Mark Campbell is a graduate from the MA in Creative Writing at Queens University Belfast and is currently based in County Down, Northern Ireland. His short stories have appeared in 'The Honest Ulsterman' and The University of Exeter's 'Q Journal' where he studied English.
The Church is Open for Prayer and Quiet Reflection
Tides of people caught fragments of his songs as they hurried about their business. The lid of a guitar case flopped open like a beggar’s hand outside Victoria Square. As evening fell, the crowds thinned. His fingertips were raw from playing in the cold all afternoon. He peered into the case at the bronze and silver coins sparsely scattered across the felt.
The Albert Clock chimed in the distance. He pulled his phone from his pocket. The outline of a battery flashed red in the centre of the black screen. There was a lull as daylight faded, in the time after the shops closed on a Saturday evening and before the bars and clubs began to fill with the late-night revellers. He looked for somewhere free to sit, avoiding the smicked out teenagers chancing their arms before the bouncers started their shifts and the madding crowd of grim gospel preachers and anti-abortion, petition wielding sorts who had yet to pack it in.
One of those beer bikes perpetually filled with middle-aged women on a hen-do emerged from around the corner like an unnotified public procession. Early-noughties pop music filled the air. They jeered and splashed beer on the cobbles as they rolled past him.
“Awk, would you look at the cut of him with his wee guitar and his fringe and all”.
“Bless his heart.”
A hoppy aftertaste lingered in the air.
He found an unoccupied bench along one of the quieter pedestrian streets. He reached into his coat and pulled out a notebook to jot down a phrase that had just formed in his head. The narrow back of a young woman breezed past him with a guitar case strapped over her shoulder. The case bounced against her legs. He scribbled another note on the page.
His guitar case banged against the half-open double doors as he sidled through the entrance of the pub. He still half-expected to get stopped for ID everywhere he went. Not just in bars. Everywhere. On the train ride into town, he had compulsively checked his wallet every minute to ensure he hadn’t lost his ticket. When the conductor finally reached his compartment, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the ink washed clean with sweat from the scrap of paper and to be thrown right off at the next stop.
There was already a young woman crouched down in the small staging area by the corner setting up. He studied the small of her back as her t-shirt rode up while she tinkered with the amplifier. The manager bundled in between them, glasses hanging from a string around his neck, jiggling against his chest.
“Nick! I’ve been calling you mate. Didn’t you get any of my texts?”
“My phone died.”
The young woman turned around. She shook the hair out of her face and pulled her t-shirt down to cover her belly button.
Nick addressed the balding overweight man standing in front of him.
“What’s the craic?”
He peeked around his belly. The manager smoothed a greasy hand through what was left of his hair.
“Listen mate, I’ll tell you what it is -”
The woman stood beside Frank.
“Faith. Nice to meet you.”
Her nails were painted purple. He shook her warm hand. She held up the palms of her hands for examination before rubbing them on her t-shirt.
She pointed at the equipment in the corner.
“Son, there’s no easy way of saying this.”
“I’ve been playing here for months. Same time every Saturday.”
“Now, you know yourself you’re not for everyone.”
Frank shrugged his shoulders.
“Don’t take it personally alright.”
“Aye dead on.”
“Mon son, calm yourself. You know rightly -”
Nick stormed out of the bar.
As he barged through the door, he ran into a crowd of early starters. One of them bumped into his shoulder, knocking the strap of his guitar case loose, sending it banging between their legs.
“Yeo! For fuck sake, are your eyes painted on?”
He kept his head down and fought his way through the crowd, striding in the opposite direction. The light was fading. He slipped down a side street and found an alleyway to hide in. He sucked the cold night air deep into his nostrils and slowly let it whistle out between his pursed lips.
His tongue pressed against his right incisor. He bit down until he could almost taste the blood. He slumped to the ground, back against the wall with his guitar case down beside him and unclipped the clasps with a metallic click. The stern of the wood nestled in the crook of his armpit. He plucked the strings absentmindedly.
A passerby tossed a coin in his case. He stopped playing and looked up. The passerby slipped out of sight at the end of the alley.
Nick stood up. He set the guitar down on the wall opposite him. The guitar stared back at him. His footsteps echoed in its base as he walked away.
After wandering around for a while, he found himself outside the city cathedral as if its long spire had pierced his arm like a needle and dropped him drugged at the door. His graduation ceremony had taken place in the same cathedral less than a year ago. Most of all he remembered the funereal air to the day. How uncomfortable he had felt in his suit. He only ever wore a shirt and tie for a job interview or when someone had died and that day had the feeling of some grotesque marriage of the two. Bumping into old classmates, looking less sure of themselves already, surrounded by their parents, swaddled in their black robes and mortarboard. He remembered how the university chancellor had told them they were all destined for greatness in a speech that felt more like a eulogy than a commencement.
