Book: Irregulars

Previous: Chapter 51
Next: Chapter 53

52

‘It’s not your bleedin’ turn, yeh thick flitch of shite, yeh.’

‘It bleedin’ is. Uncle Jack went first and I …’

‘Now, lads, don’t fight over cards. One of the things my old dad told me when I were a lad. “Never fight over cards.” ’Course them wasn’t words ’e ever lived by ’imself, they weren’t, but the truth of ’em stands, in my book.’

‘What book is that, Uncle Jack?’

‘Book?’

‘What’s your book?’

In my way of thinking, lads. Christ on a crutch, you could ask questions for the King of England, you two blighters could.’

‘No we couldn’t.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘’Cause the King of England hates Irish youngfellas, doesn’ he, Henry? Roger O’Brien in school told us.’

But Henry is not listening. ‘Look! Mr O’Keefe is awake, he is. We didn’t wake you, didn’t we not, Mr O’Keefe? Did we?’ He is smiling, and his brother turns and sees O’Keefe attempt to raise himself up on his good arm.

‘I don’t think I’m able for the cards yet, fellas.’

‘You lads shove off for the moment,’ Finch says, ‘and let me get Mr O’Keefe up for a piss and a shave and then we’ll ’ave some more cards later on, right?’

‘But I’ve three trumps! Please, Uncle Jack, can’t we play this hand?’

O’Keefe smiles. ‘Go on, play the hand. These lads are demons for the cards, Finch. You should never have let them in.’

‘S’all right, Sergeant. Great company, bosom chums, we are. They’ve taught me Twenty-five and I’ve taught them Pontoon and we’re best pals, aren’t we boys?’

‘Can we play this hand?’

‘I don’t want to play it, it’s not fair, I’ve no fuckin’ … sorry, Uncle Jack,’ the boy apologises.

‘You stow the naughty talk and lead it out, mate. We’ll play this ’and and then you two fack off, right?’

‘You said “fuck”.’

‘Shut it.’

When they are finished and the boys gone, O’Keefe says, ‘Uncle Jack? How long have I been out, Finch, that you’ve become family now?’

Finch smiles, but it is sheepish and not at all like his normal brazen grin. ‘You’ve been in and out for the past two days and nights.’

‘Where have you been staying then?’ O’Keefe says, searching the room for signs of Finch’s bedding and clothes and finding none.

‘Well, I been staying upstairs, ’aven’t I?’

‘Can I have some of that water?’

‘’Course you can, let me get it for you.’ Finch pours water from a glass pitcher on the desk next to the bed, and holds the glass to O’Keefe’s lips while he drinks.

‘Prop me up, here. I can drink it once I’m raised up.’

Finch helps his friend settle against the pillows and headboard and watches him drink.

O’Keefe sets the glass on the desk again and wipes his chin. ‘So, upstairs is it?’

Finch smiles again. ‘It is. A finer woman you won’t meet, Sarn’t, and in need of a man about the place.’

Uncle Jack. Jesus, Finch, you’re quick over the hurdles.’ O’Keefe smiles. ‘They’re good lads, those two.’ And as he says it, his smile fades and an image of the two dead boys on the gurneys in the morgue rises up in his mind.

Finch senses his disturbance. ‘You should be sleeping, mate. Your pal Solomon, the Jew doctor, says have more broke ribs than straight ones. And a punctured lung. Here.’ As if reminded by mention of his lung, Finch offers O’Keefe a cigarette. O’Keefe takes one and a light. ‘You’ve us to mind you now, me and Mrs C and the nippers.’

Inhaling the harsh smoke, O’Keefe begins to cough and his ribs erupt in pain. He hands the smoke back to Finch, who shrugs and smokes it himself.

When he has stopped coughing and the pain has receded, O’Keefe says, ‘I’m not going anywhere, Finch. And thanks for minding me.’

‘Don’t talk about it, mate. Who minded me when I was shot? Who was the one person I could go to in the ’ole of this God-forsaken country … no offence … but you and yours?’

‘And the boy, Nicholas, and Just Albert, what’s happened with them? Was the boy all right? Is he all right?’ O’Keefe remembers leaping from the tram and then nothing else.

‘The boy is grand, and so is my china, Albert. Gone to Blighty, a nice, posh public school for the lad, and Albert in digs nearby to make sure ’e don’t get too ’omesick. ’Til things cool down. Bad things ’ave been said about the boy by them Irregulars, and no doubt the Free Stater lads still have eyes out for him. Mrs Dolan thought, we all thought, it was best he be out the way for a time. We were going to ’ave a go at the boys who served you up, but Mrs Dolan said to leave it out. That Albert needed get the boy out the country for the while, back into school where a young lad of his class should be. I’ll still ’ave a gander for them if you tell me who they are.’

