Dawn Watson

Dawn Watson

from We Play Here

It was midsummer and everything concrete
was a river. Pavement slabs rippled like shallows.
Painted kerbs were odd fish strung in a line:
red, blue and white, red, white and blue.
The water ran low as a bath, turning quick
into a pocked road, moss green and silt plumbed.
The raised alleyway was a stubborn dyke
that saved me daily. Or it seemed that way.
Things weren’t really covered in water.
But it made me feel like I’m on a pike boat
held safe over the top of things. I knew better,
and sometimes I saw Belfast as it is:
dry and full of threat. But that was harder.
Just to see what would happen, I put one foot
on each white entry post and dared the river
to overwhelm me. Come on, I said. Rise up, sure.
Carry me out of here. But the posts did their job.
There was no messing about on this occasion
from footpaths in north Belfast trying to flood
their banks. The front yard walls stayed put,
hedges held fast, and greened telephone poles
curbed the tarmac flood plains quietly.

Two boys waded up Ashfield Gardens, one ginger,
one blond. Blond in a blue tracksuit, ginger in red.
Both pairs of trousers were ripped from the knees
to the ankle bones. Tiny sticklebacks smacked
their lips in the holes. Blue shouted, Are you a boy
or a girl? He had a ragged cleft lip. I’m a girl, I said.
You’re wearing boys’ clothes. So? I shrugged.
So, looks shite, yelled Red. They’re second-hand.
My face flushed. A dustbin rushed past in a current.
The boys started singing, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We are the Billy Boys. I’d never heard Catholics
sing it. The spooked fish shut their mouths.

Why are you singing that if you aren’t Protestant?
I said. Red laughed. Blue gasped, then shouted,
What’s a Protestant? I admitted I didn’t know.
They ducked under the water and resurfaced
with handfuls of smooth worn rock and brick.
We can only be nice if you give us your skateboard.
Red threw a stone and it hit me on the eyebrow.
I gripped the green board in front of my face.
Blood ran into my eye, trickled warm on my lips.
The boys splashed towards me in goose-steps,
synchronised, and snatched it from my hands.
The board said, Skate and destroy, in fire letters.
My blood plip-plopped in the swelling river.

Red and Blue had lived in the area six months.
They had worn the same tracksuits every day
since they moved in. They arrived after an army
of Housing Executive builders wearing rain slickers
built a dead-end string of houses at the bottom
of our street. It used to be a patch of wasteland
backing onto Dunmore greyhound track.
People built bonfires down there every July
out of tyres and sofas. The builders whizzed diggers
and cement mixers in on inflatable dinghies.
They extended Ashfield Gardens into something
shaped like a thermometer: the long street leading
to a mercury glob of houses boiling at the end.

DAWN WATSON is a Belfast-based writer. Her pamphlet The Stack of Owls is Getting Higher is published by The Emma Press (2019). Her debut poetry book We Play Here is published by Granta (2023). She is a lecturer in creative writing at Queen’s University.