An excerpt from Entanglement, a Novel, which is set in Ireland on the road to Belfast. Check out the audio introduction, too.
Well, in the morning, I’m hearing the roar and swoosh of engines, says Nicole, telling Scully and the others, drawing a puff of fresh morning air into her lungs, wetting her lips and squinting her eyes, as Irish storytellers tend to do.
They’re coming at me from the opposite side of the road! Everything’s flip-flopped! Tiny, boxy foreign cars gunning for me and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m suddenly swerving to avoid them. Feels like I’m in an amusement park, I’m thinking, only this is for real. I’m not in some buggy-shaped, dodgem car. In the dense fog of Ireland there’s a thin white line, barely visible, separating us from the other side of the road and a possible head-on collision. Never driven before on the left-hand side like they do here and in England and Japan. This beautiful new convertible, which we picked up from the Shannon airport, is perfect, just the ticket. I love it. Perfect for these backcountry Irish roads, which are narrow as a cat’s whisker, twisty as grandma’s walking cane. I’m sleepy, trying to stay focused, my eyes blurred, almost in double vision. Cars keep coming at me like silver bullets. I slow down, finally, to a crawl.
There’s traffic ahead of us.
Dawn. The gentle light of an Irish morning breaking through the clouds of fog and rain. Now I can see the road signs, as the fog begins to lift a bit. The countryside is magnificently lush and green this time of year, early summer. There are stone fences along the road; long-haired sheep, flocks and flocks of them, grazing on hillside pastures. The road signs keep telling us that we’re in Ireland, though it really feels as if we’re in an altogether different world, not of this time, not of this century, I scrawl illegibly in my diary.
Michael is still half asleep. I catch a glimpse of his profile: sharp, pointed nose, high cheekbones, crystal blue eyes, and that mop of thick dark hair combed straightback in a mock pompadour. Typically Irish, I think to myself, this new husband of mine. There’s a whiff of aftershave I pick up, musk, sexy. I want to stop the car and make love by the side of the road right now. His head’s bobbing slightly, eyes closed. He must be dreaming, for his eyelids are flickering like an old Charlie Chaplin movie, silent, in black and white.
I feel as if I’ve gained weight, some extra pounds on this journey, after all the weight I lost before the wedding. Michael’s put on some weight, too; he looks heavier in his Harris Tweed jacket, silver and black, wearing a thick Irish turtleneck sweater underneath the coat. He looks like one of those pictures I once saw of the young James Joyce; only the wire specs missing.
I spot some ruins by the side of the road, I pull over and stop the car. That’s the amazing thing about Ireland: ruins from the Middle Ages everywhere you turn, a landscape steeped in history and relics from the past.
His head bobs up, eyes still shut. “Why are we stopping, Nicole?” he mumbles. “Uh, what’s going on?”
“Love my wedding present,” I tell him.
“You didn’t have to. You really didn’t.”
“Of course, but . . .”
This car is his wedding present to me. He’d ordered it custom-equipped straight from the factory in Germany, and had the little puppy shipped to Shannon, where we picked it up at the airport. He’d kept the car as a surprise for me; had no clue in the world. That morning, shortly after our arrival, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Something I want to show you, baby.”
And in the lot outside, there it is, a cool convertible, two-seater, with red leather interior, and a gleaming silver body.
“Michael, it’s beautiful!”
In the front seat is another surprise: a case of champagne, the very best that he could find, shipped from France. “I wanted our honeymoon to start off with a splash!”
The countryside is lovely, I can’t believe how green it is.
“I must be dreaming.”
“Ireland is a land of verdant dreams,” he tells me in his Irish brogue. “My ancestors here go back quite a few centuries, I’ll have you know. Hardy folk, indeed.”
There’s something truly poetic about Michael; he romances with his silvery tongue as much as his good Irish looks. We check out the ruins and I can feel the ghosts from the past haunting the site. It makes me uneasy; I climb back into the car. We stop in the next town for a bite to eat. The road signs say that we are about twenty kilometers south of Shannon, heading toward Waterville.
I reach into my brown leather handbag, pulling out a cigarette from a small case, and glance in the rearview mirror. I’m seeing myself: curls of long reddish hair, blue eyes gleaming, lips wet and inviting, a woman of twenty, in the prime of her youth. Lucky me!
A car moving at high speed narrowly misses side-swiping us.
“Are the Irish the worst drivers in the world, or what?” I’m telling Michael. I exhale smoke.
