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September 01st 2009 print

Stephen Orr

The Confirmation

January, 1976

The minibus held eight, but the short man with the missing tooth had been off sick. So, Patrick Bowen had two seats to himself. He stretched out, his arms across the headrests, and watched familiar country pass by: a dry-stone wall that ran most of the length of this stretch between Gilford and Banbridge; low-grazed pastures; a wind-chimed cottage containing a dreadlocked, naked arse tribe of wild Scots who they’d often see washing in a dam of cold, muddy water; fat cows; rain.

The seven men were returning from a building site. They’d spent the morning raising frames for a row of flats on the outskirts of Gilford. They would be the usual, dreary, can’t-swing-a-cat, hear-everything-your-neighbours say variety of dwelling. They’d put up most of the walls, and braced them, but then the rain had started, and stayed, and now they were heading home early.

This suited Patrick Bowen. Tonight was his son’s Confirmation. It was to be a big night with family and friends, Father Gilman and even a few neighbours gathering at their home beforehand for fish-and-chips, beer and full-strength Coke (for his tall, shaggy-haired son, Michael—the reluctant Catholic). It would be chaos, he imagined, as he sat in the bus watching the sky clear. There would be running, shouting, the Bay City Rollers rattling windows, wet wood smoking in the fireplace, his brother arguing with his dad, dogs barking, drink spilt on the carpet and maybe even a prayer or two muttered in the relative quiet of their lean-to laundry.

Confirmations were always a big deal in his family. “Send forth upon the sevenfold Spirit the Holy Paraclete,” he could remember Father Gilman half-singing at his own Confirmation. He could still see himself standing in short shorts on the altar of their local church, his bow legs, all knee and pale skin, shivering; the sleeves of his suit (freshly pressed) hanging down past his fingertips and his tie pinching his neck. He could remember fingering his bright, red and yellow silk sash as he stared up at Jesus melting on the wall. And he could still see his mum and dad in the fourth row, grinning, his sister sticking out her tongue. He could remember every smell, every clunk of the organ keys, every genuflect and every forehead wet with chrism.

And this, he hoped, is how it would be for Michael.

Father Gilman’s voice hadn’t changed in the intervening years. “I mark thee with the sign of the cross and confirm thee …” Patrick could still feel the priest’s hand brushing his cheek, and smell the beer on his breath as he mumbled, “Peace be with you.”

Back in the bus, Patrick turned to Andrew Hay, their foreman, boss and motivator (and sometimes—when the company was working them too hard, or paying them too little—their spokesman and peacemaker) and asked, “What about your weekend then?”

Andrew pinched the tip of his nose and said, “Still helping my uncle—painting.”

“Glen?” Patrick replied.

“Yes. He could afford to pay someone, but why would he do that when he’s got me?”

“And what’s he do in return?”

Andrew stopped to think, but there was no reply.

Their bus came to a sudden stop. Andrew half-stood and saw a car parked across the road in front of them. “What’s this?” he called out.

Then, in a moment that was flooded in light reflected off the wet road, four men in black balaclavas emerged from the car, spoke among themselves and turned to face the builders.

“Fuck,” the bus’s driver, an old man, moaned.

All seven men were standing, their heads half-bowed under the bus’s low roof. “Okay, boys, just keep calm,” Andrew intoned. “They just want to show us how brave they are.”

Each of the men on the bus had a vacant, wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression—as though they’d just cut a piece of expensive timber to the wrong length. One, a younger man, an apprentice, dropped back into his seat, put his head in his hands and said, “Lord Jesus, be with us …”

Of the four men in balaclavas, two had semi-automatic rifles and two had pistols. One of them, the tallest of the men, came towards the bus and hammered on the door.

The driver looked back at his passengers. “What should I do?”

There was silence, then Andrew said, “What’s the point, you’re going to have to open it.”

The driver opened the door and the tall man in jeans and boots stuck his head in and said, “Okay, boys, everyone out.”

They looked at each other, and then Patrick said to the man, “We’re just builders, heading home to Banbridge.”

“Out!” the tall man repeated.

They all stumbled out—tripping over each other, knocking their heads—and were told to line up on the side of the road with the bus behind them. On the side of the bus the words “Bremer Coaches”, painted in black, blocky letters, had been splattered with mud, and to a casual observer the scene might have looked like a holiday snap. The four men stood in front of them, silently, almost nervously, squeezing, releasing and playing with their weapons. Then the tall man, the leader, said, “Any of you fellas belong to the Holy Roman Catholic church, would you be so good as to take one step forward.”

“What do you want from us?” Andrew asked.

“All in good time,” the man replied.

Patrick was frozen. All he could think about was the Confirmation. Would it go ahead without him? Tonight, next week, next year, never? He saw Michael’s face, smiling, and he could see how he played with the sash that had been his. He could see his own brother’s face, two or three weeks previously, and remembered asking, “So, do you want to sponsor your little nephew then?”

And he could remember his brother replying, “I don’t have to say no fuckin’ prayers, do I?”

