James Harkin's book Big Ideas: The Essential Guide to the Latest Thinking will be published by Atlantic Books in February 2008. This fictional work-in-progress won second prize in the annual Sean O'Faolain Short Story Prize 2007.

Explosions in the afternoon

The first time I seen anything explode, it was the man next door. I'm not saying he went up in flames exactly, but by the time the ambulance arrived in a vain attempt to put Sammy Johnson back together again, he'd probably shed a few stone. That's the funny thing about a small bomb hurled directly in the direction of a man. There's not much blood or anything like that, it's not like getting shot or torn apart limb from limb like they do on the TV. No, Sammy Johnson was still in one piece – two or three pieces, maximum. It's just that what remained of him looked as if it had been grilled, neatly and lovingly barbecued beyond all recognition and then laid out in miniature for everyone to admire.

The best way to put it is that Sammy Johnson was burnt to adams. That was the phrase the policeman used, the one who came and sat beside me on the bed and wrote down everything I told him. "Poor Sammy", he said, shaking his head – "burnt to adams". He repeated the phrase so many times I'm sure he must have wrote it down in the little black book he took out of his breast pocket. He was certainly writing something down because he kept scribbling and turning over pages by licking them with his finger. If the policeman was sitting beside me on my bed, it's because he was a friend of both my Da's and Sammy Johnson's – they'd served together – and had met me many times before. And if he needed to sit down on the end of my bed, that was because Sammy Johnson, like my Da and the policeman, used to be a part-time member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the central fact which explained why – in the words of the policeman who sat on the end, out of puff and performing acts of logical arithmetic worthy of Sherlock Holmes – he was now tatty bread. Meaning dead, meaning RIP, meaning no more free Mars bars and Cokes from poor old Sammy. And if he, this overweight, sweating meathead of a policemen, sat and hugged me so tight I nearly choked and cried uncontrollably into my sweater, maybe he was trying to counsel me in addition to taking my witness statement. Maybe he was only trying to be there for me, to forge an emotional bond with the young Michael Lavery – a Catholic, to boot, but a decent one – which might help him to process emotionally what he had just witnessed. Those were the days before they had therapists, of course, and certainly before they had policewomen who pretended to be therapists and told you to write it all down just so they'd get everything out of you.

I was thirteen years old when Sammy went up in smoke. The funny thing was, you'd think that we – me, everyone and especially Sammy – should have seen it coming. Nearly a year before Sammy got burnt to adams, he was out in his front garden picking out weeds when a van screeched around the corner of our street and three men in balaclavas got out. I wasn't there – I was at school – but the way Sammy told it afterwards they raced towards him and threw a bomb right into the garden where he was working. Thinking on his feet, Sammy had picked up his spade and – in the manner of an Olympic shot-putter – hurled the makeshift bomb right back into the road where it promptly exploded. The balaclavas retreated back to the van and screeched back from where they came and that was that. For months afterwards, Sammy was leaning over his garden fence and telling everyone who'd listen about his lucky escape, about how he got one over on the "bad bastards" with the help of his trusty green fingers. "Bad boys", he used to say, and then shake his head – as if that was the sum total of his criteria for moral judgement, that the world could be divided, like a classroom, into good boys and bad boys. Sammy and his spade had their pictures taken in the local paper. He even won one of those medals they give out and spent the day outside Belfast at some ceremonial where they pinned it to his chest. Apart from that, the only evidence
of any disturbance was a crater in the road which those slovenly townies at Belfast City Council took months to get around to filling in.

What stoic Sammy didn't understand until his dying day was the adaptability of life and the people in it to signals within their immediate environment. About eight months after he threw the bomb back in the faces of his attackers, he was working in the garden again on a Saturday afternoon when another van screeched around the corner and three men in balaclavas jumped out. For all I know, they might have been the same ones. One of them raced towards him and threw another makeshift bomb into Sammy's garden. By all accounts, Sammy raced towards it and tried to perform the same trick again. This time, however, the balaclavas had had the foresight to make the bomb touch-sensitive – a cunning modification of the initial attack as a direct consequence of which Sammy exploded. Dressed in my first communion blazer and a black and red tie, I accompanied my mother and father to the funeral in a Protestant church. Nobody was crying but Mrs Johnson fainted. At the wake afterwards, a swarming of hulking, awkwardly dressed old men stood around like bottles of stout, eating limp white sandwiches and drinking pints of Guinness, all of them shaking their heads and saying that the people who could do that to Sammy "must be bad boys". What I still can't work out was why they didn't just shoot him in the first place, like civilized gunmen, instead of throwing a bomb at him. Maybe it was some kind of code of honour, the determination to give him a sporting chance by entering him involuntarily for a Northern Irish version of the shot-putt. Or maybe it was some kind of macabre ritual designed to test out a new kind of bomb, like the ones I heard they used to hurl almost randomly over the walls of police stations as if for luck. At the funeral there were murmurs that it wasn't the IRA at all but a splinter group. "They'll lift the boys who did it soon enough," someone said. "Hanging isn't good enough for them," replied another. But all that came too late for Sammy, who was tatty bread.

The truth is, however, that the balaclavas were not the only bad boys on the day when Sammy was picked up and put in the back of an ambulance. Not only was I upstairs at the time of Sammy's second encounter with the balaclavas, but I wasn't, to tell you the God's honest truth, looking out my bedroom window at Sammy's front garden at all. If I pretended I was when the policeman came in and sat down with his notebook, that was only because in all the commotion I honestly began to think that I had been. But that wasn't the only reason for my little white lie. The truth was that I pretended to be at the bedroom window staring down at Sammy because the alternative was not going to look good when written down in that policeman's notebook, not one tiny wee bit...

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