“Watch our Brian,” our ma shouted from the kitchen,
elbow deep in peelings.
“No bother” I called, plumping down my bag and coat.
But when I made a mug of tea, he’d slipped away
for a wee dander on the street.
I let him have his play,
Not wanting to bother our ma.
“Your Brian’s been shot!
A shrill wee voice burst into the house,
a pal, no doubt, playing a prank.
What a thing to say! But my heart leapt
to my mouth, and I went outside,
not wanting to scare our ma.
They’d taken him next door
and laid him on the sofa.
His arms and legs thrashed,
his blonde hair was soaked in red;
He’d brought up his food, and his eyes were blind.
I held him close,
not wanting our ma to see him like this.
“They dragged him by his ankles!” people around me cried:
“They tried to carry him off!”
We eyed the khaki-clad soldiers
as they shoved into the ambulance.
But I elbowed my way in
as they held back our screaming ma.
At the hospital, they tried to bring him back,
the doctors and nurses,
as they worked in a ring of military forces
holding closed the door.
They pushed at his heart and patched up his head,
but they didn’t let me hold him, to stand in for his ma.
They put him on machines
to breathe for him, but my brother was gone,
blown out from his own head:
and six days later he was dead.
At the funeral, on his birthday
I carried the cards and balloons
she’d bought for him;
our prostrated ma.
13-year-old male, died six days after being hit by a plastic bullet fired by the British Army, near his home in Belfast.
It’s the thirteenth today;
So long I’ve waited, and it has to be this day?
Still, I’m doing what I longed for
this last three years.
But here’s me, crouched in a toilet,
fiddling with wires,
and I’m to be a teacher!
But the cause is right,
and casualties regrettable.
18 year old female member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
One of four people killed in a premature explosion at a shop in North Street, Belfast, as she was assembling a bomb on the premises.
And yet, in a moment of madness and inspiration (I’ve just discovered Northern Irish poet John Hewitt), I’ve made a commitment to write a poem a day for the 30 days of April 2019, starting today.
NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month, is an annual creative writing project in which participants commit to write a poem a day for the month of April. There is no award, or prize – completing the challenge is the prize!
You can follow all the poems throughout April on the #NaPoWriMo hashtag on Twitter.
Writing prompts are available on the NaPoWriMo site or you can go freestyle as I intend to. The theme of my poems will be “tales from the Troubles” – I’ve been carrying out research using Ulster University’s CAIN website ( Conflict and Politics in Northern Ireland) for several years now for my novel-in progress, and the sheer number of names and faces, casualties and victims of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is overwhelming. My aim is to take random entries from a year (1976) and write a short poem, based on their age, sex, location and any details provided in the CAIN archives.
I want the poems to be a reminder of the lives of people who, apart for their loved ones, are now a footnote in history, a couple of lines of text and maybe a black and white picture on a political history website.
Wish me luck, and let me know if you’re participating in NaPoWriMo too.
I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot, since, well, the beginning of this new year. I’m currently reviewing my manuscript for And The Buntings Flew, having put it away for a few months; that distance allowed me to clean up what I’ve written to date, and forge on with the story. I’ve now got 35,000 words that have been through a couple of rigorous self-edits, and a further 15,000 words of raw dialogue and plot points to revise; that’s more than half of the planned novel length!
But one major issue remained unresolved – how the novel would open. I’ve written three blocks of text that I couldn’t choose between, and they sat untethered to the main story at the start of the manuscript:
Some historical background to the story, and
The start of the action.
It seems obvious now that the story should start at the latest point in the action where the story proper begins, but I had such a lot of good historical background info that pertained to the current story; I had to get it in somewhere, and I also wanted to set the scene with a tableau from the story; where to start?
There’s lots of advice out there about prologues, but the only consensus is “proceed with caution”. When deciding whether to start with my prologue, I considered the following:
My prologue wasn’t overly long (about 500 words)
The prologue was from the POV of the main character and narrator
The prologue featured a vignette from the story, but wasn’t something that I couldn’t include in the main story; it did however set the scene.
The prologue wasn’t the scene of a violent or tumultuous event
I wasn’t using it as an information dump
I wasn’t trying to cram in relevant historical information. I resisted the temptation to drop a lot of context in the prologue; it was simply the main character and a vignette from her day.
So was the prologue necessary? Was it boring? It was quite short (about three paragraphs and not much happens in it, although it gives a few clues to some other main character motivations and points of view.) Would this turn off readers before they even got to Chapter One, or would they just skip the prologue altogether?
