It was Christmas Eve, babe – An Irishman’s Diary about a traumatic encounter on the Dart
The flashpoint seemed to arrive near Booterstown, when the man began to wonder aloud where the money he had spent his day begging for was. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Around teatime on Christmas Eve, I took the Dart out into darkest south Co Dublin for a party to which I’d been invited weeks before. It was hosted by my friend Sophie, who was home from France. And en route, it struck me as an unusual night to be entertaining visitors, especially in a house with children.
In my experience, there tends to be a 48-hour ceasefire on such activities, from about midnight on the 23rd. This probably explained why Sophie’s invitation had specified her event was from 4pm to 8pm only, although in Ireland, such precautions were no guarantee that the last guests would leave before dawn.
The other thing that struck me on the way out was how desolate the streets of Dublin become at even 6pm on Christmas Eve. After the madness of morning and early afternoon, everyone except tourists has now fled for home.
In 15 minutes waiting for a train, I was the only person on either platform.
The Dart was a bit more populated, but not much. The first thing I noticed on board was a man talking – or rather shouting – to himself. He was in his 30s, maybe, but a victim of rough living. He had a bag of beer-cans beside him, and a small dog. But he definitely wasn’t shouting at the dog, because most of his utterances were directed out the window, into the dark.
So I sat a safe distance away, at the rear of the carriage. And that’s when I realised the man wasn’t talking to himself. On the contrary, several seats behind him, on the opposite side, was his life partner, who was supplying the other half of a dialogue.
Whenever he stopped talking, she started: mostly in the direction of his back, but sometimes, in an echo of his soliloquies, out the window.
They were discussing each other’s shortcomings, oblivious to their audience. His main one, as alleged, was drinking, although there was also a suggestion he had “battered” a woman once – a claim he denied.
Her chief weakness, meanwhile, was said to be some kind of medication. I missed the details.
The few other passengers were trying to pretend this wasn’t happening.
Some had earphones, which must have helped. Maybe they were listening to Fairytale of New York. But based on a quick survey of their age, gender, and size, I realised that if the argument (or the male half of it, anyway) turned violent, it would be me who’d have to intervene.
So every time the row went quiet, I relaxed a little. And every time it flared again, I tensed.
The flashpoint seemed to arrive near Booterstown, when the man began to wonder aloud where the money he had spent his day begging for was.
This provoked his partner to declare him a “fuckin’ eejit”.
Then she got up and, for the only time, approached him, to assist the search. It was her money too, I suppose, and Christmas depended on it. I braced for the worst. But the moment passed peacefully.
The cash found, the woman retreated to her seat.
After that, they went quiet for a while until, in a philosophical aside, she declared: “Oasis were right. The drugs don’t work.” This set them off again.
“That wasn’t fuckin’ Oasis!” the man shouted. “It fuckin’ was!” she spat back.
And on it went as, among other things, he bet her “a thousand fuckin’ euros” she was wrong.
He was right. It was the Verve, but he couldn’t think of the name. So now, despite my earlier concerns, I had a terrible urge to interrupt with the right answer.
This became almost irresistible when he asked the passenger nearest him if she knew.
She just shrugged, while my inner know-all shouted: “Ask me! Ask me!”
But he didn’t, and I bit my lip. It would have been ungallant to intervene on his side, even when he was right.
They got off before me, mercifully, at a station with two exits. Even there, they couldn’t agree. He went out at one end of the platform, she went the other.
Then a stop or two later, I left the by-then empty carriage to go in search of Sophie’s place.
Although I was more than fashionably late by now – it was 7pm – I was surprised how quiet the house seemed. Despite this, the family welcomed me warmly. Soon I was drinking some very good whiskey. And when I inquired if all the guests had gone already, Sophie confirmed that they had, 24 hours earlier, when the party had actually taken place.