They used to hide in the hedges at Glencairn Road and watch the cargo that was headed to the top of Divis Mountain. Military trucks, armour-plated motors and vans that were plain and strange. When it got dark the boys would get closer to the base, sheltering by the blackthorn trees when the helicopters came over. The ponies got jittery in the fields and the wind was fierce but still they were drawn to the army sangar and the sense that things were not right.
They heard gunfire inside the perimeter as the users tested their weapons. They saw masts and listening devices that allowed the soldiers to overhear conversations in the houses below - family bust-ups, lovers getting fresh, paramilitary beatings in back bars. Phones were tapped, cars were bugged and the squaddies focused their stabilised lenses on The Shankill, Ardoyne, The Falls, every restless place.
Some locals called it Area 51. Like the Edwards Air Force Base in Nevada, it was off-limits and the traffic that went up there had a secret use. Jake Magill wasn’t keen on these recce missions to the top but Chief was obsessed and he stayed up the longest. He would come down later with mud streaks and staring eyes, raving about spooks, luminous creatures and disturbances at the gates of hell.
He never made sense at the time and they let him rave. But ten years later, here was Chief getting talkative on an October night, making some kind of sense from it. He described the heavy duty gear getting swung off the army trucks onto the loading area. There was noise and urgent orders. Some of the boxes were the size of coffins and they were set down with care. The soldiers wore regulation kit but the others were oddly dressed and y’know… glowing.
“They weren’t human. They walked different. Moved different. Hardly spoke, but they understood each other. They bossed the soldiers about - making sure those boxes were stashed right. I was shivering but next thing it was the sweats and the fear. True bill. I saw aliens on the top of Divis. And they were up to no fuggin good. Y’understand?”
He looked at them and they nodded. Jake was there with Mutt and Twit, the McMordie bothers. Sitting on fruit crates in Chief’s living room. Cigarette papers licked and glued and a Doors record playing. Roll, baby, roll. They didn’t want him to stop.
“One of the soldiers shone a torch into the shed and I saw the lot. Shelves and boxes and a forklift. But near the back, on the ground, there’s a big door. One of the aliens opens it up and drops down. Out of sight. Nada. So where’s he goin’? Inside the mountain, that’s where.”
Wow, they say. He shows them his drawings of the trucks and the giant shed and the humanoids. They he starts to talk about the lost continent of Lemuria and hollow earth theory. He explains that while people always talk about this happening in America or some place else, he knows otherwise. Then Chief is away on another story, about the Irish area called Cruachan, mythical opening to the underworld. Queen Medb once had her fort there and creatures would hurtle out of the cave. A three-headed beast and red birds that caused everything they touched to wither and die. Also the Morrígan, a female warrior and doom-bringer who came out of this infernal crack disguised as a crow.
“So, next Saturday,” he says, “Here’s what. We’re going in deep. We’re gonna find ourselves another crack in the crust. Are you good?”
Chief had a quiet style. You wanted to believe him. He might miss a beat in the conversation but when he fixed on the right word, the note and the groove, he would reconnect and the eyes would light up, electric blue. The tiredness fell away and he amounted to more than his skinny frame and mousey beard. When the knowledge was working through him, Chief was it.
He’d given up on school when he was 15. They sent the Truant Officer over to his mother’s house where he was sat on the floor reading The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. He told the man that he was working on his karma and he quoted William Blake. When the report was filed, it said that he was persistently absent but highly intelligent and so they cut him a deal and let him beak off most days in return for occasional visits to school where he would sit at the back and smile like a dumb saint.
His granny left him a terrace house in her will and he’d fixed it up well. He held on to a few of her possessions but kept the living room clear. He had read in a Jack Kerouac book about a dude called Japhy who furnished his home with orange crates. So Chief made a visit to the grocery shop and returned with new suite. He painted the floorboards saffron red and arranged his books in the alcoves. He hung up his horse head drawings and set his flint collection in a basket above the fireplace. Chief kept finding the flints on his walks up Black Mountain and Divis. They belonged to the Mesolithic people who had worked this area with their knives, picks and scrapers. Different shapes for all their needs. More than four thousand years ago the ancestors were chipping and knapping these pieces that would not perish.
