I grew up in a housing estate that was built on a gently-rising hillside. The top of the hill was ringed with trees, ancient sessile oaks, wych elm and horse chestnut. You wouldn’t call it a forest, it’s not that big, but it’s a bit more than a few random trees. We called it Hangman’s Woods because in the old days they didn’t bother building a scaffold in town, they just dragged people from the courthouse down the road, stuck a rope around their neck and pulled them by the neck over a branch of the biggest oak in the wood.
Justice. So they said.
The rooks were probably there then, watching and waiting for a feed. They still rule the place today.
These were big birds with heavy black beaks and bodies matt as coal dust but their hoods shone like satin and framed beaded eyes that saw everything.
Every evening the rooks welcomed the night with a great performance. The clamour, at first just one or two birds, grew quickly as groups returned from their day’s scavenging. Soon dozens and then hundreds and eventually maybe a thousand rooks swirled in one black cloud around the treetops. In the valley below the housemartins and swifts zipped and flitted between the rows of our houses, but we all lived in the shadow of the rooks.
Finally, at some unknowable signal, the gyring mass would all at once drop from the sky to their roosts in the trees. For a few minutes the branches swayed and rattled as the birds settled down. And when, at last, all went quiet, night had come.
Al McCourt was waiting for me when I got home from the last day of my Saturday job in Woolworths. He was leaning on the fence outside our house and annoying the dog, Nipper, who was lying on the concrete slabs of the short path between the gate and the house, ears flat, teeth bared, growling like an angry bear. It’d have been impressive if the mutt had been more than ten inches high.
“Shut up, Nipper!”
The growling stopped, but Nipper didn’t take his eyes off McCourt. He could hold a grudge that wee dog.
Al was a prick. He was thin-faced with a nose like the thick end of a hurley and a way of standing side-on so he was always looking at you out the corner of one eye. His voice was high and wheedling and it made the back of your neck crawl like metal scraping metal. He didn’t care that people hated him, he seemed to take pride in the way they shuddered at his approach. He mistook fear for respect. But Al was also my uncle Seamus’s man, and that meant that no one got to give him the kicking he obviously deserved. Except for the one night, a couple of years before, when the Brits had caught him out on his own.
They beat the shit out of him.
McCourt walked with a limp to this day. He wore it like a badge of honour and claimed a fortune off the DHSS for it. He was never out of the Citizens Advice place.
Economic warfare, Seamus called it. Taking the Brits for every penny.
Scrounging, my Da said.
Anyway, the day the Brits put Al McCourt in hospital was about as close as the two communities in Ardowen ever got to a moment of harmony. If we could have turned his beating into a spectator sport the whole Troubles might have ended there and then. We could have made a few bob too.
McCourt pulled himself up to his full height, flicking a pebble at the dog as he turned to me. I wasn’t tall but he barely came up to my chin. He scratched at his ear through a mass of greasy hair and grinned.
“Your uncle wants to see you,” he said. “Pronto, Tonto!”
I hated being called Tonto, a childhood nickname because my freckles made me a “redskin”.
“No can do, kemosabe,” I said, shaking my head. I wasn’t going to let the little shit know he’d annoyed me. “I’m away out the night.”
That wasn’t a lie. It was the last Saturday before we all left for university and I was going to a disco in Cookstown with Paddy and Aidan and the lads from school. We were going to get lashed and see how many girls we could persuade to let us stick our tongues down their throats. And maybe cop a feel. You never knew what we might get away with before we crossed the water. That was the plan for me and Paddy anyway. Aidan’d be out the back dry-humping his girl from Ballygawley and then trying to persuade us he’d really done it.
“Y’can get your end away later, wee Connolly,” McCourt seemed very pleased with himself, like he knew something I didn’t. “Your uncle says it’s urgent.”
“Can I at least get a wash and a change first?”
“The back bar–”
“-in O’Neill’s,” I cut him off. I knew where Seamus would be, it was where he always was.
“By seven, Tonto.” McCourt turned away, his bad leg dragging behind him like some doomed bird’s broken wing. “Don’t keep the big man waiting.”
