Dancing with Statues 

by Caroline Doherty de Novoa

an extract 

Charlie’s pub was originally a boarding house and, apart from the sign outside, it still looked like any other old house. Miguel followed Mr. Quigley through the sprawling maze of low-ceilinged rooms, each filled with dated tables and chairs and sofas, none of which seemed to match. In every corner, a crackling log fire burned strong, coats and jumpers were piled up in every nook and cranny, and the place was packed with people laughing and talking over each other. Miguel pulled off his coat too, and tried to keep up with Mr. Quigley as he shimmied through the throng.

Finally they arrived at a room at the back, which looked like it had once been the kitchen but had now been transformed into the bar area. Miguel felt the other men’s eyes bore into him as he sat down next to Mr. Quigley on the last two free bar stools. Unlike the noisy crowds in the other rooms, the men here looked like lone drinkers cradling their pint glasses in silence and watching the goings-on around them.

“Martin, how are ye?” the bartender asked. He could easily have been in his seventies, but he still looked to have loads of energy.

“Miguel, this is the eponymous Charlie; Charlie, this is that young fella from Colombia I was telling you about.”

“Welcome, son—how are ye finding it? Bit different from home?”

“I’m enjoying it—so far, so good.”

“And how’s business doing these days?” Mr. Quigley asked.

“I can’t complain, and even if I could, sure who would listen to me? How’s life up at the school—are the nuns treating ye well?”

Miguel listened to the two of them chat—the way they spoke was lyrical, rhapsodic, always on the point of bursting into poetry or song. Quite different from the conservative, American English he had learned in Bogotá.

“And so you’ll be helping Martin here with Survivors’ Stories?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, I’ve already started working at the Hudson Tribunal, and in a few weeks’ time I’ll start interviewing some people.”

“He’ll be meeting people from all sides and with very different viewpoints,” Mr. Quigley interrupted. “It’s not been easy, some people object to us treating the families of IRA men killed by the army the same as other victims. Y’know they say those people aren’t victims because their loved ones were criminals and got their just deserts. But a woman who’s seen her nineteen-year-old son shot down in a field is still a victim, doesn’t matter what they say he was up to when he was shot. But then you have the hardliners who say the killing of policemen or soldiers or anyone, in fact, who had ‘collaborated’ as they say, isn’t murder, and so we shouldn’t be treating their families as victims, which of course is just as ridiculous. It’s always a challenge to get people to open up, but it might be easier, you being an outsider. They might find it easier to speak to you.”

“I don’t know why you bother Martin,” Charlie said, “you know, I find most people, and I admit I probably get more people from one side of the house than the other in here, but anyway, most people are proud of the peace we have now, and asking people to bring their pain back to the surface just so you can record it, well, with all due respect, won’t that just do more harm than good? Can’t we just start fresh and forget all that nonsense we put ourselves through for all those years? Look at the here and now instead?”

“Charlie, you’re entitled to your opinion as much as the next man—but you’re wrong. We can’t just sweep it all under the carpet. Truthful and lasting peace can only be founded on recognition and reconciliation—telling these stories is the first step. It’s because we haven’t faced up to our history together that Belfast is still on a knife-edge, where riots can erupt over anything, and we still have the dissidents trying to pull us back to the dark past.”

Miguel was impressed with the force of Mr. Quigley’s argument. It was amazing how easily he moved from bumbling teacher chattering away about pantomimes to a serious advocate for his beliefs.

“I happen to agree with that,” said one of the other men at the bar. “Who was it that said those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?”

Miguel had heard this quote before. “It’s Jorge Santayana,” he said.

“Actually I think you’ll find it was the Irishman Edmund Burke who coined the phrase first with something like, ‘Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.’” Mr. Quigley butted in—the muscles in Miguel’s face hardened a fraction; he was convinced that wasn’t right.

“I’ve read about him, but I thought Burke was English,” the man at the bar said.

“Typical,” Charlie laughed. “The Brits claim everything good as their own.” Miguel opened his mouth to say he really thought it was Jorge Santayana, but Charlie spoke first to put a stop to the conversation altogether. “Now gentlemen, that’s enough seriousness for one Friday night. How about something we all agree on, like cricket.” The men all groaned.

“The town had a terrible season this year,” Mr. Quigley informed Miguel.

“The town has a cricket team?”

