A TRUSTED NEIGHBOUR
by Bernard MacLaverty
Ben dried a fork and set it in the correct compartment of the cutlery drawer. Maureen liked to keep them all facing the same way so that they socketed together. The same with the spoons. He stared vacantly out the window at the Warners, the old couple next door. Their kitchens faced each other. They were fussing around behind swagged net curtains making their evening meal.
The girls had gone to the school disco and Ben was hopeful. Maureen was in the sitting room watching the news. He joined her at the closing music and was about to switch the television off.
'Leave that on,' she said. 'I've some ironing to do.'
Maureen went out and came back with a plastic barrel of washed clothes.
'Ulster television?' His voice was high with incredulity. She set up her ironing board with a clank and a metallic screech.
'It's a programme about Donegal.'
'No need to be so defensive,' he said. He went to her and kissed her, held her in his arms for a long time, caressed the D curve of her stomach - she was six months gone. The steam iron sighed as it heated.
Ben sat down. After a while he said,
'When will it be over?'
'Half past. And the answer is no.' Ben laughed. 'You can't get more pregnant.'
The ironing board creaked.
'I have too much to do.'
'The fact that you don't even know means that you have no idea what's involved.'
'Anything I can help with?'
'Not really.' The iron clicked against the button of a shirt. 'How's Aunt Norah?'
Since her operation Ben called in most days to his Aunt's house to check on her. It was just around the corner from his work. She nearly always had a bowl of soup for him. Over his lunch he read the paper. That day in the obituary columns he'd read of the death of Dawson Orr. He hadn't told Maureen yet because such news could create uncertainty. Everything would become unpredictable and it was an extremely rare event for the two girls to be out together. He could tell her afterwards.
The programme about Donegal came on and Maureen ironed and glanced up every so often following it.
'It's lovely,' she said. 'You can nearly smell the turf smoke.'
'Do you want me to do some?'
'I can only do square things. Hankies and towels.'
'Junior Infants ironing,' Maureen said. 'I'm not going to bother doing these sheets.' She made him stand and take one end of the cotton sheet and pull it taut. Still she watched the television. They folded and pulled again and again. She advanced folding the sheet neatly. When they came together he kissed her on her averted cheek and she smiled. She made him kiss her on the mouth. 'For the look of the thing' she ironed the top and bottom of the folded sheet.
The last time Ben had seen Dawson was about a month ago. He was hardly recognisable, his face swollen up with steroids. But the moustache was there and, hidden in the pale orb of his shaved head, a distant likeness to his old self. Ben was in the Royal Victoria Hospital to visit his Aunt when a trolley with someone on it was pushed past him in the corridor. He was sure it was Dawson but the poor bastard was aware of nothing, just lolling there. The trolley turned into a private room where a uniformed RUC man stood on guard.
The other thing that stayed with him that day was the girl in the bed next-but-one to his Aunt. She was about fourteen, a child with long dark hair - very pale, very still, sitting straight up, not propped on her pillows. He asked about her. It looked like she had measles or chicken pox.
'No,' said his Aunt, lowering her voice. 'She was near that bomb in King Street.' The girl turned to look at Ben. The other side of her face was pale and without a mark.
'She knows we're talking about her,' Ben said.
'She knows nothing of the sort,' said his Aunt. 'She hasn't heard a thing since she came in here, God love her.' It was remarkable, the way her face was pocked and pitted on one side but not the other. Like blizzard snow on one side of a tree trunk. 'That's what broken glass can do to you. Compliments of the Provos, ' said his Aunt.
The reason he knew someone like Dawson was because they'd been next door neighbours at one time. When Ben and Maureen were first married they'd lived in a small student flat off the Ormeau Road. Their family grew - two girls came in the space of three years.
'Very Roman Catholic,' the guys in the department had kidded him. The flat became too small. Maureen had saved some of her Civil Service gratuity - in those days married women had to leave - and Ben got a promotion at work. They managed to put enough together for the deposit on a red brick semi in a mixed Catholic and Protestant area.
Several months after they moved into the house Ben discovered what his next door neighbour, Dawson Orr, did for a living. Their two wives had swapped the information across the chicken wire fence which separated their properties. When asked what her husband did, Mrs Orr was somewhat hesitant. She said something about the Civil Service. Maureen laughed at the coincidence and said that she, too, had worked in the Civil Service before she was married - what branch was her husband in? Reluctantly Mrs Orr admitted, almost under her breath, that her husband was in the police.
Maureen thought her attitude entirely reasonable. She'd have done the same thing if she'd been in her shoes. The situation in Northern Ireland in those days was appalling. People being driven out of their homes by one side or the other. You wouldn't like to advertise the fact that you were even vaguely connected with the security forces. Explosions and petrol bombings, snipings, doorstep killings. But the area where they had bought their house was utterly quiet. All the trouble seemed to be happening on television.
Both neighbours had young families - the three Orr children were a year or two older than Ben's. And at that age such a difference is crucial. Their not playing together had nothing to do with them being a different religion.
Sometime after that conversation between the wives Ben and Dawson shook hands over the fence. Ben's impression was that he had just clasped a bunch of warm sausages. Dawson Orr was a big man - in middle age - between forty and fifty with a round face and double chins. He had a little moustache which he was forever touching - sometimes a stroke with his finger-tips, sometimes with an upward movement with the back of his knuckle as if he was trying to shape it into handle-bars.
'I'm very easy-going,' he would say. 'But don't try to put one over on me. I don't have any degrees but then you don't need them in my line of work. Because you're up against boyos as thick as two short planks. I can run rings round most people.' Then he laughed. He had a nice laugh, his face all creased and his eyes were dancing in his head.
The next morning when Ben was walking the long avenue to the bus terminus he heard the deep throated rumble of a motorbike behind him. Dawson pulled up in the grey light.
'Want a lift?'
'What is it?'
Ben swung his leg over and sat balancing. The bike took off shakily. 'You'll have to learn to ride pillion,' Dawson shouted over his shoulder. 'Lean with the bend. Relax. Don't fight it.' Ben put his hands lightly on Dawson's back and sensed the big body beneath the clothes. When they hit the main road Dawson pretended to be a commentator with an American accent. 'And Artie Bell is going flat out - doing the full fuckin hundred down the Seven Mile Straight. Are you okay?' He had to shout to be heard. 'Try as far as possible to keep your shit internal.'
The lift didn't happen every morning but was an occasional thing. Sometimes, according to what the weather was like, Dawson wore a belted creamy gabardine, sometimes a black leather jacket. 'You can put your arms around me. Or if you don't fancy that - join your hands behind your back.' If Ben kept his eyes fixed ahead then he discovered that his body naturally adopted the correct angles. There were fat horizontal creases in Dawson's neck. He couldn't imagine putting his arms around him and yet he hadn't enough bravado to hold onto nothing. So he put his hands on Dawson's back, up near the shoulders. He thought he was aware of a ridge or strap beneath the clothing and wondered if it was a holster. Policemen carried guns, didn't they? 'Your instinct's to lean the wrong way. Remember the Wall of Death.' If they went into a corner and Dawson felt that Ben was resisting he'd laugh and shout 'The Wall of Death - fuck ya.'
Dawson never wore a uniform so Ben assumed that he must be a detective of some sort. Maybe even Special Branch. Neither did he wear a motorcycle helmet. If he was stopped by the police he would just say who he was. If it happened on a morning when Ben was on the back he hoped Dawson would get his pillion passenger off the rap as well.
Dawson also had a car, a big red Cortina parked at the side of the house. The Orr's garage was like Smithfield market - stacked to the door with junk and abandoned toys and washing machines that no longer functioned. Ben couldn't work out when or why Dawson used which method of transport. When he drove past him in the car he never offered a lift, even if it was pouring. Then one morning Ben was just turning out of the avenue onto the main road when he saw Dawson driving the Cortina and taking a right turn - and driving out of town.
