Sunrise Street – a short story by Belinda McKeon
A short story imagining the changed landscape of the city in the future as part of ‘Dublin in the Coming Times’ series
Illustration: Simone Golob
‘Dolphins!” Sof shouts, and she points, but I’ve missed them, or maybe they weren’t there in the first place; Sof always thinks she sees things out in the bay, this hour of the morning. A couple of weeks ago, she convinced herself she could see a shark circling the Poolbeg chimneys. It’s true that I need to do my eyes again, and that’s not going to happen any time soon, because the machine is back in the house in Ringsend, but there are no sharks, there are no sharks (if I say it often enough, I’ll believe it), and I can live without seeing dolphins. All I want is the colour of the sky – this morning it’s a spectacular burst of blue and orange, and the clouds look stunned and scattered, and it’s clear the day is going to be another scorcher, but we’ll be underwater for the worst of it, so it’s alright.
“Drink your coffee,” I say, nudging her, or more like jolting her, because I’m nestled up against her. She always lets her coffee get cold. She can’t stop looking out there; she can’t get enough of the water and what it might hold. She’s even more into it this morning, unsurprisingly. I don’t know why we bothered stopping off at her dad’s cafe for the flasks. Neither one of us has taken a sip.
The bay is so huge and still and perfect. Some mornings it looks like it’s on fire, and that can make a strange sort of sense, with the tips of the tallest structures rising up out of it as though they’re still hurting, as though they’re still trying to escape – the Spire, the Exo tower, that old church on Thomas Street, where we used to love going to the markets – but this morning it’s almost white.
Plenty of people up here hate Dublin Bay now, they’ve built their houses facing away from it, without even a window out towards it in some cases; but we love it, Sof and I. We come up here at dawn as often as we can. We sit up against the piled rocks of Fairy Castle, and we lean into the warmth of each other, and we watch. This is our time, before people start to waken down on the slopes of Two Rock and over on Tibradden, down in the pine forest and around Kelly’s Glen. Then it gets noisy around here, and busy, because everyone’s got a project at this stage; everyone’s building, or expanding, and until nightfall there’ll be the sound of chainsaws, of hammers, of people helping each other or hating each other or whatever mixture of the two they’ve chosen to get through the day. Onduline Avenue, some smartarses have started to call the place, even though it’s nothing like an avenue, even though the huts and cabins are meandering all over the surrounding woods and mountains, wherever there was public ground, and in lots of cases wherever there was not. The farmers, the owners of that land, fought back for a while – some of them fought dirty – but at this stage, they seem to have given up. Or maybe they’re just biding their time. Anyway, the place is growing. There’s going to have to be another school pretty soon.
We live on Sunrise Street. That’s what Sof and I call it, anyway. Ours was the original street, the row of buildings that Mum and her group put up here early on, when the floods were just beginning; they knew what was coming. They knew these mountains, because they’d built the old walkway up here themselves, years ago, when the government wouldn’t stump up for it, and later, when the government panicked and pulled back all the money for the visitor facilities that’d already started to go up, saying that it was needed in the “coastal districts”, Mum and her group negotiated to get the abandoned site on a long lease, and she brought me and Dad up here, and the other people in the group, including Sof’s dad, brought their families. In the mornings, the first light spills on to the street between the houses, snaking up here to Fairy Castle and over to the ruined cairn on Tibradden. It’s not a solstice thing – some days it does it, and some days it doesn’t, and anyway, the seasons are so screwed up now, who knows when the solstice is anymore? But it’s still cool.
“Come on,” Sof says now, letting go of the binoculars, and she stands. She reaches a hand down to me, and I see how flushed her cheeks are; how excited she is. She’s been set on us joining the dredgers for months now, ever since she heard what they were doing down there. We’re both technically too young to be allowed on a dive, but Sof got friendly with Lexi, the woman who leads this crew, and she’s basically persuaded her to let us come today. Sof is amazing like that, amazing with people; she really knows how to talk to them, to get on with them. She’s just really interested in them. Obviously, I’ve been the one to gain the most from that, but that doesn’t stop me envying it, wishing I had it too, that I wasn’t so awkward and practically mute when I’m faced with other people – and it doesn’t stop me, either, feeling this pathetic jealousy of the people she’s talking to, wishing she found me as fascinating as she finds them – and yet I’m her girlfriend. She chose me. So what more do I want from her? I drive myself crazy sometimes, the way my mind works. I wish I could just calm down, enjoy what I have. I take Sof’s hand as we go down the mountain, and she smiles at me, and I remember. Everything is fine.
At the foot of Two Rock, things are beginning to stir; a toddler darts out a door, with an older child following, shouting the syllables that must be the little one’s name, and from several houses I can hear the mutter of radios. We should get ready. We’ve told our parents that we’re going on a field trip for school, and they haven’t asked any questions; before, school was a maze of notes and consent forms and signatures, but here it’s much more relaxed. We go to the hall three times a week for classes, and we spend the rest of our time on the sites, learning how to design the buildings and put them up, or in the gardens, trying to convince the fruit and vegetables not to die. Getting away today would be a cinch anyway, because Mum and her group are meeting some fancy Dutch architecture firm, and Sof’s dad is catering the lunch, so they’d barely notice even if we put our gear on and clomped down Sunrise Street, fins and snorkels and everything.