Sometimes he came across a whole store of these, like an ancient assembly line. He covered the flint sites back up for the archaeologists who were also getting busy now that the army was off the mountain. It was important to Chief that he took up gifts on his visits. He would carry his rucksack full of rocks and he used them to make his own cairns and stone monuments at the top. These works stood over nine counties, high enough to kiss the sky. Often, he would bury his carvings and drawings in the dirt. No reason. It felt like a proper thing, a connection.
Whenever he found dead animals or roadkill on his way, Chief would take them back and skin them with his vintage flints. He’d cure the skins as best he could and then use them to cover his notebooks and also stitch them together to make a mojo bag for his black cat bone, the rabbit foot and other hoodoo business.
They tolerated him on the Upper Shankill. He kept out of street politics and he helped the old ladies with their shopping bags. The senior hoods reckoned he was a looper, but not a threat. This is why he took the Fifth. It was easier to say little. It was the same deal with Jake and the McMordie brothers. It got them through. Throw them a smile, keep the opinions zipped up and reveal nothing.
“Say naaahinn’,” was the method.
This was messing with the natural order though. It was tough to herd up all of the free thoughts and to pen them in. Keeping the eyes dead and the reactions policed – that was a poor gig. If some tough guy in the street came up with a twisted remark, your comeback was a noise and a half-laugh that made them think you agreed…
But was really the sound of opposition and disgust. So they made their noises, kept their faces steady and smiled back with the sincerity of flight attendants. There were a handful of answers to take down every line of aggression: aye, right, dead-on, that’s a geg. Disarming was a long-practiced game but it didn’t work so well in the city centre where a different kind of brute existed.
Chancers in chalk stripe suits, barrelling out of the Ulster Reform Club or the new restaurant on Wellington Place. Accessorised with Montblanc fountain pens that rested in their calfskin belt-pouches. Unholstered with a big gesture when the documents were ready to sign. Yes, and the long vowels. They said “faayhce” instead of “faice” and you wanted to batter them in the very thing. Also the female consultants with their bobs and highlights and Spanish tailoring and suede court shoes. Often these people wanted your sign-off on a new funding application about social inclusion and disadvantage. They wanted to say they had consulted the locals with regard to their hooky plans.
The suits used management speak like bullfighters. A flutter here and a flaunt when it was needed. The boys could not meet them on those terms. So they sulked. Their shoulders went up and they hunched and reverted to type. Sometimes they were so sickened by the phoney chat-ups about football that they lost it altogether. But when they got aggressive they were a beaten docket. They charged the cape and not the matador. Afterwards they were left standing in their own dust, looking stupid and rash. So yeah, fug the city centre. They were better on the slopes, where the houses were still cheap and the racketeers didn’t pretend to be anything better.
Chief’s house was a den, a refuge, a stargate. The McMordie boys had a room there for their music. They came in off the street dressed like smicks in sports casual and Air Max and then changed into navy Boiler suits and shiny parade shoes, ready for work. They had rhythm boxes, sequencers and monophonic synths - parts cannibalised from old keyboards, samplers, Gameboys and cracked software. When you asked about their music they shook their heads. It was “information”.
Mutt and Twit used radio scanners to scim off stories from taxi drivers, cop cars and ambulances. They hacked up speeches from rallies and street preachers. They bootlegged the fire-shooting sermons at the Tabernacle. Their electronics were severe but had the intended result. It took you to an anxious place. Nothing felt at ease and the senses shouted for something familiar. Instead there were wonky loops, repetition and slices of dread. Yet if you stuck it out long enough, there was a gap in the design, a channel out of the havoc. Sometimes Chief took part, making the words up as he went:
Romper room snuff team
Home defender kid-shooter
White lightning snake-pimp
No more yer normal
Spare me the normal
Show me the soul
Do me the magic…
Jake walked in when it was getting intense. These were the best moments. Chief was wheeling around in his custom T-shirt, spattered with runes, sigils and an all-seeing eye on the chest. The McMordie brothers still didn’t say much but they started to sway, deeply involved. They were clearing the air, nixing the outsiders, jamming the bad frequencies.
