Hiroshima For Breakfast, Titanic For Tea

Two old men in a city centre cafe carry a wealth of history in their heads

So there he was, this guy, lithely bestriding the busy city centre footpath, occupying, nay commanding the centre, his force-field presence leaving little room for anyone else.


Man, he owned that moment, that footpath, and that cigarette.

It was like the sun had come out that minute ago just for him and that slim white baton he waved like a conductor.

Smoking like he meant it. Sucking in that vapour and blowing it out like a statement.

Some people barely displace air as they pass, no matter their shape or bulk, while others seem to emanate outwards, their bodies just the starting point as the waves of their presence ripple through the mundane air.

Like this dude.

Maybe in his late forties, not tall, slim, expensively casual get-up … soft grey sports jacket, light purple button-down shirt —  no tie —  trousers and shoes flawlessly unremarkable.

Full head of silvering hair, centre parted, dragging on his cigarette and exhaling with satisfaction.

Just short of giving it large.

He could have been after signing a million-dollar deal or finishing a damn good cup of coffee.

Soon he was gone, and the tropospheric molecules reassembled, like after an express train has thundered through a station, and the silent air still vibrates with the memory.

But I was also thinking that where once, for me, this dude and his cigarette would have epitomised cool and charisma, now they looked passe and even a little sad.

Maybe it was down to that cultural shift that has seen cigarettes and zeitgeist cool part ways so completely.

For all I knew, he could have lit one up on the news that it was all over and he had months to live.

Or maybe I’m just getting older.

Maybe more taken now by substance than by appearance.

I had done my shopping, pulling off a nice little discount on my key purchase, a birthday necklace for my wife, and I was feeling like a good full Irish to celebrate.

So I took myself down a familiar side street and into a place where I had enjoyed a pleasing breakfast several years ago.

I placed my order and made for a neat corner table, just beside the splendid stained glass window with the small ruby-red rectangles framing the translucent main pane.

I was just registering the two older gentlemen at the adjoining table, when the one nearest me, his overcoat still on, and his eyes crinkling behind large rimless glasses, reached towards my table,  and apologised  as he retrieved the walking cane leaning against my table, which he called his “shepherd’s crook”.

He spoke with a soft northern accent, from near enough the Border I gauged.

“I thought you knew me and were using my name … my surname is Sheppard,” I laughed.

“Too much information,” smiled his owlish companion, bald as an American eagle save for the two fluffy snow-white side-pieces, and altogether older Freud-like with his roundish, black-rimmed spectacles.

His accent was hard to gauge, probably educated, or at least well-read, south  Dublin.

He was wearing a really smart heavy denim shirt buttoned all the way up.

Normally, this would have been the extent of our pleasantries, but there was something in this exchange which opened the path to conversation.

And boy did we converse.

These two old boys had long finished their food and were chatting over a simmering pot of tea.

They formally introduced themselves as John, from County Fermanagh — and Gerry, who was indeed from south Dublin. And indeed, it would become apparent, exceedingly well-read.

Someone mentioned Belfast and this led to a fascinating discussion around the wonderful Titanic museum in that city, and the fateful voyage of the ship itself.

The story of the ship heralded as “unsinkable” before its infamous maiden — and only — voyage.

Both men knew so much about the ship itself and the epic story — “I love DVDs and documentaries, and I have a very good memory,” John revealed — and they wore their knowledge lightly, anecdotally.

In that easy way of some older folk, John told me how much he valued Gerry’s friendship, while his comrade merely twinkled behind his spectacles in confirmation and unaffected acceptance.

They had been meeting in this family-run cafe for 25 years.

“Gerry is the only man I know who has been inside the Taj Mahal,” John announced with pride.

Gerry seemed to have been everywhere, north and south of the equator, over the years, even pausing to reflect on his visit to the atomic bomb sites of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

He talked of the people melted into walls three miles from the centre of the explosions, the malevolent radiation waves reaching that far as they rippled through the mundane Japanese air.

