The Children of Jocasta, by Natalie Haynes

Summary: The story of Oedipus is more complex than you might think

The Irish playwright Frank McGuinness has described Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King, as the first police procedural, focussing on Oedipus’ hunt for the culprit responsible for the plague on Thebes. So powerful a vision did Sophocles present that Natalie Haynes herself has argued in her spectacularly entertaining radio series, Stand Up For The Classics, that it has reverberated ever since in the personae of every brooding murder detective to have gotten their own TV show … apart maybe from Miss Marple.

Undaunted by the weight of this literary heritage, Haynes has imagined her own version of the tragedy of Oedipus and his family. Focussing particularly on two of the characters that Sophocles left rather silent, Jocasta and her daughter Ismene, Haynes has managed to craft something of a multi-generational political thriller that put me in mind of Seamus Deane’s masterpiece, Reading in the Dark.

Like Deane’s book, The Children of Jocasta follows the efforts of a young person, Ismene in this case, to unearth the truth of their family’s history. This has been kept from her and her siblings because it represents some rather awkward truths for the powers that be in her present-day Thebes. While there are a few differences between ancient Thebes and 20th Century Derry, human nature remains the same. And like Deane, like Sophocles, Haynes story is filled with compelling and believable characters confronted with some horrible dilemmas.

Haynes has thrown in a few sexy analogies to apricots – something she has pointed out elsewhere would not have been available in Greece for another thousand years – but the rest of her context is resolutely realistic. There are no “deus ex machina”, peculiar riddles, or flying monsters. Swords may glitter beautifully, but they also make horrible messes of human bodies, and power represents a prize that some may sacrifice even the closest bonds of family for.

As with her wonderful account of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships, The Children of Jocasta brings new, predominantly female, perspectives on stories that many of us may feel we already know inside out. In doing so, she again finds the power to surprise and delight her readers with an exquisite piece of writing.

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

Summary: Yossarian’s sanity almost drives him mad.

I once had a boss who had to vacate his office in favour of his superior because the said superior had discovered that his own office was two square feet smaller than that of my boss.

Anyone familiar with the world of work will have similar stories to tell about the petty jealousies and mindless bureaucracies that can blight this aspect of our lives. But such stupidities rarely threaten our lives – unless of course you are a health care worker depending on Boris Johnson for PPE during a global pandemic.

Mindless bureaucracy and petty jealousies are rarely the central themes of fictional portrayals of war, even though they are a frequent discussion in military history: Grant and Lee’s arguments over protocol at Cold Harbour, for example, that cost the lives of so many wounded. Or General Mark Clark’s career of incompetence during the Second World War’s Italian campaign.

Catch 22 sought to remedy that however. Bureaucracy, pointless protocol, military etiquette, get rich quick schemes dominate the narrative because it is these that dominate the priorities of those who don’t have to risk their lives.

However for the novel’s anti-hero, John Yossarian, none of these things matter. He just wants to survive. Unlike his superiors, Yossarian knows what flack can do to a human body. He just wants the unrelenting terror of operations to end and to go home. However Yossarian discovers no matter how often he braves the guns of the Herman Goering division, he still has to fly. His superior’s dreams of martial glory leads him to keep pushing up the mission count in the hope that this will help him to become a general. Yossarian, like his pal the Chaplin, does not have the comfort of insanity or selfishness to cushion him from the pity of war, and so hovers perpetually on the edge of breakdown.

Catch 22 is a sprawling book, hopping amongst characters and their diverse but interconnected misadventures. Such is its complexity that George Clooney’s exceptionally fine television version of the story required robust editing of the narrative elements.

It is often described as a satire, and it certainly is rich with black comedy. But Joesph Heller was himself a veteran of 60 combat missions, like Yossarian, as a bombardier in the Italian campaign. So the horror of that experience is never far from the surface, and is something that moves centre-stage in the final chapters of the book.

Some years after Catch 22 was published a reporter put it to Heller that he had not written anything as good since. “No,” said Heller. “Neither has anyone else.”

