This Is Belfast
This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, sixteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’
The Troubles are over now. They told us so in the newspapers and on the television. Here, we’re very great with religion. We need to believe everything for ourselves. (We’re all about sticking the finger in and having a good hoke around.) We did not believe it in the newspapers or on the television. We did not believe it in our bones. After so many years of sitting one way, our spines had set. We will take centuries to unfold.
The Troubles have only just begun. This is hardly true either. It depends upon who you’re talking to, how they’re standing, and which particular day you’ve chosen for the chat. Those who are ignorant of our situation can look it up on Wikipedia and find there a three-thousand-word overview. Further articles can be read online and in academic journals. Alternatively, a kind of history may be acquired from talking to the locals. Piecing this together will be a painstaking process, similar to forging one jigsaw puzzle from two, or perhaps twenty.
The Troubles is too less a word for all of this. It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month. It is not a violent word. Surely we have earnt ourselves a violent word, something as blunt and brutal as ‘apartheid’. Instead, we have a word like ‘scissors’, which can only be said in the plural. The Troubles is/ was one monster thing. The Troubles is/are many individual evils caught up together. (Other similar words include ‘trousers’ and ‘pliers’.) The Troubles is always written with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year. History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing.
And so we draw no lines. We say this is not Belfast but rather a city similar to Belfast, with two sides and a muck-brown river soldering one to the other. Roads, other roads, train tracks, chimneys. All those things common to a functional city are present here in limited measure. Shopping centres. Schools. Parks, and the unspoken possibility of green acres glooming in the spring. Three hospitals. A zoo, from which animals occasionally escape. To the east of the city, a pair of yellow cranes stride across the horizon, like bow-legged gentlemen. To the west, a hill, hardly a mountain by Alpine standards, trips over itself as it tumbles into the bay. Strung along the coastline there are very many buildings. They are perched like coy bathers, dipping their toes in the greeny sea. There are boats: big boats, smaller boats and that sunken boat, which holds the whole city captive from the ocean floor. There are no future boats.
Instead, there are glass and gunmetal structures stapled across the skyline. These are like stairs ascending towards the tooth-white heights once occupied by God. These are office blocks and hotels for visiting strangers: Americans mostly, and people from other earnest places. We have scant respect for these people and the photographs they will take. They believe themselves brave for coming to this city or, at the very least, open-minded. We wish to say to them, ‘Are you mad? Why have you come here? Don’t you know there are other proper cities just one hour away by budget airline? There is even Dublin.’ We are not supposed to say this. We have already begun to lean on their money. We put the visitors in black beetle taxis and drive them round and round the ring road, up the tiny streets and down, until they, too, are dizzy, seeing this city from so many angles. We feed them fried eggs and bacon on almost-white plates and say, ‘There you go, a taste of local cuisine. That’ll set you up for the day.’ We dance for them and their foreign money. We are also prepared to cry if this is expected. We wonder what our grandparents would say to all this clamour, all this proving talk.
In this city we have a great love of the talking. The talking can be practised on buses and park benches, from pulpits and other high places. It is occasionally expressed in poems, more frequently on gable walls. It swells in the presence of an audience, though a second party is not strictly required. There is never enough silence to contain all our talking. We have talked ourselves sideways on subjects such as politics and religion, his- tory, rain and the godless way these elements are bound together, like some bastard version of the water cycle. We continue to believe that across the sea, Europe (and also the world) is holding its breath for the next chapter in our sad story. The world is not waiting for us. There are louder voices around the table now. African. Russian. Refugee. They say terrible things in words that require translation. We are wet paper in comparison.
This city continues to talk. It tells anyone inclined to listen that it is a European city, twinned with other European cities. Who is this city kidding? It has no piazza, no marble fountains, no art to speak of. It crouches on the edge of the Continent, like a car park for mainland Europe. The people, when they speak, have a homely sound off them, like boiled potatoes dripping butter. There is no sun to speak of and no one sits outside at café tables. Even when there is a sun it is only a kind of cloud for the rain to hide behind. This is not a city as Barcelona is a city, or Paris, or even Amsterdam. This is a city like a word that was once bad and needs redeeming, ‘queer’ being the first that comes to mind.
Which is not to say this place is without charm. Despite its best attempts to disappoint, people do not leave and those who do keep coming back. They say, ‘It’s the people,’ and ‘You’d go a long way before you found a better breed of person.’ They say, ‘It’s certainly not the weather we came for.’ There is truth in every version of this.
