Belfast, February 1957
Sometimes the kitchen table could feel like a slim plank, but now it seemed wider than the Atlantic Ocean, as Bogart Black faced his young wife. The reflection of the red and white pattern of the gingham tablecloth bulged flamboyantly on the sides of the two glasses that bridged the gap between Bogart and Mary Black like a Dali painting. At the edge of the tablecloth, a scarlet umbrella that was six long-stemmed red roses sprouted from a slim glass vase and Mary thought about Bogart’s long, cold, wet bicycle trip to the flower shop that sold only the freshest roses and about how little the inconvenience meant to her husband. The roses, like everything else that Bogart had made or bought for their life together, were the evidence of his love for only her.
Bogart Black was Belfast’s Cat Sweep. Cat burglars stole quietly into houses and quietly stole valuables, but a cat sweep stole quietly into a house and cleaned the chimney. At the kitchen table, Bogart was having difficulty explaining his new idea.
Bogart had a vision. He had a vocation for stealth and he liked things to be clean and tidy. His mission was to clean while people looked the other way. On Friday nights, as the new safety razor gouged a fleshy path through the snowdrifts of foam that covered his cheeks and chin, he would murmur the details of this vision to the tiny shaving mirror until the words had joined together fluidly and intelligently.
“Stealthy cleaning, for the same price as a mess.”
It was Belfast’s first ever non-religious mission statement.
Bogart liked the look of the smooth skin that allowed the cool rinsing water to flow smoothly down his face. It looked clean and finished. He couldn’t wait to tell Mary about his plans. She was making a great smell in the tiny confines of the kitchen, downstairs, so Bogart decided to wait until after dinner.
Over dinner, Mary liked to chat about her day, which she spent behind the counter in The Corner House, in Castle Place in the centre of Belfast. She liked to unwind by telling Bogart about the rich women with absolutely no style who bought shoes and dresses that would never match and the pranks of the other girls when the supervisor wasn’t looking.
After dinner, Bogart would pour a bottle of Guinness into a straight glass for himself and a generous measure of Babycham into a sundae glass for Mary. The kitchen table would stretch out between them and then slowly shrink, as he explained his latest plans to her. Bogart was sure that his cat-sweeping business would benefit from more customer focus. Nobody talked about customer focus in Belfast. It was 1957. Nobody talked about customer focus anywhere in God’s big world, as far as Bogart knew.
“It’s a matter of focusing on the customer’s needs, Mary.”
Mary was worried. Bogart was an ideas man. Things were never dull when Bogart was around. He bubbled with enthusiasm for everything from his job as a chimney sweep to the new and fantastic inventions that he manufactured to help her about the house, but sometimes she wished that Bogart would just settle himself on one idea so that they could afford a new sofa.
She enjoyed the warm, humid fug in the kitchen and the smells of the cooking but a nice big sofa would be more comfortable than the hard kitchen chairs. She allowed her gaze to fall on the bookshelf that spanned the length of one wall. The colourful spines of foreign cookery books leaned contentedly against each other. While other husbands spent their Saturday afternoons oscillating irregularly between the pub and the betting shop, Bogart scoured markets and second-hand bookshops for bargains. Mary knew of no other kitchen that had a bookshelf.
They had had curry from the Indian cookery book. The recipe was written in a spidery hand on a sheet of paper that had been a bookmark. Second-hand books were more personal and each individual book had its own story; not just the one that was written in the pages. Every Saturday afternoon, when Bogart brought home more books, they would scour each one for evidence of its previous owners, like detectives at a crime scene, piecing together the life of the book as it was documented in scribbled notes in margins or on homemade bookmarks. They constructed the story of each book before they read it.
The spicy smell of the curry still lingered. Mary had found it difficult to find the correct spices in Belfast but the effort had been worth it. There was still a half pot of chicken, floating in thick yellow sauce, that she could re-heat for tomorrow’s dinner while Bogart peeled the brown paper from the books that he would buy in the Saturday market, folded it neatly and stacked it by the freshly varnished front door. They used it to start the fires in the big grate in the parlour, the fires that were the only source of heat in the small house.
