Monday, 26 Jul 2021

Dancing to Dublin

Beate Sigriddaughter

“A one-way ticket to Dublin, please,” I said.

The clerk behind his solid wooden counter stopped short in the mechanical movement of his arm toward the ticket machine and raised his English brows. His blue eyes twinkled a benevolent astonishment. “A one-way ticket to Dublin,” he repeated after me.

I nodded. For some reason there was a considerable knot in my throat.

“I like that. At least you know what you want,” the clerk said, pursing his lips. “No use, then, my telling you about the reduced return fares, then. Although they’re good for up to three weeks,” he added teasingly, but also with a sense of duty to my well-worn jeans and the sleeping bag I carried. The knot in my throat dissolved and I grinned at him.

“No use,” I confirmed.

The ticked he handed me seemed a trifle too modest for its purpose, considering that it was the ticket to the fulfillment of my latest dream. At the very least it should have had “DUBLIN” printed on it in bold letters. It didn’t.

“Where do I catch the train?” I tried to ask calmly, while my fingers trembled over the insignificant ticket.

“No need to catch it. It’ll wait for you, ducks.” The wrinkles around the clerk’s eyes deepened with laughter. Then he gave me directions to the departure gate, his hands drawing an imaginary map on the light brown countertop. The edges of his grayish railroad uniform sleeves were frayed. “Be good now, honeybunch,” he shouted after me as I walked away from his window.  

In the end the train didn’t have to wait for me either. I waited for it. I didn’t want to go back to the tourist sections of London because I was afraid I would at the last minute get lost and I didn’t want to miss my train for anything in the world. And so I waited for it. For hours.

At first I sat in a sandwich shop, munching slices of dry white thin bread with a tasteless slice of orange cheese wedged in between, while contemplating my portable typewriter in its old blue carrying case propped up against a table leg. I was fond of the image of me and my faithful portable typewriter which accompanied me everywhere, as other people are accompanied by their lap dogs or guitars.

The coffee the shop served was bland and not very hot. I should have remembered that this was England. I should have ordered tea.

I wrote three postcards, then leafed through a newly acquired book on Nordic mythology, then discovered that I was of course far too restless to read. And then I decided that, in any event, I had already overspent the welcome meagerly acquired with one solitary sandwich without either lettuce or tomato, let alone ham.

Outside it had become dark and the air was nippy. I took refuge in the waiting room which was crowded with people, luggage, and cigarette smoke. Coming from the freshness outside, the atmosphere inside the waiting room made me sleepy. Around me small children were beginning to get tired and plaintive; mothers looked for sympathy from their peers; young men looked into young women’s eyes in case they should catch a reflection of their own admirable virility there; older men preferred to read The Times instead.

Reading the paper was one thing. But when I pulled out my notebook and began writing and similarly disturbing no one, I began attracting attention. I couldn’t even be sure that, all things being equal, I didn’t want to attract attention. But under the circumstances it made me feel self-conscious of the grime I had collected from a long day spent walking in London’s late summer streets under the weight of my backpack. Finally I gave up my writing endeavors and began wandering around the waiting room, studying timetables, religious pamphlets, bright stickers on suitcases, and anything that was posted on the walls.

One day I had run out of dreams. Or killed the last one. The teacher dream was gone. The dream of the brilliant scholar. The lover. The wife. And suddenly, as I was working on my last dutifully completed research paper on the topic of Cúchulainn, the ancient hero of the Tain, a new dream had sprung up, spontaneously, hardly chosen, and for no other reason than that in me there was a scarcity of dreams: Ireland. I worked for more than a year on turning this dream into reality, saving money, living on less than most of my friends could imagine. It was possible because I had a dream again. It had started like a spark, hot like the scratch of a fine needle. Gradually I got used to its presence, and it softened and filled out to a golden warm necessity.

Something had become my own again. When other people mentioned Ireland, I felt, and sometimes acted, like an owner. And when no one did, I still felt like a woman who had just discovered she was pregnant, standing tall with her invisible secret. I would look into other people’s eyes, daring them with sweet satisfaction in my own: “Look at me! And even if you don’t or can’t notice it, I have a dream again!”

