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The Kingfisher by Andrew Wrigley

© Andrew Wrigley

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THE KINGFISHER




Birmingham, November 1998

The day after the funeral, I went round to look in on Frank. It was bitterly cold and blowing a gale but I had to steel myself just to go into the dingy little council flat. I guess I knew he would be feeling mean, what with Tara just dead.

“When are you back home to Belfast?” he asked.

“Next week,” I said from the kitchen where I was making tea. The place was filthy.

“What’s keeping you here?”

I put one cup in front of him. Milk and three sugars. No sugar for me. I sank into the settee. One of the three dogs crammed on Frank's lap gave me the eye, resenting the intrusion.

“A bitch,” I said.

“Good one?”

“Ah?” The old bastard had caught me off guard. Since when did he take an interest in my dogs?

“I asked: is she a good un?”

Frank didn’t like repeating himself. You could almost taste the nicotine on his rasping tone.

“Savage,” I said. Thirty minutes max, and I would be out of there. The job done for the year. Only he had me curious.

“Savage,” he repeated dryly.

I looked at him. Something’s up for sure, I thought.

“Aye, the real friggin' deal,” I said. “I saw her fight. She took the throat out of a dog twice her size, easy peasy, just like that.” I snapped my fingers in the air. “She’s friggin’ mental so she is. Wouldn't let go. The dog was fuckin' dead and she wouldn't let go.”

“How much?”

“Two grand. Because she’s worth it,” I said.

Frank didn’t smile.

“Who’d you get her from?”

“Sam and Joe Higgins,” I said. “They’re livin’ over here now. I looked them up when I got over.”

“Aye, them boys have good dogs,” said Frank.

Now I was surprised. I had known Frank since I could remember and he had never spoken about fighting dogs, never showed even a hint of interest when I started keeping them.

“Aye,” I said, hiding my curiosity. “An’ they sold me their best bitch. Said they can’t control her, but I can. I know I can.”

“The best?” asked Frank. There was a sour twist to his lips. Someone might have called it a smile but me, I knew better.

“Aye, seems to me, like.”

I had to stop myself smiling. Frank didn’t want me smiling, not then, not ever, but the bitch did that to me. Made me smile I mean. She was a mint. Heck, if I got lucky, that would be it, no more working in the shipyards for yours truly. She was going to be the talk of town when I got back home. That’s what I like about dog fighting, you’re part of a crowd. Not like fishin’, sitting all alone in the rain. Jesus!

“The best bitch in Belfast,” I added, suddenly feeling brazen. “An’ I haven’t started boasting yet. You don’t have to be the top dog. You just have to own it.”

The old bastard was getting that mean look about him so I shut up and waited. I was curious, about Frank and dogs, but you didn’t just ask Frank questions, you waited for Frank to tell you what he wanted you to know.

Silence. Sleet on the window. More silence.

I gave up, waiting isn’t my thing.

“I bought you a voucher for a week down at the gravel pits,” I said.

“Trout or coarse?”

“Coarse,” I said, “real trout don’t live in gravel pits. Come back home and it’ll be salmon I’ll take you fishin’ for.”

“I’ll be dead before the grilse run.”

I waved the voucher in my left hand.

“Come on, Frankie, man,” I said. “You can’t be saying that.”

His eyes turned virulent.

“You think I want to live like this?” he gestured around him at the freezing, filthy council flat. I didn’t answer. You can’t answer that kind of question for someone else.

He coughed. He looked at me, then his eyes settled on the voucher. He ran his tongue over his parched lips. He coughed again.

“You shouldn’t have,” he said. “The voucher, I mean. That was kind of you, you didn't have to. Get my fags, will you?”

“It’s nothing. Seriously.” A few kind words and instead of hating the miserable old goat I even felt a little pity for him.

