Nora too is sleepless, the shooting in the butcher shop still fresh in her memory, the scent of blood still ripe to her senses despite the scalding bath her temporary landlord had begrudged her. The angry, living faces of a father and two sons. A father and two sons, bloody and dead amidst the sawdust and shattered tiles.
She swallows down sharp bile in her throat, and at each rare passing car on the Leinster Road she pushes back the curtains and expects men to come for her. Someone must. A crime had been committed, and someone would have to answer for it, surely. Three unarmed men dead. Bad men perhaps. Killers themselves, she has told herself, more times than she cares to count since arriving home. Just as Dillon had said as they had fled the scene—and no mistake, that is what they had done: fled, begging the question that if what they’d done was the right thing, why had they run? Why Dillon’s instruction—order—to say nothing of what had happened? Their story, sorted between them that the brothers and their father had killed many men, Brits, and more recently, Free State men. They were no innocents, the Gihooleys. Shots had been fired at them as they had entered. They’d had knives. God would judge the butcher and his sons. Jimmy had done what he’d had to do and no more of it, Dillon had insisted. Sure, he’d said, these things happen in our line of work. Still, not a word, to Carty especially. Put it down to a robbery, a dispute among rebels. A revenge killing, one of the Gilhooley brothers riding some other fella’s mot and no one would be the wiser, when men were murdered every day of the week in Dublin. Let God judge them. Like He will judge us, she thinks.
Her stomach is a hard coil of nerves, her skin flaring hot and chilled with guilt and worry, her mouth sour from cigarettes and vomiting that had stopped, mercifully, some hours before. But sleep will not come, and she sits upright in the hard-backed chair by the window of her squalid room and wonders did the Gilhooley sons have wives who were now widows. Children? Stop it, Nora. You’ll eat yourself alive from the inside out ….
Something strikes the window-pane and she starts, panic blanching her skin, heart galloping. She takes the Webley revolver from the bag at her feet and pulls back the curtain.
Seán O’Keefe waves up at her from the footpath, his motorbike on its stand behind him on the road. She hasn’t thought of him since the butcher shop, or dared hope he might come. Why would he? But here he is waving at her, gesturing for her to come out. Her face, of its own volition, breaks into a smile and she mouths the words, ‘One minute.’
‘You frightened the life out of me!’ she says, smiling up at him like an idiot on the footpath. There is safety, somehow, with this man. Respite. In his size and competence. In his warm scent, hard, lean muscle and sad, lovely eyes. The war-scarred face.
‘I was only praying you were awake,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’ He is elated and the words rush out before he can catch them. ‘I wanted to see you. I needed to see you.’
And without warning, without restraint, Nora steps forward and takes him in her arms, clinging to him.
‘I needed to see you too. I …’ She stops herself. There is comfort to be had with this man, but not in what she can tell him of her day, her work. Her life. Of how she has come to be with him. She steps back, guarded suddenly, but he seems not to notice, an indulgent smile on his face.
‘Fancy a spin?’ he says, taking a half-full bottle from his pocket and holding it up to the lamplight. ‘And a drink?’
‘Jesus, more than anything, I would. Will I get my coat?’
‘Here,’ O’Keefe says, shrugging out of his trenchcoat, ‘take mine.’
She sits side-saddle on the Trusty in O’Keefe’s coat, her arms clasped tightly around him, and O’Keefe can feel the soft swell of her breasts against his back.
‘Where to, Madam?’
‘Anywhere, Seán. Jesus, anywhere.’
O’Keefe is startled by the vehemence of her words, but smiles and lowers his goggles. She presses her face now sideways against his back and closes her eyes.
They ride the empty streets, up Leinster Road and down through Harold’s Cross, the canal, running Clanbrassil Street to swing onto the South Circular and into Portobello, and back to the canal, rousing nesting swans on the grassy banks.
‘Cross the canal and double back, there, that bench,’ she shouts over the Trusty’s engine noise. ‘I love that spot.’
Urgency and giddy abandon this time, and O’Keefe wonders was he the only one who’d been drinking. ‘The one under the tree there? Under the willow?’
‘Yes,’ she shouts, and he swings the Trusty onto Leeson Street bridge, doubling back along the canal under the broken-bottle- topped back walls of Georgian houses, under intermittent ash and oak trees still fat with yellowing leaves waiting for the first autumn storm to strip them.
