Kathleen’s absence had been noticed first thing in the morning when Nora had gone upstairs and thumped on her bedroom door to rouse her daughter, wondering why she hadn’t shown herself for breakfast. The day was a college day and Kathleen had never missed a single lesson of her catering course. With no sign of movement from within, Nora entered the room huffing and puffing noisily. The curtains were drawn tightly closed and the room was dark and still. Switching on the light and expecting to see a comatose, tousled head on the pillow, to Nora’s surprise she found the bed was neatly made and had obviously not been slept in. There was no sign of Kathleen whatsoever. That in itself would not usually have been cause for concern. Kathleen was a grown woman now and had a life of her own. She might have been out all night and gone directly to college from wherever she had stayed although in those troubled times in Belfast it was unusual for her not to have let anyone know her whereabouts.
It wasn’t until a little later in the morning that Nora began to think that something might be wrong after nipping out to buy cigarettes from Phelan’s corner shop in the next street. While chatting to old Pat Phelan who owned the business, he’d mentioned spotting Kathleen travelling on foot down the back alley quite late the previous night and looking very furtive.
“I just happened to be looking out of my bedroom window as I closed the curtains when I saw someone moving in the shadows below, all hooded up they were and carrying a holdall. Very suspicious so it was. I thought it might be someone about to break into the shop so I crept down to the side door which opens directly into the ginnel to see what was going on,” Phelan liked to tell a story.
“I grabbed an iron poker from the fireplace on the way, I wasn’t going to let anyone steal from me without a fight,” said the old man, punching his right fist dramatically into the palm of his left to emphasise his point. Nora reckoned he had less fight in him than the old moggy he kept to keep the population of mice down in his store room.
“Anyhow, by the time I’d unbolted and eased open the door, whoever it was had already reached the end of the alley and was looking up and down the street both ways, obviously checking to make sure it was all clear. At that point I recognised the person to be your Kathleen.”
“Could you be certain that it was her? You said it was dark,” asked Nora.
“For sure it was her, she stood under the street lamp for a few seconds and I saw her face.”
Phelan didn’t go as far as to admit to Nora that he’d easily recognise her daughter anywhere, day or night. He spent a good deal of time drooling over the girl whenever she came into the shop. He was infatuated with her. Although a good forty years older than Kathleen the lecherous old man never saw any harm in having a damned good look.
“Oh yes, it was definitely her,” he continued nonchalantly. “I was going to call out to her to see if everything was OK what with the way she was acting but before I could open my mouth she was gone. Very odd.”
Phelan dropped a pack of twenty Players No. 6 onto the counter and rang up the till with a flourish, tossing Nora’s fifty pence piece into the drawer and depositing the five pence change on top of the pack.
Nora didn’t know what to say. She swept up the cigarettes and her change from the counter, thanked Mr Phelan politely and then scurried back home.
Conall had been sitting in the parlour reading a newspaper when Nora had left to go to the shop but he wasn’t there when she got back. She found him out in the back yard blundering about in the old lavatory. He’d been threatening to clean it out for ages but Nora had taken that with a pinch of salt. He did next to nothing around the house and scrubbing out the bog was always going to be pretty low on his list of priorities. Before she could speak he reversed from the stinking little building, turned and asked.
He was holding up a very new looking leather handbag and some packaging which he thrust accusingly towards his wife. He wasn’t keen on her spending money on such things. Nora was puzzled.
“I recognise that.” she replied, snatching the bag from Conall, opening it and discarding the classy wrapping paper which fluttered to the ground.
“I remember I saw it advertised in a magazine a while back and showed it to Kathleen. Where on earth has it come from, and what the hell is it doing in the bog for heaven’s sake!”
Nora looked as pleased as punch with the discovery, all worries about her missing daughter temporarily pushed to one side.
“Ah would you look at that! It’s all torn inside where the pocket should be.”
She then repeated the conversation she’d just had with Pat Phelan. Conall stooped and picked up the paper packaging from where it had fallen, holding it close to his face and scrutinising it carefully.
“There’s a label on here.” he said, screwing up his eyes. Reading wasn’t his strong suit but he managed to make out an address.
“It’s come from some posh store in London so it has. Look,” he said incredulously.
Nora took the crumpled paper and carefully read it too. There was a long pause as thoughts and possibilities began to materialise in each of their heads.
“What the hell’s bloody going on?!” they exclaimed simultaneously.
At the exact same time that Kathleen had been soaking away the lingering dregs of tiredness and grime in her bath that first evening in her new flat after arriving in Aldershot, back in Belfast her old bedroom in the slum that she used to call home was being violently trashed. It was several hours since Nora’s return from Phelan’s shop with the story of Kathleen’s disappearance and there had been no sign of her all day.
