Our Shadows Are Emeralds

Entry for the Feral Youth competition. Northern Ireland, 1981. HM Prison Maze. The height of "The Troubles". Noah O'Shea, accused of consorting with the IRA and being in possession of a hand-gun, now grapples with his conscience: does he continue with the hunger strike, a political retaliation of his mistreatment and eventually die or does he end it all, and live to see his family?


1. Our Shadows Are Emeralds

"In Dublin's fair city, 

Where the girls are so pretty, 

I first set my eyes on sweet Molly Malone..."


There. I can hear her voice again now, clear as day. It's milky and definite, like 'dem marble cherubs you see in the art galleries or glued onto the pews at Church. She's by my side, her fingers laced through mine, but sort'a loose, like a twisted yarn in Mam's knitting. And, Christ, her eyes... there ain't nothin' in em'. Like a sea full'a dead fish. Blind, but she sees right through me too and her gaze falls somewhere into the shadows.

"Will ya' sing for me again, Dessie?" I ask her, but my voice is crumbling and fine like flour. Dessie's always had a grand voice. Best in Church choir, though no one but Da will say so. Mam secretly knows it too, but she won't boast. Not never. 

She does it again. She looks through me and I know she can't see nothin' but scared and lonely and all the dead fish in her eyes are surfacing to the top a' the lake. 

"Come on, gal'. Come on, Dessie. Sing 'Molly Malone', like old times. Like when we was kids. Help me, Dessie, I can't remember the words." 

But Dessie won't sing no more; can't. Da says that when you take the hope outta' someone, they ain't human no more. "It's a deathly sin, Noah." He said, "a deathly sin." That's what I done ta' Dessie. She would sing wid' the lark and nightingale both and race up trees quicker than any a' the boys and she were dead smart, too. Now, she writes letters to Maggie Thatcher, all t'live long day, saying how her big brother ain't a terrorist, he's a political prisoner and should be taken off a' the hunger strike, 'cause she's me' little sister an' I mean somptin' to her. Maggie Thatcher don't seem to like the Irish much, but that's fine, 'cause Mam for one can't stand 'er. But lots a' people love 'er, like the Unionists and the feckin' Proddies. She's got a big gob on 'er, that woman, but no ears. Funny. Mustn't be too good at listening. Dessie's sharp and she knows stuff like what a lotta' 14 year olds don't, but Maggie ain't got the time a' day for a paddy-gal' like Dess. If I choose to strike, I choose me' own death. Tha's what she says. Walk a mile in my shoes, Maggie. Walk a mile. 


"... As she wheeled her wheelbarrow, 

Through streets broad and narrow,

Crying 'cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!

Alive, alive, oh! Alive, alive, oh!'

Crying 'cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!'"


And Dessie's voice ain't marble like the angels no more. It tears at my skin, soft-like, as the shells we collected in jam-jars at Ballymascanlon on holidays and wha' later smashed to pieces in the car-ride home. Every year. I turn around and she ain't there. Don't suppose she ever was, it was just the hunger talkin'. It does that. Sean Flaherty always told me I'd eat me' own Mam, if I were hungry enough. Sean Flaherty is an eejit and he were also shot dead by Proddies outside his house, in front a' his Da and Unko. Don't get me wrong, not every Proddy's bad. Just the Maggie-lovin', Sean Flaherty-killin', Catholic-hatin' feckers what you need to watch out for. 

The hunger's back, but it don't matter no more. Always kills at night, like I'm being eaten up from t'inside. I remember why. The strike starts and ya' don't feel a thing, cause' it ain't like yer' missin' much in this gaff. Give it a day. Glucose supplies are used up in 20 hours, maybe less. Yer' insulin levels drop and glucagon goes up an' den' there's lipolysis where all da' fat tissues gets broken down. But there's that bloody fork in da' road, like a blade twisting around in yer' gut. Wait maybe 40 days and yer' muscles tissues get eaten up and yer' brain starts doing things to ya'. Hallucinations. Let's not forget the organs. Oh, no. The little buggers out and die on ya', jus' like that. A Cat-lick turd a' the bottom of a standard issue RUC boot. An' before that, yer' piss looks like yella' straw an' your shits are like tiny black coals, as though you could power yer' Granda's miniature railway with em'. Top of me' class in Biology, though you wouldn't tink' it in all yer' years, lookin' at me now. A bright sod, that boy was. Coulda' finished his exams and become a doctor. He'd get me outta' this mess, he would, for sure an' fa' certain. Buh' he's hiding in the emerald shadows somewhere an' he won't come out. 


