Enjoy this opening chapter from The Legacy of Conflict.
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In the year 1557 cattle and sheep died in the fields surrounding the Dorset village of Hampton. There being no obvious reason, it was said to be the work of the devil. A peasant called Oliver Bones was accused of being a warlock, a sorcerer who had cast an evil spell upon the landscape. He was hanged from a gallows erected on a hill overlooking the village. The story of Oliver Bones spread throughout Dorset and the village became known as Hampton Warlock.
In time the village livestock returned to good health and tales of evil magic were forgotten. Then, in 1664, amidst the mayhem of civil war, another man was accused of practicing sorcery in that same village. He was hanged from a gallows erected on the same hill.
Some accounts say he was an Irish priest.
The first week in May,
It wasn’t like this at home.
Nothing like it.
Home was the sweet scent of roses in the garden, quiet meals on the patio, a rural view down to the sea.
Rose Greenwood flinched as a red flash lit up the evening sky, closely followed by the loud crack of a bomb exploding. It wasn’t too far away: she could smell the acrid stench of thick smoke. She clamped her fingers tight around her BMW’s steering wheel to stop her hands shaking. It was too late to back out now. She was here and she had to go on… had to confront the father she had never known.
She was in a Loyalist part of the city and the kerbstones were painted red, white and blue. Painted kerbstones, and yet the whole road seemed so utterly devoid of colour. Rose slowed the car to navigate around pot-holes filled with oil-slimed water. At the same time, she reached down with her left hand to rub the leg stump which was chafing against its prosthetic: more of an irritation than pain. She ought to be used to it by now.
She came unexpectedly to a boundary between the sectarian enclaves. It was marked by a busy army check point. Fresh-faced young soldiers hugged ugly-looking guns while an older man in grubby battle fatigues waved her down. She was puzzled because the road had been clear when she passed along there earlier in the day. She brought the car to a halt, opened her window and leaned out into the night air.
The older soldier bent towards her. “You over from England, love?”
“Yes. And I’m not your love!” She drew back her head and bit at her lip. That wasn’t necessary. What the hell was happening to her? “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that. It’s the...” She struggled to find an explanation.
The soldier smiled weakly; a tired expression invading his eyes. “I know what you mean, love. It’s the atmosphere round here. Gets to all of us in time. Been here long?”
“Arrived yesterday. Look, I really am sorry.”
“No need to apologise.” He nodded towards her number plate. “English registration. Do you understand the risk you’re taking?”
“I’m learning fast, but thanks for the warning.” She pointed straight ahead. “I was down that road only a few hours ago and it seemed safe enough.”
“That was in daylight. It’s different after dark. Hard-line Provo country and we’re expecting more trouble before the night’s out.”
Rose drew a deep breath, summoning up courage that was in short supply. “I appreciate your concern, but I really do need to go down that road.”
The soldier took a step back. “Fair enough, love.” He shrugged and the expression on his face told its own story, a tale of sad resignation.
She drove on, deep into Republican territory where the atmosphere grew even more oppressive by the mile. Red, white and blue was replaced by green, white and gold. Republican flags and IRA murals adorned the gable ends of the grim, red-brick houses. The soldier was right; it did seem so much more threatening after dark.
Another bright flash was followed by a loud explosive crack. Rose gritted her teeth. The night went black for a few seconds and then the skyline was silhouetted by a flickering glow as flames took hold. More buildings were dying, maybe more people also.
The air of barely-contained oppression that sat complacently over the city by day had become openly malignant. It was all around her: the boarded-up buildings, the bomb sites, the armed balaclava-hooded figures lurking in the alleyways. Maybe she should get away from there right now. Run back to the security of Aunt Sophie’s cottage.
She gritted her teeth.
Pull yourself together, Rose Greenwood, and stop thinking like a coward. You’re here, so you might as well carry on.
Rounding a corner, she spotted the small factory where Malachy FitzGerald worked. She pulled to the side of the road fifty yards before it and glanced at her watch. Eight o’clock and she had nothing else to do but wait for him to appear. If her guess was correct, he should come out soon. She twisted her head slowly, left and then right. It helped ease the ache in the back of her neck, but only marginally. She turned on her car radio and grimaced as an announcer made things one whole lot worse.
“We’re just getting reports of an explosion outside a bar in the Falls Road. According to the police, several people have been badly injured.” The announcer’s voice sounded almost blasé, as if he’d lost count of the number of times he’d reported similar bombs before. “Shots have been fired at army patrols. Some reports say that demonstrators are stoning fire vehicles on their way to the scene. We’ll bring you more information when we get it.”
“Don’t bother.” Rose leaned forward and stabbed at the radio’s off switch. Home and sanity seemed a whole world away.
