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Jonty McManus grew up on Sevastapol Street, just off the Falls Road, in Belfast in the mid-eighties. His Ma said two things that stayed with him right to the end.
The first was a variation on the following, which she would often say when it was just the two of them in the room: ‘One day I’ll be gone and everybody will forget me – but don’t you forget me, Jimmy. Don’t you forget me.’
Her words would make him feel awkward, so he’d ask her not to say them, and instead she’d just kiss his head, tell him it was okay and that he’d understand when he was older. Then she’d ask him to promise not to forget her and, well, what could he do?
The second thing – and this she said only once – was that the vibrations of everything we’ve ever done are all around us, energy that never disappears but just gets smaller with time. Déjà vu is when one of those vibrations pass through your brain, she said, and it’s why that phenomena is so unsettling – it’s a memory not meant for us, one our minds can’t process.
He was fourteen, and her words implanted themselves on his consciousness. The concept seemed magical, the idea that everything still hung in the air, somewhere, somehow. Nothing was ever lost, and how could that be anything other than mystic?
That was January, 1984, and six months later she was dead from aggressive leukaemia. They buried her in the shadow of the Black Mountain on July the 4th, a week after Jonty’s fifteen birthday. As he stood at the funeral watching her being lowered into the ground, he closed his eyes and tried to feel the vibrations, tried to feel her presence on the air. Maybe he was trying too hard because nothing came and so he cried, not so much because she was dead as because he felt he’d somehow failed her as the ground swallowed her up.
It’s 1989 now. Jonty’s twenty and he’s sitting in an old red Ford Cortina travelling south from Belfast. It’s mid-afternoon, the rain’s pissing it down and it’s almost cold enough for snow.
The body – car, not his – is rusted on the underside and the paint is chipped and fading and the wheels are almost threadbare. Empty cigarette and Tayto crisp packets line the floor. Jonty doesn’t smoke, but Che does and it’s his car.
Che. That’s what they call him. His real name’s Arthur, but he’s got that Che Guevara look about him, and he uses it to pull the birds who aren’t his wife on a Sunday night up at the Felon’s where everybody thinks he’s the big man. He’s thirty-two, heavyset with a short trimmed beard. A bodyguard for Gerry Adams, Che heads up the Mashers, the local IRA punishment squad. They do people’s knees up in Twinbrook, the Mashers. That’s to say, they conduct prearranged appointments (usually in dark alleyways, at night) with local hoods and other scumbags. It’s a bit like going to the doctor, just with sanitation and pain management that makes the middle ages look civilised. Your man, maybe a car thief or drug dealer or just a general all-round scumbag, turns up at the agreed time, the Mashers put him on the ground and one of them holds a gun to the back of said victim’s knees. They tell him to wear shorts, to avoid dirty fabric infecting the knee when it gets mashed, and if he’s wearing trousers they pull the leg up or the trousers down.
One of the boys pulls the trigger. The bullet screams out of the barrel and rips into the flesh before anyone hears the bang. Smashes into the kneecap. The patella explodes, and the victim will never play football again. Getting your knees done, they call it. It’s like a manicure for lowlifes.
Jonty’s been in the Mashers for eight months now, and pulled the trigger twice. He’s stored guns in his Da’s garage, but the RUC haven’t yet been able to directly tie him to any of it. One of the guns was linked to a number of shootings, but because Jonty’s fingerprints were nowhere to be found, they couldn’t pin them on him.
So he’s in the car, our Jonty, and he thinks he’s on his way to a shooting weekend down in the Wicklow mountains. Thing is, though, since his being interrogated in Castlereagh everything has changed. More than he knows.
‘Fucking potholes, eh?’
Che’s comment brings him back, and Jonty’s gaze turns from the mountains in the distance to the road ahead. ‘Aye,’ he says absentmindedly. ‘At least this way we know when we’re in the south.’
‘Maybe, but it’s not doing my haemorrhoids any good.’
They both laugh. Jonty returns his gaze to the mountains and without realising it he licks his lips.
