Today’s Existentialist Rant

Driving back up the road after dropping my daughter off at school, I notice a middle-aged woman wrangling a blue wheelie bin into position outside her back gate. She looks miserable, the corners of her mouth turned down into a substantial, world-hating grimace.

She lives in one of those detached, airy, red-brick houses that have extensive back gardens, and she’s wearing expensive clothes and shoes (understated and classy). Looking at her I am immediately seized by the notion that it’s all futile. Human existence is pointless – we are nothing but ants, crawling the face of the Earth, enduring the incessant grind of slavish un-nourishing activity simply to feed the Queen. And look: this particular Queen isn’t even happy. Of course, I have no idea what is going on in her life, so this is all conjecture. Maybe her cat just died. Maybe her dead cat is in the wheelie bin. That would make anyone grimace.

But the lines on her face suggest that the smile is a rare visitor here; her troubles are more enduring than the death of Tiddles the ginger tom. She doesn’t look tired, as if she was caring for a demanding aged parent, or going through the wringer of sleeplessness and depression. And it’s not as if she’s all fur coat and no knickers: the area she lives in, the expensive clothes, the new code pad-controlled gate all point to sufficient wealth. Poverty is not pinching at her well-nurtured, yet toned, frame: she uses the gym, not the food bank.

If I’m reading her expression accurately, I’d say she looks dissatisfied, as if the world isn’t functioning the way she wants it to. It’s the same look that’s thrown down sometimes from those marble balconies by our pampered, selfish, parasitical monarchs. And that’s one reason why it’s all futile. What’s the point of accumulating all this comfort – inevitably by ruthlessly exploiting those further down the food chain – if we can’t even enjoy it? And why is what we have never enough?

At some point, probably in the nearer rather than the distant future – if we haven’t destroyed life on Earth by ourselves – Mother Nature will finally succeed in spitting us out. What then? The worms and cockroaches that will gain dominion over this planet have no need for poetry or music or grand buildings or golden carriages; we have no use for dinosaur bones. Mind you, compared to the dinosaurs we’re an insignificant little smudge on Earth’s timeline. We have no chance of sticking around as long as they did. We won’t manage another thousand years, never mind a few hundred million.

Note to self: Perhaps listening to Radiohead first thing in the morning isn’t always a great idea. Or maybe it is. blue bin

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Cars, Ormeau Road, Part 2.

Black Maserati, revving; stuck in traffic.


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Guest Post: ‘A New Corner’ by Claire Savage

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.

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The Sharp End

The pencils weren’t going to last. Even as she’d bunched them into the pot with their less-desirable, less-prestigious, workaday blue and red cousins, she knew it. They would walk when she was out of the room, borrowed never to be returned. It is a fact of life that pencils, like books, CDs, and cigarette lighters have a tendency to find their way into other people’s lives, but these pencils were off the scale in terms of their desirability. On the first day back she’d noted the furtive covetous looks from her academic colleagues, and the research students who used the project room that she shared with the other postdoc, Michael. She suspected he was the first to move on them. Either him or Prof, who spent more time in their room than his own office, gossiping and scheming away at his empire-building. Both of them had been consumed with envy after she’d returned from the research trip to Harvard; neither of them had been there, let alone spent time in the rare book room of the Houghton Library.

The Library was very generous with its pencils. As in most special collections reading rooms, ink pens of any description were barred, which meant that pencils had to be used for note-taking. On the first day there she’d heard the whirr of the mechanical pencil sharpener in the corner, and looking up had seen the box of free pencils on the table. She’d quietly stashed the propelling pencil she’d bought specially for the visit back in her bag, and gone over to investigate. Seeing her pause at the sharpener, a clean-cut library assistant had come over to her, smiled knowingly, and told her to take a few.

“They make nice souvenirs,” he said, as he inserted one into the sharpener, “It’s automatic. Like this.”

She’d reddened up briefly, then taken six. The pencils radiated class: light burgundy in colour, with the Harvard Library crest and ‘Houghton Library’ embossed in white. The eraser-holder was gold. She wondered if six was enough.

