“My Roisin Dubh is my one and only true love…”

Roisin Dubh (Black Rose)

Thin Lizzy 1979

1. Dark Rose: Fleeing the past


“Me,” I acknowledged.

“And what the fuck are you doing here?”

“Nice to see you too, Mammy,” I said…

* * * * *

Dublin – Dover

I used to have a recurring dream, a dream that I had killed my father. His corpse, with dead, sunken eyes and graveyard pallor, the autopsy stitches livid against his torso, would rise up from the mortuary slab and shuffle towards me, pointing an accusing finger. I would wake, sometimes crying out, always shaking with horror.

I hadn’t killed him, of course, and I had a copy of the autopsy report to prove it. For the record, he had been thrashing me with the buckle-end of his broad leather belt, something he’d been doing to me regularly since I was a small girl, and I snapped and kicked him in the belly. I only wanted him to feel for once the pain he’d been dishing out to me since forever. Instead he fell down, never to get up again. His mouth fell open revealing poorly-kept teeth and his eyes stared blankly into the unshaded ceiling light. Having hastily checked for a pulse and finding none, I fled that place with my mother’s screams of “Murderer!” following me into the rainy night. I was a killer, a fugitive who fled Ireland and made for Liverpool, stowed away on a night-time ferry from Dún Laoghaire. It turned out Daddy’s heart was a ticking time-bomb and he could have dropped dead at any time during the past twenty or so years. The pathologist expressed surprise that Daddy had lived as long as he had. It was several years, though, before I learned the truth.

‘A good, devout Catholic man’ they called him and there were a lot of ‘good, devout Catholic men’ like him where we lived, brutalising their wives and children, especially when in drink, and confessing their sins on Saturdays so they could take Communion on Sundays. If they confessed their cruelty at all, which seems unlikely as they thought it normal, they probably got away with five Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. Too many of the parish priests were old school as well. Still, I’m sure that in the long run God won’t let them off so lightly.

There was another unpleasant recurring dream but I’ll come to that later.

It took me a long time to fully accept that not all men are brutes, in fact the majority are thoroughly decent. It was on that ferry, too, that I first learned of the kindness of strangers. I had managed to board by mingling in a crowd of rugby fans heading for a big match in England. There were so many of them that ticket-checking was more-or-less abandoned. I found a small cubby-hole somewhere on board to conceal myself—a sort of storeroom containing cleaning materials—and it was there that a deckhand found me. It looked like I was in trouble, the entrance being too narrow for me to squeeze past him and make an escape.

Tall and skinny with sharp wrinkled features and sticky-out ears, the man looked at me for a long moment then at my pathetic little canvas bag stuffed with a few belongings. “Now I’ll bet if I asked to see yer ticket yer’d have a problem,” he said, his Liverpool accent thick and strange to my ear, “Runnin’ away from home, are yer gel?” I nodded, too frightened to speak.

“Got a good reason, have yer?”

I decided to show him—I didn’t have much choice. I rolled up one leg of my jeans to show him the old weals and bruises purple against my skin and the fresh cuts which still oozed blood. The man grimaced. “Christ! Who did that to yer? Yer da?”

This time I managed to speak, a feeble: “Yes.”

“The lousy bastard! Okay, I’m Tommy, Tommy McClusky. I don’t want to know yer name so if anyone asks me I’ve never heard of yer. Don’t be frightened, gel, but I’m gonna lock this door. I’ll be back soon and knock the door three times like this…” he rapped the bulkhead “…so’s you’ll know it’s me.”

True to his word, Tommy was back shortly with a packet of sandwiches, a cardboard cup of tea and a can of Coke. “Didn’t know which youse’d prefer so I got both. Now I’m gonna lock yer in ’til we get to Liverpool. It might get a bit stuffy but yer only a little ‘un so yer won’t use much oxygen.” He gave a snaggle-toothed grin to show he was kidding and reached to a switch by the door, turning on a dim security light. “If yer need a pee, use one of these buckets. I’ll get yer off with the crowds as soon as possible.” He pulled out a thickly-folded tarpaulin and laid it on the deck. “Try and get some sleep on that, it’s an eight-hour trip.”

I was left wondering what sort of reward Tommy McClusky would expect for helping me. The nuns at school had filled us with shocking stories about how men were only after one thing, how they would never do you a good turn without expecting your knickers to come down in payment and if you didn’t do it voluntarily they’d force you. They were all the same, one-track minds, no woman or girl was safe from them. Submit to their lusts and you’d be a fallen woman. The only way to avoid the foul depredations of men was to enter a convent and become a nun, a bride of Our Lord, and live your life in cloisters. Some choice! According to the nuns the priests are the only good men—yet recent events around the world have shown that quite a few of the ‘good’ Fathers couldn’t be trusted to keep their trousers zipped with youngsters of either sex.

It was daylight and Liverpool when Tommy came to release me and hustled me to where the crowds were getting off. He’d even scrounged an Irish supporters’ scarf from somewhere that he wrapped round my neck. “So’s yer’ll fit in.” He took my hand in his big calloused one and I thought Here it comes, reward time for the not-so-good Samaritan. Well, I supposed I could endure it and hope it didn’t last long. How wrong could I be, how long before I learned to trust? Instead of trying to get into my knickers, he stuffed a couple of twenty-pound notes into my hand. “It’s not a lot, gel, but it should help yer a bit. What’re yer gonna do?”

