On January 6th, this year, you see a fifty-something woman with a tartan shopping trolley getting off the Luas at Jervis. What you do not see, what no-one will ever see, is the unbuilt city in her mind.
Her name is Maureen, and she is off to do her few bits, as she does every Women’s Christmas. 353 days to Christmas Day, and everything done, in the nick of time.
If you had been there for Women’s Christmas last year, you would have seen her daughter, Emma. Her approach is ever-so-slightly different. She usually bounces around the shops on Christmas Eve evening, collecting whatever crap she comes into contact with, like a Velcro-covered spinning top.
Last year, though, she invited herself along on her mother’s annual expedition. “I don’t why you keep trying,” her husband, John, said. He had made the mistake of hugging Emma’s mother when he first met her. “I’ve held more affectionate ironing boards,” he said afterwards.
In one of Emma’s other umpteen attempts to generate a little warmth in their relationship, she had brought her mother and the kids to see “Inside Out” in the cinema. She and her two daughters left raw-eyed. “Why didn’t you cry, Granny?” Emma’s eldest daughter asked. “God only gives you a certain amount of tears, and I have cried all of mine,” said Maureen.
Emma had never once seen her mother cry.
“Women’s Christmas together, it’ll be lovely,” Emma said to John, sounding very much like she was trying to convince herself.
It had not been lovely.
Emma shouted at her mother in the middle of the IIac Shopping Centre. “Mam, you can’t haggle in Argos!” “Of course you can,” Maureen said, with all the calm confidence of a woman who just had. She had seen this as a chance to finally instill a little fiscal decorum into her thirty-year-old child. Emma had hoped to buy her mother something to wear with just a modicum of style: “You might as well paint mutton,” was all she got in reply. They exasperated each other, as usual.
Every year, Maureen finishes off her trip with a late lunch at the Kylemore on O’ Connell Street. Last year, if you had been there, you would have been uncomfortable. She and Emma had eaten silence, and then Emma had huffed off home.
After that, Maureen took the Luas back to Heuston Station, and the train to Kildare town. When she arrived home, her husband, Tom, said, “I hope you didn’t go too mad?” with a laugh. As if she ever would.
This year, she had invited Emma along, out of courtesy. Emma had declined, also out of courtesy. It was a relief. Maureen had been looking forward to Women’s Christmas on her own, again. But on the train that morning she had been reading a story about another prominent man being ousted from polite society for years of sexual misconduct, and this gathering “Me Too” movement, and it made her feel like she hadn’t felt in a very long time. Sick, in her heart.
In M&S, she spotted the bargain-hunter’s Holy Grail. A nice, sensible jumper for Tom, already on sale, with a little pull in it. Easily fixed, once she secured a sizable discount. But, when she got to the customer services counter, he was there. She blinked, and she could see that, of course, he wasn’t. It was just a nice old man waiting in line to return something.
In Smyths, she saw him buying toys for his kids. In Arnotts, he was perusing the women’s perfume. A present for the wife. Just a normal man, going about his normal life. Out on Henry Street, she saw him looking right at her, and approaching. “Get away from me,” she snarled at the charity collector. “What a rude woman,” he thought as she went.
She barrelled down the street, now, seeing his face in the face of every man. Her list had been abandoned. She was headed for the Kylemore, seeking the solace she always got from her routine.
All around Maureen, in this one street, of this one city, there are so many women walking around with books unwritten, films unmade, careers curtailed, lives not lived, hearts not filled, holding it all in. There are so many stories that should be told, that never will be.
This is Maureen’s:
She grew up on a farm in Kildare, her and her mother amongst the boys – her father and three brothers. It was a stretch-or-starve household. She was the second youngest, and the only one who was taciturn, like her father. When he did speak he said stern things to his sons like, “Don’t you ever lay a hand on a woman.” If he couldn’t make his children wealthy of pocket, he was determined to make them rich of spirit.
When she was a teenager, she helped her father to build things around the farm. She learned to fix machines, because there wasn’t money for replacements. She bemoaned their austerity, but came to understand that there can be love in frugality too, when her folks somehow came up with savings for her to study Architecture in college.
She was terrified and excited by Dublin city. She wasn’t naive, though. She knew that as a woman she’d have to be twice as good to be seen as good enough by the men. She worked very hard on her first college project, and still her lecturer said, “Are you sure you don’t want to be a nurse, or something?” A boy in her class came over to her afterwards and said, “Don’t mind that eejit, he’s just jealous. He couldn’t design a fart,” which made her laugh.
“Tom,” he said. “I know,” she said. “Do you know what makes everything better?” “No.” “Tea,” he said. It was both an answer and a question, and she said, “Yes, I’d like that.”
After months of tea dates, Tom had melted Maureen, like a lozenge. She was ready for him to tell her how much he liked her. Tom knew her well enough to know that she would respond best to a visual demonstration. He held up a digestive. “Maureen, I think you might be the biscuit to my cuppa.”
