I see Donohue’s face for the first time in thirty years. The same soft and furry-looking skin, like a television puppet. Even if it wasn’t on an election poster, I’d know that face. I’m on the bus. Baggot Street opens onto the canal. I always sit upstairs in spring, admiring the plane trees. And there’s Donohue, between them, in and amongst them. At close quarters, as always. I sit still- watching my reflection admiring the plane trees.
Odd that the stomach is the last place you feel nausea. It simply arrives, wells from within. Consider the backs of the hands.
What constituency is Baggot Street in? How will I make it back to my room in the East Wall after my day at Misneach House with the other lunatics without passing through here? How long is an election campaign? I try to relax. I didn’t work my teeth out of their sockets, tooth by tooth, night by night, in the summer of 1977, just to panic now.
I don’t really pay much attention to politics any more. Not even out of the corner of my eye. For years, things got worse for me at election time. Not so much, lately. Everyone seems to have won, now, even the losers. I glance at the Herald of the woman sitting beside me. Two-oh-one-four. I purse my lips. Press my tongue against my inner cheek. People do this when they are mildly surprised. I say the word fourteen to myself till it sounds normal. I was born in 1950; 2014 was supposed to be better than this. The things that used to matter were supposed to matter less by now. Food, money, cancer. Everything I see looks like the model that came before. Computers are new, of course. The trickery of the world. Cars were supposed to be able to fly. Twenty-fourteen. You can say it quickly, like a guilty plea. It’s thirty-seven years since I saw Donohue. Nearer forty than thirty. Full fathom five my father lay.
With difficulty- I am wearing gloves- I work loose my upper dental plate. Just enough to catch the attention of the woman next to me. Sometimes, with dentures, your saliva gathers and cools in the crevices and suddenly feels as though it’s not your own. I make a gurgling sound. She stiffens slightly but is too polite to look at me. I’m glad I don’t have her trapped on the inside seat.
I wasn’t looking for Donohue. I have made a thirty year career out of not looking. A thirty-seven year career. A working life. School, a carpentry apprenticeship, the time on Turlough Hill. The stuff after that. None of that turned out to be my real life. The last thirty-seven years have been my real life. Fucking Donohue. I’ll have to make a scene now. Just to be sure. How could he have been so selfish? I think about what kind of a diversion to make. Hiding in full view, Donohue used to call it. A distraction. At least with lunatics on public transport, it still actually is the North. I won’t have to do much. That bald fellow, for instance, who gets on at Ballsbridge and starts going on about the Tans and is thrown off by the Appian Way. Dingy head like a tapped egg.
I didn’t really talk to Donohue for a few months after I started at Turlough Hill. January 1973. The construction of the power station. We lived up there, mostly, during the winter, in long rows of Barna huts. That time of year even the trip down to Arklow was too risky. My older brother was an electrical contractor up there and he was in well with Horst Koenig, the foreman of works. Koenig gave me a start on one of the carpentry teams working on the main control station, half a mile up in the night air. Donohue was our foreman. Mostly, we built the timber supports for concrete to be poured into as the hillside was excavated. We worked in heavy oilskins. They had installed a drying room where you could go to thaw every few hours. None of this had much to do with me. I had been marked out for finer things. But I left school the year after my father died. He was a butcher who collapsed in front of two startled customers on the sawdust floor of the shop he worked in. My life for some time after that wasn’t quite my own. But I grew stronger, my secret plans like a mudguard under me. I would save some money. College, draughtsman, architect. There is a certain freedom in this- the sort of freedom that the counsellors and therapists never speak about. If I had an inkling about any part of the future it was this: anything could be tolerated for a certain length of time.
We, the carpenters, didn’t really need supervising. So I knew Donohue to say hello to and have a flask of tea with and know he was a Leeds fan. I stuck at it well, in all hours and weathers, I took any overtime going. My plans snug beneath my oilskins-. I recited them like a catechism.
One morning in March, as Donohue and I were starting our shift, Koenig emerged from the store house and called for everyone to stop. He held aloft a padlock.
‘Zis,’ he said, ‘will furthermore be placed on the store. I will have the key.’ He spoke in a ridiculous looping Wicklow-German accent acquired during his years on the site. I liked Koenig. He loved it on the mountain, as though his heart and lungs were air-cooled machines. He looked deeply disturbed.
‘All the tools, gone,’ he said. ‘You Irish. No more Irish.’ He stalked off. There were a few titters of laughter but no one said anything.
Donohue returned to sawing and then stopped again. Mostly, when he spoke, it sounded like an aside or a little-known fact.
