'An alien couldn't have told the difference but we could: Protestant girls were infinitely more alluring that the Catholic girls' - The Squat Pen

There's a little café in the village. The kids love it. They get their goujons and chips and ice-cream in fun little containers, I get a sandwich and a latte, and Fionnuala gets a small pot of tea and poached eggs on toast.

We were there and I was searching the room, taking in the local customers. Humdrum. Quiet people living quiet lives, whispering and laughing. Quiet staff. Even a quiet dog.

I saw the man with the missing tooth from the pub that night a while ago. He had a cough that was deep and ominous, registering almost below the human hearing range.

I shivered. Who was he? How long had he left on this earth? If he remembered kissing me on the forehead that night (if indeed that happened) he didn’t indicate, just ate his porridge. And coughed.

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Suddenly I had a physical pang to be back in Belfast. A longing for some drama, I suppose.

Belfast always provided that. I remembered one day back in the early nineties when me and two friends walked into town. It was a Saturday and we were in our teens and although under strict instructions to get the bus, we knew better.

The city was dangerous then, but not at 10am. The thing was to save the bus fare so we could buy fags.The shops in the city centre were our destination, then into Delaney’s for milky coffee and hopefully some Protestant girls to look at. Never to speak to, of course, but they were infinitely more alluring than the Catholic girls.

An alien hitchhiking through the galaxy couldn’t have told the difference, but we could. Brown eyes and nicely cut hair, we near fainted at the sight.

But as we walked past each bus stop on the Antrim Road that morning, we began to doubt our plan.

We came down to Fortwilliam, on past the Waterworks, Newington and further on down, now past the New Lodge, and all the while glancing left and right, knowing we were fish out of water.

The jollity was incrementally becoming more forced, the swagger diminishing step by anxious step.

The kids here were weathered and insolent, lawless and fearless, and even though we were Olympian in prospects by comparison, we avoided their stares. The fact that they were way younger than us made it worse.

As some of them emerged from alleys and estates and shops, we kept our eyes shadowed.

“Hi, speccy?”

We walked on. A couple of sketchy youths had faded into view. One of them was showing off.

“Are you deaf, speccy?”

I felt like I’d been hit the chest by a grandfather clock. There were more popping up and I remember thinking it was like being in a film. Or a cartoon. There were no soldiers around or police to chase us all away – sure it was 10.30am – and they tailed us down the Antrim Road.

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Two things did save us. One of my friends was a brain-box and gave them back some stick, actually got them riled up by saying the their das were touts, and they were mystified for a bit; could he be a high-up?

And the vision of Carlisle Circus.It was both the gateway to the city and a no-man’s land; it gave us a lift, and them second thoughts, and we strode down Donegall Street and further on into the city and bought 10 fags between us.

“Fabien.” Fionnuala was nodding at me, her eyes saying ‘Look over at the woman talking to me’.

She was perhaps 60. Tall, with strong, big eyes.

“And will you check with him?” she was saying to Fionnuala. “He’d be first class.”

“Hello Fabien.” The woman gave me a smile while swishing out. “Enjoy your coffee there.”

“Check with who?” I knew it was me. My seventh sense told me.

“You. That’s Avril Beggs, head of the Bluepond Players. She wants you to help with their new production.”


“Yes. Philadelphia, Here I Come! She wants you to audition.”