I spoke of religion last week with my new tenant Sophia. She asked me to inspect the pipe outside her window because when it rains heavily it blows back into the gas vent and causes damp inside. I looked at the greenish stain on the wall for a bit and promised to get the plumber to call. She asked me then if I’d like a cup of tea; I could tell she was tired and the child hungry, but I accepted the offer and stayed for a bit.
Sophia is interested in Buddhism and has been on weekend retreats. I gather these involve yoga at dawn. As we drank our herbal tea, and ventured a discussion on spirituality, I told her I have often thought it a pity we didn’t inherit an elaborate system of fables from our ancestors, rather than religion. The ability to possess a world view that might involve for example, a denial of freedoms, would be almost certainly curtailed if it was based on the teachings of a talking bird or fox. She smiled at this and as she is still young my frank atheism does not shock her, though she disagrees with my denial of the spirit. She says it is our essence, makes us who we are. She looked at the child playing on the floor as she said this.
Sophia interests me though I can almost hear her thoughts before she speaks them. This has been a feature of my ageing, an inability to express surprise at the opinions of others. I seem to always know what people will say. She is, I can tell, convinced of her complete uniqueness, it’s the subtext to almost everything she says. She has enrolled her daughter in mandarin classes in the church hall down the road because she thinks it will give her a competitive edge in the future. I said you cannot be sure of anything about the future. I have found it to be the case that nothing one expects to take place, ever takes place.
I stayed until it was almost nine. She looked at her watch several times and the child grew restless but Sophia still did not ask me to leave. Once she slipped the watch off her wrist and delicately wound it up. I sense this slight action to be something that defines her, her watch is old, from another time, perhaps inherited, and the winding of it is her gentle way of explaining to people that she is different, and that it is now late. She has a hesitant expectancy to her, a need to please possibly which she tries to overcome but never does. She is polite in an old fashioned way. My grandmother, who raised me in this house, I was her only granddaughter, never trusted polite people; she thought they were hiding something. I disagree though, I think they believe in order, and I can sympathise with the desire for that.
I inherited this house, a large house near the canal in Dublin, with two flats, well really two rooms converted into something of a living space. Sophia answered an advertisement in the paper. She had copies of references and bank statements under her arm the day she came. It was raining, her trench coat was dripping. I hoped she wouldn’t notice the water stains on the wall but she barely looked around the flat. She said she had been searching the area for weeks, she had lived nearby once, before her travels took her elsewhere. There was something forsaken about her manner and appearance. Her hands trembled when she rested them on the window frame and looked out at the wet, summer evening. I understood a particular life had failed to be realised and now she was back, with a fatherless child, and a job in an office.
I gave her the keys, there and then, without checking the references. She moved in the next week with the help of a silent man. Brother, lover I could not tell. I have not seen him since so I suspect he is neither. She seems to own only books and cooking utensils, there was a large wok and other contraptions. The child sat on the steps playing with a phone, occasionally looking up as they passed her with boxes. She must be about four years old, watchful. I don’t think she likes the house. She cries sometimes when they arrive home in the evening, tired probably from her creche. Sophia negotiates with her on the granite steps, and it all seems exhausting.
My other tenant came out of his flat several times the morning Sophia moved in, even though it was a Sunday and he usually only emerges after lunch, hungover and sometimes with a young woman. He is in a graduate programme in a stockbroking firm. His mother told me this when she paid his deposit for the flat. He stopped to talk to Sophia on the path. I could hear him telling her how I walk the landing at night and am apparently a very rich, but eccentric old woman. He is not wrong I suppose. I have money and habits.
It’s always the same. Every year the tide deposits a new batch of tenants on the shores of my house. Some are freshly minted, from far off counties and well-appointed homes; others, like Sophia, are older, elsewhere people. They have lost their way, and must begin again. I like to believe I can tell who will survive this city and who will not. There are the ones who head for the bus home every Friday night, bags on their back and the ones who choose, or perhaps must, stay. My stockbroking friend will stay. He is growing accustomed to his freedom, feasting on it. And Sophia too, for there may be the possibility of absolution here, and of course forgetting. The city is a forgiving place for all its flaws, and deeply uninterested in who you once were.
Sophia had a dinner party a few nights after she moved in. She knocked on my door and said there might be some music, though nothing past midnight. I saw her glance at my books and possibly the dust, for it is everywhere. I told her she could borrow anything. She thanked me and asked me how long I had lived here. I explained it had been my Grandmother’s house. The Council had tried to evict her when they were intent on modernising the road, paying a paltry sum to flatten everything that went before, but she held on long enough for some bearded liberals to picket outside and so it had accidentally survived. She left it to me because I was the first in the family to not become a drunk. I got married too, so in all outward respects, was respectable.
