Michael Harding: The beggar’s words horrified me

I wasn’t certain what she meant, but my brain was in overdrive with the possibilities

Photograph: iStock

Photograph: iStock

 

I was in Dublin, pulling my suitcase along Abbey Street towards the Irish Life car park, when I noticed a woman in a long dress sitting on the side of the street beside the railings near a bus stop. I knew I had two coins in my pocket – €1 and €2 pieces – and I carefully fingered the smallest coin as I approached her, and placed it in her hand. I didn’t make eye contact and rushed on before she realised what I was doing.

“Thank you,” she said, but I wasn’t sure if I had helped her by giving her the money or insulted her by refusing eye contact.

It was Sunday morning and the car park was closed until 10am, so I walked all the way back up towards O’Connell Street to pass the time. The little woman saw me returning and she smiled, as if I had been defeated in some game. This time I felt obliged to give her the other coin.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

She named a city in eastern Europe. Beneath a blue scarf, her black hair held strands of grey. She looked beyond me, into the air, as if she were a ship drifting past me, unconcerned. And as she moved the coin from one hand to the other, I noticed a wedding ring on her finger.

I gazed into her chestnut-brown eyes, trying to think of another question, because they say it’s important to respect a beggar as a real person and not just reduce the relationship to money. But I may have lingered too long. Eventually she spoke out of the blue scarf.

“Jiggy jiggy?” she said like it was some kind of question.

The words horrified me. I wasn’t certain what she meant, but my brain was in overdrive with the possibilities. I felt ashamed. But instead of curiosity about what she might have meant, I felt fear, and I moved off, pulling the suitcase behind me, and furious with myself in some undefined way.

I walked onwards to O’Connell Street, thinking about Cumann na mBan and how a woman with a weapon is not quite as offensive as a male with side irons. There’s something very romantic about the idea of uniformed girls in 1916, with guns blazing for a republic of civil liberty and gender equality.

Near the GPO there was a man selling republican flags: tricolours with stencils of Pearse, Collins, and a variety of other heroes to suit the entire spectrum of political taste.

I picked out the green and yellow Starry Plough, as it was called when the Citizen Army flew it over Dublin during Easter 1916. The vendor wanted €20 but I walked away as if I had been insulted, and then returned to plead that I had no money, like a penniless dealer at a horse mart in Drumshanbo, until he eventually agreed on €10.

I passed him the money, slyly, as if we were doing an illicit deal, folded the flag into the pocket of my jacket and returned to the hotel.

The breakfast club

There was still an hour to go before I could get my car, so I decided to indulge in breakfast. But there was a queue winding out of the dining-room door, so I went across the foyer to wait at the glass window that stretched from floor to ceiling. A man from eastern Europe was squinting in the sunlight, being interviewed for a job by a boy in a suit.

“Do you have black trousers?” the interviewer inquired.

“Yes,” he said. “And I can start today if that is important.”

“Good,” the young man said, “let’s go and look at the kitchens.”

In the dining room I had poached eggs and a pot of coffee. At another table beside me, an American family were inspecting tourist maps and brochures.

Two glum daughters said they wanted to go home, and the mother, who looked exhausted, said they had only just arrived. Their father, a burly man in a New York T-shirt whose face was more likely moulded by weather than by any human emotion, declared: “This is Dublin. This is where the real fighting took place in 1916. You gotta know these things.”

As I walked down Abbey Street once again, I saw no sign of the woman at the empty bus stop. Maybe she was gone home, I thought, or was splurging my €3 on a coffee, or phoning her husband at the other end of Europe to say she missed him. Who knows? I suppose there’s a lot of things we can never know.

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