“The Abstainer,” by Ian McGuire: An Excerpt

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Midnight. There are field guns on Stanley Street, and timber barricades at every bridge and junction. Bright flames from a dozen watch fires glint orange off the black and boatless Irwell. Inside the Town Hall on King Street, James O’Connor knocks the rain from his bowler, unbuttons his top coat, and hangs them both on the iron hooks by the recreation room door. Sanders and Malone, and four or five others, are sleeping on palliasses in one corner. The rest are sitting about at tables, playing whist, gabbing, or reading the Courier. The place has the homely barracks-tang of stewed tea and Navy Cut; there is a rack of Indian clubs and medicine balls gathering dust by the left-hand wall, and a billiard table covered over with planking in the center. Fazackerley, the duty sergeant, notices him and nods. “Anything?”

O’Connor shakes his head.

“There’ll be someone shows himself eventually,” Fazackerley says. “Some daft bastard full of ale. There’s always one. You wait and see.”

O’Connor pulls a chair across and sits himself down. Fazackerley half-fills a dented metal teapot with scalding water from the urn and swirls it twice.

“I’m the only Irishman awake this side of Kingstown,” O’Connor tells him. “All the others are safe in their beds, doing as the priests advised and staying well away.”

“I thought your Fenian boys didn’t pay too much attention to the monsignors.”

“They pay attention when it suits them,” he says. “Much like the rest of us.”

Fazackerley nods, allows himself a smile. His face is a bristled mass of lines and planes, his eyebrows are unkempt, and his graying hair is scant and greasy. If it wasn’t for the incongruent brightness of his pale blue eyes—more like the eyes of a newborn babe or a china doll than of a man past fifty—he might look exhausted, gone-to-seed, but, as it is, he presents, even at rest, an impression of half-amused readiness, vigor even.

[ Return to the review of “The Abstainer.” ]

“They’ve seen the cavalry trotting up and down Deansgate,” O’Connor goes on. “They’ve seen the cannons and the barricades. They’re not as stupid as you think.”

“There are three of ’em who won’t look so very clever come eight o’clock, I’d say.”

Fazackerley tilts his head to one side and makes a bogeyed, strangulated face, but O’Connor takes no notice. It’s been nine months now since he arrived on secondment from Dublin and he’s become used to the ways of his English colleagues. Always joking with him, striving to get a rise, always prodding and poking about to see what he will say or do in answer. Friendly enough at first sight, but beneath the smiles and laughter he senses their mistrust. Who is he anyway, they wonder, this sudden Irishman, come to tell them how to do their jobs? Even Fazackerley, who is the best by far, treats him, most of the time, as an amusing oddity, some kind of strange exception to the rule, like a visiting Apache or a dancing bear. Other men would feel insulted, but O’Connor lets it pass. He has no desire to explain himself. It is much simpler and easier, sometimes, he thinks, to be misunderstood.

“Maybury asked to see you as soon as you got back,” Fazackerley says, straightening himself. “He’s up with Palin now.”

“Maybury and Palin together? What do they want with me?”

Fazackerley laughs.

“You’re the true fucking oracle, Head Constable O’Connor. Didn’t you know that? They want you to tell them what the future holds.”

“If they’d paid me any heed before, then Charley Brett might still be living.”

“That could be true, but it’ll do you not the slightest good to point it out. Our great lords and masters don’t generally enjoy being reminded of their missteps.”

“I hear Palin’s out on his arse anyway after all this dies down. Pensioned off.”

“Policemen do love to gossip, don’t they?” Fazackerley says. “Do you fancy your chances of taking over if he goes, Jimmy? Chief Constable O’Connor, is it?”

Fazackerley snorts at the idea as if he has just made a great joke. O’Connor finishes his tea, tugs down his waistcoat, and politely advises the duty sergeant to bugger off.

Upstairs, he listens for a moment at the office door. He knows Maybury well enough, but he has seen the chief constable only at a distance on official occasions—standing on a dais or seated on a charger. Palin is a short, soldierly-looking man. And, in public at least, rigid and a little twitchy. The day of the ambush he was away somewhere, unreachable, and the various clear warnings went unheeded as a consequence. A clerk in the Head Office has already been dismissed for it, but now the rumors are that the Home Secretary, Mr. Gathorne Hardy, has intervened and Palin will eventually be made to step down, forced retirement to the country and an afterlife of ease and plenty being about as rough as it ever gets for a fellow like him.

O’Connor hears them talking through the door, Palin’s low voice, Maybury’s occasional interruptions, but can’t make out the words. He knocks, the conversation pauses, and Maybury calls him to come in. Neither man smiles or rises from his chair. Maybury, who is of medium height, stout with muttonchop whiskers and a port wine stain on one cheek, nods once. Palin gazes suspiciously at O’Connor as if he has seen him before but can’t remember where. Both men are in their shirtsleeves and Palin is smoking a cigar. There is a jar of mustard and a bottle of vinegar on the table; a smell of sausage lingers in the blueish air.

“The sergeant told me you wanted to see me, sir,” he says to Maybury.

Maybury glances at Palin, offering him the chance to speak first, but Palin shakes his head.

“Give us your report, please, Head Constable O’Connor,” Maybury says. He makes it sound as if this is a normal everyday duty, as if reporting directly to the chief constable of Manchester in the middle of the night is part of his job.