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Summary: the restless dead, and their thoughts on the mid-19th century state of the union

In certain schools of Buddhism the “Bardo” is an intermediate place between death and rebirth or heaven. It is into this Purgatory that William Wallace Lincoln, third son of Abraham, arrives in 1862.

Unlike the other children who arrive there Willie lingers, longing to see his father again. Some of the older ghosts – a young man regretful of his suicide, a middle-aged man pining for his young wife, a elderly minister fearful of what lies beyond – worry about what will befall Willie if he stays too long. So they take it upon themselves to help the young fellow move on. As a result they encounter the devastated president, come to visit the grave of his beloved son.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange book. Literary critics call it “experimental”. Portions of it, those providing the historical context, are edited from the vast literature of Lincoln and the Civil War. Into this context George Saunders creates a sort of American “Cré na Cille”, populating his narrative with the ghostly denizens of the graveyard where Willie lies.

A cross-section of American society from independence until 1862 is here: white supremacists dwelling alongside the slaves dumped in a common pit; wealthy misers rubbing ectoplasm with alcoholic down-and-outs. They reflect the nation at the moment of crisis that Lincoln confronts. Their stories, their memories of their past lives and their gossip on the current scandals of the graveyard society, are by turns hilarious and shocking, always entertaining and ultimately gripping.

At first President Lincoln’s presence in the midst of this cacophony of voices seems almost incidental. But it is not. Rather his presence is catalytic, provoking profound changes to the social order of the Bardo just as he is about to lead profound changes to the order of the Union.

Lincoln may sometimes be thought of as one of the last fatalities of the Civil War. But he wasn’t that. George Floyd may hold that dreadful distinction at the time of writing, but of course that won’t last for long. But Lincoln, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, offers a glimpse of how much better America can be when it confronts its own original sins of slavery and genocide. That idealism echoes in this book.

Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Summary: A gripping historical detective story, probing the dark heart of the system of slavery that made Britain rich.

The origins of Britain as a leading commercial and industrial nation lie in two comparably genocidal events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the conquest of India.

These are atrocities that the majority of British people know little about. Insofar as they may be aware of the slave trade they probably only know of William Wilberforce’s parliamentary campaign to end it. The painstaking and arguably more important work by Clarkson, Sharpe, Equiano and the Quakers, that made parliamentary action possible by shifting the tide of public opinion against this industrialised trafficking of human beings, is much less well known.

Well, if British people remain ignorant of this for much longer, it will not be for Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s want of trying.

Blood and Sugar starts with the gruesome murder of an abolitionist lawyer in the slave port of Deptford. But, horrific as this event is, as veteran of the American war, Harry Corsham, discovers when he begins to probe into the death of his erstwhile friend, this is not the worst thing that those responsible for the slave trade have done.

Blood and Sugar is a gripping and richly detailed historical detective thriller that probes unflinchingly into the savagery of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Its power is magnified by its verisimilitude: while the foreground figures may be fictitious there is nothing made up about Shepherd-Robinson’s descriptions of the horrors of the Middle Passage and the tortures routinely inflicted upon enslaved Africans.

Shepherd-Robinson has already gained deserved praise from other exemplars of the historical detective story. But even if comparably entertaining to the best of this genre Blood and Sugar is something altogether more important. It is an act of remembering, bringing to, potentially, a whole new audience one of the foundational events of modern Britain. If readers are also stirred to remember that slavery still afflicts some 40 million people across the globe, many of them still in conditions akin to those described in this book, then all the better.

Blood and Sugar is a mighty accomplishment.

The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

Summary: myth as a prophesy of war

In the Greek Myths, Robert Graves provides a sprawling and comprehensive survey of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. The approach is mostly “chronological” though some portions, such as Agamemnon’s return and the vengeance of Orestes, are placed in the narrative before temporally subsequent ones, such as the sack of Troy.