Mary thought that if they had a new sofa, they could sit in front of a big turf fire in the parlour after dinner and cuddle on it and watch the shapes in the flames, while the Babycham bubbles tickled her nose and she pretended that she and Bogart were in a better place than their cold little house in the suburb of Beechmount, in west Belfast, on a rainy Friday night. There was a nice big red sofa in the window of Anderson and McCauley’s department store. She passed it every day on her walk to work, but she didn’t know if it would fit in the small front room.
Mary directed her thoughts back to the present. Bogart had the eager look of a terrier that was waiting for a stick to be thrown. He could never stay still. She looked at the fresh roses again. Their long stems and bright red petals made a still life of the cleared table between them. She tuned in to his words. What was he talking about now?
“Do you need glasses, sweetheart. Is that what you’re working yourself up to?”
“What are you talking about, Mary love?”
“You said something about focusing. Are your eyes going, with all that soot you have to cope with every day? Is that it? Maybe you can get another job. You’re smart enough not to have to spend your days cleaning dirty chimneys.”
Bogart looked at her pretty face and smiled. He’d asked her to dance on the first and last night that he’d gone to the Plaza ballroom, three years previously. She was the most beautiful thing that he’d ever seen and she was as sharp as a pin.
The corner boys, in their sharp suits and pointy winkle-picker shoes, didn’t last long in her company. She never refused a dance, because she had impeccable manners, but she never lingered with them longer than it took for the band to belt out the closing bars of the tune.
She was a challenge and Bogart liked a challenge. He had shrugged away from his brother, who was lolling drunkenly at the bar, and asked her to dance. He asked her about herself. When she started to talk about The Corner House and the girls at work, he stopped her mid-sentence and asked her again to tell him about herself.
“What makes you smile, Mary? What are you really interested in? I don’t care how you get your pictures of the Queen every week. I care about how you spend them.”
For Mary, this was a new approach. When she laughed, Bogart felt as if a door were opening inside her. Another door opened inside him.
She liked good clothes and books about Africa and Asia, which she borrowed from the Carnegie library on the Falls Road. She liked to talk and she liked people. She enjoyed her job because it allowed her to observe humanity from the relative obscurity of her position behind a sales counter.
Bogart was equal to the challenge of keeping Mary Ford’s attention and she kept his just as effectively. She danced with him for the rest of the night. They sometimes forgot to stop dancing when the music finished, so absorbing was their conversation.
When he walked her home, they talked for the whole journey. The two-mile saunter seemed to take two minutes. He was so smitten by the porcelain beauty of her face in the light of the streetlamp by her parents’ front door that cast an orange cone of light on them that he had remarked on it before he had realised that his mouth was working.
As soon as he realised that the sounds had been made, he blushed. He had never had a girlfriend and he didn’t know what he should do next. A long silent moment stretched out between them and then Mary kissed his cheek, but he turned his head at the last minute and their lips brushed. She tasted of mint and the furniture polish that Bogart could smell through the open front sash window of her home. Mary tasted clean and she lived in a clean place.
“You’re not as shy as you let on, Bogart Black”, Mary sighed as she broke the seal. He would never forget her appraising look, as they hovered close to the edge of the orange cone of light and she tilted her head and fixed him with her eyes. He felt like a rabbit in the glare of car headlights. She was more beautiful than Doris Day, Jayne Mansfield or Audrey Hepburn.
They were married six months later. They had been renting this tiny, damp house for the two years since that warm day, when she had stepped outside the red brick sanctuary of St. Paul’s chapel and into the world of Bogart Black, a man with a mission. He was evangelising across the table right now. He’d soon blow himself out, Mary thought.
Bogart hunched his body into what Mary thought looked like a panther’s crouch and tried to explain the concepts of customer care and quality control that he had been devising as he had shaved before the round, steamy mirror.
“The customer is always right, Mary”.
She knew that one and she knew exactly how much nonsense it was. Some of her customers looked like a set of curtains in the clothes that they chose, but Bogart wasn’t talking about clothes. He never thought about clothes. She would put his clothes out in the morning and he would wear whatever she laid on the bed. On two or three occasions when they had been going out, she had deliberately put a turquoise shirt with his good brown trousers and he had absently pulled on the ensemble, tying on a red and yellow necktie, without looking in the mirror.
