THE man who entered my house shortly before midnight last night was remarkably particular about the information he would share with me, what was acceptable to write, and, most importantly, what was not.
“It is of paramount importance that you change names and locations,” he told me. “It must be beyond a doubt that your story is based solely on your imagination. Any name, location, or event must be fictional and must not depict any living person or real event in the past or present. There are people dear to me, and I do not want to cause them any harm.”
On the sensitive yet unavoidable subject of the IRA, the Irish Republican Army, he said, “I cannot and will not comment on the operations of the IRA, nor will I admit any affiliation with them. I understand the presence of the IRA plays an essential part in the line of events, but references to them and their activities, as well as those of the British Intelligence services, must be entirely based on your own research.”
“Take some liberties,” he added.
In the same spirit, he had outlined the terms and conditions of this late-night meeting in meticulous detail.
“Did you get the tea?” were his first words the moment he entered the kitchen. One of the conditions was the supply of good Irish tea, preferably Barry’s.
“Yes,” I answered. “Everything is in place as requested.”
The kettle stood steaming on top of the gas stove. On the counter beside it, the tin teapot my wife and I had bought in Ireland during our honeymoon was filled with boiling water. There was also a box of loose tea and a spoon. It is essential to my Irish American wife to keep an endless supply of Barry’s tea in the house. According to her Irish-born grandmother, while there is tea, there is hope, and we honor her motto daily.
“A bottle of Jameson’s,” I said while pointing to the setup on the kitchen table, which included two teacups and a sifter covering one of them.
“Milk and sandwiches, also as requested.”
He was visibly pleased.
“Well, I’ve come to the right place then,” he said with a satisfied smile on his face. “I don’t mean to rush, but let’s not waste valuable time. Put away your notebook, and let’s get going. There is a lot to tell and hardly enough time to do it.”
Another condition of our agreement was there would be no written record of this meeting.
“I pray you have a good memory,” he had told me, and I had assured him he could count on it.
The water kettle started whistling.
“May I?” he asked, pointing to the tea, boiling water, and tin-pot.
“Please, be at home.”
He continued with the necessary and familiar procedure of preparing the tea, emptying the hot water from the teapot into the sink, carefully scooping four spoons of tea from the box, one after the other, dropping them into the teapot, and then pouring the boiling water.
There was an awkward but short period of stalled conversation while we waited for the tea to brew for the appropriate two minutes.
Then he finally broke the silence.
“I do apologize for this Interview with the Vampire atmosphere,” he said in a serious manner, “but I swear to the mighty Lord that I am a regular human being with a tight schedule, and I have no intentions to bite you…”
“My wife, my kids, and I appreciate that.”
“…though some people in British Intelligence might think I have the supernatural power to disappear one instant and show up the next moment someplace else.”
He took the teapot and the sifter and carefully filled both cups on the kitchen table. I watched curiously as a cautious gush of milk made it into his cup, followed by a generous shot of Jameson.
He looked at me. “Just my version of Irish tea. I hate coffee. How do you like yours?”
“Just plain, please. No additions,” I answered.
“I’m a purist,” I couldn’t help to add. I grinned, but he didn’t seem to notice.
With the teacup in his hand, taking an occasional, cautious sip, he walked back and forth in our small kitchen, deep in thought about how to begin the story he was about to share with me. It also provided me a chance to watch him for a few moments. After all, the memories of our first meeting were a bit blurred.
He was roughly six feet tall. The blond haircut, neatly trimmed to a quarter-inch length, gave him a defined military appearance. The muscular, lean body added to that impression.
Yet, the faint smell of expensive aftershave and the clean-shaven face emphasized his distinctly gentleman-like features. His clothing was well suited for the cold nights of the New England fall. He wore a vintage chambray shirt under a dark green wool sweater and dark charcoal corduroys. All in all, he would have easily passed as a model for an L.L. Bean catalog.
I guessed his age to be somewhere in the mid-fifties, and even though his hair showed the first signs of gray around the temples, his face had a remarkably boyish look. One could easily imagine what he had looked like in his early twenties. The most striking feature, though, was his pale green eyes.
