Eureka Street: A Novel of Ireland Like No Other

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Overview

"All stories are love stories," begins Eureka Street. Set in Belfast before and after the latest cease-fire, it takes us into the lives and families of Chuckie Lurgan and Jake Jackson, a Protestant and a Catholic - unlikely pals and staunch allies in a world of Northern Irish troubles, a world where your street address can either save your life or send it up the creek, depending on whom you run into. The barometric pressure of Belfast's moods is measured in graffiti. Everybody recognizes "IRA" and "UVF" and "FTQ" "F-k the Queen", as well as "FTP" ...
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Overview

"All stories are love stories," begins Eureka Street. Set in Belfast before and after the latest cease-fire, it takes us into the lives and families of Chuckie Lurgan and Jake Jackson, a Protestant and a Catholic - unlikely pals and staunch allies in a world of Northern Irish troubles, a world where your street address can either save your life or send it up the creek, depending on whom you run into. The barometric pressure of Belfast's moods is measured in graffiti. Everybody recognizes "IRA" and "UVF" and "FTQ" "F-k the Queen", as well as "FTP" it concerns the pope. But when "OTG" begins appearing on walls throughout the city, the locals are stumped. A new paramilitary organization? A coded message of redemption? A joke? The harder they try to decipher "OTG," the more it reflects the passions and paranoias that govern and divide them. Chuckie and Jake are as mystified as everyone else. In the meantime they try to carve out lives for themselves in the battlefield they call home. Chuckie falls in love with an American who is living in Belfast to escape the violence in her own land; the best Jake can do is to get into a hilarious and remorseless war of insults with a beautiful but spitfire republican whose Irish name, properly pronounced, sounds to him like someone choking. All stories may be love stories, but the road to the real thing never ran in a straight line, and sometimes is blockaded by checkpoints and barbed wire. The real love story in Eureka Street involves Belfast - the city's soul and spirit, its will to survive the worst it can do to itself.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
"FINE OLD COUNTRY, RECENTLY PARTITIONED. IN NEED OF MINOR POLITICAL REPAIR. PRICED FOR QUICK SALE." Now available in paperback, Robert McLiam Wilson's clever and irreverent novel Eureka Street is a conflicted yet loving hymn to the "yobs and snobs" of his native Belfast, a city determined to survive the worst it can do to itself. In the lull between cease-fires, Protestant Jake Jackson and Catholic Chuckie Lurgan try to carve out lives for themselves in the battlefield they call home. Comic, indolent Chuckie stumbles upon wealth and romance through a series of hilarious misadventures, while educated Jake abases himself with menial work and searches for his lost love in the eyes of every woman he meets. But even as Jake and Chuckie finally lay claim to their own lives, pent-up prejudice, paranoia, and sectarian passions slowly build to a terrorist act that captures the horror, pointlessness, and sheer brutality of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"All stories are love stories." So begins the first American novel from Irish Book Award winner Wilson. How rare, though, for that emotion to be as unabashedly and enthusiastically expressed as it is here. Wilson clearly has grand intentions: a love story to a city set in a remarkable moment in historyBelfast in the months preceding and, briefly, following the first IRA cease-fire. His effort succeeds (mostly), because it grounds itself in the unremarkable lives of two buddies, Protestant Chuckie Lurgan and Catholic Jake Jackson, and their circle of friends. When Chuckie turns 30, he decides to make something of his life. He becomes a successful entrepreneur and falls in love with an American expatriate, Max. Jake is less settled; he works steadily in various blue-collar jobs (for which he is overqualified) and falls in and out of blustery love with several women. The chapters alternate between a third-person account of Chuckie and Jake's first-person narrative. The politics and history of the city are incorporated into these lives remarkably well: e.g., radio news reports and the mysterious graffito ("OTG") that the characters try to decipher throughout the novel. Despite a satirical sensibility that favors broadness over poignancy, Wilson's sheer exuberance saves this winning story of two men and a community at odds with itself. (Oct.)
Library Journal
McLiam Wilson's interesting but uneven novel is set in modern-day Belfast and presents the day-to-day lives of Jake Jackson, a Catholic, and his longtime friend Chuckie Lurgan, a Protestant. The story focuses on expected Northern Ireland issues and on Chuckie's ludicrous yet successful get-rich-quick schemes. He seems continually amazed (as the reader will be) that his outrageous ideas actually work. McLiam Wilson writes in a comedic style with spare, realistic dialog and rich descriptions of Belfast and environs. Unfortunately, the story lines never fully develop, and the characters remain flat, especially the women, who are disturbingly one-dimensional. Moreover, the subplots seem disconnected from the main story. Still, the current wave of successful Irish writers may create demand for this title. Recommended for larger fiction collections.Dianna Moeller, Saint Martin's Coll. Lib., Lacey, Wash.
Kirkus Reviews
The first of this Irish author's acclaimed novels to be published here is a surprisingly tender, complex take on life and love in Belfast at the mean-street level, where horrors mysteriously transmogrify into things of hope and beauty.

