Enjoy this opening chapter from The Legacy of Secrets.
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Colin shivered as dusk finally fell. Evenings seemed to hold themselves in check that summer, as if deliberately prolonging the violence on the streets, delaying the moment when the daytime drama of open warfare gave way to darkness and covert sniping.
He parked his spluttering Ford Escort—ninety-eight thousand miles on the clock and overdue for a service—stepped out into the sodium-lit street and pulled up his coat collar. A cold mist had earlier crept up between the banks of Belfast Lough and now smothered the city buildings like a malignant disease waiting for the cover of darkness before infecting the population.
He hurried past armed soldiers patrolling the street outside the hospital, tolerating their suspicious glances. Which of their colleagues was being tended inside? The young private hit by a petrol bomb, or the officer shot in the back while patrolling the Falls Road? Meanwhile the illusion of a peace process dragged on. Deliberately closing his mind to the matter, Colin bent his head low and hurried through the hospital entrance.
The noise changed; an abrupt switch from the low rumble of passing cars to the shrill screech of human belligerence. Amidst angry cries and obscenities rising and falling discordantly amongst the crowd in the waiting area, a policeman in a flak jacket attempted to hold apart two brawling drunks.
“Where are you going, sir?” The voice was gruff, Lowland Scots. It came from a burly army sergeant in camouflaged combat gear. Colin flinched. The soldier stuck out prominently in the hospital’s antiseptic surroundings. He caressed his assault rifle as if it was a slender young woman pressed up against his chest. And the look on his face said he had had enough for one night.
Colin jerked himself upright; his full six-foot two-inch height putting him eye to eye with the soldier. He raked a hand through his thick mop of hair and then adjusted his glasses. “One of my parishioners was injured in the rioting. I came to see if I could help.” He pulled back his coat flap, revealing his dog collar.
“Sorry, Padre. You are…?”
“Wait here just a moment, will you.” As if puzzled by a priest with an English accent, the sergeant beckoned to a grey-haired officer in battle fatigues who had been overseeing the chaos from the background. “Catholic priest, sir. Wants to see one of the wounded.”
The officer negotiated his way closer and smiled grimly. “Not tonight, Father, eh?” He gestured towards the boisterous sprawl of injured rioters. “It’s a bit fraught in here with the Shankill mob. Not the healthiest place for a priest. The Catholic casualties have been taken to other hospitals.” His eyes reflected his bitter tiredness.
Colin shook his head sadly. “I tried them first but they sent me here. They said an elderly lady—”
“Old ladies should be tucked up in their beds by now, Father.” The officer’s eyes glazed over, as if he was well out of his depth. Where in rural England would he have come across this sort of civil war damage?
Colin coughed to clear his throat. “Well, maybe I should see what I can do out in the community.”
“Very commendable.” The officer’s dry tone, revealed not an ounce of conviction. He turned to walk away and then paused, as if reacting to a sudden thought.“You’ve got transport?”
“Well then, perhaps there is someone here you can help. A young woman working for a television news team. Sound recordist, I think. She took an injury in this afternoon’s skirmish. Been patched up and now she’s mooching around for a lift somewhere. “Sergeant! Is that television news girl still around?”
The Scot laughed. “You mean Sleeping Beauty, sir? She’s probably putting on some more make-up. Heavy duty Polyfilla.”
“That’s enough, soldier!” Quickly recovering his composure, the officer turned to Colin and sighed. “Sorry, Father. The men can get a bit carried away. It’s the stress of the job over here.”
“I understand.” He had heard more than enough sick jokes in Belfast. Only last week he’d overheard a young petrol bomber boasting he was getting six Brits to the gallon after changing to Super Unleaded. How
much more could he take?
“Her face is a bit of a mess,” the officer went on, with an expression of genuine sadness. “It’s obviously an old wound. But not the sort of thing you like to ask about.”
“And she was hurt again today?” Colin shook his head at the woman’s misfortune.
“Nothing serious.” The officer beckoned to a matronly staff nurse striding past. “Excuse me. The television woman, what’s her name?”