“Where the fuck is she!” roared Conall O’Brien.
He gripped the side of the bed with both hands and with a surge of savage strength tipped it up and over so that the headboard slammed against the wall, cracking the plaster. The impact threw a cloud of dust and gritty particles into the air causing the big man to cough and splutter. This did nothing to improve Conall’s mood, his face already livid with anger.
“Doesn’t anybody ever clean up around this place!” he shouted.
The cords of muscle in his bullish neck quivered and snaked as the bedside cabinet suffered a vicious backhanded slap. It tipped sideways and crashed to the floor, taking with it a reading lamp which exploded into smithereens as it also hit the deck. The shock of the tumbling furniture on the threadbare carpeted floor caused the room to shudder. A big gilt framed mirror, never particularly secure where it had hung precariously on a small picture hook above the cabinet, fell from the wall. The corner of the heavy frame scored a direct hit on the top of Conall’s big toe, cushioning its fall.
There followed a tirade of curses bellowed so loudly that neighbours from several houses away came out onto the street to see what the commotion was all about. Not a great idea as the large gilt framed mirror was launched at high velocity from the upstairs window and hurtled in the direction of where they gathered. The mirror’s reprieve at the expense of Conall’s toe turned out to be a brief one. Taking with it one of the window panes it plummeted to the pavement below and shattered with an explosion of broken glass.
Callum and Finn who had been standing on the landing outside Kathleen’s bedroom watching the demolition nervously, looked at each other then turned and went downstairs, not wishing to get caught up in the destruction. There was no stopping the old man once he went off on one and it was only a matter of time before he began throwing punches.
“I’ll nip down the road and see Róisín.” said Callum to Finn. “See if she knows anything. Thick as thieves those two.”
Finn looked back up the stairs as a drawer which had previously contained Kathleen’s underwear, came flying out of the bedroom doorway followed immediately by a fluttering flock of brightly coloured bras and knickers. As the drawer somersaulted its way down the stairs gathering momentum with each bounce, Finn sidestepped to avoid being brained and then replied.
“I’ll come along with you Cal.”
The boys had always got on well together, even as young guttersnipes running rampant around the local streets causing mayhem from an early age. They never argued, hardly ever even differed in opinion. If one said or did something then the other backed him up without question, no matter what the risk. It was one of the reasons why they had developed such a fearsome reputation on the estate. Regardless of how tough some of the other lads were, nobody messed about with the O’Brien boys as you were never taking on one without the other. To add to the effect the elder, Callum sported a livid scar which ran from above the corner of his right eyebrow, diagonally down onto his cheek by the side of his nose. His eyeball, once an attractive pale blue to match the other was now a sunken, milky white orb, gruesome and unseeing.
There was a tale of how he’d sustained the horrific injury by being clubbed with a riot baton wielded by one of the detested English soldiers during a running street battle. It had spread far and wide and the boys did nothing to contradict it but the truth was that the injury had actually been the result of a drunken mishap. Callum had staggered out of the Rotterdam Bar one afternoon over near the disused Clarendon Dry Docks. He’d been so blind drunk that he’d plunged straight into the Lagan from one of the old walkways. He’d been impaled on some rotting machinery lurking below the surface and may well have met his end if his brother hadn’t gone in after him. Surgeons had done what they could to repair the eye but an infection no doubt picked up from the polluted water had put paid to any hopes of saving his sight. The young Callum had recovered well enough but been left with a terrible disfigurement. For a couple of years he wore an eye patch to hide it but nowadays he rarely did. He wore his scar like a badge of honour and delighted in the expressions of horror the sight of it caused on the faces of anyone who met him up close.
Finn rapped loudly on the front door of the Murphy’s house and then stepped back a pace, waiting for an answer. When the door opened it was Róisín who stood there, her face lighting up when she saw who it was. She had always had a crush on Finn since early school days, forever chasing after him but nothing had ever been reciprocated. Still, she always lived in hope. Her pleasure dissipated immediately though, when she realised that Finn was not alone. The two brothers pushed roughly past her without a word and walked through to the back of the house to find Mrs Murphy washing up dirty dishes at the kitchen sink.
“Hello boys, what can I do for you? Jack’s out if it’s him you’re after. Róisín, put the kettle on,” said Mrs Murphy, wiping her wet hands on her apron and smiling nervously.
