Two requests are guaranteed from visitors to our humble hovel:
1. Their insistence on doing the dishes
2. A look around the ‘local area’
Both are issued with the same level of overbearing enthusiasm, and greeted by the same underwhelming level of exhilaration. Interrupting the chat every five seconds with “where does this go?” while holding a plate aloft makes me forget what I was giving out about; and fearful our manky cutlery tray will be exposed and I’ll have to explain the presence of dead sweetcorn beneath the tin-opener. Or something more sinister.
Mention of the ‘local area’ is the surest way to unleash misplaced pride in the native I’d blame for the debris in the drawer. Nothing detonates my fella’s latent historian tendencies like a vague reference to the town’s Neolithic site. By which I mean “that hill thing”. Site of many a battle between various big cheeses from Irish mythology. No wonder they turned on each other. There’s fuck all else to do.
Once in a while, a Norn Iron virgin crosses our threshold, wide-eyed with impossible eagerness to hit the biggest battlefield of them all: Belfast. When I say once, I mean once. On Friday evening our guest cheerfully bounded in handing a box of chocolates to the youngest resident to share with the group. I was none the better after the fitful sleep that followed an abandoned, cremated, dinner brought on by the unprecedented meltdown brought on by the unfettered access to sweets she’d no notion of sharing. The next visitor that pulls this stunt will be frogmarched to that hill thing in the rain after washing every dish in the house. So, it was with a willingness to escape the residual trauma I carried out a quick spot check of the car to ensure there was nothing growing in it before inviting my companion in for our drive to the city.
These days, my rare visits to Belfast are dictated by necessity, if you count Ikea a necessity. The malnourished streets of my studenthood have long been replaced by a city busy showing off its retail mid-riff and toned cultural abs. It had been an age since my friend and I had time to catch up. Years, in fact. So we eschewed suggestions of bus tours and taxi trips in favour of pounding the streets on foot, which turned into a hop on hop off tour of our feelings. In stoical, hands-firmly-in-its pockets Belfast, where smiling is a sign of weakness.
I blame the side-by-side exchanges of the car journey where thoughts are unrestricted by the absence of another’s eyeball looking directly in, leaving feelings unguarded and free flowing. As the façade of City Hospital crossed our eye-line, I had already owned up to my ostensible impatience with the place being the loudest expression of my affection for it. My passenger surveyed the urban sprawl and reflected on her reliance on city life for comfort and anonymity; as well as her fear at the prospect of giving it up at the age of 42 to satisfy her urgent need to acquire a mortgage after half a lifetime’s nomadic existence. She concluded it was a consequence of her brush with death earlier this year.
By the time we reached the car-park, we were reconciling the mistakes made in our twenties with our resistance to taking responsibility for engineering opportunities for happiness throughout most of our 30s. The twenty minute delay in securing a parking space was not our responsibility, but time well-spent squaring up to ourselves and trading a dose of me toos.
Standing at the pedestrian lights opposite The Crown Bar, we were too distracted by talk of our respective parents to notice the crowd. How is it that the older we get, the more we become increasingly obsessed with our parents’ relationship with one another? And all their failings – though more visible now – become more forgivable. Sometimes.
We shrugged our way across into the pub to investigate the beautiful interior, pausing briefly at an empty snug to speculate on the damage we could’ve done in it once upon a time. A time that has now passed and ushered us onwards along the road to self-acceptance, and the Christmas Market at City Hall we couldn’t be bothered queuing for. To George’s Market instead, with the iconic Harland and Wolff cranes peeping in between the soulless corporate monolithic structures now dominating the eastern dockside. Appropriate background to our thoughts on the criteria we adopt to judge our successes in work. We traced the overlaps in the confidence diminishing effect of short-term working in disparate sectors that aren’t so different after all. Roles with a defined life-cycle we complete with mixed success that haunt us as we recycle our respective bullshit to the next interview panel in a bid to win another.
Carols rang out behind us as we deliberated over what to have for lunch. The plethora of multicultural food stalls another healthy reminder of the City’s willingness to move on from the proverbial chips or salad. Against high calorie harmonies, my friend spoke of her regret at not having a family of her own, and her determination to convert her singlehood into something satisfying. There’s a certain freedom derived from being in the company of rare honesty from another so I found myself answering her questions on motherhood that I had only barely attempted to ask myself. I spoke with what sounded like a lucidity I had been afraid of. Of months spent obsessively reading blog posts on only children, the halting desire to pre-empt what that experience will be like for our one before reaching the understanding that it is not mine to direct or second guess, or really my right or business to know. It will be her experience alone to interpret; to undoubtedly change her mind about as her life unfolds.
Bellies full, we dusted ourselves off and snooped through the handmade trinkets, holding up earrings and necklaces to speculate on what they would best be worn with before being carried through the commercial heartland by throngs of festive shoppers. We took a right angled turn down a capillary lined with pubs and the type of restaurants we were reared far from. I shook my hair in the mirror in the lift in the MAC to revive the curls that collapse with overgrowth; my friend took advantage of the unflattering light to top-up her lipstick. We emerged in the third floor to rotate the exhibits, and smile at the two children that skipped through the space between their parents. My friend spoke enthusiastically of her plans to start up a blog on contemporary Irish art, and implored me to write “something”. I confessed to the trips I’ve been taking here with a keyboard. I promised to send her “something”. “Something you’re proud of”, she demanded. I couldn’t explain that the only possible source of pride was hidden in the notion of starting it at all.
I was sure my youthful ambition was down one of these streets
Sitting motionless on a bench in the dark, we watched the interactions of a random group of occupants of a high rise building in a video installation. The camera zoomed in to capture the grainy expressionless face of an office worker before it slid across to catch another brushing her hair at her desk before she put on her coat to leave. Neither of us had ever done this in our lifetime. Brushed our hair in the office, that is. Do women still do this?, we wondered aloud. The camera panned away to reveal the ant-like industriousness of humans from a distance as they went about their business. The voyeurism oddly hypnotic. “I love that there are no clues about where this is filmed”, observed my friend. “The mix of ethnicities, the banal office set-up, the urban structure of the building. It could be anywhere”, she added.
It could even be Belfast. We took our leave, and I vowed not to leave it so long till next time.