SHORT STORY: Congo

A disturbing look at things that can never be put right by gothic author Jaki McCarrick

When I awoke the first thing I did was check my bag. I took from it what I needed, tucked it back under the bed, placing my father’s slippers in front. I went to the window and opened it, amazed as I did that I remembered the bottom pane was loose. A grey cloud hung over the town, and three mallards the colour of barley flew in a line towards the Ramparts River. Again, I wondered if I had been away at all, for everything was as it had been when I had left, except I could no longer hear the lowing of cows from Quincey’s field, which was now home to a new housing estate.

It had been like this since my arrival: encounters with my old self, a strange sensation of continuum, of picking up where I had left off. As if my London self was there still, walking through Richmond on his way to Kew, while my younger self, that ghost, was simultaneously here in this damp house staring out at the dawn weather. I closed the door behind me, the smell of the eggs I’d fried for my father’s breakfast still clinging to my nostrils, and walked to the corner of the Avenue. The edges of the leather pouch chafed at my thigh, and sweat beads formed on my forehead making my face feel cold.

I walked down the Ecco Road, passed the freshly mown playing fields, on towards the Grange to see if Devlin was home. Even the houses with the smashed-in windows and weed-run gardens looked tranquil in the morning light, so that the ragwort passed almost for daisies. There was a fabulous assortment of colours, too, from the many flower baskets, filled as they were with petunias, begonias and violets. There had always been people here who had tried to pull themselves up; always a mother or father prepared to stand up to the gangs.

From where I stood I could see Devlin’s old place. Had he really returned? Or, had he gone where some had said, to Kilburn, where he’d been living, literally, under my nose all these months? The house seemed much the same. The same satiny fuchsia hedge, the faux-Tudor windows gleaming like mirrors, the tall palm soaking up the rays of the early sun.

Grace had always been proud of her home. A testament to her resourcefulness that even when she’d found herself stuck in this rough estate on a widow’s pension with six sons (two of them gang members), she had still managed to keep an attractive house. Fortress Devlin, she would call it, as she had felt so safe within its walls. Built in the seventies, the Grange promised the families who had come to live there, mostly from the old townhouses and tenements – modernity: bathrooms, spacious bedrooms, central heating. The future for these new tenants must have seemed bright and hopeful. But within a decade it had become a festering sprawl, filled with gangs, drugs, violence. And Bob’s death before her boys were full-grown, ensured that Grace and her sons remained there, such is the quicksand nature of the ghetto, which requires money and time and strategy to get out of.

The air up on the Avenue had always been rarified and easy, while here, even now, I could feel the dead weight of Grange air in my lungs.

As I stood on the corner of the new car-park for the new Dunnes Stores (where once there had been a hill, ‘the clump’, where gangs such as ours would meet for arranged fights), I saw a figure on the Castleblayney Road walking towards the bottle-neck opening of the estate, both hands buried in the pockets of a khaki bomber jacket. I moved in behind a blue Hi-ace van, and for a second thought I might have been seen for the figure did not pass. A match was struck and tipped to the ground, a cigarette sucked upon, and the man (for I had seen by now the sharp crew cut, the eruption of grey on both sides of his slim head) continued past the van and row of wood-pannelled houses, stopping at the end of the street by the tall palm, and opened the gate. It was Devlin. And apart from the grey hair he had hardly changed: the same casual self-assurance, the almost effeminate gait. I imagined his cell to have had Grace’s stamp, the best of a bad situation, tidy and clean, perhaps even with flowers.

I was perturbed by something: my heart, pounding against my ribs. This was not how it was to have gone. Think of The Congo, I kept saying to myself. Think of the fucking Congo. I closed my eyes, and for a few chilling moments supposed I was actually there.

* * *

‘Where d’yez think you’re goin’ you lot?’ Staunton leaned into the car and thumped the glove compartment open. ‘War and Peace,’ he read out, venomously. Devlin pulled the book off him. At this I knew the cop would do one of two things. Either pull us over and quiz us, maybe roughly, maybe with a slap to the back of Devlin’s head, or, he would leave it, sensing what so many had: the stirring power of this young man with inkblack hair and obsidian-like eyes who spoke with alarming authority. Devlin whispered into Staunton’s ear. Something he had on him, something sexual. The cop paled, was breathless, his appointed authority gone like a mirage, so much so that when he asked what had happened to the missing wing of my Hillman Hunter, I confidently responded that it had flown away.

