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Copyright 2001 by Don J. Snyder
August 1, 1998
. . . In the quiet harbor of Inishowen, which faced east to the Irish Sea, Captain James Oliver Blackburn stood on the bow of a sailing sloop waiting for the men from Group Four to arrive. After more than a year of American-brokered negotiations between the warring fac- tions in Northern Ireland, the chance for peace was in grave jeopardy. A drastic measure to save the Good Friday peace accords was to be set into motion this morning in a secret meeting of senior intelligence officers in the North Channel of the Irish Sea.
Blackburn, an Englishman from Lancashire, was a tall, gangly man, forty-eight years old, narrow-waisted, with the thin, slightly bowed legs of a schoolboy. He had sideburns that would have been fashionable in another era, high cheekbones, and piercing blue eyes that were narrowed against the cold morning rain. It was the first of August, but in this remote part of Northern Ireland, summer had already begun to fade.
Blackburn shivered, but not from the cold. What was going to take place in the next several hours would set in motion an atrocity that the civilized world, and God, and he himself would forever condemn. There would be no forgiveness. But he was a part of it now; there was no turning back. And what was worse—maybe this was what made him shiver—he was eager for it to happen.
The alarm on his watch went off, he checked the time—seven—and just as the watch stopped beeping he looked out to the mouth of the harbor. In seconds he heard a motor off to the west. And then a corresponding sound to the south. He waited as the boats appeared. He checked his watch again: 7:03. Ifnothing else, we are precise, he thought.
The boats were purposely unmatched, one a Grumman 34 trawler like those used by cod fishermen out of Portsmouth, the other a Keisling Fury, twenty-five feet along the waterline from bow to stern, with a two-ton keel. He knew that there were two snipers on board each boat, fore and aft, armed with Italian-made Carlino long-range rifles, silencers screwed into the barrels, their scopes fitted with infrared filters for night vision. The skippers of both boats, men who would not be identifiable by either the British government or the IRA if they were caught, had been smuggled into the country three days earlier. They had traveled from Rome under false French passports, and Blackburn himself had sailed them here from Stranraer, Scotland. During the meeting this morning they would be in constant voice communication, via satellite, with Carl Landry in an unmarked office at the rear of a record shop on Bathe Street in Belfast. Landry was a good man, brought up through the ranks of counterespionage by the Thatcher administration. His obsessive personality made him perfect for this operation. He couldn't leave his office at the end of a day without straightening the Oriental rug in front of the tall windows that looked down on Bridge Street and lining up the pencils on his desk in ascending lengths. Sixteen years ago, Landry had been stationed at Dublin Castle, and on occasion Blackburn had been his doubles partner in agency badminton tournaments. Those were the dark days of the Irish Troubles, when it seemed a passageway to peace would never be found.
Peace, Blackburn thought. He had imagined it luxuriously and hungered for it the way a man hungers for a woman's touch. And in the last year it was finally there, in the wind and in whispers. To Blackburn it felt like a vindication of everything he had believed in from the time when he had volunteered before his twentieth birthday for transfer from his first post in the ranks of the Royal Guard on Downing Street to the Special Services in Northern Ireland. How odd, he thought, how terribly odd, that now, in order to have the peace at last, he would betray the British government he honored and the army he had pledged himself to.
Watching the observation boats take their final positions, Blackburn plotted the course he would sail this morning. A westward tack to clear the mouth of the harbor and then a broad reach into the channel. In the harbor the water was as still as a mill pond, but half a mile from shore there was already a light chop, which he knew would build through the morning. Calm on the Irish Sea was virtually nonexistent, but the sloop he was skippering today had a high freeboard and plenty of weight underneath to hold her steady in rough seas. In Blackburn's mind she was as safe as a church pew, but the three officers joining him—Paul Norney, former head of Ways and Means for Internal Operations in Winchester, England; Nelson Orr, allocations specialist trained at the observatory in Portsmouth; and Timothy Nichols, communications chief of the Wolfe Council twenty-five years ago when headquarters were in Churchill's old war office—were landlocked fellows who'd never had salt water up their noses. If it got too rough, he would take down the mainsail and put up the storm jib to keep the boat from heeling over, and the three of them from throwing up.
After checking his watch once more, he fiddled with both halyards and loosened the bowline so that when the others arrived they could pull out of the harbor as quickly as possible. When he was satisfied, he stood up and, out of habit, tapped his shirt pocket with his right hand for the cigarettes he had quit smoking ten months earlier. It would have been nice, he thought, to light up in this dismal rain and take a deep drag.
