The Killing Anniversary

An Extract from the Book by Ian St James

(This extract appears to be set on Coney Island.)

Late on the fourth day he reached the outskirts of Sligo. He had not been there before and was ignorant of the history of the place. Not that he cared. From an overlooking hilltop he saw the town straddling a river as it flowed into the sea. He paused, sniffing the salt air. Suddenly his pulse quickened. In the bay was an island, isolated, remote, cut off. He caught his breath. Perhaps it was his mood, but the very desolation of the island drew him. Without knowing why he knew he was going there. His journey would end on that speck of land surrounded by the cold waters of the Atlantic. He peered again into the fading light. But was it surrounded by water? A kind of causeway seemed to link it to land on the far side. He walked a hundred yards and stared again, Rain, finer than mist, filtered the scene, blurring outlines. He strained his eyes, still uncertain - but the mere suggestion of a causeway was enough to quicken his pace. He could not explain the compulsion which drew him - he just knew he wanted to get on to that island.

It took an hour to reach the far side of the bay. He clambered down the cliff to the water's edge. Gulls swooped and screamed around him. Waves, shoulder-high, smashed into a promontory, drenching him with spume-tipped water which left seaweed in his hair. Sand and shale tugged at his feet. A buffeting wind, full of the pungent ocean, took his breath away - but the causeway stood before him like the entrance to a secret place.

Pat never hesitated. He plunged down on the beach and started across, skidding on weed-covered rocks and cursing aloud as the very force of the water threatened to knock him over. Inexplicably, he felt excited. The sense of space, of sky and sea, of the strong, raw power of nature, was overwhelming. Gulls screamed alarmingly as they dived past his head, beating their wings, as if to drive him back. Pat roared defiance, but his shouts drowned amid the crashing waves and the rising howl of the wind. Then he stumbled. Suddenly he was down. Water swirled to his elbows and covered his haunches. Above him the sky darkened and the heavens opened up. Rain fell in a drenching downpour, while on all sides the sea spat and hissed as the tide raced in. For some moments he lacked the strength to rise - just clinging to the rocks below the water absorbed his strength. The shock of the past days, lack of food, the effort of walking a hundred miles and more, all tore at his failing energy. Total exhaustion was near. He managed a half step forward, only to be swept over by an onrushing wave. He spluttered to the surface, cutting his hand on an outcrop of rock. Driving rain reduced visibility to a few yards, but one searching glance over his shoulder said it was hopeless to go back - he was cut off by the rising tide.

He struggled forward, pulling himself up, only to fall once again. He crawled and stumbled - somehow he made it to the shore. He collapsed on the beach and let the rain beat down on him. It was thirty minutes before he regained enough strength to move. He groaned with fatigue. Every muscle ached. His very bones seemed bruised and tender.

Time lost all meaning. How long it took to stumble upon the abandoned cabin was an unanswerable question. It seemed hours as he scrambled about in the pitch black, fighting the howling gale to stay upright, teeth chattering, eyes screwed into slits against the blinding rain. It seemed hours, but it may have been less - he was just thankful to find shelter. The door was barely held by a hinge, panes were missing from the window, but it was a blessed sanctuary on such a wild night. He stumbled about the single room like a blind man, with outstretched hands, shivering uncontrollably. He fell against a table in one corner and under it found some rags. In the hearth he discovered some old newspapers. Sacks caked with dried mud were heaped in another corner. Painfully he stripped off his clothes and rubbed himself raw with the sacks - and when his skin burned all over and his circulation was restored, he wrapped himself into the sacks and crawled under the table. For the first time in four days he was too exhausted to think, to crushed to demand answers to the questions which plagued him. The wind howled through the roof timbers and tore at the roof - but Pat Connors slept soundly at last.

Meanwhile Pat's friends in Dublin prayed for his safety, but people feared the worst as the days passed.