“Yeah, and fuck you too,” I whispered softly as I opened the gate.
Nothing on the estate was safe from the rooks. Cats, small dogs, rabbits – any kind of unwary pet or careless wild thing was a potential target. A ruffling of feathers, a chorus of rough croaks and something vulnerable would squeal. Afterwards the rooks would stride casually across the road or on the little patch of scrubby grass that was our Croke Park, our Old Trafford, our playground, and they would dare us to challenge them, their beaks still glossed with blood.
I was the first baby born in our estate. It was newly built, still smelling of concrete dust and paint, the white stones of the pebbledash gleaming in the weak spring sunshine. The whole place had been a frantic response to a civil rights campaign that was rapidly turning into the bloody Troubles. It was a hopeless attempt to jam shut a box from which the nightmares had long since fled. Years later it would turn out that all the houses were slowly sliding down the hill into the bog in the valley below. You can take that for a metaphor of how rotten things were back then if you like but it was also the truth.
Whatever came later, my Ma was proud of her new home. They’d moved from a two-up-two-down built into the side of a railway cutting so steep you practically needed a ladder to climb the street outside. That house, she always said, had been so small you couldn’t peel a spud without opening the back door. The new house had three bedrooms, an inside toilet and a garden. She loved that house.
My parents moved in while the houses around them were still being built. I was born, she said, before the paint was dry. And before people learned what it was like to live with the rooks.
It was a bright spring morning and Ma left my pram in the garden – for all the violence on the television it was still a safe thing to do. She left me there and went back into the house to clean or cook or do whatever one of the thousand other things she did to make our lives that little bit better.
When she came back, just a few minutes later, a huge rook was sitting on the handle of my pram, staring in at me.
She screamed and rushed forward, waving frantic arms, trying to scare the bird away.
The rook just stared at her.
My Ma stopped.
Small, bottomless, eyes took her in and then turned down to me as I lay gurgling in the pram. There was a moment of stillness. Then the bird spread its wings and launched itself into the air and setting my pram rocking.
My Ma described the rook as a monster – vast as an eagle, darker than the night.
“The King Rook,” she’d called it and my dad had laughed his head off at her.
But I know the King Rook is real. It left me a gift, a pebble, smoothed and polished by running water until in shone like a jewel that my Ma kept for me. And he came back, again and again. Sometimes he took my things. He took my Action Man from the garden, my toy car from the playground, a schoolbook with my homework in it and a cassette of songs I’d taped off the Sunday afternoon chart show.
I knew it was the rook because, whenever he took something, he always left a gift behind.
A pyramid of snail shells, each one punched neatly open with a single round hole and emptied. The pale skull of a rat. A delicate blue egg, hollowed and cleaned. One morning, planted in the centre of our tiny front garden like a banner or a sign of ownership, I found a single black feather with a gloss so perfect that it reflected light like a mirror.
And there were other things. Bloody things.
They were magical signs. Signs that no matter how bad things got around me – and there were times when things got very bad – I was protected.
The King Rook was watching over me.
O’Neill’s bar was a fortress. The windows were protected by shutters made from thick-gauge wire that were kept permanently closed. The inside of the windows had been blocked up with breezeblocks and a string of bulbs, white Christmas tree lights, hung in the gap between the wall and the glass to make the place look a bit less grim from the outside. It didn’t work. The pub’s walls – rebuilt after a UVF bomb attack – were thick reinforced concrete skimmed over with rough plaster and painted a grimy brown and there were bright lights and cameras covering the car park and every approach.
I didn’t want to miss my bus to Cookstown so I’d rushed getting ready. It wasn’t, officially, opening time yet and, for form’s sake, the outside door was closed when I got to the pub – not that that meant anything. I pressed the bell and looked up into the camera. The buzzer went and I pushed my way in. Michael Molloy was sitting on a stool in the hall, a baseball bat leaning against the wall beside him, and he nodded me through as I turned left into the public bar.
