I’d just gotten my hand to Abbie’s knickers when BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! there was an almighty crashing above our heads.
- Jeeesus Christ! What was that? I yelled, scarcely noticing the slap to my face nor the almost broken wrist Abbie managed to inflict in the same instant.
- You bastard, Brennan! We are not having sex here!
- Ah Abbie! Abbie! Jeesus... come on... I wuss onee messin’, I slurred drunken ciderly. Ya know awuddent wanna hurt ye. Yer ma besht mate an an an...
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
- Oh my God, Abbie screamed. Somebody’s gettin’ killed up there!
We both fell silent and looked at each other in the semi-darkness. The whole place had fallen silent. I could make out her deep brown eyes peering intently into mine, the hurt there, a friendship betrayed as my greedy drunken fingers finally caressed her tight silky underworld. Did I worry? Did I fuck! Why won't she let me... whoa, hang on!!! Didn't she just say 'not having sex HERE?' That means we we can have it somewhere else!? Yess!!!! And she said 'sex', not 'yer hole'. Wow! How sophisticated of her. My, oh my, girls are such... complex, mysterio... I felt dizzy drunk as I tried to finish the thought. An attack of the helicopters seemed imminent.
The music started up again jarring me back to a solid vertical hold and a resumption of picture quality, but something up above was missing and there seemed to be a big commotion a few yards from where we lay. Road crew were involved. We looked up. Four feet above us, the ceiling moved in rhythmn to the music; a couple of dozen squares of plywood supported on a couple of dozen steel frames, all of which supported four or five tons of musical equipment, in the middle of which were Thin Lizzy. It also gave us a brilliant place to snog. And do other things, if luck would have it. Abbie, it seemed, had decided neither luck, nor I, would have it.
Bastards! I thought. What a fucking night I was having so far. Bastards in the bar wouldn’t serve us for being underage, so we had to smuggle in a rake of cider in the back of my speaker cabinet. Do you know how hard it is to find cider anywhere near Queens at nine o’clock on New Years’ Eve? Fucking nearly impossible, and who wants to down a bottle of Red Biddy before going onstage to wage mortal combat with Thin Lizzy? No man, it has to be Cider! Cider is Fighting Drink. Cider is Rock ’n’ Roll Rocket Fuel. Cider is Liquid Laughing Gas. Cider gives you the Big Buzz. Cider puts you over the Edge into the Chronosynclastic In... whateverthefuckitwas yer man the American writer was on about. No, Rock ’n’ Roll needs cider. Red Biddy's for dopey oul folk singers. And we were... the... eh... Lions of Rock! Yes, that’s what we were. Lions! GRRR! GRRR! GRRR!
Bastards! Fucking students had stayed in the basement bar all throughout our set and we’d played to no-one but ourselves. Brilliant we were too and no one there to see us. There was no sign of Thin Lizzy either. We’d desperately hoped for a sight of Philo lounging against one of the pillars in full view, nodding his magnificent Afro in time to our... er... Searin' Piledrivin’ Rock. But all we got was a few drunken yells and titters between songs, as a couple of bozo students tried to find their way back from the toilets. Even that stopped after a while, and that remained between songs was The Big Echoey Silence and the far off sound of doors slamming amid much merriment. Jeesus, the sound of people having fun somewhere while you bust your balls in cold isolation is a hard one to swallow. Only one thing for it. Tune your guitar. PLING! PLING! PLING! Open another flaggin of cider FZZZZTT! and LETS FUCKIN’ ROCK!!! DRAANNNGGG!!! DRAAANNNGGG!!! DRAAANNNGGG!!! THAAARRRGGG!!! THAAARRRGGG!!! THAAARRRGGG!!!
Bastards! And I was wearing my best Rory Gallagher shirt too. Then there was the trouble with the Students Union staff, those fuckers who think they own the place, and that dickhead of an Ents Officer who’d accused us of stealing a stage light last time we were here. Oh yes, a stage light was stolen, but not by us. We knew the fucker that did it, but how do you prove it? Well, that incident got us barred from even getting into discos at the Union and you know how humiliating that is. These sex goddesses from Methodist College or somewhere up the Malone Road would say, See you at Queens Friday night, and you’d boil up with the rage and the shame of it. CAN’T GO! you’d scream inwardly, WE’RE FUCKIN’ BARRED FROM QUEENS!
They never had problems getting into Queens; there was always a horde of strutting Rugby types hanging around, just drooling to sign the sex-goddesses in through the hallowed portals. And they always got served in the bar. These well formed, well endowed schoolgirls looked older than their age, whereas we pasty faced, buck-toothed ruffians could never pass for aspiring academics on an end of term binge. We tried it tho’... tried forging National Union of Studenty cards with crap photos, stubble pencilled on our faces. It was doomed to instant failure; we looked like Victorian chimney sweep children. The porters took the cards off us, kicked us off the premises.
