I’m in Belfast for Christmas. Friends have bought a house in a part of town they don’t want to name because, depending on what you call the neighbourhood, you’ll make somebody nervous. She says she lives behind the cinema at the bottom of the hill. Everyone knows what she means and everyone stays relaxed.
I have never felt a town that loves relaxing or the idea of it more than Belfast. It’s been a long time coming. They lived tensed up for quite a while. I think they’ve earned it.
Witness a conversation with a dog-owner at a bus stop. He wore a knitted hat. The young boxer worried my glove while I explained my accent (Canadian by way of London) and heard about a sister who loved living in Toronto.
‘I love it here,’ I offered, trying not to sound as though I was in an Affirm Your Neighbour’s Country competition. ‘I think Belfast is wonderful.’
He looked at his feet and the unexpected snow – three inches in the past week – and I watched the top of his knit-hatted, white haired head. The dog stopped wagging. No one moved. I began to feel nervous, in this once nervous-making part of town. Was he offended? Was I not supposed to like it? I glanced casually over my shoulder for the bus.
He finally looked up. His eyes were very blue.
‘It’s a great place to visit. It’s a miserable place to live.’
My friend, also Canadian, explained later that night.
‘They feel embarrassed. Because of The Troubles,’ she said. ‘You’re a visitor. When you think of Belfast, you think of violence.’ She shrugged. ‘They’re sorry.’
Which, of course, you’d understand. Like coming from the family with the badly behaved boy. The one who throws Molotov cocktails at the school windows even though you know he’s a soprano who loves pigeons and the girl next door. No one cares. They’ll point to the windows and move their kids out of the school.
I didn’t think of this in the moment, wondering if he hated his job or had a terrible commute, but my bus arrived and I was spared asking a ridiculous question that could have roused memories of dead relations or vendettas and had who knows what effect on the dog.
The bus moved out of the nervous-making district (which side is nervous? How do you tell which side is which? I’ve heard someone say you can tell the Catholics, they’re smaller – they’ve always had less to eat) across a bridge as the hills behind the city appeared between the buildings, giving the town an old-fashioned, almost fairy-tale feel, as though you’d walk towards them with your belongings on a stick.
We pulled up beside my favourite view and I leapt out to get a look at City Hall - lit up for the season and surrounded by steaming market stalls promoting food from Around the World. Huge crowds stampeded the French hot chocolate stall and queued for nougat from ebullient Italians. I’d visited with my friend on the weekend as she bought lunch from the (well-ordered) German pavilion.
‘There’s still a sense of not quite believing it,’ she said, negotiating a sausage the size of a Dachshund. ‘You couldn’t have done this, even a few years ago. All these people, public building.’ She shook her head.
I looked at the shoppers and diners, clutching their chapatis and beef jerky, kids in Santa hats, their fathers carrying trees. I felt moved. Things can get better.
I joined the milling hoards and turned south, pleased with my orienting between the city centre and the university quarter (no reason for my smugness – it’s a straight line) where I was going to fetch a boot I’d dropped off for repair. I wasn’t merely looking forward to being able to wear something besides the one pair of shoes I’d brought on holiday, I was going to see the Cute Cobbler again and maybe get a bit of local admiration.
I don’t think I’d been fooling myself when I’d gone in the first time. He looked me up and down and spent longer talking about how little he liked computers and how much he liked movies than our exchange as patron and customer warranted. He wasn’t tall (Catholic?), probably 35 with the bright blue eyes I was beginning to recognise.
My entrance into the shop today was announced by a quaint-sounding PING. He appeared from behind his counter, holding a shoe. He recognised me, found the boot and handed it over before I produced my ticket. We made a lot of unnecessary eye contact as he demonstrated his handiwork. I took the boot and ran the zipper up and down myself.
‘I just need them to fit over my jeans,’ I said – also unnecessarily, but obviously wanting to give him the image of me in this irrefutably sexy footwear, worn in an obviously trendy fashion.
He – I have to say it – twinkled at me. Rather intensely. He took the boot and re-zipped what I’d undone, smiled a little and said
I paused and leaned forward slightly.
‘I’m sorry?’ I said.
‘S’wella foam,’ he said, indicating the boot. Nodding and still looking intensely.
I waited. Perhaps he would say something else that would make these syllables intelligible. He brandished the boot again, smiling. Expectant.
It wasn’t going to happen.
And I thought – fuck. I’m being flirted with, I KNOW I’m being flirted with, I can TELL I’m being flirted with and I have no idea what to say because I have no idea what’s been said. I made another valiant attempt.
‘Say again?’ I said, leaning so far forward my face was parallel with the cash register, giving the impression I had developed a frenzied zeal to understand the workings of a shoe shop and was about to jump the counter to find out How Things Were Done Around Here! or I wanted to jimmy the till.
He remained calm. He was from Northern Ireland. He’d seen worse. He pointed to the boot and spoke again in the secret code that he assumed I would understand as English.
‘S’wella foam,’ he said, smiling and nodding. Putting my boot in a bag.
Tears rose in my throat. I was getting what I wanted – my GOD, he admired me, the brilliance of his glance catapulted off the twinkleometer – but I had no way of enjoying it. I swallowed and became very still. I spread my hands out slightly before me, evoking Jesus at the Last Supper. I lowered my voice and spoke slowly.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I don’t have the pleasure of understanding you.’
He pulled the boot back out.
‘S’wella. S’wella. It’s cold. It’s good for boots.’
Clanking and hissing indicated a new-forming synapse in my brain. A circuit connected. I screamed.
‘It’s the weather! It’s the weather! It’s the weather for them, for my boots.’
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘Here’s a wee bag for ye.’
Both boots went in. I was panting, replete and triumphant. It wasn’t the kind of intercourse you’d usually write home about, but we’d come from total incomprehension to full communion. I had to add up my change twice before saying ‘This I usually understand’ inspiring him to remark ‘I’ll bet you do. And much more besides - ’ and there I had it. My local moment.
Of course I left my gloves and had to lean my bike, turn around and run in to get them which gave him the opportunity to twinkle further and say if he’d seen them, he’d have called me back.
In a gigantic retail outlet this afternoon I stopped to listen to a troupe of school children sing ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ with bits of holly stuck on their shirts. They were directed by a conductor who half-way through forgot the words, guffawed, turned to the audience and murmured ‘Och, I’m brilliant’ and I laughed with the shoppers. But an arrow had already hit my heart, seeing people four-foot high, open and unafraid, not far from the nervous part of town, singing songs of peace.