The Jesus of South William Street
I’m not such a bad person I think, not now, and maybe not even then. But sometimes how we see ourselves is not how others perceive us and I am willing to accept that in the arrogance of youth I might have stepped over the line once or thrice.
However it was not as a result of any of my moral qualities that found me one Christmas Eve kneeling with blood on my hands over the inert body of a woman. Miss Quinn was on the periphery of my world, annoying, unpleasant, but in essence unimportant. But there was no doubt that she hated me, for myself, and for all I represented.
It was Dublin in the sixties, when with my friend Jeremy and fresh out of college we set up a photographic studio in South William Street. We were young, dynamic, ambitious, from London, and immediately successful.
We made our studio on the first floor of a narrow, run-down, Victorian building just a stone’s throw away from the fashionable Grafton Street. The building consisted of four floors, no lift of course, just a wide stone staircase with a half landing between each floor.
A priest, Father Flail, a gaunt black crow of a man, visited Miss Quin each week. He symbolized for us the Ireland of the shadows, a country steeped in a severe and unforgiving religion, fearful of the wrath of the priest and eternal damnation, suffocating under a grey blanket of sexual repression, and they saw in me an unwelcome and decadent visitation. An impression based mainly on our shoulder length hair, but reinforced by the clothes we wore, the music we played, and the physical appearance of many of the visitors to the studio.
‘You should be ashamed. Why don’t you go back to yer country. We don’t want yer sort here.’ She hissed at me one day as accompanied by the crow we crossed on the stairs. I was too surprised to say anything, and they continued their climb, the priest taking hold of the old lady’s arm as if to affirm his agreement. That marked the start of a period of ‘cold war’, in which we ignored each other and which might have continued indefinitely had it not been for the party.
We decided to organise our first Christmas party a few days before holiday started, and we wanted to make it a party Dublin would remember. We hired a man with a disco, decorated the studio with long drapes borrowed from a film studio, invited everyone who was either a client, a prospective client, or someone who could make the party swing. A large amount of alcohol was provided and we even set aside a room available for anyone who wanted to indulge in more exotic chemical stimulants.
We had been to enough parties in Dublin to know the usual course of events, and took the precaution of hiring a couple of off-duty Guarda to act as bouncers. However by eleven o clock both had drunk themselves into state of verbal and physical paralysis. There were about two hundred people crammed into the studio and overflowing onto the stairs, the disco man had fled, afraid for his own safety and that of his gear, and two large, red faced and jovial men, one on the other’s shoulders were gleefully pulling down all the decorations accompanied by squeals and roars of approval from the spectators most of whom were total strangers.
The air was thick with smoke and the smell of spilt beer, sweat, and cheap aftershave. Someone had found our record player and Ba Ba Ba Ba Barbera Ann was shaking the air. In one corner a girl was quietly vomiting on a heap of fallen decorations while in another a fat middle-aged priest with a perspiring face was drinking Guinness from a bottle hidden in a brown paper bag and leering openly at a young girl propped drunkenly against the wall next to him. In the centre of the floor two gay men were clinging to each other, oblivious to the mayhem around them.
It was into this scene that a figure from another world appeared. Miss Quinn stood in the doorway like a miniature grim reaper, her stick raised as if ready to ward off an expected attack, a look on her face mixing incredulity and outrage in fluctuating proportions.
I knew I should confront her, maybe try to placate her, I had no desire to have a bunch of Guarda descending on the party and finding any illegal substances, but it was then that fate played a card. I had just taken a swallow of Jameson when the shock of seeing her there sent the fiery liquid into nose and lungs. I advanced towards her making choking noises, eyes watering, one hand clutching my throat, the other outstretched in what I hoped was a calming gesture. She looked at me, her eyes widening in an expression of horror and revulsion. I tried to speak, but could only produce a guttural animal like noise. Desperate to pacify her I advanced, and she retreated, step by step towards the stairs, waving her stick from side to side between us. Deeply disturbed at the impression I was giving I tried a smile, which being accompanied by a sort of involuntary cawing noise proved to be the final straw.
‘Ya divil! Ya divil All of ya, divils!’ she shrieked and fled, moving faster than I had ever seen her move before, up the stairs to her refuge on the top floor, probably bolting and locking her door against the immorality below.
We spent the next few days cleaning and clearing the studio, and saw nothing of Miss Quinn but expecting a letter from the landlord any day. The Friday before Christmas we closed, intending to open again in the New Year. Monday was Christmas Eve and we guessed that most people would take it as a holiday.
Christmas Eve was a foul cold day. A biting north wind brought showers of sleet and snow blowing in from the sea and we stayed at home in our St. Anne Street flat. In the early evening I volunteered to fetch the TV from the studio as we didn’t have one in the flat and were growing bored with reading, arguing, and drinking.
I was grateful for my long white sheepskin coat as I walked through a veil of sleet to where we had left the car. The streets were deserted as I drove across town and fortunately there were plenty of spaces to park near the studio. I stood for a moment in front of our building and looked up at the top floor. There was no light there. She must have gone away for Christmas I thought.
