Ian McCullough was bored. He had just passed his A Levels and was on his way to University. If nothing else, it was a way out of Belfast, something he'd always longed to do. It wasn't that he hated the city, it was what went on inside it's walls that bothered him. Everyday you heard of new deaths, new bombs, new lives broken apart by terrorism. Well not anymore. Ian had had enough. He was getting out, at least that's what he'd thought he wanted. But now, on the eve of his departure, he was having second thoughts. He had been born and raised in Belfast, and he loved the city with every inch of his being. He didn't want to leave. But he knew that he must. Ian had been brought up a strict Catholic and had always been taught that Ireland had a right to independence. But Ian didn't want to get involved. He didn't think that the fight for an independent Ireland was one to be won through bombs, bullets and blood. To be honest he didn't want anything to do with it, and staying away was really the only way he could be fairly sure not to get involved. He would miss all his friends, Hugh, Dara and Tina, but most of all he would miss Manas, Manas Fitzgerald. They had been friends since they were able to be speak, they were almost brothers and it hurt Ian to know that while he would be fairly safe in Kent, Manas would be staying behind in Ireland. He was always a stubborn one Manas, Ian had tried to persuade him just two weeks ago that leaving Ireland was the only sensible thing to do. Manas had gotten really angry, something he almost never did with Ian and had gone back to talking with Hugh. Hugh had later mentioned the name of a bar that Manas was planning on visiting, and Ian had decided to at least try and patch things up before he left. But now Ian wasn't sure whether patching things up with Manas would persuade him to stay or to leave. But he also knew that there was only one way to find out. So that was where he was headed now, Kenny Lomas' bar, to try and make up with his best friend.
As soon as Ian rounded the corner, he knew something was wrong. He had a horrible feeling in his stomach, as though he had just swallowed a lead weight. Something bad was going to happen. He broke into a run, not knowing why, just praying he could warn Manas about whatever it was before it was too late. He had tunnel vision, unable to see anything but the pub, his hearing was accentuated, but somehow muted as well, he could hear every word spoken around him as though he were underwater. Then he saw the bar burst into flames. The shockwave came half a second later, knocking him off his feet. He came out of his trance and heard all the screams, shouts and running clear as day. It was terrifying, the smell of burning filled his nostrils. He wanted to move, but he couldn't get to his feet. He looked down and was filled with horror as he saw blood pouring from a huge wound on his right leg. But he barely had a chance to acknowledge this before the hoard of people charged right over him. Someone stamped on him as they ran past and Ian lost consciousness, but not before he had seen the flames totally engulf Kenny Lomas' bar.
When Ian woke up he was being loaded into an ambulance. The Paramedics around him were shouting over the racket. People were screaming, kids were crying and looking for their parents, everybody was running and in the middle of all this was the great towering inferno that had once been Kenny's bar, not to mention his home. Ian was overwhelmed, he had never expected anything like this to happen to him, he thought he would be far away from all this before he was caught in the crossfire- perhaps he shouldn't have been so naÃve. He knew what happened to people who got cocky, who thought they were in the clear. They were brought back to Earth with a huge bump. With all his thoughts zooming around it, Ian's brain decided that it had had enough and he lost consciousness again.
"Hey, son, can you hear me?"
Ian's head was pounding, he didn't yet dare open his eyes, he thought that maybe it had all been a dream and that this voice was actually his dad waking him up because he had overslept. Ian kept his eyes shut, while he couldn't see where he was he didn't have to face up to anything.
"Kid, are you awake?"
That didn't sound like his father. Being painfully aware of what might greet him on doing so, Ian opened his eyes. His worst fears were confirmed. He was in a hospital, the walls were white, his bed was small and the whole place reeked of disinfectant. He looked up. Right above him was the man who must have been speaking to him. He was clearly a Doctor, long white coat, glasses and a nose with a hook so large you could hang your jacket from it.
"You're lucky to be alive son, you've been out for days. We were afraid you'd never wake up, but don't worry, you're safe here, those Taig bastards wouldn't try anything here."
