Can a man and woman of different religious beliefs and different cultural worlds defy years of tradition and hatred and find love against the bloody background of the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland? A short excerpt from Role of Dishonour which has just launched as a paperback novel on Amazon. It is also available as an e-book on Kindle.
Dexter was leaning against the front of his car when Kathleen Ennis came out of Ballyrennan Primary School a few minutes after three o’clock. She stood stock still for several seconds and then walked across to him.
“What are you doing here?”
He judged her expression was more puzzled than angry. He’d been waiting for about half-an-hour and had seen sixty or seventy children emerge from the low grey schoolhouse and go skipping and scuttling away along the narrow country road. Some had clambered aboard a yellow school bus in the playground and driven away screaming and waving at him. Others had been picked up in cars by their parents.
“I had a few things to clear up before going back to Belfast,” he said, “so I decided to spend one more day. I thought we might take a drive or a walk. I’d like to talk to you.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Dexter, I’m afraid that won’t be possible.” she said, starting to walk in the direction of her Honda, parked a few yards away. “I’ve got to get home. I’ve a lot of things to do.”
“Like making sure that old chip stays firmly in place on your shoulder?”
She spun round sharply, blue eyes blazing, head slightly tilted to one side. Surely he couldn’t have done anything to make her this angry?
“Look, Mr. Mark Dexter. I agreed to take you to meet my brother last night because he asked me to, and because it gave me a chance to see him for a little while. That’s all. Maybe, in your eyes, I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, but if I do, then there’s a good reason for it. I’ve told you, I don’t like journalists. I’ve seen the harm, the damage they can do, the despicable way they shatter people’s lives for a cheap headline — the way they stick a label on somebody and brand him with it like a . . . like a . . . mark of Cain!”
Phew! Mark hadn’t expected his remark to unleash this sort of reaction. This was one very angry young lady who’d either been badly hurt by the Press, or who certainly felt she had. He thought he’d sorted out that particular problem with her the previous night, but obviously the wound ran much deeper than he’d thought.
Kathleen had turned away and was standing by her car, arms held stiffly, fists tightly clenched, tension etched in every line of her body. Mark stepped across, his arms reaching out instinctively to comfort her. He stopped and allowed them to drop ineffectually by his sides. He wasn’t sure how to handle this situation, but he knew if he got it wrong, then he might as well just climb into his car, drive away, and forget all about Kathleen Ennis. He also knew that was the last thing he wanted to do.
“I didn’t say that to hurt you,” he whispered urgently, dropping his voice without being aware of it. “I thought you and I had settled this one last night, I really did. I thought you’d agreed not to tar all of us hacks with the same brush, that you were prepared to trust me, at least until I proved you couldn’t.”
She made no response. He plunged on.
“For what it’s worth, I intend to keep my word, both to you and to Raymond. I don’t pretend to be the best writer in the world. Good journalists aren’t supposed to get personally involved in their stories. I guess that means I’m not much of a reporter because I’ve really got involved in this one. Your brother and I talked quite a bit last night; he told me things I’ll never ever use, about himself . . . and about you.”
He saw his hands were resting lightly on her shoulders. He couldn’t remember putting them there. She either hadn’t noticed, or couldn’t be bothered to shrug them away.
“Last night I saw the other side of Raymond, the side you must love, the man who was once a very frightened little boy in his grandparents’ house when those policemen battered down the door. I have no time for the IRA, any more than I have time for their loyalist counterparts, but I don’t believe one side has a monopoly of all the right, or all the truth. I’m not saying I can change it — or even do very much to help — but surely you wouldn’t deny me the chance to try?”
She turned to face him and he allowed his hands to drop to his sides. The anger had gone from her eyes and she seemed much less tense.
“I did say I would, didn’t I?” she said. “You’re not really a typical journalist at all, are you?”
He smiled. “I hope not.”
He was glad to see her return his smile. It was the first time she had and it went further towards lightening her mood than anything she might have said.
“So, you said you wanted to talk to me. What about?”
