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The year is 1921. Ben Sheridan, a young American, sets out for Ireland to track down his true family, and walks straight into the savagery of the Black-and-Tan war. The Promise of Light is an unforgettable novel of action, a remarkable study of youth, and a work of immense literary distinction by one of Britian's finest young writers.
Ships were burning in the harbour. Their rigging became branches of fire, scattering sparks as the blazing masts toppled into the waves.
I stood with Monahan on the beach across the bay. The tide was coming in. It bubbled up white over our shoes, but we didn't bother to move.
Monahan ran the ferry boat between Jamestown island and the mainland. The ferry hadn't been late once in the ten years he'd been running it and he knew that and the people over on Jamestown knew it, too. As far as Monahan was concerned, those people who stood now on the Jamestown dock hadn't come to see the fire. They came to see if the flames would stop him from making the crossing. Then all of us would remember the fire not because it swallowed Dillon's fishhouse, or the Seaside Restaurant, or because it lit up boats like candles and then snuffed them out and sent them to the bottom of the bay. It would be remembered as the day Monahan's ferry didn't make the crossing. Not even the hurricane of 1911 had done that, and people had run to the water's edge to see him ride the greybeard waves in his flat-ended boat, which took on water and spat it back out through the scuppers. Monahan's ferry roared in so fast on the tide that it smashed the dock to pieces and ploughed on to the beach, but at least he had made the crossing. And what his ferry hadn't smashed, the hurricane took with its white-boiling water and wind that sounded like a train run off the tracks.
Monahan raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes. He kept his hair slicked back with Bay Rum, and it shone in a silver hood across his skull. 'I could run aground on one of them sunk boats, couldn't 1, Benjamin?'
'You could all right.' I had been carrying my suitcase all this time. Now I set it down and kneaded the blood back into my knuckles.
'And I could catch a load of sparks on the wind and it could set my engine on fire. That would blast us right out of the sea.'
I didn't answer him. By now he was talking to himself, weighing his boat against his reputation.
He rested the binoculars back on to his chest. They were German ones that his son sent back from the war. They had the name Kruger scratched on to the case. The binoculars reached Monahan in good condition, but his son had died and was buried in France, at a place called Chateau Thierry.
I still remembered the shock when I heard about his death, as if a knitting needle had been run through one of my lungs. The news spread quickly on the island, from street to street and across the gardens like a huge black butterfly. I had been ready to spend the rest of my life catching sight of him around the island and stopping now and then to talk. In my mind, I had cleared the way for him to grow into a barrel-belted replica of his father. Even years later, the space he left behind still hadn't closed up.
Monahan never took off the binoculars. People in town would touch their thumbs and index fingers together and raise their hands to their eyes, as if spying on something in the distance, and everyone would know who they were imitating. 'I guess your father has about given up trying to put out the fire on the dock. I guess he's trying to make sure that the whole town doesn't go up.'
'I'm sure he's doing all he can.' My father was the firechief. I knew he would be someplace close to the flames, sweat running off him so heavily that afterwards he'd be able to pour it from his boots. It was the worst fire that had ever come to the island. I could see that from where I stood. My father's heart would be thundering out of control, and I knew he would be angry, vicious angry, if anything failed him now; man or woman or machine. He had an old scar on his forehead, from falling off a horse in his childhood back in Ireland. The scar would be red with anger, as if it meant to split and bleed again.
'1 have to go. You know that, don't you Benjamin?'
'Yes, Mr Monahan. People are waiting to see.'
Well, let's give them a show. I'm going to run this ferry clean into the flames and if there isn't a dock to stop me, I'll keep running until I've planted this boat on the steps of the Jamestown courthouse. I wish my son was here to see it, Benjamin. I swear to God I do.'
I smiled and picked up my suitcase, thinking how cold the water would be if we had to jump over the side. The air was warm, but this water had spent its winter swirling around the crags of icebergs off Newfoundland and the brick-red Nova Scotia sand. The Labrador Current. It would be a while yet before the Gulf Stream returned, riding up from the south until it broke against the long beaches of Cape Cod. Then 1 could swim without the breath being punched from my body.