‘Well, go on. To wherever you’re off ta, but yez can’t stop here,’ Staunton said, oblivious to the fact that we had just left the publican in a torrent of blood, his rooms upturned, his cash register emptied, his skull in pieces under a corn-yellow canister of gas.

We had not gone to bed that night. Under Devlin’s orders, the twins had taken the simpleton, Gascoigne, into the cemetery and tied him to a cross with rope. Devlin had wanted to teach Gascoigne a lesson. To get him to keep his mouth shut about things seen in Gascoigne’s mother’s B&B: somebody else’s girl, somebody’s wife. Mikey peeled the bananas while Joe forced them one by one into the lad’s mouth. It was my job to watch over all of this. Watch as the Crilly twins pissed on the poor wretch, bound and stuffed like a pig on a spit, the piss-steam rising off him like smoke. Under Devlin’s orders we left him there in full-dark, wailing and crying for his mother. Later, when I’d slipped back to let the boy go, I saw Devlin walk him out of the place with his arm around him. I imagined he was saying to Gascoigne that it was he who had saved him, that he would look out for him like he had done to me. That was how he operated. He made you want to please him; he made you want to be loved by him. Like all bullies, he sought out the feeble-minded, misfits and outsiders, who, having experienced the ferocity of his power, also knew its terrible warmth and radiance.

After we left the bar I drove to the Cooley hills up the meandering lane shrouded in mountain ash and foxgloves. Adamski’s Killer boomed from the car-stereo. I parked the car by the gates and we clambered out and walked into the bog, the twins drunk and smoking a joint, and sat high up on the plum-coloured heather.

I looked down at the town, all amber in the evening light, and at the glimmering sea winding around the stark blue Mournes. I felt cold. The hills filled with an icy sea-wind that had closed around us like a cloak. I thought immediately of the Russian winter and the frostbitten Napoleonic soldiers of my book. And for the first time I doubted Devlin’s leadership. Why had he let it go so far? The reality of the murder we had just committed under his feverish spell suddenly hit me. I looked around. The twins had felt it too. They were shivering, and slumped as two sunflowers in October, rubbing away at bloodstains that wouldn’t come out of their jeans. And then Devlin walked up to us. I will never forget the way he did that. He churlishly took the twins’ knives and thrust them into a bank of bracken-flecked, cut-away turf, wild and skinned over since the Council had prohibited cutting it a few years before. Then he said he was hungry, that the cold mountain air had made him ravenous. I wanted to puke when he said that, and suddenly what we had done down there in the town began to seem as real and terrible a thing as Devlin’s hunger.

I cannot remember exactly why he chose The Congo. I just remember that that morning, he said he wanted to do some damage. I had no idea he meant people-damage. I thought he meant burning something, or trashing some old house up, and I was ready, as ever, with my car.

‘Where you thinking of goin’?’ Mikey asked.

‘Park Street.’ Devlin said

‘Class!’ Mikey said, sensing some wild adventure.

‘Maybe we should go for a drink,’ I suggested, nervously, adding: ‘but somewhere out of town, where it’s quiet.’

The truth was, my father drank in the pubs on Park Street and I didn’t want them to see him. To see him speak to me in that maudlin way. To see him so gaunt and unkempt in his pin-stripe suit and shirt with the frayed, dirty cuffs. And when he was drunk he would say things. That I was the same as my mother, highly-strung, unbalanced, spoilt. He was a most unpredictable drunk.

‘No. No drink. That’s not what I meant,’ said Devlin.

‘What did you mean?’ I asked.

‘Well, somethin’ will come. Somethin’ will come and we will know.’

That was Devlin all over. So damned enigmatic. As if he had commune with something or someone, other than his own present self. I learned in Court this was a trait common to the likes of Charles Manson and Ian Brady, a means to avoid all guilt: blame it on the voices, the signs, something outside oneself. I guess we were simply too weak for whatever it was that possessed him.

