Nora holds O’Keefe’s head in her lap as she wipes the drying blood from his face. The sawbones they brought in—a Free State army doctor known to say nothing to no one about the condition of the men he often attended to in the Oriel House cells—had said he should live. He had dosed O’Keefe with morphine and recommended that someone at least check in on the patient, now and again, if he is not to be removed to a hospital. Carty had looked at Nora and Nora had looked away, but she had stayed, and strangely no soul had come down the stairs to the cells, either to exit the building or to bring down further prisoners for questioning.
And he has survived, Nora sitting by him on the horsehair mattress Carty had insisted on being brought in before he had left.
Only by the sheer grace of God had the team who had snatched him from in front of his digs been led by a CID man who insisted on bringing him back here to Oriel House, for all its horrors, rather than Dillon’s cells in Wellington barracks. Thank God for small mercies, Nora thinks, dabbing at the clotted blood around O’Keefe’s eyes. If he had been brought there, she knows, Seán O’Keefe would not have survived yesterday, never mind the night.
Now Nora’s eyes burn with fatigue, her mouth scorched by endless cigarettes. O’Keefe’s head is a dead weight in her lap and she cannot help but think of Detective Kenny, dying in her arms on the lane off Abbey Street, his death kicking all of this into motion. One death begetting more deaths. How many? Nora does not dare count.
Please, God, let him be all right.
‘Nora,’ O’Keefe says, his voice rough with sleep and blood and morphine, his swollen tongue unwieldy in his mouth. ‘Is that you?’
‘Yes, Seán, I’m here, it’s me,’ she says, wiping his brow with the wet cloth.
‘Shhhh,’ she says, ‘try to sleep. I’m here. I won’t leave you.’
O’Keefe does what she tells him, nodding his head in her lap, giving her a trusting smile before falling back into healing sleep.
It is the trust in the smile that breaks Nora’s heart, and she begins to weep.
Two days pass and Nora keeps her vigil over O’Keefe in the cell, joined once more by the doctor who administers more morphine and tells her again that the man might live and be grand and he might not, but there’s not a lot one can do for him now, as it is, but wait. And pray, if she were so inclined.
Carty has left her to it, not questioning her whereabouts, not asking after O’Keefe. The cell has remained unlocked and Carty has passed her, unspeaking, gazing at her in a sad way when he has seen her at her desk or brewing tea, forcing down shortbread biscuits and slices of bread in the room where the CID’s waiter and chef prepare meals for the staff. But he has not questioned her or assigned her to any other work. It is as if she has been left alone to atone for the sins of the CID, of Army Intelligence. An angel sent to mop up after ghouls.
As far from angel as it’s possible to be, she thinks, nearly dropping her tea as she enters the cell to find O’Keefe sitting up on the mattress with his back against the wall. His eyes are a dark outrage of blue and brown bruising, one of them refusing to open for the swelling. The ragged bolt of his old bayonet scar is barely visible under the bruising but it twitches, like a live wire embedded in his skin. When he sees her, he gives her the faintest of smiles.
She cannot understand him at first, so soft and morphine-thick are his words.
‘Is that tea for me?’ O’Keefe repeats. There is terrible striated bruising on his neck that will take weeks to disappear.
‘Of course, Seán, here,’ Nora says, carrying the tea to him, kneeling down beside him on the mattress to help him drink, but O’Keefe reaches out and is able to take the mug himself.
‘It’s hot,’ she says, ‘be careful.’
O’Keefe says nothing but raises the mug to his lips and winces, tears welling in his eyes at the pain as the hot liquid contacts the cuts on his lips. But the tea is beautiful to taste, he thinks, his mind waking lucidly for the first time in how many days. It is the taste of life, of healing. I am going to live, he thinks.
Nora watches him drink, and driven by the habit of the past two days, brings her hand to his forehead, letting the heat of his waning fever run under her palm.
‘You make a grand nurse, Nora.’
She takes her hand away and cannot hold his gaze. ‘Oh no, Seán, no. I’m … I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry? What do you mean?’
‘For lying to you … about everything. About how we met … you … you were my assignment, Seán. I was … I was your watcher.’
He is silent for a long moment. ‘Your assignment? None of it then … between us …?’
‘No,’ she says, turning back to him. ‘No. That was real, Seán. I swear it was.’
It is O’Keefe’s turn to look away.