One car stood on the deck of the ferry, its axle chained to stop it from sliding around. The car was a new model Ford. It belonged to Mr Dalrimple. He had been sitting in his car, smoking a pipe, while Monahan made up his mind. But now he climbed out and came walking down the beach towards us. He had been to see his family in Saunderstown, as he did every week. His wife stayed behind, at the Sturgess Rest Home in Jamestown. Her mind was slipping away. 'Are we going or not?' Fire winked on his glasses and for a moment his eyes looked like cinders.
'Of course we're going.' Monahan stamped over to his ferry. 'Benjamin and I were only planning the best route. Are you backing out, Dalrimple?' He climbed into the wheelhouse. `Because if you're backing out . . .' His engines broke into thunder.
Dalrimple turned to me. 'This is the end of my car.'
I touched my thumb to my lips and made as if to disagree. But he was probably right and it made no sense to argue.
There's no backing out. Not now that Monahan's made up his mind.' Dalrimple stuffed the pipe in his pocket and took off his glasses. He polished them with the tail of his shirt. He looked tired. Having his wife go slowly mad, like a slow fog creeping down the corridors of her brain, had dug trenches of age across his face.
I stood at the bow with Dalrimple.
Waves charged out of the dark and smacked against the steel sides of the ferry. Veils of spray blew past us and left a taste of salt on our lips.
Something exploded in the dockyard. The roof of Dillon's fishhouse burst into a flutter of slates and wooden beams. In the shudder of light that spread across the yard, I thought I saw my father. A man stood by himself, too close to the fire for safety. His arms were raised at the rubble of the fishhouse. I thought I saw the gleam of my father's brass fire helmet, which I polished each Sunday night for as long as I could remember until I went away to university.
I knew it wasn't Dillon, because he would be fall-down drunk by now. He did that at every excuse, and this was the best one he'd got. Besides, it was known that he'd bought insurance only six months before. There would be talk, whatever the truth, that Dillon had burned the place himself. I'd have been drunk if I was him.
We passed the first of the burnt ships, wreckage drifting in clumps around the black stumps of the masts. Timbers bumped the ferry's hull, and I heard Monahan swearing up in the wheelhouse.
People on the dock were pointing towards us. They ran down to the water's edge.
Now I heard Monahan laughing, a great rumble from his belly that would send the binoculars bouncing against his chest. He didn't care now if his ferry struck wreckage and sank. In the morning, perhaps, it would dawn on him that his business was ruined for life. But for now he knew he was famous on the island, the kind of fame that would reach to the grandchildren of people who stood on the dock. It might even have reached to his own grandchildren, if his son had not died in the war.
The ferry dock hadn't burned, except for some tar that coated the tops of the pilings. They lit up the way for us, like torches. We pulled up alongside the dock, the ferry engines churning into reverse and sending a froth of white water up on to the sand. The smoking tar left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Monahan ran up to the bow and unhooked the car's chains.
Dalrimple started his engine. He grinned with the pipe jammed between his teeth. A few sparks had landed on the roof of his Ford, but not enough to ruin it. Only enough to let him claim some fame from Monahan's finest hour since the hurricane of 1911.
The front end of the ferry slammed down on to the dock.
People were running towards us, trampling footsteps on the dusty ground of the dockyard.
'Climb on!' Dalrimple slapped the side of his door. 'You'll get stampeded to death.'
Monahan's binoculars bounced on his chest as his belly-roaring laugh met the oncoming crowd.
I threw my suitcase into the car and climbed on to the running board. I gripped the window frame and Dalrimple gunned his Ford over the ramp and out into the dockyard.
Smoke was everywhere. It billowed over the dust, carrying the smell of burnt tar and rubber and wood. I had grown used to the smell of fires. Not the dry and sweet smell of pine logs in the fireplace, or the tobacco reek of white birch. I knew the stench of melting car tyres and tar-paper roofs with their strange squealing sound as the fire closed them like fists one after the other.