I explained to Sophia how my parents held many parties here. I was never able to sleep and would be found sitting on the stairs, usually by my grandmother as my parents were too far gone by then. She would put me back to bed and lecture me on the wasteful life they were living. They were bohemian my parents before anyone, apart from a few poets, thought it a worthy or interesting endeavour. She eventually dismissed them to the car factories in the north of England.
Sophia didn’t answer, she may have been slightly alarmed at the unasked for, potted history of my family. Her eyes were wide again in the low light of my room and she coughed, as if allergic to something. I keep the curtains closed and the windows shut tto protect the spines of my books. I order them from bookshops all over Europe. It is how I travel - Siena, Florence, Paris, London. I have been everywhere, without ever leaving. As I spoke, she reached out to touch one on the shelf above her head. She doesn’t paint her nails. I am not sure what this means, perhaps nothing. I also noticed there is a small jagged scar on her wrist, the colour of a birthmark. It is an injury, and I must look away then.
A tall bookish man, with a wine bottle under his arm arrived at 8 for her party, followed by some laughing women in flowing dresses. Music and high spirits. The aroma of Indian spices wafting down the narrow hallway and out under the front door, trailing like a delicious spectre over the tangle of old bikes that lean against the pillars, the remnants of last year’s tenants; dispersing then, over the thick, dead waters of the canal and across to the people who lie on the sloping grass and stare at the sky. Bottles at their side. The neighbours complain about them, but I never engage. I suspect there may be as great a purpose and meaning to their lives, as to anyone elses.
Sophia prefers my back garden to the front, she sits out most evenings with the child when she returns from work. She has found two rusting, wrought iron chairs in the shed and has hauled them to the corner that still has sun in the evening. The garden has high red brick walls and fruit trees that are now laden with fruit. Apples and pears. There is lavender too at the edges of the garden though it is fading off now. I told Sophia the child could dig anywhere, though have since had an irate conversation with the man who cuts the grass, who is almost as old as myself. We don’t usually speak. He enters through the low gate in the backwall every Thursday afternoon and I leave an envelope for him on the tree stump with a few instructions and money. I hear him cursing at the small plastic toys he keeps finding in the grass.
I told Sophia once I had been married. It was a Saturday morning at the end of August and she was off to a wedding in the Unitarian Church on the green. She was wearing a black dress with a floppy hat, which I complimented her on. I said I had been married in Trinity one October day in 1965 and on to the Shelbourne Hotel for breakfast. It was breakfast in those days. My father back from Birmingham in his cheap suit and me floating like the vampire’s wife, pale and unsure beside him. I was barely nineteen, shrouded and swathed in satin and tuile.
Sophia was going to the wedding alone, maybe that inspired her confessional tone. The words fell out of her. She told me she had been with the child’s father in London for ten years. He had never wanted to marry her, which hadn’t mattered for a long time but then strangely did. I wanted to tell her marriage was nothing really, just another construct we have invented. It does not mean you are loved, but I didn’t. The taxi arrived then and she left.
Sophia come out with tea lights and put them in a lantern. She embellishes her surroundings with what little she has. A flowery blanket for the child who she lifts her onto her lap. The child must look like the Father. She has fair hair and bright blue eyes, so unlike her mother. She has a tiny tea set and is pouring a cup of something drawn from her imagination. The lights come on below me in the stockbrokers flat and the usual noise accompanies his return. Having tenants for the last twenty years has led me to conclude that some people demand more of their space than others.
There is an art to communal living, and perhaps no one is ever truly proficient at it.
It will be dark soon, Autumn is close. I imagine my husband is back again, he came alive in the shadows and night. I was supposed to be not able to cope without him. He told me that often, and yet I have. He lay dying in the bed in the front room, angry at the life still in me. Infinite sadness and infinite loneliness are not the same thing. I wish I had told him that, but the words would never come. They were frozen on the landing, or stumbling in the dark of the hallway; words pushed up against a closed door. For I cried too on the front steps of the house, the tight grip on my arm and my tears filled the house, and flowed out into the turgid, still waters of the canal. And everything drowned for a time, until it did no more.
Sophia stays sitting in the fading light of the garden, the evening air damp, a trace of falling leaves at her feet and a cup of tea and book in her lap. The child dances between the patches of light, darting here and there to avoid the night fall. She does not cry so much anymore, I’ve noticed that. Sometimes I hear her singing songs about animals and the alphabet. I left some books outside the door the other day, I bought them especially. I was going to leave a note, and then thought better of it.
A robin lands on the edge of the wrought iron table. Sophia puts her finger to her lips and they are like statues then; mother and child, sculpted out of shadows and stillness. I close my eyes and wish for it to be a talking bird, a creature of wisdom and flair who has glided over the steeples and spikes of the city especially to find them. A bird who whispers of hope in the dusk of a city garden.