A Threat of House Calls

Author: John O'Neil

Teresa had just started the breakfast dishes when she heard the scraping of gravel and muffled alien accents in the yard between the front of the house and the old barn. It was 10 o’clock, but Mary had been a holy terror and Teresa had only now put her down.

She knew straight away it was soldiers. The farm was only six miles from the border and they were forever about. “Like the poor, they are with us always,” Joe’s mother liked to say. They would have come on foot through the fields. The Army no longer moved by lorry in the northern Ireland county of Fermanagh.

Teresa was a Leitrim woman and had not the custom of the soldiers when she married Joe and moved to his parents’ farm in Fermanagh two years ago. But she was well used to them now. She stepped back from the window that brightened the sink. They would probably poke about the barns and sheds and wander above to Joe’s parents’ house on the hill before moving on to another Catholic farm. But if they saw her watching, they might find in it an excuse to talk with her.

The doorbell rang. Her heart sank. Joe had taken the old car, but the soldiers would know she was home. They had a list of who lived in every house and the hours they kept. If they rang again they might wake Mary. She stepped quickly into the small entrance hall and opened the door.

An RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) man was in the doorway. Eight British soldiers stood about 10 yards behind him, facing alternately toward and away from the house. She knew there would be others up behind the house. With their strange helmets, black guns and camouflage uniforms, they looked like creatures from another world. “Like the devils from hell,” Joe’s mother often said. They could be nasty enough if their blood was up, if there’d been trouble or if they were after someone. But they were relaxed and easy looking this morning.

Two soldiers near the corner of the house to Teresa’s right were admiring Rory, who was on a long lead tied to one post of the washing line that ran behind the house. He hadn’t barked at the soldiers’ approach.

The RUC man had a camouflage uniform like the others. But he wore a police cap with harp and crown insignia rather than a helmet, and he was older and stouter than the soldiers. He carried no rifle. Teresa was tall and, as the doorway was a step up from the yard, the policeman had to look up at her. She hadn’t seen him before. They moved them about often now.

“A gray, low morning, Mrs. Cassidy,” he said, in the familiar northern accent. He had clear blue eyes and a thin brown mustache over a small, tight mouth. A Protestant mouth, Joe’s mother would have said. Teresa nodded.

Cordiality was second nature to Leitrim country people. Teresa wanted to answer, “Yes, but from the kitchen you can see the clouds breaking beyond the hill and it might yet be a grand day.” But she had learned from her Fermanagh relations that no good ever came of chatting up the security forces. And more than once Joe’s sisters had given out to her for being too civil with them. “It’s a great weakness Teresa has for the Army,” Nora had said, only half joking, after Teresa had responded in kind to a polite “good morning” at a roadside military checkpoint. The Troubles were in their 26th year, and the Cassidys had learned to be aloof with police and soldiers, the way they’d learned as kids to look both ways before crossing the road.

“Is it only you that’s home?”

“And the wee girl. I’m just after putting her down to sleep.”

“Ah, we’ll be still, so.” He turned toward the soldiers and put a finger on his lips as a sign to those who could see him to be quiet.

“That’s a lovely setter,” said the policeman, nodding in the direction of Rory. Rory was a lively dog with a sleek coat and strong legs. “A fine hunter, I’d say.”

“He is that.”

“What does he hunt?”

“The fox, the odd hare.” She regretted saying it the instant she spoke.

“Has Joey Mike a gun, then?”

If the policeman knew the way friends and relations called her husband, he’d looked at their files. He well knew Joe owned a gun. Like he’d know he was in the Gaelic Athletic Association, had a new tractor and worked at the tourist park. This was a harassment visit. They did it now and again, to let you know who was in charge. And on the odd chance they’d turn something up. Teresa was frightened and angry all at once. Angry with herself for chatting and being trapped. Angry at the RUC man for tricking her. Angry at Fermanagh, at England, at the Troubles.

“He has. And he has a paper for it as well.”

“Could you give us a look at it then?”

“He’s shown it to you lot before.”

“We can come in and look for it, you know,” the policeman said, in the same cordial tone he’d remarked on the weather.