But when the time came to board the train that would actually carry me the last distance, there wasn’t much daring left. Shyly I caught the attention of one of the conductors. Even though I knew perfectly well, I had to hear it confirmed, lest I should be wrong at the last minute.

“This train goes to Dublin?” I asked.

“No. It goes to Holyhead,” the gentleman corrected me indulgently. “You’ll board the ferry there for Dun Laoghaire. And from there you take another train to Dublin.” Then he bent his attention away from me again, down to a short stout woman who was whining about her luggage.

Originally I had wanted to stop in Wales along my way. Fairy land. Merlin’s land. King Arthur’s knights still roaming the ghosts of their woods. But by the time I had made it as far as England, I was too impatient. So close to my goal, there was simply no way that I could spend even one more day away. The train I had boarded crossed Wales in the darkness. For a while I peered from the window to see at least a few of Wales’ lights. And I wanted to feel the night wind tug at my hair. I wanted it to transport me. For it I couldn’t be Iseult of Ireland, the least that I could do was to be someone ordinary going there.

Finally the Irish couple sharing my compartment asked if they could close the window, and, while they were at it, the curtains to boot. They were friendly, but, for no good reason, I felt in awe of them. Short of an Irish poet I had met one day in Minnesota, they were, for all I knew, the first genuine Irish people I had ever met. And so, of course, I felt appropriately fated to have met them. They felt, most likely, nothing.

He said he worked in a factory in London. His wife did charring. But only sometimes. When they were in need of extra income. He wore a snappy green coat. She wore a brown dress and a shabby off-white jumper mended with leather patches at the elbows. Her wrinkled light-blue coat was stored in the rack above their heads, one arm dangling down. Both of them smelled of fresh soap. I admired them deeply.

In my enthusiasm at getting to know my very first Irish acquaintances, I probably came on too strongly, barely avoiding crying out: “So here I am. I am ready. I am interested in you and your country. Adopt me!”

They had folks in Kilkenny. Oh yes, some cousin in Dublin. They’d stay there for two nights. And they did not ask where I would be staying, quickly dashing all my hopes for the proverbial instant Irish hospitality. They, meaning he, had three weeks of holiday each year, in which they went home to visit their own country. I lit a cigarette, some ridiculous brand I’d bought for luxury and novelty.

“Now, we don’t have the likes of those in Ireland,” the man said with a trace of benevolent contempt. “American?”

I offered him one.

The woman objected without real conviction. “He shouldn’t be smoking,” she said.

“I smoke one every few days,” he explained. “And I’m bound to swipe them from someone. Don’t want to be caught by her buying me own fags.”

They winked at each other. I smiled politely, still proffering the packet. He finally accepted a cigarette and smoked with great appreciation. The woman pulled out a basket with bread, a sausage, and a blunt knife. I didn’t watch them chew, properly looking at my hands in my lap instead. But I could virtually feel them chew. And I could feel the acidity of dry white bread and tasteless cheese and cigarettes and coffee mingled in my stomach.

We were approaching Holyhead. I had images in my mind of walking in the frisky night air along the beach, on the sands of the last shore before reaching my dream. The ferry wasn’t scheduled to leave until 3:00 a.m. When we arrived at Holyhead, it was barely after 1:00 o’clock. But we weren’t permitted to leave the train, which stopped at the Holyhead station, a slight hill away from the sea. I couldn’t see the harbor. I thought I heard a foghorn. I imagined I could smell the sea. The couple in my compartment had fallen asleep. The woman snored lightly through her open mouth.

When the train began moving again to pull us the last stretch to the harbor, a good deal of bustling began. By the time the train stopped, everyone was crowded in the hallways holding on to bundled belongings. Next, we were shepherded to the ferry. Everyone seemed to be in a terrible rush. I walked slowly. The ferry too would wait for every last one of us to get on.

During the last twenty-four hours I had waited so much and in so many places that the ferry’s interior seemed to take on the characteristics of yet another waiting room for me. It was furnished with the same thick wooden tables, the same sturdy benches nailed into the floor that had been my lot all day. At a window counter food was sold. I stood in a long line for the privilege of treating myself to another sandwich for 40 pence, and, since no one could explain to my satisfaction what Bovril was at three o’clock in the morning, a cup of rather weak tea.

