It was home time. My route back to Montgomery Street car park took me from the High Street through the stone-flagged pedestrian zone around Arthur Square in the city centre. It was a bright September evening and Corn Market was teeming with shoppers and weary office-workers heading for cars and buses. The scratchy sound of a Romanian fiddler playing his favourite tune on a horn-violin still rasped thinly from the narrow entry behind me. He was a small, grubby man with a cheeky smile, and it always cheered me up to see him.
There is a certain predictability about the streetlife around here. Aside from the fiddler, and his two discordant accordion-toting compatriots, there’s an old hippy who sits atop his amp, singing dodgy versions of John Lennon songs, and pausing every now and then to smoke a roll-up and drink tea. At lunchtimes a West-Indian evangelist in front of the Spirit of Belfast sculpture undauntedly implores an impassive stream of passers-by to return to the Lord. I have never seen anyone stop to listen to her.
This evening was to be different: unexpected musical delights awaited me. Outside the boarded-up shop front of Priceless Shoes four teenage girls in school uniforms were busking with guitars. Fourth or fifth year, I guessed. One of them was not playing her instrument, and had slung it down by her side as she sang, its neck pointing down to the pavement. She learned that pose from some TV pop star, I thought uncharitably to myself. Their voices were delicate, their harmonies good. They were singing Christian songs, sharing the Good News, and a small crowd of twenty or so people had formed in a semicircle to hear it.
Standing just in front of this rush-hour congregation was a skinny, grey haired alcoholic with a small dog at his side. The mongrel did not move and was not bothered one bit by the swinging movement of the leash as the drunk vigorously conducted the group with both of his hands. The mutt was oblivious to his master’s acrobatting, and sat patiently observing the other side of the street. The remainder of the audience stood within earshot of the girls, but kept themselves at a safe distance from the conductor. The expressions on the buskers’ faces were all different: demure amusement, stoic indifference, unconcealed revulsion and skyward-looking embarrassment. They knew they would make no money while the drunk was there; his very presence caused an exclusion zone which kept any potential benefactors well away from them. Yet they could not stop singing, for this meant defeat, surrender to the malign. It seemed that they would have to ignore the distraction and keep going until the miscreant got bored or the peelers arrived.
Apart from the japery of his conducting, the drunk was not objectionable; he did not leer at the girls or shout slurred heckles, nor did he attempt to steal their meagre earnings from the open guitar case. If they only realised it, he was their perfect audience, fully involved in the performance, God’s praises washing over him, mellifluous, potent, maybe transformational. These golden-curled angels could save him from his dissolute ways. But will they even try? I pondered, as I walked up Arthur Street towards the grey concrete mass of the car park.