Bastards! Besides, we hardly ever found a student willing to sign us in. Usually it was the creepy loner type, desperate for company, who would consent to give us access to the only spot in all of war torn Belfast where women, drink and music collided safely and insanely. Once inside, we’d no problem ditching the creepy loner, but it never guaranteed success with the sex-goddesses. Fuckin Rugby players. 'Here babe, let me buy you a drink wrr wrr wrr. I've just been signed to play for Ulsterrr wrr wrr wrr.' Bastards. You could tell they didn’t grow up on fish fingers and beans. And when we played them at sport, any sport, we got massacred. Every fuckin’ time. I did waterpolo, but it was like being hit by a tree in the water when you played against them. Aw fuck it, I’m whingeing on here, but you can see we had a point. It was no easy matter getting on in this part of town.
Well anyway, the stolen stage light incident was resolved when the thief set fire to his Hall of Residence curtains, so great was the heat from his ill gotten sparkler, sparking off a major fire alert and alerting the Ents Officer to the true culprit. We were thus exonerated, but I had the feeling we weren’t forgiven. The bastard certainly wasn’t pleased to see us on this most auspicious night in the Season of Goodwill.
- What the fuck are you lot doing back here? asked the pasty faced cunt.
- Oh we’re doing the warm-up for Thin Lizzy. You booked us.
- No I never booked you lot. Youse are shite!
He really had that Debating Society patter off to a fine art.
- Listen mate, we were booked by Barleythorn, the Folk band in the basement. You told them you needed a Rock band to warm up the crowd before Thin Lizzy, and they told you they’d get you one. So here we are.
I was loving every second of this, watching the big droopy face sag down to his big droopy ballix. I was wallowing in this, loving it, before I let drop my piece de resistance.
- So what do you want to do then? Where are you gonna get another Rock band this late on New Years’ Eve?
His jaw sagged even more widemouthedly. Checkmate you fucker! Of course he stormed down to the basement to rage against our mates Barleythorn, but there was nothing he could do. We’d changed our name as we regularly did every few months, to ensure a few more gigs before again being turfed out of some shitty shibeen. Technically we weren’t BARRED FROM QUEENS’ any longer, and no way was he gonna find a sober unengaged musician in the whole fucking planet this Night of Noughts. Fuck him! Our scam had worked. We were in the Fucking Lions’ Underpants! We were gonna blow the fucking walls out with our... er... Searin' Piledrivin’ Rock, and blow Thin Lizzy OFF THE FUCKING STAGE! and the sex-goddesses were gonna be so knocked out by our... er... Piledrivin’ Rock, I’d be beating them off with a shitty stick! And if that failed, I was a cert to get my hole off Abbie. Best mates, we went everywhere together, and with a couple o’ flaggins in her, she’d be gagging for it. That’s the other thing about cider I forgot to tell you about; it doesn’t half give you the horn.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
- Jesus Abbs, I’d better see what’s goin’ on. There could be murder out there. Where’s the rest of the band gone? Where’s Shane and Woody?
I zipped my jeans back up, nearly strangling my aching ballix. Was having sex as painful as this I wondered? I longed to find out. Crawling through the latticework of steel supports, I came out into the backstage area, crudely fenced off from the rest of the Snack Bar with big flight cases, studenty dining tables and stacks of plastic studenty chairs.
Yep, Thin Lizzy were doing their stuff alright up onstage; Philo was doing a bass solo with Brian blattering away on his big drumkit. The crowd, the fuckers who'd finally torn themselves out of the bar, were reeling ecstatically outfront in a sea of piss and vomit and Eric was... where the fuck was Eric Bell? Probably doing the nonchalant LEAD FUCKIN' GUITARIST!!! pose over to one side where I couldn’t see him.
I turned round again to look backstage. There was a huddle over in the far corner; some roadies were standing around a seated figure. I couldn’t see too clearly. The guy in the chair was all hunched up, head in his hands, blond curly hair falling forward over his face. He looked up, a dazed tortured expression on his creased features. Fuck me! It’s Eric Bell! He’s supposed to be onstage with Philo and Brian! What’s happening?!!!
I walked up the ramp that led to the wall of amps lining the back of the stage and peered round the corner. You could see the whole stage area and on out into the crowd from here. There was Philo and Brian battling it out together and the crowd so far gone they wouldn’t have noticed if Morcambe and Wise were dancing buck naked in front of them. And shit! There was Eric’s lovely guitar lying face down on the stage! It looked damaged from what I could see. So that’s what all the noise was about; he broke his guitar. Did he smash it Pete Townsend-like I wondered? I didn’t think Eric was the sort to do that, but something must have gone seriously wrong for him, the state he was in backstage. Never worry, I’ll soon fix things for him. He’ll be back onstage in no time at all.
Trying to act sober after a thousand pints of cider is not easy, but I tried hard to affect my best street saunter. Puffing out my sparrows’ ribcage, widening my shoulders, bowing out my knees to a degree that made me look like Norman Wisdom with cystitis, I corkscrewed my way across to the serious huddle and in my best Jack the Lad bluster, blurted...
- Bully Eric! Waddaboutye! Th’ oul guitar packed in? Fuckin belix wha’?! Never worry mate. Never worry. Yekin use mine nae preblim! Wha’?!
Eric stared uncomprehendingly at me. His face fell forward again into his cupped hands.
- Fucks’ sake Eric it’s not the end of the world. It's onee a broken guitar! Yekin use mine! I’ll nip over an’ geddit fer ye!