And from them on she was “Biscuit,” and he was “Cuppa.” They got married soon after college, a very small wedding, without much fuss, exactly what Maureen wanted. They often talked of starting their own practice, once they had enough experience. That was the dream.
They both got junior jobs in different firms. That was deliberate. “Two architects getting married is incestuous enough,” said Tom. Maureen left their flat every weekday morning, to walk to work, almost delirious, not believing her luck.
She had secured a position in a prestigious firm. From the office you could see the rooftops of Dublin, buildings that she loved, and things that she thought needed fixing. “I will make my mark on that skyline.”
Her boss was a brilliant man, who had been responsible for some of the best of Dublin. Derren was his name. She was quickly fond of him. Not long after she joined, though, she also became aware that some of the women in administration called him Dirty Derren, because he was said to be a bit handsy. He was never anything but nurturing with Maureen, so she didn’t think much of those rumours.
He was a man in his late forties with his own firm. He kept fit, still played a bit of rugby and had married his one-time secretary. Maureen had heard that for their honeymoon his wife had tagged along with him and the lads while they followed the Lions tour of Australia. That story was told with horror, but Maureen could see the pragmatism in it too.
On a Friday, a week before her first Christmas in the firm, he called her into the office, to tell her how well she had done. He handed her an envelope with money in it. “A little bonus,” he said, “but don’t tell the lads out there about this. None of them know their arse from their elbow compared to you.” “Thank you,” she said. “Now, this is not to go on ham-and-cheese sandwiches,” he said, in a not-too-veiled poke at her plain packed lunches. She laughed,
“I really admire you,” he said, as she left. “Thank you,” she said. Afterwards, she thought that was an odd way to put it. “I really admire your work,” he should have said, she thought. But then again, she knew that she wasn’t the best for reading people, or perhaps he just misspoke. Either way, she put it out of her mind.
That weekend, she went out and did what she had never done before. She bought a very nice business suit, a lovely blouse and skirt. She modelled it for Tom. “Dressing for the job you want, I love it,” he said. (Although, he would have loved her in a sack.)
On the last day before Christmas, she finally got up the courage to wear it into work. “Interview today, is it?” one of the lads in the office said, with a laugh, which is what would have been said if one of the men had suddenly spruced themselves up. She smiled. She felt like one of the crew.
In the afternoon, most of the lads headed off for the pub, but Maureen stayed back for a couple of hours. Derren had asked her to help out with a planning permission that needed to be submitted before the holidays.
When it was done, she was just readying herself to go, when Derren called out from his office, “Maureen, one last thing.” She went in. “Close the door,” he said. She thought that was odd, as there was no-one else around.
When she sat down, he stood up, and started pacing around. “I just wanted to say that I appreciate your help,” he said. “It’s not a problem,” she said. “And I’d also like to say that you’re looking really well today. You should wear stuff like that more often,” he said, looking at her intently. “Thanks,” she said. She wasn’t sure why, but her heart had started thumping, and her palms were sweating.
“Are you going to the pub?” she asked. “Yes, but before we go I think we should talk about how much we like each other. Get it out in the open.” She could hear her heart in her ears now. “What? Oh God, I’m really sorry if I’ve given you the wrong impression. I’m hopeless like that,” she said, stuttering, trying to add a laugh, and finding a lump in her throat that stopped her.
He was at the door, and she heard the click of the lock. “There’s no point in denying it, Maureen,” he said, “I’ve seen how you look at me.” “I’m married, Derren,” she said, “and I don’t think of you like that. I think you should stop this.” She was surprised by how weak her voice sounded. “All I want is for you to stand up and give me a look, is that too much to ask?” he said.
She looked at him by the door, and was suddenly aware of his athleticism, and how alone they were, and how premeditated this had been. She was terrified by the possibilities. So, she stood up, like he had asked. She could feel the wetness at the back of her knees. She was trembling. Sick in every cell. She tried to say something, to make an argument for her release, but it wasn’t just her mouth, her mind was dry.
When he told her to bend over the desk, she whelped as she did it. “Relax, I just want to look,” he said. He stayed at the other side of the room. She heard him unbuckle his belt, and his breathing change, and she looked out his window, at the Dublin skyline, and felt as small as she had ever felt, until, very soon, she heard him finish.
“You can get up now,” he said. When she looked around, she saw that he was putting himself back together. “Can I go?” she asked. “Give your face a clean,” he said, “You’re a mess.” She put her hand up to her face. It was wet with tears. She hadn’t even realised she was crying. “We wouldn’t want people finding out about this affair, would we?” “Affair?” she thought. The word was shocking, but she found herself nodding. He still hadn’t unlocked the door. She took some tissues off his desk and started cleaning her face. And then, the second he unlocked the door, she ran past him out into the main office. The last thing she heard him say was, “Have a Good Christmas.”
When she got home, the flat was empty. Tom was out for Christmas drinks with his workmates. “If you had been there, right then, I would have told you, Tom,” she often thought. She got into the shower, still in her suit, and sobbed. She stripped it off, and later frantically stuffed it into a black bag and put it out in the bin. She would tell Tom that there was something wrong with it and she had to take it back.
