‘Is he alone?’
‘What does he do?’.
‘What’s his name? I’ll get Kathy to Google him!’.
Kevin O’Dea left Dublin after the worst six months of his life. Wrongly accused of date rape and later cleared of the charges, he needed a break from awkward silences, strained relationships, and the sticky residue of suspicion.
‘Hello Kathy. Google Kevin O’Dea for me. D-E-A yes. I’ll wait.’
Milly Savage is Termonglackin’s most prolific rumour miller. She is responsible for igniting, confirming, and denying almost all village gossip and she takes her job very seriously.
‘No! You’re joking Kathy! A r- (she censors herself) here in Termonglackin! God bless us and save us!’.
She hangs up and seizes her sidekick, Margaret Johns, by the arm.
‘He’s a criminal Maggs!’
Kathy Savage, perpetually embarrassed by her mother, sends her a text: He was cleared of it Mam. Relax.
Milly reads it, and ignores it. Sure he probably had some high-flyin’ lawyer get him off, she thinks.
‘What did he do Milly?’ Maggs asks, wide-eyed with nervous excitement.
‘Rape’ she whispers. ‘Date rape’.
No mention of the text message. Facts get in the way of good gossip.
‘Oh heavens above!’ shrieks Maggs. ‘We have to warn people before…’
‘Shhhhhhhhhhhhh. Shut up Maggs! I’ll handle it. We have to be discrete’.
‘Ok’ Maggs replies, slowly regaining her composure.
Kevin sits in an old armchair in his rented bungalow. A picture of Jesus looks down at him from above the mantelpiece. A white man in the Middle East 2,000 years ago is a miracle in itself, he thinks. He has a fire lit in the kitchen range but it’s going out. The chimney puffs at intervals, like a coughing smoker. Outside, his landlord’s cows wander in the fields. Eating, farting, shitting. An easy life, he thinks. A brown and white cow slides its long tongue into a hedge in the garden, tearing off some leaves and sticks. He watches them for a few minutes. A wave of serenity washes over him.
An award winning investigative journalist, he recently exposed corruption in high finance and was the toast of Dublin city. It all seems hollow now. He opens his laptop and Google’s his name. The first page is full of news reports of the court case. His prize-winning portfolio is relegated to the second page. It might as well not exist, he thinks. He logs off and decides on a stroll to clear his head. His new home is only a stone’s throw from the village.
He walks down a winding lane onto the main road. The air is cold and fresh. He sucks in a deep breath. The magpies are chattering in the trees. Probably talking about me, he jokes to himself. Nervous by nature, his anxiety has been paralysing lately. The fear of being recognised is always present, ready to plunge him into panic. People he once loved to meet, he crosses the street to avoid. But here, nobody knows him. A clean slate. I’ll get a tuna sandwich and a coffee and check out the village, he thinks. A hundred metres west on the main road, over a narrow bridge, and he’s there. He heads for the supermarket.
The automatic doors open. Swoosh! He sees two older women talking to the sales clerk. They stop abruptly to greet him.
‘Grand fresh day’ Maggs blurts out, her voice quivering.
‘Yeah lovely’ Kevin replies and makes a beeline for the sandwich bar. A young girl with a look of terminal boredom is checking her smartphone. She looks up.
‘What can I get ye?’.
‘Tuna mayo on brown bread please, with lettuce and onion’.
‘Sure why not!’.
He smiles but the gesture is not returned. She glares at him and grabs two slices of bread.
‘A little thanks’.
She tears the bread with the butter and spreads the tuna on thinly, like paste.
‘Could I have some more tuna please?’ he asks.
A look of disgust sweeps across her face and she spreads on another thin layer.
Scabby bitch, he thinks.
‘That ok?’ she asks, knowing well it isn’t.
‘Yeah fine’ he replies, unhappy but unwilling to provoke her further.
She hands him the skinny sandwich. ‘Pay over there’.
He tours the aisles, grabs a packet of chocolate Hobnobs, a litre of milk, six free range eggs, and a Snickers. The two old ladies have left. The sales clerk, a large middle-aged man with thinning hair, narrow eyes and an array of freckles, beckons him on.
‘New around here?’ he asks curtly, squeezing the sandwich as he scans it. Some of the tuna paste comes out the side.
Great, Kevin thinks.
‘Yeah, just moved into…’
‘Dennehy’s place. Yeh we heard’ the clerk says.
‘He’s a good man, Pascal’.
‘Yeah he seems to be’ Kevin replies, blushing slightly.
‘Well enjoy the quiet!’ the clerk says. His eyes betray a threat.
‘Thanks!’ Kevin says, and hurriedly exits.
They know who he is. He starts to panic and feels like drinking. That’s what caused all this trouble in the first place. Still, one or two would take the edge off, and it’s only 6pm. It won’t be busy yet, he thinks.