Within three days of her return to Belfast there was only one left. Michael had openly added one to his collection. It was brazenly displayed at the front of his hoard, inviting comment. How many of them had he actually paid for?  When she remarked about her pencil he simply said,

“You gave it to me. What? You want it back now? Make up your mind, would ya? Jesus. It’s just a pencil.”

She took it back. The next day it was gone again. That morning, after they left, she imagined the conversation, Michael and Prof slagging her off over coffee at Clement’s. They spent a lot of time closeted there together these days. She’d heard the script many times before in their company: bitter, dismissive, and far-ranging. No-one was exempt.

In the evening she took the last pencil home with her, jabbing it in amongst the others in a dark corner of the desk under the gable roof. It was never just a pencil.


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Guest post: ‘This Place’ by Duke Special

This is where I live

The place where the rivers run

Where we all suck the same air

Poet, punk, rag toe, heel, fucker, friend and foe

This is the place I knelt and fell all tongues and spirit

Where my sister whispers in faded voice

Where I cradle a sense of wonder


This is where I lost myself, for a time, under a waste moon

Howling and hurting and hung off the rail

H-bomb burned, breathing

This is the place where the 3 princes walk by the Connswater

And will always turn my steps

This is where I was touched new

Among the scaffold and awkward cups

On the cobbles near the big spire

This is where I will take root and bear fruit and linger

Hug the earth and keep on wondering

This place


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The Holy Trinity

Integrated primary school classroom, Belfast. The P3s are having a Religious Education class.

Teacher: “Can anyone tell me about the holy trinity?”


Girl: “Well, miss, my daddy …”


Girl: “My daddy says …”


Girl: “… My daddy says that the holy trinity is ginger, garlic, and chilli.”

Teacher: “Very good Laura. But I was looking for something about religion. You know this is RE, not home economics.”

Girl.: “But Miss, my daddy says that Ken Hom told him so.”

Teacher: “right …”

Girl: “And he’s god. Ken Hom is god.”

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Belfast, from Cave Hill

Dreamers• schemers• bathroom cleaners• pipers• snipers• windscreen-wipers• typists• rascists• papists • rapists• spankers• bankers• wankers• outflankers• peace-makers• bakers• risk-takers• orgasm-fakers• fighters• writers• pillow-biters• shite-talkers• stalkers• hill-walkers• hawkers• porkers• growlers• prowlers• full-moon howlers• petty thieves• kickers of leaves• healers• peelers• drug-dealers• arse-feelers• dog-breeders• avid readers• cheerleaders• the weird• the cloth-eared• the disappeared• community pillars• tooth-drillers• illegal distillers• gorillas• repentant killers• prods• sods• mods• yobs• nobs• slobs• runners• stunners• machine-gunners• climbers• rhymers• old-timers• portrait-painters• stuffy-room fainters• fiddlers• diddlers• back-alley piddlers• sluggers• muggers• buggers• tree-huggers• farmers• charmers• child-harmers• losers• choosers• abusers• boozers• schoolboys• toy-boys• corner-boys• rent-boys• bad boys• touts• snouts• louts• down-and-outs• pimps• wimps• gimps• parasites• gobshites• fly-by-nights• corridor-pacers• ambulance-chasers• kiddie-boy racers• quaffers• scoffers• coughers• the well-appointed• the double-jointed• huns• nuns• working mums• crackers• slackers• shelf-stackers• account-hackers• arsonists• larcenists• royalists• loyalists• fundamentalists• flat-earthers• no-mirthers• natural-birthers• string-pluckers• motherfuckers• brick-chuckers• prudes• dudes• cool nudes• cheaters• beaters• vegetable-eaters• preachers• screechers• teachers• hair-bleachers• fliers• liars• asset-buyers• lags• slags• hags• toe-rags• old bags• ballbags• twits• brits• wee shits• nitwits• hypocrites• lurkers• shirkers• construction workers• acrobats• twats• lovers of cats• employees• payees• trustees• refugees• lefties• westies• besties• crusties• culchies• orangies• fluters• looters• freebooters• seducers• juicers• film producers• thickheads• dickheads• airheads• shitheads• vicars• lickers• fruit-pickers• city slickers• witches• bitches• snitches• curtain-twitchers• beggars• fleggers• bootleggers• truckers• suckers• muckers• noisy fuckers• swingers• singers• mingers• right-wingers• dead-ringers• screwers• brewers• gum-chewers• plotters• trotters• train-spotters• copybook-blotters•  jokers• smokers• midnight bokers• runts• grunts• lazy cunts• twisters• sisters• short-listers• freaks• sneaks• fixers of leaks• jivers• skivers• taxi drivers• ‘lend-us-a-fiver’s• moaners• loners• organ-donors• whores• bores• stevedores• makers of laws• proles• arseholes• setters of goals• go-getters• elders-and-betters• bed-wetters• clinicians• musicians• mathematicians• politicians• the outraged• the under-aged• the low-waged• lodgers• bodgers• salad-dodgers• nippers• strippers• day-trippers• sticks• pricks• catholics• lunatics• junkies• flunkies• cheeky monkeys• gritters• fitters• splitters• heavy-hitters• woolly-sock knitters• semen-spitters• lords• frauds• chairmen of boards• plumbers• drummers• latecomers• designers• maligners• whiners• toe-the-liners• naysayers• bricklayers• zombie-slayers• poker-players• sinners• shinners• lottery winners• rockers• dockers• door-knockers• weavers• achievers• non-believers• thrashers• flashers• potato-mashers• bible-bashers• budget-slashers• car-crashers• gays• DJs• here-to-stays• travellers• grovellers• shovellers• dream-unravellers …

