The service industry is rudimentary in Belfast, the sort of customer care package you might you might expect in a Trappist gift-shop; silent, other-worldly and focussed on less trivial matters than serving food. The staff at Chicken Cottage are more interested in my spiritual diet than serving me salty, leg-shaped batter. And, frankly, so am I.
I'm in the Connswater Shopping Centre and I'm hungry. I'm test driving some new contact lenses from Specsavers and I'm looking good in an "I've had a wash" sort of way. Though I AM sweating. Connswater always makes me sweat so I spend the first five minutes of every opticians appointment here defogging my glasses and trying look as if I haven't just escaped from a chain-gang. They must think I'm as phobic about eye-tests as other folk are about dentists and Norns about lettuce.
Maybe it's the people you meet here. A trip to the Connswater is like flicking through the pages of a medieval bestiary, or checking the guttering on Notre Dame. Face after face looms out from under the strip-lights, a panopoly of scrunge-tastic Reidian sports: gummy, drooping, off-kilter, top-loaded, some with bits off, some with bits added. It's like a channel five documentary entitled "When Faces Go Wrong".
Heaven help me, I flee to Burger King, a counter-intuitive move at best, but I WAS hungry. And there was nobody else about to see my secret shame. That's not quite true, the staff were there. But again, that's not quite true either. They were there but they really weren't. Schroedinger's staff. I saw a couple of backs. A big fat lad emerged from the fryers, gave me a startled look like a rumbled cat, and snuck back in again. I craned my head around the side of the fryer but I could not engage. So I left it.
I moved over to "The Streat". The pun's not really working there because it's not on a street but in a shopping centre and the puns not really working there because there's nothing particularly appetising about streets. Tarmac? Dog shit? Litter? I can get that at home.
I ordered a "French Connection" paninni ( brie, bacon, far too much onion marmalade and something that may once have been spring onion but was now clearly savoury pot-pourri) and a large latte. I waited while the girl diligently set about constructing it from its constituent parts as carefully as if she were making a bomb in the back of a moving vehicle.
The odd thing about The Streat is that it had a staff of four: the girl doing the stuff, another girl tinkering with the coffee machine, a man who bobbed in and out without touching the sides and a chap who stuck his head around the corner like a meerkat in a baseball cap. None of them seemed to be doing anything at all, until the "French Connection" was plated (trayed). Then the other girl snapped into action. "Anything else?" she said.
"Well there was supposed to be a large latte as well," I said.
She shot the drone a look and the other girl dutifully put down her knife and came over to start on my latte. The entire transaction took just under ten minutes. That's a whopping E.T.A. for a sandwich. But I expect I'd still be waiting for the Whopper.