Nour and I had agreed to check out of the Premier Inn at 10am on Saturday morning, and then to meet Andrea for a late breakfast at 10.30, so I set my alarm for 8am. I was trying to build in enough time to have a shower, remove any stubbly body hair and a very close removal of facial hair, plus application of make-up and packing everything back into my rather large case. I had actually given myself too much time, and was ready by 9.30. The previous day we had had to park quite some distance from the hotel, which was more of an inconvenience for Nour than for me, as it necessitated my pulling a heavy suitcase along quite a few cobbled streets in order to reach the hotel. At 9.30am I looked out of my bedroom window to see that there were now on-street parking spaces almost directly across the road from the hotel entrance, so I quickly got myself out of the hotel, and moved the car from its overnight spot to this more convenient one. It was then a simple matter of the two of us checking out, loading up the car, and moving it to yet another parking spot – this time in a shopping mall car park where I have a season ticket. Then it was off to Avoca to meet Andrea.As we walked along Royal Avenue in the centre of Belfast, I was approached by a slightly older man who asked me in faltering English if I knew where Castle Place was, so he could catch the open-top tourist bus. His accent sounded Spanish, a language I can speak a little of, and I was just about to respond in that language when he added “I am from Brazil, is my first time here” with a smile. Nour didn’t reply that it was her first time too, but at least I walked on thinking that I must have looked friendly and approachable. Wasn’t that nice?
I hope Andrea won’t mind me saying but she does have a bit of a reputation for being a bit late from time to time. Nour and I arrived in the café at Avoca nearly 10 minutes early, and I commented to her “Andrea is due to arrive in 8 minutes, so we’ll probably see her in about 20”. Well didn’t I have to eat my words (as well as my breakfast) when a bright eyed and bushy tailed Andrea walked in a full minute early! She even brought me a lovely gift from her holiday in Mallorca – thanks hun. We soon ordered breakfast, Andrea going for pancakes with blueberries and maple syrup, while Nour and I both had scrambled egg with smoked salmon, as well as her first ever taste of a Northern Irish staple, toasted wheaten bread, a very dense wholemeal bread. I devoured mine but I think it might have been a bit too heavy for Nour. Happily Andrea was able to assist her with her wheaten toast.
We had a quick discussion about what we were going to do, and we quickly decided that we would take the very tourist bus that our Brazilian friend had caught an hour earlier. The brochures that Nour and I had obtained at the hotel told us that the buses left on the hour and half-hour, so we walked round to the start point in plenty of time for the 12 noon departure, only to find that the buses were unable to set off due to there being a large parade in the city, commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. However, on the plus side, the man selling the tickets seemed to take a real shine to Andrea and knocked a few pounds off our tickets.
While waiting for the parade to abate, the three of us walked round to the Big Fish, and The Doll On The Ball (see photos for details) on the banks of the river Lagan, and we arrived just in time to see a boat tour departing for a trip round the famous Belfast shipyard and docks. Thinking this might be a good idea for tomorrow, we went into the Lagan Boat Company’s nearby ticket office to buy tickets for Nour and me for tomorrow. As we emerged from the ticket office I looked across at Andrea and had a moment of realisation: “I really should have bought a ticket for Michelle too, shouldn’t I?”. “Yes, you should – well go and get one then!”. And back I went again for a third ticket. I texted Michelle to let her know and she seemed very pleased with that choice.
Upon arrival back at the departure point for the tourist bus, people were already streaming on. We managed to get a seat upstairs, although with it being a sunny afternoon all the outside seats were taken and we had to sit in the covered area. The bus took us out of the city centre via the Custom House (in front of which Andrea and I had attended a concert at the end of April), the aforementioned Big Fish, and past the Odyssey, Belfast’s Millennium Project.
The bus was one of those tourist buses that loops round a city, and you can hop off and hop on again at any stop you liked, so we decided to get off at the Titanic Pumphouse and Thompson Dry Dock. The dry dock was build for the construction of Olympic-class ships, of which Titanic was the second of three, and at the time was the largest dry dock in the world. The pump house still contains the pumps used to fill and drain the dry dock. We paid the entrance fee and spend an hour walking round the pump house, walking round the dry dock and then actually going down to the bottom of it. It was a strange feeling, being so low down, with a high wall beside you at the top of which was the sea. But overall, it was the scale of the place that was most impressive. That dry dock is huge, and the pictures of Titanic and its sister ships under construction there really drove home just how enormous these ships were.
