Pining. That was the word he had been searching for. Pining; to be in state of great longing, to crave for, an act of deep mourning. The realization rose like the crest of a wave, breaching the surface of his great slumber. Yes, pining.
Stephen Connolly had risen again. At fifty-four years dead, he had risen more times in a single night than Christ had in a lifetime. That’s how he had always been; the Messiah of Belfast. He stood in that same dank room, where the mold had decorated the ceiling like a fern. His uniform newly starched, his auburn hair neatly parted, he was ready to fight again. The only thing that held him back were the fingertips dancing frantically across the bones of his face, as though they were trying to tear them out from his flesh.
‘This isn’t your war,’ replied a voice whose innocence had long since been extinguished by time.
‘I had thought an Orangeman like you would have been delighted. A taig like me vouching to fight for his Royal Heinous, ole Georgey.’
‘His Royal Highness,’ he began. Stephen’s lips swallowed the word. With his kiss the world fell apart. The very air became shards of glass, and his fingers sunk desperately into nothingness hoping to find what was no longer there.
‘Besides,’ Stephen said, ‘I’m not going for crown, or country, or glory.’
‘Then why do you have to go?’
‘Because my love, they are killing us.’
‘Pining!’ Matthew’s shout woke him. Sweat had made his nightclothes a second skin that crawled with fever and cold. The ceiling was a white blur above him. He reached out blindly to his bedside table and found his glasses. They made the world clear again. He looked down at the gnarled hands before him, with their stiff, rheumatic fingers and raised blue veins. As always when he woke, he met with a stranger. People like him, especially those of his generation, were never meant to grow old.
The call for breakfast came, making him rush as fast as he could through his morning routine.
‘Spineless the lot of them.’ His nephew’s growl echoed through the downstairs hall. He slipped by unnoticed as he made his way to his usual seat at the kitchen table. The conversation continued on around him. He sat silent as the children, who stared wide-eyed at their father’s puce, outraged face.
‘If they think Ulster will settle for this they’re dead wrong. They can shove their Good Friday Agreement. Shove it. All the lads at work were harping on about it, not a one of them knew what they were talking about.’
Matthew’s jaws clenched as his nephew stuffed forkfuls of eggs into his mouth between his sentences. Gently his wife tapped the children on the shoulder. Their breakfast would soon be growing cold. The sound of knives and forks added to the endless, nasal droning. The wife had joined in.
How sad they all are, Matthew thought. How very, very sad.
‘I know who my vote is going for at any rate. Fair play to the DUP, only ones in the entire shower of them who stood by their principles,’ his nephew said. He guzzled down his mug of tea.
In the sudden quiet all eyes turned to Matthew. His knife was scraping heavily across his lukewarm toast, sending crumbs dancing across the table.
‘Alright Matthew?’ the nephew’s wife asked.
He smiled weakly in reply, and the features of her face settled again. He had just been lost in a doddering moment of age.
‘What do you think uncle?’ The sausage’s skin broke with a sickening crunch between his nephew’s yellowing teeth.
‘Ridiculous ain’t it? Spineless the lot of them.’
The eyes of the children rose from their plates, and looked to their great uncle, surveying the lines and caverns of his face.
‘Aye,’ Matthew heard himself reply.
‘You’re meant to be driving Uncle Matthew to the library today,’ his wife reminded him. His nephew swallowed his food quickly, and brushed the grease from his lips with the sleeve of his jumper.
‘I had forgotten all about it. I can drop you off, but I’ll have a job getting back before they close Mattie. Are you sure you still want to go?’
‘Aye,’ he answered. ‘It’s no bother on the way back. My old bones could do with a wee stretch.’
The smell of ripening paper filled his nostrils as he entered the library. Behind the desk the usual clerk was waiting for him. Her ruddy face, with marbling flush splotching up from her wide neck, looked up from her computer screen.
‘Good afternoon Mr. Agnew,’ she said with polite, genuine warmth. ‘It’s lovely to see you. Your books have come in.’
She reached under her desk, and dropped a stack of non-descript, black bound books in front of him.
‘I’ll have one of the boys carry them over for you.’
‘That’s alright,’ Matthew said. The librarian sucked her lower lip. She turned her head, and checked for unknown dangers behind her shoulders.
‘This came in during the week,’ she said in a hushed voice. ‘I thought you might it like it.’ She pushed the book forward. Alan Turing’s neat face stared up at him.