I dug two fingers into a cigarette packet and pulled out the last one as carefully as I could. I’ve got a working man’s fingers. Ten years in the shipyards don’t make you a piano player. I lit the fag for him, took a drag to get it going and held it out. He didn’t take it.

“Who will look after the dogs?” he said, looking out the window. The rain was pelting down. “If I go fishin’, I mean.”

He was half buried under the three dogs. They were keeping each other warm and that includes Frank. He stroked them in turn. Cavalier King Fucking Charles. Toys for fuck’s sake. I thought it, but I didn’t say, not even with my eyes. One of the dogs started snoring loudly.

“Don’t you be worrying yourself, Frank. I’m getting the bitch checked proper, a vet ‘n all. I’ll be here for a week at least. So I’ll walk them twice a day.” I nodded at the dogs on his lap. “You know me, Frank, I like dogs. No bother, man.”

“Like they were your kind of dog,” he said, watching my reflection in the window.

“Aye. They’re not my kind of dog, Frank,” I said. “I won’t say they are.”

“No, they’re Tara’s kind of dog.”

“Sure they are,” I said. “What the woman wants, the woman gets.”

“She didn’t want to get to die."

He went silent for a minute and I left him to it. I felt uneasy, claustrophobic. I was still holding the fag in one hand, a cup of tea in the other. I gestured with the fag, offering it to him again, but he ignored me. Frank liked to see people with their hands full. You couldn’t shoot him with your hands full.

“Tara begged me to kill her you know,” he said, watching the rain outside. “She begged me, ‘specially at the end. But I couldn’t do it. I had pills ‘n all but I flushed ‘em down the pan. Now I can’t even kill me fockin’ self.”

Frank never pronounced the F word consistently. His Northern whine never quite drowned out the childhood summers he had spent with his grandparents in the west of County Mayo. One Ireland, but a million ways to pronounce the F word.

The muscles in his cheeks flexed as he ground his false teeth.

"It's not the pills, mind," he added, his lips tight. "It's me. I cannae even shoot meself."

No point acting sad with Frank. I took a slurp of tea. He knew me, I knew him. Him and Tara had brought me up when my parents were killed. Actually, my Dad just disappeared, his body was never found. The word was he had killed a Protestant truck driver, shot him point blank at a traffic light. He just disappeared, but someone had got nasty with my Mom. What with the peace process, I thought maybe someone would say where my Dad was buried, but no one did. Nobody knows a fucking thing about what happened to him, not even now. So Frank and Tara had offered to bring me up. Everyone thought they had adopted me, but they never did.

Frank broke the silence.

“I kept dogs when I was young,” he said, his chin tilting upwards.

Shite, I thought. Whatever next? I put the tea down. Frank glanced at my mug. You could see his mind matching patterns. Always picking up details was Frank. He said it told him what people didn’t want him to know. Had I drunk any tea, you could see him thinking, or was I just hiding my face in the mug?

“There you go,” I said, “I never knew.”

“No, you didn’t."

No comment.

He shifted his buttocks under the weight of the dogs. They were fat. They ate better than Frank.

He coughed, eyes as mean as hell, watching me. He took his time, drank some tea, grimaced like he wanted to spit it out. I hadn't put enough sugar in.

He cleared his throat.

“I had the best feckin’ bitch in town, I had,” he said, “Best there ever was, best there ever will be. She loved it. Killing, I mean. And she knew when to let go.”

I kept it shut. This was what I had been waiting for, for Frank to tell me what he wanted me to hear. This time it interested me. Thirty minutes? Make that forty.

I leant my head back into the foam of the settee. I was sitting comfortably.

“She didn’t like them dogs mind,” he said, watching my reflection in the window. “Funny thing that.”

I sat up, grappling with what Frank had just said.

“Who, the bitch?” I asked.

He turned to look straight at me. There was a sulphurous smoulder in his eyes.

“No," he said. His voice had a rattle to it, but not an old man’s rattle, more like a rattlesnake’s rattle. A warning kind of rattle.

