Crossing the Border

Liam Farrell

Featured Image: Cows © Francesco Fiondella 2017

“Doc, we need you right now,” said the caller, in a hoarse voice I didn’t recognize at the time. “We’ve had an accident on O’Callaghan’s farm. Someone’s been hurt, and it’s pretty bad.”

“Right,” I said, “I’ll be over straight away. I’ll call an ambulance to meet me there.”

“No ambulance, Doc, just you,” said the voice. And the line went dead.

I knew this had to be more than just a farm accident. The Army were on the road in numbers, and on the way I was stopped at a checkpoint. They knew me; I’d attended the base the previous week after a mortar attack. Mortar attacks were a favorite local pastime when there was nothing good on TV.

“You’re in an awful hurry, Doc. Where would you be off to?” asked the corporal.

“Sorry, can’t tell you,” I said. “Patient confidentiality, you understand. If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”

The soldiers were even more on edge than usual, so something big had obviously happened. In the rear-view mirror, though, they didn’t seem to be suspicious, just carrying on normally, shouting urgently into their radios and sending out carrier pigeons.

The farm was down a number of small boreens, winding in and out through the little hills of border country, tufts of grass growing in the middle of the road, a sight that seemed it should precede the twanging of banjos. When I arrived, everything was quiet, apart from the frenzied snarls of a chained guard-dog. But I knew I was being watched.

An old hawthorn tree grew in the centre of the yard. Although it made turning awkward, it hadn’t been chopped down. The hawthorn had a reputation as a faery tree. Border folk were not superstitious, but they respected the old traditions, so I resisted the temptation to drive over it.

There was no sign of any of the O’Callaghan family, and my knock was not answered, so I went in uninvited. In the front room I found James O’Connor lying on a couch, blood pooling on the floor beside him.

I’d known James for some time. He had always seemed a studious, earnest young man. He’d been in Long Kesh for a year, which in retrospect had been no surprise. I had learned that the quieter and more discreet somebody was, the more likely to be involved. Volunteers rarely gave themselves away by talking too much or drawing attention to themselves. I’d heard that while in Long Kesh, James was taking an university degree in English Literature, which also hadn’t surprised me; Republicans were well known for using their time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure to further their education.

“Doc, I thought you’d never come,” he said. “I think my leg’s broken.”

He was as pale as a winter’s morning. Under a grimy woolen jumper his jeans were shredded and covered in dark red stains. I could see blood still seeping from his left thigh, though maybe not heavily enough to account for his pallor.

“Jesus, James, what happened to you?” I said.

“Gunshot wound, Doc,” he said, “among other things.”

I cut back his trouser leg; there was a deep wound on his left thigh and worse than that, it was bent and crooked, obviously a fractured femur. His blood pressure was low, his pulse fast.

“James, we have to get you to hospital immediately,” I said, “You’re losing a lot of blood.”

He grabbed my hand. “Not here, Doc, you’ve got to get me across the border, I’m not going back inside, not for anything.”

“James, you mightn’t make it. The wound isn’t as bad as it looks, but your leg’s badly broken, and you’re bleeding inside.”

“Yeah,” he said, “funny, isn’t it? While I was running away after being shot, I fell off a wall; that’s how I broke my leg. Luckily my fall was cushioned by some broken bottles.”

I started dressing his wound, though the wound wasn’t the real problem. The thigh-bone was fractured and the skin above it was becoming tense and swollen, indicating that an artery had ruptured and was causing a substantial hemorrhage, unseen but lethal. He urgently needed the fracture stabilized, the artery repaired and the lost blood replaced.

I heard a noise at the front door.

James gripped my hand. “Don’t let them get me,” he whispered.

Part of me hoped that it was an army patrol, and my problem would be solved. James would be re-arrested and I could ensure he received immediate medical treatment.

“I’ll tell ’em you’ve gone to the pictures,” I reassured him. “You stay right here; and don’t move.”

He laughed weakly, “You’re a real kidder, Doc.”

Anton O’Carolan was standing at the door, middle-aged and stocky, a carpenter with a reputation for few words and hard work. And, I realized, a voice I recognized from the telephone.

“I hear you have a casualty, Doc,” he said calmly.

“So you’re connected as well, Anton,” I said. “Another quiet man.”

“Those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak. Lao Tze,” he said, deadpan.

We returned to the front room. “What’s to be done? Can we move him?” he asked.

“I could tell you,” I said, “but then I’d have to kill you; patient confidentiality, you understand.”

Anton nodded at James and received a thin smile in return.

“Tell him, Doc,” said James.

“James needs hospital treatment. If he doesn’t get it soon, he’ll probably die. He’ll be no use to the cause after that.”

“What do you think, James?” asked Anton, “It’s your call.”

“I’m not going back in,” he replied. “No way, not ever.”

“There you are, Doc.” Anton looked at me. “It’s up to you. You’ll just have to do your best.”

“My best mightn’t be enough, Anton,” I said. I was trying to make some sort of coherent plan. “If he won’t go to hospital here, we need to get him across the border and call an ambulance from there, and we need to do it quick. Bring the van up to the door, make some room in the back, and I’ll give him something for the pain and splint the fracture. And we’ll need help to move him.”

