He was seized on a cold morning, door smashed in with rifle butts. They had him standing there in his pyjamas while they wrecked what they could, not looking for evidence so much as taking revenge. Then it was off into the back of a van with six of them on benches, guns across their knees as if hoping he might resist who was struggling to stay upright, with his hands in cuffs and the van slewing at speed across the empty roads of dawn. He was a school teacher, he explained, receiving an elbow in his teeth so that blood flew, some onto the uniform of the man beside him who gave him the back of his hand in turn.
They dragged him through the station, still in his pyjamas, taking him past secretaries who turned their faces away, before looking back for was that not the school teacher and him so fine looking and a poet besides. Then the door slammed shut and they left him there, with no tea and he having to piss into a bucket. After a while they thrust food in on a battered metal tray, dollops of potato and something that looked like beetroot but tasted of something else. Then a bundle of clothes was flung down. They were not his own but he put them on, feeling better for it, though his trousers were loose on his hips, with no belt, and the shoes a size too large and with no laces. Were they afraid for his life? He was afraid, to be sure, though less so now. He was a school teacher, that was all, and was known as such. And who would be chalking the date on the blackboard this morning if not he? Who would times table them or point with a stick at their own island, admittedly a subversive act to some. So he was himself again, or nearly so, when the door squeaked open and two of them stood before him, their faces open.
A moment more and he was sat in a chair before a man who lit a cigarette and leaned back. He was not in uniform.
‘Would you like some tea?’ he asked.
And so a mug of tea was brought and placed in front of him. He drank. It was hot and sweet and he wondered for a moment what else might be in it but sugar and tea.
The man watched as he drank, then took a shred of tobacco off his tongue and flicked it on the floor. Outside the window a green bus passed by.
‘Am I under arrest? What right do you have to bring me here?’
‘What right? You want a discussion of rights, schoolmaster? Is it possible you don’t know why you are here? You are here to tell me a story. I am here to listen. And yes, you are under arrest? You thought otherwise? I don’t believe so.’
‘They just forced their way in.’
‘Yes, well they will do that when they’re told to.’
‘Who are you? What’s your name?’
‘You are not here to call the register. You need to stop a moment and realise where you are.’
‘I don’t know where I am.’
‘Really? Of course you know where you are. The real question is what you must do to leave. The answer to that is simple. No need to look at the back of the book. Meanwhile they’ll be missing you at the school,’ the man said, rocking his chair back, his hand going out for a second to balance. ‘My son went there. You taught him. He said you were good.’
‘What was his name?’
The man ignored him.
Was it a question or an observation?
‘Everyone doing the right thing, just disagreeing on what that might be.’
He nodded, for what else was he to do who wanted nothing more than to be sent on his way back to the classroom with its lines of desks and children jumping up at the bell no matter how many times they had been told.
‘It’s not over yet.’
It could have been him talking to the children but it was the man addressing him.
‘Not this. Not you here. This will be over before long I would hope. I mean the bigger thing. Turning against each other the way we do. Are we not all together and is this place not too small for such cruelties?’
The school teacher turned his face to the window as another bus passed by. Could they see in, and if so what sights did they see? He had passed this way himself and never looked inside, could not remember whether it was possible at all.
‘Tell me, what do you teach the children? What do you say of the past? How do you describe the future? Are we so trapped in both, do you think, that we see nothing of the present, the place we inhabit, if you see what I mean?’
He stopped suddenly, not wanting a reply, it seemed. The chair rocked forward and he slid a packet of cigarettes from an inside pocket and took one out. ‘I’d offer you one but you’re not a smoker I’m told. Bad for your health.’ He paused, ‘like some other things.’ He raised an eyebrow then tilted his chair back again. The smoke curled slowly upwards as a shaft of sunlight lit the room like a spot light at the theatre, a maze of golden dust motes flaming gently. He seemed to have time. There was no rush. A telephone rang in an outer office, then silence, except for the low rumble of traffic and a horn sounded by someone a street or so away.