Catholic narrator Jake Jackson is a paragon of conflicted allegiances: His best friend is a Protestant; he himself is an ex- tough guy who wants only to live peaceably in his house on Poetry Street with his cat; and six months after his last love left him, he longs to be in a relationship but insults every woman drawn to his handsome face. Meanwhile, his fat, balding, working-class friend Chuckie has problems of his own over on Eureka Street, though to Jake those are to die for: Chuckie has somehow become the love object of a beautiful American, who mauls him to new heights of sexual bliss; and for reasons equally obscure, financiers are suddenly throwing big money at his pie-in-the-sky ecumenical schemes. He brings Jake along for the venture-capital ride, but there are periodic reality checks. Chuckie has to go to the America in pursuit of his departed, pregnant lover, leaving Jake behind to go a few verbal rounds with her pretty, arch-nationalist roommate, who excoriates him for his mild-mannered take on the Troubles. The bloody streets of Belfast offer impediments to lighthearted fancy as well: Chuckie's mother goes into deep shock at being an eyewitness to a massive IRA lunch-counter bombing in which 17 are killed, and a street urchin Jake befriended is beaten nearly to death for peeing on an IRA chief's car. In the new hope offered by a cease-fire, though, love has time to conquer all.

The plot twists are over the top at times, but the characters are genuine, often funny, and Wilson's evident love for the long- suffering city itself is an inspired thread that binds the story gloriously together.

From the Publisher

Eureka Street is funny and brutal and a lot more . . . a violent, angry, busy, living book.” —Irish Times (Dublin)

“He is one of the finest talents to emerge in Irish fiction for years.” —Colum McCann

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559703963
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing
  • Publication date: 9/4/1997
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author


Robert McLiam Wilson dropped out of Cambridge University to write novels. His work has won the Rooney Prize and the Irish Book Award, and has been short-listed for the Whitbread Award. In 2003, he was named as one of the Best Young British Novelists by Granta.
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First Chapter

All stories are love stories.

It was a late Friday night, six months ago, six months since Sarah had left. I was in a bar making talk with a waitress called Mary. She had short hair, a very round ass and the big eyes of a hapless child. I had known her three hours and I was getting the two-year blues already.

Chuckie Lurgan had sloped out of there half an hour previously after gracefully running out of cash and twenty minutes' worth of heavy hints from me.

In a bar full of waitresses, Mary had been one among many but I'd more than noticed her. She had started by not liking me. Maybe a lot of men might have suspected some reluctant attraction -- me, I just thought she wanted to kill me and didn't bother to wonder why. She was hard. She bristled and showed me her sharp little spines. I'm sure she understood that this would make me fall in love with her. I'm sure she knew that.

Then she had begun the amiable waitress routine, teasing me as she served us our drinks. In the end she just sat across from me in Chuckie's vacant seat whenever she had a quiet moment. This constituted a relationship. There was something in the way she looked at me, sloe-eyed, speculative, without warmth. Then there was something in the tilt of her head as she refused my cigarettes and lit her own. I think I thought she liked me. I think I thought I should take her home.

And the special way she looked at me could have been nothing compared with the special way I felt myself look at her. I could feel it written all over my face.