He was younger than me by two years, so by rights we should never have been friends. Only he saved me once. One night, up the alley by MJ’s, where he and the twins drank, he’d stopped me from being kicked to death by a bunch of shit-kickers from Ardee. Only for that night I’d never have been part of the gang, come to know him or the Crilly twins, or any of the lads from the Grange. (Afterall, I went to the Grammar; I lived on the Avenue.) I remember looking up, half-expecting the tall, dark-eyed interloper to join them, and, instead, he flung them off me like a wild cat. Then the twins charged in, dragged my two hick assailants towards the Ramparts River. I never asked Devlin why he pulled me from that beating. I presume he saw in me what he later saw in Gascoigne: an exploitable weakness, such as the shame I wore like a badge as son of the town’s most notorious drunk. Or perhaps he just saw something in me he could use. My ability with words, perhaps.

I sheltered in, and even came to like, the ‘hard’ reputation the Grange boys had. I knew that by association it would rub off. Until my involvement with Devlin I had been the proverbial bookish boy, whose mother had died young, and whose father had lost ownership of the biggest hotel in town in a card game - thus plunging our family straight into a kind of genteel poverty. The very worst kind of fucking poverty! Until then, I’d had to suffer all manner of quips about my family’s rapid change of fortune. From millionaires to hungry up in the big house. Younger kids would say I lived on ‘hungry hill’. And once, at school, when I’d won a prize in a poetry contest, Mr. Bryant had said for the whole class to hear: don’t give the money to your father, boy. So, by the time I fell in with Devlin, I was so fed up I no longer cared if people thought me a chip-off-the-old-block or not (and they definitely did), that I began to justify their thoughts, became well and truly ‘that Mansfield the gambler’s son.’ I began to drink heavily, mindlessly sometimes; to gamble (anything – cards, horses, dogs, slots), so that I must have seemed like rich pickings indeed to Devlin with the amount of insecurities I had. Whatever way it happened, the way two people find their fate in one another, I was a troubled young man from the Avenue one day, and the next - bewitched by a lout (albeit a beautiful lout). And we two, mentor and protégé -the devil and his rank apprentice - together with the notorious Crilly twins, on a warm day in June, with the air unforgettably salty from a strong sea breeze, walked into the empty bar and waited for the owner to return. And then we killed him.

Devlin called in. No one answered. The signs he’d been waiting for: no one in, middle of the day, plenty of booze, cash register open, radio on. For the first few minutes inside, the twins joked and pretended we were in the bar of a Western. The Congo was high-ceilinged, had never been updated. Inside, the wooden floors were dull and decorticated in places. The bar itself was breast-high, a gleaming brass rail wrapping around just beneath the bar-top.

Devlin sat on one of the red leather seats, lit up in his usual girlish way, slow and light, as if his little finger were about to levitate. I have never since met anyone, however duplicitous or skilled in the craft of acting, could smile so sweetly as he - the smooth white baby-fangs, the gentle crescent dimples - yet possess a simultaneous deadness in the eyes. It was, I understand now, the overlapping of two people in one. He was night and day in one, and it was for me, I recall, a hopelessly magnetic contrast.

‘Mikey leave it!’ Devlin said.

‘But Jesus man, the place is fuckin’ empty!’

‘You’re tanked up enough. We might need to run for it. Use your head.’

‘Well, come on then!’ Joe said. ‘We’ve got the money, what we waiting for? Let’s go.’

Devlin placed his long legs on top of the table, and crossed his feet. He put his arms behind his small, elegant head, wrist to nape.

‘Why would someone leave a class place like this for scumbags like us to come in and fuck around inside?’

‘Maybe he’s gone to get somethin’.’

‘Who’s he?’ Devlin asked Mikey, who was now scared.

‘Who’s he?’ he repeated.

‘Prentice Black he means,’ I replied, ‘the owner.’

My father had known Prentice Black. People who came into the bar thought Prentice a survivor from an Irish UN battalion massacred in the Congo in the 1960s - and Prentice would let them think it. But he wasn’t. The truth was he’d bought the pub from a man named Cyril White, and thought ‘The Congo’ an appropriate name – considering that country had passed from Belgian ownership to a Republic the year he’d bought it. There was even a map of Africa in the shape of Patrice Lumumba’s head on the wall of his room upstairs – which we would see later that day.

