Fiction Friday: a game of poker; a decision

Welcome to the first edition of Fiction Friday! Each week, I’ll aim to share one excerpt from a current writing project. I missed last week because I was swamped with work and school, so today, I’m sharing two excerpts. I hope you enjoy them!

These excerpts are taken from two different points of Say Nothing. The first excerpt takes place around 12 October, 1969; the second around January 1970.

 

I tried to open my eyes, but couldn’t: they felt heavy, swollen. As the rest of my body awoke, I was aware only of a dull ache throughout; and a sharp, stabbing pain in my ribs every time I took a breath. Images flashed through my mind of steel batons, combat boots. I forced my eyes open.
Even if you’ve never been in a hospital in your life, you can immediately place yourself there if you wake up in one. It’s all harsh lighting and bright whites; the smell of chemicals; worried faces looming over you.
“Hi, love,” came Mam’s voice, from the blurry face on the left.
I tried to sit up, and the figure on the right – Dad – lifted me to an upright position, propping me up with pillows. Slowly, their faces came into focus. Mam handed me a glass of water and I drank, greedily.
“Where’s Mary?” I said, my voice croaky.
“She’s okay,” said Dad. “She’s banged up and she’s got a fractured wrist, but they’ve sent her home already. We’ve been waiting for you to wake up so you can do the same.”
I put my hands around my throbbing head, which felt as if it had split in two. I remembered, then, feeling blood on my temple just before everything went black. Dabbing the area now, I felt the roughness of scabbing. “Well, I bet I look a right state.”
Mam bit her lip, and burst into tears. Dad reached across my bed, somewhat awkwardly, to comfort her.
“It’s okay, Mam,” I tried to sound encouraging. “I know who did it. Got one of the soldiers’ names and everything. We’ll tell the police, and they’ll be dealt with.”
Dad turned away, and sat in the chair in the corner. Mam dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. “It’s no use, Moira,” she said. “We already filed a report. Nothing will come of it. It’s our word against theirs.”
“But there are witnesses to back us up, surely?” I said. They had assaulted us at the end of a residential street; Mary’s own street, in fact. It had been a little dark, true, but how could three soldiers attacking two girls go unnoticed?
Mam laid a hand on mine. “You don’t understand, love. There are witnesses. That’s what I meant by ‘our’ word. But it doesn’t make a difference.”
Anger rippled through me. “But look at me! They can’t deny that this happened. Here’s the proof, right here!”
“No, they can’t deny it; but they’re claiming it was self-defence. The police aren’t even interested. I’m so sorry, my love.”
“I don’t understand. They’re the police.
“The police and the British army are on the same side these days,” Dad said, gruffly, resting his elbows on his knees and not looking at me. “And there’s no one on ours.”
“So, there’s nothing we can do?”
Mam shook her head. “There’s nothing we can do.”
But over in the corner, Dad’s brow was furrowed in thought. He folded his hands together and leaned his chin upon them, a certain menacing glare crossing his features as he stared ahead of him. He clenched and unclenched his interlocked fingers, the knuckles that were exposed by the missing fingers shining white. Mam, faffing unnecessarily with my pillows, had not noticed; and I waited for him to speak whatever was on his mind. He didn’t. After a few moments, he rose from the chair, still looking stern, but with no acknowledgement that anything unusual had happened.
“Come on,” he said, “let’s take you home.”

***

The IRA had split some time ago, and this was now public knowledge. Two wings, two different aims: the Provisionals and the Officials.
Less commonly known was my dad’s role. There were few people in the Bogside who knew that he was a full-fledged Provo, that where once he had sought a peaceful resolution to Catholic strife, now he sought to end it with bloodshed. There was nothing that he wouldn’t do to free us from British rule; to better the lives of his fellow Fenians.
No one ever asked if you were in the IRA. No one would dare, in this land where behind questions, traps lay coiled like barbed wire. To ask someone if they were in the IRA or the UVF was to risk disappearing, as so many did these days; to ask someone’s religion or school was to reveal where they sided on this great political divide, and now, we kept that information closely guarded. Still, word travels fast; and it seems to travel faster in whispers. We could tell who knew, by the way that they tiptoed around Dad. It were as if he had changed, when in truth he had not. Our neighbours and our friends were not his enemy – not even Ken, Protestant though he was – it was the British; it was the Protestants we didn’t know that we feared. I am sure that Ken either had no idea, or, if he did, he had to have the biggest balls in the Bogside. He still came over every Friday night, he still sipped whiskey with Dad and the only poker face he put on was when there were cards in his hand.
Ken had been a doctor, once. He’d run a successful practice down in Cork before it was bombed: retaliation for something that was never his fault. He was born in 1920 to pro-treaty Protestants in a county and a time when the IRA’s flying columns patrolled the sweeping hills and valleys, targeting anyone who supported the treaty that England offered us when we began to cry out for our freedom. By the time his clinic was bombed in 1955, Ken’s pro-treaty parents were long dead, but in Cork, where those wounds still ache decades later, time was hardly going to offer him any protection. He fled up north, to where the British still ruled, but he found only shipyard work and poverty here. If a Protestant lived on the same street as the Catholics, you knew he was poor.
I shuffled the cards for Dad, who still struggled with that due to the missing fingers. It was the loss of a finger that brought Dad and Ken together: Dad, frantic and panicked after an accident at the shipyard left an index finger hanging off; Ken, the newcomer, ordering calm; announcing that he was a doctor and he could help. I suppose Dad felt that he was in Ken’s debt, because for all his hostility towards Protestants, we were Ken’s only friends on the street.
“All in?”
Dad nodded. “Call.”
“Flush,” Ken said, laying his cards down with a smirk.
Dad eyed the pile of money in the middle of the table, his face etched with worry.
Ken sat back in his chair, lacing his hands behind his head. “I can’t keep beating you like this, Mick. Takes all the fun out of it.”
“Yes,” Dad said, darkly, “it’s not fun to always be on the losing end.”
Their eyes connected, and there was a beat in the silence; a moment when they forgot themselves. A moment when this was about more than a poker game. Dad, the Catholic always getting the worst deal; Ken, the Protestant who should have had it better, but didn’t.
“Not fun to always lose.” Dad repeated. He laid down his cards. Four of a kind. “It’s time I started winning.”

 

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