The only time Dawson visited was late at night. Usually he was a bit drunk.
He didn't ring the doorbell but just tapped the lit and curtained window with the tip of his car key. It was a small sound but it always scared the shit out of Ben. At times like these. Someone outside. Ben would switch on the outside light and see the bulky figure through the full length ribbed glass. Then open the door.
'I see you're not in bed yet.'
Dawson lowered his shoulder and made to step in. Ben could do nothing but swing the door open. Dawson proceeded into the living room where Maureen smiled up at him and turned off the television. He sat in Ben's warm armchair by the hi-fi, the car keys still in his hand. His leather jacket creaked when he moved.
'I'm just on my way to bed,' she said. Dawson grinned, his eyes heavy.
'You don't wait for the Queen, then?'
'You'd be surprised.' Dawson laughed.
Maureen lifted two empty cups and a crumb-covered plate. Now that the television was off she lowered her voice and looked up meaningfully at the ceiling.
'If you waken those children, I'll kill the both of you.' Ben was sitting down. 'Don't be too long - you've your work in the morning, Ben.'
'What about me?' said Dawson.
'Yeah, you too.'
When Maureen left the room and could be heard turning on and off taps in the kitchen Dawson said,
'Have you any drink in the house? Eh?'
'There's a bottle of home made wine there. But the only reason it's there is because it tastes so awful. Elderberry.'
'No. If there's drink in the house it generally gets drunk the same evening.'
Dawson reached into his pocket and produced a flat half bottle of Bushmills. There was already some out of it.
'Do you fancy a wee Bush?'
'It'll help you sleep.' Dawson held out his arms. 'A glass and some water is all we require. Civilised standards must be maintained.'
Ben went into the kitchen and Maureen raised an eyebrow to him. She was holding an empty hot water bottle in her arms waiting for the kettle to boil.
'He's got some whiskey,' Ben whispered.
'Keep him quiet. No big laughing.' Ben got tumblers and a milk jug full of water and went back into the living room where Dawson was twisted in the chair tilting his head trying to read the spines of Ben's LPs. Ben poured and watered the whiskey.
'Cheers,' said Dawson.
They clinked glasses. Dawson drank half his tumbler in one go and smacked his lips.
'A Protestant whiskey for a Protestant people,' he said. 'What kinda music are you into at the minute?'
'Trumpeter - jazz. Very cool.'
'Fuck that. There's nobody like the King. The greatest thing since sliced bread. There's nobody to touch him.' It was too much of an effort for Dawson to get up so he moved his pelvis in the chair a little. He began to croon 'Are you lonesome tonight'. Ben shushed him, pointing upstairs. Dawson stopped and launched into a conspiratorial whisper.
'Sorry. Forgot myself.' He looked at the shelf beside him. 'Who likes the ceilidh music?'
'Maureen. She's a country girl.'
'Diddley-di music - that's what I call it. All very same-y. I couldn't be bothered with it. That's not a criticism. It takes all sorts, eh? We are all thrown together whether we like it or not. Gotta make the best of it. You're a nice guy.' Dawson winked at him. Ben could hardly believe it. 'It's good to have you next door. I mean it could be anybody - any Tom , Dick or Harry. Or Shaun or Seamus. If only they were all like you.'
'What are you on about?'
'You know. in my ...' He shrugged his shoulders and the leather of his jacket made a sound. Was that bulge made by his gun? 'A trusted neighbour is an important thing.'
'What do you mean?'
'You could go to anybody. Shop me.'
'If that's what you think.' Ben stared at him.
'I don't mean you. One's next door neighbour. Would be in a position. kinda thing.'
'Who would I shop you to?'
'I have no friends like that.'
'Oh I know, I know. I'm only speaking in general.' He drank off what remained in the glass. 'A word here and a word there - it might get around.' He refilled his glass. 'I see you're not ready yet.'