She reaches out to take his hand and he pulls it away. ‘I never meant for this … for any of this to happen to you. Or to that boy … those boys.’
‘Of course you didn’t.’
Nora hears the dark sarcasm in his words and almost relishes them, the words savaging her heart and her heart delighting in the hurt of it.
‘It’s what I do, Seán. I’m a detective officer here with CID. I was only meant to watch you.’
‘You work here, so?’ There is sad scorn in his voice.
‘I do. I have done for ages. First in the Castle for Ned Broy, and now here. I’m only a watcher. And a typist, a shorthand typist …’ Her words sound high-pitched and vaguely hysterical to her own ears. A typist. ‘I’m a pointer … a pointer bitch,’ she says now, giddy with the madness of guilt. ‘I put the dogs on you, Seán. But then I fell in love with you, and …’
Tears shine in her eyes and O’Keefe sets the mug on the bloodstained cement floor beside the mattress.
‘… And you couldn’t call the dogs off.’
She shakes her head, guilt a solid, choking wedge in her throat. ‘No.’
‘I could have loved you, Nora.’
‘You were what I thought of, when they were beating me. When I thought I was going to die … your beautiful face. I was so sad at the thought of never seeing you again …’ O’Keefe is aware of the pain his words are inflicting and feels, under the fading haze of the morphine, a malicious bite of pleasure.
‘Please stop.’ She is weeping now.
‘And here we are. Here we fucking are.’ What did she call herself? A pointer bitch. Whore. His mind registers the hate in the words and in his thoughts. To think I have never called a woman a whore. Not even whores. Hateful ….
The bitter pleasure is short-lived, leaving him with only a vast, hollow loneliness, and for a feverish moment he has the urge to reach out and hold her, to take her in his arms and console her and tell her everything is grand and fine and nothing will stop them from loving each other and living together and making a life, a home. Together. But as quickly as it comes, this feeling too is lost to the morphine and shame; the thrumming pain in his battered body. He does nothing and watches as she weeps.
After a long moment, O’Keefe says, ‘Am I still a prisoner here, Nora?’
She shrugs, and the gesture makes her appear younger than she is, vulnerable. ‘I don’t know.’
O’Keefe nods, shifts himself and rises unsteadily to his feet. He looks around the cell and spies his jacket, hanging from one of the coat hooks beside the door. He collects his boots and tries to put them on and a wave of vertigo surges over him.
Nora is on her feet, furiously wiping at the tears on her face. ‘Here, here, don’t be daft. Sit down here.’
She guides O’Keefe to the chair and kneels at his feet, putting on his boots as if he were a small boy and she an attentive mother.
‘I’ll take you out through the basement,’ she says briskly, lacing the boots. ‘There’s a way out through the building next door. We use it ourselves.’
O’Keefe stares down at her head as she works, at the neat parting, the tidy combs anchored in the thick waves of red. ‘You say you’re sorry about those two lads, the boys …?’
She looks up, as if slapped, her eyes wide. ‘Oh, Jesus, of course I am, Seán. How could you think I wasn’t, I …’
‘Your man’s side-arm.’
‘Your man, Dillon. His side-arm is a Luger … a German gun. Not so common.’
‘What of it, Seán?’
‘I’ve read it’s possible to match bullets to the guns they were fired from.’
Nora delivers O’Keefe into the back of a Ford taxi.
‘You should go into hospital.’
‘No,’ O’Keefe says, not looking at her. ‘Home … I need get home.’
She gives the driver the address to O’Keefe’s digs, and watches as the car moves off into traffic.
She raises her arm to hail the next taxi for herself, but decides to walk instead, setting off across Westland Row into traffic, hoping a coal lorry, a team of drays, a butcher’s van—she laughs, and tears begin to run her cheeks again—will obliterate every bit of her, leave her a wash of bloody meat, of shattered bone and pale, abraded skin on the street. And if this should not happen, and she makes it to the Dublin City Morgue, she will do her best by those two dead boys. It is the least, she thinks, she can do for Seán O’Keefe.
Half an hour later, the morgue attendant tells her she is too late by a day or more. Three fellas, detective lads, he tells her, have come already to collect the bullets the surgeon had taken from the boys’ heads.
‘And sure, anyway, love, there’s not much you can tell from dumdums. They flatten out and there’s no reading anything in slugs that have flattened out inside a lad’s skull, not yet anyway.’