Josey decided the house wasn’t in one of the new alien-built estates after all, not judging by the cracks in the wall, barely disguised by a coat of paint. She probably wasn’t even in Belfast – few places in the city were this intact.
Maybe she was in the country. When the war had started, before the cars ran out of petrol, some families fled Belfast to relatives in rural areas. The rumours of how peaceful it was in the country, how they had food, had made her jealous enough to churn her stomach. She’d comforted herself by insisting the rumours were lies and things were just as bad everywhere but, honestly, she didn’t think anywhere could be as bad as Belfast.
She glanced at Liz, sitting on the edge of the next seat, her face even more lined than usual.
“What will they do to us?” Josey whispered.
Liz pulled her jacket around her shoulders. "I don’t know. But listen."
Josey did, but there was no sound inside the house. They could have been abandoned.
“I think there’s only the one of them still here,” said Liz. Her hands had stopped shaking and she had a tough look, mixed with kindness, that made Josey think anything could be faced.
"Where ever here is," said Josey. She took a sip of the milk. It was long life, not fresh, and had that funny aftertaste, but even so it was lovely.
"Near the coast," said Liz. "Listen again."
Josey did, concentrating and then she heard it, in the distance, the awking sound of a seagull. When they'd been taken out of the car there had been a briny smell in the air. “Bangor?”
“Maybe. More likely Carrick or Larne; I don’t think they’ll have crossed the city.” Liz finished her sandwich, and looked at Josey, narrowing her eyes. “I think the fat guy’s on his own – that little sod Gary said he was going back to town to report to his da.” She smiled, grim. “A guy that weight must be pretty slow on his feet. You could give him the slip."
Josey put her glass down, her heart beating too quickly. “You mean…”
“I could distract him. You could run.”
“He has a gun,” whispered Josey. “I’m quick, but a bullet’s quicker.”
“He doesn’t want to shoot us. Once you’re dead, they have nothing over John.” She reached for Josey’s hand. “Besides, better getting shot doing something than waiting for it later, eh? You didn’t survive the last year sitting in your house.” Her eyes narrowed, shrewd. “How many times did you send the kids to me during the day? It wasn’t to let John sleep. I saw you, creeping down the back wall, coming back later with whatever you’d found.”
“I didn’t know you’d noticed,” said Josey. She’d been so careful, mimicking John’s evening runs, cautious and quiet. “I didn’t want John to know – he worries about all of us.”
Liz gave an approving nod. “You did right. You were brave then. Can you do it again now?” Josey closed her eyes. Liz was right – this was no different. And, more importantly, it was a chance to get back to Belfast before anything happened to the kids. She nodded. “Where to?”
“Go to the nearest police station. If we’re near the lough, there’re towns the whole way along it.”
“What about you?” Josey’s voice dropped to a whisper. She glanced at the door, sure it was going to open, and Gary McDowell would be there after all. He’d been horrid in the car, gripping her arms so tightly she’d had to clench her mouth shut not to yell out.
“I’ll be fine.” Liz took her walking stick in one hand. “Besides, I can’t run.”
Josey stood and smoothed down her t-shirt. It was one of John’s because hers were all too small and it made her feel better, touching something that connected them. Her stomach jumped with nerves, but Liz was right, she had to get back to the kids. “Okay.”
Liz went to the door, leaning on her stick. “Excuse me! I’m sorry but I really need the toilet.”
Footsteps came down the hall.
“You can wait,” said a voice from the other side, and it didn’t sound like Gary.
Liz gave Josey a sly smile and said, “I can’t. I’m going to pee myself.”
“For fuck’s sake.” The door opened. Demos pointed at Josey. “You come, too.”
Josey hid a smile. Liz was right, he must be alone. They followed him into the hall and he nodded up the stairs. “Door at the top. Be quick.”
He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall opposite Josey, watching her as Liz climbed the stairs. There was no way Josey could run - not without a head start. She looked around, as if bored, trying to work out the layout. The house had been bombed; the walls were a crazy pattern of cracks and dents. But there were no holes that Josey could see and all the windows had glass. Josey took a step towards the wall beside the front door, trying to look nonchalant, and touched the crack.
