An Irishman's Diary
I went into a cafe recently, in a suburban part of Dublin, at 6.25pm. The time is relevant, because the sign said it opened till 7pm. As it happened, I had half an hour to kill, and a newspaper to assist in the murder. All I needed now was a place to relax.
So I ordered coffee and a bun, by way of rent. And I didn’t complain when the young woman served them in a take-away cup and bag. I just sat down anyway and got on with trying to relax. Which I was on the point of doing, when the other, male member of staff started bringing in the pavement furniture and piling it beside me.
Even then I pretended to be absorbed in my paper, but the hints were too heavy to ignore now. A few minutes passed, slowly – it still wasn’t even 6.40. Whereupon, in case I hadn’t noticed yet, the furniture mover informed me: “We’re closing soon”.
Affecting surprise, I glanced at him and then at my watch, with intended sarcasm. The gesture would have worked better if I had a watch. Even so I was happy with the effect: the man disappeared somewhere, probably to fetch arsenic in case I asked for another coffee.
Of course I caved, eventually. I was the only customer, after all, and the staff might have a genuine reason for needing to leave early. Perhaps they were about to elope, along with the proceeds from the till. In any case, having steeled myself to stay until 6.46pm, I finally retreated.
I hate premature closing, wherever it occurs. Even the routine, 15-minute clearing time of museums is annoying. No doubt it’s because of my habit of arriving at 4.30pm on a Sunday that, when the ushers start ushering at 4.45, I feel cheated. The loss of culture-consumption time is only exacerbated by a feeling of sheepishness as you get herded towards the door.
A useful tactic on these occasions, sometimes, is to make for the corner of the museum furthest from the exit and then turn into an incurable aesthete. In this way, you can mount a fighting retreat, stopping frequently on the way out as the savage beauty of yet another painting renders you temporarily immobile.
The security man who interrupts at such a moment must first confront his own philistine soullessness. And in practice, this isn’t as big a deterrent as you’d hope. Still, if you do it properly, it can be as late as five minutes to closing time before they get you off the premises.
Readers may think me petty. But my aversion to this sort of thing was deepened by a trauma some years ago involving my long-running weekly football game in a Dublin gym. So long-running was the game, in fact, that its origins were shrouded in mythology.
Thanks to carbon-dating of the older players, however, we knew it was more than 20 years old by its demise. And for most of those years, it had the same time-slot: 6pm, Thursday. Then we lost the slot to a higher-yielding dance-aerobics class, as a result of which the football was relegated to the outer darkness of 9pm.
And that’s when the trouble started.
In the peace talks that came later, we learned we had always been entitled to play until 10pm. And that, after that, we were allowed 30 minutes’ shower time. But in practice, we were now the last customers every night, with predictable results.
We used to feel sorry for the cleaning lady, who would start on the showers at 10.15pm while the stragglers straggled. She would avert her eyes and we would avert certain other body parts, insofar as it was possible. But we felt less sorry for the man with the keys, an officious clock-watcher who gave us to believe that any time after 10pm we were outstaying our welcome.
One night when I wasn’t there, the lights were turned off early and there was a row. It was all verbal, but gym rules were infringed. A number a bans resulted, and when we couldn’t resolve them honourably on behalf of the condemned, we took our ball and left, never to return.
It’s true that, even then, some of us were a bit old for playing football. But I think I had at least a year left, maybe two. So now when I look back on the incident, I see in it – bitterly – the advance of middle age, arriving prematurely, rattling the keys, and saying: “We’re closing soon”.