Winter had been unusually cold. The gloom had endured for so long that it seemed as if nature was completely unable to find the light switch. In May it was finally flicked on, the sun graced us, and all of a sudden it was spring.
When hot weather arrives in Belfast certain rituals are performed: students in the Holylands bring their sofas out into the street, their windows yawning open to leak alternative music and sport commentaries onto the now-dusty streets. In the early evenings the smoky smell of charring meat rises above the hubbub of not-yet-drunken conversations in front gardens and back yards. Trios of skinny spides carrying tins of cider tie their football jerseys around their waists, exposing protruding ribs, tattoos in Chinese characters, and luminous sunburned skin. Forget Christmas – now is the real season of goodwill – the sunshine cheers everybody up. Strangers joke and chat with each other on street corners and in thronging beer gardens. Packs of girls in open-top cars, wearing skimpy clothes and sunglasses shout saucy chat-ups to young men on the pavement as they pass them. Maybe they will meet later at a bar by the Lagan, or in a hiving nightclub. The sap is rising.
It is Saturday and the Ormeau Park is busy with elderly dog-walkers, red-faced joggers, strolling couples with pushchairs, and kids on bikes. Toddlers show their parents the colourful primrose beds, and then run giggling to hide behind the bushes. Small yapping dogs futilely chase grey squirrels that easily escape them, gracefully disappearing into the newly-leaved Horse Chestnut trees. There is a small group of stubbly drinkers with an Alsatian dog on a rope leash in the dark recess of the shelter but they are never troublesome, and as expected, they ignore me as I pass by. I have been taking time out, sitting on one of the benches and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face and arms. I have been watching the world go by for nearly an hour, and am now taking one last lap of the park on my way home.
Heading back towards the Ormeau Road I move out of the sunshine into a shadier stretch of path, which is flanked by evergreens. There is a T-junction where I need to turn left to reach the bottom gates of the park, and here I encounter a young woman, approaching from the shadows on my left. She is looking straight ahead, absorbed, and doesn’t seem to notice me, so I slow down to let her go by. She is pretty, with fine features and straight hair that reaches to her shoulders. She is wearing a long summer dress with a thin cardigan over the top of it. Her sunglasses are pushed up on top of her head, so as she passes me I can clearly see that she is silently weeping.