by Alex Wirth
Thud after dead thud echoes into the derelict house on the corner of Thorndale Ave. and Kinnaird St. From the inside, the sound is an incessant and deafening echo but no one lives there anymore to hear it. Outside, in a dirty thin tracksuit, a boy repeatedly kicks a tattered soccer ball against the outside of the house. Over and over, Dylan thunders shots into the wall and the plaster continues to flake off. Small crumbles and dust pile up at the base of the wall as the red brick wound widens with every impact. Dylan’s fruitless task takes on more and more urgency. He boots shot after shot as if his existence depended on blasting through the wall before him. His face tightens against the task. His teeth snarl. The shots come quicker, reckless, no longer aimed. One such stray shot hits a curb and sends the ball arcing back over Dylan’s head and over the high barbed wire fence surrounding the abandoned military base behind him. He does not even try to retrieve it. It was stolen in the first place.
It begins to rain.
The rain in Belfast comes like a swift punch to the gut. It does not merely fall, but the winds whip droplets all about the body. Dylan is soaked almost instantly. He walks out onto the Antrim Rd. and makes his way back up toward the New Lodge Estate. Acting on instinct he ducks into the first small shop he comes across. As most boys in their early teens do in the New Lodge, Dylan has a sizable reputation as a hoodlum. The shoplady immediately recognizes him.
“And what the f— do you want?” she says. Dylan had entered the shop with no other desire than to stand in a dry place for a moment but met with such hostility he decides to give the woman reason to be worried. He flashes her his angry face and looks around for something to steal. Nothing really catches his eye worth taking so he calls the woman a few crass names and implies a few other things about her daughter and walks out.
The rain lets up as fast as it had come but still drizzles down. Further up the road Dylan settles back into an alcove of an abandon church building on the property of a community center and weighs his options. None of his mates would be out of school for several hours (Dylan had, of course, been suspended earlier in the week for fighting). He could not go home to get out of the rain because his ma had cracked him with a broom that morning and told him not to come home until supper. With no real options, Dylan decides to post up where he is for a while.
“Son, this is not the place to mill about,” says the maintenance man from the center; his coat over his head against the rain. “You’ll have to f— off and come back for afterschools. Sorry.”
“It’s buckets right now. Just let me stand here awhile,” Dylan says.
“No son, get to moving. I can’t have y’waiting until I’ve turned me back and y’start writing yer wee name on the walls an breakin’ windows in.”
“I’ll not do that. I’m just standing here.”
“I don’t care. Piss off!” the maintenance man says firmly. Dylan, his thick tracksuit soaked through wanders back out onto the rainy street.
Dylan kicked around the New Lodge and stood in doorways for the early part of the afternoon trying to stay dry. He begs a few cigarettes from an older boy also skipping school and sits under the bridge at Waterworks Parks to smoke them. The smoke curls spin upward as Dylan smokes and he realizes for the first time that he is alone. The cement under the bridge is at least dry and the cigarettes warm him some. This would be the moment where most of us would become introspective. Most of us would feel sorry for ourselves. Most of us would think or feel something. Dylan desperately wanted to let himself feel. But all he ever feels is sorrow and anger. Dylan decides to turn everything off. Nothingness is better than pain, he thinks to himself, allowing one small thought to formulate. The smoke trapped under the bridge stings his eyes and he closes them. Thinking no thoughts he falls asleep there.
“Don’t even think about it Dylan! Keep walking! You’re barred for the week!” the youth worker shouts after him, sending him on his way down Newington Ave.
“Like I’d be back to you’re stupid afterschools ever again!” Dylan shouts back kicking a front gate shut with his foot for emphasis. “Don’t even keep score in football right anyway,” he continues more to himself than anyone. Shoving his hands deep in his trouser pockets, Dylan continues his quest for a place to be in the now dark streets. He contemplates finding a way to get drunk. He thinks of all the girls he knows, trying to remember if there are currently any who are not mad at him to call on.
More than anything Dylan is tired. He had been shuffled along all day by every adult he came across. His bones ache now. The cigarettes and wet have given him a choking cough. He makes his way up from the base of the New Lodge Road to housing authority high-rise where his mother’s flat is. A locked door and laughing and bumping meant that mother had another man over. There was no point going back out in search of a place to be now. Dylan sinks down in the hallway. Momentarily dark, then light again as the halogen lights fault and flit: on/off. Dylan falls asleep sitting up there in the acrid walkway with the full knowledge that he would be kicked awake eventually. But he can’t care, he is so tired. So tired of finding a place to be.
When the Baptismal call and Eucharistic abundance come down and intertwine in us, then we begin to discern vocation. We find our voices and we speak. We find our gifts and we give. We finally find the place God intended for us to be and we strive to be in that divine place. The challenge in this is the movement that call demands from us. The challenge is to go and listen. Vocation is not a destination, a state of mind to reach; it is a call to journey through grace. As long as we are heading out and seeking (that good divine kind of seeking), it hardly matters what toward or away from; we make the vital movements of call.
Dylan is seeking. He has that real hunger that can only come from God. For Dylan it is not enough to feel sorrow and pain as a result of his circumstance, he desires to know the source of the emotions he can’t understand. He leerily circles the great perimeter of faith. The major victory of his journey will be to understand from where this hunger comes. The tragedy in his story is that he will receive little encouragement along the way. Dylan’s holy restlessness will be seen as mere delinquency. His potential will go unrecognized. He will more than likely be lost.
And this is the outward component of call. Dylan is a real person. I spent day after day kicking soccer balls against a wall with him. I tried to change him. I tried to force him to be the person that I thought God intended for him to be. My efforts were as fruitless as trying to penalty kick my way through that brick wall. I thought I was fulfilling my call in the streets of Belfast by trying to pile drive anti-social youths into good boys and girls. I had missed Dylan’s potential too. I didn’t see the desire to understand God behind the anger in his eyes. Vocation does not only encompass these personal journeys of ours, but also being hospitable to the journeys of others. I should have joined Dylan on his journey rather than trying to impose one on him.
How do I move in my call? I seek to recreate the voices of others as I have done above. The divine gift that I respond to is the ability to write. Every word I put down, fictional or not, I seek to recreate as faithfully and truthfully as I can, the journeys that God has put before my characters. In this vocation I have realized I have no destination to get to; even the most prolific writers never really “get” anywhere with their writing. The greatest challenge of call is to be persistent in the practice of the gift God has given. The blank page staring me in the face can be just as daunting as looking into Dylan’s eyes. I can be inauthentic and force words down or I can realize the potential there and let the words find their places.
Dylan is shaken gently awake there in the hallway. He jolts from sleep anyway, instinctually raising a defensive arm in front of his face.
“Easy son, easy,” it is the maintenance man from the community center who happens lives down the hall from Dylan’s mother. “Its time for school but from the looks of it you’ll not be heading there today.” Dylan doesn’t quite know what to make of the man so he only stares up quizzically.
“Don’t look at me like that son, I want nothing from you. Get you up and come have a bit of breakfast. I can smell the sausages frying from here.” Dylan gets up stiffly. The hallway light flickers off but the maintenance man pounds it lightly with his fist and it comes back on.
“Come on son. It’s a new day now. Get to moving.”