Many of these stories are now perhaps best known from classical literature such as Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus or Sophocles. But here Graves tries to be true to their oral origins, acknowledging that there are a variety of versions of the stories, including differences in some of the reported names of the characters and indeed in some of the stories’ conclusions: Some say that Theseus felt bad about abandoning Ariadne, for example; or some say that Iphigenia was rescued by the goddess Artemis, not trussed up and slaughtered like a goat by her own father.

These stories have been cleaned up over the years, often for children, by the likes of Charles Kingsley or Roger Lancelyn Green. But here the “heroes” are as they were – an array of bloody men, and a few bloody women, from an era when the only balm from trauma was the facade of martial glory.

Hence it is difficult to see the story of Theseus as anything other than the story of an idealistic young man descending into increased horror and cruelty as a result of a career of killing that he enters in the hope of fame and glory. Heracles comes across as little more than a psychopath: extraordinary that someone should decide to make a Disney cartoon out of that one. Odysseus is clever and brave, but also venial, untrustworthy and brutal, breaking his word to those Trojans to whom he promised protection, and personally murdering Hector’s infant son, amongst other vile and treacherous deeds in his career of war and wandering,

Perhaps this volume makes better sense as a work of reference than an a work of narrative. But, taken in total, these stories give a shockingly stark portrayal of the effects of violence and warfare on both the victims and the perpetrators. Perhaps this was part of their appeal to Graves, himself a veteran of the carnage of the First World War.

Neither the Trojan War nor the wars of the Twentieth Century seem to have done much to dispel the attraction to war for a certain class of human. So in telling these stories, as well as his own war experiences elsewhere, Graves may have realised that he was also heir to Cassandra, the princess of Troy, gifted with the power of perfect prophesy and cursed with the knowledge that even her most desperate warnings would never to be heeded no matter how menacing the approaching “smell of blood”.

Nights in Armour, by Sam Thompson

Summary: a fine novel of ordinary people at war and the horrendous consequences of violence

There’s an echo of Hill Street Blues, the seminal 1980s cop show, in this book. Like that series this book also encompasses a teeming cast of characters, police of all ranks and paramilitaries, to paint a portrait of what it was like to be a peeler in the North of Ireland in the shadow of the 1981 hunger strikes.

Thompson does not paint a heroic picture. His characters are flawed. Some are bigots. Some are fearful. All are human, living cheek by jowl with violence and death. Traffic accidents, riots, assassinations, attacks on themselves all take their toll as the British Government’s “Ulsterisation” increasingly places them in the forefront of the conflict and hence on the receiving end of the paramilitary offensive.

Thompson’s descriptions of violence are particularly striking. A former cop himself he writes these with the forensic clarity of someone who has seen what firearms and explosives do to human beings and human bodies.

Nights in Armour is a fine novel of war in all its ghastliness. It should be read by every young Irish person with romantic notions of what the Troubles were actually like. And it should be read by every English politician prepared to jeopardise the fragile peace in Ireland for their ludicrous dreams of reclaiming faded British imperial grandeur.

The Fall of the Stone City, by Ismail Kadare

Summary: a dream-like account of the nightmare of totalitarianism

In 1943 the German army approaches the Albanian city of Gjiorkaster, planning a brutal reprisal for an ineffectual Albanian ambush on the column. However the city is home to a close university friend of the German commander, and at a dinner between the two the salvation of the city is negotiated.

Or maybe not. What actually happened at the dinner is a source of much speculation, not least by the Communists who take power after the Germans. They begin to wonder is this actually evidence of some existential threat to their system.

This is a novel of the competing rumours that emerge from this dinner, each as haunting as the dark folk tales that swirl around the city and that these rumours echo. It is a book about the history and culture of Albania, and how the myths of the past cast their bloody influence across time right up to the present day.

It is a strange and haunting story, beautifully written and elegantly translated..

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Summary: a profoundly moving American meditation on the war in Vietnam, rightly regarded as a classic

The Things They Carried is an extraordinary book. An exquisitely written, deeply moving, sometimes extremely funny, sometimes simply horrifying, collection of linked short stories revolving around the soldiers in “Alpha Company”, including one called Tim O’Brien, who after the war becomes the author of this book.

