(As Perceived Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 1, November 2016)
Summer girls in summer dresses and young men rippling with confidence and expectation. They are the ones I mostly notice anyway on this rare sun-splashed day in Dublin city as I revisit old haunts and take in new delights.
An unhurried man in my inconspicuous fifties, I am invisible to these youthful creatures as I stroll up the broad O’Connell Street boulevard.
Looking across at the massive GPO, its six granite columns glinting in the sun, I am thinking of Patrick Pearse standing outside its smouldering doors in Easter 1916 proclaiming the Irish Republic.
A hundred years of myth and legend have since weaved their emotive colour into history’s fabric and marked this country forever. Not something today’s strolling natives or camera-clicking tourists are likely pondering on for long.
Across O’Connell Bridge I go, negotiating the heavy human traffic, taking in the wonderful Halfpenny Bridge, to my right, elegantly stretching across the briny Liffey river, on up wide D’Olier Street, and around to College Green.
I gaze once again on the blackened stone and timeless symmetry of Trinity College’s grand facade.
I am tempted to step through the smaller pedestrian entrance in the iconic heavy oak main door, with its distinctive diamond-shaped panelling, now thankfully restored after that lunatic drove into it a couple of years ago, on through the porch and out into the cobbled courtyard, and savour the tranquility that dulls the footsteps and chatter of the bustling students and visitors to a soft echo.
How many Trinity College students does not take to change a lightbulb? One: he holds the bulb and the world revolves around him …
But I press on.
Besides, this boulevardier reckons it’s time now for a boulevardier’s cafe breakfast and I am drawn in to a little place just off Dame Street.
”What’s the difference between a full Irish and mini-Irish,” I ask, scanning the chalk-drawn blackboard menu.
“Well one is bigger,” the dyed-blonde waitress behind the counter begins.
“I figured that,” I smile …. It turns out the extra euro gets you an a second piece of bacon.
Why not, as I take a window table which opens out on to the little smoker’s enclave out front. City life bright, light and airy breezes within and without, a perfectly serendipitous side-street serenade.
On the cafe’s sound system Joni Mitchell is singing about a Chelsea morning and the sun is shining … didn’t I read something about her recently, in a coma somewhere, after an aneurism, old and ill now and long past unseasoned lovers. Only the song remains the same.
“Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning
And the first thing that I heard
Was a song outside my window
And the traffic wrote the words”
This Dublin morning is still full of possibilities, I prefer to think, as I reach for a crisp slice of buttery toast and savour another forkful of yellow runny egg.
Joni is still crooning away as the human traffic that paves this passing paradise becomes individual to me now. They are all here … carefree, uptight; casual, conventional: budding, blooming; declining, decaying … the immediate scene dissolves and I’m back, back in early morning cities long ago … drifting alone along Parisian avenues with the Cure’s Disintegration on my Walkman reverberating wonderfully through the cavern of my skull and charging every fibre of my being …. now, I’m scuffing up low clouds of light-coloured clay as we amble, my new wife and I, amid the formal splendours of the Tuileries … then, as I stir my black Americano, it is an icy November sojourn in Prague, pushing my infant daughter’s buggy along cobbled streets and stopping for coffee in the gleaming art deco Cafe Imperial, scooping the whipped cream off my avídeňská káva (Viennese coffee).
“What bliss it was in that dawn to be alive”, as the great Wordsworth put it once.
That same infant child of Prague is now 12, as tall as her mother, and one minute she’s twirling her long dyed red hair, spinning in a giggling circle of delight like the smiling, beguiling child she was, the next she’s storming into her purple-walled bedroom, tossing invective in her wake at the blinking parents who just don’t understand her.
Sitting across from me now in this Dublin cafe, is a young couple. Hispanic. Him, heavy-lidded eyes calm and kindly, patchy black bristles individually discernible on his lean young jaw as he picks meticulously through his scrambled eggs; her, all dark tousled curly hair as she leans languorously over her bagel, carefully buttering it.
Outside, at one of the two smoker’s tables, a woman in a red gaberdine coat drags furiously at her cigarette, hissing in, puffing out.
Working up to anger now as she hurries inside to to the downstairs toilet; she’s soon back up, lingering at the top of the stairs … decisions … back outside, another cigarette, stubbed put half-way; she grabs her handbag and she’s gone.
I’m on my second coffee, stirred to move, drawn to remain … all fleeting observations and fragmentary reminiscences … flitting here and there, lost somewhere between then and now.