“Get as far away from Dublin as I can,” I told him, “I’ll make out somehow.”

He nodded. “Okay, here’s a tip—find the bus station and get a coach down south, maybe the coast. It’s the holiday season so it’ll be easier to find casual work. Not London, though—the prices of things there’ll make yer eyes pop. Now, youse just be careful out there, gel. There’s lots of good people an’ lots of bad. Just learn to tell one from the other.”

On impulse I reached up and kissed his lined cheek. “Thanks, Tommy. Reckon I’ve already found one of the good ones.” I did wonder what my Good Samaritan would think if he knew he’d been harbouring a ‘killer’.

When I got ashore I decided that Alannah Bronagh should disappear and opted to call myself Roisin, a name I’d always liked after hearing an old song, Roisin Dubh (Dark Rose). As for a surname…? While walking away from the docks I passed a small bakery where I bought a couple of fresh-baked rolls and a coffee. The bakery was called Donavan’s and that suited me. Goodbye, Alannah Bronagh, welcome to your new life Roisin Donavan. It was odd, I was streetwise in many ways and yet so innocent in others—I honestly believed that a name change would mean I could never be caught.

* * * * *

I did what Tommy suggested but before finding the bus station I went into a bookshop and looked at a UK road atlas for suitable destinations. I decided on Dover for it was the easiest way to get to France and other European countries. In addition to Tommy’s gift I had a small stash of euros, tips for acting as a dealer in illegal card games in Dublin cellars. In Dover itself I slept rough for a few nights before being found by a Salvation Army team. When they were sure I wasn’t a junky or an alkie they found me a bed in a decent hostel and arranged a job for me in a local b&b. It was hard skivvying work but the proprietors were kind to me and I got a couple of decent meals a day plus some good tips from guests, especially Americans. More good people and I felt ashamed for misleading them but needs must…

* * * * *

I admit to being a bit of a scamp as a teenager which is one of the things that sometimes kept me away from home for days on end despite knowing I’d get a thrashing when I reappeared. But then, I’d have got the thrashing anyway so might as well do something to earn it. It was one of those nights away that I’d fallen into the world of illicit card games. I watched the men playing for hours, fascinated by the way the cards fell, and found that I had a talent, an almost photographic memory for games. I quickly learned all the major gambling games, variations of brag and poker, pontoon (called blackjack by some) and others. Baccarat and chemmy were too posh for these players although they were only games of chance like the others.

An old fellow called Liam in one of the card schools spotted my ability and took me under his wing, showing me tricks of the trade and giving me a lot of useful advice. He said never to play in the same school for more than a couple of games—while some of the hardened players might be amused by the wee girl winning once in a while, they might not care for me to win too often. Might even wonder if I was cheating. “For the same reason, don’t win too big amounts, me darlin’,” he instructed, “Sometimes it might be best to ditch a sure-fire winnin’ hand so they don’t suspect or resent you.” His best tip was to volunteer to be a non-playing dealer in exchange for a small percentage of each winning pot. I could shuffle and deal the cards as quickly as any professional and picked up more pocket-money this way than I might have done as a player. And more than once I spent an evening running away from the Gardai when they were breaking up games.

* * * * *

I found a few games in Dover and supplemented my wages and tips that way. An added bonus was no running away—the local police didn’t seem to be bothered about small-time card games. After a few months and a decent little sum in pounds which I converted to euros, I decided to move on. Thanking and saying farewell to my employers and a couple of Salvation Army contacts, I hitched my way to Harwich and got a ferry to Esbjerg in Denmark (with a ticket this time).

Europe — Amsterdam – Tuscany

I opted to by-pass France, deciding instead on Denmark, Holland and northern Belgium because I’d heard English was widely spoken in these places. The European Union’s open borders policy meant I could move around easily without a passport or other forms of identification. I didn’t have much trouble finding odd jobs, even if it they were crap at rock-bottom wages. I learned some of the Continental card games too and, heeding Liam’s advice, made a little money that way.

And for the first time ever I was able to openly acknowledge my sexuality.

I’d known I was gay for very many years but where I came from you didn’t talk about that sort of thing. Dublin in particular and Ireland in general had a surprisingly strong liberal element; gay marriage was approved by referendum (to the anger and disgust of the Church which in recent years had lost much of its influence). However, if there were any free-thinkers where I was brought up, they kept their heads well below the parapets—approval of gay relationships was a certain way to get all sorts of trouble landing on your head. Beatings up from other teenagers, beatings in your family and/or being thrown out, the wrath of the Church condemning you to hellfire. It might have been worse for someone like me—I was already the oddball kid that no-one wanted to play with or be friends with. Now, in more tolerant places, I could be myself. I found no trouble getting laid and often.