[ Return to the review of “The Abstainer.” ]

O’Connor takes his notebook from his inside pocket and thumbs its pages.

“I’ve been walking the town all day,” he says. “And I’ve spoken with some of my informers. I’m confident we have nothing to fear tonight. The hangings will go off smoothly, I’m sure of it. If the reprisals come, they will come later on, when things have quieted down a little. After the troops have all left town.”

“So you have heard some talk of reprisals?”

“Oh, there’s plenty of talking, sir, as there always is, but it’s nothing we need to take too seriously for now.”

“The Fenians are frightened of us, then,” Palin says lightly, as if the conclusion is obvious. “Our show of force has worked as we expected.”

“For now, sir, yes,” O’Connor agrees, “but in a month or two I expect the situation will be different.”

“Different how?” Maybury asks.

“The executions will provoke anger. There is already a strong belief that the sentences are unjust, that Sergeant Brett’s death was manslaughter at worst, not murder. When the three men are hanged, then others who were on the outskirts of the Brotherhood will likely be drawn closer in. The Manchester circles may end up larger and stronger than they were before.”

Palin frowns at this and sits up straighter in his chair. “I don’t follow that reasoning,” he says. “You seem to be suggesting that a severe punishment might actually serve as an encouragement to others to commit a similar crime. How could that ever be the case? What is the sense?”

O’Connor glances at Maybury for help, but Maybury merely raises his eyebrows and smiles blandly back.

“If you create martyrs, sir, then that is a powerful thing.” “Martyrs?” Palin says. “These men are not martyrs, they are common criminals. They killed a policeman in cold blood.”

“I agree, sir, of course, but that’s not the general opinion in the Irish parts of town.”

“Then the general opinion makes little sense to me. Are your countrymen really as foolish as all that?” he says. “Will they never learn their lessons?”

O’Connor doesn’t answer straightaway. He still remembers when they brought the old rebel Terence MacManus back from California in ’61, and half of Dublin turned out in the brown fog and pelting rain to watch the funeral parade. They were leaning out of windows and standing six deep in Mountjoy Square that day.

When the column reached the gates of Glasnevin Cemetery it was near-enough two miles long. Twenty thousand Dubliners and barely even a whisper when they laid him in the tomb. If you give the Fenians a corpse, then you’d better believe they’ll know what to do with it, he thinks. Before they brought Terence Bellew MacManus home, the Fenians were nothing to speak about, but the next day they were the anointed successors to the men of ’48. Heroes all in-waiting. A clever man will never underestimate the motive power of dust and bones, but Palin isn’t clever. None of them are.

“Most of my countrymen are poor and untutored, sir,” O’Connor explains. “The Fenians take advantage of their ignorance. They promise them freedom and an end to all their sufferings.”

“The Fenians are fanatics.”

“Quite true, sir, but fanatics are not easily discouraged.” “Neither are we easily discouraged,” Palin says. “That’s my point, Constable. The British Empire is not a weak or fragile thing; it has survived worse mutinies than this one. Perhaps you should ask your friends to pass that message along. Let our enemies know they are sacrificing themselves in a hopeless cause.” “That’s not quite—”

O’Connor starts to answer, but Maybury interrupts him. “His friends are not in a position to pass on messages, sir,” Maybury explains. “Their lives would be in danger.” “Of course,” Palin says, “of course. I forgot.”

There is a pause. Coal crumbles in the grate. Palin sniffs twice and rubs the tip of his cigar into an empty coffee cup. “Where do we get these informers from anyway?” he asks, turning to Maybury. “And how do we know they can be trusted?”

“Generally they make themselves known to us,” Maybury explains. “It’s money that they’re after. We treat what they tell us with caution, but it sometimes proves useful. If we understand what the Fenians are planning, we can usually nip it in the bud.”

Palin scratches his chin and frowns.

“Men like that are parasites. I wonder sometimes that we lower ourselves.”

“To get to the treasure you must sometimes swim through the shite, sir,” Maybury says cheerfully, as if quoting an old proverb. “That’s why we have Constable O’Connor here.”

Palin nods, smiles, then looks across.

“I see. Is that what you do for us, O’Connor?” he asks, twitching a little at the indelicacy of the phrase. “Swim through the shite?”

“In a manner of speaking, sir, yes I suppose you could say it is.”

“And you enjoy this work? You find it suits you?” O’Connor recognizes that he is being mocked now, that Palin is letting him know where he stands. He is well used to being goaded by his English colleagues, but he is still surprised that the Chief Constable himself should feel the need.

“I do my duty, sir,” he says. “As best I can. I trust that the work I do is of some small value.”

Palin shrugs.

“We are waging a tiresome battle against a puny and irrational foe. None of us will be getting any medals for it, Constable, I can promise you that.”

O’Connor nods at this but doesn’t answer. He gazes down at his toe caps: scuffed black leather against the swirling reds and greens of Palin’s Persian carpet. He feels the warmth of the fire against his calves and backside. He has learned to keep his own counsel at times like this. There is nothing much to be gained by speaking out, he knows, but plenty to be lost.

“You should get back to your work now,” Maybury tells him. “Let us know if you hear anything more of interest.”

“And tell Harris to bring us more coffee,” Palin says, stretching forward for the evening paper. “This pot’s already dead.”

[ Return to the review of “The Abstainer.” ]

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