O’Keefe considers this. Considers going after Charlie Dillon himself when he has healed properly, and realises that though he knows Dillon killed the two boys—tortured and killed them—there is no way that he can prove it. He could kill him, he thinks. Justice would be served if he plugged Charlie Dillon. But no, no I won’t. No more killing. There is enough of it about in the country.

‘No. I don’t want that, Finch. I mean it.’

‘Whatever you say, Sarn’t, who am I to go against what you want? Anyway, this’ll compensate, look …’

Finch, smiling again, gets up from the chair and goes to the small closet to rummage through O’Keefe’s suit jacket. He comes out with something and tosses it onto the bed beside O’Keefe.

‘What’s this?’

‘Payment for services rendered, Seán. Mrs Dolan’s not one to forget who done her a good turn. You’d think there’d be more of it out of fourteen grand, but there was any number of folks needing paying. And we ’ad to blow some of it up, obviously, so the bag would look real enough for them lads to take it.’

‘Who’s idea was it to rig up the bag with the Mills bomb?’ O’Keefe asks, knowing the answer.

‘Mine,’ Finch says proudly, never thinking for a moment how dangerous the booby-trapped bag had been to Nicholas Dolan. ‘I done it more times than once in the war, me. Under tin cans, books, bodies, I can rig up about anything given a grenade and a bit of twine.’

O’Keefe has no doubt he can. ‘You kept enough of it back …’

‘Of course we did. I got my cut—and well I might, seeing as it’s money I likely as not laboured for in the first place, say no more. And I done sent an ’efty share of it already to Bennett’s missus and the mums of the other boys in my old mob whose tickets got clipped to get that wonga, again, say no more. You remember old Bennett from when we was in Ballycarleton? Mind you, Sar’nt, I’ve given up some of mine to Mrs C for ’ousekeeping and medical bills, the like, bought myself a new tin of fruit and am looking at a motor today, a nice big, swish Austin so’s Mrs C and the kids can go to holy mass in style.’

O’Keefe lifts the wedge of pound notes in his good hand. ‘Jesus, Finch, how much is it?’

‘A monkey.’

‘A what?’

‘Five ’undred pound, mate.’

Five hundred pounds? Nearly two years’ wages when I was a Peeler,’ he says, and as he says it, he knows that he will not keep the money. Blood money. He will divide it between the families of the dead boys. Unable to bring them justice, he can at the very least help them to go on living.

Finch is oblivious. ‘I know! You get yourself back on your feet, mate, and we’ll have a right splash, you and me. A trip out to Leopardstown and Fairyhouse for the ponies. But no knocking-shops, Sar’nt, not me, no more, mate. That kind of larking about is done with me and I with it, what with Mrs C and all.’

O’Keefe smiles. ‘Never mind, Finch. I was never one for the whoring myself.’

‘Wise man, Sergeant, you always was. ’Cept when you joined me and Albert on that tram … that wasn’t wise, mate, it weren’t.’

‘No, Finch, it wasn’t.’

Nor was falling in love with Nora Flynn, he thinks, remembering how quickly it had happened and understanding, suddenly, how Finch and Mrs Cunningham, unlikely a pairing as they may seem, could fall for each other in so short a time. Love is like that, he thinks, remembering Nora’s face, her body, her voice. Memory as sharp as reality to him in the wavering after effects of the morphine.

‘You don’t look so chuffed, now, Sarn’t, about the money. Is it not enough or what? You just say and there’s more …’

‘No, Finch, it’s not that at all. I didn’t ask for any money from the woman. I don’t even want it.’

‘But surely you earned it, didn’t you, mate? Why’d you take the job on in the first place if it wasn’t for the few bob?’

O’Keefe thinks of his father and the debt owed to Ginny Dolan. And he thinks of Ginny’s boy, Nicholas, now in England. The lad’s eyes, like Peter’s. The hair too. The cut of the boy so much like the brother he left forever on a beach in Turkey. Looking so much like him a man could be forgiven for thinking … O’Keefe stops himself from thinking. The debt has been discharged.

‘I’m tired, Finch.’

‘Well you should be, mate. Well you should be.’

‘Has the doc left any of the laudanum, has he?’

‘He has.’ Finch looks at him.

‘Let’s have it then, Finch. Let’s have another sup of it, so.’

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Next: Chapter 53