Dublin itself was like a powder keg on the end of a slow fuse. An uneasy peace prevailed, but no matter how persuasive Mick Collins was in the Dail, real power lay with the soldiers of the IRA - and they were split down the middle, with units pro- or anti- the Treaty according to the views of their commanders. Fights broke out wherever men argued about the Treaty. No pub was safe for a man with strong views. And everyone knew Pat's views. A theory took root that he had got drunk after the funeral and become involved in a fight. He was handy with his fists but what if he had been outnumbered? Or what if - as it was happening more and more - some of the anti-Treaty IRA had come looking for him with a revolver? Many a man with plenty to say had got himself shot, or had just disappeared. Which is what people thought had happened to Pat.

When Pat awoke, daylight streamed through the window. Gulls circled high in a washed-out sky. The familiar sound of their cries took him back to the Quays and the room on Ammet Street. Suddenly it all came back - Finola was dead! Like a blow as he recovered consciousness. Finola was dead! He groaned and rolled over, wishing he were dead too. Suddenly a noise caught his ear. A tiny sound. Hairs pricked on his neck. Fighting the British had given him a sense of survival. He knew he was being watched. Someone was in the room! Memories of last night scrambled through his mind. He had been alone, alone in the sea, on the shore, in this wreck of a cabin. But he was not alone now.

He remained motionless for a long moment - then moved fast, rolling over to make a moving target. He glimpsed a kaleidoscope of images - floor, window, sky walls, door - until he came to rest in the centre of the room.

A boy stood just inside the door, a youngster, no more than twelve, with a mass of red hair above frightened eyes. Pat laughed, the sound emerged muddled, between a groan and a sigh of relief. The boy jumped like a startled hare and fled, his footsteps scrambing over the shale outside.

Pat listened to the sounds fading into the distance, then grunted and heaved himself upright. His swollen ankle throbbed painfully as he carried his wet clothes to the broken window, where he hung them out to dry. He took his boots to the door and flung them out into the wintry sunshine. The sea was less than thirty yards away, but it was different from last night - still grey and speckled with foam, but this sea lapped the shore like a tabby cat at a bowl of milk. The sea threatened no one.

Hours later, Pat went for a walk, his clothes still damp and his boots white from salt water. Five days of stubble scratched his chin and a scab had formed across the cut on his forehead. He limped badly, favouring his left foot. Meeting him would have made anyone jump. But Pat met nobody.

The island was larger than he had imagined. Inhabited too, to his disappointment. Smoke rose from a huddle of cottages. Deliberately Pat walked in the opposite direction. He wandered. Perhaps his mind wandered too. His thoughts always started and finished with Finola, but they ranged far and wide in between. Why? Why had she let him think that her time was a week away? He could have helped, done something, fetched aid. Why had she not confided in him? And why had she been taken from him? That was the biggest why of all.

He sat on a huge boulder staring out at the Atlantic as if seeking answers from all that space. Overhead wheeling flights of plover called plaintively. Pat stared, sometimes sightlessly, sometimes registering a shift of light or a changing cloud pattern. Then he trudged back to the cabin, for no other reason than the wind had turned cold.

He discovered some potatoes in one of the sacks. His matched had dried and he lit a fire of driftwood. He found some turf and roasted the potatoes. Night fell. The wind was up again, not as rough as last night, but enough to rattle loose boards in the roof. Suddenly he heard a different sound. Footsteps. Someone was approaching the cabin. He turned towards the door. He wondered if it were the boy again, but these steps were heavier, the steps of a man. They paused outside. Pat had wedged the door shut against the wind, opening it would need a good kick. Then came the knock, three taps delivered to the door by somebody's knuckles.

'Go away,' Pat shouted.

A delay while Pat's response sank home. Then a man's voice, 'I come in peace.'

'Then go the same way. I'll not trouble you, whoever you are.'

Another pause, 'I came to offer help.'

'Its not help I'm wanting, just peace and quiet. Is that asking too much, for God's sake?'

