On a recent walk home along the Esplanade one evening, I was accosted by an elderly woman who had been standing by the seawall which is adjacent to the motorcycle parking bay. If I was to guess, I would speculate that the lady was in her late seventies, while she was dressed the way I imagine someone who attends a flower show would. As she stepped into my path the woman thrust her smartphone in my direction – it was an iPhone, though I couldn’t tell which model. I removed my earbuds in time to hear her ask if I would be willing to take a picture of her by the sea. Her phone was practically in my hand before I could answer. In a sense, it felt nice to be trusted, even if I was mildly irritated about being interrupted in the middle of a song I was enjoying.
“It’s so still,” the old lady marvelled as she sat on the end of the stone wall and cast a glance out over the bay behind her. I tried to frame the shot so that the woman could look back at the end of her holiday and see herself there in her favourite lilac coat, the North Pier and some fishing boats in the background, capturing the way the light was changing on the water. Channelling my inner Ansel Adams, I suggested to my subject that she “raise your chin a little and maybe look into the camera.” I thought that I sounded pretty convincing that I knew what I was doing, but the woman clearly wasn’t buying it when she asked me to “take a couple more. Just in case.” So much for trust.
With no fewer than three photographs added to her camera roll, I handed the phone back to the elderly tourist as a couple were passing behind. The female from the pair approached and called out to us: “Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you together?” I almost choked. What kind of relationship did this woman think she was witnessing? Whatever it was, it was difficult to say which of us should have been taking the insinuation more harshly. Deep down, there was a part of me that was feeling buoyed by the idea that a complete stranger could look at me and believe that I am capable of being part of a couple, albeit the feeling was short-lived once it was considered that my would-be partner is in her late seventies. On the other hand, this respectable-looking elderly lady was surely thinking that she could do better than a man who needs three attempts to take a simple portrait picture. Just like in most of my other relationships, the atmosphere between us quickly became awkward, and when I left it was with a more purposeful stride than before – not only to get away from my photography subject, but also to overtake the woman who had offered to take our picture, as if to prove to her that I am still young and agile enough to be dating pre-pension age women.
All I could think about for days afterwards was that passing question. It was haunting me, which I am certain was the cause of an incident at Glasgow Airport at the beginning of the Easter weekend. I was travelling with my brother and sister for a couple of nights away in Belfast, the first time we had taken such an adventure together. Our flight was departing at 7.25 on Thursday evening, giving us plenty of time to bruise our bank balances with a round of drinks that were costing us more than £20 a time. I was feeling confident that I had done everything to be prepared for going through the security process. All of my liquids and creams were neatly packed in a clear, resealable bag; my electronics were placed in the large grey tray alongside my watch, and I was even unbuckling my belt whilst waiting in line. I couldn’t have done anything more, yet the scanner still went off as I walked through and my bag was pulled to the side to be searched by hand. It turned out that my Joop! Aftershave was larger than I had believed and breached the 100ml limit, meaning that it had to be confiscated.
I would probably have checked the bottle more carefully before leaving home if my thoughts hadn’t been consumed by the elderly lady in the photograph, but there was no way of explaining this to the airport security. My attempt to carry a forbidden 25ml of cologne to Northern Ireland had tipped the Border Force off to my dubious character, and the man who was swabbing my luggage began interrogating me about an iPad he insisted was in it.
“Is there an iPad in this bag?” He asked, having presumably seen something on his screen.
“No,” I asserted with the same confidence I had when I initially strode up to the security line.
“Are you sure?” The border agent probed in a manner similar to when I was looking after my six-year-old niece earlier in the week and had challenged her to find the bunny toy I had hidden in my flat.
After another firm denial of the existence of an iPad in my rucksack, the security bloke once again asked me if I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t another device in my bag. Despite having never owned an iPad, I began to doubt myself, questioning if there could somehow be a tablet in my carry-on. Is that something a criminal would plant in an unsuspecting traveller’s luggage to be picked up by an accomplice on the other side? I’ve heard of U2 putting their album Songs of Innocence on every Apple device on the planet, but never Apple products being foisted upon a person without their consent.
