We then hauled our little suitcases along the sidewalk as we marched behind Mother’s ramrod straight, rigid back, for miles into grim side of Lisburn that we never knew existed. Slowly as we walked the city scape changed from fine to rundown to seedy. Pealing advertising increasingly covered every inch of the increasingly seedy buildings hawking everything. Increasingly the sidewalks were filled with people working on the street. Then living and working on the street. Instead of cabs, the streets were filled with vendors and hawkers and industrial and business carts. Increasingly the streets stank. The people stank. Then at last we reached it: our new home.
We had downsized to a unfashionable rental on the unfashionable part of town but Mother refused to sell her pew. She plotted to save just enough each week so we could walk part way and then take a cab to the kirk as always, thus keeping up appearances. The rental was a grim affair, black faced with soot, on a black street, on a black block, a block from an industrial canal, around the corner from mews that backed commercial businesses with digs on the upper floors, and around another corner where commercial warehousers and grim factories t employed kids for 14 hours a day. Translation: we were a half a block away from people who lived above their shops and only blocks away from indigent or toiling laborers working themselves to death. Socially speaking that was as good as a death sentence for us even if it was a life sentence for the poor kids toiling away half starved that we saw as we walked past. The grim rental still has the sign on the front door: ‘To Let. Furnished. To Respectable People. Contact Mr Flint at…’ Mr Flint was Mother’s agent. That Mother owned tenements did not bother her. That she had to now live in the best of her dubious rentals bothered her very much.
The place was grim inside, apparently long unoccupied, damp, dank, and amazingly cold because it had not been heated by any occupant for quite some time. The furniture was odds and sods that accrue over time at a rental. This rental was geared toward transients clinging to lower middle class respectability by their fingernails. Like Mother, their safe hold on life had suddenly been yanked out from under them like a rug paid for on credit that was suddenly reprocessed. This place was intended to be a hired facade for such people struggling to get back up the ladder to their original position in life or else transients who move from hustle to hustle and bunco game to bunco game. Clothes make the man and furniture the family and appearances were all. Present the right face to the world and present the right calling card or forged letter of introduction and you have your foot in the door of society.
Mother then bitterly moved us in. She knew exactly what the smaller lorry would bring. It was not much. The lorry unloaded the furniture. It was the less expensive stuff originally used on the upper floors at the other townhouse. This was the stuff Father first bought for Mother, stuff we actually owned rather than the pay-on-credit stuff on the ground floor the public was intended to see. That was why we still had it. Mother screeched to the two suffering movers where to put each thing. The worse of the rental furniture was hauled upstairs to either the storeroom that was suppose to be a bedroom or else the attic, the communal dumping ground of broken dreams.
Then Mother agonized over the placement of the few remaining crown jewels of her possession. She had no grand status mirror to hang on the big expanse of wall over the mantle in the drawing room where society was entertained. The drawing room was the facade of the family. So of course no family was allowed into the drawing room unless an elite guest came . And only then did the massive sliding doors slide open. Yet this was where Mother agonized. This was her last desperate hold on respectability. Oh how she agonized over that dreadful space above the mantle! The arsenic green wallpaper had faded. Something big and rectangular had hung there before. A grand mirror. But Mother’s own grand mirror was reprocessed. She had no picture big enough to cover the faded area of the wallpaper. She moved the rental pictures, dreadful things, and her own few remaining pictures around and around and around desperately trying cover the faded patches on the arsenic green wallpaper to no avail. There simply was nothing she could do. In the end she left the wall above the mantle empty and placed the best clock here on the mantle to hopefully distract attention away from the dreaded faded patch along with the best bric-a-brac.
There was a sofa there but it was dreadful. She cast her best shawl over it, thus sacrificing her appearance for the drawing room’s appearance. The heavy curtains were mildewy alas and had to be kept drawn when guests were not expected in order to preserve the room. The gaslight was feeble, oddly feeble, always feeble in that room. Her prized room. The face of her respectability. The Drawing Room. There was a piano, a stand up kind, less than fashionable but Mother had counted on that piano. It still played but as she ran a scale she noticed that there was a missing note. She looked and howled in exhausted vexation. A piano wire was missing. That was that. The piano could not be played period. To play would expose the flaw and she had not the money to repair the piano. So that was that.
Odds and sods filled out the odds and sods in the rest of the house. Mother’s parlor got the best of the odds and sods because that was the second best reception room where Mother would greet her second class guests and tradesman and do her business as the manager of the dear family home. Needless to say we would not be entertaining so the dining room was left as it was. Oddly it was rather good. Some of her renters did entertain as they spun their dreams and schemes over the dinner table to guests ie targets for their plots and plans.
Upstairs in the bedrooms the furniture was dreadful but that was that. We kids were now shoved into one communal nursery room, our little beds shoved tightly in. Mother took the best bedroom but to her eyes it was the worst bedroom she had ever seen so she was not happy. When Mother was not happy then no one was happy. The other bedroom was fulled with junk and furniture, alas all of it mostly junky furniture. I did see two quite nice beds taken apart and stored to the far end of the room but what with all of the junk Mother decided it was not worth moving junk out just to try to reach them to use them. Besides. Who knew who slept in the beds before? And they were very large so Mother’s mattress probably would not fit either one. The beds looked like a matching pair but designed for a husband and wife who fashionably slept in separate bedrooms joined by a common door. Mother’s room was the bedroom that shared the bedroom turned junk room but the door between the two bedrooms was locked and junk so filled the bedroom the door could not open anyway. So the extra bedroom turned storage room was left as it was. The upper floor was empty, the floor dense with dust. The attic was on top of that.
Our remaining servant, an Irish girl called Maeve, was delivered along with the furniture in the lorry she was guarding so ironically she got a free ride to the new home. Her small kit was installed in the small bedroom in the basement that was her bastion. Kitchen. Scullery. Cold room and still room combined. Wash room. It was all lined with tile and cold slate on the floor but was free of the mildewy smell and fading, dark, stained wallpaper at least. So Maeve was actually lucky. There was a back door reached by some ten steps from the alley for deliveries and a second back door into a very tiny yard with a high fence, some seedy bushes, some nice flagstones for a little courtyard, and the communal latrine. I kept looking for the roses but there were none. Yet I smelled rose very faintly in the air. It was most odd. Thus we embraced our new home. Alas, it did not embrace us…..