The young man, who was not yet an engineer but was on the path to becoming one, sat at one of the empty tables in the College’s common room and spread his notes and hydrology textbook out before him. Final exams were only a few weeks away now and the room was crowded with anxious students. The TV droned in the background. Outside, spring was coming and London’s street trees were showing the first green. He’d spoken to Helena yesterday, back in Canada, made some progress towards patching it up. She’d been angry with him for a long time, upset about him being in trouble with the law when he was supposed to be studying, but over the last few months he’d managed to convince her that he had learned his lesson. He was going to do his thesis in Africa, had secured sponsorship for the work from the World Bank. He would finish his degree, get a job somewhere doing something good. Then he’d ask her. Maybe things might still work out.
He opened the textbook and started work. He was half way through a difficult derivation when someone turned up the TV.
‘Quiet,’ a student shouted.
It was the BBC, a special report. Breaking news. Everyone stopped work, turned towards the TV.
‘Oh my God,’ he heard someone say.
Five months earlier, before Christmas, when he’d lost Helena and the days were short and dark and cold, the young man pushed his way through to the bar. The publican raised bushy greying eyebrows at him. The young man pointed at the three half-poured pints of Guinness ranked up on the double blue Dublin GAA bar towel, Áth Cliath just visible between two glasses. ‘A pint of that, please,’ he said.
The publican frowned, started to it.
‘I’ll have a pint of that, too,’ said a voice from behind. Laughter broke over the din of a hundred and fifty raised, mostly male, voices. ‘You from America?’
The young man turned towards the voice. A broad smile beamed out at him from a face chiselled from the Muskoka granite of his childhood, brown and pink feldspars flecked with muscovite. The guy took a couple of steps towards him, leaned in across the bar, put down a fiver. ‘It’s on me, Seamus,’ he said to the publican, turning towards the young man and offering his hand. ‘Seán,’ he said.
The young man took the hand, shook, spoke his own name. ‘Thanks.’
Seán handed him a glass, raised his own. ‘Sláinte.’
They moved away from the bar scrum, found some space towards the back of the pub.
‘What’re you doing here, then?’ said Seán, wiping foam from his top lip, glancing towards the front door. His forearms were like twisted rope.
‘Drinking,’ said the young man.
Seán smiled. ‘I mean here in London.’
Seán sipped, nodded. ‘Oh, yeah. Very good. A man of education.’ His accent was very thick and it was hard for the young man to understand.
‘I’ve only been here a couple of months,’ said the young man.
‘We like Americans here.’
‘I’m Canadian,’ said the young man.
‘Just as good,’ said Seán. ‘As long as you ain’t a fecking brit.’
Just then a cold gust swept through the narrowness of the pub as the front door swung open. Two men stepped inside, stood a moment silhouetted in yellow streetlight, then closed the door behind them. Stamping the rain from their dark jackets, they peered in through the smoke.
‘Stay for the music later,’ said Seán, patting him on the shoulder.
But before the young man could reply Seán was moving away through the crowd, towards the front door. Every few steps, someone would reach for Seán’s hand or nod to him. Women smiled at him, whispered to each other as he passed. He greeted the two men who’d just come in to the place. One of them clasped his forearm for a long time, his other hand on Seán’s shoulder as he spoke. After a while the three of them moved off towards the bar.
‘Friend of Seán’s are you then?’ said a lilting female voice.
The young man turned and looked down at the woman. ‘Pardon?’
‘Seán Savage,’ she said. ‘Friend of yours?’ Her hair was the colour of an October maple. She was very pretty.
The young man shook his head. ‘We just met.’
The woman pursed her lips and held out a slim red and black print newspaper. ‘Copy of the An Phoblacht?’ She rattled the tin held around her neck by a string. ‘Money for the cause?’
‘What’s the Phoblacht?’ said the young man, mangling the pronunciation.
‘War news,’ she said with a you’ve-got-to-be-joking twist on her lips.
The young man reached into his pocket and dropped three one-pound coins into the tin.
‘Bless you,’ said the woman, already moving away, canvassing other patrons.
The young man set his half-finished pint on a table, opened the paper, read. In the aftermath of the bombing at Enniskillen on Remembrance Day, which the IRA described as a monumental error, loyalist paramilitaries were carrying out revenge attacks on Catholics across Belfast.