Even though she’d known the O’Brien boys since they were in nappies she was afraid of them, particularly the older one Callum. She knew all about what he was capable of. His reputation was common knowledge and everybody in the neighbourhood gave him a wide birth if they could. The stories she’d heard about some of his exploits both in the name of ‘The Cause’ and of his own volition made her blood run cold. As a child he’d been fond of torturing animals for fun. She’d once witnessed him soaking a cat’s tail in paraffin and lighting it with a match, laughing hysterically as it screamed and squirmed in agony. Now he was just as likely to do something equally cruel to anyone who got on the wrong side of him.
“We’ve not come for tea,” said Finn. “We need to ask Róisín here a couple of questions about our Kathleen.”
“OK. What’s it about?” replied Mrs Murphy, fussing around, clearing the clutter from the kitchen table.
“In private,” said Callum, not even looking at her but his one good eye fixed upon Róisín.
Mrs Murphy stopped what she was doing and there followed a short silence while she pondered what to do for the best. She didn’t like leaving her daughter alone in the company of these two thugs. After a moment Callum’s eye slowly turned to her. The intimidation had the desired effect and fear got the better of her.
“OK. I was just about to pop to the store anyway, I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
With that Mrs Murphy removed her apron and scuttled out of the front door, leaving Róisín to deal with the O’Briens. She had no intention of going to Phelan’s but instead dashed away up to the betting shop three streets away where her husband Jack had been spending the day gambling away the week’s house-keeping money. She hadn’t liked the expression on Callum’s face. Jack needed to get himself home.
As soon as the front door clicked shut behind Mrs Murphy, Callum’s left arm snaked out and he grabbed Róisín roughly by the throat, pushing her hard against the wall. He had learned long ago that when it came to seeking information there was only one way to ask questions and expect to get a truthful answer and that was to put the fear of god into people from the word go.
“OK. What’s going on,” he snarled. “Where’s Kathleen and what’s she up to. Don’t mess us about, we’re not in the mood and we certainly don’t have the time.”
Róisín’s eyes bulged with a mixture of fear and shock as she struggled to breathe through her restricted windpipe.
“I don’t know where she is. I haven’t seen her,” she rasped.
The grip on her throat tightened and Callum shoved his face to within inches of hers, giving her a close up view of his hideous eye socket.
“When did you last see her? What’s she been doing? Has she been seeing anyone? Come on, tell us!”
Droplets of spittle sprayed onto Róisín’s cheek as Callum hissed the words at her. He was enjoying himself. He loved to have this sort of control over people, to manipulate them and see the fear in their eyes increase. Finn stood passively close by, watching and listening.
Everything Róisín could think of to say poured out in a garbled torrent. Callum had to ease the grip on her throat to enable her to breathe properly and make more sense. She told of her suspicion that Kathleen had been seeing someone but had kept it a secret, even from her closest friends. About how once she’d seen Kathleen meeting with a man in the park, a man she’d never seen before.
“It was the one near the army barracks.”
“Was he a soldier? Has he been shagging her?”
“I don’t know. Honestly I don’t. He was handsome so he was. I think he might have been a soldier but I didn’t see him wearing uniform. They sat very close. The way they were, their manner, the way they touched and looked at each other. It looked as though they were more than just friends. They sat talking for ages,” Róisín was scared witless and wasn’t holding back.
“What else can you tell us? Come on, I want everything you know,” Callum was fuming now.
“Well, I followed Kathleen sometimes. I was angry she was keeping something from me. Me being her best friend as I am. I wanted to find out for myself what she was doing. I saw her lots of times making long calls from the public phone box up the street.”
Róisín’s attitude had changed now. It wasn’t fair that she was being bullied like this. She wanted to make sure Kathleen got her share of the trouble she’d caused.
Callum released his hold on Róisín’s throat, straightened the collar of her crumpled blouse and patted her cheek none too gently.
“There’s more too,” Róisín volunteered. She didn’t want them coming back again so told them everything she could think of.
“There was a package that arrived from London. Kathleen wanted it kept a secret from your Ma so she arranged for it to be delivered here to my house. She told me it was for a surprise. I didn’t think anything of it. I had no idea what she was up to, I swear!”
The kitchen fell silent apart from muted sobs and sniffles from Róisín as tears tumbled down her cheeks. It was obvious that she had nothing more to say.
“There, that wasn’t so difficult was it?” said Callum in a less intimidating tone. He took her face in both of his hands and roughly planted a kiss on her lips.
The boys turned and left the kitchen, leaving Róisín massaging her neck with one hand and wiping her lips with the back of the other. She was shocked, tearful and disgusted.
Stepping back out onto the street Finn spotted Mr and Mrs Murphy walking hurriedly towards them from the direction of the bookie’s. He waved cheerfully then he and Callum walked calmly back to their own house.