Treasure on Demand

Posted On: 10 Feb 2018

To be without electricity for almost a year has been, in a strange way, revitalising.

Treasure on Demand

To live without electricity for almost a year has been, in a strange way, revitalising. Living by candlelight and fire, like everyone did before us up to about 1930, makes you appreciate their ways. But still, it’s beginning to tire. Night comes and the last thing you’d wish to do after a long day is strain your eyes under candlelight jotting things down. How quickly this year has passed. Shocking really, obviously some sort of dreadful link with aging – the more years on the clock, the faster it goes. But hot water on demand, instant effortless heat, an oven that heats itself, a hoover, overhead light, all are luxuries to be truly relished. My electrician swears that in three weeks he’ll have me on the grid. So, before the wonder of electrical current arrives, here’s a blog written under the light of a three sconce candelabra that, given the time of year, has as a sort of Valentine’s tint to it.

“How hard can it woman, fifty years around here and still you can’t wash a dish”
Harsh words from the back of the house as a grand fire in the hallway, heaped red with the heat glows. I wait. Flag-stoned, square-formed, ceiling above stretching high up the full three floors. It’s an impressive entrance hall, but nothing in it to excite; 1940s oak side table with handles replaced, large beaten up log basket, few damp-stained prints, an old rug worn through. These things sort of represent what it is, a Georgian house sitting on a small parcel of land, an estate that’s been trimmed, and trimmed again. The house sits now on just thirty poor acres that wouldn't feed sheep. Never easy getting the tail end of anything – every second length of estate stone wall poked through. Fallen. More hep than wall.

Here he comes, bustling up the hallway losing no time; seventy, red-faced, round, fussing over the incidentals. Sharply rattles the fire, sparks fly upwards with the heat, he throws on another log.
“So now, what we can sell to get a few quid in”
My kind of man, direct.
“How much do you need?”
“Enough to get that lug there in the kitchen a new hip”
Little rough, but I’m an auctioneer not a marriage councillor, we move on.
“Wasn’t this the place those Elk horns came out of?”
“It was”
“Wouldn’t happen to be another pair hanging about?”
“All that trophy stuff’s gone, long gone with just about everything else. My father had his own lean times too towards the end, wasn't easy. Had to”
“Don’t worry, hungry eyes see far, I'm sure we’ll find something”
There’s always something, if you’re poor enough.

Hunted with him once. Always hurrying over his ditches, double-quick time, getting nowhere, doing it fast. Didn’t stop once, not even for the views – which are sometimes the best part of a day’s hunting. But this day, this day was a hunting day of a different kind. I allowed for it too, took the day off.

“Let’s get a move on, might as well get a start in there,” he points. Rushes me towards the drawing room. Trying to prise money out from damp rundown places can sometimes be hard work regarless of pedigree – same family in this pace from the year dot. Decent near three hundred year run of slipped fortune behind them. Has to be something, surely. But apart from pulling up and selling the floorboards I'm not seeing it just yet. Those lovely eighteen inch wide planks asleep under my feet. Treasures, jewels, lain side-by-side fast in their rows. Would they mind if we woke them? Would they cry? Nails to slide from their long bodies as we pull upwards to the cold air, load them onto a lorry bound for Knightsbridge. Or westward, a shipping container for Manhattan, to all that lovely new money – that Auschwitz of Irish architectural heritage. Mein gott, Herr Auckioneer only does as instructed. Nein it’s not my fault. Nein, not mine decision, I only follow the orders. Strip!!!

But I’m no architectural desecrationist. They'll stay, for now. No foul play here, no low blows. Attention turns to what lays on them. Donegal wool rug, large, in the wanted Adams style, 30ft x 25ft. But some heathen has cut out the fireplace end, 6ft x 2ft lobbed right off. No market for amputees. Did it scream? My Eyes lift, nose twitches. Sniff, sniff. Nothing. Look on. The skirting boards. Nein. We’ll not start ripping out the architrave either. Where could it be this new hip.

Definitely nothing in this room to monetise. We push onwards. The dining room. Edwardian sideboard lurks behind the door. Now there’s one item of furniture that could definitely do with a train journey. Pure-bloods only, please – and those that actually came in the with the original occupants. Stalk the room. Late Victorian side table in the corner, too young to contribute. Practically worthless. Parianware figure of a classical maiden clutching her robe – too damaged, unable to assist with ze grand financial experiment. Come now, where are you? It’s time, don’t be afraid. Gather children, the train is here. But they sense the danger, they hide from me. I know it, I can tell. They want to stay with their family. Nein. This we will not permit. Time to look a little closer for my little Anne Franks.