Ben looked at his watch and turned on the news on the radio. Another body had been found hooded and shot through the head on the Seven Mile Straight.
'Why's it always the Seven Mile Straight?' said Ben.
'You can see headlights coming from a long way off. Gives you time to take cover or tidy up. Put the finishing touches to whatever you're doing.'
The next morning Ben got a lift on the back of the bike. Neither of them spoke a word. Dawson dropped him at his work on the Lisburn Road and then sped on through the traffic, his arm raised in a wave.
Around about the time Dawson started calling late at night there was a colleague, Paul Magill, who'd come into work in a terrible state one day. He lived in a dodgy mixed area somewhere up near Alliance Avenue and he'd been threatened by Loyalists. They were going to burn him out. If not tonight, then some night soon. Their windows had already been broken twice - and somebody had fired a shot at the house, gouging a hole in the brickwork. He and his family were going to have to move - he had two wee boys. He said he was going to stay at his parents' place until they got somewhere. But in the meantime they had nowhere to put their stuff.
'I've a garage,' Ben said. 'And no car.'
That evening Paul drove up in a borrowed lorry. The open back was full of his furniture. 'When you see this stuff in the light of day. it seems hardly worth saving.'
There was a butcher's smell of fat and raw meat off the wood. Blood stains were on the walls and tailgate.
'Jesus who owns the transport?'
'Charlie the hide man's. It was this or nothing.'
'I thought you'd been out murdering.'
Paul had his brother, Vincent, with him. He said,
'That's in the future.'
They unloaded everything into the garage. It had all been thrown together in great haste. Cardboard boxes full of things that shouldn't have been together. In one, cups and glasses and a yellow duck and a telephone directory. Another with saucers and fire irons and tasselled cushions, doily mats and enamel-backed hair brushes, which were obviously family heirlooms. There were sad, intimate things like a scarlet brassiere and suspender belt which Paul, when he noticed they were on show, covered with a pillow. Sagging sofa's and bicycles and bed heads and scuffed armchairs. All three of them were needed to lift the old-fashioned, heavy bed frame with its springs which clashed and shivered when they set it down on the concrete floor.
Next door Mrs Orr came into her kitchen to do the dishes and watched the unloading. She smiled and waved.
When everything was stored in the garage Ben pulled down the door and they went into the house for a cup of tea. Maureen was very concerned for Paul. She laid her hand on his shoulder as they sat at the kitchen table.
'You poor thing,' she said. Paul nodded - agreeing with her.
'It's unbelievable,' said Vincent.
'How can it happen,' said Maureen, 'in this day and age - that the police can't protect you in your own home?'
'Because the police - as you call them-are even worse.'
'They're practically ushering the bastards through,' said Vincent, 'pointing out the Catholic houses. Can I light your petrol bomb for you, sir? May I draw your attention to number fourteen, sir. - so far it's gone completely unscathed.'
'Aw come on. It's not as bad as that,' said Maureen.
'Did you not see them at Burntollet? Siding with the ones that stoned us.'
'Us?' said Maureen.
'Vincent's been on every Civil Rights march so far,' said Paul, smiling.
'They were standing around chatting up loyalists guys wearing armbands who were openly organizing the stone throwing,' Vincent's voice rose in pitch, then dropped again. 'All very lovey-dovey.'
'I don't distinguish between them any more.'
'There's bigots and bigots in uniform.'
'But every state must police itself,' Ben said. 'Law and order is important.'
'Their law.their idea of order.'Vincent snorted. 'If I knew where a cop lived. I swear to God I'd.' His fists were knotted on the table and around his mouth had become pale. 'Maybe not me but .He'd be dealt with. I'd make sure of it. Fuckers like that.'
'Careful with the language,' said Maureen. She listened to hear where the children were playing. Vincent put up his hands in admission. Ben looked at Maureen and their eyes met and held for a moment. Paul grinned,
'The family firebrand. Is it any wonder he's on the pirate radio.'
