Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 40
Next: Chapter 42

41

The Triumph Trusty is where O’Keefe had left it in the alley beside the Achill, and soon the Dublin streets unwind beneath him, cobblestone and hard macadam, past Trinity College onto College Green, down Dame Street, passing a loose platoon of patrolling Free State soldiers, swinging left onto South George’s Street.

The evening assails him in memory. The lifeless, machine-gunned bodies of Murphy and his men. The tortured, sheeted corpses of the boys on the surgeon’s gurneys. The smashed and battered skull of the CID man in the doss-house baths, Just Albert’s bloody club rising and falling down like a blacksmith’s hammer. Bloodsoaked regret and the humid storm cloud of depression he has known since the war, gathering in the dark corners of his mind.

He should never have let Just Albert take the money. No good will come of it. A black assemblage of word and thought clatter in his mind, the Trusty’s pistoning four-stroke distant and muffled under this oppression, his eyes scanning the racing shadows and darkened windows of Camden Street as he rides. The flashing nightscape set-dressing his growing despair. Midnight urchins huddling a hackney stand’s barrel fire. A late-opening Italian shop, newsprint chip-and-ray wrappings flowered open on the footpath in the margins of its window light. Aging street whores in the maw of an alley, pimp keeping sketch for coppers. O’Keefe’s mind keeping grim pace with the bike.

Never should have taken this job in the first place. Nicholas Dolan more than likely up in the Wicklow hills under canvas playing bivo’ed soldiers, and here I am, as if born to it, up to my elbows in blood. And no way to know if the deaths of the boys in the morgue or the men in the hotel are linked to Nicholas’s whereabouts. And all to pay a debt incurred by the auldfella. A debt he may have already forgotten.

He curses his father, and regrets it, and then does not.

 

A light burns behind the curtains in his flat and O’Keefe shuts down the Trusty, leaving it for the moment on the footpath in front of the Cunningham house. He pauses at the top of the steps down to his rooms—a fresh surge of readiness flooding his nerves, heightening his senses—wishing suddenly he had thought to bring the dead man’s Colt with him. Then he remembers Finch, sweating out his wounds in his bed. His heart slows as he descends the steps and keys open his door. Instead of Finch, it is Mrs Cunningham sitting in his desk chair before a low coal fire in the grate, a book splayed open on her lap, the weak light over her shoulder from a paraffin lamp on his desk. She starts awake at the sound of his key.

‘Mrs Cunningham.’ His face flushes with the heat of embarrassment, and he looks to his bed, and beneath a thick welt of blankets is Finch, steadily breathing, lightly snoring. The source of his shame, he is relieved to learn, is still alive. ‘I should have told you about my friend. He’s …’

The woman smiles, rubs her eyes of sleep then closes the book on her lap. ‘It’s grand, Mr O’Keefe. His fever’s down in the past few hours. And I’ve changed his dressings. Healthy-looking wound, that is. A bullet if I were to guess.’ But there is no malice or suspicion in the words, and O’Keefe nods.

‘It is. I’m not sure how he came to get it, but he’s a friend I owe my life to. I should have told you. Asked you.’

‘Only so I could have tended him, Mr O’Keefe. He’s a man in need of medical attention, and medical attention I can provide. I’m happy for the chance to do it again, really. A holiday from the ironing and sewing, it makes me feel young again, and God knows I need to feel that way now and again.’ She laughs lightly, and seeing the question on O’Keefe’s face, she says, ‘I was a nurse, Mr O’Keefe. Before I married, before the war.’

‘You’re very kind, Mrs Cunningham. I’d like to pay you …’

‘Don’t be daft, I’m only happy to do it. Sure, somebody needs mind him so Henry and Thomas don’t take it upon themselves to do it. They’ll mithre the poor man to death if we’re not careful. He sent them to shops for whiskey, if you can believe it, and paid them in penny sweets. He wasn’t able for much of it.’