Something grabbed my wrist and threatened to snap off the hand. I found myself staring into two freezing blue pools set above a craggy pock-marked mountain range of a face terrifyingly close to mine. The Roadie/Minder/Enforcer Charles McClennan was about to deliver his first warning. In deep Scottish guttural of withering intensity emanating from somewhere way below the crags, I heard the unmistakable invitation to FUCK AWAY OFF!!! The wrist was released violently and I found myself flat on my back four feet away. Backs were once again turned, shutting me out of this now very private huddle. Up onstage, Philo and Brian pounded away bravely.
Now hold on I reasoned ciderly, it’s only a broken guitar. Why throw a wobbly like that over a bloody guitar? And the more I reasoned ciderly, the clearer the solution became. I would return to the huddle and present my very own guitar to Eric who would then snap out of this little tantrummy thing he was currently wallowing melodramatically in and rejoin Philo and Brian onstage, giving the pair a well earned break from this endless bass ’n’ drum thing they must be dying to get shot of. Easy. They might even play their hit record ‘Whiskey in the Jar’.
Abbie’s head was just emerging from the steelwork as I approached. She was looking at me in a peculiar way.
- Why are you walking like that?
- Like what?
- Like you’ve just shit your pants.
- Oh Abbs dont be silly. This is the way a guy walks. I’m on serious business here. I’ve gotta save this concert. Now where did I park my guitar when I came offstage? Anybody seen Shane or Woody? They're never around when you fuckin' need ‘em.
Two figures lurched around the corner into the backstage area. One continued in a commodious, circuitous parabolic, unable it seemed, to steer a straight line towards me and Abbie. It was arrested in its lurching by a tower of plastic studenty chairs which gave way under external drunken pressure. The whole lot, chairs and figure collapsed with a plastic studenty crash. There appeared an arm clad in red Rory Gallagher check, hand clutching a bottle of Red Biddy. A face appeared, sporting the arrogant sneer of contented intoxication; my best mate and powerhouse drummer, Shaneywoo.
- Did ya see the hack o’ thon? Yer maun Bell’s a friggin' spacer! Fucked his guitar ontatha stage an' fucked aff! Whassis preblim?
I pulled Shane upright. Both of us fell back into the pile of chairs.
- Aw Shane it’s onee a broken guitar fucks’ sake. It’s no preblim. He’s gonna use mine.
Shane broke into a howl of laughter.
- That bellixed thing o’ yours? Ya must be jokin’! G’way ta fuck!
- No, I’m not jokin. He’s asked me t’goangedddit. Have ya seen where I left it? Woody! Woody! C’mere! Have ya seen ma guitar?
The tall thin Wood shuffled over with Abbs. Ratty blond hair falling lank over a greasy pasty face, he seemed almost sober compared to the rest of us.
- Under that stack of tables. D’ya not remember stashin’ it when we came off, ya dickhead ye?
In truth I remembered very little after coming offstage, except an overwhelming desire to consort with Abbie beneath it. I hadn’t even bothered to witness the arrival of Lizzy as they traipsed in like exotic birds of paradise, all colour and splendour and black leather. Well, that’s what I imagined they'd look like. But then, a thousand pints of cider and the serious horn, does tend to alter one's priorities.
Right! Right! Right! I was under the tables in an instant, pulling out my cardboard guitar case. Bastards! I’ll show ’em!, I thought, nearly ripping the lid off the thing in my eagerness; not a difficult thing to do with thin, weedy cardboard.
DAH! DAH! There she was! My pride ’n’ joy! Red ’n’ black and despite being a wee bit plasticcy, this German made er... Rock Piledriver would serve as a worthy weapon in the hands of the Master Bell. Bang! Straight back over to the huddle. No change there. I blasted straight in, pushing past a couple of minions, shoving my guitar right under Eric's nose.
- There she is Eric! Waddaya think? Fuckin’ wee beauty! Go on man! Take it! Crank her up an’ away ye go! Gowaan ya boy ye! Show those drunken studenty fuckers what ye kin do!
Bell looked me straight in the eye.This was... this was the greatest moment of my entire life. Face to face with a Rock Star. Man to Man in a Jam, and I had the power to pull him out of that Jam. Silence. The world outside ceased to exist. Just me and Eric, two men alone against the odds. The thunder of Philo and Brian er... thundered in our ears, but neither of us heard a thing. We couldn’t look away from each other; bound by a code primordial and unbreakable, the bond between two stalwarts, two steeled cohorts, two men stripped of pretence, stripped of sham, stripped of artifice, stripped of... FOR FUCKS’ SAKE ERIC!!! ARE YE EVER GONNA RESPOND TO THESE MANLY OVERTURES OR WHA’???
Silence. Incomprehension. Puzzlement. Silence. Bewilderment. Awkwardness. Silence. Aching Damning Silence.
Oh Jesus! The beginning of a Shrivel. Of a Big Fucking Shrivel. Blank! Total fucking blank! The bastard hadn’t heard a fucking word I said. He went out and left the lights on. There he was, two inches from my face and he hadn’t heard a fucking word. Those sad, sad eyes were staring through me. THROUGH ME!!! He hadn’t even noticed poor little shrivelling very fast me. He was creased with some kind of sorrow, some kind of anguish, and I was beneath his notice. Again his head fell forward into his awaiting hands, and as his mop of blond corkscrew hair covered them, I noticed his knuckles were white.
