ONE DAY ON INISHBOG
The old man’s eyes were deep in his head. He had chronic bronchitis and sounded like someone shaking a tin of rusty screws when he coughed. Clearly he didn’t have long to go. His face was long and had the appearance of a screwed up brown paper bag. There was a sharp crack, a heavy thump, then silence. The shelf had deteriorated over many years, the rusty steel screws inevitably out living the wood. It gave way and six 1 gallon tins of Johnstone’s blue marine gloss paint he was going to paint his 80 year old fishing boat with, slid off the end, hitting him on the head one after another. The last one executed the coup de grâce
His border collie Wingnut found him, lying there covered in paint, which mixed with his own blood looked like a melting stick of seaside rock. His neighbour had found him on account of there being no smoke coming from his chimney. He always had a peat fire going whatever the season, whatever the weather. Wingnut had lain next to his master in the paint for 9 hours, just enough time for the paint to semi dry on his already matted fur. An opportunist farmer with an eye for a fully trained but now redundant sheepdog, emerged from the bar and shaved as much off as possible to stop it nipping the skin. When he’d finished, the poor dog looked like a whippet on one side and border collie on the other.
The doctor said the old man had died due to a blood clot on the brain. There wasn’t a coroner’s report, so he had to go by what it said in his 1925 reprinted version of Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body. Blood clot it was then! Small islands like Inishbog didn’t even have a resident doctor, they had to get one from the mainland which was a 20 minute boat trip away, or longer in bad weather. Luckily it was only a bit choppy with a small swell.
The house, if you could call it such, had belonged to the family since they appropriated it from a victim of the famine. The old man was the last one, his ancestors had mostly emigrated to Australia albeit not all of their own free will. Even after 1868 when deportations became a thing of the past, members of his family had been “encouraged” to leave the island. There wasn’t much food in the house then and there wasn’t now. On another wooden shelf, also in imminent danger of collapse, were two tins of vegetable soup, a jar of pickled onions and a bag of sugar that was as hard as a house brick. Under the dirty, plain square sink was an unopened box of All Bran, a plastic bag containing sugar soap and an enormous bag of Winners dog food, inside which was hidden a pint bottle of Paddy whiskey.
Inishbog was a strange island. People compared it to the one in the film The Wicker Man without the rhododendrons but it was as benign as an island could ever be. Only rarely did anything happen. There was a bizarre incident in World War 2, a landmine jettisoned by a Heinkel whose pilot had obviously got the map upside down, realised he was flying out into the Atlantic and turned back, jettisoned the bomb which exploded and left a crater 80 foot across and 35 feet deep. When the dust had cleared, the remains of what was thought to be a prehistoric burial ground was exposed. On further investigation it emerged it was a series of smuggler’s tunnels, and they all led to Egan’s inn.
The crater is now filled with birch trees, the tunnels bricked up and access to the smuggler’s tunnels are via a dozen or so crumbling steps leading to a heavily padlocked black wrought iron gate. The site is fenced off with a small green sign riveted to a concrete post with “No entry” painted on it. Someone had daubed “IRA” on it but the weather had largely erased it. At the bottom are a few black stones and some rusty tins.
That was in 1941 and nothing else remarkable had happened since. It snowed on Christmas Eve in 1962 which in a way was remarkable. It was the first snow to blanket the island for 37 years due to it being on the edge of the gulf stream.
Way back in March 1963 old Mr McCloskey calmly walked into the bog and drowned himself after his wife died. Sometimes you prefer not to remember things that happened but sadly you can’t forget them.
Sometimes things do happen. But not very often. Until now. The little matter of Siobhan Kelly winning £102,349 and 3p on Prestons pools.
The small boat arrived in the harbour. Gimpy and Joe saw it first. It crashed into the outer wall twice before being washed into the tiny harbour. It was one of life’s miracles that it wasn’t smashed to pieces on the south wall. It was a crew lifeboat, from an ocean going ship by the look of it, there were no oars. It was a dirty white colour with no markings on it at all.
Joe used a boat hook to drag the boat against the harbour wall and secured it with a rope. There was a bit of a swell in the harbour, Joe lowered a small ladder into the boat then climbed carefully down into the boat. How on earth it made it given the stormy seas was a topic of conversation in the bar for the whole evening. And the men they found in it, who were they? One was found curled up under the bow cowling, pretty well exhausted, soaked to the skin and had a large gash above his right eye. He wore fairly austere clothes, grey woollen trousers, a white teeshirt and a faded blue fisherman’s smock and an orange lifebelt. His shoes were brown, his hair was blond and he carried absolutely nothing on him at all. All he had were the clothes he wore. The other man was sprawled backwards almost over the side, his thick sweater twisted tight around his body, well and truly hooked onto a rowlock and had probably saved him from being washed overboard. He also had blond hair but was a lot taller.
Joe helped the first man to his feet and Gimpy grasped his hand and hauled him onto the pier. Unhooking the other man was a bit more difficult, his sweater was twisted around the rowlock so he had to be turned around before he could be released. His drenched clothing almost doubled his weight but after a lot of swearing and brute force, Joe managed to release him. He needed a push up the ladder to get him out of the boat.
The smaller blond stranger was propped up in the corner of the snug near the open peat fire to try to dry him off a bit and heat his body up. The light cast a yellow hue over his face because of the opaque orange glass of the entrance partition. He was exhausted.
“Those trousers, they look like soldier’s trousers” volunteered Joe pointing to the other man.
“Aye, they don’t look right warm either” said O’Driscoll.
“I wonder what his name is?” said Gimpy.
“Ask him” suggested Siobhan.
Gimpy walked over to him, hovered over him slightly then adopted the time honoured method of asking a foreigner a question and shouted quite loudly into his bewildered face “WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”
Suddenly the stranger moved to sit up, causing Gimpy to take a step back. The other man moved to get up but thought better of it and just cleared his throat then sat back to try to listen to what was being said, but never understood a word. The slightly built stranger made to stand up but didn’t have the strength and then said clearly “Jens, ich heisse Jens, mein name is…is..” he stuttered in a strange European accent. Then lowered his voice “…. I am Jens” he said softly.
The room went into a silent shock momentarily.
“He’s German” said Joe. “I recognise the accent, he’s German”.
“How do yer know that then smart arse?” said Gimpy.
“Well he sounds German and he said Jens and Jens is a German name” said Joe.
“Jens? Well that’s a stupid name” laughed Gimpy.
“Listen to Professor Higgins in the corner there, it doesn’t matter ‘cos like Joe said, this fellah’s German” said Sean. “like Hitler” he said as an afterthought.
The taller stranger responded to the name by looking up squarely into Sean’s eyes unsettling him momentarily.
He looked around at the expectant faces then his steely eyes focused on Joe, whom he had identified as the leader of this little group. “Mein Name ist Stefan, ich bin Deutscher. Wir sind Deutsch“ he said casually gesturing with a wave of the hand towards Jens. The whole place went deathly quiet.
“Welcome to Inishbog” said Joe, not understanding one word of what he’d just heard but holding his hand out towards Stefan all the same, who shook it firmly. A slight smile was exchanged by the two men.
Joe was interrupted when Jens moved his hands. “Das Klosett?” he said questioningly, making to stand up.
“He means toilet, water closet….” said Joe keeping his eyes firmly on the one who called himself Stefan.
Gimpy spoke loudly again as if it might help,
“In there to the right. It says “FIR” on the door.” he said “FIR” he repeated to make sure he got his message across and pointed towards the door near the dartboard. Even though only a handful of people on the island spoke Gaelic, a lot of the words on signs were in Gaelic.
The stranger eased himself slowly across the floor in front of thirteen interested eyes. Old O’Driscoll only had one eye, he lost one in a fight with a young heifer as he was trying to chop it’s balls off. He looked at people sideways giving the impression he was a bit sneaky. His cows also looked at people sideways.
The stranger’s shoes squelched as he walked and all eyes followed the trail of wet footprints from the fire to the end of the bar.
There was a kind of pregnant silence, that uneasy second or two when people who had nothing to say expected some great wit to break the silence by breaking wind or making a sarcastic comment. But nobody did.
The bar was strangely subdued, everyone appeared to be deep in thought.
Who were they? What had happened to them to end up in a boat in that state?
The agent representing Prestons was called Brian Miller. He was a portly unassuming man, well to be brutally honest, he was short, fat and balding whose clothes never seemed to fit him properly. His trousers were always too tight and at half mast exposing short grey socks and too much hairless white calf flesh. He had recently taken to wearing a powder blue suit, lemon shirt with a pink tie. He’d seen the local Conservative MP wear that combination once in the town hall, getting booed and having rotten fruit and beer bottles thrown at him. Even so, he quite liked the combination of colours.
Everyone laughed at him at first, his appalling dress sense became an office joke but as usual, people became accustomed to it and put it down as just another colour blind eccentric with poor taste. Today was his big day, he was hundreds of miles from home so for a change, a quite dramatic one actually, he went for all black except for a white shirt with a single faded coffee stain three buttons down and a black and gold polka dotted bow tie which unfortunately drew attention to the coffee stain.
He’d heard that wearing black made people look slim and intimidating. It would give him that little extra confidence he was lacking, hopefully. He was going to wear a bowler hat but then on the way up, at the motorway services he read in a women’s magazine that bald men were sexy and attractive to certain types of women, so he left his bowler on the back seat and in the meantime, he hoped he’d meet that certain type of woman. He didn’t.
He’d driven up from the West Midlands to Holyhead via Telford, Shrewsbury, Llangollen where he got lost then after a pleasant excursion through Snowdonia, finally arriving 2 hours late for the ferry. The ferry had the prosaic name “Holyhead Ferry 1”. He was told to drive down to the front of the car park and stop at the end. Well at least he’d be first on the ferry in the morning. After an uncomfortable few hours trying to get some sleep on the back seat of the car, he awoke to a knock on the window. He wiped a hole in the condensation and found himself blinded by a torchlight and a big bearded bloke with a cap on shouting something at him. He wound the window down only to be told he’d got 2 minutes to get on the ferry or he’d be waiting another 12 hours. He struggled into the front seat, started the engine up and realised he was the only car left in the ferry terminal. It was midnight when the ship set sail and around 4am when he arrived in a fresh Dún Laoghaire.
He had a seven year old Ford Anglia company car, standard issue for anyone below director level. It had a top speed of over 70 mph according to the manual but Brian had never got more than 55 out of it. The journey was largely uneventful except for a lengthy delay for a tractor with a cart load of burning hay parked at the side of the road near Horseleap. By the time it had burned out nobody could see anything for a 2 mile radius. He stopped at Athlone for a breakfast and a nap, down by the banks of the river Shannon.
Yet again he was awoken by tapping on the window. He wound the window down only to be informed in a matter of fact way by a young Irish lad that his dog was lying on the settee strapped to his roof-rack and it wouldn’t come down. Brian’s wife had promised the settee to a relative in Telford, a mere 25 miles from home, he was supposed to have dropped it off but forgot. He considered throwing it in the river but his thrifty side took over and he decided to try and sell it in Westport or Sligo.
By the time Brian had coaxed the dog down from the settee, he was wide awake enough to carry on up to Donegal. The trip from Dún Laoghaire to Donegal took 7 hours all told, including the stop off. He arrived at Bluebell End in blazing sunshine. There were no roads on this island, whatever it was called, so he would have to park his car up near the harbour and get out everything he needed for a couple of days on the island.
Along with his battered suitcase and the bed-settee, he also had two paintings in the boot that he’d brought with him simply so his wife wouldn’t find them. He fancied himself as an artist and over a period of months had covertly cobbled together two paintings of some oddly Picasso shaped nudes from memory without actually using models.
He’d never seen a woman nude except his wife and even that was just her silhouette on their honeymoon in a guesthouse in Aberystwyth, so he had to use his imagination, of which he had little. Consequently, the rounded and pointy body parts were loosely based on his remembrances of his wife’s with the finer points via a dodgy calendar he’d thumbed through whilst having a tyre changed in a garage in Bilston. He’d hidden the paintings in his garage behind an old sideboard but his wife was on one of her cleaning purges so he took the opportunity to secrete them in the boot of his car behind his suitcase before she saw them.
On his arrival at Bluebell End, he’d got lost and driven through a rough looking council estate, similar to the one he lived on at home, before parking the car beside a high wall out of the wind, adjacent to the ferryman’s hut. As he got out, he had to hang onto the door as a huge gust of wind caught it and threatened to rip it off. There was a bit of a nip in the air so he rubbed his hands together, simultaneously blowing his cheeks up like he was playing a trumpet expelling his breath in short sharp gasps like a smoker struggling to blow smoke rings. He was a couple of hours early for the scheduled departure time of the ferry and he was a bit peckish so he went for a walk to try and find a café or a pub.
He wandered around for a few minutes then realised there was absolutely nothing at Bluebell End except the harbour and a boarded up Indian restaurant that had seen much better days. He’d barely left the car 5 minutes but when he got back to it the passenger door was wide open. The first thing he saw were the wires hanging from where the radio used to be. The settee and the paintings were still there, but the bowler hat, the car radio and a packet of Polo mints had gone. Irish gits, he thought.
Con Brady, the ferryman was neither use nor ornament, he’d been asleep, he said! When Brian asked him, he said he never heard a thing even though it was right outside his cabin window. He merely suggested if he didn’t want the settee to get wet with spray when the tide came in, it could go in his hut. To his surprise, Brian agreed, happy to get rid of the damn thing, stuff Telford, stuff her relatives, keep it, sell it, do what you want with it he told himself.
The two of them lifted it from the roof of the car with ease but it took several attempts to get it through the hut door, the final push resulting in one of the legs breaking off exposing three long screws and a long tear in one arm. The greasy old armchair which had graced the ferryman’s hut for a decade now and stank of stale tobacco, was thrown out in the back yard and perched it on top of a pile of smouldering fish pallets which had been set on fire a few hours ago. They stood around the fire rubbing their hands, happy with a bit of warmth. The ferryman offered Brian a Woodbine cigarette but it was politely declined. He was trying to give up, especially coffin nails like Woodbines.
After a few minutes they went into the cabin to look at the tide times and other nautical things Brian didn’t really understand. The sea breeze had got up a bit as the tide came in and fanned the flames of the pallet fire whilst they were talking and as they talked and laughed, the flames licked against an old derelict fisherman’s hut, eventually they caught hold properly and the hut was burnt to the ground and looked like spreading to Khan’s Kebab Emporium over the road but a huge wave broke on the harbour wall and extinguished the fire albeit twenty minutes too late. Brian looked on in horror but Brady didn’t seem bothered one bit.
All that remained after the fire burnt itself out were eight springs, three unidentifiable coins, two matching halves of a blackened mug, a twisted teaspoon and a pine cone shaped cuckoo clock weight. The car escaped but not unscathed, all one side was rusty as all the paint had been burnt off and another window had broken this time from the heat and not by virtue of a sock with a snooker ball in it. As Brian salvaged what he could from the smoke damaged car, a crowd had built up, well 7 people and three sheep to be precise.
Emily Griffiths was one of them and had taken a liking to the two paintings albeit a bit blackened around the edges and asked Brian if they were for sale. He gave them to her, gratis, with his blessing. Take them, he thought, take bloody everything. There was a time when he’d have got angry, stressed and manic about the sort of incidents that had just taken place but he didn’t really care anymore. His wife’s nagging had beaten all resistance out of him, almost to the point of total subjugation.
Prestons pools were in the process of what they liked to call “restructuring” and he didn’t fit in. He hadn’t been told as much, but he knew. Everybody else knew as well. He had long since passed the point of caring, either about his marital issues or his work situation.
Emily was a strange girl, into the occult, shifting time and all that sort of stuff, she thought there was something of herself in the paintings obviously seeing herself in a completely different light to everybody else. She laid them gently on the dog blanket in the boot of her Ford Cortina. Nobody else saw her take them. As a matter of fact, one of them, the one where the eyes were different sizes, the huge left ear and the three pyramidal breasts of differing dimensions, bore a remarkable likeness if truth were known. One boob too many but very similar in other respects.
ACROSS THE SEA
The ferry, which was not exactly what Brian was expecting, was basically an old trawler stripped down to the shell with a few boards nailed onto the bare bulkhead ribs. It mainly embarked from Bluebell End basically when the ferryman felt like it. Brady eventually decided to get the show on the road at around 4pm. There was just Brian, Brady and two other people on the ferry. One was a farmer from the south of the island who moved from the mainland a couple of years ago and who had a Land Rover at Bluebell End and every now and then would give it a nostalgic whirl. The other passenger was a tall gaunt looking man whom Brady had never seen before, who positioned himself on the bow end of the boat. He wore a grey rucksack, the type all tourists to the island wore. He spent all the short trip looking out to sea through a pair of binoculars. He was probably one of those birdwatchers who visit the island in the summer. All birds looked the same to Brady. Especially seagulls which he thought were just grey, white and noisy and more to the point, shit on the wooden seats on his boat.
Brian got all the run of the mill jobs. Nobody else wanted to do this presentation, everyone preferred the big glamour presentations in London’s West End, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Twiggy and Cilla Black.
