Or what happens when the lights go out… by John McGovern:
I didn’t really consider there would be any problem – the buses were running even though the streets were covered in March snow, our kitchen light was flickering but the rest of the power in the house was steady – I wasn’t even that cold.
It was when we got to the city centre that I started to worry.
“Er…where are we mate?”
“Power’s out all across the city. This is Chichester St. Last stop.”
And there was no-one else on the bus either. I had noticed the extravagant blue glow of the Ulster Bank sign opposite the City Hall close to the 9A bus route – but it only served to confuse me further. Now standing on the pavement, the dark created a collage of Belfast in my mind, as I scoured the charcoal buildings for familiar sights.
I am not a particularly outgoing person at the best of times and were it not for my affection for (some might say my adoration of) a singer-songwriter who was playing a gig that night, I wouldn’t have ventured out on one of the worst nights for snow and power-cuts in Belfast’s history. My girlfriend had meant to come with me, but she was now stuck in an airport, uncertain whether she would even make it back to Northern Ireland from Newcastle that night or that weekend.
So there I was – in the middle of a city that I knew fairly well, knowing that I needed money, that it was snowing and the snow on the street had yet to be cleared and that, for the first time, all the shops, bars, nightclubs and restaurants around me had no lights and seemingly, no power. The only sounds echoing off from every corner of the city-centre were burglar alarms, their tamper alarms tripped by the electricity going off.
I didn’t even know where to go. I knew where I was in relation to the gig venue and I knew that I needed to go to a cash machine. But everything was upside-down. The sky looked concrete-hard and the pavements were cloud-white. I took a picture on my phone for posterity and moved in the direction that I thought would bring me to some cash-machines.
As I entered one of the side-streets that would lead me to Cornmarket, I noticed the staff at the Cafe Vaudeville – one of Belfast’s premier night-spots, leaving the place, bemused but not unhappy that they might have a relaxing Friday night for once. I must have looked drunk, trying to skip over lumps of snow in order to find the best bit of pavement to walk in but nothing worked. By the time I reached High Street, my feet were soaked and my Adidas Sambas had done little to protect them.
The lights were on in Primark, I thought, so maybe there would be some shops open round the corner. Next door to it, Tesco seemed to be chucking-out, so I was undecided. Royal Avenue led away from my intended destination and I felt pulled – desperate to get into the bar and have a drink, but knowing that nothing felt quite right. As I headed back down High Street again, the lights at the zebra crossing came back on.
The sound of the few revellers in the city-centre echoed across the buildings. The lights went out again.
Then back on. Then off again.
I couldn’t do anything but laugh. It looked like the city was in a mess, so what else could I do but have a drink, now I was here. I’d get myself to the bar and, even if the power was off and I had little more than a fiver, they might take pity on me and let me join a lock-in. If the gig was cancelled, but the headliner was still there, maybe I’d even get to hang out with him – the one devoted fan who’d made it to the show despite torrid conditions.
Reaching the corner of High Street and Victoria St knocked some sense into me. The Albert Clock, leaning over me, showed how tantalisingly close I was. But without the power, I couldn’t use the pedestrian crossing that would have let me get across the four-lane road. I could have run for it, but I was wearing all-black. The road was icey. I could see the headlines as clearly as the headlamps from the vehicles flashing past. For a moment, I thought a bus-driver had realised my situation and was willing to stop but, whether due to my hesitance or his timetable, he rolled on.
I trudged off, hoping that an island in the road would let me risk my life in stages. Newly dejected that I had gone to so much trouble, to get close enough to see the venue I was heading to without being able to get there, I felt bitter.
Welcome to Belfast – no jobs, no money and no electricity. Was this all it took? If none of the power came on, would I be stranded in the city-centre? No girlfriend, no warmth, no food and no money? Were we all just one step away from an apocalypse – all down to a bit of snow and the lights going out?
I kept thinking of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York – street gangs have taken over the Big Apple, the President’s been kidnapped and Kurt Russell (as Snake Plissken) is the only man who can rescue him.
I found the graffiti-laiden subway (the underground passage, not the hot sandwich franchise) and slowly stepped down below street-level. As I reached the bottom step: light. The electricity was on, and stayed on.
The cash-machine I found opposite the subway didn’t swallow the card. The lights were on at the gig-venue. My feet had started to thaw. Even when I got a seat at the bar and ordered a rum to warm me up, I managed to find someone to chat to. The gig was fantastic, the atmosphere warm and convivial. The night would have ended happily.
Were it not for the walk home.
Words & Picture: John McGovern