The Russian Lady Sings: a short story by Barry McKinley
An IRA cell lies in wait for a British army patrol in south Armagh during the Troubles
An IRA sniper sign hangs on a telegraph pole near Crossmaglen, south Armagh, in 1998. Photograph: AP Photo/Paul McErlane
We lay in the middle of a hollowed-out hawthorn bush, the long barrels of the rifles peeping out through a spray of white flowers into crisp daylight. We knew the weapons by their nicknames. My uncle Kevin’s Springfield was ‘Yankee Doodle’ and the Dragunov was known as ‘The Russian Lady’. Both were usually stowed across the border in secret places, shuffled constantly between safe houses and taken care of like special children. When they reappeared, it was always a Christmas moment, the hasty unwrapping and the fresh smell of something new. The perfume of gun oil.
We lay motionless for over an hour. Cars passed on the distant road. The cold air from the lough squeezed inland through the Newry ship canal and fanned up over the hillside. Through the scope, I could see the whitewashed cottage with the smoke rising from the chimney. I could see the stone wall with the old graffiti: “SAS sleep two to a bunk.”
Beyond the bridge, I knew there was an abandoned car with a pair of twisted wires trailing from a wheel arch into a thicket of gorse. Somebody has phoned it in, and eventually there would be a response.
This was the third such operation in the space of two months; none of the previous targets had shown up, but this time it felt different.
A pair of Lynx helicopters came in fast and low, flattening the grass with a wave of burning paraffin. They scanned the area, looking for danger, but we were invisible. It was our country and we knew every hump and hollow. We turned into stones and tree stumps. We were the colour of the land, green gabardine and brown corduroy, invisible to all, except one another. The choppers moved off and fifteen minutes later, a Saracen armoured car appeared: six big wheels spinning up dirt and roadside grass.
“Bingo!” Kevin said.
The armoured car moved fast, using the hedgerow for cover. It barely stopped at the T-junction, faked left, but turned right. It roared under the bridge and disappeared from view. Ten seconds later, it came roaring backwards. The driver had seen the decoy car and the poorly concealed command wire. He assumed, incorrectly, that there was safety behind the stone bulk of the railway embankment.
I kept my eye to the scope. The hidden young men all around me bristled with fear and excitement, their breathing stopped. They wanted this thing to be over and done, even if it meant a dreadful memory that walked beside them for the rest of their lives. They wanted to go home and start forgetting.
The Saracen was silent. Motionless. Eight soldiers inside and every one of them as scared as the men in the field. They looked out through the spy holes in the armour plate. They studied the bare ash trees and the barbed wire fencing speckled with lamb’s wool, and they wondered why the fucking Empire ever came this way.
“Let’s wait and see,” Kevin said, but everything was working to plan. It was a movie, and he had seen it before.
“You can’t stay inside that tin can forever,” he whispered. “No, you can’t. You have to evacuate the house.”
Almost in reply, as if pulled by the magnetism of Kevin’s overpowering wish, the right rear door swung open and a figure jumped out. It vaulted the low stone wall at the front of the cottage and disappeared from view. The heavy door on the Saracen swung shut.
The movie played on. The soldier popped up from behind the wall. He moved briskly along the driveway, stopping for a moment to pick up the overturned tricycle, the tricycle that Kevin had placed in that very spot, two hours earlier.
“It gives the place a lived-in look,” he had said, as he bent over and spun the wheels.
The soldier reached the window. He looked into the house and saw a cosy living-room with a wood fire burning in the grate. A record player spun the same song over and over again: Jim Reeves, ‘Welcome To My World’, a favourite of Kevin’s.
What the soldier did not see, stacked on either side of the window, were the six milk churns wired together, each one packed with fifty pounds of ammonium nitrate and ten pounds of icing sugar. He did not see the booster charge of high explosive, shaped like a coiled snake, nor did he see the electrical detonators connected to a car battery. He did not see the wire that ran down the hall and up the back of the door into a piece of ingenuity designed by my uncle.
“Go on, laddie,” Kevin said, “ring the doorbell.”
The soldier stood immobile at the cottage door, and we knew what would happen when he touched the doorbell. A small corner of the world would turn into light, heat, and smoke. The blast would blow straight out the front of the cottage and the man in the uniform would turn into vapour. The loose granite stones in the wall would become projectiles, each one capable of penetrating the solid steel of the armoured car. -- Blood would ooze from the riddled shell, like raspberry juice strained through a colander.
“Go on. Press the button,” Kevin said, and then again, softly, sweetly, “press-the-button. There’s the good lad.”
But the soldier didn’t press the button. He rapped on the door with his knuckles instead. Why did he do that? The bell was right there, straight in front of him. Did he think it more polite to knock?
Kevin shook his head with mild disappointment; he reached out, tapped me on the back and said, “Plan B.”
Eight hundred metres is a big shot, and the target would soon be moving. I needed to aim at empty space, a calculated intersection of vectors, a future point where the soldier might be. Some snipers find this offset comforting, the illusion that one is not actually shooting at a human being, but a floating spot on a grid of supposition. I felt no comfort.
“This can be another dry run,” Kevin said, “or it can be the real deal. You’re the one who makes the decision, but you’ll have to make it fast.”
I knew that Kevin was watching the exact same scene unfold through his own scope, and I felt the presence of history, of disappeared generations of men from Keady and Jonesboro and Drumintee, their eyes burning into the back of my head, boring through the lens, their fingers upon my gloved hand, squeezing the trigger through its first stage.