"She was a fishmonger, 

But sure 'twas no wonder, 

For so were her Father and Mother before..."


It killed Mammy the most outta' all a' us, I think. Mam's always had to be as tough as nails, on account of her Da being an ex- Proddy. Proddies wouldn't have her and the Catholics didn't take to it too kind, either. Mam supports the Loyalists, though she'll go to her grave before saying it in the street. Not like Da. Da don't know when to druid do bheal, as it were. They both believed me when I told them wha' truly happened, 'cause they know how I am. The Unionists and the Proddies are feckin' taigs an' bastards but I'd never, couldn't ever...


Devlin MacMahon called, asking me ta' meet him at O'Connell's, on Buchannon Street at ten past four in t'afternoon.  It was a Tuesday. October. The 6th. "Just a little catch up with a school pal." He said. "Won't get plastered, Noah. Hand on heart, boy-o. Home before 11." 

I was meant to go out ta' buy new runners with Da, for the race on Saturday. The one what I'd win first in, cause' I'd been training like mad for the most part'a the year. But Da didn't mind when I told him. I wish he had, though. Never did like Devlin MacMahon much and we hadn't seen each other since the school days. I'd heard tell he'd been twistin' the hay and brushin' shoulders wid' some republican trouble-makers and I didn't take me' tea that way. "Good to get out, lad. You've been studying hard and our nearly-doctor of the house needs a break." Da said. "We'll get yer' runners tommara'. That way you can go ta' the lake an' break em' in before Saturday." Mammy weren't too keen, buh' she never was when it came to me' drinkin'. 

"You keep away from the whiskey." She was scowling her heart away but I caught her smilin' in secret. "Whist, you." Says I. Dessie still weren't speaking to me, after I told her that her Jane Austen books were fulla' flowery English horse shit. Last time I saw her, not behind a plastic screen and talkin' through a telephone, was when she threw "Northanger Abbey" at me' block. 

Devlin was wearin' a black harrington and Dr. Martens, like what you see them skin-'eads an' ska kids wearin'. He looked like your fella' from that band. You know t'one, "Madness", or somptin'. All I had on me were a short-sleeved shirt of me Da's an' a pair a' knackered jeans. It was cold out, too. Dev weren't hunched over t'bar like all the other Fumblin'-Dublins and drunks. He cradled his stout close to his chest like a secret. He called me' name and clapped me on the back when he caughta' glimpse a' me, like he'd seen me at the corner shop only last Tuesday. We talked and drank and he asked me about me' life. I told him about college and me' studies and how I were gonna' become a doctor, or somptin' in medicine. He tried lookin' interested, but it didn't work very well; I could see him scoff. He downed the rest of his stout and stared at me.

"You know, Noah, I always t'ought you were a bright young man. Good at school and stuff, sorta' came natural I suppose. Me' Mam always said you were a good lad, wished I could avoid trouble like you always did. Me sister Mary thought you were somptin', too. But you're selfish. Look at you with your fancy medical degree, while half your brothers are rottin' in Ulster jails and the other half are battling for a better Ireland. You've let yourself down, lad. You've let your country down." I couldn't believe what I was hearin' and for the life of me I couldn't stop shakin'. Selfish? Because I chose education over a prison sentence destined by the I.R.A?  

"You were made for better things, Noah. God has a mission for you. You can't let Thatcher and her Proddies do this to yer' people. Yer' blood is Catholic, lad. You can't fight yer' Loyalist roots."

"Dev, what're you sayin'? My people? I'm not bloody Moses. You've had too much ta' drink, kid. Give it a rest and for the love a' God, will you keep it down? Ya' never know who's listenin'." 

"You're shit at the bottom of their boots, Noah. Catholic shit an' it has to end. You want a united Ireland, don' ya'? No English scum tellin' us this and that."

"This is starting ta' sound like I.R.A talk."

