There used to be a bandstand in Cornmarket. It was mostly a home for pigeons and a place for a late-night carryout; the square was quiet, and the bandstand provided shelter from the interminable Belfast rain. I never saw a band using it. Back then, the square was shabby, paved with pale yellow bricks, bordered with red. There was no Emerald City at the end of this Yellow Brick Road; just the grimy square, populated by discarded sweet papers and other rubbish whipped along by the wind. The bandstand was a 1970s project, built with tubular red-painted steel and with a bubble-like glass dome on top. Beside it was an equally ugly low-rise clock-tower affair built from the same red steel pipes.
Me and Mickey had been playing a session in Kelly’s Cellars, and we were full. Short of cash for the luxury of a taxi, we were optimistically and rather slowly tottering in the direction of the Rotterdam Bar to try and get a late drink. The city centre was dead. Coming out of Bank Street, we crossed Royal Avenue, passing a red LED chaser display in Castle Place that proudly proclaimed Belfast is Buzzing to the empty streets. It was probably 11.30, maybe midnight.
When we reached Cornmarket there was a ragged group of lads at the bandstand. They were drinking tins of Harp and smoking. We had a bit of banter with them, and in the spirit of bonhomie that comes with such illicit behaviour, they gave us a can of beer to share. We supplied rollups. It wasn’t long before they had finished their carryout, and left us sitting with the remains of our beer as they headed off home. It had started to drizzle so we decided to sit on for a few minutes and see if it would stop before we continued on our way. There wasn’t a sound, apart from the soft dripping of the rain from the bandstand, and the scrape of a crisp packet blowing past.
It was Mickey who noticed it first: a curtain of thick grey smoke rising from the slatted vents above the shuttered ground-floor windows of the shop next to us. It rose silently, coyly, into the night sky. There was no fuss: no flashing lights, no clanging alarm bells, no flames. It was bizarrely peaceful. As we sat and watched, two of the boys returned with unlit rollups: Either of youse two got a light? one of them queried.
Within minutes we could hear sirens approaching; blue lights flickered off the glistening walls. Response vehicles and peelers were imminent. We swigged the last of the beer and continued our journey. Belfast was buzzing.