Breakfast that morning had been brief and left an aftertaste from the smooth waxiness of paper coffee cup guzzled on the way to the meeting place of which we had agreed. I had risen early and dressed with only the company of my thoughts to spur me on. The thin gold clasp of my watch snapped shout between over eager fingers which had begun very slightly to shake. I took from the bedside table the brown paper bag containing a liquid of comfort that I had grown to know so well. The white crisp of my shirt made my neck feel thicker than the norm. Perhaps the constant rain had even caused my pensive body to stiffen and swell, each vein, a tensile steel rope, pulsing, taut and coiled. Another few gulps and the old magic began to kick in. I could put off the inevitable no longer. I gazed at my face in the mirror. I held my own stare, a sure sign of a soul that had come to terms with his deeds and had long since made amends with a God who did not believe in him. With a practised zeal I again threw on that familiar long coat. I smiled, after all these years it still fitted as well as the tailor had intended. Money well spent. Money which had been intended for the pockets of unworthy men. One final slug and the acid of my empty stomach churns the whisky into bile. I closed the hotel door behind me. It was that time again.
Beneath the stark Belfast sky nothing had changed. As the large black raindrops fell indiscriminately onto the shoulders of the leather of my coat, the fresh pungent aroma of aged church moss evoked memories of another time. Tall needles of grey slate vie for attention between the ancient iron monoliths, each point accusingly as if in great pain beneath the plum skies. Copper sculptures once a proud moniker of the Titanic now lay waste and green from the harsh elements. A sunken wall still dividing two religions, they lie together, but still apart in death below the crumbling stone and patchy turf of the hallowed ground. Age does not defy the texture of the acres of rain-slicked marble tributes that stretched for miles in front of our eyes. I lay my hand upon the smooth stone and feel the coldness of death that haunts my dreams on the loneliest of nights. The stoic droplets of rain provide a steady drummers beat as we stand before the grave. The leather of expensive shoes ruined forever from the puddles of dirty water that are everywhere. A rusting shovel lays forlorn and forgotten amongst the longer grass. It's blade of orange rust provocative amongst the ancient black markers of the dead. Dark days, darker deeds, we never escape our past. It binds us with rotting string and creates a parcel of guilt that two old men have carried for many regretful years in their hearts.
Increments of steam run in unique racing droplets inside the large glass window of the cafe. The cracked dull red of the aged Formica table does nothing to disguise the heat rings created by the years of many coffee cups. Towards the rear, the hot plates give off the acrimonious smell of over fried onions. I crush spilled sugar granules with the back of a spoon as we struggle to find the words. I notice the odd raised eye from behind the rustling of racing papers from across the linoleum floor. The threat of violence permeates the acrid cooking smells and invades my senses. I am no stranger to the essence of tension that envelopes the room. The cut of our clothes does not fit with the downtrodden feel emanating from the regular patrons. Black silk against a rough labourers tweed. They wonder who we are. I see the confusion in their eyes as they take in the deep facial scar and broken feature of my nose. It is my eyes that keep them seated. They are masters at detecting the look in a man's eye that reveal his occupation. In Belfast, you never ask. It is the eyes that can keep you safe or cost you the years of your life. They wait for me to betray myself with an accent. I do so with great pleasure as I summon the waitress with the bill. Shoulders sag under the heaviness of coats as I stand and ask the room in general with my guttural Glaswegian tone, "What about yis?" I get no reply.
I watch with heavy heart as the dimming glow of the tail lights grow ever smaller into the mayhem of rain slicked traffic behind the Cathedral Quarter. Another year passes with few words spoken about the purpose of my visit. I understand his love for me, I just cannot find it in me to say out loud the feelings I have inside. I light a cigarette for the first time in 20 years. They were his. He left them on the bar before he left. My need is to feel closer to him than the brief handshake that went between us when we met. The forgotten taste of tobacco does not suffice and now lays crumpled and wet beneath my heel. I keep the pack, for they are his. I will put them in the oul brown suitcase that once lay beneath our mothers bed. Inside that case we are still all as one. Brothers. Young men forged of poverty and Glasgow steel. Memories of a time before a time. Our number has been lessened by an unforgotten deadly few. Grown men who could never complete the journey would return early to the earth of which they had been called. I owed it to my brother to return every year to Belfast. I promised him that he would never be alone in the guilt of our actions as we stood in judgement as young men in the midst of another time. With my long black coat buttoned against the cold I turn towards the first leg of my journey home. The cold rain still falls, only this time it is inside of me.