The world I move through is magnified, made magic, by Lucy Caldwell’s words

Glenn Patterson evokes the world that his fellow East Belfast author conjures up so well in her short story collection, Multitudes

The Silver Leaf Café is under new management. The Silver Leaf Café has dropped the Café. And the The.

“Silver Leaf” is all the sign says now. Well, that and “Fish & Chips”, and “Tradition & Quality”.

Actually, it’s a wonder there was ever room for the Café and the The.

Silver Leaf has a competitor 50 yards up the Belmont Road in the Bethany, which shares a name with the Biblical home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, whether pointedly or not is hard to determine, though perhaps not so hard here in east Belfast as in other places: the café facing the Silver Leaf is owned by the Christian Fellowship Church (“we do life”), which wraps around the corner of the Belmont Road and the Holywood Road, and which also owns Eden, formerly Eat Etc, half a dozen doors along.


Eden Bridal, directly opposite that, is, I am pretty sure, unconnected. What would that look like anyway, a born-again wedding gown? The same, only more so?

I don’t know where Silver Leaf comes from. There’s a Maple Leaf club around the corner and down Park Avenue – along the side of the Strand Cinema and Arts Centre – to which I came with my parents (the Maple Leaf, that is) throughout the first half of 1971 to pay the monthly instalments on our family holiday to Toronto. Elsewhere in Ontario, elsewhere in that now-gone century, a Silver Leaf Café was listed at 116 South Main in the Ottawa City Directory in 1921 and there is a Silver Leaf Café still at 4101 Decoursey Avenue, Covington, Kentucky: “cheap and easy drinking”, the ad says, “made as plain and simple as can be”.

You couldn’t accuse them of building up expectations.

The ad doesn’t say whether or not they cut their own chips on Decoursey Avenue, as they do in the Belmont Road Silver Leaf. And yes, I know chips means something else over there. Over here, chips undergo a strange grammatical transformation once they are wrapped in paper, passing from the plural to the singular: “a gravy chip” is, in fact, heaps. Half a gravy chip would do you rightly.

You could start your Silver Leaf chip – “just leave that paper open, thanks” – the moment you walked out the café door and still not have finished by the time you arrived, by way of Dundela Avenue and North Road, at the top of Cyprus Avenue (whose trees seem as deliberately aligned as the stones at Newgrange to capture and hold the sun), or – ignoring the Dundela Avenue turn-off – by the time you reached Cairnburn Park, where the Belmont Road crosses over the A55 Outer Ring on its way to the Craigantlet Hills and out of the city altogether.

This, with the Upper Newtownards Road running parallel, with the Kings Road and Cherryvalley, constitutes the heartland of Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes: Belfast’s “Upper East Side” as the mother in Chasing assures her homecoming daughter it is now referred to. And of course none of it need exist at all for the stories in the collection to work, for them to achieve their astonishing sense of place. That the reader believes it exists for the characters, gives definition to their lives, is enough.

Although don’t tell that to my daughters, whose hearts would acquire a chip-shaped hole if Silver Leaf (silent Café, silent The) were to be theorised out of existence. What am I saying? My daughters’ hearts? My heart: and stomach too.

And if I am truthful I feel – as I have felt repeatedly over the years hearing Van Morrison invoke Cyprus Avenue – that the physical world I move through is magnified, made magic even, by the touch of Lucy Caldwell’s words.

“That night,” says the narrator of Here We Are, “I walked the streets of East Belfast again in my dreams. Waking, the dream seemed to linger far longer than a mere dream. These streets are ours.”

She’s only partly right. Thanks to Lucy Caldwell they are everyone’s who picks up this book: are multitudes’.

Multitudes is published by Faber
Glenn Patterson's latest novel is Gull (Head of Zeus)