Immediately I was made aware of another pair of knuckles. Scottish knuckles. Belonging to angry Scottish hands. They were upon me in an instant, pulling me into those ice blue pools, the shock of crinkling blond hair above, and the deep Lowland guttural fissuring from deep within the crags below.
- AH THAGHT AH TOLT YOO TA FUCK AWAY AFF OUTA HERE!!!
It’s a tribute to the solid German workmanship of my red ’n’ black guitar that it was still in one piece when we landed. In fact it was in better shape than me when I eventually was able to pick myself off the ground. The others were standing around laughing their bellix off. They thought it was something to laugh about, the bastards, the fact that I’d singlehandedly tried to rescue the concert from disaster. As I lay there numb, I realised there was no other course open to me, stalwart, steeled cohort, lone brave warrior... yeah, yeah, I know... friggin’eejit, but there was no backing out now. First tho’ I had to pull myself together, stop myself shaking.
- Lukk at tha hack o’ ye! Ya stupid ballix! OH, I'M GONNTA SAVE THA KONNSERT I AM!! YER BALLIX!! jeered Shane, waving the Wanker's Salute.
Woody was creased up with laughter, wheezing asthmatically, jerking up and down like a fucking floor mop. Only Abbie stood apart, head to one side, a concerned expression on her eminently rideable features, as Jane Austen would have said.
- Are ya hurt? Yer man’s got a bloody cheek! Do ya want me to get the Ents Officer round and we’ll complain about him?
- No way Abbs! The pair o’ them would gang up on me. I’ll sort yer man out later.
Shane and Woody exploded at that one.
- Oh Jesus do you hear the wanker? He’s gonna sort that savage out???
They fell about the place.
- Oh yes I fucking am!! Straight after I’ve saved this fucking concert! No thanks to you lot! Now outta my way! I’m going onstage to help out Philo and Brian. They could use a fucking lead guitarist at this point in their lives and I’m just the man for the job!
I stood up. Wobbly. Very wobbly. I’ll be all right in a second. Just gimme a second. There, that’s better. They were looking at me funny. I strapped on the Red’n’Black, pulled it into the low-slung firing position and threw a few shapes for good measure. They were still looking, but they weren’t laughing now.
- Jesus wee lad, are ye fuckin’ wise? Aw wise up! Fuck, he’s gonna do it! Away an’ get Barleythorn up t’see this! Get Rab an’ Dusty up! They’ll piss themselves.
A quick look over at the sad huddle in the corner. No change there. Right, this is it! Action stations! I put my foot on the stage ramp. Pushed down. Solid enough, let’s go... easy now, don’t want to attract the attention of that Scottish savage. One last look back; there was Shane, that stupid sneer still on his face, mouthing 'ya fuckin’ wanker!' Woody had gone off to get Barleythorn, but would you look at Abbs! Eyes wide in admiration and disbelief, big smile on her georgeous lips. Fuck, I’ll ride her no problem after this. No problem.
On up the ramp, the heads of the crowd bobbing away and Jesus! there’s yer woman from Methody I was snoggin’ on the stairs at the May Ball! She was twisted drunk, so was her boyfriend. He didn’t see me slip the hand up her skirt. And right on the main staircase too. Oh fuck she’s georgeous! Fuck, I’m gonna ride her an’ all after this!
Right, careful now, don’t blow it. Brian was comin’ into view, blattering away savagely. Jesus! what a drummer, and over to his left... PHILO!!! WOW! Ya never get used to the look of the guy; like someone who's just stepped off another planet. Legs a mile long, a mile apart, a strange cuddly otherworldly being, lookin’ straight at Brian with that sly sleek grin of his as he pumps away on his ole bass. They looked like they were enjoyin’ every second of this and Jesus! the sound they made, just the two of them. Monstrous. Well wait til I plugged the Red ’n’ Black into Eric’s stack. Now what key do ya think they would be playin’ in?
I stepped on stage. Suddenly I felt I was naked in a cold wind. Vulnerable, ah! but powerful. Oh yes, strong and in command! Powerful enough to change the course of this Lizzy gig. Some strange energy up here, some wierd electricity. It reminded me of the time I got electrocuted over in Clonard Hall. Grabbed the mic as a big black threshing machine ripped through me. Aw pull yourself together man! Stop shittin’ yourself! Sure weren’t ye on this bloody stage only an hour ago? What the fuck's changed since then?
Right, start movin’ anna groovin’. Bob yer head a bit, that’s it, now move yer feet... in time to the music for fuck’s sake! Keep in time! Yeeooowww! This feels fuckin’ great, an’ Jesus! Philo is lookin’ over an he’s smiling! I’ll just pull a shape on the Red, show him I mean business. Yeaaahhh! Oi! Chicks! Sex Goddesses! Dig this! Now nod towards Eric’s stack, an’ slide this way towards it, bit of a shimmy wah wah and CLUMPPPFFF!!! OOOOOWWWW! JEEESSSSUUUUSSSS!!!!
