Opening up our commercial and social lives we maybe but it’s still not much fun. Walking into town last week I struggled to sense that expected joy from the ending of lockdown. In spite of some hopeful optimism and open shop doors, many aspects of communal life remain shut and as I passed the doors of locked and shuttered pubs I yearned to visit inside, loiter with friends I haven’t seen for months, drink beer and talk rubbish. It will happen I whispered to myself confident and hopeful of a future not too dissimilar to the past I loved so much but which I was forced to leave in early March. The oppression of Covid rules and regulation, mostly imposed by indolent youth who only know negative power; “don’t stand beyond the line”, “don’t go that way”, “stop on that spot”, fills me with dread. These are fascist diktats not helpful instructions to stay safe!
Anyway, my first wish on my walking odyssey was to buy a coffee and, if I was really lucky, a piece of cake and, since the weather was in its late Spring splendour, to sit outside and watch the World go by; just as I use to. My first stop was a café with tables outside but as I got closer the sign told me not to use them. So, I follow the one-way system in and approached the young woman standing behind a Perspex-screen wearing a facial visor, and over her mouth a medical mask. She wore plastic gloves, and on her body, a plastic apron. She was dressed for a long shift in ICU not being a part of the café culture experience. Only her eyes told me she was friendly and welcoming and that at least made me feel better. It told me that somewhere underneath all this PPE the old world still existed. I ordered a coffee and a piece of coffee cake from the sparse display behind the Perspex. Could I wait outside she asked after taking my order but then refused my cash; only card payments. Covid was to blame and since I had left my cash-card at home, we apologised to each other and I left. She was the first of four cafes on my walk into the city centre that refused cash. I was not making a stand or a point I simply wanted a coffee.
It was then, an hour from home, that I noted with some mild concern that access to public conveniences was also restricted. At one of my card-payment coffee-stops the friendly young hipster with a magnificent beard, one that would make an excellent home for a family of swallows, told me that his toilets were closed and Covid was to blame.
With my advancing years and my daily medicines regimen, I have over recent times identified a number of preferred toilets stops in Belfast city centre which normally worked well for my needs. Top of my list are the toilets on the third floor of a well-known national store. The urinals are spotless and the toilets are Armitage, they are fragrant and constantly cleaned and a “caught-short” shopper could not ask for more. The store was opened for food sales so access to the toilets was denied by stern security personal tasked with counting shoppers in and out. The Chapel Lane public toilets, one of the few still operated by Belfast City Council and paid for from my rates, were shuttered closed. For the uninitiated, these public conveniences can be intimidating and I do agree that in their locked cubicles much illicit drug use takes place. But those individuals normally do not sense the presence of others and never hassle the weak bladdered. Alternatively, especially when PSNI officers and ambulances block the entrance, I use the loos in any of the many pubs around knowing I have paid for my use many times over; but inconveniently, not today.
To my delight I found that the toilets on the lower ground floor of Victoria Square opened and by this stage, as you can imagine, my initial mild concern had escalated to something near controlled panic. This was not helped when I surveyed the queue from the door of the toilets snaking back to the steps for the viewing gallery. This was not going to work I concluded and headed across to Custom House Square where I had a vague recollection of a coin-operated convenience near the crossing to the Fish. Did I have a 20p coin? That question was merely academic as these toilets too were closed and I then rang my son who has a flat close by and whom I thought was at work. My good luck his furloughed partner was home and my ordeal resolved.
No, it was not an encouraging walk around my home town. We are as far from normality and you can, I often will say, judge normality by the access citizens have to; the easy purchase of a hot beverage and a convenient comfort break.
I am a pharmacist in Belfast.