“Nicole, be more careful. Watch out. It’s dangerous.”
“You know me, I’m not afraid of anything.”
“That’s just what I’m afraid of,” Michael says. “You want me to drive.”
“Never. This car is mine.”
“I knew you were possessive,” he tells me.
The next morning, in a tiny roadside inn near the Dingle Peninsula, I ponder the journey: we’ve only been here a day and I’m in love with the people and the countryside. Lying in bed for the longest time, my head pounding, my eyes swollen, I feel as if I haven’t slept at all. I’m having a horrendous time getting up.
Light is coming through my bedroom window, refracting in many brilliant colors like a prism. Michael’s still asleep on the other side of the bed, the room cold as ice. There’s no central heating in the place; only our bodies to keep us warm.
I climb on top of him, my breasts clinging to his chest; he’s now barely awake. Our bodies roll, turn, bend like reeds in the wind. I feel him now inside me, breathing hard. There is nothing holding us back. We make love and get dressed and back on the road.
I step on it and the Mercedes responds instantaneously. I open up a flat stretch of road between Cork and Kilkenny.
“I’m still hung-over from that champagne last night.”
“Me too, Nicole.”
We’re coming into Kilkenny, precisely thirty-seven kilometers northeast of Cork. Braking, I barely miss a farmer on an old covered wagon stacked with milk containers. Sunlight finally breaks through the morning fog.
“You’re a good lover, Michael.”
“So are you, baby.”
“I like it when you call me baby.” Like we’re in some old Hollywood movie, in black and white, you and me, Bogart and Bacall, now Mr. and Mrs. Michael O’Connor.
That night we find a bed and breakfast place in Kilkenny and crawl into bed to make love again. When we wake the next morning, the air is bone cold. Neither of us particularly wants to get out of bed. He snuggles with me for a while, then gets up and disappears into the bathroom. I dress slowly by the electric heater, shivering. This is June but it feels like winter. Breakfast is at eight o’clock.
“I’m going down,” I tell him.
“There, in a minute,” he says, still shaving.
In the tiny breakfast room, next to the main desk, I drink coffee and wait for him to come down. When he comes down I hand him a slice of Irish soda bread.
“Delicious,” he says, taking a bite. “You know what they say?”
“Always tell a country by its quality of its bread.”
“I believe you.”
Michael suddenly looks nervous. He glances around the room, then pokes his head out the window at the convertible parked by the main entrance. Lighting up a cigarette, his lips are trembling.
“Something wrong? Never seen you like this.”
“What is it? You can tell me. No, tell me.”
While I’m drinking coffee and eating more soda bread, he runs outside to the car. I look out the window. At that hour of morning, the Irish countryside is magnificent. I’ve never seen such lovely rolling hills, moats and rivers. What’s going on? I want to chase after Michael, see what he’s up to. Something weird about this honeymoon.
Beyond me, in the distance across the cobbled streets, is the slowly, gently emerging outline in the soft morning light of the Kilkenny castle. The castle rises to such heights and with such splendor that I’m suddenly transfixed. I stumble out the door and nearly fall on my face, on the treacherously slippery streets.
When I get to the car Michael is standing there, his head turning, eyes darting in all different directions.
“Did anybody see you come out?”
“Why? What difference does it make?”
“I just don’t want them to see you.”
“I know Ireland is filled with secrets but we’ve got nothing to hide,” I say.
“Yes, we do, Nicole. We’ve got a lot to hide and it’s right here in the boot. I’m sorry I never told you. It has to do with my uncles and sister who are living in the North.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m here on a mission, for them.”
“This isn’t just a honeymoon?”
“Don’t be naive, Nicole. You never thought it was just that.”
“Jesus, what the hell are you up to, Michael?”
When he opens the boot I can’t believe my eyes. For the entire boot is filled with guns—guns and explosives. He’s emptied our suitcases and filled them with automatic weapons, AR-18 assault rifles, Armalites, favored by the provisional IRA, I later find out. Our clothes are jammed against the backseat of the convertible.
He slams the boot shut with a thwack; my head is spinning.
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to cross the border with me to the North,” he says.
“With guns in the boot of the car? Are you out of your mind?”
“I know it’s dangerous, but I owe it to them. Will you help me?”
