Casualties of War
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"...the worst thing about wars is not the casualties that happen on the battlefield, but the ripples going out from them, on and on toward some shore so impossibly remote in terms of time that effectively it doesn't exist."

Lynne Reid Banks  

he echo of gunfire cut through the stillness of the night. The bed creaked protestingly as I tossed beneath the eiderdown. Fear spread like fungus through my abdomen. It never went away anymore. As a youngster I used to be able to escape when I dreamed of a future away from Derry. Now, no dream could offer me sanctuary.
In a fit of rebellion, I tossed off the coverings and leapt towards the window. The brightness of an explosion on a nearby street blinded me and sent me scurrying back to the relative safety of the room. 
"Coward," I thought, simultaneously chastising myself for the foolishness of my defiance. I sat down at my bureau, an archaic slab of wood supported by worn oak legs. I sighed dejectedly as I recalled the months I had dedicated to saving for its purchase. A teacher's salary. I snorted in disgust. I took my quill from its stand, dipped its nip in the smooth black ink and started to write: 

Free falling like the rain, 
oblivious to the pain, 
thankfully from grace, 
yet fearful of losing face. 
Plunging through a cloud, 
shake it off - is that allowed? 

The ground is what beckons, 
it 'll be upon me within seconds. 

No time to reconsider; 
it 's saying, "Here. Come hither." 

Seducing me with ease. 
Stop! There are those I must appease. 

Panic grips my heart, 
when I realise with a start, 

it 's useless now to try: 
the time for that has long gone by. 

I know it in my mind, 
I must now let it grind, 
into the crevice of my soul. 
When I can, I will finally be  hole.

Light flooded through the uncurtained window and roused me from my slumped position over the bureau. I sprang to my feet, disoriented. Date? Time? I had a class at ten. I glanced at my watch. 9.50. I threw my clothes on, gathered my books and dashed out the door. 

The dismissal bell resonated through the suffocating closeness of the classroom. 
"Chapters five and six for homework!" I called feebly after the throng stampeding out the door. More deliberately I packed my case and headed resignedly for my dreary abode. 

"Joseph Logan! Wait up!" My heart caught in my throat and my feet refused to move. I stood on the pavement, not daring to turn around. I waited until the thud of her heeled shoes stopped right behind me, before I whirled around. 
"Laurel," I breathed as she flung herself into my arms. When I had established that she was really there, I held her back from my quaking chest, feasting my eyes on her amber tresses and emerald eyes. When she pressed her crimson lips to mine, the heartache that had accumulated during the months of her absence ebbed away. I closed my eyes, deeply breathing in her heady fragrance. Lightening flashed in my conscience, and I shrank away from her embrace. Hurt shone in her eyes, then was superseded by concern. She traced my lips with an ivory finger. "Och Joe, what troubles ye?" She inquired worriedly in her melodic lilt. 
We were on the streets of a suburb in Northern Ireland. She was a Protestant, I, a Catholic, a traitor to my country and my people. I blinked heavily. 
"It's . . . it's nothing, my love. It's just such a shock to see you again." I smiled warmly. "Do not fret so soon, Laurel. Everything is fine . . ." I finished falteringly. 
"Are you certain Joe?" She persisted, "You seem to have . . . changed." Nervously, she fingered the gold cross that dangled ominously from a chain around her neck. The irony of its relevance filled my chest with bitterness. Roughly I pulled her hand free of the amulet. 
"Of course I've changed," I snapped. I took a deep breath and added huskily. "I missed you, Laurel. Loneliness does strange things to a man." 
She flung her arms around my neck and kissed me tenderly. Her sweet tongue dissolving the staleness of my existence. 