We’ve dived before. We’re not idiots; we’re not just going to throw ourselves in there without knowing how to do it. We learned when we were in first year, when they just randomly started teaching it as part of PE. Started bussing us up to the dive school in Clongriffin, as though it was the obvious thing to teach a bunch of 12-year-old inner city Dublin kids to do. Some kind of intuition kicking in, even if they didn’t understand it, or wouldn’t face up to it; Mum says that kind of thinking was everywhere during that time. Says that people knew, but they wouldn’t allow themselves to know, and that the knowledge kept pushing out in weird ways, with weird results. The way they decided to close the zoo a few years back, just empty it out and either ship the animals away or put them down, that was another thing. They said the era of animals for entertainment was over, but that wasn’t the real reason, the down-deep reason. They didn’t want certain things to be able to live in the water. It hadn’t come yet, they wouldn’t admit that it was coming, but yet there they were, trying to decide how it would be. That was about the size of them, alright. Control everything, look after nothing.
I’m ratty today. I’m usually not like this; I don’t harp on what happened, and I don’t let it have control over my mood. There are too many people up here like that, and there’s no point in it, it just slows everything down. But I think I must be nervous, about going down there, about going in, and this is the way it’s showing itself: going over things in my head, thinking, now – we’re in the jeep with Lexi now, she’s driving us down to the place where we’ll get on the boat and head in for the site – that Sof is overdoing it, that she’s just sweet-talking Lexi, blatantly sucking up to her. Or, could there be something going on between them? Lexi’s 25 or 30 or something, but she’s gorgeous, and Sof never shuts up about her. But I know I’m just anxious. What if those were sharks Sof saw this morning? What if it’s true, what they say about the radioactivity in the water, the way it seeps into your cells? A radioactive shark. Okay, time to stop thinking.
“It’s a museum dive today, by the way,” Lexi says as we turn onto the Milltown Road. The sandbags here are mental; they’re old and filthy now, so they look like the stone walls you used to see in Connemara and those places. And all these big old houses, empty now, or empty of the people who used to be in them, anyway. There are definitely people in there.
“What’s a museum dive?” I say, because if I let myself think about these houses I’ll wind up thinking about our old house, and our old neighbourhood, and that’s not a good idea.
“Kind of what it says on the tin, Amina,” Lexi says. “There are still a lot of artefacts down there. Trolls have already scoured the sites for what they can sell on, obviously, and loads of things didn’t survive – ”
“The Book of Kells,” Sof says. “Medieval papier-mâché now.”
Lexi laughs. “No, someone got that out,” she says, “but there were other psalters that, yeah, went the way of the dodo. As did the dodo, come to think of it. Did you two ever get to the Dead Zoo on Merrion Square?”
We look at each other, baffled. “You mean in the park?” I say, but Lexi shakes her head.
“Before your time,” she says. “Anyway, that’s not the museum we’re focusing on today. We’re diving into the site where the archaeological collections were. All the jewelry and the chalices are long gone, but there are plenty of other things that we want to rescue. The less obvious stuff. You know they had an urn in there from your neck of the woods?”
She shrugs. “Well, maybe, yeah, but this one was from where you live now. Tibradden. You know the cairn up there?”
“Yeah!” Sof practically shouts. “We look at it every morning!”
“Well, there’s something missing from there. And it doesn’t belong where the trolls can get it, at the bottom of Lake Sellafield.”
I make a noise, a sort of groan, not meaning to, and Sof gives me a warning look, but Lexi is waving her hand dismissively. “Don’t mind me, don’t worry about that,” she says. “It’s no more dangerous than any other body of water. It’s just a hell of a lot more interesting.”
“What do you see down there?” Sof says. We’re pulling into what seems to be a car park now, with jeeps and trailers everywhere, but as we go further in I see it’s not a car park, but an improvised dock, a long launching place for motorboats and dinghies; this is where the water begins. I try to think: we went through Milltown about a mile ago, and then Donnybrook. This must be near the canal.
Lexi turns to us. “We see everything,” she says. “All benighted things that go.”
Whatever that means. But we’re about to find out, I suppose.
And oh, it is so dark down there. So dark and so full. My city: no, no, it is no longer my city. But I love it still. And there goes Sof, disappearing around a pillar-stone, sinking down to what must have been a place where people met. The blackness of it. The teeming black pool.
Dublin in the Coming Times: The series and how it works
In The Rose, his 1893 collection, W B Yeats included the poem To Ireland in the Coming Times. Borrowing its title, Dublin in the Coming Times is a free, citywide programme of creative writing in which Dubliners young and old can create their own stories and poems as they look to the future of their city as it goes through another phase of evolution and renewal.
Roddy Doyle has invited writers and artists to contribute short stories reimagining the city. Some of their work has been published in The Irish Times in 2016.
Free creative-writing workshops are running over the course of the year for adults in six Dublin public libraries, in Donaghmede, Fighting Words, Science Gallery, Little Museum of Dublin, Axis Ballymun and the Ark.
The project, which is in partnership with Dublin Unesco City of Literature, is intended to enable Dublin’s citizens to participate in illustrating a vision of the city as a place that, although it might change and adapt to new circumstances, will continue as a living, creative environment and a place for the storyteller and poet. We hope to publish selections from the stories that are created.
Executive director, Fighting Words
Dublin in the Coming Times is being promoted by Dublin’s Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development, a Dublin City University programme with the UN University; email email@example.com