Soon, the music started. A five piece band played on a small stage across from the bar, Irish pipes and fiddles. Seán was up there, a flute pressed to his lips. Everyone in the place was standing. Bodies swayed to the music, neighbours linked arms. Voices rose spontaneously in chorus, strange ballads in a language the young man did not understand, melodies of longing and loss, of being far from home. The young man stood transfixed, carried along. He thought of his own home, so far away, under snow now, his younger brother there, his widowed mother. He thought of Helena, of what she’d said to him the last time he’d seen her, when she’d ended it.
And then the band leader was thanking the audience, and the final number began. Everyone stood. Voices rose together, singing in that haunting ancient language. Old men swayed hand on heart, tears streaming across their ruddy bearded cheeks. The final notes hung a moment in the thickened cigarette air and it was over. The front doors were thrown open. The smell of winter rain and wet city pavement flooded the place, the cold wind swirling in dead leaves and scraps of rubbish. People moved towards the doors, disappeared into the night. The young man folded the paper and slipped it into the inside breast pocket of his jacket, started for the door.
He was at the end of the bar, not far from the doors, when he felt a hand on his elbow. The grip was strong and forced him to turn. It was Seán.
‘Stay for another,’ Seán said, still holding the young man’s elbow.
‘I’ve got to get back,’ said the young man, looking down at Seán’s hand, back up at his face. ‘Classes tomorrow.’
‘Ah yeah, the engineering,’ said Seán, smiling. ‘Building a better world.’
‘That’s why I’m here.’
Sean was guiding him towards the bar now, against the outward flow of those leaving. ‘Come on. Just one,’ he said. ‘Never know if it might be your last.’
The young man braced his legs, stopped. He looked down at the hand still clamped to his elbow. He was taller by a few inches, but he was pretty sure that Seán was stronger, and from the look of him could handle himself. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I really appreciate it. But I’ve really got to get going.’
Seán smiled and let go of his elbow. ‘Sorry, friend,’ he said. ‘I get a little carried away sometimes. It’s like I said. We like Americans here.’ He smiled again. It was a big smile, full of straight white teeth. He was a good looking guy. ‘Sorry, yeah. I meant North Americans.’ He looked down at the floor. When he looked back up his smile was gone. ‘We’re both a long way from home, yeah. Have a drink with me and then we’ll go.’
The young man looked around. The place was almost empty now, and there was no sign of the two men that Seán had been talking to earlier, before the singing. He followed Seán to the bar. Two pints of Guinness were waiting for them, along with a four pack of tinnies. Seán lit a cigarette, inhaled deep. They drank and watched the last stragglers leave the pub.
‘What was that song you were all singing, there at the end?’ said the young man.
‘The Amhrán na bhFiann,’ said Seán, downing his pint. ‘The Soldier’s Song. My song.’ He slammed his glass on the bar. ‘Let’s go.’
The young man finished his drink and followed Seán to the door. Outside, the rain was coming hard and oblique across the street. It was gone midnight and the street was empty both ways, just the forlorn flashing of the yellow globe light at the pedestrian crossing nearby and the rain sheeting across the lamplit pavement.
‘Thanks again for the beer,’ said the young man. ‘Nice meeting you.’ The he raised the collar of his jacket and crossed the road, turned left and started towards Kilburn tube station, feeling as if he’d escaped something. He’d just passed the all-you-can-eat buffet Indian place he’d eaten at before going into the pub – all closed up now, the windows barred and doors pad-locked - when Seán jogged up beside him.
‘Hold up there a minute,’ he said.
The young man stopped, faced him.
Seán held out his hand. ‘You dropped this,’ he said.
The young man took it. It was a Canadian passport. His. ‘Holy Jesus,’ he said. ‘Where did you find it?’
‘On the floor in the pub,’ said Seán, ripping a tinny from the plastic holder. ‘You must have dropped it. You should be more careful.’
‘Thanks.’ The young man slipped the passport into the front pocket of his jeans. He had no idea how it could have fallen out. He must be drunker than he’d thought. ‘Thanks a lot.’
Seán handed him a tin of beer. The young man took it, opened it, gulped down half the tin.
Seán smiled at him, opened one himself. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’m going to the station, too. It’s not far.’
They started walking. After a few steps Seán stopped cold. ‘Shite,’ he said. A police car was up ahead, crawling towards them, very slowly, lights on high. ‘Here we go,’ he said.
‘Here we go what?’ said the young man, watching the car creep closer. It was on the same side of the street as they were, in the curbside lane.
