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Last Sunday I managed quite a full day out.  A month or two earlier I had booked for a tour of Hillsborough Castle, the Queen’s official residence in Northern Ireland, with the Meetup group of which my book group forms a part.  You may recall that I had agreed to give a lift to another woman, and I was a little apprehensive as to how that would go, considering she had never met me before and it was all arranged online.

As it turned out, she cancelled about four days before the event.  I was slightly concerned about this turn of events and I was imagining all sorts of scenarios like hey discovering my Facebook profile, deducing that I am trans and cancelling her attendance rather than share a car with a freak.  I sent her a message saying I hoped everything was OK, and she replied that something had come up that she couldn’t get out of, but she hoped we could meet up soon at another event.  So that’s alright then.

Her absence meant that there was a vacancy for another person on the tour, and it was filled by none other than my best friend Andrea.  We were all due to meet at a coffee shop in Hillsborough before going on to the tour at 12.30.  Of course typical Kirsty was late so missed the coffee shop rendezvous, and I headed to the Hillsborough tourist office to find the tour organiser Pam outside waiting for me.  I followed Pam into the building where I was introduced to the rest of the group, which was a little smaller than expected.  In addition to Pam and Andrea, there were two Christines, one of whom was French, Irish Christine’s 10-year-old son Benjamin and a guy called Ricky, whom I subsequently realised is Christine’s other half (but not Benjamin’s dad). Our tour lasted around an hour, and our tour guide was very good, she had lots of anecdotes about the place.  It was clear that the castle is still a working building, or felt quite light and airy, free from the staid atmosphere you’d sometimes get in those stately homes that now serve as museums.  In what we were told was Prince Charles’ favorite room, there was a painting over the fireplace of some 19th-century Lord or other, but we all agreed that it was either a fake or James Nesbitt is around 200 years old.

The tour finished up in a room where Tony Blair and George W Bush had had talks about something or other in 2003, and a photo of the occasion was on display showing then seated right where we were looking.  As Tony Blair would have said, “the hand of history”.

Before heading off for lunch, we took a short stroll round the castle grounds, although due to the less-than-perfect weather it really was just a short stroll.  And anyway, I wasn’t exactly wearing the most appropriate footwear for a walk round the gardens.  The lake was rather pretty though.

We said our goodbyes to French Christine, who had an appointment with an ironing board, and made our way to the Hillside Tavern for lunch.  It was the first time I had eaten there and I may say it was very good.  To start I had deep fried brie in breadcrumbs with cranberry jam, and a main course of roast lamb.  I couldn’t manage a dessert so just went straight to coffee.  But the food was secondary to the company, which was excellent.  I had a lovely chat with Christine, who it turns out grew up quite near to me, and it was obvious that Pam, Christine and Ricky know each other well.  The craic was great.  In fact, the three of them were so boisterous than young Benjamin became slightly embarrassed.  He asked his mum why they couldn’t be more like “these two ladies” meaning Andrea and me.  Ladies!  That’s us alright.  

After more than two hours in the restaurant, which just flew past, it was time to part.  We said our goodbyes out on the street, and just as we were saying goodbye to Benjamin he came rushing over and announced “I love hugs” and proceeded to hug first Andrea, then me goodbye.  Awww…

 So with the Meetup lunch group finally separated Andrea and I made our way to Sprucefield for a very quick bit of shopping.  And it really was a quick bit of shopping.  By the time we arrived, it was well after 5pm and the shops were due to shut at 6.  I was in search of a lightweight raincoat for wearing while doing a bit of outdoor exploration in the English countryside the following weekend (!). With less than 5 minutes to spare I found what I was looking for, or close enough, in M&S, and I swiftly paid for it then departed.  Andrea and I said our goodbyes then I headed back into Belfast for the latest meeting of my book group.

  This month’s book, for the first time, was my choice.  “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey, a first-person story of an elderly woman with dementia, who is convinced that her friend Elizabeth has disappeared, but nobody believes her.  I found this to be a very convincing portrayal of what it might feel like to suffer from dementia, rather touching and slightly exasperating at times.  Most of my book group friends seemed to agree and gave it positive reviews, although there were one or two dissenting voices.  Once the book review talk had died down, I ended up having a lovely long chat with Tony, the only regular male member of the group.  He is a retired university lecturer and a very interesting character.  We chatted away freely for quite a quite a while, and of course it was such a joy to be able to be myself with him.  I have no idea if he has read me or not, but he spoke to me just like he would any other woman.  I can’t really ask for more than that.

As I was leaving the hotel where the group meets, I stopped for a quick goodbye with two women who always come together, Anne and Angela.  Anne was apologising to me for not liking my book choice enough – it’s ok, really!  As we walked down the steps on to the street, another person emerged from the doors and called out to us “Bye girls”!  Girls?  Yes, that’ll be me, I’m one of them.

I didn’t go to the Butterfly Club on Wednesday.  I was too busy getting ready for something else.  I’ll not elaborate too much now, but suffice to say that I’m typing the last few lines of this post in the loft bedroom at the home of the Sainted Kate, the other half of my good friend and fellow blogger Ruth Martina.  How I got here and what we get up too (Andrea is here too), I’ll save that for next time.

Kirsty x