My firm’s office in the North’s capital city is ideally located on the edge of the Cathedral Quarter and just off St Anne’s Square, to such a degree that it benefits from a number of nearby amenities, not the least of which is an eight level multi-storey car parking facility.
On only one occasion has it been necessary to drive to the top in order to secure a parking space to my liking.
And I would reiterate those last three words, ‘to my liking’, to illustrate a weird sort of compulsion (or probably more appropriately an aversion) that I have when it comes to what for most people is the simple task of parking their car.
My business partner has the entirely reasonable strategy of seeing a space and reversing into it. Arriving at a similar time to me but, on 99% of times, ahead of me she has been sitting in her vehicle watching with bemusement my driving past what would appear to her to be totally acceptable parking bays.
When she later discovers that I have perhaps driven to the 5th or 6th floor to park, despite an abundance of places on the levels below, she has often had to give me a fool’s pardon for what looks to her like rampant car-lessness.
What my preference is, though, is to get a space as close to the lifts as I can. That might seem inherently lazy- that I can’t be bothered walking the few extra feet involved in parking at the other end of the floor where there is merely a dusty unpainted concrete stairwell. And certainly, if you were to apprehend my large frame when emerging from the vehicle you would be forgiven for thinking it is the avoidance of any exercise that I’m trying to achieve.
There was a stand-up comedian I saw once who made a joke about executive cars needing parking sensors because their drivers invariably had such fat necks, they couldn’t turn their heads round to look for obstacles, but I think that’s just a coincidence in my situation.
It’s that natural human trait to want to seek out shortcuts and convenience that both drives human endeavour and invention, but that also compels me to do what I do; and it must not be unique to me, because usually the preponderance of spaces that are taken by other parkers are those nearest the elevators too!
The other advantage, though, of being where we are located is, certainly pre-pandemic anyway, the abundance of great places to eat out, especially for breakfast.
I rarely had time to eat a proper meal at the start of the day as I was always in a rush to get somewhere and hadn’t left enough time to do so, as I would need to get on my way asap.
That’s one of the reasons I try never to arrange a meeting before 10am and preferably even not before 11, because it’s usually my intention to get to town and get some grub before I can even begin the formal workday.
One of the best all day breakfasts you could get pre-March 2020 was in the Cafe on the Square - not St Anne’s though - Custom House. It’s a casual diner with floor to ceiling glass looking out towards the incredible historical masterpiece of the Revenue’s now former headquarters in the city.
I had an eleven thirty appointment and so I had plenty of time to enjoy the cafe’s signature dish.
Yes- at five pence short of a tenner and not including coffee, it’s an excessive way to start the day, but it was a rare treat that I afforded myself on those days when I had a bit more time on my hands.
As it was post-breakfast rush and pre-lunch, the premises were sparsely populated with an ironic social distancing going on, even before we knew the phrase as well as we do now.
When I was a child, one of my favourite jokes was ‘What’s worse than finding a maggot when you bite into your apple? ... Finding half a maggot!!’, and on this day, I was to find out what was better than seeing a rodent in your restaurant - it was seeing a rodent outside your restaurant.
He was about the size of a Subway Footlong sandwich- so yeah, about a foot long-with a tail that seemed to match in length and I was the first to see him scuttling across the open space outside the large picture window in front of me as I ate a bit of sausage.
He couldn’t have seen me, but he stopped frozen for a moment as if he had. A few seconds passed and he dashed a little bit closer again. This time, he had gotten to about half way across the divide between each side of the plaza.
I did that thing I can’t resist doing - warning other people about things that they could probably sort out for themselves - and I called out to the gentleman to my left at the table in the front corner and to the three ladies sitting facing each other at a table in the centre front, to alert them to the presence of the impressive creature who to me was giving the air of a determination of fully intending to come our way.
‘Looks like we have a visitor’, I said slightly pompously, pointing to the furry friend who now was on the move. As cliché as it will sound, the man smirked and the women shrieked and one of them got up and tried to protect herself by stepping behind her chair, and screamed out ‘Lock all the doors...lock all the doors!!’
The thing wasn’t even within 6 feet of the place when she made the exhortation, but within what seemed like a fraction of a second, he was right at the window in front of her table and was scurrying up and down along the ledge like a tiger in the zoo… and everyone including me felt like we’d just been injected with adrenaline. There was a collective gasp as, for a moment, we had the shared experience of thinking our lives were in danger from the baguette-sized vermin on the other side of the impenetrable plate glass window.
A few seconds later and he was off again, never to be seen again that day, but he had changed the course of the next hour of my life.
Instead of continuing to check emails and social media on my iPad, or otherwise live in our own little bubbles, my fellow diners and two wait staff began to have a conversation together about what had just happened and, as the fright wore off, the laughter and joking started and we formed a connection that would not have happened were it not for the invader who had so adeptly garnered all of our attentions.
After a while, I got into such an in-depth conversation with the businessman on my left that I joined him at his table and we ordered more coffee so we could continue it in as sociable a manner as we could. As is the case in Northern Ireland, it was a mere few minutes before we worked out our few degrees of separation and were talking like confidants. My table mate ended up telling me things about himself and his life that I doubted many of his life-long friends would have been aware of.
When my pre-arranged meeting companion turned up, I moved back to my own table and said my farewell, but not before exchanging business cards.
The experience gives me hope for what will happen when we eventually get through the current times in which we are living (or should I say existing?). As much as we all can fall victim to the incubi or succubi we willingly carry around with us, ironically ‘to stay connected’ to the world, the truth is that there is no substitute that will ever be as good as getting around a table with another mortal being and just talking and listening to what’s on their mind.
We have passively allowed ourselves to be comprehensively lobotomised by technology, and I welcome the opportunity that the metaphorical electroconvulsive therapy of the post-pandemic era will bring about in shaking us from the inertia that has allowed us to think that a plastic mouse can give us as much human connection as a live rat!