How come I’m in the air and my guitar's down around my ankles an’ I’m flying, yes flying down the ramp past Mags whose lips are not smiling and Shane, whose lips are and whose hand is still waving the Wanker’s Salute as I screech past towards a big stack of studenty tables who are fast... far too fast approaching CLOMPFFFFFFFF!!! each rib exactingly coincident with each edge of studenty table which did not give way under massive external pressure of imploding guitarist with a fast receding dream, oh yes, a rare and beautiful dream, a fleeting moment of most chivalrous noblesse, that one's heroic endeavours alone could save a doomed concert from disaster, save Philo, Brian and Eric, save Thin Fucking Lizzy for Christ’s sake! from the ignominy of having to limp offstage at a prestigious event in front of a few hundred pissed arseholes who probably thought they were wobbling away at a disco.
Aw Jesus this hurts and it’s not stopping because someone is kicking what’s left of my ribs and Oh good! I seem to hear, at least I hope I do, yes, there it is... Abbie screaming.
- Leave him alone you savage! You’ll kill him!
Oh my dearest Abigail, he already has. My dream has died.
- Charlie! Charlie! Leave him. He's only a kid.
I owe my being spared backstage death to Abbie's screaming and the intervention of kindly, concerned roadie, Frank Murray, who finally pulled the crazed Scot off me. Not without a farewell parting tho', as his hot Scottish wind thundered into my right ear.
- ANNOY ME ONCE MORE AN’ I’LL RIP YER FUCKIN’ HEAD OFF!!! GOT THAT PAL!!!??
I do love the way the Scots tie a pretty bow onto an ominous threat with that cuddly endearment. And yes, I did get it, Pal. Loud but not exactly clear. Everything was fuzzy as fuck. But I think I got the gist of what he was trying to convey to me in his own inimitable Scottish way. I lay there for a while. Mags was kneeling, nursing my poor bruised ego when Barleythorn arrived, laughed, and fucked straight back to the basement bar. Shane and Woody were off round the front trying to pull that Methody girl.
- Jesus Abbs, I mumbled woozily, I never even got to plug in, never shot a friggin’ power chord across to Philo. If that Scottish bastard had’ve just let me plug in, had’ve heard what I can do on the guitar, he would’ve left me well alone, dead cert. The concert would’ve been saved and mumbling even more woozily, I would’ve had my hole off some sex goddess. Aw Abbs, Abbs, yer ma best friend, givvus a kiss, wuuuhhhhhhh, an’ c’mere, lemme put ma hand there, no, a bit further... ah Jesus Abigail! Careful! That hurts!
- Fuck off! I told you we are not having sex here, so you can forget it!
- Does that mean we can have it somewhere else?
- No. It most certainly does not.
And with that seemingly final utterance, another dream died. Some fuckin night this was turning out to be.
We were still on the floor when Philo and Brian slunk down the ramp. They’d decided to call it a night. Couldn’t blame them. The dozy fuckers out front were catatonic by this stage. They nodded smilingly towards me and louched towards the dressing rooms.
- Did ye see that Abbs! Did ye see the look Philo gave me? Wow! What a guy, that Philo! Fuck, I’m in there with a chance. Lissen, you stay here, mind the gear for me. I’m off t’ chance me arm back in the dressing room. Jesus Abbs, ya never know.
- Ah wise up wee lad. You’ve got yerself enough trouble already. That savage will kill you.
- Bellix to that Abbs, he caught me off guard, that’s all. And anyway the show’s over. What harm could I do now?
- Millions. Yer a danger to yerself.
- Aw Abbie, Abbie, it’s all right. It’ll be okay. Stall the ball an' I’ll be back. If ya see Shane or Wood, tell them I’m in with Philo, allright?
- Oh allright, but don’t be long. Don’t leave me waitin’ here all night. An’ remember, we've got to get a lift back with Barleythorn.
Off I sauntered down the corridor. Cautiously tho’, extremely cautiously. I didn’t want to run into... which is exactly, first left... what I did do.
- Aw fuck off guy! Look, I’ve no guitar, see? I’m onee tryin’ to find the toilet. You’ve mashed up ma kidneys. I’ll be pissin’ blood til next Christmas.
God, those eyes! You’d freeze to death in them. He held me there, maybe a nanosec; long enough to get frostbite, shook his crags, moved on.
Dressing room. Comings and Goings. There’s that Ents Wanker leaving. Bye ya creep! Soft knock and push. Jesus this cramped pissy little place is worse than a toilet, an there’s Philo an’ Eric and minions and WOW! Brian’s comin over to me! Oh! WOW! WOW! WOW!
- Eh... could yeh givvus a minute? We just need a bit o’ time to ourselves.
- Ah Jesus Brian, sure no problem. No problem.
I strained to see past him as the door was closed on me. Fuck it, I’m not goin’ back out there empty handed to let those fuckers laugh at me. I’ll hang around the toilets, keep out of that savage’s way. Somebody’s bound to come in soon.
Shane and Woody came in. Sniggering.
- Abbie said you’d be hidin’ in here, they tittered.
- Fuck off you, I’m here on business.
- Aw would ye listen to the bellix....
Shane’s voice trailed off as Brian came through the door. I was straight in there, slappin’ him on the back, like an oul mate from years gone by.