He only used one mirror: the tiny one for shaving. He would have gone out the door dressed like a circus clown if she hadn’t hastily set out another shirt and tie. His brain was always in another place. In his head, Bogart Black was at his destination before he had left the house, but he needed her and she loved him for that. Those books that he read gave him some strange ideas in bed, though, but it was an exciting sort of strange.
Now, Bogart was developing his ideas about the need to align the service that he was providing to the needs of his customers. Bogart was a chimney sweep. People wanted clean chimneys because a fire in the chimney was not funny. It could cause a lot of damage and the landlord usually blamed the tenant and charged for repairs.
Mary couldn’t see anything complicated about matching service and needs, but Bogart was already talking about vacuum cleaning and air tight chimney seals, to service customer demands for a cleaner post-encounter environment. She tried to bring him back to the real world, as she knew it. Her tone was placatory.
“Every chimney sweep leaves a mess, love. Everybody knows that when the chimney is cleaned, it takes an hour to clean up the room that’s below it. People expect it.”
Bogart looked even more like a terrier, now that she had inadvertently thrown the stick. His words were breathless and fast.
“That’s the challenge, Mary. Life’s nothing without a challenge. I don’t want people to know that they’ve had their chimneys cleaned. I’ll leave the house exactly as I found it. They won’t even know I’ve been in the house.”
“How will you make sure that they pay you, dear?”
“If there’s no evidence that you’ve been in the house, no one’s going to pay you. They won’t believe that you’ve cleaned the chimney.”
He looked at her fondly. She was smart. He wanted to tell her that her skin still had the same porcelain beauty that he had first seen outside her parents’ front door, two years previously, and that she was ten times more beautiful now than she was then, but now wasn’t the time for that.
“I’ve thought about that one, Mary.”
His body hovered on the edge of the hard, upright seat. Mary mused that if they had a nice sofa, he wouldn’t be on the edge of that; they’d be curled up together, between its sumptuous arms. Bogart’s words came even quicker and he was goggle-eyed with enthusiasm. It was like having a live cabaret in the kitchen, Mary thought idly. She smiled back at him.
He almost reached across the table and kissed her when he saw the white crescent of teeth, framed by the lips that weren’t quite as red as the roses, but the table was still a little bit wide for that. He needed to explain a few other things.
“I’ll leave the soot outside in the yard and I’ll leave a secret sign on the hearth. People love secrets and the sign will be like a badge. The professionals call it a logo.”
She looked at him with what she hoped was sultry abandon and purred.
“And just how low will you go, love?”
Her giggle wafted across the two glasses, which were now empty. They swapped meaningful looks. The table seemed less wide now. Bogart was keen to make it narrower and expand on his business plan, but his need for Mary’s touch wiped his mind of all thoughts of soot. It was getting cold and the warmest place in the house was the big bed that they’d bought in an auction.
They had never been to an auction before, but Bogart had asked Mary how hard it could be to give people money for something that they wanted to sell? They had found that it wasn’t difficult at all. Bogart had found a passing rag-and-bone man in the street outside the auction house and two minutes’ haggling had secured his services to deliver the big bed to their house.
His horse had eaten the flowers in their elderly spinster neighbour’s window box while the rag-and-bone man, Bogart and herself had manoeuvred the bed frame around the curve in the staircase and into the tiny bedroom, where it occupied most of the floor space. On the following day, they had bought a brand new mattress from the Anderson & McCauley department store.
Everything that they had purchased had a similar story. Maybe she wouldn’t buy that new sofa from Anderson and McCauley’s window. There might be another way to get a nice sofa at an auction.
The weekend was off to a good start. They’d sleep late on Saturday and she would have the day to herself, while Bogart scoured the city’s second-hand bookshops.
The bed soon warmed. Sometimes it was good to have space in a big bed, but most of the silent new mattress went unused as they squirmed together for hours, emitting occasional soft giggles and whispers.
In the adjoining room of the house next door, the elderly neighbour disconnected her ear from the glass, slid the glass off the wall and smiled. It must be nice to be young and so in love. Those new geraniums in the window box were nicer than the old pansies, too. She smiled at the memory of the horse’s long nose in her front window.
She thought that Bogart was a nice lad, but he needed to speak a bit louder Sometimes she couldn’t hear him, through the wall. She had misheard the word “airtight”, and didn’t think that anyone would pay money to have their chimney sealed with a pair of hairy tights. She thought that a bigger glass might amplify the sound and chuckled quietly. Bogart had her at it now, with all his talk of improvements. He was like an infection.
