The Coronavirus Diaries, 4th May 2022, a Birthday Weekend

Celia wanted to post her brother’s birthday card. No sign of a post box, but there was a postman in a stationary van. Celia waved to him and walked over as he started move. Is it just the one thing you want to post? he asked. Yes, she said. He reached out a hand. I’ll take it, he said.

In my head I could hear my mother’s voice. They’d only do that in Ireland, she was saying, probably correctly, proudly pointing out yet again how the country of her birth was far superior to anywhere else.

We were in Belfast. The centre, not the suburbs, a stone’s throw from City Hall. It was the end of the weekend we spent in Northern Ireland celebrating both our birthdays. Working backwards, yesterday we had been in the centre, meeting Fiona for coffee at the Linen Hall Library, a favourite venue of mine, then staying chatting for so long we decided to have lunch there and forgo our other plans. We had already had coffee at the Two Sisters coffee shop off the Cregagh Road. I also had a vegan brownie there and Celia had resisted a bag she would have liked to buy. If you are near this coffee shop I recommend you pop in. It’s lovely. The coffee is lovely, the goods on display available to buy are lovely, the staff are even lovelier. It’s spotlessly clean, welcoming and probably saved our lives on Monday when we first visited it bleary eyed after a bad night’s sleep in a cold Airbnb with inadequate bedding. We compared notes in the morning, discovering we had each struggled to get warm. each been convinced in the small hours we had Covid. There were no extra blankets, no hot water bottles. The heating system resisted our efforts to spring into action despite our following the instructions to the letter. Via email I requested help, blankets and hot water bottles. Someone would come to sort the heating later I was told. Twice more I requested blankets and hot water bottles, requests which bore some fruit as we found blankets on our return.

Not the best start to our only full day in Belfast. Still, we managed a good walk through a bluebell clad Cregagh Glen to the rath at the top, then back on the Cregagh Road we enjoyed a tomato and chilli soup at the café attached to the Museum of Orange History, and where my cousin Kathryn collected us for a drive round south and east Belfast which included visiting a property she intends to renovate. She suggested we spend the evening in the buzzy cathedral quarter. All we could think of was bed and an early night, both duly achieved. Thank goodness we both slept well.

We’d arrived in Belfast by bus from Castledawson at lunchtime on Sunday. Our very lovely B&B landlady having left us at the stop after also coming for a walk with us around Church Island in Bellaghy, a walk we had hoped to do on Saturday but it had rained most of the day, and was raining particularly hard at the time we thought we might walk. We caught another bus out to our airbnb, dropped our bags and headed straight out again to the Titanic Quarter and exhibition. I think it was only when we came outside again that Celia believed my assurances that I was more than happy to go the exhibition again. Since I visited it a few years ago I’ve wanted to return. Celia is now where I was then. I am now ready for visit number three. The exhibition does everything only the best exhibitions achieve. It informs, awes, makes you think, has an emotional impact.

It had been overcast when we went into the exhibition so to emerge to bright sunshine was an added bonus. Fortunately I checked my phone as we sat looking at the water. Petra had sent a message saying she could after all join us for dinner. However, she thought we were still in Bellaghy, and was intending to travel down to Co Derry. I called her to say we were in Belfast and Home was the restaurant, not a reference to our Airbnb. Disaster averted. Home is a great place. My friend Jo, who we were also meeting there, introduced me to it last summer. The food is excellent and the service friendly and professional. Celia was impressed by the level of customer service she was experiencing. We had a great evening. Lots of chat, lots of laughter. The craic, as they say, was good.

Jo and I have known each other most of our lives. By one of those freak coincidences she was buying vegetables in the supermarket near the airport at the same time we were shopping for provisions after Cecilia (our landlady) had picked us up on Friday. That woman looks like Jo, I thought. Then, that woman is Jo! She had been at a flower show in Antrim, and had left her car at a park and ride by the supermarket.

Friday the weather was amazing. Blue skies, warm sunshine. A contrast with the grey skies and low temperatures we had left behind in London. Saturday not so much. It started with drizzle and became rain. But we spent most of the day at the Heaney Homeplace, first at the exhibition and enjoying the new digital archive in the renovated library, having a snack lunch in the café so we weren’t exactly inconvenienced.

Having decided the bluebell walk at Church Island would have to wait, we compromised with a walk up to see Seamus Heaney’s grave. The rain decided to double its efforts at this point and we were glad of the tumble drier when we returned to the Airbnb. By a quarter to seven we were back at the Homeplace for the event that brought us to Northern Ireland this weekend, Jeannette Winterson in conversation with Gail McConnell. Conversation is probably too strong a word. I am glad Gail McConnell did a long intro and explained her own background and how Winterson’s writing impacted on her, as once Winterson gets going it is pretty difficult to get a word in edgeways.

Fortunately McConnell is both very intelligent and a good listener, well able to keep up with the speed of Winterson’s trains of thought and sum them up for the benefit of the audience before the next forceful flow of words. Three friends from Dublin were sitting beside us belatedly celebrating the birthday of one of them, a birthday in September 2020. After one of them asked if either of us had been at the event at Southwark Cathedral earlier in April, I showed them a picture I took with my phone of Winterson with Hodge the cat. Celia was disappointed McConnell didn’t read any of her poetry, but I think that gives her the excuse to return to the Homeplace another day. She can also revisit the Titanic Exhibition, the Linen Hall Library, catch up with Fiona, Jo and Petra, visit No Alibis Bookshop, the Ulster Museum, Cultra, and some of the many other delights Northern Ireland has to offer. Who knows, if we visit together we may yet enjoy an evening in the Cathedral Quarter. I for one will be looking for the opportunity to go to the Two Sisters café again.

In the meantime it’s nice to sleep in my own bed, to be greeted by a very affectionate MasterB who was evidently pleased to have me home, open birthday cards, and stock the fridge with fresh veg.


10 thoughts on “The Coronavirus Diaries, 4th May 2022, a Birthday Weekend

  1. It was – we did – but only scratched the surface. So much more to see and do, both in Belfast and around Bellaghy. Now I need to read lots about Northern Ireland – made me realise how little I know.

  2. I have much enjoyed your account of a delightful trip!!!
    I hope your brand new year is also delightful for both of you!!!

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