He walked to the stern and glanced at the shore, where residents were beginning to appear in the village under dark umbrellas. He saw a red telephone booth, a white church steeple, and piles of granite blocks from an old dock that had washed out decades ago in a winter storm. He took in these details thoughtlessly, and then as he was searching for signs of anything unusual he noted a woman hanging wash on a line in the garden of a newly painted cottage. Her laundry consisted of small articles of clothing, small enough to be doll's clothes, Blackburn thought, and he assumed that she had a baby in her midst. A smile spread across his face. He had been with the British Army in Northern Ireland his entire adult life, and the sight of this young mother reminded him of his early days here when he had first been struck by the beauty of the Irish women. Not the physical beauty so much, though that was appreciable, but the brilliant light of their spirit and the music in their voices. Here was a population of women who held on to a desire that the contemporary world had declared unfashionable, the desire to have one baby after another and to spend their days at home with them. Something in this had appealed to Blackburn's sense of promise and order and filled him with hope.
And there was also the romantic readiness of the Irish women and the persistent optimism even in the face of hardship and loss. A young mother hanging out her family's laundry in the morning rain symbolized for the captain the patience that was so steadfast in this country's women.
He watched her until she had finished and disappeared inside the cottage. When he saw a light go on in an upstairs room, the baby's room perhaps, he told himself that it was the ordinary and plain acts in a life that convey the dignity of our intentions and mark our presence with holiness. This holiness was what he had poured his life into protecting; he had given himself so completely to the task that he had missed out on the chance for a wife and children of his own, but sometime after he turned forty he grimly accepted it as his destiny and began burying himself even deeper in the work to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict here.
Today it seemed to him that he had always known that never very far from the restorative routines and the comforting symmetry of mornings like this was the brutal violence that had destroyed those things in the thirty years of troubles in this country—pubs and cottages blown to bits, lights in children's rooms put out forever, dreams ripped apart by the awful killing.
Long after she had gone inside the cottage, Blackburn was still wishing he could have stood beside her for a moment and told her that soon he would meet the three men who had secretly helped him plot the last remaining way to save the fragile peace process. The last chance to bring Protestants and Catholics together, guaranteeing a new political order in the country, which would include representation by Unionists and Republicans. Here it is, he would tell her, a recompense to the Irish people for all they have suffered.
He allowed himself one last glance at the faintly lit room. Didn't that room hold all that a man needs in the world? Shelter from the cold. A woman to love. A child to be remem- bered by.
Unless the man is at war, he told himself.
That thought was lingering in his mind when the car arrived and the three men made their way down the dock toward the sloop. As part of the deception, their car was a junker and they themselves were camouflaged in the clothing of local fishermen. Blackburn was just beginning to settle into the steely demeanor he had always brought to covert operations when suddenly he saw the same demeanor in the three men making their way toward him. He felt a hollowness settle in his lungs. This is going to happen, he said to himself. And I am going to let it happen.
The stocky man in front was Paul Norney, whom Blackburn had known for eighteen years, ever since Army Intelligence had transferred him to Northern Ireland from Helsinki. Nelson Orr came next, limping on a right leg made of wood, compliments of the war in the Falklands. He and Blackburn had worked side by side for sixteen years, all of those years under the command of Timothy Nichols, who walked just behind, one hand holding a fishing cap on his head.
The four men were silent as they boarded the boat. No greetings were exchanged, not a word was spoken. When they were under sail, tacking across the harbor, the rain increased and Nichols's gold-rimmed glasses were fogged when he turned to Blackburn. "Have you got her all right, James?" he asked.
He took off his glasses, and James nodded.
"Well, then," Nichols said as he drew his lips tight. "As we all know, this will be the last meeting of Group Four. When we return to shore, no trace of Group Four shall remain in existence. Everything is in place, gentlemen."
Orr, the one quickest to anger, spoke next. "The bastards got Mountbatten on a sea just like this. Let's not forget that."
"That was a bad day," Paul Norney said gruffly.
Blackburn remembered it as well as anyone. August 27, 1979. The same afternoon the IRA set off bombs at Warrenpoint in County Down, killing eighteen British paratroopers. It was a turning point. Margaret Thatcher visited Warrenpoint the next day and immediately adopted a battle cry from the 1930s, declaring that the terrorists could be defeated by the army only if the politicians showed the necessary will to declare an all-out war against the IRA.
"Everything goes back to that day," Nichols said grimly. "We're out here today in the rain, bobbing around on this cork because of that day."
True, Blackburn thought, and somewhere in this world were the broken souls of those Irish citizens who lost loved ones on Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers shot dead thirteen anti-internment marchers in Londonderry. He remem- bered the statement issued through his office after that massacre saying it was perfectly legal for the army to shoot anybody who obstructed or got in the way of the armed forces of the queen because getting in the way made you the queen's enemy. This went for children and the elderly, too, anyone who was simply too slow to get out of the way.
