Jack's Return Home
“The rain rained.”
- Ted Lewis, Jack’s Return Home, 1970
I woke from a night of heavy sedation to find myself in the flat in Cumbernauld. To be here at all was baffling but to still be here after nearly eight months was nothing short of amazing. Sylvie, next door, said that we lived on the worst floor, in the worst building, in the worst estate, in the worst town in Scotland. I was only somewhat sceptical. Cumbernauld was the only town in Scotland that I knew, so there could possibly have been shittier places, although you’d be hard pressed to think of anywhere outside of an actual war zone where the people looked so beaten and stupefied. The Carbrain Estate was indeed grim: a Le Corbusier machine for living which had become a decaying concrete machine for escaping life through solvents, Bucky and heroin. But Sylvie was wrong about the seventh floor of the Rennie Building. The gangs of neds, dogs and feral children seldom came up here and we were in the sweet spot between the flooding and the rats.
Naariya had turned the flat into a home and it felt safe. Relatively safe. I had, admittedly, made a few mistakes in my tradecraft. I had used my actual first name and you could imagine a scenario whereby Uncle Andy decided to lay down a few grand on a private detective. It maybe wouldn’t be so difficult to find a skinny wee mucker called Jack with an Irish accent in central Scotland. And if Uncle Andy was looking for me it wouldn’t be to give me a stern talking to; no it would be the full Lion King treatment. You know the drill, or perhaps you don’t, and if you’re in the latter category consider yourself fortunate.
I switched on the phone and half a dozen different Facebook, news and Google alerts told me that my father was dead.
He’d been in a coma for a week and according to the BBC Joanna had ‘reluctantly agreed’ to take him off life support.
I’d been rehearsing getting this news since the shooting itself and I’d imagined me bursting into tears and weeping over the iPhone. That didn’t happen. I just sat there in the dark looking at Joanna’s platinum hair-do which she’d clearly gotten yesterday in anticipation of being on the telly.
We’d drifted apart, of course, dad and me, although the numbness wasn’t because of that. And it wasn’t Joanna’s fault either. Joanna didn’t like me and the feeling was reciprocated but I didn’t blame dad for hooking up with someone who was only five years older than myself. No, what I felt was more like relief than anything else. What the BBC and the papers didn’t know was that his cancer had come back with a vengeance. All those Facebook posts he’d made in the last two months attacking the racketeers and drug dealers had been a form of assisted suicide.
The Belfast method.
I woke Naariya. “He’s dead,” I said.
She put her arms around me. “I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “You must be so upset.”
“Of course. In all those pictures you were always your daddy’s little girl.”
And maybe it was the way she said it or maybe it was that choice of words, but then I did begin to cry. And once the waterworks began they didn’t stop for a long time. . .
Curtains, coffee, a stab at breakfast.
The rain was drumming against the glass and pouring out of the gutters into the storm drains seven floors beneath us. It was loud but if you strained your ears you could hear the bloody Fates weaving their threads into a new pattern. Scotland was evidently too dull for the bastards.
Naariya didn’t believe in the Fates weaving new patterns. She said that after conception Allah sends an angel to put a soul into a person and this soul has a Secret Text written upon it with that person’s lifespan and all their future deeds, good and ill. None of it can be changed. She believed all that shite.
“Of course you’re going back for the funeral,” Naariya announced. It was not a question.
“I doubt it. I’ll have to wait and see,” I replied.
“You have to go. It’s your father.”
I looked into her coal-black eyes. “Honey. Maybe I haven’t explained it very well.”
She shook her head. “You think Belfast is more complicated than Peshawar? Bitch, please. I get it. Maybe better than you do. If your Uncle Andy barred you from the funeral it would make him look weak. He’s not going to be made to look weak by a five foot two spikey haired lesbian. In public at least he’ll hug you and say all the right things and when it’s over he’ll warn you to fuck off again.”
“What’s the point of me going back?”
“So you can see your father put in the ground? Saying goodbye, closure, all that good stuff.”
“They don’t allow women graveside in the Presbyterian tradition. Women stand at the gates and it’s the men who put him in the ground. It’ll be closure for Uncle Andy. Throwing dirt in dad’s face. I might as well stay here.”
