Steamboats- Chapter 4
The Belfast Bus
All aboard the nightmare . Another day for the nervous wrecks trying to find peace of mind within the troubles . Half blind and stumbling their way through dimly lit streets where their anxious thoughts have strangled their heartbeats in the grip of fear they have been choked for many years . They have learnt to bleed and feed themselves in empty rooms where words echo in their heads and in their stomachs words churn out in the silence behind the draped curtains of a lives they once had before the kettle boiled .
On the streets of Northern Ireland for over 25 years , give or take a few centuries that have gone before, most everyone lived on the edge of their nerves trying to remain positive in a place where life was like walking on a tightrope and going out shopping was the gamble you took not knowing if you would make it home alive or not . The people became used to the terror, accustomed to the fear and adapted to their way of life in troubled times . In a crazy slaughterhouse they had been transformed into time bombs, with short fuses, trying to cope up against the ropes , getting knocking down, spun around and still somehow walking tall through it all .
It was no surprize at all to see steamboats set sail through the murky waters of this existence . It was no shock to the Governments system to look for ways and means to deal with the amount of young and old people in pubs and on drugs in their efforts to escape the violence of everyday life . In the war torn province people found ways to cope and many I had met from Lisburn to Purdysburn and from Skid Row to Sandy Row . I will tell you the story of a few of the steamboats I got to know .
During the time of writing this book I had booked myself a room in various homeless refuges from Salvation army to the Simon Community . It was in these shelters where I met many steamboats who had so many stories to tell .
Jill had runaway from the family home due to domestic violence . The streets of Belfast was one of the most dangerous places to be sleeping rough . As a resident of the street I met her in a cold and merciless place where life had lost all its meaning for her .
In the City of Belfast there lived Jill , a young lady , untamed and as wild as the heather on a hill . Jill frequently played the game of self-harm and had been in and out of mental health facilities who have given up on her and treated her with contempt . Jill was angry with life and at only 15 she had found a scream in her head and a pain nothing could take away . Her life was a nightmare from which she never awoke . It’s sad but its true, she was a bus with no brakes .
Jill lived alone on the streets , in the bottom of a bottle and there was no other way out . She had remained on the drink because it helped the fears stay away and kept reality at a distance .
Many times she had cut her wrists and overdosed .
Many times she had been stapled up or revived and given another chance to survive Again and again she choose to do the same thing . There was no shame of all the self abuse left before her previous scene . The stage of life was where she kept playing out the role, of someone beyond help . The doctors and nurses had no answer to her problem and so Jill continued to repeating the same act over and over to the same audience who never changed their opinion of her . Jill was a passenger on the bus with many others like her , frightened and lost .
Lord have mercy on those lost souls trying to get through the sorrows of life by drowning them in the drink pushing everyone away . Jill was depressed and stressed and more or less considered herself a failure of society . All her memories had left her with unseen scars . She had made many mistakes just like many of the rest of those on the Belfast bus with a crazy driver with no brakes . Along the way and around the bend , up the hill and back again Jill hung on as best she could .
There are many angels who have shed tears and fallen to the streets with the steamboats of Belfast . In their company to walk along beside them and to hold them up in their despair . These innocent angels may have been shot or blown up or even been a victim of the troubles in some other way . However their lives had ended they had a mission to help others to survive the drink or the drugs of the great escape .
Many undocumented stories of intervention had helped some steamboats to emigrate or to go along the straight and narrow path to recovery . For these angels who are out there will always have a place to help people like Jill .
Jesus wept , for the innocent and those who suffer.
For a short while I lived in shelters and worked with an organization who alleviated the homeless of Northern Ireland . It was there that I met Mags .
Mags is another Belfast steamboat who had a long term relationship with the bottle . It was her best friend as a matter of fact she gave everything up for the love of the drink . Her money, her family and friends . As I sat with her in a small room in the shelter she said to me .
” For God’s sake givvus a smoke before I choke . I’m cracking up here . Are you listening to me .”