“You just gotta nod.”

“Sure?”

“It’s meant to be an honour.”

“I didn’t say no, did I?”

There was silence along the line of eight men. The driver said, “I got nothin’ to do with this. I work for Mr Bremer.”

“Shut up,” one of the other four men said. “Or you’ll be first.”

There was a deeper silence, a dread, a quickness in the breathing and sweat on the forehead and cheeks of the builders. The apprentice was looking into the cold, blue sky, searching for a Sunday school Jesus, his legs almost giving way beneath his weight. “I am Protestant,” he said, slowly

None of the four men responded. One of the other builders said, “You’re acting like cowards. This won’t solve anything, lads.”

Then the tall man repeated, “If you’re Catholic, please step forward. Let’s get this sorted, gentlemen.”

Patrick knew he was the only Catholic on the bus. He knew each of the other men, their families, the Protestant churches they worshipped in. He didn’t know the driver, but he guessed he was Protestant too.

“I’m only going to ask one more time,” the tall man growled.

They were all frozen with indecision. There was no knowing who the four men were, and no clues that might help them: a voice overheard at St Mark’s church, a limp, a turn of phrase, a familiar pair of boots. There was only one choice, to step forward or stand still. That’s what their lives had come down to—a roll of a die. And there was no point trying to reason, plead, explain or offer photos of children and wives.

Patrick knew he’d have to step forward, or they might all end up dead. He rehearsed how he was going to do it—how he was going to move one foot forward, and then the other. He wondered if it’d be a quick shot to the head, or if they’d take him aside, into the irrigation ditch that ran beside the road. He wondered which of the four would do it, and what they’d say.

You Catholic dog … you and your IRA mates …

“Where does our church say anything about this?” one of the other builders said.

“Shut up.”

“We’re not political people. We build homes.”

“I just drive them,” the driver repeated.

Patrick thought of his wife and in his head he said, I love you. It was something he’d rarely say to her face. They’d been married too long for that. He wanted to turn to one of the other men and give them a message to give to her but that, he sensed, was the last irony of his life. Still, she’d know … and she’d turn their lounge room wall into a sort of shrine. She’d take down the photos of cousins and uncles they didn’t see any more and she’d hang him there beside their cross.

There was silence in the small, green patch of country. Patrick heard a flock of birds in a tree somewhere but dared not turn to look. There was still a chance he’d survive, somehow.

He stopped to think, and he knew what he was about to pay for. A group of Protestant paramilitaries, perhaps this lot, had shot and killed an IRA leader in some town (as he tried to think of its name) to the west. The next day a bomb had exploded in the vestry of a Protestant church, killing seven, including three boys who were preparing to sing in the choir. Perhaps, he thought, these were some of their fathers. That might explain their awkwardness with the weapons. The images of the blast had been splashed across the front page of every newspaper in the United Kingdom, and beyond, accompanied by headlines such as “IRA Atrocity” and “Pity the Innocents”, photos of prayer books, a woman’s shoes and a pram in the rubble.

So, there was nothing for it, Patrick thought. He could see his son’s face, and he could see the chrism rolling down his skin, and his chin. “I mark thee with the signs of the cross,” he whispered, and one of the four men looked at him.

“What was that?” he asked.

Patrick shrugged. He took a deep breath and decided, in a moment of clarity and grace, that it was time to step forward. Just then he felt a hand touching his. It was Andrew, and Patrick knew he was saying, Keep still, keep quiet, we won’t turn you in.

For a moment Patrick felt safe, and hesitated. He imagined the four giving up, getting in their car and driving off. But then he thought, what if? What if they kill us all—not so much as to be sure, as to finish what they’d started, regardless. So, without really thinking, he stepped forward.

“Thank you,” the tall man said. He stepped towards Patrick, and Patrick thought perhaps he should try and fight him, but he allowed himself to be dragged back, by the collar, to the bit of grass behind the four.

There was silence. He knelt, and dropped his head. “Send forth upon the sevenfold Spirit,” he whispered, and then he heard the deafening fugue of the four firearms filling the green, Irish afternoon with death and smoke. He leaned forward and tightened himself into a ball. He heard the bus driver say “Christ,” as he fell back against his bus. He heard a groan, and the apprentice managing the words, “It’s all wrong,” before he dropped to the ground.

The firing stopped. He dared not look up. The four gunmen didn’t speak. He heard a tractor on the hill behind them and airbrakes from a truck on a distant road.

Then the tall man said, “Next time … when you’re asked … And I reckon you might pick some better friends.”

He heard them walk off, disturbing spent cartridges on the road. He listened as they talked as they got in the car, slammed the doors and drove off.

Patrick looked up. He saw Andrew sitting up against the bus, blood on his shin and a black hole in his throat. He saw bullet holes in the side of the bus, and legs and arms.

He stood up and watched the car disappear into the distance. He turned away from his friends and saw a farmer in a distant paddock, sitting on the idling tractor, watching him.