‘Fecking cops. Always harassing us. It’s been worse since Enniskillen.’
The young man took another sip of beer. ‘We’re not doing anything wrong.’ They kept walking. A second car had appeared now, behind the first, rolling towards them at walking pace, no more. The young man was on the outside, closest to the curb.
‘You better step back from the curb,’ said Seán. ‘Don’t provoke them.’
‘Provoke them? Just by walking on the pavement?’
Just then the lead police car nudged in so that its outside tyres were right up against the curb stones. The rubber made a squeaking sound as the tyres flexed against the curb. The lead car was less than twenty metres away from them now.
Seán grabbed his elbow, tried to pull him away from the edge of the pavement but the young man jerked his arm away. ‘Move away,’ said Seán. The car was close now.
The young man set himself so that he was walking right on the edge of the curb towards the approaching car. He could see the two cops looking out at him from behind the windscreen. They wore peaked caps and black bullet proof vests.
The car grazed the young man’s hip like a slow-motion bull charging a matador. As it did, its side wing mirror clipped him and snapped back on its hinges.
‘Shite,’ said Seán.
As soon as the car made contact it slammed to a halt. Doors flung open and the two cops were out and facing them, hands on belts. They were big guys, tall and broad chested, bulked up by their gear. ‘You hit the car,’ one of the cops bellowed.
‘I didn’t hit it,’ said the young man. ‘I was standing on the pavement. You hit me.’
‘Fucking Micks,’ said the other cop.
‘You fucking hit the car,’ shouted the first one.
‘Look, we’re sorry,’ said Seán, backing away.
‘Get out your ID, you cunts,’ said the other cop.
‘What the hell is this?’ said the young man, holding his ground. ‘We’re minding our own business, walking home. We have every right to be here. We’ve done nothing wrong.’ Behind him, Seán was backing away.
The two cops glanced at each other.
‘We’ve got a fucking barrister here,’ said the second cop, his mouth wrenched into something that may have been a grin.
‘Get out your ID,’ said the other one.
‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’ said the young man, getting into his stride now. ‘Go and chase some real criminals.’
The second cop pulled out his night stick, palmed it. ‘Fucking genius, you are,’ he hissed.
‘Right, you’ve been told,’ said the first cop. He started towards them.
‘What is this?’ said the young man, angry now, the alcohol fuelling the heat rising inside him. ‘We’re perfectly within our rights to walk here. I mean, what the hell is this, some kind of police state?’
The first cop was closing on him now. ‘Rights? What rights, you fucking scum.’
The young man, who’d played a lot of ice hockey and Canadian football, flung his half empty beer can at the cop, crouched low and charged. He didn’t really know why he did it, didn’t think about it. The tin missed the cop’s head but the spray caught him in the face, momentarily blinding him. The young man hit the cop square in the hips with a full tackle, knocking him off his feet and spearing him into the pavement. He heard a crack as the back of the cop’s head hit the concrete and then a hiss as the air came out of the cop’s lungs.
Half an hour later the young man stood before a wooden desk. The second cop from the street stood beside him. Behind the desk, a uniformed police sergeant with a thick grey moustache sat looking through a passport. On the desk was the young man’s wallet, a return tube ticket from South Kensington, and a folded copy of the An Phoblacht. The young man ran his tongue over his lower lip, explored the thick heat of the split there, checked his teeth to see they were all still in his head. He was pretty sure his nose was broken, could already feel his eyes swelling up. His ribs ached and the handcuffs bit into his wrists.
The sergeant put down the passport and looked up at him. ‘What were you doing in that pub, young man?’ His voice was like far off thunder, deep and resonant.
‘I just went in for a drink, Sir. That’s all.’
The sergeant picked up the An Phoblacht, started leafing through the pages. ‘Why are you in the United Kingdom?’ he said without looking up.
‘I’m doing a Master’s degree in engineering at Imperial College. My student card is in my wallet.’
The sergeant opened his wallet, found the card, pulled it out. ‘And is assaulting police officers part of the curriculum now at that august institution?’
The young man hung his head. ‘No, Sir. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have.’
‘No you bloody well should not have,’ said the sergeant, replacing the student card. ‘The gentleman you were walking with at the time of your arrest, how do you know him?’
‘I met him in the bar.’
‘Did you know him previously?’
‘No, Sir. We had a couple of beers together is all.’
‘What did you talk about?’