I passed her a cigarette and said
“Leave it out will ye Mags . I’ve only one smoke left . Have it anyway. “
“I’ll give ye a few puffs. Ok “
She said and I couldn’t help but smile and I answered ,
“Thanks Mags you’re not that bad after all ”
She sat there with this look of contentment in her mink jacket blowing smoke up to the ceiling heavily stained with black patches of mould .
Mags had returning to the shelter after a period drying out in the hospital . She often went in for detoxing and came out only to go back again a few months later . The recycle of events occurred because of triggers that sent her on and off the wagon like a monkey on the bus with no brakes . The monkey should have been left on the bus and Mags should have left to live a normal life but sadly that never happened .
Mags was seventy years of age and the monkey stayed with her like a chain around her neck . She bumped out the cigarette and put it in a small tin with the rest of her bumpers to be rolled up at a later time .
“You know there’s always heaps of butts lying on the streets outside , if you know where to look “ She said .
I replied . “I know Mags . Do you think you’ll ever get married ?“
“Who would marry me anyway. “ She said
I smiled and replied . “Look at you there with your fur coat . You look great with your hair all scattered over your head and your smile like a diamond on a fruit cake .“
Well she laughed and laughed and said .
“ I tell ye something , see me I’m actually very well off , so if anyone was ever to marry me , he would be the luckiest man you know. “
‘So tell me Mags , are you ok ?“ I asked .
She searched for something . Then from under her pillow she produced a small bottle of whisky that she took a swig from. Then she started to talk .
“Don’t you worry about me . See I’m doing ok . I’m the queen of this here place . That’s why I dress up in my fur coat and wear that smile like I do . See I’ve been in this place the best part of my life . I’m no sooner on then I’m back out again. I love a song , come on givvus a wee song son. “
I sang Danny Boy and she sang along . After we finshed singing I said to her ,
“ Tell me in that distinguished Oxford accent of yours Mags what ever was it happened in your life that ended up leaving you in here .“
She took another swig from her bottle and talked to me with her breath reeking of whisky .
“You think you’re better than me . Well you’re not . Let me tell you something , you’re nobody special . I’ve got money . You men are al the same . See my Da well he ran away with a woman when I was only 5 years old . What do you think of that ?”
She had another swig and I said .
“Sure don’t I know Mags . Givvus another song wee song .“
“I love you son .“ She said and blew me a kiss . There was a knock on the door and a voice shouted ,
“Margaret , your lunch is on the table downstairs .“
“All right , I’ll be there ” Mags answered .
“Hurry up and come down now “
The voice at the door replied and his footsteps were heard walking away.
“See him, he’s the biggest bastard in this place, “ She said .
“So what makes you think that ? ” I asked and she said to me .
“He pretends to have lunch out , but all he wants to give me is medication . I know what he’s up to. “
“You’re wise to him Mags.” I said
“ He calls me Margaret . I don’t trust anyone who calls me Margaret an he talks funny . All proper like some kind of doctor of medicine. “
Mags had a wise old head on her shoulder . I made the comment .
“The best medicine in life is just to laugh and sing Mags.”
“Dead right son. Happy days. “ She said and took another swig .
“If you’re not doing anything later on come over this evening and we’ll have a few songs .“ She said and I answered
“I’ll do that Mags .“
Sha started to feel comfortable with me being there with her and opened up .’
“I have lots of money but they won’t let me have it until I get off the drink .“
“So who are they” I asked .
“The judge in the court . He knows me well . Last time I went he says m What have you done this time Mags . I told him I saw a TV set in a shop window I wanted in this shop window and so I smashed the window to get it . I told him , you know me , I could buy that TV and hundreds like it but you’ve restricted my finances. Then he tells me . Mags you know the deal if you can stop drinking them you can have access to your money again .“
I asked her , “Why don’t you stop drinking Mags so you can your money. “
“Because love the drink even more than all my money.” “She said and I replied .
“So you‘re living in this pokey little room with no money for a cigarette and you could change all that but you can’t stop drinking .“
“Exactly, you see now . If I see something I want I’ll just take it that’s why I’m always there in front of the judge in court . He knows me very well. “
I looked at her sitting there with this look of contentment on her face and a far away look in her eyes and said .
