First Night Back (Short Story)
"There’s a crowd of hards at the chip shop, all pastie suppers and Strongbow. Still there from ten years ago."
Booked in at the backpackers in Donegall Pass the first night back in Belfast. My first night back from America. My first night back since the re-unification. Since it all became just Ireland and Northern Ireland went into the history books. My voice sounds like I’m trying to do my own accent. Foreign money in my wallet. And the Irish Tricolour flying at the City Hall, fuck me it used to be illegal.
Swedish backpackers with their U2 T-shirts and canned Guinness.
-We love your country, it is so great now there is peace and you are reunited as one.
No one in their right fuckin mind used to come here.
The Aussies and the Kiwis, where’s the best place for Guinness, mate?
They look at me like I’m not authentic.
Shaking off the jet lag, an instant coffee and a fag in the kitchen.
A corner pub with Loyalist bunting and the Union Jack outside. Pictures of King Billy and Paisley on the wall. Linfield and Glasgow Rangers pennants. Smell of whiskey and beer and smoke. I’m from the other side myself. They can tell by looking at you here. No point in explaining to the Aussie who's come with me.
-Great place, says the Aussie. Last vestiges of the empire, eh?
Last vestiges. But it’s all history, we’re all friends now.
So why am I shiting myself?
He buys me a Smithwicks. The place is packed. Van Morrison on the jukebox. The taste of the beer brings it all back. Belfast, the music, the people, the craic. Pastie suppers and brown lemonade. Van the Man, Horslips, Rory Gallagher at the Ulster Hall. Long June evenings when it was light till eleven.
I remember now. Why I fuckin love this place.
-They’ve finally done it, I shout in his ear, never thought I’d see it. It used to make me so fuckin sad-
-I’m meeting a shiela here tonight. Reckon I’ll get a root, eh?
He digs me with his elbow.
-And what the fuck would you know?
The guy with the big pint at the bar. Minding his own business and everyone else’s too. Sorry, pal, standard practice. I forgot.
-Youse fuckers don’t live here.
He points with his pint hand, finger out, beer slopping over it.
-I’m not talking to you, ye fuckin sheep shagger, I’m talking to mister Yank here. Ye’re a smart cunt, aren’t ye? Ye’re the big man now. Aye, fuckin’ off to America and comin’ back when you feel like it. You weren’t here when we got sold up the fuckin’ river to the South. Sure what would you care, you’re probly a fuckin Taig anyway. Are you a Taig?
-Let’s go, I tell the Aussie. But he’s waiting for his woman. I turn away. Someone puts U2 on the jukebox. The drunk grabs my shoulder.
-I suppose these are your friends? U2? Fenian bastards.
He jumps up and smashes his glass off the bar.
-Fuckin’ Fenian bastards! Come on, let’s see what a big man you are now.
He lunges but he’s arseholed and the Aussie and I are out the door. We stop running when we reach the Backpackers. The sound of booted feet in the street, hammering at the door.
-We’ll burn yis out, yis cunts yis. Fuckin’ Taig cunts!
The manager calls the police.
- It’s open season out there now there’s no armed patrols. You should know better, you stupit shite.
Tried to get in touch with the old man at the club in Craigavon. They told me he’d fucked off out of town for a few weeks.
-Son, anything could happen.
Walking up past the Police station, Jesus that place used to scare the shite out of us. Cross over, they might have a go for old time’s sake.
Walking tall like an Irishman abroad, nobody fucks with me, I’m Irish. Here you avoid eye contact.
Walking up Botanic, through the Gardens, kicking up the leaves and sycamore wings. Making helicopters like I used to when the school took us to the museum. Denim jackets and brogues and a nip in the air. Flann and Eugene and big Paddy. The craic was good.
Down through the Holy Land, Damascus Street, Jerusalem Street. The Ormeau road. The doorstep where I kissed her for the first time and felt it in my boots.
It’s history, it’s all fuckin history. Water under the fuckin bridge.
There’s a crowd of hards at the chip shop, all pastie suppers and Strongbow. Still there from ten years ago.
-Who’s that cunt?
A bottle smashes.
Run like fuck.
I want to go home.