They drive on. There’s some more small talk, and after an hour or so they stop at a service station just outside Fivemiletown. The car needs petrol and Jonty thinks he’d better get some food in him. He goes into the shop to pay for the petrol, a sausage roll and a can of Cherry Coke. When he gets back to the car Che’s nowhere to be seen and so Jonty just sits there and starts chewing on his food. The driver’s side door opens, Che gets in and Jonty asks where he was.
‘Went for a piss,’ says Che, and Jonty believes him because – well – why wouldn’t you? Che starts the engine, looks over his shoulder, and as the car pulls out onto the main road he says, ‘So how’s your Da these days?’
‘He’s not bad. He’s alright, he’s doing well.’
‘He must miss your Ma.’
Jonty doesn’t think any of them will ever stop missing her. Him, his Da, his sisters Roisin or Aine. He doesn’t think time heals – it just makes it easier to cope with the loss.
The car goes over another pothole, and Che says, ‘Fuck sake,’ and Jonty laughs and then Che follows it up with, ‘D’you think your life would have turned out differently if she’d still have been alive, your Ma?’
It’s a strange question to ask, and it makes Jonty feel a little uncomfortable, but here’s the thing – he’s not quite sure why. He considers it for a few seconds.
‘Dunno,’ he says, and then he sighs, shakes his head and turns his gaze back out the window at the passing countryside. It’s his way of saying he doesn’t really want to think about it.
Che thought as much – but he tries to put it from his mind as he turns the radio back on and the car heads out into the countryside where some people still believe banshees ride on the wind. He hates this, does Che. Absolutely fucking hates it.
They turn right off the A46 just after Butcher’s Crossing. It’s almost nine in the evening, pitch black. Down a side road for about a mile, then about half a mile again on an unpaved path surrounded by overgrown hedges on both sides. The hedges keep prying eyes out, but also can make you feel claustrophobic, like you’re being pushed in a certain direction. Like you can’t turn round.
‘I’ll do it,’ says Jonty as the car pulls up, and he jumps out into the rain and opens the gate in the semi-darkness. The car continues in, its rear red brake lights casting an indifferent glow on the stoic metal bars as Jonty closes the gate again. He locks it as Che kills the engine, and the sound of the metal locking mechanism on the gate rattles and then fades into the night.
It’s when he gets inside that Jonty realises he’s in trouble, and he kicks himself because he should have known all along. He opens the front door, steps into the hall. He stops just inside, notices that at the far end of the hallway some light is seeping out from under the kitchen door. That’s weird, because there’s normally never more than one group in the house at any one time. The IRA, see, work in small independent teams called Active Service Units. The ASUs rarely meet because the organisation is riddled with informers and keeping the teams separate helps minimise who can squeal about what to the Brits and the peelers.
His mind starts racing and there’s the sound of the front door closing behind him. In the darkness, he turns round to say they need to leave, but his words are strangled as the palm of Che’s upturned hand smashes into his nose. His confusion masks the pain and the breaking and the pulling and pushing and he blacks out. Next thing is, he’s sitting in the kitchen and there’s blood dripping from his nose, down his chest and onto the table.
See, it’s not like the film you might watch down at the Cannon on a Saturday. It’s not a spot-lit chair by itself in the middle of a dirty room with a table beside it on which sit pliers and hammers. The first thing he thinks – and he’ll later tell himself it’s a bizarre first thought to have – is that the kitchen’s lovely. There’s a dark wooden table on a black and white floor, and there’s a bloke sitting across from him in one of the other chairs. In the middle of the table sits a pot of tea, cups and milk and sugar and a plate of toast and an unopened packet of Jaffa Cakes. Even though it’s night, it could almost be a winter morning and some kids – maybe his sisters – could be about to come down for breakfast before school.
‘Alright, Jonty son,’ the man across the table says. Jonty doesn’t know him, but the Cork accent gives him the shits. It’s a dead giveaway, and he knows now that he’s fucked. There are two others by the kitchen door, and Che is nowhere to be seen. Jonty doesn’t realise that Che’s already halfway back to Belfast, or that he’s crying as he drives.
Warm piss soaks into his jeans from between his legs and your man – the man from Cork, the man with the edgy accent – says, ‘So, you got something to tell us?’