One shack next to Dillon's fishhouse stayed out of the blaze, while everything around it had burned. The shack was Dillon's ice house, where he kept the ice for fish fresh off the boats. He also kept salt in the shack, for fish that would be sent up to the Boston market.
The firetruck stood off to one side. All the water in its tank had been used up and now firemen manned pumps that sprayed seawater over the houses close to the dock. I saw carpets set out on the roofs. These would extinguish the embers before they had a chance to light.
Dillon was drunk like I'd thought. He kept running into his ice shack, dragging out football-sized lumps of ice and throwing them into the remains of his fishhouse. Salt spilled out into the yard. The ice in his hands was coated with it. As Dillon threw his ice into the blaze, the salt flickered blue for a second, before the ball crashed into the fire-belching guts of his fishhouse.
The crowd pulled back to let Dalrimple pass.
Voices were calling my name. Hands brushed past my shoulders. But the fire was in my eyes and I couldn't see who was calling.
I found my father standing in the ruins of the Seaside Restaurant. Pillars of smoke rose up around him. He took off the brass helmet, smoothed back his hair, then set the helmet once more on his head.
Two men stood with him. They wore long overcoats and carried their hats in their hands.
My father's head jerked from one side to the other as he spoke to each of them in turn. He kept jabbing at pieces of wood with his toe and I could tell he was angry with the men.
I set down my suitcase and stood in the dark, waiting for him to finish. I didn't want to muddle my good news with the bad news I figured that these men had brought. I had a job now. That was the good news. For weeks, I had been taking Monahan's ferry back and forth to the mainland and applying for posts at all the different banks. I bought special bonded paper and wrote out my resume each night before I went to bed. My father didn't mind me living at the house, but he knew and I knew that it was time to be moving on. The house was plenty big enough, especially with my mother being gone. And he could have used the company, but he figured that after graduating from university up in Providence, it was time for me to pack up and leave.
It had got to the point where I no longer cared about what impression I made at the banks. I moved easily in my new suit and was not constantly fingering the knot of silk at my throat. It made a better impression not to care so much, and when I walked into the First Bank of Wickford, having polished my shoes on the trouser cloth that ran down behind my calves, I knew I would have a job by the time I left. I'd been getting superstitious. It seemed that the people who interviewed me had been trained not as bankers but as smellers-of-fear. At first, I had plenty of fear and they smelled it and didn't give me the job. By the time I made it to the First Bank of Wickford, I'd stopped being afraid because I had also stopped giving a damn.
But now that I had the job, it seemed to me as if the rest of my life stretched out like railroad tracks. It was the way I once saw the train tracks that ran up from Kingston towards Boston, and down towards New Haven. I came to them one day through the woods of the Great Swamp, when Bosley and I were hunting for quail. For a while we had sat on the tracks, pulled sandwiches wrapped in waxpaper from the back pockets of our canvas hunting coats and eaten them for lunch. We found pennies that children left on the rails to be squashed by the trains when they passed.
The picture of the tracks stayed clear in my head - smooth and without obstacles. Now this was my life. I had found the path that I would follow and once I'd seen the path, I knew it was the one meant for me. I would spend two years clerking, a year as sub-manager and in five years I'd be conning the bank. I had a house picked out to rent in Wickford.
I was glad not to be straying too far from this bay and this island. I had never been restless to leave and stay away. Long before, back into the smudged memories of my childhood, I had claimed the place as my own. The red-leafed autumns and the waves frozen green on the winter beaches and summer and spring were all wound up in my blood. Sometimes I thought of myself as a guardian of the rocks and tides, as if the island itself had a heartbeat that only I could hear, and if 1 pressed my ear to the grey stones in the fields, I could hear its constant thunder.
My father slapped his hand down hard on the shoulder of one of the men. 'I got nothing for you, Pratt. I dolt even know what the hell you think you're doing showing your face around here. Suppose someone recognized you. What then, eh?'
'They wouldn't be looking for me, Arthur. I'm already gone from their minds.' The man kept his hands in his pockets. His shoulders were heavy and sloped.