His voice was clear, and he spoke with a slight Irish accent. His choice of words sometimes seemed Americanized, suggesting that he had spent a considerable portion of his life on the American continent. I also had the feeling that he could drop the accent in an instant when the circumstances required it.
I had first met him in the Boston region less than two weeks ago. Initially, I thought we had met just by chance. In retrospect, I am not so sure anymore if our first encounter was pure coincidence, or, more likely, that he was specifically looking for someone like me.
I had won fifth place in a short story writing contest. The prize did not include any money, just a lousy book on marketing a novel plus free access to a writers’ conference in Westborough, just outside of Boston. The trip to Boston was not a tremendous thrill since we live in Dublin, New Hampshire, only two hours away by car.
Before we bought our house, we had looked at a much larger property in Vermont for almost the same price, but my wife could not resist the temptation of living in Dublin.
At the conference, I had the opportunity to meet other writers and, more importantly, publishers. Writing short stories doesn’t make a living, and I was on the search for material to write a novel of some sort. At that time, I was officially enduring a writer’s block.
The question of how exactly a publisher would be of any help in such a hopeless situation must remain unanswered. They are not interested in mere talent or brilliant ideas, and the odds are discouraging, even if you can present a written work. The fellow authors I met, including the wannabes, were just full of themselves, and I began to question their view of real life on planet Earth. By the end of the day, I wasn’t one iota closer to a book deal than I was when I arrived.
It was time to drown my disappointment in a few beers. Fortunately, the Marriott, where my wife had made reservations for me, had an Irish pub by the name of “Fitzwilliam’s.” It was a crowded place, but I conquered one of the few empty stools at the bar, discovered they had Smithwick’s on tap, and ordered Bangers ‘n Mash from the menu. Bob, the bartender, was very able. He was of Asian descent, and I had gathered his name from a tag attached to his black vest. I never had to endure an empty glass, which gradually improved not only my mood but even invoked a rarely encountered eagerness to mingle in a place far away from home and family.
The memories of that night remain vague. After drinking more beers than I can usually handle, I don’t exactly recall the details of how I got into a conversation with this Irish lad. I remember telling him about the day’s misery, and he turned out to be a devoted listener. When we parted, he mentioned he might have a true story for me and that he would call me. Still, the next morning I was convinced that it was all part of an alcohol-induced dream mixed with a considerable portion of wishful thinking.
A few days later, when he called, I realized it had not been a dream. We talked for about half an hour, during which he laid out his terms and conditions. I agreed willingly because he had aroused my curiosity. After all, drunk or not, I never give away my home address or phone number to strangers.
I was cautious and thought about sending my wife, including the kids, to the in-laws the day we would meet again. As if reading my mind, he insisted, “I’d prefer this to be a private meeting, just you and I.”
Several days later, I received another, much shorter phone call to set up the exact meeting date and time. A female voice, with what was most probably an Irish accent, told me there was fresh lobster for sale at the Boston Harbor fish market tomorrow night.
“The best time for pick-up is between 23:30 hours and midnight,” she said. There was no time to respond or ask questions. She hung up immediately after she had delivered the message. No good-bye. Nothing.
I am not sure if a venue like the Boston Harbor fish market, in fact, exists. It very well may, but for the purpose of setting up the meeting, it didn’t matter.
Nevertheless, there I was, alone with my mysterious friend who had suddenly stopped the pacing and spoke without looking at me.
“My name is Finnean Michael Whelan. I was born in the Republic of Ireland on a farm near Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula in the year of The Lord 1952. For nearly forty years, I was involved in what some people call an unnecessary war. Respectfully, I disagree.”
Then he turned toward me. “But I am not here to make political statements. I have fought my fight, and I have finished my course. I leave it to the politicians to finish what began a long time ago, and I am not one of them. I am here to make a final statement, in memory of the lads who laughed with me, to sing of their deeds and praise them while I can.”
He noticed my confusion. “Bear with me,” he said.
“I am also the direct product of a conflict that has lasted for several hundreds of years,” he continued. “My mother was raped by a constable of the RUC when she was visiting her parents in Derry, in Northern Ireland. You know about the RUC?”
I nodded, “Yes.”
