Ten Years in The Willows

Mark O’Connell

Mark O’Connell

The Gated Estate
For the past ten years – that is, for most of my twenties and for the portion of my thirties so far elapsed – I have lived in a medium-sized housing development in Rathfarnham, a few miles south of the centre of Dublin. It’s a very pleasant environment, as these set-ups go: terraces of white-doored red-brick houses arranged along a horseshoe bend, paved common areas with little fountains and gazebos, carefully maintained plants and so forth, all sequestered behind ten-foot electronic gates. I don’t live in one of the terraced houses, but in a ground-floor two-bed in one of the four apartment blocks that are also part of the development. In keeping with the broadly faux-sylvan theme of the complex, these apartment buildings are named after trees. There’s The Oak, The Elm, The Ash, and The Willow. (I once gave my address to an American newspaper editor so that she could send me a galley of a book I was reviewing, and she replied as follows: ‘Your address is THE WILLOW? Pray tell, are you a Beatrix Potter character?’ Her question haunts me even now.)

If you’d asked me, in my early twenties, where I saw myself spending the first of my post-college decades, the answer you would have received would not have been ‘A gated housing estate three minutes’ walk from Rathfarnham Shopping Centre, and within easy reach of the M50.’ I would probably have said London, or New York, or maybe Paris or Berlin. I wouldn’t have foreseen myself staying in Dublin, and certainly not, at any rate, in one of its quieter southern suburbs. But these things happen – by which I suppose I must mean life. The apartment my wife and I live in – and which, at time of writing, we are finally preparing to leave for a house in the north inner city – is owned by my parents; and so the rent, as a consequence, has from day one been set at an exceptionally competitive rate.

I work from home, mostly, and when I look out the window beside my writing desk, across at the facing terrace of four-beds with their SUVs and hatchbacks parked in front, I see the comings and goings of young families. There is one young family in particular whose comings and goings have, for years now, been a consistent feature of my days. They have lived in the house directly opposite us since I moved here with my then-girlfriend, Amy – now my wife – in 2003. Viewed, over time, through this window by my desk, these people have always embodied, for me, an abiding archetype of the middle-class family. The father drives a charcoal Volkswagen Passat, which he vacuums and polishes most Sundays; the mother, who seems to be a full-time homemaker, drives a light-blue midsize Honda 4×4, in which she shuttles their four children to and from school and various extracurricular obligations. She never wears anything that does not seem to have been comprehensively thought through – is always, as Amy puts it, ‘in some type of outfit’ – and is never glimpsed without full hair and make-up. For a while there, every Saturday morning at around eleven the father and children (two boys, one girl, aged between about five and thirteen) could be seen emerging through the front door of the house dressed in loose-fitting white martial-arts attire, filing into the Passat, and setting out through the gates in the direction of some local kid-friendly dojo, there to work on the development of self-discipline and hand-to-hand combat skills as a family. I haven’t seen the karate suits in a year or two now, so presumably this is no longer a thing.

Amy and I have a strange, entirely impersonal relationship with these people across the street. We see them every day, and yet have never had even the most perfunctory interaction with them. We don’t know their family name. We do know that one of the sons, the eldest, is called Eoin (or Owen), and that he seems to be exceptionally popular, because the other kids from the estate are always petitioning his attention by shouting his name, which with their genteel South Dublin vowels they pronounce as an almost Francophonic ‘Eau-ouenne’. When we first moved here, young Eoin (or Owen), who was then maybe two or three, could frequently be seen sauntering abroad in full Harry Potter get-up – the cape, the wand, the burgundy-and-mustard scarf – and so for want of any more solid identifier, we started calling the family ‘the Potters’.

This has long been standard practice with us when it comes to our neighbours. (In fact, I don’t feel fully comfortable using the term ‘neighbours’ here, because it implies a certain base level of community fellowship; something like ‘co-residents’ would probably be closer to the mark.) We know hardly anyone’s names. So there’s the Potters across the street, whom you’ve met. And then there’s the Frys, a couple in their early sixties who have lived in the apartment across the hall from us since we moved in, and who for a long time seemed to be constantly frying up all-day breakfasts that would stink out the ground-floor hallway. At one point, a letter intended for the Frys was mistakenly put in our letterbox, and we thereby found out that their real name was the Smiths, but by then we were used to referring to them as the Frys and didn’t see any need to change. Then about a year ago, perhaps on the recommendation of a GP, they knocked off the fry-ups and switched to stewing meats, often at perplexingly early hours of the morning, at which time I suggested it might be more appropriate to start referring to them as the Stewarts, but this was an idea in which Amy showed little interest. And then there’s the apartment directly above us, where there lives a young man, about whom I know next to nothing apart from that he lives alone, appears to be gay, and that his water pump makes a slow rhythmical wheezing noise whenever he leaves a tap dripping, and that he seriously needs to get it sorted. We refer to him, for reasons that I can’t now recall, and perhaps for no reason whatsoever, as ‘Our Friend’.

