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When They Were Up, They Were Up – A new short story by Jan Carson

Belfast may be changing, but Jonty is determined to fly the flag for tradition. Then things take a turn

Jonty was near three hours up the lamppost before a single soul stopped to help.

In fairness, there was nobody but him and the young lad about. He'd taken to doing the flags in the middle of the night. At this end of the road it was safer to wait 'til the restaurants emptied and the taxis carted everybody home. Otherwise, you were fair game for every passing eejit with a working set of pipes. Would you ever piss away off with your flags? Nobody wants sectarianism here! You're bringing the house prices down.

In the old days nobody would’ve dared. A big man like Jonty! Tats out! Arms full of flags! You’d have been mad to cross him. These days everybody’s a hater and vocal with it. No, that’s not fair. Down the other end of the road, folks still come out to watch him doing the bunting. They’ll chat away and offer to help. They make a point of saying thank you. That counts for a lot in Jonty’s book. A flag still means something down there.

It’s not the same up here. Not since the Marks and Sparks set moved in. Jonty’s watched them stake their turf with their big shiny motors, and their cappuccino, flat white, lattes, and their militant dislike of flags. Gentrification’s the word for it. Colonizing’s, more like it. You’d hardly recognise the place. There’s only a handful of the old shops left. Some, like the butcher, are holding on because shopping local’s the current fad. The barber and the key-cutting place are long gone. Yet another coffee shop’s appeared in their wake. By Jonty’s reckoning that’s half a dozen now. And they’re always sitting full. Who has the time to loaf about drinking coffee? Does nobody have a real job these days?


Jonty doesn’t understand these people: jeans and casual blazer types. They call themselves progressive and vote Alliance, occasionally Green. The men are big into cycling. The women, not so much. Both take turns to wear their babies, strapped to their chests like bulletproof vests. They’ll christen the second wean something Irish – but easily pronounceable – pack them off to the integrated and make a holy show of it. Jonty’s got another word for these people. They’re not progressive. They’re just loaded. If he could afford an Audi or four quid for a cup of tea, he might be a progressive too.

He does his best to avoid them. Hence the godawful early start. He’d the young lad out of his pit before three. The boy had not come willingly. He’s at the age where everything’s an argument. Preventing the erosion of his cultural identity means diddly squat to him. But for 20 quid he could be persuaded to carry a ladder and hold it steady for his da. They’d managed rightly, the pair of them. By half past four, two-thirds of the street was already strung. They’d progressed as far as the second Chinese when everything went belly up. Jonty was balanced at the top of the ladder indulging in a wee daydream. He was picturing the moment, a few hours hence, when folks would arrive to raise their shutters and spy his bunting zig zagging across the street: posh bistro to beauty parlour to Christian book shop to ladies’ boutique. A sea of shimmering red, white and blue. A timely reminder of where they were.

They’d be absolutely raging because once the flags were up, they were up. Aye, they might moan a bit or complain to the council, but nobody would have the balls to cut them down. Jonty was sucking on the thought of this when everything veered suddenly sideways. All notions of triumph evaporated. The street swam wildly before his eyes. His head was spinning. He couldn’t look down for fear of falling. He certainly couldn’t consider descending. The slightest movement would finish him. He wrapped both arms around the lamppost, drew it towards him and clung on for dear life.

"Corey, son," he mumbled down to the young lad. "Don't be letting go of that ladder. I'm having one of my funny turns. "Seriously, Da?" Jonty could picture the boy's eyes rolling. He heard him swear softly under his breath. "Seriously, Corey! Do you think I'd be joking about something like this? "Could you not have waited till we got home?" "Sure, I never know when I'm for taking a turn."

This much was true. Both men knew it. There was no rhyme nor reason to Jonty’s turns. Nine times out of 10 they came upon him when he was on the sofa, eyes glued to the TV screen. Linda actually thought they might have something to do with flickering lights. He’d only taken a handful of turns outside the safety of his own front room. Twice in Tesco (cereal aisle and magazines). Once in the chipper. Once in the queue at the wee post office. Once, waiting on the Glider into town. Once he’d keeled over in Castlecourt multistorey and been out cold for a minute or so. Security wouldn’t let him drive home though he was always fine right after a turn. They’d kept the motor overnight and, in the morning, charged him 60 quid for the pleasure. Jonty was raging. He’d phoned in to Nolan to vent his frustrations live on air. Nolan said it was absolutely shocking and all the callers-in agreed. But it hadn’t made a blind bit of difference. Jonty’s still waiting on his 60 quid.