When things get going, the front bar in O’Neill’s is a busy place, full of people enjoying a laugh and a drink. Later on there’d be a bit of singing and a lot of noise but it was early yet and quiet as the hardcore set about their beer and shorts with a steady desperation. The Sacred Heart lamps we called them, laughing behind their backs, because the drink had given them all red noses.
Even this early the smoke was hanging thick between the yellowed walls so that it obscured the big pictures of the local heroes, Thomas J Clarke – one of the Easter Rising crowd – and Martin Hurson – one of the hunger strikers – that took pride of place behind the bar. Between the pictures was an ornamental harp that Sean, the owner, had made in the woodwork lessons he got while he was interned in the Long Kesh. He’d painted tiocfaidh ár lá in white Gaelic lettering on the brown varnished wooden base.
Sean smiled at me as I walked through to the back bar.
“I’m not staying,” I said.
I nodded, resigned.
“I’ll bring it through.”
The thick fug of cigarette smoke was about the only thing the back bar of O’Neill’s had in common with the front. The walls were painted a dark green that seemed to swallow the light and there was a damp and rotten stink from the drains of the toilets next door. It was grim.
My uncle Seamus sat in his usual place in a booth with his back to the wall, so he could see who was coming in. The only other way out was a long narrow corridor that lead to the toilets and ended with a door so heavily wrapped in metal armour that it took two people to drag it open. There was a peephole cut into the door and a monitor, showing a picture of the back car park, sat on a shelf above the lintel.
Half-a-dozen hard men sat nursing whiskeys and pints at other tables. They all wore black leather jackets and aggressively stone-washed jeans and a few sported impressive displays of what they, no doubt, imagined to be authentically Gaelic facial hair.
“What’s the score, wee Tonto?” Seamus said.
“Ach, the usual, you know me” I said, trying to keep it light. “How’s about you, Uncle Seamus,”
“Same old same old,” he said. “Come in. Sit down. You don’t want to be making me nervous now, do you?”
“No way,” I said, and laughed.
Seamus was a funny fella. When he was in a good mood, he had a great sense of humour and always had some story or a comeback. In a country where slagging off your neighbour was practically an Olympic sport, there weren’t many could beat my uncle. Of course there weren’t many that tried either. You didn’t want to be the one who went too far or said the wrong thing. It wasn’t a mistake you’d make twice.
Seamus didn’t look like much at all. He was a short, slightly stocky man with a shiny bald head and a neatly-trimmed, snowy beard. He dressed well, favouring slightly old-fashioned tweed suits and he devoted special attention his shoes – always the best Italian leather and always polished to a gleaming finish. You could have imagined him as a dapper off-duty Santa Claus – if Santa had turned out to spend his spare time moonlighting as a psychopath.
You never forgot the first time you saw Uncle Seamus lose his temper.
He was a man who moved in circles where a lack of regard for the well-being of others was an entry-level requirement, but even amongst that crowd Seamus stood out. He was fearsome as an individual, precisely and thoroughly vicious, but it was his talent for dreaming up acts of exquisite brutality and the enthusiasm with which his brigade of volunteers made those dreams real that had made his name.
The Cripple Feeney could tell you about what Seamus and his lads were capable of doing. Or rather, he’d write down what Seamus did to him, and then he’d make that sick sucking sound that he does instead of laughing when you went pale reading his words.
Sean came in and put the pint of Smithwicks in front of me.
“That’ll tighten you, Tonto,” he said, a bit too loud, and slapped me on the shoulder. He was nervous. I could smell the sweat on him even over the cigarette smoke. “Can I get you anything, Seamus?”
My uncle shook his head but said nothing. He stared at Sean, his face blank, his pale eyes fixing the barman. I looked between the two men and then looked down, determined not to get drawn into whatever was going on. I liked Sean, I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t want any bit of it.
“Dead on, so,” Sean said and let slip a peal of laughter that was pitched too high. “Well, if you need anything, you know where I am.”
“Oh I do, alright,” said Seamus and then said nothing else.
