It was a standing joke between them. Sam took a Bushmills and Sean took a Jameson. They’d done it for over forty years, but they united around the Guinness, that seemed to cut across all creeds and classes.
“Parade gets smaller every year,” said Sam as they settled into the snug in the small bar in central Belfast where they felt relatively safe. Sam as always sat facing the door. He still carried his personal weapon.
Sean pursed his lips. “A bit of bad news in that area, boy. Tommy Hudson’s gone.”
“Ah not Tom” said Sam. “I thought he was doing alright.”
“He was until he fell down the stairs & broke both hips. Then he got pneumonia, died last week: big funeral at Glasnevin.”
It was out of the question that Sam would have attended Tommy Hudson’s funeral in Dublin. It was far too risky. It was 1973 and Sam McCausland was a retired Chief Superintendent of the RUC. Cross border trips were not advisable for men like him unless he went with a couple of bodyguards.
“I put in a wreath from us all,” said Sean.
“Good man. How much do I owe you?”
Sean dismissed Sam’s enquiry with a puffy red hand holding a lit cigarette.
“Here’s to Tommy then” said Sam with a tear in his one good eye raising his glass of Bushmills.
“To TommyTit” said Sean wheezing as he laughed.
Sam choked on his whiskey his tears turning from sorrow to laughter. “He’d square up to you if he heard you calling him that. He wasn’t that big was he?” he spluttered remembering their diminutive comrade.
“Poor Tommy. He so desperately wanted to fly but he couldn’t see out of the cockpit and his feet couldn’t reach the controls!” said Sean to more laughter as he jiggled his own feet in imitation of Tommy. “Mind you, that saved him. Most air mechanics survived the war. If he had become a pilot like us he might not have made it through. We were the lucky ones, Sammy. Still he was a great mechanic for all his size.”
“The best. He got me airborne when no one else could” said Sam
They raised their glasses above their heads and looked skywards, then sat in silence as only old friends could, their smiles fading on their wrinkled faces; each holding their memories of their dead friend.
It was Sam who broke the silence. “Did I ever tell you that Tommy saved my life?”
“He saved many a life.”
“Aye, but this was different. He put a small piece of armour plate behind my seat. It was heavy, but the old FE biplanes could carry it and the CO never knew. That very same day I took two in the rear that would have killed me except for that armour plate.”
“Tommy did that on the quiet for all the boys. I don’t know where he got the armour plate from. It was hard to come by.”
“My life was saved twice that day” said Sam looking at his Guinness.
“May 1917; just before the push on Passchendaele. Remember?”
“Yeah, I do” said Sean.
“We were up on a reconnaissance looking for that big German gun near Menen that was giving our boys hell.”
Sean nodded trying to single this flight out from the hundreds they had flown.
“It was you, me, the CO and the Canadian, Frank Yarrow” said Sam. “We had just spotted the gun emplacement and I was sending in the location to the station on the Morse wireless. You three were covering me when a Morane Parasol comes along side me. Just like the one Mickey Fitzgerald flew. He came from nowhere. The pilot was frantically signalling that there was trouble above me. For a moment I froze which is what you never should do.”
“No you should be diving and turning into the sun to shake the Gerry off your tail. So why’d you freeze?” asked Sean.
“I froze because it was Jimmy Fitzgerald.”
“Jimmy had gone down the previous month over Ypres. We buried him in the little churchyard at Poperinge.”
Sean said nothing in response. It wasn’t unusual for pilots to claim to have seen dead comrades during those awful times, some even intervening at key times to save the living. The top brass dismissed such stories as hallucinations brought on by stress and lack of sleep. Those who persisted in discussing their experiences risked being seen as ‘unsound’ and losing their wings. Besides it raised false hopes that angelic beings in the form of dead comrades would intervene to save the day. So Sam had kept it to himself.
“Jimmy was right” said Sam. “There was a Gerry above me diving straight at me. If I hadn’t snapped out of it, dived and turned the very next second, the Gerry had me. None of you dozy bastards had seen him.”
“I remember that!” said Sean suddenly remembering. “You dove like a maniac with this black Fokker on your tail. We didn’t know where he had come from. I set off after him while the CO and Frank kept his mates busy. I remember because he forced you really low over his own lines and half the German army were firing at us.”
“You got him though, Sean, right over his own lines. You and Tommy saved me that day,” said Sam quietly.