Jesus, somewhere along the line it had all gotten out of hand, Blackburn thought as he watched a gust of wind from the northwest rush across the water. He pushed the tiller away from him, bringing the bow of the boat into irons to spill the gust. When the mainsail began flapping, Orr looked up at it anxiously.
"Here's a pleasant thought, gentlemen," Orr said. "If we're caught, the loyalists and the IRA will argue over who gets to hang us."
Norney laughed without expression. "No. Downing Street will hand two of us to the Catholics and the other two to the Protestants. And that will be the end of it."
Blackburn, surprised to hear himself speaking, said, "If we're uncovered, there won't ever be an end to it."
A silence fell over all four men.
At last Nichols spoke, stating what was obvious to them, but what they were grateful, nonetheless, to have articulated. "If anything goes wrong, it's each man for himself. Our government will discredit us, our army will—"
He paused for several seconds, then resumed with his head bowed as if in prayer. "We have done disagreeable things in the past so that the people in this pitiable country"—now he looked up—"people like the woman you were watching hang out her wash this morning, James, aren't crushed in the end. We do these things in order to prevent the destruction of everything that is decent."
A strange silence fell over them; it seemed to possess a weight of its own, a weight that Blackburn could feel through the boat's rigging. There had been plenty of evil before, enough of it committed in the torture chamber of the prison at Long Kesh to send every British intelligence officer, bureaucrat, and politician to hell for a long time. And an equal sentence awaited the IRA, and the Unionist fanatics.
Blackburn looked at the deep lines on Nichols's face, and his thinning gray hair. He remembered that when Timothy was just starting out, he had possessed the looks of a movie star. Espionage work has one moral principle: It is justified by results. These results had aged many good men beyond their years. But there was something more about the four of them, and each of them knew this. Each man in his own way wanted an end to this war the way only a soldier could want it. No politician in London or Belfast or Dublin or Washington was willing to do what these men were going to do to finally stop the killing.
The meeting was over quickly, and when the sloop began heaving in the rising swells and two of the men started throwing up over the gunwales, Blackburn felt his own stomach turn, not because of the sea but because of the secret plan that the four of them were now pledged to. It was a murderously simple plan: The current peace negotiations must reach fulfillment at any cost, and everyone involved knew full well that they were doomed to fail in the end because the IRA would never agree to decommission its weapons. Unless, as Timothy Nichols had put it at their first meeting seven months ago when they formed Group Four, "we can succeed in turning the Irish people against their own army. We make the people hate the IRA and demand that they lay down their arms."
The one certain way to achieve this was clear: The next time a bomb warning was called in by the IRA, the warning would be reversed, sending the innocent citizens of this country into the bomb area rather than away from it. There was no way of calculating in advance when the next warning would come or how many people would be killed or maimed, but Orr had told the group that his informers believed the IRA was planning a large incident before the end of summer.
As Blackburn maneuvered the sloop back to her mooring, he thought again of the woman hanging out her clothes. Maybe someday he would return here and meet her. There would be peace then, and he would tell her how it had been achieved. Unless, of course, she was in her grave by then, one of the innocents sacrificed in order to bring this to a close.
"And we're certain there's no other way?" he asked, though he knew the answer plainly enough.
Only silence again. All three men looked at him and then away. It was Nichols who had the last word. "We've set our course to do the thing that governments and politicians cannot do," he said. "I think it's best if we remind ourselves that in this bloody business you can never be less evil than the evil you oppose."
1. The novel opens with a ship crossing the Irish Sea. Why do you think the author chose to begin the bookhere and how does this initial "crossing" compare and contrast to the crossed borders of time and persons made at the book's close? How does this initial crossing of the English Captain set the tone for the book as a whole?
2. How is Nora's journey in Northern Ireland linked to her journey in the United States before she arrives in the shattered city of Omagh? Although both of her journeys reveal something about how humans learn to suffer with dignity–what are some of the reversals that happen within Nora's character as she struggles to define her self worth at home and abroad?
3. Snyder refers to Nora's pregnancy as "a grain of rice in her belly." What effect does the repetition of this language have on the reader, and what connotations does this language produce as the reader follows Nora's decision over whether or not to terminate her pregnancy? At what point do we see Nora stake claim on this "grain of rice in her belly"? Does this claim impact the plot of the novel?
4. What was the intention of the British Army when they released the bomb warning called by the IRA? How did the devastation of the bombing affect the allegiances of the people living in Northern Ireland?