It was me all over. The erotic high-style in the back bar of an Oirish pub. But for all my big talk, I was a blusher, a gulper. I couldn't say anything as straight as a stick. So while I hummed and while I hawed, Mary asked me to take her home.

Sitting late in the bar while they closed up was more disconcerting than you might readily suppose. I looked down the neck of my bottle, ignoring the giggles of Mary's colleagues. The big Protestant bouncer took off his tux, rolled up his sleeves and flashed his UVF tattoos. He tried giving me some old chat while he swept the floor but I was afraid of saying something too Catholic. I ignored him as best I could and tried to think of Sarah. I couldn't manage it.

I suppose it was the first full night of spring and the blunt warm wind lifted my mood as Mary and I left the bar. I ignored my wreck of a car and suggested that we walk.

In her smart dress and sheer tights, Mary looked like something in a crime novel. I wasn't accustomed to girls like that. Somehow it made me feel cheap but, as she smiled at me, I couldn't help but concede that she was pretty. She talked energetically about her job. With all my heart I tried to listen but drifted off, letting the wind make shapes with my hair. But I was glad she talked. I was glad of the noise.

`What do you do?' she asked as we passed Hope Street.

I smiled. `I do a lot of things. I'm a debt counsellor right now,' I lied, after a fashion.

`That's nice.'

That's the thing about when you lie. If they don't believe you, you despise yourself; if they do believe you, you despise them.

There was a police checkpoint stopping cars at the mouth of the Lisburn Road. As we passed, a cop greeted Mary by name. I didn't like that. There was still enough of the working-class Catholic in me not to like that.

`He comes into the bar sometimes,' Mary said afterwards. The excuse in her voice meant she had guessed what I was thinking. I didn't like that either.

She was impressed by my street. It was leafy. It was green. She even liked the name. I lived on a street called Poetry Street. It wasn't always a good sign when people liked the name of my street. She was impressed by my flat. My flat makes me look like I have a lot of money. She looked at all Sarah's swish furniture and pictures, at all Sarah's faultless taste, and liked me more. She ran her fingers along the bookshelves and smiled at me like I was some intellectual.

I made a pot of coffee all by myself and that, too, impressed her.

`Nice place,' she said.

I didn't know if I liked or admired her but I wanted her. I was lonely that night, womanless. It wasn't the sex I craved. It was the joint cornflakes, the hand on my hip in the dark, somebody else's hair on my pillow. I needed the small presences of someone. I needed Sarah's little bits.

`Do you own or rent?' she asked.

I don't know what I did with that face of mine but hers fell at my reaction. There was a sudden extra width in the big eyes and a tremble of the lips. I hated it when people did that kind of stuff to me -- coming out with some duff line and then looking like they were six years old when I frowned.

`I'm sorry,' she said. `That was a stupid thing to say.'

I didn't disagree but that was when I knew I couldn't sleep with her. I don't know -- in my small experience of women, I've found it hard to sleep with them at such times. Times when you get the impression that there's more to them than an opportunity. Sleeping with girls was great, sleeping with people was a bit more complicated. Maybe it was a bad thing, maybe a sign of my immaturity, but I knew that there was some kind of tenderness in it as well.

I stood up as tactfully as I could manage. She stood too. There was nothing to say and little to do. I couldn't think of how to tell her of the big mistake that this had been. I moved towards her and she opened her shoulders and lifted her face uncertainly. It looked like she expected me to kiss her. And then I wanted to, very badly indeed.

`I must go she,' said, surprisingly.

Her cab took twenty minutes. We talked a little. I was oddly flattered that she didn't like me; that she had made her mistake and had corrected it so staunchly. I told her about Sarah and she told me about her policeman boyfriend whom she was going to call when she got home. I thought she was talking about the guy she had greeted when we left the bar but he was just a friend. Mary thought he would tell her boyfriend about seeing her with some guy and she wanted to pre-empt that strike.

`I'm sorry,' she said. `This was a bad idea.'

`Well ...' I mumbled.

`I don't do this.'

`Me neither.'

`First night of spring.' She smiled.

