They started rebuilding the sewers the week I left Belfast. Now they were fully underway the smell overpowered everything. People in the streets avoided each other’s eyes, as if no one wanted to acknowledge they’d played a part, but the bulldozers rolled in the day I moved away: I was blameless, a victim even.
This was my first time back home, a weekend flit for my sister’s wedding at Belfast Castle. A stream of texts, fired off on the ferry over, asking who was about, yielded one response, from Clown, saying he’d meet me for a coffee in the Botanic Starbucks the day after the wedding. The lack of replies should have made me paranoid, but I smelled the city before the boat docked.
It would be good to see Clown. Not only because he’d been my best friend, but he was usually skint too; traveling home and buying a present had pretty much cleaned me out. The previous evening had been spent listening to my cousins brag about how much they earned – doctoring, lawyering or whatever they did, while I mumbled half-truths and outright lies about my false starts in London.
The rich coffee aroma of the empty café made the stink of sewage bearable. Clown arrived late, and brought a guy Paul with him, who I hadn’t met. They looked like a council estate Laurel and Hardy: Clown, stocky, with his scruffy hair, and Paul, lanky with a face like a melting candle.
‘You’ve lost weight,’ Clown said. ‘I was expecting to hear stories about squid-ink pasta.’
‘Tried it,’ I said, ‘And haven’t touched food since.’
‘This is Paul,’ he said. ‘He’s the new you – laughs at my jokes but doesn’t understand them.’
‘Hello new me,’ I said, shaking Paul’s hand. He looked at Clown, as if for assurance he was only messing.
‘Naw, Paul’s an original,’ Clown said patting him on the back. ‘Or at least new and improved.’
For the next twenty minutes, I listened to the loops and twists of who was still around Belfast, how new people now fitted into the loose social circle I’d been a part of, and who else had moved on. Clown did the talking; Paul added nods and laughs. Clown finished by saying now was my chance to boast about London. That shut me up before I’d even mentioned it. I’d wanted to. Not to boast but to use Clown for a sounding board. Now we’d caught up the conversation had run dry.
Ordering a second coffee gave me an excuse to leave the table, though too much caffeine made me jittery. Perhaps one of us would come up with a new strand of conversation. The only person Clown hadn’t mentioned was The Shame, and I wasn’t sure if I should ask in front of Paul. The girl behind the counter had the look of a caffeine addict: bloodshot eyes and an expression as if she’s coming up on something. A fart snuck out before I knew it was there. My eyes shot up at the girl. She maintained the same intense stare behind her bolted-open eyelids. Maybe she hadn’t heard it. She certainly hadn’t smelled it. For a second I thought something else had slipped out with the fart. For some reason, I hadn’t shat since I arrived back. Coffee normally shifted my bowels, but the first cup hadn’t done the trick.
I paid with a twenty. The same twenty my mum handed me at the wedding, in front of my cousins. She’d said, loud enough for them to hear, that she’d made sure to get me an English twenty, because she knew shops in London don’t accept Northern Irish notes. She was trying to show off, as if living in London made me a big shot. I used to think so too, before I moved there and learnt the truth. I took the money, and agreed with her, by telling a story about a supermarket refusing to take a Northern Irish note off me; it wasn’t as if I’d other angles for boasting. Fuck it. I needed the money. Now I was getting handed back a blue Bank of Ireland fiver and a green Ulster Bank tenner for change. I’d almost forgotten what they looked like.
This café used to be a hippy shop. It sold oil burners and crystals, that sort of fluff. When I moved to my last flat in Belfast, I bought some incense to put a different scent in each room. The girl behind the counter called it a clever idea. It meant my angels were watching out for me. I wasn’t so sure. At least I’d a funny story for my flat-warming. The Shame had been there, pissed out of his tits. He’d leapt straight in with a story about how he’d been in the shop one time, and the manager told him he was carrying tremendous pain from his past life. The Shame wondered how she knew so much about him. She’d put her hand on his back and touched a spot that set him crying. He couldn’t control himself, but since then he could see auras.
