Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 49
Next: Chapter 51

50

Finch and Albert are about to board the number thirty-one tram to Howth at Nelson’s Pillar—as they have been instructed by the message from O’Hanley delivered by morning’s post—when they see O’Keefe, limping towards them in the remarkable Indian summer sunshine.

‘What are you at, then?’ Finch says. ‘You’re in no nick for a jaunt you aren’t, my son. ’Ow did you even know to find us?’

‘Never assume a man is sleeping when he’s only got his eyes closed, Finch.’

‘He’s right, Mr O’Keefe,’ Just Albert says, ‘you’re no good
to us.’

‘I’m grand, Finch, Albert. Nearly a week in bed is enough for any man…’ But there is pain in his eyes at the effort it takes him to say this. ‘I’ll be grand.’ He stands next to them, and indicates for them to board the tram. ‘After ye, lads.’ He attempts a smile, and a woman with cloth shopping bags who has been waiting steps back and appears to decide on a later tram.

Finch smiles at O’Keefe.

‘Fack off, chum. Age before beauty.’

O’Keefe attempts another smile, and the pain of it is so intense that stars erupt in his vision. He drowns the pain with a naggin of whiskey he takes from inside his suit jacket.

Just Albert takes O’Keefe by the arm and guides him up onto the back conductor’s platform. ‘We can’t miss this tram, boys, so stop the messing and shift it.’

The tram pulls off with a lurching roll, and O’Keefe has to cling to the overhead railing to keep himself from tumbling off the open platform and out into the street.

‘You sit down there, Mr O’Keefe,’ Just Albert says, and for once, without argument, O’Keefe obeys him. There are only four other passengers on this lower deck of the tram, and Finch climbs the spiral stairs to the upper deck to check the number of passengers there.

‘Just two old girls with a picnic lunch and the conductor,’ he says when he returns. O’Keefe notices that he speaks only to Just Albert, as if his presence has been noted and forgotten.

‘I’m not armed,’ O’Keefe says, taking the whiskey again from his coat as the conductor comes down the spiral stairs from the upper deck of the tram. The conductor takes a long look at O’Keefe, before turning to Finch and Albert.

‘Tickets please, gentlemen,’ he says, but without the usual jaunty authority in his voice. There is something about these men that makes him wary; a look in their eyes, their steady attention to the street outside the tram, the heavy trenchcoats in the rare weather.

‘Three,’ Just Albert says, ‘for Howth.’

‘Plenty of seats to choose from…’ the conductor says, as if to break the silence, taking the proffered coins from Just Albert and tearing three tickets from the roll hanging from the dispenser on his belt.

‘We’ll stand,’ Just Albert says, turning away from the conductor and facing out into the street. Finch joins him there, hanging from a hand bar on the platform, scanning the streets around them as they roll eastward, the tram running more smoothly now as they pick up speed down Summerhill approaching Ballybough.

The conductor has moved to the front of the tram to stand by the driver, and Finch says, over his shoulder to O’Keefe, ‘You all right, there, Sarn’t?’

‘I am,’ O’Keefe says. He stows the bottle back in his coat and heaves himself to standing. He takes his place behind the men, hanging from a strap. ‘What are we looking for then?’

‘For Nicky,’ Just Albert says, still scanning the footpaths as the tram makes its way through Fairview and Marino, through Clontarf and onto the coast road, the water at their backs, on the opposite side of the tram to where they stand on the open platform.

‘All Albert ’ere was told is be on this tram and ’ave the bag of money with us,’ Finch explains.

O’Keefe thinks about this for a long moment. There would be few passengers boarding this tram at half-three on a Wednesday afternoon. Howth is a small fishing village, popular at weekends with daytrippers eager to climb the hill above the harbour and overlook Dublin bay, but on weekdays, the trams are infrequent and lightly travelled. There are long stretches of empty coastline between Dublin and Howth as well, which would allow O’Hanley to control the conditions of any exchange. Various scenarios run through his mind, but he has trouble following any one idea to its conclusion. The morphine has made his thinking hazy, as has the whiskey he has been drinking since he boarded the tram in Rathmines in pursuit of Finch and Albert.

