Belfast. A Friday afternoon in sunny June. Afternoon revellers gather at the end of a busy day to unwind and start the weekend in style. A blues band play in the packed beer garden, the singer’s gravelly tones drifting across the square, backed by a guitar which reverberates through your very marrow. The Guinness is flowing and the craic is mighty. Tourists mix with locals and all is well with the world. Or is it?
Alleys run off the main square in all directions. One leads to the main shopping thorough, another to a nearby church. Arterial routes where curious eyes and ears are drawn to the throng, swaying as one to the intoxicating music. They scurry from their offices and shops, eager to join the mellow mass, savouring that first mouthful of ice cold cider, that first peal of laughter which quickens the heart and lightens the soul. Friday and sunshine. A potent combination.
A picture speaks a thousand words. If only they knew what lurks just beyond the lens, along the urine stained alleys just out of sight. Broken bottles and broken dreams, the living dead lie huddled desperate for that next fix, that next drink. Ignored by the revellers they shiver in their rancid sleeping bags, despite the sun’s warming rays. They know no weekends for every day is the same monotonous routine, a battle to stay alive.
Until the day comes when they no longer do. When something snaps, imperceptible to all but their inner ear. Be it rope, needle or pill, the decision is the same. The ends justify the means. They lie, waiting to be discovered, for their 15 minutes of fame within the crime scene cordon. At the end, they received the attention they had craved all their lives. Nobody walks past them now, for they are the entertainment on the square for all to see.
A crowd gathers, but their is no applause or laughter. A few stern faces, a muttered prayer or two, as they are zipped up and carefully placed in the private ambulance. The photographer packs up his gear and moves on to the next call. For there is always a next call. The cordon tape is torn down and the alley re-opened. Nothing to see here, everyone move on now. And perfect timing for the landlord is eager to open up.
Within hours, the square is heaving again and they are all but forgotten. A few throwaway remarks. ‘Was there a body found last night?’ ‘Yeah some homeless person. Overdose I think so sad.’ ‘Yeah, terrible. Anyway, what are you drinking? Same again.’ Meanwhile on a metal slab on the other side of town, the first incision is made. Jane Doe lies impassively, waiting to reveal her secrets to the pathologist’s scalpel. Such a pretty girl, such a terrible waste.
This is how it is, day after day after dreadful day. It is a creeping epidemic and we are indifferent as it caresses the fringes of our consciousness, a gentle tide lapping against a deserted, moonlit beach. Two paragraphs in the morning edition, 30 seconds on the lunchtime bulletin. She was nothing, but to someone once she was everything. It might be days, or weeks or months but that knock on the door is coming. Jane is finally coming home.
What could have been? What should have been? Before whatever happened and she fled the nest, destined for the bright lights of a city which consumed her whole. Glasses click and songs are sung in the square. Off to the side, a solitary bunch of flowers mark where she left us. She had sat there for months watching them pass. None of them saw her, nobody cared. Just another day, just another statistic. Until the next one.