Gemma drove her blue Fiesta across the schoolyard to the back of the main building where there was a make-shift car park for the teachers. She hadn’t touched breakfast. She’d hardly slept for the past three nights. Sky News and the History Channel kept her going. But it would be over soon. The ministerial car would roll off back to wherever the Department of Education was nowadays and St. Enda’s would get on with being an ordinary secondary school again.
She gathered her things off the passenger seat and got out of the car. It was an undecided February morning, a frail sun struggling against thick swabs of cloud. She noticed Aidan was in ahead of her, his dark green Nissan tucked in the corner. He and Sister Agnes were the welcoming party, Sister Agnes all for tea and tennis, Aidan big into Gaelic. He’d often been in a tackle with the Minister’s brother. That was something for them to talk about. Everybody had some kind of reference point with the Minister.
She pulled the heavy fire door and walked into the back corridor.
Inside she felt the cold. At the far end of the hall she could hear the rumble of the ancient furnace. It took hours to heat the place up. She tiptoed past Aidan’s office. If she ran into him, she’d have to listen to his plan of action all over again. Where the Minister would be where and when, and who would be next to be introduced to him. All the staff knew it off by heart. In her sleepless nights Gemma had gone over her own plan, replaying it like a loop in her mind. Then she looked at the picture of her father on her bedside table, his immaculate crisp, dark green uniform, his smile. And she repeated to herself: there was no going back.
The computer room was on the first floor on the south of the building. Gemma threw her bag onto the console desk and relaxed into her swivel chair. She was twenty-eight and this would be her last year at St. Enda’s. She wanted to take a year off, go somewhere she would only ever go once in her whole life. Lots of people her age did it. Africa, India, who knows. She was scared she was in a rut. If she didn’t take her chance now she might never do it. She’d meet someone, they’d get a year or two out of it, then settle down together. She was too young for that.
She reached down and pressed the main button. Instantly the room came alive with a chorus of state-of-the art computers. This was where she would meet the Minister. Sister Agnes and Aidan would bring him here. The official speeches would be over. All that remained was for him to see the computer room.
Gemma shifted on the swivel chair. Her outfit was annoying her. She undid the buttons of her jacket and hitched up the skirt. The staff had had a near standoff with Sister Agnes. The Minister had let it be known that it could be a dress-down affair. But Sister Agnes made no secret of her opinion of the Minister. She dismissed the idea that he had any real understanding of the pressures on those at the ‘chalk face’. She insisted St. Enda’s would put on the full show.
‘Miss Dowling.’ The caretaker’s voice startled her. ‘All set?’
‘I’m nervous as hell, Joe. Couldn’t sleep a wink last night.’ Gemma smiled at him. ‘You look very smart.’
‘Orders from the Chief. No going against them, you know what I mean. Anything you want me to do, Miss?’
‘I think we’re grand. I just need to make sure they’re all working.’
‘Do you think the Minister knows much about computers, Miss?’
‘None of my business what he knows, Joe. What about yourself now?’
‘Not a clue, Miss. The young lad has one. Does all his school projects on it. You can find anything you want on it he tells me. But it’s way over my head, you know what I mean.’
‘You’d be well able for it. If you have the time some afternoon, I’ll give you a crash course.’ Gemma buttoned up her jacket and came out from behind the desk. ‘Here, take a look at this. Tell me something you’d like to find out, something that happened years ago maybe.’
‘What kind of thing, Miss?’
‘Anything you want.’
Joe bit on the inside of his lip. ‘What year Bobby Charlton captained ManU in the European Cup. The year they won it. There’s a good one for you.’
‘So you see this. You click on this. Put in ManU Bobby Charlton. Then click search.’ They both watched the screen flicker and change. ‘25,900 results, Joe. Everything you’d ever want to find on Bobby Charlton right there. We haven’t got time now, but it’s in there somewhere.’
‘It was in nineteen sixty-eight, Miss.’ Joe laughed. ‘I was only checking on you.’
‘You’re a fly-man, Joe. You don’t need me to show you anything.’
Joe was pleased with himself. ‘Will you be down to see the Minister arriving, Miss?’
‘I still have a couple of things to do. And by the time I get the class settled in, he’ll be here anyway. We have to make it look like we have some idea what we’re doing with these computers, after all the money we got for them.’
‘A pilot project for what is it again, if you don’t mind me asking.’ Joe was still slow to leave.
‘For historical archives. It’s called HAWK. So the youngsters can learn history themselves. They won’t need me to teach them anymore. I might as well pack up and go home now.’
‘Beats me, so it does,’ he said. ‘At least I’ll still have a job.’
‘Aye, Joe. A truer word you never said.’
