At Portadown the soldiers, he knew straight away, were going to check him out. Slowly they walked down the aisle towards him. No-one pointed at him or gestured towards him, but he knew he would be the one. Rifles pointed down, trigger finger at the ready, he noted, they continued their measured advance.
“Name!” The voice was not too loud but there was no mistaking the underlying firmness.
He gave his name, reaching into the top pocket of his jacket for photographic I.D. He handed it over, wondering if his warmest winter jacket might somehow be wrong in the eyes of the soldiers. The I.D. was held, examined, passed behind.
“Where are you going?”
In response he rooted in another pocket and pulled out a letter she had written in the autumn. There was a return address on the envelope. He showed him that. The soldier turned it over, read his own name and address. Bored now he passed it behind him and made to move on.
“Check that matches the I.D.,” the soldier said.
The second soldier looked at the I.D., looked at the envelope, turned it over, looked at the sender’s address, and finally looked at him. He just grunted, handed back the letter and the I.D., moved on. The rest of them stared hard at him as they passed by.
He was annoyed while being at the same time, somehow relieved. All he wanted was to see her, to take a break. He could have a few good nights while the money lasted. She had said, “you can see me anytime, don’t worry. We’ll find a place for you to stay.”
Now here he was, on the train going north, taking her at her word. He had written but heard nothing in reply. There was, he thought, a good chance she hadn’t received it yet. A few days previous there had been no thoughts of doing anything like this. A seldom seen uncle passing through on his way to the ferry had been met at the docks. They’d had a good chat, he’d enjoyed himself and as he made to go his uncle said, “here, take this I’d say you could find a good use for it.” With a smile and a wave from his aunt they were gone and he was left holding in his hand enough for a return ticket toBelfastand the chance not to be deeply broke, for a few days at least.
The train moved swiftly along. Soon he would be at the station, changing to a bus. What seemed to his eyes to be densely packed housing rolled by, interlaced by roads heavy with traffic. He relaxed further into his seat. Where roads crossed over the railway line the carriage momentarily darkened and he caught glimpses of his reflection. He felt that he looked good. He smiled and drifted into thoughts of meeting her, of what might be. They had never gone as far as he wanted. She loved him she said, as a friend, a very close and special friend. She didn’t want to spoil that. Who knows, he thought, who knows how it might go?
“Ah son, you shouldn’t be here at all!” The woman’s voice sounded tired, the northern tones resigned.
“You shouldn’t be here at all”. She repeated herself, looking around as if to locate where he should be and how to get there.
He too had looked around immediately he stepped off the bus. He was in a wide open space by the side of the main road. Behind him, rising up the hill, were rows and rows of almost identical looking housing. There wasn’t a tree or a bush or a park bench anywhere in the green area. Everything from the housing down to the main road was open and exposed. There were just acres of close mown grass, edged by the first of the streets and fringed by the skeletons of a burnt out bus and the rusted hulks of a few cars.
Just like the lady, he had known straight away he shouldn’t be there at all. He had cursed himself immediately for his wrong choice of bus stop. Springhill, Springmartin,Springfield, Springburn? He had made the wrong choice, clear straight away when every brush stroke of graffiti told him so. The Pope was well and truly fucked if he ever got here and so was he if he didn’t get out of there.
Walking along the path, staying close to the main road, avoiding a group of men around black taxis a few hundred yards away, he had decided to ask the first old lady he met. If he walked towards the next bus stop, a good distance away, he would get further away from the taxis, figure out something.
The woman at the next bus stop looked at him again and with pity in her voice said, “for your life son, don’t ask that question and you around here again.”
He mumbled thanks, more conscious of his accent than he had ever been in his life before.
“Go you up to yon crossing over the road up there.” She pursed her lips, thought a bit and continued, “I’m not right sure of the street you’re looking for, but,” she hesitated, “I’m fair sure someone over there will be able to help you.”
He thanked her, relieved that his instincts had been right, that a middle aged woman on her own might look kindly upon a wayfaring stranger, hoping someone else might do the same for one of hers someday. As he headed towards the crossing she called quietly after him, “mind how you go and be careful who you open your mouth to around here.”
