I spent a lot of time as a child in east Belfast, during what was, in hindsight, the last gasp of its life as an industrial culture. I remember horns and sirens at lunchtimes, an architecture of high red brick walls around factories that even then were probably scaling down production, my grandfather’s pride in the Skyvan wobbling into the air above Ravenscroft Avenue. This poem was written after a train journey to Bangor many years later, when the smell of the Connswater in summer overpowered me: those of you who are old enough to remember Belfast before the Lagan weir will know that the whole city centre used to stink like the east’s stream (the ‘slow green backwater’ of the poem) still does on hot days at low tide…
Anyway, it may sound corny to say that this came to me in a dream, but this came to me in a dream: unbidden, pretty much fully-formed. Certainly, I wrote it out in a few moments after waking and it changed little in the typing. And I’m interested in that because there’s nothing surrealist here: more a kind of slow-motion Mass Observation documentary effect, or something? And the disappearance of the apprentice seems to relate to the abductions and drive-bys of the Troubles, but in no conscious or designed way.
The Lost Apprentice
He arrived late and was turned away from the shift.
Blue light seethed on the road outside the factory,
there was no bus, and the streets were unfamiliar
with their skin-coloured shops and pavements sprouting grass.
He probed his grievance (was it his fault that today
was already this hot, or that he’d missed his lift?)
and followed the trail of a slow green backwater
towards distant traffic snoring on the overpass….
He idly cursed his siphoned luck, and was last seen
under the high bricks of a derelict warehouse,
asking directions perhaps…. When we found his gear
his new tools had rusted, but the bubble of air
in his spirit level was where it should have been,
his milk-and-sugared tea was warm in its thermos.