The soldier waited, but no one answered the door. He turned and looked up the hill, through the bushes and into the very barrel of the gun.
“This is it,” Kevin said, “This is it.”
The soldier started to move; it was less than fifty feet to the back door of the Saracen. He wasn’t hurried. It was as if the very presence of the house, the fire and the record player guaranteed his safety. He sauntered along the garden path in what looked like an act of bravado directed at his pals.
“Aye,” Kevin said, “welcome to my world.”
The crack cut through the air like a snapped towel and our noses filled with the hard smell of burning powder. I kept my eye to the rubber shield, and watched a single second get broken down into fragments of distance.
The bullet cut through the air over nine or ten fields, over rambling cattle, five-barred gates, a stream, a plastic trough filled with water and a pulsing electric fence. It passed close to a low-flying wren. It wobbled in the updraft generated by a silage pit. Brushed by a breeze and touched by a raindrop. A bullet never cares about its final destination, but it does love to fly.
The soldier struck a pose, one hand to his ear and the other held like a flap above his eyes. He was an Indian scout in bandit country, searching the horizon for signs of hostility. He was the class clown putting on a show behind the teacher’s back. He was a jester in her Majesty’s court, and he was standing dead-centre on the grid of supposition.
When the bullet struck the soldier, his arms flew out like a man singing opera. He dropped to the ground and there was nothing but air inside his uniform. His joke was over before the laughter stopped.
A pair of hands helped me up from the ground. Another pair took the Dragunov and slid the scope from the channel on the side. They wrapped the gun in oilcloth, the scope in foam. Men stepped out from cover and moved quickly across the field. I felt numb. I wanted the scope back. I wanted to look through it and see - I don’t know what I want to see. The act undone? The bullet sucked from the young man’s wound and the Saracen disappearing backwards, over the hills and into a ship, reversing all the way to England, where the war never happened and where the hawthorn bushes concealed nothing but the splendid mysteries of nature.
In the days after the shooting, I was withdrawn and confused. I was shaken in a way I can’t even begin to explain. I spent hours in the bedroom staring at the wallpaper. My mother brought me sandwiches and soup. She asked questions, but I never answered. Eventually, probably because of the circulating rumours, Uncle Kevin decided to call. He came up the stairs as quiet as a ghost and tapped on the bedroom door.
“Are you well?” he asked. I nodded my head, but I couldn’t talk. I just lay in bed and pulled the sheets up to my chin. Kevin spoke calmly.
“You’ll feel like this for a wee while”
I’d never had a visitor in the bedroom before, least of all Kevin O’Neill, and it made the room feel smaller and filled with a dreadful, intense energy.
I knew the reason for his visit: It was to assess the damage. How badly was I broken, and could I be fixed? Part of Kevin’s job was to deal with the informers, the failures and the fuck-ups.
“This is a war,” he said, “it doesn’t always feel like war, doesn’t always look like one, but a war it is. We’ll take down one of theirs and they’ll lock up ten of ours. It’s a war of attrition, son, attrition, not contrition. We’ll have time for that when the conflict is over.”
It was a dandy little speech, and I wondered how often he’d made it - and how many men had lived to repeat it.
He spoke and he watched me with deep curiosity. When I couldn’t take any more, I just pulled up the bed sheet so only my eyes were visible. I looked fucking mad and I knew it.
“You’ll be all right, son,” he said. “Everything is going to be fine.”
And with those words I knew I was damned. In Ireland, when things are “fine,” it generally means the opposite, and when somebody wishes you a comfortable night, you’ll surely be dead before sunrise. With the Irish, if you want to understand language, you have to hold it up to a mirror and read it backwards.
My mother brought in refreshments and the conversation paused politely until she left. I had never noticed how Kevin drank tea, and I was surprised to see him use the saucer quite delicately, holding it in his left hand, his little finger cocked. His hands were small but they always seemed to accomplish a lot. When he signed his name, there were no unnecessary flourishes. When he handled a weapon, it was with firmness and physical certainty. Watching him delicately balance the saucer and teacup, for a brief moment, I saw my uncle the way I always imagined the Brits, drinking tea in elegant drawing rooms, the chink of bone china and the ping of sugar tongs on the rim of a gilded bowl.
“Jolly nice cup of tea old bean,” I said. I lowered the bed sheet and smiled, even though I knew I shouldn’t.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Kevin asked.
Then I pictured him swinging a polo mallet, surging forward on a white steed, his slim backside patting up and down on a flat leather saddle. Somewhere in the background a vicar double-tapped blue balls through a croquet hoop as a string quartet on a bandstand fussed with the pomp and circumstance of Elgar.
I tried to stifle a laugh, but it managed to break through all the same. Kevin showed no sign of surprise. “I should be off,” he said, standing and brushing nothing in particular from his lap into the cup of his hand.
“Well, toodle-pip, old boy,” I said. “Toodle-pip and cheerio.”
Kevin smiled. He was a doctor with an incurable patient, but he said nothing. He winked back and departed and the only cold thing left in the room was the knife blade that slid under the edge of my heart and opened it like an envelope.
My mother came into the bedroom. She took one look at me and she burst into tears. I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t know how.
She was the one who saved my life. I know that now. She slipped out that night and cycled the wild, unmarked road that led to Kevin’s house. There, she very likely cried. She may have prayed in front of him. Whatever she did, it worked. A couple of days later, a neighbour arrived with a ticket to New York and a phone number to call once I got here.
Barry McKinley is the author of A Ton of Malice: The Half-life of an Irish Punk in London. barrymckinley.com