“Yes. Is she still here?”
“She’s been discharged, but she’s still somewhere on the premises. By the coffee machine, I think.” The nurse flicked a hand in the direction she had come.“Just around the corner.”
“Perhaps I should try to find her.” Colin nodded in the direction of the nurse’s gesture. When no one replied, he spread his hands and sighed. “Do you want to search me for hidden weapons?”
The officer waved him on, the renewed glaze in his eyes indicating no interest. “Be our guest, Father. But don’t expect to make any religious conversions.”
As if he would even try!
Colin strode on through the reception area, shuttering his ears to the coarse obscenities of the out-patients. A fetching young nurse walked by with a handsome doctor at her side, chatting brightly. Colin shook his head. Life went on. Out there, in the harsh reality of the Ardoyne, gangs of angry people were rioting, throwing petrol bombs, setting cars alight. Out there, the little girls of Holy Cross School were settling down to sleep and learning all about real nightmares. And here, in the sterilised confines of a hospital, a handsome young
doctor chatted up a pretty nurse.
He rounded a corner and the out-patient noises faded into the background. His attention now focussed on a young woman seated alone alongside a coffee machine with her body slumped towards him, head down as if she was staring at the floor. She wore a tight, sleeveless sweater and an immodestly short denim skirt. With such slender, graceful limbs, he figured she ought to be a beauty. But her golden, shoulder-length hair fell forward, hiding her features.
He stopped a few feet from her and coughed to attract her attention. “Miss Penrice?”
She reacted instantly, snapping her head up. Those golden curtains swished aside, suddenly revealing her face. He gasped and, for just a single second, his breathing stopped. The power of speech deserted him.
Her face is a bit of a mess.
God, what an understatement!
He froze while his thoughts turned summersaults. In the midst of his confusion, a long-forgotten snippet of memory rushed forward like a feather blown on a stiff breeze; visible for only a moment and then snatched away. Surely, he had once seen that face in its original purity, with not a hint of disfigurement. Did he not once know this girl intimately? Hadn’t he lived close alongside her, held her, loved her? But how could that be when this was their first meeting?
“You’re staring at me.” She drew back her head and shoulders, emphasising the rounded contours of her chest.
Yes, he’d been staring, horrified by her disfigurement which had robbed him of all courtesy. Embarrassment hit him hard, but he had to shake off the lure of her husky sensual voice before he could form his lips around an apology. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
An utterance lurking inside his brain urged him to turn away, pretend he had made a mistake, pretend he was in a hurry. But an even deeper emotion robbed his legs of movement, holding his feet rooted to the ground with the heaviness of lead encrusted boots. He drew a hand across his eyes, puzzled. That same deeper emotion seemed to be telling him to stay. Hadn’t he coped with this before? Again, a hint of some long-hidden memory surged forward before it was sucked back into the depths of his subconscious, too deeply buried to be recovered again.
With his heart racing, he searched for something to say, a reason for looking at her. Surely a priest should be able to handle this with compassion. He had seen enough bomb injuries already, but this situation felt completely different. She aroused in him enigmatic thoughts he could not even begin to understand. Surrounded by appalling scar tissue, deep blue eyes focussed on his, almost as if she were flirting with him. Flirting? Dear God, surely not! Walk on, he urged himself, walk away now, before you make a fool of yourself.
But he couldn’t walk on. Not yet. That damned emotion again brought back other hazy, fleeting memories that instantly vanished, leaving behind puzzlement and confusion.
“I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“That’s what they all say. Some even mean it.” She fixated him with a coy expression. Coy and compelling. And then it clicked. That’s what made her different: the undiluted sensuality camouflaged away behind the scars of her lost beauty.
“I really am sorry.” The lead melted and drained away from his boots, and he stepped closer until he was looking down at her.
The girl – at least, he thought of her as a girl though he had no idea of her age – openly studied him. “You’re English. You shouldn’t be caught up in all this. Why in God’s name did you come over here to do your preaching?”
