Whenever I think of Gerard I imagine him stepping off the bus at the Europa with a holdall and a guitar case even though he never owned a guitar the whole time I knew him and I wasn’t even sure he could play more than the two or three chords I ever heard him play. But when I think of him he is striding up Great Victoria Street in the rain— it’s always in the rain— towards Shaftesbury Square, his dark hair plastered to his forehead, on his way to Laverys for his very first pint in the big city. He is just shy of twenty years old and I will meet him for the very first time within the hour.
He’s a little short and walks quickly. The heels of his boots are worn down, and he tucks his chin into the collar of his shirt as the rain beats against his face. He ducks into the bus shelter and sets his holdall and guitar case down then buttons up his denim jacket, turns the collar up, shakes his head vigorously like a dog coming in out of the rain then picks up his luggage and steps back out into the downpour.
Laverys isn’t the den of debauchery his friends who went to Queens told him it is, at least not at quarter past four on a Monday afternoon in September, and I imagine the disappointment on his face as he flicks his sodden fringe out of his eyes. He’s arranged to meet Stevie and Niall in the back bar at five. He orders a pint of Guinness from the barmaid with piercings in her ears, nose, both cheeks and God knows where else.
I was in the back bar that afternoon, and watched Gerard lift his pint to his lips, purse and swallow, move the pint away from him and give it an appraising look before setting it back on the bar and settling down on a stool, trying to look cool as the rain dripped from his sodden clothes and began to gather in a puddle by his feet. As he patted at his pockets in search of his cigarettes and matches he looked around the bar and, eventually, found my eyes. I was staring at him from a corner table. He smiled his crooked one-cheek-dimpled smile and said: “That’s some day out there.”
“it is, aye,” I said. Not the most rememberable line I’ve ever spoken.
“Fuckin’ pissin’ it down,” he added, stating the obvious.
That was all he said to me that first time. I left not too long after, but I started seeing him around the town on nights out, Belfast’s small like that, and each time we caught each other’s eye we’d nod a quick hello. From the first time I saw him I thought he was someone it’d be nice to get to know; someone it’d be nice to be sat on a settee with at a party late in the evening or early in the morning, with a joint doing the rounds, Neil Young on the stero – After the Goldrush or Harvest – and a cold bottle of beer in your hands. He was scruffy and talked with his hands and always seemed to make his friends laugh with whatever it was he was saying. He had really deep brown eyes that always seemed to find me whenever we were in the same place. They would find me and hold me and let me know he was watching.
On Boxing Day I went to play some songs at the Open Mic night in Katy Daleys. It was near empty when I got there, so when Imelda arrived with her new fella Sean I was relieved. There’s nothing worse than singing songs to yourself, the barman, the other ones there to play and the aul’ fella who’s always propping up the bar. I was surprised to see Gerard follow them in through the door and looking around the room with a quizzical half-smile which quickly bloomed into a full one when he saw me sitting by the bar with my guitar case beside me. I didn’t know that Sean and him knew one another. “Well, here’s my cronies,” I told Padraig the bar man as they made their way to me.
As I slid off the bar stool I felt a trembling in my thighs. I kissed Imelda and Sean then shook hands with Gerard as Sean introduced us.
“Ach, sure, we know each other from around the way,” Gerard said.
I smiled. I was already on the way to being half-cut from the bottle of vodka I’d sneaked in in my handbag and had had a few nips off already. Everyone bought pints and we found a table for four and my guitar case easy enough. We watched the first two singers and me and Imelda had a quick catch-up between songs. Then I got up and played. I sang three songs, two originals and Ryan Adams’ ‘Come Pick Me Up.’ As I sang I looked at Gerard, who looked back at me, Guinnness in hand, a big dopey smile on his face.
When I finished and sat back down, Gerard leaned over and said in my ear: “That was pure style.”
“Don’t sound so fucking surprised,” I said back.
We ended up back at mine. I poured the last of the vodka into two glasses and we downed them in one before going at each other like we hadn’t had a ride in years.
I woke up early and lay in bed watching him as he slept. I had a smoke and read a bit of Dylan’s Writings and Drawings. Gerard was dead to the world: snoring away, every now and then. I wrapped my dressing gown around me and went to sit by the window, looking out as the sky slowly brightened behind Cave Hill. After a while I heard him yawn, and imagined his arms reaching up toward the ceiling as he stretched the sleep out of him. Outside my flat the street was near empty. A City Council litter picker in his Day-Glo jacket plucked rubbish from the pavement with his litter picker-upper.
Reflected in the window I saw Gerard reach for my guitar. As he tentatively played a few chords I pushed open the window and let the cold reach in, waking me fully to the morning. I don’t know what it was, but the combination of the chords Gerard was playing, and the sun rising over Napolean’s Nose, my hangover and the warm anchored feeling you feel deep inside of you when you’ve had really good sex, it all just came together to make me feel as alive as I remember ever feeling.
Years later I recorded an album. There was a song about Gerard on it, but I’m not sure he ever knew. The last I heard he’d gotten himself a job with the civil service and was working in some department up at Stormont. The album did alright. One song— not the one I wrote about him and that morning— got a few go’s on the radio. Cerys Matthews even played it on her show on 6 Music, though she mispronounced my name. But every time I sing that song I think of Gerard, and what it was like to be twenty years old and feel that anything and everything was possible in this life. And I remember the way he played my guitar that morning, and how I swear I saw the chords come swirling around my head, dance past me out into the street to be caught up by the wind and carried toward the glow of the morning sun. And how he smiled his crooked one-cheek-dimpled smile as I turned to him and told him to leave the guitar playing to the professionals.