Our conversation was as much taken up with the folly of human arrogance and crisis mismanagement as with the actual events themselves.

Like the captain of the Titanic who remained below as his inexperienced second-in-command led the vital first reactions to the iceberg crisis.

And then we were talking about Chernobyl, and the Netflix series of the same name everyone is talking about, which I had just seen the first episode of.

Again we had the folly of the first reactions to the nuclear core melting, the guy in charge that night declaring this was not possible.

Overriding the bewildered reluctance of his next in command, he made him call in the next day’s work shift, as the fireman sprayed their puny water hoses against the nuclear inferno.

Two old men and I tucked into bacon and eggs and sipped on Earl Grey tea as we voyaged around history and hubris.

And there was fun too.

Like Gerry chuckling delightedly when, after listening to his tales of visits to historic bomb sites and the like, I observed:

“You’re probably not a great man for the idle beach holidays in Torremolinos, Gerry?”

“He surely isn’t,” John laughed.

Then there was Gerry’s gag about Charles J Haughey, former prime minister of Ireland.

Old CJ famously lived beyond his own means, but not those of his many rich benefactors,  delighting in his period mansion and art collection, and his expensive restaurant dinners and mistresses.

Mostly paid for by huge donations from his millionaire chums.

And of course, all claiming these donations had no bearing on government policy decisions.

A hugely talented and charismatic politician in his early years in office, Haughey’s promise soon fell away to hubris and nest-feathering mendacity.

Anyway, according to Gerry, Haughey was in one of his exclusive restaurant haunts one evening with his wife — unusually —  and he disdainfully blanked the fur-coat wearing glamour-puss sitting at a nearby table.

Who was actually his mistress, and a woman of infamously tempestuous disposition.

She didn’t take too kindly to this snubbing, or the casual hypocrisy of the pompous little man ordering the best wine on the card for himself and his wife.

Off our scorned madame popped to the powder room, where she removed her fur coat, took off all her clothes, and redonned her extravagant outer garment.

Out to the packed restaurant she strode, stopping beside our leader, and facing his good lady wife.

Whereupon she ripped open her fur coat, and announced to the statesman:

“Now do you recognise me?”

It was time to go. For me anyway.

Chuckling as I walked.

Off to the bus and thinking of the people who shape history, for good or bad, and those who dissect it when they meet up in city centre coffee rooms, and learn from it.

#My word of the week for @Raisie Bay’s #WotW: “History”

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49 comments on “Hiroshima For Breakfast, Titanic For Tea

  1. This post was great — I loved it!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh Enda, you tell such great stories, even when they are stories about story tellers! Sometimes the strangers you meet can give you amazing insights, if you are not afraid to strike up a conversation in the first place. I hope you enjoyed your breakfast and your wife loves her birthday present. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anne. This pair were amazing … Warm, funny and full of chat and stories. Like they were waiting for someone to come along and tell their tales to. Hope your health has improved

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Enda, a storyteller telling a story about storytellers–this is grrreat! I feel as if I were right there at a third table getting an earful!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Karen Dennis

    Love reading your great stories #anythinggoes@_karendennis

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This was so very visual, I was there with you all! Brilliant, Enda! Thank you! #dreamteam xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lovely post. It’s interesting that we don’t know the importance of events until we’re past them…#Dreamteam

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Karen Dennis

    Popping back from another linky #bloggerclubuk@_karendennis

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Very nice. I totally enjoyed it. #abitofeverything

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Back at you, Enda, with #abitofeverything xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  10. John and Gerry sound absolutely fascinating. I think I’d have to have another coffee to hear more of their stories! #twinklytuesday & #KCACOLS

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Enda, your people-watching skills are obviously second to none but putting that into writing is another skill altogether. Loved reading this. All 3 men sound fascinatingly chucklesome! Thanks for starting my day with a smile #globalblogging