It began to rain and the glow of flames on the horizon died away. The chilly air was lit by a loosely regimented line of cast iron streetlights, dull black lamp-posts in tune with the dull black night. Tiny reflections of light danced and shimmered amongst the million raindrops bouncing heavily on the wet road. The nearest lamp-post leaned at an angle, its flickering bulb creating ripples of light on the BMW’s bonnet. The car was eight years old and had over one hundred thousand miles on the clock, but Rose loved it. It was paid for, it was well-maintained and she enjoyed driving it. Why else would she take a car ferry crossing to Belfast instead of flying?
On the street, passers-by hunched their shoulders and stared at the car as they hurried along. A few of them slowed down as they passed, peering through the windscreen. What did they imagine she was doing here? Planting a bomb or soliciting for prostitution?
A sudden muscular twinge made Rose aware how tightly her hands were clenched. No longer clutching the steering wheel, they formed a bundle of twisted tension, shaking in the closet of her lap. She gave a small start as a dark shadow slid across the driver’s side window and a heavily armoured police Land Rover pulled into the side of the road in front of her.
It splashed to a halt in an oily black pool of rainwater, the swirling overflow from a blocked drain. A burly RUC policeman stepped out, slow and measured. Maybe his body armour slowed him down. He took his time, bridging the pool of water with unusually long legs, lowering his boots straight onto the middle of the pavement. He patted his holstered pistol, drew back his shoulders and then walked towards the BMW, carefully scanning back down the street. Rose glanced in her mirror. An army Land Rover was stopped one hundred yards behind. Back-up if things got nasty, she supposed.
She studied the policeman’s grim expression, the features of a man who would surely know all about danger and how to handle it. He paused to study her registration plate and then spoke into his pocket radio. Significantly, the other occupants of the police vehicle remained out of sight.
Rose wound down her window and asked, “Yes, officer?” in as soft a voice as she could muster.
“Any trouble, miss?” He spoke with a thick Belfast accent in the manner of a man easily capable of holding his own against any antagonist. Without waiting for a reply, he peered into the car, his eyes darting around as if he were looking - maybe hoping - for mischief. As if there hadn’t been enough of it here already.
“No trouble, officer.”
“On your own, are you?”
Rose drew a short breath as a hot flush gathered in her neck and ran up her face. Did he really imagine she was a prostitute? She replied, “Yes,” in as calm a voice as she could muster.
His face registered suspicion as he pulled a notepad from his pocket and consulted it. “You were here earlier in the day. Stayed here twenty minutes. Parked up and watching people, so you were. Mind telling me what you’re up to?”
Biting at her lip, she said, “I’m just waiting for someone to finish work.” She tried to raise a smile, but failed. “I hoped to see him earlier in the day, but I must have missed him.”
“I see.” The policeman stood up slowly, glancing up and down the road before taking a single slow step backwards. “Over from England, are you?”
“Yes, that’s right.” Another attempt at a reassuring smile refused to reach fruition. “Honestly, I’m only here to meet someone.”
“I see,” he repeated. But she doubted that he did see. How could he?
He drew a deep, expressive breath and wrinkled his thick nose. “Who exactly are you waiting for?”
“A family friend.” She wasn’t sure where the lie came from. It just came.
Before the policeman could comment, a distorted voice erupted from his radio. Rose caught only the words, “Urgent we go now.” The man clicked his transmit switch twice in acknowledgement.
He briefly shifted his gaze down the street to the khaki-painted army vehicle. It was already moving away from the kerb. He addressed Rose again as he pocketed his notebook. “Don’t be here when we come back this way. That’s the only warning you’ll get.”
Rose nodded vigorously and wound up the window. The policeman gave her a brief, expressive look before striding back to his vehicle, the streetlight blinking on the yellow reflective patches set into his waterproof jacket. Watching him go, Rose breathed long and deep. The army vehicle sped past. As the police Land Rover pulled away from the pavement to follow it, she refocused her attention on the factory.
Barely a minute elapsed before a group of hunched figures walked slowly through the open arms of the gates. Most of them quickly dispersed into the wet gloom, but one paused beneath a lamppost and lit a cigarette. He inclined his head and the light caught his face, pinched and hollow-eyed.
It was Malachy FitzGerald.
Rose held her breath as another man stopped by the gates. FitzGerald stood talking to him, seemingly unaware he was being watched. The rain was easing off already, but the reflections continued to shimmer around both men’s feet; flickering blocks of shadow and light buried in the wetness of the pavement. FitzGerald occasionally glanced along the road, but his gaze was never focussed firmly on the BMW. Moments later the two figures parted company and FitzGerald started to walk away.
