Warrior at the Weir
Healy paced up and down the weir straddled across the River Lagan. The dour winter’s day had given up the job early, so it was night in Belfast at nearly four o’clock in the afternoon. The ink-stained clouds reflected the orange glow of street lamps, creating a pale lavender-copper colour with no name. The waves ticked and sloshed beneath the weir, sending up a misty smell of murk and metal. A chill wind cut across the waves, rippling through Healy’s thin nylon jacket. It was black and so was his shirt and trousers, the uniform of a barman; and the stony look of a barman was on his face. The cold clung to his shaved skull, biting the tips of his ears. He strode in the direction of the Albert Clock Tower. The pale yellow dial hovered like a moon above the town. Turning abruptly, he paced in the opposite direction. He couldn’t go back to there, not now. Across the river east, the bright lights of the Odyssey Centre clustered like ships in the night. His boots trod heavily across the dingy slats of the footbridge that sparkled with river mist like a field of poor man’s diamonds. A few snow flurries spun in the orange glare of the lamps. Healy dug his fists into his pockets as the mist congealed around him. His fingers brushed against a packet of gum, warm and pliable from his body heat. He fished it out, tucked a piece into his mouth, and chewed like he meant to kill it.
The lass hadn’t been with him long but still she had no right to fuck another fella.
His mobile phone rang. The shrill Nokia ring-tone made him clench his fists. He glared murderously at the steel railing of the bridge. It was the only thing near. He crashed his fist down but it gave no satisfaction, not even a clang or a wobble or a thrum. His fist bore the brunt of it: the dumb pain of a defenceless animal. The mobile trilled. He thought of firing it into the river. If only the person on the other end could feel it torpedoed in, the cold waves closing over. Maybe then they’d take the hint. He wasn’t going to back to work and he wasn’t going to discuss it. Marlows Tavern could go away til fuck, as his dad might say. Seven years he had put into the place, hoping even to buy it someday. Sure it would have been a nice wee pub to call his own. All his mates working there and Christmas do’s together; the crowd getting bigger with the years as more of them had partners and wee children. They had a laugh, didn’t they? It was the only way to keep sane sweating through the rush, dealing with the same bloody regulars; weekends it was like the Blitz, cleaning up the vomit and glass and blood and beer. There was the time a man had been killed in the bogs. A peeler undercover, it was. The bloke should have known better, thinking the paramilitaries in the pub wouldn’t suss him out. He was too chummy too fast and they’d cut his throat for the effort. In any case, it wasn’t just a place and a pay-cheque for Healy. He was part of the very walls. The new owner couldn’t give a damn. He was London posh, loaded with money, and no sense. He owned a wine café or some shite in Camden, as if that gave him any clue how things worked over here. The first thing he’d done was start interfering, running round white gloves finding all the dirt in the crevices. Of course there was dirt in the crevices! The pub was two hundred years old if it was a day. The dirt was on the Historical Registry. But Mr. London wanted the dirt and the regulars out, never mind if they were on the Historical Registry, too. He wanted the staff in twee uniforms and ready to sing “Happy Birthday,” for American tourists like some wee tricolour shanty down in Dublin. Let the Dubliners sing and smile for the Americans; Ulster had suffered enough.
Then, in between wine and cheese pairings, Mr. London had sampled Healy’s girl in the office upstairs where Healy found them, a tea service banging its way to the edge of the desk while Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” on Radio Ulster. He might have overreacted, leaving a half naked man in a mess of broken crockery and milk and tea, vomiting up his lunch after a swift punch to his stomach. The girl had stopped him doing worse but he had left in a rage, his sense of justice violated. He needed to concentrate, to keep control over the sharp stabs of anger that made him want to strike out. It almost didn’t matter who he gave a beating to, so long as he could get it over and done. But on the other hand, it did matter. It mattered more than anything and he had to keep it in. Mr. London was the one who deserved it and Healy would make sure he got it, right when he least expected it. In the meantime he had to keep steady, keep tabs on the rage that threatened to waste itself on nothing. If Belfast was still the kind of place it was in the bad old days, he could have gotten a gun, no questions asked. There would have been more questions if he chose against it. Even Mr. London would be asking why he was still alive and not chained to a fence at the docks, not even British soldiers daring to interfere until he was day old meat for the seagulls. But times had changed. Healy had changed, at least he was trying to, just like every other miserable ex-volunteer. But how was a man supposed to take it? No more battlefields but his own small life. No orders, no mission, no plan, and no company. A soldier forced into the uneasy truce of a work-a-day life: you fix the roof, wash the car, pay the gas bill, watch telly, and back to work on the Monday; there’s nowhere to sink your rage or rise above it.
Healy found himself at the end of the weir, nearly setting foot in East Belfast, and turned back toward the Albert Clock again. There was a gun he could get hold of at a mechanic’s in the dockyards. The mobile trilled to life again. Healy drew it from his pocket, glared at the tiny screen. Who could be so flipping determined? Oh, Christ! He quickly answered the phone and set it to his ear.
“Mummy?” he spoke in a panic. “What that you ringing earlier?”
“Aye, luv. Was that you ringing me earlier?”
“So it was,” he admitted, as though the shame of it would crush him.
What could he possibly tell her? What could she even understand? It wasn’t just about some London twat and a girl. It was about where he belonged in the world, his world. She wasn’t part of it nor had she even seen it except on telly. There were things closing in around him and if he didn’t hang on, he might lose himself. It wasn’t just Marlows Tavern, it was any place he walked into from here on out. People would know what happened. Belfast was the smallest town in the world. They would look at him and know what he’d done about it. It was the difference between being looked at like a man to be respected, like a general in the field, or a nobody. Only it was worse than that: you can’t go from a general to a nobody without everybody stepping on you, just to see what it’s like. They’d never stop stepping on him, either. A man’s better off killing himself or moving to Scotland. There’s no peace and quiet otherwise.
