A Split Second – by Hugh Gallagher

This is a short work of fiction by Derry author and photographer Hugh Gallagher set in Derry during the Troubles.
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The gunfire crackled explosively in the cool night air. All around James Dunn lay soldiers; scared; shouting excitedly. He had gone to the Beechwood shops for a fish supper. It now lay crumpled in a mangled steaming heap beside a hedge. Every time he harboured the thought that maybe the gun battle had ceased he heard the heavy rattle of a machine gun, probably a Thompson, followed by sharper more easily distinguishable rifle fire.

A British soldier loosed off a few rounds from his SLR rifle, cursing loudly at his unseen attackers and flung himself over a hedge; the same green shrubbery behind which James was cowering. He landed squarely on the Creggan man's legs.

"Ouch! Aagh!" roared James. "Mind me, will ye?"

Derry's City Cemetery. (Photo by Hugh Gallagher)Derry's City Cemetery. (Photo by Hugh Gallagher)
Derry's City Cemetery. (Photo by Hugh Gallagher)

"Sorry, mate," shouted the Brit. "Are you hurt?"

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James kept silent. He was too scared to speak. The gunfire continued. I'm going to have to get out of this madness, he thought. He crawled over to the front steps of a house and pounded on the bottom of the front door with his closed fist. A woman's voice shouted. "Go away. Who is it? What do you want?"

"Let me in, will ye for God's sake, missus."

"Naw. Are you off your head, or what?," she cried.

Sunrise over Creggan. (Photo by Hugh Gallagher)Sunrise over Creggan. (Photo by Hugh Gallagher)
Sunrise over Creggan. (Photo by Hugh Gallagher)

Tracer bullets lit up the street as the soldiers fired back at shadows. The bullets seemed to squeeze out of the SLRs. They had a distinctive 'crack', thought James, a sound he could do without hearing or seeing at such close quarters.

When the gunfire finally died away James stood up and brushed away the little bits of green grass and clay from his good grey trousers. He looked around and gingerly prepared to leave. Best get offside, he thought. A helicopter was now clattering as it hovered overhead, its searchlight illuminating the street and gardens.

"Where do you think you're going, mate?" said the soldier in the garden.

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"Home. Where do you think I'd be off to after that carry on?"

Derry writer and photographer Hugh Gallagher.Derry writer and photographer Hugh Gallagher.
Derry writer and photographer Hugh Gallagher.

"I'm afraid not, sir!" he said, pointing his rifle at James. "You mate, you're a witness!"

Reinforcements arrived quickly. A soldier moaned and cried out in pain on the far side of the road. He was calling for a medic. He had been shot in the leg, he said. The mood of the troops became more ugly when an ambulance arrived to take him to Altnagelvin hospital. They focused their attention on the nearest available target - James. A saracen armoured car screeched to a halt near him and more soldiers tumbled out through the clanking doors at its rear end. An officer and a young squaddie approached.

"Get up against the wall there Paddy. Now!" shouted the squaddie.

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"What for. Sure I'm only a passer-by," explained James. He took one look at the blackened face beneath the beret however and decided to obey. They kicked his legs apart and roughly body searched him. He felt a punch in his side. He groaned.

"Name?" demanded the officer.

"James Dunn."



"Right, stay there," he ordered. "You, my son. You could be an IRA scout. Maybe you're not so innocent as you claim." He turned to the squaddie. "If he moves, shoot him. Do I make myself clear."

"Right, sir," he replied.

Sweat began to run from James' forehead, into his eyebrow and down into his right eye. He attempted to wipe it away with the cuff of his jacket but stopped when the soldier prodded the muzzle of his rifle into his back.

"Stand still, you Irish pig," he bellowed.

He resumed his position against the wall.

After about fifteen minutes standing spread-eagled James was about to collapse. Suddenly there was a fierce burst of shooting. It sounded as if it was further away this time. It was followed by a loud explosion. He dived to the ground and took cover, terrified. The soldiers, including the one who had been guarding him began running up the street, away to the left. Now's my chance, thought James. He stood up and walked quickly into the street and to his right, making sure not to run. He had only got about 60 yards when he heard a command. "Halt! Halt, or I'll fire!"

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He began to run and made for the corner of Leenan Gardens and Broadway. Shots rang out and he sensed something zip past his right ear. God, they're trying to kill me, he realised. Now he was petrified. Blind panic took over and he felt sick to his stomach. Reaching the end of Leenan he leapt over a fence and hid. A face peered through the corner of the curtains in a nearby house. The front door opened slightly throwing some light on the immediate area.

"He's in the garden," he heard a woman call out.

In an instant he was back over the fence and running once more, up Broadway this time, towards St Mary's Church. When he reached the front gates of the chapel he saw sparks fly from the railings. He stopped and put his hands high in the air. They're going to kill me, he thought. My God. I'm a dead man. He was about to turn around when his whole world collapsed and blackness engulfed him.

James could see the priest quite clearly as he bent over him. He tried to communicate with him by explaining that he was alright. Why is he giving me The Last Rites, he thought. A soldier came running up.

"Where's his gun, Padre?" he asked. "Did you lift it? Come on now, where is it?" He dragged the priest to his feet and searched him.

"I saw no weapon," protested the priest.

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"Hoi! Hi, you! Listen to me," screamed James. But they wouldn't listen. Instead more soldiers appeared and roughly lifted him onto a stretcher and placed him into the dark confines of a land rover. He could see and hear a crowd gathering. Among them was Charlie Doherty. He was arguing with a soldier. James tried to shout to him.

