It’s early. Traffic’s not a problem yet, but it’s dark. It’s the first time I’ve driven in the dark this autumn and I worry about whether the headlights are working properly. Winter seems inevitable when you’re out this early.
The traffic moves easily and I’m driving without noticing anything. I try to force myself to concentrate on the road, mentally marking every bright sign and dark tree that I pass. But I can’t keep it up and soon my attention drifts away like a line of smoke from a chimney pot.
I don’t feel great. My stomach is cramping and ripples of anxiety wash through my body. It’s my first day in a new job.
Actually it’s not as permanent or impressive as I just made it sound. The editor of a trade magazine has asked me to help out in the office with a bit of writing. A few days of work maybe. We’ll see how it goes, she says.
It’s not even full days, I’m only working until lunchtime. I told her I have to be finished in time to pick my son up from school.
I know what the work will be. Rewriting press releases, maybe making a few phone calls for quotes. It’s the sort of journalism I started out doing a quarter of a century ago. Filling little spaces in the magazine as they arise. It’s the other side of the world from working at the top of a daily newspaper.
But recently I’ve been becoming more aware of the need to get some money coming into the house. The phone hasn’t been ringing. This is the first thing anyone’s offered me in a while.
I’m getting dangerously close to Belfast so I slow the car down, as if this will somehow delay the day’s work.
All the old hateful feelings are back. The thought that nobody will like me. That I won’t be able to do the work. That they’ll laugh at me. That I won’t fit in. I’ll never fit in.
I shift in the car seat. I know it shouldn’t be this way. After all this is the closest thing yet to what I’ve been looking for. Flexible hours that I can fit around childcare, no real pressure, no responsibility. The work should be easy.
And it’s not like it’s the first work I’ve done this year. I’ve done a fair bit of teaching and media consultation. Shit, I’ve delivered a lecture at Queen’s University and made a speech at Stormont and I didn’t feel this bad.
There’s a burning deep in my throat. I think I know what’s wrong. It’s the feeling of reality crashing around me like waves at the wall of a pier. The incivility of civilisation.
The truth is that I’ve enjoyed my time away from the grind of work, being outside the system. Being with my wife and son. Devoting my life to making sure his is all that it can be.
But I always knew it couldn’t last. The money headache never goes away. Queen’s and Stormont were fine because I was able to come home afterwards and lock the door again. This feels more like a consuetude.
It’s the Monday morning bleakness. The despair and suffocation of the forced routine. Your life being ordered into a relentless series of fives and twos. Fives and twos. Knowing that if you leave the problem it will still be there the next morning when you get to your desk. Just the sheer grime of the whole shabby process.
I steer my car off Tate’s Avenue onto the Lisburn Road and pull up outside the little office. I was so worried about being late that I’ve ended up getting here more than an hour before it opens. This sounds extreme but it’s quite usual for me.
The office is in darkness, the door locked. I might as well go for a walk. I decide to find a coffee shop. It’s not so much that I’m desperate for caffeine but rather that my insides are in turmoil and I feel better just knowing I’m somewhere close to a toilet.
It’s still dark but the streetlamps and headlights of the cars make the rain shine on the road and footpaths. I used to live in this part of the city, more than 20 years ago. I’m trying to find any shop that I remember but they’re nearly all gone. Streets change faster than people do.
I’m looking for a cafe and there are many here but it’s so early that they’re not open yet. I walk past a line of people, heads down, waiting at a bus stop. I think about how this is the first morning that I have not been there to take my son to school. To watch him stumble uncertainly into the playground, turning briefly to give me that little wave and nod of the head before he scurries off around the corner.
I’m about to give up when I find a coffee shop with lights on. It’s part of a chain, a brand name that I see all over Belfast these days. I’d sooner have an independent shop although I’m not sure why. I enter the shop.
It’s brightly lit, full of soft black sofas and tall chairs. The gentle sound of Enrico Einaudi’s piano music fills the space and I’m encouraged. I take a bottle of sparkling water from a cold cabinet to the counter. There a young woman with short brown hair greets me with a genuine and warm smile, displaying a row of white teeth and dark eyes.
I’m a little disconcerted. Maybe it’s because I’m not in a very good mood, maybe it’s because I’m not used to being addressed in such a pleasant way by a staff member a coffee shop. She’s Eastern European. I order a coffee and we make a faltering attempt at conversation but I think she’s struggling to understand my Ulster Scots drawl so I abandon it.
I take my coffee and find a comfortable chair. I’ve brought a newspaper but I don’t feel like reading it now. Instead I watch the woman behind the counter. I’m slightly embarrassed that I can’t be any more specific than to say she sounds Eastern European. I wonder where she’s from, what her story is. She meets every customer with that same smile and attempts to chat with them all. Some of the customers are clearly regulars and she holds a conversation with them as she carefully pours steaming coffee into delicate white cups, before balancing them on saucers.
I’m enjoying the sound of Einaudi. I haven’t realised the change but I notice that I’m feeling a bit better. I watch a couple at the table next to me, at least I’m assuming they’re a couple because they don’t speak to each other. She’s trying to eat a croissant in a dignified way, brushing flakes of pastry off her skirt as delicately as if stroking a baby’s face. His eyes never leave the broadsheet paper he holds in one hand, even when he reaches for his coffee with the other. His fingers search for the cup.
A small car pulls up outside, but it’s still too dark to know which make or colour. Two girls in school uniform step out of the front seat and enter the coffee shop. They order drinks and then have a brief discussion about whether to sit in or have them to go. They pay by card and leave the shop.
I finish my coffee. I stand up, look around and go outside. It’s that time between darkness and light. A half light is starting to break through. It’s time for me to go to work.