“It’s nothing,” he told her, but she didn’t believe him. Of course she didn’t. She was his mother. She’d spent more time not believing him than any other woman on the planet. As a boy he’d tried his first wee lies on her, not knowing she’d spent a lifetime listening to bigger and better lies told by every man she knew.
“Are ya all right, luv?” she asked in that voice. The voice that always got to him. That made him believe she understood him more than anyone else. The voice of a mother who had known him even before he was born, in long winter nights spent contemplating his soul before the act of birth separated them, before boyhood and manhood had shrouded him entirely.
“I’m not right at all,” he admitted, a tremor in his voice..
He held the tiny mobile to his ear, comforted by its feeble warmth. She asked if it was the job again and he had to say, aye. It wasn’t going well. He wasn’t going back there, he had decided.
“Aye, I knew that was coming,” she said softly. There was a pause and he almost expected her to keep on in that voice. If she had gone on in that voice, he would have bawled like a baby and told her everything. But she switched as deftly as an actress, breezy and advisory, a counsellor he didn’t need telling him: Sure, but it was bad luck walking off a job at Christmas. Had he told the missus yet? Ach, she’ll not be happy. Does he have enough to get by? She could lend him a bit to tide him over. He could think about it, see if he changed his mind. Healy was not about to change his mind and told her so. She abandoned the thought of convincing him to go back, switched instead to telling him it was for the best. Maybe it wasn’t the worst thing leaving the place, she said. He’d not been happy there since the new owner, she could tell that much. Besides, that place brought in a bad crowd. Cursed, so it was. A man had died in the toilets! She feared for his life every Saturday and she could tell him for nothing he was better off some place else. Anyway, it was a chance for him to take a holiday; he could look for work in the New Year. The missus would be happy to have him at home and he could do up the back garden like he’d planned.
“Ach, maybe,” he told her and made it sound like good advice. But a partition had slipped down between them. The woman who had felt the first small movements of his life could do nothing for him now. She sensed this perhaps and the silence on her end revealed a lack of conviction in all her chatty advice. She was just grasping in the dark, trying to reach a small wounded thing that refused to be seen or healed. If he howled with pain into the night, what would it do to her? he wondered. Would it shatter her as well as him? Or would she recoil from it, disgusted? She had nursed a boy’s pain, a child’s uncertainty, but she had never picked up the pieces of a shattered man to put back together. Could any mother do that for her grown son? He didn’t know. He was sure a woman needed a man to be a man. As boys grew into man-shapes, women stopped looking too close. A boy is easy to see; a man is a veil. Was there anything behind it?
Despair gripped him round the chest like an embrace. The silence was deafening. It would consume him if he let it, feeding on him forever; and like some cursed immortal, he would be forbidden from escaping even into the oblivion of death. A few hot tears descended his cheeks as he held the mobile to his ear. It was such a small fragile thing.
“Come over for tea,” suggested the woman on the line. “We can watch the quiz show and keep score. There’s your Heineken still in the fridge. And we’ll get a nice wee fish supper at the chippy.”
“I’ve got plans,” he said abruptly. Roughly he wiped the tears from his face.
“Oh – you’re not going down the pub?” she joked, an edge of concern in her voice.
“I’ll not be out late,” he promised emptily. “Thanks for the chat. Bye, mummy.”
Her answering goodbye was both perfunctory and loving and defeated and sad; all the colors she could put into her voice in one single word. Then she let him go.
Healy leaned on the rail, watching the dark rushing water travel beneath the bridge. A solitary lamp cast a circular reflection upon the waves that swam and shattered and rushed back into shape. He stared at the circle, into its centre. As a boy he had stood on the bridge at Ormeau Road. The sun shone brightly in a jewelled sky on a rare summer day. His two mates had been there, standing next to him. In memory they were faceless, mere shades comprised of voices and bodies almost mere echoes of his own. He had leaned precariously over the edge and gazed down at the sun’s reflection, the pale circle that swam and shattered and rushed back into shape on the murky green waves. Beside the reflection was another circle. It was more like a shadow only it was strange and brilliant and in its centre was something mysterious. Deep down it went, luminous and shifting, with a million green blades encircling a dark centre in a column that had no end. Healy thought it was just his imagination until he called the other boys to see. Where? They didn’t see it, only the blinding reflection of the sun. You’re not supposed to look into it, they told him. He pointed out the other circle, just beside. They saw it too, so it was real. The churning spiral of green blades, each blade pointed at the centre, dark and entrancing and eerie. One boy said the blades must be fish. But fish didn’t swim in a circle in just one place, all facing each other. The other boy said the it must be seaweed. But how could seaweed grow in a perfect circle, staying in one place in the fast moving river?
It was only when he started to walk away that he found the circle moved. It moved when he did, keeping pace with him like the sun. It was related to the sun somehow, a kind of dark mirror that you could see deep down into. His first mate disagreed; it must be one of them tropical delusions. A marriage. His second mate said it was something to do with prisons, how they split open beams of light to make a rainbow. It was a rainbow in the water somehow, without any colours but green. Years later he was none the wiser; it was a mystery of light and water and temperature and refractions. Or else it was a secret that the river had allowed him to see, a glimpse into its soul.
Hanna Nielson is a freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Leeds, and has studied at the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. She has written several short stories, a novel, and a screenplay based on her time living in Belfast, Northern Ireland.