Northern Spy Page 2

“Not even when they’re away?” asked Marian.

Our mam laughed. “Catch yourself on.”


ON THE BUS INTO THE CITY, I look through my reflection at the lough. Across its vast surface, the faint shapes of the Mourne mountains rise in the distance.

I send Marian a message, then scroll up to the picture she sent me yesterday of herself standing on the Carrick-a-rede rope bridge. Tourists used to wait for hours to cross the bridge, but now it hangs empty for most of the year, the waves crashing a hundred feet beneath it. In the picture, she is alone, her hands gripping the ropes, laughing.

Marian has wavy brown hair that she wears loose, or piled on top of her head with a gold clasp. We look similar—same eyes, and cheekbones, and dark hair—though Marian’s is an inch shorter than mine, and softer. Her natural expression, when she’s not speaking, is open and amused, like she’s waiting to hear the end of a joke, while mine tends to be more grave. Both have their drawbacks. I often have to reassure people that I’m not worried when I am, in fact, thinking, and Marian, who has been a paramedic for six years, still gets asked on every shift if she’s new to the job. She will say, “I’m going to insert an IV line now,” and the patient will look alarmed and say, “Have you done that before?”

Neither of us looks like our mother, who is blonde and sturdy, with an air of brisk warmth. We look like our father and his side of the family, his sisters and parents, which seems unfair, given that we never see him, or any of them.

I allow myself to daydream until the road separates from the lough, then open my phone to start reading the news. I produce a weekly political radio program at the BBC. Some of the broadcasts devolve into local politicians shouting over each other, but others turn electric, especially now. You can’t live in Northern Ireland at the moment and not be interested in politics.

When we reach Belfast, I stop at Deanes for a flat white. Everything about the café and the other customers seems ordinary. You can’t tell from the outside, but the IRA has this city under its thumb. They run security rackets. Every building site has to pay them protection money, and all the restaurants in west Belfast have doormen. An IRA representative will tell the owner, “You need two doormen on Thursday and Friday nights.”

“Wise up,” the owner says. “I don’t need security, it’s only a restaurant.”

Then they send in twenty lads to smash the place up, return the next day, and say, “See? I said you needed security.”

It’s easier to pay them the money than to complain. It’s easier to do a lot of the things that they ask, given the alternatives.

Our former neighbor’s son was caught selling drugs by the IRA. They accused him, without any irony, of endangering the community. She was told to bring him behind the Riverview shops for a punishment beating, but they ended up kneecapping him.

“You brought him to be beaten?” I asked.

“Aye, but I didn’t say they could shoot him. They had no call to fucking shoot him.”

Leaving the café, I turn down Dublin Road and Broadcasting House comes into view, a limestone edifice with giant satellite dishes angled from its roof. I’ve only been back at work for a couple of weeks. Those six months of maternity leave were dense, elemental. Returning to work, I felt like Rip Van Winkle, like I’d woken after decades, except no one else had aged. Nothing at the office has changed, and I have to act like I haven’t either. If I seem distracted or tired, slower than before, my bosses might decide that someone without a baby, or at least not a single mother, would manage the job better. So I pretend to be well rested and focused, despite sleeping in four-hour increments at night, despite several times a day missing Finn so much it hurts to breathe.

In Broadcasting House, I hold my badge to the scanner and then loop the lanyard around my neck. Our morning staff meeting is about to start. I hurry up the stairs, down a corridor, and into a conference room crowded with news editors and correspondents.

“Morning,” says Simon as I find a seat. “Quite a lot on today. Obviously we have the Milltown cemetery shooting, what’s happening there?”

“It was a suicide attempt,” says Clodagh.

“And what’s his condition?”

“The Irish News has him critically ill and the Belfast Telegraph has him dead.”

“Right. We’ll wait before calling it.”

“Who did we kill last year?” asks James.

“Lord Stanhope,” says Simon. “I had a very stern call from him.”

“And who’s this man?”

“Andrew Wheeler,” says Clodagh. “He’s a property developer.”

“Why would a property developer shoot himself in Milltown cemetery?” I ask.

Clodagh shrugs. “All we have is that he was found at the graveyard.”

“We should wait on this,” says Esther. Her tone is neutral but everyone feels chastened anyway. We don’t cover suicides, to avoid inadvertently encouraging others.

“But is it in the public’s interest to know?” asks Simon. “Does he have a paramilitary connection?”

“None of the groups have claimed him.”

“Okay,” he says. “Esther’s right, let’s hold off for now. Other stories kicking around today?”

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