Maria McManus Cavehill 1

Photo by Maria McManus

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Cars, Ormeau Road, 1.

The roar of a high-performance engine and the squeal of tyres turns my head. A shining, beefed-up muscular mini, containing a skinny young man with short hair and wearing dark glasses, speeds down the hill towards town. The man’s tattooed right arm is hanging out of the driver’s window, juxtaposed against the shocking pink, white-striped car body.

Blue Subaru with gold trim, parked outside the Ulster Bank. Low to the ground, it is the first to be affected when the manhole covers burst open and the flash flood waters from the heavy rain start to flow into its twin exhaust pipes. The lad with spiked-up hair and acne, in his smart bank uniform, nips out to see what can be done, but he can’t leave his customers to queue for long. The car won’t budge; when 5 o’clock comes, taxi for him, low-loader for his motor.

Vernacularisms Jason O'Rourke

The flood, Ormeau Rd, 2007. Picture by J. O’Rourke.

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Guest Post: ‘Mr Gabor’s Day Out,’ by Michael Costello.

Mr Gabor had a problem. Standing in front of him was a pretty young girl waving her arms and speaking very slowly. She appeared to be saying the word ‘DOWN!’ quite loudly, as if she assumed he was hard of hearing, which he wasn’t. He definitely understood ‘Down,’ but because his English was very poor, he was unable to reply. So he just sat on his fold-up chair and smiled. Then the girl stuck her fingers in her ears and began shouting another word he didn’t understand.

Earlier, Mr Gabor had been standing opposite the City Hall at the corner of Donegall Place playing his horned violin. He was very proud of his violin. He had made it himself back in Romania, in Recea to be exact, where he had lived for fifty-six years before coming to Belfast. That was two weeks ago and today was the first time he had ventured out to play his music. His daughter Amalia had suggested it. She had been living in Belfast for three years and now had a good job working as a receptionist in an exclusive hotel. They lived together in a small house in a maze of streets near the city centre along with Amalia’s fiancé Emil, who worked as a refuse collector.