Mark dropped his eyes for a second. “Actually, I didn’t tell you the whole truth about that. The fact is I want to write something more than just another sterile, superficial report on the troubles. That’s why meeting Raymond was so valuable. Don’t worry; I’ve agreed to respect his confidence in certain respects. I’ve met some leading loyalists as well, and will be talking to them again on the same basis.”
“But what’s all that to do with me? You must realise I want no part in any of this.”
“I was hoping you’d help fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. God knows there are plenty of them. Social attitudes, what makes this place really tick? What the man and woman in the street really think, How do you rate the chances of a solution to all this? What do you say to the kids you teach? What sort of future do you see for them? Those sort of things.”
She was looking hard at him, ice-blue eyes sizing him up. “And that’s it, that’s the whole truth?”
He steeled himself to meet her gaze. “No. Not quite. I promised to be straight with you .Well, maybe about ten per cent of its professional. The rest is personal. Let’s say I’d like a chance to prove the other ninety per cent of me isn’t all bad.”
She laughed suddenly. The blue eyes twinkled, the generous mouth opened to reveal even white teeth and the sound was music to his ears. It was like the sun rising over blue mountains. “All right then. We’ll use your car this time and let me show you a little of the most beautiful county in Ireland before it gets totally dark.”
She directed him along a maze of twisting country roads until finally making him turn off into Lough Navar Forest and ascend the spiralling drive to the little park high above the waters of Lower Lough Erne. The daylight was fading fast and the setting sun spun spidery tendrils of crimson among the low clouds to the far west. They walked to the edge of the sheer drop and stood close together, facing the stiff breeze from the Atlantic to the south-west, while she pointed out distant landmarks.
The wind tugged at their hair and clothing and made them huddle into their jackets, but Mark would have remained standing there forever — as long as she was with him and was prepared to enthuse about the beauty surrounding them in her soft, lilting tones.
Soon it was almost too dark to see and she indicated it was time to go. In the car, she rubbed cold hands together and made a face at the approaching night. She shook her head when he suggested dinner, only allowing herself to be persuaded when he pleaded that surely he should have just a little history and sociology to augment his first geography lesson.
They drove back to the school so that she could collect her car and then he followed her home where she served him coffee while she showered and changed. It took a little over forty minutes and the transformation from windswept country schoolteacher to his glamorous lady of the evening took his breath away.
She chose a small hotel a few miles outside Enniskillen and phoned to reserve a table. The meal was excellent, but he wouldn’t have minded in the least had it been bread and water.
She talked a lot about Raymond, of following him to Queen’s University, of spending two years teaching in France before returning to the little school at Ballyrennan. The usual reasons, she explained. An ageing father, grown old long before his time in his own particular struggle to secure the Ireland he wanted. He had died, a disillusioned and sad figure, nearly two years before.
Mark waited for Kathleen to speak of her mother, but when she did it was in a small, faint voice. There had been a day-trip to Belfast for shopping, a thirty-minute warning of a bomb planted in a nearby shop. The area was being cleared when the bomb exploded — ten-minutes too soon. Mrs. Ennis, only yards away, suffered horrendous blast injuries. She had lingered for seven months while the hospitals did their best. In the end, her death had been a blessed release both for herself and her loved ones. That had been eight months ago. The greatest irony was that it had been an IRA bomb which had caused her death!
Dexter put his hand over Kathleen’s and voiced his sympathy. Of course, he remembered the incident very well, had deliberately chosen not to raise it with Ennis. It just hadn’t registered with him in connection with Kathleen. Some of the tabloid coverage had been disgusting, even by their pathetic standards. God! No wonder she despised the press. She had real cause to.
Very gently, Mark talked to her, apologising for not having made what should have been an obvious association. He realised how hopelessly inadequate his words must seem and could only emphasise what he had said before that he hoped she wouldn’t tar him with the same brush.
He contrived to lead the conversation into less contentious channels and succeeded to the extent that, by the time coffee was served, Kathleen was again smiling and playing a full part in their discussion.
He told her stories of his childhood in Cork, of his mother, still a formidable lady, now domiciled in a typically English village on the Sussex coast. He talked about Quinlan and John Grant and half-a-dozen decent newspapermen he wished she could meet, if only to at least partially restore her faith in the profession.
