"Into the fire" Writing Competition: The Winners
2018-12-01 13:34:46 -
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By Laura Carroll

 

“In other news now, the residents of Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon are busy preparing the town to welcome 50 Syrian refugees who are due to arrive at the end of the month,” the newsreader announces, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. Sam’s mother grins as well, her fork hovering mid-air.

“Isn’t that just lovely,” she coos, “all of the locals working together, building a real community spirit. I’m sure the refugees will appreciate that to no end, considering the horrors that they’ve had to endure already.”

Sam’s father merely grunts, only looking up from his plate when the newsreader continues. “However, not everyone seems overenthusiastic about the imminent new arrivals. There have been numerous reports of groups opposing the situation handing out flyers and organising protests.” The camera pans to a small group of people marching outside the council offices, holding banners with ‘Not in my country’ and ‘Keep Ireland Pure’ scrawled in black lettering.

“Now that’s something I agree with,” Sam’s father states, nodding approvingly at the TV.

“Micheál!” Sam’s mother exclaims, her face aghast. But he pays her no heed.

“It’s people like that I admire,” he continues, must to his wife’s disgust. “They’re not afraid to voice their opinion, and although it may be unpopular, it’s 100 per cent right.”

At this point, Sam’s older brother feels the need to chime in, as he always does. “Their opinion is unpopular because it’s racist.”

“Are you accusing me of being racist? I’ll have you know that-“

“That you occasionally go into the Masums’ to get the newspaper?” Eoin finishes. “Hate to burst your bubble, dad, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not racist.”

A deep shade of crimson creeps up Sam’s dad’s neck and slowly moves up his cheeks. ‘Here we go,’ Sam thinks to himself, spearing a piece of broccoli.

“All I’m saying,” his dad says, trying to keep his voice level, “is that those people are right. Why should Ireland have to put up with the likes of them, barging into our country, demanding free shelter and benefits that we taxpayers are paying for? And it’s not just the refugees who are at it, they’re coming from everywhere, these ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘immigrants’. I think that if you chose to live in a certain country, that’s your decision, and you have to live with it.”

Eoin opens his mouth to protest but is cut off by their mother, much to Sam’s disappointment. It’s been a while since Eoin and their father have had a proper moral-based showdown. Even though Sam would never admit it, he’s normally on Eoin’s side. “That’s enough politics for one day,” she says, bringing an abrupt end to the conversation. “Although I must admit, I’d hope that if, God forbid, we were ever displaced because of a war here, other nations would have the humanity and goodwill to let us seek refuge in their countries.”

“And they would,” Sam’s dad announces. “What have the Irish ever done to anyone? Nothing, because were a decent people.” With that, he glares angrily at the TV, before rising from the table, tossing his napkin on his plate. Sam’s mother sighs, as Sam himself downs the rest of his drink before speeding out of the kitchen.

“And where are you off to this time?” his mother calls after him.

“I’m just meeting my friends,” Sam replies, halfway out the door. She says something else, but Sam doesn’t hear. He’s already down the driveway.

Sam legs it to the abandoned factory where he was instructed to meet his friends, well aware of the consequences of being late. He makes it with seconds to spare, turning the last corner just as they’re heading off without him. He slows to a walk, trying to steady his breathing. “Going somewhere without me?” he yells through his stitch. They stop, somewhat reluctantly, to wait for him.

“I told you half six sharp,” Dez replies, sharing glances with the other four. “We presumed you weren’t coming.”

“Of course I was coming,” Sam defends. It’s only now he’s caught up with them that he notices the black kit bags clutched in Dez’s hands.

Dez studies him for a moment. “Good,” he announces, much to Sam’s surprise. “Because this is a six-man job.“ Sam does his best to hide his smile as they march off, chuffed that for once, Dez and the lads needed him, not the other way around. Sam certainly had earned his place in the gang, in all fairness. He’s spent all summer running after them like a slave, willing to do anything to get their approval — lying to the gardaí to cover for them, buying them drink using Eoin’s ID. He even corrected their spelling and grammar before they graffitied another building. Dez always struggled with the spelling of ‘Muslim’.

“What are we doing today?” Sam asks, jogging occasionally to keep up with the others.

“You’ll find out when we get there,” Dez replies, pausing before adding “I think it’s time to test your loyalty, kid.“ The others grin, giving Sam a slight sinking feeling in his stomach. What do they want him to do now? Hasn’t he proved his loyalty already?

‘Snap out of it,’ Sam orders himself, shaking his head. They’re not going to get him to do anything too bad — although they don’t act like it most of the time, the lads are actually good guys, from decent families. Dez’s mum is principal of the local primary school; Zee’s parents own a restaurant in town. As much as he wants to believe himself, something about the sly grin on Dez’s face tells him that he’s wrong.

Just before they round the corner to the main town square, Dez orders them to stop. It’s getting dark now, the soft, buttery yellow street lamps doing little to make a dent in the impending blackness. Dez and Zee make sure the coast is clear, before opening a bag and handing poorly made balaclavas to everyone. Sam pulls his on reluctantly, hating the way the sweat clings to his forehead, not absorbed in the rough material.

