Welcome to Belfast

Welcome to Belfast

A Story by billcat29
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A young, talented sax player visits Belfast at the height of the political and cultural struggles.

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“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am " my faith, my knowledge, my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hang-ups… I want to speak to their souls.”

John Coltrane.


I stand staring at the wall. Snow spins and twirls around it’s mosaic-like colours and patterns, enlightened in the night by the flickering streetlamp. I squint, allow the colours to merge. Now it looked like one of them church windows back home. How poetic. I open my eyes. revealing to me once again the huge black letters:

You are now entering loyalist East Belfast.

The letters are accompanied by a shoddy painting of two men with rifles. Balaclava’s cover their face. The paint is fading though, I walk next to it and peel a scab off the rust red bricks. ‘F**k Lizzie’ rather subtly scratched on in a marker pen next to me. I slowly pull away from the wall, let the colours merge again. Better off that way, forgotten in the snow. I rustle in my pockets before pulling out a flyer, a stark contrast I must admit. Elegant writing reads.

Paul’s Jazz and Blues Bar.  

Featuring Billy Fitz on the Keys and Introducing Jimmy O’ Harah on the sax.                                     

21.00pm, December 19th

A hand drawn image of a saxophone takes up most of the page, it’s golden presence a blessing surely? That’s what I’ve told myself for the past three weeks anyway. On the back is their address. I pick up my sax and continue walking through the streets, sticking to the main roads. The place is quite, I figured it would be, can’t imagine I’d get much trouble on a night like this. I see people peak from their windows, some stare me down, I keep walking. I arrive on the street, a rundown place, though not much different to what I’ve witnessed so far. PAUL’s was on the corner, away from the houses, nestled between some shops. The ‘P’ flickered on and off, the walls looked burnt and scared. Jesus, is this the right decision? Bit late now.

I walk into the club and I’m gratefully met by the sounds of laughter and music. The club is dimly lit but homely, a pleasant haven from the outside. Onstage two men share a piano. One I recognise immediately as Billy Fitz, a small African American whose shared his jazz in almost every corner of the world, including my home town; he’s the main reason I got this gig. The other man I’ve never seen before. He catches my eye, lets out a thunderous laugh and bundles off stage towards me. He is a huge man, over six feet tall and as almost as wide. With a thick North Irish accent, he bellows, “That’s a saxophone case! And a beardless face!” He turns back round to the piano, “S**t Bill, we’ll make a poet outta me yet. You must be Jimmy!” he states, exuberant smile across his pumpkin sized head. I’m slightly intimidated by his size, but the man is so f*****g happy, he’s reminding me of my neighbour’s dog.

“Yes sir, it’s nice to meet you.” I thump my saxophone case down and shake his hand. He doesn’t hold back, nearly ripping my arm off.

“Bill’s had a lot to say about you, young man. Names Paul. This is my bar, come in, come in.” He grabs my case then guides me into the centre of the room. “I got the door, don’t worry.”

I give Billy a gentle wave, who’s still perched at the piano, he returns the gesture. I turn back round to Paul, who stares outside.

“I appreciate the chance to play tonight Paul.” I stop, something is up with him. He’s just standing at the door, one hand firmly on the handle, the other on the frame. He slams it close and turns the lock. His head low. Jesus, the f**k did I say? I’ve f*****g blew it already, not even had to play a note.

Then I notice multiple figures outside, dark ominous shadows moving in the snow. Hands bang against the window and doors, the laughter of men carries in the night. What in the world?

A voice from outside speaks up. “That another protestant lad you got there?”, it’s followed by jeers and shouts, Paul stands statuette at the door. “You’re gonna get what’s coming to you Paul.”

The banging continues, louder and louder. Then a brick comes flying through the window and lands near my case. I hear scurrying of feet, echoes of laughter. Silence. Paul slowly takes his hand off the door and turns his head to me. We wait in the quite.

“Sorry you had to see that Jimmy lad, I won’t be a minute, go give the sergeant a call.” He walks away, muttering, “this is meant to be a f*****g loyalist zone.”

I’m slightly stunned, I reach for the brick on the floor.

