In a dingy North Belfast kitchen, a nine year old girl is making up a bundle. From her practised movements, you can tell she has done this before. But still her fingers are trembling. She butters two pieces of bread, taking care not to tear them with the hardened butter and knife. She breathes through her mouth as she fills the sandwich with corned beef, sickened by the smell. Frightened of getting scalded, she slowly makes a flask of coffee. At every stage, she stops. No-one comes in.
Clearing a small space on the crowded worktop, she lines up the sandwich, the flask, an apple and a tub of milk, and leans back to survey her preparations.
She must not forget anything. He would never say, but she would feel as though she had failed him.
Her mum rushes past, unseeing, running out to her second shift of the day. The front door slams. The little girl carefully wraps up her meagre preparations, and glancing both ways, steps out into the street.
Every morning, all day in fact, he presses his face against the wooden boards, squints through their cruelly narrow slits, and looks out at the living. The street is mostly abandoned, but now and again he catches a glimpse of somebody leading the life he wants, the opposite of the one he has.
Today he is looking out at a father half-running, half-walking beside his little girl on her rickety purple bicycle. She is still learning: stabilisers correcting her jerky steering, brakes squeezed too violently and too often. Her dad stays close, hands at the ready to stop her should she fall, shouting
the universal encouragement, ‘Keep pedaling, don’t stop now, you don’t need to brake when you’re on the flat, you’re doing great!’
The watching prisoner joins in the ups and downs of the ride, his heart heavy with the realisation of missed chances, uncreated memories. He pushes back from the window, not feeling the sharp pain of a wooden splinter in his hand, only knowing the dull punch of his ruined past, and his impossible desire for a different future.
With a sigh, he steps from one rotting floorboard to another, and sits down with a pillow. Unwrapping the bundle, he takes out his Browning, empties the barrel, and begins to clean it. This is the most nervous he feels all day, and his body is tense, ready to spring up at the slightest noise.
There’s a knock on the door. He freezes. Five light but certain bangs. He loads his gun and creeps backwards, leveling it at the door.
“Daddy? It’s me.”
“Wind down the window, for pete’s sake. I’m suffocating here”
“Can’t. Armoured glass, remember. Just breathe it and get over yourself”
The two men, little and large, conscience and no conscience, sit in their dusty Ford Sierra and wait.
“I hate this, Davy. It’s not right.”
“What, the smoking?”
“No, you fool, this whole plan. It stinks of underhanded, stupid cruelty. I’m a father myself, and this – well, this is plain wrong. There’s got to be another way”
“Listen to you, Mr Self-righteous. The man is a cold-blooded murderer. He’s killed people in their own beds, planted bombs in God knows how many public places, and now he’s hiding like the rats in the scum lining this street. He’s no father. He’s lost the right. And don’t you forget it. You can’t.”
“I know. I know all that. It’s just…It’s the girl.”
Davy lights another cigarette, inhales, and sighs with exasperation. “Well, she’ll thank us in the end”
His partner opens the car door, and starts to get out, choking.
“What are you doing?” Davy leans over and hisses, “Get back in! You’ll wreck everything. He got away from us before, and I’ll be damned if we lose him again.”
Stephen slumps back onto his seat, defeated, trapped.
“There’s no way out, is there.”
“There she is! Look! It’s D-Day! We have you now, Seany-boy, we have you now!”
Davy pulls out his gun, eyes lit, wheezes coming fast.
Stephen says nothing.
Slowly the car creeps out of its hiding place, and crawls past the boarded-up houses, staying a careful distance behind the unknowing, daddy’s girl.
Saiorse moves to pass over Sean’s lunch, but he has turned away, edging along the wall towards the boarded window. She giggles at his strange movements, then tails off when she sees his hand raised to silence her.
Suddenly, he grips the boards and ducks.
“Daddy? What are you doing? Is that a gun? Why…?”
“Sweetheart, you’ve got to go. I’m sorry, you’ve got to leave now. Right now. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
He presses his mouth to her head, then grips her arm with his free hand and nudges her towards the door. She looks in his eyes, clouded mirrors of her own, and knows she has to do what he’s asking, just like she’s always done.
Sean’s only freedom slips from his grasp, turns and starts to run. As she goes, she catches sight of two men heading towards the building she has just left, but she doesn’t let herself stop to watch. Somehow she knows that she wouldn’t want to.
Her breaths come hard and fast, roaring in her ears, drowning out the sound of someone shouting her name. Although for years, her memory of that moment will echo with her daddy’s voice.
Saiorse runs on, shivering, through filthy dereliction, tears lining her face like prison bars. Her head is weighed down. She does not see the blue skies or the soaring birds. She does not notice her friend and her new purple bike. All she sees is black. Beaten, she slows to a heavy walk, and then, she stops.
Still looking down, she focuses on the crushed bundle that was her daddy’s lunch, and something inside her thuds.
When she catches sight of the metal bin beside her, she considers it for a brief moment. She shakes her head. This is all she has left of him now.
Clutching her devotion, the little daughter lifts her chin, rubs off her tears and heads back to an empty home.