Hard Borders by James Young
James Young is a Northern Irish writer, translator and journalist. His short fiction has appeared in a number of literary journals, and as a journalist he has written for several leading newspapers and websites. He is part of the Creative Writing MA programme at Birkbeck University and is currently at work on a novel. ‘Hard Borders’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize in the Fiction category.
When the barman brings their lunch to the table they say thank you in low, respectful voices. They eat with their heads down, occasionally looking up at the bar, behind which the TV is showing a sport played by the Other Side. There is a big game later that afternoon, and in the stands the flags of the teams flap in the damp breeze, as unfamiliar to Susan as those of an occupying army.
The bar is full of the Other Side. They wear the red shirts of the local team pridefully and their Adam’s apples bulge like boasts as they sup their pints. Amid the fug of conversation their cheeks gleam with an excitement beyond that of simple games.
When they have been eating for around ten minutes her father lays his knife and fork across the battleground of his plate and rubs at his thigh through green corduroy trousers that shine with age.
Susan raises an eyebrow.
Tell her what happened, her father’s wife says.
Her father takes a sip from his glass, his splintered, dirt-caked fingernails dark against the amber of the whiskey.
I’ll show her, he says.
He stands and moves to undo his fly before they flap their hands at him and he sits down. Boisterous behaviour, they know, may attract attention.
What happened? Susan asks.
I like to bring something back for the dog when I’m away, her father says.
Sausages, her father’s wife says, from the hotel buffet. He put them in his pocket and they burned his leg.
How many did you take? Susan asks.
Just six or so, her father says. He drains his glass and gets up to go to the toilet.
He takes the biscuits from funerals too, her father’s wife says. As many as he can. Fills his pockets. He loves a good funeral.
They start laughing until one of the Other Side looks over at them and then they stop. They know he is one of the Other Side not just because of his red shirt but also the soft blueish tint of his skin and his pointed, cuneate ears.
Six sausages, Susan says, Jesus.
Her father’s limp is bad enough that when he comes back from the toilet he almost keels into an old man from the Other Side coming the other way. For a moment they stand glaring at each other like prize fighters across the ring. Then – there is a flicker of disappointment on both their faces – they remember their age and slap each other on the shoulder and move on. The old are exempt from the struggle.
Susan goes to the bar to get more drinks.
Be some match today, one of the Other Side says to her, his hairless, blue-tinged hand locked tightly around his pint glass so that his knuckles glow white.
Sure will, Susan says, though she doesn’t know who’s playing.
Did you get on alright? her father’s wife asks when she gets back to the table.
Fine, she says.
They sit and drink quietly.
When they finish their food and drinks they decide to skip dessert and coffee and go home.
It’s no fun drinking where you’re not made to feel welcome, her father says, a little too loudly, as they stand.
All along the polished wooden bar backs hunch and necks stiffen.
They file silently out of the pub, their heads bowed.
Put that glass in your pocket, her father says as they go.
No, Susan says.
Go on, her father says, fuck them.
No, Susan says.
You weren’t always so yellow, her father says.
I don’t think stealing one of their glasses is going to make much difference, Susan says.
When they get home her father lights the fire and his wife makes tea. Soon her father is asleep in his armchair with his small blind dog on his lap.
I told him I’d rather be buried in the graveyard up on the hill instead of the one in the churchyard, her father’s wife says, as they sit at the table drinking their tea. He said he would too, even though it’s overgrown. It’s a nicer spot you see, up on the hill.
Right, Susan says.
You must think we’re very morbid, her father’s wife says, always talking about burials and funerals.
Not at all, Susan says.
She looks over at her father. As she watches a small quicksilver tear seeps from his left eye and runs across the pitted relief of his cheek.
I might go for a walk, Susan says. Work off some of that lunch.
Good idea, her father’s wife says. You could walk up and look at the graveyard. One of your father’s ancestors is buried there. He was killed in the war.
Maybe I will, Susan says.
I haven’t been there in a long time, her father’s wife says as Susan goes out the door.
Susan walks down the lane, her white trainers quickly becoming stained with dark mud. She fishes in her pocket for her cigarettes and lights one and watches the smoke rise in the air like steam from an athlete’s body on a cold morning. After a few drags she throws the cigarette to the ground and crushes it with her heel.
She goes past the small church, hunkered on a low rise, the crows carousing above it. Earlier that morning her father told her the congregation was dropping. Young people don’t want to know about church these days, he said. Then he went out to get some sticks for the fire.