Back on the bus again an hour later, we went through East Belfast up as far as the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont buildings, then back again to Queen’s University where we disembarked a second time. As we had been walking at the Dry Dock and then again going into the University, I had noticed a flap-flap-flap sound coming from my feet. I just thought it was a normal sound coming from my wedge sandals. It was only when I went to the loo at Queen’s that I looked down at my feet to discover that the rear section of the upper had become completely separated from the wedge, and the whole thing was only being held together by the straps at the front. This kind of put a bit of a downer on my walking ability, but we bravely soldiered on through the beautiful Botanic Gardens and a quick visit to the Ulster Museum where I was able to educate Nour on the difference between aluminum and aluminium in the science section (surprisingly, I believe the Americans have got this one right).
By this stage we realised that it was five hours since we had finished breakfast, and still four hours until we were due to eat at the Butterfly Club dinner that night, so we retreated across the road to a small cafe where I had a small plate of chicken and noodles, Nour had a Thai curry and Andrea had some cake. Once finished, we decided not to wait for the final leg of the tourist bus since Andrea was parked quite close by, and she did Nour and me the favour of running us back to the car park where I had left the car that morning, still loaded up with our bags. I quickly swapped my flappy sandals for a pair of ballerinas fished out of my case, then I ferried Nour round to our second hotel of the weekend, the Europa, where she waited for me in the lobby with our bags while I returned the car to the car park and walked back round to the hotel. By shortly before 6pm, we were in our rooms, which were about half the size of the rooms we had at the Premier Inn the night before.
So Nour had bid farewell to Andrea (as did I, although I’ll see her again in a few days), so it was now time to introduce her to the final third of the Lisburn Ladies Fine Dining Club, my very good friend Michelle. I texted Michelle to let her know we had arrived, and we arranged for the three of us to meet up in the residents’ bar on the first floor. I arrived before Nour and sat with Michelle, but very soon Nour joined us too and we sat having a lovely chat for a good 45 minutes or so. At this point we noticed some of that the Belfast Butterfly Club president Linda and our student (technically graduand) volunteer Charley had arrived all dressed up already, so it was definitely time to swap jeans and cardies for something a little more formal.
The scheduled meeting time in the function space was 8pm, with dinner due to be served at 8.30pm. I was cutting it quite fine, in fact I was a minute or two late. I had managed to end up on a different floor to Nour and Michelle, so I had to make my own way down to the venue. I walked out of my room in all my glamorous glory, hair sitting as perfectly as I could manage, glasses replaced with contacts, eye shadow as close to a “smoky eye” style as I could manage, a rare outing for some red lipstick, my black & blue cocktail dress from Sainsbury’s, spotty black tights and strappy black 4″ heels. I felt as good about myself as I could as I waited for the lift from the 7th floor. When the doors opened, it was quite full. There were about 6 or 7 people in there already and I walked in, six-and-a-half feet in my stilettos, and shared the lift with them. Well of course I did, you might think, but to be perfectly honest I did wonder what they were thinking. And you know what? I have no way of knowing. Hopefully a combination of “she’s very tall” and “wow she’s gorgeous”. Then I went into the room to find just about everyone already there.
I think in the end there were 19 or 20 people at the dinner, celebrating 25 years of the Belfast Butterfly Club. Initially at least we just milled around for a chat, then took our places at the table, I had Nour on my left and Michelle on my right, so I was guarded by my friends. In fact, we were sharing our table of six with three other people I get on quite well with; Linda (not president Linda), Mandy and Deborah. I was also introduced to Martine, who was in fact the very person who had come up to Michelle and me back before Christmas last year and introduced herself in male form as being “like you”. Nour looked stunning in a simple red dress and black court shoes, the only person there you might have taken for a cis woman (apart from Charley, who actually is a cis woman). That’s not to say everyone looked like a train wreck, far from it in fact. We scrubbed up rather well.