‘There’re no other instructions?’

‘None.’

‘What happens when we get to Howth? If we get to Howth and we haven’t been contacted?’

‘Don’t know, Mr O’Keefe … now will you shut your gob, to fuck, and stop asking questions I can’t answer?’ Just Albert says, still scanning the road beside the tram tracks, now and again leaning out of the tram to search fore and aft.

Shortly, the tram clatters to a halt in front of Doherty’s Coast Bar, and two passengers disembark, leaving only the two upstairs and an older man and what appears to be his grandson sitting behind the driver.

‘We should get those people off … the passengers,’ O’Keefe says.

‘Get them off then,’ Just Albert says.

O’Keefe considers doing just this, but dreads the pain inherent in the effort and drinks more whiskey instead. He watches through the window as a Wright’s fish van passes them on its way into Dublin. The tram lurches forward, tilting drunkenly as it gains speed, and O’Keefe feels nauseous with the movement. He closes his eyes in a vain attempt to damp down the illness, and as quickly opens them. His complexion is deathly white but for the fading mottle of bruising around his eyes and neck.

‘You shouldn’t be here, Mr O’Keefe. You’ll do yourself harm.’

His words are spoken with some small compassion, but O’Keefe is deaf to this.

‘I’ll be grand, I will.’

‘Albert, mate, ’ere we go, ’ere we are, chum,’ Finch says.

Just Albert turns back to the open platform to see a Ford Tourer keeping pace with the tram. They are on a long, straight stretch of more than two miles before the tram reaches Sutton and must slow, and the Ford and tram are making a steady twenty miles per hour in the summer heat, side by side. The roof of the Tourer is slightly lower than the height of the three men on the conductor’s platform, and Just Albert crouches down to look into the car. As he does, the Ford’s driver—a young lad with a bandaged hand and a Thompson machine-gun resting across his forearm, barrel jutting from the window—waves and winks. It takes Just Albert a second to recognise the driver as the lad they had shot at in Murphy’s rooms in Burton’s Hotel. He is about to dive back into the tram, thinking that the driver will fire on them, when Nicholas appears in the seat behind the driver.

‘Nicky!’ Just Albert says, smiling despite himself.

A man in the rear seat with Nicky leans across the boy and stares out at the men on the tram, locking eyes with Just Albert for a second.

O’Hanley, O’Keefe thinks, remembering his face from the grainy ‘Wanted’ poster in his RIC barracks during the Tan war. O’Keefe watches as O’Hanley appears to decide something and turns to speak to Nicholas.

O’Keefe, Finch and Just Albert look on as the boy shakes his head and O’Hanley says something else. He sits close to the boy, and it is impossible to make out what he is saying, but all three men can see the commandant’s pointed index finger wagging in a universally understood gesture of authority. There is a long pause while the boy appears to contemplate the coming action—the tram rattling at speed, the Ford pacing it along the empty coast road, the barrel of the tommy-gun like an amputated limb extruding from the driver’s window. It is now that Just Albert notices the bandaging on Nicholas’s hand, and rage quietly ignites within him. Just get the boy first.

As he thinks this, the Ford accelerates and overtakes the tram, and when it is one hundred yards ahead, the car swerves, bouncing up and onto the tram tracks. The tram driver clangs his bell, shouting in disbelief, and begins to slow the tram down as the car reduces speed in front of it. The conductor, standing next to the driver, looks back at Finch, Albert and O’Keefe. There is fear in his eyes. He summons the two remaining passengers seated behind the driver and takes them up the front stairs to the tram’s upper deck. A quarter of a mile and two minutes later, the driver brings the tram to a halt behind the idling Ford.

‘We can’t do it on board ’ere, mate,’ Finch says to Just Albert.