`Yeah.'

Then she left me to the rest of the coffee and myself. Much as Sarah had done.

There are those nights when you're pushing thirty and life seems over. When you feel like you'll never tie up any ends and no one will ever kiss your lips again.

I wandered the rooms of my empty flat. I liked my flat. But sometimes, when home alone, I felt like I was the last man living and my two bedrooms were a humiliation of riches. Since Sarah left, I hadn't prospered. Life had been slow, life had been long. She'd been gone six months. She didn't want to live in Belfast any more. She was English. She didn't need it any more. There had been a lot of killings back then and she decided that she'd had enough. She wanted to go back to somewhere where politics meant fiscal arguments, health debates, local taxation, not bombs not maiming not murders and not fear.

So, she had gone back to London. Chuckie had comforted me with the observation that English girls were a waste of time. She didn't write. She didn't call. She didn't even fax. She'd been right to go but I was still waiting for her to come back. I'd waited for other things in my life. Waiting was nothing new to me. But waiting had never seemed like this. It looked as though I was going to have to wait for longer than I'd got. The clock was running in sprints and I wasn't even off the blocks. People had got it all wrong about time. Time wasn't money. Time was speed.

That night, I lay in my bed with my windows open, the helicopters chuckling comfortingly as they hovered over all those Catholics out west. Sarah had always hated that noise. I had always liked it. It had helped me sleep when I was a child. I hoped it would fail now. It was near four and I was working at half past six. I wasn't worried, though. I knew I had enough unhappy thoughts to keep me well awake so I dozed, feebly wishing that either Mary or Sarah could have somehow found it fit to lay her head next to mine.

Next morning Rathcoole, a Protestant estate on the northern quiff of the city, concrete and cold. Not even eight o'clock and we were doing our third call already. Here I was, working Saturday again. We'd started off at half past six with a three-piece suite from a sleepy, anxious young couple. The woman had cried and the man had gulped nervously as he comforted her and watched our burly forms lumbering about his home. Then we'd picked up a fridge, microwave, electric guitar and mountain-bike from a family on the edge of the estate. Their house looked like it was made of cardboard and they were used to interference. We'd busted in there while all but the seven-year-old were in bed. The dad had grumbled briefly but nobody feels like a fight in their pyjamas. They gave us no trouble.

We pulled up at the third house on our list. We were to take a television from a couple of pensioners. Crab stayed in the van and Hally and I walked up the little path and rapped the door in that hard, hard way we had. I went in behind him when the old guy opened up. We didn't say anything as we stepped over the rubble of the dingy hallway into the sitting room.

Curtains closed, the room was glutinous and dark. A television chuckled in a brassy nook ignoring our incursion like a brave comic shunning hecklers. An old lady sat on a sofa dimly illumined by the blue glow of breakfast television. Her reactions were tardy. She turned towards me. The old guy followed us in, swearing inaudibly, his pruny face slack like he wasn't surprised. The old lady made a couple of efforts to raise the tub of her belly off the sofa. The TV suddenly went to advertisements and the old girl was bathed in Caribbean warmth as she tottered to her feet. She began to shout. `Get out of here, you dirty hallions! Whoohjoos think y'are? My grandson's in the UDA. I'll have youse kneecapped.'

Blah blah blah, the usual.

Silently, I unplugged the set and picked it up. It was my turn to carry and Hally's turn to be hardman. He flexed himself and looked pretty big in that murky little room. I moved to the door. The old man mumbled some exasperated oath at me and the old lady aimed a swipe of her hand at my retreating back.

Hally stopped and turned round to face her. He bent down a long, long way and put his face within kissing distance of hers.

`Fuck up,' he advised.

Outside I loaded the van and we moved on, Crab trundling through the cheap streets in second gear. Hally was rumbling and red with disappointed aggression. It looked like no one would give him the trouble he sought this morning and even he balked at smacking some old biddy. I looked at him and sighed. I didn't like my job.

Television -- retail, 245 [pounds sterling], outstanding, 135 [pounds sterling], resale maybe 100 [pounds sterling] to 120 [pounds sterling]. The company would want 100 [pounds sterling] back on a gogglebox of that price. Twenty pounds' profit split three ways. We were tycoons. I didn't like my job.

