I remove my feet from atop the heater, zip up my boots, position my Irish cap over my messy curls and ease my slate jacket onto my shoulders.
I turn the door handle slowly, pausing before stepping outside onto the street. Mentally I go through the checklist in my mind of everything I need: camera, extra battery, notebook, pen, lenses, sense of humour, courage, knocking ability. Check. The door clicks behind me.
I walk at a steady pace, talking to myself with each step:
“Not that one.”
“Maybe that one.”
“Nah, maybe not.”
“Ooh, look at that cat.”
“I like that lamp.”
I am looking but trying not to look. Not an easy thing to do. Because, you see, I am curious, in fact beyond curious. But Dad always told me that “curiosity killed the cat” so I try to hide any sign of overt curiosity. I never bothered to ask him which cat, mind you.
My inclinations towards colour have become rather Scandinavian in nature lately: muted tones, faded undertones, colours of the sea. It is no surprise to even me then that I pick the grey door with the blue pot outside of it. I lift my hand, raise the knocker and let it fall back down onto the door three times. I glance sideways and notice the bell, almost hidden towards the lower end of the door. I want to ring it but feel that I would be a rather intrusive stranger if I knocked and rang. I wait instead. The timid sun has already sunken behind the chimneys, and the wind that gusts about the street has winter written all over it. I pull my jacket tighter around me, turn to walk away but push the bell instead. I hear footsteps and a hurried searching for keys.
Her face is open, and her ivory skin belies her real age. She agrees to meet me for a cup of tea with her husband a week later.
She opens the door a week later and comments that I am on time, hushes me in and explains that she is finishing up a conference call. My eyes take in the large double volume ceilings that tower above me. I take a seat in the well worn-in leather couch. The house is designed in a lived-in way. You ease in instantly. Their collective musings, travel and everyday collections of life lie scattered about the place. In the average home, all these things would look out of place but here, something just works. Magazines are stacked in one corner, seemingly holding up a row of books that really do want to tumble down. A few leaves and twigs escaped their basket home. Vases and glass ornaments are bundled in no order into various corners. More than anything I notice the crumpled sheets of paper that make themselves at home everywhere. I smile. I like paper scraps that recline so lazily.
A wooden frame has been inserted above the kitchen area to create a second floor. I hear movement coming from this area. He comes down the stairs quietly and we introduce ourselves in hushed tones so as not to disturb her. He motions to a mug and I nod. The kettle is flicked on and he remarks about my accent, enquiring as to its South African origins. I laugh and nod. Most people guess Australia so I am thankful for the accuracy. He smiles then and walks towards the table where she is working. He picks up faded black and white images, handing them to me.
“That is my father Cyril Cusack in South Africa.”
A young boy on a horse and a young boy with an African man stares back at me. The resemblance is obvious. I look up from the photo at the son standing in front of me and back down at the photo again. Genes do take themselves seriously at times: not wanting to lose the good that went before.
Later in the conversation she points me to a framed painting of the grown man whose photos I had been looking at earlier. She explains that she found it for him in an auction and surprised him for his birthday. Harry Kernhoff, a local artist, created the masterpiece many years before. You see, this boy, born in South Africa and raised in Ireland became one of the country’s most renowned actors and the family legacy lingers strongly. These two people sharing their rich lives with me that span San Francisco, Rathgar, Ballsbridge and Sandymount are artists indeed. Their very home breathes it.
He is Paul. She is Elma, and together they inhabit this gem.
They love their neighbours and tell me with delight about all the animal lovers in the area. The conversation turns toward the area and names such as George Bernard Shaw and Leopold Bloom get jotted into my notebook. I make a mental note to myself that I need to go and explore the homes where these well known people were born. The rich Jewish history of the area emerges, and stories of coal and emigration to Manchester unfold.
Most interestingly I learn that Lombard Street West, the very street I find myself visiting in, is mentioned in Ulysses.
I want to linger. I really do. But I am a stranger after all. My mug of tea is long empty, and work beckons me back to the other side of the door again.
Goodbye Paul. Goodbye Elma. It’s been more than a pleasure. I hope to see you in Bibis soon: that other inviting Dublin door we all keep opening.
Photos and post by Claire Burge.
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