'The hell you are!' My father fumed away and said again, 'The hell you are, mister.'
Now the other man held his hands palm up towards my father's face. 'You can help us, Arthur. You know the ropes. You know the whole game. It's important to us, Arthur.'
'But not to me!' My father jabbed his thumb against the chest of his black oilcloth fireman's coat. 'I've done away with all that now. And I don't have any money for you. You ask Willoughby if you if you want money.'
'We can't touch what he's got and you know it.' Pratt nodded to the other man and both of them fumed to leave. They stepped carefully in their good shoes over the puffed charcoal beams of the restaurant. 'Well maybe your son would have some interest in helping us.'
Now my father swung around. He took hold of Pratt and pulled him back to where he had stood before. He held Pratt as if the man was a doll and raised him in the air and shook him. 'You say one word to my son and I'll put you in the place where everyone thinks you already are. I want your promise. I want it for old time's sake and for every damn favour you owe me, Johnnie Pratt. So what's it to be? Do I have your promise?'
'Yes, Arthur. I didn't mean to say it.'
'I'm serious now.'
'I know, Arthur.'
'It's because of my son that I can't help you. Because of him that I got out of all that. Does that not make sense to you?'
'It does. And could you put me down now, Arthur?'
My father dropped him in the ashes.
The other man had lit himself a cigarette. The tiny fire lit up his face and hollowed out his cheeks.
I had never seen him before. Never seen Johnnie Pratt, either.
My father slapped the dirt off his hands, as if grabbing hold of Pratt had somehow left more grime on his skin than any black dust painted on him by the fire. 'Good luck to you,' he called after the two men. There was a distant panic in his voice.
The two men didn't answer. They stepped into a car and drove away without turning on the lights. They reached the main road that headed up to the north end of the island, where the ferry owned by a man named Von Klug ran over to Newport. At the main road, they turned on their lights and the two white sabres cut along the road and they sped away into the dark.
My father watched them go. His mouth hung open slightly and I could tell that he was thinking hard.
I walked to where he could see me.
He squinted at first, because he couldn't tell who it was. Then he beamed a smile and spread his arms. 'And how did the job market go today, Benjamin?' He hugged me and I felt his hands grip the cloth of my suit behind my shoulders blades.
'I got it. The man said I could start next week.'
He stepped back, but kept his fingers pressed into my shoulders. 'Yes? Next week. Good salary?'
I knew he was impressed. He only said 'well' when he was impressed. And riding across the bay into the burning Jamestown harbour, I'd had some time to think about it. l was beginning to be a little impressed myself.
'Who were those two men, Dad?'
'What men?' He walked me away from the restaurant and out towards the firetruck. The other firemen were coiling up the firehose. The heavy bronze spigot dragged through the sand on its way back to the truck.
'The two who just drove off in that car towards the Newport ferry.'
'Two old pals.' He nodded, as if only just remembering. 'They wanted to borrow some money and I told them no.'
'You told them worse than that.'
'1 can't be expected to keep my temper all the time.' He took off his brass hat and stuffed it on my head. 'You've got the job. Well done, Benjamin. I knew it wouldn't take long.'
'Why did you tell that man not to show his face around here? Would people get mad if they saw him?'
'Do we have to talk about it? No one wants to see him because he owes too much money. You know how people get when debts haven't been paid. Now look, you get home and change and have a bath or something. I'll be around in a bit. There should still be some supper on the table. This damn fire started when I'd just sat down to dinner.'
'How did it start?'
'I'll tell you exactly. It's that insurance Dillon bought last year. Been driving him round the bend thinking he could get all kinds of money if his ratty busted-up fishhouse burned down. So he sets the thing burning. But here's the jam. As soon as he's got a few drinks in him and sees the flames eating it all up, he remembers the stories of insurance companies not paying if there are suspicious circumstances. So he goes berserk trying to put it out by himself. Throwing slabs of ice into the fire and such.'
'Did he tell you all that himself?'
'No, but I been in this job too long to make mistakes about a thing like that. Go home now, Benjamin. Go home and rest for a while.'
