Those We Left Behind - Excerpt
The pillow is cool on Ciaran's cheek, damp from sweat. Sunlight makes a glowing rectangle on the wall. It lingers flickery green behind his eyelids when he blinks.
He does not want to look at the wall on the other side of the room, or what lies in the corner there, beneath the window. He does not want to see that. After all the shouting and the noise and the cracking and the hot and the wet, he doesn’t ever want to look at it again.
The mattress rocks. Warm air finds the tiny hairs on the back of Ciaran's neck and waves them like the grass on the dunes, back when they were little, and things weren’t so hard and angry. A bare arm slips around his waist, the hand taking his. The chest against his back, all warm and cuddly, bony knees tucked behind his.
Ciaran sees the red points of blood on both their wrists. Join the dots. Make a picture.
His hands are sticky with it.
'Are we going to jail?' he asks.
Thomas squeezes him tighter, his mouth close to Ciaran's ear. The teeth held behind his lips for now.
'Will they send us to the same jail? Or different ones?'
Thomas holds his breath as he thinks. After a while, he says, 'Dunno.'
Ciaran feels something cold and heavy where his heart should be. ‘If it's different ones, will they let us visit each other?’
'I hope they do.'
Downstairs, a hammering on the door. More noise when all Ciaran wants is soft quiet. The letterbox squeaks open.
Ciaran thinks it's the old man from next door, the grey one who looks cross and small-eyed at the brothers when he sees them over the hedge.
'Jenny? David? Are you there? Can you hear me?'
Thomas's chin rests on Ciaran's shoulder.
'David? David! I've called the police. Come and open the door if you're there.'
Far away, high above everything, a wailing noise, rising and falling. Like some terrible animal galloping to their hiding place to gobble them up. It gets louder.
Ciaran wants to cry. He wants to take it back. He wishes it hadn’t happened at all. His shoulders judder as the tears come. He closes his eyes.
'Shush.' Thomas's lips are soft against his ear. 'We'll be all right. I'll look after us. Don't worry.'
The wailing comes close, falls and dies, the sound of tyres on the driveway outside. Car doors opening and closing.
Ciaran opens his eyes, sees the blue light dancing on the wall.
'They're here,' he says.
He doesn't know if Thomas hears him. His brother keeps on talking, his words dripping into Ciaran's ear like warm oil even as the front door rattles on its hinges.
When Paula Cunningham heard the news about the boy's release, she knew the case would fall to her. She had felt no surprise when Edward Hughes called her to his office. The file had been waiting for her on the boss's desk, half an inch of reports, assessments and evaluations. It pulled a bitter curse from her throat.
City centre traffic hummed and rattled beneath Hughes’s window, car horns sounding, someone whistling for a taxi. She turned the pages while Hughes chewed a pen at the other side of the desk.
A single photograph of Ciaran Devine at the front, hollow eyes and blank face, a little boy long gone.
They'd used the same picture in the Sunday red top she'd read at the weekend. SCHOOLBOY KILLER TO BE RELEASED, the headline had screamed above a half-page story.
She knew as soon as she saw it. Just knew.
'Any way out of this?' she asked.
Hughes shook his head. 'None at all. The young fella needs your experience.'
'What about Terry Grimes?'
'Terry's tied up. It's your case, and that's all there is to it. You can handle him. He's been good as gold on his temporary releases. Tom Wheatley at the hostel says he was no bother at all when he stayed over.'
The boy would have had excursions accompanied by one of his case managers. Shopping trips, a meal at McDonald's, a walk in the park. Finally, they would have allowed him a night in the hostel off the Saintfield Road, in the south of the city.
She pictured him sitting in the small, clean room, perhaps counting coins in the palm of his hand, trying to grasp the simple acts other people took for granted. Going to a shop counter, asking for what he wanted, saying please and thank you.
Cunningham remembered taking a lifer called Brian to a newsagent's. He had mumbled, 'Polo mints, please.' The shopkeeper had set the sweets on the counter. Brian, who had strangled his girlfriend to death after a drinking binge, had grabbed the packet, dropped a twenty-pound note in its place, and walked out of the shop.
When she'd caught up with him, his change in her hand, Cunningham asked why.
Brian had stood there on the pavement, blinking tears from his eyes, before he said, 'Cause I don't know what they cost.'
Remove a man from the world for years then drop him back into it, expecting him to simply pick up where he left off. It doesn't work. He'll be lost. And Ciaran Devine would be no different.
Cunningham had entered the Probation Service twelve years ago, not long after gaining her MSc in clinical psychology. As a postgraduate student, she had spent summers working on the wards of psychiatric units, then a year in Maghaberry prison, counselling inmates. She had learned things in those days that would stay with her until her last breath, like the terrible cost of casual violence, and how poorly the system dealt with those who inflicted it.
In all those dozen years, Cunningham wasn’t sure if she’d ever done any good.
She let the air out of her lungs, wished for a cigarette. 'All right,' she said. 'When's the ADR?'
'He gets out Wednesday. That gives you a week to prepare.'
'Jesus, how am I supposed to prepare for this?'
Hughes put his forearms on the desk. 'In a thorough, diligent and professional manner.'
Cunningham glanced at him over the open file. He probably thought he was giving her his serious face, but he looked more like a prissy matron. Edward Hughes was on the large side, yet he had a countenance more like that of a schoolboy than a man well into middle age.
'What about the brother?' Cunningham asked.
'Thomas? He's kept out of trouble since his release. He's not supervised anymore.'
The newspaper had also carried a picture of Thomas Devine, smaller than that of Ciaran, tucked away on the second page. Older, leaner, darker. Handsome like his brother, but in a sharper, more jagged way.
An image flashed in her mind: the boys escorted towards the side entrance of the courthouse, blankets over their heads, a uniformed policeman at each arm, followed by the detectives who got the confession, brilliant camera flashes, screams of hatred from the onlookers.
No one knew the boys’ names then, the press ordered to keep quiet.
'He didn't go for a Mary Bell order?' Cunningham asked.
A new identity, a lifetime of secrets, named after a little English girl who did two unspeakable things almost half a century before.
'Thomas gave it a go,' Hughes said. 'The judge threw it out. He didn't reckon they were under sufficient threat.'
The names had appeared in the papers more than a year and a half ago when Ciaran had turned eighteen. His minimum tariff of six years had expired, but he continued to be held at the Secretary of State's Pleasure. The local Belfast journalists salivated over a potential release, stored up their bile and outrage. Politicians gave stiff-lipped opinions that amounted to nothing.
'God help him,' Cunningham whispered.
She hadn't meant to say it out loud. She glanced up at Hughes, expecting a reproach.
He said, 'God help the both of you.'