"Hi, Charlie. I'm okay!" he roared but no-one heard. The canvas flap was pulled down and the land rover roared off. Inside the soldiers were jubilant and laughed about him as if he wasn't there.

"He makes a lovely corpse," laughed one. "That's what the old hags will say around here."

If I could get up, I'd thump you, thought James.

"They'll probably give this stupid sod a military funeral," said another, a fat, black haired Welshman. "He'll be a hero. You mark my words, boyos!"

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After what seemed like an eternity James was dragged out of the land rover. They put him on a trolley and wheeled him into a place he immediately recognised, the hospital morgue. Why am I here, he thought. He screamed but nobody noticed. Now they were placing him in a long drawer. He closed his eyes. It was banged shut. When he opened his eyes everything was dark. From then until the next day he remembered nothing.

The drawer opened suddenly into the blinding light. He was being moved again. Into a silk lined box this time; a coffin. The faces of his Uncle Jim and his brother Paddy appeared. They were crying.

"Yes, that's right. That's our James alright," Paddy declared when asked to identify the body. The lid was placed on top and screwed down.

All day long they came in their hundreds to pay their respects. A Guard of Honour was placed beside his coffin. Two young men dressed all in black stood to attention. He was mystified as to their identity. The Welsh soldiers’ prediction had come true. When they carefully placed the tricolour, leather gloves and beret on top of him he began to feel important. For a while he enjoyed the feeling.

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And his enemies came too. People like Frank Clarke pretending to be pious by reciting the Rosary. The hypocrite, thought James. He hates my guts. I wouldn't have gone to his wake. Then there was Big Tom, the IRA man. He used to call him a yellow-belly and a coward during riots for standing watching and not joining in. Now here he was saluting the coffin and barking out orders in Irish.

Why me, I'm not even in the IRA, he thought as they carried him to his grave. The streets of Creggan were packed with spectators. There were hundreds of onlookers as they passed the church too. But his relatives weren't there. He was sad then. Maybe they were against a military funeral. What am I on about, he thought, when it comes down to it, so am I. I've never even held a gun, let alone fired one. This is farcical.

At last they reached the graveside. James cried out in anguish but nobody heard. I'm not dead. I'm alive. Don't bury me. Please, please...

A volley of shots rang out, then another and then a third. A bugler played the Last Post. Then came the mud and the clay. It sounded like giant hailstones inside the wooden structure and they said prayers and cried. Amidst it all there was Frank Clarke, laughing loudly. Did nobody see him, had he no shame? Could he not show some respect for the dead. Holy God, that's me I'm talking about. Am I really dead?

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The gravediggers came and completed the job. They appeared to be a happy bunch. One sang as he shovelled the wet clay. In no time at all it was all over and night came. He was terrified; afraid of the dark; of seeing ghosts; of seeing relatives long since dead and most of all of existing in this state forever. But the morning came and with it came a surprise.

There was his brother Paddy. With him was the priest and the gravediggers armed with spades. His heart jumped for joy. He was saved.

"Dig him up!" he heard Paddy order.

"But why?" asked one of the workmen.

"Because we say so," said the priest. "Now c'mon lads, do as you're bid."

The gravediggers dug and and toiled and sweated until finally the coffin was hauled above ground. Once again it was put into a hearse.

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"What's happening here?" asked one of the men. "Tell us why, Father?"

Never you mind why, screamed James. Get me outta here. Tell them Paddy. Tell the stupid idiots. I'm alive, that's 'why'.

They didn't hear, nobody listened. Get me away from here, cried James. But all were deaf. Paddy climbed into the front seat beside the driver. The priest said he would follow on in the Undertaker’s car. The well tuned engine purred into action and they were off. God only know where, thought James.

Down Eastway they rolled and through the town, across the bridge and out the Limavady Road. Soon they were on the motorway heading for Belfast. Nobody talked until the driver stopped the hearse.

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"Is this the right entrance to Roselawn?" he asked an official. Roselawn...aaah, screamed James, the crematorium. When they reached the final destination they transferred the coffin to a trolley with wheels and they pushed James in. The priest then arrived.

"Are you sure he'd have wanted this to happen now lads?" he asked.

"Surely to God, Father," said Paddy. "Didn't he tell me himself that he wanted to be burnt before the worms and insects got at him."

The furnace doors opened and he was on his way. Onward into the flames; the fires of Hell. He felt the heat rising to an unbearable level as the coffin ignited. Then he screamed as loud as he could. They were all standing there watching, smiling, laughing.

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Suddenly he saw a face and his own face was soaking wet. Someone was throwing water around him and giving him a drink.

"Wake up, son. Wake up, James! James. James. Do you hear me," a voice cried out.

"What... What. What's going on? Where am I? Am I dead?" asked James. Everything slowly became clearer.

"No," said the priest, helping him to his feet. "Of course you're not dead. You fainted, passed out. I explained everything. The soldiers are gone now. I chased them away, stopped them from arresting you!" He slapped his face gently. "Are you back with us yet. You're in shock. Do you think you'll be okay. You seemed to be having a nightmare!"

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"Yes, Father. Thank God I'm alive. I'll be grand," exclaimed James.

"Well, if you're sure now, okay!" said the priest.

Slowly James began to walk around. When he regained his strength he thanked the priest for looking after him.

"I must go now and get another fish supper," he said. "I could eat a horse."

As he walked up Fanad Drive towards the Creggan shops and Frankie Ramsey's chip shop, he didn't see the soldier take aim, CR...ACK. A bullet escaped from the snipers SLR. It sped towards its target.

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