Journeys by Conor Crummey: winner of the 2019 Moth short story competition
The story of a black taxi driver in west Belfast was chosen by prize judge, author Kit de Waal
Black taxis in west Belfast are more like buses than taxis which, given the reason for their migration to Belfast, should not surprise. Photograph: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Black taxis were brought over to Belfast from England during the Troubles because of the Ra, who kept hijacking buses and burning them out for barricades, so there was no way for the people of poor busless west Belfast to get to work. Joe often relays this nugget of trivia to the younger ones who get into the back of his taxi. He spares the older ones – they who might be troubled by memory. The younger ones, though, for whom the conflict was nothing but an unsolicited story from a drunk uncle, or something to allude to mysteriously to impress friends at their English universities, for them he can be the gatekeeper of information like the Ra barricade fact.
He makes the journey from the city centre to Poleglass for the seventh time that day. Sweat gathers on his brow and his back starts to stick to the seat. There is an evil heat in Belfast this particular day, a day of Mr Whippy and sulphur. He glances at the young child and her mother in his mirror, but doesn’t let his glance linger for too long. People jump to vile conclusions if they catch you looking.
When he was a teenager Joe used to get sent to run messages for the Ra around Andersonstown. Usually it was a message from the Boys to one of his neighbours:
“Your Niall was seen talking to someone from down the road last night.”
“Sean’s after getting lifted.”
“The Boys say they need to use the house later, for it looks over the motorway and the Brits are going to be driving through it, and they want to shoot at the Brits. They’ll be round at six.”
As the conflict escalated, so did his responsibilities.
The mother can’t be more than 20 or so herself. She still has most of her youth about her, though she has that look of perpetual tiredness. She is distracted by her phone. Horrible, not giving a wee angel like that attention. The girl looks to be overheating a bit. Her dirty blonde hair is matted against a head that rests against her mother’s arm.
Joe was let out after the Good Friday Agreement and started driving the black taxi then. Black taxis in west Belfast are more like buses than taxis which, given the reason for their migration to Belfast, should not surprise. They go the same route every day. Joe’s goes from Twinbrook up to Poleglass roundabout, down the Andersonstown Road, round the Glen Road roundabout into town, then it gets to the depot with all the other taxis and does the same route the other way around.
A few of the other drivers were with the Boys back in the day as well. They hated the monotony now, though no one would go as far as saying that they missed the hiss of bullets overhead or the trembling of the ground. Don’t want to sound like loonies. Still though, in terms of level of excitement, and feeling of what one might even call “fulfilment”, there was no comparison between then and now.
He merges into the traffic of the Poleglass roundabout and follows it around to the first exit, the manicured lawn and flowers of the roundabout giving way to overgrown footpaths and sorrowful houses. Joe always thinks that it looks like the houses have started sinking into the ground.
The mother smiles wearily and reaches over for the door handle. The little girl jumps out ahead of her. The mother leans in the window and hands him some coins. He thinks he feels the faintest hint of contact from her fingertip on his palm.
“Cheers, all the best.”
They walk to the nearest estate. There is no one else in the car, so he fiddles for a moment with the the coins left in his palm, feeling their weight, and his gaze stays with the pair, watching the triangles of a heatwave dance across their bodies.
* * * * *
He is finishing the washing up when they come to the house. He hears a car pull into the driveway. White headlights flash through the window and onto the floral wallpaper. He walks to the window and looks out and there’s Davey. Davey walks around belly first, hips wiggling in a way that would be comical if you didn’t know who was wiggling them. The black of his Helly Hansen jacket merges viciously into a scarlet face, and blue veins lead the way to the white toilet brush bristles on top. Two other lads stand behind him. Joe knows them too. They wait by the car with their mouths open like trout while Davey raps the door.
“Alright Davey, how’re ya getting on?”
“Not too bad, Joe. Me and the boys were just doing the rounds and thought we’d call in. Your Marie’s not around, is she?”
He knows the answer to this.
“No, no. She’s living over in North Belfast now.”
“Oh, sorry, of course.”
The two trout survey the outside of the house with workmanlike detachment, like they’re deciding where best to start knocking in the wall.
“Do you mind coming with us for a wee bit, Joe? We’ve a wee job round in the house we could do with a hand for.”
His pulse quickens, but he knows how to behave. You see people on crime programmes and they go nuts when they’re accused, and it makes them look guiltier. He starts to walk over to Davey’s car but is stopped.
“Do you know, Joe, I’ve never got taking a black taxi since I was a kid. Do you want to give us a lift for the craic? Colm here can follow in my car sure.”
Joe looks at him for a second, weighs up his chances. Reckons he’d probably take him. Davey’s about five foot fuck all and Joe goes to the Puregym on the Boucher Road. He has his mate’s code for the door so he doesn’t have to pay in. He’s still in good nick for his age. Davey does have that something about him though, that intangible violence. You get the impression not many people try to start on him. Probably wouldn’t be one for accepting a fair dig either.
“Yeah, sure, Davey.”
Joe slides into the driver’s seat and gives his best “Where to, mate?” This earns a wheezing laugh from the passenger side.
“Just up round Twinbrook please, mate.”
He doesn’t bother trying to come up with explanations on the way. Instead he takes refuge in the past. He thinks about how Davey was nothing but a wee messenger boy back then. His two older brothers were volunteers. One was shot dead by the UVF on the Crumlin Road. The other shot himself, two years after he was released from the Maze Prison.