The Vietnamese are generally only minor characters in this book. But while the book is a tender portrait of American troops in Vietnam, it does nothing to glorify the US engagement in that war, which is clearly seen as pointless and immoral. O’Brien’s first encounter with a dead Vietnamese is with an old man killed by an indiscriminate air bomardment of a village called in reprisal for a brief and ineffective sniper attack on O’Brien’s own platoon.

The terrorism that the Americans practice upon the Vietnamese is so routinised that it is almost unremarked upon, frequently considered by the troops as little more than youthful hi-jinks. O’Brien reminds the reader that those doing this, the American GIs, are just kids, mostly conscripts barely out of high school, unleashed from the bounds of civilisation and morality, desperate just to survive and unconcerned about those who die in order to ensure their survival.

But of course not all survive. Vietnamese action repeatedly bleeds the Americans, and vice versa. In one chapter O’Brien meditates on the humanity of a dead Vietnamese soldier, killed in his ambush, and, like his killers, someone who probably wished he was somewhere else, living his own young life rather than being involved in ending the young lives of others.

The Things They Carried, since its publication, has come to be regarded as a classic of American literature and O’Brien as one of the finest writers of his generation. The accolades are deserved.

Turbulence, by Giles Fodden

Summary: Weather as a metaphor for war as a metaphor for weather

It’s 1944 and the Allies are preparing for the largest amphibious assault ever mounted to retake Europe from Nazi tyranny. What might thwart their cunning plans though, even more than the Germans, is the weather. A sufficient period of decent weather is essential to land all the troops and equipment necessary to establish a robust beachhead on the coast of North-Western France. Hence inordinate pressure falls upon the weather forecasters to provide the necessary information to the generals to make a decision upon which the lives of untold thousands and the future of Europe itself depends.

Giles Fodden’s novel follows, in flashback, a brief portion of the career of its fictional protagonist, Henry Meadows. Meadows a physicist turned metrologist in wartime service, is sent to Scotland to try to extract the secret to a more accurate forecasting method from a brilliant reclusive, and pacifist, metrologist, opposed to giving any assistance to the war effort.

Meadows, an intellectually brilliant but socially naïve character, is our guide through both the complexities of the science and the chaos of the war. It’s an engaging read, even though some of the discussions of weather forecasting can be confusing. It conveys the awful weight that the planners of the D-Day landings had to bear and how in brutal ways the randomness of war echoes the randomness of the weather.

The Funeral: an excerpt from my novel, The Undiscovered Country

I am currently working with the crowdsourcing publisher Unbound to publish my first novel, The Undiscovered Country, a book about the hunt for the murderer of a young boy in the West of Ireland, during the War of Independence in 1920. Below is an excerpt. If you like it please consider supporting. Amongst other rewards the names of all supporters will be included in the book.

***

graveyard-black-and-white-100535782-primary.idgeIt was a cold clear morning the next day when the village gathered to bury Liam Finnegan.

The church was full and spilling out into the surrounding graveyard. Eamon and I had got there a quarter of an hour before the start of the requiem Mass, but had still only managed to get standing room at the back of the church. Peter had gotten there earlier and had hence managed to get himself a seat in a pew in the middle of the church.

“Okay”, whispered Eamon to me, “so who do you know here?

“Dr Hennessy, fourth row back”. She was standing briefly in order to let some people past her into the pew in which she was seated.

“In the short time I have known you Mick I have come to admire and respect your capacity for prioritisation. Mind you, she does look good in black, it must be said. Grand arse.”

“Jesus Eamon, we’re at a funeral”.

“A man is most alive when closest to death. You’ll find that out in time Mick. So who else do you know”.

“Commandant O’Riordain”.

O’Riordain was in the aisle halfway up the church, trying to create more space amongst the mourners and directing newcomers into the pews.

“There’s a man born to lead. Can’t even help himself any more.”