“Stand at peace.”
Josey bit her lip. The door at the opposite end of the hall opened into a kitchen, flooded with light from a window. A tree outside twisted in the wind. There must be a garden. Her mouth watered at the thought of being outside, of feeling the wind and smelling the sea.
There was a thump from upstairs, followed by an “Aaagh!”
Demos went to the bottom of the stairs. “What is it?”
“There’s a rat!” yelled Liz. “It’s in the bog. Oh God, it’s huge.”
“For Christ’s sake.” Demos pointed at Josey, the bulge of his pistol clear against the line of his jacket. “Stay where you are.”
Josey nodded and Demos ran up the stairs, quicker on his feet than he looked. “Right, where’s the bloody rat?”
“In the toilet bowl,” said Liz.
Josey took a step towards the kitchen.
“There’s nothing there.”
Josey ran to the kitchen door. Liz was telling Demos the rat had been there, right there, that the bombs had done the same thing in Belfast and the rats were everywhere now. Demos said something about not having time for this shit.
Josey grabbed the back door handle, sure it would be locked.
“Jesus Christ!” Footsteps pounded on the stairs. “Come back, you little shit!”
The handle turned and Josey pushed the door. She dashed round the side of the house and into the street. No curtains twitched. No one shouted to see why she was running - the street was dead and empty.
A car entered the street and she knew – just knew – it had to be one of the McDowells. Behind her, footsteps came closer.
Run! She darted across the street, through a garden, and climbed the fence. Behind, she could hear shouts. She jumped over a toppled recycling box, and slid on a piece of glass, putting her arms out for balance. She just about stayed upright, and raced round the side of the house. Ahead, she could see the sea, glimpsed from between buildings. She ducked through gardens and across streets.
She crashed through a final garden and saw a field in front of her. All around was quiet. Liz had been right, Demos didn’t have the speed to keep up with her.
Quickly, feeling horribly exposed, she crossed the road to the remains of an urban farm. The rabbit hutches were empty, their doors swinging crookedly, and the poly-tunnels had holes in them. To her left stood a long, low wooden building, its glass windows broken. Could she hide in there? She put her hand over her eyes, shielding them from the sun. The sea was close, just over some railway tracks.
She hurried to the end of the field and stopped at the railway embankment. Her heart jumped at a glimpse of a police sign. She squinted, sure she was wrong, but she wasn’t. She looked to the right and saw the ruins of a castle, still standing despite the invasion and the smart bombs, still watching over the little town. She climbed down the embankment, stopping at the edge of the tracks.
A hand grabbed her shoulder. “Where do you think you’re going, Josey Dray?”
No. The voice was embedded in her knowledge, the harsh tones, the threats. She rose to the balls of her feet, ready to run. She could see the police station, she’d be there in two minutes. Gary twisted her arm up her back.
“I can’t be bothered with this shite,” he said.
“Stop it! You’re hurting me!” she said, high-pitched, more of a scream than a yell.
“Aye, well, if you hadn’t run off you’d be all right.” He pulled her against him, hauling her arm up at a savage angle, and pushed her up the hill to the farm, past a sign saying she could buy eggs and tomatoes. A car waited in a lay-by, its engine rumbling in the quiet air. She tried to pull away, but he twisted her arm further up her back.
“Stop it,” he said. Sweat broke across her forehead. His mouth was against her ear. “You don’t want to piss me off any further. I might lose it with you. Got it?”
She didn’t answer. He twisted again.
“Yes,” she said, her voice a whisper. She’d be no use to anyone if her arm was pulled out of its socket. “I’ve got it.”
He pushed her towards the car. “Get in. All hell’s about to break loose, and Da wants you out of harm’s way. He’s planning to be real careful with you.”
She got in, sliding across the seat. Something was pulled over her eyes and she sat, crushed in the back against Gary. He smelt of sweat and beer, making her want to retch, but she put her chin up and bit back the tears that hadn’t made any difference the last time.
Inish Carraig is available at Amazon:
Inish Carraig is available at Amazon: