That moment between sleep and the coming day,
when nothing else matters –
The unblemished intimacy of soft skin;
blissful union of mind and body.
Innocent as childer
That moment between sleep and the coming day,
when nothing else matters –
The unblemished intimacy of soft skin;
blissful union of mind and body.
Innocent as childer
sometimes when the traffic weakens
you feel you could have the run of the city
in memorium. when there were
no capitalisations, only silent confetti
and these light needles
back through these shut blinds
seam all the day mine.
safe in this little cell, out a way
from dark tourisms smaller and smaller ghosts.
sometimes a greater fear rips an emptiness
where everyone runs so petty.
with spears and one conch shell,
smashing ugly, pulsing lightbulbs
upon the streets like fish of jelly.
as rain sloshed everything else,
you in my gut, again.
i try to think about outside,
again. buck chopping board smile,
the sag of my knives give
away the other side. spear through to
blot bottle of wine i’ll get,
get not; that beckett play
in coffee pot stop, that pound of
dripping wet, word made flesh
which mark these days. damp most
from the way you edit away
parts of my poems where feeling this
exists. drip dry these days.
Nobody knew where it came from, or how it spread so far, so quickly. It appeared on three continents in the course of one day; a mark on the calendar that became portentously known as Day 1. It was soon apparent that the outbreak was worse than anything that had ever been seen before. It was apocalyptic, almost as if a bamboo-style mass die-off of the human species had been triggered. In no time, the horrendous West African Ebola epidemic of 2013-16, which had claimed the lives of over 11,300 people, began to look parochial in comparison. Reactions to the threat were entirely predictable: everyone blamed each other, the usual suspects were scapegoated, and God was enlisted on the side of the righteous. The virus, memorably named HKN1H7A, did not discriminate, however. It was given its nickname, Hyena, by a bright spark at the New York Times the minute its grisly symptoms became known. The name was entirely fitting: the illness announced its presence with bouts of uncontrollable laughter, accompanied by tears, coughing , and sneezing. After several hours red measle-like spots appeared on the chest, followed within about twenty four hours by a ghastly, wheezing, frothing death as the patient’s lungs filled with fluid.
You can imagine the impact when the first pictures were broadcast: a middle-aged man in striped pyjamas bubbling up his last moments in a Sydney hospital isolation tent; a taxi driver in Mexico City, who’d slept in his cab, rolling in the street with yellow spume encrusting his cheeks; a Turkish swimmer emerging from the sea, her upper torso peppered with livid crimson dots. Governments across the globe were caught on the hop by the sudden and widespread nature of the outbreak. Virologists and tropical disease specialists appeared on TV screens theorising about incubation periods and how the disease was transmitted, but really at this early stage they knew very little about it, apart from the fact that it was spreading very fast, and leaving a lot of bodies in its wake. The virus was, of course, reported in the news as originating in tropical Africa; the journalists knew the script. They’d all seen Outbreak. They were wrong.
World leaders promised their panicking populations that they were doing everything possible to contain the virus or prevent it entering their country. Borders were shut and travel restricted. But it was already too late: by the end of Week 2, the village of Buldug in Azerbaijan (population 1,797) was officially recorded as the first community to have laughed themselves out of existence. Other grim statistics were to follow in quick succession. In many countries laughter was prohibited in order to protect cheerful healthy citizens from being banished, locked up in isolation cells, or attacked and killed by rampaging vigilante mobs. A pseudo-scientific fake news theory that the virus attacked ‘funny people’ spread like wildfire on social media. Thick black smoke rose above burnt-out comedy clubs and joke shops, and cinemas no longer showed anything remotely humorous; even Hugh Grant romcoms were shelved. A Scottish stand-up comedian sourly announcing the end of his career remarked, “They always said laughter was infectious; well, now it’s true, only in a bad way. It used to be the comics that died on stage, but now it’s the audience killing themselves laughing. It’s beyond a joke”. Laughter disappeared from streets, bars, and other public places. Having a sense of humour became an undesirable character trait. The acronym GSOH vanished from dating websites and personal ads, to be replaced with NSOH and DOUR. Demand for certain illegal drugs slackened, while ‘downers’ became the order of the day. Psilocybin mushrooms went unpicked.
