Northern Spy Page 1

Author: Flynn Berry

Genres: Fiction , Mystery



WE ARE BORN WITH a startle reflex. Apparently it’s caused by the sensation of falling. Sometimes, in his crib, my son will fling out his arms, and I hold my hand to his chest to reassure him.

It happens less often now than in the first months. He doesn’t constantly think the ground is falling away beneath him. I do, though. My startle reflex has never been so strong. Of course it is, everyone’s is at the moment. That’s part of living in Northern Ireland, at this point in time, during this phase of terrorism.

It’s difficult to know how scared to be. The threat level is severe, but, then, it has been for years. The government evaluates terrorist organizations based on capacity, timescale, and intent. At the moment, we should be worried about the IRA on all three counts. An attack might be imminent, but no one can say where.

The odds are, not here. Not on this lane, where I’m walking with the baby. A gunman isn’t about to appear around the bend in the road. I always watch for one in Belfast, on my way to work, but not out here, surrounded by hedgerows and potato fields.

We live, for all intents and purposes, in the middle of nowhere. My house is on the Ards peninsula, a curve of land between Strangford Lough, a deep saltwater inlet, and the sea. Greyabbey is a tiny village, a twist on the lough road. Four hundred houses set among green fields and lanes and orchards. On the lough shore, canoes float in the reeds. This doesn’t look like a conflict zone, it looks like the place you’d return to after a war.

Finn sits in his carrier on my chest, facing forward down the lane. I chat to him and he babbles back at me, kicking his heels against my thighs. Ahead of us, birds disappear into gaps in the hedgerow. At the edge of the pasture, a row of telephone poles rises along the road. Past them, the sky is white toward the sea.

My son is six months old. The conflict might be over by the time he can walk or read. It might end before he learns to clap or says his first word or drinks from a cup or has whole fruit instead of purée. All of this might never touch him.

It should already be over, of course. My sister and I were born near the end of the Troubles. We were children in 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, we painted peace signs and doves on bedsheets and hung them from our windows. It was all meant to be finished then.

Except bodies were still being found in peat bogs along the border. Searches were being conducted to find informers the IRA had disappeared. The coroner’s inquests hadn’t all finished, or the investigations into police collusion, and riots still broke out every year during marching season. At certain funerals, men in ski masks and mirrored sunglasses would appear in the cortège, chamber their handguns, and fire shots over the coffin, which was odd, since they said they’d decommissioned all their weapons.

So it was never peace exactly. The basic argument of the Troubles hadn’t been resolved: most Catholics still wanted a united Ireland, most Protestants wanted to remain part of the UK. The schools were still segregated. You still knew, in every town, which was the Catholic bakery, which was the Protestant taxi firm.

How could anyone not have seen this coming? We were living in a tinderbox. Of course it was going to catch, and when it did, so many men were ready to throw themselves back into the fighting. Peace hadn’t suited them. They hadn’t made a success of it. In their statements and communiqués, I could sense their relief, like they were sleeper agents, left behind in an enemy country, glad that they hadn’t been forgotten.

From the lane, I turn onto the lough road. The water is platinum with sunlight. It will be hot again today. I want this walk to last, but soon we’re at the main street, and his day care. I kiss Finn goodbye, confident, as always, that between now and tomorrow morning I’ll find the trick that will let me spend the day both at work and with him.

My phone rings as I near the bus stop. “Have you heard from Marian today?” my mother asks.

“No, why?”

“There’s supposed to be a thunderstorm.” Marian has gone to the north coast for a few days. She is staying in a rented cottage on a headland near Ballycastle. “She’s not diving, is she?”

“No,” I say, not mentioning what Marian had told me about wanting to swim into the caves at Ballintoy, if she could time it right with the tides.

I hoped she would. I liked the thought of her swimming through the limestone arches, bobbing in the water inside the mouth of the caves. It would be like an antidote, the quiet and the spaciousness. The exact opposite of Belfast, of her work as a paramedic, sitting in the back of an ambulance, racing through red lights, steeling herself for the moment when the doors will open.

“There’s no sense in doing that on your own.”

“She’s not diving, mam. See you tonight, okay?”

On Thursdays, when we broadcast our program, my mother collects Finn from day care, since I don’t get home in time. It means a long day for her. She works as a housekeeper for a couple in Bangor. She cleans their house, buys their food, washes their clothes. They keep the thermostat so high all year that she works in a pair of shorts and a tank top. Twice a week, she puts on a coat to drag their bins down the long gravel drive and back up again. They recently spent half a million pounds to put a heated single-lane swimming pool under their house, which neither of us can believe she has never used.