- Bully Brian! Got it sorted? Glad I could help. Any time mate, any time.
Shane and Woody looked at each other, the sneer leaping off their mugs onto mine. I rubbed it in. Brian smiled at me, stepped onto the pissoir and unzipped his jeans. We all strained for a look.
- So, anyway Brian, great gig man. Loved your playin’. Philo’s too. Pity about poor Eric. The guitar breakin’ an’ that.
- Yeah, said Brian. Nearly lost it, but yeah... yeh know... the show must go on.
We tittered politely.
- So, anyway Brian, is... eh... is Philo... eh... comin’ in... eh... comin...
Oh Jesus, what was I saying? Woody said it for me.
- What he means Brian, is Philo comin’ in for a piss? You wouldn’t happen to know would you?
Everybody cracked up, Brian too.
- Fuck off Wood! that’s not what I meant.
And so we chatted on for ages, me telling Brian about the time I saw Lizzy's first Belfast gig in The Astor, when they had a pianist... some fella in a fringed buckskin jacket... and seeing Philo getting thrown out of a cafe there the next morning because he was black... askin’ about Gary Moore an’ how he was doing on the London scene... Shane and Brian rabbiting on about drums and whether John Bonham was better than Ginger Baker... shit like that. Slowly it dawned on me that Brian was in no hurry to leave. Something nasty must’ve been going on in the dressing room, and here he was, one of the world’s greatest drummers, happy to stand talking to the likes of us in this smelly oul bog. And what a lovely bloke. A true Dubliner. No airs or graces. Handed fags all round.
Then Philo walks in. The air went electric. It buzzed. Something about the guy, I dunno, was it his size, his hair, the clothes, the colour of his skin, that sly smile? Whatever it was, nothing like it had ever graced the shitty streets of Belfast. I fell in love with Dublin there and then... wanted to talk like one, wanted to be a cool Dubliner. Then I saw something. It was the way he spoke to you. He put his arm round my shoulder. It was hot, like a warm heavy scarf and he came in close, so close, he blocked everything, everybody out, so you could smell him, feel his breath on you, look into those magical deep dark pools. It was like you and he were the only two people in the whole world. Just you and him. No one else existed. Just me an’ Philo, an’ him speakin’ soft, right into my ear almost.
- Tanks for what yeh tried to do back there man. Really appreciate tha’.
I nearly cried.
- Ah Jesus Philo it was nothin’, I said. Any time man, I blustered pathetically.
- Aye, an’ yer big Scottish savage really appreciates ya too, said Shane. He wants your autograph.
Everybody cracked up, 'cept me of course. I was still in warm shock from Philo’s appreciation. He stood up on the pissoir. The zeds of a zip going down. Our eyes opened wide. Our necks nearly broke.
- Here Philo, show us yer dick, said Wood, who clearly aspired to the diplomatic service.
- Will yeh ever fuck off! laughed Philo.
- Go on, show us it. Dixie wants to see it.
- Fuck off Wood, I do not.
But of course I did. We all did. It had become a topic of intense local interest ever since Lizzy started playing Belfast.
- Brian, Brian, you must know, insisted Wood.
- Aye, c’mon Brian, tell us. We heard he's hung like a donkey.
- Ah will yeh leave it, said Philo. Who told yeh tha’?
- This girl we know. Said you rode her in Portrush and she couldn’t walk for two days ye were that big. Bust her in two amost.
- She wasn’t complainin’ tho’, laughed Wood. Said it was a highly pleasureable experience.
I crowed along like sex was a deep pleasure I experienced every day myself.
- So c’mon Philo, demanded Wood. Show us the doodwakko!
The zeds of a zip going back up. Big big smile on Philo’s face, Woody leaning against the wall as he passes, eyes goggling, silently mouthing 'the fuckin’ size of it!' his hands describing the fish that got away. Philo turned and laughed.
- Are yeh fuckin’ jokin’!? I’m twice the size o’ tha!
He went over to Brian, put his arm round his shoulder, leaned in real close. Confessional murmur between them. Must remember that, put my arms round people more often.
- Eh, got any drink in the dressing room? Any chance Philo? Brian? Spare a few cans?
Shane never missed a chance.
- Ah yeah, no problem.
- Can we come in, say hello to Eric? I added.
- Eh... Eric’s not... Philo replied. We’d invite yeh in, but... well yeh know...
He looked at Brian, raised his eyebrows. Brian gave a tight little grin in return.
- Ah no problem Philo, I said.
- He vants toh be halone! mimiced Wood.
- Yeah, yeh could say tha’, said Philo.
- See I told ya I’d do the business an’ ye didn’t believe me, ya wankers, I said, smacking Shane round the head. Ye oughta lissen to your oul mate Dixie more often.
We waited outside in the corridor, a few feet away from the dressing room.
- Wonder what’s wrong with Eric? said Shane. Fuck, he was giving that guitar some stick. Threw a right wobbly. What would ye say a guitar like that’s worth?
- Fuck all now, I replied. Pity, I wouldna minded it.
Philo and Brian came out into the corridor.
- Aw bully Brian me oul mucker! said Shane reaching for Brian's six pack.
Philo handed me some photos and stick-on patches; Celtic motifs in purple and gold.