“And there’s Dick Bruton.” Bruton was fat man with a purple nose in a plaid suit. He was bald, which Eamon had noted was a blessing for him seeing as he used to be ginger. I had felt a bit guilty at laughing at that as he had always been civil to me on the odd occasion I dropped into his shop.

“And there, as you should know,” said Eamon, “is our local neighbourhood cattle baron, Francie Quinn”. Eamon nodded in the direction of a dark haired man in a dark suit just entering the church with a pleasant looking, chubby woman. He ushered her onto a pew and then found himself standing space against the wall close to her. Quinn I did know slightly. He was one of the local worthies that Peter had convinced to join him in constituting the parish court. So I had seen him from a couple of times when the court was in session but I had barely ever spoken to him.

Our whispered conversation was halted as the appearance of Paddy Toner, walking backwards up the aisle so he could keep an eye on the pall-bearers and make sure nothing untoward happened to the coffin, announced the arrival of the funeral party.

Normally, in my experience, the deceased would have been carried to the church the night before the burial and lain in vigil before the altar. But the family couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Liam alone there. So his body had stayed with them at home until this morning when they would say their final goodbyes.

Liam’s father and three uncles followed Toner up the church carrying the tiny coffin. In their wake came the rest of the family. Liam’s mother and sister seemed barely able to stand, leaning against each other in an A-frame as they walked up the aisle. Tears were pouring down their faces, though they were considerably quieter now than they had been when we had broken the news to them about the death of their son. Immediately behind them another woman, I presumed an aunt of Liam’s though I suppose she might have been a neighbour, carried the baby, who was being remarkably quiet, helped I presumed by a bottle of milk stuck in his gob.

When they got to the front of the church Toner ushered the family into the front rows that had been reserved for them, and Fr Martin Crosby came onto the alter with four altar boys in white soutanes.

Crosby was suitably sombre in his conduct of the Mass and proceeded in this measured way until he came to his sermon which he opened with, what I felt were pretty boilerplate remarks about death and young lives cut short that he would have learned in his “how to conduct a funeral” classes in the seminary. And then his remarks changed and became rather more personal:

“I knew Liam a little from the times he served Mass for me. He was a great young man. A credit to his family. I know he wanted to be a doctor. He was a great reader and used to tell me about what he was reading. The last morning I saw him he was telling me about the adventures of David Balfour after Kidnapped. He never lived to find out how it ended with Catriona. He never lived to find his own Catriona or have his own adventures in his own or other lands.

“The world is a lesser place without Liam, without the person he was and without the person he would have become. That truth will never be felt more than by his own family.”

His mother let out the most mournful yelp I’ve ever heard at that, and her muffled keening started again.

Crosby continued with the standard funereal hopes that one day all pain would be washed away when they were reunited in heaven. He was trying his best but it was plain that his sermon was doing little to comfort Mrs Finnegan, whose keening died down but whose shoulders continued to shudder in grief until the end of Mass.

***

It was a relief to get back out into the fresh air. The church had grown stultifying with so many people in it and I was relieved that, being at the back of the church, we were among the first out after the family and the pall bearers who carried Liam the final few yards to a hole that had been dug for him in the graveyard that surrounded the church.

O’Riordain had organised a guard of honour of Liam’s school friends to walk with the coffin to the gravesite, where Crosby concluded the service with prayers over the coffin and a decade of the rosary as they lowered Liam into the hole.

The normal routine of friends and neighbours lining up to pay their respects to the family was curtailed as Liam’s father led his still weeping wife from the yard. Packy O’Reilly had brought a pony and trap along. As he ushered the sadly depleted Finnegan family on board for the mile or so back to the farm, the grave diggers began filling in the hole. The earth and stones they shovelled echoed off the coffin.

“He’s not a bad oul skin, Packy,” said Eamon, watching as the trap set off out the road as the mass of mourners began to drift out of the grave yard. We lent against the church yard wall and lit cigarettes as we watched folk disperse. Dr Hennessy nodded to us as she passed and began threading her way through the crowd the short distance towards her surgery.