The local newspaper, the Derrylin Chronicle, had agreed with an agency that their photographer Sid, would send send the photos to London to be circulated amongst the Fleet Street rags if they were interested. Mind you, the camera had a cracked lens and he doubted whether the film in it was still any good.
Sid once upon a time in the late 60’s, had a well paid job working for the Belfast Telegraph but was pensioned off with what his doctor called shell shock. He’d sneaked up an alley for a quick pee during a bomb alert. Everyone else cleared the area but the bomb went off close by and blew him half naked into a cemetery. He was picked up by a vigilant and brave RUC man and taken to the police station. As he was being carried from the police van into the building semi naked, blackened and bloodied, a couple of passing nuns stopped to have a look and asked if the last rites were required. The RUC man said it wasn’t required but if they knew anything about brain transplants they’d be welcome to perform a full lobotomy on him when he’d been tidied up a bit. The nuns scurried away giggling at the thought.
He was allowed to have a shower in the prisoner compound, a gash on his head was swabbed and cleaned, a single stitch was inserted without any local anaesthetic and a huge white bandage was wrapped turban like around his head. He was then given an orange boiler suit to wear and sent on his way. He retired to live on Inishbog, got a job in Derrylin and was as happy as Larry.
The island life, he felt, suited him better, it was quieter, there were less memories of the troubles except on August the 1st when the gun club held their annual clay pigeon shoot. They ran out of clays years ago so they used half sized baked bean tins but it is 4 years since anyone hit one.
When the SS Princess Agnetha was washed ashore in the storm of ’68 it had 35 tonnes of baked bean tins in the hold. There were still thousands of rusty tins left in Pat O’Driscoll’s barn. At one time, hardly anything consumed on the island had been bought, most was washed ashore in crates or salvaged from shipwrecks, but modern navigational aids not to mention a change of personnel in the local coastguard, put a virtual stop to it.
Siobhan Kelly was a seamstress by trade. Self taught. She made her own trousers and blouses but had never had any tuition. And you could tell. Sean, her husband liked to think he was a bit of a ladies man. On account of a huge nose complete with what looked like a nest of black spiders living up each nostril, he was not very successful.
Siobhan visited Derrylin on the mainland once a fortnight and she filled in her Prestons tickets in the funeral directors as a matter of course.
Derrylin shopping centre, although it was called such, wasn’t so much of a centre, more like a collection of adjoined shops knocked through, a unisex hairdressers run by two gay men, a butchers, a funeral directors and a newsagents that doubled up as post office, general store, cobblers and had a few items of clothing hanging on metal racks.
She’d originally gone for some Marmite, some capers in brine and a new pair of shoes. She fancied some coffee & cream brushed leather with a small stacked heel and a classy gold tip on the toe, but they only had flat gold slip-ons like those in the Sunday papers and even they were second hand but she bought them anyway. And there were no capers either. Nobody knew what they were.
Gimpy was the local self appointed hard nut. Nut being the operative word. Nobody on Inishbog can remember Gimpy leaving the island except once to his uncle’s funeral in Derrylin. He took an instant dislike to Brian, he represented authority.
His real name was Nigel, but he was known as Gimpy by all and sundry, gimp being slang for someone thought of as an idiot, in this case the island idiot. He didn’t really like anybody. He didn’t even like his own name so he accepted Gimpy quite readily, mainly because he thought it had a happy go lucky ring to it, blissfully unaware of it’s real connotation.
He had shifty eyes and a badly drawn tattoo of a girl on his left forearm. It looked pretty well like one of the picasso paintings Emily Griffiths had whisked away from Brian’s smouldering Anglia.
Gimpy wasn’t bad or anything, he was all noise and bluster. A bark worse than his bite.
He just thought he was hard and went round trying to prove it, albeit without much success. He used to start fights at school then proceed to lose them. Even to girls. Mind you, there were only 5 kids in the class, three of them girls, the other boy ended up as co-owner of the hairdressing salon in Derrylin. Infact the same 5 made up the sum total of the school population and the ages ranged from 4 to 15 years old.
The island life is one of choice. It is definitely not for city dwellers, where everything is there for them at their fingertips. It appeals to people who don’t like cities and that is how Nora saw it. She went to London twice. There was too much noise, constantly, too many people and far too many cars. There was rubbish all over the streets, graffiti on walls, unfinished buildings, buildings in disrepair and buildings that looked like they’d been bombed and just left as they were. Infact that is exactly what they were.
Whilst the Berliners were tidying up their bombed city, the British just skirted around the bomb holes and gutted buildings, right into the mid 1960s.
But in London, there were theatres and cinemas and music halls and museums and art galleries and sport stadiums and so much more. Then there were the shops. Thousands of them. They sold shoes, handbags and fur coats. She contented herself that she had a fur coat already, albeit sheep fur, which she bought in Derrylin from the post office. It was second hand but it was a perfect fit and in any case, it did the job. When the Atlantic brewed up, the wind that accompanied it could blow straight through you if you weren’t well attired.
She laughed at her own pathetic comparison between London’s shops and the general store on Inishbog which sold Calor gas bottles, cigarettes, bread and tins of beans. Innishbog store was neater and tidier than most of the shops though, mainly because it had hardly anything in it. There were still too many people though. And loud, everyone shouted. And in a strange dialect too, nobody could pronounce words like “thing” or “think”.
They shortened some words by missing off the end and lengthening others by adding a whining noise which tailed off at the end. Some people spoke really posh as well, like they did at the BBC. They must have come from rich families she thought, because that is how she heard a rich man in a bowler hat speak when he addressed a man selling newspapers. He looked down his nose at him and called him “my man” which she thought was rudely condescending.
Most of the people on the island had lived there since birth, just like their parents before them and their grandparents before them. Many had moved off during the famine, many had died during the famine. The famine almost wiped the inhabitants of Inishbog off the map. Less than 20 families survived. There were over 1200 people on the island at one time. Most families had 6 or more children, not withstanding the Catholic church’s constriction on any sort of contraception, most families wanted lots of kids to maintain the family farms or fishing industry.
Religion didn’t play a great part in the islander’s lives. The church was hardly ever used, even for marriages, it only held 10 people and when Father Nolan died, so did religious interest so it was neglected. Plants began to grow inside, a rowan tree grew through floor and then through the roof and displaced all the tiles. Foxgloves and ferns grew through the sandstone floor, antirrhinum sprouted from the walls.
From the outside, to all intents, it resembled a rowan tree with a stone waistcoat. Weddings, funerals, baptism, confirmations and holy orders all took place in the church at Derrylin. Confessions were largely unheard of. The last one involved Father Nolan himself confessing to O’Driscoll one drunken night about how he had sexual urges for Edith Piaf.
The thing about living on an island is the dependency on the weather. When your next door neighbour is the Atlantic ocean and your nearest convenience store is half a mile across a unpredictable stretch of water, it can be days before you get fresh food. The island was self sufficient in milk and eggs and at a push, one of the farmers might be persuaded to relinquish a chicken or a sheep to keep things ticking over until the crossing was possible to Derrylin.
Gimpy collected tins. It started one bad winter when the island was running desperately short of provisions and he had got down to his last tin of beans. As soon as the storms calmed down, he went over to the mainland with Brady on his ferry and bought 50 tins of beans, stew, tomatoes and corned beef. He continued doing this until all the outbuildings on the farm were full of them.
He amassed 7,439 tins of beans, stew, tomatoes, soup and corned beef. Some had lost their labels and gone rusty around the seals. He counted them on a regular basis, not because he was afraid someone would steal some, but because it was a habit. Ever since he’d mastered the art of counting at the early age of 10, he counted everything.
He counted O’Driscoll’s cows whenever he saw them, even walking up the hill to look down the other side when there were any unaccounted for. He counted the cargo ships when they sailed past the island. He was up to 993 ships of varying sizes, although he’d discounted some small local trawlers, but he was looking forward to reaching 1000. He’d put a bottle of whiskey to one side to celebrate the occasion. It was one of Flanagan’s lethal carrot and turnip poitín. He had one before and he felt ill for three days afterwards so he hoped this one will be better distilled.
Pat O’Driscoll’s family had been on the island for as long as anyone can remember. The island was littered with cottages the O’Driscoll clan had inhabited and abandoned. They were used now as shelter for his cattle. Most were just piles of rocks and a single wall but he’d rebuilt some of them in a rough sort of way and slung a makeshift corrugated tin roof over weighted down by rocks. The sheep could get underneath but the cows stood around the shelter as if waiting for something to happen. Like they always do.
There were a hundred or so abandoned cottages in various states of disrepair, legacy of the famine. The Old Man’s cottage was the last remaining turf and rock built example although the rocks only formed the first foot of the cottage these days, breezeblocks had to be used to rebuild the walls after the whole thing fell down while he was up the mountain looking for his sheep one day.
There used to be a community hall complete with gymnasium inside and two Gaelic handball walls outside. When it burnt down almost everyone on the island turned out, not to try to put the fire out, but merely to watch it, some taking the opportunity to get rid of old furniture and clothes. It took three days for the fire to die out, helped by a typical Atlantic squall, at least a dozen wardrobes and all the oak pews which had been stacked up alongside the old church for renovating.
After it burned itself out, all that was left were the two handball walls. They were still blackened by the fire after all these years but were still in use. The concrete base had been taken over by local fishermen who stored lobster pots and old nets alongside a couple of remarkably well preserved but totally unseaworthy rowing boats.
The islanders never bothered rebuilding the community hall on account of nobody using the first one. If there was a meeting about anything these days, it was held in Egan’s bar. The last one being to take a vote on whether to buy a tractor. With 9 votes against and 8 for it was decided not to buy it on the basis that any diesel would have to be ferried over from Bluebell End and nobody wanted the responsibility of lifting heavy barrels on and off Wiggin’s small boat and also that nobody could drive one.
THE FUNERAL OF THE OLD MAN
The cemetery was down by the sea. Many of the graves had collapsed and sunk. Some of the occupant’s bones were showing. There was a skull in the window of a crypt. It was small, perhaps that of a woman or a child. The owner of the skull probably died in the famine in the mid 1800s.
The coffin arrived in the back of a Commer van towed by O’ Driscoll’s two donkeys. It was the only vehicle on the island. It arrived on Brady father’s ferry back in the time when whiskey was plentiful after the SS Wisteria ran aground with a hold full of it. He ran the van on the stuff for a week but a combination of potholes and burnt out piston rings virtually consigned it to the scrap heap.
There were a dozen or so people following the coffin. It was raining steadily. Both Siobhan & Sean were there, Wingnut had found his way there as well, scratching as usual but mainly on one side, after all, he was bald on the other side. Gimpy always attended funerals. Sid was there with his trusty Halina camera. He’d knocked it off the kitchen table only yesterday along with the only milk he had in the house. He couldn’t decide which to catch first and in his deliberations both fell onto the tiled floor with a crash.
Miraculously the camera still worked infact it appeared to be working better than it was before even though milk was dripping out of the casing, but he had to have black coffee all day as the shop had run out of milk.
The rest of the mourners were made up of Mr and Mrs McCraig and Mr and Mrs Jackson, farmers from the south of the island along with four Belgian tourists who mistook Inishbog for Arran but decided to stay for a week in a tent anyway. The priest was on his way apparently but Brady had moored the Bluebell End ferry at the top of the landing at high tide, so they had to wait another 2 hours for the tide to come back in again and refloat it. He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. He was just a tool if truth were known.
The man from Prestons had decided to stay overnight in Egan’s, a bar owned by Joe and his wife Nora. It was just as well, as the weather had turned stormy and the priest was stuck over in Bluebell End for the night. Pat unhooked the two donkeys to take them home but they preferred to stand where they were in the rain. There would be no funeral until the weather was calm enough to let the priest sail the 900 metres from Bluebell End to Inishbog. Sometimes it could be days. The small congregation of mourners dispersed slowly then as the rain suddenly turned into driving sleet, a 200 yard dash ensued towards the bar.
It was bright and sunny the next morning. The sea was flat calm. The coffin remained in the car all night but the donkey’s had disappeared.
Brady’s ferry was on it’s way. As he nonchalantly leant on the old wooden tiller, he looked suspiciously at the 3 passengers he had aboard, just like he always did even though he knew them. He looked down with his head up because he thought it gave him an air of superiority.
Again, it started to rain half way through the graveside ceremony. The priest did what he had to and by the time the brief ceremony was over, everyone was soaked to the skin, apart from the Belgian tourists, who were last seen stood by the quayside with what was left of their battered belongings awaiting the ferry back to the mainland. They’d spent all night in Ciaran’s Cave after their tents had been uprooted by the storm and were probably mid Atlantic by now. It rained so heavy the grave began to fill with water. If the old man wasn’t dead when he went into the coffin, he would be now, drowned.
The gravedigger, Arthur, was sheltering under tree out of the rain. It was leafless so he was leaning against the trunk downwind in a futile attempt to keep dry. He didn’t get paid and wasn’t in any hurry to either dig or fill the graves. Nobody was really bothered except when it was hot weather and the corpses started to smell. Sean started to fill in the grave. Arthur stood under a tree for a while, watching Sean, then decided to help him with the last few shovels full explaining in full, the mysteries of why you have to make a mound over the grave.
Brian was a fairly dour man it has to be said. Seeing all those thousands passing hands when his salary barely reached 4 figures bugged him. He didn’t have much of a sense of humour at all. Much of it was to do with his wife. She was as miserable as sin even on sunny days. He openly admitted she’d got a face a dog wouldn’t lick and a mere week after their marriage, he was resigned to a sexless life after he’d mentioned something about her getting a nose job like the one Cilla Black had.
He last had sex, if you could call it that, 12 years ago fumbling about under the canal viaduct, water dripping down his neck from a green mossy like thing dangling from the roof and her telling him to hurry up because she thought she could hear the 9.35 bus coming.
The presentation of the cheque was to be a low key affair, on the insistence of Siobhan. This suited Brian as he wasn’t really a champagne and glitz man even though he was jealous to death of those who went to exotic locations to present cheques. The presentation was in the pub. It was over in a flash. Siobhan just said thanks, snatched the cheque and stuffed it down her bra. This suited Brian, he could pack his bags and get off home. Not that he relished going home that much but he couldn’t see much on this island that would want him to stay any longer than possible. Tomorrow Siobhan would take the cheque to the bank in Derrylin on the mainland and put it into her own account then consider whether her husband Sean was to be part of it.
She wanted to go to Majorca or Las Palmas and lounge about in the sun, he wanted to go to Poland and Latvia to look at war memorials and concentration camp sites. She wanted a pastel coloured E-Type Jag and cruise by the palm trees at Monte Carlo whilst he wanted a potting shed to replace the one destroyed in last year’s winter storms plus some new wellingtons. You could hear them arguing even above the howling gale.
The weather by now was foul. In the distance far out to sea, an oil tanker was moving as if in slow motion. The waves were washing over her bow, the spray still visible as far back as the bridge. The cloud drifted down from the mountains and hung low over the village, it was black and dismal. Joe’s whitewashed pub stood out like a beacon in the murky conditions. Especially the big red and green neon Smithwick’s sign.
Occasionally the black clouds would break, only to be replaced by even more threatening yellow ones which would swirl around changing the direction of the rain for a few minutes before turning black and emptying their whole contents in a matter of seconds. The forecast was for a week of this sort of weather.
Brian rang Brady to see if there was a chance of him getting a lift off the island but the loud beery belch and the clatter of background laughter from the other end of the line told it’s own story. As a last resort he rang the air sea rescue who politely told him to “bugger off and stop wasting our bloody time”. It was worth a try. Well, at least he wouldn’t have to worry about his nagging miserable wife for a week.
Suddenly he felt a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He made a monumental decision as he sat forlorn in the corner near the window of Egan’s. He decided he would not ring his wife all week. When he got home he would tell her the telegraph poles had blown down in the storm. No, perhaps the ferry sank. No, that’d have been on the news. He’d just tell her the phones didn’t work. Which was partly true.
Inishbog only had generator powered electricity and apart from a brand spanking new green phonebox, which wasn’t wired up yet, only the pub and Kelly’s shop had telephones. The telephone cable ran from the harbour to Bluebell End under the sea and for whatever reason, when the sea was rough, kept cutting off.
He couldn’t believe he’d actually done it. He’d made a decision without having any guilt, although to be perfectly honest, he was stuck on Inishbog for the unforeseeable future whether he liked it or not. Normally he’d felt guilty if he did anything without asking “her who must be obeyed” as he secretly called her. It felt good. He felt liberated. He didn’t drink much, 2 pints of lager, was his absolute limit when he took her out in fact it was he who convinced her that 2 pints was just under the drink drive limit.
It probably well under the limit given the watered down slops he was served in some of the dodgy pubs he went to. Even after a derisory two pints she’d hurl abuse at him, saying he “stank like a brewery”, “no better than a dray man’s horse” and “should think about Alcoholic’s Anonymous the state he was in”. Today, he would get absolutely bladdered and not give a toss. He was getting quite dizzy just thinking about it. He cackled out loud much to his own and everyone else’s surprise.
