He was twenty minutes late. The lift hummed up towards the fifteenth floor of the anonymous glass building on Bedford Street. Lynch wondered if Burton would still see him. He had been early, but found himself doing another lap of the block, toying with flagging it altogether. He didn’t need a shrink. Lynch told himself it was the sleeping tablets. They’d helped. A few hours of broken sleep was better than nothing. So if it took another trip to Burton to get another prescription, then so be it. He could sit and listen. Tell the doc what he wanted to hear. Spin a few stories.
He was lying to himself though. He knew it. The truth was, he was curious. Curious and hopeful. It wasn’t a great combination. Lynch knew you could end up in a lot of shit on the back of those two. He tried to ignore his better instincts. He wanted to know how Burton knew. About the Brits. About the gun. He’d thought all that was long gone. A distant memory. Pure history. Turned out it hadn’t gone anywhere. It was there, hidden away, lodged in the back of his mind. He’d spent the week having flashbacks — the faces, the taste, the smell. Pupils dilating, palms sweating, heart racing. Lynch wondered what else Burton might know about. What else he might uncover. Could he tell him why he felt like a ghost walking round inside his own body, like a stranger in his own town?
Lynch stepped out of the lift into the plush reception area. The leather sofa was empty. To the left of the receptionist’s desk, Burton’s door was open. The blonde girl looked up from her computer as he approached.
‘Joe Lynch. .’
She nodded at the door. ‘You can go right in.’
Lynch stepped forward, pausing in the doorway to Burton’s office. The room was exactly as he’d left it. Beige carpet, neat furniture and the vista, out over Belfast. The doctor sat behind his desk, writing on a piece of paper. He looked up at Lynch who was momentarily framed in the doorway.
‘Come on in, Joe.’ Burton’s voice was businesslike. ‘Grab a seat.’
Neither of them mentioned that Lynch was late. Burton himself guessed why, but knew it was a bad place to start and would guarantee he’d not get anywhere. Why slam shut what was already a pretty closed book. He’d been surprised when Dr MacSorley had phoned and requested another appointment. He could see, looking at Lynch’s face, it had been touch and go whether he would actually come.
Lynch sat in the seat he’d occupied the week before. Burton closed the door and sat opposite. His chair was offset slightly, so that he didn’t face his clients directly.
‘So?’ Burton said.
‘They teach you how to set these chairs up, don’t they?’
Burton looked at the furniture.
Lynch continued. ‘You don’t face people. Too intimidating. Too much confrontation. Like an interrogation.’
‘For some people, yes.’
‘But that’s what it is though, isn’t it? You want to know what’s going on with folk. What makes them tick. They sit down and you ask the questions. Examine them. Their secrets. It’s like going to Confession.’
‘Maybe. Except we don’t offer forgiveness.’
‘That’s fine,’ Lynch snapped back. ‘No one’s asking for it.’
Burton sighed. He knew Lynch would want to spar with him. To feel him out. Decide whether he was going to say anything. Still, Lynch had come back, which meant something. Burton knew that was his leverage.
‘Get out, Joe.’
‘I said get out.’ Burton paused. ‘If you want to talk about furniture, then take yourself to MFI. I don’t have time for it.’ The psychologist leaned forward to stand up and go back to his desk.
‘You didn’t know, did you?’ Lynch said, halting the other man’s movement.
Burton paused before sitting back in his seat. ‘Know what?’
‘About the Brits. Being put against a wall. About them putting a gun in my mouth.’
Burton looked at Lynch and shook his head.
‘No, I didn’t. But there had to be something. I went fishing, that was all.’
‘So that’s it. There’s some theory out there, some textbook. How people get “involved”. What makes them say they’ve had enough of doing nothing. Makes them decide to do something about it.’
‘Radicalization. It varies from person to person. It’s all about Muslims these days. September Eleventh. Those planes and the Twin Towers. Iraq. Afghanistan. Ireland’s yesterday’s news. Nobody wants to hear about us any more. The peace deal’s been done. It’s time to move on.’
‘Suppose there’s a theory about that and all?’
Burton raised his eyebrows and nodded. If there was an A-Z of conflict resolution, he was yet to be convinced by it.
‘Thing is, Doc, the guys who write these theories, that’s all they do — write them. They don’t fucking live them.’
The conversation had found its rhythm from the previous week. Back and forth. Lynch wanting to square up. Confrontation was where he was most comfortable. Burton wondered if he always needed to be on the offensive.
The two men stopped talking. Burton’s eyes fell and he gazed at the table, deliberately ignoring the other man. Finally Lynch spoke again.
‘So what are we supposed to talk about?’
‘You tell me, Joe.’
‘You’ve read the books, Doc. Surely there’s a list. Seven Steps or something. Is that not how it works?’
‘Hey, it’s your patch. How am I supposed to know how it works?’
Burton’s eyes fell back to the table. Lynch watched him disengage.
‘So we just sit here?’
‘You can leave if you want.’
Lynch looked round the room, glancing from the bookcase to the desk to the window. Beyond the green domes of City Hall the yellow arm of a crane slowly swung across the rooftops of the city centre. They were building a new shopping centre round the back of Corn Market. He’d stopped on the way over to look at the gaping hole, the size of a football pitch. A huge billboard announced:
‘It’s going to have a House of Fraser and all, so it is?’
The other woman gasped, confessing that she couldn’t wait.
Lynch looked back at Burton. ‘There’s some changes going on round here, eh?’
‘What do you mean?’ Burton asked.