Bogart was more preoccupied than ever that weekend. He bought no books, but an old, industrial vacuum cleaner arrived at the house on Saturday evening, courtesy of the rag-and-bone man. The horse eyed the vermilion haze of geraniums, but Bogart had insisted that the cart was parked on the other side of the street and the vacuum cleaner was hauled across the road and into the small porch.
On Sunday, Bogart had come back to their bed at 9 o’clock with toasted wheaten farls, cheese and the sweet tomatoes, which he raised in some contraption that he called a grow-bag. It was a Hessian sack that had been filled with rotted cow manure and soil that they had surreptitiously removed from the Falls Park one evening. The sack was propped under a pane of unwanted glass in the house’s tiny back yard. It grew the sweetest tomatoes that she had ever tasted and it grew them at no charge in a stone yard that had never known agriculture before their tenure.
Bogart had been awake since 5 o’clock. She had felt him glide from her like a piece of gossamer. When she awoke at 7 o’clock, she could hear him tinkering with the vacuum cleaner. When he came back to bed at 9 o’clock, he told her that he had cleaned and oiled every bit of the machine and asked if she wanted to see it.
While she munched on the toast and sipped the sweet, milky tea, she heard him swear gently as he climbed the stairs and then the doorframe was suddenly filled with Bogart and a gleaming, polished machine. He uncoiled the power cable from its hook, pushed the plug into the socket on the wall and connected the end of the hose to his face so that he looked like an elephant. He mock-wrestled the machine until she could laugh no more and then he jumped into bed and pulled on a strange, swivelling metal arm that he had built and screwed to the wall.
The arm was connected to a tray using two clamps and it left the bed free of clutter. The big red teapot, the milk jug and the sugar bowl were supported safely on the rigid frame and Bogart and Mary had numerous cups of hot tea while Bogart discussed his idea for incorporating a small heating element in a new tray that he had bought the day before. It would keep the teapot warmer. Mary suggested a less complicated solution.
“I’ll buy a nice tea cosy, love”, she cooed.
“Tea cosies are easy. It’ll be a nice challenge to get the Black patented swivelling teapot warmer working.”
Mary’s voice became a purr again.
“It’s not the only thing that swivels in this room.”
She shimmied across the bed and swivelled her hips in the way that she knew he couldn’t resist. Mary knew that there were times when Bogart Black could be made to concentrate on the task at hand. You just had to get all of his attention in one place. That’s exactly where it was this morning.
Bogart’s eyelids slid half-shut, his eyes burned with lust and all thoughts of sucking soot and teapot warmers left his mind as Mary let him catch her, half way across the big bed. The elderly neighbour shook her head and thought about the significance of snivelling teapot farmers for a while, before she went downstairs, to water the geraniums in her window box.
Father Joseph Keenan bit down hard on the pillow, in the small dark bedroom at the back of the parochial residence. He had heard the slamming front door of the parish priest’s earlier arrival, but now the house was quiet, except for the metronomic pulse of the squeaking springs in his ancient mattress. Gordon Carson, a constable in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was his handsome young boyfriend. Gordon’s breath made clammy patches on Joseph’s back, as the young priest’s teeth sank into the pillow again.
They had met on the day that Joseph had nearly married Bogart and Mary Black, more than two years previously. Before Joseph could perform the ceremony, the parish priest had despatched him at the last minute to see to a misguided boy who had been arrested on charges of theft. The boy’s parents had asked for the parish priest to intervene, because he was a charismatic man who was as ruggedly handsome as John Wayne and had a presence that would intimidate the loutish police officers in Queen’s Street barracks.
Joseph had gone in his place and found Gordon Carson, a young constable with whom he could negotiate in a civilised manner. The boy had been released with a warning and Joseph had had to suffer the gift of a dinner of badly fried food with the boy’s grateful family.
Gordon had suggested that they meet again, to see if they could devise ways to keep the younger boys out of trouble. Joseph had readily agreed. When Gordon suggested a parish soccer team to compete in a Protestant tournament, Joseph had readily agreed. When Gordon invited Joseph behind the changing rooms and suggested some activities that would get Joseph into a potential cauldron of trouble, Joseph had readily agreed then, too.
