I’m in Dublin this month taking up one of those double-edged offers that might be the start of something great, or a complete waste of time and effort. A month of unpaid work that I hope will lead to future paid work.
On previous travels I’ve exhausted the hospitality of Dublin friends and relatives with a spare room or a couch, and this week the Airbnb near the Mater Hospital that I sometimes use is not available. As a result, I’m staying at a hostel round the corner that costs about the same. It’s an odd situation. Being in a hostel makes me an outsider, yet I’m also flexing my Dubliner muscles to see if they still work. Two attempts to return to live and work here ran out of steam when I started a family with someone from the far side of the world. Now he and I seem to be growing apart, our child is at university, and I’m thinking of moving back. A hostel is not ideal, but the deciding factor is, it’s cheap.
I hand my passport to the receptionist, saying I expect it’s the only Irish one on the books. He assures me this is not the case, says I’m bound to meet other Irish people during my stay. What he hasn’t said but soon becomes apparent is that alongside tourist guests the hostel provides semi-permanent housing to local people priced out of the Dublin housing market and to young people from abroad on work/study visas. The receptionist tries to allocate the two types of guest (short and long stay) to dorms with people in the same grouping, when he can. But already he has a sign on the counter next to the postcards reminding regulars they need to make alternate arrangements around March 17th, as the hostel will be booked out for a fortnight then. A tourism spike: Paddy’s Day followed by the centenary of Easter 1916.
I’m directed upstairs and along a corridor to a dorm shared with other long-stayers—probably the dominant client group, it being winter. Three two-person bunks are crammed in a smallish room, one of them blocking the only window. A few women are in there already. One of the women is gathering up leeks and bits of broccoli that lie scattered on the floor, some of them having rolled right under the bunks, and balancing them on a deep radiator, which in this case doubles as a larder. I go in, find a bunk, and we start to exchange the usual small talk about where we’re from and so on. The woman tidying up doesn’t speak English, and someone explains she is over on a visit from China to see her family. Her young grandchildren have just been in on a visit, leaving the room in chaos.
The woman explaining all this is an elderly Dubliner who says she herself lives not far away. But there’s a man in the house with a terrible temper, she tells me, so whenever she has the money she comes here to get away from him. I remember a time when my father used to fight with me. I was 15 or 16, and stayed out as much as possible to avoid him. Weekends were easiest, there was always something happening. Gigs, clubs, parties to crash. I used to carry an extra bag of things with me on those long weekends: a spare T-shirt, a toothbrush, socks, a book, a notebook. Not your standard clubbing kit. A friend who wrote for *Northside News *prophesied I’d be a bag lady when I grew up. Which wouldn’t be so bad, only he is now a professional futurologist. I wonder what he would say if he could see me now?
The dorm room itself brings back memories of two summers spent in Germany as a teenage Gastarbeiter, armed with bags of Irish five-pence pieces to use instead of Deutschmarks in the cigarette machines. Camel and Marlboro, sold on at special rates. While looking for work, I stayed in youth hostels. There I met American students my own age who were doing tours of Europe, making the rounds of museums, art galleries and so on. I remember being shocked when they asked did I want to come with them and visit a concentration camp? Later, at my factory job, the supervisor told me, ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ and laughed. An odd phrase. ‘Work sets you free.’ It was years later before I came to know these words were writ large above the gates of the concentration camps. And only recently a German woman told me the phrase is now illegal in her country, the same as the Nazi salute. Those factories in 1980s Germany had dorms for the Gastarbeiter, used not only by Irish students over for the summer but by a surprising number of full-timers. Not German workers, but men and women who had come to the factories from villages in Turkey, Iran or Yugoslavia, in search of hard currency to build a better life. Some had bags of dried rice and lentils suspended from the posts of their bunks, which they cooked up on a stove in the corridor. These full-time workers rarely left the factory premises so as to save money: after the sirens went at the end of the working day they rested, ate and dreamed in the dorms, while their children grew up in those faraway villages, cared for by their grandparents.
The only furniture in this Dublin dorm, apart from the bunks, is a row of rickety metal lockers. Stash your things away, the lockers suggest, or they may be stolen while you sleep, or even while you trek out to the bathroom. That’s if you think the lockers are safe. The alternative is to keep your valuables on you at all times. Phone, wallet, passport, charger: a litany we all rehearse multiple times a day, panicking if anything is missing.
The closest showers to this dorm are along a corridor and down a flight of stairs. The space is poorly lit, the tiled floor slick with water like the changing room of an old swimming pool. I get out as soon as I can, hurry back to the dorm. At night people come and go from the dorm rooms on different schedules. Trying to get a night’s kip here is like sleeping in a waiting room, except that you get to lie flat. Early on in the night it’s freezing, then once the room fills up with bodies it gets very warm.
In the morning I leave my bag in the locker for the next night, but the guy on reception tells me to bring it down and also my sheets. ‘It’s the rules,’ he explains. ‘Even if you stay more than one night, you’ve to check out and in again each day. You might be put in different dorms during your stay.’
I fetch down my bag, emptied of valuables, and leave it at reception. I disappear off for the day. Re-enter that other world where beds and kitchens and showers are taken for granted. My laptop I bring with me at all times, the main thing connecting me with that other world. Walking into town by the canal, I grip my shoulder-bag tightly, concerned the laptop may be stolen.
That evening, I go somewhere with good Wi-Fi and cheap soup left over from lunchtime. I check property prices in the area. Looks like I’d struggle to live in Dublin even if I sold my place abroad, which is complicated. I’d need a full-time job and a mortgage to stand a chance. Egg, chicken. The freelance idea begins to seem kind of doomed.
Returning to the hostel late, I’m assigned a different room in another part of the building. I hurt my head today bumping into something hard, took a mis-step on a staircase that had been altered since last time I used it, so I ask for a lower bunk. Earlier I felt unwell and tried to get seen at the Mater A&E, but all I got was a long wait and a little plastic bracelet from triage, like the ones they put on the wrists of newborns or on people going to music festivals to prove they’ve paid. The hostel seems bigger now than I remembered and I get lost looking for my new dorm. I have to head back to reception for a repeat of the instructions. The receptionist explains again which room it is and which code to put in the door on the first landing, then he mentions the other women in this dorm are mostly from Eastern Europe and will be in late.
I leave my bag in the dorm locker and go downstairs to the internet area because the Wi-Fi doesn’t work upstairs. There are two people at opposite ends of the space: a man making disconcerting noises into his screen because he badly needs a tissue to blow his nose, a woman mucking about with her emails over a glass of wine. When she sees me she insists on fetching a second glass from the kitchen and pouring a drop for me. She is intelligent and vivacious, a regular here partly due to a relationship breakdown, partly economics. She is in Dublin four nights a week to work, has moved out to the country because that is where she was able to buy. She tells me she used to hang out with such-and-such an actor who stayed here for weeks when he had a run at the Gate Theatre. She says the name and it’s one even I have heard of, though I’m not great on actors’ names. We talk about all sorts of stuff then, films, books, music, history. Stuff that makes it seem as if we’re not two women in a hostel whose lives are somehow not on the right track. Whatever the right track is.
The man at the end is making that terrible honking noise with his throat again and I wish he would stop, the gap between where I am now and where I want to be suddenly huge and getting wider by the minute. My cheeks flushed from the wine and my stomach hollow. It’s not hunger, I want to just get to the end of this drink and go, but I’ve run out of places.
The new dorm room is larger: eight beds, a sink, a chair, a bin. No one else is here yet, but bags hover with intent on the beds. I take the only lower bunk left, near the door. Normally I’d go up top but with my head like this I don’t like to try it. I feel for the bump, somewhere under my hair. A few sticky lumps. I pull them out. Dried blood and something yellow. I rinse it away in the sink. Triage was right, there’s nothing much you can see.
