‘I suppose I must be. Why should that be so hard to take?’
‘But he was a great hero,’ Binnie said. ‘He commanded the Stradballa flying column. When the Tans came to take him, he was teaching at the school. Because of the children he went outside and shot it out in the open, one against fifteen, and got clean away.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘A real hero of the revolution. All for the Cause only he never wanted it to end, Binnie, that was his trouble. Executed during the Civil War by the Free State Government. I always found that part of the story rather ironic myself, or had you forgotten that after they’d got rid of the English, the Irish set about knocking each other off with even greater enthusiasm ?*
I could not see the expression on his face, yet the tension in him was something tangible between us.
I said, ‘Don’t try it, boy. As the Americans would say, you’re out of your league. Compared to me, you’re just a bloody amateur.’
‘Is that a fact now, Major?’ he said softly.
‘Another thing,’ I said. ‘Dr Murphy wouldn’t like it and we can’t have that now, can we ?’
She settled the matter for us by reappearing at that precise moment. She sensed that something was wrong at once and paused.
‘What is it?’
‘A slight difference of opinion, that’s all,’ I told her. ‘Binnie’s just discovered I’m related to a piece of grand old Irish history and it sticks in his throat – or didn’t you know?’
‘I knew,’ she said coldly.
‘I thought you would,’ I said. “The interesting thing is, why didn’t you tell him?’
I didn’t give her a chance to reply and cut the whole business short by moving off into the fog briskly in the general direction of Lurgan Street.
The hotel didn’t have a great deal to commend it, but then neither did Lurgan Street. A row of decaying terrace houses, a shop or two and a couple of pubs making as unattractive a sight as I have ever seen.
The hotel itself was little more than a lodging-house of a type to be found near the docks of any large port, catering mainly for sailors or prostitutes in need of a room for an hour or two. It had been constructed by simply joining three terrace houses together and sticking a sign above the door of one of them.
A merchant navy officer came out as we approached and clutched at the railings for support. A girl of eighteen or so in a black plastic mac emerged behind him, straightened his cap and got a hand under his elbow to help him down the steps.
She looked us over without the slightest sense of shame and I smiled and nodded. ‘Good night,a colleen. God save the good work.’
The laughter bubbled out of her. ‘God save you kindly.’
They went off down the street together, the sailor breaking into a reasonably unprintable song and I shook my head. ‘Oh, the pity of it, a fine Catholic girl to come to that.’
Binnie looked as if he would have liked to put a bullet into me, but Norah Murphy showed no reaction at all except to say, ‘Could we possibly get on with it, Major Vaughan ? My time is limited.’
We went up the steps and into die narrow hallway. There was a desk of sorts to one side at the bottom of the stairs and an old white-haired man in a faded alpaca jacket dozed behind it, his chin in one hand.
There seemed little point in waking him and I led the way up to the first landing. Meyer had room seven at the end of the corridor and when I paused to knock, we could hear music clearly from inside, strangely plaintive, something of the night in it.
Norah Murphy frowned. øWhat on earth is it?’
‘Al Bowlly,’ I said simply.
‘You mean you’ve never heard of Al Bowlly, Doctor ? Why, he’s indisputably number one in the hit parade to any person of taste and judgement, or he would be if he hadn’t been killed in the London Blitz in 1941. Meyer