'Shut up Paul.'
'Well it's not Radio Orange or the Voice of Ulster.'
'I can never find any of them on the dial,' said Maureen.
'They're jamming them all the time now.'
It was a Saturday some weeks later when Dawson and Ben coincided at their back doors. Ben was going to the garage for a hammer.
'Hi,' said Dawson. 'That's a pisser of a day.'
'Aye.' Ben bent to open the garage door. The up-and-over mechanism screeched as the door went up.
Dawson came closer to the fence and stood smiling.
'Who's is all the stuff?' He nodded into the dark garage.
'A mate at work.'
'Is he in there too?' Dawson laughed.
'Naw - he was threatened out of his house.'
'Where was he living?'
Dawson gave a low whistle. He came right up to the chicken wire fence and stared into the open garage.
'How long have you to keep it for?'
'Until he gets another place.'
Dawson was trying to figure out what he was seeing.
'Filing cabinets and everything,' he said, shaking his head.
'I don't know what's in there,' said Ben.
'Are there papers and stuff?'
'Anything and everything,' said Ben. 'D'you mean newspapers?'
'Naw - documentation.'
'I've no idea what's there. I'm just doing him a favour.'
'If he's living in the Ardoyne he must be keen.'
'The republican cause.'
'Get a grip. How would I know? I only work with him. It's a favour.'
'What do you call him?'
'A big bastard - among other things.'
Dawson laughed then said,
'There wouldn't be too many from the Ardoyne who wouldn't be involved, eh Ben?'
'Come on, you know what I'm talking about. What do you think? I mean that could be why they were threatening him.'
'Not at all.'
Ben turned his back and went into the garage. He began rooting about, looking for his toolbox. Dawson leaned his elbow on the cement post which held up the wire fencing watching him.
'The Ardoyne is a rough place right now. Indian country. You wouldn't want to be going in there after dark. Come to think of it you wouldn't want to be going in there at any time of the day or night . I mean, you could go. But not me.'
'I don't know it at all.' Ben was having to shout from inside the garage.
'They've arms dumps and bomb factories and pirate radio stations and God knows what.' Suddenly Dawson's voice was right beside him. He must have walked the whole way round the fence and down Ben's drive. Ben found his toolbox and knelt down in front of it. He opened the lid and pulled up the sections, which then became a staircase of trays on either side. He selected a picture hook and some nails.
'I've got one of those toolboxes too. They're very handy.' Dawson was beginning to move in amongst the stored furniture, looking at this and that.
'It's difficult to tell if people are involved. They don't grow horns or anything.'
'He's not involved. I know. The Loyalists threatened him because he was . a Catholic - and he was sure it was going to turn into another Bombay Street.'
'I'll tell you one thing about Bombay Street.'
'They did it themselves.'
'The Roman Catholic families torched their own houses.'
'That is the greatest load of . How can you say that?'
'I wasn't there to see it but it's what I'm told. By reliable colleagues.'
'Why the fuck would anyone want to burn their own house?'
'Look at it this way. Who gains? The Protestant community gets a bad name. Everything is moved that bit closer to a United Ireland. The Republicans win no matter what way you interpret it. So the Roman Catholics were persuaded to torch their own houses so's the Protestant people would lose face.'
'Dawson, are you taking the piss?'
'I certainly am not,' he laughed.
'It's a complete paradox.'
'Is it now?'
'Is that for whitening your whites?' Dawson smiled and flicked his moustache.
'No - it's a contradiction. Something that .'
'Can you not take a joke, Ben. I'm only winding you up. Parazone. Oxodol. Maybe you're too young to remember. You think I don't know? What a paradox is? You think I'm not educated?'
Ben got up off his knee and closed the toolbox.
'I'd better be getting on,' he said. He picked up his claw hammer and stood waiting for Dawson to take the hint and leave the garage. Dawson had his hands in his jacket pockets. He bent his knees and crouched a little as if to see beneath something resting on a chest of drawers. 'These things aren't mine, Dawson.'