Eventually, we were able to agree on the absence of an iPad and I was allowed to join my brother and sister on the flight to Belfast. Not for the first time, I was assigned a seat in the emergency exit row. It has become something of a habit of mine to be approached by an air stewardess before take-off to be asked if I mind that I am seated on an emergency exit, and I am always panic-stricken when it happens, especially when I am three beers deep. Considering all the vetting that is done of airline passengers, it amazes me that someone like me can be put in a position where they could potentially be the difference between life and death for everybody else on board. When evidently I can barely pass basic airport security, how can I reasonably be expected to inflate a life vest under the pressure of a flight going down in the Irish Sea?
In Belfast, we had booked the hostel-like accommodation at Titanic Apartments. Out on Lisburn Road, it was nowhere near the Titanic Quarter of the city, but seemingly having a cartoon poster of the doomed cruise liner on the wall by the television that doesn’t work is enough to enable a place to use the name ‘Titanic’. The first question we were asked by the porter when we checked in to our two-bedroom apartment was whether we would like any towels. Naturally, we quite liked the idea of being able to dry ourselves after a shower, so we said that yes, we would like some towels, only to be told that we could go to the reception building across the street at nine o’clock the following morning to request them. Upon looking around our living space for the next two nights, we discovered that there was also no soap or handwash – or anything, really, aside from the beds. It didn’t take very long for us to develop a sinking feeling about the Titanic Apartments.
Fortunately, since our time in the city was so limited, we had little intention of spending much time in the hostel anyway. We had barely touched down before we were out again to the Speakeasy bar along the road from us. The pub forms the student union for the nearby Queen’s University, and boy could we tell. Even with it being the Easter break, the place was rammed with young people playing pool, watching football and listening to the woman who was playing guitar. We were the three oldest people in the bar by quite some distance, which only served to remind me why I drink in Aulay’s when I am back home. There isn’t much that can make a person feel so dazed, lost and helpless as being the oldest person in the bar, except maybe being hauled before airport security for an iPad that doesn’t exist.
We were adopting the fly by the seam of your pants method of exploring Belfast since the entire decision to take the trip was reasonably last minute. It tends to be my favourite way of travelling anyway, and as with most cities, I came armed with a list of bars I had either visited or intended to visit when I was last there in 2017. As we weren’t able to shower on Friday morning on account of the saga with the towels, we decided that we would leave early for the opening of St. George’s Market – the last surviving Victorian covered market in the country’s capital city. I was hoping that the residual essence of Joop! that ordinarily clings to the collar of most of my shirts and jackets would see me through the trip since I could no longer top it up, although it was a different scent that was filling the air around the entrance of the market. The very first stall we encountered was selling trout that was the size of a dachshund, and some of the pieces of fish looked so fresh that I was sure that if I looked at them closely enough they might still be twitching.
Other than the usual fruit and vegetables, some locals were offering the most remarkable goods. Things like hand-crafted jewellery, canvas paintings, slate coasters, and scarves. It was a real feast for the eyes – which we enjoyed – but it was a feast for the belly we had turned up for. My sister got talking to a pair of very enthusiastic Spanish guys who were running a French crêpe van, while my brother and I went off in search of fried food served on soda bread. The breakfast was prepared right in front of our very eyes in a display that was almost theatrical with its sizzle. Combined with a cup of coffee from a nearby vendor, we were all feeling pretty good about our spoils. It is an especially pleasing thing when a spur of the moment decision works out so well, and our satisfaction was registered with the phrase that was coined in that moment: “who needs a shower?” Of course, we returned to the Titanic Apartments later in the day to properly cleanse ourselves before going out for dinner, but for half a day at least, we went about town without giving a fuck about towels, soap, hairbrushes, aftershave or any of that. You can enjoy yourself in any circumstance, you just need to allow yourself to.
Over our one full day together in Belfast, the three of us walked more than 22,500 steps according to my brother’s smartwatch, which is the equivalent of approximately 11 miles. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that we were testing the limits of what deodorant can achieve. We took one of the hop on hop off sightseeing red bus tours that every city seems to have, and it gave us a pretty good overview of the place. Belfast is a relatively small city, but it has an enormous history – much of it recent. It would be difficult to visit the area and not think about the Troubles – a term which in itself has always struck me as being quite quaint. Spending an extra few minutes going through airport security is troubling, whereas civil war seems much more significant. The most interesting section of the tour was the journey down the Nationalist Falls Road and the Unionist Shankhill Road. These areas of Belfast are covered with flags and the buildings decorated in murals; they are fantastically brightly coloured and in a way beautiful, yet they are shrouded with darkness and a horrific past. Even to this day, there are still gates that close every night at seven o’clock to separate the two communities. It was surreal seeing the whole thing turned into a tourist attraction of sorts – particularly when tensions have been raised off the back of England’s decision to take the rest of the UK out of the European Union and the problems this has created for the island of Ireland. When you think of it, it’s pretty mad that you can pay £17 to sit on top of a double-decker bus and drive through these sites of sectarian violence. Things are still so palpable that it practically feels as though you are watching one of those horrid reality television shows everybody talks about. I had never imagined that a red sightseeing tour could stir up so many different feelings, but I found hearing some of the stories from both sides of the divide quite sorrowful.