Run my finger along the sideboard’s front. Hook a drawer handle, pull it outwards. Random choice but let it stay, open. In the silence I listen. Nothing. Too quiet. Lean in. Peer to the very back. Definitely too quiet in there. Something. Rifle the contents with a slow touch. Lift some papers, an envelope, upwards. I spy with my little eye. You’re there, you’re there, I can see you. Come, come, ein bitte, come now my little one, show me here. Under the envelope. A spoon. Pull its length towards me. It tries to resist. Clutches the green baize lining of the drawer. But I’m stronger, bigger, part of the greater system. We own you. Pull it towards the front, away from the darkness of the drawer. If a spoon could scream it’d scream now.

For too long you’ve lain there little one, come, time to work, arbeit macht frei. Held tight, it’s little heart beats silk against the inside of my fist. Don’t fuss, don’t’ fuss little one, this now must be done. Bring it towards the brighter light of the window. My fingers pick at it’s little body. Dislodge centuries of dirt from the markings. It turns away, naked in shame. No need, nein my little one, you’re just a thing to me.

Along it’s slender length I trace those markings, stamped when it left the master’s workshop. Hold it closer, huff my warm breath along it’s shivering body – makes it easier to read the markings. Not so good for the spoon. It faints in terror. Some more picking, harder now, scratch., schratch.., scraatch… it revives. Slow your heart little one. Slow, slow, that’s it. Good. The fiscal doctor Herr Auckioneer is here only to examine. And transfer. Faints again.
Come, settle, back to me now. That’s it. Better. Much better…. Hear the lovely music, das experiment is not yet over fräulein, open wide. Hum it a little tune as my other hand slips softly an eyeglass from inside jacket pocket. I peer deep into it’s little soul. No hiding from me now. Limerick 1743. Worth a few hundred perhaps, but no new hip. The next train for you. Throw it back in the drawer.
From over my shoulder, “Any Use?”
“Not unless she has a very small hip”

“Come on so”
Leads me through to the next room. We search, and all the other rooms on the ground floor. Same story. Lots of things, later things. And all damaged or defective in some way. Purchased cheap after the originals sold I suppose. Bought just for somewhere to sit, or rest the china. Practicality. Aesthetic sensibility sometimes leaves when the money departs. The Georgian pieces that did remain on the ground floor were mostly middle-of-the-road. A few ‘mights’ that could have passed muster in the old days. But not now. Legs replaced, veneers missing, drawers repaired, handles changed. These days there really isn’t a demand. Unless it’s top-notch untouched forget about it. Use value only. That’s the best description. I formulated it over the years – kindest way of describing it without causing offence. Better than saying ‘landfill’. But that’s what we had on the ground floor, landfill. If it had charm I’d say it, there’s a market for that. But this was all just functional, non-pleasing to the eye landfill.

Up we go the bedrooms.
Edwardian, Victorian. Again nothing original to the house. And again, all defective, sub-standard or unpleasing in some way. Belonged elsewhere, not here, in such finely proportioned Georgian rooms. We had the stage, but no stars. Disappointing. The few mirrors that adorned the walls were mean, thin and hard, like divorcees. Of the several engravings that adorned the walls a few had early promise. But these too were let down – they’d been hung by the windows in direct light. Slowly the sun doing its work. Day in, day out, until we had what we have now. Nothing. Some early Meissen lining the dust-laden mantelpiece of the master bedroom raised hopes, for a moment. But closer inspection proved these too to be defective. Cracked, cracked, repaired, and cracked. The fire surround itself? Marble – but a later insertion, a poor Edwardian example. To have a mid-Georgian house with so ugly and plain a replacement was certainly a sin. The incumbent’s father perhaps, a hard drinking man back in the time of high rates.

My father had a rule. Where possible, try to do business with people you’d have round for dinner. This man’s father had people round that had him for dinner, their dinner – Mr. Lamb Chop. While it’s an honour to know just about every low-down, dirty trick in the handbook of antiques, and to be able to use this knowledge in the service of my clients as their policeman, every now and then a new trick to be pencilled in at the back. I could tell from the chasing left on the wall that the taken fire surround was probablyChinese Chippendale, something truly special. And something lomg gone. Regardless of how it left the house, both seller and buyer had sinned in it’s going. The removal should never have been contemplated, no matter how hard the times. But, it’s the past, what can we do.

Slowly sniff around. Nothing. Upwards to the servant’s floor. Finally, the attic. Same story. We seek in vain. Nothing. Quite incredible. Picked clean and then some. Every single thing Georgian or true, gone. Even if I’d held an auction on the premises and sold the entire contents it wouldn’t even gather in a quarter amount required. Looks like she’s going to have to limp on a little longer. Did my best, break the bad news. Took it like a winner he did, in that he instantly disregarded it.
“Perhaps we should have a look in the stables”
The hunting man doesn’t give up too easily.
“Lead the way”

The late afternoon cast no shadow as we stride across the back yard, our front man marching forward with great confidence. Me, my step was a little slower, life I guess. Anyhow, an hour cured the enthusiasm. Worthless leftovers. Some thrown-together estate pine, sitting damp in a corner. was the highlight. Back in the day an American or two may have bitten his hand off for it. Not now. Tastes and prices change. By the time we searched the last stable it was dark as a crypt. Searched it anyway. And sorry to report, still nothing. Quite remarkable, again not a thing. Picked clean.