‘Why not?’ A wave of nausea washes over O’Keefe, and he would not hear the answer to his question even if Finch were to answer it.

‘Come on, we’ll do it outside,’ Just Albert says, stepping down off the conductor’s platform, his gun drawn. Finch follows him with the bag, and then slowly, painfully, so does O’Keefe. He catches up to them at the front of the tram, his body flaring with pain with every footstep. He watches as O’Hanley and the gunman from the hotel emerge from the car and begin to walk towards them on the tracks, the gunman with the Thompson across his chest, O’Hanley with a Webley pistol held at his side.

‘Bring Nicholas out of the car,’ Just Albert says, as they close the distance.

‘Give us over the money.’ O’Hanley and the Gilhooley stop ten feet away from them on the tracks, the wind rustling the sea grass in the dunes beyond.

‘Give him the bag, Finch.’

Finch looks at Albert, and then walks forward and sets the bag at O’Hanley’s feet.

O’Keefe watches as Gilhooley steps forward, crouching down to open the bag, rifling through a few of the packets of bills on top before standing up and nodding.

His eyes locked on Albert’s, O’Hanley shouts over the wind and the distant shushing of the tide. ‘Nicholas…’

The boy gets out of from the car, and walks past O’Hanley and Gilhooley without looking at them.

‘I’d send the boy on a long voyage away from here,’ O’Hanley says, undisguised bitterness in his voice. ‘The new republic has no place for the likes of him or any of you in it.’

With his eyes still on O’Hanley, Just Albert says, ‘Get up on the tram, Nicky.’

The boy is crying as he passes O’Keefe, tears streaking his face in the Indian summer sunlight.

‘You’re lucky men, you two,’ Just Albert says, turning to join the boy. ‘Lucky men…’

O’Keefe follows while Finch covers their return to the tram, his pistol held loosely at his side, a half-grin on his face that O’Keefe makes no effort to understand. He tries to mount the conductor’s platform and finds that he can’t. Finch and Albert take him under the arms and haul him aboard.

‘Might be best if we made our way up to the top deck, if you can make it, Sar’nt…’ Finch says, looking down the length of the tram and out the front glass at Gilhooley and O’Hanley as they climb back into the Ford. A moment later, O’Keefe hears the Ford’s engine revving and turns to watch the car bump off the tracks and swing around on the road to head back towards Dublin. He turns then to look at Nicholas standing silently next to Albert, his eyes too following the Ford as it leaves. I hope you were worth it, O’Keefe thinks.

 

Inside the Ford, O’Hanley takes the bag from Gilhooley. It weighs the same as he remembers, and as he opens the mouth of the bag, he sees the bundles of notes wrapped in paper bands marked Bank of Ireland. He smiles, and begins to root through the bundles. His smile fades. He takes one of the packets of notes and flicks through it and does it again, his eyes widening in disbelief.

O’Hanley digs deeper into the bag, and begins to reef the wrapped bundles of banknotes from inside, tossing the worthless sheaves of newsprint topped with single, genuine bills onto the floor of the Ford’s back seat.

‘Turn the car, Stephen,’ he says. ‘Do it now.’

One of the packets appears wedged at the bottom corner of the bag, and O’Hanley frees it with an angry tug. With it comes a length of leather bootlace, to the end of which is tied the safety pin of a hand-grenade.

 

It takes something less than a second for O’Hanley to realise what he has done. Time stops for him, but does not stop, and some ancient impulse drives him to open the bag wider, to confirm what he knows suddenly to be true.

The grenade detonates in the confines of the Ford, the car’s roof bursting upwards like an inflated paper bag, streaks of fire and scorched air and a million tiny fragments of shrapnel tear through O’Hanley and Gilhooley, the blast smashing bone, lacerating shards perforating the panelling and shooting out the open windows of the Ford, the car slowing and veering across the road where it hits the tracks and comes to a stop, smoke and blood pouring from its blast-bloated doors.

Previous: Chapter 49
Next: Chapter 51