He was glaring at my reflection now. I said nothing. I waited as best I could. What the hell did he mean?

“Then again you might be right,” he said.

“Ah?”

“Bitch, Tara, same thing maybe.”

He leant forwards to deliver that line. The black and tan dog that was snoring jumped off him, scuffled into a corner and lay out flat. It started snoring again, picking straight up where it had left off. I wanted to kick its head off. That would have stopped it.

His eyes bored into me. He was giving that mean look of his a twist. He wanted to get under my skin, the old bastard, and I didn’t want him there. I didn't like it. This was about Tara. Whatever it was he was going to tell me, I didn’t want to hear it, not today. Not that I had any illusions about Tara. I had known that she hated me, she made that much clear the day they took me in. But it just wasn’t right, not the day after her funeral.

“I never knew you kept dogs,” I said neutrally. It's not often I take the middle road, but that's Frank for you. He doesn't give you any comfort.

He made a noise. Not a snort or a laugh, but something scornful in between.

“Aye, you didn’t fuckin’ know, lad. Not even a teeny weeny clue.”

Lad. I was never ‘son’ to Frank and Tara, and they were just Frank and Tara to me.

“You don’t know fuck ‘bout Tara, do you? Even after all them years…”

His blue eyes locked onto mine, cold and sneering. What was he trying to tell me? What could be so awful about Tara?

“Don't be hard on yourself, lad. It’s not just you, mind,” he said, his rasping voice almost purring, settling at a low pitch, just where he wanted it. “It was all of yous."

I wanted to get out now, but he wasn't letting up.

"Not a clue between yous," he wheedled. "That’s how good she was. You know what I am saying, lad?”

No, I didn’t know. And I didn’t want to. I stood up. I was still holding the fag. I stubbed it out in the brimming ash tray on the coffee table. I put the voucher beside the ash tray and tapped it with my forefinger.

“It’s there if you want it,” I said, “just let me know ‘bout the dogs. I’ve put the hotel telephone number on the back of the voucher, my room is sixteen. You can leave me a message.”

He didn’t answer. I knew he would go fishing. He wouldn’t be able to stop himself. I walked to the door to let myself out.

“Sean,” he barked.

I stopped, with my hand on the door handle. Something told me not to look round, but just for that reason, I did.

The pistol was pointing at me. He wasn't having me just leave him, not before he was finished.

You would expect an old man’s hand to be shaking, but it was ever so steady. He looked twenty years younger with metal in his hand. All I could see of the barrel was a round hole aimed plumb between my eyes. If he pulled the trigger I wouldn’t know it.

“Your dead right, lad,” he whispered, and somehow it wasn’t an old man’s voice either, “you don’t feckin’ know, and you don’t feckin’ want to. Bot it's in yer head now, isn't it lad?”

Our eyes tangled past the barrel. Deep down I envied him, I guess that is why I kept coming to see him other than for appearances sake. He had killed men and gotten away with it. I would have loved to know what that felt like. At school, us young bucks had dreamt of that kind of stuff, blowing things up and fighting them Orange boys. Killing.

Frank pulled the hammer back with his thumb, cocking the gun. It was almost beautiful how steady his hand was. Everyone back home knew that Frank had been in the IRA, we even knew his alias, 'Kingfisher'. Heck, even the Birmingham Police knew that, so everyone just presumed that Tara had been in the IRA too. But that wasn't what he was on about, was it? He was saying something else, something vicious and dark, something hidden, never seen, never spoken.

He read me like an open book. He lowered the pistol, smiling, nay, laughing at me. I could go now.

I turned back to the door, opened it and stepped outside. The November gale hit me in the face. Sleet stung my eyeballs.

“Bye, Frank,” I said, glad my voice was still even. I started to shut the door on him.

"She was born here, in Birmingham," he said. That was news to me but I wasn't stopping, not now.

"That's why she came back here. She didn't want to die in fucking Belfast," he said.