A sharp rap on the wooden door roused me from another night's fitful slumber. I disentangled myself from Laurel's limbs and wrapped a robe around my goose-fleshed shoulders before stumbling, bleary eyed to the door. The events that followed occupy an ominous recess in my memory and rely on Laurel's account to clarify the episode. She had stirred her from her slumber and my absence from her side forced the harsh realities of consciousness on her. She informed me that a lanky, doe-eyed youth was outlined in the doorway. He pushed a crumpled sheet of paper into my trembling hands. He became agitated when he witnessed my reaction to its contents: a grown man willingly succumbing to his grief before his eyes. Laurel leapt to my side, tearing the paper from my unresisting fingers. She scanned it fleetingly, then crumpled it with her delicate fingers, understanding my anguish. My ashen complexion, a result of an inner city existence had paled beyond recognition. Laurel struggled to regain her composure and take charge of the situation. Briskly, she thanked the messenger with a fifty-pence piece and closed the door quietly. Guiding me by the elbow, she escorted me to an overstuffed armchair by the bravely glowing electric heater. The reality of the news I had just received would not percolate into my consciousness and I sat motionless, staring unseeingly at a print of a grotesque Dali landscape. A spasm shook my weakened form. I blinked heavily and jumped to my feet, suddenly energised. "I don't know why I ever bought this," I commented disgustedly, removing the artwork from the wall and slamming it face down on the bureau. The glass shattered. Oblivious, I continued, "You know, I never really liked it." 
Laurel stopped mid whimper and glanced up from her cowering position, sheltered beside the obese armchair. 
"Joe! Oh Joe!" she cried worriedly. "For the love of God . . ." 
She placed a clammy hand on my glistening brow. "You're feverish," she diagnosed, adopting a maternal stance. "Let's tuck you into bed and I'll make you a nice hot cup of tea. Then . . ." 
I shrank from her touch. "I don't need a nursemaid, Laurel." I felt the callous whisper emerge from my lips, leap through the air and sink into her flesh. Stung by my harshness she retreated to the warmth of the eiderdown. I retrieved the crumpled telegram from where it lay pitifully on the bare floorboards. Carefully, I smoothed out the creases and read it aloud, forcing the crude message to seep into my unreceptive mind. 

brendan logan stop shot by british soldiers stop i.r.a. raid stop fatal injuries stop contact authorities.
"Bloody I.R.A.," Laurel spat the words. "Why did he entangle himself in their web? He should have known that you can never escape. Never." 
Never escape. Never escape. Never escape. Never escape. Never escape. Never . . . 
The mantra ebbed through my mind. I transcended to the oppressiveness of a Derry street and the last encounter with my brother. 

"Man, just get the hell out of Derry," I had urged him when he told me of his predicament. "Get out while ye still can." 
He shook his head sadly. "Don't ye understand, Joe?" Pain flitted across his dark eyes. He ran a hand through his tangled, sandy hair. His fingernails weren't clean. "I can't leave again before I . . . , I . . . I'll always keep comin' back if I don't set things right now. I'll never be able to get on with my life." 
"Forget the past. Just go. Now," I implored him. "They won't find you. Start afresh . . ." 
"I can't, Joe," Brendan's voice was a barely audible. A dejected whisper. "I can't escape physically, if I don't free me mind from . . . from their clutches. If I run from them, I'll be running from meself . . . forever." His last words were spoken slowly, as if he were testing out their meaning. 
I had nodded, trying to understand, trying to envision his civil war. "Oh Lord above us," I had pleaded, looking skyward. Then turning to my brother, I had asked reflectively, "Where did it all begin, Brendan? Why . . . you, why not me?" 
He grinned suddenly, displaying a roguish charm. "You know as well as I do, lad." 
"You're doing it all for him?" My voice was incredulous. "You're throwing everything away for the memory of a bitter old drunk?" 
Indignance flashed across his face and I braced myself for the chastising words that always followed my desecration of our father's honour. He hesitated then let it pass. Continuing, he explained his motives. "I gotta do it, Joe. For 'im. Ta show 'im  . . ." He glanced at the gathering storm clouds. "Show 'im it wasn't a waste. Wasn't all fir nothing. That 'is life meant somethin' - ta me, ta Ireland. That I'm gonna finish what 'e started." He took a bent cigarette from the pocket of his overcoat, and sheltered a match from the wind as he lit it. He inhaled deeply, visibly gathering the necessary determination for the task ahead. 
"Aye, Brendan." I nodded, catching a glimpse of his inner turmoil. "But where does it all end? Tell me that, Brendan; where does it all end?" 