Sometimes they would bring Davey along to meetings. Usually he’d be put on the street corner to keep watch while others calculated how best to navigate the currents of war. Now he had managed to gain promotion within the official ranks of the delusional by pretending the war was still on. You had to admire the entrepreneurial spirit.
He thinks about the people he took on these drives. Did they expect to have longer to say their prayers in the car? Hail Mary, full of grace, please let it just be to the knees and not the head. Did their chests tighten when they realised how short the journey was? Did their stomachs sink with the cruelty of it, when they realised that the journey was so short because the people who had come for them were their neighbours? The soap opera tune comes unbidden into his head: That’s when good neighbours become good friends.
When the past fails to comfort, he focuses instead on the immediate. He tries to fix on the details, to keep himself sharp. Remember what the fella from that mindfulness app said: in through the nose and out through the mouth. Noting when thoughts come and go. He should have split back at the house – there’s a fucking thought. Paying attention to any sounds. Birds somewhere nearby – it’s that time of year to enjoy them before they’re gone. Some of the neighbours might have heard if he’d just run and started shouting. They might not even have come after him. The feel of the leather around the steering wheel, the leather under his arse, the leather on the gear stick under his hand. A mobile tannery. The number of kids that have split from this taxi without paying over the years. They must have been nervous in the back, eyeing the doors to see if they’d lock, sizing up how fat he was to see if he could chase after them. The tables have fairly turned. He almost laughs at that thought. God, meditation is for cunts.
“Here we are now.”
He pulls up to the house. It’s one of those bizarre ones that look like they ran out of bricks halfway up the wall and started using roof tiles instead. Simple window design: two eyes and a monstrous mouth. He floats towards the house, matters beyond his control now, body on autopilot, an automaton. The front door opens and swallows him and he moves through, hardly feels the hand on his shoulder guiding him down basement steps as daylight gives way to darkness.
* * * * *
The basement of the house is full of men. Men in dark coats, men in balaclavas, men in leather gloves. The air feels thick. He breathes in the venom and cosplay testosterone. A table is set up at the end of the room. Davey sits behind it, hands together, concerned-headmaster-style. He is flanked by two of the fatter members of the cohort – thick bundles of green and black.
“All right, since we’re using my gaf, I will chair the Court.”
Something about the brutal consonance with which Davey endows the word “Court” makes Joe think it must have a capital “C”.
“Now, Joe, I think you probably know why you’re here.”
Joe tries to speak but his throat has dried and coiled shut. He is choking on fury. Black and green shapes swirl and move around him, taking up the space in the room like a liquid being poured into a mould. He remembers when he wore that uniform. He stood taller and moved with more authority and threw his voice farther than they could ever hope to when wearing it. Brick and stone turned to flame, and weeping phone calls were made, when he wore it. He was Cú Fucking Chulainn.
He hears the door at the stairs open and close, some of the shapes move aside as another presence moves through. The girl has the look of a frightened animal as she is led through the crowd. She moves as though pulled by an invisible rope around her neck, as an ox might stagger to the altar. The shapes around him move back and the space closes once more. Joe feels a terrible weightlessness. The girl is before the table now and Davey has walked around the front and is laying a hand on her shoulder.
“All right Fionnuala, you’ve told us about the things a man was doing to you. Now can you tell us if you see him here?”
A moment of thundering silence follows. Then the girl gives a tiny lithium nod, raises her arm without looking, points her shaking finger. An infinite number of gazes turn to follow that finger and rest on him.
“That’s your uncle Joe you’re pointing to, Fionnuala, yeah?”
If Joe had felt his legs would work he would have lunged for her.
“We need you to look at him now, Fionnuala, and tell us that it’s definitely him that you told us about.”
She looks to Davey with a pleading, pathetic look. The infinite shapes, infinite men around him stand motionless. The room seems to turn around the girl as she trembles, fixed at its centre. After an age, she looks at him and he feels the sharpest love and revulsion he has ever known. Crying her crocodile tears up there, knowing exactly what she was doing. She knew now like she had always known, with every glance at him and every glance away. He knows that people think they can’t do that when they’re that young, but he knows they can. Knows it’s innate, built into them. And it’s once they learn how to use it that it’s really dangerous. She’s the one who’s a danger to others, not him. He stares at her and hopes that the force of his gaze will drill through her mouth and burst through her skull.
Noise rises from the green and black shapes now. The girl’s wracking sobs fade as someone leads her through the swirling room. The shapes move in again and Davey is in front of him now and standing close. He explains that this sort of thing is taken very seriously in the community, that it brings the movement into disrepute. Explains that they appreciate everything that Joe had done to further the cause, that that would be taken into account, that he would live if he left the area.
He doesn’t speak because he can’t think. Images of London and Dublin come to mind. They have taxis there, people. His mind is blood and static.
First-time fiction writer Conor Crummey’s story Journeys was chosen by author Kit de Waal as the winner of the €3,000 Moth Short Story Prize 2019. Crummey, from Belfast, now lives in London, where he is a lecturer in public law at Queen Mary University of London, and is completing a PhD at University College London in legal philosophy and constitutional law. It and two other winning stories appear in the autumn issue of The Moth, available to purchase in select bookshops and online at themothmagazine.com