"And what of it? They have some fine ideas about the good of Ireland, Noah. You'd do well ta' remember that." It was as clear as spring water why he wanted me to come and I was as green as the isles for not seeing it. I was a recruit in his feckin' republican syndicate. I tipped back the froth at the bottom of me' Guinness and stood up. 

"Look, man, I came to chat about old times. Not this. Not every Proddy's bad and you'd do well ta' remember that. Goodbye, Dev. I wish you luck." I'd reached the door by the time he called my name again. The collar of his harrington was hangin' from his fist. 

"Take it, lad." He held it out to me. "I can feel a down-pour comin'." It was brand new, once I came to look at it an' the tartan lining was still glossy an' crisp. 

"Really? But what about yourself?" I asked. 

Devlin shrugged. "Don't worry about me, boy-o. I'm sorry I scared you off like that. I suppose I'm a little mad at times. Take no notice; we can still be friends I hope?" I nodded and took the jacket and slipped it over my back. I took a step forwards, but then I turned around and slapped Dev on the back kindly. "It's alright, Dev. We'll talk later. Just don't call durin' supper." He laughed and his mouth were wide open like a shark's. His teeth were yellow an' his gums like ash. I was walking down the road, homeward bound when I found the hand-gun in the left hand pocket of the jackek Dev had lent me...

The car bomb went off at 4:46pm by the police station on the opposite side of Buchannon Street to O'Connell's.  It's was Dev's doing, I thought, but I still can't be certain. A junior policeman of 27 years, a Mother and her 5 month old son and a homeless fella' were killed. They were blown up into tiny pieces and their parts fell through the cracks in the pavement. The bartender at O'Connell's reported two men of around 19 who had been discussing Catholic mistreatment and suspicious loyalist ideals little under an hour before the bomb went off. I weren't the only Catholic on the street at the time, but I was the only one what the bartender recognised and the only one what had a hand-gun in his pocket. "Justice is kind to those who were in the right place at the right time." I dunno' who said that, but it's been said now. 


"And they each wheeled their barrows, 

Through streets broad and narrow, 

Crying 'cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!

Alive, alive, oh! Alive, alive oh!'

Crying 'cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!'"


I can't hold onto the rope much longer, cause' my hands are sweaty and they're loosing feelin'. Dessie hates me for it, buh' she'll never understand it; not yet, anyway. Maybe not even till' I'm long dead and she's an old biddy. I don't want her to understand it, though. I've already taken enough hope from 'er. Mammy and Da' tell me they're proud, but they're sick of being strong. No convicted terrorist has ever become a doctor after, if they ever live to see the light of day. And I've been counting the dead strikers as they drop like flies. 

I don't deserve this.

An' I truly believe that. 

It's so easy to forget about the little people, because they're so small, see? With their wishes and fears, you can just stamp on 'em. Ireland don't belong to it's people and she won't never be united, not so long as there are Catholics and Protestants. They're both Christians, they're both the same, but God didn't give many people eyes to see that. God doesn't know what he wants these days. But I do. My stomach is empty because I want a united Ireland where there are Catholics and Protestants and Baptists and Methodists and Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus an' ever' thing in between and no one gives a shit about who you are because this is your home and you belong here and there are no emerald shadows to cover our eyes. 

Da is standin' by the basin and has the face of a child who's just left a toy on the bus. Mam's hair is pinned up and her eyes is all sunken and she's don't fit in anywhere, like a badly-cut jigsaw piece. Dessie is wearin' the skirt and blouse what she wore fer' confirmation an' her hair flows down to the floor like gravy. There's a Bible on the seat of a chair what sits beneath the window. Dessie takes it and puts it into the shadows behind my bed. 

"Help me, Dessie. I can't remember the words." And I'm cryin' now and da' fish are swimmin' in me' eyes. But her voice is clear like marble again and I will sleep tonight, cause' in the mornin' there will be light and the emerald shadows will be gone for a while. 


"She died of a fever

And no one could save her, 

And that was the end of sweet Molly Malone,

But her ghost wheels her barrow, 

Through streets broad and narrow, 

Crying 'cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!

Alive, alive, oh! Alive, alive oh!'

Crying 'cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh!'"





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