The Time I Narrowly Missed Learning My True Name
I’m intrigued, generally, by this socially demilitarized zone between the vague acquaintance and the total stranger: the sort of situation where you have enough contact with a person to need to refer to them by some kind of name, but where you’ve never had an actual conversation, and have no mutual acquaintances, and so don’t know what to call them when you’re talking about them. When I was in college, before I moved to the residential development that is otherwise the topic of this essay, I lived in a mews in Rathgar with my friends Aideen and Dylan. We did most of our shopping (pot noodles, sliced bread, instant coffee, cigarettes) in a place called The Late Shopper on the corner of Harold’s Cross Road and Rathgar Avenue. For most of that time, there was a rotating cast of people around our own age who worked in the place, and for whom we came up with cognomens based on physical appearance and general vibe. Of these, I remember two: Shiny-Faced Handsome Boy and The Fat Robot.

A couple of years after we moved out of the house, Dylan bumped into a drunken Shiny-Faced Handsome Boy at a Dizzee Rascal gig. They recognized each other instantly, embraced warmly, and immediately began to reminisce about the days of The Late Shopper, which had just recently become a Spar. It’s important to note here that our interactions with these guys had never gone beyond the level of small-purchase chit-chat and phatic communication. At some point during this brief, drunken reunion, Dylan confessed to the whole nicknames thing. Apparently, S-FHB reacted to this admission with gleeful wonderment, and then informed Dylan that the staff of The Late Shopper had, in their own right, nicknames for us. And then, at this crucial point of intersection, some distraction or other – possibly the insistent opening breakbeat of Dizzee’s ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ – interposed itself between Dylan and S-FHB, and the encounter was cut short, never to be resumed. I have never quite been able to forgive Dylan for not pursuing the matter further, for failing to bring back solid intelligence from the parallel universe where we were the familiar strangers affixed by cognomens based on physical appearance and general vibe. I consider it a significant loss that I never got to learn the name by which these strangers referred to me; I can’t help feeling that, in some enigmatic but crucial sense, this would be my true name.

Phyllis and The Potter/Fry Situation
Our building is reasonably large – thirty-six apartments over four storeys – and it sometimes strikes me as absurd that I have seen so little of it. In the ten years that I have lived here, I have seen a fair amount of the outside world – I’ve been to Venice, to Paris, to Porto and Glasgow and Phoenix and San Francisco and Madrid and Havana and Hanoi – but I have not been on the second or third floors of my building. I have taken the stairs to the first floor on precisely one occasion, and the reason I did this was to confirm that the above-mentioned slowly rhythmical wheezing sound was indeed coming from Our Friend’s apartment overhead. (I never spoke directly to Our Friend about it; this would, in a subtle but unmistakable way, have been to breach an undeclared propriety.)

The first and only time I ever set foot inside one of the other apartments in the building was, in fact, just days ago, after I had already begun writing this essay. The apartment adjacent to the Frys’ is occupied by a woman in her late sixties or early seventies named Phyllis. ‘Phyllis’ is not a nickname; it is Phyllis’s real name. I know this because, apart from my wife, she is the only co-resident with whom I’ve ever had anything like a proper conversation. Phyllis and I will encounter each other from time to time at the postboxes by the front door, or cross paths on our way to and from the lifts to the car park, and she will invariably strike up a conversation, and that conversation will invariably centre around some grievance with the management company, or the disorderly behaviour of the children from the houses, or the failure of the former to deal with the latter.

