The Llakor Project - Year Two Chapter Two: Hello, Two
I am going to meet my best friend.
I am sitting in a leaky boat.
I am sitting in the prow of a leaky fishing boat. It’s captain cheerfully tells me not to worry that he has never sunk the boat yet... at least not with a paying customer aboard.
I am not worried, not about the boat anyway. The captain is the sort of fisherman for whom fishing is just a hobby, but smuggling... now smuggling is serious business. He jokes that his family has been smuggling people into Britain since before it was called Britain, since Julius Caesar and the Romans came over and perhaps even before. He goes on to tell me that this leaky boat is a part of history, that it was part of the fleet that smuggled the British Army from Dunkirk back to Britain, right under the nose of the Germans. Of course, since then the boat has been repaired so many times that there is not one plank or bit of equipment that is part of the original boat that sailed during World War Two except possibly the compass and the anchor.
He is waiting for me to object that if every piece of the original boat has been replaced than it is no longer the same boat. Playing along, I object. His eyes twinkling, he tells me that it is the same for people... our cells die, they fall off, they are replaced. Every two years, our cells are entirely replaced. Are we a different person entirely? Or are we the same person with different cells? Is this a different boat? Or the same boat with different cells?
He is right, I tell him. In fact, we are all made of stars. All of our cells were once a part of the fiery centre of a sun before drifting out to become a less violent part of the universe and eventually us.
We are all made of stars, he repeats. He likes that. He is guiding us to Britain by the stars. The stars lead us, he says. Like calling to like. Like leading like.
I can smell the shore. I can smell Britain. This is what worries me. This reunion. It has been ten years since I stood on British soil. Ten years since I have seen my best friend. Ten years since I died and went into exile.
I have done strange and terrible things in Britain and I know that I return to do even more strange and even more terrible things. If the British catch me... a man dead... there are worse things than death that can happen to me. On the plus side, being dead, they won’t be looking for me... at least not at first.
Ten years since I have seen my best friend. Ten years since we have spoken. Ten years without even exchanging Christmas cards. We haven’t even used dead drops or placed coded newspaper ads. It was the only safe way to stay dead. We both agreed.
When we first met, he was being chased through the streets of Belfast by a bunch of UVF youth - Paisley’s bunch - the Ulster Volunteer Force. They probably weren’t really UVF, they just wanted to be. But then me and my lads weren’t really Provos - at least not yet. It was the summer of 1981, Bobby Sands was dying slow and as he died the streets of Belfast were starting to burn. The irony was that Charlie was a Protestant, but the fights in Belfast were never about Catholic against Protestant. Wolfe Tone was a Protestant after all. It was about rich against poor; it was about the heirs of thieves refusing to share back what they had stolen with the poor from whom they had stolen; rich entrenched thieves against poor disenfranchised thieves.
Besides, Paisley’s thugs were only enlightened in the sense that they hated everybody. Everybody who wasn’t them anyway. And Charlie may have have been Protestant, but he clearly wasn’t their kind of Protestant. Which is why they were chasing him. But Charlie was too fast for them and they didn’t notice that they had come too far down Falls Road into our territory. One second Charlie is running from his life. The next, he is staring, panting, mouth open in astonishment as a horde of dirty Irish teenagers spring out of nowhere with bricks and bats and chains and trash can lids and any thing else we can grab and carry to the fight. Glorious fight. The UVF bastards were older, but there were less of them - about ten compared to my sweet sixteen - and they weren’t as well armed. We beat them and sent them running and I broke Bobby O’Neill’s arm in two places with a baseball bat.
Spent some time in jail for that later. Worth it.
That night, the sixteen of us escorted Charlie to the British lines with my Mum who bawled out an English officer for allowing Paisley’s thugs to chase Charlie for half a mile past groups of his soldiers and them doing nothing about it. We ended up having tea for the nineteen of us. Turned out Charlie was visiting Belfast from Scotland - somehow he and his school buddies had decided that it would be fun to visit a war zone or summat. He got separated from his friends, ran into the thugs and was off to the races.