The last time I’d seen The Shame he was a mess. He’d been kicked out of his flat and was staying in a hostel on Garmoyle Street. I was going to get my hair cut and invited him along. My hairdresser also freelanced for a fashion photographer, and styled all these famous people who came to Belfast. She’d just started into one of her crazy stories when The Shame piped up.
‘I think I’ve pished myself,’ he said.
‘You think?’ the hairdresser shouted. She grabbed The Shame by the back his hoodie and dragged him to the door, pish trickling from the bottom of his jeans. She held her scissors like a dagger. He was lucky he didn’t get stabbed. She wouldn’t take any money, or even finish my hair. I stormed off down the street with my knife and fork hair-do, while The Shame staggered spread-legged after me stuttering apologies. I outpaced him without looking back and didn’t stop until I was home. I didn’t even give a fuck about the haircut, not really. I just hated the state of The Shame; his nickname clung to him like a piece of bog-roll trailing off the sole of his shoe. My haircut made me look like a hillbilly, but I kept it until it grew out. I tried to reason that The Shame needed help and I should call him, or even send a text, but I told myself I was showing tough love, all while hoping I’d bump into him. But before it happened I moved to London.
When I brought my coffee back to the table Clown was away at the toilet.
‘So are you working?’ I asked Paul. It was the first opener that came to mind.
‘No,’ he said, and stared about him like he’d nothing to say. I ran back through a list of people on the periphery of our social group. None of them ignited the conversation. I chewed my nails and looked out the window until Clown came back. He’d stopped to get a coffee – black, no sugar, like the Beatniks.
‘So did you hear about The Shame?’ Clown asked.
‘No,’ I said shaking my head. Clown gave Paul a look like he should’ve built up an intro for the story.
‘Well you know he broke up with what’s-her-face?’
‘I didn’t know he was seeing anyone,’ I said.
‘Well she dumped him anyway. He showed up at her house in the middle of the night saying a satellite had followed him, like some fucking government spy thing.’
‘Is that what she’s saying?’ I asked. ‘Or did he actually say it?’
Clown shrugged. ‘Probably the DTs. He’s going out with that girl Cassandra now. Do you remember her?’
I shook my head.
‘Hippie chick, thinks she can see the future?’ Clown said. ‘Used to work here.’
I shook my head again. ‘Sure this place opened after I moved to London.’
‘Naw, back when it was a hippie shop,’ he said, shooting me a look. I knew him well enough to know it was sarcastic congratulations for mentioning London, as if I’d been waiting for an opportunity to slip it into the conversation. ‘You remember it used to sell crap like dreamcatchers and incense?’
I almost launched into my incense story, but something about the way Clown swivelled his eyes at Paul shut me up. Paul’s phone rang. He did a pointy thing with his hand to excuse himself, and took off outside to answer it.
‘Aye, Cassandra’s proper ditzy,’ Clown said. ‘Fuck it. I don’t think Cassandra’s even her real name. She won’t come in here now it’s a Starbucks. She says she physically can’t pass the door. The energy’s wrong, or some shit.’
‘She sounds right for The Shame,’ I said. In truth I knew exactly who he was talking about, and aside from being a bit hippy I never saw much wrong with her.
‘She’s making him worse. They sit up all night concocting theories about the government. He texts me these long brain-shites about society being fucked. I think it’s funny.’
I’d missed Clown’s humour in London, but now it seemed cruel.
He showed me one of the texts. It read like something a serial killer would send the police. The Shame had signed it off with ‘The Truth’. That could work as a new nickname for him, but I didn’t mention it.
‘I’m off for a shite,’ Clown said standing up. ‘You can say that round here nowadays. We’re so uncivilised, I’m sure, compared to the fuckers you hang out with in London.’
He gave me that look, like I wasn’t to be offended. Or that’s how I used to read it. Now it seemed to say he didn’t care. While he stomped off up the stairs I wondered if I was being oversensitive. Done right, slabbering is funny. Done wrong, it’s a wanker looking for a slap. I still thought Clown was on the right side of funny.