The prologue was pertinent to the story that followed; it was the perspective of the main character, but was it setting the scene for the main character’s arc? I wasn’t sure about that. It wasn’t throwing the reader into the middle of any battles, betrayals, plot twists etc, which would be confusing. But, could I incorporate the details contained in the prologue into the main story?
“A prologue is used when material that you want to include in the opening is out of time sequence with the rest of the story.”
On reflection I decided that the scene and its implications in the prologue could be revealed organically through the action; the events were close to the start of the novels’ opening, they weren’t out of time sequence, and would naturally fit after the first main action scene. So I deleted the prologue from the main manuscript (although I saved it in another file, just in case!), and turned my attention to the next chunk of text that was jostling for pole position in my novel:
(Historical) Background Information
If I’m not including a prologue, how will I share key historical background information with the reader fairly soon into the main story? And The Buntings Flew is set in Belfast during the mid-1970s when The Troubles were in full, devastating swing.
After living here for forty years, I’m still astonished at how few people on the British mainland understand the intricacies of The Troubles; many people assumed my father, with his broad “Norn Iron” accent, was from the Republic of Ireland, or was automatically a Nationalist supporter; he was frequently asked if he supported the IRA.
With this in mind, I want to include a potted history of the Troubles and the sociopolitical history behind them fairly early on, as an understanding of the Troubles will help the reader follow the story and its themes. To do so, however, you could end up summarising events back to the 1600s!
Obviously, I don’t need to cover all of these events in detail, but it’s important to have a passing understanding of the historical events that led to the Troubles, which are the background to my story. Although some events are fictionalized, my story is based on real events, so I want the novel to reflect as accurately as possible the landscape of 1970s’ Belfast.
But I also don’t want to scare off readers with huge chunks of historical text; originally, my plan was to incorporate some history via the narrator, as part of the first chapter, but that slowed the action down. If I just had a footnote to add, it might be fine, but as noted above, there’s quite a lot of historical context to understand the situation in 1970s (and current) Northern Ireland, and some readers may have little knowledge of the history behind the events that are central to my story.
The background history I wanted to include was a good two to three pages, a mix of family history intertwined with the history of NI. I thought of having a prologue dealing with the history, via family members, but when I dropped the prologue, I toyed with starting chapter one with a rundown on key events; I decided this was too much of an ask for the reader, who at that point would have no idea how long the history lesson would be, with no framework of the main story visible yet.
In the end, I decided to jump straight into the action with the catalyst event at the start of chapter one, and introduce most of the main characters and their situations. Having given the reader a glimpse of the characters, I felt more comfortable dropping some history in chapter two, before resuming the main plot.
I now feel that the manuscript flows; it gets to the story immediately and introduces key characters, leaving a detailed look at the family (and province’s) history to the next chapter. As chapter one has some fairly high stakes events, a page or two of history gives the reader time to absorb what’s just happened before continuing with the story. It feels like a more cohesive read; the vignette from the prologue will be worked into the main story, so nothing is left, and much gained, by streamlining the start of the story.
I’d be interested to hear your views on using prologues and whether your story was well served by including one?
Postscript: A couple of people have asked me about the building in the header image above; it’s the Garrick Bar in Chichester Street, Belfast.
Make voyages. Attempt them. There’s nothing else. – Tennessee Williams
Sometimes, rather than peace coming to me “dropping slow“, it’s inspiration. The inspiration to realise my writing dreams waxes and wanes, given the daily grind of job, commute, and paying the bills. Waiting for inspiration doesn’t get things done, and it can be interminably slow in showing up. So slow that it starts to rival the Tar pitch experiment.
But some things do inspire me and give that drip of pitch a helpful jiggle; for example when another piece of my flash fiction is published. Enchanted is a 100-word mini-fantasy tale of a modern fairy with very traditional views of mankind. The story has been published at 101 Fiction; please take a moment or ten to have a read of some of the flash fiction that John Xero is publishing; I especially loved a couple of this month’s stories.
As I’ve written on here previously, flash and short fiction for me is fun, but ultimately a distraction. It’s working without getting the real job done. It’s cleaning the oven when I should be writing my thesis, spring cleaning when I should be researching 1970s Irish fashion and politics.
My dream voyage is to write novels, good novels; with gripping stories, something to say about the nature of humanity and something that I can look back on as jobs well done. As my legacy in fact. Fine, lofty goals, but they require hard work and persistence, planning and delivery, in the face of the daily grind, the daily annoyances and disappointments, or just the daily can’t-be-bothered. If I wait for inspiration, they will languish in the electronic drawer of my Dropbox, forever.
Yesterday was a nice day; cloudy, with bursts of sunshine. I wanted to go out with my husband, but we had to wait at home until 1pm. Then the question was; what do we do now? I couldn’t think of what to do, a destination that wouldn’t involve long drives in a hot car. But I wanted an experience to round out the day. In the end, we “just” went for a walk, along a river, with no destination in mind. That’s not something I’m often comfortable with; I have a project and programme management background in my day job, and I need to have a plan (and a budget) or it’s not happening! But yesterday, I went along with it as I had nothing better to offer.
And we had a lovely time. We found a different route that almost no one else was taking, we strode alongside bushes that trembled with beautiful black and blue butterflies, and we finally reached (on foot) a pub that was on our wishlist, which was as cosy as we’d hoped. We rewarded ourselves for our long walk with a drink or two.
The quote above from Tennessee Williams reminds me; I have to make more voyages, or at least attempt them, because what’s the alternative?
With this in mind, I’ve opened up both my draft novel documents and have renewed my commitment to them both, to complete them! Short fiction might sneak in here and there, but not at the expense of my longer fiction. I might not know how the novels will turn out, but the voyage is not only a worthy quest, it’s an essential part of reaching the goal!
I’ve also booked another week in Northern Ireland in July, to refresh my memory, and to bring new inspiration for And The Buntings Flew. I may discover new butterflies, write about them, and I may have a drink or two. On that note, we discovered the best Guinness in the world (so far) in a pub in beautiful, sleepy Cushendall, on just such another impromptu voyage of discovery; let’s make more voyages, or at the very least, attempt them.
Today I received my copy of the first anthology fromReflex Fiction, titled “Barely Casting a Shadow”; my short piece “The Shore Road” made their summer 2017 flash fiction long list. It’s great to see your words in print! If you get the chance, do check out the stories published at Reflex Fiction, there’s some really powerful writing.
I have a couple of additional flash fiction pieces out at the moment and I’m busy reworking the Lovecraftian short story mentioned in my last post; lots of work on short fiction, in other words. Unsurprising; I love reading and writing short fiction, but I made a commitment to not one, but two novels and they’re languishing on my laptop right now, rightfully feeling overlooked, neglected, and starved of my attention.
I know I have to sit down, renew my commitment to the research, the plotting, and the slog of getting lots of words on paper. Short fiction is fun, snappy, and the process of translating ideas onto the page has a quick turnaround. And that’s the lure. I’m guilty of Spongebobbing; finding endless fun things to procrastinate with, rather than get on with the job in hand (Spongebob’s job was to write an essay). How do you balance your writing priorities; do you focus on one length of writing completely, or avoid all short fiction until your novel’s first draft is complete?
I’m not going to list out all the famous authors who had to persist through dozens of rejections until their magnum opus was snapped up. And I’m not going to name that Decca manager who rejected the Beatles as a passé guitar group on their way out. I’m not even going to dwell on Stephen King’s much-quoted wall spike; the spike that replaced the nail on which he hung his initial rejection slips. All of the above finally triumphed; their talent shone through and was acclaimed by all. I’m not there yet!
I recently wrote a short story, about 6,500 words, and I think it’s great. I put my heart, soul, and lots of editing and revisions into the story and was really pleased with the result. Imagine my excitement when I received an email from the editor of the respected publication to which I submitted, who agreed with my humble self-assessment!
There in the email were words that sang to me:
This story was magnificent…
The plot and language were incredible and I really enjoyed reading it… This was one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve read this period thus far…
High praise! But I’m telling you the story the wrong way round. This was the PS to the main body of the email, which briefly started with the dreaded words; my story was up against stiff competition, there was an amazing response, hundreds of great entries, and mine didn’t quite make it this time etc., etc.
Of course, I was crushed, and had to work through the feelings you must come to terms with as a writer; the sting of rejection, the rush of anger that your creation has been judged wanting. I didn’t even properly read the email at first, just skimmed the first couple of sentences, then left it be to lick my wounds for a day or so and gain some distance. I was that certain my story was really good, you see!