Tricks, I thought, all tricks.

“Her name wasn’t Tara,” he said and I froze. He had me now. I felt sick. Suddenly, I knew what he was going to say.

He was glowing.

“What’s in a name?” he sneered. “In Belfast, quite a bit. She was called Maggie, like Maggie feckin’ Thatcher. Tara is a good catholic name, but Maggie? You just can’t be certain, can you? Could be, couldn’t be, you just don’t know.”

He laughed.

“You’re all so clever, but yous never had a clue."

He leaned forward again and the dogs tumbled off him, looking alarmed.

“She hated you, not just you, all of yous,” he hissed.

I shut the door, dragging myself away. His voice followed me.

“She was a feckin’…”

I started walking, straight into the sleet, pulling the hood over my head, the gale slapping it against my ears, but still I couldn’t shut him out.

I still heard the last word he said to me.

“…Protestant!”

*

Frank was down by the gravel pits, sitting hunched over on a canvas chair, at one with the swollen grey water and the ceaseless rain. It still looked like a gravel pit mind, just full of water and some overfed carp. The pit was bigger than you probably imagine: thirty acres maybe more, trees starting to grow along the irregular bank, willows and such. A few anglers were scattered around the water’s edge, too far away to see them clearly in the rain. The closest one was two hundred yards away, sitting with his back to Frank where the bank turned, following the seam of gravel.

Frank's flask of tea was leaning against his seat, a forgotten accessory once he got into his fishing.

I knew that there would also be sandwiches in his fishing bag. If Tara had been alive and well, they would have been wrapped in tin foil, with a couple of slices of fruitcake as well. Now he bought them in petrol stations.

His line was limp. There was no tension between the rod and the float. Frank was watching the water, his eyes factoring out the rings that raced away from each rain drop, watching for a different kind of swirl, one that came from within the water. His finger tips were feeling the line, waiting for the faintest touch on the sodden worms as they bumped along the gravel bed, six feet under, writhing on the hook.

I watched him as I approached from the car park. He looked old, but then so did all the other men you could see scattered around the pit. Maybe some were boys but you couldn’t tell, they were too far away, pinned down by the rain, faces hidden under hoods, only thinking about the bloody fish.

I am not much of an angler, not a real one. Don’t get me wrong, I go fishing like anyone else, but it doesn’t take me over, it doesn’t white me out, not like dog fighting does. I get to the dog pit and I am like someone else, I walk tall, not like at the shipyard, where I spend all day crouching, bent over, welding sheets of steel. Just the smell of the dog pit does it for me, the yelps and the snarls, the shite and the piss, the crowd and the noise and the blood, especially the blood.

Anglers are different to me. They kill by guile.

I shot Frank from three yards away, which is about as far as I trust myself with a .22 pistol. The bullet hit him in the back of the neck and, according to the coroner, it severed his spinal cord. The .22 is a light bullet, anything else would have blown his fucking head off. He can’t have felt a thing and what with the silencer, the pop was pretty much lost in the downpour. His head jolted, then sagged onto his chest. I reached him as he started to slump over and I put my hand on his shoulder to steady him. I casually caught the rod as it slipped out of his dead hands.

I glanced round the water's edge. No one had noticed a thing. Every eye on the water. Watching the grey surface, waiting. Nothing else mattered to them.

I should have left then and there. Instead, I sat down beside Frank, on the mud. He was slumped into the chair, like he was asleep.

“Nice day for fishin’, Frank,” I said. He didn’t answer. I looked him over. The fishing had got to him, he hadn’t heard me coming. Blood trickled from under his hood and started drip, drip, dripping onto the ground. Like the rain.

The rain kept on falling. It was running off my face, into my lips, down the neck of my oilskin. There was nowhere that the water can’t reach, like real sadness.