Phyllis is convinced that there is some sort of class conflict going on between the residents of the houses, most of whom are owner-occupants, and the residents of the apartments, many of whom are renting. ‘We’re scum as far as those people are concerned,’ as she once put it to me. As intrigued as I was by this Ballardian reading of the estate’s social anatomy, I didn’t take it particularly seriously. Then one day in the summer of 2011, I was sitting at my desk trying to work, and I heard the sound of aggressive male voices coming from outside my window. I opened the window and stuck my head out, and saw that Mr Fry and Mr Potter were all up in each other’s grills, fingers thrust into chests, faces red, jaws set in grim hostility. I couldn’t quite make out the substance of the argument, but I clearly heard Mr Potter calling Mr Fry ‘a scumbag’, and then reiterating that he was ‘nothing but a scumbag’. About twenty minutes later, a squad car pulled up outside the Potters’, and two guards got out and rang their doorbell. Maybe another twenty minutes later, they emerged and rang the Frys’ bell, which I could hear from across the hall. The whole incident was pretty intriguing; I had a hunch that the Potter kids were at the root of it, but I had no idea what had happened until I bumped into Phyllis by the postboxes a few days later and she filled me in on the whole thing. Apparently, Mr Fry had caught Eoin and his henchmen tearing a piece of wood off his apartment’s rear balcony – possibly to use as a goalpost, possibly just to mess with him – and had called him ‘a little bollix’, which transgression had enraged Mr Potter enough to confront Mr Fry. According to Phyllis, Potter had gone so far as to actually physically shove Fry (not a young guy, let’s bear in mind), an action that, apart from anything else, has got to be in direct breach of the code of ethics of whichever specific martial art Potter was getting himself and the kids all kitted out for on Saturday mornings. Fry called the cops, and the cops gave Potter a warning, and told him to keep his kids away from the neighbours’ balconies.

When we came across each other in the hallway the other day, Phyllis mentioned that she’d printed out some copies of a newspaper article about various rights many estate-dwellers don’t realize they have vis-à-vis property management companies, and that she wanted to give me one of these copies. She asked me to step inside while she rummaged in a desk drawer in her spare bedroom. I stood in her hallway while she did this, and as I glanced through the open doors into the three rooms of her apartment (two bedrooms and a living-room/kitchenette) I experienced a muted sense of the uncanny – entirely banal and yet slyly surreal – arising out of the fact that I was standing in a space structurally identical to my own apartment, but in which everything looked entirely different, because it was the home of an elderly widowed lady, and there were throw pillows and pastel carpets and Hummel figurines all over the place. As Phyllis concluded her rummaging and came towards me with the printed article, I considered mentioning this uncanniness to her, just for the sake of casual conversation, but I thought better of it, telling her instead that she’d done the place up very nicely. And then I thought of how lonely she must be here, Phyllis, in her three rooms, across the hall from Amy and me, in our own equal and opposite rooms.

The House of Alleged Ill Repute
It was Phyllis who had told me, in another of our vestibule conversations maybe three or four years back, about the brothel that had apparently been a going concern for a few months at number 68, down the far end of the hall. This was a little while after the group of girls living there had been evicted by their landlady, who, before finalizing that eviction, went around door-to-door to all the other ground-floor apartments to apologize personally for the disturbances caused by her soon-to-be-ousted tenants – the drunken undesirables coming and going at all hours of the day and night, and, in particular, the dramatic brawl outside the building a few nights previously, which had ended with the police getting involved.

I’d been aware of all this stuff, and I’d also been aware of a lavishly mustachioed middle-aged man who seemed not to live in the apartment, and who would nevertheless fairly frequently pull up outside in his car and let himself into the place with his own set of keys, but I’d assumed that he was the girls’ father, and that he owned the apartment, and that he maybe just looked in from time to time to see how they were getting on. In retrospect, this seems comically naive, even moronic, but to the extent that I gave it any thought at the time, I took it for granted that the tenants down the hall were just a bunch of young working-class women who didn’t seem to have jobs or even go outside much, and who happened to have something of an open-door policy with their expansive circle of male friends, some of whom did not get on at all well with one another. I tend to need fairly overwhelming evidence before assuming that people are prostitutes.

Now that I sit down to think about it and write about it, it seems strange and maybe even a little sad, this business of having no connection with the people you live among, no meaningfully shared context, no sense of who they are or what their lives are like. My instinct has often been to blame this disconnectedness on a perceived cultural trend toward societal atomization, on some vague notion of the general disintegration of community. But this is mostly a cop-out, a half-assed attempt at explaining my own disengagement by muttering something under my breath about late capitalism before sidling off towards the exit. A while ago, I discussed this with Amy – who is, if anything, even less inclined towards co-residential fellowship than I am – and she made the point that our lack of engagement with the place has a lot to do with the fact that, even though we’ve lived here for ten years, we’ve never really seen ourselves as belonging here, never thought of ourselves as the type of people who live in a place like this. Which is true, I suppose, but strange: ten years is a long time to spend in a place you just happen to be passing through, a place you’ve never really gotten round to living in.