5. When Nora first sees James Oliver Blackburn in the café, before the bombing, he is shaking in a physical reaction to what he knows will happen in the city center. In the following scene, Nora finds Blackburn running down the street with a baby and a hysterical mother in tow. What do these moments reveal to the audience about the emotional conflict the British soldier is cast into?
6. Does the characterization of Blackburn's represent the conflicts ailing Northern Ireland and the constant political struggling there?
7. How do domestic life in Northern Ireland and the cast of minor characters, namely women and mothers, contrast Nora's life as a wife and mother in the United States? Are there similarities as well?
8. Father Conlon is a priest and a duplicitous man. Why does he call upon Nora for help and what qualities, like his own, does he see in her?
9. In both the opening of the novel and once at the close, Snyder makes reference to Wal-mart as a shopping center where Nora can be, for the most part, anonymous in her daze. By implementing these scenes, what social commentary about American life is being made within the context of the novel?
10. What specific examples can you find to illustrate what Snyder defines as the "romantic readiness of the Irish women and their persistent optimism, even in the face of hardship and loss"?
11. How is Blackburn and Nora's night crossing emblematic of the intimacy they experience when Nora returns to Northern Ireland? What new dimensions do we see in these characters as they make the journey through the night?
12. How do Nora's feelings about Steven's affair change throughout the course of the novel? What examples can you find of these changes?
13. Snyder relies heavily upon Father Conlon's dialogue and the minor characters in the book to tell the story of Omagh and the devastation that occurred there. These collective voices work to present the views of a suffering people that Nora, as an American, understands as a person passing through a tragedy. What tensions do these voices create in the book?
14. Although Night Crossing is a book of fiction, there are many scenes that present the tragedy there, along with the weather and countryside, in a style that seems more like a documentary depiction of setting. Discuss where you see this writing style and how it contributes to the novel.
15. What is the significance of the title Night Crossing, both figuratively and literally?
16. Jake, Nora's oldest son, visits her on the day she plans to revisit Blackburn, following the birth of her baby. In this scene, standing at the departure gate, in what ways do we see her as having lost and gained a son?
17. When Jake meets his new brother he looks into the child's eyes and recites a passage from one of Tom Wolfe's novels: "There was a kind of dream which I can only summarize as dreams of guilt and time. The huge accumulations of my years of struggle. My brutal and unending efforts to record upon my memory each brick and paving stone of every street that I had ever walked upon, each face of every thronging crowd in every city with which my spirit had contested its savage and uneven struggle for supremacy–they all returned now–each stone, each street, each town." Why do you think Snyder gave Jake this language to recite the first time he sees his brother and what does this quote summarize about Nora's journey through both a broken marriage and a devastated city?
18. Who is John Ferguson? And why does he want to help Father Conlon transport and save the injured soldier? Where does he stand politically and how does his role contribute to the plot of the novel?
19. After Nora finds out her husband has betrayed her, she wants to swim in her sequined hooker clothes, on the beach where she and Steve once made love. Snyder compares Nora to a soldier with a "Bayonet shining in the moonlight." What reaction did you have to this scene, as Nora "made the sign of the cross then plunged into the sea"? In what ways does this scene foreshadow later events in the novel?
20. At the close of Night Crossing, Snyder thanks the real people of Omagh. How do you think the people of Northern Ireland received Snyder's novel? What reactions might they have to the characters and literary devices Snyder uses to tell the story, and why?
21. According to Father Conlon, what were the intentions of the British Renegade unit when they changed the bomb warning and sent the Irish people straight to their deaths? How does this information, given by Father Conlon impact the emotional reaction of the reader? Discuss your political opinions and understandings of the events that took place in Omagh on August 1998.
22. How do the relationships between strangers in the novel reflect the human ability to reach beyond the boundaries of social class, religion and politics to help others?
23. All the main characters in this novel have a story to tell, a history that haunts and moves and feeds their memory. Discuss the stories told by John Ferguson, Father Conlon, and James Blackburn. How are they like and unlike the story Nora takes from Northern Ireland? Do you fell the re-telling of these characters' histories is an act of redemption and salvation? What about the re-telling of our histories relieves and frees us?
24. As much as it is a story of political intrigue, Night Crossing is also a multifaceted love story. Near the close of the book, standing besides Avril Monaghan's grave with James Blackburn, Nora finds "her weight falling below the soles of her feet, through the surface of life that holds our coming and going from day to day, to the region of dreams and memory. We don't fall in love, we sink into it, into the stillness where it seems we are the only two people awake in the world, into its silence and the questions love never asks of us." Discuss the importance of this reflection and what it reveals about the love story that unfolds in the heart of a broken country–why is it important that this love story carries us through the telling of the tragedy?