Kilburn’s pub was refurbished in 2006 in a modern style, completely out of sync with the rest of the village. White leather chairs, long blue lights on the walls. The owner is a recovering alcoholic who begrudges every drinker. Every pint pulled hurts him a little. But the money makes up for it. He greets everyone with a solid handshake, soliciting any information he can. He is in competition with Milly Savage. Competition makes better rumours.
Kevin walks in and approaches the bar. The two old ladies from the supermarket are sitting in a corner, nursing hot drinks and looking at him gingerly.
‘A hot whiskey please’ he says.
‘Kevin is it? I’m George Kilburn. It’s good to meet the new arrival.’
His stomach drops.
‘Thanks George. How did you…’
‘We know everything round here Kevin.’
A look of distaste flashes on George Kilburn’s face.
‘Have a seat and I’ll bring it over’.
Heart pounding, he looks around and finds a table near the door. He takes out a pad and pen from his jacket pocket and starts scribbling.
What is the price of privacy? Disconnection, miscommunication?
Small communities insist on public private lives. That’s the price you pay for support in hard times. Community spirit, communal information.
Is the online community really a global village of gossip and disloyalty to facts?
Is privacy an illusion?
An article is forming in his head. He’s writing feverishly when his drink arrives.
‘New article Kevin?’ George asks, turning away before he can answer.
They do know everything. This was a bad idea, he thinks. He takes out his phone and texts his one last true friend, Lisa: Hey. You there? This place is freaking me out!
No answer. He sips and writes, sips and writes.
The pub door opens and a group of young men enter, guffawing and backslapping. The local hurling team were playing today. They lost.
‘Howya George!’ one of them yelps. ‘The usual’.
‘No problem lads. Hard luck today. You won the war at least’.
‘Thanks George, sound.’
They sit down around a small table. The leather seats are level with the table-top so their long legs wrap around the sides. One of the group looks at Kevin and says something to the others. They turn around in concert and stare at him.
He takes the hint, finishes his drink and gets up to pay. A tall, lean youth stands in his way, the pack leader.
‘Excuse me please’ Kevin says.
‘It’s rude to ignore your neighbours’ the leader says firmly.
‘Sorry, I’m Kev-‘
‘Kevin. Yeah, I know’. An awkward silence, then the leader steps aside.
‘Thanks!’ Kevin says. He pays for the drink and leaves.
A stiff breeze is blowing in his face as he heads for home. The walk feels much longer this time. He looks back at short intervals, sure he’s being followed. Nobody is there. Night has fallen, and there are no lights on the main road. He crosses the narrow bridge and heads for Glackin Lane. His phone rings. It startles him.
‘Lisa! I’m so glad to hear your voice’.
‘What’s up? Are you ok?’.
‘Not really. I’m getting suspicious looks. They know everything. I have to get out of here…’.
‘Ok. Calm down and breathe. Remember the last time you felt this way, at dinner? It’s natural to be paranoid after what you’ve been through, but…’
‘Seriously, Lisa, it’s not paranoia. They’re all in on it!’.
‘Right. And that’s not paranoia?’
‘Jesus Lisa, you’re all I have left. I need you to believe me.’
‘Ok. What are you going to do?’.
‘I’ll ring my landlord and cancel the lease. I’ll make up some excuse. A family emergency or something’.
‘Ok then what?’.
‘I’ll figure that out once I leave this place.’
‘Ok, but remember you can’t run forever. Text me later ok?’.
‘Ok. Thanks darlin. Bye’.
He reaches the bungalow, searches his phone for Pascal Dennehy, and dials.
‘Hi Pascal. It’s Kevin. How are things?’
‘Fine Kevin. How are you?’
He sounds relaxed, Kevin thinks. Maybe he doesn’t know yet.
‘Not so good Pascal. We’ve had a death in the family. My Aunt. Mam is taking it very badly. It looks like she’ll need me home for a spell’.
‘I’m sorry to hear that. Send on our sympathies.’
‘I will, thanks’.
‘So you’ll be leaving us then?’.
‘I’m afraid so. About the lease, I…’
‘Don’t worry about that. Family is more important. Do you fancy dinner tonight? Annie is making steaks.’
‘I’d love to Pascal. What time suits?’.
‘Seven o’clock ok?’
‘Perfect, thanks Pascal. You’re a gent’.
‘Ok. Take care now. See ya’.
In a flurry of activity, he starts packing up his car. Books, pads and pens, his laptop, clothes and toiletries. A writer’s essentials. Half an hour later he’s finished, and locks the car. He thinks about what Lisa said about running forever.
His phone rings. It’s Pascal.
‘Could you make it half seven?’.
‘Thanks. See ya’.
He breathes a sigh of relief and wipes fresh sweat from his brow. With some time to spare before dinner, he sinks into the old armchair. Exhausted, emotionally and physically, he drifts into a shallow sleep.
BOOM BOOM BOOM.
