An Auctioneer's Lot
by Damien MatthewsEntries Posted Weekly on Fridays
Visiting the Dead
Bills and bureaucracy, that’s mostly what occupies my mind early mornings. €1,680 demand just in from the council. Water rates. One lavatory, one hand basin, both rarely used. They’re in the right business. Scribble a scathing reply but fully expect an identical letter next month. Numbnifying paperwork. Never dies down never goes away, just part and parcel of owning a business – bureaucratic dust, silently accruing until it’s unavoidable.
Just getting stuck in when the telephone rings. A general enquiry. Moments later it rings again. Confidently I gather up the handset.
“Good morning Matthews Auctioneers”
Timid voice comes down the line, “Ah hello, do you observe the holy days?”
“Only if my conscience allows me madam, how can I be of assistance”
“I’m so sorry to bother you, we might have a few things to sell”
“That’s grand, what might they be”
“I’d rather not talk about it over the telephone, if that’s alright”
“No problem at all. If you go onto the website and cli…” She cuts right across.
“I’m afraid we wouldn’t be much use at that sort of thing”
“Is it just a couple of things or a quantity”
“Well, its the contents of our house I suppose, mammy’s and mine”
Mammy must be a great age because daughter sounds about seventy. And defintiely convent educated. Arrangements are made, directions given. I’m to visit the following day, Friday. Good Friday.
A fair jaunt in the car but bring the dogs for company. Going by that voice we expect an old farmhouse slightly run down, with land. Surprisingly, it’s not. It’s an extremely large modern redbrick on a substantial elevated site just outside a market town. The dogs look downwards in disappointment. We drive upwards along a tarmac-lined drive bisecting hilled lawns towards a white painted portico stuck onto the front. An afterthought perhaps, one last shot at over-the-top brashness. Definitely constructed in the Tiger Era when bigger was better, and brasher better still. She definitely struck me on the telephone as old house material; cautious type. A saver-hoarder, not one for the edifice of spending here before me now. Perhaps she got a killing, sold land, bought this, and the old stuff moved in along with her. Hope so. Modern things unless they’re super smart really don’t sell too well at auction – not given their original purchase cost. That’s for sure. Great for the auction buyer, not so great for the commission-based auctioneer. A whole lot of moving with a small cheque for both vendor and auctioneer at the end of it. But mustn’t grumble, many crumbs make a loaf. We continue.
The exterior pristine, every window polished, every blade of grass cleanly cut, the mower’s blade sharpened for every turn. An untainted showhouse look but with every curtain drawn, and it a sunny day, I’m slightly puzzled. Two hyperactive dogs digging up her perfect lawns wouldn’t be appreciated, so leaving them in the car I walk around to the boot where a dark jacket is kept for just such occasions. Better not take any chances – if my summations are correct I’m just about to get the guided tour from the recently bereaved. Stepping under the portico I ring the bell. Waiting, I check shoes, pat down remaining hair, and hum a solemn tune to get myself into the funerary mood.
Further waiting, I try to outstare the sun. Mustn’t do, it’s a poor game to play, unwinnable. Black rings dance before my eyes as the lock clicks. Unseeingly I halt my hum, turn my head and there she is, blurred before me. Just make out wringing hands parted momentarily wide, like a papal blessing in gesture of welcome. Already she’s over-apologetic.
“Thank you so much Mr. Matthews for coming, I probably have nothing”.
She’s at it, all the time, I can tell, the trait’s ingrained. Often thought of running weekend seminars on the side, €1,000 and change your life in two days. Double it and I’ll change it in one, getting home early to watch the races. My vision returns, the next thing I see are two red lines like blankets blowing on a line. Lipstick, too much and too red, spread out over the natural line of her outer lip. Flap, flap, flap. She’s apologising even more. So much so I can’t follow the words, all a verbal blur. Now what’s all this about, there’s more to this than just good manners. I’m being beaten with apologies, and she’s beating herself. We’re both being virtually attacked, I catch the last few lines, “I’m probably wasting your time, I know I am and I know time is a valuable thing Mr. Matthews”.