Sean turned to go, stopped, turned back as though to speak, and then shook his head and left.
The silence dragged. I picked up my pint and took a heavy gulp from the glass even though the head hadn’t quite settled out. My throat was dry. The beer was cold and sharp and I needed it.
One of the lads on my left – one of The Cripple Feeney’s brothers – mumbled something and another one, I didn’t know him, snorted and laughed.
My uncle turned his head and the silence snapped back into place.
I took another drink. The pint was two thirds gone.
“Right, Tonto,” Seamus said at last. “I’ve got a wee job for you.”
He nodded and the stranger who’d been doing the laughing came over and put something that was wrapped in a greasy cloth on the table between me and Seamus. He went back to his seat, my eyes stayed on the thing on the table. It was small but obviously heavy.
Seamus reached over and with fingertips, as though determined not to let the thing soil his hands, he pushed the lump of metal towards me.
I reached for my pint again and closed my eyes.
I spent my thirteenth birthday at the same place as I’d spent all my birthdays since I’d been old enough to go to school – at Colm Hagan’s birthday party.
Colm Hagan’s dad and uncle were lawyers. The richest Catholics in the county, everyone reckoned. When I was young they bought the hill and Hangman’s Wood and they chopped down a dozen big trees to make room to build two big, ugly, square-sided houses that looked down over our estate.
Colm Hagan joined my class and, it turned out, he had the same birthday as me. At first we both though that was cool and for a while we were friends. Then came our birthday and Colm Hagan invited the whole class to his fancy house and I found myself spending my birthday there because that’s where all my other friends had gone.
What could we offer? A slice of Battenberg cake, a fig roll, a glass of orange squash and a game of musical chairs – if they were lucky.
When Colm was nine he got two go-karts and his dad built him a track through the woods so he could have races. I’d have chosen his party over mine too.
We stopped being friends.
He probably never even thought about it.
I hated him.
But not so much that I was happy when I found his dead body, eyes pecked out, lying at the foot of a big oak in his own back garden on the day we both turned thirteen.
The party had been great. Everyone was having a brilliant time. We watched Colm play Elite and Chuckie Egg on his BBC Micro and then we rode around the woods on our bikes so Colm could show off his BMX and there was loads of food. By the time the cake came out I’d had enough of watching everyone else having a good time so I crammed a load of wee sausages and bread in my pockets and went out to feed the birds.
I’d emptied my pockets and was heading back to the house for more when I found Colm, lying face up on the ground next to his bike, with a big purple bruise on his forehead and his skin as pale and thin as paper.
On his chest, lying on the crest of his Man United football jersey, was another gift for me.
Feeling the bile burn in my throat, suddenly glad I hadn’t wanted any cake, I picked up the liquid sack of Connor Hagan’s eye and slipped it into my pocket, shoving the slick cord of the optic nerve in after it.
And then I started shouting for help.
“Ah you’re fucking joking!” I said, but no one was laughing. In fact everyone else in the room was suddenly very serious indeed – like birds waiting for the barely moving thing before them to sit still and become carrion.
“It’s just a wee parcel I’m asking you to help me deliver, Tonto,” Seamus said. “Would you not do this for me… and for the struggle?”
I bowed my head.
“Remember what the Brits did to my sister,” he said. “God rest her soul.”
“Don’t bring Ma into this!” My voice rose sharply and I looked up. Seamus met my gaze with a flat stare and dared me to hold it. I looked away, feeling the hot blood rush to my cheeks.
I was screwed. I could see from the look Seamus was giving me that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I was family, and that bought me some leeway, but Seamus couldn’t let anyone get away with anything that looked like defiance. He had a reputation to maintain. If I wasn’t careful, I’d be lying, blood-soaked and maimed, on the other side of that armoured door. Seamus wasn’t going to let a pup like me challenge him in front of the others, sister’s boy or not.
“The Brits’ll go through everything. You know what they’re like,” I whined. “They’re bound to find it.”
“Why would the Brits be interested in some fucking student?” Laughing-boy, the one I didn’t know, asked.