“leave that Jim,” says the thick southern accent of New Orleans. A comforting sound, I must admit. “You want some coffee boy?”

“I’m good thanks, Mr Fitz.” I need to ask. “Erm…”

Billy read my mind, “Look son don’t you worry about all that, Paul’s a " erm " popular man let’s say.” He scratches the tip of his nose, his eyes darker. “He gotta lot of friends.”

He licks his lips, then ever so slightly stammers as he says “Anyway, your mam and pap, how they doing?”

“Pap’s doing sound,” I tell him, “he’s got a new job on the dock’s now, it’s hard work but I think he enjoys it.”

“Good for him, good for him.” He mutters, bobbing his head.

I’m struggling to shake what I’ve heard though, I’m not even Protestant. “Mr. Fitz, I don’t understand something, I’m Catholic, the f**k was that about?”

“Look Jim, to them guys outside you could be James Brown for all they care. Their quarrels with Paul, not you.” Then I feel a sharp crack across my head, “And what you doing saying ‘I’m a Catholic’ around here, huh? You want me to whip your a*s? Gotta be smarter than that Jim. You aint in Dublin anymore.”

He was right there, Paul suddenly stumbles down some stairs, toolbox in hand. “Coppers got a patrol looking for the little s***s, nothing to worry about.” He opens the door to let some older people in.

“I’ll be with you in one moment gents.” He says to them, then turns to me and Billy, “Bill take Jimmy to his room would you, then set up when you’re ready.” Paul takes a piece of card and duct tapes it to the broken window.

“Showtime Jimmy!” he shouts, tuning to me and winking “Knock ‘em dead.”

#

Another man walked in; the place was filling up.

            “They don’t call it Ireland's best Jazz bar for nothing mate.” Bill said, patting my back, which I appreciate. I’ve changed to black shirt and pants, accompanied with my lucky golden braces. They’re not working though; I feel every beat of my heart. I feel the tension in the room. When we were getting changed Paul threw a drunk out shouting ‘F**k the Queen’, before he left he spat,

“You’re gonna get what’s coming to you Paul.” Then stumbled into the snow. I feel sick. Twice in one night, they said Belfast was bad, but now I’m scared.

“Time son, let’s go. Remember my cue.” Not exactly reassuring words from Bill, I walk out on stage. I walk straight to my stool, eyes on the floor. The spotlight is really hot; we are greeted by a small applause then Billy gets us under way whilst I position myself on the stool. I’m too hot. I swear to God this spotlight is burning my f*****g retinas, I feel light headed. Jesus, now my shirt is clinging to my back, there’s sweat falling off my nose, it’s smashing off the floorboards. Drop after drop. Christ! I don’t know if I can do this. I look up. F**k. There must be a hundred eyes, nah there’s a hundred people tonight, that’s two hundred bleeding eyes. ‘Another protestant lad’ keeps ringing in my head over and over. I just gotta breath, f**k, f**k, f**k. Breath Jimmy man. I’d plaster my eyes together if I could, play blind. I ain’t no Stevie Wonder, Billy isn’t far off though. I breath in, try to focus on Billy. He’s dancing around the keys like a possessed spirit, his left hand working the spine. And breathe out. up and down, up and down; ‘playing a woman’ he used to say, with a dirty little grin on his aging face. Breathe In. He was hunched over the piano, clad in his worn, brown suit and dirty flat cap. Breathe in. I watch his every movement through the thick cigarette smoke that layered the club. Breathe out. The man is embracing it. It wasn’t long now; He’d give my cue. His confidence was inspiring. I feel my heartrate drop slightly.

Jesus, I think I’m getting my sight back, the spotlights dimming. Billy was starting to bring the tempo down so gracefully; the man is a genius. I can now see more of the club, the collection of heads floating on sea of smoke. It was an ominous sight. I wipe away the moisture from my clammy hands and position myself accordingly. This is it, my time to show these b******s what I’ve got. I aint no f*****g protestant lad, I’m a f*****g musician. Billy took the tempo down again, slower and slower, lighter and lighter. They’re muttering. Well f**k em, let’s give them something to talk about.