“Fuck you, Frank,” I said to him, and poured myself a cup of his tea. It was sickly sweet, but what the hell. It is not every day you shoot your step father. I needed it. I took another slurp and rummaged through his bag till I found the sandwiches. Ham and cheese, from the Shell garage down the road, and some Jaffa cakes. They weren’t that bad, but not like Tara’s sandwiches.

“You don’t mind, do you Frank?” I asked him. He didn’t reply.

Silence. Drip, drip, munch, munch.

“Don’t you worry about Tara’s dogs, Frank,” I said. “I gave them to Sam and Sam gave them to Joe. Joe knows what to do with homeless dogs. He’s like the fucking RSPCA is Sam. He’s got a young pit bull that needs to get a taste of blood, your dogs will come in real handy, know what I mean, Frank?”

I took another gulp of tea. Something nibbled on the line, I tensed up and it was gone.

“I know, Frank, I’m God awful useless. You wouldn’t have let that one get away, would you?”

Silence. Drip, drip, drip, rain and blood, the bitter history of Mother fucking Ireland. Fuck the British, the Protestants, the Catholics. Fuck them all, I am done with it, the hate I mean. Just leave me in peace, I just want to fight dogs, that’s what I'm good at, it’s what I was born to do. Just don’t anyone try and stop me doing it. Oh, God.

“You’re dead Frank aren’t you? No undoing that.”

I was suddenly cold enough to shiver.

“I spoke to Father Twomey last night,” I said. “I told him what you said to me.”

Father Twomey had come over just to lead Tara’s funeral. To be there and to be seen. To show that some things still mattered and that other things hadn’t changed. So yes, Tara fooled us all, even Father Twomey.

I told him what Frank had said to me, but Father Twomey said he didn’t want to know. He’s on this committee and that committee now and couldn’t get involved, but as I was leaving he mentioned that some of the old boys had stayed on after the funeral. They were staying in the same hotel as him and he gave me their room numbers. So I went round to see them and they listened and said that made a lot of sense, now they knew. One of them went out, onto the street, to make some calls he said.

While we were waiting for him to come back, I asked what they meant. They looked at each other, then one them said, ‘It all fits together now. That night in Antrim, when your Dad went missing’.

That night in Antrim, when I was barely six years old.

I shook my head, trying to clear the fog of anger. Killing Frank hadn’t made it go away.

The front door of our house had been booby trapped. My mother’s hand got blown off. She might have survived, but someone was waiting for them in the house. They cut her throat out while she was still alive. My Dad, he just disappeared.

The old boys gave me a gun and a scrap of paper with a phone number on it.

“When you’re done,” they told me, “go to Southampton. Call this number and do as they tell you.”

I looked across at Frank, still sitting there, still dead.

“You shopped my Dad, Frank didn't you? You and Tara, or whatever she was called, you fucking killed them, him and Mom.”

I don’t think I even felt the nibble; I just struck, instinctively snapping the rod tip back so that the hook went in deep. I put my arms, my back and shoulders into the strike, I hit that fish so hard I lifted it clean out of the water. The hook was so far gone down its gullet I reeled it in like it was a lump of wood.

Frank just sat there in silence. Drip, drip, drip, more rain than blood now. The blood on the mud turning black.

“Nice timing, hey?” I said to Frank, but suddenly I felt my stomach slide, like I was falling into a pit. A deep, deep pit.

I looked around. The warden had seen me strike and was walking over towards me. I got the fish on the bank and cut the line with Frank’s pen knife. I gingerly picked up the fish and held it out in front of me like it was a new born baby. The fish gulped, its unblinking eye fixed on my face. What the heck is that? it seemed to be thinking.

I walked over towards the warden, cutting off his approach.

“Is it catch and release here, like?”

“You paid your ticket?” he asked, aggressively, glancing past me at Frank. Frank just sat there looking morose.

“I’m with Frank,” I said.

“Him there is only good for one ticket."