In Northern Ireland the border was quickly sealed by the army and navy. Republicans called for an island-wide response to the new security arrangements, but were secretly glad of the extra layer of security and didn’t push their argument too hard. At first, loyalists were unsmilingly jubilant at the closure of the border, but it wasn’t long before boredom and a sense of purposelessness set in, and rallies were held outside Belfast City Hall against their new isolation from the rest of Britain. Addressing the crowd, a senior Orangeman stated that the travel ban was a flagrant attack on their traditions, and they would march wherever they wanted. Later that week, a suspected case of Hyena from Cobh was hospitalised in Cork city, sending anxiety levels and paranoia soaring over the whole island. The first minister took to the airwaves from Stormont to declare a national emergency, weakly hinting that the virus was the work of republicans and stating through pursed lips that laughter was “no longer the best medicine”; the good old days of the chuckle brothers were emphatically over. Vigilance was urged, and a new campaign to Keep Ulster Sombre was launched. Kitchener-style posters appeared encouraging people to tout on their friends, neighbours, and relations if any frivolity was suspected. Flimsy pretexts were entirely acceptable, and vendettas, petty feuds and sibling rivalries now had a new means of settlement. Pyjama-clad grandparents and solitary professionals were dragged from their houses in the early hours by the newly-formed Police Isolation Group. The theme music to Only Fools and Horses or a suppressed guffaw being heard through the walls was enough for the PIGs to kick in the door. Quarantine camps were hastily set up on disused airfields, and Long Kesh was re-populated. Diageo issued a profit warning while Dale Farm increased buttermilk production by 23%. A new book, Solemn Tales for Presbyterians, became an instant best seller as the War on Laughter escalated.
Up on the hill, the Stormont assembly was recalled for an emergency session to define exactly what constituted laughter. Smiling was to be discouraged but acceptable, up to the point where visible bodily shaking (the ‘laughter movement’), occurred. Children under the age of five were exempt from automatic isolation, but parents were instructed not to behave in such a way as to encourage any sort of hilarity. Tickling was strictly prohibited, as were tall tales, silly voices and walks, jokes and impersonations. Pyres were made to publicly dispose of anything that might be considered humorous, and citizens were encouraged to purge their shelves of all such material at public bonfires. There was, of course, debate as to what constituted humorous material and what did not; Steve Martin, Jim Davidson, and Mrs Brown’s Boys were included on the incineration list just to be on the safe side. Strict penalties for owning ‘media liable to incite laughter’ were introduced. Websites were closed down and internet service providers forced to censor content. LAD made one last defiant post, rejuvenating the famous ‘No Surrender’ city hall fleg protester video before they were forced off the web under threat of incarceration for incitement. Attempts to post satirical yet un-funny material were unsuccessful.
Predictably, the suicide rate increased, quadrupling in the dark winter months, and GP referrals for depression went through the roof. Marriage break-ups increased by 40%. By the end of Month 4 of the Hyena outbreak around half the population was on some form of therapy, and production of anti-depressants was tripled by the pharmaceutical companies. There was, however, an upside to this bleak statistic: half the population didn’t even need to reach for a copy of Solemn Tales to dampen their mirth, as they weren’t in danger of even cracking a smile. And there was more good news: Northern Ireland remained Hyena-free, even as the world’s continental land masses succumbed to unwanted hilarity, riots, lootings, and martial law. The security forces were by and large successful in their attempts to control people-smuggling due to the implementation of a shoot-to-kill policy, although some attempts to get relations and high-paying individuals in were successful. The population of Rathlin Island grew mysteriously by 30%, despite a naval blockade.
As would be expected, it didn’t take long for illicit activity to mushroom across Northern Ireland. A black market for funny movies and stand-up shows burgeoned. For those who had the funds and were willing to risk it, a bootleg Benny Hill DVD could be purchased for £75 on the Dark Web; the original Pink Panther movies could fetch up to £300 each. Isolated farmhouses and soundproofed city social clubs turned into comedy venues. The authorities were vigilant, however. In one shocking case, a raid on an East Belfast premises, using state-of-the-art listening equipment, uncovered a whole Father Ted box set, with one DVD still in the player. Thirty five people were taken away in vans by the PIGs. An elderly man had to be restrained after refusing to control himself; a UTV news anchor reporting the incident struggled to keep his face straight. Allegedly, as he was taken away, the man had repeatedly shouted “I don’t beleeeeeeeve it!”, “down with that sort of thing!”and “feck off!” with tears streaming down his face – until his rebellion was suppressed by the application of a baton to the solar plexus. In a later court case this was deemed to be a reasonable use of force given the level of incitement.
In another case a retired judge was taken away in cuffs from his Malone Road home after being found in possession of black-market VHS tapes of Porridge, Fawlty Towers, and Red Dwarf (series 1-6). He remained defiant even as they shipped him off to Long Kesh to begin his isolation, stating that he regretted nothing, and would do it all again if he had to. Reporting back after his release, he described his time inside as rather pleasant, once he’d got used to the conditions. Although strictly segregated, the inmates were able to share jokes and laugh as much as they wanted. The judge described the atmosphere as generally comradely and warm, although he admitted to hoping that the guy who did the Frank Carson impressions was genuinely infected, after ten days of “It’s a cracker!” every five minutes. Once news of the convivial atmosphere inside isolation got out, there were those, mostly habitually jolly people and compulsive joke tellers, who actively sought incarceration despite the risk of infection. As he was taken in for telling one-liners on a street corner, one wag commented: “Month inside for dealing craic, wha?! Better off taking your chances in here and having a bit of a laugh, than living in Miseryville over there”.