Without waiting for Ian to reply, the man walked off, apparently satisfied that his job was completed. Ian watched him leave then mulled over the man's words in his head. Taigs? So that meant the man must be a Protestant. No Catholic would ever call the IRA "Taig bastards". He guessed it made sense, Kenny Lomas had been a Protestant and his bar had been in a Protestant area of Belfast, it only made sense he'd wind up in a hospital with Protestant doctors. He looked to his right. His arm was connected to a drip and he noticed a wire leading from his chest to a heart rate monitor in the corner. As he listened to the slow "Beep" Beep" and watched the monitor spike, his thoughts turned to Manas. Had he been inside the building when it went up? If so, there was little chance that he had survived. That building had been destroyed in seconds. Ian had to fight to hold back tears. He didn't know, that was the worst thing about it. But Ian hoped that he would get a chance to make up with Manas, that the last thing that ever happened between them would not be a show of hostility. He lay back onto the bed and was almost asleep, when a nurse entered. She had long, auburn, hair that was tied back in a ponytail and a face that Ian guessed would have a nice smile, if she ever got the chance. You didn't see many smiles around Belfast these days. As she was changing his drip, the nurse realised that he was looking at her and she smiled, Ian had been right about that. Then he realised that he was speaking his first few words in days, his throat was dry and he had to swallow hard before he could talk at all. Even then, he was hoarse and hard to hear.
"Do they know who did it?" he asked. Despite himself, Ian wanted to know,
"Who did what?" she replied,
"The bomb, in the pub, have they found anyone?"
"Yes", she answered, suddenly understanding, "I heard it on the news the other day, the Ulster defence force worked it out long before the police, apparently they shot him at his home, right here in Belfast. Taig bastard, should've known he'd never get away with it."
"But who?" Ian choked, "What was his name?"
"I think he was called Fitzgerald, yes that's right, Fitzgerald, Manas Fitzgerald"
Ian felt like he had been hit by a lorry, her words pounded into him like punches and he fell back onto the bed, his head in his hands. As she left, Ian could no longer hold back the tears. He cried like he hadn't cried for years and just thought about everything. Not only was his friend a murderer, but now he was dead, killed by the people who he had sworn to defeat. Ian would never be able to ask him why. Ian shook all over, but he was tired and he could only stay awake for so long. Eventually he fell asleep, fitfully and uncomfortably.
Two weeks later, he was out of hospital and walking home down a street soaked in rain. He watched the silhouettes of people walking around him, just people getting on with there lives, just trying to get through the day. But Ian McCullough couldn't get on with his life. His world had been turned upside down. Manas, the young boy who had fallen over in the street and scraped his knee while he was playing football, the boy who had taken Ian to his first ever rugby match, how could he have become an IRA bomber? Ian kept on telling himself that it didn't make sense. But deep down, he knew the signs had been there since childhood. The way he heckled the twelfth of July parade with the older Catholics, the way he was always cracking cruel jokes about the "Prods" and, worst of all, how quiet he had become in recent weeks. It was clear that he was very focussed on something, but also wanted nobody to know what it was. Ian had really thought very little of it. He thought it was just Manas being Manas. But now he knew he had been wrong.
Ian looked up. He had been walking down the road without thinking, he had missed his turn. He sighed deeply, turned around and headed back the way he had come.
As Ian walked past Kenny Lomas' pub, or at least what was left of it, he thought back to that day, more than two weeks ago now, when Manas had been talking to Hugh and Tina. Hugh had mentioned going to Lomas' the next day. Manas had seemed loathed to agree, which was unusual, Ian had never known Manas to pass up a good opportunity for a drink. In the end they had agreed, but Hugh later had to cancel. He and his girlfriend were moving to Dublin and had to leave that same day. The goodbye between Hugh and Ian had been painful, not least because they were both worried about Manas.
"He's not himself you know." Hugh had said,
"I'm sure it's just a phase. You know how keen he was to make it to Oxford, perhaps he didn't get a place."
Ian had said it, but he really hadn't meant it, he knew it was something worse and now, too late, he knew why.
A feeling of anger built up inside him like a roaring fire. Suddenly he wasn't just upset anymore, he was angry. Ian had always been taught how Ireland should be united and he had been indifferent, unconvinced. Well Manas' death was enough to convince him. He had died for it, Ian's friend had been killed fighting for it. Well, if people were willing to kill for the cause, then they had to be willing to die for it as well. Ian was almost home, but he turned on his heel and headed back in the opposite direction. He knew where he was going. It was a long walk, but Ian didn't care anymore.
