In my last post I wrote about my Christmas dinner night out with the girls, and the morning after the night before. But when I left Andrea D’s apartment that lunchtime with a tummy full of bacon and egg soda, I wasn’t heading straight home afterwards. Not at all. In fact, my Saturday afternoon was if anything more fun than my Friday evening had been, even if I did shed a few tears too.
Andrea L (who will henceforth be just plain “Andrea” for the rest of this post) had left Andrea D’s apartment about 15 minutes before me, on her way to deliver a Christmas card to her hairdresser (I think). I followed in her wake, and drove to Connswater Shopping Centre, in East Belfast, where I parked up around 12.45pm and texted her that I had arrived and was waiting for her. After about 15 minutes she replied that she was on her way, and shortly afterwards she joined me in my car.
Before the Christmas dinner plan had materialised, there had been a vague plan for me to go for a visit to Andrea’s house on the weekend before Christmas. Once we had both agreed to go to the Christmas dinner though, it made more sense for me to stay at Andrea D’s and so we decided instead to think of something to do together on the Saturday afternoon. Considering it was the last Saturday before Christmas, shopping probably wasn’t the best plan we could make, so we decided to try something else. We strongly considered Mount Stewart, a National Trust property in Co Down, but in the end we decided against that as the gardens are a major feature and late December is probably not when we would see them at their best. Andrea had previously mentioned to me that she would like to visit Titanic Belfast some time. Although I was initially reluctant as I was there in August with Mrs Kirsty and the little Kirsties, I decided that it was so good it was worthy of a second visit. Good decision.
Titanic Belfast is the world’s leading visitor attraction on the subject of the ill-fated ocean liner, which was built in the shipyards of Harland & Wolff in my home city over 100 years ago. At £15.50, the entrance fee appears a little steep, but you can really see where the money went. It is a stunning day out. So much I knew already. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how enjoyable it would be to go round it with my BF, particularly considering she didn’t really know what to expect.
We parked in the underground car park directly beneath Titanic Belfast, so were able to leave our coats in the car and make our way up the escalator in indoor clothing. We bought our tickets and since we still had three and a half hours until the place closed, we went into the coffee shop for a quick refreshment before setting off. I was still pretty tired after the previous night so a caffeine boost was very much in order. As usual, we were just a couple of girls having a coffee and a chat, nothing more, nothing less. We had a quick post-mortem on the previous evening’s events and shortly before 2pm we headed towards the exhibition, stopping first to get our photos taken against a green-screen that we were told would put us dockside at the Titanic launch. Although at £7.50 per photo we never did see how effective it was.
Titanic Belfast is laid out in several different areas. The first, and probably the largest, deals with the social, economic and political situation in Belfast in the early 20th century, leading into the city’s initial growth based on the linen industry, the development of shipbuilding and ultimately the conceptualisation and design of the Titanic. I learned so much about the history of my home town, not to mention the shocking conditions in which people lived and worked at the time. Picture after picture of men wearing flat caps, moustaches and frowns beside other pictures of the barefoot children they left at home gave the impression of a grim existence. The women were at home, housekeepers and baby factories, apart from a few unmarried women who worked as maids and factory workers.
We must have spent an hour in that section before we emerged at the foot of a four-storey mockup of a gantry used in the shipyard, where we were greeted by a tour guide who explained that we were about to go up to a ride. That shocked Andrea – I hadn’t mentioned the ride to her. She was a wee bit apprehensive that it was a thrill ride and she might be saying hello to her breakfast all over again, but it’s much gentler than that. We had a nice chat with the guide, both asking questions, thankful that it wasn’t too busy so she could take the time to speak to us. We entered a lift and rose up the side of the gantry. When the doors opened at the top, there was a male guide waiting to greet is with a loud and friendly “Hello ladies!”
He explained more about the horrific conditions that these men worked in, and the shocking fact that they even had a budget or quota for how many deaths were acceptable on any given project. It was another enjoyable and enlightening chat, and he finished it off by saying “OK girls, if you want to just walk round to the ride there…”. There are few things that please a TS woman more than being correctly gendered, so to get it twice in the space of one conversation was enough for us to celebrate with a mini-high-five on our way to the Shipyard Ride.
The ride in question is a multi-level gondola flying around mock-ups of the various stages of the construction of the Titanic, with narration, video, animatronics and lots of girders. Educational and very atmospheric. During the ride Andrea turned to me and said “This is SO MUCH FUN.”. I think she had been expecting a fairly dry and “worthy” exhibit, but what she got was much more enjoyable and interactive.
