Could this BE any weirder? I wrote this post last week and intended to post it today, then woke up to the news of Matthew Perry’s untimely death. So much of the late nineties for me were spent watching Friends in a collection of student hovels, or sipping coffee in Clement’s, the closest thing that Belfast had to a Central Perk. And at the moment we’re re-watching Friends in the evenings – a couple of episodes to take us up to bedtime with the kids. As a show it had almost become like background noise, but this time round I’ve been remarking to LSB just how very funny it actually was. I do hope poor tortured Perry has found peace- he brought me great joy over the years.
Back to the original post then…
Since my social media has been dominated by pictures of coffee and cake, it would be remiss not to mention a significant chain which switched its espresso machine off for good recently – the Belfast institution that was Clements coffee shop.
My first experience of coffee culture was the long narrow Clements in Stranmillis. Initially, I ordered deep bowls of hot chocolate with swirls of whipped cream on top, before graduating to ‘hammerhead coffees,’ – two shots of espresso topped with filter coffee during my final year at Queen’s. My left eye would twitch for 48 hours after consumption, but that was the least of my concerns as I crammed for my French exams on Existentialism and The ‘Theatre of the Absurd.’
After a Thursday night session in the Mandela Hall, I sought out toasted bagels with cream-cheese and jam to settle a queasy stomach. Lunch was often an oversized sausage roll with a generous dollop of ketchup, and Millionaires’ Shortbread with exactly the correct ratio of caramel to biscuit were my afternoon pick-me-up of choice. I hold Clements almost singularly responsible for my tubbiness as a student.
The coffee chain brought a ‘Sex and the City’ vibe to Belfast. It was to Clements we sojourned to mull over our relationships, clasping steaming mugs of Americano. Even if our paramours were lukewarm, at least the coffees were hot and reliable. I experienced both make-ups and break-ups in Clements; somehow it was easier to introduce cordiality to proceedings with a comforting cup of Joe, their signature bright décor to boost spirits, and of course, the uplifting beats. (I recall the staff in the Botanic cafe had a particular fondness for Portishead.)
It was one of the first places where I felt at ease going alone, with a book or a Marie Claire, a half-written essay or a job application.
It’s where I sipped a celebratory latte after a lump under my arm turned out to be a harmless cyst. I shed a few grateful tears that day, but no one either side of me seemed to notice.
That was the joy of Clements- dramas unfolded on either side of a tight table for two but you minded your own business and got on with it.
And it’s where I looked at my now-husband in an entirely new light and thought, you might well be the man for me. After the third failed interview in a row, the long-suffering Stevey met me on Botanic Avenue to buy me coffee and a bun to cheer me up. He tuned into my nihilism and quoted Gloucester in King Lear: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport.’ He didn’t know it, but it was one of my favourite lines in the play. Readers, I married him.
I wasn’t alone in finding love in Clements. My friend met her husband there too. Being of Jordanian descent, coffee houses, as opposed to pubs, were where he felt comfortable hanging out. One evening he had retired to a comfy seat with a laptop, and it was while sipping a coffee that he caught her eye. Sixteen years and three gorgeous children later they’re still together. But this time, they can’t head down to Botanic to mark their anniversary as they had done until now.
In my twenties, Clements wasn’t just a coffee house, it was a way of life; our important moments played out against the backdrop of rainbow graphics and trendy, tattooed staff. Maybe we all wanted to imagine we were part of the cast of ‘Friends,’ but it feels like I’ve lost an old constant, even if I didn’t hang out there as much in recent times.
Thanks for the memories, Clements, and Matthew Perry, you were both there for me, and countless others.