We're delighted to present the opening chapter from Country, the superb new novel by Michael Hughes, a vivid and brutal reimagining of Homer's Iliad, set in the Troubles of the late twentieth century.
When an IRA man's wife turns informer, he and his brother gather their old comrades for an assault on the local army base. But the squad's feared sniper suddenly refuses to fight, and the SAS are sent in to crush this rogue terror cell before it can wreck the fragile truce, and drag the whole region back to the darkest days of the Troubles.
Fury. Pure fury. The blood was up. Lost the head completely.
Achill, the man from the west. The best sniper the IRA ever seen. All called him Achill, but his name was plain Liam O’Brien. After the da, Big Liam O’Brien, who came out of Achill Island and bore the name before him. So the son was called Achill in his turn, though he was born and reared in Castlebar and he’d never set foot in the place, for the da always said it was a fearful hole.
What was the start of it? The whole wrecking match, that sent so many strong souls roaring down to hell, dogs chewing up the guts ground into the road, birds pecking at the splattered bits of their brains. The way London wanted it to go. The way it always is.
Here’s what. Pig and Achill fell out. The OC and the trigger man. Bad, bad news.
And whose fault was that? Here’s who. One particular Prod farmer from up the country, a man all knew as Crisis Cunningham, who owned the land where they were prepping the job, that Pig had been renting since the ceasefire was called. Ninety-six, this was, the year just turned. The farmer motored down to get back his daughter, for the girl had disgraced him by running away and flinging herself at Pig, after he called in to the house to settle his account the week before. She was shacked up now at his place, doing his washing, cooking his dinner. Whatever else.
So this man Cunningham sent word to Pig and his brother Dog, and he was told to come on down to the farm for a wee chat. The whole squad gathered to hear, round the side of the barn, ducked in under the jut of the roof in case a chopper went over. Stamping away the cold, puffing into their hands.
The old man said his piece, laid it all out. The whole recitation of his credentials and bona fides. No interest in politics of any colour or creed, you pays your money and no questions asked. But he knew better than to frig around with lads the like of them. He hadn’t come empty-handed, no sir. A bag full of cash for Pig, big bundles of sterling twenties, English notes. The keys to his own Merc. The promise of a prize bull, once the next season was done, worth ten or twelve grand itself.
Then it started. The man begged, he plain begged for the young one back, weeping and whining, down on his knees in the wet dung of the yard. ‘She’s hardly fourteen, the light of my life. Please don’t touch her, big man. Not yet a while. Give her a couple more years to be a wee girl. I buried her mother and my mother both this past year. The heart is already tore out of me. I can’t stand losing the last bit of joy I have.’
Nobody knew where to look. It would scunder you to see a grown man like yon choking on his sobs and snotters. They all nudged other, and the mutter went round. ‘Go on there, Pig, let the girl go back home with her da, and we’ll have no more said about it.’
Not Pig. He laughed his big dirty laugh, right in the poor man’s face. ‘Away and shite. I take no orders from muck-savage Orange bastards. The girl stays where she is, and she’ll be doing my ironing and plenty besides till her pubes turn grey, if I want her to. Now get to fuck out of this before you’re carried out.’
He drew his short, snapped off the safety. And away the old man skedaddled, hoofing it down the back lane at a fair old lick.
But the minute he got in home, he lifted the phone to a certain individual. ‘You know I take no sides,’ he says, ‘and I never ask for nothing. But family is family, and I bring in the vote for you here in the townland every election. So this one time, there’s a wee favour you can maybe do for me.’
Country (published by John Murray) is out now.
About The Author: Michael Hughes grew up in Keady, Co. Armagh, and now lives in London. He attended St Patrick's Grammar School in Armagh and read English at Corpus Christi College, Oxford before training in theatre at the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris. He has worked for many years as an actor under the professional name Michael Colgan, and he also teaches creative writing. His first novel, The Countenance Divine, was published by John Murray in 2016.