‘It’s the names, you see. That’s all. We know about you. It is the others. You’re not a man for the guns. I don’t see you lying on the wet ground a rifle to your shoulder. No, there is none of that, I am sure. So you’ve no fear of the firing squad or any such. You are a school teacher, after all.’
‘Firing squad? What are you talking about? I was in bed asleep. Your men broke in. What are you talking about?’
‘Just to be accurate, they were not my men. I’m not one of then. I am something else entirely, someone else. And yes, you are right, forget all mention of firing squads. Hyperbole was what it was, an attempt at intimidation. I’m glad to see it failed. I was forgetting who I was talking to. No reason not to be civilised. You like opera? I do. La Bohème. Reduces me to tears. Funny that, isn’t it. Just a piece of music and all the pain in the world, all the pain out there, can pass us by. A mention on the radio and then it’s the price of pigs or some football match. I’ve stood and looked down at someone shot in an alley or a body dumped in a field and not a tear, but Puccini gets me every time. You like Puccini or is it only poets for you, poets and those others?
‘There are no others.’ The words seemed to come of their own accord. His interrogator took a long drag on his cigarette and then breathed out slowly.
‘I don’t know what you are talking about. They came in the morning, your men, smashed their way in. I have no idea. I know nothing. Someone else. It must be someone else.’
Still he watched, the smoke curling upwards, as if waiting for a machine to run down. Another bus passed by, a woman staring blankly out. There was a knock on the door. His interrogator ignored it. The knock came a second time. He remained still, balancing on the back legs of his chair again. Whoever was outside retreated, his footsteps regular like those of a soldier.
‘Has it struck you that it never does anything but rain.’ He swung his chair down and leaned forward on the table. ‘I was trying to remember the last time we had a decent summer. Do you remember three years ago, or maybe four, it was so dry it sounded like hard snow as you walked across the fields? Do you remember that? And the fires that burned across three counties. Still, I’d rather have that than this, don’t you think.’
‘I am not part of anything. I don’t know anybody.’
‘Sure, you are doing yourself down. You are a teacher. Everybody knows you. The kiddies know you and their parents. You are a fine man and do some writing as I hear. You know people right enough.’
‘Not the kind you are thinking of.’
‘And who would they be?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Don’t know? So how can you be sure whether you might not know some of those I have in my mind?’
‘You mean …’– he looked for a word that would not signify loyalties of any kind — ‘activists.’
‘Ah, activists. Yes, that might be the word, though there are others. This is a fine island for words, is it not? You are right to be a poet for there is no higher calling than to keep the language spruce, buff it up a bit. You should hear some of those I need to deal with. Nothing but slogans they like to shout in the wind. And the other side are a kind of vermin, if you follow what they say. And who would care for the fate of vermin? You are not like that, of course. I don’t doubt you in that regard. But you have your loyalties, do you not? Who doesn’t? I certainly do. Show me the man who believes in nothing and I will show you a man with no spine. It’s all very well to sing alone but to sing together, now there’s a thing. Won’t your class be getting a little restless about now? Will they not be asking where you have gone so that word will get around. A piece of advice. Tell me what I need to know and you will be there while they are still drinking their milk, if that’s what they do, and who will know then?’
‘I know nothing.’
‘Nothing? And you a teacher. You mean you know nothing of what I am enquiring.’
‘I know nothing of what you are enquiring.’
‘Fine. Unequivocal I like. Well, what can I do but apologise. As you say we must have been chasing the wrong man down the wrong hole. It happens. More than you would believe. Intelligence, they call it. Guesswork is more like. Believe me, there’ve been others like yourself as have sat there and put me right. And I apologised to them, too. Ask the wrong question and you get the wrong answer. There’s the truth of it. Do you accept my apologies?’
‘Well that’s a relief. I have burdens enough without further guilt.’
‘No, I accept. I can see it must be difficult.’
‘Because we were given your name by someone who had seen you. No, we were given your name by more than one, now I come to think on it. But mistakes are made. Isn’t that Paddy, says someone when no, it isn’t, simply looks like him in poor light and when have we had anything other these last years, as I was saying.’
‘It was not me.’