Now that I see her, she’s not that old. Tall, well-boned and still good looking, perhaps forty five. I’m forty eight and no old man, but one can see how it might happen, too old to be young, too young to be old. That’s me. But this one, she’s making herself look far older than needs be. That lipstick perhaps a morning ritual, mocking the beauty she feels she once had. Big mistake. In the right clothes and a lighter hand on the tiller of war paint (with perhaps an effort made with stature) she’d be formidable. Sadly it seems the trauma of life, of actually getting through it, has overwhelmed her. But perhaps I’m reading too much into all this, she could be just having a bad hair day. Don’t jump to conclusions. Maybe it’s me who’s got the problems. Maybe she’s actually the one who’s got life sorted and doesn’t give a damn how she looks. Dial it down old man, hear her out, you’re not always right you know.
“Come in, come in”, she says, “anyway you’re very good to come considering the day”.
“Delighted to, and such a lovely drive”
“Would you like a cup of tea, of course you would, come in, sure you must be parched”
In I go, following behind a pair of black cotton high-waisted lounge pants – the ones true geriatrics prefer – with added spills and stains. She leads me to the kitchen and at table we sit. Teapot awaits and is poured. Her gnarled-like hands reach out low over the table to pour, she then offers me the milk jug. Now how one can ‘act’ a pair of hands to appear eighty is beyond me, but she has the skills, Oscar time. When I accept the milk jug she leaves them bloodless, limp, out on the table, cadaver-like – which it appears she can’t wait to be. No dancing at Lughnasa here.
We sit and cross what I hoped would be pleasantries. I begin.
“A fine day out there ”
“It’ll rain later”
“We’ll just have to make the best of while we have it”
“You found the way easy enough”
“That car knows half the country at this stage, but thank you, your directions were precise”
“Aren’t you a little old for a car like that”
She’s referring to my well-worn yellow MG, taken out for airings on rare sunny days.
“It helps keep the madness down”
“It must break down a lot”
“She would if I let her, secret’s to keep her well oiled, the foot down and ignore the squeals”
“Aren’t you the odd wit”
“Have to drive something, and it’s got a sunroof”
“For all the use that’ll do you”
“Even on the cloudy days I open it”
“Isn’t that a little odd”
That word again. Odd. Odd? Not as odd as you sitting there pretending to be eighty, my unkind, unsaid thought. She was a confirmed inhabitant of that awful land, a pessimist, but seeing that the criteria of the day job is landing consignments I rush to change nationality.
“It’ll let me down some day I suppose”
“Indeed it will, won’t it now”
I churn out whatever will make her ‘happy’.
“It definitely will, sure they all do”
“They do, they do”.
How did it come to this? Poor choices gone wrong, bank loan, a bad childhood not revisited left unfixed, jilted by a lover? Suffering comes to everyone, it’s no respecter of persons: to the old and the young; the strong and the weak; the rich and the poor – no one escapes the cross. But it’s how you deal with it that counts. No matter. She’s rising now, her spirits high, she’s warm to her theme. The next two cups of tea are seriously hard work. Any attempt made, however slight, to steer her away is met with a slap down of negativity. One imaginary shovel of misfortune heaped on top of the other until we have a pile, a whole big steaming pile. For me, the point of Enough has been reached. Not for her, no. She wants to dig on. I flatly ask, “Shall we?”
Our Meryl Streep of the ills gets up, managing at the same time to stay fully hunched. Looking directly down at the ground, gamely she reaches out for her walking stick while stepping towards it at the same time. Too much, too much. Gaiety School of Acting too much. Wobble, wobble, wobble, and not a thing wrong with her. Takes an actor to know one, and this player is over-reaching her part.
As we move through the house, starting upstairs and working our way down, the curtains stay pulled in every room. Electric lights are switched on, and off, as we go. Naked bulbs exhale in low wattage a sorry yellow, showing everything spotlessly clean. And new. Nothing antique at all. Not one stick. Tremendous disappointment given the two hour drive, and on a rare day off. Fooled myself yet again, treated the trip as a busman’s holiday. My hat, this is work, hard work. What there was, gleamed, not a speck of dust rested on anything. It was plain to see that daughter each day vigorously polished the entire contents of these darkened rooms. But as I’ve mentioned before, there really isn’t much call in the auction room for once expensive, now dated, second-hand furniture.