This would have been my longest short story published to date, in a genre I both love as a reader and enjoy writing in. I saw it as a foot in the door of audiences that would be interested in the Sci-Fi novel I’m writing. So I wallowed in hopelessness for a day or so.
Then I sat down to read the response properly. I realised that this wasn’t an outright rejection, and more importantly, it held both the awesome praise I’ve quoted above, plus, most importantly, some SOLID AND JUSTIFIED EDITORIAL SUGGESTIONS AND ENCOURAGEMENT.
I lapped up the words of praise, but STILL didn’t fully take in the suggestions and feedback. It was great news that this editor encouraged me to make a few tweaks and resubmit the story, it truly was. Yet I was internally nodding along, thinking, “Ok, if that’s what you want me to do to publish my story, I agree, they’re not major changes, I can live with them etc.”
I still hadn’t really absorbed the wisdom of the feedback, but I got there in the end! Here’s the thing – if my story had been published as it was, it wouldn’t have been the absolute best I could do – I saw that the improvements suggested by the editor were valid, and I quickly jotted down some ideas to make it a tighter, more focused story, a better read and a better piece of writing.
The suggestions improved the pace of my story, which would also be stronger if I didn’t switch POV towards the end. This editor, bless them, had taken precious time out from judging hundreds of 5K plus short stories to write me an invaluable paragraph, and also left the door open, no, encouraged me to resubmit, and to submit more work!
I wrote back, thanking that editor, promising to make some tweaks and resubmit. I’m very grateful for their time and experience, and for the reminder that the real common denominators amongst successful artists, including the ones I mentioned at the start of the post, are persistence, refinement, and continuous improvement.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King refers to the “dull knife” of talent – we all need to whet our “talent knife” continuously, honing it with persistence, sharpening its dull edge with practice and feedback. We are all born with a knife, it’s down to us to make it sharp and useable for our art. Very few of us are born with their artistic knife pre-sharpened, King tells us, “..although a few are handed almighty big ones; the name we give to the artist with the big knife is “genius.”
So, I’m sharpening that knife and rewriting my short story this weekend. Watch out for the sparks from the whetstone!
I posted in January about the snow hanging around like an impervious, unwelcome house guest; this week we’ve just seen the back of the latest batch! Some gloomy forecasters predict the UK will have a white Easter; I choose to ignore these pessimists (with fingers crossed).
It has been an unseasonably cold late winter and early spring, but we took a chance and booked a city break to Bruges a couple of weeks ago. This was my first visit, and I was delighted with the “Venice of the North”; if you enjoy lots of very tall, very old churches, museums, galleries, canals, fine chocolate and beer, you’re in for a treat in Bruges. A word of warning for vegetarians like myself though, or Vegans – like their German neighbours, the Belgians love meat, with some fish thrown in. If you eat Flemish, expect lots of beef and rabbit stews, mussels and pâté. Desserts are wonderful and I made up with lots of waffles and pancakes, and a wonderful apple pie flambéd in Calvados.
Back in the frigid climes of England, I decided to update this site; I trawled through WordPress themes for writers (WordPress seems to think that a writer’s main occupation is posting lots of pictures, but I digress!), and I found a nice clean theme (Dara). I’m really pleased with the results. Let me know what you think!
In terms of writing, I finished a 6,000-word short story, that started life in my mind, as many of my stories do, as a piece of flash fiction. The theme for a short fiction site I frequent was “Lovecraftian”, and being a lover of all things HPL, I had a story in mind. I work in an area of London that’s an interesting mix of very modern, a hot revitalisation area that sits cheek and jowl with some very old and somewhat out-of-the-way corners; rivers, canals, and docks that wind through some undeveloped or just uninhabited corners of the capital. Anyway, that’s where my story was based, and it grew into a Lovecraftian homage monster of a tale that I’m really pleased with. I’ve submitted it to some respected Cosmic Horror publications, and I really have big hopes that it will be published soon, so watch this space; this would be my longest work of fiction published to date.
Last but definitely not least, as well as imagining horrid things happening to hapless Londoners, I reviewed where I was with my first draft of my Sci-Fi work in progress, The Bondage of the Soil.Reading the obituaries of the late Stephen Hawking, the beloved theoretical physicist whose A Brief History of Time I first read in the early 1990’s, I went on to spend hours reading of all the developments Stephen Hawking was instrumental in pushing forwards, especially theories of how mankind (or alien species) would achieve interstellar travel.