We stepped off the ride and moved on to the next section dealing with the construction and launch of the ship. The high point of this for me was when we stood in a room with a frosted glass wall in the shape of the prow of the ship as we heard audio descriptions of the scenes at the launch of the Titanic. Then, as the audio was describing the ship sliding down the ramp and into the river Lagan, the frosted glass magically cleared to reveal that the glass prow was perfectly aligned down the middle of the real Titanic slipway, giving us the exact view we would have had 103 years earlier when the launch happened in that precise spot. Spine tingling.
All the while we were inside the exhibition, I felt completely comfortable with how I was presenting myself to everyone, and everyone appeared to be completely at ease with sharing a space with me. Nobody, guides and tourists alike, treated either me or Andrea like we were anything other than the women we are. By and large I forgot how I would have looked to the outside observer, because for once it had ceased to be an issue. Except, that is, for the odd occasion when there was a wooden floored area. At these times the “click-clack” sound of the heels on my boots reminded me that I was indeed presenting in my preferred gender, my true gender. It was a beautiful feeling. Everything at ease, gender not an issue, just having a lovely day out. It was a strange mixture of the glorious and the banal, in truly remarkable surroundings.
We moved on to learn about the fit out of the Titanic, including mock-ups of first, second and third class cabins. The first class cabin was very opulent, and included a chaise longue upon which I could just imagine a naked Kate Winslet being sketched by Leonardo di Caprio. We stood in the centre of a large screen surrounding us on three sides, showing a film of flying round the interior of the ship, from the engines right up to the bridge, giving a very effective and immersive experience. This lead into details of passengers boarding in Southampton, Cherbourg and Queenstown (present day Cobh, Co Cork, in the Republic of Ireland) and original letters sent home by passengers to their loved ones before the ship left port for the last time. Then things took a very sombre turn.
The section dealing with the sinking is unlike any other part of the building. A darkened, deep blue room with a shimmering wave-like light effect, with audio playing of the real recorded voices of Titanic survivors describing their experiences, while the walls feature transcripts of the Morse code communications between Titanic, Olympic and other nearby ships. It is almost unbearably sad. Before leaving, I had to reach into my handbag to retrieve a tissue with which to dab my moist eyes. I think Andrea could see I was finding it an emotional experience, and she asked if I was OK. I struggled to reply in the affirmative, as there was a lump the size of a football in my throat. As I write these words, it has returned again.
The sections prior to the sinking are peppered with short biographies of various passengers and crew of the Titanic. From the chairman of White Star Line to the ship’s surgeon to a maid and a fireman, a cross section of everyone was there. When we emerged from the “sinking” room, we discovered the fate of these people. Who lived, who died, how they died, how they were remembered, details of the heroic actions they had done in their final moments. Stories like the woman who refused to board a lifeboat without her husband, not knowing that her husband was already on another lifeboat wondering where she was. Like the two young French boys abducted from their home by their estranged father who intended to take them with him to a new life in the United States, who couldn’t be identified after their father died in the tragedy until their mother recognised them in a newspaper article back home in France many weeks later. These stories really brought home the tragedy of the loss in a very personal way, and I had to bring out the tissues again.
Further sections deal with the aftermath, enquiries in the UK and USA, the portrayal of the disaster in cinema and the media and a wider view of ocean exploration and the discovery of the wreck. Finally, a very large screen cinema showing footage of the wreck, and a glass floor where you can stand and look down upon the wreck moving past beneath you. Very clever stuff.
By the time Andrea and I had been through all this, it was 5pm and the building was closing. We had hoped to have another coffee together before parting, but it wasn’t to be in the Titanic Building. We got back into my car and drove back up to Connswater where Andrea had left her car. We noticed a coffee shop at the entrance to the centre, but it was serving take away coffee only, so we walked right into the heart of the shopping centre where we managed to find a coffee-and-ice-cream stall in the middle of the shopping area, with some seating laid out right in the centre of the mall. We sat down in the middle of this busy shopping mall with people bustling past us on both sides, and as we sat there drinking our coffees and chatting, we attracted no attention whatsoever. Again. It was just a lovely end to a lovely day. I said goodbye to my best friend and wished her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, as we’re unlikely to see each other before the start of January.
It really was a remarkably enjoyable day. Even though I had been to the exhibition before, I enjoyed it all the more second time round. I got a similar feeling to what I did when on holiday at Eastbourne and elsewhere in October, in that everything was just so natural and right, a welcome break from the usually incessant feeling that there’s something wrong. By spending a full 24 hours in my true gender, all that became a distant memory for a while. I was no longer thinking about how I was presenting or what I was wearing, no longer worrying that I was being read. I was just being myself, just another person, same as everyone else, and I loved it.
As this is likely to be my last blog post before Christmas, I would like to wish all my readers a very happy Winter Solstice season and a merry new year. I see that just today “Kirsty’s World” had clocked up its 15,000th view, which is astonishing beyond belief. Thank you everyone. You have helped make this girl much happier than she was a year ago.