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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