He wakes with a start and hears voices outside. Two bright lights stream through the front window. Headlights. His watch reads 7.45. Shit!
BOOM BOOM BOOM.
Three loud knocks on the front door.
BOOM BOOM BOOM.
‘Kevin. We know you’re in there!’.
He hears smashing sounds and looks out. His car windows are broken. Now a hissing sound. The tyres slashed.
He calls the police frantically.
‘Hello. I’m at 5 Glackin Lane, Dennehy’s. There are vandals outside smashing my car. My name is Kev-’.
‘Kevin O’Dea is it?’ the garda asks.
‘Yes! Please come quickly!’.
BOOM BOOM BOOM.
‘We’re a bit short staffed Kevin, but we’ll send a car when we can’.
‘I need help now! They’re going to kill me!’.
‘Why would they do that Kevin?’
‘Never mind. Please hurry’.
‘We’ll do our best. See ya’.
BOOM BOOM BOOM.
‘Come out Kevin! We don’t wanna bust old Dennehy’s door on your account’. He recognises the voice of the pack leader from the pub. Then nothing. The voices die down. The headlights are switched off. Are they gone?
Panic is replaced by low level fear. He tiptoes to the back door.
Someone is kicking the front door.
BOOM! The front door buckles and breaks off the hinges. The pack pours into the bungalow, snarling and hungry, drunk on power and Corona Extra. Kevin has left by the back door and is running towards the fields when a voice rings out.
‘There he is lads, out back!’.
A small, fat youth was on watch, and rallies the pack. They bound into the fields after Kevin. Years of running give him an initial edge, but years of hard living undo him and he is caught swiftly.
‘Well now’ the leader says, out of breath but trying to sound strong.
‘Listen. You have it all wrong’ Kevin pleads.
‘YOU listen’ the leader screams.
‘You fuckin rapist!’.
‘I was cle-‘.
The leader punches him in the stomach and he doubles over onto the grass.
‘NO fucking rapists in this town. NEVER!’ he roars and kicks Kevin in the back. All five wolves then set upon him. The pain is severe at first, then he feels hazy, then it’s gone.
Suddenly he’s blinded by lights. The pain rushes back and the sound of a tractor engine almost deafens him.
‘Go on, get! Ye pups!’ he hears someone shout. The wolves flee into the darkness.
‘Oh Jesus Lord’ the man says, crouching down to Kevin, now bleeding heavily from wounds to the head and body. It’s Pascal.
‘Hello. I need an ambulance to 5 Glackin Lane, Dennehy’s. That’s right. Urgently. A man has been beaten up. Oh he’s breathin’ all right. Ok. Ok.’
In and out of consciousness, Kevin sees the concerned face of Pascal Dennehy.
‘You’re ok now. You’re safe’.
Pascal gets a blanket from the tractor and drapes it over Kevin.
‘I didn’t do it’ Kevin murmurs.
‘It’s ok Kevin. Try not to talk’.
‘I didn’t do it’.
‘You believe me?’.
‘I believe you’.
‘You’ll be ok. Sit tight and I’ll get more blankets’.
Pascal disappears into the darkness and Kevin waits. Seconds filled with minutes, minutes filled with hours.
‘Pascal’ he tries to shout, but a searing pain in his ribs stops him. He tries to take a breath but it comes up short. His breathing crackles and he descends into delirium.
A beautiful redhead is standing over him. She has green eyes and porcelain skin. She leans down to him.
‘Ciara!’. He reaches up, but the pain is too much.
‘I know you had to leave, but I need you now. I’m so sorry for everything.’
Tears stream down his face.
‘I don’t want to die, not yet. Not like this. Ciara?’
She fades away.
He shivers violently. High above the stars seem to be shivering too. He looks at them and feels peaceful. He always loved learning about the cosmos. Such poetic truths. Stars died so he could live. Every atom in his body was born in a star. The oxygen he struggles to breath, the iron in his leaking blood: both forged in exploding, dying stars. The pain eases for a moment. He coughs weakly and his vision blurs.
In the distance, people are shouting.
‘There he is!’ a man says sternly.
‘Disgusting!’ a woman spits.
His vision recovers for a moment and he sees the wolves holding Pascal. The old ladies from the supermarket are there. George Kilburn is there. The supermarket clerk is there, out of breath, grinning maniacally.
‘You’re too soft Pascal’ one of the wolves yelps.
‘We should kill him’.
He drifts back into delirium.
He’s at an awards ceremony. His family are there, proud and clapping. He looks at Ciara during his speech. She steadies him. She always does.
Now he’s in Greece with her. Lying on the beach, making love in the hotel room. Tears start to flow again.
‘Ciara. I’m sorry Ciara’.
Now he’s leaving the courtroom after the first hearing. Photographers and angry crowds screaming ‘scumbag’, ‘shame’. He covers his head.
Suddenly, the pain returns like hammer blows. Red and blue lights are flashing. His breathing stutters and crackles.
He hears a faint voice. ‘Kevin, can you hear me? I’m a paramedic’.
It grows fainter still.
The sound of the siren pulses in and out, now deafening, now distant. They are moving. There’s a mask over his face and a man in green is sitting beside him. Blinding lights. Black again.
The ambulance snakes out of Glackin Lane and takes a left onto the main road. It comes to the narrow bridge and screeches to a halt. A car is parked across it, blocking the way.
The driver screams out the window. ‘Move it now! You’re breaking the law!’.
‘We have a critical man here. Move your vehicle!’.
‘How long does he have?’ cries a voice from the car.
‘Not long if we don’t get him to hospital immediately. His lungs are punctured. Now move!’.
‘Rapist! Rapist! Rapist’ the group chants in chorus.
‘Right, I’m getting the guards!’ the driver threatens. Kevin is fading in and out, life and death precariously balanced. The paramedic in the back shouts to the driver: ‘Someone is coming up behind!’.
Two bright headlamps emerge from the darkness and the sound of a tractor engine is heard. It’s Pascal Dennehy. He has a fork lift on the front of the tractor.
The ambulance driver gets out and approaches him.
‘We can’t get through!’ he screams.
‘Move aside’ Pascal says. ‘I’ll clear them’.
The ambulance reverses to make room and the tractor roars forward. The wolves leap from the car howling threats and profanities.
‘You’re done Dennehy!’
‘If you touch my car I’ll fucking…‘
The forks crash straight through the car windows and lift it clear from the ground.
‘My car!’ the leader screams, and bursts into tears of rage and helplessness. The rest of the pack bound into the night.
Pascal Dennehy keeps driving until the bridge is clear.
The ambulance speeds off into the night.
Kevin O’Dea will make news headlines again tomorrow, but they will be his last.
In 2019, the U.S. military released a limited number of Predator UAVs for private investment. The goal: to involve an increasingly jaded population in its War on Terror, and help fund the costs. For only $10,000, each investor receives secure logins to monitor the real-time performance of their UAV. They can also gamble on the battle success of their UAV in terms of kills and life-span. Armed with Stinger missiles and short-range lasers, the Predators have become ubiquitous in modern warfare.
Each UAV is named by its investor, who can also see real-time chat between the Predator pilot and his Pioneer pilot colleagues. Pioneer UAVs provide highly accurate reconnaissance and surveillance information to Predators for targeting enemies on the ground.
On May 17th a combination of U.S. troops and SWORDS fighting robots were deployed. It is expected that SWORDS robots will be available for private investment in the near future.
Direct hit! The text appears in the chat window on Dale Lennon’s console, followed by a smiley emoticon.
‘Yes!’ he screams.
‘What? I’m watching American Cyborg’ his girlfriend Mandy replies.
‘Sorry baby. Just SonofSam got another kill. Blew the fucker to bits! That puts me top of the league table!’
‘I wish you wouldn’t spend so much time on that. You sound like a psycho’.
‘Whatever. You won’t be saying that when we’re rich’.
Since China started manufacturing UAVs in 2017, the cost to buyers has plummeted. They will supply anyone willing to place a suitably large order. Many failed African states now command flocks of Predators and Pioneers, wreaking havoc in central Africa. In the DRC, the locals call them mosquitoes due to the buzzing sound they make.
Private security companies rent UAVs to corporations for quelling riots and revolts. The sound of a flock of Predators overhead is usually enough to paralyse even the most committed protestors and disperse them. Fear is a sufficient agent of suppression.
In the developed world, uprisings have become commonplace due to long-term technological unemployment and rising food prices resulting from drought-induced reductions in crop outputs. Hordes of hopeless young men roam city streets seeking to expend their energy in a variety of anti-social activities. Businesses run the constant risk of robbery and vandalism. To counter the insurgencies, some governments have deployed Sentry Robots to guard important buildings. Sentry Robots combine firing, surveillance, tracking, and voice recognition systems in a single unit, and have killed several protestors in Greece.
‘My operator really loves his drone’ Dale says, laughing.
‘He calls it his best buddy’.
‘That’s cute’ Mandy replies.
‘I dunno baby, sounds like he wants to sleep with it’.
‘That might not work out too well’ Mandy says.
‘Well I guess he could buy a Sexbot and do it right’ Dale replies.
‘Those things are disgusting!’
‘To each their own. Wanna watch a movie later?’
‘I can’t, I’m going to the printers. I need a new pair of shoes.’
‘Cool, no worries. Oh, while you’re there, will you get me a new t-shirt? Just plain white. Thanks baby.’
Cyberwarfare has become a powerful tactic in modern conflict. Cyber warriors re-route UAVs or put them into auto-pilot, rendering them useless. Last year, the U.S. vice president was almost killed by a domestic surveillance Pioneer, hijacked and flown directly at him while he made an open air speech. The U.S. has a highly cyber-dependent critical infrastructure which is particularly exposed to the threat of cyber attacks. A lack of security oversight by software designers and inherent weaknesses in Internet transmission protocols make the job a lot easier for the enemy.