“Exactly that. I came in God’s name. You’re English also. Why did you come here?”
She smirked. “Also had a job to do. And, for what it’s worth, I was born here. Brought up across the water, though.”
“You’ve no trace of Irish accent left.”
She shrugged. “So what? You were staring at me. And you a priest.”
Again, he was struck by the smooth erotic appeal of her voice. She stretched her arms back, linking her hands behind her head and straightened her bare legs across the floor. The action pulled back the hem of her skirt to the upper reaches of her slender thighs.
“People often stare, so I suppose I should be used to it.”
He began to visualize how the lop-sided bone structure beneath the scarred skin would once have looked. A face of elfin beauty; wide at the temples, narrowing down into a small pointed chin. But what might have been was now largely a matter of imagination. And she wasn’t at all old, probably late teens or early twenties. Saddened, he dropped his gaze to her legs, well-formed, firm and naked. Perfect. Just as they had been in that time long ago.
“Do you want to tell me what happened to you?”
She held out her bandaged forearm. “Just a flesh wound from a flying brick. Nothing serious. Flying bricks don’t count as serious over here.”
“I meant…” He lost the courage to pursue the subject.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” she continued. “A girl has a really pretty face and what do all the boys do? They concentrate on a tit and bum inspection. I’ve got shapely breasts and nice legs, even if I say so myself, and what’s the first thing they do? They stare at my hideous face.”
“I’m sure no harm is meant.” He immediately wished he could retract the words. They sounded too much like a lame excuse for his behaviour.
“I hear them talking.” She seemed not to be listening to him. “This morning when I walked through the hotel lobby, a man stared at me and pointed. ‘Look at her! Straight out of Beauty and the Beast. Quasimodo plays the part of Beauty.”
“That must hurt,” he said, still struggling to come to terms with his conscience. Trite words. Of course it hurt. She was a vulnerable young woman; how could she otherwise react? Perhaps she needed a man’s acceptance of her as she now was. Perhaps she needed him to make some kind remark about her, but all those years of enforced celibacy had left behind a terribly legacy of awkwardness with women. And yet, the need to open up to female company beat strongly inside him – too strongly at times. His heart thumped so loudly she must have heard it.
“Anyway,” she went on. “What about you? Who are you? And what’s a priest doing here? Those are Loyalists out there in reception, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“I’m Father Colin Portesham,” he mumbled at her awkwardly. “I expected to find one of my parishioners here. Anyway, an army officer told me you needed a lift somewhere and I thought—” He left the sentence unfinished, unsure how she would react.
She grinned and rose to her feet in one slinky, sylph-like movement. “A lift? That’s jolly decent of you. I’m supposed to be working with an television news team but I can’t raise them on the phone.”
“They’re probably busy. There’s a lot going on out there.”
“You’re right. They’re either out filming the rioting without me or they’re in the hotel bar drinking themselves into oblivion. Wouldn’t like to choose which.” She picked up a brown leather bomber jacket from the seat beside her and slung it over her shoulder. “To the city, my good man. There must be something newsworthy
going on at the moment.”
Colin smiled, shaking his head at her eagerness as they negotiated their way back through the noisy waiting area. “Maybe I should take you to your hotel, Miss Penrice. Belfast at night is no place for a young woman on her own.”
She agreed with a lopsided smile that lit up her eyes. “Fair enough. The hotel it is. And my name’s Katherine.” With a curious wink, she nudged in close beside him, her arm pressed against his sleeve. “How about I call you Colin? It sounds better than Father Portesham. Not so formal.”
“I’d like that,” he blurted out without a second thought.
Something tingled inside him, at first uncomfortable and yet smoothing into a rather pleasant feeling. Something so natural it might have been as God had intended all along. He grinned self-consciously as he held open the door to the car park for her. What other young woman would dare to call him Colin? Apart from his two sisters.
Once in the car, she quickly pulled on the seat belt. “Don’t strap yourself in,” he warned as he started the engine. “If the car is hit by a petrol bomb we’ll need to get out fast.”