'I know. I know. Keep your hair on,' he laughed and turned to face the light. 'You can almost smell the jelly off them.' Ben didn't laugh but stood waiting with his free arm in the air, reaching for the handle. Dawson shuffled around some cardboard boxes and out onto the driveway. Ben pulled on the up-and-over door. It swung to the floor and shut with a resounding boom. Dawson took his hands out of his pockets and wrinkled his nose. Then he brushed up his moustache.
'Hanging pictures?' he said.
'Putting up a calendar.'
Dawson walked back to his own driveway and Ben watched him. When Dawson had returned to his back door he spoke over to Ben
'I'm only winding you up.'
Ben went into the house.
Then something odd started to happen. At first Ben hardly noticed it. Because of his work he was always up first and would move about as quietly as he could so's not to wake the children. They slept at the front of the house with their bedroom door open. Downstairs in the kitchen he'd put on the kettle. He had a technique for the radio - turn the volume to zero then switch on, slowly making it loud enough to hear. The news was depressing. Two murders. There were houses burned in the Short Strand.
This particular morning was cold. He carried his tea into the front room and pulled the curtains. He opened the slats of the Venetian blind and looked out at the small garden. There had been a heavy frost and all the plants had become grey and limp. Dawson had parked his car in front of Ben's house. The silly bastard. He comes home at all hours, probably drunk, overshoots and abandons his car on the pavement in front of my bloody house. Why does he do that?
It began to happen regularly. Late at night Dawson would park his car at a rakish angle, half on, half off the pavement at Ben's gate. Over the next couple of weeks Dawson gave him many lifts on the back of the Norton. Seated on the pillion, his eyes narrowing into the wind, Ben never thought the time was right to raise the matter of the drunken driving and the careless parking. Shouting that kind of stuff into the wind seemed somehow inappropriate. Events eventually caught up and it seemed easier to say nothing. Just forget it.
Then one Sunday morning the families coincided returning from their different churches. Mrs Orr wore a hat and carried a black bible, Dawson was in a grey suit with too flashy a tie. Their children had run off to play somewhere. Ben's family were not so formal - yet they were wearing what they themselves would describe as 'their Sunday best'. Maureen carried a black missal and the children had little white prayer books.
'Good morning,' said Mrs Orr. They all exchanged greetings and passed through their front gates. Dawson caught Ben's eye and nodded him to one side.
'So,' he said. 'We're off.'
'No - moving house.' Dawson tapped the top of the wire fencing. He smiled, 'Upgrading.' His wife overheard him and said to Maureen.
'Yes, we're on the move again.'
'I don't know if it's congratulations or not. Another school, new teachers.' She pulled a face and looked at Dawson.
'This week. The furniture van's coming on Wednesday.'
'Where are you going?'
'It's not definite yet.' Mrs Orr looked down at the tarmac then up at Dawson.
'Our lives are run by bureaucrats,' he said.
'Well, wherever it is I hope things work out for you,' said Ben.
'Thanks. Thanks very much. You've been great neighbours.'
There was a little flurry of movement as they all shook hands across the waist high fence.
'You'll be sorely missed,' said Maureen. Ben remembered the sausage impression of his first handshake with Dawson.
'How will I get to my work in the mornings?' he said.
After the Donegal programme the television was switched off. The house was strangely silent. Maureen, finished with the ironing, sat on the sofa with her feet up underneath her.
'I have a craving ,' she said.
'You are not alone in this,' said Ben.
'For some tea, silly. Maybe some cheese and toast?'
'How do you feel?' he said. She took a long time to answer. Eventually she smiled without looking at him and said,
'I feel okay now.'
Immediately he bounded to his feet and went into the kitchen. He toasted some bread and melted cheese on it and spread it with brown pickle. They smiled listening to the noise they made biting into their toast. Maureen made noises of pleasure.
Just as he finished his tea he heard footsteps outside and the click of a key in the lock.