“Yes, a lot of towns in the North do—regardless of their religious affiliation. At least the English left something good.”

Miguel had only a vague image of what cricket was like garnered from Merchant Ivory films. He found it hard to reconcile this genteel game and its archaic rules with the relaxed and fun-loving community that he found in Northern Ireland, but judging by the impassioned conversation going on around him, love it they did. He tried to feign interest, but all the talk of wickets and golden ducks left him quickly confused, so he turned his attention to the doorway.

He couldn’t believe his timing—there was Laura, standing by the door struggling to take off her long green coat. He smiled, hoping to catch her eye but she just looked past him. She was with another strikingly well-put-together girl in her twenties and a more mature lady old enough to be their mother. The older lady waved at Charlie and motioned that they were heading upstairs.

They settled themselves away from the crowds in one of the little rooms at the very top of the house with a view of the stairs and then Chrissie headed downstairs to get the first drink. Catherine immediately started talking about herself.

“My God, Laura, work is just crazy these days. I had, like, four black-tie receptions last week, and I had to sit next to my boss in all of them—it gets so boring.”

Laura nestled back in the chair and prepared to spend the next hour nodding and listening to Catherine’s alleged “problems.”

“Pinch me.”

Laura was suddenly thrown, she’d only been half listening. “What? He pinched you? Really?”

“No, you pinch me! I think I’m dreaming,” Catherine whispered through smiling, gritted teeth. “I can see Chrissie coming up the stairs with a man, and he’s not bad looking. I must be hallucinating, am I still in our town?” She was already repositioning herself to sit taller, moving her head so her dark curls tumbled down in front of her shoulders.

Laura turned her head just in time to see Chrissie ducking through the doorway carrying her drink, followed by Miguel with two glasses in his hands.

“You are a darling,” Chrissie said as she set her glass down on the table and turned to relieve him of the others. “So girls, I was downstairs struggling with these three vodka tonics when, sorry, what was your name again?”

“Miguel.”

“When Miguel offered to help me. Miguel this is Catherine, my niece, and this is our family friend, Laura.”

“Hello Catherine, nice to meet you. Laura, how are you?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Probably too curt a response, but what else was she supposed to tell him? I’m well, but the more Catherine goes on about “having” to go to black-tie dinners, the more bitter I feel that this is the highlight of my month? And the more bitter I feel, the more I hate myself for feeling that way—so then I’m just bitter about feeling bitter, bitter squared if you like. No, he probably didn’t want to know how she was. ‘How are you?’ was probably just something he’d learned to say in English class, knowing the phrase didn’t amount to the sum of its parts. ‘I’m fine, thanks’ would do.

“Oh, I didn’t realize you two knew each other,” Catherine said.

“I think this is maybe the third time we are introduced now.”

“Miguel works part time at the school,” Laura said by way of explanation.

“Well sit down then,” Catherine said, already pushing Laura down along the seat into the corner so that there was room for Miguel to sit at the other side of her. “Laura didn’t tell us that there were any new teachers this year. I’m guessing from your name and accent that you’re not from round here?”

“That’s right. I’m from Colombia.”

“Colombia? Really? And what brought you here?” Catherine patted the seat next to her again and Miguel dutifully sat down. Catherine’s ability to control the people around her was always a source of wonder.

“I’m here working at the Hudson Tribunal. Have you heard of it?”

“Of course, it’s been on the news a fair bit, it’s so important for those families to understand what happened to their loved ones. God bless their souls.”

Laura thought this was glib. It was one thing knowing the details of what happened, but it was quite another to really understand it.

“And what will you be doing exactly?” Catherine asked.

“I’ll be a liaison for the victims and their families. I’ll spend most days with them, explaining the process, taking them through the kind of questions they should expect to be asked, explaining to them the legalese used by the Tribunal. And I suppose sometimes I’ll just need to be there to listen to them. It’s going to be hard on them.”

“How many people died in the bomb?” Catherine asked.

“Thirty-one, and seventy-five injured.”

“Jesus. Imagine how lucky you must feel escaping something like that.” Catherine gasped, sounding surprised, as if she hadn’t grown up here with all the killing and violence.