During dinner (which was reasonably good; melon starter, chicken supreme main, chocolate tarte dessert) conversation was a little stilted until Nour came up with a great suggestion. A party game whereby you have to give three “facts” about yourself, one of which is false. The other team has to guess which one is false, based mainly on what they know or can guess about you, although they can ask one question. My “facts” were”
- I have recorded music that has been played on the radio
- When I was four years old I appeared in a television commercial for Crazy Prices (an old Northern Irish supermarket chain, long since taken over by Tesco)
- When I was nineteen year old, I appeared dressed as Madonna in a video intended to be viewed by a group of around 100 Spanish schoolchildren
I’m not telling which was the false one – can you guess?
By this stage Michelle and I were starting to make some headway into the bottle of wine we were sharing, and tongues were beginning to loosen a little. Not a lot, I don’t thing anyone ended up roaring drunk, but enough to become more relaxed. It was now time for the speeches. The first speech was by our special guest, the Reverend Dr Lesley Carroll, who is deputy commissioner of the Northern Ireland Equality Commission. She gave an entertaining and rather inspirational speech about the benefits of equality and diversity for all society, which went down very well. Then it was Linda’s turn to give the President’s address, followed by the all-important raffle prizes – I won a bottle of wine, bought by Michelle!
After the speeches had ended, Rev Dr Carroll circulated around the room for a while. She came and spoke to me, and asked a little about my background. I explained that I am a new arrival on the waiting list for the gender clinic, and that although I wasn’t yet living full time as a woman, it was my intention to make that change within the next year. She couldn’t have been more encouraging, talking at length about how it is the right thing to do, and that now I know her I should feel free to approach her if I ever have any issues with my transition that she or the Equality Commission can help me with. I really feel I have made a very worthwhile acquaintance. And she was good craic too – you don’t expect someone whose other job is a religious minister to be telling stories of being out in Maverick (Belfast gay bar) till 4am! Quite the dark horse!
Rev Dr Carroll was also asking about Nour, and as with a few other people, her story was quite the hit. In fact, Nour and I seemed to end up telling several people the tale of how we knew each other, and there was a lot of amazement at the story of the two of us starting blogs independently of each other on two different continents, and somehow ending up sitting next to each other. Quite something indeed. Nour and I ended up having a lovely chat about her life in England, and mine in Northern Ireland, pluses and minuses of the paths we have chosen. She is such an easy person to open up to, and a sympathetic listener, I really feel much more positive about my plans after a few such chats with her. But more of that in the post-mortem after part 3.
After having the feet walked off us all day, Nour retired to bed around 1am, and I agreed that we would meet for breakfast at 10am. Surely I wouldn’t be much longer myself would I? Oh yes I would! The bottle of wine that Michelle and I had shared had run out, and by this stage Martine (“one of us”) was off to the bar, so I went in with her and bought a bottle of lager. I’m sure we were quite a sight to behold, but Martine is very presentable and is blessed with quite fine facial features that help her to blend in. However we definitely turned a few heads – as I said before, let’s hope some of those heads turned for the right reasons – but that’s ok. There was no negativity that I could see.
I went to the bar one more time for another bottle. By this time the main bar was closed and there was just a hatch for residents, but the main bar area was still quite busy. I walked in myself, right through all people in various stages of inebriation, round the corner to the hatch where I found two Scottish gentlemen already at the bar. Another woman arrived shortly after me, and one of the Scotsmen said something like “Evening ladies, looking good” to both of us. It was definitely ladies plural, and there was only me and that other woman there, so I was looking good. He also said something else to me but basically it sounded like Russ Abbott’s CU Jimmy character. He seemed friendly while saying it, so I nodded and smiled at him, then moved forward and gave the barman my order.
I was sitting chatting with Mandy (who had a few surprising revelations for me, but I’ll keep them to myself) when someone said “What time do you think it is?” Oh, about 1.30 or so? No. It was 2.35am. We all decided it was time to go, and around 6 or 7 of us emerged en masse. This was actually my most uncomfortable moment of the evening. I have written before of my theory that the likelihood of being read varies exponentially with the number of trans* persons in the group, so when six of us walk out into a still-busy bar area together, I’m concerned. But it was fine, as is so often the case the unease was all in my head.
Between make-up removal, clothing and jewellery removal and sorting out my case, it was 3am by the time I finally crawled into bed. 10am for breakfast? What was I thinking? I set the alarm for 8.20, a little over five hours away. I drifted off to sleep very quickly, fingers crossed that I didn’t have a hangover waiting for me in the morning. Quite a long day, but a very enjoyable one.