Joseph was seven years older than Gordon, but sometimes he felt lke a small boy who was being led by a kind and loving guru. He was 27 years old and Gordon Was 20. It was a first romance for them both.
They had been away on long weekends together around the province of Ulster and beyond, accompanying the young men of their very successful soccer team to events that promoted cooperation between Catholics and Protestants. It was only natural that the young police constable and the young Catholic priest should share a room, in the interests of keeping accommodation costs down, but the parish priest would have thought that there was nothing natural about what they got up to in those shared rooms.
Gordon and Joseph had taken night classes in photography together, so it was only natural that Joseph should call on Gordon at his new house on the Ormeau Road in the south of the city. It was even more natural that the curtains would close when the young priest arrived. Photography needed a dark room, after all. They had taken and developed many photographs of themselves in various romantic locations. Some of the photographs even showed them kissing. Gordon had bought a tripod for these pictures because Ireland was not the sort of place where a young man could ask a stranger to take a snap of him kissing his boyfriend.
Joseph kept his copies of these photographs in a locked drawer in his room. He only decorated the room with them when Gordon made a rare call on him at the parochial house. On these occasions, he also added lengths of dark chiffon around the room, to lend an air of romance to the barren, cold room. When he had bought the material at the haberdasher’s, he had told them that it was for a parish play. His clerical collar gained him a hefty discount, which caused an ironic smile to spread across his face. The young shop assistant mistook irony for gratitude and smiled back conspiratorially.
The two young men usually abstained from physical acts of love while they were in the parochial house, but today a reckless mood had permeated the atmosphere. Gordon had fixed his new 35mm SLR camera on a tripod at the end of the bed and was using a butterfly valve to operate it remotely. Father Joseph Keenan caught sight of the flash for the third time, as it lit the maroon chiffon that he had draped across the bedside lamp to soften the harsh light. These photographs could get them both locked up, but what was life without a bit of spice?
The front door of the parochial house flew off its hinges and dozens of heavy boots beat a wild tattoo on the staircase.
“Somebody must have told the bastards.”
Gordon’s voice was a sigh. His short career as a police constable in the service of the Queen would draw to a close quietly. His father, a chief superintendent, would make sure that nothing appeared in official records, but Gordon would have to leave the RUC under a cloud of suspicion and his parents would never speak to, or of him again. Joseph’s face was lined with sweat when he turned his head to face Gordon. Gordon thought of their favourite song, “Someone to watch over me”. Joseph had no one to watch over him.
“I’ll look after you, Joe.”
Joe’s face showed a new vehemence.
“Fuck them. We might as well be hung for sheep as lambs.”
It was the first time that Gordon had heard Joseph swear and the effect was enormously erotic. Their eyes locked and their lovemaking assumed a fierce abandon as the boots drummed on the landing outside.
They froze. There was a loud crack and a door flew off its hinges, but it wasn’t their door. They heard a loud voice in the hallway outside.
“Father Pontius Mary Hamill, I have a warrant to search these premises for arms, which I suspect you are concealing for criminal elements who are operating hereabouts. Well, well, well, what’s this? Are they letting you priests keep a wee woman now? By the look of this one, they’re letting you take the pick of the bunch. She’s a wee star isn’t she? And I see she’s wearing a ring. So the pair of you are married are you?”
The bellowing voice then soared in pitch, to emphasise the mock incredulity.
“Oh, wait. She’s wearing a ring, but you aren’t. Well now, father, are you going to make me search these premises and expose you to the ridicule of your parishioners and the newspapers or are you going to tell me where you’re hiding those guns for your IRA cronies?”
A soft, resigned voice came faintly through the wall that Joseph’s room shared with that of the parish priest.
“You’ll be getting the detective badge and the dirty raincoat soon, Superintendent Carson.”
Even through the wall, Joseph could hear the sarcasm that had sucked at his enthusiasm since he had arrived in the parish. Pontius Hamill was popular with a certain segment of the female parishioners, but he was a hard man to like if you were working for him.
Gordon and Joseph had been holding their breath, but Gordon gasped suddenly at the notion of his father standing feet from him, while he and his Catholic priest lover made love. He began to giggle silently. Joseph was giggling beneath him. They both buried their faces in the pillow and tried not to make the springs creak. The parish priest’s voice drifted to them again, as Pontius Hamill addressed Superintendent Gordon Carson.