For two weeks Mr Gabor sat in the small house listening to Amalia and Emil talking about life in Belfast, how good it was, how lovely most of the people were and their trips to the mountains and the sea. They told him he must go out and play his violin because Belfast people loved traditional music.  He could also make money, so he agreed, if only to get out of the house and give Amalia and Emil some time on their own. Emil bought him a cheap mobile phone, put in their numbers and showed him how to call them. They gave him a map with walking routes marked out with X’s showing the best places for him to play then walked him down to the city centre and left him standing opposite the city hall.

“Have a good day out Papa,” Amalia said, “Just smile if anybody talks to you. And ring when you’re finished. We’ll come and get you.”

Mr Gabor had brought with him his small fold-up chair and his violin and horn packed in an old case. He propped his chair against a window, unpacked his violin, attached the horn and began playing Țăranul Fericit (‘The Happy Shepherd’) and Chase Fetele (‘Chase the Girls’). He liked playing them; both were happy songs made for dancing and this allowed him to swing from side to side and create a good wah-wah effect with the music. However, soon it became impossible to play anything. People were bumping into him and stepping over his case, sometimes kicking it. He decided to go for a walk along one of the routes marked on the map. One route in particular caught his eye, especially the X at the end that looked like a square with a church nearby. It might be quieter there. He packed everything up and began walking, frequently stopping to check the map. He couldn’t ask anybody for directions, as his English was so poor, but eventually he stopped a couple and showed them the map. The man said something to him and Mr Gabor smiled and pointed to the X. The man appeared confused. He began talking to the woman with him, then he handed the map back to Mr Gabor and pointed towards a street. Mr Gabor looked at the woman. She smiled and nodded and they walked on.

Before he reached the square, Mr Gabor stopped and showed his map a few more times; once to an old man who just stared at him, then a group of boys who sent him the wrong way and finally two women who brought him to the square. Now he sat on one side, playing Vine Noaptea (‘The Night Comes’), his favourite tune. He was right, the square was peaceful and indeed, a large church stood nearby. A few people walked through and slowed down to listen but none gave him money.

He was still playing when a small group of young people entered the square, three girls and two boys. One of the boys was bearded and carried a guitar case. They sat down opposite. The bearded boy took out his guitar and began to pluck the strings. Mr Gabor noticed they were looking at him but they weren’t smiling. Eventually, one of the girls stood up and walked towards him. She was pretty, about the same age as Amalia. She pointed to the violin and spoke. He smiled. She turned to her friends and shouted something. Another girl raced across to join her. She too was pretty and it was she who was now standing with her fingers in her ears. Mr Gabor knew they were asking him to stop playing. The violin was too loud. He smiled. The girls returned his smile and ran back to their friends. Mr Gabor leaned back in his chair, his violin resting in his lap. The sun was lower in the sky and his side of the square was becoming streaked in dark shadows. Opposite him, the bearded boy began singing a soft melancholy tune.

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A View from the Abyss

This morning is different to the others.

I awake lying naked on a plain of polished obsidian. It is lit by a dim, pale, light, as if the crescent moon were hidden behind a thin covering of cloud. The plain stretches as far as I can see in every direction. It is perfectly flat and featureless: no trees, mountains, rivers, buildings, people. It is neither hot nor cold; the air is not stale yet there is no breeze. It is neither humid nor dry. There is no sound but the sough of my breath and the faint slow pulse of my heart.

I have nothing. No clothes, no food or water, no shelter. It doesn’t matter; I am not hungry or thirsty, cold or damp. I raise myself with aching muscles and begin to walk towards the horizon. Nothing changes; the hard surface under my feet is uniform; no dirt, grit or texture to break the monotony. Time passes, and becomes irrelevant. I don’t know how long I have been walking, maybe hours, maybe only minutes. The light remains the same; there is no dusk, no dawn. I keep going in a straight line until the ache in my feet and legs forces me to stop. I am sure that if I keep going I will reach the edge at some point.

When I sit down to rest they come, materialising as if from some cloud of vapour. The largest of them bellows at me unintelligibly, his eyes bulging, foam collecting at the corners of his mouth, flecks spitting out as he roars at me like a preacher. Groups of homunculi scuttle up to me making impossible demands and waving papers in my face; they run back when I kick at them, then regroup and return. A vicious harpy pinches me, jabs her fingers into my sides, and claws at me with her long nails until I am covered in red scratches and small weals. She is relentless, only finally making way for a demure-looking black-haired woman. This one is clearly in charge, for as she approaches me the clamour dies down and the movements cease. The others crowd in to watch.

She is carrying a small leather bag, which she puts down next to me. Then she smiles, embraces me, and speaks: Don’t worry. You can trust me. You’re amazing. She strokes my skin, looking into my eyes, still smiling. Her green eyes are cold, dead, shark-like. She deftly opens the bag and takes out her accoutrements: scalpels, knives, syringes, tubes, a silver-rimmed glass flask. She lays them out in a neat row, then says: I had these specially made for you. I’m so lucky to have got you; you’re so generous. She takes my head in both hands and turns it so that we are looking directly into each others eyes once more. She smiles again, then says, It’s nothing much, I just have to take a little each day until I have all I need. It won’t be too long, don’t worry. Make a fist for me. Now relax, you’re going to feel a small scratch on your arm. I look down to see her inserting a needle into my arm at the elbow. What flows out into the tube is not blood but a clear fluid. She collects it in the flask, frowning with concentration. Precious stuff. Don’t want to spill a drop. She smiles, So good of you to donate. When about a pint of the fluid has passed into the flask she withdraws the needle and gives me a small swab of cotton wool to hold on the wound. She lifts the flask and takes a draught of the fluid, clearly savouring it to the full: Ah! She exclaims, That’s the good stuff. Next she lifts a small, sharp knife, leans in and makes an incision in my chest. Again there is no blood. Just paring away a little of your confidence now, and we’ll take a bit of self-esteem with this one here, and I’m sure we’ll find a wee bit of hope, and then we’re done for today. After she has finished she embraces me tightly again, strokes my face and says, You are so class. Thank you so much. See you later. With that she is gone. The commotion starts up again, but dies down after a while, as they disappear in ones and twos. Weakened, I stretch out on the stone and sleep.

The next day is the same, and the one after, and the ones after that. I walk, the horizon does not alter, and the light remains unchanged. The only noticeable differences are in me: I am becoming dependent on the small kindnesses and comforting words of the green-eyed one. I bask in those brief moments of contact as she drains me. She grows stronger with every piece of my spirit she devours; I lose count of the sessions, realising that there isn’t much of me left. She must have sensed this too, for on the next visit she changes the routine, pulling out a new blade. This one is long, like a carving knife. It has a black handle with EXIT inlaid into it in silver. She hands it to me. I feel the heft of it, run it gently across my skin. The temptation is strong, but she stops me and takes it back, saying, No. You are too beautiful. I can’t let you go from here. Not yet. I still need you. hearing this, my spirits return a little, and she takes some for herself, slugging greedily from the flask. And so it continues. Sometimes she brings the exit knife and lets me handle it for a while before she takes it off me. This is an effective strategy. Her power grows, and she brags about it to the others, who look up at her in awe.

And yet something eludes her. No matter how she probes and cuts, she can’t find what she’s looking for. It is frustrating: her mouth turns down at the corners, her brow furrows. She tries new strategies, skilfully manipulating my emotions, but she has underestimated me. She cannot remove the conviction I hold safely hidden from her: one day I will wake up in my own bed. I will dress in fresh clothes, put on my boots, go outside, and smell the herbs that grow beside the path: mint, rosemary, fennel, and sage. I will catch cool raindrops on my face, soak up the petrichor, and feel the warmth of the sun when the clouds pass, driven by a south-westerly from the Atlantic. I will meet my friends and we will play music together and laugh. I will taste fresh bread from the bakery and Polish ham from the deli on the Ormeau Road, and drink a pint or two of black stout in the Errigle Inn. And when I meet the creatures of the Obsidian Plain on the streets of Belfast, I will know that I defeated them.

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