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Woman On Nassau Street

That woman on Nassau street. Her image on the screen of my mind like some subliminal messaging system. I saw her yesterday, not long after I arrived here in the city. I keep coming back to it, why she stood out from all the others, the incongruity of her clothes and makeup.

I’ve been wandering the city, looking at buildings, people, that river. I’m trying to make sense of it, why I left home, what I’m here for.
I could make a list I suppose, of things that might have had a say in it all. Fliers in the door about night courses, headlines about banks failing, talk of recession, a streak of blue dye from Dan’s shirt on the front of a blouse I loved. Or the trees everywhere dying off, flinging their ragged leaves down around the gardens; the empty houses in the estate stolidly waiting for the slump to be over so that they can breathe again; the small town feeling of nothing new, like being in an eternal conversation where you know the ending but have to go through the steps to arrive there, over and over again.

If I told it a different way you might think that it all hinged on the portrait of my aunt. Because it was that that finally made me walk out the door. It wasn’t a rational decision. I stuck the picture in my handbag, picked up my coat, and left. I have the picture in my bag still. I look at it from time to time. It’s not that I expect answers exactly, it’s more like a point of departure for the thoughts that spread outwards from there like a complicated mind map with spaghetti strands criss-crossing and tangling from one thing to another.

What is striking first is the perfect stillness, not the momentary inactivity of maintaining a pose, but rather an air of stillness that pervades the whole thing like in the portrait of the Mona Lisa or Lady Lavery, or some society lady. Her beauty, maybe that’s what gives it that air, of the perfect thing, the finished product. There’s something universal about it. It’s a black and white photograph; her hair is wavy and worn short, swept away from her face to expose a high forehead. She’s wearing a dress with a v-neck and a collar with a ruffled edge. Her complexion is smooth, with high cheekbones. I notice the creaminess of her skin, the roseblush cheeks, a slash of red lipstick the only makeup she’d have worn. And that’s the image I want to keep, her face half turned to the camera, her folded hands, her confident gaze.

I imagine her in her best dress, her hair carefully curled and set and loosely protected by a patterned headscarf, giggling with my mother as they cycle to town. A special trip to get the picture taken. She’s 19, my mother 23. And then my mother helping her, fixing her collar, her hair. That calmness, that gravity, that certainty of all that is due to her.

My mind flicks over to the other woman, the one I saw on Nassau Street. I couldn’t take my eyes off her either. But it wasn’t her face that brought her to my attention at first. She was ahead of me on the street, striding purposefully along. She stood out from among the others, hundreds of them it seemed to me, jostling each other in their hurry. What was striking about her was that her body didn’t fit into the picture that she had created of herself, or at least not conventionally so. Beautiful straight long black hair, trendy clothes, but all wrong for her, too many bulges, too much flesh distorting the shape of them. Pretty skimpy wisps of fabric made for lithe bodies, pretty young girls. She screamed inappropriateness. I should have left it at that but some perverse curiosity prompted me to pass her, to look back. To see if the picture she had created on the other side fitted better into the mould. And when I saw her I was really shocked at first, and ashamed of having followed my voyeuristic whim, but yet drawn to look again as if to confirm her ugliness, which was startling. And her face keeps coming back to me, like a sore on my arm or leg that I can’t stop myself from worrying.

Perhaps it was because the story of my aunt was playing on my mind; the contrast.

When I knew her her beauty had faded, hidden behind worry lines and cheap clothes and a husband who saw only his own reflection in the mirror the world held out to him. A life spent caring for others. As if she had settled for second best, for a life of compromise, though her portrait showed her hopes and dreams. Maybe things would have turned out differently if she had had children of her own.

When I cleared out her house everything went into the skip. She had acquired nothing of value in the end. Just one small box of things to keep. And when I spread them out on the table in my kitchen on Tuesday and found the portrait in an old letter from my mother, I didn’t expect that it would lead to this. They’re probably still there, the other things, still innocently cluttering my table. The kitchen is a foreign country to Dan, after all.

That picture. I want it to release me from the other images, the last ones, the final one that won’t let go: her withered skin like parchment against the stark white pillow, the hollows in her cheeks, the vacant eyes. If I had a series of pictures from her life you could observe it, the transition, the threads reaching backwards or forwards through the years, depending on the starting point. When I became aware of her first, she had begun to drift through the spaces of her life, no longer believing perhaps in the aspirations of her younger self, or in the value of putting the best side out. I suppose the change was gradual, like the light fading and receding into dusk, but when you’re close to someone you don’t really notice. I think in the end she’d have preferred a kind of invisibility.

On Tuesday when I found her portrait I saw what she was like in the beginning. Maybe that explains the suddenness of my decision to leave, the lack of forethought. And now the image of the woman in Nassau Street playing on the screen of my mind, confidently displaying her fashionable clothes, her lines of bracelets, her garish eyeshadow, demanding attention. Confirming what I suspected about the futility of compromise.

I’m walking on Nassau Street again, feeling mildly foolish for scanning the crowds as if some kind of synchronicity might present her figure to me one more time. There are lots of people hurrying or strolling or standing outside buildings smoking, young people in groups laughing and chatting. I feel part of them, part of this, as if the city is one living breathing organic being and we are all just cells going about our business. The Dublin theatre festival is on. Earlier a poster in a shop window caught my attention, something about a circus, and I thought why not. I could use some distraction. I imagine clowns and cream pies and impossible situations. I like contradictions after all.

The venue is a little theatre in the grounds of Trinity College. The stage is in the centre like in a real circus and for a moment I worry that they’ll expect us to participate. But it’s ok. The clown in the barrel is just having fun, hitting balls at the audience which they must return, and everyone is enjoying the diversion as people take their seats. A good device to facilitate the transition from the world outside to the mood of the story they will create. The action is played out in mime, all exaggerated movements and elaborate gestures. There are only four actors.

Early on there’s a shooting and then a ghostly presence in the form of the dead character playing the piano from a stage high up to the left. Most of the action centres on two men working out their rope act. They swing down from a platform, balance each other. An air of danger is created, a sense of drama and poetry as at key moments red petals are released from up high and float down along the trajectory of the rope. Tension is introduced, and longing, as a pretty young girl appears and is trained to balance with one of the characters. And then the archetypal story of jealousy and retribution presents itself. Two men vying for the attentions of one girl, her choice played out in the movement and height and tension and the danger of sliding and balancing on a rope high over our heads. We know that the chosen one must die, we all know it; but until the very last we hold out some illogical hope for another ending, a way to resolve the impossible. The sense of danger and drama is heightened as the beloved balances precariously on the rope high above our heads.

Then he’s spinning on the rope, spinning in a wide arc, faster and faster, and the rope jerks, and the man begins to fall in lurching movements. But I do not see him anymore; I see the red feathers falling, I see the portrait of my aunt, I see the image of the woman on Nassau Street. I adjust the image so that the woman has no face, and the thread that connected all the pictures of my aunt snaps and everything floats away with the petals. Nothing remains but the image of my aunt in the portrait I hold onto and then there’s the dead thud of a body hitting the floor.

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