My personal taste in partners was for femmes but I usually ended up with butch rough-trade although I found to my surprise that they were often very nice girls, more so than their image suggested. Looking back, I reckon my Goth looks weren’t to everyone’s taste either which is likely why I hooked up with more butches than femmes. Most of my encounters were one-night stands, occasionally a bit longer, but I did learn a lot about pleasing women in bed.

One of the ‘bit longers’ was a femme, Liliana, whom I met in Brussels. We made it through a few weeks. Smooth-pussied Liliana wasn’t keen on my bush, even though my pubes weren’t excessively hairy, and she persuaded me to shave. At the end of three weeks or so, Liliana told me we were through and walked away without looking back.

“That’s Liliana,” another girl told me, “She’s got a reputation as a player, not a stayer. Never more than a month, if that long.”

I hadn’t been in love with her so I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. However, no matter how often I was able to get laid, it always seemed to leave me empty and unfulfilled. There was something lacking in me, I simply couldn’t fathom what. Maybe my upbringing had just soured me for relationships.

And my pubes itched like fury while the hair was growing back.

* * * * *

The dreams started one night when I was staying in Amsterdam. I’d been away from Dublin for almost two years by then and I’ve no idea why they took so long to manifest. Maybe my conscience had suddenly woken up. Either that or a horrible shock I’d had earlier in the evening had triggered something. I was working as a barmaid in a pub called Conan’s, a hangout for gay men. The entrance was ‘guarded’ by a pair of six-foot-six Schwarzenegger look-alikes clad only in leather pouches and armed with gigantic replica swords. Inside the walls were decorated with huge nude photographs of young bodybuilders, wall-to-wall testosterone and all so well-endowed that I was glad I’m a lesbian—the thought of one of those monsters in my… well… There were numerous advantages to this job: none of the customers made a play for me; I didn’t cause any jealous frictions between partners; and there was always a safe pair of hands to walk me back to my lodgings when the bar closed.

The horrible shock really knocked me sideways. The lighting in the bar was dim with many shadowy corners and I suddenly had a glimpse of a thick-set man of medium height, balding and with a beer-belly hanging over dark-blue jeans. A broad leather belt circled his waist and I could see its large and heavy buckle. Good Christ! Daddy! My heart began to hammer away inside me and I had to clutch at the bar to steady myself. Then the man stepped further into the light and the resemblance to my father was uncanny except this man was smiling and had kind eyes.

It must have been obvious that something had upset me for Wim, the bar’s owner, hurried to my side. Like many Dutch people his English was very good. “What is it, Rose? Are you unwell?”

I shook my head and took several deep breaths. “I’m okay… just…” I pointed to the heavy customer. “That man… he looks a lot like someone I knew once …someone who died… I thought for a moment…”

“You thought for a moment you’d seen a ghost.” Wim patted my hand. “That’s Henrik, he’s a nice guy. But you’re upset. Do you want to take the rest of the evening off?”

But I wasn’t going to give up. I shook my head, finished my shift and to be sure I was well, Wim walked me the few hundred yards to my lodging house.

My rented room was at the very top of a narrow building, one of many similar bordering the canals. “It’s not much of a place,” the owner had admitted, “but it’s warm and dry and quiet. There are two rooms, a kitchenette and a shower room up there. The second room is occupied by another young woman so you’ve nothing to worry about.” I had to mount several flights of perilously steep stairs to the room but it was cheap and I couldn’t afford to be choosy. I hadn’t met my fellow lodger—maybe she worked days while I worked evenings into the early hours.

I was a bit of a slut that night, still rattled by Henrik’s resemblance to Daddy. I fell into bed without cleaning my face and teeth. It didn’t take a long to fall asleep…

…I was in a long, straight corridor, one seemingly endless at first. The atmosphere was chilly and damp and there was an unpleasant antiseptic smell about the place. There were doors on either side of the corridor but each one I tried was firmly locked. The further I went, the tighter my throat felt and panic was building up inside me. Then the corridor came to an abrupt end and I was facing a final door. Something told me this was my destination and when I tried, the door opened easily. I stepped inside and the door slammed shut behind me, resisting all attempts to re-open it.

There were only two items of furniture in the room. Against one wall was a type of trolley bearing a selection of scary-looking surgical instruments, scalpels, saws, retractors, all hideously stained with use. Centrally placed was a table or slab on which lay a sheet covered figure, ominous in its stillness. Unable to avert my eyes, I watched as the sheet began to quiver and then… horror… An arm fell out, hand clutching a heavily-buckled belt, and thick fingers began to pluck at the edge of the sheet…

…I started to scream…

…and woke up, still crying out. My door crashed open and a tall shadowy figure, backlit by the landing’s dim security light, came towards me. I cowered away, whimpering with fear.

“Don’t worry, sweetie, I’m not going to hurt you.” A woman’s voice, gentle and soothing. She came and sat on the edge of my bed, taking one hand in hers. “I heard you yelling, thought maybe you were in trouble and came to the rescue.”

“Bad dream…” I mumbled, “Scared the hell out of me…”

“Scared the hell out of me, too,” she said, a hint of laughter in her voice, “and it wasn’t even my dream. Must have been bad, you’re still shaking. Tell you what, sweetie, if you like I’ll stay with you in case it happens again.”