Brian ordered a bottle of champagne to celebrate. There wasn’t any. So he had a pint of Inishbog Stout which was effectively home brewed beer that Egan made in his barn and at 9% was far too strong but as none of the bottles had labels on, nobody knew or cared.
He was well on his way after his second pint and after his seventh glass he passed out.
“Bollocks!” was the first word he uttered. Wingnut found him, slumped against the luminous green phone-box in the middle of the boat yard with a cork lobster pot float as a pillow. The dog walked round him a couple of times, licked his face then cocked his leg up on him. There were a dozen mangled up cigarettes strewn around him and a burnt out box of matches down by his foot. “Wash yer mouth out, yer dirty peasant” came a voice from the crowd now gathering round him. “Bollocks” he slurred again.
A globule of saliva slid from his mouth involuntarily. He tried to smile but only one side of his mouth responded exposing a few grey filled molars. He tried to get up but slumped against the wall, rolling gently over a fresh piece of dog faeces in the process, courtesy of Wingnut. He didn’t normally draw a crowd but it was most likely because he was stark naked except for his y-fronts, which were round his right ankle and he had chicken feathers in his hair.
Wingnut was milking the attention. He’d not been stroked since his owner had died. He’d been locked up for a few days and was savouring the freedom so he pee-ed on Brian again. Siobhan kicked out at the dog and missed then threw an old bed sheet over Brian to spare his blushes. It was the one she used to rub their dog down with when it had been out in the rain. She then proceeded to drag him down the street to her house.
“He’s stopping in Egan’s” shouted Sean “Take him there, what the hell do we want him in our house for?”
After another blazing argument with her husband Sean, she managed to get Brian into their bathroom, turned the bath taps on, slammed the door shut, leaving him with a towel, some soap and when he’d come round a bit, a sense of acute embarrassment. “Your trousers are in the wash, there’s a pair of Sean’s hanging on the door and a rugby shirt” came the voice from the other side of the bathroom door.
Sean was a man of average stature whereas Brian was going on 42” waist, 50” chest. He sat there with a towel round himself and contemplated the mess he’d got himself into. The clothes didn’t fit by quite a few inches, the belt held the trousers up but the rugby shirt looked like it had been sprayed on. Brian resolved to diet when he got off the island.
Later that day, Siobhan took his dry clothes to Egan’s bar. Nora didn’t really want him staying in the bar if that was how he was going to behave, but there was nowhere else to stay on the island.
THE NEW FIELD
Old O’Driscoll’s cows had grazed the field by the deserted village for several years now. Some of his cows were six or seven years old, well past their peak but still capable of a few gallons a week. Today, he’d been reading a magazine. He went to school in the old chapel until he was 14, but when his father died he had to look after the farm, but he’d learned how to read and write and was proud to be the only farmer on the island who could do both. Pat O’Driscoll had been reading about rotation. He’d never even thought about it before. He had never even heard of it until now.
That morning he padlocked the gate to the meadow that led to the deserted village then opened the one to the cliff top meadow. The grass was lush in there, it was only about a foot high and there were wild flowers, patches of nettles and a few thistles. The earth was firm so it was perfect grazing land. The old cows would love it. As usual, just like he did at 7 minutes past 8 every morning, he flipped the large rusty hook off the barn door and let the cows trundle up the hill to the gate. There was one field to go through until they got to the next gate.
They slowly ate their way up the field towards their usual passage only to find it blocked. The one 10 yards to the right was wide open though, the one that led to the fresh cliff top pasture. The cows just stood and looked. O’Driscoll leant against the stone wall, pipe in mouth “Aye yer buggers, what yer going ter do now eh?”
The answer arrived in about one minute. The cows at the back were impatient, they slowly moved towards the front ones, pushing the front ones against the gate which with a loud crack, snapped the wooden gatepost like a matchstick, splinters of wood flying all over the cows. The herd walked en mass over the wooden gate then carried on as normal, except one which stopped to have a staccato shit and looked back at O’Driscoll with the indifference only a cow or a cat can display.
O’Driscoll took his pipe from his mouth, coughed and spit against the dry stone wall causing a spider to make a quick diversion, “Jaysus!” he mumbled to himself as if embarrassed someone might hear his disappointment.
“Mind’s of their own then?” a voice said. O’Driscoll fumbled his pipe then dropped it and all the tobacco spilled out on the stony ground. “Jaysus feck, yer should tell a man when yer sneak up on him” he said. “Oh, it’s you. Recovered then?”
Brian had recovered remarkably well and had dressed as he normally did except he couldn’t find his bow tie nor the neck tie with “Prestons” proudly embroidered on it in gold. He was glad to get out of Sean’s old clothes, they were “a bit fusty”, Brian thought, which was understandable since they had been in a black bin liner in the peat shed for a couple of years waiting to go to Oxfam.
“Sort of” he shouted, then wishing he hadn’t shouted.
His head was still delicate and the biting wind wasn’t helping. “I don’t normally do this sort of thing at home you know” he informed O’Driscoll. “Is that right?” yelled O’Driscoll disbelievingly, scooping up some of the rough shag he’d spilt on the ground, gatheriing up some sheep wool and a bolus or two of rabbit droppings at the same time, stuffing the whole lot into his pipe. “What do yer normally do then?” he coughed as he laughed.
Brian laughed as well.
The thought of what his wife would think made him laugh again, out loud. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke skywards but it was picked up by the stiff breeze and disappeared in less than a second. “I don’t normally smoke either” he shouted to O’Driscoll over the gale that had suddenly whipped up.
O’Driscoll had wandered off and by now was quite a distance away in the field with his cows. “So I see” yelled O’Driscoll, he chuckled as he puffed on his pipe under his tatty jacket. He tried to light his pipe out of the wind to get it going again, eventually after 2 boxes of matches and having to extinguish minor fires to his coat on two occasions, he managed to light his pipe and a cloud of smoke came out from under his armpit where the hole in the jacket was. It had been a maroon velvet jacket in it’s better days. It belonged to a vet who came from the mainland but he managed to lose it in O’Driscoll’s kitchen. It was a sort of shiny black these days, with a green sheen where he shouldered stubborn cow’s bony backsides into the milking parlour.
O’Driscoll hobbled further and further up the long field towards the cliff top. Brian turned to go, then noticed an old bike propped up against the stone wall. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink and he definitely didn’t steal. So he had a quick glance in O’Driscolls direction, the old farmer was almost out of sight now, so he borrowed the bike instead, vowing to himself to return it.
It was downhill to the village, a bit bumpy, infact a lot bumpy as he found out three times. After his third fall, which was a particularly heavy one, the small front wheel buckled. He carried the bike down the rest of the hill then leant it against a pile of lobster pots.
“Pat lent yer his bike then?” shouted Brady the ferryman, happy to be trapped on the island until the gale abated. Everybody was shouting today, the wind was making hearing difficult. It was gusting and howling down by the harbour, away from the protection of the steep hillside. The bike fell over and two lobster pots bounced twice and then plopped into the squally harbour. A large wave collected them and they were gone. “Well, that’s last we’ll see of them for a day or two” yelled Brady. “What?” shouted Brian. “They’ll wash up on Banna Strand next week no doubt”.
They could see each others mouths moving as they drew closer to each other but the sound was just blown away. Brian decided to escape from the gale, he would pop into Egan’s but just have a pint or maybe a coffee. Anything to get out of the wind, which was getting up to storm force now. “Hair of the dog is it, I’ll join yer fer one then, mine’s a pint of Guinness” bawled Brady.
The wind dropped momentarily and Brian heard him clearly and wondered how he knew that, how did he know I was thinking of going for a pint. He heard himself involuntarily shouting “Cheeky bastard” to which Brady replied “Aye, a right bastard it is, mind, this is nowt, last November the pub sign got blown down and landed on Nora’s head but it didn’t take much repairing, it was a bolt that had sheared, that’s all”.
That day, Joe had “held the fort” for the lunchtime opening session. Nora had been out to a friends for the day and arrived back around 6pm around the time Joe went through the evening opening ritual. She’d timed it perfect. She was bored with the routine, check this check that, measure this, taste that, a ritual most pub landlords went through daily, Joe was no different except he only had one beer and one lager to look after and both of them were in sealed kegs. And then there was a the stout which was merely siphoned from the plastic buckets it had matured in. Most bars opened all day but there was no point opening when nobody came in so Joe closed for a few hours every afternoon except Sunday.
As she turned the corner by the phonebox she nearly crashed into a staggering Brian. “Good avvernoon Nooorah” slurred Brian and made to grab a drainpipe but missed and crashed momentarily onto a window ledge before sliding off in slow motion and hitting his head against the cast iron letter box with a sickening thud. “Oh Christ, not again” said Nora.
Sid was cycling at a precarious 45° angle, leaning into the wind, then fell off because the wind stopped for just one second. He limped over to see what the commotion was about. “Oh, it’s him again”. Just as Nora was trying to prop Brian up against the wall, Brady flew round the corner on his bike, a sudden gust whipped up and blew him out of control, straight over Brian’s legs, clipping the kerb and skidding sideways along the road, eventually came to a stop taking several layers of skin off his chin which inadvertently acted as a brake against the kerb edge.
At that moment, albeit in slow motion, O’Driscoll hobbled round the corner, his coat flapping in the gale. “Who’s done this to me bike?” glaring at Brian as if he didn’t know. “The fecker never asked, just staled it and now look at it, yer donkey”…… “Jaysus is he plastered again?”.
Brian tried to look to see who was talking but his eyes remained sunken at the bottom of his eye socket. Yet again, Nora bailed him out and took him home with her to sober up.
“I’m getting the hang of this drinking lark” Brian said to Nora a couple of hours later, head held high with pride. “If only my wife could see me now, ha ha, she’d have a fit”. “You’ve actually got a wife then?” said Nora “I’m surprised anyone was daft enough to marry you what with your drinking and all that”.
“I never drink at home, she doesn’t like it”.
He felt good after he’d said it, like a sort of confession.
“Well never mind for now” Nora said comfortingly.
“Ouch”, he shouted.
“Shut up yer big baby, it’s only a scratch” she said as she swabbed the gash on his head gently with a dishcloth. “In anycase, the letterbox came off worse than you did, you took some paint off the corner”.
Joe walked in at that moment “Oh aye, lookin’ fer sympathy are we? Ah’ll tell yer something, Peter O’Toole yer not. Ah’d pack that game in if I were you mate, you’re not good enough to play it”. Not that Joe could take his beer either, a couple of sniffs of the barmaid’s apron and like Sean, also thought he was God’s gift to women, notwithstanding his huge ears, for which he was affectionately nicknamed Dumbo and not just because of his ears. Brian accepted the fact he would never be a hard drinker or any sort of drinker if it came to the crunch, but looking on the bright side, he was still relishing his freedom. Tomorrow he would explore the island. All 6 square miles of it, storm or no storm. He’d borrow a coat.
It was established the strangers were German, they had told what their names were and that was it. There were questions to be asked, but nobody on the island cared enough to ask them. Neither did anyone on the island speak any German whatsoever. None the less, they’d be a welcome addition to the community.
The islanders never bothered enquiring about other people’s comings and going, word generally filtered out in due course anyway but by and large everyone kept themselves to themselves.
Nora and Siobhan liked a gossip but seeing as they were the only two women on the island who lived within gossiping distance they had very little to gossip about. They mainly talked about how crap their husbands were in bed. Perversely they both already knew that, but that’s another story altogether.
Although the storm had abated and Brady had managed to get to the mainland and back, Brian had no intentions of going back yet. He had engineered his freedom quite skilfully, infact seamlessly he thought, so he was going to milk it for everything he could. Infact if truth were known, he was considering staying on the island. He had a sort of plan where he’d feign his own death, tell everyone he was going for a swim, leave a pile of clothes on the beach at high tide, live rough for a few weeks and return as Paddy, a student whose boat simply capsized in the storm. The accent might be a problem as black country and rural Irish was quite an eclectic mix and he’d probably have to explain the meaning of “mature student”
However, on second thoughts. The island folk were a canny lot and he doubted a single one of them, except maybe Gimpy or maybe Brady, would be fooled. To change his appearance he’d have to lose a shed load of weight first and that would take too long. His wife would have called the police by then and in any case, where would he get any clothes to fit him? There wasn’t a shop on the island to buy new ones from and in any case his body shape wasn’t made for “off the peg” clothes.
Little did Brian know, his wife wouldn’t have called the police, she wasn’t even in their home. She’d upped and gone to live with her mother in Lowestoft.
Brian planned on familiarising himself with the island a bit more, he’d procured a coat and planned to walk the whole way around the island. The old man’s belongings had been thrown out into the yard and Brian had found a moth-eaten old Barbour coat, but amazingly, both zips worked and four of the presstuds as well. There wasn’t a hood but it was still waxed so it would most likely be waterproof. It had a peculiar smell to it and after he’d worn it for a while he realised he was not the only living thing using that coat. But it was a coat, it was quite damp so whatever else was living in it would catch it’s death and die pretty soon anyway.
Wingnut the dog was delighted, had a new friend. Wearing his bed as well!
Brian struggled into his flea-ridden coat and set off up the track towards O’Driscoll’s farm. Wingnut was by his side. His fur had grown a little but unfortunately he was doing a whole lot more scratching than he was before because all the fleas had migrated from the bald side to the hairy side.
Brian plodded along, also having a scratch here and there. As the coat warmed up, so did the fleas. His theory yesterday that the wet weather would have killed all the fleas didn’t hold true. He had always held to the theory that you could get used to anything after a while. His theory was being tested to the full.
After just a few hundred yards he climbed over a style, Wingnut walked through an open gate adjacent to it. There was a stone built barn at the other side of the field, it was in a bad state from the weather and neglect. All one side was covered in ivy, but part of the roof was intact, the ivy covered that as well and provided shelter for the half a dozen cows in there. There was a huge pile of dry hay in the middle which the cows seemed to be playing a tug of war with. Pat O’Driscoll was sat on an old oil drum, swinging his legs, beating the drum with them to a tune only he knew.
“Mornin’ lad, nice to see yer”, said O’ Driscoll. “Have yer brought me bike back?”
“Sorry, no” said Brian, “I’ve let Sean have a go at mending it, I’ll pay for it of course, but it might be a day or two until Brady brings the parts from Bluebell End stores”.
“Ah, yer daft lad, mind, you’ve got a few quid haven’t yer” said O’Driscoll in a matter of fact way.
“No, not me Pat, it’s for Missus Kelly. I only get travel expenses” which was something he’d forgotten all about until now.
“Aah, yer shouldn’t have bothered wi’ bike, I never use it anyway, too hilly see” joked O’Driscoll, a plume of smoke rose from his pipe which momentarily took him by surprise because he couldn’t remember lighting it.
Brian didn’t see the joke but as he’d vowed not to care about anything ever again, he tried to pretend it hadn’t upset him and let out a subdued laugh. A cow let out a huge moo and then proceeded to have a never ending pee which caused both men to step outside the barn to avoid the splashback.
The stiff breeze cause sparks to fly from O’Driscoll’s pipe and blew straight into Brian’s face causing his eyes to smart. He blinked a few times to clear his eyes.
The cows moved en mass towards the door, obviously fed up with eating, and headed out into the driving wind. A warm draught followed them out. There was a tiny break in the cloud where a triangle of deep blue sky exposed itself but the dark grey clouds closed the gap and the skies darkened looking more threatening than ever.
“How is it with you and Missus Egan?” asked O’Driscoll out of all innocence.
“What do you mean?” said a startled Brian.
“Oh, come on, she fancies yer summat rotten. she bathed yer didn’t she, so she’s seen yer bits and pieces,” announced O’Driscoll like a man in the know.
Brian blushed a little then regained his composure to clear his throat and stuttered “I-I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yer three piece suite, Allcock & Balls” said O’Driscoll in a kind of loud whisper.
“Yeah, I know what that means but I can’t imagine what you mean about Nora” choked Brian.
“Nora is it? Aye lad, if you say so” said the old farmer, the last few words trailed off into the wind.
The Germans had been given the single rooms next to Brian’s in Egan’s.
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing” snapped Joe to Nora who was stood at the top of the stairs with a pint pot, the rim flat against the wall.
“Jesus wept” whispered a startled Nora loudly. “Nothing” she said, trying to pretend she was cleaning the glass.
“You were trying to listen to him weren’t you?”
“Yes, what is it to do with you?” she spat.
“They’re guests, in our pub for Christ’s sake”.
‘Oh is that what they are, I thought they had just been washed up in a boat and were living for free in our pub” Nora exclaimed with more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
“What if they’re German spies” she hissed.
“WHAT?” exclaimed Joe. He looked at his wife incredulously, as if she’d just crashed the car, which wasn’t possible because they didn’t have one, but he gave her that look. “Are you on the gin or something, what do you mean “what if they’re spies?” Do you think they’re spies? What is there to spy on on this Godforsaken pile of mid Atlantic stones?”
“I don’t know?” she said, fumbling for even the most simple answer but none was forthcoming.
“You’re nuts.” he said “In anycase, the war ended 30 years ago and on top of that, we weren’t even feckin in it!” he emphasised loudly. There was movement in one of the rooms.
On the west side of the island was a pretty little bay. It had fine soft sand, almost white and made a whistling sound when you walked on it. When the Atlantic behaved itself, it was as picturesque as any in the world. Palm trees grew in the dunes due to the island being in mid flow of the Gulf Stream, wild flowers were in abundance and there were thirty eight species of bird in the area. Because there were no predators on the island apart from other birds and from Wingnut the dog, many of the birds laid their eggs and raised their chicks on the ground.
Nobody knew why it was called Blacks Bay. There had never been anyone on the island called Black as far as any of the islanders could recall. It was a strand and a beach and it was a bay but it wasn’t black. It was about half a mile longs with jagged rocks at one end and sheer cliffs at the other where the dunes slowly gave way to black rock. Cows and sheep would often be seen walking along the beach.
The next landfall due west of Inishbog was a tiny village called Blackhead near St Johns on Newfoundland. It was 1,878 and half miles away. Inishbog was approximately 3 miles across and 7 miles long. There were a few roads, if you could call them roads. There were two tarmac roads, from the harbour to the pub and then an off shoot towards the old church which petered out after a mile and changed into a rough track. Both roads had grass growing in the middle but apart from that they were perfect, no potholes at all, in stark contrast to the mainland. In Cavan at one council election, the Anti Pothole Party gained two seats at the expense of Sinn Fein!
Geologically the island was pretty uniform with grassy fields interspersed with rocky outcrops from one end to the other. It ran from north to south parallel with the mainland. There were some pretty little bays on the Atlantic side but the east side were shingle and pebble beaches. The harbour was at the top end. Apart from the concrete quay, everything else was how the good Lord intended, it was a natural harbour, a sheltered rocky cove.
There was one stream which provided all the drinking water for the island. It ran into a small lough enclosed by reeds. Many years ago, someone far more resourceful than the current residents, had built a stone sluice which fed the water into an overflow, below which was a big green metal water tank. It was hidden by reeds but the flow of water was uninterrupted. Water pressure was negligible and occasionally taps would get blocked by leaves. There’d be a spluttering noise, a few drops would come out then a black leaf would burst into the sink followed by brief explosion of water which invariably soaked whoever was using the sink.
Today was a particularly calm day after the previous night’s storm. There were cotton wool clouds floating in cobalt blue skies. As usual, after a storm like that the beach was covered in kelp. The gentle breaking waves subdued by the weight of the kelp, arctic terns dived into the few inches of water behind each one, emerging with tiny fish in their beaks.
It wasn’t just kelp that came ashore after a storm. All the flotsam and jetsam washed overboard or dumped overboard from ocean going vessels eventually made landfall. Some arrived in Blacks Bay. One morning after a storm, along with the 35 tonnes of baked beans, thousands of planks of wood were washed onto the shore. There was hardly a patch of sand visible that day. Most of the island’s houses or barns were either made from or reinforced with this wood. Gimpy built a small pier and platform out into the middle of the lough through the reeds so he could fish. He sometimes took a chair out onto the platform and just sat there looking at clouds.
He had come down to the bay early that morning, an hour before high tide, to do a spot of fishing. He’d often catch his breakfast, a plaice or if the sea was a bit on the rough side, a bass. He was no chef but he cooked a mean bass fillet.
As he was standing there, just staring at nothing in particular whilst twitching the hand line, he noticed some strange tracks running from the beach up into the dunes. It could be a seal but there looked like some very feint footprints alongside the seal tracks. Maybe someone found a dead seal and dragged it up the beach. He followed the tracks up to the dunes but it disappeared so he guessed the wind had blown the soft sand over whatever it was. He had a look around in the dunes but couldn’t see anything. It was strange but then Gimpy was uncomplicated by nature so as far as he was concerned it might have been a seal, then again, it might not and that was the end of it.
All the same, he was inquisitive so he began climbing up the dunes towards the bog on the top but all of a sudden his line started uncoiling towards the sea. He leapt over a dune, landing on his backside in the soft sand and grabbed the wooden frame, yanked it backwards and leaned into a gradually tightening line. A bass! It had to be, although the bites from a bass felt gentle, once they were hooked they fought like mad to get away. This one was a good fish, it was putting up a strong fight, Gimpy knew he just had to keep a tight line but the kelp was nuisance and the bass would dive into it where it would feel safe. Gimpy tried to steer the bass away from a large raft of kelp but in it went, he felt the line go slack and that was that. As he pulled the line in he hooked a big kelp root which he proceeded to haul up the beach.
There was to be no fish breakfast today. Instead he’d take the kelp home, it was good source of iron, he was told and would also do his bowel movements the world of good. That much, he knew. The north Atlantic fish stocks along Black’s Bay were safe for another day.
Brian bade O’Driscoll farewell, turned left round the corner of the barn and was almost blown off his feet by a huge gust of wind. It was one of those corners where the wind was strong at the best of times. He battled against it for a few seconds before it dropped to almost still calm causing Brian to stumble. O’Driscoll’s cows were in amongst the ruined stone cottages of the deserted village, eating nettles and sheltering from the wind. They looked dolefully at Brian as he warily edged past them on the opposite side of what was once a stone wall. It was more like a small grass ridge now, with limestone rocks poking through the top every couple of yards.
Brian liked cows, they never answered back, hardly made a sound and they left you alone. He liked rabbits for the same reason, in fact he liked rabbits even more, they never made a sound. Ever. And they made better gravy. The sky was getting blacker by the minute but even after a short while on Inishbog he’d got used to this and knew they’d blow over. His coat was drying out in the hard wind and the fleas appeared to be less active apart from under his armpits which he kept scratching. This only served to make the fleas even more active.
Wingnut on the other hand was as happy as a pig in muck. He was only scratching on one side, the side where he’d actually got fur, but it had given him a new lease of life. He sneaked warily behind the wall, he’d had a kick from one of those cows in the past and had decided chasing rabbits was safer. He nearly caught on one once. Only once. He never got anywhere near them every other time.
The black clouds didn’t pass over. They stopped right above the island and let it all out.
The water gushed down the drainpipe outside the tiny stone hut on the harbour top, spurting out of the hole six foot off the ground, projecting a jet of water right across the small pavement at head height. Gimpy walked straight into it, got soaked even more than he already was and swore under his breath. He turned the corner and began the short but steep drag up the hill to his cottage. He’d been to the old man’s grave to tidy it up a bit.
Brian, notwithstanding the ever increasing activity from within his shabby old flea ridden Barbour, was happier than he’d been for years. He had a quick scratch here and there, drew breath and suddenly realised how wonderful the world had recently become. This despite the rain coming down almost sideways and stinging his face like hundreds of Lillipution arrows. Wingnut went up front as usual, sniffing at everything, peeing on most of them as well. In the distance the Atlantic surf was creating a crescendo of noise but the sea was pretty much obscured by a huge cloud of spray stretching the whole length of the strand. Even further in the distance easily visible above the spray, heaving up and down as if in slow motion, was a cargo ship piled high with wood. The man from Preston’s Pools wondered how on earth it didn’t fall into the sea.
When the brains were being handed out at school, Gimpy was busy trying stare out a seagull which was having a poop on the stone gate post, so he missed out on the last brain by a few seconds, but his heart was in the right place, slightly to the left adjacent to his lungs. Not that it showed too often, he had his Mr Nasty image to maintain, even of it was just a figment in his own imagination. Sean Kelly was struggling down the hill with a bucket full of peat briquettes and looking like a giant orange lobster bouy in his wife’s caghoul.
“Been somewhere?” Gimpy asked Sean.
“No” replied Sean sarcastically.
“Oh” said Gimpy with indifference.
The two of them passed each other like ships in the night.
“What a total waste of a good pair of legs” Sean thought to himself.
They went on their respective ways.
As Gimpy reached the top of the hill, the land levelled off and the track narrowed into a sheep track which forked one way to the peat bog and the other to Gimpy’s cottage. Gimpy took the fork to the peat bog. In the distance he could see the rotund figure of Brian stumbling over the tufts of grass between the bog.
“What an idiot” he shouted to himself. The wind and rain carried his shout down the hill towards Sean. He carried on towards the neat piles of peat briquettes which were supposed to be drying in the air but instead were being soaked through by the incessant rain.
Sean caught up with him and noticed Brian as well just before he disappeared around the hillside out of view.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” asked Gimpy.
“Er, no, probably not, unless you were thinking that lump of lard will get himself stuck in the bog”.
“Aye, that’s what I was thinking” said Gimpy triumphantly.
“Come on then, lets go and save his life” sighed Sean.
“Who?” said Gimpy with the merest hint of mischief in his voice. Sean gave Gimpy one of those sideways glances that Siobhan hated so much. Gimpy laughed out loud as if to say “gotcha”.
They both heard it. The faint bark of a dog, more of a yelp.
“That’s it, he’s in. Sounds like Wingnut’s raising the alarm.” announced Sean.
“Come on, lets get going” said Gimpy.
The rain had turned parts of the sheeptrack into a river and where it levelled off, the ground around the purple moor grass was soft and small lakes a foot or so deep had formed. When it changed to bog grass and rushes you avoided it and when the soil turned black and was devoid of plantlife, this was soft muddy peat bog and could envelop a small animal in matter of minutes. This land wasn’t for the faint hearted. Almost all the islanders were farmers or from farming stock and knew this type of terrain like the back of their hand. Even so, it only took one tiny mistake to get yourself into big trouble.
Brian wasn’t in trouble though. He was sat on a grassy knoll with his head in his hands when Gimpy and Sean got to him. Wingnut was in the middle of the bog though, stood on a small raft of reeds staring down intently at something in the bog. It looked like a body.
The rain stopped abruptly. The black clouds cleared and blue skies took their place. Brian sensed he wasn’t alone and looked up to see Sean and Gimpy standing on the opposite side of the peat cuttings, eyes on stalks. Wingnut wagged his tail momentarily, never averting his eyes for a second. He’d swum to the raft. The bog had filled with water gradually over a period of a few years and it was crystal clear, you could see the bottom and although the water was only 3 feet deep, the peat underfoot varied from firm to a couple of feet deep so it wasn’t an option to wade in.
“Well I’m not getting it” said Gimpy.
Brian looked up and managed to stifle a nervous laugh. He always did it when he was nervous. Sometimes it came out like a parping noise, other times it was a high pitched squeak. Sean looked down to where the squeak came from.
“I can’t swim” muttered Brian, a tiny bit embarrassed at owning up to it at a time when a modicum of bravery and decision was called for.
“We need a rope” said Sean.
“Throw a stick into the water” suggested Gimpy nonchalently.
Both Brian and Sean looked incredulously at Gimpy.
“Are you for real? I’m not on about the bloody dog” said Sean.
Brian came to life and questioned Gimpy’s sanity. Of course he wasn’t as well versed as the islanders regarding Gimpy’s negative IQ.
“I don’t believe what I’ve just heard, there’s a body out there and how do you know it’s a him, it might be a woman?
The wind dropped suddenly and a shearwater winged around the edge of the cliff surprising both itself and the three men. Wingnut ducked and crouched on his haunches for few seconds watching the bird veer away into the distance.
“Jesus wept?” said Gimpy in genuine shock “I never saw that”.
There was a few moments of silence before a gust of wind awakened everyone’s senses.
“Gimpy, go down to Egan’s, ask Joe what he reckons we should do and come back. Right?” ordered Sean. Gimpy nodded.
Gimpy set off over along the soggy sheeptrack and slowly disappeared into the distance.
Wingnut let out a loud yap which startled the two men. Brian had regained his composure and had assumed a rather more mature posture.
“We need a ladder” he suggested.
At that moment Wingnut leapt into the water and swam the few yards to the opposite bank then ran round to where the men were standing. He shook, soaking them both through again then sat between them.
Joe listened incredulously to this story Gimpy was stringing out. He looked outside at the driving rain and looked at Nora who’d been standing behind the bar polishing the same whiskey glass the whole time. It must have been the seriousness in Gimpy’s voice that alerted them both that this was real and not one his usual cock and bull stories.
Nora stopped polishing and hung the glass upside down by it’s stem in the wooden rack above the bar. “Well, you’d better go. Shall I ring the police?” she finally volunteered.
“Yes, you’d better do that” said Joe as he made his way to the coat rack to put on his old waxed jacket.
“I’ve got an alluminium ladder round the back Nigel, go and get it and I’ll see you round there in 5 minutes, I’ll just wait and see what the police say”.
Gimpy never moved, he was gawping at the dusty bandolero of Underbergs above the bar, wondering what they were.
“Nigel?” shouted Joe. Not a flicker.
“NIGEL?” he shouted again.
Gimpy looked round to see what Joe was shouting about and saw Joe glaring at him. Nobody ever called him Nigel. Even his Dad used to call him Gimpy.
“Gimpy…..” Joe finally said softly “Go round the back, there’s a ladder, I’ll see you there in 5 minutes.”
Gimpy did as he was told and went out into the rain and headed for the barn to get the ladder. Looking up at the black skies and not wanting to get any wetter than he already was, he stayed in the barn and sat on an old grass roller and waited.
“A body?” came the crackling voice from the phone.
“Yes, in the bog” said Joe for the third time.
“In the bog?” asked probably the most stupid policeman in the whole of the Ireland for the fourth time. “Which bog?”
“We’ve only got one feckin’ bog” shouted Joe down the phone.
“Hey young man, don’t you take that tone of voice with me or I’ll….hello……..”
Joe had slammed the phone down.
“HEY, don’t you break our phone ” yelled Nora.
“Well, he’s a gimp, a complete idiot. His Dad was an idiot as well. It’s Devlin, runs in the family, thick as two short planks” said Joe “Come on lets go, Gimpy will be like a drowned rat by now.
“I’m not going, what use will I be, I’ll stay here in case Devlin rings back? said Nora, privately quaking at the thought of a dead body in the bog. And that was final.
Joe and Gimpy set off up the hill to the bog together. Gimpy was quite talkative, most of it totally irrelevant to the job in hand, most of it shouted because the wind and driving rain made hearing that bit more difficult.
Jens was sat up on the edge of the makeshift bed in Egan’s spare room, familiarising himself with the surroundings. There was a faded painting of a beach scene with dunes and a grey featureless sea, on the wall near the door. The upper top corner had a stain over it as if water had soaked into the paper. Looking further up the wall, the wallpaper had patches of brown and near the ceiling it looked as if there had indeed been a water leak. A small corner had peeled back revealing some rose patterned pink wallpaper.
The painting made him think of back home in East Germany and holiday days out to the coast. The Ostseestrand north of Rostock was just like that, wild, windswept, featureless and invariably grey.
He reflected on his escape, how lucky he was but also how ill planned and dangerous it was. It wasn’t even a plan when it boiled down to it. It was a mad and desperate lunge for perceived freedom, a reckless escape from a life in which he wasn’t happy. He was being hounded by the Stasi for what he thought was a minor indiscretion. He thought it was a miracle that he wasn’t followed on his day trip to Rostock. Or maybe he was and didn’t know.
The day trip from Berlin, the stroll along the beach, the casual wander over the docks at Rostock then at dusk find a ship with green lights on, hopefully according to his source, this meant the ship was ready to sail. He’d hide in the lifeboats like all good stowaways and wait for an opportune moment to jump ship at a western port. It couldn’t be easier.
As the clouds gathered for the evening, dusk arrived quicker than normal and Jens got up and paid his bill then slipped out from the dirty cafe where he’d been sitting staring at the inactivity on the dockside. He’d made a conscious effort to stare at things to make it look as if he was bored and was just staring into space. He’d always imagined docks to be a hive of activity, lots of men running around carrying things, trucks and side loaders unloading crane loads of pallets. The opposite was true, once the ships were unloaded or loaded, hardly anything happened for several hours due to waiting for tides, waiting for harbour masters, waiting for border security to check for anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there. Like Jens.
He made his way quietly alongside the long road which ran alongside the docks. He was trying to look inconspicuous. His clothing was plain, grey trousers, navy blue shirt, black shoes, nothing to make him stand out, he thought. It wouldn’t have mattered in any case, he did look conspicuous, he was a city boy in a strange environment. It was the way he behaved, stopping at street corners, looking up and down the road, checking his watch, blowing warm air into his hands. On one side of the road were long rows of warehouses, on the other side was a 3 metre high wire fence topped with barbed wire which separated Jens from the dockside. He carried on walking, half dreaming about a chance to jump a ship and escape. In the distance was a steel cabin which interrupted the wire fence. He approached it warily then just as he was passing it, the door opened and a man in a faded blue fisherman’s smock came crashing out, fell into the road and stayed there, in the gutter. The door started to swing back closed again. Instinctively Jens put his foot between the bottom of the door and the frame.
Jens had a quick glance up and down the road at the wasteland behind the wire fence on the other side, then looked into the steel hut. It was empty but there was another door on the opposite side of the room and another one to the right, slightly ajar. There was loud snoring coming from another room and the strong stench of beer mixed with stale tobacco smoke and sweat filled the whole cabin. The man lay totally still in the gutter. He was in the dark shadow of the hut. Jens had another look around, there was nobody to be seen anywhere then slipped off his shoe and wedged it under the door to stop it closing. He rolled the man over and he made a groaning noise, he stank of alcohol, his head just lolled sideways and he went into unconsciousness. He would have a stinking hangover when he woke up, thought Jens.