When I suggested that Prentice might be over in the bookies opposite, it set something off in Devlin.

‘Well, then we’ll wait,’ Devlin said, coolly.

‘Fuck sake why?’ asked Joe, less in awe of Devlin than his brother, both of whom had been getting restless and bored in the walnut-panelled lounge, the light a muddy olive colour from the stained-glass tiles above the windows. They were writing with a black felt-tip marker, obscenities, on the wide mirror at the back of the bar. Something about Prentice’s mother, which I can’t recall exactly.

‘Hey, we’ll wait fuckwit, because a man that’d leave his bar in the middle of the day is a careless man. And in my experience, a careless man always has easy access to money.’

It was then I started to become afraid. Mikey and Joe between them had taken over fifty pounds from the till. My pockets were stuffed with cigarettes and crisps, and I’d a bottle of Bombay Sapphire stuffed inside my jacket. We could have walked. That’s what I wanted to do. Even the twins looked worried. For Devlin had implied something way beyond our usual messing. Even beyond the worst we, as a gang, had done up till then (which, apart from Gascoigne, had been the bottles stolen for a riot on the border). Yet we remained. Compelled as ever by that smile, by those black anneloid eyes, by the magnetism I loved - but had already begun to resent. And so minutes passed and we waited. I remember the silence. I remember wondering what he would do and how he might do it. I remember not knowing if I should run, or throw myself down and bathe in his glow. The room was like a theatre, all hush and darkness, as we, the actors (chorus and lead), waited in the wings for our audience to enter. And somehow I knew, through some inner sense, that when Prentice Black returned to his bar from wherever he had been, he would never leave.

* * *

Disturbed by a flapping sound, I quickly opened my eyes to find I was a long way from those dark, unforgiving images from my youth. It was the leaves of the tall palm whipping at the air as if they would break loose. I watched the ravens caw over the wet rooftops on their way to the Avenue where they nested. Again, I noticed it: the sensation of continuum. A trickle of smoke from the chimney of his house – though it was a warm morning, and I imagined Devlin in there looking after Grace.

I’d gotten seven years for my part in the murder of the publican, the twins - mandatory life. And I’d blamed Devlin for all that had gone wrong with me since: discovering opiates, importing scams. I had even learned how to use a gun; there are many such places in London. But standing here at the edge of the Grange, despite my memories, I found my hand would not reach into my pouch, nor my legs carry me to his house. Those dreams of retribution that had seen me through the years in London seemed impotent here. There was a sameness to the place that was obdurate, and I saw that my rage belonged entirely to the man who walked to Kew each morning, whose only deliverance from this self and that, was time spent with the flowers and plants of the hothouses.

Of all the chilling and gruesome details of that afternoon in The Congo bar, there is one image in particular stands out for me. Crossing the lounge to exit, I recall I’d looked across at the mirror, covered in the twins’ spidery scrawls, and seen a skull-like face: eyes purple from crying, blood smirched on the hair and cheeks. I saw that the face belonged not to me, but to Devlin, who seemed to be looking in horror at something else, something I could not fully see. Perhaps it was at nothing in particular, perhaps he looked at me; I have often suspected as much. I remind myself on such occasions that though it was I, in the end, who had dropped the gas canister, neither Devlin nor the others had tried to stop me. On the contrary, Devlin had screamed ‘drop it’ and so I did. His claims that he had meant for me to put the canister safely down did not stand up in Court.

I walked back to the Avenue, finding some solace in Devlin’s greying hair, and the fact he now lived an obviously quiet, uneventful life in the same pathetic council house in which he had grown up. But I felt bereft, too, knowing I would never again experience the intoxicating spell he had cast upon my youth. Grace had blamed the middle-class boy from the Avenue, and claimed that if anyone had been the protégé it was her son. But Grange people have always been (understandably) jealous of the affluent suburb that looks down upon them, and I suppose with all the harshness life had meted out to her, Grace was no exception.

Read an interview with Jaki McCarrick here.