“You shouldn’t be here at all.” The doorway was a neat frame for the man, large and bulky, eyeing the young stranger closely. He grinned suddenly, “ach no son, she’s down by the College now, living in a house wi’ some of her friends. Annie!” he shouted over his shoulder, “call out her new address there, will you?”
He wrote down the address the man gave him on the envelope. He asked for detailed instructions for the bus changes he needed to get there. A girl, younger than him and mad with curiosity about the young man who had come so far to see her sister, told him what he needed to know.
“Come on,” she added, “I’ll walk you to the bus stop.”
She tried to pump him for gossip. Where did they meet? What brought him up here? Was she in trouble? He had younger sisters himself and was easily able to divert her. As he jumped on the correct bus she yelled after him as a parting shot, “tell her I’ve got her room now, she needn’t mind coming back!”
This time, no bother, he followed the directions he was given and ended up at the right address, an older, quieter district. Mature trees could be seen at the end of the street. A giant yellow crane was bright and cheerful against a sky turning to blue beyond the park.
There was no-one in. He went to the pub on the corner. After a pint and a ham sandwich with mustard relish he began to feel better. The pint tasted strange, sharper where he was used to a smoother, creamier drink. It was a relief that his accent was not a problem. If anything it broke the ice. Afternoon drinkers, long bored with each other’s company, were delighted to have a youngster, not from thereabouts, to exchange banter with.
Then she was there. Suddenly, unexpectedly there and he thought, exactly as before that she was beautiful. He laughed easily and she smiled and her smile, on her lips and in her eyes, was as bright as the sunlight now streaming through the nicotine stained windows.
“I only looked in to see if Marie was there, you’ll meet her. I don’t always do that but I felt like I should look in today.” She linked her arm through his and glanced at him repeatedly as she spoke.
At the door she stopped and looked at him closely and said again, “I can’t believe it! You just came up and managed to find me here.” She sounded glad; she threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. For a time he lost himself in her embrace and was conscious of nothing but the softness of her long red hair against his cheek. He breathed deeply, inhaling her scents, shampoo, perfume. They clung to each other comfortably until she said, “there now, come on and we get you inside.”
After a flurry of introductions in the kitchen, none of which he caught properly, they were alone again in a bedroom upstairs.
“You can leave your bag there,” she pointed to a bare space on the floor. The room was cramped; two beds jammed together with little space between them dominated the room. Leaning against the fragile seeming wardrobe he pulled aside the net curtain for a clearer view. An untidy garden backed onto it’s twin. The green between the houses softened the monotony of red brick. It reminded him of where he had left to be here.
He wondered where exactly he would end up sleeping. As if prompted by a subtle telepathy she faintly blushed, a pale pink flush faintly colouring her pale skin. Almost shyly she said, “come on, I’ll show you where you can freshen up. Lord! I still can’t believe you made it here, and you found me.”
He trailed along the corridor behind her as she led the way to a bathroom which looked as though it hadn’t been maintained in about forty years. Alone and catching sight of his reflection again he felt suddenly nervous, unsure. What if this didn’t work out? Didn’t go the way he hoped, planned? Throwing the towel on the basket he shrugged at himself in the mirror and stepped back outside. She was there again.
“Ready?” Her smile was enough for him. “We’ll go into town, just the pair of us. We can get something to eat and then,” she almost leaned on the word, “then we’ll go somewhere for a few drinks, you’ll meet loads of people.”
Feeling that he had done that already he felt in lighter mood all the same. He took her arm in his, smiled at her and said in that event it was time they left.
“See? I told you, life goes on.” Her hand across the table lay on his. His distress was clear to her. With sympathetic eyes she continued, “don’t think about it. I know it’s strange, but there you are. What else do you do?”
What else could he do? He enjoyed the meal they shared, the easy way they felt together. Over the candlelight her eyes sparkled in the beautiful restaurant built out of the ruins of the bombing. Again he loved the light reflected in the shining curves of her hair. She caught the look in his eyes and said, “you needn’t be looking like that,” she said, grinning in a mischievous way.
When they left they linked arms and huddled closer, an evening chill encouraging intimacy.
He loved the old pub she brought him to. They had started in an empty snug, still close. He thought the colours of her crocheted poncho were like echoes of the stained glass windows. An old lady, thin and worn looking but bright and chirpy in herself, joined them.