Northern Ireland beckons and we heed her wicked siren’s call. The Troubles have been going on for centuries and our little excursion and delivery of goods isn’t bound to alter history, not for a moment, I tell Michael. But he doesn’t believe me. “I owe them, and I owe Maltby,” he keeps repeating to me in a litany of guilt and remorse, as if that explains why we should meddle in the Troubles and risk our lives. “If you owe Maltby, you’ve got to pay up, or else.”
“Where’d the guns come from?” I beg to know.
“Where they going?”
“I told you not to ask. Forget I mentioned Maltby’s name. You understand? You with me or against?”
“So it comes down to that.”
In Dublin that night, we fall by a pub called Finnegans Wake for a pint of Guinness. I’m still in a state of deep shock, a jolt to the nervous system from Michael. I need to drown my dilemma, whether to go with him or not, in a brew of dark beer. In the pub, an old man, with a long mane of white hair, white beard and grizzled cheeks, sits next to us, camera in hand, taking photographs; and appears to pick up on the dilemma. “Name’s Scully,” he says, lifting a pint, putting down his camera on the wooden bar, winking and nodding his head, as if he’s a long lost friend. “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure. Welcome to Ireland!”
“Hello,” I say, with a smile, glad to hear another voice for a change. Michael is itching to brush him off but I want to hear what he has to say. He looks to be about one hundred years old.
“I am a hundred years old,” he says, reading my thoughts. “Proud of it, as a matter of fact.”
“No offense intended,” I tell him. “Sorry.”
“Americans, eh? Of course, on your honeymoon, I’d guess. Well, you’ve come to the right place. My beloved land of passion and sadness, I say. A beautiful land, indeed. I’m of Irish descent meself, a wanderer, if you will, a trekker or tracker of all things good and bad. Politics! Hate all the politics, all the violence raining down on us poor folk as a result. Violence is as American as apple pie, I hear them say, as if to justify its use and abuse. One reason I left America—the violence—though I’m due to return any day now. Figure I can land an acting job in Hollywood, a bit part in a movie or two. They’ll be making movies about Ireland, all right, particularly about the Troubles. You know about them, don’t you?”
“Of course,” I say, “we’ve heard.”
“Well, there’s a poem you should know about,” cries Scully. “Have you heard it? Written by James Clarence Mangan, if memory serves, way back when. Tells the story of Ireland, of the Black Rose, as we were once known to the Brits. You see, there was a girl with black hair named Roisin Dubh, Dark Rosaleen in the poem. The poem is against the Brits and for Irish nationalism, as I understand. Powerful, so powerful that if you’d recite it aloud, you’d be accused of treason. Listen. I’ll recite a few lines for you.
O My Dark Rosaleen,
Do not sigh, do not weep!
The priests are on the ocean green,
They march along the deep.
. . .
Shall glad your heart, shall give you hope,
Shall give you health, and help, and hope,
My Dark Rosaleen!
Scully’s voice bellows another stanza, followed by a gulp of Guinness and a loud burp:
Over hills, and thro’ dales,
Have I roam’d for your sake;
All yesterday I sail'd with sails
On river and on lake.
. . .
O, there was lightning in my blood,
Red lightning lighten’d thro’ my blood.
My Dark Rosaleen!
Michael knows the poem, he says, and agrees with it whole-heartedly, but he’s had enough of Scully. He’s now ready to get up leave the pub, but I pull him back. On the radio, blaring through the speakers tucked in ceiling corners, they’re playing a song from the latest Police album, with my man Sting, my favorite artist, singing:
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life
Looking at the barrel of an Armalite
I don’t want to spend the rest of my days
Keeping out of trouble like the soldiers say
I don't want to spend my time in hell
Looking at the walls of a prison cell
I don’t ever want to play the part
Of a statistic on a government chart
There has to be an invisible sun
It gives its heat to everyone
There has to be an invisible sun
That gives us hope when the whole day’s done
“Want to hear about Armalites?” says old man Scully. “What your man Sting is singing about? Got a story to tell. Even got some pictures of my travels to the dark city up north, if you’re curious. Might be pertinent to your travels.”
“Sure,” I tell him. “I’m all for stories. Armalites are rifles, aren’t they? Used by the IRA, no?”
“We really ought to go and get some sleep,” says Michael, “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”
“Won’t take long,” says Scully. “Perhaps a day and a night. Just kidding, of course. Stay with me, folks.”
“Don’t think so,” says Michael, yanking me by the arm and dragging me out of the pub, my Guinness unfinished and Scully shaking his head at me and whispering, “Lady, don’t go. Don’t go.”
