Sean Duffy Year Zero
Night coils above the eastern skyline. An occult sun sinks into an alien sea. The fog smells of rust and rot like an old bicycle.
The boat glides over the unseen water, its 25cc engine barely turning the prop. Belfast in Irish means black mouth and we are in the city’s throat, where the river Lagan is smothered by the lough.
Put put put goes the little outboard. The constable at the prow is waving a xenon arc lamp back and forth as I steer the skiff through the grey twilight. Dusk is falling and its not yet three in the afternoon. We are on a body hunt. The girl was last seen loitering by the Queen’s Bridge and is now nowhere to be found.
We glide over the opaque water, the surface hidden by a thin line of oil and a scum of weed. The yellow light of the arc lamp oscillates through the gloom revealing nothing. Constable Cathcart is a solemn, nervous young man and is not in the mood for conversation which suits me fine.
From here the city looks abandoned. It has a hadopelagic air, a city of Doggerland or Heraclion or Atlantis.
A flock of scolding herring gulls fly away from us and skid onto the greasy deck of HMS Caroline, a light cruiser dating from World War 1 that has been attached to the dock for so long that it’s now the second oldest commissioned vessel in the entire Royal Navy. (The oldest, of course, is HMS Victory in Portsmouth.)
The stillness deepens. The odour of decomposing wood floats across from the crumbling Titanic wharf. Belfast lurks there in the night, swathed in black silence, as taciturn and broody and gruff as its populace. Even the Gazelle helicopter that hovers continually over the Falls Road seems muted, tired and far away.
Calm the water is. Calm the heavens are. Calm the city is.
But underneath the surface of the discernible world is another world of kin struggle and blood feud and death. An older order of ancient laws and obligations, customs that go back to the footfall of the first men through the grasslands of the Great Rift Valley in Africa.
I steer the boat along the piers and jetties, everywhere I think a body might have washed up. Chip papers, newspapers, Coke cans, beer cans but nothing pertinent.
“I’m cold,” Constable Cathcart finally says. “Can we go home now?”
He’s asking me because although we are the same titular rank I am the senior constable. And realistically all of this - the boat, the spotlight, the search - is only for forms sake. The tide’s been going out for the last three hours, a body would be miles out to sea by now.
Still returning so soon seems irreverent and unprofessional. “If you’re cold put the hood up on your parka,” I tell him.
He puts the hood up on his parka restricting his field of vision to about thirty degrees in front of him.
I steer the nameless RUC dinghy into the deep water channel.
An emerald sandpiper emerges from the murk with a crab wriggling in its mouth. It flies directly through the spotlight beam giving Cathcart a start. As it turns I see that in fact its not a sandpiper but a curlew, a whimbrel in fact, numenius phaeopus. Not that anyone cares.
The deep water channel turns out to be far too choppy for the little boat and water starts coming over the gunwales. We’re out here in our uniforms, sans lifejacket and with our body armour on we’d sink like a stone if we went over the side.
I turn us around and head back into the harbour towards the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the tide and current might have carried a body onto one of the slipways. Lights are coming on and a mile south across the channel are the chalky outlines of towers and steeples.
We punt under the cranes, derrricks and gantries the whole of it like those drawings you did as a kid of factories and cities. You a sheltered country boy who imagined Derry or even Coleraine to be a place like Hong Kong or New York.
The ship looming in the dry dock is the SS Ravenscraig, a 950 foot long bulk carrier being built for British Steel. It’ll be one of the last vessels H&W will make for anyone. Not anticipating the cruise ship boom of the 90’s the Tory government will let the shipyards in Belfast and the Clyde wither on the vine. Once a third of all the ships in the world were built here but within a decade that venerable tradition will be all but extinguished.
But the Duffy of that night doesn’t know that yet. The Duffy of that era knows hardly anything.
The Duffy of that night starts whistling. It will take his girlfriend Beth to tell him that it’s unlucky to whistle in an open boat. The tune he is whistling is ‘Lament of the Lagan Valley’ whose last two lines are “Forgive us oh Lord the sins of the past/and may you in our mercy be kind to Belfast” which, when you think about it, is a little obvious, a little too on the nose to underscore this scene.
Even the Duffy of that time can see that and his mind starts playing a different aquatic melody: the Vorspiel in E Flat Major of Das Rheingold, the culmination of Wagner’s work in Romantic drone music.
“Over there along the wharves,” I direct Cathcart while I play in my head the unhurried Von Karajan version that so captures the tension within the counterpoint, as Wagner tries to hide his love/hate relationship with Heine. Love because how can you not love the poems, hate because Heine is a Jew.