Crab and Hally bitched at each other while I looked out at all the bricks and all the sunshine. The day before they'd picked up a video and stereo in Ballybeen. Hally had been driving and he'd told Crab that the woman they were stiffing was so badly broke that she'd put out to keep her stuff. He'd given poor old Crab some big story about her being an unmarried mother in her late twenties, blonde, big tits: usual list of yob desirables. Crab had gone wild with anticipation. Hally and I had sussed the poor slob was a virgin. Needless to say, it was all crap as Crab discovered when some fat matron had answered the door and smacked him about for trying to take her stuff. This grievance still rankled. It wasn't like Crab had a lot of other things to think about.

I was feeling sour. I worked in the repossession industry. How else was I supposed to feel? Repo work had the capacity to take the edge off my morning and it was always the morning for us boys. That's when we did our best work. People were disoriented in the morning, half dressed, malleable, not generally pugilistic. It seemed that trousers were necessary for confident protest. We didn't work after dark -- you never knew what size the guy might be or how much he might have drunk; it was also harder to find women alone after dark and people kept mistaking us for the IRA.

Oh, boy, people were always mistaking us for the IRA. I suppose it was easy to mistake one trio of macho fuckers for another. My colleagues were very basic human beings indeed. Crab was big, fat and ugly. Hally was big, fat, ugly and vicious. I tried not to hate people. Hating people was too tiring. But sometimes, just sometimes, it was hard.

I had a personal theory as to why the people we dealt with were so easy to deal with first thing in the morning. I had a feeling that poverty like theirs felt worse first thing. It might have been easier to dream or fantasize at night when some optimism or booze could make you bullish but in the pallid light of morning it must have all seemed pretty permanent, this poverty, this shame. It must have seemed fairly realistic.

What depressed me most was that so many people gave us so little trouble. Like they expected our invasion. Like they guessed we had a right and they had none. When an unmarried mother who owes twenty quid on a three-hundred-pound fridge lets you walk out with it and no grumbles, something very odd is going on.

Crab was definitely getting excited about our next call. A sunbed. Crab felt that a sunbed guaranteed some big blowsy tart -- just what he needed before breakfast. We pulled into the street and stopped at the address. The house looked smarter than its neighbours: there was a fancy door and some intricate porchwork. Somebody doing well enough to buy sunbeds and build fancy porches had obviously lost their job and now we were coming to take it all away.

I stayed in the van because Crab was so desperate to get a look at the woman his imagination had created. He and Hally knocked and waited. I lit a cigarette and settled down. I felt like shit. Some would say that working-class aspiration always ends like this -- hard-faced hoodlums taking all the gaudy baubles away. I still felt like a criminal.

I couldn't get Mary out of my head. I had told her I was a debt counsellor. Which was a big fat laugh. I could never get the hang of being seedy and it appalled me to think of what I had become again since Sarah had left. Some repo thug who lies to the waitresses he takes home. The high life.

Hally was still knocking at the door and Crab was looking disappointedly through the windows. Nobody home. Just as I was beginning to hope that he wasn't going to do it, Hally had whipped out his chisel and jemmied the lock. I hated it when he did that. The cops had hassled us too many times already. I didn't want any more grief. But I said nothing as the two disappeared inside.

I put my head back and closed my eyes. I felt ashamed of the night before. I wondered if I would have felt more ashamed if I'd slept with her. It was just that the girl had somehow shown that she was much better than me. When she had asked me to take her home, it had been a stylish, independent thing to do. Maybe it was always like that when girls did it. But I had smudged it and made it somehow sordid. I wished I didn't have that knack.

A hand tapped me on the shoulder and I jerked upright, eyes open. A man was standing by the open van window. He was unshaven and weary-looking.

`That's my house,' he said. `What's going on?'

His tone was desultory, certainly not aggressive. Even so, I thought about getting out of the van in case he cut up rough.

`Repossession,' I said, more dismissive than I felt.

`What are you taking?' he asked, curiously.