“No,” said Anton. “Nobody else needs be involved. No sense in more than the three of us getting caught.”

“Two of you,” I corrected him.

“Ah yes, of course, just two,” he said. “I’d forgotten you weren’t part of the armed struggle.”

“I have my own struggles, Anton.”

The van pulled off as gently as possible so as not to rock the patient. Due to the combined effects of the pain-killers, blood loss and exhaustion, James drifted off to an uneasy sleep.

“He broke out last night,” Anton said. “It’s been kept out of the news, but they’ve been hunting him hard ever since. Hot on his trail since Whitecross, nearly got him up near Tullyvallen. That’s where he was hurt.”

“It might have been better for him if he’d been caught,” I said.

“I know you don’t approve of the armed struggle, Doc, but you haven’t lived here long enough. You haven’t had to put up with the discrimination, the persecution, being made to feel you were second-class. You’re a doctor, they don’t harass you in the street and beat up your family and raid your house every few weeks.”

He was partly right. As doctors we were only bystanders at many of the tragedies and injustices, but I was too irritable to be apologetic.

“Look, Anton, I’ve been here long enough to see too many young lives ruined by the troubles, and by you and your armed struggle. You’d sit with scarlet majors at the base and speed glum heroes down the line to death. The rights and wrongs are beyond me, but we have another young life being ruined in the back of this van right now, and this one we could save. You’re not bald or short of breath, but apart from that nothing changes.”

“Wilfred Owen,” Anton nodded. “Very good, Doc. you should have been in the Kesh.”

“Siegfried Sassoon, actually,” I said.

We pulled out of the boreen onto the main road and headed toward the border, barely a mile away. We had only turned the second corner when an oncoming car flashed its headlights at us, the local signal that an army checkpoint was ahead.

Anton pulled up immediately. “We can’t risk the car any more or they’ll have us,” he said. “We go on foot from here.”

“Things keep getting better and better, don’t they?” I said.

“You heard what he wanted, Doc,” he said.

“I heard a young deluded boy,” I said. “It’s rough country from here to the border. We can’t carry him all the way. We’ll have to wake him up, and it won’t be pleasant.”

“Do whatever it takes,” said Anton, “but make it quick. We’ll have to go in a wide circle to avoid the checkpoint. They always have scouts.”

Anton opened the nearest gate and pulled the car into the field, tight in against the hedgerow for concealment.

“Real high-tech warfare, ain’t it?” I said. “At least it’s a nice day.”

I shook James gently and he stirred and opened his eyes.

“Are we there yet, Doc?” he asked, like a child on a long car journey.

“Soon, James, very soon,” I said, “but first we have to take a bit of a walk.”

He looked up briefly at hill in front of us, then closed his eyes. “No problem, Doc,” he said. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

“Not Nietzsche, please,” I said. “Didn’t they teach you anything inside? It’ll be Kipling next.”

“Nothing wrong with Kipling,” said Anton, throwing a branch over the car. “On the surface an imperialist sympathizer, but he understood the common man.”

“This is such an interesting discussion,” I said. “If we were in revolutionary France we could have opened a salon.”

I took one of James’s arms, Anton the other, and we started across the field. The first half-mile was easy, a gently sloping pasture under the shelter of the hedge of ash trees and wild rose. Then it began to get steeper, and the ground rougher, covered with wiry heather and scrub. We passed an army look-out post, one of the many that festooned the hills of South Armagh, but neither of us gave it even a glance. These posts were decorative only, rarely manned.

With every labored step towards our own squalid Calvary, James would wince. I was becoming exhausted myself. We finally approached the brow of the hill.

“Wait here,” said Anton, and he crawled forward, peering over the other side. “It seems clear. Let’s go. We should be safe enough now. The border’s only a few hundred yards away.”

As he finished a helicopter swept directly overhead, the rotors deafening, the mountain grasses whipping into a storm.

“Come on, we’ll make it if we hurry,” urged Anton, but I could see that the down-slope was steeper, with deep beds of bracken to make the descent even more uncertain.

“We can’t hurry,” I said, “if he ever wants to walk again. We have to take our time.”

Anton studied me for a long moment. “Right Doc,” he said eventually. “You’re the boss. Steady as she goes.”

We started down the hill, and by luck chanced on a beaten sheep-path through the bracken, slippery and only a few feet wide. Still, we could see where we were going. Not far ahead the bracken became more sparse and then merged into a more level field, and at the far end of that field I could see a gate.

“That gate’s right on the border,” said Anton. “There’ll be someone to meet us.”

“Nearly there, James,” I said, “just a few more yards.” A shot sounded and I felt something whistle overhead.

“Get down,” shouted Anton.

“I can’t get fuckin’ down,” I said, crouching as low as I could. “I’m holding James, if you hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, Doc, sorry,” he said, “just acting on instinct. Anyway it was only a warning shot. They’re quite accurate, you know. Let’s get down just in case. And Doc, please mind your language in front of the young lad.”

