February 1965 saw Belfast, and indeed the rest of Northern Ireland, showing signs of improvement for all its’ citizens. Captain Terence O’Neill in his role as Prime Minister was making the right noises about equality for all by extending the Unionist hand of friendship towards the minority Catholic population.
However, his efforts to find ways to end the sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants was constantly undermined by many of his own party with the result that any real progress was almost impossible. Rumour had it that he had been sheltered by a Catholic family during the Second World War when he was shot down over Europe. If this was true, it would have afforded him insights into at least one family of Catholics that his fellow Unionists would never have received, or would never want to entertain. Giving any kind of concession to Catholics was viewed as weakness, with certain political suicide attached to the process. Nevertheless there was a feeling across Northern Ireland that things were changing. A lot of the old ways were disappearing. The music belonged to the young and the only arguments were about who was best, the Stones or the Beatles.
Connie was working hard at her studies. She enjoyed the challenges thrown up at university and, like other students, felt the whole world was out there to be explored. The life of a student was a lot more cosseted compared to the other girls of her age from her street. Most of them got a job in one of the big linen or tobacco factories and that was their life. If they were lucky, they got married and then stayed at home to rear the children.
Connie usually got holiday jobs in one of the big Belfast stores.
She was planning ahead for a summer holiday stint at Anderson and McAuleys. She had walked in and asked for an application form having spotted an advert in the window looking for part-time staff. The form now taking up her attention was asking for her birth date. She wrote it in and continued until the form was completed. It was only when she was checking for any mistakes that her birthday date suddenly struck her and her present age.
‘I’ll be twenty next week I was born March 21st 1946.’
It suddenly dawned on her.
She thought back to her mother’s story. She was born nine months after her dad had got home safely from the North Sea. What also struck her forcibly, was, that a week earlier the American Paul Deehan had left for the D-Day Landings.
Connie’s mind went into overdrive and the most terrifying thought welled up and consumed her. ‘No I couldn’t be? Surely to God I’m a Callaghan through and through? said there was nothing? What sort of a daughter am I, that I could even think such a thing?’
Then she remembered back to her time at Long Island College Hospital and went over again her meeting with the stranger. Perhaps his interest, as she now thought about it, was because he truly did recognise something in her that was familiar to him. She also remembered how the Senior Nurse had said he was quite agitated when leaving. She recalled the bedside manner of Dave Warnock, with his familiar use of patients’ Christian names to make them feel more relaxed. The man in the bed was called Paul, the same name as her first boyfriend.
This couldn’t be a coincidence.
Paul must have found a way to trace her.
He had put two and two together, sending the Bandoleer back to Belfast in the belief that she was related to the woman he had met during the war. The cryptic note he had placed in the pocket of the Bandoleer was clearly meant to be vague so that if it went to the wrong place no-one would have a clue and just keep it. If it was the correct place it was still vague enough not to cause any embarrassment because apart from one person, her mum, no-one would know who P.D. was.
Her mum had said nothing had happened and was mortified at the suggestion that something had. She thought about contacting United Parcel Service Inc., but it was last year when the parcel had arrived and they would probably now not have any record of who sent the parcel. She thought about contacting Dave Warnock and knew he would be happy to see her back in his hospital. In her spare time she could track down this Paul Deehan. However what Connie didn’t have were the financial resources to get to America on her own if she was invited back. But anyway, what would she say to Paul Deehan if she did find him?
Surely there was nothing she could do?
Connie folded the application form and placed it in the envelope. The gum on the envelope seemed to have a particularly bitter taste as she ran her tongue along the edge. She decided to walk down to the store and hand it in personally. Perhaps a stroll through the city would help to dispel the thoughts now clamouring in her head.
Having dropped the letter at the store she got the bus home and walking up the street heard her dad’s familiar voice calling from behind her.
‘Connie, wait up.’
‘I was on the next bus and spotted you getting off. What have you been up to?’
‘Oh, nothing much. I just left an application in for a holiday job.’
‘You don’t sound very enthusiastic. That’s not like you. I always thought these jobs gave you a welcome break from all the studying you have to do.’
‘They do, yes. I was just feeling a bit tired that’s all.’
‘Are you ok? Anything wrong?’
‘Naw, just tired I guess.’
‘I know, it’s been a long winter. Thank goodness spring is just around the corner.’
She linked her arm through his and together they walked home talking about the weather. Everyone was in the house and as usual all trying to talk at once. Connie decided to go upstairs to find a bit of peace and quiet. As she climbed the stairs she could hear her mother asking her dad, ’Was Connie all right?’ He had given her Connie’s earlier answer that, ’she was feeling tired.’ There was no reply from her mum.
She kicked off her shoes and lay curled up on the bed. Again she played through everything from her time in America the previous year, through all the stories surrounding the Bandoleer. With the doubts that now assailed her about who might her father be Connie came to the conclusion that there would be too much hurt caused if she did confront her mother, and what if her dad found out? If she was wrong it would cause a huge rift between her and her mother and destroy any vestige of trust that existed between them, a lot of pain for her dad and perhaps the breakdown of their relationship. Her mother’s voice broke into her thoughts when she called up the stairs.
‘Your dinner’s on the table.’
Connie didn’t feel like socialising with the family and called back that she wasn’t hungry.
‘Are you OK?’
‘Yea, just tired.’
‘All right. I’ll leave it on the plate and you can warm it up later for your supper.’
Connie turned over and fell asleep. She found herself dreaming that she was in a hospital ward where a nurse was dressed in military fatigues with a camouflaged helmet. She was screaming at the patients in a parade ground voice, ’Any patient without a proper name or who doesn’t know where they come from will be taken to the theatre, and operated on. By the time the operation is finished, we’ll all know our proper names and more importantly where we come from. Right?’ She had then turned her gaze on Connie and shouted ‘Anyone else who doesn’t know where they belong? Step forward. We’ll do the same procedure on your brain, but there are no guarantees for you that you’ll be any the wiser. Right?’