His phone, the newest model of iPhone, sat on the table. I picked it up and felt the weight of it. I was still using an old Samsung that was slow as fuck and barely ever picked up internet. The screen of Clown’s phone was unlocked. I flicked through his messages, taking looks behind me in case him or Paul came back. Clown is heavyset, so I expected to hear him coming, but he’s also the sort would leave his phone out to see if you’d look through it. I didn’t care if I was being predictable.
The brain-shite hadn’t been the last text The Shame had sent him. In plain English, thereabouts, the one after it said:
DON’T NO Y UR SEEIN THAT WANKER 2DAY. SURE U NO HE’LL ONLY BOAST ABOUT LONDON LIKE A STUCK UP CUNT. ASK HIM IF HE’S TRIED SQUID INK PASTA
In truth, setting up in London had been harder than I’d expected. I’d gone to escape a life of shitty low-paid jobs in call centres but found that was all London offered too. I’d thought of this weekend as a tester for moving back to Belfast, but fuck it. I hadn’t done anything on these dicks. And what about the tone, as if me being a wanker was some craic everyone was in on? I forwarded the text to my phone, and deleted from Clown’s message history that I’d sent it. When Clown came back a few minutes later he picked the phone up and slipped it into his pocket, as subtle as if we were in a school play and this was the gun he’d need in act three.
‘He’s lucky the city smells of shite right now,’ Clown said, nodding over my shoulder at Paul, ‘or you’d smell him instead. I wish they sold incense in Starbucks.’
Paul was at the counter buying a coffee. When he came back he said he’d heard about a gig later on at a wee shebeen in the Holylands. A load of ones would be there. He muttered out the side of his mouth that I could come along if I wasn’t doing anything. I made an excuse about having a family meal booked. Him and Clown didn’t push me, or ask to meet up again before I left for London. I took off soon after.
‘You know, the incense from the hippie shop smelled like shite anyway,’ I said as I left. Clown laughed, a big open roar, his mouth wide enough to fit a fist.
He texted me while I waited at the bus stop, saying The Shame would be there tonight. There was nothing incriminating in the text, but there never was with the ones he sent; I was being invited to laugh and be laughed at.
The reek of sewage was stronger now I’d left the café. The stench seemed to follow the bus as it weaved out of Belfast. None of the shit was mine, I kept reminding myself. I thought of every two-faced bastard in Belfast hunkered over a toilet, gleefully emptying their bowels. I imagined my nose could separate the subtle scents of each different type of shit: the healthy brown nobly stools, the green sticky stools of a red-wine hangover, the bilious white stools of liver failure, the black tarry stools of a bloody colon, the fat fibrous stools with extra sweetcorn, and the mushy chocolate milkshake of diarrhoea. Every type was accounted for and lodged in layers beneath these streets. I reread The Shame’s text, dwelling on the open bitterness of it, and Clown’s silent agreement. Those fuckers and their snide little months in shit stinking cafés, ripping into me while I counted my coppers just to afford a cup of coffee.
A dull ache started in my gut. Followed by an awareness of my asshole, as if it was waking up. A gurgle told me to shift; something inside me was moving. I stood up and edged down the bus towards the exit, as a fresh turd struggled to pass between my clenched ass cheeks. Only my body’s determination not to be beaten allowed me to halt it, as it threatened to touch the cloth of my favourite boxer shorts. I got off at the next stop and inched tight-arsed along the street, inhaling the waft of other people’s shit as I went. Maybe Belfast had always smelled this bad. Maybe my nose had forgotten. It was time for me to give something back, to every nasty fucker in this city. I pictured myself locked in some graffiti-riddled cubicle in a nearby pub, the cold plastic toilet seat digging a ring around my ass cheeks, and the splash of water as the first lump plopped into the bowl. At that moment, I would send The Shame’s text back to him, give him a new conspiracy theory to dwell on, one he could share with Clown, one he’d be sifting through after I’d returned to London. First, I needed to find a toilet.