“You’re expecting more trouble?”
He glanced across at her with an are-you-kidding look. “We already have it. Didn’t you notice what was happening in the waiting room?”
“True enough.” As the car pulled away, she released the belt, adding: “I suppose you have to live in amongst it every day. Doesn’t it bother you?”
“I hate it. It’s a stupid war whatever way you look at it.” They approached a junction where a gang of young men stood watching, sullen and menacing. He grimaced and accelerated away.
“So get out.”
He ignored her brief suggestion because it was too near his own thoughts for comfort. “Life isn’t easy here,” he grumbled as if it explained his mission, his reason for staying.
“I had noticed” Her voice dropped down almost to a whisper. She paused, as if to compose her words, and continued in a hushed tone. “For what it’s worth, I got this face from an IRA bomb when I was only nine. I got the message early.”
A deep shudder ran up his spine, injecting a tremor into his voice. “You lived here at the time?”
“Visiting relatives actually. Hell of a souvenir to take back to England.”
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, embarrassed and not sure how to follow up the opening.
“Don’t be.” Suddenly perking up again, she added with a tone of certainty: “I can live with it. Have to.”
Encouraged by the brave tone of her voice, he allowed his thoughts to spill out into words. “So many people suffer but I feel as though I’m unable to help them. They come to me, their families caught up in all this violence, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Absolutely nothing. I tell them they must help themselves by avoiding the violence, find a way out of it. They nod their heads and go away. The next day I see them out on the streets throwing bricks and petrol bombs: men, women and even children. I feel so helpless. Utterly helpless.”
“Life’s a pig at times, isn’t it?”
“You must understand that more than most people.”
How could he have made such a stupid remark? As a priest he should have known better. He glanced at her, her face suddenly illuminated eerily in the neon glow. He returned his focus to the road ahead with a sudden stinging ache in his head. She’d shifted awkwardly in her seat and lapsed into silence. An embarrassing silence. How could he have been so thoughtless?
Catching the sight and smell of burning, he pulled in to the kerb near a junction but left the engine running. Dense smoke drifted spasmodically along the adjacent street then rose to merge with the chill mist, leaving behind that acrid odour. Barely one hundred yards away, a rowdy gang of young men had gathered around a blazing car, circling around the flickering flames in a parody of some primeval war dance. Shaven heads glowed orange in the firelight. Occasionally, they paused and threw stones at houses on the far side of the road, shouting obscenities.
“This is what you and your news crew came to report on, isn’t it? This is all the media want to see of Northern Ireland. Not the good bits, just the bombing and burning.”
Her response came back hushed in the confines of the vehicle. “It’s the bad bits that make good news stories, even though most of us don’t really understand what the hell it’s all about. Even me, and I suppose I ought to. I pretend to, but I don’t. It’s just a highly visual news item.”
“Visual and pointless.” Colin pointed to the houses targeted by the stoning. “Those are part of the Ardoyne, the Catholic area. And over there,” he swung his hand to the right, “that’s Glenbryn, a Protestant enclave.”
“They’re the ones threatening the school kids? Loyalists. Why the hell do they do it?”
He clenched the steering wheel, his knuckles turning white. “Fear and hatred. The Protestant community is getting smaller and smaller. Their houses are attacked; their families are threatened. So they move out, the Catholics move in and enlarge the Republican hold on the area. The remaining Protestants feel more and more threatened, like American settlers inside a circle of wagons being attacked by hostile Indians. It’s nothing short of a territorial war.”
“And the hostiles are your parishioners.”
“This isn’t my parish.” He jerked forward in his seat and pointed. “You see that school over there? That’s Holy Cross, situated right on the front line. That’s where those poor little girls are being threatened and attacked. Last week, I saw a grown man hurl a balloon filled with urine at a little girl. He laughed as he did it!”
Katherine waved beyond the windscreen. “Somewhere out there is where the settlers tasted my blood. What the hell has it got to do with little schoolgirls?”