The Hooded Strangers
About a year ago, I spent a weekend at a wedding just outside Manchester; Amy, who was then getting to the end of a part-time law degree course, had classes scheduled for that Saturday, and stayed home. After the day’s classes, she went out for dinner with a couple of friends and got a taxi home shortly before 1 a.m. The taxi dropped her off at the front gates, and as she walked down the short stretch of internal road towards our front door, she noticed two men approaching the building from the laneway around the side. Both men were wearing tracksuit bottoms and hooded sweatshirts with the hoods up over their heads, and one of them had on a pair of rubber Speedo pool shoes with white sports socks – a detail which, once she’d noticed it, somehow served only to make her more uneasy. If she’d kept walking at the pace she was going, she’d have reached the corner of the building at the same time as the two men, and so she slowed down. When the men reached the front door of our building, they stopped and stood there, speaking quietly to each other in a language that she didn’t recognize.

From her point of view, the whole situation was starting to look a little too much like the prelude to a sexual assault, but instead of turning around and sprinting in the direction of the street, she decided to butch it out, to take her keys out of her bag and let herself in. The two men stood aside to let her pass, but once she’d got in and passed through the vestibule into the hallway, she heard their footsteps and voices inside the building, and realized that they must have slipped through in her wake before the outer door had clicked shut. After some nightmarish key-fumbling, she got into the apartment, locked the door behind her, and went into the living room to take stock of the situation. At this point she heard the sound of a door handle unsuccessfully being turned; it was unambiguously the sound of someone attempting to open a locked door. She called the police. The local station is just down the street from where we live, and so within minutes three guards had arrived outside the building. She buzzed them in, and as she was standing at the door explaining to them that the two men were probably still inside the building, the men appeared around the corner at the far end of the hall. One of them had his hands up, palms facing outward in the universal gesture of capitulation, and began expressing his sincere regret and embarrassment for a situation he was clearly just now starting to get a general sense of.

Only at this point did Amy recognize him as our neighbour from the far end of the hall, the taciturn Polish guy who lived with his wife and baby in number 68, the supposed former brothel. The man with him, he explained, was his brother-in-law, who was living with him and his wife. They’d somehow managed to lock themselves out of their apartment, which was why they were loitering around outside the building, why they’d opportunistically slipped in after Amy, and why they’d been trying the handle of the door down the hall. He apologized repeatedly for failing to realize how he and his brother-in-law must have looked to her, a woman alone in a quiet area late at night, and for his failure to explain the situation to her, or to say anything at all to put her at her ease. For her part, Amy had rapidly progressed from high anxiety, via momentary relief, to abject, shrivelling mortification at having called the cops on our neighbours.

‘We’re going to have to move,’ she said, after she’d told me about it on the Sunday night. ‘There’s obviously no way I can face those people now. As far as he’s concerned, I think he’s a rapist.’

‘Well, you did think that for a bit. And you had some really excellent reasons for thinking it. Which he obviously understands.’

So awkward.’

‘It is. Off-the-charts awkward. But however awkward it is for you, it’s got to be way more awkward for him.’

‘Doesn’t matter. That just makes it even more awkward. Look, you’re going to have to check the hallway before I go out the door to make sure that guy isn’t out there. Or his wife. I can’t be bumping into either of them.’

‘Maybe we should drop over a bottle of wine or something,’ I said, unsure as to how seriously I was making this suggestion. ‘A little card, maybe. “Dear Guy: Sorry I thought you and your brother-in-law were planning to rape me. Hope you like wine.”’

‘Let’s not. I genuinely think we need to just move.’

As it happened, we didn’t have to move, because the people at number 68 were gone within a few weeks anyway. I don’t think their moving out had anything to do with the incident – these are smallish apartments, and with three adults and a child, they probably needed more space. Amy did wind up bumping into the guy in the hallway a week or so after the initial incident, and they had a brief and very uncomfortable exchange, in which they were both extremely apologetic about the whole thing. On the few subsequent occasions I saw him, the wife or the brother-in-law around, I made a point of hailing them in an expansively affable manner that doesn’t come at all naturally to me, and which if anything probably ratcheted the awkwardness up a couple of additional notches. I’m glad they’re gone. There are new people in number 68 now, but I couldn’t tell you the first thing about them, and wouldn’t know them if I saw them, which I’m basically fine with.

A taxi driver once told me that a certain well-known television sports commentator lives in my building. I have no idea whether this is true; I’ve never seen him.

A carpenter once told me that a Holocaust survivor lives here. I have no way of knowing whether this is true either.

There is a historical fact about this housing development that I sometimes think is neatly ironic. It sits on a piece of land that was, until about 2002, the site of a factory owned by Hallmark, the world’s largest manufacturer of greeting cards. It would be hard to think of a company more symbolic of the way in which a certain kind of distance between people can be made to look like closeness, of the way in which indifference can be made to look like community. Mostly, though, I don’t think it’s ironic at all. Mostly, it’s just a fact among a lot of other facts that I hardly ever think about.

To read the rest of Dublin Review 54, you may purchase the issue here.