Without giving too much away, interstellar travel happens to be one of the core plots of The Bondage of The Soil. I have the main plot points sketched out, but I’ve been struggling with a couple of points; I want my story to be hard science fiction in as much as the ideas are theoretically possible in the near future, but I’m very much a dilettante when it comes to theoretical physics. I came across a couple of articles that helped me out in how interstellar journeys might be feasible, and in doing so I came across some more invaluable help! My story involves a visit to earth and a trip home; I had no idea how my protagonist was going to help her interstellar friend return home, but in reading about Nanoprobes, star chips, and star wisps, I learned that one suggested approach to interstellar travel is that of uploading a person’s brain via software, creating an “uploaded” astronaut. This will be the way my story goes – in effect its deals with some of the core concepts of Transhumanism (and trans alienism?)
I wondered: if an astronaut’s brain and personality were captured in data, it should, in theory, be possible to “transmit” it back home as data. To cut a long story short I came across an amateur radio forum discussing bouncing data off satellites, moons and planets, and one very helpful poster was so good as to get back to my crude and simplistic questions, giving me a wealth of ideas and options which have morphed into a much more realistic and even emotional plot! I’m now busy capturing some of these points for more research; it’s reinvigorated me to get this story finished and look for a publisher.
One last note before I wrap up for now: one of the nuggets of info my radio correspondent shared was just how many observatories there are in the UK; by a beautifully serendipitous coincidence, one is within a few miles of the location in my story!
Writing is considered a solitary experience, and in terms of the mechanics it often is, but I’ve had so many people help me on my writing journey – friends and family who understand (or tolerate!) my need to be alone and google the most fantastic things, kindly colleagues and strangers who give their own time and knowledge to check my writing, editors who help me to edit and thus publish my stories, and experts who give their own time and knowledge to help me write the best fiction I can. My heartfelt thanks to all!
The ancient Gaelic celebration of Imbolc, or its Christian equivalent Candlemas, is observed today (the date moves around, but it’s usually on the 1st or 2nd February), halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Imbolc heralds the start of Spring, and for (Irish) Christians it marks the feast day of St Brigid. Imbolc was probably a pagan fertility festival co-opted by early Christians; indeed St Brigid herself is in all likelihood a Christianisation of a pagan goddess.
Although Imbolc seems to have been more visible in the media in recent years, Candlemas, its Christian counterpart is now mostly one of those Christian festivals that have been largely forgotten in secular Britain, along with Lammas, Whitsun, Lady Day and Michaelmas. Peter Hitchens might blame Dickens for this, inflating Christmas as he did until it filled our minds as the definitive Christian feast day, but Imbolc, probably due to its Irish association with St Brigid and wider observance in Ireland and Scotland, lives on in its Pagan-Christian half-life still.
Candlemas is the Christian Holy day that also falls on the 2nd February, 40 days after Christmas; the day commemorates the ritual purification of Mary after the birth of Jesus. The name derives from the candles that the congregation brings to be blessed before Mass; there is often also a procession with lighted candles. Candlemas has largely been forgotten by the non-churchgoing public in the UK, and has been largely replaced in the US by the very secular Groundhog Day which predicts the advent of spring not by a calculation between equinoxes or saints day, but by the actions of a no-doubt grumpy groundhog either seeing or not seeing a shadow on the ground. There is a faint echo here of the Christian lore that clear weather on Candlemas predicts a shorter winter.
So what of Imbolc/Candlemas in literature? When I realised that these were essentially the same tradition, I cast my mind back, as there seemed to be a negative connotation with Candlemas in my mind. Granted I was only able to recall a few instances from my reading, but all share a certain tension or risk, and all seem to hark back to a more primitive age and its fears and sorrows.
In Thomas Hardy’s Tess of The D’Urbervilles, the beautiful (and doomed) Tess ends up, after her seduction and short-lived marriage-come-desertion, at the dreary and wintry Flintcombe Ash farm. She has contracted to work there for the surly and mean-spirited Farmer Groby until Lady Day, but she presents herself at a hiring fair, held at Candlemas, in readiness for the next Lady Day.
Lady Day was one of the four quarter days in the calendar, each with its own Christian holiday, when farm rents, employment contracts for servants and agricultural workers, and other such formal matters were often settled upon in a time when clocks and calendars were scarce.