    Liked by 1 person

  12. An interesting read thanks for sharing X #dreamteam #twinklytuesday

    Liked by 1 person

  13. You got a great story from meeting the 2 older gentlemen for breakfast. What serendipity! I had to shake my head at your depiction of the smoker. I have passed many smokers on bike paths as I run. I hate running through the smoke molecules that trail them for many yards. Hubby calls it “running the gauntlet”. Ugh!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ian Northeast

    You are a fabulous storyteller and a even better teller of other storytellers. Great post! I have enjoyed reading it over and over again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much Ian. I wish it were true, but I’ll take it!! Hope the weather is good where you are: fab day here at last!


  15. Thanks for linking up to #wotw

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Funny how sometimes an amazing morning can pop up when you least expect it. Sounds fantastic #dreamteam

    Liked by 1 person

  17. #KCACOLS I’m back! 🙂


  18. Those chaps sound like pretty interesting guys, I often wonder about the stories that strangers have to tell. You have an excellent memory for recall, I would never have remembered all those facts after a conversation. That former politician sounds like a right character too, wonder if he still had a wife after that!


  19. What fascinating characters! And how wonderful that it was just a casual remark that sparked such a wonderful discussion. Great post as always Enda. #KCACOLS


  20. Such fascinating anecdotes! There is a whole wealth of experience in the world and we really need these people to inspire our children to exand their horizons. Thanks for linking up with #globalblogging


  21. What a fantastic breakfast that turned out to be! It is so amazing how many stories people have, and how many we miss out on when we don’t engage with others. Love that such a chance encounter of mentioning your surname ended up being this awesome event. I would love to visit the Titanic museum, or even the traveling exhibit if it comes near me. #DreamTeam

    Liked by 1 person

    • It sure was some encounter, Heather! The Titanic museum is really fantastic, even the actual building which is in the shape of the front of a ship. Don’t know if you should visit a travelling exhibit, though: it might sink!

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Great read, thanks for linking up and sharing #twinklytuesday

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Pingback: #DreamTeam link up 165… | Shank You Very Much

  24. Love this! I never get the chance to sit and chat with strangers. These two sound like such great people to be around! Thank you for sharing with #KCACOLS, hope you come back again next time x


  25. I love this. What a wonderful conversation you all ended up having – and so many different subjects covered throughout it. So much food for thought in all those events; the reactions to them at the time and our thoughts looking back on them with the benefit of hindsight. #WotW

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really was some encounter, Louise … hard to credit it lasted only about 30 minutes, but I won’t forget it in a hurry!


  26. Tracey Carr

    Oh I just love moments like this, where you fall into a great conversation that leaves you walking away with so much to ponder afterward. I always find that talking to people can be brilliant for offering fresh perspectives and insights and loading you with ideas – it can be as good as reading any book at times! And always when you’re not expecting it, like going into a cafe for some breakfast. It sounds like a great finish to your morning’s shopping Enda! #bloggerclubuk

    Liked by 1 person

    • It certainly was Tracey, and so unexpected. It’s like they were waiting for me to arrive and start the conversation!


  27. Tracey Carr

    Back from #KCACOLS !


  28. Wow this is such an interesting post and beautifully written may I add. Thank you so much for joining us for #KCACOLS and we hope see you next time!


  29. I love those random and fascinating chats you occasionally have with complete strangers (i find these happen quite regularly on bus journeys).

    I also love talking history. The lady I visit at the weekends (as a carer) is 101 years old and I love chatting to her as she always has stories about the past and her memories of our village in times gone by.


    P. S how does a full Irish compare to a full English breakfast?


    • I do too, Tracey. Amazing what older people know — and so often they are delighted to share it. I imagine full Irish and English similar. Can vary a bit, but here it’s sausage, bacon, fried egg, black pudding, and variations on beans, mushroom, hashbrowns and white pudding. Served with white toast with butter. Tea or coffee too. I only drink coffee, not tea.


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