“ Well its up to you Mags . Nobody can tell you what to do .”
She laughed and said , “ Sussh , follow me . I’ll show you something.“
I walked slowly behind her as she made her way to the toilet . Then she lifted the top of the cistern and produced a small bottle of brandy. She giggled and put it back before going downstairs to the back porch where she produced another small bottle from the interior of a fold-up chair . She checked to see if anyone was around before she opened up the kitchen cupboard , pulling out a small bottle from behind all the spice jars . Then she said .
“See him , that bastard , if her knew I had a bottle of gin stuck in the back of this cupboard he’s have the head staggers ?”
She quickly put back the bottle in the cupboard as the sound of footsteps came towards the kitchen .
“Good day Margaret . Its time for your medication.” The project worker said .
Margaret gave me a wink of her eye and opened her mouth and the staff member produced a plastic spoon with three tablets on it . One by one Margaret took the tablets off the spoon and put them in her mouth . Then he gave her a glass of water and stood watching as she swallowed them . After he walked away she opened her mouth and lifted up her tongue , The three tablets were still in her mouth . She hadn’t swallowed them at all . She spat out and washed them down the kitchen sink and said .
“See him, that bastard . He can put nothing over on me.“
I had to laugh at her antics . Mags had learnt many tricks over the years to fool people and disclose her little alcohol stashes . She was a clever and cunning lady in the latter years of her life . It was a delight to be able to witmess the way she carried herself though th day . She never eat much at all and sometimes just sat staring intio space . I would sometimes make a comment like .
“You’re a real case Mags . If it wasn’t for the warm bed I’m sure you could sleep out on the streets .”
She always had an answer . .
“But I’d have no where to hide my little life supplies.”
“Food is in the front parlour Margaret .“ The staff called out to her .
“Bastard .“ She replied under her breath .
I spent a few weeks with Margaret until her next episode that placed her back into the hospital ward for another round of detoxing.
I sat in the waiting room of Purdysburn hospital while Mags was being admitted for treatment . There were two other people sitting there in the waiting room apart from Mags and myself . A man in his late fifties and young teenage lad . Out of the blue the young lad .
We al sat there in silence until the young man stood up and smashed his fist into the wall , The older man screamed in fear . Two nurses raced into the waiting room and restrained the young lad . Shortly afterwards he was given a dose of medication that calmed and sedated him .
Mags and I sat there looking around the room .
“Can you bring me one of those bottles later on . You know where I’ve stashed them but don’t let anyone see you son. “ She said quietly
“Sure thing Mags ‘“ I replied
Mags was admitted into an overcrowded women’s ward and I returned to the shelter where staff had started searching for where Mags had hidden her alcohol . I could see that this was a regular pattern of events .
They found they bottle in the fold-up chair and the other in the kitchen cupboard but no one ever found the bottle inside the toilet cistern .
That night I took the Ulsterbus from the station in Chichester Street to Purdysburn to visit Mags and I saw the man who was earlier in the day had been sitting in the waiting room . So I sat next to him and started talking .’
“I saw you today getting discharged . How’s things going .
He never answered so I continued ,
“Are you ok ?”
He looked at me and said .
“”Not really , I had just went through three weeks on the detox program but after that incident today with the young fella in the waiting room . Well I’m back on the drink.”
I rested my hand on him and said .
“My name is Paul . Sorry for your trouble .“
He replied ,
“Nice to meet you Paul . My name is Tommy . Most people call me Tucker.”
His hands were shaking and I could see he was having trouble copinmg .
“So Tucker , what’s your plan now .“
“I’m going back into the Burn for some rehab . I know I need help otherwise I’ll be out of control again .“
I admired Tucker’s understanding of his sickness and wanted to get to know him more . I told him about Steamboats and he had a desire to tell me his story .
I mentioned that I would visit Mags every night and if he got a bed in the hospital I would also visit him , He was ok with that .
We got off the bus on the Saintfield Road and waled together up the long road in the dark to the front doors of Purdysburn Hospital .
End Of Chapter 4
Link to Chapter 5