“I could go with you if you like. Moral support.”
“Since when did you get so sentimental?”
“Since my own family kicked me out of the house maybe? Your dad was always super nice to me on the phone.”
“I don’t think he knew what was going on between us, sweetie.”
“Your dad was sharper than you give him credit for.”
I looked out the window at grey, rain-soaked Cumbernauld. It was July so it was no doubt bucketing down over Belfast too. July was the wettest month of the year for it was well known that God hated the Orangemen and their marches.
I briefly considered last night’s chess game on the table by the window seat. I was in deep trouble. Naariya was always several moves ahead. Me da would have given her a run for her money but not me.
“It’s your move,” Naariya said.
“Forget it. I resign.”
“That’s you all over, girl.”
Naariya made me tea and biscuits and when she went out to work I sipped the tea and waited for the phone to ring. I’d called my cousin Ginger earlier to get the lie of the land and she’d promised to call me back. Finally it rang. My Secret Text was about to become manifest.
“It’s me,” Ginger said. “Listen, I talked to your uncle and he says you can come back for the funeral. A special dispensation. You can be in Belfast for 72 hours. Ok?”
“I’ll be safe?”
“He guarantees it.”
“I’d like to hear that from the horse’s mouth.”
“No chance. But this is absolutely his word. Cast iron guarantee. You’re his niece. He’s not going to harm you.”
“What about my dad?”
“We don’t know who did that.”
“Of course we do.”
“Look, are you coming or what?”
“I’ll have to see,” I said.
Ginger lowered her voice. “There’s many here who’d like to see you, Jack, have a wee word, like.”
That night, when I told her about the free pass, Naariya insisted on coming too, but I wouldn’t let her. It wasn’t about who she was. You’d think that a bass-playing lesbian Muslim from Manchester would be obvious trouble bait in Loyalist North Belfast but actually Naariya charmed everybody she ever met. She’d meet Big Scotchy, my dad’s former right-hand man, and approve of his beard and ask if he’d ever managed to get any extra work in Game of Thrones which of course he had. She’d say that Ginger’s wee dog was adorable and compliment her long copper hair[, she’d tell Uncle Harry that she loved his moustache. She’d mean all those things too. She was a people person. Everybody liked her. Except her immediate family, of course, who wanted to murder her. No, the reason I didn’t want her coming with me was the boring old safety issue. Just in case this free pass wasn’t as free as Ginger made out I didn’t want her to be collateral damage in my shitty wee regional theatre production of Hamlet.
I flew to Belfast the next afternoon and got picked up by Ginger at George Best. It was raining too hard to do anything so I spent the night playing Scrabble with Ginger and my auntie Agnes. Agnes was a past master and got ‘coxswain’ on a triple word score.
The funeral was the next morning.
The church service was in Carrick Presbyterian. It was very Presbyterian. The coffin was left outside in the rain while a stern faced Elder read from the Old Testament.
UTV and the BBC were outside with their cameras but no one had any comment for the reporters. Joanna hugged me when it was over and we cried together. Uncle Andy was up in the balcony watching everything. In the opposite balcony there were a couple of police detectives observing the proceedings and making notes. Unfortunately no one yelled out: “Oi, you dozy peelers, there’s your murderer right there!”
The Elder gave us a stern talking to and a bit of Ecclesiastes: all is vanity, death is coming, better a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil. . .
Polo mint smell, coughing, psalmody, the Minister being very careful what he said in the eulogy.
Window wipers on max as we drove the short distance out to Victoria Cemetery and waited at the gates while the men put him in the ground. The rain was hard and cold and cathartic and everyone was steaming afterwards at the wake in Ownies.
I sat in the corner with a pint of cider. No one talked to me cos Uncle Andy was here. No one could be seen talking to me.
After a few pints Uncle Andy cleared the froth from his goatee and got up to make a speech. Boilerplate. Da’s early days in the shipyard and how he had defended his people against terrorism in the 80s and 90s before the cancer had riddled his body and clouded his mind. Then Andy looked my way with those drink-sodden, pitiless green eyes. “And it’s great to see wee Jackie here today. A lot of you don’t know that it was me who called her and told her to come. Couldn’t have her missing her dad’s funeral could we?”