`Sunbed.'

`Ah, right,' he murmured, without interest. He eyed my cigarette. I offered him one. `Thanks, mate.'

Crab and Hally were still inside. This man didn't look like he intended moving.

`They'll be ages taking that fucking thing apart.' He tittered grimly.

I flicked something between a smile and a nod at him.

`I'm glad to see it go,' he said, lazily confidential. `The bitch fucked off so her stuff can fuck off after her.'

Me, I never knew what to say to unhappy people. I never knew what to add or subtract.

`Lost your job?' I asked clumsily.

`Aye, fuck.' The man was briefly energized. `I was at Short's ten years. Laid me off four months ago. They're letting fucking Taigs in now.'

Yeah, yeah, I thought. There was a new Commission now to make sure that Catholics had fair representation in the workforces of the province. Equable commentators like this guy blamed this Commission for all the economic, social and moral ills of the planet generally. They had liked it the old way, when Catholics were glad of an indoor bathroom and a couple of raw spuds. But what could he have expected? That kind of stuff couldn't have gone on for ever. Not because it was wrong or anything like that, because it was embarrassing. Would he have been comfortable if he'd known I was a Catholic? I wondered. Probably.

`When did she go?' I asked, to change the subject.

His Catholic-hating smile hardened into his wife-hating smile, a much uglier thing. `Last month. Told me she was fucking her cousin and pissed off the day before Christmas. Didn't miss her. Drunkest I'd ever been. Drunkest anybody's ever been. Didn't miss her. Won't miss her.' He nudged me. `Gives me a chance to have a go at all the wee tarts running round the estate. That's the life for me.'

A tear tracked down the tired lines in his face while he talked all his tough talk. Here we go again, I thought. He talked more hardman bullshit like he didn't know I knew how soft and small and sad he was. I didn't listen with either ear.

Crab and Hally finally lumbered out of the house carrying both parts of the sunbed. The van door was open so they loaded up without my assistance. The guy ignored them all the while and continued cajoling me with his man-of-the-world stuff. Crab got into the driver's seat, grumbling about not getting a look at the tart with the sunbed. The man's face did not flicker. Hally pushed him out of the way and climbed in.

And it was when Crab started the van and we moved off that it happened. I looked back and the guy waved at me. A tired, amiable, clapped-out gesture. I don't know. I'd taken stuff from old folks, from women, from kids even. It's supposed to be easier to feel sorry for them but I'd never felt sorrier for anyone than I felt for this tired guy, this silent weeper who'd waved at me as I'd driven away with the last remnant of the woman who had left him.

And that was enough to do it. The low-rent street, the crappy houses, the sky pale and drooping, the waving man with the wet face. It all looked like I felt and I decided that I wanted to go home. I was going to take the rest of the day off. A morning's worth of repo work was enough sadness for anybody.

The van was getting full and we decided to drive back and unload. Crab and Hally bickered on as we drove back to the garage from where we worked. Soon they guessed my mood and left me out of their banter. I couldn't get the picture of the guy with no wife and no sunbed out of my head and I couldn't swallow the taste of shame.

Back at the garage, I left my two colleagues and walked into Allen's office. He owned the garage and ran his debt-collection gimmick from there. He was talking money into the telephone. He motioned me to wait. I waited without patience.

`What do you want?' he asked, when he had finished. Allen was an ex-dipso, car salesman, repossessor, loan shark, all-round wide-boy. He was the only sixty-year-old bald guy I had ever seen in a pair of leather trousers. He was not a man with much grace.

`I'm going home. I'm sick.'

`The fuck you are.'

`Stop me.'

He frowned and decided to stop trying to look menacing. He wasn't any good at it. That's what he'd hired Crab, Hally and me for.

`What's wrong with you?'

`I'm sick.'

He looked out of the small window to where he could see Crab and Hally unloading the van. `Have you gotta problem with this work, Jackson?'

`Nah, I find it massively rewarding. I thank God every day for the fulfilment of it, the sense of achievement. What do you think?'

He didn't smile -- he couldn't, he didn't understand all those syllables.