Sammy Agnew has known this city his entire life. The map of its little streets and rivers is stamped into him, like a second set of fingerprints. When he opens his mouth, it is this city’s sharp and stringy words that come nosing out. He cannot bear the sound of his own voice played back. Sammy can’t stand this place, can’t quite curse it either. He’d give anything to scrape himself clean of it. To flit and start again, some place warmer like Florida or Benidorm. Some place less like a goldfish bowl. He has tried. God only knows how hard he’s tried. But this place is like a magnet: coaxing, dragging, reeling him back in. No matter how far he goes, by plane or boat, or in his everyday thinking – which is the hardest place to achieve distance – he’ll still be a son of this city; a disloyal son but, none the less, linked. Sammy keeps himself to the edge of things now, toeing the line where the nicer neighbourhoods fold into the not so nice. He knows he isn’t above any of it. The stink of a backstreet beginning cannot be washed off with soap or careful distance.
He is this place, as his children are this place. This is not necessarily a good thing to carry, though, these days, there’s a sort of mumbling hope rising off the city, swelling mostly in the young. There are even individuals proud to raise their heads and say, ‘I’m from here and I will not apologize for it.’ Sammy thinks these folks are fools. He fears for his children, his son in particular. There’s a hardness in the boy, peculiar to this place. Hardness is not the worst way to hold yourself in a city so marked by disappointment. Yet Sammy knows that hardness left to simmer breeds rage, and rage is next to cruelty, and this is what he sees every time he looks at Mark: this city, fouling his boy up, just like it once ruined him.
Jonathan Murray was born here, too, just five minutes up the road from Sammy, though the distance between them is continental. It isn’t just money that keeps one man from mixing with the other. It’s education and reputation, and something harder to pin down; a whole different way of carrying yourself through life. Jonathan couldn’t say he knows this city like Sammy knows it, for knowing implies familiarity and he’s been holding himself at a distance for as long as he can remember. It isn’t home to him. It doesn’t even feel close. He drives its pressing streets daily and doesn’t take time to look. He couldn’t say with any confidence that this is not the place it was ten years ago, or point to any marked difference from the shooting days of the seventies and eighties. It could be any such city to him: mid-sized, industrial, sea-skimmed. Cardiff. Liverpool. Glasgow. Hull. One damp metropolis looks much the same as the next. Jonathan has no real sense of where he is or where he belongs; what it means to have a home.
This is Belfast. This is not Belfast. This is the city that won’t let either man go.
It is summer in the city now. Not yet high summer, but hot enough to leave the local lads bare-chested, their backs, bellies and shoulders already pinking to the colour of cooked-ham slices. It is a World Cup summer. The people here are particularly fond of football because it is a game of two sides and involves kicking. The sound of televised crowds can be heard grumbling through the open windows of every other house in the East. Drink has been taken. More drink will be taken. In the morning the smell of it will be like a damp cloth in a closed room. Overhead a helicopter hovers. It is a sort of insect, humming. Its blades turn the hot air this way and that. It is barely moving.
The women, who are mostly indifferent to sport, have dragged dining-room chairs into the street. They sit in front of their houses, like fat Buddhas, watching the traffic idle. Sometimes they call to each other across the road. ‘Good to see the weather back,’ or ‘I hear it’s to turn at the weekend.’ Sometimes they duck into their little kitchens, returning with fizzy drinks in glasses and tins. Before drinking they press the coldness against their foreheads for a minute and sigh. Afterwards the flesh is pink, as if it has been burnt. The deep V of their breasts is also pink and turning red. By ten o’clock it will smart like nettle stings but they do not, for a minute, consider sun cream. Sun cream is only for holidays abroad. The local sun is weaker. It is less inclined to provoke cancer than the continental sun. Every woman on the street is determined to be brown by September. They wear their skirts hoicked up above the knee, revealing splayed thighs and varicose veins, winter fur and occasionally the fine-laced ghost of a petticoat hem. They are their mothers and their grandmothers before them. They have been guarding these streets in similar fashion since the shipyards demanded houses, a hundred terraced streets rose in response, and this became known as the glorious East.
The children who belong to these women are watching the football or kicking their own footballs between cars. They are wavering up and down the street on hand-me-down bikes, their arms raised high above the handlebars, as if caught in the act of charismatic worship. It is two full months till school. All of July. All of August. When they think about the end of the holidays it is like thinking about the distance between solar systems. This is eternity, and the children are giddy on the wideness of it.