In Times Like These

Maureen Duffy

A fable

Published by Jonathan Clowes Ltd 8 October 2013

Maureen Duffy is one of the UK’s most distinguished and incisive novelists. Sarah Waters describes her as ‘a unique literary talent. Provocative, informed, fiercely intelligent, her writing never fails to inspire and entertain.’

In Duffy’s new novel, an exploration of independence, Britain has had a great fall. The Queen has left London. Scottish Independence has arrived. The nation’s fate lies in the hands of an unlikely cast of characters. They must try to put a Kingdom of people, now United only in name, together again, or watch it shatter.

Continue reading, to enjoy an extract from this impressive new work.

 

Prologue


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‘At all costs we must preserve the Federation,’ the Chair says. We decided, or I should say it was decided before my time, that, in the interests of our commitment to complete equality, the Chair should be a function not a person. So the Chair rotates between the First Ministers.

‘If they want in it must be on our terms; that must be absolutely accepted from the beginning. This isn’t a negotiation. They want us not we them.’

‘We’ve done alright so far without them, once we got it and us together.’

‘They’ll want a negotiated agreement. You know they will.’

‘You can’t negotiate with ‘perfidious Albion’. Centuries of diplomacy have made them too good at it.’

‘As long as they leave it to their executive, not the politicians who’ll want to bully and bluster.’

‘I still think it’s too dangerous,’ Cornwall says. ‘I say let them stew. We’ve got our alliances, our partnership with the Mid Europe Treaty, the MET, and the whole EAS. They’d never accept that!’

One of the failings of committees is a weakness for acronyms.

‘And what can they offer: the Heptarchy, that could fall apart any minute.’

‘ What’s that? The Heptarch

‘That was England, lots of little warring kingdoms ‘til Alfred banged their heads together. That’s what I call them now.’

‘You and your history Cymri. I like to live in the here and now.    I say we should try to pick them off one at a time till there’s only Westminster and the Shires left. Berwick for a start. They’d jump at it.’

‘It would make it harder for us; surrounded by the sea with an angry Southshire to the East.’ Cornwall is clearly nervous.

‘Well, it’s clear we won’t have a decision today. We have to go back and consult.’

‘Suppose they ask to be let back into the EAS or even team up with MET themselves?’

‘No one would trust them again. Don’t you see: that’s why they’re asking to join the CF. It’s a backdoor, as they see it, for something they should never have left, and find they can’t do without!’

‘But they’re not Celts!’

‘Historically neither is anyone. It was all a bit of Roman name calling, when it wasn’t Brits or Scotti.  But genetically, mitochondrially they are.’

‘So we’re told. And anyway we’re all a mixture patriarchally.  Let alone the latecomers from all over the world!’

‘We have to hang on to something, know who we are.’

‘We’re human. That’s all we know for sure.’

‘And where we live.’ Ulster says. ‘That ‘s important.’

‘That’s the greatest accident of all.’

 

*             *             *

 

Part One


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So when he saw from where we watched on the flat top of Ben Bulben, for Colm always had the power to see events many miles away beyond the sight of most other men, the dead lie in great heaps on the fields of Cul Drebne and, as we afterwards learned, some three thousand had been slain but only one of Colm’s own clan, the Northern O’Neill, and saw the great black flocks of crows like the pagan Morrigu, settle on their bodies to peck out their eyes, then he knew in himself he must look for penance from Molaisse, Abbot of Devenish.

And this battle came about in two ways which I will relate, for until we came to the Island of Hy and I was given charge of the curragh and its passage between the islands, I was always by his side as were the other eleven companions who accompanied him here. This is the story as it was told to me that when he was a student under Bishop Finnian of Clonard, Finnian allowed him to see the psalter of St Jerome that he had himself brought from Rome, and that was both a holy book and a holy relic which the bishop kept privately except when it was used as the custom is to teach the novices their letters, and how to read and write.

Not content with being allowed to study this holy book Colm, who was both a great reader and writer of all sacred texts, and also of the ancient lore of Ireland which he learned under the Bard Gemman, came secretly at night and made a copy of it. And this he was able to do with his right hand by the light of the fingers of his left which glowed in the dark with enough luminescence for him to write by, which he took as a sign that he did God’s work.

How Bishop Finnian came upon the truth of what Colm had done was not told to me but he demanded that the copy should be surrendered to him which Colm refused. Then it was agreed between them that Diarmit, High King of Tara should be the arbiter and judge. But as well as having no love for Colm because the King was of the Southern O’Neill who were always vying with the Northern, Colm’s clan, for supremacy in Ulster, and also because he still leaned towards the old ways of the Druids, Diarmit gave the judgement to Finnian with these words: ‘To every cow her calf, for every book its copy’.

The second occasion of the conflict however was not over a book but a death and a violation of sanctuary, and it was that which finally led to the battle of Cul Drebne.

Curan, son of Aedh, King of Connacht, a Christian, was held hostage by King Diarmit at Tara. During a game of caman by accident he struck and killed the son of the King’s steward and fled to Colm’s church in Derry, he being a kinsman. Yet in spite of the holiness of sanctuary, and even the ancient laws of hospitality, he was dragged from there and murdered, and Colm himself was put under guard. Because Colm was not only a man of God, but a prince of his clan who could have been king himself if he had wished, he was deeply affronted. When in a rage his red hair seemed to flame and he himself grew even taller than his normal stature which was itself above most men.