Charlie’s mother and mine started writing to each other. I ended up being the only Provo with my own Scottish safe house. They even had a priest hole. When I was old enough to join the Provos good and proper and be “Green-Booked”, Charlie joined the Provos as well, but well and in secret. He was our secret weapon. Our stealth Provo.
I can see the Cornwall coast up ahead and the spray is shooting over the spray of the boat. My hair is a tangled mess. I should have had it cut before I left Montreal for Paris. My hair curls into a thick black matte. It’s part of my heritage as a Black Irish. My mother used to say that my hair was black, my conscience was black and my temperament was black. Of course what my mother didn’t talk about was that there were actual black men in my family tree as well.
When the Spanish Armada got caught in a storm off the coast of Ireland, the sailors who were washed ashore were mainly Spanish Moors. At least, according to legend, the Moors were the sailors who thought it was worth knowing how to swim - just in case, like.
I ask the Captain Smuggler of this leaky boat if he knows how to swim. He laughs and asks if I am still worried about sinking. No, he does not know how to swim. He makes it clear that learning how to swim would be like asking for a wreck - it would be an admission of defeat. “Si le Bon Dieu, me veut, il me prend.” If the Good Lord wants me, he’ll take me. In any case, he adds, if you sink out of sight out land in the North Atlantic you are a dead man anyway. If you don’t drown, you’ll freeze to death. Better to drown. It’s faster and warmer.
This attitude is why the Moors survived all out of proportion to their Spanish confreres when their ships sank. The Moors were Black Muslims converted to Roman Catholicism. For them living was fighting. While their was a chance, they fought to live. When they hit the coast of Ireland, my ancestors hid them. It didn’t matter that their conversion was hasty and fragile thing. We hid them not because they were Catholics, but because they were enemies of the English.
The same way that we saved Charlie. We cared less about his religion and more about who was chasing him. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
No one who landed in Ireland was returning to Spain, at least not without great difficulty. A few richer survivors eventually got smuggled back - probably on boats like the one that I am getting soaked in. But most were on Ireland for the duration. Some stayed Catholic. Some converted back to Muslim. Some married local Irish women and over the course of the centuries all I have to mark my Great Great many times Great Grand-Father is the colour and the curls of my hair.
My dark black heart and my dark black anger is something that I doubt that I owe that ship wrecked sailor. I would like to think that I can thank him for my instinct for survival and my attention to detail in preparing for a mission in advance. Like learning to swim if you are going to have to sail a great bloody long way away from your home in the dead of winter under the command of a bunch of great fools who can’t read a map.
Charlie’s family came to Scotland in a similar way that my ancestor did: during a war with the English, in the midst of a great disaster. Only this disaster happened on land and it was called Culloden. Charlie’s ancestors came over from France to be servants to Bonnie Prince Charlie. When all hell broke loose, when the Scots lost, the Prince abandoned his servants and fled with the remnants of his army.
Which is how his family came to be known as “Stuart” and how with deliberate irony, he came to be called Charles Stuart Jr.
I think that I can see him on the dock. The dumb bastard is wearing a kilt. I have tried to explain to him that the kilt was a practical joke played on the Scots by us Irish. Along with the pipes and the haggis. Who would have known that the Scots could be fooled so easily and for so long? But Charlie holds to the traditions with all the fevered intensity of the recently converted. His family has been in Scotland since 1745, but they are as insecure about their identity as Scots as if they just got off the boat in Edinburgh. Dumb bastard can even play the pipes. He even curls. He is actually a great curler. Nearly made the Scottish National team once. His take-out game was too strong. His finesse game wasnae strong enough, or so the Scottish National coach said. His game was too Canadian. These would be the same Canadians who beat the Scottish team every year, so I had my own reasons for thinking that there were other reasons why Charlie wasn’t picked.
We are pulling into the dock and Charlie is helping me on to dry land. In the dark, it’s hard to make out his features, but then he smiles his great bright white teeth catching what little light there is and lighting up his dark features.
“Hello Two,” I say.
Charlie nods. He can’t seem to speak.
And a great spring that was coiled in my gut unclenches. Everything is going to be all right. Poor dumb bastards. A Black Scottish Protestant Provo? And a dead man? They will never even see us coming. They will be dead before they even realize that we exist.