Ian reached the restaurant about an hour later. Well, the supposed restaurant. But everyone knew it was an IRA recruitment centre. Ian entered slowly, wondering if he was taking too big a step, too soon. But then he imagined Manas' body, lying broken and twisted on the floor of his home. His blood covered the lino and the dull lifeless eyes stared up into Ian's mind's eye. His heart was hardened, he was ready, no more regrets, no more doubts. He went up to the bar and spoke to the waitress. He said quietly, "I want a united Ireland",
"Good for you lad", she replied, "But you'll have to wait, Jimmy isn't here yet."
Ian turned and sat down at a table. He looked around. The whole place was practically empty. Only a couple of people were there, hunched over a hot drink, sheltering from the rain. The steam from numerous hot bodies filled the room. Ian lay back in the chair and became lost in his thoughts for the third time that day.
About half an hour later, the door opened. Standing in the doorway was an absolutely huge man. He had shaggy black hair and stubble on his chin that looked like he hadn't shaved for a week. He was wearing a long black raincoat and a pair of blue jeans. Ian noticed immediately that the man walked with a limp, then he noticed the bloodstain on the knee of the jeans and the huge tear down the shin. He quickly hobbled over to the barmaid, spoke a few words to her under his breath and then walked into a back room. The waitress came over to Ian and spoke quietly, hardly looking at him.
"Give him a few minutes, then head through that door"
She walked off. Ian steadied himself for a few minutes, then followed the man through the door.
It was dark in the room, it was lit only by a candle on the table. On that table also lay a bible and a revolver, underneath them an Irish flag. The man asked Ian several questions in a deep monotone, confirming his loyalty to the cause. Each question seemed like another nail in the coffin, but Ian no longer cared.
He felt like he had nothing left to live for.
When the man was finished, he handed Ian the bible and the revolver. He then handed Ian a photograph. It was a photograph of a family, a man, his wife and three children in the front. The man's head was circled in red pen. Ian knew what it meant. He didn't ask questions, he just left, with no regrets, clutching the photo in his hand.
Ian sat in the car, waiting for the man to arrive home. He knew that this man was a member of the Ulster defence force, Ian knew that given half a chance this man would kill him. But somehow it still didn't seem right. To end a life felt so pointless, so tragic, so inhumane. But Ian knew it must be done. He heard a noise on the pavement outside. His target was opening the gate to his house. Ian leaped out of the car and at the same time grabbed the revolver from inside his jacket. The man heard the noise and turned around, but Ian had already fired. A bullet caught the man in the knee cap and he fell to the floor, writhing in pain. Ian rushed over and put the gun next to the man's head. He knew he had to pull the trigger now or he would be seen. He saw the pain on the man's face and the fear in his eyes, just like a child. Ian turned away and closed his eyes. He pulled the trigger. He heard the shot and he heard the man slump to the ground. He didn't look back, just got in the car and drove off.
Ian was struggling to come to terms with what he had just done. He had just robbed a man of his life and his family of a father and a husband, but worst of all, he had barely thought about it. He hadn't even known the man. Yet he had just shot him dead. It was the day after the killing and Ian was in the graveyard. It was early in the morning. He was standing over Manas' grave. There was a freshly dug grave next to it but Ian thought almost nothing of it. Ian fell to his knees and began to sob
"Manas," he said, "How could you do it? How did you ever live with yourself? How am I supposed to live with it? You were always stronger than me Manas. I wish you were here to help me now."
The three men had been lying there all night, they had known the boy would come to his friend's grave- that would be his undoing. When they saw him fall to his knees they decided that it was time. They started creeping up behind him, one clutching a revolver firmly in his grasp.
Ian felt a rough hand close over his mouth and another pick him up and carry him across to the other grave. They threw him down inside it and Ian saw himself staring down the barrel of a gun. He closed his eyes and thought to himself.
"I'm coming Manas, I'll be there soon buddy"
The man pulled the trigger, Ian slumped onto his back and the three men ran off. And as the blood trickled down past his nose, then his chin, then his heart, his eyes faced into the rising sun and he was at peace.