The fires had stopped on the water. Night crept up close around the pilings of the dock and hid the bay behind it. There was no moon and I couldn't see the mainland. The only blaze still burning was the one in Dillon's fishhouse. I thought his tank of diesel fuel must have caught. It would be a while before that burned itself out. The crowds were thinning. People shuffled home, some in their nightclothes and wearing hunting boots. Monahan stood at his ferry, alone now, but still hopeful that another stray person might appear to congratulate him on his finest hour.
The front door was open.
My father's dinner lay cold on a white china plate. It was pork chops and a potato, with some of Mrs Vance's apple jam for sauce. I left the door open and ate the food. It was too early in the year for mosquitoes to come in and I liked the breeze blowing through.
After dinner, I pulled a bottle of my father's Irish whiskey from the mantelpiece. The bottle had a red label and said Dunhams Belfast. My father's friend Willoughby had brought it back from one of his trips to Ireland. I sat down in his chair with the horsehair stuffing. He had rubbed the leather seat dark and smooth with years of naps and pipesmoking sit-downs and whiskey-drinking sit-downs with Willoughby and Monahan. From this chair, he would raise his whiskey mug into the last beam of sunlight coming through the room. He let the sun glint rainbows through its sides.
My father and Monahan used to go on and on about how you could taste the peat in Irish whiskey. I would be handed a glass of the honey-coloured liquid and told to smell the peat and taste it and let it rest on my tongue. But I had no idea what peat looked like or smelled like or even tasted like on its own. As I washed the whiskey through my mouth, I would try to pull apart the different threads of its fire and let instinct tell me where the peat was hiding.
I pulled out the cork and took a drink. I swished it through my teeth before I swallowed, feeling it sting along the line of my gums. First there was only the heat, like embers scattered in my blood. But when 1 stood up to shut the door, the alcohol ploughed through me so hard 1 had to sit back down.
An explosion echoed across the bay. Another slab of Dillon's roof must have shot into the sky.
'So you'd like to make a deposit?' I said to a reflection of my face in the window. 'Will that be to your checking account or your savings account? Oh?' I slugged back another mouthful of the Dunhams and sat forward. The whiskey rocked in my skull. 'You don't have a savings account? Well, allow me to explain our policy.' I stopped talking and frowned at myself. It seemed as if the fun had already gone from telling people what to do with their money and I hadn't even started yet. For a moment, panic fluttered up inside me as I wondered if it might be a mistake to start at the bank. But I had been talking about a job as a banker for over a year now. I had no other plan.
I thought about my vision of the rails, how they were bolted to the land and raced like slivers of mercury into the future.
It was the Dunhams doing this to me. Making me think wobbly. I tapped at my chest to settle the fire. I saw myself walking into the bank in my new suit and sitting at a desk with my name on it. I heard the hum of business. The frown stayed on my face but now it was the frown of responsibility and calm.
I'd be starting at the bank and that was that. I knocked back some more of the Dunhams.
Then a face appeared in the window.
I cried out and stood up. The whiskey went down the wrong way and its burning doubled me over. My eyes teared up and I couldn't see the floor to put the bottle down.
The door opened and I heard from the swish of cloth that Willoughby had come to visit. He was the island's Catholic priest and I felt as if I'd spent most of my life trying to avoid him. My father sent for the man whenever it was time for a long talk. Through every spotty-faced clumsy part of my growing up, Willoughby had been there. His arm was always creeping around my shoulder. I hated saying hello to him and I hated saying goodbye. Shaking the man's hand was like grabbing hold of a glove filled with pudding. I used to squeeze hard sometimes, to see if there were any bones inside at all. I didn't know why my father sent for Willoughby. Most likely, he didn't want to be the one who came trampling into my memory whenever I thought back to the times when I put a foot wrong and couldn't put one right.
'Hello,' I was trying to say. The tears of coughing rolled down my cheeks.
Willoughby drifted in front of me. 'Ben, you must come with me at once.'