The first two days are mostly just punches and kicks and denials and silences – Jonty’s convinced he’ll be rescued, if he only holds out. He imagines the cavalry – British or Irish soldiers – will come crashing through the front door at any minute, screaming, ‘Leave our fucking Jonty alone!’ and they’ll shoot the Cork bastards and put Jonty in witness protection in England. In between the beatings, during the long silences, he tries to imagine the new life he’ll have. He’ll lose his accent. Get a degree. Find a woman and get married.
On the third day they break three of his fingers on his left hand with a hammer, and he realises there’s no rescue coming, that this is it. While he’s still screaming from the shock of his bones being crushed, they take him to one of the outhouse buildings and leave him there. Lying on the cold wet concrete floor, he starts convincing himself they’ll go easy on him if he tells them everything. But they don’t come back until the fifth day. He’s not eaten anything since that first night, a piece of toast rammed down his throat and tasting of his own blood. He’s swallowed two of his teeth and three more are broken, and with the way he’s feeling he just knows he’s not going anywhere.
When they return, on day five, he tells them everything. Says he’s sorry, that some cunt in the Special Branch at Castlereagh threatened to have his two sisters and his Da killed if he didn’t start feeding the peelers information. He panicked, he says, but now he’s sorry, sorry as fuck, wishes he’d come forward sooner and can they please just let him live? Offers to go on TV, denounce the Brits and even do the rounds for a fundraising drive among Irish Americans. He’s grasping at straws now, is Jonty.
Che comes back on the seventh day, and holding back his own tears, stands silently as your man from Cork says they can’t just let him go even if they wanted to. The army needs to make an example of him, he says, and if they let him go then the next fucking tout might not think twice before squealing to the Brits.
‘You know though, Jonty son,’ he says in his Cork accent, ‘I’m sorry for you. It’s a dirty business, this. All of it.’
Jonty breaks down in tears and doesn’t notice Che leave the room.
In the early evening, Jonty writes a letter for his Da and his sisters. Che gets given the task of putting his possessions into an envelope and then the envelope into a black bin bag also containing his clothes. Someone from Sinn Fein, they tell Jonty before the leave the farmhouse, will call on his Da in Beechmount and drop the package off.
And so now, not long before midnight, Jonty’s kneeling in a field just across the border. They’re in the Six Counties, but only thirty yards from the Free State – makes the getaway easier, and if the Brits happen to turn up then they can’t follow. It’s cold and Jonty’s shaking, but he’s not sure if it’s the cold or the fear. His feet are duct taped, and he’s wearing only a black boiler suit. No shoes, cable tie holding his hands behind his back.
Jonty’s freezing in the cold Irish night.
‘D’you want a blindfold, Jonty mate?’ someone asks, and he says no, it’s okay. Forces himself to remain still, kneeling on the wet grass, trying not to shake. He’s made a point of kneeling facing the north, facing where he thinks Belfast will be. He can’t see it from here, it’s almost completely pitch black. There’s the sound of an aircraft overhead, and for a second it gets Jonty’s hopes up. Maybe it’s an army helicopter, he thinks, then he realises it’s just an airliner full of passengers on their way from wherever to who knows. He reflects for a second on how they’ll be overhead, completely oblivious to what’s about to happen below them.
Someone behind him cocks the gun and from the side Jonty hears Che say, ‘God forgive us.’
He breathes in and closes his eyes and thinks of his Ma. He catches something, as if it’s on the air, and time seems to slow. It’s a memory, his first time on a bike. ‘You’re doing great, Jimmy love,’ his Ma’s saying as he goes round and round in circles in the shadow of St Peter’s on the Lower Falls. Snow is gently falling but even though he’s in a t-shirt he’s not cold. The bike wobbles, Jonty starts to panic and his Ma says, ‘Don’t fall off, Jonty. Don’t fall—’
She doesn’t finish the sentence. The bullet leaves the barrel, creating its own vibrations and its own echoing ripples. In a split second Jonty’s life reaches its vanishing point and now his death as an informer, in a dirty game governed by what they call big boys’ rules, will forever vibrate on the cold wet Irish air.