- The new Lizzy artwork. Waddaya think? Gas, isn't it? Philo asked, proud as a schoolboy on Prizegiving Day.
- Jesus Philo they’re brill! Hey Wood check these out!
- Our mate Jim Fitzpatrick designed them, said Philo.
Wows all round. We were touched. The photos were classy too. I was gonna ask Philo and Brian to sign them, but... well, you don’t, do you? I mean... it wouldn’t be cool, would it?
- Listen lads, we've got to be goin’, said Philo. We’re headin’ back to Dublin.
And he turned those brown spotlights on me again, melted me away.
- Tanks again for yer help back there. Charlie says he’s sorry for gettin’ heavy wit yeh, but the Eric thing y’know... it got us all on edge.
- Aye sure, Philo I understand, I lied. Anytime mate. An’ sure I’ll see yis at the Ulster Hall on the 6th. I've got tickets. I’ll bring my guitar for Eric... just in case.
- Eric is... well... we, eh...
Philo's voice trailed off as he and Brian exchanged a look. There was trouble in the band. Even I could tell.
- Maybe bring a crash helmet instead, Philo continued. Yeh never know with that Charlie.
We all laughed. A cool gesture and they were gone. I felt small. And lonely.
- Jesus! I’ve left Abbie on her own! What a wanker! What time is it? Jesus, six a-fucking clock!
The hall was deserted, Lizzy’s five tons gone, nobody there but Abbie. She was asleep beside my speaker cabinet. She just didn’t have to try to be beautiful. She just was. Her mouth. She had the most beautiful mouth. The upper lip full as the lower, giving her the most unbelievably kissy kissable pout. It gave her a vulnerable look tho’, sort of tragic. A pout away from a teardrop. Deeply sensual I would have said, tho’ I didn’t know what that meant, not being... eh... experienced like. I watched her sleeping for a bit. God, she was so lovely. A Bronte girl from the slums.
- They’ve gone and left you, she murmured, as I was sticking Lizzy's new artwork on my amp and guitar case.
- Who Abbs?
- Ages ago. They already had Shane and Woody’s stuff. Must’ve thought we’d be making our own way back.
- Aw Jesus, we are now, I replied.
The prospect of a four mile trudge, humping speaker cabinet, amp and guitar brought an unwelcome sobriety to my cideriety as the porters wearily locked the gates of freedom on us. We found ourelves out in desolate New Year's Day cold. A little hill of people with a little hill of baggage. And four miles to walk through streets spiked with venom, guns mainly, but minds a thousand times more frightening than guns. It’s the use they put those minds to.
I once walked a girl home on a Friday night. She was from the Shankill. She knew who I was and I knew who she was, so it was cool. We didn’t speak much, just squeezed hands and looked at each other questioningly as if to say, Well this is all right, isn’t it? I mean we’re not doing anything wrong here, are we?
Try telling that to her drunk brother who we met on her street corner. He sussed me in seconds. Didn’t have to open my mouth. He just knew. I stood there trying to reason with him in my best Mahatma Ghandi.
- But we’re all the same, aren’t we? I’m the same as you and you’re the same as me and we’re all in this together. We're... brothers really.
I shouldn’t have said that brothers bit. There was a strangled screaming coming from him. He couldn’t get his hate out quick enough. I’m not making this up, and I'd never seen it in a human before, but the fucker started foaming at the mouth. Slobbery white gob foaming down his chin, teeth bared like a rabid dog, while his poor sister looked on speechless in tears.
- Hey man, it’s cool. We’re the same. There’s no difference between us.
- Oh isn’t there? Well I’ll tell ya what. See that Army patrol behind you?
I looked round. Yep, there they were, the Bristling Shadows on the other side of the road.
- The difference between you and me is that you’d be fuckin’ dead right now if they wasn’t here to protect your fuckin’ Fenian ass.
It’s true. I owed my life to that Army patrol. And not for the first time either. With a brother like that, I’d be breakfast bacon on the Shankill come Saturday mornin’. I never saw her again. Pity, she was lovely too. Roberta. I later found out she lived next door to one of the UVF's highest scoring hitmen. Top Taig killer, I was told. Freaky that.
- So, how the fuck were we gonna get home? asked Shane.
- Well, I reasoned, we could do the long march down the Berlin Corridor, straight down University Road, along Great Victoria Street into the city centre and another winter’s forced march to the gates of Moscow. That’s the long way, safe... well, safe as anything could be in Belfast.
- It’ll be summer by then. Our horses will have fallen beneath us, cholera will have decimated our troops, Natasha will have given birth to our firstborn, said the prosaic Wood.
- We’ve no fuckin’ choice, said Shane. How else can we get across? Tate’s Avenue?
- Charge of the Light Brigade wouldn’t go down Tate’s Avenue fuck’s sake! Nobody comes out of there alive. Bellix to that! said Wood.
- Okay, so what about Sandy Row? I proffered.
- Are ya fuckin’ wise wee lad? said Shane. The Valley of No Return? Worse than Tate’s Avenue. Fuck that!
- No lissen Shane, lissen! What time is it? I parried thrustingly.
- Six a-fuckin’ clock, said Shane.
- And where is everybody? All the good souls? All the good people?