They had to tell your father to stop singing so loudly, with so few people there, her father’s wife said when he had gone. Susan imagines her father’s thin, high voice ringing around the church, trying to fill up the empty space between the thick white walls.
She crosses a small stone bridge and walks up a narrow lane along which the trees thrust like onlookers at a parade. After a mile or so she reaches a development of new houses, all of which have three or four bedrooms, large bay windows looking out across the fields, and two-car garages.
The Other Side’s houses.
She turns right and walks along a wider road until she realises she no longer knows where the graveyard is. The drivers of the few cars that pass turn to look at her, their heads floating disembodied behind the glass.
The clouds over her head grow darker and the wind makes a low moan that fills her ears. Just when she is thinking about turning back a large black car pulls up alongside her.
You look lost, says the woman behind the wheel.
Not really, Susan says.
Get in, says the woman, I’ll give you a lift.
Where are you going? Susan asks.
Wherever you want to go, ha-ha, the woman says.
Her teenage daughter – Susan presumes – takes her headphones from her finely tapered ears and smiles from the passenger seat.
Alright, Susan says, though she knows the warnings.
It is an expensive car with plump seats of shiny leather.
We’re going to church, says the woman. She is attractive, with a mellifluous country accent and soft brown eyes. A wedding ring glistens against the almost imperceptibly blue skin of her finger.
From the direction of the car – and her skin – Susan knows she must be going to the Other Side’s church in the next town over.
I’m looking for a graveyard, Susan says. An old one. Overgrown. On a hill.
I know the one, the woman says. You’re going the wrong way. We’ll have to turn.
She pulls into a lay-by and spins the car around, gravel roaring and spitting beneath the wheels.
Are you from the area? the woman asks her. Her eyes flicker across the rear-view mirror, watching Susan, then turn back to the road.
Just down the road, not too far, Susan says. She wonders if she should say her father’s name. Fuck it. The woman knows what she is anyway, because of her skin. Everybody knows what everyone else these days.
My dad is…, she says, and gives her father’s name.
It is up to the woman what she does with her, she thinks. In the old days she would have been disappeared. Even today, in some parts of the country. This part of the country, every now and again. She should not have got in the car.
Don’t know him, the woman says cheerfully, as she swerves on the slick road, still moist from an earlier rain shower, to avoid a pothole.
She tells Susan her name is Carol and her daughter is Sally. The daughter turns her head halfway and smiles again. The woman also tells Susan their surname.
A country and western song about being broken hearted is playing on the radio. When it finishes the news comes on. A politician from Susan’s side is defending last night’s terror attack, in which a man left a bomb in a crowded restaurant. If the terrorists had not called in a warning, the newsreader says, there would have been many casualties.
It was a legitimate political statement, the politician is saying. Such actions are likely to continue as long as one side remains oppressed by the other.
Bloody eejits, the woman says, and turns off the radio.
Susan wonders if she means the politician who is speaking or all politicians, from both sides.
Well, here we are, the woman says, pulling the car over to the side of the road near the entrance to a small dirt track. You follow this path up the hill and it takes you to the graveyard. You have to go through someone’s farmyard but he won’t mind.
Thanks, you saved my life, Susan says, meaning the walk.
There is a moment’s silence.
Some of our family are buried up there, the woman says. They were killed in the war.
Mine too, says Susan, realising now what her father’s wife did not tell her about the graveyard.
She says goodbye and gets out of the car. She watches it drive away, the woman and her daughter waving back at her, until the thrum of the engine has faded.
The woman could call someone, she thinks. Tell them where she is. An easy hit, she might say, there’ll be no witnesses. Though she didn’t seem the type. She was on her way to church, after all.
She climbs up the muddy track, her trainers now almost completely covered with dark brown earth. A small dog glares at her as she crosses the farmyard. At the top of the hill she climbs over a wall to get into the graveyard. The grass is up to her knees and soon her jeans are soaked. The gravestones lean drunkenly amidst the undergrowth. Some have been broken by vandals or inclement weather while others have toppled and lie on the ground like fallen soldiers.
Eventually she finds the gravestone of her father’s ancestor in the far corner of the graveyard, invisible from the path. It is a large black marble slab polished so bright that it reflects the tree branches that sway obscenely above her head. She takes a picture with her phone to show her father’s wife. She spends a while looking for where the family of the woman who gave her a lift are buried but cannot find any gravestones with her surname. Many are so old that the inscriptions have worn away and become illegible.
