The abrasive, high-pitched, chainsaw-like buzz of his wee car being excessively revved by old Gerry from next door rips me away from my idle daydreaming in front of the TV. I have been watching a report about the continuing Loyalist riots on the Newtownards Road. Cars have been burned out, politicians issued with death threats, and homes in the Short Strand attacked by sectarian mobs. Some of the masked rioters haven’t even reached their teens yet. Depressing. I get up to watch out of the window in fear for my car which I have foolishly parked next to Gerry’s. He’s rammed a few neighbours recently; apparently one couple were sitting in their vehicle when he slipped the clutch, crossed the street and piled into the side, completely wrecking their driver’s door. I’m amazed he’s still able to get insurance. But there is no damage this time; he takes off, stuttering towards the end of the street with the engine complaining loudly.
It is bitter outside, typical Mid-January Belfast weather: cold and grey, the interminable rain blowing along on a light breeze in fine, almost-mist-like droplets. I don’t want to go out in this, but I have letters to post, and the car needs to be taxed; if I’m going to walk down to the gasworks I may go now. There is no point waiting for the rain to ease off, and snow is forecast for tomorrow; I can procrastinate no longer. I stash my documents and letters in the capacious inside pocket of my long coat, and wrap up warm: scarf, woolly hat, gloves. On the Ormeau Road I pass through a posited sectarian boundary, which is delineated by flags: at Ballynafeigh the Union Flag, on the Lower Ormeau the Tricolour. Today they are sodden and wrapped pathetically around the lamp posts. I imagine them hanging permanently flaccid like this, rotting; dissolving gradually in the rain, their colours leaching out imperceptibly, fibres slowly untangling, fabric mouldering. But I must pay attention to the street as well: there are large puddles on the pavement and road, and I need to keep well away from the kerb to avoid getting drenched by mischievous taxi drivers and lumbering buses. When I get to the bottom of Donegall Pass I notice a new billboard. It is displaying some of the forthcoming attractions Northern Ireland has to offer in 2013: Londonderry, City of Culture; Fermanagh, G8 conference; Belfast, World Fire and Police Games. They started rehearsing for the Games early here, I think, recalling the news bulletin.
The DVA office is quiet, and I’m all done within ten minutes. I set my face to the weather once more and start back up the road towards the comfort of a turf fire and a cup of tea. When I get to the shops on the Lower Ormeau, I notice something: there is a large, black and white-panelled umbrella on the road. It is completely extended, nearly taking up the whole lane; cars are pulling out to go around it. There isn’t enough wind to whip it scratching awkwardly along the road, so it sits there, bizarrely immobile. It hasn’t been snatched by a sudden gust out of somebody’s hands, or been turned inside out and discarded. It’s in perfect condition. There is nobody running after it, nobody even near it. I am perplexed by this: how has it come to be there? I try to picture the circumstances: the owner spontaneously combusting; being beamed up by aliens; teleporting. But there’s no corroborating ash pile on the road, no scorching; nothing.
Maybe it’s not so exotic though. Encamped there on the glistening tarmac the umbrella could serve as an alternative flag, a symbol of peace, equality, and tolerance: continually circumvented, ignored, and un-newsworthy. I leave it silently protesting in the face of the oncoming traffic, and head for home.