“I’ve a confession, boy. May as well get it done with now,” said Sean as he drained his whiskey. “He was already dead by the time I got to him. He must have been shot by friendly fire he was so close to you. I just put a few rounds into him for good measure and he went down into the German front trench killing a few more on his way.”
“Still you stayed with me. You would’ve been well within your rights to run for home under such fire behind enemy lines. But you didn’t.”
“Forget it, boy” said Sean not wishing to have more said on the subject.
In the quiet that resumed between them Sam went to the bar for more drinks. As he stood at the bar waiting for the Guinness he heard the news on a small radio behind the bar of a young man shot in the back around the north-south border. It was claimed he was unarmed. Sam winced as the barman handed him his drinks.
“You alright, gov’nor?” asked the barman looking quizzically at the old man stood before him.
“No, but who’s caring?” replied Sam as he turned to rejoin Sean. He placed the drinks on the table before Sean without saying a word.
“That’ll do the job,” said Sean reaching eagerly for the glass of whiskey.
They both knocked the whiskey back in one gulp.
Sean regarded his friend who looked preoccupied. “What is it?” he asked.
Sam looked up at Sean sadly through his one good eye.
“A boy’s just been found shot in the back along the border, unarmed they think,” said Sam.
To most people this event would have had no particular significance. Another killing in Ulster: a place that was rapidly degenerating into a brutal civil war with daily reports of bombings, riots and shootings. But to Sam and Sean the scenario was instantly recognisable and returned them both to the dark days of their own war in Ireland fifty years previously.
Sean sat in silence looking into his Guinness. He knew the significance of the news to them both.
“I could have done more for Brian,” sighed Sam.
“We said we wouldn’t talk about this.”
“I have to. I can’t sit on it any longer. It’s been eating me for nigh on fifty year.”
“Take it to the grave,” said Sean so quietly that Sam couldn’t hear him.
“What?” asked Sam.
“I said: ‘Take it to the grave.’ Like we all will.”
Sam shook his head from side to side. “I can’t.”
“Well where else are you going to go with it? You don’t have confession.”
“I’m telling you.”
“No!” said Sean holding his hands up and shaking his head. “We agreed there were some things we couldn’t talk about. This is one.”
Sam ignored Sean’s protest. “I was the investigating officer on Brian’s shooting. I wasn’t in Belfast at that time as I had told you, I was in Armagh. It was my first proper case.”
Sean froze and looked at Sam, cigarette hanging from his mouth.
Sam continued without looking up: “In the winter of 1921 my chief asked me to take a look at this shooting of an IRA man near Keady by a B Special patrol. The Specials claimed they had been fired on by an IRA ASU the previous night. They returned fire and shot one of the IRA dead. I went out to the site early the next morning in daylight. The body was still there, face down in the mud with a bullet in its back. There was a 303 rifle beside the body. I turned the body over. It was Brian O’Neill: my observer on many a flight.”
Sam took a long drink of Guinness. Sean joined him.
Sean went to speak but Sam continued: “I nearly broke down in front of the Specials. I didn’t know what to do. They could see I was disturbed. The bastards just laughed, called me an old woman. ‘This man served with me in France,’ I shouted at them. ‘Well that’s a long time ago. He’s a well known IRA man now. He would have shot us if we hadn’t got the drop on him’ says one of them.
“I got Brian’s body brought back to Armagh. But I told the Chief I couldn’t investigate the case because of my connection with Brian. He understood and gave it to another fella. It was then that I was moved to Belfast.”
“I see,” said Sean.
“No you don’t. That’s not the whole story,” said Sam hotly. “I found out that Brian’s finger prints weren’t on the gun. He was unarmed. The locals including some Protestants said the B Specials chased Brian down the road and just shot him in the back. It was covered up. I went to the Chief. ‘He was an IRA man’ he said. ‘He joined them shortly after he came back from France. There’s a war on here now. It’s a different war in Ireland. Now we’re fighting for Ulster against Papishes like your man.’”
Sean looked sadly at Sam who sat with his head bowed.
“The point is I couldn’t do anything about it. Nobody wanted to know the truth. It was covered up and I never did anything for Brian, a man who had covered my back on many an occasion in France.”
Sean sat hunched over his drink. Their heads were almost touching. “What could you have done? Who was going to listen in those days to anything about an IRA man being shot in the back? We shot the Tans in the back many a time. Germans were shot in the back in France.”
“I didn’t even have the guts to go to the funeral.”
“Ha! You wouldn’t have got out alive.”