The U.S. power grid has been infiltrated by Iranian cyber warriors via previously installed trapdoors. They have threatened to detonate logic bombs implanted in the system which could destroy transformers and generators, leaving the entire country without electricity for weeks or months. The cyber-connected power grid has been vulnerable to attack for decades. Previous government attempts to securely separate it from the open Internet have been met with resistance from corporations and the public, united in a uneasy alliance against all forms of government regulation.
Dale reads the latest stream of chat between the pilots.
What the fuck is that? the Predator pilots says.
Hold on. Zooming. the Pioneer pilot responds.
Oh jesus christ. It’s a LANDARK! With lasers and…is that an EMP gun?
The LANDARK is an amphibious UAV-carrier, outfitted with long range lasers and a non-nuclear electro-magnetic pulse gun. It has never before been used in battle. The U.S. has been testing the technology, but is years off production.
The system says engage! the Predator pilot says.
No! Retreat. My commander says retreat! the Pioneer pilot replies.
Well which one is it??? the Predator pilot replies, losing patience.
Retreat. Ret- is the final message from the Pioneer pilot.
John? John? You there buddy? the Predator pilot says, but the Pioneer UAV is offline.
Fuck! Ok retreating now. UAV 12-347 returning to-
The live feed dies and a message appears on Dale’s console: Predator 12-347 terminated.
‘FUCKKKKKKKKKK!’ Dale screams, slamming down his headset.
‘What now?’ Mandy says.
‘SonofSam, he’s dead.’ Dale starts to sob softly, and then bawls.
‘Shit. Sorry babes. But come on, it’s only a rob-‘
‘Don’t say it!’ he interrupts, enraged.
‘Don’t you dare say it! SonofSam killed 52 terrorists and saved god knows how many lives. He’s a hero!’ he roars, and storms upstairs.
Mandy presses a button on the wall. A display reads 5 minutes to pickup. Dale reappears down the stairs.
‘How much have we in savings?’ he asks, still visibly upset.
‘No Dale, we don’t have another $10,000 to spare!’
‘We must have!’
‘We don’t! Please, not again!’
‘Let me check.’ He opens his console and checks the balance.
‘We have enough!’
‘But what about our holidays Dale? Please!’
‘They can wait. Our troops need backup over there. They’re killing us Mandy!’
‘I’m going out for a while’.
‘Where?’ he snaps.
‘The mall’ Mandy replies.
‘That’s why we’ve fuck all savings!’
‘That’s garbage Dale. I’m only going to browse’.
‘What could you possibly need that you can’t get at the printers?’
‘The designer printers are there. Please don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone’.
‘Stupid like what? Support my country? Yeah, really stupid!’
The display lights up on the wall and a voice announces Your car is outside, Mandy. She walks on to the street and gets in the back seat.
Please enter your destination on the screen or speak it now.
‘Joe’s Bar’ she says, and the car pulls away.
Ten minutes later, she receives a message from Dale.
I thought you said you were going to the mall. What are you doing at Joe’s?
She breathes a gloomy sigh, and orders a drink.
Dinner at Simeon’s: Soul mates
Simeon Stain is having a dinner party. The host, a 54 year old bachelor with a shock of grey hair and a thin moustache, sits at the top of the table. A tireless autodidact, he devours the latest scientific literature from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, sociology, evolutionary biology and behavioural economics. Human nature is his obsession. Though much is beyond his comprehension, he relishes the discovery of new topics for debate and his parties pulse with passionate discourse.
There are seven guests tonight: Martha, an old friend endowed with immense intellect and a wicked sense of humour. She is in the midst of her second divorce; Marvin and Jenny, work colleagues one month into a new courtship; Sandy and Roger, friends from university, married for thirty-three years. Prim, proper, and protestant, they bring some decorum to the affair; Finally, Jacqui and Karl, drunken lushes who seize upon any opportunity to escape their children and themselves.
It’s 11pm and the guests have been drinking wine for four hours.
‘Morally blind perhaps Simeon, but necessary nonetheless’ Martha says. ‘I mean, how else are we to get together without the sparks of sexual attraction spurring us on’.
‘I agree of course Martha’ Simeon replies swiftly.
He twirls his moustache as he speaks, scanning his guests for reactions of disgust or disagreement. When he finds either, he continues his point staring directly at the offended party.
‘It is wrong, however’ Simeon continues ‘to attach any significance to such a fitful, impersonal impulse’.
‘Impersonal? Come on Simeon’ Marvin interjects. ‘We can’t help who we’re attracted to’. He smiles smugly, and Jenny kisses him on the cheek, marking her approval.
‘Oh spare me Marvin!’ Martha says. ‘Next thing you’ll be claiming that Fate brought you two together!’
