(Belfast, December 1972)
Nathalie hated going for the messages, but didn’t know how to refuse; her discontented mother always had more important things to do. Ten, and small for her age, adults went ahead of her in the queue, and she’d pretend to be looking at something else, distracted, as if to justify their rudeness. And she hated the sound of her own voice, sure it sounded posh to the women in the greasy coats, the bruised shoes. But if Mr. Friel saw her, he’d smile and put his hand out for the pencilled list, ending her agony. Was he the only grown-up that remembered what it was to be a child?
Mr. Francey’s window was boarded up again. ‘A Protestant,’ her father had said, ‘but from the south.’
‘It’s a quiet area,’ her mother told her English relatives. ‘Mixed.’
Except that it wasn’t, not really. Natalie had only one Catholic friend, the niece of a colleague of her father’s, and she lived in Downpatrick. She didn’t talk about Deirdre at school, though she had been to stay for a weekend and had gone with her to Mass, not understanding anything, thinking the priest must be speaking Latin when he was only mumbling.
‘What was that he put on my tongue?’
‘Have you never made your First Communion?’
‘You’ll go to hell, so you will,’ said Deirdre, unconcerned.
Nathalie paused before crossing the street, as she had been taught, stepping back as a motorbike roared by, much too fast. The pillion rider, anonymised like his companion in denim and leather, shouted at her through the black bowl on his head, before the bike turned onto the main road. Though she couldn’t make out his words, her heart pounded as though she’d done something wrong. She knew she would remember that unnecessary aggression, just as she had never managed to forget that well-dressed man in the big car who had stuck his tongue out at her as she gazed out of the window of a bus, nor another who’d silently exposed himself to her on a path in the Botanic Gardens – she’d never told anyone about him.
On she went past the hairdresser’s, where they invariably cut off too much, making a boy of her, then the butcher’s, with eyes averted. She paused in front of the newsagents, a place that smelled of cigarette smoke and unwashed clothes.
About twenty yards ahead she saw the motorbike swing round in the middle of the road, cutting across a car. A horn sounded, lights flashed. The motorist was shouting through his wound-down window, and though Nathalie couldn’t make out the distorted sounds, she knew they were what her Nan called ‘bad words’. The pillion passenger raised two gloved fingers at the driver as the motorbike drew level with the curb and came to a halt. The passenger slithered off, and for a horrified moment Nathalie thought he was going to go after the shouting man. But no, he ran across the pavement, legs bent low as if he was ducking some missile, and into Friel’s, dragging something out of his jacket as he went. The child decided to stay looking at the magazines in the window of the newsagent until the man came out, not wanting to meet him in the greengrocer’s queue. Her mother never noticed how long it took her to come back from the shops.
Later, much later, she thought she should have known straightaway what those muffled explosions were – all those school drills, and nights listening to the staccato spray of machine-guns, only a mile from her bedroom in parts of the city she had never seen. A brief, appalled silence, and then the motorbike roared past her back. Only when she heard Friel’s customers, raucous as geese, did she turn and see them fanning out across the pavement, in amongst the traffic that now moved slowly, as though the drivers were finding their way through a fog.
Nathalie stood in the doorway of the shop. Potatoes were strewn about the floor. ‘Nice and floury, them,’ she remembered Mr. Friel saying to her mother, who to Nathalie’s mortification had answered: ‘I like waxy ones.’ In the midst of them lay Mr. Friel himself, the soles of his feet facing her, his heels beating a feeble, wavering tattoo on the floor. Someone knelt near his head: over the screams and shouting behind her Nathalie heard this man urging the twitching figure to ‘Lie still there now – try not to move!’ as a liquid dark and viscous as oil pooled across the tiles, edging towards her. Someone shouted: ‘Get that wee girl out of here!’ and she felt hands grasp her shoulders from behind, spinning her around, pushing her out of the door with such force that she nearly fell. ‘God love you, child,’ said a woman’s voice, and she stared into an old tapestry coat, a brass button hanging loose, and smelt sweat and something synthetically floral. Nathalie felt her hand enveloped in a larger, gloved one, fingers of rubbery artificial leather, and tried to pull away.
‘Where’s your Mammy?’
‘Mother said I wasn’t to speak to strangers.’
‘Quite right she is too. You just tell me where she is.’
‘At home. I’ve to get the messages.’
The woman spoke again but her words were drowned out by sirens. ‘Where’s home?’ she repeated.
Nathalie stopped at the entrance to the Crescent.
‘You don’t want me coming any further, do you?’ said the woman, letting go her hand.
‘I’m all right, so I am.’ Nathalie turned, and ran up the road. Then thinking of her mother, and what was expected of her, she called back over her shoulder: ‘Thank you now!’ The woman watched the child go, noting which house she turned into.
