The cool, damp ground along the leafy green corridor shivers, stirred by running footsteps, as a young black-haired boy bursts through a curtain of leaves. He turns his run into a flying leap, stamping on a flat stone with a satisfying slap as he passes, which in turn fires a cluster of birds into the patchwork blue and white sky. The boy glances up, slows, and inclines his head sideways, listening to a voice that peals like a church bell, “Fons, hang on now, Fons, hang on a while …” He dances from one foot to the other, his arms outstretched like wings, as if the sheer joy of running will help him fly. Reluctantly, he conjures the run into one final leap and skids to a halt, arms waving. A partly-chewed apple slips out of one hand and drops away; narrowing his eyes at the betrayal, he takes his revenge with a solid, satisfying kick, pitching it into the bushes by the side of the lane. He sighs, and turns. His pursuer – an older, lanky, fair-haired boy – lopes into view and slows to a walk, dropping the volume but raising the pitch of his voice. Fons listens not to the words but to the insistent tone; “Wouldn’t ye wait, one tiny little minute?”
Fons shrugs and grins, watching his companion lift his arm to fill his mouth with apple, munching hard as if satisfying his belly before they both come into public view on the main road. Smelling the skin and the juices, Fons sniffs loudly, shakes his head in impatience, and glances back at the hedgerow. “Aw, c’mon, Pat…”
The older boy chews on, more slowly if anything, as if considering the whining urgency in Fons’ plea carefully, yet fixing the younger boy still with his eyes to make him wait. Eventually, Pat spits out the core and nods. “No need to hurry, now – they’ll all still be at Mass. The both of us will be for it, anyhow.”
At the end of the narrow lane, Fons peers round the hedgerow and stares down the main road leading to the bridge, half dazzled by the bright dappled sunlight. A large open motorcar waits, facing up the slope. Fons sees an arm hanging out, fingers drumming, and a newspaper. He hesitates until Pat whispers, “C’mon, those fellas won’t be anyone we know.” They meander down the hill, trying to look casual but nudging one another in silent dares to ask for a ride. Fons has only ever ridden in a pony and trap; he longs to sit in those shiny leather seats, but also feels acutely aware of his ill-fitting old boots, the holes at the elbows of his shirt, and the dirt covering his shins and knees. In any event, the men occupying the front seats hold cigarettes in front of their faces, frowning through their fingers. They pull up the collars of their coats, draw on their cigarettes, and look away. One even jerks his thumb down the road towards the town, “Away with ye now.”
The boys saunter past, Fons rolling his eyes as soon as the men are behind him. Pat nods and murmurs, “The two of them look like they found a penny, then lost a five pound note”.
Down on the long, cobbled and hump-backed bridge, standing just out from the riverbank, Fons notices a gawky red-haired youth, a couple of years older than Pat. As they stroll down the hill, the youth leans back on his elbows against the side of the bridge. He glances in their direction twice, the lump in his throat bobbing up and down, before turning to glance across the Blackwater River towards the town. Then he stares at them again, as if he recognises them.
“Who’s that?” whispers Fons.
“That’s no one we know. He’s fishing with his Da, see?”
Fons sees that behind the youth, a dark, unshaven man holds a fishing rod, gazing across the water. Abruptly, the man nudges the coppertop and gestures at a kitbag, which the boy pulls closer to their feet. As they stroll past, Fons catches the coppertop’s eye and nods; the boy does look vaguely familiar. The youth drops his eyes, gives a slight shake of his head, and turns away. Fons looks at the fisherman’s rod. It doesn’t seem to have a line attached, so he stops, looks again, and scratches his head. But now they both have their backs to him, and Fons doesn’t know what to say to them. He stares at the empty rod for a while longer, then shrugs and walks on. They must be waiting for someone else, he thinks.
Meanwhile Pat has moved on, twenty yards ahead; Fons dawdles along, feeling the pleasure of the sun warming his face and limbs. He becomes aware of bells ringing from Christ Church, the steady repeated notes signalling the end of the service. He thinks, that means we have about half an hour before Mass ends at St Patrick’s. Hopefully, we can avoid Brother Daniel and his stick for the rest of the day, God willing. As Fons approaches the rise in the centre of the bridge, a British soldier hurrying away from Christ Church jogs past in the other direction, his pack and rifle slung across his back. Fons speeds up a little, thinking to tell Pat about the daft fisherman, the one without a line, who surely must be a Kerry man. As he tops the rise in the middle of the bridge, he sees more soldiers wandering down from the church onto the far end of the bridge, smiling and laughing now that they have the rest of the day to relax. Two others pass him, lost in thought, strolling in silent companionship.
Within his own reverie, Fons feels an urge to catch up with his friend; his impatience feels like music, suddenly growing louder, matched by a sudden sound of raised voices in the distance, shouting and imploring. Just as this penetrates his daydreaming, Fons feels a large hand grasp him between his shoulders, thrusting him forward and down. As his chest and face hit the cobblestones they seem to make a deafening noise, a crack like a gun. He feels pain inside his nose, his chin, and his chest, and something whizzes past. He tries to take a breath but the air has been knocked out of him; he hears a gasp, but has no sense that it belongs to him. Something heavy flops across him; slowly, it seems, like a blanket. A deep voice gasps a command, “Keep still, son. Don’t move.”
Fons can’t breathe but he manages to lift up his head up, to stare ahead. He watches with awful fascination, as if in a dream. Pat stands motionless on one side of the bridge, frozen. Near him, a British soldier fumbles frantically with his kit, swinging his pack and rifle off his back; he drops to one knee, preparing to adopt a firing position. Beyond this, two men sprinting this way both start to scream, “Put the bloody gun down, Tommy”, in unison. The first man brandishes a revolver as he runs; the second hesitates, moves to the side, and raises a shotgun to his shoulder. The soldier raises his rifle, fumbles with the bolt for a second, curses, and then abruptly ducks into a position behind Pat, using the boy as a shield. While the soldier works the rifle bolt, the two Volunteers scream at Pat, “Get out the fucking way…you…get down.”
Pat suddenly seems to wake up and tries to move aside, but in one movement the soldier wraps an arm around Pat’s neck and with the other swings his rifle around Pat’s side. He yells triumphantly, pointing the rifle at the two Volunteers. “Alright, boys, you two put your fucking guns down.”
While the two men hesitate, Irish voices shout encouragement from the far end of the bridge; Fons glimpses other soldiers holding their hands over their heads while men in a motley assortment of raincoats wrench rifles from their backs. Another voice behind him barks out, “Put your fucking gun down, Tommy, before the boy gets hurt.”
Fons watches a dark patch appear on Pat’s trousers, fluid running down the bare leg below, sparkling in the sun, while revolver and rifle point at each other with his friend in the middle. Fons suddenly feels his own fear and wants to scream out too, to tell the soldier to let Pat go, to leave him alone, and to tell the Volunteers not to shoot, but he has no voice, he’s trapped in silence. That silence explodes as the rifle crashes and a lump of stone splatters out of the bridge behind the man with the shotgun. The revolver cracks twice in response, but Fons has already shut his eyes to pray for Pat. He hears curses from every direction, then more footsteps approaching. He still can’t breathe, and feels dizzy…