I had been in some sort of daze, oblivious to everything but the end goal of escape from reality on the work of a favoured author. Even the news that an old classmate had been arrested for subversion barely impinged on my consciousness. The Christmas melancholy with all the memories of past missed opportunities overwhelmed me. Depression had eclipsed my senses.
I had no idea how I’d got in. The Derry Central library had been closed to the public for this hour. Perhaps it was the haircut, I told myself, recently trimmed as a concession to my lazy approach to hair care. Then again, it could have been the generic blue-green coat I had bought from an army surplus store in an effort to eke out my paltry finances; or something about my bleak demeanour. Maybe it was even an honest to goodness act of God.
Whatever the unexpected sequence of events which allowed me access, there I was: snuffling through an array of books which failed to pique my interest; an oddity in itself, for I have always been an avid reader and love books of all sorts.
In saying ‘all sorts’, I’m excluding ‘pass-offs’ unimaginative authors insist as being their own creation and, of course, the assembly-line titillating trash identifying themselves as romance novels: the sort worshipped by some women and most shadow-hugging teenagers. I was considering re-reading an Asimov when I felt a tap on the shoulder.
“He wants you.”
The police sergeant and I shared an awkward moment: he; surprised and offended that an unauthorized civilian should be present; I, offended and surprised that a cop should not only materialize in my local library, but have the effrontery of laying a hand upon me. What I actually verbalised was:
The cop’s eyes shrank to their normal suspicious little slits, as he gave a non-committal shrug.
“Carson: The Condemned.”
Now there was a tragic and macabre example of alliteration. The political party elected by Carson’s peers, one of the more intransigent schisms of republicanism, had been refused their mandate by the occupying forces.
Nowadays the ‘occupying’ bit was less of a physical presence than a financial miasma and a briar patch of governmental procedures choking independent decision-making like a drawstring on a medieval purse.
Despite the futility of their situation, the more established republicans had pursued diplomatic avenues to block the reintroduction of the death penalty. However, paranoia and egocentric ruthlessness had brought the death squads in from the cold, the same cold which gripped me as I recognised their insignia as they blocked the exits.
Some artiste had designed a new coat of arms for them: sable hound rampant on a maroon and chevron gules background – or something along those lines. I was concentrating more on being invisible than accurately memorising their silly badge.
No civilians remained within the building, save for one tremulous desk-clerk. I had been so absorbed in my private thoughts that I had either blithely walked through or entirely missed the silent evacuation; my unheeding wandering from aisle to aisle frustrating detection until now.
“Will you see him?” The civility was uncharacteristic. I grimaced, nodded, and followed the uniform up the central aisle to where Carson sat, unfettered, in the middle of the library. The placement was equidistant from any potential escape route. I knew him well. My legs made the decision for me. Without transition I found myself sitting opposite him, four eagle-eyed assassins looming over us.
“Jimmy,” I offered by way of greeting.
“Thanks for saying yes,” he acknowledged. He was giving nothing away. Big Brother could do his own dirty work.
“Don’t even know how I got here,” I assured him hastily; nightmare scenarios racing through my brain. Why me? Had he somehow assumed it was I who informed? Don’t be daft, I scoffed at myself. What do you know? You haven’t seen him since he joined.
“I’m not …” I sought to explain.
“I know,” he reassuringly waved away my denial. “I spotted you on the way in and asked Beaky to let you stay. The Managing Director is here as a witness that you come to no harm.”
“Heh,” I grinned weakly. “I thought she was a clerk.” The relief I felt was belied by the constriction I felt in my ribs.
“Oh she wanted to leave a representative in her place. She said she had a meeting to attend.” He grinned maliciously. “I insisted it be the top boss. I remember how it was.”
“She’s not too happy.”
Incongruously we laughed. It petered out into an uncomfortable silence.
“How long?” I asked to break the eggshell moment.
“Forty two minutes,” Beaky interposed. Identification wasn’t difficult.
There was some movement at the entrance and a wild-eyed delivery boy thrust a piping hot tray into the hands of one of the squad, before turning on his heel and beetling off back to the relative safety of the nearby takeaway.