Connie wakened up, startled by her younger sister who had come in looking for a book she had been reading earlier.
‘Sorry Con. Didn’t know you were having a snooze.’
‘It’s OK Maura. If I had slept any longer I’d probably be awake half the night.’
She went to the bathroom and ran some water. As she was drying her face she looked in the mirror, thinking of her dream. She knew who she was, Connie Callaghan, Con to her family, CC to her friends. She had the most wonderful, happy, squabbling family around her. Her fleeting doubt was just that and she should dismiss it as the result of her overactive imagination.
‘You’re just too clever for your own good Connie Callaghan, reading too many books about intrigue and family secrets. Perhaps Gran is right when she says that things which remain unsaid within families can be the most important things that should be talked about.’
As she combed her hair and redid her makeup she resolved to forget the whole business and accept that the mystery of the Bandoleer’s reappearance would never be solved.
The end of June came round with the completion of some very challenging exams. Connie was happy now working in the store with its special buzz, a very welcome break from a tough term at the University. She had been given different tasks to do in Anderson & McAuleys, from helping out in the office to working with the shop assistants on the shop floor. It was the beginning of September when the supervisor Mrs Mc Cready asked Connie if she wouldn’t mind helping them in the warehouse at the back of the store. A variety of products were coming in and someone who was a good organiser and with an eye for attention to detail was required to thoroughly check everything on the inventory list.
When Connie got the list there was a huge range of different products that the store sold, everything from clothes and clothing accessories to household goods. There was one item which caught her eye and made her smile, ’FLAGS’.
‘They’ve left it a bit late this year for the Twelfth celebrations.’
As the men began to unload the lorry she checked everything to their corresponding codes including the flags. Mrs McCready came down as the lorry was pulling away.
‘Well Connie, everything present and correct?’
‘Yes everything has checked out.’
‘Good, and the ten boxes of flags where are they?’
‘That’s the black cardboard boxes piled over in that corner. A bit late for the Twelfth parades this year?’
‘No Connie you’re wrong there. We never sell flags in this store. We were asked by the city council to source a supply of American flags of different sizes.’
‘Yes last year was the twentieth anniversary of the D-Day Landings. This year our city fathers are putting out the welcoming mat for many of the Veterans from the States who were billeted around Belfast and survived the landings to begin the final push against the Nazis. I’m told there is a parade to the City Hall where they will be met by the Mayor. The flags will be used to decorate the approach along Royal Avenue and the front of the City Hall. It promises to be a grand day even though Remembrance Sunday is usually a sombre affair.’
Connie’s whole being began to tingle and her eyes suddenly became moist.
‘God I don’t believe this’, she thought, ‘a D-Day parade, American survivors, could this mean that Paul Deehan would be one of those veterans?’
All the doubts that she’d been able to push to the back of her mind now returned, crashing in making her feel as if she was about to have a migraine. She spent the rest of the day at work trying to push the thoughts away. She couldn’t wait to get home to say to her mother
She spent the evening reading a novel, waiting until everyone had gone to bed, except her mother who always had tasks to finish for the next day.
Casually Connie said. ‘A consignment of flags arrived in the store today.’
‘Oh. A bit late for the Twelfth, is it not?’
‘That’s what I thought but they’re not Union Jacks, they’re the Stars and Stripes.’
Connie’s mum looked at her and for a moment said nothing. She then sat down opposite Connie.
‘What’s on your mind? I can see you want this conversation.’
‘Yes. What if Paul Deehan is one of the veterans of the D-Day landings coming for this Remembrance Sunday parade being organised by the City Council? What if he comes looking for you again?’
‘What if he does? It was more than twenty years ago, we’ll all have changed in that time. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me at all. He’s probably married, had children. He might even bring his wife with him.’
‘He remembered enough to send the Bandoleer back.’
‘What are you implying Connie? If he comes,’ she paused and looking directly at Connie with quite a stern face, ’I’ll introduce him to your father and he can tell him his story of being rescued and that I was grateful for his information. I did thank him at the time. No doubt he might tell us then about what happened to him after the D-Day landings.’
‘What about the Bandoleer?’
‘Well, what about it?’
‘Well, are you going to tell dad and Gran that you gave him the Bandoleer?’
‘If it comes to that, I will, yes. But, and it is a big but, he might never come back. He might not want to parade through Belfast? He may have other more important things to do.’
‘The parade would be his way of coming back to pick up with you and offer his thanks for the gift of the Bandoleer.’
‘Maybe? But I don’t see why you should be so concerned if he does come? What is your particular interest in this Paul Deehan?’
Connie could not begin the conversation with her mum that she really wanted and so quickly replied.
‘I want to hear his story. Where he ended up with the Bandoleer? That was its second trip to Europe. It would be fascinating to tie it in with all the other stories. If you think about it mum, there’s quite a history attached to it.’
Connie could have sworn that her mum’s face visibly relaxed.
‘Yes, it has been in quite a few battles over the years. The Second World War was certainly the biggest of the lot. Look Connie, I’m tired and it’s late. If you have no more questions I suggest we both go to bed.’
‘I’ll be up in a while I just want to finish my book.’
When her mother left, Connie sat looking at her book rereading the same page without taking it in. Eventually she gave up, closed the book, sat back in the chair thinking about Paul Deehan, her mum and dad, everything connected to the Bandoleer. Eventually she fell asleep.
It was sometime around two in the morning when she wakened.
Filling a glass of water she tiptoed off to bed feeling very tired and dispirited.