The longest pause of all. Then, 'Nothing is too much to ask for his sake. Are you a Catholic, my son?'

Pat groaned aloud. A priest! Wouldn't you know it - they clung like leeches to the body of Ireland. There was no escaping them. Even here, stuck half into the sea, even here comes a priest, interfering...

The priest misinterpreted Pat's groan. 'A Protestant then?'

Pat's frustration echoed in his bitter laugh, 'I'm nothing - nothing, do you hear? Now leave me be, get away from my door.'

'No man is nothing in the sight of God.' The answer came swiftly this time.

'Bollocks!' Pat sprang to his feet and wrenched open the door. The priest stood before him, a silver cross on a chain catching the light from the fire. He looked up unflinchingly, viewing Pat's broken face with shrewd grey eyes. Pat raised his arms in a gesture of helplessness. 'There's nothing for you here, Father. Can't you understand that? Go away and leave me in peace.'

By way of answer the priest proffered a blanket which he carried folded over one arm. 'I thought you might be cold, my son. Nights here are wild at times.'

'I am not cold.'

'Then won't I be leaving it anyway,' said the priest, stepping over the threshold. 'You might be glad of it later.'

Pat turned away.

The priest rubbed his hands over the fire. 'You've turf then.' His gaze wandered round the hearth. 'And tatties. Ah well, you're dry and warm and fed, that's a mercy.'

Pat stared into the fire. Inwardly he railed. He almost got up and left. Only the splatter of rain on the broken window kept him at the fireside - that and the thought of crossing that sea again at night. He wondered if the priest lived on the island. He had not seen a church. Pat sighed. Wasn't there a cluster of cottages, a dozen perhaps. But even one cottage meant people and people were never left in peace for long without some priest interfering.

'I saw you on Saint Patrick's Chair this afternoon,' said the priest, dropping to his haunches. 'Did you make your wish?'

Despite himself, Pat risked a sideways glance of enquiry.

'That grey boulder with two ledges like steps. It's called Saint Patrick's Wishing Chair. Legend says the Saint himself cast it there.'

Pat remembered, the granite rock had been shaped like a chair.

Unexpectedly the priest chuckled, 'You're allowed one wish a year. People swear by it. People with troubles mainly.' His quizzical gaze rested on Pat's face. 'They sit in the chair and wish their afflictions away. It's harmless enough.'

Pat poked the fire with a stick.

'Well then,' the priest straightened up, joints creaking. He rubbed the small of his back with one hand. 'So long as you're comfortable...'

Pat broke the stick in half and tossed both parts on to the fire.

'I'll be along then,' said the priest moving to the door. 'Have a good night. God bless you, my son.'

Pat listened to the footsteps crunch away into the distance, then he rose to shut the door. After which he turned in for the night. For a while he huddled on the floor with a sack over his legs - until, when the fire had died and the temperature fell, he collected the blanket from the table. 'It's only a blanket,' he muttered. 'And a man made it for another man to use. That's all.' And having settled that in his mind, Pat fell asleep.

Others were trying to settle matters in Dublin. Nobody could say what would happen. It was one thing for Childers and de Valera to speak out against the Treaty, but another matter entirely when Tom Barry and Liam Lynch clamoured for an armed uprising. The situation went from bad to worse. People went about their business as best they could, but tensions increased every day. Not that Bridget concerned herself with politics. She was too busy caring for the new baby. And Father Murphy had raised the matter of the christening. Tomas had protested about that, 'We've no right. Pat will be back soon. It should be left for him.' But Tomas was overruled. Besides it seemed that only Tomas believed Pat was still alive - Tomas was the only one who thought Pat would return.

So the child was christened Sean Connors. That was the first time the world heard the name. Not that the world was listening. Just Tomas and Bridget, with their own children clustered around Father Murphy.