From the bus, we stopped off at Crumlin Road Gaol, which closed in 1996 and at times housed some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious political prisoners. Seventeen criminals were executed in the prison, with the last being hanged in 1961, and towards the end of its use, the jail was so overcrowded that there were as many as three people to a cell. The self-led tour told stories of hunger strikes, escapes, bombings, and cramped conditions. Looking at the tiny cells had me thinking of the Titanic Apartments, only the occupants here at least seemed to be given towels.
Part of the reason for our 22,500 steps was the fact that the hop on hop off bus was rolling past the entrance to the visitor centre as we were leaving, at which point we decided to walk back to the city centre rather than wait for the next one. We rewarded ourselves with a hot beverage from Established Coffee before embarking on a free walking tour from outside City Hall. Our guide, Barry, was informed and passionate about his city, making the two hours a pleasure. Through his stories, it was easy to see the charm of Belfast that exists beneath its rough exterior. We learned about some of the city’s quirky features, such as how it is apparently the case that none of the public clocks in Belfast shows the right time. I wondered how such a thing could possibly be true, but then I look at my own flat and see that there are three different objects displaying a time and none of them are the same. Imagine being in charge of hundreds of the things.
As well as being the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, our stay in Belfast also coincided with the first time in history that pubs in Northern Ireland were permitted to operate their regular trading hours over Easter weekend. Previously they had only been allowed to open for a greatly restricted period, and it was plain to see that people were keen to make up for lost time. Every bar we went into on Friday night was busy, and each one had musicians performing. There were around 4,000 people in town for the World Championships of Irish Dancing, though it was hard to say if the scenes we witnessed on some of the barroom floors bore any relation to that. I think that our favourite pub was The Thirsty Goat, where the music was best and the atmosphere was crackling. The walls of the pub were decorated with dozens of photographs of goats participating in all sorts of antics, such as chewing on a newspaper or drinking bottles of beer. It was funny, but in the sort of way that would have you questioning just how drunk you are after a certain point.
In the Dirty Onion, we queued for an eternity to get a drink in the bustling courtyard. It wasn’t until we got talking to Connor that we were introduced to an invaluable hack for getting around the long wait, which was to dive into the nearby Second Fiddle and get served there. The Second Fiddle was cosy and not nearly as busy as the other pubs we had been in. By the bar was an inscription on the wall which read “the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune” and I just had to get a photograph taken beneath it for a future addition to my Tinder profile.
There had been some discussion between us through the night about having a wager on which of the three of us could pull first. Although I am usually happy with placing losing bets when I put on my football coupon on a Saturday, there is a faint hope that one of those might actually win. This sounded like the sort of reckless gamble that the professionals warn you against making. We didn’t go through with it in the end, which was for the best since we were all destined to lose our stake when Connor suggested to us that when the pub closed we could carry on drinking until 3 am in the gay club at the end of the street. My sister and I were considering it, but the one positive about the Titanic Apartments was that there is a Domino’s nearby and a pizza was the more appealing meat feast on offer.
Little did anyone know it, but for a brief time in Belfast, I was probably closest of all to winning our hypothetical lottery. Earlier in the day, whilst on the free walking tour, I discovered that I had made a match on Tinder. Emma was 36 and living in the city, and given that it was Easter weekend there was only one question I could ask her to open our prospective conversation.
“Hey Emma, are you having a Good Friday?”
She never got back to me. When I was eventually unmatched, the prospects of a resurrection were doomed. It was probably for the best, all things considered. There would have been no future in the relationship, after all. I can’t do long distance, not with my difficulty with airport security. Sure, it would be nice to have someone who is closer to my age to have photographs taken with by the seaside or beneath novelty signs, but the reality is that I would only ever have been using Emma for her towels.