He had another look around him to make sure nobody else was in the area then he took the man’s smock off, it reeked of a mixture of beer and oil and had black greasy smears on both elbows but it would do. He put it on and although it was bit too big, it would give him a kind of camouflage, he wouldn’t look so much the city boy any more if he had to return to the street and should anyone stop to talk to him.
He had another look inside the steel hut, looked up and down the road one more time for any sign of movement, put his shoe back on and sneaked in closing the door behind him. There was a steel table and a single wooden stool. An ashtray was overflowing with spent cigarette butts and the table had two empty bottles of vodka lying on their sides. He tiptoed gently towards where the snoring was coming from, looked through the gap without opening it any further only to see two what looked like teenagers, in their vests and underpants seemingly asleep on the floor. They were surrounded by empty beer bottles, vodka bottles and cigarette ends. He made a stealthy but quicker than necessary retreat. Not stealthy enough to avoid knocking one of the empty bottles of vodka onto the floor. It smashed on the stone floor.
The noise sounded like a death sentence to Jens. He ran for the outside door then just before he turned the door handle, decided to wait. This is what would happen during a drinking session isn’t it, broken bottles, smashing glasses, loud laughter? Only the loud laughter was missing. In fact the silence was deafening. It was as if nothing had happened. All three men were dead to the world from their exploits and no matter what amount of noise Jens made, none of them would awake until early the next morning.
There was another door on the opposite side of the hut, again looking all around him, he tried the handle and the door opened. This was too easy, he thought.
His daydreaming came to an abrupt end when he was suddenly shaken by a loud blast of a ship’s horn. It took a while for him to realise the seriousness of his situation now. He could of course go back the way he came but he made a game changing decision to exit the hut and have a reconnoitre of the area.
He was actually at the docks, wandering about in the twilight ,skipping between the shadows of huge wooden crates and steel containers. It was surreal and dangerous. If he got caught in these circumstances, at the very least he’d be thrown into prison, most likely tortured and there would be the real possibility he’d be shot and added to the “missing” persons list.
About 40 metres away, moored up, was a medium sized freighter. He skipped through the shadows in the same stealthy way he used to flit between shadows in Prenzlauer Berg to avoid his Stasi tails when he had been to an illegal meeting. Within a few seconds, he found himself right next to a ship called SS Osterburg. He didn’t anticipate finding such a ship as soon as this, never mind one with a green light on.
He wasn’t ready. He thought he would be but he wasn’t, so many things needed doing but he was leaving them all behind by this selfish and dangerous action. There was nobody about. He couldn’t believe it. In the far distance, a long way down the dockside, he could see some tiny figures doing some loading or something, he couldn’t tell but he felt eerily safe in his shadowy environment. He had a strange feeling of security, in that, he knew he was there but nobody else did. He moved towards a huge black bollard and decided this was it, no turning back now. Assessing the situation, he decided he would have to make a quick decision, do something now or regret it forever.
He clambered down some steps to a position where he could grab the huge rope, it was surprisingly dry, not at all slippery like he imagined it would be. He wrapped his arms and legs wrapped tightly round it until it almost crossed with the anchor chain. It was only a short distance to the anchor chain but there was a long drop into the freezing water if he made a mistake. He needed to get on the chain, which meant hanging upside down on the rope with his arms and legs then and make a grab for the freezing cold metal of the chain and hang on. He counted to five then on five he eased himself across to the anchor chain.
He painstakingly climbed up the slippery anchor chain one link at a time until he reached the huge hawse hole where the chain was fed through. He could see most of the deck through it. There was a steel box adjacent to the hole so he eased through it and crouched down alongside the box. He was out of breath, yet it was his breath vapour that could give him away, but the deck appeared to be deserted. He needed to rest and try to regain some composure. There was a momentary silence apart from his heaving chest.
After a quarter of an hour or so the whole ship started to shake and groan, a motor started up and the huge chain moved with a heavy jolt. Jens didn’t suffer from motion sickness as far as he was aware but he felt every jolt and movement of the vessel as it manoeuvred away from the dock in the darkness and edged it’s way slowly down the Unterwarnow towards the Ostsee.
With slow painful movements, stiff from the cold, he eased his way alongside a grey steel container and decided familiarise himself with his new environment. Almost at the last second he saw two uniformed men stood only a few metres away, smoking and talking in hardly audible tones. He was on full alert now, he didn’t anticipate the ship to have any uniformed men aboard.
After what seemed an eternity, the two men moved away out of sight. The nearest lifeboat was at the stern about 60 yards away and Jens considered when and how to make his move. There was one single lamp hanging over the front of the wheelhouse. But the uniforms, where were they? More to the point, who were they, what were they?
The ship made it’s way from the estuary out to the open sea and rolled slightly as it changed direction. Through the misty haze created by the lamp, he saw the two uniformed men enter a steel door and close it behind them with a loud clang. He could see a silhouette in the wheelhouse but guessed whoever it was wouldn’t be able to see him. There was no light towards the stern of the ship but what if someone was behind the wheelhouse? He told himself to get a grip, why would anyone be stood alone anywhere on a ship once it was underway?
Slowly he edged out from behind the container and slipped quickly along the side of the ship towards the lifeboats. There was one on either side of the ship. He chose starboard for no other reason it was closest and he wouldn’t have to walk across an exposed area of deck unnecessarily.
The release mechanism for the lifeboat looked like it was brand new. This was a good sign. He thought all he had to do was slide under the canvas canopy and sit it out until he felt the ship slowing down, but the canvas was tight and he couldn’t move it at all.
He was exposed now, out in the open, if anyone came down the ladder from the wheelhouse, they’d see him before they were half way down unless he ran under the front of the wheelhouse in which case he’d have no cover at all if they walked towards the bow. He climbed on top of the canvas to look for some sort of fastener. As the ship rolled he nearly fell over the other side, just grabbing onto one of the rowlocks to stop sliding into the black heaving sea below. He let out an involuntary albeit slightly muted cry of panic.
As he grabbed it, his leg caught on a rope and the canvas loosened. He looked into the black emptyness inside the lifeboat and suddenly realised he’d done it. It took him a few seconds to realise what to do next but he was soon inside the boat and managed to reseat the loose rowlock by tugging at a cord attached to the underside of the canvas and the rowlock clanked back into place leaving the surface of the canvas as tight as it was when he first saw it. He waited for the noise of boots, of voices but there were none.
He rewarded himself with a little muted sigh. He had no water but he had a bread roll with a slice of salami in his jacket pocket. He had a feel in the pockets of the drunkards smock, finding only a damp box of matches, resigned himself to the fact that his sole possessions in life now, was infact a salami bread roll. He had no idea how long he’d have to live without water and thought the salami might make him thirsty, so he took it from his pocket and placed it on the seat. And waited.
It was grey. The sky hadn’t changed colour for three weeks now apart from the darkness and lightness of night and day. Friedrichsstraße U-bahn wasn’t any brighter, the white grime covered lights hardly threw out any light at all. The whole place was dismal. It was the last sight of East Germany many elderly people would get after bidding their families auf wiedersehen before embarking for a new kind of life in the West. When they were no use to the communist system in the east, they were freely allowed to leave East Germany. Many families wanted their elder relatives to have a better life than the one promised but not delivered in East Germany.
Stefan Ziegler signed up to be a policeman straight from school. He went to college for two years and being a good socialist and CDU party member was invited to become a Stasi officer. Karl Heiden on the other hand had a few run-ins with the authorities and was imprisoned and re-educated; indoctrinated with the SED’s mantra. He excelled at sport, was identified as intellectually superior to most of his colleagues and offered a post at Berlin-Lichtenberg where he met Stefan. They trained together at the running track and consequently their tutors identified them as compatible and paired them up.
A train arrived in the station. Nine people got off, thirty four people were allowed on, counted like sheep onto the train, identity cards checked before they were allowed onto the train. Seven elderly couples were destined for the west. Nine were businessmen returning to West Berlin, the rest were people with passes to visit the West, people who were trusted or maybe worked for the SED. Neither Stefan nor Karl knew, their job was to monitor the old folk and the businessmen. Their brief was to look for the faces on the little photographs they’d been issued from Lichtenberg.
Nothing unusual happened so they both turned to go, making brief eye contact with the border security guards as they left. As they walked along Friedrichstraße towards Ziegelstraße where their car was parked, a stray dog ran across the empty street. Two men hurriedly crossed the road as they approached, their pace accelerated a little as they tried to make as much distance as possible between themselves and the two Stasi officers. Most Stasi were easily identifiable, they had a particular way of dressing. They invariably wore leather jackets, hardly anyone else did. They couldn’t afford them. Karl stopped and took out a packet of cigarettes, took two out, lit them and passed one to Stefan then they continued towards the car. Ziegelstraße was a cobbled street. There were no trees, just tiny dim street lamps under which their dark green Wartburg was parked.
Most of their time was spent monitoring and reporting. Very rarely were they sent to apprehend. They got into the car, started it up and drove the short hop to Lichtenberg. They wrote their observations in the report book, signed out and went their separate ways. Stefan got in the car and drove towards his home in Neukölln. Karl had to walk back the way they came to nearby Brunnenviertel.
There was a good band on down at the Drei Hüte Club that night, it was at the end of the street from where Karl lived. He grabbed a bite, a bit of cheese and salami on toast with a tin of warmed spinach then wandered down to the club. His mate Remy was in already. Remy didn’t know, or at least if he did, he didn’t let it be known, that Karl was Stasi. They’d known each other since school and had a drink with each other a few times every week.
Remi worked as a carpenter. He often attended gatherings with people who would play records quite loudly, then discuss the conditions they lived in and how they could be improved. This often led to criticism of the state and some politicians in particular. Karl was aware of this but turned a blind eye.
In the Drei Hüte club, conversation mainly revolved around sports, Union Berlin football club in particular. East Germany’s prowess as an athletics power was beginning to make people sit up and take notice. In 1973 even the Americans recognised the DDR as a country in it’s own right when it joined the League of Nations. There was open discussion in the west that athletes and gymnasts from Eastern Bloc countries were using performance enhancing drugs. People who lived near the West German border were aware of this but nobody believed the western propaganda. Neither did it ever occur to Karl or Remy that this might be the case but then neither of them would ever reach anything other than club level.
East German schools had an extensive sports curriculum where sporting excellence was rewarded. After school, there were sports clubs where the kids who were really interested would be pushed well beyond their limits by coaches who were appointed by the state to search out potential champions. Kindergartens had a lesson called Socialist Living which became more politicised as the kids progressed towards Polytechnic schools. Karl was good at almost everything he did but was very outspoken about the political system from an early age and was taken out of the sytem and re-educated. He could have represented his school, even his club at almost any running discipline.
As Karl left the club, making his way along the dimly lit street, he sensed someone was walking behind him, perhaps a block away, about 50 or 60 metres. He stopped and lit a cigarette. The smoke hung in the air in front of him for two seconds then was whipped away by a sudden cold gust of wind. He inhaled then blew the smoke up into the air simultaneously having a quick glance down the street. A man was leaning against a wall having a throaty cough. Standard Stasi training, thought Karl. He carried on walking and the shadow miraculously recovered from his coughing fit and resumed his following brief.
Stefan arrived home to his apartment to find a letter on the floor in front of his door. He looked around aware that the door across the landing was slightly ajar. “Guten abend Frau Hagan” he said cheerily. The door quickly closed. He never saw her face but he knew it was her. In the summer months he sometimes dropped off bunches of vegetables in front of her door then he’d knock twice. She’d wait until she heard his door close before she ventured out to collect them. She’d come bustling out like a little round cuckoo from it’s clock then quickly bustle back and quickly lock the door behind her. No thanks, no words, nothing. Her husband was an informer and Stefan used to extract information from him before he just upped and left one day. Nobody had heard a thing about him since. Somebody would know where he was, what he was doing, where he was living and probably which hand he scratched his balls with but nobody told Frau Hagen and she in turn never queried it. She was happy to be rid of him.
The letter was hand written and addressed simply to Herr Stefan Ziegler, Waldersborn 43, Neukölln. There was no stamp or postmarks but it was sealed and this concerned Stefan. He sat on the metal stool in the kitchen and stared at the letter. He decided to make a coffee first then open it. The water seemed to take longer than usual to boil. He let the coffee settle in the pot for a few minutes then slowly and deliberately open the letter. He lit a cigarette and sat back to read it.
An appointment has been made for you to attend a tribunal on the 16th of June in Magdalenenstraße.
That was it. Nothing else. But Stefan knew where that was. Strangely, this was two months away, normally if it was a disciplinary there would be just one day’s notice, if that. All the same, he didn’t want to hang about to find out what it was. They didn’t hand out medals or prizes in Magdalenenstraße, that much was a fact. Stefan had been looking at his dwindling finances and worsening quality of life for a long time and wondering how he could better himself. He came to the stark conclusion he couldn’t. He’d been to the wall and to the so called death strip and knew it was impossible to escape from Berlin. What if he told Karl that he wanted to try to get to the west? Would he stitch him up? What if he told he he was being watched and it was he who was watching him? He wouldn’t report him then would he?
He had to speak to Karl. He knew Karl hung out with men who were well known for being opinionated. He also knew Karl had been followed for 5 months because it was he who’d been ordered to followed him. If he told him, he was sure Karl would think it was funny because he was a dead giveaway.
He knew that Karl knew he was being followed. He also knew that Karl knew it was he who was following him. More than once he’d been compromised and just carried on until he deliberately lost him and returned back to Lichtenberg with some cock and bull story involving a tram or having to help a woman who had fallen in the street. Karl would sit opposite him whilst he wrote his report out and ask him things like “Catch anyone today?” or “The one that got away, eh?” Maybe Karl was following him! The whole scenario was farcical.
It was a black joke in the country that the only absolutely foolproof way to escape from East Germany, was in a coffin. Erich Honecker actively discouraged escape attempts. He ordered the wall to be built. His predecessor Walter Ulbrecht went on record as saying “No one has any intention of building a wall”. During his tenure as General Secretary of the SED however, he increased border security to the point where his own people were imprisoned. East Germans could travel to Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria but getting out of these countries to the west was as difficult as getting out of East Germany. Honecker just took it a step further. Both Karl and Stefan had travelled to Eastern bloc countries for holidays. Both of them had harboured thoughts of escape privately but nobody in their right mind would confide in another about escaping. But tomorrow would be different.
The next day in the office at Lichtenberg, Stefan was worried about the letter but tried not to show it as he sorted the case files for the “Langermann” job. He scraped a desk noisily across the tiles and lined it up alongside another one to make one long one then started to lay the files out neatly on the desks in week order as usual. Lehmann marched past the office as usual then almost as an after thought stopped, turned back, slid the window aside and stooped down just low enough to poke his ample head through the hatch and simply said “Not today”. “Shit” thought Stefan and began to collect all the papers up again and rearrange the desks again, deliberately noisier than earlier.
Dieter Lehmann was a huge man who wore his grey trousers half way up his chest. He had a totally bald head and a permanently red face. His sarcastic demeanour made him very difficult to read, Stefan never knew when he was serious or not. Lehmann had a doglike devotion towards the General Secretary whose photo was in a plain wooden frame above his head at one end of the office. He polished the glass every day with water and vinegar. Stefan never knew who to look at or ignore the most, Lehmann or Honecker. He hated being called into his boss’s office for the weekly brief, he was intimidated by both the bald head of Lehmann and the thin lips of Honecker.
Gunter’s Brauhaus in Prenzlauer Berg was a favourite haunt of Stefan and Karl’s. Squeezed between a bread shop and a boutique, it was invariably quiet but served excellent food. The Gebratene Blutwurst auf Kartoffelpüree mit Apfelmus und Röstzwiebeln was the stuff of legends. It was one of the oldest bars in Berlin, built along with the surrounding shops before the turn of the 20th century. The area survived the worst of the destruction during the Battle of Berlin but had received little love and attention since those times. There were little snugs at the back where young couples could have a bit of privacy. It was probably bugged, the area was well known for counter–culturists and bohemians who wanted more say in their daily life, people whom the Stasi took a keen interest in. Karl deliberately chose a table in the middle of the room.
They ordered the black pudding and mashed potatoes and a beer each.
“This is nothing to do with the Langermann case is it?” remarked Karl casually.
“No” whispered Stefan “Something urgent has come up”.
Stefan decided to tell Karl about the letter. He read it out quietly and quickly put it back into his coat pocket.
“Any idea what it’s all about?” Karl asked.
“Birgit” replied Stefan “I’m not going, I mean, to the tribunal”.
“What’s Bergit done now? They’ll string you up if you don’t attend”.
“I’m not going, I’m getting out, I’m….well, that’s it, I’ve told you now.
Birgit was a friend of Stefan’s who had a list of activities alongside her name which the state didn’t approve of.
Karl never flinched. “So, why are you in trouble because Bergit is in trouble?”
“Theft. Hey didn’t you hear me, I said I’m…” his voice tailed off “I said I’m getting out” his voice lowered to almost a whisper.
Karl turned his head away from him, deliberately looking towards the windows, then he turned, lowered his head so he had to look up at his face then said almost inaudibly “I was followed last night in Friedrichshain”. There were a few seconds silence. Stefan looked up at Karl but he’d put his hands over his eyes and lowered his head. He carried on looking at the top of Karl’s head, he noticed he’d got a bald patch developing. Karl raised his head slowly, firstly making eye contact with Gunter behind the bar then refocusing on Stefan he said “There’s something else…”.
“I saw him, he probably knew I’d seen him but he kept following me for a while, then I slipped into the VolksPark and hid behind the changing hut. I could hear him walking nearby then all of a sudden he came round the corner and we were face to face. It was Schneider.”
Stefan’s face changed from one of bewilderment to one of horror. Schneider was hard line, always carried a job through.
“I hit him and he fell” Karl said in a matter of fact way.
“Noooo…” cooed Stefan.
“Don’t interrupt mate, listen, I knew I had to get rid of him. It had to be done. He fell onto the edge of the lake so I kicked him then picked up a rock and hit him with it then rolled him into the lake and threw the rock in after him”.
“What, fucking what, Jesus Christ?” Stefan hissed. “You killed him? Where is he now?”
“Sshhh, keep your voice down. It’s alright, he’s at the bottom of the lake. He visited my mother last week, made a few threats, she’s scared to death to go out now. I think he’s been following me for a few weeks as well. He was getting too close and becoming a threat. ” replied Karl calmly. Stefan blushed a bit. He looked down to the floor and casually toe poked a cigarette end under the table. “I know you were as well but you were shit at it so it didn’t bother me” laughed Karl under his breath.
The silence was broken. “Yeah, that was Lehmann’s idea, he thinks we’re getting too close” said Stefan trying to diffuse the situation. He needn’t have bothered, Karl had other things, infinitely more important things on his mind now.
“Did anyone see…I mean, are you sure you were alone, just you and him? Did he float to the top?” asked Stefan, no stranger to death himself having had to identify a man he’d been following for a few months, who had drowned trying to cross the Spree only two weeks since. The staring eyes, the gaping mouth and grey shrunken features were still fresh in his mind.
“No, I waited fifteen minutes, no sign of him, he sank”, said Karl in an innocent way.
“But he’ll float to the top in a day or two, you do know that don’t you…..that was a joke wasn’t it?” Stefan said as an afterthought.
“Yes, it was, but I’m hoping to be far away from here by then” said Karl.
“What do you mean by that?” Stefan took a second or two to realise what Karl had said, his puzzled look was almost cartoon like.
“I don’t know but I’ve got to get away quick, don’t know where to, West Berlin would be good” laughed Karl, knowing full well he was talking rubbish.
Stefan hardly heard him say that, he was thinking solely about saving his own skin. “Shit? I mean shit, now you’ve told me this, they’ll haul me in because I’m your partner, they’ll ask me all sorts of questions and I’ll break, I know I will, some of the investigators are bastards.”
“Some of them?” laughed Karl nervously “All of them mate, every one of them would strip their granny naked and throw her in a cell if they were told to”. “And beat the shit out of her” he added as an afterthought. “Anyway, I thought you just said you are getting out as well?”
Stefan suddenly regained a bit of his composure and realised what was happening.
“West Berlin….” he stalled a little “You just said West Berlin, you have contacts?”
“Well, I have contacts but they are unreliable. We had better get some sort of plan sorted pretty quick, seeing as we’re both deep in the shit, eh?” smiled Karl.
“How can you smile at a time like this?”
“Finish your meal, I’ll get a couple of beers then we’ll go for a walk in Volkspark to see if there is any activity yet and I’ll tell you” Karl casually waved over the barman.
The Volkspark seemed normal, people walking dogs, sitting talking, playing games, groups of schoolkids with their teachers learning about nature and most importantly, nobody was swimming because it was too cold. It was quiet at the end where the sluice was, at the deepest part of the lake, where Schneider’s body was.
Karl told Stefan what he had in mind. They spent an hour talking about it and walking around the park before returning to Gunter’s to concentrate on the Langermann case to take their minds off things for a while. Karl spread a few papers on the table. Stefan took a sideways glance at Karl. It was possible, thought Stefan but it suddenly occurred to him, he was putting his trust, infact his whole life in the hands of murderer. Infact he was sitting at the same table and drinking beer with him. If the schedule Karl mentioned was agreed by Lehmann at headquarters, maybe it was possible.
They spent a bit of time staking out Langermann then reported back to Lichtenberg. As they walked along the long corridor to their office, shafts of light from the low sun painted bright yellow radials on the dismal walls, a voice boomed out from Lehmann’s almost luxurious abode. “Schneider didn’t go home last night Heiden?”
Karl popped his head round the door, cool as you want “Hello boss. Good for him, has he got a fancy woman after all this time?”
“Don’t get clever, Heiden” snapped Lehmann, not wishing to compromise the surveillance of one of his own agents, he just said “I thought you might have seen him last night, he was in your area”.
“No sir, I was in the Drei Hüte Club last night.”
Lehmann almost said “I know” but thought better of it.
“Just watch yourself Heiden” snapped Lehmann. “There are people who don’t think you’re Stasi material, isn’t that right Ziegler?”
Stefan tried to ignore the comment but clearly blushed, pretending to look at the picture of Erich Honecker instead “None of my business Sir. I’m just paid to do whatever job you send me out on”. He thought it was better to say something rather than nothing, then maybe explain to Karl on the way home if he asked.
Karl never asked.
Every year, Hans Becker took a week’s holiday in Rostock. His father was a big noise in the party, that’s all he knew. His father never told him anything he didn’t need to know. Konrad Becker was fluent in Russian and an expert in the communist doctrine, which made him a valuable asset as a party propagandist. He was influential in the schools and universities curriculum policy. Hans had nothing in common with his father apart from being long and thin, hence his Stasi nickname. As a child he wasn’t remotely interested in school and preferred to mess about with his friends in the forests. He was offered a post in Charité hospital after he left college with more than a helping hand up from his father otherwise he’d have been looking after pigs on a collective or digging roads up.
Charité was state of the art hospital. All East German citizens were entitled to free healthcare and the technology in this field was a good as anywhere in the world. Hans didn’t really like hospitals. There was a peculiar smell, disagreeable infact, a throwback to when he was a boy. He broke his arm after falling from a tree swing on a family holiday near Müggelsee. After a leap into the void accompanied by a blood curdling Tarzan yell, he slipped down the rope onto a pile of rocks. He ended up in hospital and spent most of his summer holiday recuperating with a full arm plastercast. His father sent him by train to Rostock to stay with his grandparents.
The hospital gave him 16 days holiday a year and almost every one was spent at his grandparent’s riverside flat with the exception of a couple at Free German Youth (FDJ) summer camps, which he hated. This year would be no exception and in a week’s time he would be relaxing on his grandparent’s balcony watching boats and ships sailing up and down the estuary.
Hans was under surveillance, his case name was Langermann as far as the Stasi were concerned. Some of his friends in the hospital had led him astray. He was turning up for work late, sometimes drunk. His life revolved around drinking and talking down the life he and everyone else lived. He was constantly talking about America, New York and Hollywood. Sitting in the hospital garden one day having a cigarette and coffee, a trainee doctor he was friends with strolled along and sat next to him for a chat. They talked about the job, their forthcoming holidays and the blond girl who worked on 3C. He asked him what it was about America that he found so interesting given that they were supposed to be the sworn enemy of the DDR. Whatever his answers were, they didn’t go down too well with the trainee and he dutifully reported what he’d heard to the party leaders.
Lehmann called Karl and Stefan into his office that morning.
“Sit down, I’ve got a little job for you. You go Saturday. You will need a change of clothes, enough for at least a week” he announced. Stefan looked at Karl.
“What’s up, you should be happy, you’re going to the seaside” laughed Lehmann loudly.
“What’s the story Sir?” asked Karl.
“Langermann” snapped Lehmann “He’s a risk, he’s talking too much, about Honecker, the party, the country and generally making himself conspicuous, we don’t want to take him in just yet, he might lead us to some interesting people, so we’d sooner have him followed than arrested.”
Stefan expressed surprise that Lehmann had called the party secretary by his name.
Lehmann was merely playing a game by doing this, looking for the reactions of the two men.
Karl was impassive. “What’s it got to do with us, we’re just paid to follow him and his friends then we let the listening guys know and they do the rest.”
“Well, every year he goes to Rostock to stay with relatives for his summer holiday” said Lehmann. “And you’re going to keep an eye on him, he may have friends in Rostock”.
“You can go in that little green car of yours Stefan, we’ll pay for the petrol to get you there, we’ll even give you 20 Ostmarks each for your accommodation and expenses.”
“That’s very generous Sir,” said Karl with a hint of sarcasm.
“We think he might try to board a vessel and if he does, it’s your job to apprehend him and bring him to me, oh and Heiden, for God’s sake, get a shave, you need to look like a holiday maker, not a drunken sailor. Now, go and rest for a couple of days.”
Stefan always felt stressed in Lehmann’s presence. All three of them smoked and at times they could hardly see the walls of the office. He couldn’t wait to get out onto the street and get some fresh air. They agreed to go to Gunter’s again for a beer.
“Twenty stupid Ostmarks, how far does he think that will go?”
“Nice of him to fill the car up though”
“Yeah, you’ll be paying though, you’ll have to go through expenses to claim it back” explained Karl.
“That’s twenty gone already then ‘cos they never pay out” moaned Stefan.
“What do you think though?” said Stefan. “I mean about the job”
“It’s a free holiday” smiled Karl, looking down his cigarette, taking a long draw on it and going cross eyed in the procedure.
“What does he really want us to do, one minute we’re watching a suspect, the next he’s sending us off on our holidays, with pay!” laughed Stefan. It was the first time he’d allowed himself to laugh for a long while. He was looking forward to getting away and the relief was tangible.
They had another three beers each, talk revolved around sport, football in particular, Karl talked about how poorly Union Berlin were doing, Stefan was a Lokomotiv Leipzig fan so he had much more to shout about, however the Dynamo Berlin ice hockey team was their common denominator as far a sport was concerned.
“Shouldn’t we be planning how were going to keep tabs on the kid?” suggested Stefan.
Karl looked up “It’s pointless, he goes to his Granny’s house, sits on the balcony, camps there virtually there all week watching boats go up and down the estuary and that’s it, nothing to keep tabs on.” he replied with an air of indifference.
“I reckon we’ll go on Saturday then, it’ll be quiet, about 10 am okay?”
“Yes, okay by me, make the most of your day off, come on, lets go” said Karl and got up to leave but then turned around and went back to the bar and told Gunter to keep the bar warm and the beer cool because he wouldn’t be back for a while. Stefan drank the rest of his beer, nodded to Gunter who nodded back with a bemused look on his face. Karl normally just ignored him, should he be happy or suspicious? Gunter stubbed out his cigarette, leaned on the bar and watched in silence as the two Stasi men walked out together. Although he didn’t trust any Stasi officers, Karl was different, he said what he thought when he wanted to and wasn’t bothered who heard him. He sort of trusted Karl because he’d told him too much too many times and he could probably have him arrested if he wanted to. He knew he wouldn’t. Yes, he trusted him.
They didn’t speak for a while then at the end of the road Karl lit a cigarette, blew the smoke upwards, turned around to Stefan and very quietly said, “There’s been a change of plan. Don’t forget your ID cards, we’ll need them if we’re going to get out, God help us, we need to get out”. Karl turned on his heels, Stefan didn’t really know what to say so he said nothing and watched him gradually disappear into the misty night.
It was an uneventful trip from Berlin, infact it was as boring as ever for Stefan. Even though his Wartburg wasn’t the biggest of engines, it was infinitely faster than a Trabant and he sailed past them as if they weren’t even moving. His dreams of being a racing driver never materialised and never would. 60Kph wasn’t going to get him on the front row of any grid.
As they reached the end of the autobahn, he changed down a gear and the familiar plume of blue smoke emitted from the exhaust appeared momentarily in his rear view mirror. As did the black car that had followed them all the way from Berlin. He stopped at the first junction he came to and asked Karl for the map. The black car overtook them and then turned right. It was pointless them being followed, everyone from Lehmann to the paper boy knew where they were going. He was just being his usual paranoid self.
They entered the apartment Lehmann had arranged for them, Herr Graumann the elderly owner had showed them the room, bade them a good day, turned his back and descended the spiral staircase muttering something inaudible under his breath all the way down until he was out of earshot. Karl made sure the old man was out of sight then slowly and silently closed the door. Stefan took off his jacket and put it over the back of a chair near the window.
“Okay, which one is Langermann’s grannys apartment?” said Stefan.
“Never mind that, we’ve got to get out of here as soon as possible” whispered Karl.
“What’s the hurry, we’re here for a week at least” said Stefan, lowering his voice significantly, lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke up towards the ceiling.
“We’re leaving tonight” said Karl in a matter of fact way.
“What?” said Stefan in a loud hiss.
“If you think I’m going to be a sitting duck here, think again, they know exactly where to find me if they find Schneider’s body. They’ll know it’s me, it’s obvious”.
“So, you’re going where exactly?” queried Stefan.
“See that ship there” Karl said quietly, pointing to a grey green vessel not 100 metres way. “Well, were going on that tonight”.
Stefan pondered over what had happened to him over the last 72 hours. Here he was, sitting by the window, looking at a boat onto which he was expected to just walk onto and a murderer sitting smoking, not an arm’s length from him. And the letter? Why had Lehmann not acted on it, why had he sent him to Rostock? Perhaps Karl was right, perhaps it was an elaborate plan to keep them both in the same place so Lehmann could keep an eye on them. The fact that he’d been asked to tail Karl, the fact that he’d been summonsed to Magdalenenstraße, which frightened the hell out of him and now sent to spy on a kid whose father could have them incarcerated on any trumped up charge he wanted to, if he knew they were spying on his son.
He moved across to the side window and casually glanced across at the apartment where Langermann was supposed to be staying. A curtain moved and a shadow slowly faded away into the background. He wondered if that was Langermann or his granny. Old people were always nosey so it was probably his granny.
“So we needn’t bother setting up the surveillance stuff then?” he said. |
Karl was deep in his own world. “What…..oh, no, sorry, I was thinking about how to get on that ship”.
It was 45 hours later when the ship moored at Stavanger in darkness. Jens had slept for the last 10 hours, the exhaustion of staying awake and vigilant had taken it’s toll. The slowing of the engines then the lurching of the ship alarmed him and he quickly adapted to his new predicament. He had no idea how long he’d been asleep and took a careful peek through a tiny gap between the canvas cover and the rowlocks.
There were men busy working on the docks but they were a few hundred metres away. He realised, with a certain amount of alarm, that his lifeboat was on the starboard side and he’d have to cross the whole deck before he could see anything remotely like an escape route.
It wasn’t worth the risk moving just yet as he couldn’t see to his left at all and that was where the two men in military uniforms had stood and talked. He decided to wait and listen.
While Jens had been hiding in the boat, he’d become familiar with the mechanisms and dimensions. It had a small motor attached to the stern with heavy duty bolts. The rowlocks were new, there was no rust anywhere, the lifeboat was in pretty well mint condition. There were four oars laid over two heavy duty hooks bolted onto the inside of the boat. There were 5 seats and what looked like 2 cork floats, one at each end of the boat under rope nets. Under the seats were two buckets with what looked like some old clothes in. He was half starving and getting cold, suddenly he remembered his salami. After he’d eaten everything he sat back and looked up at the dark canvas cover. His last meal was a watery meatball and onion soup in the cafe in Rostock.
It was natural to be hungry and natural to eat food to stave off hunger but he’d once gone 3 days without food or sleep in Hohenschönhausen, the Stasi prison in Berlin. He had drawn a small penis next to a picture of Erich Honecker in the passport office when his application to visit Poland was turned down.
He was hauled into prison within hours, two Stasi men burst into his flat & turned it upside down before manhandling Jens into a black Lada. He was accused of crimes against the state. Luckily for him, his father-in-law was a head teacher and quite well up in the SED, the Socialist Unionist Party, which pulled all the strings and made up the Govt, politburo and almost every top position in the country. Jens was out within a week, a bit roughed up to teach him a lesson, he vowed never to end up in there again.
It was decision time. Should he slip out of the lifeboat while it was still dark and take his chance or wait until it became lighter so he could see where he was and what was happening. He was happier now with something in his stomach, infact he was positively contented and would have stayed there and slept but he really needed to get off this ship. He wasn’t as light headed now but he was thirsty from the spicy wursts.
He sat there in silence pondering, wondering what the hell he’d got himself into. He couldn’t get complacent. Suddenly he heard footsteps, just one person, slow and steady but getting closer to him and his hiding place. The footsteps stopped almost alongside the lifeboat. He heard a fumbling sound and the squeak of new leather then a match was struck. A few seconds later he could smell strong tobacco smoke. Whoever it was, was standing very close to his only escape route.