Pat remained in that broken-down cabin for days. When it was raining he stayed indoors, when it was dry he fished with a line and hooks found in the cabin. And for an hour most afternoons he sat in the Wishing Chair, glaring balefully across the grey waters at the gulls and the fishing boats. Pat's presence on the island was ignored. Only the priest came to see him. The priest came every night, and brought a gift every time.

On the second visit it was a kettle and tea and sugar. As soon as Pat heard footsteps he guessed it was the priest. Outside was dark, wet and windy - how the priest ever saw his way was a source of amazement. 'Bloody cat's eyes,' Pat growled under his breath.

'Well, Father,' he glowered, opening the door, 'What brings you this time?'

The priest held the kettle as if it were a lamp lighting the way. 'Concern,' he answered succinctly, crossing the threshold.

It was warm in the cabin. Pat had tacked sacking across the broken window to stop the draught. The fire crackled in the grate and lit the scene with a flickering light. Pat wedged the door shut and the priest set to work brewing the tea. Steam rose from his cassock as he busied himself in front of the fire. Pat wedged the door shut and the priest set to work brewing the tea. Steam rose from his cassock as he busied himself in front of the fire. Pat couldn't resist a grim smile. 'You look like a vision of hell - all that steam and the flames behind you.'

The priest smiled, 'And doesn't that make a fine start for conversation. Better than last night, you had me thinking you were a deaf mute by the end of it.'

But there was little conversation that night. The priest was left to do most of the talking. And talk he did. Pat found out where they were for a start. Coney Island - a spit of land on the edge of the ocean. Sailing west the next land is America, three thousand miles away. The name means 'island of rabbits' in the Irish, and Pat remembered seeing many of them among the dunes. 'Once upon a time,' said the priest in the manner of all shanachies, a hundred people lived on Coney. Not even the great famine culled the numbers. The potato blight didn't harm the fish, you know. But now it's less than thirty still living here, and don't more keave every year.'

Pat listened, he could hardly do otherwise, sitting there, supping the priest's tea. But he took care not to offer any encouragement. If the priest was dismayed he showed no sign of it. He stayed for an hour on the second night and then let himself out. Pat remained brooding into the fire, not looking up to say goodbye or thanks for the tea or anything - not a word. Then, when the priest's footsteps were swallowed up by the wind and the sea, Pat wedged the dor shut, rolled into his blanket and tried to sleep. But sleep came harder now. His body was rested. Fresh air and the bracing wind had blown the cobwebs from his mind... and thoughts of Finola tormented him.

The battle with the priest began two evenings later. The old man came earlier than usual, this time bringing soda bread and fresh milk. And he was an old man, with the grey hair as soft as a baby's and eyes full of cleverness. Eyes which betrey you, my friend, Pat thought. Too alert, too watchful, too knowing to be the eyes of the simple man you pretend to be.

Later, when Pat looked back, he could never quite place when the conversation turned to God and matters of faith. Perhaps such concerns were always on the priest's mind and so never far from his lips. Or perhaps the priest watched and waited until he could turn the talk with sly cunning. However it was done, it was suddenly there between them - as enticing as a partly clad woman bent on seduction. Neither could turn his back on it. Pat hated it, and the priest was consumed by it. They fought to convince each other with equal vigour but in contrasting styles - Pat angry, bitter stubborn - the priest nimble, cool, polished. Like two fighters - one slugging his weight, mixing it - the other boxing, dancing back, jabbing and counter punching.

'Sure I'm a Catholic,' Pat roared, trapped into an admission, 'an official Catholic. When the British threw me into jail and asked my religion I'm a Catholic. A legal Catholic, that's all. It means little then and nothing now.'

'You have suffered a great hurt, my son. It's written in you face. But rejecting God, trying to hate God, will do nothing for you. Only loving God -'

'There is no God! Will you listen! You blather on, you don't listen, that's the trouble with priests. A man can make a life without God - '

'Without love? Without compassion?'

'Sure will you stop stealing what's not yours. Love isn't Christian. Or compassion. Weren't cavemen crying with compassion long before Christ -'

'But not before God, my son.'