Looking singularly pathetic in his crumpled raincoat and heavy boots, he skulked along the pavement. He pulled up his torn collar against the biting wind, glanced up and down the road, and then crossed over to Grogan’s Bar. Even from a distance, Grogan’s looked like no ordinary British pub. It was a fortress against sectarian attack. Heavy wire mesh was laced across the blacked-out windows. Sandbags were piled up against the walls. Most sinister of all, a huge expanse of rope netting was draped over the building from roof to pavement, protection against grenades thrown from passing cars.
This is it, she decided. This was the moment to confront the man… the father she had never known… confront him before he went inside the Republican pub. She had already taken enough chances. There was no point in stretching her luck beyond the limit by following him inside Grogan’s.
She wasn’t that stupid.
She put her hand on the door handle, but hesitation held her in check. She faltered just as she had faltered the previous evening, when she had the chance to approach Sorcha, her sister. Sorcha remained Rose’s prime uncertainty. She had dreaded their first meeting. Had she been more confident she would have sent some advance warning of her visit, but warning would have given Sorcha the upper hand.
Rose continued to hesitate while FitzGerald approached the bar door. Further delaying a decision, she started the car and drove slowly across to the dimly-lit pub car park, a half-flattened bomb site. Would the BMW be safe here? Possibly not, but if she left it parked at the roadside it would be an even more tempting target for joy-riders.
Keeping her gaze fixed on FitzGerald, she opened the door, eased out her good right leg then the prosthetic left leg. Her heart beat louder beneath her coat as she stood by the car and wavered yet again. A cold wind drove a trail of litter along the pavement; supermarket bags, newspapers, crushed cigarette packets. An empty beer can rattled in the gutter. Paint peeled away from Grogan’s name board, curling back like stale bread to reveal the bare wood beneath.
FitzGerald stopped at the bar entrance. He was only fifty-something, according to Aunt Sophie, and in his younger days he had been a rakish figure with smiling eyes and a quick wit that had captivated her mother. But that was all in the past and FitzGerald had changed. Today he had the sort of hunched-over stance that came with age and heavy drinking.
Rose took one step forward, struggling with her thoughts.
Go on… confront him.
Now! Before it’s too late.
Shortly was not a realistic option, and she knew it, but still she dithered.
FitzGerald stopped at the bar entrance where a beefy man in a black anorak frisked him, a brief, superficial once-over that would have detected nothing. They chatted amiably, an indication he was well known here. No risk to the regular drinkers inside. FitzGerald stuffed his hands deep into his raincoat pockets.
Rose eyed him warily. Would he have enough money? In a brief moment of anger, she rather hoped he was flat broke, unable to buy beer or food. It would be as nothing to the pain and emptiness he must have brought into her mother’s short married life, but it would be something.
Her heart palpitated in anticipation.
Now! Go and talk to him now.
No. It’s too late.
Her courage had failed her, leaving FitzGerald free to stumble on into the saloon bar. Furious with herself, she climbed back into her car and slammed a fist against the steering wheel. Damn! This was the second time she had watched FitzGerald and the second time she had failed to approach him.
Damn, damn, damn!
The previous evening, from the apparent safety of her car, she had watched her father stagger along a dark, mean street of red-brick terraced houses. He had leaned against the wall of one house, seemingly too drunk to go inside. Sorcha had opened the front door and helped him in. That was the first time Rose had seen her sister. Hidden inside her BMW on the opposite side of the road, she stiffened at the sight of Sorcha shuffling out of the house with a cigarette clamped between her lips and bellowing at their father with a series of coarse obscenities.
On an impulse, Rose had stepped out of the car. Why? She had no idea, but it gave her a better view of FitzGerald and Sorcha. In hindsight, she supposed she had expected to see… see what? Well, someone who was rather like herself, tall and slender with shoulder-length golden hair that draped easily about her shoulders. Just like a healthy twenty-three year old should look. The reality came as a shock. Her sister was painfully thin with short, dull hair that hung from her head like a used dishcloth. Rose’s heart went out to her.
Sorcha had stared back at her for one brief, agonising moment. Not long enough to create any real problem, but long enough to be unsettling. Her eyes were sunk back into dark-ringed sockets, devoid of all expression. Then she backed into the house, with FitzGerald in tow, and slammed the door.
Rose had slipped back into her car, watching the house for another ten minutes. A curtain twitched at a grimy downstairs window, but no one came outside. She could have approached the house, knocked on the door and spoken to Sorcha. But she didn’t. Unable to force herself to do what was right, she drove away in fear of meeting the one person who should have been closer to her than any other.
A sudden bellow of voices from Grogan’s open doorway drew Rose back to the present. Drunken figures staggered out into the night. There was no point in waiting here. As she pulled away from the mean car park, an ambulance raced past with its siren wailing, filling an otherwise empty road with noise and a short-lived burst of activity. When it was gone the road became suddenly and ominously quiet, as if the spirit of Malachy FitzGerald was trailing after her with malicious intent.