He’s been to the GP about his turns; entirely Linda’s doing for he’s not a big fan of doctors himself. You could go in with one thing and come out with a whole rake of ailments or – worst case – not come out at all. Jonty preferred to look his symptoms up online. If he didn’t like what he found, he’d keep scrolling ‘til he found a better diagnosis. He was lucky he’d gone to the GP this time. It turned out his blood pressure was through the roof. The doctor had written him a prescription and put him down for the specialist. “Unfortunately,” she’d told him, “the waiting list is three years long.” She’d asked if he’d consider going private. “I’d think about it,” he’d replied, “but thinking’s all I could afford right now.” Jonty would have to take his chances with the NHS. In the meantime, he switched to Flora and, at Linda’s insistence, walked a bit more.

The funny turns continued. Jonty took dizzy in the shower and on the phone with his mother and at the funeral of a fella he’d worked with in Shorts. It wasn’t ideal, but what could you do? Jonty soldiered on. This morning was a first for him. He’d never taken funny up a ladder before. Usually, the dizziness passed in seconds and after five minutes he was good to go. But being high up was different. There was no getting away from the ground. The thought of it – so hard and so very far below – kept Jonty’s head spinning and his big feet frozen to the ladder’s rungs. He wondered if he’d ever get down

"Corey," he hissed, "are you still there?" "Aye. I'm hardly going anywhere." "Can you phone your mum? No, call Uncle Sammy. Actually son, maybe just phone for an ambulance."

At the top of the lamppost Sammy could hear his son peching and grunting as he tried to keep the ladder steady while extricating his mobile phone. When the tweep tweep tweep of numbers dialled came floating up the ladder, Jonty breathed a sigh of relief. He waited for the dialling tone and waited and continued to wait. Nothing but silence and expletives. The ladder shuddered beneath his feet.

"The reception's shite, Da. I've only half a bar." "You're joking." "I could move up the street a bit…" "Don't move! Promise me you're not for moving. Somebody'll appear soon."

Soon could not come quickly enough. The traffic started round about six but nobody walked past ‘til nearly seven. By this stage the young lad was on the verge of hysterics. Jonty wasn’t faring much better. The dizziness had persisted throughout, accompanied by a brief but powerful nauseous phase. Just as the sun was peeking over his bunting, the contents of Jonty’s stomach – three Jammy Dodgers, a pint of tea and the liquified remains of yesterday’s dinner – had come spewing out of him, narrowly avoiding the young lad’s head. This had done nothing for civil relations. The pair of them were barely speaking when the woman who owned the newsagent appeared at the bottom of the ladder, asking what the hell they were up to and had they got a permit for it?

"Can you help us Missus, please? My dad's taken a funny turn up there." The young lad was frantic. Jonty could hear it in his voice.

The women was progressive but graciously so. She understood this wasn’t the moment for point scoring. She rang for an ambulance and, while they waited on its arrival, nipped into her shop, returning with bottles of coke and a pair of kingsize Lion bars.

“Get that into youse,” she said. “You need to keep your sugars up. The good news is they’re sending a fire crew with the ambulance. The firemen have one of them lifty things. Bad news is, it’ll be a while. Probably about two hours. Can you believe that? Two bloody hours? The NHS is in some state.”

Jonty agreed. "Sure, it's barely functional these days." "You can hardly talk," she snapped. "Your lot keep voting them eejits into Stormont. I bet you were for Brexit and all." "I wasn't," said Jonty. Although he had been (maybe not so much these days). It wasn't wise to bait the woman. She was the only thing standing between him and the ground.

Twenty minutes later it was no longer just the three of them. Somebody heading into work had filmed Jonty from the bus and stuck it up on Twitter. Now half the east had come down for a nosy. They all had their phones out, taking pictures. The newsagent woman was fit to tell him, he’d already become a meme. “Look,” she said, “you’re Loyalist up a Lamppost.” She raised her iPhone so Jonty could see. Thankfully the screen was too far away to make anything out.

"Do they know I'm not well up here?" he asked. "Doesn't matter," she said. "It's what it looks like that counts. Big fella like you, up a ladder with a flag, refusing point blank to come down. That's got protest written all over it. They think you're up there, defending your rights." "That's it," said the young lad. He'd had enough. "I'm heading before this gets any worse."

He passed his ladder-holding duties on to a skinny barista from the coffee shop with the stupid name. "Sorry Da," he shouted up. "I don't want my face plastered all over the internet. Especially now it's a protest. Shit like this comes back to bite you when you're going for a job." "But it isn't a protest." "Tell that to them lot," said the skinny barista, cocking his head towards the end of the road.

A small army of track-suited men were advancing up the hill. Each sullen pair carried a ladder between them, Chuckle Brothers style. Jonty only recognised a few of them: sons and grandsons of fellas he watched the football with. Most had been shipped in from other bits of the city. It was kind of impressive how quickly they'd come. Impressive, but also terrifying. Jonty knew from raising the young lad, Napoleon's army moved quicker than a teenage boy. Once they were a couple of blocks away, they began positioning their ladders. They'd managed to source enough for every lamppost on the street. There'd be no windows cleaned in the east today. No houses painted. No gutters cleared. One young fella scurried up each ladder, face sheathed behind a football scarf, while the other stayed put and held it in place. When all two dozen were up and settled, there rose from their ranks a wild yeeeeoooooo.

