Jan Carson is a writer and community arts facilitator based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has a novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears and short story collection, Children’s Children, (Liberties Press), two micro-fiction collections, Postcard Stories and Postcard Stories 2 (Emma Press). Her novel The Fire Starters was published by Doubleday in April 2019. It won the EU Prize for Literature for Ireland in 2019 and the Kitschies Prize for Speculative Fiction in 2020. It was shortlisted for the Dalkey Book Prize in 2020. The Last Resort, a ten part BBC Radio 4 short story series and accompanying short story collection is forthcoming from Doubleday in early 2021. In 2018 Jan was the inaugural Translink/Irish Rail Roaming Writer in Residence on the Trains of Ireland. She was the Open Book Scotland Writer in Lockdown 2020.
ジャン・カーソンは、北アイルランド・ベルファストを拠点とする作家、コミュニティアート・ファシリテーター。作品には小説 Malcolm Orange Disappears (LibertiesPress)、短編集 Children’s Children (LibertiesPress)、およびマイクロフィクション集 Postcard Stories、Postcard Stories 2 (Emma Press) がある。2019年4月に刊行した The Fire Starters (Doubleday) は、2019年にEU文学賞を受賞、2020年にキッチーズ賞（スペキュレイティブ・フィクション）を受賞、ダルキー文学賞の最終候補作となる。2021年初めには、10回にわたる BBC Radio 4の短編シリーズ The Last Resort およびそれに伴う短編集をDoubleday より刊行予定。2018年、アイルランドの鉄道会社トランスリンクおよびアイリッシュ・レールの電車を利用して活動するローミング・ライター・イン・レジデンスに就任。2020年のロックダウン下では Open Book Scotland の作家となった。
This is Belfast. This is not Belfast.
Better to avoid calling anything a spade in this city. Better to avoid names and places, dates and second names. In this city names are like points on a map or words worked in ink. They are trying too hard to pass for truth. In this city truth is a circle from one side and a square from the other. It is possible to go blind staring at the shape of it. Even now, fifteen years after the Troubles, it is much safer to stand back and say with conviction, ‘It all looks the same to me.’
The Troubles are over now. They told us so in the newspapers and on the television. Here, we’re very great with religion. We need to believe everything for ourselves. (We’re all about sticking the finger in and having a good hoke around.) We did not believe it in the newspapers or on the television. We did not believe it in our bones. After so many years of sitting one way, our spines had set. We will take centuries to unfold.
The Troubles have only just begun. This is hardly true either. It depends upon who you’re talking to, how they’re standing, and which particular day you’ve chosen for the chat. Those who are ignorant of our situation can look it up on Wikipedia and find there a three-thousand-word overview. Further articles can be read online and in academic journals. Alternatively, a kind of history may be acquired from talking to the locals. Piecing this together will be a painstaking process, similar to forging one jigsaw puzzle from two, or perhaps twenty.
The Troubles is too less a word for all of this. It is a word for minor inconveniences, such as overdrawn bank accounts, slow punctures, a woman’s time of the month. It is not a violent word. Surely we have earned ourselves a violent word, something as blunt and brutal as ‘apartheid’. Instead, we have a word like ‘scissors’, which can only be said in the plural. The Troubles is/was one monster thing. The Troubles is/are many individual evils caught up together. (Other similar words include ‘trousers’ and ‘pliers’.) The Troubles is always pronounced with a capital T as if it were an event, as the Battle of Hastings is an event with a fixed beginning and end, a point on the calendar year. History will no doubt prove it is actually a verb; an action that can be done to people over and over again, like stealing.