There was a sign on the door that read: ‘The Church is Open for Prayer and Quiet Reflection’. The church hall creaked and echoed with every step as if it were an instrument itself. Dust swirled by the frescos and stained-glass windows as he pushed through the heavy doors of the reception area. The church was empty. His fingers traced along the top of the rows of pews. When he had nearly reached the chancel, he took a seat. He examined the grain of the wood in the back of the pew in front of him. Sitting there reminded him of old school carol services when he was a child. Lined up in their shorts and blazers. They would make them sit in alphabetical order. C for Considine. He would always be at the end of the row right beside the scalding radiator. The hot metal singing the tiny hairs on his bare legs.
He walked underneath the gilded arches engraved with depictions of the crucifixion and the resurrection. A mosaic above one of the arches told the story of St. Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland. Or something like that anyway. The fella looked like he must be a saint. He stood on a grassy bank with his staff in one hand and the four-leaf clover in the other, his image set above an old, long ship sailing past a crop of mountains.
Underneath the domed roof of the baptistery, he lay down on his back and looked up to imagine what he might have seen if his parents had been religious enough to christen him as a wean. The ceiling was adorned with a mural of the night sky. A moon beamed down upon all of creation: the trees, and the flowers and the fish swimming in the lake. In the centre of the moon, a heavenly cloud from which an outstretched hand emerged, with two fingers extended.
He had heard stories about signs from God appearing to men, like a tear rolling down the cheek of Mary Magdalene or the face of Jesus in a slice of toast. No miracle revealed itself to him.
He rushed back to the spot where he thought he had abandoned the guitar. Near enough every weekend he trained it into Belfast and still barely knew its head from its hole. Panting, he halted when he recognized a plaque on the brick wall of an old building. He caught himself on the corner of the alley. Like the back of my hand, he thought to himself. He reached for the torch on his phone before remembering it was out of battery. The moonlight glinted off the strings. He genuflected before the neck of the guitar.
He headed back in the direction of the pub. He made his way through the main bar out into the fresh air of the beer garden. He bought a drink and sat down at one of the stools facing the outside bar. The heat of the crowd warmed him as people pressed in close to order their drinks. He studied the bartenders as they went about their work. He tried to guess who they would serve first. The music floating out from inside belonged to the band that normally followed him.
A woman slid in beside him. She leaned against the bar and tucked the wet strands of hair clinging to her forehead behind her ear. He could smell the hotness on her neck like lemon and salt where she had sweated through her perfume. It was the girl from earlier. She got served right away.
She finally noticed him.
“Two please, actually.”
She turned to face him as she waited for her drinks.
“We meet again.”
The bartender returned with two shot glasses. She slid one over to him and clinked her glass.
She stuck her tongue out and flipped the glass upside down. He grimaced at the taste and wiped his sticky fingers on his jeans.
“Sorry I missed you.”
“You hardly miss me already, we only just met an hour ago,” she teased.
“I’ll have to get over to see you the next time.”
She shook her head.
“Don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon.”
“Don’t really want to talk about it. Dirty bastard. Thought he’d never hand my money over.”
“Used to it by now.”
“Will I get you a taxi?”
“Will you fuck. Taxi’s the last thing. I’d take another drink.”
He pulled his wallet out and set it on the bar as if that would help attract the bartender but really it was the presence of Faith that brought him back. He ordered the same again for them.
“Why do we bother?”
He paid for the shots. They clinked and drank. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. She pointed at the guitar case laying between his feet and the bar.
“Dragging these all over the place with us.”
He sipped on his beer to wash away the aftertaste of the shots. He shook his head.
“Some eejit told me I was good in school and probably ruined me forever from getting a real job.”
Nick downed the rest of his beer. He toyed with the glass in his hands, turning it around and around.
“I’ve been having this nightmare recently where I’m on one of those talent shows on TV. On stage in front of three judges and all that bollocks. And I know I’m supposed to play something, obviously, standing there on stage like a dick with my guitar and a microphone in front of my mouth but the words won’t come out.”
“Oh, aye I know that one. That’s the one where the guitar’s actually your cock and you secretly want to ride Simon Cowell.”
“No harm to you but there’s nothing as boring as other people’s dreams.”
She took a bite out of the lemon and licked her wrist.
“Used to love those shows. Saddest thing was never the people who were shite though, it was the decent ones who would end up not getting enough votes to go through.”
“Aye sometimes they came back the next year too.”
“Right. That’s my point. You couldn’t not even if you wanted to. The liver keeps growing back.”
“Nothing. Just, it’s like drinking isn’t it? You go out and get blocked, wake up with a hangover and swear off alcohol forever. But you can’t help yourself.”
Faith made a move as if to slide away from the space she occupied between him and the bar and disappear back the crowd. She placed a clammy hand, sticky with spilled liquor on his forearm.
“You can walk me home if you want but don’t be getting any ideas.”
So, he walked Faith home and he kept his ideas to himself.