`Why don't you go be a fucking brain-surgeon, then?'

`I'm thinking about it.'

`You get up my nose, you know.' Happily reminded, he started to pick the organ in question. `Crab and Hally don't have a problem. Admittedly, they're stupid cunts but they don't have a problem because they know that what you don't pay for you can't have. We take stuff from scumbags who shouldn't have bought it in the first place. Don't buy things you can't afford.' He dislodged a wieldy piece of snot and paused thoughtfully. `If you don't like it go get another job. I'll live with the disappointment of losing you. Fuck me, who cares if we're not nice -- we're necessary. That's more important.' He smiled and flicked the snot from his fingers. Just in case I thought he was justifying himself or anything like that, he added, `Anyway, do you think I could give two fucks?'

`Can I go home now?'

He dismissed me with a wave. `Yeah, fuck off. And don't do this again.'

At the door he called me back. I turned reluctantly and looked at him without interest.

`You're a real soppy prick, you know.'

`Yeah,' I said,'I've been told.'

Back home in Poetry Street, I smacked a cup of coffee into me. Fancy coffee; black as Mick beer and strong as radiator paint. The only way to drink it. Cost me three quid a pound but a man had to have good coffee. Since Sarah had ironed out my tastes it had become a first principle. I lived at the posh end of town now so I ground my coffee and drank it from overpriced, underglazed kitchenware. This was Poetry Street. This was bourgeois Belfast, leafier and more prosperous than you might imagine. Sarah had found this place and moved us in to lead our leafy kind of life in our leafy kind of area. When her English friends or family had visited us there they had always been disappointed by the lack of burnt-out cars or foot patrols on our wide, tree-lined avenue. From my downstairs window, Belfast looked like Oxford or Cheltenham. The houses, the streets and the people were plump with disposable income.

From my upstairs window, however, I could see the West; the famous, hushed West. That's where I'd been born: West Belfast, the bold, the true, the extremely rough. I used to send Sarah's visitors up there. There were plenty of those local details up West.

A radio waffled softly from the flat downstairs. It was barely ten o'clock and the student kids downstairs were probably just getting up. I pulled my curtains wide and Saturday sunlight slapped itself around my room like a coat of paint. I squinted out at all the Belfast birds in all the Belfast sky. Across the Lisburn Road, a diminutive cleaning woman chucked some flaccid garbage from the doorway of the fancy Indian chickenhouse. A group of cats appeared from nowhere and started filling their faces. I recognized my own prominent amongst them. He was the fat one with no testicles. I thought about calling him in for his breakfast but I decided not to bother. I didn't particularly like my cat. My cat was a bit of a wanker.

I looked to my own breakfast -- coffee, dry toast and cigarettes. I ate in good heart, a neat trick on two hours' sleep and a baby hangover. I went to the door and looked again for the mail that never arrived. I picked up the local paper and took a read at that instead. Another taxi-driver shot the night before. Taxi-drivers were fashionable victims just then. It was all the rage. It was all the hatred. At the bottom of the front page there was an ad for a Christmas pantomime. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs WITH REAL DWARFS!!!

Everything was looking local.

Under the circumstances, Belfast was a pretty famous place. When you considered that it was the underpopulated capital of a minor province, the world seemed to know it excessively well. Nobody needed to be told the reasons for this needless fame. I didn't know much about Beirut until the artillery moved in. Who'd heard of Saigon before it blew its lid? Was Anzio a town, a village or just a stretch of beach? Where was Agincourt exactly?

Belfast shared the status of the battlefield. The place-names of the city and country had taken on the resonance and hard beauty of all history's slaughter venues. The Bogside, Crossmaglen, The Falls, The Shankill and Andersonstown. In the mental maps of those who had never been in Ireland, these places had tiny crossed swords after their names. People thought them deathfields -- remote, televised knackers' yards. Belfast was only big because Belfast was bad.

And who would have thought it thirty years before? Little Belfast could be such a beautiful city. Squatting flat in the oxter of Belfast Lough, hazily level with the water, the city was ringed with mountains and nudged by the sea. When you looked up the length of most Belfast streets, there was some kind of mountain or hill staring back at you.