I felt like a queen all the same, squandering my last pound of British sterling before all I had left were uncashed traveler’s checks. I felt for my map of Dublin, though of course I knew the way to the hostel by heart already. By and by other travelers around me fell asleep. I had long ago lost sight of my Irish couple. They had to be somewhere on board, of course, but I was no longer frantically interested in them. The food counter closed. We were rocking across the invisible water. Softly. I was very tired. Now and again I heard a sleepy sigh, or a whisper, against the steady faint droning of the ferry’s engines. I was, of course, determined not to fall asleep on this night of all the nights of my life. For if I slept, I might not wake up in time. And I wanted to arrive awake and clear-eyed.

I felt curiously alone inside the crowd of sleepers. All of them had probably come this way many times before. Or they had other things to preoccupy themselves with than the mere realization of some dream. I stood up and walked through the room full of sleepers, careful to touch no one. Careful, and furtive, and excited like a thief. Mechanically I wandered through doors and through hallways, looking for, and finding at last, signs to the deck.

I tried the heavy metal door which opened to a cold shock of sea breeze, chilling me to the bone. Two men approached me, coming down a set of stairs that led up to the deck, their arms folded tightly around their chests and their heavy coats. They noticed me with sleepy eyes and passed. The door swung open again and closed with a creak behind them. The stairs beckoned.

Overhead there seemed to be a million stars waiting for me, beckoning also. The metal railing of the stairway was cold as ice in my hands. I quickly learned to breathe in tune with the fierce wet wind that carried sea spray to my face, my eyes. For a moment all I could think of was shielding my face. Then, suddenly, I liked the sea spray and the wind far better than my hands.

White foam played a dizzy rhythm against the solid rocking body of the ferry. Beyond it, the water was endless and dark. But I was cold. I was tired. I was tempted to turn around and go back to the warmth of the sleepers below me. I thought: and this is what you left your known worlds for? To stand like this in the night, alone and cold? This is your dream then? To shiver here? Oh, you ridiculous young woman! You could have frozen, could have been tired like this, at home!

I looked around me. Slowly I walked from one end of the deck to the other. The cold spray kept touching my face. The wind would not stop at my clothes, or even my skin.

I thought of my friends. When would I see them again? I thought of the touch of a tall man’s hand, somewhere in a warm September afternoon.

“Of course you must go,” he said gently. “Only, come back!”

Of course I had to go. Everyone knew this. Even I did, though I was the one who had to carry the doubts. After all that dreaming, after all that pride, what other choice did I have? I was, by choice, the one who could make dreams come true. Except, in the chill of a night like this, I wasn’t so sure how useful that was.

And then I started to dance, with awkwardness at first, with my limbs clammy and stiff, and my arms wanting to huddle, to shield, and not to spread open against the sky.

“And who do you dance for?” I mocked myself. “No one is looking. No one.”

“And who do you live for?” another thought echoed.

“Go down and sleep with the others,” a third one followed.

I turned to the stairway, its cold metal gray in the vague white moonlight. I stumbled and then caught myself. I lifted my arms high and held up my face to the mist of the water.

I danced until my mind was forced to accept the joy my body was trying to teach it. I sang. A few first notes were stolen by the wind. But I learned to sing in spite of the wind. I learned to be part of all the glittering around me, stars and sparks on pitch black water where it caught the moonlight for a moment, and the soft, consoling spray, until my dream came back, cleansed by the sharp presence of night, to cover me with secret warmth and shelter on this man-made cage of a ferry that was rocking me in safety through the darkness of the water into some fresh world that was already learning to be born for me.

I danced and I sang until the sky grew dim with light, and I could see the orange globes of gas lamps far off on the shore and coming closer, slowly.


Beate Sigriddaughter,, grew up in Nürnberg, Germany. Her playgrounds were a nearby castle and World War II bomb ruins. She lives in Silver City, New Mexico (Land of Enchantment), USA, where she was poet laureate from 2017 to 2019.