Then she goes and sits on the wall of the graveyard and lights a cigarette. The smoke makes her eyes blink so that the trees seem to swim against the swollen grey sky.
A black car pulls up at the foot of the lane. Two men get out and begin to walk up the hill.
Susan takes out her phone and calls her father’s house. Her father’s wife answers.
I found the gravestone, she says, watching the men climb the hill.
Does it look nice? her father’s wife asks.
It’s been polished, Susan says. It’s the only one. Who would do that, do you think?
I’ll put the tea on soon, her father’s wife says, as though she has not heard the question.
I’ll head back now, Susan says, and hangs up. The men have almost reached the top of the hill.
She looks out at the country unfurling beneath her, an indolent patchwork of greens and browns. The graveyard lies under a shadow of clouds but further away the sky is cracked and fissured by a weak yellow light that seeps over the mountains along the horizon. As she watches, a column of crows rises like smoke from a tree at the foot of the hill.
She imagines her father limping up the hill with a plastic bag filled with polish and old cloths. Rubbing at the gravestone, listening to the crows cackling in the trees above his head.
She stubs out her cigarette on the ground.
The two men stand in front of her. Both are wearing flat caps pulled down over the sharp peaks of their ears and black leather jackets and have moustaches of the type favoured by henchmen from the Other Side. Their skin is the colour of the blue chalk Susan’s teachers sometimes used at school.
Alright lads, Susan says, getting up from the wall.
Alright, the younger of the two men says with a grin that shows his yellow teeth. Then he takes a step forward and smashes Susan across the face with his knuckles.
Lads, Susan says, falling back against the wall and rubbing the warm, coppery-tasting blood from her nose and mouth.
The older of the men takes out his mobile phone and looks at the screen, which Susan sees is showing the score of the big match.
Class, we’re winning, he says. He bends one knee and pumps his arm vigorously back and forwards in celebration.
Magic, says the younger man.
We’ll do some drinking tonight, the older man says.
We will, says the younger man.
Susan pulls herself upright. The wind keens through the trees and grass, whistling like tinnitus. She thinks it must sound a little like her father singing in church.
Can’t we talk about it at least, she says, as the younger man takes a small black gun from his pocket and fingers it with a tenderness bordering on the erotic.
Not much to talk about, he says, pointing the gun at Susan.
Wait, says Susan.
Hold on a minute, the older man says.
Susan looks down at the road. She hears a car coming, then sees the car itself, then listens for a moment to the sound of the car, which hangs in the air after it has gone.
What is it? the older man asks Susan.
You don’t have to do this, Susan says, wiping more blood from her face. We could do things differently. We could be friends. We could go for a pint. I’ll buy.
The older man seems to think about this for a moment. The sun comes out from behind the clouds and touches the blue skin of his face. Two small children run laughing into the farmyard below, followed by their father, who is sporting a flat cap much like those worn by the two men.
Come on kids, let’s build a treehouse, the father calls, his voice carrying on the breeze all the way up to the graveyard.
The older man looks down at the farmyard, as though considering whether the witnesses might scupper their plans.
Alright then, he says, you seem like a decent lassie. I’ll call the boss and tell him there’s been a change of plan.
Really, says Susan, that’s amazing.
No, not really. Shoot her, he says to the younger man.
The younger man shoots Susan, once in the chest, once in the stomach and once in the head, the shots echoing around the low hills like hands clapping. When she is lying on the ground, he kicks her hard in the midriff to make sure she is dead, getting blood on his shoe in the process.
The older man walks over to the wall and looks into the graveyard while the younger man wipes his shoe on the long grass.
What a mess, the older man says, staring at the broken gravestones and tangled undergrowth.
The younger man joins him.
Just a load of old rocks when you think about it, he says, looking at the graveyard. Come on, let’s go. We can still make the second half.
They walk back down the hill to their car, watched silently by the farmer and his children. They touch the brims of their caps as they pass and the farmer touches the brim of his in return. Then they drive back to the pub which is showing the match. They sit in the seats where Susan and her father and her father’s wife sat earlier that day, and they watch the rest of the match and get drunk. The local team wins, and at closing time everyone in the pub congas noisily into the street, singing raucous songs of myth and triumph in high, hoarse voices.