And so the time came to rent an office space. We must all find our space. I wanted to read and create and explore, and where was everyone? Where were all the artists? Apparently they had ‘spaces’. One Friday evening I woke up in the National Library, my cheek pressed to the desk and a man’s face a few inches from mine. It was a big, sympathetic face.
“Are you alright?” he asked softly.
The library clerk was picking up books, the room was almost deserted.
“You look awfully pale”, he said, and started gathering my books and papers for me. “Would you like to come and have a drink of something?”
I wanted a drink of something alright but not with him. The man was a regular in the National Library, and on Fridays these many regulars edged up to you and asked if you’d like to join them for a drink over in Buswells that evening, or in Kehoes or the Duke. Where were all the young historians, the promising intellectuals pursuing PhDs? Absent from here.
At this time I was reading many books on theatre, hatching my various theatre projects. I was going to the theatre too sometimes. I was definitely up to something, going somewhere, that was for sure. So I followed the inevitable drift into Stoneybatter. Everyone was in Stoneybatter, where rent was cheap. The artists, the few writers. They were all there. You passed them smoking rollies in the doorway of Walsh’s, or cycling down the easy hill that brought you into town, or they made you coffee in the friendly Italian place. In the mornings I would cycle in over the James Joyce Bridge with a mind full of ideas. I had big ideas for the stage then, ideas that collected in my head and conversed with each other; so many bubbling characters in my pot, for plays never to be staged. Never to be staged.
The office space was on that narrow, twisting street, paved with rubbish and closing in with redbrick houses. You might know it as a historic street, a street not bothered by the present day. It wasn’t unusual to see a piebald horse clapping down it with a boy riding bareback, and the hardware shop and the fishmonger’s and the chipper had handwritten signs in the windows. Whenever I left the office the prostitutes were waiting on the street. They sometimes stood in the rain, and the raindrops splashed down their faces and soaked through their little outfits.
The office had been set up by some business-like artists. I didn’t rent an office space because I wanted somewhere to work, but because I wanted a something like a husband, or just someone to have a kid with. Or just someone to bring me to the theatre.
He was waiting the day I went to see the place. The artist with the keys took me upstairs, past a heap of broken lamps and old rucksacks and art nobody wanted. She opened the door, and his head swung out from behind a silver Mac screen. Thick tanned arms were spread around the desk. Kind brown eyes smiled and twinkled under a helmet of rich dark curls. He looked around the room shiftily, in the way of a person suddenly forced to assess their surroundings, because they’ve been intruded upon. He was eating chocolate biscuit cake from tinfoil. I was this intruder and this was my home. He was my collaborator and this was our home now. I told the artist I’d take the ‘space’.
The rent wasn’t that cheap for a kip. The furniture was salvaged though it shouldn’t have been, and the bursts on the dog-brown arm-chairs were duct-taped. There were no floors, just bare concrete marbled with the remnants of older floors, the effect being that of a terrible skin condition, or gangrene. Lying here or there was your standard frayed Persian rug. The kitchen was a back-slum falling down with herbal teas and jars of delicacies, delicacies grown dusty with abandonment. These jars of dusty delicacies suggested there had been something like happier times in the building, but that those times had long passed, remembered only, maybe, on old Facebook pages. Everyone had moved on. Where were all the artists, who you saw outside Walsh’s and going somewhere on their bikes and serving you coffee all the other days? They didn’t have ‘spaces’ here. They were all in bed maybe. No one except the odd business-like artist with keys came into the building. But that did mean it was just me, and him.
He was an artist. He came from Coolock, and he worked on apps. It was hard to say what he did but he was there behind his computer every morning when I got in, hard at whatever it was. With that same wistful sparkle in his eyes when he looked at me. On the first day I placed my bike carefully next to his. On the second day I thought, Hell, and let my bike relax into his, so the pedal caught in his spokes. It was winter all year round in that place, and every morning we lit a wood burner. We took it in turns to make coffee in the repulsive little kitchen. The coal ran out, and he got his hands on an old heater and kicked it until it worked. There was a balcony where we sat sometimes when it was summer, looking onto the neighbouring yards. Sometimes the woman from the friendly Italian cafe barbecued sausages underneath us, and the smells of someone’s comforting meal reached us. We felt, I think, very happy.
He was handy around the place, as you might imagine. He installed apps on my phone. He gave me a cracked copy of Adobe Reader. He removed a virus from my computer. Pop-up screens had started appearing; dragons with spiked tails and little men bearing spears with ads for online poker, and then a real women with gold thighs straddling a heart-shaped chair. He ran a load of programmes and wiped them all from my machine.
There was a lot of sexual tension in that space, I was almost certain of it. The dank and wet afternoons heaved with possibilities, when we could do anything together – go for a swim in the sea, to Walsh’s for pints, go to see a play, any time of day. We could cycle to a stream I knew near the woods in the Phoenix Park, and fall down on a carpet of leaves and get this thing over with for once and for all. Or I could march up to his desk, take him by the collar and yank him up – then a terrific scene would unfold, a blaze of passion, an unplanned pregnancy, a life of hardship, community spaces, theatre.
We talked about our lives before Stoneybatter. London, Paris, Helsinki, West Cork. But Dublin was exciting, we’d say, and look up at the skylight that brought a single shaft of natural light into the rotting little room. There was loads going on in music, loads of art exhibitions, we’d say. The theatre scene was exploding.
