Michael Harding: Starving, he moved through the Luas like a broken puppet. Nobody gave him a penny

I keep my headphones plugged in and avoid other people’s lonely eyes

No one can hurt me, I think, as long as I keep my headphones plugged in and avoid other people’s lonely eyes. Photograph: iStock

No one can hurt me, I think, as long as I keep my headphones plugged in and avoid other people’s lonely eyes. Photograph: iStock

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I was coming in from the Red Cow on the Luas one day and two young boys were standing in front of my seat talking about some friend who “got out of the ‘Joy” recently, and how he “paid his own bail” and what “the copper” said to him in the van.

They got off near the Four Courts, and I saw them zigzag through the posh bewigged barristers that flitted and flapped along the street in their black robes and white bibs, carrying boxes of weighty evidence to the benches of justice.

On Henry Street I stepped over an empty sleeping bag, neatly tucked into the side of a doorway. I guessed the owner had probably gone for a morning coffee, or to beg elsewhere.

The Luas moved on, and I could hear a newcomer addressing the passengers in a Dublin accent.

“Could you spare something, please? I slept in a door last night, and I’m trying to get a hostel tonight.”

The mantra repeated like a broken record, but when the man appeared before me I averted my gaze. He was in his 20s but so emaciated that he might have been starving to death. He moved through the carriage like a broken puppet, as if his nervous system had been ravaged by wasted years and multiple addictions. And he left the Luas at one stop further up, without having secured a single penny.

On Henry Street I stepped over an empty sleeping bag, neatly tucked into the side of a doorway. I guessed the owner had probably gone for a morning coffee, or to beg elsewhere. But I clutched a euro coin in my pocket just in case I was accosted again, as I walked towards Connolly station.

The train to Sligo felt like a sheltered paradise of affluence after the grim desperation of Dublin city: men and women on travel passes phoning their partners to pick them up at stations along the way; people returning from hospital appointments in the city; skinny students from Maynooth reading books about Bridget Cleary or novels by Virginia Woolf. 

I suppose we all live in separate universes. Although people on the Sligo train have their own anxieties too.

I spoke to a widow woman living in Roscommon, who still can’t speak much English, even though she left Germany 40 years ago. She told me that a man came to her recently with a big lorry of tar and said he was working for a company on the Dublin road. He said they had extra tar and he could spread it for her on the avenue and it would cost very little.

And like a gobdaw she parted with a cheque for €5,000 and he said he’d come back later to finish the job. That was two months ago.

She showed me a picture of the lumpy black tar on her phone. 

“It was only when he has gone,” she said, “that I have understood the Dublin road is not near me. And there is no road works near me.”

But I didn’t want to listen to her any further. I had my own obsessions. And when I don’t want to talk to people I put on big earphones that block out the world. I protect myself from other people’s suffering by listening to books about the meaning of life or the sweet music of chanting nuns. 

Because it’s not just the people on the Luas who are afraid of the poor. I’m also living in a little cocoon, terrified that the anguish and desperation of those around me might somehow undermine my own fragile peace; solitude is sometimes nothing more than an act of selfish isolation.

They nodded and twitched, and flung their bony arms around each other as they parted; a camaraderie of their own, a kind of love perhaps, that I know nothing about

No one can hurt me, I think, as long as I keep my headphones plugged in and avoid other people’s lonely eyes.

Sometimes, just to avoid other people, I hang around the corridor between one carriage and another, taking videos of the swamplands and floods.    

Last week I was on the train again, heading for the city. I took a room on the fourth floor of a swanky hotel near the museum. After checking in, I had a shower and stood looking out at the city as I was drying myself.

On the pavement below I saw them again. Those scrawny boys in their tracksuits. One was lighting a cigarette from the other. They nodded and twitched, and flung their bony arms around each other as they parted; a camaraderie of their own, a kind of love perhaps, that I know nothing about. 

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