I probably ought to have asked what room that woman was in. She seemed nice, maybe they would have put us sharing a dorm. But she was in the middle of telling me about her ex-boyfriend’s new baby when I thought of asking, and I forgot by the time she was done. She did say her name at some point but it didn’t fit her face and I forgot it straight away. And tomorrow’s Friday, she’ll be away for the weekend.
I’m dozing when a woman arrives sometime after half eleven and takes the bunk above mine. When she hears me moving she asks do I speak English. I say yes, and she starts telling me she’s here to attend a court case in the morning in an effort to get her child back. It’s a long story, hard to follow, spread over Ireland and two other countries. Whether from the sore head or her telling of it, I’m confused by the detail. Something about a man in London who gave her money to come here, but she’s ambivalent about him, I can’t tell if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. I’m not sure she can, either. It’s something about the court, about proving stability. A proper home. Then the six Eastern European women arrive in and start talking in their language. It might just be my head, but their voices seem very loud. I lose track of what the other woman is saying. She gets up and goes out, though it’s past midnight, the door slamming behind her. I think about pulling on my jacket and going after her but I’ve no idea where she’s gone, don’t even know what she looks like. Maybe she just needed a cigarette.
Next morning I wake at four and cannot get back to sleep. I wait until others are stirring, then leave the room bringing my bags. The bathroom on this floor is cleaner and brighter, more like a changing room in a modern swimming pool, with long wooden benches to hold towels and clothes. I fish my soap out of the bag, get in the shower, close my eyes. After a minute someone enters the bathroom. I finish showering quickly, hair dripping, worried my stuff will be nicked. It’s complicated, carrying stuff around all the time. But the girl putting on eyeliner over by the mirrors probably has no interest in my stuff: she is a student, maybe nineteen. Young, blonde, immaculate. You’d never guess she’s living in a hostel. I hope people won’t guess it about me either, but about that I’m less sure. The bag-lady prediction is getting more and more worrying.
Breakfast hasn’t started yet. I try again at the Mater just in case. Everyone on eighteen-hour waits. People asleep on the hard plastic chairs, some in hospital gowns, and the word is, no doctors on shift. A man in the waiting room, shaved hair, maybe twenty-something, grins at me and says, ‘I know you, you’re a Homeless.’ Did he see me going in and out of the hostel? Always a few people hanging around there by the steps on Mountjoy Street, keeping an eye. I didn’t see him. That old Dublin thing, the circles twirling, the people who think they know you and the ones you think you know… A dance with the wrong people. I get on a Dublin Bike and cycle fast to get away, so fast the air is cold, O’Connell Street pregnant with pre-rush hour space about to be filled.
I cycle to work. It is an effort to talk normally when people speak to me, I’m worried in case they find out about the hostel. I do my best to act more confident than I feel. Not to feel like I’m on trial, though that is in fact the situation.
It is after five when I return to the area. Putting off the hostel I take a walk in a nearby park. The Airbnb I liked to stay at is near here. Tiny house, a little turf fire just yards from the front door, where the doggy sleeps. The owner sleeps up top in the roof space, rents out her own old room. I half expect to bump into her now out walking the little dog, it’s that time of day.
A few families with young children in pushchairs are feeding the ducks. Nostalgic for a Dublin accent I keep an ear open, but don’t follow the languages heard. I take some photos to pass the time. Three men smoking and sharing a can of beer turn their backs when they see my camera. I remember the time I was arrested in the Garden of Remembrance taking photos of the Children of Lir statue, the Garda who jumped me certain that I had Sinn Féin headquarters in frame. It was the bag that did it, a peculiar mini-suitcase I’d been using to keep the camera in, and he thought I was carrying a gun. Once he realised I didn’t fit his terrorist profile he was kind of embarrassed, didn’t even expose my reel of film. Deciding now to ask for permission to keep the photographs, I go over to the men.
