Christmas in the Tenements

 

 

I stir with a fresh tingly feeling coursing through my body, suddenly wide awake. I sense that today is going to be something special. Then I remember: Today is Christmas.

The house seems brighter than normal this morning, as if the sun shining through the curtains thought it was high summer, and not the gloomy dullness of an Irish winter.

The air even smells crisper, denying the usual mustiness of the Georgian house. Rising from my bed, I can hear noise outside in the street, and also from within the house. There appears to be a carnival atmosphere to the sounds I hear; gay laughter, idle chatter, the soft pitter-patter of children running around downstairs … That is strange, for I live alone.

A flashback came to me of the night before; the drunken party at Seamy’s gaff. Did I bring the party home with me? No, I couldn’t have. I vaguely remember leaving there in the early hours of the morning. The party was still in full swing.

Staggering down the street, I had fumbled drunkenly with the keys before putting them in the ignition and heading home … alone, definitely alone.

Rising from the bed, I tiptoe to the door and peer into the hall.

Two boys are sitting on the wooden stairs, engrossed in a game of cards. They turn to look at me briefly but remain silent, quickly dismissing me, and continuing with their game.

They both look scruffy and undernourished, half-starved in fact.

I wonder what they are doing there, and I’m just about to interrupt their game to ask them when a woman steps out of the nearest bedroom. She is carrying some white bed linen, though the bloodstain on the sheets stood out starkly against the well-bleached cloth.

The woman was once beautiful, though her face has started to show the strain of harsh living. Worry lines mar her complexion. She, like the boys on the stairs, is shabbily dressed. Her cream blouse is as blood-stained as the bed-sheets, and her black cotton skirt is rumpled. It suggests that she had slept in it.

Strange, you don’t often see long skirts like that these days. They went out in the sixties.

The woman stops, looking surprised to see me there. Recovering quickly, she speaks. “Yous must be a new tenant. I ain’t seen ya before, have I luvvy?”

Her accent is pure inner-city Dublin. If you could bottle it, you’d make a fortune, selling it to the yanks. You could almost imagine her selling oranges at a market stall on Grafton Street – “Five fur a pow-end!”

I’m a little taken aback by the question as I’ve owned the house for almost ten years now. I’d bought it before the latest property boom.

All I can say in response is “Erm no …not really.”

“Listen … I can’t stop,” she replies, brushing past me. “This stain will never come out if I don’t soak it soon. Mrs B. in number eight has lost her wee child … again. It’s hard on her at this time of year … That sort of loss never goes away.”

“I’m sorry for her loss,” I reply; a ritual that comes without conscious thought, no matter the sense of loss. Greif comes as easy as talking about the weather.

“Welcome to the madhouse,” she says, a tone of resignation in her voice. “My name’s Rosie, by the way, Rosie Byrne.”

“Cain,” I reply. “Cain Murphy, pleased to meet you.”

Just then, I hear the heavy tread of footsteps on the stairs. Turning, I blink in surprise. Climbing up the stairs at a ponderous pace is a filthy-looking character straight out of Oliver Twist. His donkey jacket is steaming slightly in the crispness of the hall. On his shoulder, he is carrying a grey sack of coal.

His face is hard to make out under the deeply ingrained layer of coal dust, but I can vaguely make out a thick bushy moustache. That and his clear blue eyes.

Realisation hits me.

Rosie’s skirt, the boys’ short grey trousers and ragged pullovers, the coalman; even down to the greasy flat cap. My friends must have planned some sort of re-enactment; the idiots.

Still, it was a nice thought. The coalman, however, was a step too far. I’d only put in a new Axminster carpet last year, and it had cost a fortune.

I try to play along, despite my concerns. I start to applaud. “Oh, he’s too much! You almost had me fooled there, just for a minute…”

Rosie gives me a strange look.

Playing along with the joke, I look around for the hidden cameras. The light was dimmer, here in the hallway, with lots of shadowy places within the old Georgian house to hide a camera. I probe the darkness but only end up straining my eyes. Eventually, I give up and reach for the light switch.

I pause.

The white plastic switch I had bought when I redecorated is no longer there. In its place is a black Bakelite one. I touch it, hesitantly, suspecting a mirage. It feels almost warm to the touch. Hesitantly, I flick the switch and nearly jump out of my skin as the bulb lights up the hall.

Impossible.

My expensive carpet has been replaced by bare floorboards, as worn and grimy as the actors in this strange play.

My friends had gone to a lot of trouble to make this whole façade appear real. I could even smell the overpowering stench of stale sweat coming off the coalman. Clearly he was one of those method actors. He mustn’t have bathed for weeks.

I close my eyes for a moment, hoping that I’m dreaming. This whole thing felt like a hallucination.

“Are you feeling all right, dearie?” Rosie asked, dropping her sheets and reaching for my arm. “You’ve gone all pale.”

“’E must be a newcomer,” declared the coalman, who by now had reached the landing. Dropping his coal bag, he looked me up and down with a critical eye. It was as if he were digesting the crumpled t-shirt and Pennies sweatpants I’d slept in. “Best fetch ‘im a cup’a’tae, Rosie luv, before he keels over on us.”

Taking my arm, he guided me back into my bedroom and over to the chair by the window. It was then that I noticed that my bedroom furniture had changed too.

“Sit ya’self down there, sonny, and catch ya breath. Rosie’ll have ya roight as rain in no time, you’ll see. She used to be a nurse, ya know, a good one too!”

“Why did she stop?” I asked, feeling a little light-headed. The day had started out so well, but was rapidly going downhill.

“It was Consumption that got her in the end, poor lass … In her prime too.”

“Consumption?” I asked.

“Aye, consumption. The lads out there … it was the mumps that did for them… on the same day, too. Best mates they were. They were both born ‘ere, lived here their whole lives …. Best mates they remain…”

I felt detached, numb.

“Mr Barton, downstairs in Number Three, he was shot during the Rising. A hero that one, but you’d never know it to look at him. It was a nasty way to go that, shot in the belly. That sort of pain never really goes away, but he never complains…”

I stopped listening to him. A flashback of the night before came to me then:

Bright lights, the squeal of tyres …, and a lamppost rushing towards my car.

Rosie reappeared at this point, a steaming cup of strong tea in her hands. She’d even gone to the trouble of finding a saucer for the china cup, though it didn’t match and was chipped on one side. “Ah musher, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she joked.

I was later to learn that this joke never got old amongst the dead who dwelt in the house. I’d been living there for almost a decade and I’d never noticed the ghosts, until I became one of them.

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