It took a year and ten months for a vaccine to be developed and distributed. In that time the global population had been decimated, and life everywhere had changed completely – apart from some as-yet-undiscovered corners of the Amazon rain forest. The demographic and social changes were enormous. As life returned to a new normality that once again accepted laughter – albeit grudgingly in some quarters – the debate in Northern Ireland turned to recalcitrant legacy issues: the repeal of the shoot-to-kill policy and emergency anti-humour legislation, the disbanding of the PIGs, and the re-opening of the border with the South. Everyone was back on familiar territory.
It is 2:30am when Graham spies me from across the road. Uh-oh. I said goodnight to Graham about an hour and a half ago so I could go and finish the night off in the gambling parlour, and now I needed an excuse. I decided quickly I had better take the head on this conversation, but fortunately, Graham seems too drunk to really care.
-Hey man, what’s happening, you still out?
-Yeah, it’s all good! Just walking up the road, down here in South Belfast, it’s all good. What you up to?
-I’m excellent. I just won ninety pounds.
This is a lie, almost. I made forty pounds profit, at the risk of putting in fifty quid and quickly saying goodbye to it. Anyway, ninety sounds better.
-No way, how did you do that?! I don’t believe you.
Graham snorts a little and laughs. I point in the direction of the gambling parlour and then take my wallet out and display the notes.
-Wow, you did. Well done, man.
I’m showing off now. These guys are young, and ninety pounds is a lot of dough to them. It’s a lot to me too, but I can’t let on that it is, I have to tell myself I can afford it, otherwise I wouldn’t be gambling at all, I’d have gone straight to bed like a good boy.
We’re standing at a bus stop outside Methody College, just across from the gambling room. Graham and a few others of us had been at a reading earlier on, then on to some bar. I couldn’t even remember the bar now, all I focused on was the money and the winnings.
It’s pretty busy for this time of night, but I figure it’s still pretty early, and as I get older, the night becomes younger for me.
-You’ve met Tim and Rob?
-Yeah, I think I met you before.
I nod to Tim, a ginger dreadlocked guy who I was willing to bet played in a band. Rob had an impressive beard for an eighteen year old, or he was older than I thought.
-You going to join us mate? We’re heading for a kebab.
-Aah, no thanks, I already got something earlier.
-You’re the poet, yeah? I saw you read in the Safehouse. It was pretty good.
Tim mentions something about us working together on something, and I say the same thing as always when offered projects: sure, yeah and then soon forget about the whole thing.
Graham is milling around behind us as we talk. He can’t keep still, and it’s not because of the drink. He’s exactly the same when sober, a dervish of a teenager, all rambling philosophy beautifully phrased in struck motions of physical whimsy.
-Eurgh, look at this.
Graham brings us over to the bus stop and points behind the plastic seat. There’s something sticking out the side, and as I edge closer, my nose wrinkles up with suspicion. Whatever it is smells like vodka vomit. It wouldn’t be the first time someone treated the metro stop as a toilet.
-There’s a dead cat in here! Woah. Will you look at that?
Sure enough, some sorry feline was laid out, tucked behind the seat. Its front paws stretched out in front of it, as if in prayer. The smell gets worse as I lean down, and my caution must be a sign that I’m sobering up. It smells exactly like puke, but all the vomit is the same in this city, expelled from the heart of another punter coughing up the ruins of a Friday night.
-You still feel like getting that kebab?
I say my goodbyes to Graham and his friends, explaining that they were heading one way, and I had to go the other. I can’t see out the small hours to the morning, I’m an old, tired man now and I want to go home, but Graham and friends seem to be ready to keep on going.
I walk down the road, thinking about that dead cat. I’m ready to be stretched out on the pavement, ready for the maggots and the city to come and get me. I pat my jeans pocket to check I’ve got my wallet okay, and head home, forty pounds richer, but flat broke in direction and aptitude. There is always the expectancy of tomorrow here: the sun will come out, the bins will be collected, the dream job is open. Oh, to gnaw through my ropes and reach out to it all.
Driving back up the road after dropping my daughter off at school, I notice a middle-aged woman wrangling a blue wheelie bin into position outside her back gate. She looks miserable, the corners of her mouth turned down into a substantial, world-hating grimace.