Using the key hanging around her neck, Nathalie let herself in to find her mother standing in the hall with a neighbour. ‘You’ve not got the messages, child!’ she exclaimed.
The woman put a restraining hand on her mother’s arm. ‘What’s the matter, Natty?’ she asked.
‘They’ve painted something on the gable end, Jim,’ said Nathalie’s mother.
‘Where?’ said her husband, from behind his Belfast Telegraph.
‘On the gable end, where you come into the Crescent. Didn’t you see it? “Taigs out.”’
‘We aren’t taigs, Helen.’
‘Some of our friends are, though.’
He folded the newspaper in resignation. ‘I suppose we should go to the funeral,’ he muttered. ‘Four children and the wife expecting again.’
Sammy pushed up his visor and lit a cigarette with shaking fingers. If this went on, he’d need something stronger, something of what was in that packet, maybe. But sampling the goods would get him into even deeper trouble than he was in already. Supposing they weighed it? He inhaled, looked down to the corner from where the buyer would come. Whose idea was this anyway? In Crimea Street, nobody would have noticed a transaction like this, or they’d have pretended not to. The Crescent was secluded, right enough, but that only made him more conspicuous.
Helen Lamont idled the Dolomite’s engine outside the school gates. It was a nuisance, this, having to fetch and carry Nathalie, but when her daughter had burst into tears and said she didn’t want to leave the house again, not ever, it was the neighbour who’d said that sure, no-one would want to hurt a wee girl, and her Mammy would take her everywhere until she felt strong again, wouldn’t she? But, Helen wondered, who was that scruffy woman who’d called just after lunch, looking for the child? Why hadn’t Nathalie mentioned her? And how did a stranger know where she lived?
Though Nathalie thought she’d closed the pencil case properly, when she swung her satchel off the back seat of the car, crayons scattered out of it and down behind the seats in front.
‘Do hurry, Nathalie!’
She abandoned the last three crayons and lifted her head, a little too quickly. Dizzy, she looked out of the passenger side window, and saw the motorbike idling on the other side of the road, its rider watching her silently through his black visor. Nathalie ducked and screamed.
‘Fuck this!’ swore Sammy Warnock, and roared off.
Helen Lamont sat beside Nathalie, facing the woman RUC officer perched on the edge of the sofa. Through the open door they heard her male colleague out in the hall cough and shift his feet. Helen said, ‘I don’t know what’s the matter with her. I brought her up to be truthful.’
Without taking her eyes from Nathalie’s face, the woman said: ‘Your daughter witnessed something no child should see. Sometimes the memories take a wee while to come back.’
The two RUC officers came back that evening, this time with a man in a suit who was not introduced. From the top of the stairs Nathalie watched her mother go to answer the door, opening it first on the chain.
‘We waited until your husband came in.’
‘We’ve found the bike, Mrs. Lamont, thanks to you getting the registration. And the rider.’
‘Have you arrested him?’ asked Nathalie’s father.
‘Too late for that. He’d taken a bullet in the back of the head.’
‘We knew him. Small time criminal – burglary, handling stolen goods,’ said the policeman. ‘I’d to go and see his mother.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jim Lamont, automatically. ‘Not a terrorist then?’
The man in the suit spoke for the first time. ‘Not according to our sources, but young men like him are the kind they recruit. Easy to blackmail, you see.
But let me explain the arrangements that we’re going to make for your family. We don’t believe the wee girl herself is at risk, but with your job at Stormont –‘
‘As payroll manager?’
‘It doesn’t say Stormont on your parking permit, does it? You’ll be found an equivalent job, somewhere to live, a school for Nathalie. But you’ve to tell no-one – I mean, no-one at all.’
‘It’ll all be done and dusted within 48 hours. On the mainland.’
As Mrs. McCrory said to her neighbours, ‘you’ve to admire Mrs. Friel, so you do. Carrying on the business. A fine family.’ She thought sometimes about the little girl who hadn’t got her messages, but never went to ask after her again, not after being given tea in that woman’s kitchen. ‘She’d a lovely house,’ she said to her husband, ‘But I wasn’t good enough to be taken into the lounge.’
Looking around first to be sure she wasn’t observed, Sammy Warnock’s mother removed the sash that someone had draped over his gravestone and rolled it up, hiding it in her shopping bag. No more drugs changed hands in the Crescent.
Nathalie eventually learned not to flinch at the rumble of a motorbike. She also learned in time that there are many different models, even if their riders often look the same, in their uniform of denim and leather. Brendan Friel’s killers have not been found.
 The shopping
 Perjorative term for Roman Catholic
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