O’Keefe smiles back, wondering briefly how long it had taken after he had left for the two boys to sate their curiosity about the man in his bed.

‘Will he make it, do you think?’ he asks.

Mrs Cunningham stands, strands of her dark hair escaping from their knot at the back of her head and framing her face in the lamplight. A kind face, lines at her eyes that speak of a life spent smiling. Or weeping. Recent weeping, fresh lines carved by the grief of losing her husband, but still a woman more prone to happiness, bitterness not sitting naturally with her.

She is older than O’Keefe by half a decade, he thinks, and her body soft and round, a mother’s body under her skirts, her bust stretching tight the blanket she has wrapped round her shoulders for warmth and O’Keefe has a sudden urge to have her take him in her arms and hold him. Change the dressings in his heart, his head. Tend to him. His shame returns as he feels a tightening in his gut, a limning warmth in his balls. He flushes again, guilty and amazed in equal measure with how a body functions. Violence and shame and lust in the space of an hour. And his mind lurches now to Nora Flynn, her lips on his and body pressed against his body, the swell of her breasts against his chest, the heat rising from her skin beneath her shirt collar; Nora Flynn not half a mile away in her digs and his cock twitches, as unashamed and madly sovereign as any inmate in Bedlam. Mrs Cunningham smiles at him as if sensing his need, and though not recoiling from it, guiding it deftly, gently away.

‘There’s less discharge in his dressings this last time I changed them. I think he’ll be grand but tomorrow will tell. If the fever’s not worse, then let’s hope he’s dodged a proper dose of infection. When was he shot?’

O’Keefe squeezes his eyes shut on his yearning. Forcing his mind to speech, rational thought. ‘Two days ago. Three maybe. The doctor saw him …’ He must pause to think, and with it his desire is stilled, leaving a vague, reassuringly normal wraith of guilt. ‘… Yesterday, or two nights ago … the days are blending together for me at the moment, I’m afraid. The work I’m doing …’

She closes her book and turns down the lamp to a low gutter. ‘I should get back up to the children. What your friend needs is sleep. Nature’s nursemaid.’

King Lear,’ he says, smiling, surprising himself that he has remembered.

‘Who? Oh, I don’t know only that the sister who trained me in swore by it. Sleep the healer. And you should sleep, Mr O’Keefe. And don’t work so hard,’ she says, patting his forearm as she passes him for the door. ‘I can’t be tending two men at the same time.’

She leaves O’Keefe standing in the centre of his room, his eyes on the slow rise and fall of Finch’s breathing under the thick counterpane. Get well, me auld mate, he thinks, willing it but unable to pray.

The lamp flickers and dims, running low of oil. Hunger grips his stomach, and O’Keefe tries to remember when he last ate and cannot. Fatigue wrestles with his hunger and wins. Sleep now, he thinks, and takes Finch’s bloodstained trenchcoat from the hook by the door. He intends to use it for a blanket, but stops when he feels the unmistakeable shape and heft of a bottle in Finch’s coat. He shoves a hand in and comes out with Dewar’s finest Scotch whisky, Finch still preferring the Scotch to the Irish, still loyal to the old trench rumour of Scotch whisky’s purity over the rebel distilleries of Ireland. O’Keefe had tried many times, in the year and a half they served together in the RIC, to convince him of the superiority of Irish whiskey, but had never succeeded. But O’Keefe is not picky now, sleep and hunger lost for the moment to thirst. He uncorks the bottle and drinks.

He lowers himself to the floor, covers himself with the overcoat; lights a cigarette and pulls at the Dewar’s. When his cigarette is finished, he corks the bottle and blows out the lamp. Tossing restlessly on the draft-rife floor, his mind races and sleep retreats despite the whisky. He thinks of rising and drinking more, but an image of Nora Flynn again rears in his mind. Don’t be a fool, O’Keefe, he thinks. Don’t be a bloody fool.

A rushed bath in tepid water, and five minutes later he is for the door.

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Next: Chapter 42