We contemplated the graveyard as we smoked, Eamon nodding greetings to friends and neighbours as they passed. Peter joined us after a few minutes.

“Cigarette, Peter?” I asked.

“Thanks Mick,’ he said and drew one from the packet I was offering him. Eamon struck a match to light him up.

“Sad funeral,” I said.

“Indeed it was,” said Peter. “No parent should every have to bury their child, let alone one so young.”

I could see how this funeral must be dragging up memories of Peter’s own son, obliterated by a shell in some rat-infested trench in France.

“Have you spoken to his parents?” asked Eamon.

“I have,” said Peter, “but its not like there is much comfort I could give them. I told them I know how they feel. I didn’t tell them the pain never goes away or that it can destroy everything you have ever valued in your entire life.”

I remembered how Peter’s wife had died shortly after they received news of their son and I had no idea how to respond. I was pretty sure that Eamon was at a loss too. But Peter wasn’t looking for a response or for sympathy. He was just telling us the truth, as he knew it, of how an untimely and violent death could devastate a family and the lives of all those left behind. Knowing Peter, he was also probably still wracking his brain for some fragment of his own experience that could help alleviate the grief and pain of the Finnegans.

We stood in silence for a while smoking, watching the crowd. Francie Quinn hailed Peter as he left the church gate with his wife. Peter waved back. “He can be a grumpy fucker, can Francie, but he’s got a decent soul,” Peter muttered to us as we watched him walking up the street with his wife’s hand hooked into his elbow. Then we heard the scrunching of hob nailed boots behind us and Jack O’Riordain joined us, having come out of the lower gate of the church yard.

“How’s it going, Peter?” he asked, hale fellow, well met, even in the grim circumstances we found ourselves.

“Not so bad Jack. And yourself?”

“Can’t complain. Sure no one would listen to me. Are these two behaving themselves?” he asked, referring to me and Eamon.

I expected Peter to make some casual joke, about not being able to get good help these days. But he didn’t. He took a final drag on his cigarette, then dropped it on the ground and ground it out with his foot and looked Jack straight in the eye. “They are exemplary,” he said.

“Good to hear it,” said Jack. “I wouldn’t want the good name of the battalion damaged by less than their best.”

The children who had attended the funeral were dispersing now too. “That was a nice idea, the guard of honour,” said Peter.

“I wanted to make sure the children were involved in the funeral, and I thought it was a way we could show Liam’s family the regard the whole school held him in.”

“Aye. It was a nice gesture,” said Peter. “Did you give the kids the day off school as well?”

“I did,” said Jack. “You can imagine that they are all still very upset. But kids get over such things fast, I’ve found.”

“You’ve seen much of this sort of thing, Commandant,” I asked. “The deaths of children, I mean.”

“Regrettably yes,” he said. “Particularly when I was teaching in Dublin. The carnage from tuberculosis was dreadful. The conditions in the tenements there are a breeding ground for disease, and the malnourishment of the children makes them easy prey for it.”

“So, you’re at a loose end yourself then today as well?” Peter asked.

“If only that were so. I have a host of battalion matters to be dealing with, as well as some school administration I’ve been falling behind on.”

Eamon had been quiet up to that point, but I knew he couldn’t help himself. “Some more unarmed peelers to be shot, Jack?” he asked.

I saw anger darken O’Riordain’s face and the muscles in his jaw clench.

“For fuck sake, Eamon,” said Peter.

“No,” said Jack, his voice low and controlled, irrespective of how angry he was. “It’s sticking in his gut, let him get it out. I imagine that Eamon’s military record is unblemished and earns him the right to judge. Isn’t that the case, Eamon?”

Eamon said nothing.

“That’s right,” said O’Riordain, “your hands are not clean either. I remember you telling me about that, didn’t you Eamon? About young Germans crying for their mothers before you and your British pals put bullets in them and left them in mud.”

“I wasn’t the officer giving orders,” said Eamon.

“No,” said Jack, “I was. But you can take a little credit for what we did at the barracks.”

“What do you mean?” asked Eamon. “I refused to participate.”