“You don’t need to wreck the house, Carson. I’ve seen the aftermath of an RUC search. Let me get dressed and I’ll be right with you. Mary, go behind the wardrobe and get your clothes on.”
“You and your girlfriend are both called Mary? That’s a funny name for a man, father. She’s certainly tidy looking, though. I have to hand it to you. You have style. Many a man half your age would be proud to have that wee girl on his arm. We’ll need her name for the record.”
Superintendent Carson’s voice was casual and sarcastic. This was definitely a story for the next meeting at his Masonic lodge. Mary’s high-pitched response was lost in the noisy movement of policemen who clamoured around the parish priest’s bedroom door to get a better look inside. Superintendent Carson’s voice betrayed his incredulity when he spoke to Mary Black.
“Are you the cat sweep’s wife? What’s his name? Bogart Black? That’s a very grand name for a chimney sweep. Your husband’s a decent man, though. We’d never have got that old neighbour of yours out of the house last year if he hadn’t managed to break in for us. Wasn’t it a chimney fire? When we arrived, she was that engrossed in what was going on next door that she didn’t hear us trying to knock the bloody door down. Your husband went in through the flames. He said he had to peel her off the bedroom wall. The glass was still stuck to her ear when he carried her out the front door. Your husband’s a brave man, Mary.”
The superintendent quickly abandoned the wistful appreciation of Mary’s husband as he remembered the prize of the guns. He clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously, relishing the moment.
“Are you both ready then? Out we go, now. Lead on, father. We’ll see where your friends hide their toys.”
The voice was cheery. Superintendent Gordon Carson was having a very good day.
Three feet from the end of Father Joseph Keenan’s bed, the door handle turned experimentally. Gordon Carson Junior froze. Joseph could feel Gordon’s heart pound, through two ribcages, but the door was locked and there was no reason for the policemen to force it open. The two young men shook with silent laughter as the noise of heavy footfalls receded on the staircase. Joseph’s voice still trembled with the remains of the giggling fit that had consumed him.
“You’d better go quickly, Gordon. They might change their mind and come back to search the place. I’ll let you out the back.”
Bogart Black, cat-sweep of this parish, was as still as a corpse in the parlour of the parochial house. When the front door had flown into the hall, he had ducked behind a curtain. Ten minutes previously, he had gained surreptitious entry to the parochial house and had just finished setting up the vacuum cleaner and dust cover when the rumpus began. At first, he had thought that the police had arrived because a neighbour had reported a burglar. That had not happened since he had first started his cat sweeping activities, but as he had gradually improved his techniques for gaining entry to empty houses, the frequency of these misunderstandings had decreased.
Bogart Black was now the most accomplished intruder in the city. He hadn’t been caught or observed in two years. He could get into a house, carrying his industrial cleaning gear, and get out again, with more ease than any professional burglar. When his neighbour’s house had caught fire, the police had called Bogart from a house a few streets away to help them break in and rescue her. His competence in breaking and entering was famous in the city’s police barracks.
Bogart’s business thrived because of his efficiency. His reputation for cleanliness and professionalism was as important as the hint of glamour that attached itself to his house breaking activities. Never before had the concepts of glamour and chimney sweeping been linked. Bogart Black was blazing a trail along the cracks in the class system. Most of the customers for the cat sweeping option came from the middle class suburbs. The working classes paid less for conventional, announced visits.
None of the policemen had noticed the blue, suction-fastening, polypropylene dustsheet that was draped in front of the fireplace, nor the gleaming industrial vacuum cleaner that glistened on the hearth. The officers had charged straight up the stairs, followed by the older officer who sported gleaming epaulettes. A cacophony of shouting and hammering drifted down the stairs to him as he pondered what business the RUC could have with the parish priest.
Bogart stayed behind the curtain and watched as the policemen slowly trooped down to the hall and out of the gaping maw of the front door frame into the hissing rain. When Mary came down the stairs, followed by father Hamill, the parish priest, the clarity of his sudden insight was what made him gasp; not the sight of his wife.
* * *
A month before, when Bogart had wrestled the old woman from the burning house that was next door to their own, she had repeated the parish priest’s name like a mantra. The glass had been firmly clamped between her ear and the wall. On the other side of that wall was Bogart and Mary’s bedroom.