“I wrote to his family. I met his older brother, Mick, once when Brian and I were on leave together. He wrote back,” said Sam reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a letter. He spread it out on the table before them. “It’s a nice letter, but you can see he knows I let Brian down.” Sam reaches the letter to Sean to read.
“I don’t want to read the fucking thing, Sam!” exclaimed Sean in a whisper as he sat back on his chair and watched Sam quietly take the letter back. “You were not to blame, Sam. There was nothing you could do. You would have been drummed off the force, possibly ending up like Brian, shot in the back to keep you quiet. You were a married man with a young baby. Where would that have left them in 1921?”
Sam shrugged his shoulders.
“How many mothers’ sons did we kill in France? Young innocent German boys like ourselves. It’s all war. Here was no different.”
“Yes it fucking was and you know it! Brian was my friend. I had no German friends.”
“What I’m saying is that don’t blame yourself. Blame the politicians who sold us all out and created the mess that we found ourselves in after the war in France with Irishmen and friends fighting each other.” Sean reached out and touched Sam’s shoulder. “Hindsight is a great thing. We made the best choices we could at the time in a mad situation. The world had gone mad and we were caught in the crossfire. None of us were supermen. You did what you had to do, as I did. We’re not to blame and you’re not to blame for Brian. Right?”
Sam nodded. “Thanks, Sean. You would have been a great priest,” he joked weakly.
It had been the first time in fifty years Sam had talked about Brian. He had always wanted to confess to Sean one day, even if Sean had taken it badly. In his emotional state Sam was tempted to ask Sean if he had seen friends killed or even killed a friend, but he cursed his stupid tongue. The truth was old friends did kill each other. It might have happened between Sam and Sean but for the fact that they had been kept far enough apart.
“Drink up. It’s my turn,” said Sean.
“Thanks, boy. My son’s collecting us at 2.30. He’ll take you to the station. I’m starving. Get the food menu when you’re at it. I’m going for a piss.”
Sean Skeffington called the barman over to place his order and sat quietly waiting for his friend to return. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out in a great sigh over his Guinness. These trips from his home in Dublin to Belfast each Remembrance Day were getting harder. He felt all of his seventy-five years that day. He had never liked Belfast and now it was like Dublin during the worst of times in the Twenties. He didn’t wish to be reminded of those cruel days. As a young man he had fought in three wars by the time he was twenty-five. He’d had enough of slaughter for one lifetime, first in the Royal Flying Corps fighting for the British, then in the IRA fighting against the British with old comrades on opposite sides and finally in the IRA fighting the Irish pro-treaty forces.
At the end of the Great War in 1918 the returning Irish servicemen had little idea what they were going home to. The remaining Irish in the squadron had promised each other that they would meet up every year on 11 November. Sam and he had kept the promise made in the hangar in St Omer – apart from a gap in the Twenties when Ireland had its own war. Now they were the only two left from that band of Irish brothers in France. They felt obliged, the old IRA man and the old RUC man. What a pair they were, Sean mused. It had been a mercy that they had never faced each other in battle. Sam and he were fighting on opposite sides one hundred miles apart, thank God. Fifty years later Sean still had nightmares of having to pull the trigger on an old comrade. He shook his head: what a waste it had all been. He silently cursed the politicians and the generals for failing his generation, leaving thousands of young men dead, families torn asunder and so many broken in mind and body. He clenched his fists at the thought of more young men now fighting and dying in Ulster. The country must be cursed, he thought.
Just as well Sam and he and the others had kept their friendship quiet all these years with the way the north had gone. There were people who would like to see them all dead, if only because they were ghosts whose existence provoked uncomfortable memories of a long forgotten time, of old friendships, different loyalties and betrayals.
Sean’s thoughts were halted by Sam hurrying back into the bar, his face ashen and his eyes pleading in panic. As Sean took a reassuring swallow of his Guinness, Sam grabbed him by the arm.
“Quick, Sean” said Sam breathlessly. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
Why?” demanded Sean.
“I was standing having a piss and Tommy Hudson walks in and says ‘There’s a bomb in the pub, youse two better get out right now.’ He was as real as you are to me now,” pleaded Sam.
The two men held their breath and looked at each other in silent dread.
Sam helped Sean to his feet and they turned to leave without finishing their drinks.
That’s as far as the old friends got. They were found in the rubble face down and in each other’s arms, each missing body parts, just as many had been found in the French mud half a century before.
Note: All characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to people living or dead is entirely coincidental.