Authors: John Grant
Tags: #thriller, #crime, #coming of age, #murder, #1960s, #ireland, #psychological, #memory, #chiller, #troubles, #northern ireland, #sectarianism
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Grant 2010, 2011
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story was first published in
Requiems for the Departed
edited by Gerard Brennan and Mike Stone (Morrigan Books,
moral right of John Grant to be identified as the author of this
work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
"I live in a world made
entirely of memories now," the ageing man says, adopting a solemn
oratorical tone, regarding us earnestly from the other side of the
gray plastic tabletop, a lunar terrain of coffee rings and carved
initials and obscenities. "They're the landscapes and gardens among
which I walk. They're my companions. I can throw sticks for them
and call them to heel."
One of his pale blue
eyes seems slightly larger, slightly looser than the other, and
reacts more slowly to movements in the room. Its outer corner is
full of tears, and I suspect is always that way. He must have had a
stroke at some stage, although he walked normally enough when he
came in. He's drooling a little, like an over-eager cat. Perhaps
these signs aren't the aftermath of stroke but merely side-effects
of his medications.
As I watch, a dribble
of tear makes its jerky way down his grey-stubbled cheek to join
the well of drool at the corner of his mouth.
It's the way we'll all
be, eventually. He just got there sooner than most of us.
Martinmas told me I'd
find the old man an interesting case. So far there's been little
evidence to support that assessment.
"Tell us a memory,"
says Martinmas now, seated alongside me.
The older man shifts
his gaze slightly to focus on Martinmas's face. "With a lady
present?" He gives a slight inclination of his head to indicate
"She'll have heard
worse," says Martinmas.
I join him in a small,
"Even so. Even so. It
wasn't her embarrassment I was thinking of. I'll not be telling you
anything too juicy, then. Which is hard for me" – he clumsily
parodies the apologetic – "because so much of my younger life was
filled with juicy bits. I was a lad whose arse the ladies couldn't
help but want to get their hands on, if you'll take my
I smile, again
professionally. "There's nothing you can say that'll shock me." As
soon as the words are out I hate the way I sound so prissy.
He holds my gaze in a
long stare, then looks down at his knotty hands on the table in
front of him. They're big hands. He was once a big man.
"Even so..." he
The first thing I
noticed when the old khaki Army bus stopped at Magilligan Point was
how the grass covering the uneven ground between here and the
steely grey water of Lough Foyle was the same colour as the rusted
corrugated iron of the roofs of the three long Nissen huts. Sixty
teenaged boys, me one of them, would be spending the next two weeks
in those huts, pretending to be soldiers by day and at night
thinking about how maybe being at home wasn't that bad after
This was back in the
mid-'sixties – must have been 'sixty-four or 'sixty-five, I'd be
thinking. It was around the time my mum and my dad were having all
the fights about the divorce they were planning to get. They'd
separated a few months before; now they were wading into the legal
stuff about who'd get the house and who'd get the car.
When the school cadet
force put out the announcement that there'd be a field trip to the
far side of the Irish Sea this summer, Mum had been one of the
first parents to sign the forms.
My parents had already
got me out from under their feet most of the time by sending me
away to public school in Edinburgh – too far away for weekends home
in Chelmsford. Now yet another sixteen days of uncomplication was
theirs thanks to the good graces of the British Army.
And it was free.
Me? It was no skin off
my nose to miss a few of their screaming matches. I was as glad to
see less of my parents as they were to see less of me.
Once I got off the bus
I noticed the second thing, other than the alien landscape, that
was strange about this place whose name had had everybody on the
bus doing Eccles and Bluebottle impressions ever since the ferry
landed in Belfast.
It was the smell.
The air in the bus had
been pretty full of the concentrated aroma of underwashed boys and
incredibly hilarious farts, so I knew I shouldn't be complaining
about the change to what now hit me in the face – and that was
exactly what it felt like: being slapped across the face, not too
hard, by a hand that was soft and quite small. A girl's hand. The
shock came not from the strength of the blow but from its
I was brought up by
the sea, so I'm no stranger to what salty water and decaying
seaweed and the occasional carcase of fish can conjure up between
them, but this was something different. Away in the distance was
the smooth surface of the lough, and beyond that the hills of
Donegal loomed, an ancient purple against the sky's grey readiness
to rain. The scorched-looking grass, kept tuftily short by as yet
unseen wildlife or just by the hostility of the soil so close to
the water, added to the sudden sensation I had that I could have
stood here a thousand years ago or even a million and not very much
would be different except the Nissen huts and the pings and pops of
the cooling bus and the yells of my schoolfellows and the
masochistic masters – or cadet-force officers, should I say – who'd
come with us to try to keep us under control.
There's a low-security
prison at Magilligan Point now. Years before the prison came, those
three dreary Nissen huts were replaced by H-blocks where the Brits
kept suspects during the Troubles, but I imagine everyone who's
ever had to be there, for however long, has breathed that same
strong, unsettling air.