Next day, we drive north on the road from Dublin to Belfast. The border between north and south is blurred, not clearly demarcated, like shifting sand in the desert. The Brits are free to stop us wherever they like, wherever they say the border is, Michael tells me. We must be prepared, he adds. He wants me at the wheel, thinks they’ll be less likely to stop and search us if they see an American bird in a fancy car. This makes no sense to me; just the opposite may be true. I want to turn back, but it’s too late. Minutes pass like hours, as if this is some kind of final countdown.
The orange sky turns black; I feel shaky at the wheel. Up ahead of us I see a couple of British Army tanks, and men in jeeps driving toward us, machine guns pointed and ready to fire. “It’s a shifting border patrol,” says Michael. “Stay calm. They won’t bother us.” The cars on the road ahead of us are being stopped and routinely searched; civilians are standing around rubbing their hands in the cold night air. It’s hard as hell to see anything, except flashlights illuminating patches of fog.
The Jeep pulls up to us.
They’ll search the convertible and find the guns, the AF-18s, and I’ll never be able to explain any of this and I’ll die in the Irish night. For some inexplicable reason, without conscious effort, I stay calm, like he told me. A British soldier, with a machine gun aimed at us, comes over and sticks his head in our window. His face is doughy and school-boyish, almost at odds with his powerful arms and shoulders; his green army shirt is rolled up at the sleeves, exposing very ornate tattoos of naked women on his forearms. The machine gun is still pointing casually at us.
“See your passport, luv. Please,” he says in a whisper. “Both of you, eh?”
“Sure. No problem.”
“And what is it that brings you all the way from America?”
“We’re on our honeymoon. We just got married,” my face blushes.
From his accent, I’m certain he’s a Scot, as are most of the British Army soldiers stationed in Northern Ireland, Michael whispers to me.
He cradles his machine gun like a child in one arm while looking through our passports and matching the photos with our physical profiles in the car. It seems like the longest time in the world—a complete forever.
Finally, he returns both passports.
“Drive on,” he says, waving his hand across the door of the car.
At three o’clock in the morning we arrive in Belfast at Michael’s sister’s flat. It’s up on the fourth floor of an apartment house near the university quarter. We park the convertible around the back, and as we get out we see a platoon of British soldiers in patrol, machine guns ready, coming toward us. They must be looking for members of the IRA, playing a lethal game of cat and mouse, these Brits and the IRA. Sniper fire could erupt at any moment, taking out a soldier or two, sending a savage message home to the English Queen that, despite being outnumbered by the Protestants, the Catholics would still fight the enemy to the death. I realize now I’m caught in the middle of a war zone, a war between Protestants and Catholics who just happen to live across the street from each other. A war of nerves. Attrition. Resolve. And like most wars, it’s escalated beyond all limits of rational comprehension. Violence breeding more violence. An endless cycle. Blood orange.
The city is black, burnt out, a labyrinth of darkness; we’re lucky to find her place. Michael knocks on the door, a coded knock, and then I know he’s been here before. I’ve married a man whose past has been hidden from me, but there’s no turning back.
“Ah, you made it,” says a mellifluous voice from the other side of the door. “Sarah’s been waiting for you.”
The door opens and we’re greeted by a young lad named Davey, Sarah’s boyfriend. I look at him from head to toe. The Orange Man, I am thinking to myself. He’s pasty-faced with large brown eyes and soft doughy cheeks. He has on an ill-fitting brown suit, a hand-me-down two sizes too large, frayed and with deep holes in the seat of his pants. His shoes are wing-tips, cracked along the sides, too large for his feet and make him look almost comical, a young Charlie Chaplin tramp. His white shirt, the only one he owns I learn, is tattered and soiled, with three buttons missing. He chain-smokes. His peculiar gesture whenever he first meets somebody, even his family and friends, is to wink at that person—and then sneer.
Sarah comes out, wearing tattered jeans and tight-knit wool turtleneck, and embraces Michael; they stare into each other’s eyes, a deep bond between them. I’m a little jealous. Michael finally turns and introduces me, “My new bride.”
“Pleased to meet you,” says Sarah. There’s instant rapport and her sweet charm overwhelms me. I’m a coconspirator now, my fate sealed in the endless war.
Davey and Michael go downstairs and outside to unload the boot of the sports car.
“I knew you would get through,” Sarah tells me. “Luck is on our side. Can I get you some tea?”
“At three in the morning—why, of course.”