He stopped breathing, then in the silence of the night came a gentle “Sssst”. He froze, terrified to breath either in or out. Again “Sssst”. Then came the blow he feared “Hallo?” What should he do? Ignore it, feign invisibility? Slide over the other side of the boat and take his chance over the side? But it was a 20 metre drop into a black and very cold sea. Before he had a chance to decide, the voice said in a low voice “Hallo, I know you are there and I want to help you”. How did he know he was there? Hadn’t he looked around carefully before slipping into the lifeboat?
After a few seconds, during which time he’d weighed up the odds of survival in several scenarios, Jens whispered “Who is that?”
“Talk normally in a soft voice, the sound carries less than a whisper” said the man. “You can come out, we are alone”. This worried Jens. If it was the Stasi, that wasn’t possible, they always hunted in twos. Yet he only heard one pair of footsteps.
“It is quite safe. Everyone is either ashore or asleep, there’s a long voyage ahead tomorrow. Did you know this ship is bound for Canada? You will need to eat and drink, so please come out”.
Jens slowly moved the canvas flap to reveal the back of a man in the grey uniform of a border guard. So it wasn’t the Stasi after all. A shiver ran down his spine. He knew it. He knew he had been deceived. The man didn’t move, instead beckoned with his left hand for Jens to come out at that side. There was a dark shadow behind a capstan, Jens slid out carefully and crouched down behind it. The man told him to wait and not to move.
After a long period of silence the man turned and again told Jens to wait, then he walked slowly across the deck to the other side, stubbed his cigarette out on the hand rail and walked back. “Follow me, do what I say” said the man. Jens followed a metre behind. The man walked slowly and deliberately but with very little noise, at least far less noise than he made when he’d first approached the lifeboat Jens was hiding in.
There was something strange. It was as if the man had wanted Jens to hear him approaching, or maybe he wanted someone else to hear his footsteps? At that point another man stepped out from behind the wheelhouse bulkhead hatch. “So!” he said in a low friendly voice. “We need to talk”.
Jens was fearing the worst by now. “Who are you, how did…” was as far as Jens got before being told to shut up.
“Don’t talk, there will be plenty of time for that in a few minutes. All night infact, just follow”. The low voices had stayed at the same steady decibel level all the time. Clearly these men were trained in some aspect or other.
The second man turned and walked slowly, silently on rubber soles towards a light and turned right through a cream coloured albeit rusty cabin door. “Quick, in” he said. Jens and the first man followed. “Down the steps, first cabin on the right”. Jens stumbled a bit down the almost vertical stairs and went into the cabin, the two men followed. The door was closed firmly behind them and the lever lock was pulled down slowly and quietly.
Jens had stayed silent, now he wanted to know what the hell was happening. Before he had a chance to say anything, the second man produced a piece of paper. On it was some small hastily written text which Jens could not read. “Read it” motioned the first man. “I can’t without my glasses” said Jens. The two men both laughed albeit quietly. The second man got out a pair of reading glasses which looked remarkably like Honecker’s larger than life brown hornrims. Jens took them and put them on.
He began to read “Do not speak, the room might be bugged” read the note. Jens looked quizzically at the two faces opposite him. Both men wore thick woollen sweaters under their uniforms. He wished he’d got one. There was no heating in the room and he was beginning to shiver.
The second man pulled a tape recorder from under the bed. Jens reeled in horror. Was it all a trick? This is exactly what the Stasi did. But surely Stasi men didn’t go to sea, did they? Were they going to torture or blackmail him into a confession? The man clicked one of the buttons and turned a knob. The tapes began turning and the sound faded in and gradually got louder. It was a rock song by Die Puhdys, he recognised it. He’d seen them a few times in Berlin.
When it was loud enough to mask their voices, the second man nodded to the first one.
“My name is Karl”.
“Why did you stow away on this ship?” said the other man.
“It doesn’t matter Stefan” said Karl.
“It does if it compromises our escape!” hissed Stefan.
“Escape?” blurted out Jens.
Karl looked at Stefan in a knowing way.
“We have to tell him” said Karl
Stefan looked angry, more so with himself for letting it slip but became very serious and informed Jens “We should not be on this ship but we messed up so we can’t go back, we can’t go to the FDR. If we were found, we’d be interrogated and if the DDR or KGB agents found us, probably shot”.
“We have planted a small detonator in the engine rooms which we will activate just as the ship is leaving Londonderry. It has to stop there to offload some cargo. It will give us the time we need to get into a lifeboat and get away without being seen. Don’t worry.” said Karl in a low voice.
Stefan looked quizzically at Karl. When did this happen, he thought?
“A bomb?” blurted out Jens loudly.
“Quiet, idiot, no its a very small detonator, it will cause a big enough distraction but not damage the ship.” hissed Karl.
“We can talk but keep your voices down”, said Stefan “We’ve told you our names, now we need yours?”
“It’s Jens. You’re really planning to escape?” said Jens, still reeling from reading such treacherous revelations.
“Jens what? asked the first man. “We need to become friends, to help each other”.
This was a test of each other’s nerve but Jens had lost his almost immediately the moment he was found in the lifeboat. “Buchholz, Jens Buchholz” he said “Are you really trying to escape?” he repeated.
“Yes, we are. My full name is Karl Heiden” said the first man, whose dialect Jen recognised as Berlin Brandenburgish. “We want you to believe us Jens”.
“My name is Stefan Ziegler, I’m from Leipzig” volunteered the second man in his strong Saxony dialect.
STORM AT SEA
The three men sat talking for a whole two hours. Each explaining their reasons for leaving East Germany, each knowing fully that any one of them could implicate the other two and they would end up either incarcerated in Hohenschönhausen prison or worse. Some people simply disappeared.
For Jens it would probably be the latter. Both his parents had passed away a few years ago, his wife had left him on the advice of her father and his sister had gone on a field trip to Italy with a group of Young Pioneers from which she never returned. Both sets of grandparents had left East Berlin for West Berlin via the Palace of Tears although there weren’t any tears, just goodbyes. The family weren’t really that close. He didn’t even know where any of them lived anymore. The Stasi would already know there was nobody to whom it would matter if he merely disappeared.
Karl put his finger to his lips and turned the sound down. There was a noise outside the door. Then a knock. Stefan shouted “2 seconds” and turned the tape recorder down. He walked over to the door, opened it slightly to see the captain standing there. “Have you got everything you want?” he asked. “We cast off in two hours, I just thought you’d need to know if you are going on a deck patrol.”
“Thanks” said Stefan. “Have all the crew returned?”
“Yes, two of them are pissed out of their heads, but they’re galley mates and won’t affect the cast off so I’ll deal with them when they’ve sobered up, you needn’t bother” said the captain, knowing the trouble he’d be in if he lost even one of his crew.
Stefan made a sharp in audible comment to the captain and gently closed the door. The noise of the ship’s engines made loud constant clattering noises so if there was a bug in the room, it was highly improbable that one word would be heard.
The three men sat and looked at each other.
Karl motioned Jens to him and talked in the low voice again “We will be going out on deck shortly, stay here, nobody will come in.”
Shortly the two men excused themselves to Jens and went above deck. Jens could only sit there and reflect on what seemed more like an elaborate trick than an escape plan. But then why would they tell him all this, then leave him alone in an unlocked room? Okay, he couldn’t really escape anywhere, he was trapped to all intents and purposes on a ship. A prison ship! The only escape was by the lifeboat and he had no idea how far they were from Stavanger by now. In anycase the North Sea could be treacherous at times so there was no guarantee he’d survive.
Karl and Stefan walked stealthily around the ship, popping their heads into various cabins and compartments, much to the disgust and mistrust of the occupants, often drawing abusive or ascerbic comments. Instruments of the state like Karl and Stefan were not trusted one iota by anyone. There was even mistrust within the ranks of the armed forces or the Stasi. Even government officials place other government officials under covert surveillance. Friends were only friends by name. Almost anyone could be turned to report their neighbour for sedition. This could be achieved by various means, normally blackmail or in exchange for being promoted up the waiting list for a flat or a car.
Although the sea was quite calm, there was a swell of about 4 metres so it rolled slightly but nothing much. Jens was well past the feeling seasick stage. He was accustomed to the movement, judders and crashing noises when the ship hit a bigger wave. There was always something on the ship that made a banging noise.
It wasn’t like his Trabant, nothing could break or drop off. Doors banged, lamps squeaked as they swung on their rusty hooks and chains and the room panels creaked with the movement of the vessel.
After about 2 hours the two men came back and knocked before they entered. They smiled at him in a friendly way, it was as if they too were relieved to see him still there. Strangely Jens felt comfortable with this. He really believed they were genuine now, the trust in their eyes, like that of a dog, made him feel that way.
Stefan turned the radio on. “Get some sleep Jens, and you Stefan” said Karl. “I’ll read and wake you up in 9 hours, we should be nearly half way by then.”
“To where?” asked Jens.
“Londonderry” replied Stefan “The ship refuels there and unloads some cargo before going out into the Atlantic.”
“England?” blurted out Jens in a childlike manner. “Atlantic?”
“Ireland” replied Jens. “We won’t be in the Atlantic for long if everything goes to plan, you need to listen to what we say so you can be ready to jump ship with us.”
“But, why don’t you jump ship at Londonderry, wouldn’t that be easier? said Jens with what he thought was incredible logic.
“Because if we got caught, the British would blow it all over the papers and our own agents would hunt us down and try to eliminate us. All of us” said Stefan. “It’s got be on the way out, we have to show our faces on deck as we leave the port, that way nobody will notice we’re not on the ship until it’s too late to do anything about it. They’ll think we’ve fallen overboard”. A sudden thought came to Jens. Nobody would even know he had been on the ship, he could just disappear and nobody in the whole world would know that it had happened.
“So where are we…..” was as far as Jens got before Stefan asked him to trust them and get his head down. “Try to sleep, trust us, we will share watch, then just before we get into port we’ll need to do our rounds again.”
“We have to be extra vigilant in Londonderry, hopefully nobody will do anything stupid” said Karl.
“Like escape” joked Jens. The other two laughed softly, Karl gently cuffed Jens on the back of his head and gave him a gentle push towards the bunk.
The fueling stop at Londonderry went off seamlessly. They were berthed for just 7 hours during which time the three of them took it in turns to sleep, an atmosphere of trust was developing between them. There seemed a palpable sense of relief that belied the difficulties they had still to encounter if their dreams were to be fulfilled. The ship had been underway for a couple of hours already when at 3am there was a gentle knock on the door. Stefan motioned for Jens to stay behind the partition then answered the door. The captain stood there with a piece of paper in his hand. “Storm ahead, 35 knots, pretty bad, I just thought I’d tell you” he said. “And there’s something else, Meier has bad chest pains and the doctor says he needs urgent medication. Dr Schmidt thinks he’s had a heart attack, we don’t have the facilities on board to help him, I need clearance to return to Londonderry for medical assistance”.
Karl stared at the captain’s face. How could anyone be so clean shaven at sea?
“Denied, Schmidt will know what to do”
Thinking about the timing of the escape, he asked “Okay then, if I give you permission, what are your plans?
“We’re about 5 hours away from the storm and it’s predicted to last two days according to British coastal weather reports. I’m going to change course back towards Londonderry and wait in the estuary to try and avoid the worst of it” said the captain. “If that’s okay with you!”
“Do you normally have authorisation for this sort of thing?” asked Stefan.
“We don’t need it except from yourself and Herr Heiden, you’re the senior party officials onboard” stated the captain with more than a hint of pleading. “We’ve been through storms before but I’m worried about Meier, he’s my best engineer, I’d like to put into port”.
“I see. I don’t see why not, and isn’t it safer closer to shore in a storm?” commented Stefan, who knew very little about life at sea, he wasn’t the best of sailors so presumed the closer you were to the shore, if anything happened it would be a shorter swim to dry land.
“It will be calmer behind Malin Head under the shelter of the mountains but we’ll probably hit the storm before we reach Londonderry so it will be rough to to say the least” warned the captain.
Stefan concurred with the captain’s decision and closed the door.
“Well, you heard that” he said to the other two.
“We can’t get off at Londonderry Stefan” said Karl.
“I know. We stick to our plan, although stepping off a ship in harbour would be far easier than jumping in a lifeboat”.
“But the boat with our clothes in will be on the wrong side of the ship now” exclaimed Stefan.
“They were your clothes?” asked Jens.
“Yes, we’ll have to leave them, we can’t risk wandering about on deck in full view of the wheelhouse” said Karl.
“Why can’t you get off at Londonderry, is it the British?” enquired Jens.
“Exactly the British, yes, unless we could make contact with Republicans” said Stefan “Which would be highly risky. Anyone who speaks English could be either English or Irish”.
It was just after 5am when the seas started to heave the ship around in the darkness.
LOST AT SEA
Karl woke Jens and Stefan and beckoned them out of the cabin. The time was right. If the sea was too heavy it would be impossible to lower the lifeboat. They moved stealthily along the corridor and climbed the steps. Each of them had a small plastic bag attached to their belt with passports and personal artefacts in. The path to the lifeboat was out of the line of vision from the wheelhouse. Everything was quiet, as normal on a freighter notwithstanding the usual clangs and rattles. They opened the storm door and it was all hell outside. Just the captain and first mate were on the bridge, everyone else was below sleeping apart from one man on the bow away in the distance.
They slipped into the lifeboat and with the canopy still over, manually lowered it down the side of the ship. It crashed against the side a few times but the crew inside the ship were used to crashes and clangs in storm conditions. As it hit the waves it crashed into the ship several more times before settling in the sea. Stefan sliced through the ropes and after a final crash almost under the stern the lifeboat was lifted like a cork up towards the underside of the ship ripping the motor off after further contact with the stern. If the swell lifted them as the ship came down it would be the end for them. Eventually after what seemed like an age the ship lurched away from the little lifeboat and minutes it was a mere speck appearing occasionally on peak of a wave before plunging deep into a trough.
The boat tossed around like a cork, occasionally nosediving into a wave causing the three men to be thrown forwards. Water was coming into the boat at frequent intervals. Just like in the boat they had prepared, there were two buckets under the bow, this time empty. Jens and Karl proceeded to bail frantically.
“Put your lifebelt on now” Stefan ordered.
“Did the detonator go off” yelled Jens in all innocence. His voice abnormally loud as the wind carried it towards Karl.
“Yes?” shouted Karl, his words blown away with the gale. There was no detonator. Karl had lied to convince Jens of his and Stefan’s intentions.
In that second a huge wave smashed against the boat beam on, followed almost immediately by another of equal force and ripped off half the canopy. It thrashed around dangerously and then flipped into the sea, slewing the boat as it dragged in the water like a drogue and de-stabilising it. The three men struggled and strained to unhook what was left of it and threw it overboard and set about baling water out. Jens was soaking wet through and shaking like a leaf because of the cold but he had to keep baling.
The two Stasi men still wore their flimsy border guard uniforms under their orange lifebelts, offering no warmth at the best of times. Their thick woollen sweaters were totally saturated, dragging them down and sapping what little reserves of energy they had left. Another wave crashed into the boat inundating it, washing everything overboard. Jens rubbed the stinging saltwater from his eyes, looked around frantically from left to right and came to the shocking conclusion that he was alone in the boat. Jens frantically looked all around, shouting, screaming into the noise of the raging seas. Searching the horizon all around for a flash of orange in the raging sea but he saw nothing except huge threatening waves. His initial fear was channelled into a survival instinct within seconds.
The boat was still bouyant although the water was almost level with seat. He continued baling out for what seemed like an eternity, exhausted, he collapsed and lapsed in and out of consciousness. Little did he know, landfall was only a matter of a few hundred yards away in the form of a small island on the western edge of Ireland. Two huge waves hammered into the little boat, one after the other. The storm was determined to have the last word and several more deadly waves tossed the little boat around like a cork.
The coup de grâce nearly came as a massive wall of water hit them with incredible force, almost miraculously the boat came out of the other side in one piece but Jens was oblivious to anything, blinded by the salt and disoriented, he was thrown into the bottom of the boat. He hit his head on something hard, too exhausted to care any more, soaked to the skin, his will to survive almost at breaking point, just lay under the bow and waited for the end.
Laid flat, the ladder just reached the small island in the bog. After a brief discussion during which Gimpy lost, he had crawled out over the ladder whilst Brian, Sean & Joe stood on the other end to counter balance it. He got to the body and tentatively prodded it with a stick. Suddenly it rolled over, startling Gimpy, who jumped back in shock. The dead man was clean shaven, the face a light blueish colour with bruises all over it. Under the uniform was a heavy woollen cream coloured aran sweater.
Gimpy carried on poking it with the stick until eventually it penetrated the wool and hooked into it, allowing Gimpy to drag it backwards towards the edge of the bog. Gimpy tentatively clambered off the ladder and made a lunge for dry land. Brian and Pat then dragged the body out of the bog and gently placed it on the grass.
They all looked at it. Brian looked like he was going to be sick but just coughed instead. “Well, what do we do now?” said Joe.
“Well, I suppose we should get it down into the village” said Sean.
“Then what” said Brian, “It’ll go off”.
“We’ll have to try to get it over to Derrylin quick so old “Blowy” Candlewick can do whatever he has to do to it so the police can do whatever they do with it so they can bury it.” pontificated Gimpy.
“I presume Blowy is the undertaker, but I reckon it’s an autopsy job first” suggested Brian with a sudden air of authority.