'I'm waiting for my father to come home.' I jammed the heel of my palm into my eyes to squash out the tears that remained. Then I could focus on the old man.
'It's to do with your father. Now you must come at once.' He looked as if he combed his hair with a fork. It stuck up like spikes on a hedgehog.
'What's the matter?'
Willoughby breathed in. The air rasped down his old throat. "I don't really know, except that there has been an accident and they need you at the hospital.'
The comfortable rumbling of the Dunhams in my head suddenly stopped. It stopped so quickly that I thought I might fall aver. 'What kind of accident?'
He didn't say. He took hold of my arm and led me out of the house.
It wasn't really a hospital. Jamestown was too small to have a hospital. Dr Melville had retired here from Newport three years before and then got bored with growing cucumbers and digging for bluecrabs in the mud. So he opened a clinic in the back room of his house. The back room was our hospital.
We had to run, because Willoughby didn't have a car. He said they hadn't been able to find one in time.
'There's been an accident,' he kept saying as we ran.
I wanted to ask him for details, but sudden fear had clogged my throat.
Bosley met me outside Dr Melville's house. A crowd had gathered there, almost as big as the crowd that had come to watch Dillon's burn to the ground. The same people who had been shuffling home in their hunting boots and nightshirts now stood peering into Melville's living room.
I grew up with Bosley. Years ago, in the time when we met every morning at the Mackerel Cove bridge and shuffled to the one-room schoolhouse with leather satchels on our backs, he and I and Monahan's son had made a pact to be volunteer firemen and another pact to take turns driving the firetruck. Bosley was the only one who kept the pact, and he grudged me in small ways for not holding my part of the bargain. He even seemed to grudge Monahan's son for dying over in France.
Bosley still wore his black fireman's clothes, too-big boots flopping on the ground as he walked out to meet me. Soot cut through by fines of sweat looked like war-paint on his face. He took hold of my elbow and pulled me to one side.
'What is it, Bos?' The last beehive hum of the whiskey left my head. 'What's gone wrong?'
'Your father went into Dillon's to cap the diesel tank. He said if we capped it, we could save ourselves the trouble of waiting all night for the diesel to bum off. He walked in and a couple of seconds later the whole thing went up. It blew him through the wall and landed him
right at our feet. Melville says he should be all right. But he's lost a lot of blood, Benjamin. He's all banged up to hell.' Now we were deep in the shadows.
The crowd had watched us go. I knew all of them. There was Mr Quigley, who once dropped a brown paper package in the street and it split open and postcards spilled out. On the postcards were pictures of naked women. Postcard Quigley. They damn near ran him out of town because of it. And there beside him was the lady who tried hardest to run him out- Ms Beecham, who taught us at the one-room school and once fell in love with one of her students, a boy named Henry Macintosh. He was only sixteen and he pretended to love her back. I saw them in the street once and it was the only time I ever saw Ms Beecham with her hair down. They made a scandal and then Henry left the island. Ms Beecham seemed to grow old so quickly, it was as if she'd strapped herself into a time machine. People said she played up the stuff with Mr Quigley's postcards to give the island something else to talk about besides the sight of her and Henry Macintosh arm in arm and Ms Beecham's face all filled with love. And in the dark, I saw the face of Mrs Vance who lived across the road from my father. She loved my father and brought him pies. People said they should have married after my mother passed away. At first the idea made me angry, but when my eyes had cleared enough to see how lonely they were by themselves, I saw that the people were right. I didn't know why they wouldn't marry. Nobody else did, either, but they all had theories.
Men and women on the island came to be known by their jobs, or by one or two things that they'd done right or wrong. They knew Monahan as the man who drove his ferry through the hurricane, and my father as the man who stood amongst the fires and swore at the top of his lungs as the smoke swirled all around him.
Soon enough, I figured, I'd be known as the banker. And I hoped only as the banker. The less I gave them to talk about, the better.
