Janet Pywell ellie BravoMaria slides into the seat opposite me.

We’re in a small bistro tucked in a side street near the Grand Opera House. To my right are two retired women on their second bottle of wine, and on my left, a middle-aged couple who are barely speaking to each other…

Maria slides into the seat opposite me. We’re in a small bistro tucked in a side street near the Grand Opera House. To my right are two retired women on their second bottle of wine, and on my left, a middle-aged couple who are barely speaking to each other.

“My mother could be from Spain for the inquisition she gave me.” Maria sits down and the waiter hands her a menu. “She believes good Catholic girls don’t go out without their husbands and, because I’m going for dinner with a girlfriend, I’m trawling bars looking for an extramarital affair.” Her laugh is warm and throaty.

I shake my head and tut.

“The thought of it!”

We order our food, sip red wine and chat about our families. Maria explains, “Patricia, my young sister and Joe my older brother still live at home. Connor is married to Kate and they have two children. I’m not one for a girls night out so normally I’m at home with Michael and Lily.”

“This is a novelty for me too.”

“I thought you would be used to going out in London.”

“Yes, but I was in a relationship, so there weren’t many girls’ nights either,” I say.

I wear my hair tied with a red ribbon, a black open-neck blouse, and gold bangles rattle on my wrists as I reach for my wine. I am reluctant to talk about my past.

We lean across the table and share salted chilli squid that we dip into sweet honey sauce and a garlic dip.

She says, “Michael and Connor play golf most Saturdays, and Kate talks constantly about nappies and kids tantrums, so I avoid meeting up with her. Michael isn’t one for the theatre or the cinema. He isn’t the most adventurous man in the world.” She flushes red and quickly adds, “He’s a good father though.”

She tells me her husband and brother are best friends and studied Engineering at Queens University, and she followed them a few years later and studied accountancy. When they graduated Connor worked for a builder then formed his own construction company, and Michael worked for the government supervising buildings that were part of the regeneration process. Now he works with a company that builds roads and he’s working on a bicycle path between Dublin and Galway.

“He’s in the south of Ireland working most of the time,” she says.

We talk about the difference between the north and south of Ireland; the architecture, people, countryside and then she says.

“The Game of Thrones is filmed here in Northern Ireland, down at the studios near the Titanic Museum.” When I tell her I am a fan she continues, “The outside scenes are set in Tollymore Forest and Sandy Brae in the Mourne Mountains well, that’s Vaes Dothrak, Castle Ward is Winterfell, and the Saintfield Estates are the Winterfell godsworth, and Cairncastle is the execution site.”

“Wow! That’s amazing!” I make a mental note to go to these places on my Harley.

The waiter removes our empty plates and we make small talk until our rib-eye steaks arrive. They are served on a bed of creamed spinach and the chips are presented in a small fryer.

She sips her wine and glances around the restaurant.

“Michael and I never really dated each other. We were part of a group that went out together, you know, to the cinema, the pub or to a party then Connor began dating Kate and when they got married we decided we would too, and Lily arrived a year later.”

“So how long have you been working with Simon?”

“Three years. I needed to do something while Lily was at school and Michael is working. It can be lonely just cleaning and waiting for them both to come home. When I saw you on your motorbike that first morning. I never realised we would be working together. Thank God, Michael didn’t knock you off!”

I pause with a chip halfway to my mouth.

She continues, “I felt quite envious of you on your motorbike. You looked so confident, almost regal like a black swan gliding down the High Street, and I resented you. I think I was jealous!”

I smile. “I watched you get out of the car and hug Lily and then you pulled faces at each other, and I think I was probably quite resentful too,” I reply. “You looked so happy!”

“Why did you come to Belfast? Please don’t tell me you were attracted by the climate or the hint of danger or were you just escaping a broken love affair?” Maria laughs dismissively.

“Funnily enough,” I pause with juicy steak on my fork.

“Oh no! I bet he was probably a successful property developer in London or a wealthy stockbroker. Someone very successful?”

It’s my opportunity to tell her the truth.

I take a deep breath and think about Kat.

“We worked together. He’s one of the most inspirational salespeople in the UK. He’s a high achiever and I was proud of him. We were driven by success; motivated and invincible, sales and marketing. A happy balance, Yin and Yang, sun and moon, night and day, and one without the other was nothing–” I lie, then I stop suddenly. My voice is hoarse and my eyes mist over.

I have said too much already but I still cannot say three simple words.

I am gay.