Friday, January 07, 2011

On Meeting a famous Irish politician

It was a bright, frosty morning in Belfast and I decided to blow off the cobwebs with a tramp around Stormont estate. Soon the clouds thickened and I decided to catch a bus back towards town. The 20A service pulled up at the estate gates and I got aboard.

I had no change so I offered the driver a five pound note. As she handed over the change - two pound coins and a twenty pence piece - the vehicle pulled out to pass a parked lorry. I staggered slightly and spilled the money. It rolled down the bus. A schoolboy helpfully stamped on the twenty pence to arrest its progress and I retrieved one of the pound coins by the feet of an elderly woman.

However, the other pound coin landed near a middle aged man in a business suit. As I watched, he casually bent forward, picked up my coin, and placed it in his pocket.

Well! Our eyes met for a moment. Then he took out a book and started reading it, oh so carefree. The book was called 'Crisis Management: Planning for the inevitable,' by Steven Fink.

There was an empty seat behind him and I sat down. I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned slightly, half facing me.

"I believe you have something of mine?" I enquired. Calmly.

He turned a little more and looked me in the eye from behind his glasses.

"No, I don't believe I do."

He looked familiar. His spectacles were expensive looking. He had broad shoulders and thickish black hair. He had thick, almost winsome lips, and a fleshy head, like a Beluga:

He seemed confident, even a little pugilistic, and in his business suit he reminded me of one of those rugby union players who walk straight off the playing field into the executive boardroom.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?," I asked directly.

"You may well do. I'm called Brian Cowen. I'm the current Taoiseach (prime minister) of Ireland. I took office on 7 May 2008, and I heads a coalition government led by my Fianna Fáil party that includes the Green Party and has the support of independent TDs.I have been a Teachta Dála (TD) for the constituency of LaoisOffaly since 1984."

"Well pleased to meet you Brian but you didn't happen to see a pound coi..."

"Nope." He cut me short before I finished the word. After the briefest of warning glances he turned round and finished reading his book.

I was in a state of turmoil, chewing my bile, but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was only a quid I'd lost, but it was the principle of the matter that galled me.

Cowen rang the bell as the bus neared the city centre. He got off on the Albertbridge Road. It was far from my destination, but I resolved to follow him.

He didn't notice as I trailed him across the street. He entered a Fish and Chip shop. The shop was called 'For Cod and Ulster.'

The place was empty, and he walked straight up to the counter. "Two sausage please," he commanded of the young girl behind the till. She passed the order to an older lady behind her, who commenced the deep frying of two fat, greasy bangers.

I made my presence felt by tapping Cowen on the shoulder. "I'm sure you have something of mine,"
I spoke softly but steadily from close behind his right ear.

He turned round. For the first time he looked contrite, though perhaps that was due to the frisson of fear I detected.

"Look friend, times are h-h-hard," he stammered.

Just at that moment, the girl brought him his two sausages, with a few free charity chips mixed in, as is the wont of such establishments.

"That's £1.30"

Cowen handed over a quid - presumably my quid - and then fumbled in his pockets for change. Eventually, he dug out a few low denomination Euro coins and placed them on the counter.

The assistant eyed them then shouted over her shoulder, "Sandra, do we take Euros?" to the older lady.

Sandra shook her head in reply.

The girl looked at Cowen. He looked at me, head tilted forward from under his glasses; like an overgrown plaintive, scolded puppy. A pleading schoolboy look.

He didn't have to say anything. I took out my wallet and placed thirty pence on the counter.

The girl took the change and asked "Anything else?"

"Could I trouble you for some tomato sauce," Cowan asked hopefully.

"We've only got sachets. They're 10p extra."

He started toward me, but I didn't wait. I slammed a ten pence piece on the board and strode out of the shop.

I made my way to the city centre. Later, I saw Cowen in the the Cornmarket. He was busking. He was singing in a Sean-nós, a-Capella style. The song he was singing was "Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore" .

He had an upturned begging hat at his feet. It was almost empty. None too many German tourists around at this time of year.

On reflex, I nearly dropped a coin in the hat, but I caught myself on.

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