Nora Flynn hears the doorbell and listens as the serving girl, Martha, answers it. She hears Martha tell the caller to wait a moment please and she will ask her.
She rises to her feet, her back sore from sitting, hardly having moved from the chair by the window since she returned to her family home more than a week before. She is a worry to her mother, she knows, but there is little she can do about it. She refuses to answer her mother’s questions and her mother, mercifully, has stopped asking them. One of these days she will have to take one of her brothers and move out of her rooms in Ballsbridge, but she has decided she will leave the few bloodstained items of clothing in the room on Leinster Road for the safe house owner to dispose of as he sees fit.
‘Miss, it’s a gentleman caller,’ Martha says, barely able to contain the excitement in her voice. ‘And he’s after asking for you!’ She smiles wickedly and Nora’s heart pounds. It couldn’t be, she thinks.
‘Did he give his name, Martha, or did you bother asking?’ she says, her voice harsher than she has intended.
It can’t be … oh please, God, please let it be Seán ….
She opens the door, and her heart skips a bit and then slows.
‘Carty,’ she says.
‘Nora.’ Carty touches the brim of his hat. ‘You look well, you do.’
‘I don’t, and you know I don’t.’
Carty smiles, appearing nervous to Nora. Imagine, Terence Carty, the hardened gunman, nervous.
‘You’re keeping well, then?’ he says.
‘As well as can be expected. And you?’
‘Grand, Nora, grand.’
‘And all at Oriel House?’
And here, Carty looks away, scanning Nora’s mother’s rose bushes, the neatly clipped grass. ‘Not so bad, I reckon. Two men, Killeen and Ahern, got theirs last week. Found dead in a car in Waterford without a notion of who shot them.’
Nora blesses herself. ‘God save them.’
Carty nods. ‘And you know O’Hanley’s dead.’
‘I read it in the papers. Blown up in his car?’
Carty shrugs. ‘There was talk of banknotes snagged in the gorse and dune grass for days afterwards. The Howth tram was black with people on jaunts to hunt for wind-blown tenners.’ He smiles at Nora and looks away again.
There is a long silence between them. A tram passes on the Ranelagh Road in front of the house, and when its clanking rumble has passed, Nora says, ‘I’m not coming back, Carty. If that’s what you’ve come to ask.’
‘It is why I’ve come, but there’s no hurry. Take your time. You’re needed but you need take the time to get over … things.’ He examines her face as he speaks, and in his one-eyed gaze, Nora is aware of affection. She is surprised by it, having always thought of herself as more of a burden to Carty than a help, but she is almost certain it is there now. Is it more than general, this affection? She cannot decide, but knows there is nothing for it. She could no more bring herself to love a man like Carty than she could the man in the moon.
‘I don’t need time, I’ve decided already. I just can’t do it. Not any more. Never again.’
Carty’s good eye flashes with anger, and then it is gone, replaced by something resembling contrition. ‘Look, Nora, do you think I like the things we must do? I don’t, I hate it. I hated shooting every man I ever shot. I pray to God that I did the right thing and leave it to Himself above to decide if it was right or if I’m damned, but in my head, I know it was the right thing. That chucking the English out of Ireland was the right thing. That the Free State is the right thing … for now, anyway. And that achieving what is right requires …’—he scans the roses again as if in search of the words—‘… that we do what would be otherwise wrong in peace time.’
‘Wrong is wrong, Carty. Beating and torturing a man can never be right, I’m sorry. How can a people ever trust a state that would sanction such things? Are we to be like the English masters we evicted? Ruling by force and threats and fear?’
Disgust overrides the contrition in his good eye. ‘Jesus, Nora, do you want the British back? Do you?’ His voice is momentarily raised, and he lowers it just as quickly. ‘Because they’ll step right back in if the Treaty fails, if the Free State isn’t made to work. The last thing they want to do and yet they’ll be back if we fail. Why do you think they’re giving us so much help to fight the Irregulars?’ He pauses to light a cigarette and pulls angrily at it before continuing.
‘And don’t talk to me about the people. The fine, brave people of Ireland want peace and they don’t give a shite how it’s got or who has to be hurt to get it once it’s not themselves. No one will remember the wild things done in the name of the Free State once the Free State is preserved and the good people of Ireland can get back to earning a living in peace. And it’s the likes of me, of you …’—he points a finger at Nora as he would a revolver—‘… and even Charlie Dillon, who are tasked with doing the nasty things to achieve that peace. It’s not pretty, Nora, but it’s the way of things. I thought you were wise enough to know this and here you are running on like any other woman, like some bloody Quaker.’
Nora absorbs the insult. She disagrees with him, but feels worth every slander any man would cast at her as payment for the things she has stood witness to, has done.
She says, ‘And what happens when men like Dillon and his lads get so used to doing the nasty things in service of this Free State that they’ve no way of knowing what’s right at all any more? Killing young boys is never right, Carty. Torturing men. Lifting them, killing them and leaving their bodies in ditches for the rats and dogs is never right. It can’t be.’
‘Dillon is a blackguard and a headcase, but every nation state needs men like Dillon, Nora, and don’t you forget it. You trained with many more like him. And there was little complaint from you when it was English lads he was plugging and leaving in ditches. Men in the files you pulled and copied in Dublin Castle and handed on. Who do you think was on the sharp end of all those pilfered dossiers, Nora? Or have you gone precious on us because of what he did to your Seán O’Keefe? “Can’t do it any more”, you say? You seemed to enjoy the work well enough when you were shadowing Seán O’Keefe.’
Nora flinches at his words, but cannot feel any more shame than she already feels. Part of her mind marks the disdain in Carty’s voice and decides that it had been real affection she’d seen in his face, because only affection turns so quickly, so cleanly, to hate. She says nothing to him but does not look away.
Carty shakes his head, turns and walks to the gate. He gathers a rosebud in his fingers and tugs it from the bush, bringing it to his nose to smell. He turns back to Nora. ‘I’m sorry, Nora, that things had to come to this. I’m sorry if I’ve spoken out of turn or …’
‘Go away, Carty,’ Nora says, opening the front door behind her to step back inside the house. ‘Just go away. You’ve your work to be getting on with.’