He was about to suggest they move into the lounge when she jolted him with a sudden forthright question.
“And now that you’ve covered all that — are you going to tell me about the woman who blighted your life?”
He strove to gather his thoughts. “I didn’t realise it was so obvious.”
“And you were the one who accused me of having a chip on my shoulder, Mark Dexter!”
He smiled somewhat bitterly and found himself telling her about events he’d kept locked away in a dark corner of his subconscious. He’d never spoken about it to anyone, but — what the hell — it seemed to be a day for confessions.
“You don’t miss much, do you, Kathleen? There’s not a lot to say about it really. Sandra Burdette, her name was. It was about a year after I came down from Oxford. I just wanted to write and have a good time, she wanted the same things. She was good, very good — much better than I was, as a writer I mean. We met one summer on the river at Kingston; our punts literally ran into each other. The girl I was with got in a huff and stalked off and Sandra couldn’t stop laughing.”
Kathleen could picture the scene.
“Anyway, you know how infectious laughter can be? I joined in. It was hysterical. Neither of us could stop. Her escort got angry — couldn’t see the funny side of it — so she just pushed him in as well! He spluttered about for a while, and then made off shaking his fist and muttering dark threats. We both totally convulsed with laughter after that. When we could stand up again we moored the punts and went off to have a celebratory drink at the local tavern. Our relationship sort of took off from there.”
“It’s certainly different,” Kathleen said, eyes still shining, a wry smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“We had the most tremendous fun for almost five years,” Mark continued. “We shared an apartment; I got a permanent post with the Dispatch and managed to have a book published. We got engaged. Three weeks before the wedding, Sandra, who was well on the way to becoming queen of Fleet Street by then, flew off to Los Angeles to interview a playboy producer whose last movie had grossed about $100 million. After a week she filed an exclusive interview with him about his next picture. The following week she had another exclusive — ‘Dispatch reporter weds top Hollywood producer in Acapulco.’ She’d only gone and married the fellow!”
Kathleen couldn’t help it. He must have made it up. Yet his face was so serious — she’d been expecting a minor tragedy at the very least. She felt the laughter start deep down inside her. She fought to control it — couldn’t — and finally gave up the unequal struggle. Poor Mark — Acapulco — hilarious. She laughed until her sides were sore, until he was compelled to join in, until the tears streamed down their cheeks, and even the staff and the other diners couldn’t restrain their amusement. An elderly gentleman, dining with his wife at a table in the opposite corner, smiled broadly, raised his glass in a toast to them and treated them to a courtly bow.
It was at least ten minutes later before he beckoned Kathleen nearer to him and whispered the end of the story. “She sent me a Dear John letter, a lot of bitter-sweet regrets and a piece of wedding cake. The marriage lasted eighteen months. She’s on her third now, to the owner of a San Francisco cable-TV network and presents her own twice-weekly chat show.”
“Oh please, Mark,” Kathleen begged, “don’t tell me any more — I don’t think I could stand it.”
This time they both managed to restrain themselves to a rib-tickling, relatively restrained two-minute chuckle — but it was a close-run thing.
The strange thing was Mark hadn’t laughed like that since the afternoon on the Thames all those years ago. Even stranger was the fact that he’d never before seen the funny side of the ending of his engagement to Sandra. It had taken Kathleen Ennis to help him laugh at it — and at himself.
By unspoken agreement, they kept things light for the rest of the evening and it was one of the most pleasant he could remember. It was just before midnight when he drove her home, handed her out of the car and walked her to her front door.
On the step, she turned towards him, smiled and held out her hand. “Thank you, Mark, that was lovely. I can’t remember when I enjoyed myself so much.”
“Me, too,” he said, taking her hand. “I’d very much like to do it again.”
Still smiling, she slowly shook her head.
“I don’t think so, Mark.”
“But we never even got to talk about Irish history. You did promise me a lesson, you know.”
Kathleen turned the key in the door, stepped into the hall and closed the door over until just the tip of her nose was showing. “Perhaps. We’ll have to see.”
The door clicked shut. It wasn’t exactly a promise — but it would do.