A Cooler Shade of Orange
On the train back to Belfast, the young Quaker immersed himself into the fantasies about the girl he saw at the Abbey. Her strong neck, glowing shoulders and supple knees appeared before his eyes. In the five minutes spent inside the dressing room at the Abbey he saw more bare skin than he had in the twenty-one years of his life. McDonald, his comrade from the Protestant National Society, collected continental postcards with half-naked corset models and circulated them furtively after the meetings, but that was not quite the same as seeing a real girl. McDonald frequently spoke of certain establishments where young lads could go not only to look at naked girls but also touch them and have their way with them. Allegedly, those places were good for gaining experience and purging inhibitions.
As for Bulmer, his mother had taught him there was no real pleasure to be found in those filthy dens. Skimming over the moral aspect of going to a brothel, Mary Ann focused on the palpable dirt. She did not speak of sin, only of infectious diseases that could turn a robust boy into a lump of flesh covered with oozing sores. A clean, enlightened, self-respecting Quaker boy never pays for carnal favors. If he absolutely cannot wait until marriage, he finds a discrete young lady of his own intellectual caliber with whom he could negotiate an interim arrangement. Miss Molony looked like the sort of girl Bulmer could negotiate with. He imagined the two of them sitting in a dusky picture house, holding hands and licking ice-cream from the same cone, their lips and tongues meeting in a vanilla-flavored sea.
The biological response triggered by the conjured scenario made it necessary for Bulmer to shift his briefcase over his lap. He loosened his tie and leaned his burning forehead head against the cool glass of the window. The elderly priest sitting across had no trouble guessing that the young man was not reciting Hail Mary in his thoughts.
The train arrived in Belfast just before dusk. The shrill hiss of the steam drove Bulmer out of his reverie. Inhaling the smell of coal, his beaming face lifted to the sky, he did not see the gap between the train and the platform. He stepped into the void, his right leg getting caught between the concrete and the steel, his left knee landing on the sharp edge of the platform. A few gasps came from the crowd. Two men rushed to his rescue and pulled him out by the arms just before the train started moving again.
Since rudimentary masculine pride prohibited him from wailing, and Quaker upbringing prohibited him from cursing, Bulmer burst into a song.
So here’s to those great Protestant Men
Who gave their lives to free our land.
All the people sang their praises then
For those brave United Irishmen.
His bewildered rescuers released him in haste. Bulmer was left sitting on the pavement under the lantern, rocking back and forth, still humming the tune.
“You really ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Bulmer heard above his head. It was Denis McCullough, a pub owner’s son from Divis Street. “Those compassionate gentlemen pulled you from under the train, and how do you repay them? With ungodly howling! I tune instruments all day, and my skill has quite improved over the years. Alas, I cannot tune a human voice. That, I fear, is still beyond my area of expertise.”
Denis’ own voice had a peculiar quality reminiscent of a tightly wound string. He had a habit of speaking through his teeth, which caused his nostrils to flare and veins to swell on his neck. Half of the time he sounded like he was wrestling with pain or stifling back sobs. His gaunt swarthy face was marked with that exquisitely morose beauty that would make him ideal for portraying romantic martyrs on stage. Denis harbored no theatrical ambitions and regarded his own good looks as a minor nuisance. Seeing no other purpose in life than fighting for Ireland’s freedom, he resented everything that distracted him from his quest. At age twenty-one he was one of the staunchiest young republicans in Belfast. The only reason why he tolerated the chatty coddled Quaker was because the latter shared his political views. Denis could take him in small doses. Unfortunately, Hobson did not dispense himself in small doses, diving impetuously into every cause, every relationship and every conversation. His speeches left one deaf, and his hugs left one gasping for air. Denis would love to keep their alliance strictly vocational, but Bulmer, with his maniacal generosity, longed for a full-fledged friendship.
“Can you walk, Hobson?”
“I believe so. You’re my guardian angel, McCullough, always appearing when I need you. What are you doing here? Waiting for someone?”
“For you, as matter of fact.”
His ominous tone and the steadfast stare alarmed Bulmer. “Is something wrong? Did something happen while I was gone?”
“It’s all good news, especially for you, Hobson. Start walking and I’ll tell you.”
“Splendid! I have good news too, best news in the world. Guess what, McCullough? I saw that girl again.”
That girl … Not another tale of infantile infatuation! The Quaker spoke of the opposite sex with puppyish rapture, which betrayed his utter lack of experience. It was easy for him to idealise women, because he had never gotten sufficiently close to one.
“Remember that céilidh hosted by Inghinidhe?” Bulmer continued. “Remember that girl who danced with Parkhill.”
“So? Parkhill danced with every girl in the hall that night. He won’t win a medal for monogamy, that’s for sure.”
“Well, one of the girls was Frank Molony’s little sister. Today I spotted her again in the costume room at the Abbey. She looked just like Emer from that book Alice Milligan lent me. Miss Molony is the secretary of Inghinidhe now. And since I’m the founder of Protestant National Society, among other things, it would make us the golden couple of the patriotic movement.”