Two of them are very young, from Slovakia, the third one is Polish and a bit older, maybe early thirties. He was the first to turn his back. He has intelligent eyes, but he is quiet. I explain I’m from Dublin originally, hoping to move back here to work, that for the moment I’m staying in a hostel. They are also in a hostel, a different one. ‘Are you in Ireland long?’ I ask. The youngest finished school here and is now at a community college, the other two are working. The older man claims at first he isn’t here long, then owns up that it’s been twelve years, though his English suggests he’s a recent arrival. The others express surprise he’s been here that long. He came over in the building boom, now works part-time.
One of the younger men, the one who has a Dublin accent, says it’s okay about the photos, but the Polish man says it’s not okay with him. Then he changes his mind.
‘I don’t care,’ he says. ‘Photograph me all you like, you won’t see me in your photos. Where I’m standing, you will see only a white shape.’
Heading back towards the hostel, I feel uneasy. His words repeat in my head, making me think of a news photo seen nearly twenty years ago. Omagh in 1998, moments before the car bomb went off: many of the people in the photograph erased with editing software. Only their outlines left, whited-out shapes. Elsewhere on the page a kind of index where you could look them up: read off their name, age, nationality. Those white outlines now empty, the people who once inhabited them having ceased to exist minutes after the shutter was released. It is getting dark.* Es wird bald dunkel.* I go back inside the hostel out of the cold, but the shivery image persists. The man in the park in his accented words has nailed the disconnect he feels from the city he has lived and worked in these last twelve years. A feeling that’s been walking round with me a long time now, and I’ve been refusing to look it in the eye.
The hostel is busy with new arrivals in outsized hats planning to attend the parade, and so I’m on the move. Hotel prices are crazy this week and everywhere is booked, it seems, but I’ve found a place online that’s meant to be near a Dart station on the Northside, out towards where I grew up. It’s already dark when I reach the area, the only landmark I recognise a monstrous church, and the little map scribbled in my notebook after looking up the address on Google maps proves more or less useless. The shops near the train station are already closed so I ask directions at a takeaway, the only place open. It’s a weirdly cold night and it seems even colder up by my temple where the lump now feels bigger. I follow the path on my map, ask a passer-by, then see no one for a long time. A wide field with squadrons of houses lined up either side, a sign somewhere showing the date the estate was built—all this was fields only a few decades ago, which explains the incongruous brook and meadow names slapped on the rows of houses. Once past the field, the houses seem to go on forever in lung-shaped dead ends, never a sign of a shop or a crossroads.
In the cold my head hurts more than before and my bag seems heavier. I knock on a door to ask directions. No answer. The lights are on, a warm glow softened by yellow curtains. Probably someone’s curled on a sofa in there watching Netflix with the headphones on. Hearing a passing moped I run out of the garden and flag it down. The driver, a man in his early twenties, pulls over by the grass verge, killing the engine and propping his helmet on the crown of his head like a halo. Great, a pizza delivery guy, he’ll know the area backwards.
He has a big smile on his face that makes me want to hug him, but he hasn’t a clue about the street I’m looking for. ‘Talk more slowly,’ he tells me. ‘My English is not so good. I only came here from Brazil eight weeks ago.’ He takes out his smartphone and asks me to repeat the address. We end up typing it in between us. A little blue bubble pops up on the glowing screen map, bright and reassuring. You are here. We work out my route, and I say thanks. The pizza delivery guy shivers as he slips the phone back in his jacket. ‘It’s too cold in Dublin,’ he says with a grin, ‘the weather in Rio is much better.’
His warm smile goes a long way, even when, much later, someone explains that I’m heading in the wrong direction, and I realise he must have accidentally been holding his smartphone south to north. I retrace my steps to the field, turn around, start again, try a different road.