Royal Avenue hums with activity the further along she goes, pedestrians filtering in from side streets; dropping out of shop doorways and sliding into the throng from the Metros. The buses cut a path past Castlecourt, Tesco, McDonalds, like pink and white sloths, wheezing with exertion as they kneel at each stop.
If she closes her eyes, she could be in Russia she thinks, as a street musician colours the air with the jaunty distinctive melodies of his homeland. The notes seep into her skin, igniting within her an overwhelming desire to dance – any dance – a Russian dance she doesn’t know and couldn’t know.
She imagines stopping before the musician, lifting her imaginary skirts to just above the ankle and stamping the pavement in time to the rhythm. She would whirl and clap her hands high in the air, all the time beating out her own tune on the pavement. Passers-by would stare – she knows this and it frightens her – yet she wishes she could shock them out of their daily to-ing and fro-ing.
She moves on, past the street musician and his otherworldly playing, letting the notes bubble away from her as she loses herself in the crowd. Ahead, the City Hall sits plump and proud, gates open in welcome, but she turns away from it, warm floral air breaking over her like a wave as she enters Boots, dodging the assistants as they spritz perfumes and give Cheshire cat grins to customers in the hope they’ll stop and try, and maybe even buy.
She aims for the back entrance and gasps as the cold steals her breath, forcing her to shed the borrowed warmth from the store. She turns right and then left, to a place she has never yet been, squatting behind the parts of the city that are more familiar to her. It’s a route she may now revisit, once the trail is broken in – a corner of Belfast where artisan bakers create precision cakes topped with regimental buttercream peaks; where there are coffee shops and gift stores; shops seemingly stocked with all the flavours of the world – packets and tins and boxes stacked floor to ceiling. She doesn’t know how she could have missed it until now.
She thinks of the street musician and wonders if he comes to this pocket of the city and if so, what he does here. Does he sit with a black coffee in between shifts, or buy a taste of home from the food store stuffed with eclectic delights? Does he walk through it or by it or near it at all? This queen of streets.
She doesn’t know why it matters suddenly. Why she should wonder about the habits of a person she’s never met. Why she should care if he enjoys all the city has to offer and is welcomed into its heart. Whether he’s really even from Russia.