Though when I mentioned theatre, the space went quiet. He was from Coolock. He played Gaelic football. He liked Quentin Tarantino films. He was a bit of rough, but he was also a bit cultivated. If he talked about his degree he would say, “I done my degree”, but he’d also say “prior to”, instead of “before”, moving to Helsinki. He had a pride you didn’t want to mess with. I knew he would feel awkward if he knew that I knew more than him about something. I didn’t want him to know how much more I knew. I had no wish to emasculate him. The thing to do was to just get him out and knock back pints with him, to be swallowed whole by some night of pints and noise and theatre and more pints, with him.
I trembled when it came to asking him for a pint. Some days, I was certain he was going to ask me, first. The room would howl with our silence and I’d catch him glancing over at me, then quickly back at his screen, and my chest would boil up unbearably until he stretched out his arms and said, “Aren’t there just so many passwords to remember? I have so many fuckin’ passwords”.
Then he’d get back to his screen. He was shy. And I was buying time, a lifetime – I let too many nights go by. I let months go by, tapping away at my fucking theatre projects. Finally one evening the minutes droned on and on and when it came to asking him, my breath got trapped. I was stiff, I was being seized and throttled. I stood at the door, my chest an ice pack breaking open.
I said: “I’m going for a pint in Walsh’s.”
He raised a drooping head. There was dejection, misery and boredom in his eyes, distaste in his hanging jaw.
“If you’re free?” I went on.
“I’m not actually – eh, just, really busy.” He went back underneath his screen.
This drove me wild.
I really wanted to drink a pint with him. I really wanted to order a pint with him, down it fast, and drown in a load of pints together; head to the theatre and hang there with our heads spinning at the bar and everyone around us watching and then sink down together under a universe of pints. I could taste the particular pint one evening. It was cold and bittersweet and so refreshing, I had a glorious thirst for it. I was standing at the door, dangling my bike keys. But I was stiff and hot and being throttled again.
“Want to just scratch all of this?” I asked.
“What exactly do you propose,” he asked.
“A pint,” I said.
“I dunno,” he said. “I’m strung out with…”
“I’ve tickets to a play,” I broke in – I couldn’t stop now. “Would you like to go a play?”
“Fuck it, yeah, why not,” he said.
He was getting up. Out of his seat. I needed to act on the panic before I could feel it, before it overcame us. I told him we had to rush – It started at 7.30. You could never be late to the theatre. Did he know that? They didn’t let you in. I wasn’t sure he knew that. He got the bikes ready and as I waited on the phone to Box Office – I didn’t really have tickets to a play, had to sort them then – he was downstairs, extracting the bikes from each other. We cycled through the city, me behind him – the heat was so unbearable I didn’t notice what was wrong until I pulled off my winter layers in the foyer. Tickets awaited us; the place was busy with half-familiar faces. It’s here, I thought. This is my home, and it’ll be our home.
The play was set in a pub in the west of Ireland. It was your standard Irish play. When the curtain rose he sat back and exhaled. I too was relieved it was set in a pub. A barmaid was leaning on the bar, gazing stoically before her. She wore a yellow pinafore, and had a face from another time. Country lads arrived in one by one from the fields or the mines or what had you – all from another time. The script was witty, the boy and I laughed at every opportunity. “Your man’s gas?” I whispered to him. His laugh was a muffled guffaw, a TV laugh, not a theatre laugh. The space between our arms was warm. I was pretty light-headed now, pretty thirsty. I decided I would let him buy the pints at the interval.
The first half dragged on and on. He checked his phone at least twice. I wished he had just switched it off.
There were fisticuffs and the barmaid went hysterical. There was fratricide. There was howling. It was a bloodbath, in the country pub. After the bloodbath, the barmaid resumed her poise at the bar and gazed stoically out. It had all happened in another time. He shifted around and clawed at his jeans.
The lights went down and everyone rose to their feet. We glanced at each other, then did the same. There were a lot of curtain calls, much bowing and beaming laughter from the people on stage. There was no interval.
It was cold outside, and almost dark. We strolled towards our bikes in a strange hell. At the corner of O’Connell and Parnell Street I asked him what he thought of the play. “Your man,” I said. “Blew my mind.” He agreed, haltingly, as he reached for, I assumed, his money with which to buy me a pint. We were outside Foley’s bar now, where smoking men eyed us with possessive smirks. Beer taps flashed around my mind, I wondered what he drank; I pictured the pubs of Coolock, the slabs of lager bought for the boys after the GAA finals, by uncles and loyal supporters. He would drink Carlsberg, and so would I.
He produced his bike keys then and nodded at Parnell Street. He was heading up that way, he said. I fished around for something to say. Oh yes.
“The one thing that confused me though was the ending. In the play the girl emigrates. They must have changed – .”
He stopped me.
“I don’t know the play,” he said.
He did not know the play: that much was clear. He said cheers for the ticket though. I watched him mount the bike, and rock forward on the handlebars. He cycled away and I went off fairly sharply myself. We never again mentioned the whole theatre thing. Even when we were lying in bed, we talked about Quentin Tarantino films.
Maggie Armstrong is a writer based in Dublin.
Featured Image: Daniele Idini