She knows, he thought, hating himself for sudden drop in his stomach. He searched her for a kindred sign he had not spotted before. A garish diamond ring glimmered on her left hand.
No, he thought. This is her act of reparation.
‘Thanks very much,’ he smiled at her, ‘You’re very kind.’
Her heavy cheeks became round as apples at his words. Her eyes welled with pride at her simple act of goodness. His breath caught in his throat as he took on the weight of the books, and carried them to his usual spot.
His weekly routine had taught him to always start at the back of a book. His finger scanned the glossary looking for a word of familiarity. If anything was to be found, more often than not it was to be found under h. The first three books proved useless. No mention under World War Two: An illustrated guide, World War Two: Saving Europe, or Europe Under Hitler.
The final book, Crimes of World War Two had the word. His finger tapped under h for homosexual, mentioned on page one hundred and forty nine. He turned the pages in a hungry whirl. There it was. His heart sank.
‘Other victims of the camps included Jehovah Witnesses, political prisoners, Romani, those with mental and physical disabilities, and homosexuals.’
It was their first and final mention. His head lolled forward to his open palms. Alan Turing stared at him from the table below. With a heavy sigh he reluctantly turned to the glossary. The word appeared. It gave no answers other than why they had killed Turing too.
He closed his eyes as he rose from his seat, and made a point of keeping his stare unbowed as he made his way out. His pulse throbbed violently.
‘Thank you.’ He nodded toward the still-smiling librarian.
He walked through the revolving door, into the spring air. His heart crushed in his chest. His knees crashed to the cruel, concrete path. There were so many of them, a number so infinite it was as unfathomable as the vast stretches of the universe.
The drum of his heartbeat was replaced with the booming sound of a marching band. Matthew did not understand. It wasn’t the twelfth. He was certain, yet still the parade made their way up the street. It was only as they drew closer that Matthew saw them for what they really were. Their clothes hung from their skeletal, sunken frames. Their skin was pied with great red lesions. The hallow faces were all bone. They were all the same. They wore the same uniform, not that of Orangemen, but of grey stripe. All the heads were shaven bald. They passed by, oblivious to him, their eyes fixed on the route ahead.
Matthew clambered on the ground, holding out his hands, desperate for someone to lift his tired weight from the ground. It was then that the voice heard only in his dreams spoke to him.
‘You see my love they are killing us.’
Stephen’s face was just as wretched as the rest of the nameless men. Only the shimmering sadness in his grave, grey eyes made him himself.
Matthew reached forward desperate to touch his paper-thin skin. His reach stretched only to his chest. Gone were the broad muscles, and even the body itself. It was though nothing was housed in the uniform. He screamed out, as he touched his beloved. His fingers clawed at the capsized, pink triangle that stood in place of Stephen’s heart.
The white blur of his ceiling swirled before Matthew’s eyes.
‘He took a bit of a turn,’ a voice outside explained. ‘Doctor says at his age these things are going to happen. He needs to rest.’
A hard knock sounded at the door.
‘Alright Mattie, heard you weren’t well today?’ his nephew enquired in an attempt at a soothing voice.
‘From now on I’ll pick you up from the library. You get some rest now, and you’ll be on your feet quicker than you know.’
‘Aye,’ Matthew heard himself answer. The click of the light-switch turned the room to darkness. His nephew gently closed the door behind him. Matthew savored the quietness he left in his wake. His hand went to his bedside table, flicked to the usual page of his bible, and found all that remained of Stephen.
Try not to be afraid or sad for me. At least take comfort that I am fighting with the Union for once rather than against it. I do not expect a man of such youth to understand, but this is a true and just war. It is not for King, nor glory I fight, but for us. Though it hurts me now to leave you, you mustn’t dwell on me. You see my love they are killing us. In our droves they are killing us. It will do no good for anyone to have you home crying for me, or to be pining.
Yours until the end of our days,
I know my love. I know Stephen. But how did you know? How did you know?
He placed Stephen’s last testament over his chest, allowing the scrap of paper to pulse and crease with every beat of his heart.
The word came to him again just before sleep took him in his embrace. Pining; to be in a state of great longing, to crave for, an act of deep mourning.
About the Author
Raísea Dé Murchú is a writer and poet from the Republic of Ireland. Their work has found publication in the USA, the UK, and the Republic of Ireland. They are a current student of the MA Creative Writing programme at Oxford Brookes University.