There were murmurs and a few nods from Andy’s table but I noticed nothing but stone faces from most of the others. Uncle Harry and Scotchy however were looking at me with an intensity I didn’t like at all. They were cooking something up, something that apparently involved me.
“Wee Jacqueline, aye, it’s great to see her even if it’s only a flying visit; she’s away tomorrow back over the water, to a place called Cumbernauld if I’m not mistaken,” Andy said and grinned.
Bollocks. How long had he known where I was living? And what would he do with this information? A chill went through me. Not for me. For her. For Naariya.
That would be the way of it, wouldn’t it? Nice and ironic – just the way the Fates or the Secret Text liked it. She’s running from her crazy da, ends up in a Scottish arse end of nowhere and gets topped by a hood looking for me.
Andy concluded his remarks with an unlikely tale of my dad and him on a stag do in Spain. Nobody believed a word of it but Andy could have you kneecapped or worse so everybody laughed at the end.
Back to Ginger’s house, soaked, spooked, scared.
No Scrabble today.
Just me up in the spare room messaging Naariya: “Mistake to come here. On the noon plane tomorrow. Stay safe.”
I looked out the window at the grim surrounds of Castlemara Estate. Rubbish everywhere, upturned shopping trollies and baby buggies, a wet donkey tied to a concrete breeze block, intimidating UVF murals promising “death to touts and informers.”
A knock at the door.
“They want you, Jackie,” Agnes said. She couldn’t meet my eye.
I walked downstairs expecting a hood for my head and a gun pointed at my chest but instead it was Scotchy, Ginger, Uncle Harry.
“Jack, we were wondering if we could have a word?”
Over to the living room. Tea, digestive biscuits, Auntie Agnes making herself scarce. I sat in the replica Finn Juhl chair dad and I had made together for her back in his joiner days.
Uncle Harry cleared his throat. “Your dad should never have been killed. It was a sin. Andy knew he had only weeks to live. . .”
“It was probably that last Facebook post that tipped him over the edge,” Scotchy continued.
My dad’s last Facebook post had been a direct attack on the Loyalist paramilitary network of East Antrim and North Belfast. He had called them nothing more than glorified racketeers, pimps and drug dealers. He had said the leadership was corrupt and morally bankrupt. Coming from my dad, a former commander of the East Antrim Brigade, this kind of talk meant something.
“He wasn’t saying anything that was news to anyone was he?” I said.
Harry glared at me. “We all knew that you didn’t go around saying stuff like that, no matter how true it might possibly be. That sort of talk is very dangerous.”
“Me da wasn’t afraid of anyone.”
“No,” Scotchy agreed sadly.
“Here’s the thing, Jack,” Harry said, clearing his throat. “Since you’ve been away it’s gotten worse. It’s your Uncle Andy. They used to call him Mad Dog back in the day. Did you know that? And now your father’s out of the picture he’s promising a ‘night of the long knives’ to clear out the dead wood. That’s a direct quote.”
“Andy does not know how to keep a low profile. You seen his Rolex?” Scotchy asked.
“Tell them about the car,” Ginger muttered.
“He bought himself a bloody Bentley. New. Canary yellow. He’s driving around Carrick and Belfast in a yellow Bentley,” Scotchy said.
I sat through five more minutes of complaints about Andy’s ineptness, cruelty and vulgarity. And then silence descended upon the room. The kind of ominous quiet where the real work of the conversation is done.
“So, what exactly is the purpose of this wee talk?” I asked.
Ginger and the two men looked at the floor.
“What can I do? Talk to him? Yeah, right.”
As always in Belfast it was better to say less.
First Ginger looked up. Then Harry. Then Scotchy.
Scotchy cleared his throat. “You were always the apple of your father’s eye. He trusted you. He relied on you. If you were a boy . .”
Oh shite. This is what they want? They’re too afeared to do it themselves so I’m supposed to bloody do it for them?
“But I’m not a boy, am I? And Andy was not worried about telling me to leave town even when my dad was alive,” I said.
“Your dad was a shadow of himself. If it hadn’t been for the cancer, a man like Andy would never have had the chance to waltz back in from his exile,” Harry said.
“I’m a daughter but you’re a brother Harry,” I said. “You’re the natural successor.”
