I was working in the Royal Victoria Hospital. I’d been given a room on the second floor of Bostock House – or ‘Bostick House’ as it’s known to the regulars. It used to be the nurses’ accommodation until someone burned down the eighth floor. I’ve been informed that the blaze was caused by an unattended candle that caught a curtain on fire; now they use the whole floor as an educational walkthrough to demonstrate how quickly fire can rampage through a building. The rest of the place houses all manner of administrative offices. Bostock House itself is an ugly red-brick T-shaped thing from the 1950s. There is a ballroom on the ground floor, where dances are still held occasionally, if you want to do the Foxtrot or Paso Doble. It has a proper sprung floor. One of the older nurses I met, who’d lived there back in the 70s, told me it was nigh impossible to get a man into the building. Not quite the Ballroom of Romance, then. I imagined the contrast when she was living there: demure chaperoned tea dancing inside, blazing mayhem, rioting and murder on the outside.
At lunch time I’d decided to go out onto the Falls Road and get a sandwich and some fresh air. I crossed the road at Fáilte restaurant and walked up the road towards Beechmount, where I knew there was a Centra store. The Gaeltacht Quarter was radiant in the November sunshine, but the bitter easterly wind would cut you in two, and I hastily buttoned up my overcoat. Round here the shop signs and street names are bilingual, in Irish and English. I passed the Red Devil bar and the Beehive, where a skinny lad, in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to partially reveal a spidey tattoo, was smoking a fag, impervious to the chill.
At the corner of Shiels Street a window display in the bookies shop urged: ‘Lig do Chroí Chun Rasá!’ My sketchy grasp of Irish translated this as something like let your heart race. The building opposite, I noticed, was home to the Suicide Awareness Group. I passed Brighton Street and Islandbawn Street, where there is a mural giving the names of seventeen people who were killed by Plastic Bullets since 1970. Eight of them were children. Further down the Falls, I turned right into Beechmount Avenue. There is a large mural here on the gable end; a memorial to the Easter Rising of 1916. The old street sign still says RPG Avenue. Further down, at the corner of Clowney Street, the Hunger Strike mural endures the years as well, forever appealing to the Iron Lady: Maggie Thatcher think again, don’t let our brave boys die in vain. There is a new, more skilfully executed mural above the old one, commemorating the anniversary of the Hunger Strike. Suddenly I remembered that there used to be a bakery round here where allegedly you could get a fresh Belfast Bap at 6 a.m. I never managed: it was always shut when I was rolling home from a house party.
I went into the Centra, heading directly to the end chiller where the sandwiches were. As I approached it I could overhear a conversation. Three grossly overweight women, two of them in their forties, and one with short dyed red hair in her twenties, were arranged in a wedge formation, like a phalanx of tanks on a battlefield. It took me a wee while to work out that they were talking about dream interpretation: My book says that means danger. Mine says sickness. I selected my lunch. No, but did you cross water? Aye, I did. The younger one chipped in: I don’t know what you’re worrying about him for anyway, Mary. Should be glad to get a break from him. I squeezed past them towards the back of the shop to go and queue. I know, but he’s away for four days. I’m heart scared. He’s never been away so long before.
I stepped back out into the November sunshine. It’s changed utterly round here, I thought, as I turned back through the drizzle towards the Falls.