- What the fuck are ye talkin’ about?
- They’re in bed ya glipe ye! They’re in bed fast asleep. Nobody’s up at this time on New Years Day. Everybody’s asleep. The whole fuckin’ world’s asleep.
- Well we’re not, said Abbie. I told youse not to be long. An did ye listen to me?
- Aw Abbs, it was those bastards Barleythorn. They should’ve told us they were going. Well... too late now. So waddaya say lads? Sandy Row?
Shane and Woody looked at each other, then at me. Abbie joined in too. We all shrugged our shoulders, jerked our eyebrows, pulled our lips into tight little grins. A right bunch of puppets.
Sandy Row. Steep, high sided, boulder strewn canyon, hewn by the swift flowing Rio Sande as it makes it’s way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Tumbleweed blowing in off the barren plains to the north. Dust, wind, bellowing silence as the little wagon train makes it’s way slowly along. Martha, black bonnetted, black shawled on the clapboard, hands piously clasped on her lap of heavy brown serge. Behind her, under the torn awning, a wicker basket where little newborn Abraham lies grimy and swaddled in threadbare sheets, his face greased to protect his pale newborn cheeks. Beside Martha, young Nathaniel, his blond ringlets teeming from under a broad brimmed Norfolk, his thin arms cradling his black eyepatch puppy. And walking at the head of horses, whispering their nerves into searing silence, battered and dustblown in tall stovepipe and ministerial black, Jeremiah. Eyes willing to trust, but only in Jehovah, squinting from creased leathern, wind worn features.... upwards, forwards, across and behind. Oh aye, they come from behind. Specks of frail humanity in all this vastness where soon the vultures of hate would awaken, their eyes attuned to centuries of everwatchfulness, able to detect prey from miles afar, their hunger and bloodlust insatiable. We passed the Rangers Supporters Club.
- See? What did I tell yis? Nobody about.
It wasn’t too bad, considering. Fuck, sure hadn’t we carried amps and cabinets a million times from some school hall or youth club, taunted by the jeers, sometimes the kicks and punches of the Fiana Boys, stung by the scorn of the Ceili Marys? I fancied one of them. Siobhan. A real hard ass Camogie girl, but beautiful with it. She worked in a shibeen we played at, run by the boys in combats and woolly balaclavas. I asked her out.
- You, you creep? You must be jokin', she spat. Running up and down the Falls Road with your bloody wee guitar.
- Well... what's wrong with that?
She leaned in close.
- You should've been carrying a fuckin Armalite! she hissed.
I'd no answer to that.
Aw well... fuck them all, we can hack it. Soon we’d be home, over the Boyne Bridge, onto West Belfast turf.
- Fuck, this is some street, said Shane. Look at all these great shops. Way better than up our way.
- Shane, there are no shops up our way, said Wood. They burnt them all.
- Yeah true, but if they hadn’t burnt them, they still wouldn’t be as good as these? I mean look... look at that fabric shop. You could get curtains and bed sheets from there, local like, instead of having to go into town.
- Ah would you listen to the little wives, Abbie giggled.
- Naw, but you know what I mean, Shane continued. They got their priorities right. They didn’t shaft their own people by burning their own shops in protest at the Brits. Right?
- That's cause they love the Brits, countered Wood.
- Yeah, but you're missing the point, replied Shane. They work hard, they come home, they go to bed. They take pride in their shops. Straight people, these Prods. They’ll all be fast asleep in their beds as sensible people should, right?
- Right, said Wood.
- I mean you’d have to be pretty sick in the head to be out vigilantying at six on New Year's mornin’ wouldn’t you? You’d have to be seriously paranoi... Oh Jesus!
We froze. A noise somewhere off to the side. Shadows, darkness, streetlights in between. And there in the shadows, coming up the side of the wall, part of the wall for fuck’s sake, were three separate shadows, moving like ghosts towards us. Big cats creeping, creeping, crouched, hugging the darkness of that wall, straightening up at the last second before they burst out, tall and grey and vicious into sickly streetlight.
DUMFFF! A scaffolding pole hit me lenghtways on the back of the neck.
- Where the fuck d'youse think are youse are goin’? came the unmistakable Loyalist gutteral.
I turned and found myself staring at - scaffolding pole!!!? - the biggest handgun I’d ever seen. Dirty Harry's Magnum was a pea shooter beside it. Something like that would have no difficulty levelling a block of flats. I dared a glance at its owner. The eyes were black, expressionless, the teeth jagged, serrated almost. I was staring at a shark. A second before, the cold hard steel of its gun had nuzzled against my spinal cord, but now as the gun's black eye stared me in the face, a prosaic, philosophical realisation began to form itself in the manic, confused swirlings of what passed for a survival instinct.
Guns and sharks are alike. Sharks attack without malice, without emotion. Guns shoot without malice. They too are emotionless. But the shark holding that enormous gun... here was an entity bearing irrational malice towards the Catholic teenager standing in front of him, struggling to hold a speaker cabinet in his arms. Here was someone whose emotions were fired by an uncontrollable, insane hatred of Catholics. Any Catholic. And with the crystallization of that prosaic fact in my mind, what passed for a survival instinct... blew itself to pieces.
© 2020 Paul Bowen