in the showers and there the cunt was before him.’

‘Thanks for that,’ O’Keefe says, and to his surprise, the boy touches the brim of his oversized cap and turns for the stairs up to the footpath.

O’Keefe says, ‘Wait a tick, youngfella.’ He dips back inside and returns to the boy, handing him a tin of Bachelor’s beans.

The boy holds the tin in his hand and stares at the label. ‘Beans?’ he says. ‘Why’re yeh givin me beans?’

‘They’re Bachelor’s. You said you’d never tried them.’

After studying the tin for another long moment, the boy touches his cap brim again and says, ‘Thanks, Mister.’ He then mounts the steps to the footpath and is gone.

‘You know that lad, Mr O’Keefe?’ Henry Cunningham says.

‘I’ve met him once. He was to bring me a message is all.’

‘He’s a fierce one for the cursing, so he is,’ Thomas says, with more than a little awe in his voice.

‘Right, shove off now, fellas. And don’t be bothering my sick friend, right?’

‘We fuckin’ won’t, will we not, Tommy?’

‘Fuckin’ won’t, bejaysus.’

‘Lads, don’t be cursing.’

‘Sorry, Mr O’Keefe.’

The boys are halfway up the stairs before the first of them says ‘cunt’, and they erupt in laughter.

 

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Next: Chapter 37