"Joe! Joe!" I shook my head dazedly, dispersing the remnants of the ghostly conversation from my mind. I found Laurel at my side, gently shaking my arm. "Talk to me, Joe. Please, my love . . ." I was too dazed to respond, but she persisted. "Were you remembering?" she probed gently. "About Brendan?" I nodded soberly. 
She clucked her tongue sympathetically. "Och, why did he do it? To himself, to you?" Receiving no reply, she persisted, her condemning words boring into my skull like an industrial drill. "Those Provo boys just don't know when to stop. Enough's enough. Can't they just accept . . ." 
I inclined my head to look at her. The action was slow, deliberate, painful. I could feel every vertebrae shifting its load, its anger. The fiery gleam in my eyes halted the flow of her words. "Accept?" I repeated incredulously in a fierce whisper. The voice, resounding in my skull was cold, murderous. "You expect us to accept what you've done to us. You've oppressed us for centuries and now you want us to accept . . ." I exaggeratedly alliterated the word, ". . . your atrocities and . . . live happily ever after?" The sarcasm in my words was bitter enough for me to recoil, yet I didn't stop my torrent of abuse. "Wake up, Laurel!" I continued. "Join the ranks of reality and see us for what we've become!" 
Pain dulled her serene features, molesting the innocence that I had once found there. "Me? You? Us? Them?" she whispered hoarsely. She seemed weary, as if it was a great effort for her to speak. "Is that how you see it? Are we divided - you and me? No. Sorry, Joe," cynicism oozed from her tongue. I winced at the ease with which it had been transmitted. "That's not how things are anymore. It's us and them, now, isn't it? Only now we're not on the same team anymore. I wonder now, Joe, were we ever? I always thought that us, was you and me. I guess I had my head in the clouds. For a while, I thought your's was up there with mine. Now it's with your bloody Provos. You're the one who needs to wake up, Joseph Logan. Just look what they've done to Brendan. Now they're doing it to you!" Her voice rose to a hysterical wail. 
"The Movement didn't kill my brother, Laurel," I pointed out sardonically. "It was your precious British Army, sweetheart, that shot him to pieces!" 
Something snapped in her demeanour. Her shoulders slumped forward dejectedly, the fire ebbed out of her face and she exhaled resignedly. "This is futile, Joe," she conceded. "I thought we were above this I . . ." she faltered. ". . . I thought our love was stronger than a civil war. I guess I was wrong . . ." 
The damning statement in her meekly spoken words made me recoil momentarily. By the time I had grasped a straw of composure, she had thrown a few belongings into a bag and wrapped a coat around her shoulders. 
"What are you doing?" I demanded, with more fierceness than I had intended. 
"You've become one of them, Joe. You're bitter and you've lost your dreams. I won't ley you do that to me. Goodbye Joseph Logan. God be with you." 
The bang of the rickety door reverberated around the cold room as I reflected bitterly on the irony of her invocation. "Religion," I muttered dejectedly. "The great divider." As an after-thought I lectured philosophically, my trusty bureau the sole member of my audience. "On the quest for unity we are all divided. The Almighty sniggers as his children bicker, torn apart by the dogmas they created to find him." 
An icy breeze blew through the open window and I pulled my robe around me more securely. It did nothing to ease my chill. I inhaled deeply, trying to disperse the image of Laurel's departing figure from my mind, only succeeding in drawing forward a flood of memories as her fragrance hung in the air. 

I knocked softly. "Mam!" I called softly. No response. A little louder. "Mam, it's me, Joe." I tried the door. It offered no resistance to my touch and I peered around it, into the room. My mother lay slumped on the pillows that supported her frail form. Her eyes were glazed, betraying her drugged state. A dim fire was ignited in them when she heard my voice, yet her eyes failed to acknowledge my presence. I balanced a bunch of chrysanthemums precariously on the bedside table and perched awkwardly on the edge of the hard mattress. 
"How've you been, Mam?" I inquired softly, eyeing the tubes protruding from her haggard flesh with suspicion. The steady beep of monitoring machinery marked the pass of time. I tried to focus on the words she struggled to produce. 
". . . much better these past few days. Less pain. The doctor says . . ." 
I nodded absently, attempting to formulate the words I had come to tell her. "Mam," I gently interrupted her rambling. Carefully, I lifted her bony fingers and placed them between my own. ". . . some terrible news . . ." I heard my displaced words, like one acknowledges snatches of a television conversation blaring in the background of a family meal. 
". . . Brendan . . . I.R.A. . . . British Soldiers . . . DEAD . . ." The word hung in the air like the stench of a burnt Sunday roast. Her face remained impassive for moment, while the information permeated into her drugged brain. When it encountered the outer recesses, a look of horror contorted her gaunt features into a grotesque caricature of themselves. 

