November 26th 2015 – Ulster Hall, Belfast
The chicken factory has let him go and the tyre place is not taking on new starts on account of downsizing and competition from the Eastern European market. He has no qualifications to speak of. This is not exactly true. He has three GCSEs, and an HND in being a pastry chef, and a one thousand metre swimming badge from when he was in the BB. His lungs are bigger than normal and exceptionally good at holding a breath longer than is strictly safe.
He remembers his might lungs as he begins to apply for jobs. He could be a glass blower, a balloon modeler, or a singer of enormous, operatic arias. None of these jobs are currently available at the job centre. Instead he becomes a person who will travel from one joyless space, (funeral parlour, Pound shop, Weatherspoons’ Pub), to the next, to stand open-mouthed at the entrance, sucking the atmosphere out of the room until left but dry function and echo.
He has the lungs for this. He is not sure if he has the stomach for it. All the sucked out joy swells beneath his rib cage like trapped wind. He wonders if a man can die of too much happiness, tightly compressed.
November 27th 2015 – Cathedral Quarter, Belfast
Says he, “you’ve a lived in looking face,” which he probably meant as a kind of compliment, though it was hard to take as such and all day thereafter she could not get past the idea of her face as a kind of house. The eyes like windows with all the people she’d ever known, peering out. The nose like a sort of chimney breathing in and breathing out so she was not so much removed from the person next to her and the things which came frequently in and out of their heads. The mouth like a sort of door, open now, as if to say, “won’t you come in?” And he, sat there, across the table, stirring his coffee so she could not decide if he was for staying or if the “lived in” look of her had put him off.
November 28th 2015 – Cathedral Quarter, Belfast
I am in Boots the Chemist trying to buy a hairdryer. My old hairdryer has reached that stage where it is sometimes hot as Hell itself and sometimes freezing cold and sometimes stops blowing halfway through a head of hair as if it needs to catch its own breath. I cannot buy a hairdryer today because the man in front of me in the line is buying every hairdryer in Boots the Chemist.
“I’ve bought out Superdrug already,” he says, “and I’m off to Argos next and then Tesco’s.”
I find this extremely strange. No one person requires ten dozen hairdryers, not even a professional hairdresser. Besides, this man is bald as a hard-boiled egg.
“What’s with all the hairdryers?” I ask him.
At first he’s reluctant to speak but I can tell he really wants to talk so I smile at him, ever so gently, and he finally admits that he’s trying to create a hurricane, all by himself, with hairdryers.
“The air will be hot,” he says, “like in tropical countries.”
November 29th 2015 – East Belfast
In the very far away future, when people will be almost robots, (with bionic muscles and computers for brains), but still capable of basic human functions such as laughter and strongly disliking other people, they will grow tools in order to complete the various tasks which are assigned to them each day. An accountant will have a calculator attached to his wrist by a fine, fleshy string. A butcher will have knives which flick sharply in and out of his fingers like the handsome one from X Men. Hairdressers will have brushes and scissors and tiny, silvered mirrors which emerge from a panel in their bellies. Writers will have pens, so many pens that their skin will become zebra’d with ink stains. These tools will slip and slot and slide away like the various blades on a Swiss Army knife. Those who have climbed from one career to the next will, by retiring age, so well-equipped for life that they are almost self-sufficient. The long term unemployed will be notable for their smooth skin and the way they carry their hands, open and turned upwards, as if to say, “this is all I’ve got going for me, right now.”
November 30th 2015 – East Belfast
I was not even born then but I like to pretend that I was, and because my face is older looking than it actually is people tend to believe me and ask, “what was it like back then, before all of this?”
“Oh,” I usually reply, “it was not so very different from now: trees, and hills, and people falling in and out of love etc. Of course there were dinosaurs back then and mythical creatures with wings and sinister powers. We don’t have so many of those these days, but aside from that, everything was pretty much the way it is now.”
“Were people happier back then?” they ask.
And I always, always say, “yes, absolutely! People were so much happier back then,” because everyone wants to believe that sadness is a new invention and people who are alive right now have it way worse than anyone who has ever been alive in the past.
Sometimes people do not believe me when I tell them that I can remember how things were before. I am thinking of growing a beard in order to appear older to these people.
December 1st 2015 – Ulster Hall, Belfast
There was nothing behind the first door in his advent calendar. There would, he knew without checking, be nothing behind the second door or the seventh or the twenty first. Some years there were chocolate stars or snowmen. Most years his father got there first, removed the calendar’s back and threw all the chocolate into the bin.
From this experience he was supposed to learn disappointment; not just the ordinary, ongoing kind of disappointment, but the very particular kind which occasionally blesses and more often, withholds blessing and gives no indication of when and how to brace yourself against these possibilities.
He holds his advent calendar in both hands and knows he will not be allowed to bin it but must continue each morning, for the next twenty three days, with the opening and closing of these disappointing little doors. He recalls the Christmas when Santa brought a bicycle pump but no bicycle and wonders how long this lesson will go on for.
December 2nd 2015 – Donegal Square, Belfast
Yesterday, I wore my new shoes to work. Several of my colleagues commented on how nice they were with their shiny buckles and their soft, brown toes.
“Oh, these old things,” I said, “I’ve had them for ages.”
This wasn’t exactly true. But the inability to take a compliment is wired into us, Northern folk like the propensity to ignore rain , to drink tea, to take the wrong end of the stick and beat our neighbours round the head with it.
Which leads me to a conversation I once overheard on the bus between Knock and Castlereagh.
“What a beautiful looking wee baby,” said this one older lady to the woman sitting opposite her with a buggy.
The woman with the buggy, pre-conditioned as she was to deflect compliments of all kinds, did not miss a beat, nor chance to look at her sleeping child for fear of nurturing an arrogant streak. “Oh this old thing,” she replied curtly, “sure, I’ve had her for ages.”
As I said, it runs through us all like a coastal seam, this fear of leaning too far into a good or kindly thing.