‘Well maybe it did’ Jenny says. She and Marvin share a long, tender kiss.
‘God new lovers are obnoxious!’ Simeon spits.
His words fail to penetrate their bubble of serene certainty. The rush of romance combines with the self-righteousness of drunkenness to shield them from cynicism and doubt. They smile in concert and continue kissing.
‘Oh Simeon. Has single life made you so contemptuous of lovers?’ Sandy says, holding her wine glass lightly between her index finger and her thumb.
‘I mean, with that attitude, you’ll never find your soul mate. You’ll scare her away!’
‘What are soul mates exactly Sandy?’ he replies.
‘Kindred spirits’ she shoots back.
‘Another vague, nonsensical term. Explain to me how it works, really’.
‘Well…I don’t know Simeon. It’s a mystery. Soul mates find each other, or they don’t, I suppose. Roger and I were lucky enough to…’
‘AH HA HA HA HA HA HA’ Martha cackles, banging her hand on the table, rattling the multicoloured bracelets on her wrist.
‘Oh grow up Sandy!’ she says. Her lips and tongue are stained by red wine, giving her a sinister appearance.
‘Well excuse me Martha! Some of us can keep our marriages going!’ Sandy replies.
Simeon contorts his face as if he has just seen an open wound. He looks at Martha who locks her gaze on Sandy.
‘MY SHOES ARE SOLE MATES!’ slurs Karl. ‘LOOK!’ He tries in vain to take his shoes off and in doing so tips his chair backwards, falling slowly to the floor. Jacqui laughs uproariously.
‘Get up you idiot!’ she shouts, standing up to help him. She feels a sudden rush of nausea and staggers out of the room with a look of alarm.
‘Oh Karl’ Simeon says.
‘Just gonna sleep here for a bit’ Karl replies.
Martha hasn’t broken her stare. She stands up and claps her hands.
‘Come on everyone, let’s all give Sandy and Roger a round of applause’.
‘Martha’ Simeon says.
‘Raise your glasses’ Martha continues ‘to the most wonderful couple in the world, just perfect in every way. To the soul mates, Sandy and Roger!’
She raises her glass and drinks the contents in one gulp.
‘Martha, please’ Simeon says firmly.
‘Oh can it Simeon!’ she replies. ‘Sandy, you really should join us in the real world sometime. It’s not as terrible as you think.’
She sits down and tops up her red wine. Sandy opens her mouth to reply but Martha continues. ‘Roger used to have a personality before he met you. Look at him now, submissive and pandering, like a bloody lap dog!’
‘How dare you! He can speak for himself.’ Sandy replies, nudging Roger with her elbow. ‘Roger. Roger!’
‘I’d rather not Dear.’ Roger replies gently. ‘It’s getting late, maybe we should go’.
‘What? Because of her? No!’
‘Please Dear. We’ve an early start tomorrow’.
Sandy relents and the couple slide their chairs out.
‘I’ll get your jackets guys’ Simeon says with a look of defeat.
Sandy stares at Martha, who stirs her wine with her middle finger and looks down.
‘I feel sorry for you Martha. All that hatred eating away at you’.
As the couple leave, Martha takes her middle finger out of the wine, sucks it and raises it to the door.
Simeon is waiting with their jackets.
‘I’m sorry guys’ he says.
‘Martha is out of line Simeon’ Sandy says.
‘I know Sandy, I know. Goodnight guys.’
He rejoins the table and looks around. Marvin and Jenny are playing with each other under the table. Jacqui is vomiting violently in the toilet, now audible as Simeon has opened the living room door. Karl is resting on the floor.
‘I told you to go easy on the red wine Karl’ Simeon says.
‘Sole mates’ Karl whispers, sniggering to himself as he falls into a shallow sleep.
‘JACQUI’ Simeon shouts. ‘Are you ok? Karl is asleep on the floor again!’
‘Fuck off Simeon’ Jacqui replies. Her voice is echoed slightly.
He looks at the lovers. ‘Marvin, Jenny. Take the spare room’.
‘Thanks Simeon’ they say together. They race upstairs and several thumps and bangs are heard below. Excited yelps and long groans follow.
Martha looks at Simeon.
‘Alone again, naturally’ he sings.
‘Why are people so boring and predictable Simeon?’
‘Creatures of habit I suppose’.
‘Creatures of stagnation’ she replies.
‘Maybe. But changing is hard. The fear of losing what you have is far more powerful than the desire for change, in most people. When you’ve invested so much time and energy into something, it feels wrong to throw it away, even though your life would improve if you did.’
‘I suppose you’re right. Leaving Jim was difficult. I got used to bottling up my frustration. He’d snap any time I tried to talk to him about us. He wanted a quiet servant, not a wife.’
‘It took great courage to leave Martha, particularly with his family.’
‘Oh god, they were a nightmare. When we split, his daughters took to Facebook to air their grievances. Nancy wrote a blog post called ‘The Many Moods of Martha’. My curiosity got the better of me and…’
‘You didn’t read it.’