No personal effects decorated the rooms, even the bedrooms. All was bare, no evidence of human occupation, or of a life. Scarily tidy. Bedclothes tugged tightly at each corner, pillows perfectly plump appeared unused. Does she sleep standing up. Or on the floor? There was however one thing that stood out, besides the extreme tidiness. One repeated thing. In each room hung the exact same expensively framed photograph. It depicted a tall glamorous woman in her mid-thirties dressed in black lacy designer frock with feathered hat upon her head. A vivid red chiffon scarf hung loose about her throat as she accepted a prize, or award. of some sort. A fine cut of a man smiles by her side. Different woman, a dead sister? After our grim upstairs tour we began the walk down. She one step at a time. The old folk shuffle, two feet for every one step.
In the dining room there isn’t anything much of useful value either – all too new, too dated. We walk back out, towards the kitchen and past an open drawing room door. She doesn’t stop, keeps shuffling forward. Although it wasn’t my place, wouldn’t it be untoward of me not to look there too? Most of the better things tend to be kept in the main rooms of a house. By stopping I hinted. But she carried on. Sensing my absolute lack of movement she eventually stopped, turned around, raised her stooped head, and said, “would you like to see mammy?” Was it a grin or a grimace upon her face? Even now I can’t decide. She shuffles back and bids me through the open door.
Again the undrawn curtains made it hard to see. This time she turned on no light to help me in my quest. My eyes adjusted slowly. Caught in the half-light from the hall a Georgian bureau. Nice, but plain. Too plain. Unfortunately no real call for these in the market either. “From mammy’s house”, she says. Above the bureau that large framed photograph again. Below it rested a salver. Might be silver. Daughter apprehensive, her head raises in keenness as she hovers close to my side, feel her brushing up against me. Casually pick it up and put out the line, “Unfortunately only cheap silver plate”. Her head lowers and she moves away. I’ve hurt her, dismissed it too lightly. Placing it back down on the bureau I glimpse at the engraved lettering, ‘Presented to The Winner, Best Dressed Lady, Kilbeggan Races 2006′. By God, it’s her. It’s her prize. In the photograph. If it didn’t say so right here I’d never have believed it. Never. Just ten years ago and now this? Some turnaround. Her life since, the way of a shot bird, defeathered and fallen from the sky, all forward momentum stilled, now only downward and to the ground. I look up at the framed photograph again. Was it you my fine fellow?
Mindful of the hurt my words had caused I turn to apologise but she had since stepped away, to the further end of the room. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the darkness I could make out that we were in fact in an L shaped drawing room, and that she now stood looking towards me, beckoning me from its elbow. Physically she was too far away to allow me apologise softly, and not wishing to shout across the room, I unwisely stayed silent. The next words were hers, “Come, she’s waiting”.
I walked towards the crease. At this very moment stray lines from a Dr. Seuss story whistled through my mind, ‘I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them. I will not eat them in a house, I will not eat them with a mouse, I will not eat them in a box, I will not eat them with a fox. I will not eat them here, or there, I will not eat them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them Sam-I-am’. Strange the thoughts that rattle through an auctioneer’s head when he’s a little apprehensive but there you have it. Anyhow back to the present. Something even more than all this wasn’t quite right. And I had yet to put my hand on it.
There she stood, at the room’s elbow, waiting. Stock still, legs wide apart with that walking stick gripped firmly now with both hands. As I approach, her head rises again. Definite smile this time. She held, then led, my gaze around the corner. And there was mother, between two curtain-drawn windows bathed in a soft light. A lit candle rested on a nearby table. Thin as a whippet she was. Actually, thin as a dead whippet, she was laid out in her coffin. Too much. I stall. Not going any further thank you. But daughter reaches out for my limp hand and grasps it, claw-like, her’s a falcon’s talon. She has me now, nothing for it but to follow her lead.
Shuffling across the polished parquet we approach the casket. My angle of vision deepens as we near. Oh I do not like green eggs and ham, oh I do not like them, I do not like green eggs and ham. I look straight down into the open coffin. Why can’t I just stop this, why can’t I just leave. Mammy, dressed in her Sunday best, stares right back up at me. A flouncy black velvet bow decorates a thin wrinkled purple neck, tightly clasped arthritic hands entwine a crucifix. Her stare, thankfully unblinking, is focused waxily in death heavenward past my gaze. I lean backwards with relief as my guide leans in and says, “Doesn’t she look so young”.