‘What was not?’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘You were saying it was not you. I was just wondering what it was you did not do because on the whole, and in my experience, it is always better to deny an accusation if you know what it is.’
‘I meant, it is not me who knows anyone, anyone you would be interested in.’
‘Ah, but you would be surprised who interests me. It’s the kind of man I am. Always interested in others, the whole human race, to be sure. It would be a sad man who was not, wouldn’t you say?’
‘I don’t know any of the names you want.’
‘Particular names, is it, or are we taking generically.’
The young man slumped in his chair as his interrogator slowly shook his head.
‘I’m going to let you go now. You have no need to fear. I am sure the names will come to you by and by. You should go to your class who will be wanting to learn about Ireland and what a blessed place it is, what with us killing one another with such enthusiasm, as well as the English, of course, who hardly count. And will a certain Cromwell get a look in and King Billy and the price of potatoes? Sure I could teach that class all on my own. Does it ever strike you we live too much in the past? Of course it does, but there is no past here, is there. Everything is now even if it happened hundreds of years ago. I can’t make up my mind sometimes, does that make us world historical, would you say, or adolescents? Would you like a cigarette, after all? It may be a habit worth cultivating’
He shook his head and glanced across at the window. There was no bus passing, no woman looking out.
‘Now we are friends, well not friends, perhaps, but acquaintances, passing acquaintances, tell me a little about your poetry. I’ve been known to knock out a verse or two myself. Who doesn’t. I fancy more write it than read it, but you would know the truth of that. Love poems, that sort of thing. Except that’s not to your taste.’
‘I’ve written love poems.’
‘Of course you have. Everyone does. No, I was thinking of the other ones, the kind get set to music and sung in bars, with smoke in the air, the smell of whisky, red faces, glasses raised in time. That sort of thing. All about heroes and such. Martyrs. They’re the poems I’m thinking of.’
‘They’re about history.’
‘I thought we’d agreed there’s no such thing on this island. ‘
‘Did you like them?’
The man rocked forward suddenly, smashing his fist on the table that divided them, the table with nothing on it but a cup of tea, cold, now sent flying.
‘Who the fuck do you think I am?’ he shouted, spit flying, ‘a fucking critic?’
Outside a shadow passed the window, a pigeon gone in the instant. In the sudden silence the sound of traffic leaked in. Neither man moved, held in the moment, until at last the man tilted his chair backwards again, reaching inside his pocket for his cigarettes. He lit one and stared up at the ceiling as he blew a perfect smoke ring. Both watched as it drifted up before dissolving. At last he brought his chair down again, his elbow on the table, hand turned back with the cigarette between his fingers, yellow-stained, the school teacher poet observed, even as his own hand was shaking.
‘Sorry about that,’ said the man. ‘Bit of a temper. My father was the same. I don’t know about yours. Given to the odd touch of violence I’m afraid. Saw my mother with a bruise or two. Nothing I could do. Doubtless you are thinking the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But that’s the way, isn’t it. Wouldn’t you say? We’re all victims in a way. Have to resist it, though, or where would be. Well, we’d be here for a start. Perhaps that accounts for it, for those who shoot people in the head because they don’t like the way they see the world. Victims of their upbringing would you say? Either way it would be best if they stopped. You would agree with that surely, you being a teacher and a poet. Best if they stopped and there is where you can help.’
‘I’ve never fired a gun, never owned one.’
‘No? Well good for you. Can’t say the same, I’m afraid. There’ve been times … So you’re not the one who pulls the trigger. I can believe that. I might be persuaded to believe that. You just write fucking awful poems about dead killers and then move among them, let them put their arms about you, lift a glass and look into your eyes. Then you sit there and listen and hear things. You know who they are and where they are and there are families who would beat those names out of you if they were here, if I were to invite them in. Personally, I don’t do that sort of thing, at least not unless I’m pushed to it. We all have our limits, don’t we? I confess I do. Do you have limits? Of course you do, wouldn’t be human otherwise.’
‘How long are you going to keep me? I’ve said I don’t know anything.’
‘I think we have dealt with that, haven’t we?’
‘What about the children?’
