For the past ten years – that is, for most of my twenties and for the portion of my thirties so far elapsed – I have lived in a medium-sized housing development in Rathfarnham, a few miles south of the centre of Dublin. It’s a very pleasant environment, as these set-ups go: terraces of white-doored red-brick houses arranged along a horseshoe bend, paved common areas with little fountains and gazebos, carefully maintained plants and so forth, all sequestered behind ten-foot electronic gates. I don’t live in one of the terraced houses, but in a ground-ﬂoor two-bed in one of the four apartment blocks that are also part of the development. In keeping with the broadly faux-sylvan theme of the complex, these apartment buildings are named after trees. There’s The Oak, The Elm, The Ash, and The Willow. (I once gave my address to an American newspaper editor so that she could send me a galley of a book I was reviewing, and she replied as follows: ‘Your address is THE WILLOW? Pray tell, are you a Beatrix Potter character?’ Her question haunts me even now.) If you’d asked me, in my early twenties, where I saw myself spending the ﬁrst of my post-college decades, the answer you would have received would not have been ‘A gated housing estate three minutes walk from Rathfarnham Shopping Centre, and within easy reach of the M50.’ I would probably have said London, or New York, or maybe Paris or Berlin. I wouldn’t have foreseen myself staying in Dublin, and certainly not, at any rate, in one of its quieter southern suburbs. But these things happen – by which I suppose I must mean life. The apartment my wife and I live in – and which, at time of writing, we are ﬁnally preparing to leave for a house in the north inner city – is owned by my parents; and so the rent, as a consequence, has from day one been set at an exceptionally competitive rate.
I work from home, mostly, and so when I look out the window beside my writing desk, across at the facing terrace of four-beds with their SUVs and hatchbacks parked in front, I see the comings and goings of young families. There is one young family in particular whose comings and goings have, for years now, been a consistent feature of my days. They have lived in the house directly opposite us since I moved here with my then-girlfriend, Amy – now my wife – in 2003.Viewed, over time,through this window by my desk, these people have always embodied, for me, an abiding archetype of the middle-class family. The father drives a charcoal Volkswagen Passat, which he vacuums and polishes most Sundays; the mother, who seems to be a full-time homemaker, drives a light blue mid-size Honda 4×4, in which she shuttles their four children to and from school and various extra-curricular obligations. She never wears anything that does not seem to have been comprehensively thought through – is always, as Amy puts it, ‘in some type of outﬁt’ – and is never glimpsed without full hair and make-up. For a while there, every Saturday morning at about eleven the father and children (two boys, one girl, all aged variously between ﬁve and thirteen) could be seen emerging through the front door of the house dressed in loose-ﬁtting white martial-arts attire, ﬁling into the Passat, and setting out through the gates in the direction of some local kid-friendly dojo, there to work on the development of self-discipline and hand-to-hand combat skills as a family. I haven’t seen the karate suits in a year or two now, so presumably this is no longer a thing.
Amy and I have a strange, entirely impersonal relationship with these people across the street.We see them every day, and yet have never had even the most perfunctory interaction with them. We don’t know their family name. We do know that one of the sons, the eldest, is called Eoin (or Owen), and that he seems to be exceptionally popular, because the other kids from the estate are always petitioning his attention by shouting his name, which with their genteel South Dublin vowels they pronounce as an almost Francophonic ‘Eau-ouenne’. When we ﬁrst moved here, young Eoin (or Owen), who was then maybe two or three, could frequently be seen sauntering abroad in full Harry Potter get-up – the cape, the wand, the burgundy-and-mustard scarf – and so for want of any more solid identiﬁer, we started calling the family ‘the Potters’. This has long been standard practice with us when it comes to our neighbours. (In fact, I don’t feel fully comfortable using the term ‘neighbours’ here, because it implies a certain base level of community fellowship; something like ‘co-residents’ would probably be closer to the mark.) We know hardly anyone’s names. So there’s the Potters across the street, whom you’ve met. And then there’s the Frys, a couple in their early sixties who have lived in the apartment across the hall from us since we moved in, and who for a long time seemed to be constantly frying up all-day breakfasts that would stink out the ground-ﬂoor hallway. At one point, a letter intended for the Frys was mistakenly put in our letterbox, and we thereby found out that their real name was the Smiths, but by then we were used to referring to them as the Frys and didn’t see any need to change. Then about a year ago, perhaps on the recommendation of a GP, they knocked oﬀ the fry-ups and switched to stewing meats, often at perplexingly early hours of the morning, at which time I suggested it might be more appropriate to start referring to them as the Stewarts, but this was an idea in which Amy showed little interest. And then there’s the apartment directly above us, where there lives a young man, about whom I know next to nothing apart from that he lives alone, appears to be gay, and that his water pump makes a slow rhythmical wheezing noise whenever he leaves a tap dripping, and that he seriously needs to get it sorted. We refer to him, for reasons that I can’t now recall, and perhaps for no reason whatsoever, as ‘Our Friend’.
I’m intrigued, generally, by this socially demilitarized zone between the vague acquaintance and the total stranger: the sort of situation where you have enough contact with a person to need to refer to them by some kind of name, but where you’ve never had an actual conversation, and have no mutual acquaintances, and so don’t know what to call them when you’re talking about them. When I was in college, before I moved to the residential development that is otherwise the topic of this essay, I lived in a mews in Rathgar with my friends Aideen and Dylan. We did most of our shopping (pot noodles, sliced bread, instant coﬀee, cigarettes) in a place called The Late Shopper on the corner of Harold’s Cross Road and Rathgar Avenue. For most of that time, there was a rotating cast of people around our own age who worked in the place, and for whom we came up with cognomens based on physical appearance and general vibe. Ofthese, I remember two: Shiny-Faced Handsome Boy and The Fat Robot.
A couple of years after we moved out of the house, Dylan bumped into a drunken Shiny-Faced Handsome Boy at a Dizzee Rascal gig. They recognized each other instantly, embraced warmly, and immediately began to reminisce about the days of The Late Shopper, which had just recently become a Spar. It’s important to note here that our interactions with these guys had never gone beyond the level of small-purchase chit-chat and phatic communication. At some point during this brief, drunken reunion, Dylan confessed to the whole nicknames thing. Apparently, S-FHB reacted to this admission with gleeful wonderment, and then informed Dylan that the staﬀ of The Late Shopper had, in their own right, nicknames for us. And then, at this crucial point of intersection, some distraction or other – possibly the insistent opening breakbeat of Dizzee’s ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ – interposed itself between Dylan and S-FHB, and the encounter was cut short, never to be resumed. I have never quite been able to forgive Dylan for not pursuing the matter further, for failing to bring back solid intelligence from the parallel universe where we were the familiar strangers aﬃxed by cognomens based on physical appearance and general vibe. I consider it a signiﬁcant loss that I never got to learn the name by which these strangers referred to me; I can’t help feeling that, in some enigmatic but crucial sense, this would be my true name.