And so we draw no lines. We say this is not Belfast but rather a city similar to Belfast, with two sides and a muck brown river soldering one to the other. Roads, other roads, train tracks, chimneys. All those things common to a functional city are present here in limited measure. Shopping centres. Schools. Parks, and the unspoken possibility of green acres glooming in the spring. Three hospitals. A zoo, from which animals occasionally escape. To the east of the city, a pair of yellow cranes stride across the horizon, like bow-legged gentlemen. To the west, a hill, hardly a mountain by Alpine standards, trips over itself as it tumbles into the bay. Strung along the coastline there are very many buildings. They are perched like coy bathers, dipping their toes in the greeny sea. There are boats: big boats, smaller boats and that sunken boat, which holds the whole city captive from the ocean floor. There are no future boats. Instead, there are glass and gunmetal structures stapled across the skyline. These are like stairs ascending towards the tooth-white heights once occupied by God. These are office blocks and hotels for visiting strangers: Americans mostly, and people from other earnest places. We have scant respect for these people and the photographs they will take. They believe themselves brave for coming to this city or, at the very least, open-minded. We wish to say to them, ‘Are you mad? Why have you come here? Don’t you know there are other proper cities just one hour away by budget airline? There is even Dublin.’ We are not supposed to say this. We have already begun to lean on their money.
We put the visitors in black beetle taxis and drive them round and round the ring road, up the tiny streets and down, until they, too, are dizzy, seeing this city from so many angles. We feed them fried eggs and bacon on almost white plates and say, ‘There you go, a taste of local cuisine. That’ll set you up for the day.’ We dance for them and their foreign money. We are also prepared to cry if this is expected. We wonder what our grandparents would say to all this clamour, all this proving talk.
In this city we have a great love of the talking. The talking can be practised on buses and park benches, from pulpits and other high places. It is occasionally expressed in poems, more frequently on gable walls. It swells in the presence of an audience, though a second party is not strictly required. There is never enough silence to contain all our talking. We have talked ourselves sideways on subjects such as politics and religion, history, rain and the godless way these elements are bound together, like some bastard version of the water cycle. We continue to believe that across the sea, Europe (and also the world) is holding its breath for the next chapter in our sad story. The world is not waiting for us. There are louder voices around the table now. African. Russian. Refugee. They say terrible things in words that require translation. We are wet paper in comparison.
This city continues to talk. It tells anyone inclined to listen that it is a European city, twinned with other European cities. Who is this city kidding? It has no piazza, no marble fountains, no art to speak of. It crouches on the edge of the Continent, like a car park for mainland Europe. The people, when they speak, have a homely sound off them, like boiled potatoes dripping butter. There is no sun to speak of and no one sits outside at café tables. Even when there is a sun it is only a kind of cloud for the rain to hide behind. This is not a city as Barcelona is a city, or Paris, or even Amsterdam. This is a city like a word that was once bad and needs redeeming, ‘queer’ being the first that comes to mind.
Which is not to say this place is without charm. Despite its best attempts to disappoint, people do not leave and those who do keep coming back. They say, ‘It’s the people,’ and ‘You’d go a long way before you found a better breed of person.’ They say, ‘It’s certainly not the weather we came for.’ There is truth in every version of this.
Sammy Agnew has known this city his entire life. The map of its little streets and rivers is stamped into him, like a second set of fingerprints. When he opens his mouth, it is this city’s sharp and stringy words that come nosing out. He cannot bear the sound of his own voice played back. Sammy can’t stand this place, can’t quite curse it either. He’d give anything to scrape himself clean of it. To flit and start again, some place warmer like Florida or Benidorm. Some place less like a goldfish bowl. He has tried. God only knows how hard he’s tried. But this place is like a magnet: coaxing, dragging, reeling him back in. No matter how far he goes, by plane or boat, or in his everyday thinking – which is the hardest place to achieve distance– he’ll still be a son of this city; a disloyal son but, nonetheless, linked. Sammy keeps himself to the edge of things now, toeing the line where the nicer neighbourhoods fold into the not so nice. He knows he isn’t above any of it. The stink of a backstreet beginning cannot be washed off with soap or careful distance.
He is this place, as his children are this place. This is not necessarily a good thing to carry, though, these days, there’s a sort of mumbling hope rising off the city, swelling mostly in the young. There are even individuals proud to raise their heads and say, ‘I’m from here and I will not apologize for it.’ Sammy thinks these folks are fools. He fears for his children, his son in particular. There’s a hardness in the boy, peculiar to this place. Hardness is not the worst way to hold yourself in a city so marked by disappointment. Yet Sammy knows that hardness left to simmer breeds rage, and rage is next to cruelty, and this is what he sees every time he looks at Mark: this city, fouling his boy up, just like it once ruined him.