“Tell them I’ll be bringing the gun out,” she said, nodding over his head toward the soldiers. “I’ll close the door to keep the damp out.”

The policeman moved away from the door.

Teresa stepped back into the hallway. She knew nothing about guns, but she knew the business about this gun was foolishness. It was a very old shotgun. It had been a childhood present from Uncle Liam. Joe seldom took it out now, for it was dangerous to be about the fields with any gun.

He would clean it now and again, and he said it still worked. But the outside of the metal barrels had rust spots, and it was hardly a weapon for the IRA.

The house was in the simple ranch style now popular in rural Ireland. Dublin architecture critics disliked these houses, pronouncing them without character and lamenting the passing of the traditional country cottage. Teresa would have been surprised had she known this. For the house was warmer, drier and more comfortable than any she had known.

Joe kept the gun in a closet in what for now was a visitors’ bedroom off the hallway that ran the length of the house. The bedroom window faced the front yard; Teresa was glad she’d left the curtains drawn against the damp chill. She lifted the gun out of the closet and removed the blanket that covered it.

She returned to the front door and stood the gun against the hallway wall. She would not open the door with the gun in her hand. The policeman, who’d wandered back to chat with the soldiers, returned to the doorway. Seeing the gun against the wall he said, “do you mind?” and reached past her to pick it up. He moved away from the door and examined it before turning back to her. “Grand, Mrs. Cassidy, we’ll have a look at the paper then and be off.” He kept the gun cradled in his arms.

“I’ll get it.”

She knew where to look. Joe was very particular about the family papers. A drawer of their bedroom chest was reserved for important documents. She went to the bedroom, the first room on the left off the hallway. She was glad those drapes also were drawn. She pulled open the drawer and looked quickly through the neatly arranged folders of marriage, birth and baptism certificates, tax receipts, veterinary records and car and tractor papers. There was no gun paper. Joe must have it in his wallet.

For a moment, Teresa considered calling Joe at work. It was only 10 minutes away, and they might wait. But she thought better of it. Joe had no time for the security forces. And he could have a sharp tongue in his head. He might answer them back. They might lift him, take him to the Barracks, or even to Castlereigh. They could hold him a couple of days, for any reason or for no reason. And maybe give him a beating in the bargain. Better he not meet them.

Teresa returned to the front door. The policeman had moved back to where the soldiers were and was speaking into a radio one of them had strapped to his back. She wondered if he was talking about her. The policeman finished his conversation and returned to the door. He had given the gun to one of the soldiers.

“I haven’t the paper. He must have it with him. I’ll ask him to leave it here, and the next time you pass, I’ll show it to you.”

“Ah, we can’t do that, Mrs. Cassidy. But don’t worry. We’ll just take it down to the Barracks and keep it for you. The next time Joey Mike’s in Enniskillen, he can come in, show us the paper, and we’ll give it back. I’ll give you a receipt.” The policeman reached into a deep pocket of his military style pants and pulled out a receipt book. He took a pen from his pocket and walked to the soldier who was holding the gun. He looked at the gun, wrote on the receipt, returned and handed it to Teresa. “We’ll be off,” he said.

Teresa did not reply and closed the door. She was glad to see the back of them. Thankful they hadn’t entered the house with their muddy boots and clumsy ways. Relieved they hadn’t wakened Mary. But she was heartsick about the gun. It was gone. Joe would not go to the Barracks, could not go to the Barracks. The Barracks was watched, and you could not be seen there.

She felt so bad for poor Joe. He’d loved his Uncle Liam and liked the old gun because it was from him. He would understand, of course, as would his parents. And they would be sorry that she’d had to deal with the police and soldiers all by herself. But not all the family would be so understanding. Some of Joe’s cousins would insist on describing what they would have said or done. Teresa had a clear conscience. She was as good an Irishwoman as any. She had done the best she could. Still, she shuddered at the thought of the weekly Sunday dinner with the Cassidys.

John O’Neil is an American who travels frequently to Ireland. He lived in Ireland from 1990 to 1994.