She sat on the couch in her pajamas, and buried herself in implications. If she told Tom, he would make her report it, and then it would be her word against his. “I never touched her, she never said no, she didn’t put up a fight” – he could say all of that truthfully. Or he could just say that it never happened at all. She would lose her job and never get one again. She couldn’t tell her brothers, either. They would kill him. “I should never have worn that suit,” she thought.
When Tom came in, she knew she wouldn’t be able to hold it together, so she told the first lie of so many. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” he asked. “Nothing, it’s just hormones,” she sobbed. It was an easy lie, because she was three months pregnant with Emma at the time. Unplanned, but welcome.
The first day back after Christmas, she got as far as the street the office was on. Then, with every step, she felt closer to fainting. So, she turned around, and instead wandered around Dublin for the morning. Museums, shops. In a daze. Not sure what she was doing. She came across the newly-opened Kylemore on O’ Connell Street.
In there, she had a late lunch, and wrote two letters. The first was a letter of resignation. The second was a letter about everything that had happened. As she wrote, she began to cry. When she looked up, a young waitress with a kind face was sitting opposite her. She didn’t ask, “Are you okay?” which Maureen had always thought was a silly question to ask someone who was crying. She asked, “Can I help?”
Maureen let the story spill out. She was the only person Maureen ever told it to. When she was done, Maureen said, “No-one is ever going to believe me. I’m not sure if I even believe it myself, anymore.” The waitress reached her hand across and held Maureen’s hand, and said, “I believe you,” and that made her feel just a little better, for the first time in weeks.
She sent the letter of resignation citing poor health due to pregnancy, and told Tom that she had been let go, that the company had lost a major contract. “I thought you were doing really well, there?” “Last in, first out, no exceptions, they said.” She told him that it was probably for the best, that she had decided not to go back to work until after the baby was born, for a while anyway. Tom was very worried, and said, “You’re not yourself anymore,” and Maureen kept saying, “Hormones.” He didn’t really believe her, but he didn’t know what to do either.
And then, after the baby was born, she blamed post-natal depression. She wondered if that was really a lie. She was struggling to connect with the baby. She tried not to, but she resented her.
On the next Women’s Christmas, the baby was six months old, and crying a lot. Maureen was having dark thoughts that scared her, so she went out, and found herself wheeling the buggy into the Kylemore. She asked for the waitress who she had talked to, but she found out that she had just been temporary staff for Christmas the previous year, and that she hadn’t come back. All Maureen remembered about her was that her name was Emma.
Over the early years, she was jealous of Tom and his job, but, eventually, she wasn’t. They quickly went from being lovers to just friends. They slept in separate rooms. She didn’t know when they stopped called each other “Cuppa” and “Biscuit,” she just realised one day that they hadn’t done it for years.
She sometimes thought about the other children she had planned to have. She never knew it was possible to miss someone who hadn’t been born, but she missed Jane and Daniel and Michael. She thought about what they would be doing now, but that hurt, so she didn’t do it often. Sometimes, she would write a letter to Tom telling him everything, but those notes felt very…final, so she burned them.
She never saw Derren again, although, there were often times that she thought she did. She read in the papers that he did very well for himself during the boom. But it was only in the last few months, with the news of this new movement, that she had thought, “There have to be others, of course there are,” and then, “I’m to blame for those as well.” The women who came forward in the news were called “brave,” and, as she read that, holding a city inside herself, every day, for decades, she thought of herself as a coward…
…On January 6th, this year, you see a fifty-something woman with one of those tartan shopping trollies, standing at the junction of Henry Street and O’ Connell Street, looking across the road. You cannot see that she has been crushed by the weight of the buildings in her mind. You can see that she has tears in her eyes.
So, you walk over and you say, “Can I help?” and it’s the way you say it that catches her, that brings her out of her trance. She says, with a sob, “They’re after closing down the Kylemore.” And you look across the street and see that the name has changed. You hadn’t even noticed before. You are worried about this woman’s mental health, and you’re not sure what emergency service there is for this. “Is there anyone I can call for you?” you say. “No, no, it’s okay, it’s just…hormones,” she says, “I’ll call someone myself.” “Okay, then, if you’re sure,” you say, as you leave. You worry, though, so you look back and see that she has taken out her phone, and that makes you feel a little better about going.
Maureen scrolls through her contacts list and she realises that it is a list of acquaintances. She hovers over Tom’s name. These days, the first step is often taken with a thumb, but she cannot make her thumb move a millimetre. If she had called him, his phone would have lit up, and the name displayed would have been “Biscuit.”
Emma is at home, having lunch with John while their girls play in the sitting room. She has been reading the news lately too, and she is exercised “…and Women’s Christmas is such patriarchal bullshit too,” she says, “every day should be Women’s Christmas from now on.” “You go girl,” says John, with affection. “I’m being serious,” says Emma. “Me too,” says John.
Just then, Emma’s phone starts to ring…
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