Pádraig Ó Meiscill discovers his own personal lesser spotted Belfast at the start of the lockdown.
When the silence came, caused by a cough, only a few were expecting it. Many had predicted an uproar over borders. A cacophony of bile about the difference, or lack thereof, between Derry and Letterkenny, Newry and Dundalk, Strabane and Lifford.
Instead, in the void of old bitch Belfast, the Oldpark, Ligoniel, Ballysillan, the Crumlin and Limestone roads took a deep gulp and held their breath. The denizens of Tiger’s Bay, the York and Newtownards roads with their ersatz shop fronts that are now nothing but flimsy, soiled plastic banners – what was once George’s family butchers and is now a worn gaudy sheet – fidgeted with their curtains from behind the living room windows. Sydenham, the Short Strand, Ardoyne, the Shankill, the Cliftonville Road and Carlisle Circus, the Woodstock and Castlereagh roads cloaked themselves in a light fog of bemused quiet. Every teatime, families locked themselves down for the end of the world. Spring day after spring day.
Belfast in the spring must be like every other city of its misbegotten ilk, but every turn of the globe, it feels like a unique epiphany granted unto ourselves alone… dandelions sprouting from the dead ground… ducks waiting patiently at traffic lights by the Conn’s Water River… the smell of freshly cut grass by the bonfire sites… a crisp aroma of growing and burning all mixed into a beautiful miasma of living… These parallel cities of life eternal and the dead and the dying.
As a kid, I used to fantasise about ‘Ballygowan’. The name in itself and what it might hold upon arrival. I’m not sure how this happened. I might have confused it with my grandmother’s mention that her people came originally from Ballygomartin. Or maybe they actually did come from Ballygowan. Perhaps, there is a different reason entirely and my granny never mentioned anything of the sort. Then again, Kate was born in Ballymurphy. And maybe her people came from a bastardised mixture of all these Ballys, Bailes, Bailiwicks, Boroughs and Borstals. Anyway, while other children in my class fixated on wrestling or football, their teacher or nothing of the sort in the midst of our miseducation, I fantasised about Ballygowan. A complete bore, as you can tell. What I imagined were gently flowing streams of eminently drinkable water, rolling fields of corn, meadow and green, with not a farm animal in sight, and a village of quiet plenitude and contentment. A green in the middle where the sun always shone, allowing the old fellas to kick out their tired feet and modestly soak up the rays before retiring to the pub for a pint. I started dreaming about pints early.
When I made my way into the Castlereagh Hills during the month of silence, past where the interrogation centre no longer sits, and stumbled upon the road to Ballygowan, I wasn’t disappointed. Possibly, this is to do with the springtime Belfast effect of giving even a rubbish tip and a rancid smell all the power of life reborn, but I doubt it; rather, it was the sun playing with the corn and the dust on the road. At Roselawn cemetery, the gates were locked and only unlocked painfully, slowly to allow the hearses to enter while the bereaved stood outside with the dust. ‘Awaitin what?’ I thought. ‘The ashes or the word that the dearly departed was now safely in the ground?’ Regardless, they bore the wait with an immeasurable quiet dignity.
What happened wasn’t a complete silence mind you. Let me retreat. I’m always at this, being a coward and all. Never being able to follow a grand statement through to its painful conclusion. The absence of an artificial din allowed, for example, the cushioned sound of a woman’s reassuring wrinkled hand patting the arm of her man’s felt coat to make its way just about to you as they ambled arm-in-arm resting atop their tartan shopping trolley. The pause made the sound of the chain on a child’s bike buckling agonisingly clear and the oil-stained fingers of the parent patiently set at work to restore it a miracle. And if it weren’t for the new rules, it would even allow for the almost inaudible sounds of lovers biting one another’s lips to come back into our lives. Which, then again, would mask the sound of someone struggling courageously for a breath. ‘Don’t be comin over here coughin your corona all over me,’ and cue gorgeous laughter which filled the void outside the previously feared, now derelict, Bunch of Grapes.
Which is not to forgive your savage trespasses against me anymore than you forgive mine against you. But in the absence of a love letter, this might have to suffice. After all, the sound of the electric box crying in the evening, wailing for you to feed it with more pennies or the fridge-freezer will go off and spoil the potato waffles is what we have in common, for better or worse.
I mean, how many season ticket holders for Ulster rugby live in the tower-blocks on the Cregagh estate? How many poor, pained ones from Tiger’s Bay have been sent for a Universal Credit interrogation? How many families from Ballybeen picnic and barbecue on the Stormont estate? Meanwhile, at the corner of the Newtownards Road and Cyprus Avenue, there’s a cluster of wealth management agencies, a nice pub and a tattered but distinguished looking Chinese takeaway for when you’ve had a few and want to bring something nice home to placate the wife after fumbling with the pin number on the exclusive estate gate.
Then again, in every neighbourhood, both strange and familiar, that I traipsed through during the silence there were the rainbows tacked to the windows with none of the young artists feeling any need to include a pot of gold at the end and the unbroken red hearts painted on the housing estate walls. When it comes down to it, this is a memoir of a badly needed pause, a prelude which, granted, didn’t arrive in the most auspicious of circumstances, but what ever does? If we really want to lose the run of ourselves, let’s all drift off and dream of where the faint ripple of a long round of applause might take us.
Pádraig Ó Meiscill is a Belfast-based writer and a contributing editor of Irish Broad Left. He is currently finishing his first novel, Misadventure, based on the events of the Falls Curfew. Follow him on Twitter @OMeiscill.