The police boat moves slowly back through the calm as the music swirls to a climax. The whiteness darkens into the shapes of buildings. Ruined buildings. Building that evoke despair. This city has been broken by ten years of bombings and murder and sectarian civil war. A city of the Aphotic zone. A city of the apocal—
“We’ve been out here nearly an hour, how much longer? I’ve a party to go to,” Cathcart mutters.
Party? What party? What’s he talking about?
“An hour’s not enough. The sergeant will accuse us of not fulfilling our due diligence. Over there to left, mate.”
“The sergeant doesn’t give a damn about some wee doll who might or might not have thrown herself in the tide. We’ve bigger fish to fry now we’re on the Butchers.”
His hood has fallen down and I look at the back of Cathcart’s neck, white and young, quivering like a goose gizzard. He’s right of course. This whole thing reeks of pro forma. A going through the motions.
Our entire section has been seconded to the team under Detective Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt, head of the CID Murder Squad in Tennent Street RUC. Nesbitt is investigating the Shankill Butchers – an Loyalist death cult who have slaughtered at least twenty people in random attacks over the last three years. Almost all the victims have been Catholics dragged off the street and hacked to death with butcher knives and meat cleavers.
The Shankill Butchers have become a cause celebre, folk heroes to some of the more warped denizens of Protestant West Belfast and bogey men to everyone else in the city.
DCI Nesbitt has been given carte blanche to try to bring the bastards in. And in fact the ring leaders are well known but no one is brave enough to testify against them so its catch them in the act or get forensic residue - neither of which is a very promising prospect.
In the end they’ll probably have to fit them up to get them off the streets.
I look at my watch.
Yup we’ve been at this over an hour now and there’s nothing out of the ordinary. I turn the tiller to the right and head back up the Lagan.
An elderly cop waiting at the jetty throws me a rope.
“Anything?” he asks.
We tie the boat and get out.
The jarring suddenness of the land. The air shivering with the smell of rain.
Cathcart and I walk sullenly to the station. The pavements are slippery. The Vorspiel in my head circles continuously around the E flat major chord before it crescendoes, resonates and gutters into silence.
We show our faces to the security camera, go in the station and report to O’Neill the big ruddy incident room sergeant.
“What’s the story, Duffy?”
“No sign of her, sir.”
“Waste of my bloody time. Waste of my officers time. Remember that Duffy. Police work is about priorities. No, no, don’t take your armour off, we’re heading straight out.”
“Aye, right now. No rest for the wicked. We’re first responders. Nesbitt and the bloody TV news are gonna be right behind us. I hope for your sake you didn’t have a fry for lunch.”
We drive to Montague Street where the body of a trainee nurse has been found with nineteen stab wounds in her chest and back.
“Raped first, a new low for the Butchers,” O’Neill says. Her clothes have been torn off and she’s been disembowled.
She has ginger hair and delicate features. A shy one you can tell. Kindly. Would have made a wonderful nurse.
We set up a perimeter and began canvassing for witnesses.
When Jimmy Nesbbit arrives with the BBC, ITN and hacks from the English press we’ve already done all the grunt work.
“She was a Catholic, of course,” O’Neill whispers conspiratorally to me as we take a smoke break.
“How can you tell?” I ask him.
“Rosary in her left hand. She’d have been better to have had a bloody hammer.”
I nod and say nothing.
“Did you hear me, Duffy?”
He looks at me. “Christ you’re exhausted. Get on back to the station, the boss wants a word with you and when he has that word you go on to your bed. You hear me, son?”
Back to the station through the devastated streets. Past bomb sites turned into parking lots and derelict buildings and huge craters brimming with rain water. I know I’m being watched by men in doors and alleyways. A peeler on his own. A tempting target. Death is very close here. And yet I know that I am safe. Not tonight. Not this night.
The crow filled sky has darkened to a deep trance-like blue.
The stars slink out.
Go back an hour, see what the Angels saw. See what the Angels saw and did nothing to prevent.
The trainee nurse on her way to work. The intoxicated men pouring out of the car and dragging her away. Witnesses quickening their step, seeing nothing, hearing nothing.
Go back four hours to the runaway girl sitting on the edge of the Queen’s Bridge. Driven there by what demons? Drunkeness, domestic violence, sexual violence?
Any civilization that fails to appreciate its women is lost.
Deserves to be lost.
Rosemary Street. High Street. The station. Everyone around the telly watching Olivia de Havilland watching Errol Flynn showing off his archery prowess.
Upstairs to the gaffer’s office.
Upstairs to the gaffer’s office.
His hand out-stretched.
I shake the hand. “Congratulations for what?”
“Obviously the higher ups like what you’ve being doing here. I pride myself on being a mentor.”
“I’m still not clear what—”
“No more foot patrols for you, my lad. You’re off the bloody streets for good. You’re the new breed, I suppose, Duffy. University men.”
“I’m being transferred, is that it?”