Afterwards, they had rice and beans and tap water. They listened to an Alice Coltrane record, loving the sound of the harp and her fearless orbit. Then Jake talked about his Saturday shift at the community centre. He had mopped the floors, answered the phone and helped some kids with PC skills. A brother and sister and been there for a couple of hours and they got it – the truth in binary systems, the honesty of codes and commands. Their homeworks rocked and it was a pleasure to assist them with it. Then some hoods arrived and uploaded football graphics and skanky slogans for their screensavers and scatter-bombed Facebook with dirt. They lit up their fegs in the computer room and broke most of the centre’s house rules.
Jake shrugged. “Say naaahinn’.”
Chief gave him a hug and they got on with the Saturday programme. Next, comedy time. Old school recordings of Richard Prior, loose, seething and fly. Wise-ass remarks over the despair. Drug fever, flames and infamy. Then George Carlin, ripping out the cheap parts of the language, grinding his gears on sales talk and the busted political system. And always there was Bill Hicks. Their man. Raging beyond the grave, screaming at the parade. A morality show of money and debasement and every piece of dignity on auction. All the college boys in town knew Bill’s routine about Jay Leno taking the cash for the Doritos commercial and damning his soul. But still it was perfect and righteous and the best moral instruction they ever heard.
They had their favourite punch lines for Saturday comedy time:
“Freebase? What’s free about it?”
“Have a rotten day, George.”
“Here’s Tom with the weather.”
But enough of the comedy, this was supposed to be a special night. Chief had promised them a Saturday escapade. Instead he’s riffing about Robert Anton Wilson, Carlos Castaneda books and the Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Again. Then he slots the Donnie Darko DVD into the player, which is not unusual. It’s a regular feature. Well, they will do hot knives and get wroteaff. During the screening, Chief may goon around behind the furniture, wearing paper masks and stealing lines from the film. Not the worst entertainment.
Yet he hits pause instead. He’s been in and out of the kitchen, planning something. He returns with a teapot. Some Indian tinsmith has made this great vessel with a snake handle and then an elephant trunk for a spout. Best ever discovery at the Crumlin Road car boot sale. Chief holds it carefully, opens the lid and yes… steaming water and liberty cap mushrooms, harvested from graveyards and golf courses where they grow in random circles. Dried to a straw colour and stashed for some time in a felt bag in the kitchen, waiting for the day.
“Eight grams. The food of the Gods. Get in.”
They take their brew and watch the film. They know it well but keep finding different stories and connections in the creases of it. Long ago, they came to terms with Donnie’s loner condition. They’re not fussed about his tragic relationships. Yet all that stuff about reality tunnels and universes folding into each other, that’s the shiz. Donnie reaching into the cosmos to alter time and consequences. Being an outstanding human. Taking a hurtling airplane engine for the team.
Jake starts losing it during the scene at the cinema. Donnie and Gretchen are watching The Evil Dead when the phantom of Frank sits beside the lovers. Always a moment. Jake looks away from the screen for a bit. He notices the teapot and the elephant spout manifests change in the candle light. Ah mate, not a rabbit face. Well, maybe. It looks severe, like Frank Anderson’s fright-mask in the film. It could be the raw flame, but the teapot genie seems to wink at him.
Back to the film, and it’s no easier there. Frank’s car that killed Gretchen, that was a Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. There’s a significance in the back of Jake’s mind, but it evades him now. Also, as his senses twist, it feels like his teeth are clinking with the ice in his glass. The shrooms are active and it’s not wise to fight it. Then Chief taps him lightly and says that he’s booked a taxi for the Antrim Road. He’s looking pleased with himself. Wha?