He shuts down the Trusty and the night city’s silence is sudden and mighty in their ears. Nora dismounts and he pushes the bike under the low branches of a massive willow that overhangs the canal and path alike, its tendrils brushing the mirrored stillness of the water. He lifts the bike onto its stand inside the shelter of the willow’s reach and beneath this willow is the bench.
‘I was only praying there was no one on it. There’s sometimes …’ she stops before she says the word ‘lovers’.
The bench is canted slightly, one end of it raised up by the roots of the tree, and it is dark under the canopy of branches but for the pale lamplight that filters through the row of trees on the far side of the canal. He slips off his goggles and hangs them on the bars of the Trusty.
‘Sit with me, Mr O’Keefe,’ she says, edgy laughter in her words.
‘Mister? Now you’ve made me feel like an auldfella.’
In the willowed half-light he can see her smile. ‘And how old are you then, sir? Sure, I’ve never asked you that.’
O’Keefe steps over to the bench and sits, leaving space between them, but not so much that it can’t be breached. ‘You’ll have to guess. I’m supposed to say that, amn’t I?’
‘You are. You’re very good at this whole business, Mr O’Keefe. I’d almost think you were a professional rogue, casting pebbles at my window and whisking me away for an assignation. A Valentino type and all.’ Her words are girlish to her own ears, and behind them she cringes at how forced and jolly they sound, but cannot help herself, desperation driving them.
O’Keefe laughs. ‘Hardly. Not even before I had this,’ he says, pointing at the scar on his face, and realises that she might not be able to see the gesture. ‘No, so go on then. Guess, Miss Flynn. How old do you take me for? And be gentle, mind.’
She turns to face him on the bench, leaning forward. One side of her face is washed in the frail yellow light, and O’Keefe can see the dusting of freckles on her nose, her eyes wide and shining like the surface of the canal.
‘Forty,’ she says.
‘Forty? Jesus, do I look forty?’
‘All right, all right. Thirty-five.’
‘Callow youth, next.’
‘A moment.’ She leans across and takes his face in her hand, turning it this way, that. Her fingers are hot on his face, scalding and blessed. ‘You’re old enough and up late is what you are, Mister O’Keefe.’
‘And you too, Miss Flynn, past your bedtime surely.’
‘No rest for the wicked.’ The smile fades on her face.
‘What is it, Nora?’
‘Nothing, really. Just …’ She is silent, her mind churning. Stop it, girl. This is your work. Your job of work. This man ….
O’Keefe says, ‘I meant it when I said I needed to see you.’
There is a long moment of silence between them before Nora says, ‘So why? Why did you need to see me?’
O’Keefe is unsure of how to begin. He has never been clever with words, and his mind is too tired for banter. ‘I think you’re beautiful is why. And good, and kind …’
‘… and I’m not sure what might happen tomorrow. With this case I’m working. Probably nothing, but … maybe something. Bad things.’
‘What bad things, Seán?’ she probes gently, surprised by his candour.
He doesn’t know why he tells her but he does. ‘The boy I’m looking for … the one in the pictures …’
‘I saw his friends, his friend and another boy, last night after I took you home. They’re dead, Nora. They were shot, executed. And we found another boy who was with them. A boy who was robbing them when they were “jumped” as he put it, by men in hats and trenchcoats. CID men. Serious men.’
‘Jesus, Seán,’ she says, but her mind is working. The boys he speaks of are the boys she and her colleagues are searching for. One of them had stabbed Kenny to death, and now two of them, probably three of them, are dead. She has seen what Dillon can do, can justify. But surely not young boys. No, she tells herself. This cannot be.
‘And tonight, I was in Burton’s again. Things happened.’ He looks away, as if ashamed somehow of revealing this new information. ‘You’ll hear about it at your work tomorrow.’
For a flashing moment, terror grips Nora’s throat—How does he know about my work?—before she realises he means her cover at the hotel.
‘Myself and my colleague Albert. You met him. We came upon a murder in your hotel. More than one. Mr Murphy and his two men.’
‘Mr Murphy is dead? Murdered?’
‘Yes. The killer was still in the room and there was more shooting.’
Panic crashes in again and Nora’s face goes hot then cold. ‘Were you …’ She does not know how to ask him.
‘I was there, and I wounded the man who killed them. He got away. We …’ He is about to tell her about the money, but something stops him. She is safer not knowing. ‘We, my colleague, wasn’t kind to the young lad on the desk.’