‘Children? You don’t have any children.’
‘Ah, yes. Well I wouldn’t worry about that. None of us is irreplaceable. There are plenty more like me who would be here in a flash if I went under a bus, if one of your friends chose to come up behind me some dark night. I can never work out if that is reassuring or depressing. Let’s face it, you could disappear and in the end, you have to admit, in the long run, all in all, when everything is considered, not many would notice. Or maybe you know otherwise. Maybe there is someone, a young woman, a young man.’
He paused, the ash from his cigarette finally collapsing like a falling tower.
‘Ah, yes. That would be the young man in the other room.’
Once again there was a knock at the door. Once again it was ignored. Both listened as whoever was there retreated. Another bus passed the window, obeying a regular timetable it seemed. It had begun to rain, black tears running down the glass. Slowly the man stubbed out his cigarette and reached inside his jacket. He pulled out a notebook, held closed by a rubber band. He placed it on the table turning it slowly with his fingers so that it faced the young man.
‘Take your time,’ he said, ‘just the names, in any order. You’re a teacher. You’ll have a pen. I don’t mind if its red. Handy when you are correcting errors. Oh, no, of course, those aren’t your clothes. You’ll have to have a borrow of mine. It’s green ink. They say that’s the preference of psychopaths but it’s standard issue here. Perhaps that tells you something. As to your poems, I liked a couple. Derivative, though, wouldn’t you agree. When you’ve finished stop by the desk and they’ll restore to you everything that is yours. The belt and the shoe laces are a nice touch, are they not? I have never known anyone make use of them. Just how would you go about it? A mystery to me. So, it’s been good to have this little chat. I’m sorry about the smoke. I’m a demon for cigarettes. It’ll be the death of me one day. Still, we all construct the path to our own ruin, do we not schoolteacher. It’s what we all do. No need to say goodbye. We’ll be seeing each other again. Regularly, I would say. As to your friend, a poet, too, is he? Looks as though he might be. He’ll be out of here after you’ve gone. Maybe we’ll see him again. Rather depends. What with the rain it’s getting dark though the day has hardly begun. I’ll turn the light on. Remember when I used to say that to my mother at night. Never did like the dark as a child, but she was often crying too much to pay any attention. Missed my breakfast this morning. I suppose you did, too. Most important meal of the day they say. But then we all have to make our sacrifices. An hour or two and you’ll be having a school dinner. Semolina with a swirl of jam. I used to like that. I envy you.’
With that he left the room and as the door opened and closed the schoolmaster could hear the click clack of a typewriter and the ring of the bell as the carriage was returned. He looked down at the notebook and reached for the pen that had been placed neatly beside it. Pausing for a moment he began to write.
He stood up, holding his trousers with one hand to stop them slipping off his hips. Five minutes later he was outside. They let him keep the clothes, gave him a belt and laces that he tied with a double knot. The street was empty. There were no buses, now, no scurrying shoppers. The church clock struck the hour. The rain had stopped and he saw where some petrol must have spilled for there was an iridescent smear where a breeze troubled an oily puddle.
He breathed out and saw his hand was shaking. He needed to make two phone calls, one to the school to explain his lateness, the other to a man who would know what was to be done. Someone had pointed in his direction, had a tale to tell to ready listeners, while he had given false names so that there were perhaps two people who stood in history’s way and needed, therefore, to be moved aside. He had thought a poet incapable of action, unmanned by language. Well language is the beginning of action and a poem merely one weapon in service to a cause, a cause he embraced because he had been right. History was a present fact, an unhealed wound.
In the classroom later he still had to hold one hand with the other to stop it shaking. Even soldiers, he told himself, are nervous when action is imminent for he would have to play his role. That was what a soldier did.
‘Sir, sir, will we be going to the swimming pool tomorrow? My ma says there’s too much chlorine for my eyes.’
‘It’s because O’Connell pees in the water, sir. That’s what the chlorine’s for.’
‘If you don’t settle down you’ll do double maths instead.’
‘Can drinking someone’s pee kill you, sir? Sure I’d hate to die of O’Connell’s pee.’