“I know what you mean, after ‘dead,’ ‘killed’ or ‘murdered,’ the word ‘injured’ seems so mild, lucky, even doesn’t it? But it’s nothing of the sort. That’s one thing I’ve learned this week. Yesterday, one of the victims visited the offices. He came with his wife. They were newlyweds just back from honeymoon at the time of the bomb. They’d gone out that Saturday afternoon to buy curtains for their new house. They both survived the blast, but he was left severely disabled. His legs are now, how do you say? Completely useless?”

“Defunct,” Laura murmured.

Miguel went on, as if he hadn’t heard her, addressing his words to Catherine. “He can still move his arms from the shoulder, up and down and around. Although the nerves inside his arms were destroyed, so he can’t control his fingers. They just hang limply at the end like they are mocking his still-functioning arms. They’re a great couple, chatting and joking the whole time, but when they started talking about the bomb, when they went back to when they were just newlyweds, you could see it in her eyes that this wasn’t the married life she’d planned.”

Laura looked at Chrissie and Catherine, waiting for them to speak—they lifted their drinks at the same time and took a sip, both, for once, at a loss for words.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk about these things, especially not in the pub on a Friday night. I, uh, I suppose it made a big impact on me, and when you asked me about the Tribunal it all just came tumbling out. Sorry.”

His tanned skin looked momentarily ashen. So he wasn’t as cocky as Laura had thought. His overconfident friendliness had seemed like a shiny veneer lacking in substance, but she’d been wrong.

He put his hand on the table as if reaching for a comforting glass, something to sip from to fill the silence, but there was no drink in front of him.

“Do you fancy a drink?” Laura asked. He looked up and smiled.

“I’ll get it,” Chrissie said, already up.

This activity seemed to shake Catherine back to life. “So tell me about Colombia.”

Laura listened as he spoke about the beauty of Colombia and its variety. She was impressed by his ease; the eloquence in the way he spoke was unusual even in native English speakers. He made small grammatical errors, but his vocabulary was extensive. There was a fluidity and command in his speech, a certain formality that made an impact regardless.

Within no time, Chrissie was back with more drinks, and she and Catherine settled into a steady rhythm of interrogation, broken every now and then by Chrissie disappearing off downstairs for yet more drinks. Every time Laura thought of a question, Chrissie or Catherine got in there with it first. So Laura just sat there, her head getting fuzzier with each vodka, completely dumb, nodding and smiling and growing more frustrated with her lack of participation. He’d probably go away thinking she was incredibly dull—he probably thought that already—she’d not made a great first impression on him in their first few encounters.

“So was there anything else that made you want to come here, or was it just the work? I mean, did you know what you were getting into? That they would be sending you to this wee town for six months?” Chrissie asked.

“Well, it’s an experience living in a small town after Bogotá, and I suppose I’ve always had a fascination with Ireland, and the North in particular.”

“Why?”

He shrugged. “I studied the troubles in university, and I’ve always liked Irish music. From the North I quite like Van Morrison.”

“Van Morrison?” Chrissie and Catherine cried in unison, making Laura smile at the family resemblance. It was a natural question; she didn’t expect someone so young to like Van Morrison either, especially someone from so far away.

“Yes, you are surprised?”

“Oh, I hate his music,” said Catherine.

“I love it, the early stuff more than anything. It’s so magical, transcendental even.”

“Transcendental.” Laura repeated the long word automatically. Miguel glanced over at her and she suddenly realized that she sounded like she was mocking him.

“You know, ‘Into the Mystic’?” he asked, ignoring her. “I always wondered what kind of place inspired that song.”

“My favourite has always been ‘Brown-Eyed Girl,’” Chrissie said.

“Yes, wonder who inspired that song?” Catherine said, fluttering her eyelashes over her own chocolate-brown eyes.

“You know, I heard a rumour that Northern Ireland had some of the most beautiful girls in Europe.”

The most beautiful girls in Europe? Laura thought, he was either completely insincere or a total sap—or a terrible mixture of both.

Chrissie, though, seemed enthralled. “Is that right?”

“Really, they don’t say that, do they?” Catherine asked, probably thinking whoever started that rumour must’ve seen a photo of her.

“Yes, had some of the most beautiful girls in Europe until the Vikings came and stole all the beautiful ones and shipped them off to Iceland.”

“Hang on, they took the beautiful ones and left the others? What does that say about us, ladies?” Chrissie laughed, and Catherine, obviously realising he’d been teasing her, slapped him playfully on the arm.

It takes a lot of courage and charm to openly insult three Irish women and make them laugh at the same time, Laura thought.

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