Harry shook his head quickly. “Brother-in-law. Different thing completely. And I’m not the type. As you know Jack, I’m good living, I couldn’t possibly. . .”
“I don’t think you gentlemen have thought this through. I’m gay. I have a girlfriend who’s a Muslim,” I said.
“None of that matters,” Scotchy interrupted. “You’re your father’s daughter. That’s what counts.”
“The apple didn’t fall far from the tree,’ Harry added, helpfully.
I shook my head. “This is a ridiculous conversation.”
Another long silence. An exchange of looks between Ginger and the two men.
Then born-again Christian Uncle Harry produced a crumpled brown paper bag from his overcoat and set it in the middle of the coffee table.
I shook my head.
“Czech CZ 75 and a suppressor. Never been used. Came from one of the shipments Gadaffi sent over in the 1980’s,” Scotchy said.
“Are you familiar with the CZ 75, Jack?” Ginger asked.
I looked at her.
“It’s just a standard 9mm pistol,” Scotchy explained redundantly.
“He goes to the shed to smoke his cigarettes and read the papers every morning. Margaret won’t have smoking him in the house. Shed is right at the bottom of the garden. Near the back gate,” Harry said.
“No foot traffic down there,” Ginger went on.
“And he’s regular as clockwork, so he is,” Scotchy added.
“You could set your watch by him,” Harry agreed.
“Seven o’clock,” Ginger said. “Seven fifteen to be on the safe side.”
I sighed heavily and put my hands over my eyes. “Forget it. This entire conversation is madness.”
Harry got to his feet and looked through the window. “It’s not going to stop is it? Should have brought my golf umbrella.”
Scotchy stared at me. “We can’t go until we get our answer,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. “Why would I do it?”
“You know you’ll never be safe unless he’s gone. If he’s bold enough to hit your da. . . ” Scotchy said. “Has to be you, Jack. You’re the one we’ve been waiting for,” he added, with the hint of mysticism he was known for.
“If anyone else does it it’ll be a war,” Ginger said more pragmatically.
“Whereas with me it’s what?”
“A wee family dispute. That’s all. People will say that Andy had it coming.”
Scotchy stood up and put on his coat. “Well?” he asked.
I shook my head slowly.
Just because we were in bloody Belfast it didn’t always have to be melodrama. The city had changed. It had grown up. Belfast was a place of Michelin-starred restaurants and new hotels and women over from Liverpool on hen nights. Belfast was Game of Thrones and The Fall and endless craic on a Friday night, rain or shine. This kind of talk from these pasty-faced people in their slacks and cardigans and Clarks’ shoes was twentieth century talk.
No one thought like this anymore. It was a cliché, it was dull, it was immature. It was an atavistic brooding Ulster death cult that I had broken free of by slipping across the sheugh.
Ginger, who had lived in London, should know better. And these men with their guns. Grown men. Uncles, dads. So-called born-again Christians Was their imagination so palsied that they could only think of solutions that involved shooting someone in the back of the head? Those were the old ways. This was the world of memes and iPhones and Instagram feeds.
This world was #2020. That world was #1690.
Nope. I wasn’t going to fall for it. It wasn’t going to be my narrative no matter what the bloody Secret Text said.
I shook my head again. “I just came for a funeral,” I said. “And that seems to have been a mistake.”
“We need you, Jack. It has to be you,” Scotchy insisted.
“You should take your bag with you,” I said. “I’ll be heading out in the morning.”
“To go where? Do you think there’s anywhere you’ll be safe from him? He’s not going to stop.”
“I’ll be safe enough. Take your bag.”
“We’re leaving the bag,” Uncle Harry said.
“Take it with you.”
“We’re leaving it.”
I sighed. “Whatever. You’ll find it here when I head out tomorrow.”
Scotchy and Harry walked to the door and buttoned their rain coats. Scotchy put his umbrella up inside and got a disapproving look from Ginger.
“That’s bad luck, so it is,” Ginger said.
“Bad luck on the house, not on me,” Scotchy replied selfishly.
I stayed in the bedroom and didn’t come down for dinner.
It grew dark. The rain continued. I heard the front door about ten.
Footsteps on stairs.
