Belfast night sounds.Common enough these days, God knows, but over here on this part of the docks it was as quiet as the grave. Only the gurgle of water amongst the wharf pilings to accompany me as I moved along the cobbled street past a row of warehouses.
I didn’t see a soul, which was hardly surprising for it was the sort of place to be hurried through if it had to be visited at all and they’d obviously had their troubles.
Most of the street-lamps were smashed, a warehouse a little further on had been burnt to the ground, and at one point rubble and broken gkss carpeted the street.
I picked my way through and found what I was looking for on the next corner, a large Victorian public house, the light in its windows the first sign of life I’d seen in the whole area.
The name was etched in acid on the frosted glass panel by the entrance: Cohan’s Select Bar. An arguable point from the look of the place, but I pushed open the door and went in anyway.
I found myself in a long narrow room, the far end shrouded in shadow. There was a small coal fire on the left, two or three tables and some chairs, and not much else except the old marble-topped bar with a mirror behind it that must have been quite something when clipper ships still used Belfast docks. Now it was cracked in a dozen places, the gold leaf on the ornate frame flaking away to reveal cheap plaster. As used by life as the man who leaned against die beer pumps reading a newspaper.
He looked older than he probably was, but that would be the drink if the breath on him was anything to go by. The neck above the collarless shirt was seamed with dirt and he scratched the stubble on his chin nervously as he watched me approach.
He managed a smile when I was close enough. ‘Good night to you, sir. And what’s it to be?’
‘Oh, a Jameson, I think,’ I said. ‘A krge one. The kind of night for it.’
He went very still, staring at me, mouth gaping a little and he was no longer smiling.
‘English, is it?’ he whispered.
That’s right. Another of those fascist beasts from across
the water, although I suppose that depends upon which side you’re on.’
I put a cigarette in my mouth and he produced a box of matches hastily and gave me a light, his hands shaking. I held his wrist to steady the flame.
‘You’re quiet enough in here in all conscience. Where is everybody ?’
There was a movement behind me, the softest of footfalls, wind over grass in a forest at nightfall, no more than that. Someone said quietly, ‘And who but a fool would be abroad at night in times like these when he could be safe home, Major?’
He had emerged from the shadows at the end of the room, hands deep in the pockets of a dark blue double-breasted Melton overcoat of a kind much favoured by undertakers, the collar turned up about his neck.
Five foot two or three at the most, I took him for little more than a boy in years at least, although the white devil’s face on him beneath the peak of the tweed cap, the dark eyes that seemed perpetually fixed on eternity, hinted at something more. A soul in torment if ever I’d seen one.
‘You’re a long way from Kerry,’ I said.
‘And how would you be knowing that?’
‘I mind the accent, isn’t that what they say ? My mother, God rest her, was from Stradballa.’
Something moved in his eyes then. Surprise, I suppose, although I was to learn that he seldom responded with any kind of emotion to anything. In any event, before he could reply, a voice called softly from the shadows, ‘Bring the major down here, Binnie.’
There was a row of wooden booths, each with its own frosted glass door to ensure privacy, another relic of Victorian times. A young woman sat at a table in the end
one. She wore an old trenchcoat and headscarf, but it was difficult to see much more than that.