Gemma waited till the caretaker left, then ran Quickcheck.
Everything showed up ready to go, all the kids had to do was key in HAWK. The programme would open up on twenty stations, each with its individual project to work on. She pressed enter on her own computer. A large silver hawk flew in a direct line across the screen, its broad wings flapping, its beads of eyes focused on hers. When it settled on its perch above the search box, she typed in the Minister’s name.
‘And here we are, Minister, in our state-of-the-art computer room.’ Sister Agnes’ voice was purposely loud. Everyone made motions to rise.
‘Don’t let me disturb you,’ the Minister told them. ‘Please go on with whatever you’re doing. I won’t be in your way for long.’ He was less impressive than he looked on television. Smaller build. His voice was thin, not forceful.
‘Miss Dowling is our History and Computer teacher,’ Sister Agnes went on. ‘We all rely on her expertise.’
The Minister approached Gemma’s desk and offered his hand.
‘Nice to meet you, Miss Dowling.’
Gemma shook the Minister’s hand. ‘And you, Minister.’
‘Are you happy with the new computers? Do they meet your needs?’
‘Most certainly. We’re in a league of our own now, Minister.’
‘And the programme HAWK. What exactly does it entail? What can the pupils do with it that makes it so new?’
‘Basically it’s a history archive programme which allows the pupils to tap into all available archives on the web, to cross-reference and validate the accuracy of the information.’ Gemma knew that it sounded textbook. ‘The exciting part and the advantage for the pupils is that the programme enables them to create their own archives. They can collate information from a variety of sources. The HAWK programme will accept it only when it has validated the accuracy of the information. It disallows inaccuracy.’
‘Sounds very clever to me,’ the Minister said. He pulled in a chair in front of her screen and sat down. ‘Can you show me how it works? What do I have to do?’
Gemma pulled her chair in beside the Minister. ‘You can key in your name, Minister, and see what comes up.’
‘I think I’ve a pretty good idea of my own history.’ The Minister smiled at her, the way she had seen him do so often on television.
‘Then take my name,’ she told the Minister.
‘D-o-w-l-i-n-g.’ The Minister spelt it out as he typed it in. ‘First name?’
‘Pat,’ Gemma replied.
‘P-a-t. We have a daughter Pat.’ The picture of a young man in a dark green uniform appeared on the screen. Gemma kept her eyes on the Minister while he silently read the text beneath the picture. She knew it by heart. ‘Constable Pat Dowling, shot Londonderry, January 1972. Married with one daughter aged four months.’ She watched for anything that the Minister’s face might betray.
The Minister turned to look at her. ‘This is your father?’
‘I’m very sorry.’
‘Why do I have difficulty believing that, Minister?’ Gemma wished her voice would sound more angry, but it didn’t. The anger she had rehearsed so many times was missing.
‘Miss Dowling, I think we’ve heard quite enough.’ Sister Agnes stepped towards her.
‘It’s alright, Sister. Miss Dowling has the right to her feelings.’
‘I never knew my father. He was only twenty-one when he was shot. Much the same age as you were at the time, Minister.’ Gemma felt the force coming back to her words.
‘Minister, I think we should leave now. I apologise for Miss Dowling’s behaviour. Mister Gallagher, will you look after Miss Dowling, please.’
Gemma stood at the window in Aidan’s office watching the cars drive away.
‘Why did you do it, Gemma? Sister Agnes will never forgive you. She’ll crucify you.’
She knew Aidan was trying to be easy on her. ‘She won’t get the chance, Aidan. I’m leaving.’
‘Oh, thanks for letting me know.’ She had caught him off guard.
‘But what was the purpose of it? What were you trying to prove?’
‘To prove?’ Gemma turned around from the window to face Aidan. He was a caring sort of person. No match for Sister Agnes. He would be one of the people she would miss. ‘The programme has nothing to do with proof. It’s about facts, Aidan. Historical facts. It validates their accuracy. That’s all it does. It doesn’t prove anything.’ The way he looked at her, she knew she hadn’t got through to him. ‘You know Aidan, he wasn’t the monster I always imagined him to be. I couldn’t even hate him as much as I thought I would.’ She paused. ‘Do you know what struck me most? The smell of his aftershave. It was too much. Sitting there beside him, I found it overpowering. I wanted to say it to him but I had to keep reminding myself, this is the Minister. Funny, isn’t it? Can I go back to my class now?’
‘Yes, of course, of course you can, if you think you’re alright.’
‘I am, thanks Aidan. I’m alright.’
Aidan’s phone rang. His eyes automatically checked the display and he didn’t pick up. Before she closed the door behind her, Gemma heard it click to answer and the cackle of Sister Agnes’ voice.