Colin hung his head. “Nothing at all. It’s all about adults who drag their children into a pointless war. Adults who show the next generation how to keep the war going.”
“How do you cope with it? I mean, how can you, an Englishman, possibly stay sane living amongst this?”
“Sane? Who says I’m staying sane?” He gazed at her steadily, wondering at the thoughts she harboured behind that tragic face. Where and when had he once before been forced to face up to a young woman’s physical scars? But the vague memory stayed beyond his reach.
“Colin, they’ve seen us.”
The urgency in her tone drew him out. He snapped his attention back to the mob and flinched. The youths had abandoned the burning vehicle and were advancing down the street.
“Time to go.” He rammed the car into gear, jerked the wheel and floored the accelerator. With the tyres squealing, he swung the vehicle down a side road, taking them away from the immediate danger. “I think I lost my sanity some time ago.” He let out a relieved sigh.
“So tell me about it.”
Tell a young woman he had only just met? Why not? More than anything, he needed to tell someone. Someone who could listen without judgement. Katherine was a captive audience and she seemed to have no obvious axe to grind, despite her injuries. And he felt a strange affinity with her.
He cleared his throat. “Every day here I die a bit more. The faith I once had dies with me and I no longer believe in all I’m expected to say to my parishioners. They no longer take any notice of me anyway. It’s all a big waste of time.”
“Have you told your superior?”
“In a way. He’s my confessor. But there’s a lot more I ought to say to him.” He swung the vehicle round a corner in fourth gear and the transmission juddered. “How do I tell him that I want out?”
“Of being a priest.”
She gaped at him as if revelling in his story. With a squeak in her voice, she added: “You’re actually thinking of jumping ship?”
“I suppose I could just renounce my vows and walk away.” How strange that he felt able to talk to her like a confidante. What was it about her that made him open up? “Truth is, I really don’t know what to do next.”
“Go home to England,” she gasped. Have you friends you can go back to?”
How odd that he didn’t want to argue the point. Didn’t need to argue it with her. Maybe she understood already. “There’s my parents. They live in Dorset.”
She pointed to where a hotel loomed out of gloom ahead. “That’s where I’m staying. Sounds like you need to talk this over. Take your dog collar off and you can buy me a drink in the bar while we talk. There’s more to it than you’ve told me so far.”
How perceptive she was.
“Guilt,” he said quietly. Why was this girl able to draw out of him such a painful subject? Why did he feel such an affinity to her, even though they had only just met? He forced the distressing words from his lips. “A child called Brenda McMahon died because of me. I’ll tell you if you really want to hear about it.”
He woke up with a start, his hands clutched about his head and groaning. His room was in darkness, relieved only by the glow of the bedside clock. Several minutes passed before he was able to take a deep, calming breath. He had been dreaming. No, it wasn’t a dream, it was a nightmare.
How could a flawless Katherine Penrice in a WAAF uniform be a part of his nightmare? And yet, they were together in another place where people died because of a terrible war. He struggled with his spinning thoughts. The place was called Zurri… something. Damn. The name escaped him. But the horror remained; horrendous, painful death. People wailing. Aircraft tumbling from the sky in flames.
Frustrated, he glanced at the alarm. Four fifteen. Would he be able to sleep again tonight? Probably not, his mind was too full of a horrific war. And Katherine. He had found it so easy to talk to her, much easier than talking to any other woman, except for his younger sister. He’d been grateful to Katherine for allowing him to open up but, in hindsight, he realised they had not discussed her problems, and that was a big mistake for a priest. He rather hoped he would see much more of her. Unlike any other woman, she awakened in him emotions he’d long suppressed and, God only knew, he had to come to terms with them.
“We can talk again,” she’d told him when he left her in the hotel. “If you’d like to, of course,” she’d added coyly.
“I’d very much like to,” he’d replied and felt a tingle of warm comfort, as if meeting her again was what he was meant to do in order to overcome his fears.
He shifted uneasily in his bed. What was the harm in simply talking to her? He would call her in the morning and arrange to meet her.
He was certain he would enjoy her company.