In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
A Little Chat
The man stood on tiptoe, at the far side of the room, straining to look at the dying sky through the small barred window. He had the palms of his hands against the beige painted wall. It was damp to the touch and a rank unpleasant smell pervaded the room, a combination of urine and unwashed bodies. The door opposite the window was opened, metallically creaking this fact. The man turned and looked at a tall slim figure in an immaculate three-piece suit. He was handsome, with dark wavy hair and a pencil thin moustache. His eyes were a penetrating blue.
The tall man spoke. “Good afternoon. Sit down, please.”
The slim man smiled, but the smile did not extend to his eyes. “No, you will sit down. I’d like a little chat with you and I have no intention of doing it standing up.” His voice took on a steely edge. “Now, sit down.”
The other man sat on the hard straight-backed chair and put his hands on the bare table. The slim man pulled up the only other chair in the room and sat opposite him.
“Who are you? Police, MI5, MI6, who?”
The slim man smiled again, his eyes never leaving the other’s face. He took a silver cigarette case from his inside jacket pocket and removed two cigarettes. He tapped them several times against the flat of the case and then used a gold lighter to light them. All the time his thin smile was held. He pushed one across the table and took a deep pull at his own, the exhaled smoke wreathing his face.
“It doesn’t really matter who I am. What’s more interesting is who you are.” He produced two passports and held them up. “According to these you are Patrick Michael Burke. Is that right, Mr Burke?”
“Yes.” The short answer was enveloped in a cloud of exhaled light blue smoke.
“Indeed, that is what it says here. This is an Irish Free State passport. Born in Limerick in 1913. That makes you about 29?”
“Ah, yes, indeed, I never was much good at maths. And this one, the American one, says the same thing. How very convenient. Now Mr Burke, which are you, American or Irish?”
“I’m both. I was born in Ireland but I lived most of my life in the United States.” Burke leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms across his chest and stared hard at the questioner.
“Mr Burke, you don’t sound very much like an Irishman.”
“What would you know?”
“Well, I have met a great number of Irish people, but, most of all, I am Irish myself. James O’Neill, an Ulsterman.” He tapped his cigarette against the ashtray placed on the table between them.
“Oh, a bloody Protestant from the North.”
O’Neill’s smile deepened, becoming almost benign, although his eyes remained expressionless. “From the North yes; Protestant, no”
Burke leaned forward, his dark face twisted, his voice almost a snarl. “Call yourself a bloody Irishman, and a Catholic, working for the English? I hate the fucking English.”
O’Neill took a long pull on his cigarette, allowing the smoke to seep slowly from the side of his mouth. His eyes never left the other man’s face. “Well, I have to admit that they irritate the hell out of me on occasion, but, generally they’re better than many others. However, right or wrong, King George pays my wages, and he has my loyalty. Who has your loyalty, Mr Burke?”
“Ireland.” Burke sat back in his chair again, his face now settled into mere truculence.
“Can you explain something for me then? You were picked up by the police on a beach at Tenby, in Wales, about three weeks ago at one in the morning?”
“I was looking for work.”
“Were you really? Not a lot of it about on a Welsh beach in February, especially after midnight. How did you get to Wales?”
“I came on the Dun Laoghaire ferry.”
“Funny town that, doesn’t sound anything like it is spelt. You pronounce it very well.”
Burke tapped the ash from his cigarette and said nothing.
“And where did the ferry land?”
“You know where the bloody ferry lands, Holyhead.”
“And how did you get from Holyhead to Tenby?”
“Indeed? I have examined your boots and must say that they did not suffer a great seal of wear in your long walk.”
“Sometimes I got a lift.”
“I do not suppose you still have your ferry ticket?”
“No. I threw it away.”
“The Police state that you were also soaking wet.”
“I was drunk; I fell in the sea.”
“The Police say you were not drunk. It won’t do, Mr Burke, it just will not do. Would you like to take a shot at another story?” O’Neill took a final draw on his cigarette and ground it out in the ashtray, his eyes never leaving Burke’s face. “Well, Mr Burke?”
“I’m here to collect money for the Republican cause to kick all the English bastards out of Ireland.”
“Are you indeed? Undoubtedly praiseworthy, but I do not believe you.”
“I’ve nothing more to say.” He too stubbed out his cigarette so forcibly he made the ashtray move sideways across the table.
“Right, let me say a few things then. You are not Irish; the nearest you have been to that country was getting a soaking in the Irish Sea. The British are not exactly popular in the Free State, but we do have a few friends. There are some Irishmen who see a greater evil in this world than the British Empire. Our contacts in Dublin have no record of a Patrick Michael Burke arriving screaming and bawling at Limerick in 1913. They believe the passport is forged.” O’Neill leaned across the table. “Anything to say?”
“Nothing.” Burke recrossed his arms, sat back, and stared fixedly at the grimy ceiling, as if seeking inspiration.
“Very well. Now to the Americans. They have always been very sympathetic, but since Pearl Harbour they are positively enthusiastic. They haven’t heard of you either. They think the US passport is also forged. Do you want me to go on?” He smiled helpfully.
Burke shook his head. “Do what you please.”
O’Neill rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “So, if you are not Irish and not an American, what are you? Now Mr Burke, on the night you were picked up on the beach, there were reports of a U-boat in the Irish Sea, off the Welsh coast. Any comment?”
“About ten miles away from Tenby, the Home Guard stopped one Robert Groves, who has since admitted to being Werner Hidding. Apparently he was going to meet you. Here’s his photograph. You don’t want to look at it? No?” O’Neill glanced at the photograph. “ Pity, I took it myself. It is a good likeness”. He placed it face up on the table between them and lined up the two passports, all facing Burke.
There was silence for a full two minutes. Finally O’Neill spoke again. “If you really were born in Limerick in 1913 and the Irish have no record of your citizenship, you are technically British, as at that time, all of Ireland was in the United Kingdom. If you really are American, the United States is a belligerent now and their penalty for spying, like the British, is death. If you are German, well I don’t need to go on, do I?”
Another silence followed, longer this time. O’Neill pushed his chair back, stretched and crossed his long legs and studied his fingernails. Burke continued to stare at the ceiling.
“Very well, Mr Burke, I have a suggestion for you. Since I have been in this job, we have apprehended forty-two German spies. Fourteen have been executed. The others, well let’s say they have decided to co-operate. That’s your choice.”
They sat in silence for full five minutes before O’Neill got up. “Very well, Mr Burke. May God go with you.”
Burke half-rose and reached out a restraining hand. “Just one moment, Mr O’Neill. Let’s talk a little more.”
O’Neill had stopped at the door, with his back towards Burke. He knocked three times on the metal and the sound of footsteps was heard outside. He turned slowly and once more smiled his smile. “Very well, Mr Burke. I will let you know in two or three days. After all, I only came for a little chat.”
Written by my Father B.M