And later ... when the priest talked of sin ... Pat exploded, 'Do you know what I think? I think half the sins you go on about are invented. Sure now wouldn't the bloody priests starve if they relied on the really sinful... on murderers an' the like. But murderers don't go to church, so the priests invent all these little sins so that the poor gullible bastards go down on their knees to beg for forgiveness. Most of them have nothing to be forgiven, nothing to be shamed about, but they are made to feel ashamed, so they pay money to the churches and the poxy priests inside them!'

'I am hear to help, my son, not to condemn -'

'Liar! You're here to put me back on my knees. Well you're wasting your time, Father. I'll beg forgiveness from no man and no God, never again!'

And later still, when Pat demanded to be left in peace, the priest said, 'This is the place God sent me -'

'You volunteered fast enough. You sniffed me out like a bloodhound -'

And yet later still ... Pat more furious than ever, 'No! I've seen people live by your rules. They are fool's rules. There are better rules, there must be.'

They argued for hours. When the priest left he was visibly shaken by the encounter, So was pat, whose anguished blasphemous shouts echoed round the cabin for hours.

Inevitably, perhaps their encounter was less savage the next evening. Each approaching the other warily, conscious of the divide between them. Pat's blind rage had exhausted itself, but he was no less determined. Against him stood the priest, practiced in the art of argument. He arrived at seven that evening, carrying a half-size bottle of whisky.

Pat smiled grimly, 'Are we to indulge the sins of the flesh then, Father?'

The priest chuckled, 'Days like this threaten every bone in a man's body with arthritis. Doesn't a bottle this size show moderation? I've found a spoonful a powerful help against the damp.'

'A spoonful?'

'Or two,' chuckled the priest.

They spent the next three hours together. The time passed easily to begin with - the priest had charm, and Pat was too much of a shanachie not to enjoy accounts of local folklore. But the second half of the evening was a test of will power. The old priest was as sharp as a blade about matters of faith. Pat remained resolute. He kept his temper, but was no less dogmatic in his denial of God. And he refused to disclose why he was there, what had sent him walking blindly across the countryside. It was a stalemate, but they parted without bitterness, although the priest was puzzled and thoughtful. Whereas Pat was still lost. Even while arguing his face bore an expression of hurt bemusement, like a child who had been punished without knowing why.

He had another bad night, not violent but as restless as ever, tormenting himself with memories of Finola. His mind overflowed with his past unkindness, his cruel lack of thought. Guilt racked him - guilt at his worthlessness compared to her goodness, guilt for being alive when she was dead.

The weather was foul in the morning. Rain, steady and impenetrable, grey and depressing. He sat in the doorway and glowered, knowing it was set for the day.

The priest wore fisherman's oilskins that evening. He brought some fruit, four green apples in a soggy paper bag. They drank the rest of the whisky and talked. But Pat was so morose and unresponsive that the priest left early, feeling frustrated and worried - frustrated that he had failed to connect with the man's mind, worried that the man might do away with himself.

Another day. A white sky, high up and far away, without cloud for once. Not much wind. Pat waited until mid-morning, then walked down the curling green road to sit in the Wishing Chair. An hour passed. Pat hardly moved. Above him a crack of blue appeared in the sky - a thin stream of blue widening to a river, then a lake, then the whole sky was blue. It was like watching a stage. The Wishing Chair might have been the front row of the stalls. Pat caught his breath. The scene was transformed. Sand dunes turned gold, bare branches of trees were no longer grey but orange and brown. The sea came alive with a million dancing points of light, until it hurt just to look. His eyes smarted. His hands rose to shield out the glare. He was almost blinded, the scene was blurred - and only when his hands met tears did he realize he was weeping. He buried his face in his arms and sobbed uncontrollably. The dam had burst. After twelve long days. It was a release, like a head of steam blowing a safety valve. He never knew how long he wept, but finally he felt a great tranquillity, a sense of peace. The loneliness remained ... he would feel the loss every day of his life. Future pleasures would be muted compared to those of the past, victories would never be so sweet, defeats would be harder to sustain ... but he had a life, if he chose to live it ...

Suddenly his mind filled with a picture he had previously rejected. He saw himself at Finola's graveside. Mick Collins was there ... and Dev and countless other old friends. Brigid stepped forward carrying a bundle wrapped in a blanket. 'Pat,' she had called, 'it's your son I have in my arms.'

'A son?' he whispered, only half believing, 'Finola, did you leave me a son?' He choked, remembering how many times she had looked forward to a child, especially a son. But was it true? He made himself think back to that dreadful night - to the room on Ammet Street. All those people. Finola on the bed. He concentrated on Bridget, standing there with a tiny baby at her breast. Bridget was always nursing a baby. Bridget's fertility made Finola feel her own lack more keenly. But he hadn't thought ... or he had thought ... then at the graveside, Bridget had said, 'Pat, it's your son I have in my arms.'

'I have a son,' he said quietly. Suddenly he knew it was true. He shouted, 'We have a son!'

A dozen thoughts struck him at once. The day, when Finola ... when his son was born. The British had left Dublin that day. His son would be the first of a new breed of Irishmen - freeborn, free of the British after eight hundred years. His son was the first, the very first! And another thing - it was Finola's seventh time pregnant. She had delivered a seventh son to a seventh son! My God, the boy would be a genius. The first freeborn Irishman, the seventh son of a seventh son - both together. And my son, Pat exulted ...

He knew he would go back to Dublin in the morning. He felt embarrassed. He had never run away from anything before. Yet he hadn't so much run away as been drawn to the island, as if it held a secret for him. What it was eluded him. He thought about it all afternoon. He had brooded on the meaning of life for days. He concentrated as never before ... and then it came to him ... the secret he would pass on to his son.

The priest found Pat in a changed mood that evening. Instead of doubt he found a certainty, an acceptance of life quite different from his own but every bit as sure. For Pat had at least glimpsed what he was searching for, even if he was to spend the rest of his life defining it. The two men talked as old friends - but then men who argue as they had either become friends or enemies. Pat was glad - 'Sure now, would you ever think the day would come when someone would abuse you like I have? 'Tis powerful sorry I am for the way I've spoken at times.' He grinned, a real grin, free of bitterness for the first time since Finola died. 'I'll tell you something Father, Anyone ever speaks to you like that again, you let me know. I'll break his bloody neck.'

But the priest was sad. 'I failed you, my son. I tried, but I failed.'

Pat rested a hand on the priest's shoulder, 'You know Father, when the British were about to shoot Connolly, a surgeon asked him to forgive his executioners. And Connolly said, "I pray for all brave men who do their duty according to their lights." Father, you did your duty like the brave man you are. Sure I'll always be grateful for that.'

The priest made a final effort, 'I shall be in church when you go in the morning, my son, will you come to mass?'

Pat hesitated. Then he shook his head. 'I know you'll not understand, Father, but a man ought to be able to make a life without your God, and without turning into the Devil. If I intend to try wouldn't it be an insult to set foot in your church? And I never insult a friend.' He brightened, struck by a sudden thought, 'It's one of my rules, Father - never insult a friend - one of the rules I'll live by.'

At the crack of dawn next day Pat was back on Saint Patrick's Wishing Chair, casting a last look out to sea. Then, when the tide went out, he crossed to the mainland. He found the old British barracks quite easily. 'I want to telephone Michael Collins himself in Dublin,' he told the astonished IRA commander.

They locked him in the cells until the call came through.

Mick Collins roared down the line. 'Where in God's name have you been? Haven't I enough on my plate without worrying myself sick over you?'

Sure you're lucky. I've had damn all on my plate for days. Will you tell them to give me a decent meal before sending me home?'