Good man, Jonty. We've got your back. We're staying put till they listen to you. Listen to what exactly? Jonty had nothing to say but get me down.

He could feel himself about to faint. His grip was slipping. His old heart, racing. The kingsize Lion bar was rapidly progressing back up his throat. Jonty glanced down for reassurance. But Corey was half-way down the hill; hood up, so nobody from their street would spot him leaving, and nobody else would know he’d been there. The young lad was cannier than Jonty had given him credit for.

For the next few seconds he was Christ in the desert. Everybody had deserted him.

Thankfully this was the very moment Linda rocked up in a Valuecab. She’d brought his blood pressure tablets and a warm anorak and a round of ham sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil. She stood right beneath him, like Mary at the foot of the cross. Boys a dear, Jonty was glad to see her. The waterworks started the minute he heard her voice.

"Are you alright, love? Now, don't panic. You're going to be absolutely grand." There was nobody could calm him like Linda. "I'm scared, love," he whispered. "I didn't mean to start all this. My head's clean spinning and I'm dying for a piss."

Linda couldn’t stop the protest, but the other matter was easily sorted. She got the lend of a towel from the beauty parlour and, though it wasn’t elegant, Jonty managed to wrap it round himself and do the business one-handed into a milk carton. The relief was like nothing he’d ever known. For a brief moment, his spirits rose.

His Linda was some woman. If he kept the eyes fixed on her and blanked out all the screaming and shouting, he might just make it through this. Jonty watched his wife from on high. He was proud of the way she handled herself. Everybody took to Linda. The shopkeepers. The press. The politicians from both sides who’d come down to “diffuse” the tension and, in doing so, made the situation 10 times worse. Folks were lining up to talk to Linda.

Was she warm enough? Did she want a wee coffee or a seat to sit on? Was there anything else they could do? "Aye," she said, loud enough for Jonty to hear, "youse can find me a fella with a bit of sense. Look at that daft lump up there, risking his neck for a silly flag."

Now this was a blow; the last thing Jonty needed to be hearing. Here he was stuck up a ladder, doing his bit for the cause. And there was his wife, feigning support and taking the piss. Much as he loved her – and he loved her an awful lot – there was a side to Linda, Jonty could’ve done without. Lately, she’d started talking back.

Did he have to put the big flag up? It ruined the look of her hanging baskets. Were them bloody Lambegs ever going to stop? What about giving the Twelfth a miss this year; heading to the continent instead?

Jonty knew exactly where it was coming from. Linda had made a new friend in work and Dervla was this lassie’s name. Well, a flag was not a thing to be laughed at. If he wasn’t stuck up a lamppost he’d be down there explaining it all in great detail. The history of the union flag. The culture he was trying to protect. The pride. The old ways. The things they were losing. He wouldn’t just explain it to Linda. He’d put everybody up here straight. But would they listen? He suspected not. Progressives didn’t have time for the past. They were only interested in the future. Well, Jonty had lived here long enough to know you couldn’t have the future without the past.

The ambulance arrived an hour later. The fire crew took a further hour. They’d brought a cherry picker with them. By this stage the past and the future were dancing the tango ‘round Jonty’s brain. He couldn’t for the life of him remember why he’d thought this a good idea. And as for the flags and the protesting people? It was all just noise and colour. What did any of it actually mean? All he could think of was getting down and then getting far away from here.

A big beardy fella was sent up to get him. Dáithí, you called him. Jonty hadn’t heard that one before. Dear knows what it looked like on paper. Twenty odd letters long, no doubt. Out of the corner of his eye he watched this man ascending on the rig. It reminded him of a magic trick. Down below, some wee chancer had ordered in a Deliveroo. Half the street was debating how to get the burger up to him. The other half were filming the operation on their phones. A contingent from the Shankill were rumoured to be on their way. And the TV cameras. And the riot squad. Jonty hadn’t intended any of this. All he’d wanted was to hang the flags where they belonged. But somehow everything had changed. The place was not what it used to be. Maybe he was different too. He looked at the young lads up their lampposts. He’d not got the energy for it any more.

“Are you ready Mr Johnston?” asked the lad on the cherry picker. “Now, take it nice and slow.”

Jonty lifted one hand from the ladder. He extended his arm carefully, stretching until his fingers met Dáithí’s fingers. In this moment he didn’t care where this man came from or what he stood for. He might not be able to pronounce his name, but he was the best and loveliest man in Belfast and Jonty wasn’t for letting him go.

Jan Carson is the Belfast-based author of two short story collections, two novels and two micro-fiction collections. Her novel, The Fire Starters, won the EU Prize for Literature for Ireland in 2019. Her next novel, The Raptures, will be published by Doubleday in spring 2022