‘Not much really. He was playing in the band mostly.’
‘One of those,’ laughed the second cop. ‘Fucking queen, he is.’
The sergeant glanced at the cop, leaned forward across the desk. ‘I want you to tell me everything that he said to you, everything he did.’
The young man recounted as much of their conversation as he could. ‘Two men came into the place,’ he said. ‘Seán – that was his name – met with them. They knew each other.’
The sergeant reached into a drawer and withdrew a black-and-white A4 photograph. It was grainy and slightly out of focus, two men in heavy coats standing in front of a building. ‘Were these the men?’
The young man nodded. His stomach was churning now, that feeling that he was in real trouble creeping through him.
‘Put him in the pit,’ said the sergeant.
The cell was bare and cold so he could see his own breath. The only light came from a small barred opening in the riveted steel door. The only other occupant was a very thin and very badly beaten young Irishman who lay shivering on the floor, mumbling to himself. The young man sat in the corner with his arms wrapped around his knees and wondered if he’d just done something very stupid.
Come morning, he was led to a holding room, and then onto a police van. Six other men in various states of dishevelment sat silently as the streets of London rolled past, fresh under scattered cloud and shifting islands of bright sunshine. Twenty minutes later they arrived at a large brick building with a secure wired receiving area. He was led through a long brickwork corridor and down two flights of Victorian ironwork stairs to what could only be called a dungeon – a large arched central space with barred holding cells ranged around on three sides. His cell was the size of a prairie outhouse, so small he couldn’t stand up straight and was forced to crouch and lean up against the brickwork walls.
A kid with fair hair and tattooed forearms watched him from the cell opposite. After a while he said: ‘What you in for, guv?’
‘I hit a cop,’ said the young man.
The kid laughed.
‘I nicked a motor, didn’t I?’ he said in a thick London accent.
Just then the main door to the dungeon opened. A young woman in a navy blue skirt and matching jacket strode in. She had long legs and dark hair pulled back in a ponytail.
‘Phwoar,’ said the kid, smiling big. ‘Here you go.’ Whistles echoed around the room.
The woman stood a moment, checked her notebook and approached the young man’s cell. ‘I am your public defender,’ she said.
‘Hi,’ said the young man, trying a smile.
‘We don’t have long,’ she said. ‘Your arraignment is in ten minutes, so let’s get started.’ She read the police report to him. He had attacked and damaged a police car, hurled beer cans at officers, and assaulted and hospitalised a policeman. His actions had been unprovoked. ‘Prosecution is moving for deportation,’ she said, looking up from her notes through a pair of dark rimmed glasses. Her skin was without flaw, as white as her well-filled blouse.
A fizz ran through him, pooled in his extremities.
‘Tell me what happened.’
He told her. ‘They initiated it. Not me. Ask the guy I was with. He can confirm it.’
‘Seán? Seán Savage?’
The woman closed her notebook. She looked about his age, mid-twenties. ‘After you hit the constable, the other policemen chased him, but he got away.’
His word against that of four policemen. Not good. Still, he was glad Seán had been spared the beating he would surely also have taken. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry for what I did. It was stupid. I was drunk and angry at being harassed. I’m half way through my degree. I’m paying a lot of money to be here.’
‘We should be able to get you off with a year’s probation,’ she said. ‘Keep out of trouble from here on in and you’ll be able to stay. They don’t care about you.’
Relief flooded through him. ‘Thank you,’ he said.
She made to leave.
‘Wait,’ he said.
She stopped, turned to face him.
‘What do you mean, they don’t care about me?’
‘Don’t worry about that. We’re going up in a few minutes. Just remember to be contrite. Be honest, but express regret. Be polite.’
By now everyone was crowding around the TV. The BBC reporter was on location, standing in a sunny street somewhere. Behind her, cars streamed in both directions. The red information bar at the bottom of the screen read: Breaking news. SAS operatives had today conducted an operation against suspected IRA terrorists in Gibraltar, the reporter said. The suspected terrorists, two men and a woman, were planning an attack on a military installation in Gibraltar and were confronted in the forecourt of a petrol station. Two of the terrorists, Mairéad Farrel and Daniel McCaan, were shot dead immediately. The third man escaped and was chased through the streets by the soldiers. When he turned to confront them he was killed by multiple gunshots to the head and body. He had been tentatively identified, the announcer said, as Seán Savage.
PEH, May 2016, London, and Nicosia