We lived in a flat at the top of a tall Georgian building on Herbert Street in Dublin city centre. The women outside didn’t intrude on my consciousness for a while. We’d been there for a few months before I realised what was going on, but then I began to hear their voices at night-time.
Snatches of conversations travelled up, disembodied and removed — snatches of rows, of obscenities, of breaking glass, of songs, of doors banging, breaks screeching, tyres crunching, a woman in heels running or stumbling. I’d hear the swear words.
I’d hear them gathering down on the footpath on the wide doorstep outside our building. They were often directly below my window, four storeys down. They sang The Fields of Athenry or I did it My Way. Sometimes they’d row. The venom and colour of their language shocked me at first.
“Mary, Mary, come back. Come back and sing with me.”
“Fuck off, you cunt.” And then their voices would disappear into the night.
Their slurred words never let me forget that they were drinking, and all the time I’d hear the squeal of brakes. Heavy articulated lorries would pull up across the road and for a while the singing would be suspended. I knew too when a woman leaned in to a luxuriously upholstered car, and I’d listen to the smoothly running engine rev up and leave. It was clear what was happening.
During the day the street was light and airy. We’d all go to work with business-like steps while couriers and taxis drove up at irregular intervals, going from one address to the next.
But at night the place emptied. Shadows flitted across the wide streets, and dark leafy trees would wave mysteriously from behind old-style Victorian railings.
I’d lie in bed listening, intrigued and slightly horrified but, like any voyeur, I was attracted to the sounds and the stories they represented. I remember them shouting to one another or the sounds of breaking glass on the street. I’d hear them cursing and, on occasion, I’d listen to them when they sang in a drunken delirium, singing snatches of songs; great belters and songs of desire, like Delilah. “Why, why, why,” they’d sing them, growing in volume as the chord reached its zenith. They’d sing out, emboldened and challenging, until a bottle smashed or a car pulled up and one of them had to hobble off, shoes clip clopping on the concrete.
I had to smile at the self-knowledge they seemed to imbue in those songs. They knew what they were doing. They knew where they were and what was happening in their lives. I wondered if I could help in some way, but I never did anything.
Sometimes, only one woman sat on the pavement, and it was only when someone else joined her that I’d hear the timid beginnings of a song; songs by Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton and Madonna…“I am sailing”…or “Working nine to five”… “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time”. The irony was never lost on them.
It was late one night when I came upon one of them sitting on my step. She was drinking from a naggin of vodka. She was alone. It was close to midnight and bitterly cold. It was easy to see her in the street lights as I came along. She was leaning against the railings on the step. Her short skirt hitched up unevenly around her hips. The curve of her buttocks was visible at the top of fleshy thighs under a pair of torn black tights. She sported a little ponytail at the back of her head. She made to move out of my way as I approached. She curled into herself and tried to stand up.
“Hello,” I said, addressing her. She seemed to turn in closer to the railings. “Don’t get up. You don’t have to go,” I said. It was freezing, but I was determined to reach out if I could. It was my chance. She muttered something.
“It’s very cold tonight,” I said, nodding. “I’m Maude.”
She looked at me warily for a moment then, fearfully, cautiously and I think with a hint of shame, until suddenly her face cracked open and she smiled. Pointing to her chest, she said something. It was more of a rasping sound than a recognisable word and I didn’t catch it. She repeated it again as if I was a half-wit. She said it patiently and with great slowness. Finally, I understood.
“Oh, ANGELA!” I nodded.
“Would you like to come up for a cup of tea? I live just in here. You must be frozen out here.”
“No thanks, I’m alright. I have me bottle,” she said. “You know, once I have enough so me daughter can get married I’ll be finished here.” She looked away towards the corner of the street. Then in a spill of words, she poured the rest of her story out.
“I have to make a bit of money…I’d no choice, love. She got pregnant so I had to come out. The father is only 15, and he’s up before the courts in two months so he’s got no money; he won’t be able to pay for the wedding.” A car pulled up further down the footpath and she moved off the step.
“I won’t be doing this for much longer,” she said. “If there’s ever a night when you’d like a cup of tea, won’t you ring my bell?” I asked her.
“Right, love, thanks,” she said, as she hurried towards the car.
I put the key in the door and pushed it in. After I had climbed up the seven flights of stairs up to our fourth-floor flat, I looked down and watched her on the footpath. She flicked a cigarette butt away and strolled down along the kerb in her stilettos until she was out of sight.