I kept my hood covering as much of my face as I could, hunching down against the rain, to make myself look shorter than six feet one.

“Ticket’s ten quid,” said the warden.

“Frank’s not fishin’.”

“Ten quid,” said the warden, glancing past me at Frank, beginning to get a bit too curious. “What’s wrong wiv 'im?”

I looked back at Frank.

“Having a kip, doesn’t sleep at night."

I pulled my wallet out and gave him a fiver.

“Ten quid,” he said.

I looked him in the eye and pulled out another fiver.

The warden looked at it suspiciously. He didn’t like being paid with Northern Irish notes, but I was bigger and younger than him. He backed off.

“You need any worms?” he asked, stepping away from me.

“No, the Irish ones are better,” I said.

“Let me know if you run out,” he said, and turned to walk back towards his fishing hut.

“What about the fish?” I shouted after him.

He glanced back.

“It’s gut hooked. You can keep it.”

I walked back to Frank, and picked up his priest and thumped the fish on the head. It quivered once, and finished off dying.

My tea looked soggy. I chucked it away and poured another cup.

It tasted much like the other one which was hardly surprising. Fuck it, had the mean old bastard used saccharine? I sat down and tackled up the line again, rummaging around in Frank’s fishing box to find a new hook.

I sucked the rain out of my beard as I wound and knotted the hook to the fishing line.

I looked across at Frank, dead for half an hour now.

“Why did you take me in, Frank?” I asked the corpse sitting beside me. “Why did you, of all people, offer to bring me up, like I was your own son?”

He didn’t answer.

“I was your cover, wasn’t I?” I answered for him. “I made your lie look real, good old Frank and Tara, look how they’re looking after Joe Hicks’ boy.”

I threaded a couple of fresh worms onto the new hook, and cast it out into the gravel pit lake. The worms and the leads flayed the water and sank. The float disappeared then bobbed back up into the rain. I handed the rod to Frank, or rather I shoved the handle into the mud, hooking an elastic band around the reel and a button on Frank’s jacket. From more than twenty yards away, you would think he was holding it.

I glanced at the fishing gloves on my hands, looking for blood. Nothing, not a drop. Clean as a whistle. No finger prints either. I would have felt pleased with myself, if it hadn’t been for the warden. What the fuck had I been thinking of, striking the fish? Why had I done it, just so that I didn’t look suspicious? Well that wouldn’t help me. If it ever came to it the warden would recognise me from a line up.

Or was it because that was what I had always done as a child? When I got back from school, I would go looking for Frank. He always went fishing in the evenings, from about St Patrick’s Day through to November. When I found him I would drink his tea and eat his sandwiches. And then he would give me the rod and let me fish for a while and I was always desperate for him to see me catch a fish. Heck, it was the only time he seemed to like me.

I set off back across the field, towards the car park. I waved at the warden who was drinking tea in the hut with another punter.

“The man likes his fishing,” I shouted over the patter, patter of the rain, pointing back at Frank who was still sitting on his chair beside the gravel pit. The warden watched me go. Don’t come back to my pond, his eyes said. No danger of that.

I unlocked the car and got in, flinging my jacket on the back seat. I got the map and tried to figure out the best way to Southampton. I couldn’t focus. I rubbed my eyes. I was feeling queasy, like butterflies plus something leaden behind the eyes.

I looked around me. It was starting to get dark, and still the rain didn’t stop. Maybe I should have killed the warden. Yeah, plus all the other anglers sitting around a gravel pit in the rain. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Why had the stupid bastard come up to me, just for a bleeding ticket? Suddenly I was tired. So tired.

I had to get out of there fast. I took the key out of my pocket. Now I was feeling really bad. I needed some air. I wound the window down.

The tea, I thought, and out I went like a light.

The police found me there in the car park, asleep in the car. The warden identified me and a reporter even said I was snoring. And that’s pretty much it, the story of Frank’s last cast.

Me? I never stood a chance.

*

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