It wasn’t a complete surprise to see her.
She said nothing.
I said nothing.
Another one of those conversations.
We got into the tiny bed together. It was cold now. It was July and it was freezing.
She held me tight.
“Good flight?” I said at last.
“I had to come. Your cousin Ginger told me everything,” Naariya explained.
“The plan. I think it’s a good idea. If you don’t mind doing it.”
Mind? Well, yes. There was that, wasn’t there? You could say that Uncle Andy had it coming but there were so many people in this town that had it coming. Who had fashioned me into the tip of the spear? Biology was not destiny. I was my father’s daughter but this was not the path I had wanted to carve out for myself.
“I wanted to go to art school,” I said.
“Your drawings are good. You could still go,” she replied.
“And in this plan of theirs what’s supposed to happen afterwards?” I asked.
“You do it and then all your father’s friends, comrades and retainers will come by one by one to kiss the ring.”
“Kissing the ring is a Catholic thing.”
“You are completely unable to think in metaphors.”
“Maybe it’s the foetal alcohol syndrome.”
She laced her fingers between my fingers and smiled and kissed me.
Rain on the roof at midnight.
Rain overflowing the gutters in the pre-dawn light.
I put on my anorak and went out for a walk.
A Jag pulled up next to me. A door opened.
“Get in the car, Jack.”
“Or what? You’ll shoot me right here in the street?”
“We’ll shoot you right here in the street,” the hood said.
I got in the car.
It was a classic. Me falling for a classic. Dad would not be pleased. They drove me to Woodburn Forest. Two in the front. Two in the back.
The grave had been pre-dug and was already filling with water. This burial I would get to see.
“Andy sends his regards,” the voice said.
The grave was suspiciously deep and Andy’s goons were notoriously work shy.
“Wait a minute, is this a drea—”
I woke in the chilly spare bedroom of my cousin Ginger’s house. Naariya was next to me. I went to the window and looked out. There was no idling car. No men waiting for me.
In New Belfast there would never be a car waiting for me.
In Old Belfast there would be.
“I told you, I reject this storyline,” I whispered into the dark.
I tiptoed downstairs.
There were a pair of surgical gloves in the paper bag. I put them on. I put the anorak on. I put a scarf over my mouth and went out into the apocalyptic downpour.
The rain was cold and vertical. The sea spray was cold and horizontal.
I turned on the immersion heater so I could have a bath.
When there was finally enough hot water I filled it up, closed the blinds, killed the lights, lit one of Naariya’s vanilla travel candles and sank beneath the surface for a while.
Dad had showed me how to walk with a firearm, two handed, looking down the sight, not the way the movie-imitating hoods round here carried their pistols – sideways, arms-bent.
Foolishly Uncle Andy had left the shed door open to ventilate his pipe smoke. Andy had been sitting at that enormous work bench my joiner father had built for him.
Andy had seen and heard nothing. He had made the journey from existence to non-existence between heart beats.
When I came up out of the water Naariya was sitting on the edge of the bath looking at me.
“It’s over,” she said. Another statement.
“Yeah. Are you ok?”
“I don’t know how this even happened. I came over here for a funeral.”
She smiled and slowly shook her head. “You came over here so that you and I could be together.”
“What do you mean?”
“My dad and my brother and my uncle would have hunted us down over there, but they’re not going to be able to get me here.”
“We’re staying here? In Belfast?”
“I think we have to.”
“You won’t like it.”
“I like it already. Listen Jack, when I saw you were gone this morning I Skyped with Sylvie. She’ll say that she was video chatting with both of us the whole time. In case anybody asks if you have an alibi.”
“No one will ask,” I said to the ceiling. I looked at her. “How long have you been thinking that we might move to Belfast?”
“Did you tell anybody that?”
“I might have mentioned it to your dad.”
Now I understood everything. As in our chess games Naariya was always several moves ahead.
“So now what happens?” I asked.
“I suppose we’ll see, won’t we?”
They began telephoning that very morning.
Ginger and Auntie Agnes gave us the front room.
Naariya curled herself on the sofa and I sat in dad’s chair and as the rain turned to drizzle and the sun considered a cameo appearance, cars began pulling up outside, and they all trooped in, one by one, to kiss the ring.