He had thought that his neighbour had been calling for her parish priest in her hour of need, but he now realised that she had been identifying the voice that she had heard on the other side of the wall. The voice of the parish priest had come from their bedroom and the old woman had been so absorbed in the activities on the other side of the wall that she had forgotten to settle the coals in the fireplace downstairs. The chimney had blazed when the flames licked the soot.
Even the rising smoke had not distracted her from her vigil. When Bogart carried her down the stairs and out of the front door, he had assumed that the silent old woman was rigid with shock because of her near death experience. He now realised that overhearing the parish priest making love to the woman next door would probably provoke a similar reaction.
It was no wonder that Father Hamill had been so solicitous to her. He had arranged a place in a nearby rest home. He had said that the old woman couldn’t look after herself, so the Church would look after her as one of its own. The clever bugger had locked away the only witness to his affair with Bogart’s wife.
* * *
Mary was reeling. It had all happened so fast. One minute, she had been lying under a grunting parish priest; the next, she was being marched down the stairs and out the front door of the parochial house by a dozen policemen. The gleaming pipes had attracted her attention. In the parlour of the parish house, a silver intestine of metal tubes had been fastened to a blue dustsheet that covered the fireplace. A polished, ancient vacuum cleaner rested on a separate sheet on the parquet floor.
She had recognised the equipment immediately and her eyes had scoured the room. From beneath the curtains, two polished shoes protruded. Her head had swivelled automatically to watch the shoes as the policemen had bundled her past the door to the parlour. Her gaze never left those lustrously polished shoes. She felt sorry for Bogart. He was a decent man and he would have heard the conversation upstairs.
He shouldn’t have discovered the truth this way. He should never have discovered the truth at all. The love that Bogart had given her suddenly became a source of pain, as she thought about his inevitable reaction and the ruin that it would bring to their lives. She felt wetness on her cheeks and quickly checked to see that none of the policemen had seen the shoes. Their faces wore pitying looks. One or two looked righteously outraged. She cast her eyes downward. What a mess!
* * *
Joseph and Gordon giggled their way down the staircase, still amazed at their narrow escape. Gordon waited on the third tread as Joseph swung the heavy front door into its aperture and wedged it with a stack of magazines. Once privacy was assured, they kissed deeply and went into the kitchen. Bogart had been about to reveal himself when they came clattering downstairs, but now he watched in fascination as the young curate kissed the other young man.
He saw the young curate grab the other young man’s backside as they went into the kitchen. The curate was wearing a clerical collar and robes. The young man tugged at the collar and tried to reach for the buttons on the front of the robes as the pair fell through the door and into the kitchen. The curate only half resisted the other young man’s efforts to disrobe him.
Bogart was no prude. He believed that, like any opportunity, you took love where you found it and you made the most of it. He wasn’t interested in how the young curate had his fun, but he was interested in the opportunity with which it presented him. He slipped quietly up the stairs and opened the first door on the landing.
The photographs of the pair were arranged around the room. The camera was on its tripod. The overhead light was draped with a thin red veil. The sheets were untidily gathered in a cotton map of the Alps in the centre of the single bed. Bogart gathered the photographs and wound the film in the camera so that he could take it out.
The young man had left and the curate had then stood in front of the mirror in the hallway. From the top of the stairs, Bogart had watched his preening. When he had left, Bogart gathered his equipment and stole out the back door. His bicycle and its small trailer had been left in the alley behind the house and he loaded the dustsheet, the pipes and the vacuum cleaner onto the small trailer and pedalled off towards home. He needed a cup of tea and a few minutes of peace to think very carefully about what he was about to do.
* * *
Father Pontius Hamill was a proud man, but he was running out of options. He had been found in bed with a married woman and the local police were about to verify that had been hiding firearms for the IRA. His chances of promotion to a Bishopric had just disappeared. However, Pontius Mary Hamill was an opportunist. Opportunity had knocked often on his door but today it had forsaken him for the door of an RUC officer. There was always an opportunity, though. You just had to look hard enough for it.
Today had seen an unfortunate turn of events. He would have to reveal the secret hiding place of a cache of rifles and revolvers. He had allowed the local IRA troop to hide the guns in a crypt at the back of the church. The local brigade had amply compensated the church, in the person of Pontius Hamill, for the service that he had rendered.