‘Fucking Irish,’ he said. ‘There’s no hope for them, really.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I mean look at Koenig.’ He pronounced it Ker-nig. ‘A German. It’s like fifty years ago down on the Shannon. We called in the Germans then and we’ve called them in now.’
‘My old man would’ve disagreed,’ I said. ‘He said they were never around when we needed them.’
Donohue seemed to think about this for a while, and then his face suddenly lightened.
‘Better late than bloody never, I suppose.’ His face crinkled into a smile.
And then he asked me if I had a bird on the go.
Willie Redmond was killed a little way down the hill from us, while working on the drive shaft of a rock breaker. Everyone liked Redmond, a maintenance guy. We used to call him Dr Redmond on account of his neatness and somehow because of his tiny size too. He was precise, and always worked with a strange regretful downward smirk, as though someone had just beaten him to the invention of the machines he serviced. The breaker was a conical impenetrable contraption, an odd life-jacket yellow colour. It looked like one of the capsules the astronauts returned to earth in. Usually its suspension, along with the noise, gave it a quick panting air. Now, it sat there, quietly, after mangling Redmond. There were five or six people killed up there but Redmond was the worst. Dread and fear pushing bright glass needles of blood all the way to your toes.
The ambulance and fire brigade took what they could of Redmond out of the machine. There was a debate about what to do next. The machine couldn’t be left idle. But it didn’t seem right simply to start the machine again. Redmond was still in the machine, or at least ‘the remains of the remains,’ as Koenig put it. Someone suggested running a hose pipe up to the breaker and flushing it out. I had a horrific vision of what might flow from the discharge chute. I thought a small amount of kerosene, a small fire in the bowl of the breaker would be more thouough. An acid wash after. Koenig agreed.
For nights afterwards I dreamt of rows and rows of Redmond’s eyes bunched around the drive shaft of the machine. I felt sick; the shit ran out of me, like oil from a sump. At Redmond’s funeral in Gorey, someone behind me joked that it would only take two to carry the coffin.
Donohue made his approaches two Saturdays after Redmond died. A few of us had ventured down to Rathdrum to the hotel bar. He put his offer to me briskly, quietly. He didn’t think, he said, that I would betray a confidence. Regardless of how you feel about the situation in the North. Unlike the Northerners on the news, Donohue’s flat Wexford accent didn’t feel like a weapon.
I said none of my people had ever been involved. I wondered if it had been my mentioning my father that brought Donohue to me. I thought of my father in his coffin. As I leaned in to kiss his cheek I had spotted a speck of sawdust from the butcher’s floor in the whorl of his ear.
‘You’ve the cold spirit we need,’ Donohue said. I wondered how my behaviour had ever come to seem like that.
‘And that’s a good thing?’
‘We have enough with the political flame,’ he said. He looked tired; his stubble had a waxiness to it.
‘What’s your point?’
‘I need decent men. There are battles within battles. For the future.’
He stopped, took a drink. He looked like someone who was trying to silence an argument in his head. He leaned even closer. ‘Look, do you think it’s possible to tar and feather a woman if you’re not getting some kind of kick out of it?’ I remembered something from the papers, a week or two before. A Catholic girl caught dating a soldier in Belfast.
‘We know your story,’ he said. ‘We have friends everywhere- even down in Arklow. I hope you get where you want to go. But if you don’t, then come and see me. Someday, if your plans are starting to feel like wishes or hopes.’
I still think of the way he scratched idly at a damp beer mat with his thumbnail as he spoke. Taking all the time in the world to hint that I might not have all the time in the world.
I look again at the woman beside me, carefully, till I am certain she is actually trying to pretend that she doesn’t notice me. She has folded the paper on her lap, sports pages upwards.
‘Soccer,’ I say, calmly, ‘is all that crowd ever do.’
I begin to elaborate.
I do this, sometimes. The last time was a referendum on the North. In ten minutes the driver will have called the guards or just thrown me off. Once, I was actually arrested, and my brother had to come for me. He gave me that look he used to give me when all this started, as though he figures I am play-acting, or maybe as though he always knew I would turn out like this.
We were carpenters, Donohue and I. Our Lord’s trade. We joked that Turlough Hill was our Calvary.
“It’s fuck all He would know about it, up here in March, when your fingers are splintering away,” Donohue laughed, his eyes crinkling.
And here’s Donohue now, on every lamppost in Dublin.
Our Lord switched careers, too. And who could blame Him for trying? His own case aside, the telling-people-what-to-do game is a lot kinder on the hands.
Just ask Donohue.