“You did,” said Jack, “and loudly too. I never knew you had studied the Geneva Conventions so assiduously. That was the point at which I knew you were no use to the battalion any more as a fighting man. But that is not what I meant.”

“What then?”

“The tales you have told me of the Crown Forces have left me with little doubt as to their ruthless efficiency. It confirmed what we learned when they shelled the civilian population of Dublin and left the second city of their empire in flames, let alone the savagery they showed at Amritsar. Now look at our lot. Weekend soldiers. In the past year these fellows have had less training than the greenest Tommy. And it is with them that I am meant to confront an empire. Those police in that barracks were traitors to their country. And their treason cost the lives of James Flynn, John McKenna and Paddy McCaul, remember? It was harsh what I did. But it was necessary. It was necessary to get the rest of the boys used to killing. It was necessary because I thought that it might save their lives in the months to come when next in the presence of the enemy. So when they are in action again they are inoculated to the revulsion of killing, and to not hesitate at the moment of truth. Remember Eamon?”

He paused and looked at Eamon with something close to contempt.

“I didn’t enjoy what I did that night,” said O’Riordain. “I will have to live with the sound of their pleading every day until I die. But I would do it again, for the good of the men under my command and for the chance of a country of our own.”

We were all quiet. “Anything else to say, Volunteer Gleason?”

“No, Commandant,” said Eamon.

“Okay so,” said O’Riordain. “I’ll be on my way then. And you’ve work to do to, so don’t let Mr McLaughlin down the way you did me.” He turned to Peter. “Take care of yourself, Peter,” he said and shook his hand. Then to us, “Volunteers,” and he turned up the street.

“Commandant,” I said by way of farewell. Eamon said nothing.

We watched O’Riordian go. Then Peter turned to Eamon, “For fuck sake Eamon,” he said. “Do you always have to antagonise him.” Peter was more exasperated than angry, but only just.

Eamon was uncharacteristically quiet, and looked a bit shame-faced. “We have a bit of history, I suppose,” said Eamon, eventually.

“Well it’s not fucking helpful at the moment, so can you get it under control?”

“I can,” said Eamon.

“Look boys,” said Peter, “I meant it when I said you’ve been exemplary in your duties to the Parish Court. So don’t make a liar of me at this stage in my life.”

“We won’t Peter. Sorry if I’ve embarrassed you,” said Eamon.

“That’s enough of that oul shite,” said Peter. “Now I’ve given ye an enquiry to conduct, which, I shouldn’t need need to remind you, is of the most sensitive nature imaginable, so tread lightly from here on will ye?”

“We will,” said Eamon.

“Good. Now I need to be getting back to the office, so can I leave ye to be getting on with it without fucking something up?”

“You can,” said Eamon.

“Good. I’ll leave ye to it, so, and I’ll see ye later.”

“Right Peter,” said Eamon.

“Take care,” I said.

He said nothing and turned and walked up the street towards his office. We watched him as he went, his shoulders hunched in the way of the worried, carrying the burdens of the world.

There were a a few remaining knots of people still chatting or smoking in the graveyard or on the street, but most had gone back to the normal routine of their lives. Myself and Eamon remained smoking by the church yard wall until everyone had left, Eamon brooding over the scene..

“That was kind of Peter, speaking up for us with O’Riordain,” I said.

“’Twas,” said Eamon. “He’s like that, is Peter. Always championing the underdog. It’s why he loses so much money on the horses.”

In spite of the lambasting he had just taken I could sense that Eamon’s spirit was returning. “Did you hear that fucker, O’Riordain?” he asked, “’Can’t complain, sure no one would listen.’ Anyone not paying attention to O’Riordain’s little gripes would run a serious risk of getting plugged in the nut.”

I grunted a laugh. I might have laughed more but the thought that O’Riordain had been contemplating, however vaguely, that very thing, putting a bullet at the base of my skull, rendered the image disturbingly real and took some of the humour out of it.

***

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https://unbound.com/books/the-undiscovered-country/