I knew all these men and women who had come to watch, but the way they gaped with their eyes as wide and unblinking as fish, was as if they didn't know me. It made me angry to have them staring. They had crept out of their beds to gawk at the fire and now at my father's spilled blood. I thought about the blood and felt helpless. I wanted to gather it and set it back inside him, seal his wounds without trace and for there never to have been any pain. Please, not my father, I thought. Please, not him.
Bosley stopped walking. We both turned and looked back at Melville's. Willoughby stood on the doorstep, squinting around to see where I had gone. Some of the nightshirt gawkers pointed in my direction. 'He's all banged up and talking funny. He's not making any sense, Benjamin. I just want you to be prepared for it is all.'
I could barely see him in the dark. 'Thanks, Bos.'
'I hear you got a job.' He wiped at the dirt on his face.
'They said they'd give it to me.'
Bosley laughed; a quiet cough of breath. He didn't look me in the eye. 'I'd been hoping you were coming to work alongside your dad and me.'
`I thought about it, Bos.' I started walking towards Melville's house. Already the crowd's pale faces were turning.
Bosley walked beside me. 'I guess I just thought about it more than anyone else.'
I couldn't make out any words in the constant mutter of the people who stepped back to let me pass.
Bosley didn't come inside. He shoved his way back into the night.
It was bright in Melville's clinic. The first thing 1 heard when I stepped through the doorway was my father's raging shouts. Not shouting in pain. He was howling in Irish, which I had not heard him speak for many years. The door that separated us was was shut. For a moment, I stood in front of it, feeling the stares from behind. I turned and saw them, dozens of wide eyes peeking through the glass.
Then Willoughby opened the door and pulled me inside.
I tried to stay calm, but when I saw my father, the shock kicked at my ribs.
I did not recognize my father's face. His forehead was blistered white through the layers of soot. The fire had taken his eyebrows and most of his hair, leaving only a brittle mess of orange crumbs, which fell across the floor as he shook his head from side to side. My father had been tied down on to the clinic table. Bandages were wrapped around his bare arms and legs.
He kept up the talking in Irish, his voice all split and croaking, as if he had reached the last words of an argument before it came to blows.
Melville tried to wrap another bandage around my father's head,
but my father moved so much that Melville gave up. The bandage supped from his hands and unrolled across the floor. Melville's head snapped up to look at me. His eyes were grey like a sled-dog's. 'We need you to give us some blood.'
1 took off my shirt.
Melville went to his closet and pulled out a tube with a needle at each end. He also removed the biggest syringe I had ever seen. While he was uncoiling the tube, he shouted up at the ceiling for his daughter. It was going to be a direct transfusion, so I had to be in a higher place than my father. Melville cleared off his marble counter top. He moved quickly but with such care that each glass jar of tongue depressors and cotton balls made no sound as he set them down at the far end of the counter.
'1 thought I was coming here to read him his last rites.' Willoughby s hands fluttered in front of him. 'When they called me.'
'Last rites?' My father's voice boomed through the house. 'You keep back from him with your last rites. You let the poor man die in peace. And you leave me out of this. When Hagan went away, I didn't hear any prayers for him, did 1? And for his wife? We had to fight even to get her buried in the churchyard. You leave my son out of this!'
The marble counter was cloudy white with threads of grey woven into the stone. It seemed to grab at the bare skin of my back as I lay down.
'Keep away!' my father shouted. Then suddenly the belt that had pinned him gave way. The leather tore and flew off to the sides. He sat up and held his hands out in front of him. His palms were burned so badly that the skin had started to peel away.
It was seeing his hands that made me realize how badly he was hurt.
Slowly, my father lowered his outstretched arms. 'Keep him out of this,' he said. His voice was no more than a whisper.
Peg came running downstairs. She skidded into the room. She had arrived with such speed that 1 knew she must have been listening for his call, maybe with her ear pressed to the floorboards, hearing every muttered word.
I couldn't help staring at the blackness of her hair. Although it had been years, people still thought of her and her parents as strangers to the island. I did, as well. To me, Peg seemed to come from much further away than Newport, although the island of Jamestown was separated from Newport by more than just the distance of the bay.
The chromium shine of the syringe blinked at me.