I unlocked the front door and reached around to the light switch on the wall. When I clicked it on there was only a faint light from far above. The ground floor bulb had gone. Now the only light came from the single bulb outside the old ladies flat far above.
It was on the landing outside our door that I came upon the body, and although in semi darkness I knew instantly it was Miss Quinn. Her black stick lay higher up pointed accusingly towards me, and a few stairs higher was her upturned shopping bag, its contents scattered over the surrounding steps.
There was an appalling silence and stillness in that scene. The body on the floor, the objects scattered and lifeless, the darkness that seemed to draw in closer around me.
I moved forwards, approaching the body as if it were a dangerous animal that might awake at any time. She was lying on her back, her face shockingly white against the dark stone. Her eyes were closed and her mouth half open, a loosened set of upper dentures protruding obscenely. Her hat lay next to her head, just as if someone had removed it and placed it carefully there.
I knew what I had to do, but had to force myself to go closer. I scolded myself for the illogicality of fearing the old lady now, of not wanting to find out what I already thought I knew.
Kneeling down beside her I reached for her hand resting on her body, as I did so I put my other hand down on the floor next to her for balance. With an involuntary cry I jerked it away, it was wet, wet and sticky, a dark stain spread over the floor surrounding her head and shoulders.
I took hold of her hand and felt for the pulse I knew would be absent. Her wrist was cold, thin and hard as I pressed and searched. It was bizarrely shocking when I felt it, faint, irregular, like the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings. In a way I wanted this strange dark horror to be an object, to be inorganic, inert. To feel it alive under my fingers was bizarrely repugnant, repulsive.
I phoned the emergency services from the studio, they said they would send someone.
A shaft of light from the open studio door illuminated the body as I returned to stand over it. I noticed a damp area surrounding her where condensation had formed and realised she must have been there for a very long time, and wondered if I should cover her up with a blanket or something, but nothing suitable came to mind. The floor looked very hard underneath her head and I thought I should put a cushion under her. I took one from the studio and knelt down beside her trying to avoid the bloodstain. I reached down and slipped my hands underneath her thin shoulders and lifted gently. Her sparse white hair was partly stuck to the floor and I had to slip one hand under her head to detach it from the congealed blood on the floor.
As I pushed the cushion under, her eyes flickered open. My arms were around her, our faces inches apart in a grotesque parody of an embrace. For a moment she stared blankly, unseeing, then they focused, and looked straight at me. Her mouth opened but she made no sound, but as I laid her back down one hand rose from her side, and she slowly, so slowly made the sign of the cross over her breast.
‘Hallo there! Anyone there?’ I heard a voice with a deep cork accent from down the stairs. The Guarda i guessed.
‘Up here, first floor, there’s been an accident.’
I heard the tramp of heavy boots on the stairs and a few moments later a huge uniformed figure appeared. He stood irresolute at the top of the stairs taking in the scene.
‘Now now, what’s goin on here?’ he said in a slightly accusing tone, and when I didn’t answer he advanced just a foot or two and peered down at the body.
‘Is it dead she is?’
He peered around the stairway suspiciously as if expecting a sudden and violent attack from the shadows.
‘Its my belief she’s fallen down the stairs.’ He said eventually with the air of having solved a difficult crime. ‘Aye, she’s surely had a fall.’
I refrained with difficulty from any reply and he retreated again to his station at the top of the stairs and began to hum quietly to himself, every now and again raising himself on toes as if about to start a sprint.
Eventually an ambulance arrived and carried her away into the night. They asked me if I knew any next of kin, but I could only mention the local priest as being the best bet for locating any family.
A few days after the New Year I met some distant relative of her on the stairs, a small, mousey man with a black bowler hat.
‘To be sure ‘twas an accident waiting to happen. No surprise, no surprise at all. My sister would have had her in Donegal, but she wouldn’t leave Dublin, and this place. But the stairs…’ He gestured towards them ‘Well, for a woman of her age it were folly.’
‘Did she recover consciousness?’ I asked.
‘Oh aye! She did that.’ And he put his hand on my arm and lent towards me, ‘and I’ve told the priest, and he’s making a report like, to the Bishop.’
‘Aye! What she saw. What she said. She whispered it to me, just before she died, God rest her.’
He lent closer, as if to impart a secret and murmured, ‘She had a visitation. He came to her, the Lord Jesus himself. When she was lying there, waiting to die like, and so long at it too. She felt him taking her hand and when she opened her eyes he lifted her in his arms to take her to the Holy Father. She saw his face she said, shinning with light and holiness. It were a great blessing, a truly great blessing for she died a happy woman.’
‘Aye, he is that.’
Later that evening I told Jeremy and he laughed, rolling on the floor and holding his stomach. The best joke in years he said.
I couldn’t laugh somehow and wondered if the priests were right, that there was a boss man up there directing things. And if there was he must have seriously weird sense of humour. There on the cold concrete floor that unwelcome intimacy of touching her, holding her, had made fools of us both.
I’ve washed the floor on the landing several times but the stain still shows. It’s all that’s left of her now and I guess that the only people that remember her are me and the crow, but sometimes working late and alone in the studio I fancy I hear the tap tap tap of her stick, and a sudden cough.