Even as Pontius Mary Hamill betrayed his secret, he saw opportunity. Mary would say nothing. He would finish the affair with the girl and she would quietly return to her husband’s dull arms. She was good in bed, but he had a career to think of. The discovery of the weapons could be blamed on an anonymous informer. He would offer his services as a spy to the RUC. He would play one side against the other. With any luck, he would come out of this day in a stronger position than he had entered it.
While the constables were busy emptying the crypt of guns and Mary Black sat on a grave, sobbing, Superintendent Gordon Carson waited in his car. Pontius Hamill seized his opportunity. He approached the open window of the large black Austin. Superintendent Carson’s smile broadened as he looked past the shoulder of the priest who was whispering in his ear.
He thought that an onlooker might assume that he was taking the priest’s confession, but this was better than any confession. Gordon Carson Senior liked the idea of having a priest in his pocket almost as much as his son liked having one as a lover.
* * *
The pedals of Bogart Black’s bicycle spun at a frequency of sixty cycles per minute. It was the optimal frequency for the transmission of power onto the road. Bogart had read about the science of bicycle racing in a magazine article and had practised the rhythm daily, on his rounds of the district’s dirty chimneys. The rhythm of sixty strokes per minute had become an instinctual pace for him. The rhythm matched the rhythm of his brain. In just over twelve minutes, or 728 pedal spins, he had arrived home and a plan had fully formed in his mind. He would need to be quick. He parked the trailer in the back yard of the house and ran to the living room. The camera in the curate’s bedroom was his inspiration.
His own camera was not new. He had found it, broken and cracked, in the Saturday market, but he knew that the lens was a Zeiss – the best brand – so he paid the pittance that was asked for it. The repairs had not been simple, but he had been careful and patient with the mechanism.
He had planned to test the camera by taking a few photographs of Mary when they went to the beach at Bangor, which was an hour away on the train. The trip had been planned for the next weekend and it gave him a distant goal that was far beyond the confines of this current state of chaos. He would make that trip happen.
His vision of the new world that would exist in the near future, when this mess had been fixed, allowed him to calm his breathing and think clearly and gave him a goal that had nothing to do with recrimination. Bogart was a fixer. He could not walk away from a problem until it had ben fixed.
He snatched the camera from his worktable by the fireplace and ran out the door. The ride to the church took no time at all. Without the trailer, he could manage 90 strokes a minute on the old bicycle. The black police Austin was at the side gate of the church grounds. Father Pontius Mary Hamill ducked his head inside the open window.
Bogart moved behind a tree for a better angle. He took two shots of the priest and the superintendent in quiet conversation. The superintendent’s smile was so broad that it threatened to crack his face. The next photograph would show the priest turning away, smiling warmly at the beaming face of the superintendent.
There was another photograph of the parish priest, the superintendent and a large, Hessian-wrapped bundle. The pair stood at the open door of a crypt. The film roll wound to its end as Bogart took one final photograph of the policeman and the priest shaking hands in front of the police car.
* * *
Mary and her parish priest used different gates and walked in opposite directions when they left the church grounds. The priest had tried to approach her, but she dismissed his advances. She wracked her brain for a way out of the mess. Pontius Hamill’s pleas for her silence were unnecessary. She wasn’t about to broadcast her stupidity to the world. As the parish priest stood before her, his relieved expression made her want to retch.
She stood up smartly, brushed her hands over her coat and straightened her skirt. She caught his gaze as it roamed down her legs and the scales suddenly fell from her eyes. There had been no love in their passion. It had been purely sex. Now, she felt empty, because she had probably lost Bogart’s love forever.
Bogart wished that there had been one more space on the film. He wanted to photograph Mary as she stalked through the graveyard. The wind pinioned her coat and skirt to her body and her long, auburn hair streamed behind her like a guttering flame. She was probably feeling like a broken woman, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at her quick, confident stride and her upturned cheeks, which were rouged by the cold wind.
For Bogart, there was nothing more satisfying than putting broken things back together better than they had been before. There was nothing here that couldn’t be fixed. With Mary’s help, he would make their lives better than they had been before, but first, he would have to take care of Pontius Mary Hamill.