We laid James down as gently as we could and knelt beside him. A loudspeaker hailed us.

“Stop where you are, we can see all three of you,” it said. “Stand up and come forward with your hands in the air where we can see them, or we will shoot. This will be your only warning.”

I was almost relieved at this. In the thrill of the chase I’d lost sight of what was important and what wasn’t. Escaping or not escaping was not relevant to me. I just didn’t want my patient to die, and the sooner we were captured the sooner he’d get proper medical attention. I stood up with my hands in the air, and waved as I’d seen them do on TV.

“Live long and prosper, Spock,” I shouted, making the appropriate hand-sign.

I turned to James. “We’ve nearly made it,” I said, but he wasn’t listening. He was dragging himself hand over hand down the hill. “Stop it, you young fool,” I said. “You’ll never make it and you’ll cripple yourself in the process.”

“I told you, Doc, didn’t I?” he hissed, inching forward. “May as well bury me right here. I’m not going back inside, whatever the cost.”

I felt Anton’s hand on my shoulder. “The lad won’t be taken, so you’ll have to bring him, Doc,” he said quietly. “I’ll hold them off.”

“This is madness,” I shouted at him. “You’re both gonna get yourself killed, and me as well. Not that it matters. I was having a bad day anyway.”

“That’s the chance we all have to take, Doc. And anyway, you’re as good as one of us now.” He smiled at me, pulled out a stubby revolver and cocked it. “Now you get going. And Doc?”

“Yes?” I said.

“Don’t forget,” he said, “Serpentine!”

“What’s that?”

“I could tell you,” he said, “but then—”

“Yeah, yeah, then you’d have to kill me,” I said, “Bullets really bring out your funny side, don’t they?”

He bent down beneath the cover of the bracken and began crawling back the way we had come. Beyond him I could see small khaki figures scrambling over the crest of the hill and the helicopter approaching again.

“Don’t worry, Doc,” whispered James, “the ‘copter won’t come too close. We’re too near the border. It might get hit by a ground-to-air missile.”

“Well, that certainly makes me feel much safer,” I said. “Let’s go, now. It’s just you and me, and of course the whole bloody British Army.”

We made slow stumbling progress along the path. After only a few yards I heard shouts from behind and a volley of shots. Would they shoot at us, I wondered, wishing that I had a little Red Cross flag I could hold up and wave in the air. We broke through the bracken, where the going was much easier, but now there was no cover. A herd of Jersey cows huddled in a far corner of the field, looking on in fascination. I saw with a fatal satisfaction that they had left many large and pungent reminders of their presence, triumphant digestive mounds, and I made a mental note that when escaping across country with a wounded fugitive in future I would choose a field without cows. Sheep would be okay. A bullet tore up the ground in front of us and I flinched.

“Relax Doc, it’s probably just a stray round,” said James. “If they were aiming for us we’d be dead by now. They’re quite accurate when they want to be.”

“Accurate, I’ve heard that somewhere,” I said.

We reached the gate; two cars pulled up at once and two burly men hurried forward. “We got the message,” they said. “Are you the doctor?”

By this time, interrogations by secret organizations had ceased to terrify me. “No,” I said. “The name’s Bond; James Bond. We need to get this kid to the hospital right now. Both of you, take him by the shoulders. Gently, gently.”

The nearest car was a large jeep and there was plenty of room in the back. Whatever burst of energy and lucidity James had displayed on the hill was now well spent, and he slumped down in the seat, head lolling, eyes vacant, drool glistening at the side of his mouth.

“Straight to hospital, get someone to phone ahead and tell them, fractured femur, significant blood loss—” I began, then looked back. I saw a small figure retreating back across the field. Gunfire still ratted in the air. As I watched he staggered, fell, struggled to get up, fell again, then finally lay still. It would have looked like part of a Charlie Chaplin comedy routine, without the gouts of blood. Red wouldn’t have shown up properly in the old black and white movies. Another martyr for old Ireland, I thought.

“Go ahead without me,” I told them, “We’re going to need another bloody song.” I ran back through the gate and across the field.

Anton was face-up, a deep gash across his temple. Another shot rang out, and I looked down in puzzlement, feeling a pain in my chest. A red blotch appeared on my shirt. I felt weak and sagged to my knees.

“Anton.” I tried to speak. Blood bubbled from my lips, and I slumped to the ground.

“Looks like we’re both martyrs,” whispered Anton as darkness fell.

Dr. Liam Farrell is a former family doctor and an award-winning writer and broadcaster. He curates the #IrishMed and #WritersWise tweetchats and is a big-shot in the small yet dull world of medical satire. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter, or contact him via email He has two books in preparation:  Are You the F***ing Doctor? Selected Writings and Morphine: Blessing and Curse, Master and Slave.  Liam has also adapted “Crossing the Border” into a screenplay. Visit him at




Francesco Fiondella

is a science writer and photographer based in Nyack. Sometimes he can be spotted in the wild shooting protests, demonstrations and other eruptions of social consciousness. You can find him at play on twitter and instagram by searching @fiondella.