“Well that’s it, nothing I’m afraid”
“Would you mind waiting a moment”
I wait.
Back he comes with a torch. What now. I mean, there’s nothing here. Don’t know what’s more than flogging a dead horse but whatever it is we';re at it. I like optimism, don’t get me wrong, love the search, thrive on it. In fact, in my own way, I’m an optimistic guy too, but we’re wasting time. Too many thirsty people have been through this place well before. I saw it, and I can smell it. Plus, it’s gotten cold you know. He might have electricity, I don’t. No, no, no. I’ve to light a fire when I get home, then a slow hour of wait for it to heat the place.
Little white lies have their purpose.

“It’s a lovely idea but sadly I’ve a wake to attend”
“That’s bad news”
“It is, totally unexpected”
“Whose is it?”
“A dear friend”
“Which friend, who?”
I’m thinking as he’s talking
“Pimpleton, Charles J. Pimpleton”
“Don’t know him”
“Very few people did, a very private man”
“Where was he from”
“Where in Meath?”
What’s this, an inquisition? One honest little white lie to get away after six hours hard slog and now this.
“Outside Slane”
“Where outside Slane?”
Ok you win. “I suppose I could just go to the funeral mass”
“No, no, don’t. Don’t stay on my account”
That reverse phycology stuff. You win ok, you got me, we both know what’s going on.
“We’ve come this far, we might as well see it out”
“There’s some other sheds down the way, they could possibly have something.”
Don Quixote begins his energetic march down the muddy lane, the torch held jauntily high lights the way.
“She mightn’t win a jumping competition but the wife can cook, told her to have something on the table when we get back”

Nothing would please me more to say that down the lane we found a jewel of the Georgian era. Something precious, life-changing. Anything. But no. We wasted a good hour in those sheds lifting and looking through agricultural detrus that was worse than worthless. The kind of stuff that actually costs money to be rid of; oil cans, spare tyres, tractor doors, so on. We had run out of places to look. There was nowhere else. My work here was done.

“I’m afraid it seems you’re going to have to trim off a few more of those acres”
“Come on, let’s go in and have our dinner”
Back up the muddy lane, his flashlight held not so high this time. Sure, I felt for the man, the truth of the situation had definitely hit. But what more could I do, it is what it is.
We turn into the yard, rectangle of warm kitchen light throws itself across the cobbles, we cross it. Yummm….. pleasant scent of a fine supper wafts. Up with the latch, boots off and straight in he goes, me I’m right there in his slipstream. No leaving now. No sir, not me. Gold has finally been struck, gold for me. Sorry about the hip and all that but it’s me time now. I like warmth. This is good, a good place. More please. An Old Aga, the big cream coloured kind, lazy dog lying in a basket, an old pine kitchen table laid out for three, some mis-matched kitchen chairs, worn flagstones. And the most important thing, a hearty supper warming on that Aga. No sign of the woman who cooked it though. Maybe she’s upstairs, can’t take the verbal bashing in company. Pity.

He sits. I sit. He waits. I wait. Slowly the man begins to calm. Softens, melds, rests into the chair with serenity I haven’t seen all day. A different man now sits across from me. And there we continue to sit, waiting. The fine food not four feet away, teasing. Not my house, nothing for it but to wait. And salivate. My eyes wander to an ancient pine dresser, aged and crooked leaning against the far kitchen wall. Top shelf. Something. I point, look to him.
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all”
Crossing the kitchen I reach up. Dark with filth, a chalice. One that must have sat high on that shelf for a very, very long time – a century of tarnish darkens its lustre. Appears to be decorated with precious gem stones. Could it? Could it, really. I reach up. Lift it down. The moment. Coldness as I touch it. I know. Straightaway I know. Worthless. Electro magnetic-plated nickel silver. Gemstones? Decorative paste. 1940s copy. As this very moment, when the thought ran in my head saying to myself, ‘you know, you really are one very, very unlucky fellow’ I hear a slight swishing sound. Turn. It’s the wife making a determined bee-line straight for hubby, something in her hand. She raises it, says “you deserve this”.
“Now, now, no kisses in front of our guest, Mister Fusspot”
“How kind of you my sweet, a lovely thought”. He takes the bottle claret and reaches out to embrace her. 

"Now, now Mr. Fusspot", she says to him, "no kisses in front of our guest".

Funny how things turn out, their love was actually the only genuine thing in the house. That, and the wine.

1959 Chateau Lynch-Bages, a very, very good year. They had loads of the stuff in the cellar, all left over from his father's better days.

She got the hip.

Damien Matthews