the first time since he stepped blinking into the light and the flashes of
unwelcome photographers, Seamus could smell freedom.
It tasted of chocolate and merguez, wafting over sun-kissed girls and a
cacophony of bands from Celtic nations, competing on the café terraces.
What an inspired idea of Patrick’s, to escape here to Lorient with the
band. Leaving them as they sang of
the girl from Belfast City, he floated off through the crowds on a stream of
alcohol and afternoon sunshine. An
Irish tricolour hung from a hotel room above the next café, where the loudest
group was playing electric guitars, and a strange instrument resembling an oboe,
that pierced like the sting of a wasp. Two
teenage boys danced past him, one of them wrapped in the black and white flag of
Brittany. He wanted to join a group
of strangers, to hug them all with a “Welcome to the Festival, my Celtic
brothers!” Silly, perhaps, but he
ought to make the most of it. At
two pounds fifty for a half of Guinness it was not going to last long, for him.
the music and fairground rides behind, he caught a glance of the masts of an old
sailing ship, instinctively heading towards the prospect of water.
Hopping along the granite sets that formed the edge of the quay, he
wondered how the oil-green water would taste if he fell; not that he would fall
today. With every drunken lurch
towards the brink, a benevolent hand would lift him back towards the land and
the festivities. Dodging the
friendly cars on the last bridge, he arrived at the entrance to the marina. Beyond the rustling reed-bed of masts, and the slate-capped
attic windows of the old port, lay the harbour mouth and the open sea – the
perfect place to drown memories of confinement.
Leaning against a festival notice board, he unfurled his arms in the
sunshine, wondering whether he might be able to find work crewing one of the
yachts, to stay a little longer. It
was more appealing than the alternative – a return to Ireland, a council flat
if he was lucky and pride of place in a residents’ group, fighting to stop the
Peelers marching down their street. No,
whatever happened from now on, the war was over for Seamus.
He had earned this peace; the same sun-soaked affluent peace of the
middle-aged couples dishing their salads and raising their glasses on the yachts
On the bandstand ahead, a group of three young men and a woman with long dark hair, in a tight black dress were preparing to play. The terraces of the cafés facing the waterfront were filling up. Plunging his hand into his right pocket, he wondered whether his few remaining coins would buy him a beer and a place overlooking the boats and the band. Sixteen, seventeen francs fifty – it was worth a try. Twisting between people in animated conversation (was that another Irish accent?), he headed for the least occupied table where a solitary man sat amongst three empty chairs. Round of girth and grey of thatch, he seemed to have aged a little longer than Seamus: the ageing of contentment. Abandoning an attempt to work out the words in French, he asked the man, slowly, deliberately:
“Is this place free?”
Rousing himself from some deep reverie, the man replied,
“Yes, please sit.”
Smiling, Seamus sat down diagonally opposite him.
Yann, for that was the man’s name, had been staring alternately at the clock on the front of the Chamber of Commerce building (5.25 – Didier was late), and the antennae which rose like a syringe from the ugly tower block behind the slate roofs of the old port. The wind was just strong enough to sway the masts, and the wine just strong enough to sway the tower block. Some of the masts were topped with tiny radio aerials. He imagined clandestine signals from the tower to a yacht. A base off shore – now there was an idea. His attention meandered down towards the boats themselves, his vision focussing just long enough to register their prissy names: l’Écureuil, Tupetu, and a solitary Breton flag, limp symbol of his nation’s fighting past.
Disturbed by the arrival of Seamus, he observed his new tablemate with interest. Slim but heavily built, a few short bristles all that remained of his hair, a bit older than himself, he thought – the ageing of a tough life. He proffered a handshake.
“Yann is my name.
How do you call yourself?”
“From where do you come?”
“From the North of Ireland.”
A wave of fraternal warmth washed over Yann. From the tales of the saints to the songs of Alain Stivell and Tri Yann, the struggle of Seamus’s people had inspired the bards of Ar Mor; if only the rest of Yann’s people would learn from their example. Contemplating their humiliation, his hand instinctively slipped towards his right pocket. Forty-five years after leaving primary school, the obligatory clog in that pocket weighed heavier than ever.
“Give me your hand! Give me the clog! If I ever catch you speaking that rubbish in school…”
Half a century of the easy life would soften the skins of most, but never the palm where those first blows had landed.
Five thirty-five, and still no sign of Didier - this was beginning to worry him. Perhaps something had gone wrong. The girl with the long hair took her place beside a harp in front of the band. Introducing them in French, she opened with a lament in Breton.