Tess’s time at Flintcombe Ash is a hard and unhappy time for her, marked by surly use by Farmer Groby, and her renewed pursuit by Alec D’urberville. It contrasts sharply with her earlier employment the previous summer at Talbothays, a lush cattle farm where she also met and was wooed by Angel Clare. Although still a very young woman, the luxuriant springtime and summer of Tess’s sexuality seem shriveled to nothing but a bitter memory by the time she is at Flintcombe Ash, and the season matches this change in her life. The devilish Alec returns to stalk her at Candlemas and again in early spring, while Tess is working the heavy threshing machine. No more dreamy days milking cows in lush verdant meadows dripping with teaming life for Tess. The changes in her circumstances dating from that Candlemas and Lady Day lead directly to her end, although this is true throughout her tale. Tess’s symbolic capture on a pagan altar indicates that we should pay attention to the key dates in Tess’s calendar, and what they mean to her. The pregnant potential of Imbolc/Candlemas is no blessing to poor Tess.
Candlemas also features prominently as a date in the birth, life, and death of a less sympathetic character in literature – that half-man, half-outer being, Wilbur Whateley, the monstrous villain of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror. The story opens with a quote from Charles Lamb’s “Witches and Other Night-Fears”, which is appropriate, as Wilbur’s tale is one of wizardry and terrors in the night.
Candlemas is the birthday of both Wilbur Whately and his unseen twin brother, although Lovecraft tells us that the locals of Dunwich “curiously observe (Candlemas) under another name.” Wilbur is a figure of potentially cosmic terror, and Lovecraft notes the significance of his Candlemas birth – “Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912″. May Eve is known is some parts of Europe, particularly Germany, as Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, a feast day which in Germanic folklore is believed to be the night that witches and the dead are abroad, and all evil things revel.
In Bram Stoker’s story Dracula’s Guest, the unnamed English protagonist (probably Dracula’s Jonathan Harker) is travelling to Transylvania on Walpurgisnacht and undergoes several supernatural ordeals during his journey.
Thus, a child conceived on Walpurgis Night, such as Wilbur Whately and his blasphemous twin, would be born on or about Imbolc/Candlemas. Hardly an auspicious start to life in shadow whispered Dunwich!
One last reference to Imbolc/Candlemas I can think of from pop culture is that of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Murray plays an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day, finds himself hexed, caught in a time loop, and doomed to repeat the same day over and over until, after being driven to commit suicide several times, he re-examines his life and is able to break the spell via his love of a good woman. The theme of the (disordered) passage of time in the film ties in with the theme of spiritual and actual rebirth that marks Imbolc, although it is tinged with a warning that if we do not embrace the opportunities for new growth, we will be denied a rebirth of any kind.
I was initially surprised how dark the references are in literature to Imbolc/Candlemas, but upon reflection, there’s no disconnect. Birth and rebirth are perilous journeys, fraught with danger, and not everyone makes it out alive, or unscathed. We may be changed irrevocably when we are reborn, possibly not for the better.
Perhaps the Irish tradition of weaving a Brigid’s cross from rushes and hanging it on the kitchen wall to protect against evil and fire, a custom which continues in some Irish households to this day, harks back to a time when the heralding of new life and the coming spring were not just the idyllic respite from the darkness of winter that we envision today.
I re-read my 2017 posts last night and really enjoyed this short mystery story that I wrote for Goodread’s #MysteryWeek in May; the idea is to write a short mystery story in no more than five sentences.
Okay, so I pushed the five-sentence rule to the absolute limits of credulity-twelve hundred words! – so I’ve edited the story to more reasonable sentence lengths while minimising any changes to the structure or flow of the story.
It’s a short revenge story set in the land of my childhood; our last home in Northern Ireland overlooked the outer dock and the shores of Belfast Lough.
THE HAND OF KANE
Barbs of rain flayed the granite skin from Napoleon’s Nose and ran down Cave Hill towards the steel-grey lough and the harbour ring road. The forensic team was clearing out, and the peelers were ducking beneath the tape that surrounded the burnt-out Vauxhall Vectra.
“Here’s what we have so far, from the VRN and ID in the vehicle…”
The young RUC officer’s eyes were pasted to his notebook, not wanting to see again the pathetic contents being zipped into the body bag. One glimpse of the dead man’s right hand had been enough, sloughed off skin, the muscle roasted and shrunk to reveal bones. The rest of his body was cherry red, untouched by fire and intact, apart from a crushing bruise over the right temple.