Hispanic Girl drops her fork to the floor and Hispanic Boy wordlessly offers her his own, like a knight offering m’lady his chivalrous sword, pledging his love with this nickel-plated food implement. She smiles but retrieves her own utensil, leaning slightly closer to him now. They continue eating, occasional rumbling words I cannot hear and would not understand anyway.
Outside, a middle-aged busker guitarist with wrinkled, genial eyes and wearing a jaunty trilby that may be for show or to conceal his receding locks, politely asks the dark-suited man with his back to my window if it’s okay to take a seat near him.
“No bother, man, sit down,” says the dark-suited man, cool in his own way and alive too in his stolen city moment.
The troubadour puts his guitar fondly down and takes a seat at an adjoining smokers’ table.
He looks tired, but the eyes are clear and grey. He lights up a battered dark cheroot and now he’s way cool as he puffs and ponders in a way that makes his thoughts look interesting.
“More coffee?” offers the waitress, coffee pot in hand, having come out from behind the counter, her toothy smile making her singular. I decline.
It’s U2 now on the stereo … “Baby’s got blue skies up ahead …”
Is this a theme, music to watch the world go by on bright summer mid-mornings?
“Oh oh oh, the sweetest thing”.
Oh the sweetest feeling of melancholy, almost holy, certainly wholly content in this shifting tableau.
It’s time I was going, though, as Walk On By comes yearning across the cafe’s airwaves.
“The tears and the sadness you gave me
When you said goodbye
Walk on by”
Out into the sunlight … my next port of call the little clothes shop Konfusion, for a birthday gift for my wife. But confusion it is, as up and down the little Temple Bar street behind the Central Bank I go. It was here, wasn’t it? Farther up, farther down … no sign.
Now I remember definitely, It was just opposite the Bad Ass Cafe … that’s still there. I step into a shop that sells prints and ceramics. Over the purchase of a pair of recycled bottle top earrings I am told Konfusion is gone, and the guy has no idea where.
Don’t it always seem to go ….
Several more rambling purchases later and the clock on my phone tells me it will soon be time to hit Tara Street station and head for home.
There’s just time for a sit-down in my beloved St Patrick’s Park, beside the cathedral of the same name, where Jonathan Swift was once the dean. It’s hard to imagine the satirist and the man who sent Gulliver on his travels, used to preach from a pulpit in that same cathedral.
Swift’s grave is marked by a simple brass plaque on the floor at the west end of the Cathedral (adjacent to his great friend in life, Stella). His epitaph is on the wall opposite his grave, written by himself and carved on black Kilkenny marble. It begins:
“Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity and Dean of this Cathedral,
Where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart”.
Down I descend from the high raised terrace with cut-stone ornamental balustrade, down those wide steps and over to a bench opposite the Liberty Bell sculpture, suspended from its giant chain link.
The soft drift of mellow voices wafts over me as I just sit in prescient contemplation. A toddling girl in a pink T-shirt is pointing out the bell to her mom, dogs are sniffing assiduously, and on the bench opposite, a short, chubby man in red check shirt and sawn-off faded jeans is fixing his front bicycle wheel. Soon, he rises and cycles off, surprisingly elegantly, making me think of the waddling penguin turned sinuously arching sea creature when it hits the water.
Far way, an old man is shuffling slowly towards the fountain at the centre of the park. He stops, his rear end tilted slightly upwards, and leans slightly back as if against an invisible wall for what seems like minutes, before resuming his snail-like padding. He reminds me of one of those videos where a central figure moves in real time while all around him is a frenzied blur of movement.
A weeping willow hangs its tresses green and bashful against the grey of the cathedral towering above … for once, nature’s unpremeditated beauty surpassed by man-made symmetry and finesse.
Yes, what bliss it is to be alive in this great old city. More shabby than chic, more storied than serenaded and forever being dug up, dissed and disassembled, but always discernibly Dublin. Its essence running deeper than buildings, history or passing people. My Dublin. For now.
An ambulance siren shrills far away as a pair of crying seagulls descend on the glide of scavenging opportunity, reminding me of the villains descending silently from their ropes on to a heist scene in the old Batman programme in my Saturday morning childhood.
A pigeon is looking on hopefully too as the City Council man in high-viz yellow jacket rakes the stones nearby … gimlet eyes ready for what he might turn up.
Two old boys stop near me and exchange short-breathed croaky witticisms before shuffling on. Old friends. A young woman in a yellow floral dress takes an iPhoto picture of the tidy blaze of red begonias in one of the flower beds that edge the well-cut grass.
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.
— Enda Sheppard