During the short ride the streetlights fizz while the oncoming cars headlights are severe agitation. Chief pays the driver on the Upper Cave Hill Road he takes them walking into the treeline. They fall and collide in the mizzle at midnight. They trip into the whin bushes that scrape their skin into pagan barcodes. When the moon comes out of the clouds, all is illuminated. The McMordie brothers have drool on their boiler suits and they whimper. But upwards.
Jake is not surprised when they stop at the biggest of the five caves. A man-made hole, looking down over the lough. Normally a fine view but now the shrooms are messing with the colour intensity and the vertical hold. Orange sparks, cyan hail, purple meanies. There’s a ten foot climb onto the lip of the cave and their hands are gashed as they haul themselves in. They light a fire and that’s another source of flicker and spark. They notice the white cross, painted on the wall. The brothers pass out and Chief opens a small, fur-backed notebook. The ceremony is on.
He gives the cave a name, Cyclops and he thanks it for the shelter and for looking after previous visitors and outlaws - the highwaymen, the revolutionaries, the hellfire brethren and the acid ravers. He hails the three werewolves of the Cruachan. And then he sends his best to the spirits of the air – kestrels and buzzards, ravens and skylarks. He sings out to the wild thyme and wood sage, bell heather and the cotton grass. The words become jumbled and butt-joined as Chief babbles some more. Then a pause.
“So, Pooka. Keeper of the hill, watchman, shapeshifter. Pooka, walking between worlds and messing with the aether. Let’s see you. ’Mon over.”
Jake looks south for a sign and fully expects one. But the Pooka materialises from the back of the cave instead. Great funk of animal. Maybe six foot three. White, filthy fur and eyes with dizzy, vortical depth. He moves with a kind of a pimp roll, walking on a confusion of flat foot and cloven hoof. A ring of red on his tail. Jake goes slack and then drops.
“Hey fella,” says Chief.
There’s a stand-off with the Pooka, a testing of fibre and soul. Nothing spoken, just an immense psychic tilt. Chief is battered and ram-raided. The beast throws feints and bluffs and then loads up his worst. Still the guy holds. Jake now realises that his friend has been fixing up his spirit in preparation for this. Years of it, getting the essential form. He is ring-fit and true. Any flaw in his character and he will go down. But he fronts it and he braves it.
It continues for a couple of hours. He does not fold. When the beast relents, Chief picks up some dirt and holds it open on his palm. Pooka blows hard and the piece of dust becomes a filthy storm. It settles on the side of the hill and it goes further down into the city, dispatched with a sneer, a judgement on the bad faith and the venal, the mean, grasping parts of the city.
There’s a spare moment near the end when the Pooka moves over to Jake, who has no actual resistance in him. He feels the rub of rabbitty sex. He is aware of the furry glory about his head. It’s a rare communion for sure, but not the worst thing he has ever put up with. And when it’s over Jake looks up into a face that he partly recognises. Wisdom descends. He appreciates the creature’s smirk and the twitchy manners. He roars when he understands. Spirit of Bill Hicks has just given him a head-shag.
Three German tourists discover them at nine in the morning. The cave is a mess of dung, crow feathers, ash and hairball. They see two boys in navy workwear, sleeping in fits. Another guy with sad eyes looking into the middle distance. So many gorse thorns, his face a pin cushion. The other, skinny male is singing and signifying. His expression is astonished and locked-out, a trippy facelift. The onlookers are ready to turn away from the cave, but the big–eyed brother has a message for them.
“Under blue moon, I saw him, ” he babbles.
Jake tries to settle the visitors. He keeps them onside for another moment.
“Never worry about my mate. He’s only away with the fairies.”
And he is, utterly. On the edge of saying something epic, but mouthing pure air, holy riff. His lips a magic world.