‘Around the town. I mean, I went the other day to put a line on at a bookies I used to go to down Smithfield. I turned the corner and it’s one of them frigging coffee places. It’s like every time you walk round the corner, someone’s building something. And shops — I mean, how many frigging shops do people need? It’s getting as bad as London.’
‘You lived in London?’
‘Just for a while.’
Lynch remembered the stories his Aunt Annie told about the seventies. She used to come home talking about signs outside boarding houses.
Burton knew that Lynch was avoiding any real engagement. Still, at least he was speaking. If he kept him talking there was a chance they’d end up somewhere by the end of the session.
‘Know anything about Buddhists?’ he asked.
‘Hari Krishnas. Enlightenment and all. You going to start chanting, Doc?’
‘I wouldn’t get your hopes up. Buddhists reckon everything is always changing. All the time. The thing is, we just don’t see it. Living and dying. Growing and rotting. Our problem is that we don’t get it. We expect things to stay the same. And they don’t. They can’t. Nothing can.’
‘That’s deep,’ Lynch said dismissively. ‘Pass the spliff, man, would you?’
Burton tried to mask a sigh. He knew Lynch could oscillate all day between aggressive question and cynical put-down. He was clever. Disciplined. He gave nothing away, not unless he wanted to. And he didn’t let you in, not for a second. He had been involved, but Burton could tell he wasn’t the kind of person who blindly followed orders. He thought about other ex-prisoners he had worked with. Ninety per cent of the time it was about ego, vanity, self-worth. Being involved gave them something to do, someone to be. They were the star in the film of their own lives. At least that was how it felt. And there was always a father figure, someone senior, someone to tell them who they were. Tell them that they were part of something. An heroic struggle. A great cause. That history would remember them.
Lynch was different. Too practical. Too deliberate. Burton couldn’t imagine him buying the romance. That was for followers, for those who needed pulling along. Burton looked at the clock. Lynch had been late and the session was almost over.
The other man spoke, interrupting Burton’s thoughts.
‘So what about people?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What do your Buddhists say about people? Do people change?’
Lynch knew what Burton was up to, deliberately turning the question back on him.
‘Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. Maybe there comes a point when it’s too late. When somebody has been someone or something for so long, they’ve gone past the point where it’s possible to change, and maybe they don’t realize it. They walk round, thinking they’re someone new, only they’re not. All the time though, lurking below the surface, the real them is waiting. Just waiting for a chance to stick his head out of the water.’
Lynch’s eyes narrowed and he went back to looking out the window. Burton wanted to let him run but he had closed down, just as quickly as he had opened up. Lynch snorted a quiet laugh to himself.
‘So the other day, I’m walking round to the shop to get a pint of milk. It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, and round the back of the Spar there’s these two young ones, sitting among the bins. Glue sniffing. Twelve, maybe thirteen. They’re passing this plastic bag between them, taking turns to put their faces into it. They have that red rash round their mouth like you see. They look up for a second, almost look through me, and go back at it. It’s their eyes. Empty. The lights are on but there’s nobody home. Like they’re completely dead on the inside. They’d pull a knife on you as soon as look at you. They don’t give a shit. Don’t care about getting caught, getting a beating, getting locked up. Because nothing can happen to them that will make their lives worse than they already are. I mean, how the fuck do you hit rock bottom by the time you’re twelve? So that there is nothing to be done. Except you stick your head in a bag so you can forget about everything, even if it’s only for thirty seconds. What I want to know is this, Doc: if your Buddhists know so much, then are things going to start changing for these two?’
Burton paused, allowing the question to drift away.
‘What are you so angry about, Joe?’
Lynch’s eyes moved from side to side, weighing up whether to speak, to tell Burton what he really thought.
‘It’s bullshit. All of it. A new dawn. A new day. A load of fucking crap. Stormont. Politicians chuckling for the cameras. Collecting their fat salaries. Meanwhile, the guys are out there running everything. Making sure. . well, making sure things run. And what are we doing, sitting here in your plush office, looking at the nice view, talking about Buddhists. . I haven’t seen too many frigging Buddhists walking the streets of Belfast.’
Lynch gestured to the window with his thumb. Burton sensed he was about to leave. He’d talked himself to the point of walking out, recovered that sense of indignation, of being wronged.
‘You used to like to work alone, Joe. Didn’t you?’
Lynch was taken aback by the change of subject.
‘It was people. People were the problem. They were a liability — even the ones on your side. They’d let you down. Lose their bottle. Not follow through. Sure it was fine, talking about it beforehand, but when push came to shove, there was only one person you could really rely on.’
Lynch sat quietly, listening.
‘And that’s not really changed. We can talk about Buddhists all day, but it’s not about them, Joe. It’s about you. You haven’t changed. You go days out there, not saying a single word to anyone. And why? Because they know you. Or at least you think they do. It’s in that look you get. Fear and respect. But mostly it’s fear. Yeah, they know you. So you sit in front of the TV, nothing but you and your memories, and no matter what you do, they keep coming back. You can’t make them go away. They don’t want to vanish.’
Lynch stared at Burton. He couldn’t acknowledge how close he was. It would be like giving something away, losing some control.
‘The past. It doesn’t just go away on its own,’ Burton said. ‘The memories — you’ve got to replace them with different ones. New ones. Better ones. And sometimes, it still won’t get rid of them altogether.’
‘So what are you supposed to replace them with?’
‘It’s not up to me, Joe. Only you can figure that out. But it’s going to involve other people. I can probably guarantee you that.’
There was a light knock on the door. The signal from the receptionist. They were five minutes beyond their time and Burton’s next appointment would be waiting outside.?100 an hour. It didn’t pay to keep people waiting.