“James Kane, 54 years old, North Belfast, a cashier at the petrol station convenience store up the street, going by the lanyard around his neck.” He waved his hand along the road that loped around this outcrop from the shore, this dreary hinterland of distribution centres and the outer harbour ferry terminal.
“Thon’s Jimmy Kane – your man did a twenty stretch for shooting those wee Quinn lads, Catholic brothers they were, in the 70s, yonder down the road on the Jennymount estate,” his older companion and superior, Swanson, replied.
“Surprised he’s lasted this long outside – could be a Republican revenge hit. Come on Corr, we’ve had another call, possible suicide down at the city port – still feel like a bite to eat?”
The port of Belfast authority staff had taped a cordon on the dockside, where the body lay close to the ferry that was looming, waiting to return across the North channel to Cairnryan.
“We didn’t see him here for a wee while down there, at the bottom of the rock wall”, explained a harassed port authority supervisor, wiping his forehead, sweaty despite the biting breeze scuttering over the water. The body lay, half in the grey water, snagged on the gabion walls that augmented the natural quayside – male, medium height, rail thin, age maybe mid-sixties.
The trajectory was clear to all who saw his broken body; he’d leaped from the ferry, but not the one currently docked; had they really not noticed him here for four hours, Swanson wondered, dragging his fat, inexorable finger down the printed ferry timetable he was handed by the port supervisor. The previous ferry had docked just before seven this morning.
There was some connection between these two deaths, he mulled, and when Corr called Swanson’s attention to the pair of well-worn leather gloves that lay on the ground just above the body, he knew there was more to this than the suicide of two auld fellas; he had a hunch that probed his hardened but not sclerotic sensibilities, and chilled him more than the wet salt wind that dove deep into the fissures of his craggy features.
Pathology was pending, but the reports would confirm what Swanson knew; Jimmy Kane was knocked out by a mighty blow to the head and left in his still-running car with a hose from the exhaust. He suffered third-degree burns to his right hand, probably inflicted from the half-full canister of petrol by the car.
But it was the body by the ferry that held the key to the double deaths, and it told a tale as old as mankind; 64-year-old Harry Doran, born Harold Kane, elder brother to the deceased in the car, was an exile from Norn Iron for forty years.
The appointment card in his pocket for colorectal cancer treatment suggested he would soon be a permanent exile if he hadn’t taken his own way out, and the door to door plods working the neighbourhood of Jimmy’s home had convinced Swanson there was no need to pull in anyone else, Catholic or otherwise.
Jimmy Kane never moved from his birthplace, reveling in his notoriety, even taking a job close to the home of his victim’s long-suffering parents, but Harry left the province after his brother’s conviction, returning only now when he had his own death sentence –
“But Sarge”, blurted Corr, following this line of reasoning only so far, “I can see he might have wanted to off his brother, family disgrace and all that, although that doesn’t happen too often around here, but this hand and glove business; is it something to do with the flegs?”*
“You’re on the right road”, interrupted Swanson. “My theory is that Harry burned his brother’s hand to show it was a revenge killing, the Red Hand of Ulster and all that; but as to the gloves, take a gander at the items found on Doran’s body.”
He handed a printed sheet to Corr, who scanned the list, none the wiser:
Appointment card for Oncology Department, Royal Marsden Hospital
Order of service card for funeral of Mrs. Roberta Doran, dated one week previously
Leather wallet, same brand as the gloves found on deceased, containing cash and a one-way ferry ticket to Belfast
A pocket bible, Old and New Testament
Three news articles cut from the Belfast Telegraph, various dates; the oldest one covering the 1974 retaliation murder of brothers Matthew and Mark Quinn, a later story about tension in the community after Jimmy Kane was employed close to his victim’s family, and an article on the history and myths surrounding the symbol of the Red Hand of Ulster.
Shakily underlined in felt tip pen on the third sheet of paper, worn smooth from being handled and folded many times, was the following passage:
Some myths tell of a time when Ulster was without a king so a boat race was held; the one whose hand first touched the shore of Ulster would win the crown. One contestant, seeing that he was losing the race, cut off his hand and threw it to shore, thus winning the race.
* Author’s note – “flegs” is how the people of Belfast pronounce the word ‘flag’, but is also used in discussions to encapsulate the opposing loyalist and republican viewpoints of the topic of flags, and when and where they are erected in Northern Ireland, a hotly debated topic that has erupted into violence in the past.