Nora tries to picture which of the men he means, which of the several hotel staff who are not CID but who are paid a stipend to monitor telephone calls and visitors to the hotel. Glorified touts, she thinks, not minding what kind of a going over the night man had received, but the back of her mind working all the while on the ramifications of Murphy’s death. It must be linked to the dead boys in the morgue, but that is not important. What is important is that O’Keefe will be blamed. Heads will roll.
Where were the duty men? Sinking jars of stout in the Flowing Tide, no doubt, while someone waltzed in and gunned down the arms dealer and his men? Maybe, she thinks, panic again swelling in her chest, O’Keefe himself is the killer. Maybe he and the brute he travels with—his colleague—shot Murphy and his guards. No. Please, no. No matter if he did or didn’t, the night man will give his report and her department will put a name to Seán’s scarred face, and innocent or not he will be made pay for the loss of such an asset as Murphy. Or perhaps not. There are more than a few veterans of this or that war with scarred faces on the streets of Dublin. Maybe he’ll be lucky. Please God, she prays suddenly, surprising herself with the prayer, let this man be lucky.
‘Are you all right? You weren’t hurt?’ she says, all the while thinking: I’ll have to log all this. Report it to Carty. The butcher shop. Murphy dead. I’ll have to ….
‘I’m grand, not a scratch. But I’m gutted. Sick with it all.’
‘How?’ She touches his face again, her palm resting there on his cheek, warm against the cold rope of his scar.
‘I thought … I thought I’d left it all behind. Killing, shooting. I thought it first when I left the army, after the war. And then when I demobbed from the Peelers. All I wanted was a quiet life. A bit of peace, but it seems I’m destined not to have it. And then I met you and thought I … Jesus, listen to me, I’m getting ahead of myself.’ He smiles, and she smiles back at him.
‘You’re not.’ Her hand still on his face.
‘Not getting ahead of yourself.’ She slides closer to him on the bench and she knows she will not say anything to Carty about this man. This good man. Her man, she suddenly thinks. ‘I want you to have it, Seán, that peace and quiet life, I do.’
He smiles, her breath warm on his neck, and says nothing. If only life were so simple. He turns to Nora and takes her in his arms.
Nora brings her lips and tongue to his, and his hands now, moving from her face to her back, pulling her closer. She swings herself off the bench, all rational thought abandoned but to make this man her own, and to belong to him if only for an autumn night, and fuck tomorrow and fuck the war and fuck the whole of the Free State. She straddles his thighs and fumbles the buttons of his shirt, his sweat and the smell of soap and oil, the hot wetness between her legs a smell of its own, commingled in the shared air they breathe between kisses. She presses herself against the hardness there, her hand goes down to it, urgency and desire, her fingers tugging the buttons of his trousers, his fingers at the buttons of her shirt, his own coat she wears pushed back on her shoulders, and her breasts free and his kisses down her neck, over collar-bone to her breasts. She offers them up to him, his mouth on them now as she reefs her skirt in a bunch around her hips and guides him inside her, moving forward on him, to make him her own, to make herself his own.
Her face is in his neck when they are finished, his hands resting now on her bare hips under her skirt, the air cooling the sweat on her thighs, where his mouth had been on her breasts, and the light from the lamps across the canal is a gently shifting mesh on her back as the willow limbs stir their leaves in the canal water in thrall to a new soft wind. They are silent for a long moment, and the only sound over the gentle wind in the branches is the soft, hot wind of their breathing. He is still inside her and she does not want to let him go from her, their bodies joined and sated and for once, in what seems like years, her mind is free of thought and only in this moment.
O’Keefe leans forward and kisses her on the top of her head, her hair damp and cool in the night air now. He leans his head back and watches the undulating branches above him, listens to the ancient creak of the willow trunk as the breeze gathers in its branches.
‘Thirty-three,’ he says.
‘I’m thirty-three. My age.’ He smiles in the dark.
She lifts her head from the hollow of his neck and smiles, and there is such beauty in the smile, and such sadness, that he thinks he would like to stay here, on this bench under this willow tree inside her for ever, growing old as one with this woman, as old as the tree. She takes his face in her hands.
‘Old enough to know better, so.’
‘And young enough to keep trying all the same,’ he says, smiling sadly in the half-dark, knowing, knowing, this will not last, this peace.
‘Yes,’ she says, not believing it, feeling old, ancient in her deception. Images of dead boys in a morgue, dead men on a butcher shop floor stealing away the blissful oblivion she has briefly found in O’Keefe’s arms.