‘I did. Stupid, I know. A tirade of things I never did for them, speculations that my weekends away with the girls were actually affairs. Just awful Simeon’.
‘I’m sorry Martha.’
‘I get so down when I see people in relationships that smother their potential.’
‘Perhaps you see more potential than they see in themselves?’
‘Maybe’. She smiles.
‘Another glass?’ Simeon asks, picking up the wine bottle.
‘No thanks. Fancy a fuck?’
‘I’d love one’.
The curtain is drawn and the woman exits, looking miserable. He stands up, rubs his sweaty palms together and enters the booth. Panic seizes him, and he turns to leave.
‘Sit down my son’ a familiar voice says gently.
‘Oh yeah, sorry. Bless me father for I have sinned…’
His voice trembles uncontrollably.
‘…It’s been…a long time since my last confession’.
‘What do I say now?’
‘You confess your sins. The sacrament of confession has three parts: contrition, confession, and penance’.
‘Well…I’ve been having a lot of bad thoughts lately’.
‘I’ve wanted to kill a man’. His voice breaks and he starts sobbing.
‘You’re safe here my son’.
‘Really?’ he whispers.
‘Yes. The confessional seal protects you. Nothing leaves here, even if my life depends on it.’
‘Ok. Well…this man…he was responsible for the death of my friend’.
‘Did you go to the police?’
‘A long time ago. They wouldn’t listen. They called me a liar.’
‘So your friend died long ago?’
‘No! Well, yes. Yes he did!’
‘Ok. Tell me about your thoughts. Take it slowly’.
‘I just see no other way. He has to pay’.
‘Perhaps he has already paid?’
‘What? NO he hasn’t!’
‘Please lower your voice. This is a sacred place’.
‘Sorry, no he hasn’t’.
‘Is he a religious man?’
‘Has he received the sacrament of confession?’
‘What difference does that make?’
‘It makes all the difference. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. That’s from John.’
‘No! Don’t you see how twisted that is?’
‘Our duty is to God and forgiveness is the way to everlasting life’.
‘But you have to have faith too, right?’
‘Yes of course. If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9. Belief is essential if you wish to be absolved.’
‘Right. So a non-believer who lives a life of kindness and compassion goes to hell but a serial killer who finds god goes to heaven?’
‘Well yes, but…’
‘Don’t you see what a warped morality you’re peddling!?’
‘My son, this is confession. We are not here to argue scripture’.
‘I’m here for my friend!’ His tone changes and he becomes calm.
‘Yes. Go on.’
‘Does the name Liam Conlon mean anything to you?’
‘Yes. We had his service here. Very tragic.’
‘Liam was my best friend’.
‘Oh. I see. But he wasn’t killed, he died by his own hand.’
‘Is he gone to Hell?’
‘Well, not necessarily. That’s up to God. The Church teaches that suicide is wrong; it is contrary to the Fifth Commandment, but…’
‘He was KILLED!’
‘Please calm down.’
‘Confession is a three part sacrament you said’.
‘The man who killed Liam has never shown contrition, has never confessed, and has paid no penance for his actions’.
‘How do you know that?’
The priest shuffles in his booth and coughs weakly. A strange silence lingers.
‘Well, what should I do Father?’
‘You must learn to forgive’. The priest’s voice quivers.
‘I can’t, not until he confesses, and pays’.
‘We will all be judged by God, my son.’
‘It’s not enough! And stop calling me son! You think you’re so morally superior, don’t you! Your morals are two thousand years out of date! Why is there no commandment banning rape? Maybe if there was, Liam would be here now!’
‘Lower your voice Father. This is a sacred place’.
‘Without God, morality is a human invention, a subjective thing…’
‘Rubbish! We don’t need god to be decent. We never did. Even babies have a basic sense of fairness and justice, right and wrong. A primitive morality maybe, but it’s up to us to build on it, engineer societies that promote contemporary, enlightened morals. But you absolutists keep dragging us backwards, dividing us with your scripturally sanctioned bigotry. You don’t have a monopoly on morality! You make me sick. You MADE ME SICK!’
Broken sobs fill the confessional booth.
‘I’m sorry but this confession is over. Your penance is a decade of the rosary and…’
‘My penance? MY PENANCE? Your penance, Father Bracken, is this’.
A single gunshot rings out.
A woman screams outside the confessional and rapid footsteps follow.
The killer pulls back the curtain and looks at the deceased priest. The bullet has passed through a gold plaque and the side of his head.
The ‘Act of Contrition’ is written on the plaque. The killer reads it aloud:
O my God, I am heartily sorry
for having offended Thee
and I detest my sins
above every other evil
because they displease Thee, my God,
Who, in Thy infinite wisdom,
art so deserving of all my love
and I firmly resolve
with the help of Thy grace
never more to offend Thee
and to amend my life.