Somehow, for the first time in my life, I seem to have a purpose beyond what my family has instilled in me since birth, namely, to maintain and sustain our conservative beliefs, our deeply held values. Now I have a cause, a fight for freedom, for justice, and I’m joined with my new husband and his family to advance its objectives. Drive the Brits out, Sarah is telling me in a thousand different ways. Understand the risks and danger, but throw caution to the wind. If you die, you’ll be hailed as a hero, a martyr to the cause. It’s much too simplistic for my intellectual tastes, yet I’m vulnerable to its beguiling message. Michael’s money and presumably mine will be devoted to furthering the cause. I can’t believe this moral choice has been thrust upon me like this in a day and a night and I’m already acting as if I’ve chosen.
This war—purely random, a collision of unpredictable events and circumstances—is unlike anything I’ve ever seen or felt.
I hardly sleep at all that night. When I awake I see the morning light coming up over the hills of the dark city. I feel cold—a chill suddenly running down my spine. Danger, and its unlawful companion dread are in the air. Anything can happen when there’s a war between folk who are neighbors by day and sworn enemies by night.
At nine o’clock on Friday Michael and I both get up and wander out into the university quarter with Davey in tow. He’s winking and sneering his way into the hearts of everyone he meets. Down the road, we find a pub that Davey wants us to visit. Isn’t it a little early to be drinking Guinness stout? I’m thinking. In front of the pub is a huge cage made of steel-and-wire mesh. There is a small entrance where patrons are frisked by a bouncer for guns before they can get inside just to drink a beer.
“The cages keep out the bombs,” says Michael. “A necessary evil.”
“What? The cages or the bombs?” jokes Davey.
Bombs are tossed in randomly, day or night, at people drinking in the pubs. In this atmosphere, every business is risky, every street a minefield.
“There’s a secret to Ireland,” says Michael in a whisper, tipping a glass of stout, and looking around the pub for signs of any Brits who might be listening. The war between the religions, between the neighbors, between the sexes has been going on this long, and will continue to go on “because, in Ireland,” he says, “you can hide things.”
You can hide guns in the boot of your car, hide men who are your friends by day and revolutionaries by night. “The war’s going to continue as long as everything can be hidden,” he repeats.
“Ah, rubbish!” says Davey the Orange Man. “People’s fightin’ cause they want to change thairs lot in life!”
“I agree with Davey.”
“That’s a-why we’re against the Prods,” says Davey.
The next morning when we get up and walk outside for a bit of fresh air, we see it. The tank is on the street in front of the flat and its turret is pointed at the sports car in the alley.
We stop dead in our tracks. An old man, staggering home from a night of song and drink, happens to step blindly in its path. The tank rolls forward and crushes the old man, whose body now lies in a black pool of blood on the orange, cobbled stone.
Davey, pasty-faced Davey, comes out of the building, winking and sneering at the British tank on patrol. He’s trying to distract it, to put on a bloody good Irishman’s show: smoke and mirrors, a little blarney. “O Lord!” he is saying. “I don’t believe this! You’re certainly, if I don’t say so meself, an ugly beast. Now I’m not sure we’ll be invitin’ yas over for supper.”
Michael pulls away from me and runs into the front of the tank. There’s a shot, then an explosion, and the sports car blows up in our faces. On a rooftop not far away I can see soldiers with guns aimed at us. I run for cover, but the soldiers open fire and Michael is gunned down in the streets. The tank smashes into the front wall of the building and crushes Davey to death.
A rain of random bullets suddenly falls from the orange sky, wounding innocent bystanders on the street. I’m hit in the shoulder and wounded. I try to get up and run to Michael but I can’t move.
Days and weeks later, after a tedious ordeal of police inquiries and paperwork and other bureaucratic hassles, I’m standing at the funeral of my husband, whose body is to be buried in a cemetery near King’s College. While I’m mourning his death, Sarah is whispering sweetly in my ear, asking me to stay and help further the cause. Her brother’s death is “only one of many sacrifices we must make,” she says. “Are you understanding this, my dear Lady Nicole?”
I’m torn. I must go home to California, to the University of Santa Lucia. Can’t stay. I want to get my degree in English Literature and teach. This isn’t my cause to take up. Although my roots are Irish and I love the country, it’s not my cause, I’m telling myself. They need to understand it’s not my cause, Sarah does. She needs to understand. There’s a lesson in all this, I need to tell her, a bitter lesson at that, in love, and what we do, without knowing, for love.