'Shit,' Ben rolled his eyes.
'Is that you both?' Maureen called. The girls came in, very down in the mouth. Yes they had shared a taxi. But there had been trouble - burning buses and rioting - and the school had decided that everyone should go their separate ways as soon as possible. The girls were livid -what difference did time make - they'd been enjoying themselves -you could always go round the trouble. As they stomped off to their room Maureen called,
'There's a blouse each ironed for you. And don't forget to get your things ready for the morning.'
The people who bought the Orr's house were an older couple -in their 70's. Mr. Warner was a retired bank manager and she was, as Maureen put it, 'a retired bank manager's wife.' They were not unfriendly but neither did they stop for conversations. The first time Ben and Maureen really talked to them was in the Spring at a party in the Donaldson's house across the street. The old couple were the first to arrive and they were drinking sherry when Ben and Maureen went in. Ben thought them a little dull.
People came with their carry-outs and there were greetings and handshakes. Music was put on and turned up. To continue talking to Ben, Mr Warner sat well forward in his seat and cupped his hand behind his ear. After a while the old couple began to smile constantly, then at nine o'clock they went back home across the street.
'You scared the pensioners off,' said Bill Donaldson to Ben. Ben was coming out of the kitchen pouring himself a can of Guinness, making sure the head didn't well up and overflow the glass. They stood beside the banisters.
'Have you no pint glasses?'
'This is a house not a bar. So what did you think of them?'
'They're retired - from everything. And that includes enjoying themselves.'
Bill cocked his head sideways looking up the stairs and made mock angry noises.
'Who's out of bed then? What did I tell you two.?' The little Donaldson girls sat in their pyjamas on the top step, peering down at the party. They had page-boy haircuts. They were used to their father's mock angry voice because they didn't move. They smiled at Ben.
'They're doing nobody any harm,' said Ben. He shouted up, 'Sure you're not girls.' The girls solemnly shook their heads.
'It was a shame about the Orrs having to leave,' said Bill.
'But it wouldn't have been wise for him to stay.'
'After the threat.'
'But all cops get threatened.'
'Not on pirate radio, they don't.' Ben stared at him. 'They gave out his address on Radio Free Whatever.'
'And the powers that be said it was a serious threat. A bomb threat. That's why he came round us all. He was very apologetic.'
'What do you mean - came round us all?'
'Didn't he come and tell you to put the girls in the back bedroom?'
Bill looked confused.
'A couple of weeks before they left. He said he went round everybody. Warned them.'
'Not me, he didn't.' Ben sipped at his drink and stared at Bill. 'Maybe he said something to Maureen.'
Ben went off in search of his wife. He took her from a conversation with three other women sitting on the floor and beckoned her out of the noise into a coat recess in the hall.
'Did Dawson tell you someone was itching to bomb him? Did he tell you to put the kids in the back bedroom?'
Ben bit his lip.
'Why?' said Maureen.
'That's what I want to know. Why did he not warn us ? He warned everybody else.'
'We're Catholics.' He threw back his head and whooped in disbelief. 'Fuckin Fenian bastards. That's what we are.'
'You don't mean it was deliberate?'
'What other way is there of looking at it?
'Not only did he not warn us,' Ben's eyes widened with realization. 'He tried to set us up. That's what the bad parking of the car was all about. He wasn't drunk. He didn't miss. He parked his fucking car in front of my house so's we'd get it .'
'Jesus. And he's got kids of his own.'
When Ben and Maureen went to bed they could hear the girls still talking.
They made love in silence, except for Maureen's final suppressed gasp. Afterwards they made spoons. Ben put his hands on her back like he was her pillion passenger and told her that he'd seen in the paper that Dawson Orr was dead.
'Poor man,' she said. 'And that wife of his. And those poor children.' She fell asleep almost immediately. But Ben lay on his side kept awake by the image of the pale child in the Royal Victoria Hospital, sitting straight up in the bed, one side of her face peppered with wounds.