“Oh, no … he’s not kicking-off now … and it’s been such a great day, for us all …”
Our big day out at the Titanic Museum in Belfast, and here we were, in danger of it capsizing right at the end …
These were my wife’s despairing words as we wilted against the cold stone wall of a dim, deserted Platform 2 at Drogheda Train Station.
Homeward bound, but waiting, thanks to our daft train service.
It was 10.30 on the night before Halloween – we’d been up since 6.30 that morning – and A and I were blowing out icy CO2 and soft expletives, as we contemplated the 25-minute purgatory before the next train.
Our daughter K was okay, teenage moany but good, the two neat white paper bags with her new jumper and jacket clutched tightly in her right hand.
But when our O gets this tired, and he just wants to crash, but can’t, he can get cranky …
Like unreasonably, unreachably stroppily cranky …
What had really set him off was our wait was so unnecessary. Daft even.
We had to get our sleeping boy off the Belfast-Dublin train, which passes through our home town, but doesn’t stop there, and now had to wait for the regional service from Drogheda which would actually let us off at our destination!
The waiting room was as uninviting as the platform, and we left O grumbling on his platform bench to walk a bit.
Presently, A went to the front of the train, which was already there, and a quiet word with the driver, and we are allowed on board.
Man, woman and children rescued!
The train was warm and well-lit, and once the wi-fi kicked in, we were good. O even got his second wind and was happily fingering the contents of his bag of contraband rockets and bangers.
We had packed in so much … up so early, and only one altercation, first thing: just 10 minutes left to get out the door and to the station, five miles away, and K was still straightening her hair …
Yes, I let her know, but whined rather than went off on one – we’d save the fireworks for Halloween – even if there was an awful moment leaving the town, and a white Qashqai almost pulled out in front of us from a notoriously difficult to exit side road.
We had our tickets already, our M&Ms and drinks, and A had booked the Museum stuff … so all aboard, and breakfast on the train to look forward to.
The kids were on mid-term and A and I felt we really needed this day together as a family … to get out of the routine and do something a little bit different. Together.
It had been a tough few weeks for us all … but we have been working hard on turning things around. For us all.
There had been a lot less shouting and confrontation, and O’s issues in school and with his football team have eased off. He’s nearly back to himself.
And he had put himself out there, arranged to meet up with a couple of Fortnite buddies, to do the whole Halloween trick or treat thing, with added fireworks in the field behind our house.
K and O hadn’t done it in a couple of years, so A and I were delighted they were both up for it. K already had her fairy dress bought online and delivered.
So, in no time we were off the train in Belfast Central Station and walking, necks aloft and gawping, towards the city centre.
All was wide, quiet streets and early-morning echoes, and we liked what we were seeing … the area around the station all skyscrapery new and gleaming, and then the more-expected traditional Victorian brick and stone buildings as we neared the actual centre, and places like Donegall Street, Great Victoria Street and the Cathedral Quarter.
Coffee and cake in an unremarkable but perfectly decent cafe and we were ready to get going.
First up we had to go and buy some fireworks.
O, master of Google and direction, led us up the famous Shankill Road, all too familiar with explosive devices as it was a den of loyalist paramilitary ferment and operations at the height of the Northern Troubles, as we called that horrible period down South.
We continued up the rising concrete monotony of an unremarkable thoroughfare, the Belfast twangs of ordinary people sounding all around us.
Ordinary people hopefully happy to be living in ordinary times again.
Scenes from old news bulletins were all around us as we gaped, not too obviously we hoped, at the freshly-painted Ulster Freedom Fighters motif over Shankill Cottages, and the Union Jack work shed as we passed, and the assorted murals pledging loyalty to Queen and community.
We found Arrow Fireworks on Agnes Street, right at the top of the road. O got what he wanted in the no-frills industrial unit, and the guy even threw in a free extra bag of rockety things.
The Titanic Museum, in the vast redeveloped dockland area now known as the Titanic Quarter, is fabulous, the stunning building itself designed to look like the prows of the hulking ships once built in this very area, and angled now as if to launch upon the wide Lagan River.
It is a monument to Belfast’s maritime heritage on this, the site of the former Harland & Wolff shipyard.
This is where the famous HMS Titanic itself was built in 1912, before she famously hit that iceberg and went down on her maiden voyage.
There’s all sorts of interactive stuff and film inserts on giant screens, but of course way too much information to take in in one visit.
But the lads enjoyed it until they didn’t and we headed back in towards the city centre, passing over the elegant Lagan Weir Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge,
O had spotted a great Halloween shop and had to have the ridiculously hilarious horse’s head mask he saw, so we returned, but K had to be content with a couple of spooky nose-rings, as the shade of coloured contact lens she wanted to go with her fairy dress was not in stock.
There was time for some leisurely food before we departed, and we found a fantastic place called the Northern Whig, on Waring Street.
We are served by the most charming, shaven-headed man with an accent we tried fruitlessly to source.
Out of earshot the kids couldn’t decide who he resembled more, Wallace, from Wallace and Gromit, or Uncle Fester of the Adams family.
He was actually Czech, from outside Prague, and living in Belfast for 16 years. A wonderfully jovial character, he enjoyed serving up the house special burger to a boy in a horse’s head mask and steering our picky daughter towards the spicy chicken option. Which she loved.
Too tired to walk any more, we hailed a cab outside and headed for the station.
We didn’t have long to wait for our train home.
Did I mention we had to change at Drogheda?