The place smells of
time, and antiquity, and of people who walked here long before our
"Are you just going to
stand there dreaming, Greenham?" said Drac Johnson, the maths
master, only he was Sergeant-Major Johnson for the next two weeks
and I'd better not forget it. "There's supplies to be stowed before
we can get our supper tonight. Get a move on! Chop, chop!"
He shoved my kit bag
into my midriff and pushed me away in the general direction of the
We stowed. We squabbled
over bunks. We cooked. We ate. Darkness fell.
We discovered the
Even the timeless
odours of Magilligan Point couldn't disguise those latrines from us
– which was strange, because whoever had designed them had had a
clever idea. The shed containing them was built straddling a
biggish, busily flowing stream. Inside the shed were two long
wooden benches with rows of standard lavatory-seat ovals cut out of
them. There weren't any partitions or anything, no fear. To the
British Army, crapping among the enlisted men was a spectator
sport, with everyone being both performer and audience.
I'd been off the idea
of public crapping since toddlerhood, and saw no reason to rethink
my attitude now. I resolved to steal some bog roll and make do as
best I could for the next fortnight out in the surrounding
I could see everyone
else making the same decision.
The days passed.
Although it was part of my self-image at the grand age of fifteen
to distance myself from my contemporaries – I hadn't managed to get
as far page fifty-two in
for nothing, you know –
I had a pretty good time. We were up every morning before the sun,
of course, but I quickly got used to that. Although there was a
certain amount of drilling and polishing of boots and brasses
forced upon us, most of the time we were doing stuff like
mapreading and hiking; a bunch of us even went up one of the local
mountains, which was no Everest but offered from its summit a view
of a satisfyingly large slab of Irish countryside.
We all peed on a cairn
up there, watched by only clouds and birds.
From the bus window, as
we'd been arriving, we'd seen a black corrugated-iron shanty in the
middle of a rape field with the word PUB stencilled in enormous
white capitals on its roof.
Chickenhearted that we
were, none of us dared go there. It took us most of the first week
to work out that the masters – officers – were sloping off to PUB
at nights after they'd bedded the rest of us down. They probably
went not so much for the drink as to use the pub's lavs.
They tried to get the
school chaplain, a.k.a. Commander Sparrow, to stay behind, but he
was having none of it.
After this discovery,
you'd have expected we boys to be more relaxed about the after-dark
curfew the officers had imposed upon us, but no. Except for
essential excretory excursions, our curious schoolboy sense of
honour kept us inside the huts at night – oh, and except for the
occasional brave soul who dared slip out for a ciggy; for some
reason that was allowable within our code of ethics.
I think it was the
Monday after our first weekend at Magilligan that I woke in the
middle of the night and realized I was going to have to go out. No
question of using the latrines, of course – not even at three in
the morning when the place was deserted. Think how much worse it
would be if someone else
stumble in upon you. You'd be
like the last two people left alive in all the world, with nowhere
else to look.
Guts wrestling, I slid
off my bunk and groped through my kit bag for the embarrassingly
girlie flashlight my mother had given me for the trip. There was
enough moonlight coming in through the grimy windows for me to see
my way to the door, but I'd need the torch once I was outside
because otherwise I'd be risking a sprained ankle among the
treacherous half-swamps of the point.
"What the fuck're
you—?" said a voice.
"Piss off, then,
Springs creaked as
whoever it was turned over and went back to sleep.
I crept outside and
leaned against the hut wall as I got my feet into the gymshoes I'd
brought with me from my kit bag. Away in the distance I could hear
the waters of Lough Foyle dallying with the beach and, closer by,
the stream was holding a whispered argument with itself as it
negotiated the rocks in its bed. Other than that there was a sort
of claustrophobic emptiness pressing in upon me from all sides.
Above, there was a three-quarter moon and more stars than God ever
knew to count.
Shoes on, I moved
swiftly across the little misshapen square compound formed by the
sides of the huts and the bus, which was occasionally used to take
us out for longer expeditions but most of the time just sat there
looking as if it were reading its newspaper and smoking its
cigarette and hoping no one would ask it to do anything.
Sometimes at nights
we'd hear sounds through the metal walls of the hut and tell each
other there were wolves and bears still at large in Ireland.
This didn't seem so
very funny now.
Once I was outside the
compound I clicked on my torch. The latrine shed was off to my left
and I had to make at least some pantomime of heading in its
direction in case a master stuck his head out of a window behind me
and asked me where the hell I thought I was going. After a few tens
of yards I abandoned the pretence and turned instead towards the
coast. The nearer you got to the water the softer and sandier the
ground got, and the easier it was to scoop out a hole to crap into,
then cover up your poop afterwards.
Away from the
buildings, I felt like I was moving through a tunnel, the two
concentric ellipses of the torch's light bouncing along the rough
ground in front of me. The clamour in my guts was growing (
damned liquorice allsorts...!
) and I broke into a jog, whatever
the dangers of potholes underfoot.