He raises the gun once more. A second gunshot echoes in the pristine accoustics of the church.
Father Bracken will be mourned and prayed to. After five years, the bishop of the diocese will open an investigation into the late priest’s virtues and present the information to the Roman Curia. His body will be exhumed and examined. In time, he will be declared ‘venerable’ or ‘heroic in virtue’. He will be named a martyr who gave his life voluntarily in an act of heroic charity for others, and beatification will follow. Miracles will be claimed in his name, and sainthood secured.
The lone lunatic killer will be condemned by the community, his family ostracised and shunned. His children will learn at school how people like their father are cast into the lake of fire and tormented day and night forever and ever.
An old purple curtain separates the bar from the dance floor, where a dusty disco ball hangs from the ceiling, swaying when a strong draught sweeps the room.
A young couple sit beside an open fire, flickering with fantasy and hope. They whisper to each other and laugh. He says something dirty. She hits him on the leg, pretending to be shocked. They kiss.
An older man sits alone at the bar. He has kind eyes, a tidy haircut, and weathered hands. A small paunch peeks over his belt. He wears a blue jumper with faded brown stains. It smells of fresh peat. He filled up the kitchen range before leaving the house. Marie loves it cosy.
“One for the road John?”
The anaesthetist angles the glass and tips the tap.
John Devlin is a farmer and a father. Nothing else matters. Farming and family, family and farming.
“How’s Marie?” the counsellor asks, studying the fit body of the young girl over John’s left shoulder.
“I hear young Sarah is doin’ well in Dublin?”.
“Ya. She’s a smart one. Didn’t get it from me” John replies, smiling with self-deprecation and pride.
His head is full of figures. The farm is drowning in debt. Sarah’s college fees are due. Two cattle gone for slaughter this month. Miscarriages. Broken. The Belgian Blue was his favourite. Gone.
“There ya go John”.
A creamy pint of Guinness. He takes a sip. The head leaves a trail of foam on his neat moustache. “Ahhh”.
He looks to the end of the bar. Martin’s stool. Two months ago, Martin hung himself with a belt. His daughter found him in the shed. She walked right into his feet.
He had a small furniture shop in the town and fell behind on rent. The banks couldn’t help, wouldn’t help. You have to be a high stakes gambler to get their help, John thinks. Martin never gambled.
His was the second suicide in six months. The first was a girl of seventeen. Busloads turned up at her funeral. The parish priest warned against martyrdom. A week later her boyfriend was found clinging to life in his room. The priest should have warned against contagion.
I don’t know what kind of plan the man upstairs has, John muses. He thinks about Sarah. Family and farming, farming and family.
The pub door bursts open and two young men enter, drunk and boisterous.
“Jays lads, did someone die in here or sumthin’?” the lanky one slurs.
“Two Heineken!” the small one spits, and darts a look at his friend. “Goin for a piss!”.
The lanky one slumps down beside John.
“Howya!” he burps, and thrusts out his hand.
“Grand” John says, staring straight ahead. His heart beats an ancient rhythm of anxiety. Fight or flee, flee or fight. Fight or flee, flee or f-
“Hey!” the drunk shouts, puffing his chest out and moving closer to John.
“You gotta prob-, you gotta problem old man?”.
“No problem” John replies, slowly shaking his head full of figures.
The small one returns from the toilet, with fresh urine spots on his light blue jeans. He has a giddy look on his face. This changes when he sees his friend leering at the side of John’s head.
“What’s the story Mike?” the small one asks.
“Chill out Mike. Have a drink”. He hands him a pint, but Mike ignores him, swaying but never breaking his stare. His eyes blink repeatedly but he keeps them locked on his prey.
“The story IS….this old prick won’t shake my hand!”.
Hearing the commotion, the anaesthetist comes out of a back room.
“All right lads. Finish up and go.” he says calmly.
“Fair enough” the small one replies timidly, looking over at the young girl, grinning.
“NO! Fuck that Joe! We’ve as mush a right to be here…”
The open fire needs stoking, but the scared couple don’t move.
“Easy Mike.” Joe seizes him by the arm.
“Get your fuckin hands off me!” he roars.
“Mike. Come on. Let’s go.” Joe pleads.
“I’m goin nowhere”.
Mike folds his arms. A twitching mass of testosterone. A dominant ape, removed from regret. He looks at Joe and clenches his fist.
“Mike!” Joe shouts. He knows what is coming.
“Finish up or I’ll get the guards down!” the anaesthetist says firmly.
John quickly finishes his pint and prepares to leave. Go. It’s not worth it. Family and farming, farming and f-.
The first blow blindsides him. He slides off his stool and falls in a heap on the floor. The young girl shrieks. Joe bolts out the door.
Mike kicks the head full of figures, farming, and family.
The figures disappear.
He kicks again.
The farm disappears.
John Devlin is thinking of family when the last kick is delivered.