“Because I’m related to him,” I said, nodding at Seamus. “Fuckin’ twat!”
Laughing-boy stood up and took a step forward, his fists balled.
I pushed back my chair, rising to meet him.
“Stop,” Seamus barely whispered. We both froze.
“Sorry,” I said to Seamus. The other fella mumbled something and sat back down.
“Of course they’re going to check you, Tonto,” Seamus said. “Just stick the thing in one of your wee friends’ bags. What they don’t know, won’t hurt them.”
“If they get caught–”
I started to protest but Seamus cut me short.
“They won’t,” he said. “And if they do, sure I’ll look after them. They’ll be grand.”
He pushed the heavy thing across the table to me.
“Now do as you’re told and piss off out of my sight.”
I didn’t get to Cookstown or the disco. I met the lads at the bus station and told them they’d have to go without me. Paddy moaned for bit about ending up on his own but I mentioned Seamus and Aidan told him to shut up.
I watched the blue and white Ulsterbus pull out of the station and cross the old railway bridge. Aidan and Paddy sat in the back seats and made wanker gestures at me until they were out of sight. Then I went home.
I have collection spread in front of me now. If I concentrate hard, I can still feel the sense of security it once promised. I can still feel like someone is watching over me, that I am protected. But it’s getting harder. My dad calls it rubbish, and sometimes I can see it with his eyes.
This will be my last day in this house. Tomorrow I will leave for university. Tomorrow night I will be sleeping in a different country and I will be surrounded by people I was always told were my enemy. I know I won’t be able to come back, not for long time. Some part of me already knew that this was never going to be my home again and part of me can’t wait to get away.
And part of me does not want to go.
It’s the end of September. The summer has been long and hot and, even though you can already feel the days shortening, today has been warm. The evening sky is bright and sharp with only the spreading contrails of jets looping north on their way to America dividing up the expanse of deepening blue.
I wrap each piece of my collection carefully in sheets from yesterday’s copy of the Daily Mirror and place them in a plastic tub that used to be my Da’s lunchbox. Then I put the tub carefully in the centre of my rucksack so it will be safe on the journey.
I drag Seamus’s package out from beneath my bed. I hold it for a minute between two fingers, staring at it from different angles. How can something so small feel so massive? Just picking it off the table in O’Neill’s back bar has ruined me, changed the track of my life, and yet it hasn’t even been used. What more damage will be done if I follow Seamus’s orders?
I hate it. I hate him.
I put the thing down on the bed. Pick it up again. Put it down. I put on my coat then take the rag-wrapped thing and jam it into my inside pocket.
I have made a decision and I am relieved to find that I have no doubts.
I go down stairs, kiss the picture of my Ma in the hall, like I always do, and wish she was still here, like I always do. My Da’s there too, at the bottom of the stairs with the paper, heading to the toilet. I give him a hug as I go past and tell him I love him. His surprise quickly turns to fear.
“What’s going on?” I hear him say, but I’m outside before he can drag me back.
The rooks are coming home to roost, the first few already circling high above the woods, and tonight I want to watch them for the last time.
Al McCourt is sitting outside our house in an Austin Maestro that’s the colour of stale piss. He leans out the window, his face twisted into a smile.
“Going somewhere, Tonto?”
“Just going for a walk up in the woods,” I say, nodding to the hill. “You coming?”
Al eyes the hill suspiciously. The light is starting to fade. The dead eyes of the Hagan’s houses, long abandoned their gardens slowly being reclaimed by the wood, stare down at us. The gyring mass of birds is thickening.
Al knows those birds, knows how they flock, how they prey upon the people of the estate. And, because he recognises them, he fears them.
“Don’t you be playing any funny games,” he says.
I smile at him and turn away.
Let Al choose his own fate.
I am going to climb the hill into Hangman’s Wood and go to the spot where I found Colm Hagan. I want to see the King Rook. I’m bringing him a final offering, but this time I want to choose what I get in return.
I want him to let me go.
“King Rook” was first published in the Irish science fiction magazine Albedo One #45