But, yeah, Belfast continued to fail to surprise me. A couple of days before, a bomb had gone off near the police station just across the road from my flat. I'd watched from my window as the Lisburn Road was evacuated. The flower shop, the newsagent's, the hairdresser's. After sealing off the road, they did a controlled explosion. Jesus! Blew in two of my windows and scared the chocolate out of me into the bargain. How controlled were these controlled explosions? It fucked half the street -- the other half was pretty fucked already. What new definition of the word `controlled' was this?

It was, of course, nothing serious. As Belfast bombs go, it went. Little to relate. Nobody died, nobody bled. It was no big deal. That was the big deal. It was dull stuff. Nobody really noticed. What had happened to us here? Since when had detonations in the neighbourhood barely raised a grumble?

It had been a while since I had been that close to an explosion, what with me moving to this middle-class end of town and all. It was strange. You forget what they're like. But when it went off, I remembered what they were like, quicker than I wanted to.

What were bombs like? Well ... explosive, naturally. And loud. And frightening. They were loud and frightening in your gut like when you were a child and you fell on your head and couldn't understand why it hurt like panic in your belly. They were fairly irreversible too. Bombs were like dropped plates, kicked cats or hasty words. They were error. They were disarrangement and mess. They were also -- and this was important -- knowledge. When you heard that dry splash, that animal thud of bomb, distant or close, you knew something. You knew that someone somewhere was having a very bad time indeed.

It wasn't the bombs that were scary. It was the bombed. Public death was a special mortality. Bombs mauled and possessed their dead. Blast removed people's shoes like a solicitous relative, it opened men's shirts pruriently; women's skirts rode up their bloody thighs from the force of the lecherous blast. The bombed dead were spilled on the street like cheap fruit. And, finally, unfuckingbeatably, the bombed dead were dead. They were so very, very dead.

Incidentally, the controlled explosion was carried out on a bin bag full of discarded Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were little pieces of singed white-meat all over the place. My cat was a very happy cat.

It was Saturday. I couldn't look for another job on a Saturday and I had the purposeless day to get through. I thought of my cheap friends. They would do. It was Chuckie Lurgan's thirtieth birthday. It would be a big event and his present wouldn't need wrapping. The only decision would be which bar to get him lushed up in.

I left my flat and found the Wreck still unstolen. Nobody was ever going to steal the Wreck. It was the only thing I liked about it. I called my wreck the Wreck for obvious reasons. It was a hugely shitty vehicle but it had incredibly clean windows. Rusty bodywork covered in three-year-old filth but the windows gleamed. I cleaned them every day so that I could see my city when I drove.

I headed for Chuckie's house.

We ended up in Mary's bar again. It was very present tense. The usual cast: Chuckie Lurgan, Donal Deasely, Septic Ted, Slat Sloane and me. The boys, the crowd. Oh, boy, I needed new friends.

Mary was there, working her tables, making no tips. My chest tightened when I saw her and I found out what I'd only guessed. That I'd made myself want her. The way I do. The way we all do. I'd caused myself to need her. When she took our order she said hello to me in a voice commendably level, admirably sure. Mary was just a working-class Belfast girl waiting table but she had a bit of style.

Chuckie's cousin came in after a while. He had the girl with him. They were getting married, apparently. Chuckie's cousin seemed unhappy. From the way he followed her gaze, from the way he looked where she looked, I guessed he thought that she was too pretty. He was right. I wouldn't have married her. Chuckie told me that the cousin was so jealous he dusted her breasts for fingerprints.

And, as usual, the talk got big -- the talk was always big in Belfast bars. The old mix, constitutional democracy, freedom through violence and the eternal rights of man. We used to talk about naked women but after a few years we stopped believing each other's lies. Chuckie hijacked the high moral ground which was a bit rich for someone as stupid as Chuckie. I mean, history and politics were books on a shelf to Chuckie and Chuckie was no reader.

Some guy from Delhi Street started guffing on about revolution. I got involved. I got angry. I was only there to see if Mary would go home with me again and, as always, I got involved.

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