Colm escaped from his guards and roused the men of Connacht and the Northern O’Neill. Diarmit marched North and met them at Cul Drebne. Before the battle the High King, who had appointed the pagan Arch Druid as his chief adviser, set his army to march widdershins around an ancient cairn while their priests marked out a magic circle around the King himself.

Nevertheless Colm’s army was victorious through the power of the Lord. The King fled but the victors did not follow up their success. Then Diarmit brought a complaint to a synod convened at Teltown near Toru for Colm to be ex-communicated for sending so many souls to their death unshriven. However Colm was supported by his old master Bishop Finnian and the Holy Brendan of Clonfert and the attempt failed. But repenting of those three thousand dead in the battle, Colm asked the holy hermit Molaisse to be his confessor, and it was he who gave Colm this penance that he should leave Hibernia-Scotia and never return until he had converted as many souls as he had damned.

Accordingly and at the summons of King Conall of Dal Riata, his kinsman, who ruled the land we Scotti had taken from the Britons, we set sail for Britain in the curragh, twelve companions with Colm, and crossed the twelve mile strait in fine weather with God’s blessing, to become exiles for Christ. And these were those who went with him as the disciples followed their lord and ours:  Ernan, Baithene, Dermatt his constant attendant, Rus and Fechno, brothers, Eochaid, Tochann, Ciaran a King’s son, Grillaan, and last myself, Luguid, who had then as after, command of the curragh.

So we landed safe among Colm’s clan in Dal Riata at Kintyre.

*             *             *

Now

‘Well they’re determined to do it,’ Terry dropped her briefcase inside the front door. Seeing the room was empty she went on through the kitchen into Paul’s studio. ‘I need a drink.’

‘Do what?’

‘Go ahead with the referendum.’

Paul put down her brush, half turning towards Terry. ‘What does it mean? I don’t follow. Come and kiss me and explain.’

‘It means,’ Terry said, putting her arms round Paul and kissing her neck, ‘that I’ll have to go up to the constituency this weekend and talk to the committee. See what they want me to do.’

‘But it’s my p.v.’

‘I know darling, and I’m very sorry not to be there, of course, but I don’t have a choice.’

‘I don’t see why not. Can’t it wait a few days?’

‘We were whipped today. Told to get up there and take the temperature. See what can be saved.’

‘But the party’s against it.’

‘That doesn’t mean the members are or the voters. Just the leadership and us poor sods who’ll be out of a job.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘No more Scottish constituencies at Westminster if the Union goes.’

Paul sat down in the battered wicker chair she kept beside her easel. ‘It’s serious then. I think I need a drink too. Get a couple of glasses. I’ll fetch the bottle.’ She got up slowly and went through to the small kitchen of the flat. Opening the fridge door, she stood for a moment looking in as if she couldn’t remember what she had come for. Then, seizing the chilled bottle by the neck, she went back into the sitting room.

‘Cheers!’ she said as they touched glasses.

‘Not much to cheer about.’

‘Come and sit over here on the sofa. Now explain.’

Terry swallowed a cold mouthful of Pinot Grigio. ‘If it goes through, I mean if enough people vote for independence, there will be no more of us in Westminster.’

‘But do you think they will? The polls seem to say...’

‘Polling’s different from an actual vote. The tribalism will kick in. Psychologically it will feel like betraying the country, the people, the history, to vote against.’

‘What about party tribalism? Isn’t that just as strong?’

‘Not as strong as nationalism. It would be a kind of rejection of the motherland, that sort of thing, even if reason said no.’

‘And does reason say no?’

‘Some does, some doesn’t. The committed nationalists think they can go it alone with what’s left of the oil and gas while they build up alternative energy sources, wind and wave that they’ve certainly got plenty of, and links with Norway, the feasibility of a North Sea pipeline or the discovery of new fields. Then there’s coal that can be brought back into the mix; nuclear maybe. Government and EU farming subsidies could make the five million population practically self sufficient Then there’s tourism, and the whisky exports to buy imports with.’

‘So they could do it?’

‘It’d be tough at first but it’d also generate jobs in the medium term.’

‘But not for you. Couldn’t you stand for the Scottish Parliament?’

‘There’ll be hundreds, seventy-three ex-Westminster for a start, trying to do just that and it’s full up already.’

‘You could stand for another constituency. What about Wales?’

‘Darling your understanding of how and why people vote is so refreshing. You think it’s about reason, common sense even, when it’s more like supporting your local football club. The party will be decimated. I doubt if I’d even be selected, tarred with the national brush as a Scots traitor.’

‘Well then, what will you do?’

‘Go back to what I should, maybe, have stuck to in the first place, being an historian.’

‘Teaching you mean. But you wouldn’t teach in an academy. I know you.’

‘No. I’d go back to FE or HE.’

‘A university? Wouldn’t that be just as hard to get now?’

‘Not as an ex MP,’ Terry paused, ‘in the North.’

‘You mean move up there permanently?’

‘Would you?’

‘It’s a bit of a shock. Let me get used to it. Let’s not talk about it anymore. Let’s go to bed. You need a bit of TLC. We’ve still got that.’ She leant towards Terry and kissed her. ‘Bring the bottle.’

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