Jonathan Murray was born here, too, just five minutes up the road from Sammy, though the distance between them is continental. It isn’t just money that keeps one man from mixing with the other. It’s education and reputation, and something harder to pin down; a whole different way of carrying yourself through life. Jonathan couldn’t say he knows this city like Sammy knows it, for knowing implies familiarity and he’s been holding himself at a distance for as long as he can remember. It isn’t home to him. It doesn’t even feel close. He drives its pressing streets daily and doesn’t take time to look. He couldn’t say with any confidence that this is not the place it was ten years ago, or point to any marked difference from the shooting days of the seventies and eighties. It could be any such city to him: mid-sized, industrial, sea-skimmed. Cardiff. Liverpool. Glasgow. Hull. One damp metropolis looks much the same as the next. Jonathan has no real sense of where he is or where he belongs; what it means to have a home.
This is Belfast. This is not Belfast. This is the city that won’t let either man go.
Ella stands barefoot on the branch. She never wears shoes when she’s attempting to fly. Her mother insists that she strip right down to her knickers. Now she’s older, and more self-conscious about the bumps and curves beginning to swell beneath her skin, Ella insists upon something more substantial: a bathing suit or leotard. Her mother agrees, so long as her legs and arms are bare. It is important not to add any extra weight, to preserve the impression of lightness. Not that it really matters. Ella could bind herself up with birthday balloons, suck helium straight from the canister, or pump her arms up and down, like a racing pigeon, and it would not make the smallest bit of difference. She’d still fall. Drop. Plummet to earth at a furious rate.
Ella wraps her arms around the trunk. She can feel its damp bark grating against her fingertips. Her skin pressed against the tree’s brown is so white it’s almost glowing. There’s a purple-blue smudge on her left hip from last week’s fall, a pair of pink grazes beginning to crust across her kneecaps. Last week it was a wall. Today it’s a tree. They’ve tried stepladders, climbing frames even a bridge. Seemingly there is no end to the high things you can push your daughter off for her own good. Ella looks down and notes the springy green grass circling the tree’s trunk. She’s grateful for it. There’s more give in lawn. Concrete is not so forgiving. A starling, rattled out of the tree’s upper branches, goes sweeping past her face. Ella envies its easy flight. As she edges forward she’s careful to keep her elbows tucked in. She can’t risk unfurling her wings. They’re covered in a thin membrane, like skin but easier torn, and she must avoid loose splinters. She eases out towards the branch’s tip, feeling it bow under her weight, curling her feet around its thin curve. Beneath her naked toes the branch teems with tiny creatures: woodlice, ants, microscopic mini-beasts. They’re drawn to Ella and the power that leaks out of her every time she touches. She feels the tickle of them crushing against her skin. She could stay here for hours. She honestly could. But it’s not what they want from her. It would be a waste of her wings.
‘Ready?’ shouts her father.
‘Ready,’ Ella replies.
Twelve feet below he removes the ladder and steps back for a better view. Her mother has the video camera out. Ella unfolds her arms, letting her wings unfurl like pink sails lolloping in the breeze. She bends her knees and pushes off. For the smallest second she moves upwards. It’s only a second, but in this once small moment, Ella always believes. Then gravity grabs her by the ankles and drags her back to earth. She hits the ground rolling. She’s taught herself how to lessen the impact. There’s only so many times you can fall before you become an expert and Ella is only good for falling.