“This is monstrously romantic,” Denis interrupted him, “but did you manage to convince Madame Gonne-MacBride – or whatever her name is – to intercede for us?”
“Oh, that too! I was about to tell you. That old grouch Yeats is coming, no worries. She’s a grand lady, Madame Gonne!”
“A lady?” Denis smirked incredulously. “I thought she was a general in petticoats.”
“What matters is that she’s bringing Dublin’s theatrical elite to see my play. I hope Miss Molony comes.”
Denis was ready to stick his fingers down his throat. “Women will be the end of you, Hobson. A few minutes ago you almost lost your legs because of your moronic fantasies.”
“You’re right, McCullough. There’re more injuries in store for me. I’ll consider myself fortunate if I survive the next decade without breaking my neck. Now, back to your good news, what were you about to tell me?”
“Patience, Hobson. Just follow me.”
Bulmer sighed and limped along, feeling the blood from his knee trickling down his leg. Denis led him to a hall on Albert Street where the Tír na nÓg branch of Gaelic League met every second and fourt Saturday of the month. Bulmer noticed that the windows were dark.
“So, McCullough, you dragged me here just to show me an empty hall that I’ve seen a thousand times before?”
Denis rattled the keys in his pocket. “It’s not really empty. Some comrades of mine believe you’d make a welcome addition to the organization.”
“Silly old boy! How’s that possible? I already belong to every organization in Belfast. I started half of them, remember?”
“Why, Hobson, your modesty is breathtaking. You think yourself ubiquitous and omniscient, don’t you?”
“Not without a reason! I’m the most ardent activist around here. Who spends all of his free time floating between the branches of the Gaelic League? You mean to tell me there’s some secret body from which I’ve been excluded all this time? Who’d have the audacity to start a club without my knowledge? Everybody knows I’m the chief club-starter in Belfast.”
“That ‘club’ has been in existence since ‘58. The same ‘club’ was behind the Rising of ’67. Any bells ringing in your pretty little head, Hobson? Your candidature was approved at the last meeting, after months of ardent advocacy on my part.”
Bulmer threw himself on his friend’s neck. “Oh, McCullough, they want me!”
“With reservations, mind you.” Denis freed himself from the Quaker’s embrace. “There’s some concern about your ability to keep secrets.”
“Of course, I can keep secrets!”
Denis came close to kicking him in the bleeding knee. “See? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re addicted to limelight. You never learned to modulate your voice.”
“It’s not my fault that I’m so popular. God endowed me with superb public speaking skills. Not that I’ve ever used those gifts for any selfish gain. Everything I do is for the benefit of Ireland.”
“It’s your discretion I question, not your devotion. If you blurt something out in mixed company, if you inadvertently compromise the organization, it’ll make me look very bad.”
“I’ll never fail you,” Bulmer vowed. “I’ll be your right hand.”
“But, you see, Hobson, I don’t need a right hand at this moment. And even if I did, you wouldn’t be my first choice. You don’t need any more notoriety. Learn to observe and listen. Think you can keep your mouth shut for more than five seconds?”
Bulmer ran his knuckles across his lips. “From now on, I’ll speak only when spoken to.”
As soon as they entered the hall, they heard rustles coming from an adjacent lecture room.
“He’s here,” Denis announced in a loud whisper. “I deliver him wounded but alive.”
A small procession emerged from the lecture room. The leader was carrying a Bible and a paraffin lamp that gave just enough light to keep him and his companions from stumbling.
“This is how such things ought to be carried out,” Denis said. “I was sworn in by an obese drunk at the door of Donnelly’s pub. Not a sober man in the room! It sickens me just to think of it. You’re in luck, Hobson. You’ll experience what I was denied.”
Once Bulmer’s eyes adjusted to the semidarkness, he surveyed the faces of the men in the party. He knew some of them from Cumann na nGaedheal that was founded in August of 1900 at the suggestion of Arthur Griffith.
“What do I do now?”
Denis nodded at the leader of the procession. “Kelly, bring out the good book.”
The torch-bearer stepped forth, and his companions formed a semicircle behind his back. Bulmer’s hand trembled slightly as he placed it on the Bible. As a Quaker, he was prohibited from taking any oaths.
“Ready to proceed, are we?” Denis detected the tremor in his friend’s fingers. “Look, if your heart isn’t in it—”
“It is!” Some inner voice told Bulmer that this was not the last time he would be breaking one of the key principles of his faith. “My heart, my pocket, all I possess …”
“That’s the spirit.” Denis smiled wryly. “Repeat after me: in the presence of God—“
In the presence of God, I, John Bulmer Hobson, do solemnly swear that I will do my utmost to establish the independence of Ireland, and that I will bear true allegiance to the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Government of the Irish Republic and implicitly obey the constitution of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and all my superior officers and that I will preserve inviolable the secrets of the organisation.