Melville tied a cord around my bicep. Soon the veins on my arm food out, green-blue and criss-crossing. Then he poured ether on to a cotton pad and stepped behind my father.
My father's talking had died down. He was still sitting up, head bowed forward. His fingers twitched, as if he was trying to remember a tune on the piano.
Melville set his hand on my father's forehead and with his other hand he held the pad against my father's face.
A shudder rocked down the length of my father's spine. The ether flooded through him like a tide.
Melville lowered him down on to the leather-covered pillow built into the table. Then he wheeled the table over to where I was lying. ,
I could smell the ether. It was sweet and peppery.
My father looked dead. I couldn't see him breathing.
Peg walked over to me and I tried to sit up, but she held out her hand and made me lie still. 'Do you want me to cover your eyes, Benjamin?'
For a second, calm settled on me as I heard the softness in her voice. 1 didn't have time to answer. I wished we could be any place but this.
'Cover his eyes.' Melville talked as he wiped alcohol on both needle ends of the tube. 'He needs at least two pints of blood within the next twenty-four hours. One will do for now. Father Willoughby offered to donate, but we don't have time to do the tests to see if his blood type is right. If we give him the wrong kind of blood, we'd kill him in no time at all. So we'll be using yours for now, Benjamin. That way we'll be sure. Tomorrow, he'll be taken to the Naval Hospital in Newport. They've already got a bed ready for him. He can't be moved now.'
Peg's hands passed in front of my eyes and made me blind.
I felt the slap of Melville's fingers bouncing off my veins. Then came the pinch as the needle slid under my skin.
I could feel the blood being taken. It was as if Melville had hooked his finger under the vein and was tugging it out of my arm. 'Hell be all right, won't he?' I said through Peg's fingers. Through the cracks between them, all 1 could see was the brightness of the bulb on the
'He is stable for now. Bums take a long time to heal and he's mangled his arm pretty badly. Parts of that diesel tank hit him like shrapnel.' Melville's voice was toneless as he concentrated on drawing the blood.
It was quiet for a while. The others in the room had seen my blood and it extinguished their voices. The faint tugging at my veins continued. I knew that by now, they would have fitted the other end of the tube into one of my father's arteries and that my blood would be flowing into his. I thought of it mingling, reaching his heart and charging away into the caverns of his body. I wondered if somehow my thoughts might travel with it. Maybe I could talk to him through my blood. Perhaps now, memories that belonged to me would flicker to life in his head. Perhaps even the Dunhams would reach him, speckled in the heavy red flood from my arm. What did my father say the whiskey did? Takes out the fire but leaves in the warmth.
The needle slid out of me and Melville folded my arm back. 'Keep that there.'
Peg's hand moved away. She helped me to my feet.
I kept my arm folded. Blood found its way out and dripped from my elbow.
The other end of the tube was still in my father's arm. The tube remained filled with blood and there was more blood on the floor. The syringe lay on the counter, by my feet. A fat drop of blood hung from the end of the needle. Melville had used it to start the flow into my father's arm.
Melville removed the tube from my father's arm, and then lifted the two needle ends, so that the blood in the tube didn't pour out on the floor. 'You should go home now, Ben.'
'I ought to stay here, don't you think?' Dizziness swirled at the back of my head. 'Jesus, is he going to be all right?'
'There's nothing for you to do but rest.' Willoughby's hands settled on my shoulders. 'You save your strength for the morning.'
'Goodnight, Benjamin.' Peg was leaving the room.
I wanted to tell her to stay. As Willoughby guided me out of the room, I saw my father sitting on the table, legs still strapped down. The bandage had covered his eyes and wound once under his chin. It looked as if Melville had been trying to embalm him.
I wished I could take some of the pain for him. It would get worse before it got better. He had told me himself about burns. The healing took months and all of it was pain. He could fend off the shrieking of his raw nerves with anger and shouting, but he didn't have the strength to hold it back for long. Nobody did.
The crowd had gone. All that remained of them were footprints in Melville's flowerbed, his early summer flowers stamped into the mud.