It’s an overcast Friday lunchtime when the white van slews to the kerb, the side-door slides open, and two men wearing baby masks haul you inside.
You’re bundled to the floor, a gag is placed in your mouth, and a hood pulled over your head. You’re wearing your best suit and you’d cleaned your shoes only the night before. The van smells of disinfectant. Your hands are tied behind your back, but you aren’t assaulted. No one speaks.
Fack, you think. Fack, fack, fack. You should have shouted or screamed. The gag tastes of vinegar.
The van stop-starts through heavy traffic and waits at lights. You roll gently from side to side and feel slightly travel sick. Perhaps it isn’t vinegar.
The road noise increases and you guess you’ve cleared the city. Maybe you’re heading south, maybe you aren’t. You could struggle or kick. You could think up sensible, rational questions. You could offer a bribe – you have some money saved, and although your da’s not rich he’s doing okay – or even a threat. However, you sense nothing would make any difference.
You lie there, rolling gently, like on the ferry. Later, you’re meant to be going to Roisin’s engagement party and you still haven’t bought her a present.
The sound of other traffic wanes, but the van keeps going. Slower. A side road, or a private road, undulating and weaving.
The van stops.
Birds call in alarm. Wind soughs in the trees. You feel thirsty, and you’ve eaten nothing since a boiled egg at breakfast. Life seemed very dull, then, very humdrum. Egg with soldiers, work, Roisin’s party. Now, you’ll be the centre of attention, not Roisin.
One of the men grunts as he yanks open the van door. But still no one speaks. You wriggle into a sitting position and turn to the fresh air. You’re so grateful to the twittering of the birds. You could buy Roisin a budgerigar from the pet shop at the end of the Falls road. You’re surprised you’re thinking of the party and a gift for Roisin.
You’re pulled out of the van and you sprawl on the floor. You smell pine – a pine wood. You’re hefted to your feet and you sway back and forth like a drunk. You’re going to get so drunk at Roisin’s party. Drunk as an English squaddie.
The sliding door slams shut and the van drives away. You miss the van – ridiculous. You try to explain it to yourself: nothing bad, not really bad, had happened in the van. You know the van. The forest is new. And what you can’t see is new, too. You should concentrate on the here and now, be less of a flibbertigibbet as Roisin accuses you.
You miss the van, you miss Roisin. You feel like crying.
The gag is yanked from your mouth.
‘Fack,’ you scream. ‘Fa-ack!’
They wait, you wait.
A rope is tied around your tied hands and you’re pulled forward – and again. You get the idea – walking. You’ve done it before. You try to keep your spirits up, not to ask questions, not blub, not be a nuisance. You’ve read things, scare-stories and suchlike.
You walk for twenty minutes, stumbling occasionally but not falling. You guess there are two men, but there could have been one, or a dozen. You wonder if this is it. Please, God. Even if you aren’t a regular at his house, you go occasionally just to please your mam. Perhaps God is a woman. Perhaps so many things.
A flat hand thumps your sternum. You stop, wait, like a good citizen. You are a good citizen, not a perfect one, certainly not in everyone’s eyes. But half of them, give or take.
A door creaks open and you’re pulled inside. You wait like a dog. Someone tip-taps down a flight of stone steps. You’re pushed forward. You toe the first step, like a swimmer. Ease a foot down, then another, and slowly you descend. It’s cold and smells musty. You hear running water. Twelve steps, you count, think you’re being clever. Top of the class. You have exams, you had once been top of the class, but nothing matters any more. Qualifications, money, a cool haircut. Only self-defence and seeing through a mask matter. Henry Sugar had once stared at a candle so much that he could see through playing cards. If only you’d done that.
You’re pulled forward again, not far, the length of the van. The lovely van. You’re pushed down into a chair. You’re tied to its back with rope. Please, you say, can you have a glass of water.
The hood’s whipped off.
You blink in the dim light, and see a dark figure retreating up the steps towards a small oblong of daylight. You’re sitting in a damp cellar. Bricks are piled in a corner and plastic sacks line one wall. A baseball bat rests on top. It’s stained from use.
You can’t believe this is happening. You’re a no one, you aren’t affiliated. You don’t go to meetings or take part in parades. You’ve done nothing.
Someone clomps down the stone steps, and a pair of rubber boots come into view. Then a pair of stocking-clad legs and the hem of a chequered brown dress. You know that dress.
She reaches the foot of the steps. She’s wearing the dress you helped her choose. You almost want to laugh. But you don’t, you wait.
‘So it is,’ says Roisin. She leans against a dank wall.
‘Mind your dress.’ Roisin doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. The silence intensifies the cold. ‘What is this place?’ you ask.
‘An old air raid shelter.’
You nod, knowingly, but knowing nothing of any value. ‘I haven’t slept with him, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
‘I’m not.’ Roisin stands away from the wall and brushes down her sleeve as if she’d thought of it herself.
‘Shouldn’t you be preparing for your party?’
‘It’s off. This is my party, now.’
You look around, at the weeping walls, the old bricks, the sacks of you-don’t-know-what. The baseball bat with its yellowish staining.
‘What are we – what am I – doing here?’
‘Think,’ says Roisin. ‘Have a really long think. Take all the time in the world.’ She doesn’t sound like Roisin. It sounds like someone you haven’t been dress shopping with, haven’t shared many a cocktail hour, haven’t slept on each other’s shoulder going home on the night bus.
You shake your head.
Roisin tut-tuts and wags a finger. ‘Do you remember taking a trip?’
‘Not really,’ you say, and you shake your head a second time.
‘O’er the water.’
Your stomach lurches as if you’re jumping off the high board.
Rosin picks up the baseball bat and prods the wall. If you weren’t seeing it with your own two square, you wouldn’t be believing it.
‘You were spotted at Larne. The pair of you.’
‘It’s legal, now.’
‘Doesn’t mean it’s right.’
Of course it’s right, you want to scream. Of course it’s bloody right. It’ll save untold pain and injury and danger and humiliation and wasted lives for countless numbers of women and girls. You’d campaigned for it, and told everyone you knew to write to their MP. Including Roisin.
‘Why’ve you never said if that’s the way you feel?’
‘I’m a sleeper.’
Her expression was brief but you saw the smirk. She was proud of the word, proud of her role, proud. Proud. Fack. You begin to feel angry, and you wriggle in your rope shackles. ‘So now you’re going round fingering the people who once considered you as a friend. A close friend. My best friend.’ You spit on the floor.
‘We’ll repeal the law.’
‘Ballsacks,’ you shout.
She smiles, the old Rosin, and then it hardens. The new Roisin.
‘And what exactly is this?’ you say. ‘You’re hardly the hard man of the organisation if that’s not too grand a word for it. The outfit. The gang.’ Your mind’s racing as you speak. ‘Or is this your initiation? Break your once best friend’s legs, and you’re in. Or maybe promotion to lead your own cell. Rosin, you’re a shit. But, you go right ahead and swing. I will hunt you down to the corners of the six counties, to the corners of the island, the corners of the globe. I will hunt you down and rip your facking nails out.’ You’re surprised at the venom in your voice.
Rosin’s surprised, too. She glances behind her, looks up the steps, checking, you assume, her backup is still there.
She hefts the bat, swings it back and forth.
You steel yourself. You’re coursing with adrenalin and you’re ready. Your life is about to change, you’re ready. You’re more than ready. You’re excited. Your rootless existence and your uncertain future are over. You have found a cause, and fack, are you going to give more than you’re going to get.
(c) James Ellson