Cancer. The doctors had detected it after it had established a firm hold in her lungs. War had raged briefly, before her body conceded, allowing its opponent to march to victory. 
"Cancer. A manifestation of the repression of accumulated anger," an enlightened young doctor had quoted from his book of affirmations. The consequences of Mam's bleak, colourless existence had finally surfaced. The vault of sorrow, anger and frustration had been opened . . . 
She struggled for breath and lowered her head pitifully. "Just like his father, he was. Aye, Brendan was. His father in his glory. But more . . . reluctantly. Brendan, the reluctant hero," she finished almost triumphantly as if finally realising an idea that had hovered just over the horizon for years. "Just like his father . . ." she repeated. "I did love yer father. You know that. Don't you, Joe?" feeble desperation echoed in her query. I patted her hand reassuringly. "We had problems," she continued. "Lord, did we have problems, but I loved him and in his own way I know he loved me . . ." she faltered, tears constricting her throat. She sniffed. "I was frightened. For you. And . . . and for Brendan. Frightened that the old fool would influence you with his heroic tales. Make you want to follow in his footsteps . . . Every mother's nightmare . . . and . . . and . . . now its come true . . ." she choked on her words and began to wail. Hysterical sobs raking through her weary frame. Carefully, I replaced her hand on the tattered quilt and dived for the emergency button to summon the nurse. 
A tall matronly woman in sensible black shoes arrived, assessed the situation within a moment and withdrew an ominous looking syringe from her apron. A jab, a gasp, and Mam was dozing peacefully. 
"Thank you." I attempted a weak smile. 
"You'd best be leaving now, Mr. Logan," she advised curtly. "Your mother will need to rest quietly for a while." 
"Yes. Yes, of course," I conceded meekly, grateful for the prevalence of order, however insignificant in my crumbling existence. 

As I trudged down Limvady Road away from the Londonderry Chest Hospital, the voice of my childhood mentor flitted into my thoughts. Kathleen. How I longed for her then. I needed her more than ever, the rebellious young schoolteacher who had befriended me and injected some colour into the drudgery of my childhood. 
"Go after your dreams, Joe. Don't allow anyone to cut off your wings. You were born into conflict, but you can overcome the bleakness, the despair . . . We have to start somewhere. 
It's up to us. It's up to you . . ." 
I tried to imagine her reaction to Laurel. Impulsively, I decided that she would like her. In many ways Laurel reminded me of Kathleen; the first woman I had really loved. She had been my mother, lover, confidant, friend. When she had been crudely snatched from my life by the I.R.A., all the joy she had revealed to me was drowned in a chasm of darkness and desolation. Years later, I embarked on a search for someone with her vision, with her insights, and her dreams. I found her. Laurel. I had found her, and now, driven her away, forfeiting my chance at happiness. The immensity of my foolishness collapsed on me like an avalanche of grey Derry snow. It no longer mattered that she was a Protestant, I a Catholic. Idealism flooded through me; all that mattered was our love. 
With a determined spring in my step, I whirled around and backtracked to St. Columbs Park where she spent her afternoons writing, sketching, reflecting. The trees had submitted their leaves to the plush carpet that covered the damp earth. A broken swing creaked in the strong breeze. Stealthily, I approached the bench she was perched upon. I came to a standstill just inches from her amber tresses. I longed to reach out a hand and feel their softness. 
She drew in a sharp breath and straightened her body. I would need to be convincing to entice her back into my heart. Still facing away from me, staring resolutely into the distance, I struggled to explain my jumble of thoughts and emotions. When I had reached a tentative conclusion, she slowly twisted her body and regarded me with a wry grin. "I see you've finally come to your senses, Joseph Logan," she remarked impishly. She rose slowly. Then unable to restrain herself, catapulted herself into my arms, burying her face in my shoulder. 
A moment later, I held her at arm's length. "I take it you feel the same way?" I inquired mischievously. 
We couldn't bear to remain in the oppressiveness of our country any longer and settled on a remote island off the coast of Wales, making a silent pact not to mention the land of our birth. We averted our eyed to news reports of the troubles in the North and feigned deafness when the radio blared the death toll of the streets. Yet neither of us could rid our ribs of its fires. The fires of its passion, as well as its carnage. 
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Copyright 1993 Ilanit Tof, All Rights Reserved.