“Transferred? What? No. You’ve been promoted. You’re not an acting detective constable anymore. In fact, you’re not even a detective constable! You’ve been promoted to detective sergeant. Jesus, you’re really being fast-tracked. In a year you’ll probably be bumped up to DI. Some quiet out of the way station with your own team. They’re grooming you, Sean. They like the cut out of your jib. Be a good boy and keep your nose clean and don’t get bloody shot and you’ll end up a Chief Superintendent or an Assistant Chief Constable or maybe even the big prize itself with the knighthood and the house in Bangor and the six figure pension.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Rain battering against the bullet proof glass of the locker room. A detective sergeant? My own team? Maybe now I can really make a difference.
I change out of my uniform into my street clothes. White jeans, black T shirt, black parka.
“Where are you going in this weather? Home I hope,” the desk sergeant asks.
“Just one more thing to do. I’m going to let Mrs Keeley know we didn’t find anything.”
The desk sergeant guffaws. “You’re going to let her know you didn’t find her daughter’s body? She won’t thank you for that.”
“Letting her know we’re still on the case.”
“We’re not still on the case. We’ve got dead nurses now. No one gives a shite about another teenage runaway.”
Nevertheless I walk to Mrs Keeley’s house in a ruined terrace in the Markets.
Knock the door.
A big man answers. Big man in a white shirt, brown braces, brown slacks. “Who are you?”
“The police. Acting Detective Const. . .Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy. Is Mrs Keeley home?”
“She’s making the tea. What is it?”
“Well its just that we had a look for Louise and so far nothing has—”
“If you do find her you can tell that wee hoor from me that when she gets home she’s getting a pounding.”
“Who is it?” Mrs Keeley asks, appearing in the hall with a fresh black eye.
“Mrs Keeley just wanted to let you know that there’s no sign of Louise yet.”
“The harbour?” she asks, clutching her throat.
“We took a boat out and there was no sign of anything untoward. The eyewitnesses said she just sat there for a bit on the bridge. No one actually saw her jump.”
“That’s a relief,” Mrs Keeley says before her husband turns and glares at her and she goes back to the kitchen.
“Calling the police for the likes of this,” he mutters to her and then turning to me he adds, “you can run along now.”
And maybe it’s the exhaustion, maybe its the promotion and the knowledge that I’ll be moving to a new parish, or maybe it’s the Chief Inspector telling me to be a good boy and keep my nose clean. . .Because instead of running along I step into the house and close the front door behind me. “You like Wagner?” I ask him.
“What are you on about?”
“Big influence on Wagner was the poet Heine but he could never admit it because Heine was Jewish. You know any Heine? Schubert liked him too. Both were inspired by Heine’s poem ‘The Lorelei’. Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten. Daß ich so traurig bin, which translates to: I do not know what this can mean, I am so very sad. The English doesn’t really do it justice though, trust me.”
“Are you off your rocker, sunshine?”
“No. I’m just sad. Sad about the way this city treats its womenfolk, sad that an evil bastard who beats his wife and beats his daughter always seems to get away with it because no one will ever testify against him. And you know what I think?”
“What do you think?” he growls, his face turning purple with rage.
I take the service revolver out of its holster and point it at his head. “I think they’d all be better off without you,” I whisper. “I think the world would be better off with you. I think no one would miss you. What do you think?”
He falls to his knees. He starts to cry. Like many bullies, the merest hint of a pushback was enough. . .
I put the revolver back in the holster a little shocked to see that it got taken out in the first place.
I open the front door. “I’ll be keeping tabs on you Keeley, any more bruises on Mrs Keeley or any of the little Keeleys and there will be a knock at your door. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” he sobs.
Outside the house I catch a look at my reflection in a car window. Jesus Duffy is this the kind of plain clothes cop you are going to be? Power corrupts, of course, but does it have to corrupt this quickly?
I walk back to the station through the drizzle. When I get into the incident room everyone is wearing party hats and blowing kazoos. Someone’s birthday? Surprise promotion party for me?
Sergeant O’Neill spots me. “Christ Duffy, you look terrible. I’ve seen better looking corpses down the mortuary. Thought I told you to go home. When did you come on duty?”
“It’s midnight Saturday. You’ve been on duty for thirty six hours straight!”
“What’s with the pointy hats?”
“It’s the new year, lad. It’s January 1st 1980.”
“Happy new year, Sean,” WPC Porter says, kissing me on the cheek with motherly affection.
“Happy new year to you, Liz,” I say, kissing her back.
“Ach thanks Sean, and let’s hope the eighties are better than the seventies, eh?”
Sergeant O’Neill laughs bitterly. “Well, Liz love, they certainly can’t—”
Don’t say it! Don’t jinx it!
“—be any worse, can they?”
Vorspiel in E Flat Major Das Rheingold
Vorspiel in E Flat Major Das Rheingold