“Ah, you don’t mind me joining you, do you dearie? It doesn’t do for a lady to be seen in a pub on her own.”
“Not at all, come on in,” she said. He smiled agreement.
“Ah you’re very kind. It’s a shame to be interrupting young love.”
They laughed together and reassured her once more. He was quietly pleased.
The old lady spoke to him, “would you mind going to the bar for me, young man? I’ll give you the money.” She reached into her bag, fumbling for a purse. “It doesn’t do for a lady to order drink at the bar, here you are.”
He negotiated his way to the counter, the space outside the snug rapidly filling up with customers, a mixture of people of all ages and styles. He was fascinated by the hissing of the gaslights, he had never seen working gaslights before. The gaslight, old tiled walls, tobacco coloured ceiling, fashioned a mellowness entirely in harmony with his own feelings. He noted the signs on the walls stating that team colours were not allowed in the bar.
His accent and the rising levels of laughter, and easy flowing conversation made for some difficulties with the barman. Unfamiliar with the drinks and the coins he fumbled at first but then she was there again at his side to help him. She joked easily with the barman as they collected their drinks and change.
Gradually they were joined by more of her friends. They were easygoing, no-one concerned by a stranger popping up suddenly in their midst. They told jokes, interrupted each other, shared cigarettes. They talked about music they liked, books they’d read, films they’d seen. No-one spoke about religion, politics or sport. When the talk came round to a new art exhibition she became animated. She was passionate in her opinions, strongly defending her point of view. He remembered once playing for her a song about her being an artist, having everything she needed, being able to paint the daytime black.
As they left heavily armoured police vehicles were gathered around the entrance to the hotel across the street. Their blue lights bounced off the old tiles adorning the pubs facade. Traffic was being diverted away from the area.
“Come on,” she hurried him along, both immediately anxious to be elsewhere, not wanting the day to end there.
In the quiet of the night she could feel his silent tears. Reaching across the narrow space from her bed she felt for, found and held his hand. “It’s ok,” she whispered.
With his free hand he squeezed his eyes to dry them. He told her he knew that. He was even able to lightly, softly, laugh. It was healing laughter, free from self pity or vindictive sarcasm.
When she had insisted on undressing in the dark he had known it would be like this. He had known it when he felt a long cotton nightdress brush against him as she turned down a quilt on the smaller bed. He told her he wasn’t crying because of that. She was right. It was ok. But why, he wondered, was it that women he felt so close to wanted him so much, as a friend?
“I can sit with you quietly for ten minutes and it feels like I’ve told you everything and most of all, that you’ve heard me. That’s why.”
She got out of her bed and came over to him. They held each other tightly, quietly, in the dark. She kissed him once and said, “you are a really good friend.” She emphasised the word are, “I don’t want to lose that.”
She went back to bed, “we have a long day tomorrow, and we’d better sleep now.”
Holding hands across the space between them they fell asleep. They slept easily, both of them. Dreams kept them company and in the morning when he woke, when he opened his eyes, he was looking at her looking at him.
Blue skies, a light wind, it was a morning full of promise. Taking the sunny side of the road they strolled along together. He was content that the day should unfold whatever way it would. After the art gallery they bought ice-cream cones and sat on a bench outside the Victorian glasshouses, basking in sheltered warmth.
“We’ll go outside town now, if that’s all right with you?” Her eyes on his were open and honest, trusting. That was fine by him he told her. He felt peaceful and calm; he smiled and told her this too.
“Then maybe a long walk in the country is just the thing.” She patted his arm, looked at him and said, “do us both the world of good.”
They went to the open air folk museum where they walked and talked for miles. Weaving their way from one re-located traditional home to another they drew their own stories around them.
In silence when they absorbed one new place after another they walked from the Antrim weaver’s cottage to the shepherd’s house from the Mournes.
At the little café he thanked her, holding one hand in both of his.
“You’re a good friend,” she hesitated, smiled and continued, “and at least you believe I’m an artist.”
In the morning she brought him to the station. The unfinished drawings he had admired the night before were in the heavy portfolio satchel that dragged from her shoulder. He knew she needed to hurry, that she had to go, that she had taken the trouble to see him off safe, to say goodbye.
They hugged, he boarded, she was gone.
At Portadown the soldiers ignored him. Leaving, he was someone else’s problem.