The Royal Ulster Constabulary, the official police force in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 2001, had repeatedly been accused of following a shoot-to-kill policy. Suspects were deliberately killed without intent or attempt to arrest them. The list of accusations is long, including one-sided policing and discrimination directed against the Catholic minority.
Although the RUC was officially dissolved in 2001, the only real transformation was the name change to Police Service of Northern Ireland, as if a different name could ever clear their responsibility for past wrongdoing.
“As I said, the rape and thus my birth made me a direct result of the conflict,” he continued. “While my mother was dark-haired, I was born with a full set of blond hair, which explains my first name. Finnean is Gaelic, and it means fair-haired.”
He took yet another sip from the cup and started pacing again, resuming his monologue.
“My actions in a younger life, during the period known as ‘The Troubles’, have caused the deaths of many people, most of them Protestants, some of them Catholic, and the Catholics I killed were traitors. They deserved to die for their treason, and I pray they burn in hell where I may join them. Once there, it will be my pleasure to increase their pain. However, still, I do hope, when the time comes, I will meet St. Peter at heaven’s gate, and he will say, ‘Hey, Finn, what took you so long?’”
Again, he stopped and looked at me, “Well, you know the saying about the Irish coming to heaven?”
It took me only a second to think about the answer. “May you arrive in heaven five minutes before the devil knows you’re dead?”
“Yes, that’s the one. So, St. Peter would tell me, ‘The devil – you knew her as Margaret Thatcher – has sent her most ruthless servant, Ian Paisley, to come after you. Do I feel a draft here? You’d best come in quickly and let’s close the gate.’ ”
He turned toward the kitchen door and yelled, “Sorry, Ian! It was getting just a bit chilly here, and with today’s energy costs, you know¾Have a nice death!”
For a moment, it seemed like he wanted to spit at the door. Then he realized where he was, and, remembering his polite manners, showed respect to his host’s courtesy.
I couldn’t help but comment. “But Ian Paisley was the First Minister of Northern Island.”
He looked straight at me with a mirthless smile. “And Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of Great Britain. A great man, whose name escapes me at this very moment, once said that freedom is the right to be wrong, but not to do wrong. Both have committed a great deal of wrongdoing in the name of freedom.”
He shook his head. “Nevertheless, enough about politics. As I said, politics are not my strong suit. I leave that to people like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness. Not that I agree with either one of them, but it looks as if talking counts more than fighting these days.”
He noticed our empty cups, and he went for the teapot, filled both cups carefully, and added milk and Jameson for himself.
“Well, back to my story,” he said. He picked up his cup, wrapped his hands around it, and went on pacing.
“The place I grew a man was the farm of Brendan and Mary Whelan. My mother spent most of her pregnancy at their place. The rest of her family was told that she was taking care of a distant cousin who was sick. After she gave birth to me, she went back home to her family in Cahersiveen, in the county of Kerry.
“I was officially declared an orphan, and the Whelans were assigned as my foster parents. They were good people, and they treated me well. My mother’s husband had provided the financial means to help them raise me properly.
“He also left strict instructions that they were not allowed to reveal my true identity, and they had to maintain that my parents had died in a car accident. They kept their side of the deal until their very deaths, and even after I was confronted with the truth, I never told them I knew.”
It seemed he had sunken into memories of his childhood days as he closed his eyes for a few moments, and then he just stood there with his head slightly bent downward.
I sat at the kitchen table, enjoying a delicious cup of tea and listening to my new friend. I had to admit that the man taking his strides back and forth in my kitchen had already managed to fascinate me a great deal. At that very moment, slowly and surely, I began to realize with delight that I was only at the beginning of an adventure tour into another time and dimension, and I already enjoyed the ride.
I also had questions on my mind, and I deemed this was the right time to throw in the most burning of them.
“Did you ever meet your mother?” I asked him.
It appeared I had interrupted his thoughts, and he didn’t answer immediately. He shook his head.
“No,” he answered calmly. “She was already dead when I found out. I have only a photo of her, which is now in a safe place. I don’t carry it with me. It was given to me by someone special.”
“Who was that?” I asked.
“My brother,” he said.