She lives in one of those detached, airy, red-brick houses that have extensive back gardens, and she’s wearing expensive clothes and shoes (understated and classy). Looking at her I am immediately seized by the notion that it’s all futile. Human existence is pointless – we are nothing but ants, crawling the face of the Earth, enduring the incessant grind of slavish un-nourishing activity simply to feed the Queen. And look: this particular Queen isn’t even happy. Of course, I have no idea what is going on in her life, so this is all conjecture. Maybe her cat just died. Maybe her dead cat is in the wheelie bin. That would make anyone grimace.
But the lines on her face suggest that the smile is a rare visitor here; her troubles are more enduring than the death of Tiddles the ginger tom. She doesn’t look tired, as if she was caring for a demanding aged parent, or going through the wringer of sleeplessness and depression. And it’s not as if she’s all fur coat and no knickers: the area she lives in, the expensive clothes, the new code pad-controlled gate all point to sufficient wealth. Poverty is not pinching at her well-nurtured, yet toned, frame: she uses the gym, not the food bank.
If I’m reading her expression accurately, I’d say she looks dissatisfied, as if the world isn’t functioning the way she wants it to. It’s the same look that’s thrown down sometimes from those marble balconies by our pampered, selfish, parasitical monarchs. And that’s one reason why it’s all futile. What’s the point of accumulating all this comfort – inevitably by ruthlessly exploiting those further down the food chain – if we can’t even enjoy it? And why is what we have never enough?
At some point, probably in the nearer rather than the distant future – if we haven’t destroyed life on Earth by ourselves – Mother Nature will finally succeed in spitting us out. What then? The worms and cockroaches that will gain dominion over this planet have no need for poetry or music or grand buildings or golden carriages; we have no use for dinosaur bones. Mind you, compared to the dinosaurs we’re an insignificant little smudge on Earth’s timeline. We have no chance of sticking around as long as they did. We won’t manage another thousand years, never mind a few hundred million.
Note to self: Perhaps listening to Radiohead first thing in the morning isn’t always a great idea. Or maybe it is.
Black Maserati, revving; stuck in traffic.
Royal Avenue hums with activity the further along she goes, pedestrians filtering in from side streets; dropping out of shop doorways and sliding into the throng from the Metros. The buses cut a path past Castlecourt, Tesco, McDonalds, like pink and white sloths, wheezing with exertion as they kneel at each stop.
If she closes her eyes, she could be in Russia she thinks, as a street musician colours the air with the jaunty distinctive melodies of his homeland. The notes seep into her skin, igniting within her an overwhelming desire to dance – any dance – a Russian dance she doesn’t know and couldn’t know.
She imagines stopping before the musician, lifting her imaginary skirts to just above the ankle and stamping the pavement in time to the rhythm. She would whirl and clap her hands high in the air, all the time beating out her own tune on the pavement. Passers-by would stare – she knows this and it frightens her – yet she wishes she could shock them out of their daily to-ing and fro-ing.
She moves on, past the street musician and his otherworldly playing, letting the notes bubble away from her as she loses herself in the crowd. Ahead, the City Hall sits plump and proud, gates open in welcome, but she turns away from it, warm floral air breaking over her like a wave as she enters Boots, dodging the assistants as they spritz perfumes and give Cheshire cat grins to customers in the hope they’ll stop and try, and maybe even buy.
She aims for the back entrance and gasps as the cold steals her breath, forcing her to shed the borrowed warmth from the store. She turns right and then left, to a place she has never yet been, squatting behind the parts of the city that are more familiar to her. It’s a route she may now revisit, once the trail is broken in – a corner of Belfast where artisan bakers create precision cakes topped with regimental buttercream peaks; where there are coffee shops and gift stores; shops seemingly stocked with all the flavours of the world – packets and tins and boxes stacked floor to ceiling. She doesn’t know how she could have missed it until now.
She thinks of the street musician and wonders if he comes to this pocket of the city and if so, what he does here. Does he sit with a black coffee in between shifts, or buy a taste of home from the food store stuffed with eclectic delights? Does he walk through it or by it or near it at all? This queen of streets.
She doesn’t know why it matters suddenly. Why she should wonder about the habits of a person she’s never met. Why she should care if he enjoys all the city has to offer and is welcomed into its heart. Whether he’s really even from Russia.
This is where I live
The place where the rivers run
Where we all suck the same air
Poet, punk, rag toe, heel, fucker, friend and foe
This is the place I knelt and fell all tongues and spirit
Where my sister whispers in faded voice
Where I cradle a sense of wonder
This is where I lost myself, for a time, under a waste moon
Howling and hurting and hung off the rail
H-bomb burned, breathing
This is the place where the 3 princes walk by the Connswater
And will always turn my steps
This is where I was touched new
Among the scaffold and awkward cups
On the cobbles near the big spire
This is where I will take root and bear fruit and linger
Hug the earth and keep on wondering
Scribbles on Cocktail Napkins
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