“Okay,” Dez announces, taking the other bag from Micky. “We all know what the plan is, yes?” He hands Zee and Micky hammers, Zee’s eyes lighting up. “Only no hanging around when we’re finished this time. The gardaí are bound to be on us like that,” he adds, snapping his fingers as Phil takes a brown paper bag from Dez, poring over the contents with Red. Sam resist the urge to ask what the hell is going on, the sick feeling in his stomach worsening by the millisecond.

Finally, Dez turns to him. “Time to test your nerve, Runt.” Sam hates it when he calls him that. His mother insists that he just hasn’t had his growth spurt yet. Dez reaches back into the bag, pulling out two small, orange flare guns. “Follow my lead,” Dez instructs him, giving him one of the guns. “Oh, and make sure not to have your hand in front of the muzzle when you fire. Wouldn’t want Runt losing any fingers, now, would we?”

Sam trails after the group as they march across the dimly lit square, hoping that they’re going to the end of the street, to the rundown offices. “No,” Sam mutters, as they storm straight up to the newsagents. The shop is closed, but there are lights on upstairs. “Not the Masums’ place.”

Dez glares at him, as if he knew this was going to happen. “What’s wrong Runt?” he probes. “Got a problem?” Try as he might, Sam’s morality gets the better of him.

“Why the Masums?” he asks, hoping his voice sounds more threatening than it did in his head. “What have they ever done to you?”

“They took over my town, that’s what they did,” Dez replies, advancing on Sam. He can feel the other’s stares boring into the back of his head. “They don’t belong here. They’re vermin and need to go back to their own country. We’re just here to help them on their way. Isn’t that right, lads?” The others nod approvingly. “So, what’s it gonna be, Runt?” Dez says. “You wanna join us? Or go to Pakistan with them?” he asks, jerking his head towards the Masums’ shop.

Sam resists the urge to tell Dez that they’re actually Indian, and they’ve lived here for longer than he’s been alive. Instead he stays silent and raises the gun. “I thought as much,” Dez sneers, turning his attention back to the job at hand. As they approach the building, Sam hurries over to Zee, hoping he might be able to sway him.

“Zee, think about it,” Sam hisses, hoping the others won’t hear him. “This could easily be your family’s restaurant. What makes the Masums any different?”

“The difference is I was born here,” Zee replies. “I’ve an Irish passport. This is my country. I’m no immigrant.”

“Not anymore, but at one point your family were,” Sam points out. Zee looks at Sam, and he can tell that he isn’t enjoying this anymore than Sam is.

“Look,” Zee says under his breath, “if you wanna be with us, there’s no time for morality. You do what you have to do, okay?” And with that, he pulls his balaclava down, nods at Micky and the two of them smash the front windows with their hammers.

An alarm goes off immediately — an awful, wailing sound. Phil and Red are up next, throwing what Sam now knows are fireworks through the broken windows. Sam doesn’t have time to protest about how dangerous this is, because before he knows it, Dez is dragging him to the window. The flashing lights hurt his eyes, the burning smell clogging his nostrils. Sam can see smoke rising from behind the counter.

“Fire on three,” Dez shouts over the racket. “One, two…” Sam can’t think, it’s all happening too fast. The voice in his head demanding him to run is drowned out. “Three!” Dez yells, and instinctively, Sam’s finger pulls the trigger. The force sends him reeling, and he stumbles off the footpath onto the ground. It takes him a moment before he hears the footsteps, realising that the others have set him up. Dez never fired. They’ve left him. Sam smacks the ground in frustration, scrambling to his feet. A proper fire has broken out where Sam’s flare hit, the red smoke billowing from the shop.

He can already hear the sirens approaching, others spilling out onto the street to take in the scene. Sam turns to run after the others, when he hears a noise. “Help!” comes a faint cry from the shop. Sam’s legs move subconsciously, and he’s back at the window again. Mr Masum’s outline is faintly visible through the thick smoke. “Help me!”

Sam rips off his balaclava and approaches the window. He has one leg over when he hears another voice. “Sam!” Zee pants, sprinting towards him. “What the hell are you doing?” Sam stares at Zee’s wild face, his jet black hair stuck to his forehead, slick with sweat. Except it’s not Zee he sees - it’s the Masums’ eldest, Imran, who’s in the same year as them.

His mind takes him back to their first day of secondary school. He and Imran were in the same class, and as much as he tried to hide it, Sam was scared to death. It was Imran who ate lunch with him when he was by himself, who got his books from the high shelves when the older boys hid them there, who always picked him first for football teams. Is this how he wants to repay him?

“I’m doing what’s right!” Sam replies. “I have to help them.”

He stares at the inferno for a moment, before taking a deep breath and running into the fire.

 

This young writer from Ballina, Co Mayo placed first in the ages 18-21 category for this incendiary short story about fears of integration

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