“Come on, lets get it shifted then” said Sean.
They laid the body along the ladder and dragged it along the ground. It fell off four times because the arms just wouldn’t fold over the body and kept snagging clumps of bog grass. Eventually they arrived at the barn behind Egan’s and looked at each other. Nothing had ever happened like this so nobody knew what to do next.
“I’m not ringing Hugh Pigshit Devlin again” said Joe.
“I’ll ring him then, he has to know one way or the other” said Sean.
“Let me ring him, I ring people every day of my life. It’s my job” volunteered Brian, forgetting that he’d decided to quit his job and live the rest of his life as a fugitive on Inishbog.
At that moment Nora came out to empty the bin and saw the body. “He’s quite handsome isn’t he?” she blurted out. “I mean, was, in a funny sort of way”.
“He looks like a Norse God?” she said with more than a hint of sarcasm. It went over top of Sean’s head like most of her humour.
“He looks dead to me, full bloody stop” said Sean with forceful finality.
Brian picked up a sheet of tarpaulin and covered the body, he’d had enough of this, then he walked into the bar, picked up the phone and rang the wrong number. The old lady on the other end had told him to bugger off or she’d ring the police. He said they were exactly who he wanted to ring. He apologised profusely for ringing the wrong number and she slammed the phone down on him but not before she’d told him he was one of them heavy breathers she’d heard all about and to go away. When he did get through to Devlin, Brian calmly explained the situation. Hugh Devlin was far from calm. He’d never had a suspicious dead body in his area before and was starting to panic. This was the last thing he wanted. He was 63 and had managed to avoid any sort of incident such as this, using various excuses and cunning plans to be elsewhere whenever anything marginally serious happened.
It was a bit choppy in the strait between Inishbog and Derrylin and Inspector Devlin, as he liked to be called even though he was only a constable, was prone to sea sickness and looked almost as ashen as the dead body when he stepped up onto the jetty from the boat. “Ok, where is it then?” not knowing what he was going to do next, but wanting to assume the authority that policemen should hold. |
“In the back” said Brian, “follow me”.
The whole entourage stood around the body including Devlin.
“So, where is it then?” exclaimed Devlin.
“Under the tarpaulin “ sighed Sean trying to respectful to the deceased at the same time trying to be as sarcastic as possible to Devlin.
Joe wandered off, he’d seen enough and in any case, he couldn’t stand the sight of Devlin. He’d crossed swords with him many times before, always getting the better of him so the hatred was mutual. The last incident between them involved a case of Creemully whiskey that Brady had appropriated from a man in Ardlougher who knew another man from Roscommon and sold it to Joe for a tenner. He just happened to be carrying the case in to the pub just as Devlin was querying Joe on the disappearance of a cow. A rather garbled sequence of excuses flowed between Joe and Brady, so much so that Devlin had no idea what was going on and to avoid filling in lots of complicated forms, agreed to forget it all in exchange for a bottle of whiskey.
“So, who is going to accompany the body to Derrylin then?” asked Devlin. He looked up and he was alone. Everybody else had silently sneaked off. Devlin lifted up the tarpaulin, let out a short but audible gasp as he saw the blue-green face of the corpse and quickly covered it up again. Devlin’s face turned a shade of green for a few minutes. He’d seen a few dead bodies but he wasn’t the bravest of brave and staggered a bit as he made his way to the door. Everyone else was outside. “Okay, I’ll ring Candlewick to bring a coffin over in his trawler. We’ll need an autopsy to ascertain the cause of death, although it seems pretty clear cut he drowned.” At least he hoped that was how it would turn out.
The trawler duly arrived 3 hours later, Blowy Candlewick hauled the coffin onto the quay, he got his bike off the boat and with the help of Devlin, contrived to balance the coffin on the bike, both held it at the rear and steered using the coffin, tilting it left or right on the handlebars. It was a simple coffin, no finesse, no brass handles or decorations. Between them they pushed the bike up the lane to Egan’s with the coffin balanced precariously on it. Joe and Brian lifted the body up gently over coffin and Devlin and Blowy slowly wheeled the bike under it. The body was gently lowered until Brian lost his grip and it dropped unceremoniously on it’s side into the coffin. There were huge sighs of relief all round that it was in the coffin.
It was a grisly business and not something Brian wanted to be a part of ever again. The lid was placed on top, Blowy got out a screw driver, handed it to Gimpy and set about making some paperwork out. Hopefully one screw in each corner would be suffice to keep the lid down in case the coffin fell off the bike. After an uneventful journey down the hill and onto the quay, during which all four of them took part in balancing the now heavy and unstable coffin, they eased it gradually onto the trawler. All of a sudden Joe let out a yell “Can’t hold it anymore…” and it dropped with a crash over the side into the boat, flipped upside down and slid gently into a tangle of red and green trawl nets. Devlin held his breath and Blowy blew out his cheeks, all eyes were on the coffin but it remained intact and the body stayed inside where they hoped it would. The screws did their job. Blowy levered the coffin the right way up with a gaffe.
“Well made coffin that one” commented Joe.
“Aye it should be, it’s solid oak” said Devlin.
“OAK!” chorused the four of them.
“No wonder it’s feckin heavy” said Sean
“Aye and them screws were a right bugger to get in, no wonder they held when it tipped up” mentioned Gimpy.
Job done. Sorted, thought Devlin. Candlewick set sail and the whole episode on the island was over. Half way across the short journey, sudden thought occurred to Devlin that he should have gone back with Candlewick. He based this thought on the fact that Brady was in the pub and in no fit state to take control of a boat.
Job done thought Candlewick, easiest tenner he’d made in a long while, then a sudden thought occurred to him that he should have brought Devlin back with him to help him haul the coffin off his boat at Derrylin. He based this thought on the fact that the coffin was 13 stone heavier than it was when he’d lifted it onto the boat the first time.
The sky over the Atlantic looked unforgiving. By contrast, in the east it was deep blue changing to an illuminated coppery glow as it got closer to landfall. Within minutes it had disappeared leaving a dark emptiness except for a few lights burning in Bluebell End. Brian was sat on a bollard at the end of the jetty under the single orange lamp, staring into the darkness wondering what the hell he’d got himself into.
He took a long draw on his cigarette, went dizzy for a few seconds and wondered why he’d started smoking again. It was a whole week since he’d arrived on the island in a surreal scene resembling something out of weird dream. He wondered what had happened to his car. What was his wife doing this exact moment? She was infact with her mother in the Pridley St. Jude village hall learning how to crochet.
It was all a bit of a surprise for him to feel so at ease with what he’d done. Of course, it was all in his mind so far. Staying on the island indefinitely was foremost in his mind now, he felt so comfortable with the island folk. He resolved to lose some weight so he wouldn’t look out of place. Nobody else on the island was overweight, infact most of them looked like people did after the war when there was food rationing. It wasn’t for the want of trying. He’d been to the local slimming club with his wife albeit reluctantly, it was something men didn’t normally mainly due to stubbornness. Men usually had the more labour intensive jobs anyway so they were kept fit by their work, notwithstanding some had huge bellies due to drinking beer. Brian had a belly. He wasn’t proud of it and he wanted to make it less prominent.
He stepped on the aged weighing machine, an elderly lady with white hair and bad breath leant over his shoulder to adjust the weights on the slider in front of him. He was so alarmed when he stared at the scales, he didn’t go again. Since then he’d applied a fatalist attitude, he wasn’t going to join in this trendy carrot and lettuce eating fad, that was for rabbits. He’d eat what he wanted and if it made him fat then he’d walk to work twice a week to get it off. After three weeks of walking the 3 and a half miles to work in the middle of winter, getting soaked from cars, sometimes deliberately, he decided he would crank up the car again and travel in comfort.
Gimpy startled him as he emerged from the darkness into the dim light, ‘penny for them’ he said, pulling up an old lobster pot to sit on.
“Nothing much, just wondering what will happen if I just pack my job in” replied Brian.
“Where will you go?” enquired Gimpy. “Not sure yet. I’d like to stay here, it’s nice and peaceful, everyone’s so friendly”. Gimpy had no answer for that and no questions either.
There was movement on the pier. Two men were shouting at each other by the sound of it.
“I’ll get a torch from Kelly’s” yelled Gimpy as he set off running down the jetty. He was excited, never in the history of the island had so much happened in such a short time since the IRA men arrived with a boat loaded with rifles in 1916.
Brian peered through the darkness towards where the voices seemed to be coming from.
He could see two shapes silhouetted against the wall at the end of the pier. The words “Nein” and “Ja” came clearly and loudly through the night air. Brian knew these words were German in fact they were the only German words he knew. The were probably the only German words most English people knew. What the hell was going on?
Gimpy arrived with the torch. “Here, shine it over that side near the lobster pots” hissed Brian.
“Why….?” enquired Gimpy puffing and panting for good effect.
“What’s happening?” asked Sean nonchalantly as he arrived on the scene.
“There’s two Germans having an argument by the sound of it” answered Brian.
“Shine the torch……there, there they are……what the hell is going on?” exclaimed Sean.
The two Germans were having a stand up argument at the end of the pier. As soon as the torch light hit them they stopped. Jens broke free from the argument pushing Stefan away towards the pile of lobster pots and strode meaningfully up the pier, straight past the tree men and up towards the bar. Stefan sat on an empty oil drum and just stared out at the blackness of the open sea.
“I wonder what all that was about then?” queried Brian.
“I have no idea but I’m sure we’ll find out in due course, they’re not leaving the island anytime soon” said Sean.
“I get the feeling they wouldn’t want to for a while” pondered Brian “There’s more to this than meets the eye”.
A NORMAL DAY
Normal days were a rarity these days on Inishbog. On a normal day, Sean Kelly was up at the crack of dawn every day to let the cat out and get dressed then he’d make a cup of tea and open the store, rain, snow, wind or blow. Siobhan never got out of bed until around nine. Con Brady, providing the sea was fair, would arrive with provisions and post from the mainland around 7-ish. Sean would have to fetch it all whilst Brady invariably sat in the boat puffing on one of his beloved Sweet Afton cigarettes.
Gimpy rose about seven. He usually went onto Blacks strand to look for anything useful that might have been washed up. It had been a gentle sea last night and the sand had a ripple effect running over it from an ebbing tide being blown by a stiff Atlantic breeze. He walked from the headland along the strand until he got to the footpath up to the bog and then made his way home.
The island’s farmer’s would get up when they felt like it. All their milk was for island consumption, they’d deliver it to Kelly’s store over the course of the day where he’d bottle it and sell it, unpasteurised and unsterilised. O’Driscoll was always up at the crack of dawn but invariably had to rouse his cattle. They preferred a lie in and wouldn’t move until it was fully light so he usually had a cup of tea and a doorstep of bread and at around 8 o’clock he’d have a stroll down to the barn and at exactly 7 minutes past 8 he’d flip the rusty hook off the barn door and let the cows out. At about 25 past 7 the first of the cows would slowly make it’s way toward the door to see what the weather was like.
Joe stretched, inadvertently kicking Nora on the ankle. “What time is is Joe?” she asked. He rolled over and looked at the clock. “Ten past eight” he replied.
There was a gentle bump from across the hallway.
“Sounds like one of the Germans is up” mumbled Nora stifling a yawn.
“How the hell do I know, we’re now the proud owners of two Germans” announced Nora not without a hint of sarcasm.
“I wonder where they came from” said Joe.”I mean, two Germans arrive in a boat from nowhere and it coincides with that body we found in the bog, what the
Nora had a sudden thought “Devlin’s still around so he’ll sort it all out, won’t he?”
“Devlin’s a waste of space. He’s got a sweat on over the dead body, now he’s got to sort out why two German’s have arrived on the island on a boat” said Joe, putting his underpants on the wrong way round.
“You need to lose some weight” volunteered Nora as she observed his body from under the blanket.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence” snapped Joe.
“Oh, it’s alright, anytime. Oh and you’ve got your drawers on the wrong way round” she managed to squeak, suppressing what was going to be a high pitched shriek of laughter
Brian stretched his limbs before he got out of bed, first his legs until he felt a pain in his left hip, then his arms until he felt a pain in his right shoulder. It was probably the onset of arthritis but he wasn’t unduly worried. He was happy. Happier than he had been for years. And now, there was this Jens bloke, a Stefan and a dead man, a mystery going on around him. These were exciting times. He slowly got dressed. Now which one of my two shirts shall I put on, he thought, and laughed at the meagre choice of clothes he had these days. As he arrived in the kitchen he suddenly realised he wasn’t alone. Stefan was sitting upright in the chair nearest the kitchen door. He was dressed like Jens; woollen fisherman’s sweater, dark green trousers, short blond hair, clean shaven and a wary look in his iron blue eyes.
“Hello” said Brian cheerily. He greeted everyone the same these days since he’d shaken off the shackles of a failing marriage.
There was a nod but no verbal reply.
Brian went to the fridge and got out a bottle of milk. He filled the kettle up with water, turned the gas on and put two cups on the table.
“Want a cuppa?” asked Brian in his best Black Country accent pointing to the cup.
Stefan nodded and managed a smile of sorts.
“Morning Brian” boomed Joe, taking him by surprise as he breezed into the kitchen in his work clothes. The Germans were totally dispassionate and never flinched. “Make me one as well will you” he motioned over to Brian. “Want one?” he asked Jens.
“I’ve already asked them”, he informed Joe.
“Where are they from I wonder?” Brian asked.
“I don’t know but I have a feeling the feller taken away in the coffin was also a German so there is something very wrong somewhere” said Joe.
“We need a German speaker unless one of these two all of a sudden turns out to speak a bit of English” said Brian.
Suddenly without warning Jens asked in a quiet measured voice “Where is Karl?”
Stefan continued staring into space and didn’t reply.
“I thought you fell over board, I never thought I’d see you again” said Jens.
“So where is Karl, what happened to him” enquired Jens.
“I don’t know. I thought he’d still be in the boat”, said Stefan.
“He was, I must have fallen asleep exhausted, the next thing I knew I was being helped from the boat by these people” said Jens gesturing towards the two men in the adjoining room.
Brian looked at Jens wondering what he was saying. He took French at school and had to learn a few Latin words like “cave” and “anno domini” and various phrases which he never knew the meaning of but didn’t understand any German whatsoever apart from “Hilfe”, “Donner und Blitzen” and “Gott in Himmel” from his Commando war comics.
Stefan looked squarely at Jens, picked up his cup and took a sip. It was English tea, he’d only heard about it, never tasted it. It had milk in it which he wasn’t used to but it was hot and something he’d waited a long time to experience. He preferred coffee. He looked at Brian, then looked at Jens and calmly said,
“I don’t know where Karl is. I never saw him after that last wave hit the boat, my arm got caught behind the rope fender and I couldn’t break free.” Stefan said. “I couldn’t even move”. He rolled his sleeve up and his arm was deep blue and yellow with bruising”.
Jens clammed up for a while, the natural instinct of being afraid or at least wary of anyone in authority.
After collecting his thoughts for twenty minutes, during which time Stefan just stared into his mug of tea, Jens then ventured across the kitchen and poured himself a mug of water. It was slightly brown against the white mug due to the peat pigmentation but it tasted so much better than what he had been used to in Berlin.
“You really are stupid” ventured Jens after sipping the water, “The ship didn’t explode like you told me it would, so it’s going to dock in somewhere in Canada and the captain is going to contact a DDR agent there as soon as he can and report your and Karl’s disappearance. Nobody even knows I was on the ship.” It was a statement more than any sort of answer to Stefan’s recent threatening comments said during the heated argument on the pier.
“That’s not true” replied Stefan “Neither Karl or I were supposed to be on that ship but it will be pretty obvious we’d jumped ship when we fail to return to Lichtenberg.
What do you think they are talking about Joe?” asked Brian in the bar. Joe had finished clearing the previous night’s dirty glasses from the tables and Nora was rinsing them, Joe himself had cleaned the ashtrays and had stacked them neatly at the edge of the bar. “Do you understand German Joe?” asked Nora busily hand drying each glass individually.
“No” replied Joe curtly, carefully changing the Bushmills optic.
“Well Brian, there’s your answer, he doesn’t know” said Nora.
The Germans continued their increasingly animated conversation.
The tall Gaunt stranger was Langermann. He was a Stasi agent also and has been briefed to follow Karl and Stefan. He trailed them onto the ship and had told the captain he was a Govt. observer which was true, showed him some documents and told him to keep quiet. He had the room next to theirs on the ship marked “stores”. He had a bug placed in the room. Intention was to travel all the way to Canada and kill them both but had sneaked off the ship in Derry when he discovered their plan. He followed the ship as far as possible with binoculars they when it was out of sight made his way to a guest house in Derry where he stayed to await further developments. Whilst there he met a man in a bar who told him about two Germans who had arrived by boat on Inishmuck, an island further down the coast. He looked at his maps and located inishmuck. He travelled over to the island as a birdwatcher, located Stefan and Jens, kept out of their sight. Found Karl in a small cabin off Banna strand, killed him from behind by strangulation. dragged him up the beach but was disturbed so hid him in the bog at the top of the dunes. He watched the men find him and get him out.