I don't feel like a new year has really kicked in until it reaches February. January seems so dark and bleak after all the Christmas lights are taken down. But in February the daylight slowly returns to us in the Nordic countries.
Today the is the Gaelic festival of Imbolc, the cross-quarter day on the solar calendar, halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.
I though I had lost this short story, but I discovered a copy of it in a dark corner of my old computer. It seems fitting to bring it back to life on a day that used to symbolize the beginning of spring.
What I remember most about James is his tattoo. It’s a bright green Celtic knot symbol with a black outline, on the inside of his left underarm. I have never seen another tattoo in that colour. When James played the guitar my eyes kept moving from his tattoo to the fingers on his left hand, moving rapidly across the neck of the guitar.
I met James at a house party a few months ago. He was leaving town the following day, and I had arrived a few days earlier. Anthony invited me to the party, along with some other international students. He was moving into James’ old room in the house that he had shared with three Irish lads. The house was located in the area behind “the Bot” just off Botanic Avenue in south Belfast.
Like a lot of houses inhabited solely by boys, the house had an impressive TV set and a nice stereo, while the kitchen and the bathrooms were… well, let’s just say that it was clear what was a priority in this house. But it was a nice house all the same, and what might have been lacking in curtains or cleaning was more than made up for by hospitality.
What started out as a conversation about rock music and alcohol ended with James breaking out his acoustic guitar and the lyric sheets. James had been in Belfast to study music at University, and he played at pubs around town to make a few extra pounds every now and then.
His parents were rebel singers that left Belfast for the US during the troubles, and like so many others with the same background, James had returned to the city his parents left behind. He played the guitar with the ease of years of practice and the touch of someone who loves what he is doing.
But what I remember most about the time I spent sitting on his right and singing everything from Green Day and Barenaked Ladies to traditional Irish songs is the way he looked me in the eyes when he talked to me, and the fact that he listened to what I said.
I sang in a choir when I was younger, but I hadn’t sung in public for years. Besides, I don’t exactly have the best voice in the family. But James encouraged me to sing, and actually listened like he liked the sound of my voice. There were several other people in the room, and almost all of us sang a song or two. A Canadian girl called Moira picked up the guitar and she and I sang Matchbox 20’s “3am”. Later on we sang 4 non blondes’ “What’s Up” in the small concrete area outside the kitchen that passed for a backyard.
It was a good night, and the atmosphere in that house was great. As was James’ performance of “four green fields”, a classic rebel song. Maybe it was the evening, the alcohol or just a feeling of being happy to be alive and right in that place at that very moment, but thinking of him singing that song in the sitting room on the first floor of that house on Andrew Street still sends shivers down my spine.
A group of people, made up of Moira, her fiancé Liam, James, another American guy called Tom and myself, continued on to a pub called Hatfield House. The walk from the house on Andrew Street took us across the Queen’s University campus and through the area behind the university known as the holy land, because of street names such as Jerusalem Street and Palestine Street. The houses in the holy land were mainly dark, and the walk was quite uneventful. I was still feeling bubbly from singing earlier on in the evening, and I must have been rambling on about it, as I tend to do when I’m happy and a bit drunk. I remember James turning around to face me and as we walked through the holy land. He looked my straight in the eye and said; you have a good voice. Stop putting yourself down like that. I mean it.
I can’t seem to recall anyone telling me anything like that before that night. At the time I didn’t fully realise how much that comment meant to me, or how much I would cherish those words. I was too caught up in the night, with talk, laughter and James’ acting as a tour guide for those of us who were new to the city back then. I just remember the feeling of happiness that seemed to soar through my veins at that very moment.
James was a regular at the Hatfield. It is a large pub, but unlike the flashier student pubs like the Bot and the Eg, it’s a local, with a different crowd. As this was James’ last night in town he was busy saying his goodbyes to people upstairs in the Hatfield. Moira, Liam, Tom and I were having a laugh at our table, with Tom asking Moira if she and Liam were getting married. Of course, was her reply. Liam put his beer down, and smiled.
– Well, this is the first I’m hearing about it.
Tom and Liam shared a fondness for Guinness, and Liam recommended three things to see in Dublin; the Guinness museum, the Guinness museum and, you guessed it, the Guinness museum.
But all nights come to an end sooner or later and it was time for Tom and me to head back home to our respective rooms in halls. So I said goodbye to Moira and Liam and Tom and I headed for the door.
– Hey, are you gonna leave without saying goodbye? It was James.
– Of course not. Bye, and have a safe trip back to the states.
As I hugged him goodbye he tried to kiss me and I turned my head. But he held my head gently and said; I just want to give you a kiss, please?
I agreed. He looked so sincere, and I thought, what’s the harm in a kiss? He gave me a light kiss on the lips, looked me in the eyes and said; thank you. And remember what I said. You have a great voice. Get yourself a guitar and keep singing. I mean it.
Time has blurred the memories of that night, and I can’t really remember what James looked like. I remember his green tattoo and his voice as he sang “four green fields”. But most of all I remember him looking at me, and listening. Whenever I begin to doubt my own ability to sing or get scared to pick up a guitar I remember what James said to me that night.