The saxophone gleamed in the dimming light like it would against a new moon. I bring it slowly to my mouth until finally Billy stopped playing; I begin my piece. Just a short burst, allowing them silences, working with them, nurturing them. Not a second too soon, or too late, another burst. This time a longer and more sorrowing note, a wolf howling back to that dimmed moon. I begin to build, the sequence becoming more complex, my cheeks no doubt turning red. I feel invincible. I play the scale to the top, I jump around in the middle then run it on down to the bottom. I feel so much power. How can anything be more important, be more giving, than music? The sax was my rifle, the music my conflict. I breath fire over the audience, reigniting the embers over their ignorant heads. I want to free these people from their hang-ups, show them the possibilities of music. I want to speak to their souls. Billy swooped in loud and proud as the spotlight rained down light on the two of us. I jump off my stool and slide over to him, the sax and keys harmonising so fluidly. I close my eyes and play like I’ve never played in my life.

“Jim!” I hear, I open my eyes. I can see Billy’s face, covered in ash. I close my eyes; I feel so tired. My head’s really sore.

“Jim, you gotta help me son. JIM!” I feel my body violently being shook, I open my eyes again. Billy looked like s**t, Jesus what the f**k happened? His head was covered in grey, I couldn’t see past him, there was ash everywhere. Billy was in tears.

“Jim you gotta help me, ma hand Jim, ma hand” he cried.

“Ok… Sure… Billy I don’t understand.” I manage to say, but my head was in so much pain… F**k. Billy lifted his hands to my face. F**k. His tears dripped onto a mangled mess of blood and bone, where once a beautifully crafted set of hands were. What in the f*****g hell is going on? Billy cries an almost silent harrowing sound. I feel sick. I stand up and I’m met by a disgusting spin that sees my collapse to the floor, spewing the remains of my dinner onto broken ceiling. Billy begins screaming. I notice other sounds; other men are screaming. I pull myself to my knees and wipe my eyes. Oh f**k…

Winter winds whistle over piles of debris, whilst the crackling carcus of a Sedan illuminates the horrors inside. Some men move, crawling. Screaming. Some don’t. It was unrecognisable from what it had been not long ago. The smoke cloud has been replaced by ash and snow, encircling each other in a colourless dance. There’s body parts everywhere; I can’t stomach the sight. The Sedan is f*****g hot, surging through a gaping hole where the entrance had been, flames licking what is left of the walls. My head is still hurting; I lift a hand. The feeling is warm and sticky. I notice blood, a f*****g lot of it. I can feel my eyes going again, I see Billy walking past, his anguished felt and heard through a dry and tearless cry. My eyes heavier. I hear distant sirens, more screams, aftershocks and crackling of the burning car.

I can’t shake that picture of Billy from my mind.

“Where you from son?” the paramedic asks, an officer by his side.

“I’m from Dublin,” I say. “I ain't from here, I was visiting. I need my saxophone.” I just wanted to play music. I don’t understand any of this. “I don’t understand,” I say, “I need my dad.”

“Ah Jesus, I don’t know what to tell you kid” The officer sighs, scratching his bald head. This is surreal, how did I get here? The paramedic mutters something behind me. I just need my dad now; I need to go home.

“Will you get in contact, see if his parents will drive down?” I can’t pinpoint who’s speaking. I look at the officer, his eyes sympathetic but hardened. The paramedic jumps in the ambulance as I sit down in the back. I turn back to the officer.

“We’ll get you home, just got to take you to hospital first so they can have a look over you.”

I nod. He returns it and walks away slowly. As he trudges through the blood ridden snow he mutters something under his breath.

“This f*****g place has gone to s**t… Welcome to Belfast kid.”

End

© 2016 billcat29


Author's Note

billcat29
I've tried very hard to write in first person, present tense. Found it quite tricky though, any tense issues please feel free to point them out! Also i'm not overjoyed with the ending (last couple of lines), any advise again would be awesome. Enjoy!

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Added on November 22, 2016
Last Updated on November 22, 2016
Tags: Belfast, Ireland, Jazz, Sax, Tension, The Troubles, IRA

Author

billcat29
billcat29

United Kingdom