I started writing this piece as February 2020 met March 2020. Before everything changed. Reading back what I wrote is like reading about someone else, or just a different me. A me who lived half her life, it felt, on buses travelling across Dublin city.
I’d moved a few months previously to the northside and was trying to get the measure of my new surroundings. In the evenings on the bus, I’d pass a mostly-built apartment block near the Five Lamps. There was a big sign pasted diagonally on the side of it. ‘LOOKS GOOD, DOESN’T IT?’ it shouted, as though the building itself were alive and vying for my attention. It’s a strange thing, really, some human deciding that a building should tell people how great it is. I’ve passed that apartment building, which is now completed, maybe 10 times since. There are chairs decorating a few of the balconies, but I can’t really tell if anyone has moved in. The ‘LOOKS GOOD, DOESN’T IT?’ sign is gone, no trace of it left.
I had noticed that on the bus, at night, if you take a photograph on your phone through the window you can capture multiple things at once. Your reflection, the inside of the bus, and whatever is happening outside in the dark, all become one. I had started to take pictures on my phone on most of my journeys, attempting to capture life outside the bus – the blooming red and green lights, the chains of pedestrians crossing O’Connell Bridge, the cigarette smoke floating above pub fronts. In the dark, the bus photos became like triple exposures, with the reflection of the bright yellow beams of the bus pole handles intersecting my reflected face and the bright light of the buildings outside.
I particularly liked getting the bus at night, in the winter – you can tell I never had to stay on the bus for long – as through the steamed-up windows the city became a hazy mass. I could pretend I was in Blade Runner’s high rise world, a city of lights shrouded in fog. Not some random commuter breathing in other people’s breath (we used to do that! How I shudder) and squashed against strangers like a banana at the bottom of a schoolbag.
Before I moved to the northside, I used to only sit downstairs on the bus. Upstairs scared me. It felt disconnected and potentially full of danger. But after I moved and began taking the bus almost daily, I changed levels. I discovered that upstairs on the bus is the best place. There, I could set up camp, and read or watch or listen, safe and way from the bustling stream of moving passengers downstairs.
Upstairs, I was at ease. I used to (how weird to write about this in the past tense) prop my backpack on my knees, take out a book, leave my headphones in and read. Downstairs I was like an on-edge animal, observing the movements of my fellow bus passengers and waiting to be interrupted.
I started writing about all this because on those bus journeys in the cold of February I listened and listened to Aoife Nessa Frances’ excellent debut album, Land Of No Junction, which came out that month. When I first started this essay, the world felt like the album: fresh and new. It was the start of 2020, so who knew what excitement awaited me? I felt the promise that the future months held, and believed in it. But writing now, the year feels like a spinning top that’s on its last few slow revolutions. Things are slowing down, unsteadily.
I had immediately connected with Land Of No Junction as the record feels so lived in, so at home with itself. An organ appears in a song as though it has just sprung to life, the dust blown away by the movement of fingers on the keys. Aoife Nessa France’s alto voice is sometimes multi-tracked. She sounds assured, and contemplative. That’s the kind of music I wanted to be listening to when I moved through Dublin by bus – assured and contemplative.
As a sucker for nostalgia, I soaked up the glittering bits of it that seeped through little cracks in her songs (like the hint of Elliott Smith’s nimble guitar-playing at the beginning of the track ‘Blow Up’). I adored the clever touches too, like in ‘Less Is More’, where right after she sings ‘I can see your silence’, the drums and keys really kick in. Mostly when I listened then, and when I listen now, I hear music that has many varied layers to it. Like the photographs I took through bus windows, it has different elements that come into view at different times. All these parts, whether taken from folk, rock, literature or film, make up a cohesive and graceful whole.
The album title, Land of No Junction, makes me think – naturally – of a road that travels on, and on, with nothing preventing the pure trajectory of the vehicles on it. Of a Dublin Bus that doesn’t judder to a stop at a red light, or push quickly through a yellow as it threatens to turn to red. Part of the twisted appeal to the bus was those judders and shudders, the sudden movements that left me swearing under my breath as I clutched the yellow railing and tried to rebalance myself. Back in early 2020, I’d started seeing the stairs on the bus as an exercise in balance. A way of teaching my body how to adjust to the vagaries of the physical world around it. Ha! How much more balancing there was to come.
On ‘Here in The Dark’, Aoife Nessa Frances sings “my heart is alive/I’ve been dreaming of better times”. The song is a collection of domestic images, like keys in doors, and inner thoughts about unpredictable emotional impacts on the body. I felt in February that there was something of the teenager in me who liked sitting on buses and contemplating brooding lyrics, but who are we humans if we don’t like a good brood now and then? I loved, too, the feeling of adding a cinematic twist to my commute, surrounding myself with deliciously meaningful music that those around me could not hear. “I’ve been thinking,” sings Aoife Nessa Frances, “of paradise.” Who’s to say that paradise isn’t in her own head?
But thinking about this album, and the bus trips I took so regularly, made me think about one particular evening the week before Christmas last year. As I was walking to the bus stop after work, off to my cocoon of music, I saw a dad on George’s St holding the hands of who I presumed were his two young daughters. They were perhaps 8 and 10 years old. As I passed, our eyes met. He looked at me, somewhat embarrassed, as he asked me for some money, nodding his head towards his daughters instead of saying what I knew he wanted to say, which was ‘for their Christmas’.
I gulped down my surprise and as I had no cash on me, mumbled a pathetic ‘sorry’. Then I walked as fast as I could to the nearest ATM, which wasn’t working, and then went to the nearest one to that, inside a supermarket. I dithered for a few wasted moments wondering if I should buy the daughters some chocolate. Every offer I could think of making to this family seemed stupid and pointless. It felt wrong that he had to beg and wrong that I had a life so much better than him, a life I often took for granted. I took out money and left the supermarket with the note folded up in my hand, wondering what the best way to give it to the dad was – how obvious should I be? I didn’t want to embarrass him or his daughters in the cold dark of December.
The week before that Christmas I had been worrying about which Christmas gift to get which member of my family, and what to pack for my trip back to Cork. My greatest problem was what to choose from a number of nice options. As I headed back to the dad and his daughters, I felt sick to my stomach thinking of what they had to do that day.
I got back to where I had seen the trio. They were no longer there. I looked across and up George’s St, stared at the bus stops, tried to spot their faces in the crowds passing by. Nothing. My bus appeared at the bus stop and I got in, heartsick and guilty. I went upstairs, where the seats were mostly empty. I cried, wiping away the fat, hot, pathetic tears with a half-dissolved tissue fished from the bottom of my coat pocket. I felt sad and horrified by what people go through. Christmas suddenly seemed, for once and for all, like a procession of waste and excess, a greed-driven expression of wealth.
Upstairs on the bus, I was alone in my moment of revelation and upset as the city hummed and flashed below me. The Christmas lights dangled above the streets and shops, the shoppers rushed here and there with multiple bags on their arms. Somewhere, a dad and his daughters asked strangers for the money to buy their own Christmas presents. As the bus brought me towards my warm, safe home, Dublin city continued as it always did, a stew of money and poverty, people with too much and people with too little, houses built of cardboard boxes on cobbled streets, cigarette ends tossed into puddles.
This Christmas brings with it even more complications, sadness, grief, but also celebration. People will be reunited and people will be kept apart. It’s not even a Christmas I can start to comprehend in my head.
So I think of that line in ‘Here In The Dark’: “My heart is alive/I’ve been dreaming of better times”.