Connor talks vaguely of dark shapes and sadness. The world curling into itself like a piece of orange peel left too long in the sun. He sees strangers weeping in empty rooms. Children hurt for no reason. Many, many fires, burning brightly. When he looks at water he sees photographs of people he doesn’t know, all muddled up together and moving quickly. It’s like flicking through the TV channels at speed. He is eight when he says this. He has not yet learnt what a metaphor is. By the time he turns ten, Connor covers his eyes every time he leaves the house. It’s easier not to see with a blindfold on. He reads widely, books borrowed from the Holywood Arches library and, thus armed, learns how to say precisely and exactly what is wrong with him. Connor sees the future in every liquid surface. Puddles. Toilet bowls. Tea paling in the cup. The rain, which is ever present in East Belfast. Sinks. Spilt drinks. His own piss and blood. His salty tears. He no longer limits himself to water. Any wet substance will do. Even a closed tap terrifies him. The future isn’t something he wants to stumble upon first thing in the morning while brushing his teeth.
Connor is fourteen now. He rarely leaves the house. He takes his drink in a child’s sippy cup and bathes, twice a week, blindfolded in a darkened room. Even on dry days he keeps the blinds drawn and the curtains pulled for fear of condensation on the window. ‘Sometimes a raindrop can be worse than the ocean,’ he says. No one really knows what he means by this. How could they? They’re blessed with ordinary temporal eyes. Occasionally Connor will ask to be taken to the sea. His father will drive him to Helen’s Bay and sit beside him on the sea wall while Connor shudders, like a struck thing, yet nevertheless lifts his head to stare out across the Lough for as long as he can manage. He says he’s trying to build up a resistance. He says he isn’t unfortunate, just peculiarly blessed. His father doesn’t believe him. He thinks his boy is looking for answers. Perhaps Connor wants to see the end of it all.
In a backyard on the edge of Castlereagh, Lucy Anderson is becoming a boat for the third time this week. She stands ankle deep in her sister’s paddling pool and waits. Her father’s let the hedge grow high so the neighbours can’t see. Lucy prefers to be a boat on the river. She likes to glide with the loop-necked swans at Victoria Park. But sometimes the need to change comes on her quickly and there isn’t time for anything but the backyard and the paddling pool, with its lurid pattern of tropical fish. Privacy’s essential. Hence the hedge and the curtains drawn throughout the house. It wouldn’t do for some passing stranger – a postman or politician canvassing – to peer through the front window and see her pale face straining from a boat bow, her arms and legs stretched to planks.
Lucy waits in the tepid water. She waits patiently while the heaviness falls off her, like damp dripping from wet washing on a line. Her bones begin to ache in the familiar fashion. It isn’t exactly painful. The stretching. The twisting. The coming together of separate parts. It isn’t normal either. Lucy can’t really say what her body’s doing right now. Transforming. Turning. Taking the piss. She’s come to call it ‘changing’ and afterwards feels like she’s been crucified. She won’t be able to bend for a week. In the moment it’s glory, though. Her bones are made of air, her flesh feathers, and the breath in her lungs is not breath but some lighter substance, helium, perhaps, or pure white cloud. Then Lucy is not the dumpy girl she sees in the mirror. She is not hefty, big- boned or thick of thigh. She sits lightly on the water. She floats. She glides, which is how you’d describe an elegant girl’s movements: a ballerina, for example, or a catwalk model.
Lucy’s become a boat 149 times already. She can’t remember her very first change. She was only two at the time, her small body discovering some new ability almost every day. Who’s to say she hadn’t taken it all in her stride, adding boats to walking, talking and all the other tricks she’d lately learnt to do? Her parents tell her she howled for hours afterwards. ‘It was only a puddle,’ they say, and tell her the noise she made was something shocking, like matchsticks splintering and rubber stretched to breaking point. Her father’s never got over the shock. Lucy’s body’s grown used to becoming a boat now. She’s almost sixteen and so accustomed to the bone-creaking, skin-yearning sensation of changing she’s stopped keeping
track of how many times she’s done it. It’s a curse she carries. It’s a kind of blessing. She wouldn’t know herself without it. She wouldn’t know where to start. What’s the point in being a boat? Lucy’s not decided yet. She thinks it’s something to do with the act of carrying:
people, problems, large unwieldy things. She refuses to call herself unfortunate. But it would be nice to have a name for what she is, a word for being in between.