“Ar Mor, we will remember…”
He looked around at the other tables – the lack of recognition on the faces – final phase of the schoolmasters’ genteel genocide: a nation no longer aware of its own existence.
Red wine in the afternoon, sweetens the sentiment and spices resentment - as good a reason as any for ordering another. He looked over towards Seamus. The tattoo on his biceps excited a flash of semi-recognition – a hooded figure with a rifle held in a defiant diagonal. His arrival here at this, critical moment was an omen, a sign of good luck, perhaps.
“Do you speak Irish?”
“Yes, I learned it in p… I learned it as an adult.”
“You are here for the Festival?”
“Yes, I came here with a band from Belfast, Sham Rock and Real Craic. Have you heard them?”
“No, not yet. They are good?”
“I’d say so, but then they’re my friends.”
Yann noticed his new companion’s eyes shift furtively along the lines of people in front of them, imagining him engaged in some under-cover operation. If he spoke Irish, then he must be on the right side. Leaning across the table, he said:
“I order another bottle of red
wine. You like some?”
Seamus’s eyes sparkled back at him.
“Thank you. You’re a gentleman.”
A couple of under-cover items had distracted Seamus’s attention: a bra strap and a visible panty line, to be precise. ‘It’s just as well there’s a table between your eyes and my dick,’ he thought. ‘I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression my friend!’ It was funny, after the first year in that cell with just the two of them; he would have made do with Patrick in a mini skirt, if he shaved his legs first. Then, gradually, imperceptibly, all desire had seemed to fade - until now. Along the cobbled catwalk between their table and the harbour mouth, passed a parade to raise the spirits of the stoniest man. Even the lighthouse behind the old port seemed to be standing a little straighter. The problem was, after twenty years in cold storage he felt like picking up where he had left off, with girls who could have been bearing his grandchildren now, had events turned differently.
‘No, it’s not a bald patch; it’s an erogenous zone. Would you like to stroke it darling?’ OK - maybe not. Leaning back in his chair, he tried to content himself with the vision of loveliness playing the harp in front of him. She sang in a language he did not recognise, a gentle language, a song of love perhaps. For a moment he caught her eye and imagined she was singing for him. Acknowledging the applause with the smile of one who enjoys the attention of others, she moved the harp aside and picked up a tambourine for the second number. Taking this as their signal, rows of youngsters spontaneously linked arms along the quayside, springing with coordinated steps around the passers-by. The tempo of the band was quickening, beating out a rhythm which seemed to say:
“Join the party
Join the party
Join the party
Never too late!”
“What is this instrument, the one that looks like an oboe?”
“Like the haut-bois? We call that the ‘bombarde’. I do not know his name in English. And the other, like the bagpipe is the ‘biniou’”
Yann watched the centipede of carefree dancers shuffle across the cobbles. The bombarde and the biniou – hypnotic pipes for the rats from Paris and the children of Ar Mor alike. His inhibitions were gone but he had no desire to dance. Where was Didier? It was nearly six o’clock now and he had reason to be worried. Gripping the arms of the chair with clammy palms, his heartbeat raced with the beat of the bass drum. Too old, some of them had implied, the ones who had never suffered as he had. Surely they were not going to move without him now, to deny him this opportunity to leave his mark.
Across the table, Seamus was moving his chair back, ready to stand. From behind Yann came a familiar voice, in the language of his fathers.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes, I am ready. This is my friend from Ireland.”
Didier’s thin face was alongside him, stern as a military procession.
“How much have you had to
“Too much – waiting for you.” He laughed. “Has the delivery arrived?”
Didier responded with the faintest of nods, narrowing eyes with a twitch of disapproval from his right eyebrow. Raising his glass in one hand and gesticulating at the surrounding tables with the other, Yann lifted his voice above the music.
No-one here understands us!” A few eyes deflecting in his direction
suggested those who could, might have taken him for a madman.
“I’m going to try the dance,” said Seamus, emptying his glass. Yann lurched over the table towards him.
“I must leave you now. Digémer mat in Breizh. Make the most of your stay in Brittany, my friend.”
“Thanks. Thanks for the drink, and yes, I will.”
He grasped Seamus’s hand; forearm raised, reading the understanding in the other man’s eyes. Didier was growing impatient.
“For Christ’s sake lets go!”
Yann’s hands pulsated with the beat of his heart. The moment was approaching. Fifty thousand expected for tomorrow’s procession, said Le Télégramme. This would be the big one, would make the McDonalds bomb look like a gentle training exercise. Cars and quayside, boats and buildings swayed together as he pulled himself to his feet. And the music surged with a volley of tiny explosions, burning inside his head, beating out the rhythm:
“Never too late!”