“Hey,” the squad member began, “you forgot…”
“No charge,” came the incrementally distant whimper.
Another took the special constable’s place as he bore the tray to the table. He waved his Sniffer around the dish and plastic bottles before and after carefully removing the foil.
“Bacon and eggs, Spaghetti Bolognese and two bottles of mineral water. Enjoy your last meal, Carson.” Some people have a knack of vocalising sneers.
“I’ll try, Pig-face.”
The burly form of Beaky positioned itself between them as the squaddie sought to vent his displeasure. Sullenly, he returned to his post. Carson chowed down as if nothing had happened.
“The other bottle’s for you.” He gestured towards the unopened mineral.
“No thanks,” I croaked nervously, but determinedly, “but I’ll take a swig of yours.” The dead man smiled gratefully.
“Symbolic. I’m innocent, you know?”
“Does that ever make a difference?”
“Asking the wrong guy. Tell my father the evidence was dismissed. My solicitor had all the guff, but they got to him.”
“He still have it?”
In disgust, Carson spat a bit of gristle at one of the guards, not Beaky. His eyes told me that finding the solicitor would be an exercise in futility. Worm food.
“Still,” he feigned a yawn, leaning back in his chair to stretch his gangly limbs, “you know me.”
“Kerr-ching,” he uttered in imitation of an old till drawer as confirmation, and finished his meal. His eyes misted, yet an urgency played around the irises. “Tell Caroline and the kids I’m not going anywhere, you get me?” He lifted my shaking hand and pulled it to his heart.
“No probs,” I promised, dry-mouthed at the salute of old comrades.
I don’t remember what we talked about for the remaining half hour, only that he smiled and cried, laughed and lied as I strove to fill his remaining time. When he left he merely shook my hand and blew a raspberry at the Managing Director on the way out. It had always been an ambition of his, he had confided during those final minutes, to make at least one pompous ass soil their underwear. From the insidious odour oozing from behind the desk, I think he’d achieved that goal.
Naturally I wasn’t allowed to move from my place until plates, utensils and bottles had been counted and removed; the tables and chairs checked top and bottom; and I had been frisked and searched. This duty fell to the one Carson had dubbed pig-face. Obviously disappointed, despite having the sadistic pleasure of subjecting me to a humiliatingly thorough search, the pig grunted, chucked the tin-foil into the nearest bin and stormed out of the building.
Only after the Land rovers and assorted armoured escorts had cleared the block, their engines fading into the distance, the public begun to timidly filter back into the library, and the terrifying stink of well lubricated weaponry been drained by extractor fans, did I dare to rise.
The shadows, which had slumped across the aisle as Carson and I had talked, sprang to attention as the sun shouldered its way through the cloud cover. Cautiously glancing about me, I retrieved the tin-foil from its resting place and read the electrolysed print: a combination number to a safe.
I’d pass his message on to his wife and family, but first I had documents to relay to the International Court of Human Rights. He never called his wife by her first name, opting instead for Morf – an affectionate rendering of her maiden name, Murphy.
Anyone else would have used ‘Murf’, but Carson had always loved Tony Hart’s creation. I suppose he’d reckoned he would lump the two together. The quirks of sentiment, eh?
The barge which bore the Christian name Jimmy had so subtly stressed, ‘Caroline’, was moored next to mine on the Shannon. I couldn’t imagine how he had arranged it all, or how I was going to manage turning up on the Carson doorstep after so long.
I definitely didn’t know what I was going to say about his execution. I didn’t know a lot of things, but I knew that when I finally visited his family, I wanted to be able to look them in the eye and promise that his name would be cleared.
Irish writer, Perry McDaid, lives in Derry under the brooding brows of Donegal hills which he occasionally hikes in search of druidic inspiration. His writing appears internationally in the Bookends Review, Red Fez, 13 o’clock Press, Curiosity Quills, Aurora Wolf Literary Magazine, Amsterdam Quarterly, SWAMP and many others.