Monday morning in Dublin during a recession is an ideal time to go Christmas shopping, I think. No crowds, plenty of space, a bargain or two. I park in Drury Street, a friendly Corkman relieving me of my car keys and hiding the hire car in the bowels of his underground car park.
St. Stephen’s Green shopping centre is not as fancy as it used to be. I wander through a few shops and spend fifteen minutes being assisted with the purchase of a new hairdryer in Boots by a lovely Dublin chap with very little hair. Maybe it’s the Monday quietness, but I cut short my mall window shopping and head on out to find something a little more cheerful.
Grafton Street is only coming alive at eleven in the morning. HMV dominates the top of the street, hawking Michael Buble’s new Christmas album from every window. The ladies on the corner of Chatham Street still have the best fresh flowers, with buckets of rose hips to add seasonal cheer to any bouquet. The silver garlands of street lights above me seem to be lit, but the morning sunshine is too much and their effect is dulled for now.
I stroll through a handful of old favourites – Vero Moda, Monsoon, Pamela Scott – without being tempted. Pity: I am in the mood for spending money today. I pass somebody dressed as a large green leprechaun, trying to tempt people down to the boutique shops on Hibernian Way. At least he (or she) is warm in that ludicrous outfit. The doorman at Brown Thomas raises his top hat to me as I enter the warmth of its hallowed halls. I am enveloped by the luxurious perfumes of Jo Malone and the sumptuous red and gold of the Cartier concession, both doing brisk enough business for a Monday morning. No sign of a recession here then.
I pop into the Post Office on Suffolk Street to post the first of the Christmas cards, passing the rickshaw drivers shooting the breeze outside O’Neill’s pub. Talk about optimistic. The restaurant at Avoca Handweavers beckons, with promises of hearty vegetable soup and impossibly-dense brown bread. I wander through the shop, tempted by locally-made toiletries, vintage crockery, and stocking fillers to the top floor. It is busy enough, but not packed. Most of the staff seem to be Irish. Last time I visited this place all the wait staff were Eastern European.
My handsome Aaron Eckhart lookalike waiter approves of my order of a glass of prosecco with fresh raspberries. I am tempted away from hearty soup with the promise of a horseradish, walnut, roasted pear and Cashel Blue cheese salad. I sit at the back of the restaurant amongst the perfectly mismatched furniture, with a good view of my fellow lunchers. They are a predictable mix of well-heeled people of a certain age (which I define as ten years older than me) and a handful of local workers on their lunch break. Two girls beside me discuss the hundreds of redundancies about to be announced in one of the biggest Irish high-street banks.
As I stand to pile on the layers against the cold outside, I hear my name being called. I look around to see the sister of an old friend waving at me from the corner. I have not seen her in over seven years, and we embrace fiercely. We talk over each other, trying to catch up on years of news, sharing iPhone photos of new babies and old partners, before promising a longer catchup on my next visit. What a lovely surprise.
I burn another hole in my credit card at the Kilkenny shop. Well, who could resist locally-made smelly candles called Bog Standard? The afternoon is fading as I retrace my steps back up Grafton Street. The street lights are beginning to twinkle in earnest now, and the crowds have thickened a little too. That’s more like it. I head back to the first shop I visited in the morning, and purchase the first of many overcoats I have tried today, along with three new Little Black Dresses and countless other articles I simply could not do without. The walk back to the car is looking more and more torturous by the minute.
It is almost five, and almost dark. I savour the slow walk back down Grafton Street, now a beautiful ribbon of silver at dusk, the shops looking festive and the crowds good-natured. This is one of the reasons I made the long trip back to Ireland at such a cold time of year. It’s not Christmas for me without this scene.
My car emerges from the deep and I wind my way home through the Liberties, past St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch Cathedral, past St. Audoen’s church, the oldest parish church in Dublin, Christmas FM on the radio. I went to school near here, down the back of Francis Street at the Holy Faith Convent. Thomas Street is dull and depressing. The worst of the GFC is apparent here: no Christmas lights, lots of boarded-up shops, the handful of street stalls selling only cheap tat. On down James’s Street I drive, past St. James’s Gate, the home of Guinness, and turning onto narrow Kilmainham Lane. You would never imagine such a winding country road could be found just a couple of miles outside the very centre of a capital city. Ten minutes or so later I am home, decanting armfuls of bags from the car to the living room and presenting everything to Mum for her approval.
An hour later I am back in the car, retracing my steps back into town to meet Joe and Elva for dinner in Chez Max on Baggot Street. We are yards from where we all went to university, and although I have not seen them for a year and a half, the time melts away as we relax into our usual banter. The wine flows and suddenly it is time to go. We will not leave it so long again – next year is the twenty-fifth anniversary or our graduation.
The streets are empty and dark as I wend my way home. I curl up on the sofa and catch up with Mum before bed, happy with the amount I have crammed into one day. I fall sleep in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by familiar pictures and books. It all begins again tomorrow.