Binnie grabbed me by the arm and dragged me towards the nearest confessional box. In a moment we were jammed together inside, the curtain drawn.
There was a movement on the other side of the grille and a quiet voice said, ‘My son?’
‘I have sinned most grievously, Father, and that’s a fact,’ Binnie told him, ‘but even hell fire and damnation would be preferable to what the bastards who’re coming in now are likely to dish out if they ky hands on us.’
There was silence, then the main church door opened and steps approached, the boots ringing on the flagstones. There was a movement on the priest’s side of the grille and I turned to peer through the curtain, aware that Binnie had drawn his Browning.
The young paratroop officer from the road block was there, a gun in his hand. He paused, and then my view of him was blocked as a priest appeared in alb and black cassock, a violet confessional stole around his shoulders.
‘Can I help you, Lieutenant ?’ he asked quietly.
The young officer murmured something, I couldn’t
catch what, and the priest laughed. ‘No one here except a few backsliders, as you can see, anxious to be confessed in time for early mass.’
‘I’m sorry, Father.’
He bolstered his gun, turned and walked away. The priest stood watching him go. When the door closed behind him, he said calmly and without turning round, ‘You can come out now, Binnie.’
Binnie jerked back the curtain. ‘Michael?3 he said. ‘Is it you ?’
The priest turned slowly and I was face to face, at last, with the Small Man.
The Small Man
I waited in a small, cold annexe outside the vestry, aware of the murmur of voices inside, but unable to hear a thing through that stout oaken door. Not that it mattered. For the moment, I’d lost interest. Too much had happened in too short a time, so I smoked a cigarette, sacrilege or no, and slumped into a chair in the corner.
After a while the door opened and Cork appeared, Binnie sitting on the edge of a table behind him. I knew he was in his sixties, but when he took off his hornrimmed spectacles and cleaned them with a handkerchief he looked older – much older.
He said, ‘I’d like to thank you, Major Vaughan. It seems we owe you a great deal.’
‘Binnie’s told you, then?’ I said.
‘About Norah and Frank Barry.’ He replaced his spectacles. ‘Oh yes, I think you could say he’s put me in the picture.’
‘So what do you intend to do about it ?’
There were the sounds of more vehicles arriving in the street outside, a shouted command.
He smiled gravely. ‘From the looks of things I wouldn’t say we’re in a position to do much about anything at the moment, Major. Wait here.’
He took a shovel hat down from a peg, put it on and went out through the church briskly. The front door clanged. There was silence.
I said, ‘Does he do this often ? The priest bit, I mean ?’
‘It gets him around,’ Binnie said. ‘You know how it is ? Nuns and priests – everybody trusts them and the army has to be careful in its dealings with the Church. People take offence easy over things like that.’
‘What about the local priest?’
‘They don’t have one here. A young Jesuit comes up from Strabane once a week.’
‘So Cork’s performance isn’t official ?’
He laughed harshly. “The Church has never been exactly a friend of the IRA, Major. If they knew about this there would be hell to pay.’
‘What do you think he’ll do ? About Norah, I mean ?’
‘He didn’t say.’
He lapsed into silence after that, staring moodily into space, reaction, I suppose, and hardly surprising. I went back to my chair and stared blankly at the wall opposite, more tired than I had been in my life before.
After a while, the front door of the church opened again, then closed, the candles by the altar flickering wildly. We flattened ourselves against the wall, Binnie with that damned Browning ready in his hand, but it was