Mary and I go out walking every Wednesday evening. We try and vary the route so it doesn’t get too repetitive, although we usually get so engrossed in our conversation that we don’t take that much notice of the world around us anyway. On the Lagan towpath, however, it’s different. We have to be alert to the barely audible whizzing of the mountain bikes as they race up behind us. Sometimes they have a bell which they ping faintly as they approach, and we make way to let them through. More often we don’t even hear them until they are right upon us. It’s pretty dangerous, and I often imagine painful collisions, or one of them ending up in the Lagan because somebody has changed course suddenly to avoid a wasp or a cloud of midges.
This evening we are going as far as the Lock-Keeper’s Cottage, where the Wild Iris used to flourish in a bed by the side of the canal. Just before you reach the cottage there is a narrow pedestrian bridge with red metal sides and railings. It is quite steeply humped, and has a jink in it as well. At either end there is a notice boldly painted onto the path: Cyclist Dismount. By the time we had reached our turning point, just beyond the lock, we’d had a couple of near misses with stealthy cyclists and were getting a bit annoyed about it. We had already decided that there was no chance of any of them ever dismounting to cross the bridge, and as we went back over on the return leg, we were proved right.
We were about quarter of the way across when a lardy, red-cheeked businessman in a high-vis jacket, his pinstripe suit and Paisley tie visible through the open front, came barrelling across the bridge. We had to jump out of the way. Affronted by his lack of road sense, I loudly passed a remark about him not being able to read. Turning his head, he thickly bellowed Fuck Off, in an Ulster-Scots accent, his jowls shaking. Aye! Fall off! Mary shouted as he wobbled at the end of the bridge. We laughed about it for the next few minutes.
As we approached the woods at Belvoir, a fine mist had come down, and the light was starting to fade. From across the Lagan, where the riverbank trees thinned out a little, giving onto a grassy clearing, we could hear the sound of a tin whistle being played. By now there was no traffic on the towpath; all the commuters were away home to warm themselves at the fire and have their tea. We stopped to listen; strained to catch the tune. It was a jig: The Walls of Derry we reckoned; played reasonably well, too. After a few more bars, the tune changed to an Orange March. The only other sounds were the low murmur of the river and the steady drips from the dewdropped leaves of the trees beside the path. The setting was perfect for Irish music, but the march didn’t suit the scene: it was too fast, too bright, for this damp, darkening, melancholy landscape. The sound of the whistle, though, muted by the moisture in the air, still had its own oblique appeal. This is Belfast, I thought: wonderful, contrary, surprising, and complex.
It was getting chilly; we directed our steps towards the warmth of our own hearths.
Audio, read by Mary Mulrine: