The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Posted On: 06 Jul 2024 by Damien Matthews

Part I

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Reverse fairy tales tend not to work out, they don’t end well. At least this one didn’t. It’s not going to be okay, in fact someone dies. Actually two. An odd thing, true as it is. So where should we start, beginning or end? Why not linear fashion, try to make sense of it. We begin at the beginning.

Mid-Summer four years ago, that's when I first saw her, approaching the house down an overgrown drive. It was a week after her telephone call. Catching up with paperwork on an overcast day I’d recently changed the position of my office desk, Feng Shui recommendation. And sure why not - better to have a glimpse up the hill at a fine church than across the street at an Indian restaurant painted blue and black.

The quiet time mid-way between auctions, I do like it. Pace slackens. Relative silence as things settle down for a week or two. Have become used to the pattern, it’s comforting, this recovery time. As auction day nears, a turbulent sea awakes, tide rushes in, and then out. All hands on deck. Sometimes manic adrenalin sets in, especially with house contents auctions. I used to get all het up Basil Fawlty style, trying to control the mayhem, but not now. These days I’m an old hand, experience. It’ll all work out in the end, none of it's life or death. Just follow the plan and don’t forget to breathe.

Annoying electronic beep from the telephone.

Answer it.

“Matthews Auctioneers”

“Hello, is that Matthews Auctioneers?”

“It is, Kells”

“To whom am I speaking”

Well placed accent, and one a lowly auctioneer is always gratified to hear. You see, the English, and the dying sub-species, the Anglo Irish (of which there were always very few), are all branded on the tongue. Hear any of them say even just three words, and bingo, into their magically fitted box they go. Hers? Proper old Anglo, the one with the money gone, long gone. And the land longer still. Her voice now possessed a softness that it wouldn’t have had back in the day. Could actually be on to something here. My hand absentmindedly reaches up to straighten a tie I wasn’t wearing. auctioneer brain clickety clacks into full attention mode.

“Damien Matthews, I’m the auctioneer”

“I hope you can help me Mr. Matthews”

“Of course, I hope I can, how can I assist”

“I have some things I’d like you to look at”

“That we can do, now would they be for valuation, or for auction”

“Definitely for auction”

World ceases to exist, she has my sole undivided attention.

Now my next most important question.

“Are they items you purchased, or inherited?”

“They came with the house when I married into it”

I’m in love, real love, not the puppy kind.

“What part of the world are you”


“Hunted the top of it and the bottom of it, a fine county”

We must align.

Don’t say this lightly but the relationship between a high value consignment vendor and an auctioneer, especially as it nears auction date, can sometimes be closer than lovers. We were, if I had anything to do with it, headed towards soulmate status. Over the next minute or two she went on to tell me exactly where she was. I, in turn, pencilled the day and date of our consummation into the diary. My true love, you are a many and splendid thing. 

Wedding day arrives and off I go in the car glad of the jaunt. Called by Mullingar on the way, lunch at The Greville Arms with an old friend of my parents. Three O’clock and I’m turning in through gates last painted for the Queen’s coronation.

While I’m not always right I’m rarely wrong, and two hundred yards on up the drive proved it. A view not unknown to me - a house on the turn. Peeling windows held loose in rotted frames, each row laid under broken guttering, slipped slates above. Weeds, wild grass and moss adorn the pediment, a few crows loiter at the corners. The tableau of pediment rested on four plain thick cut limestone columns. A solid country seat attractive in its way, mid-Georgian, a long Victorian servant’s wing added to the side for better days. Front lawn? There was none now, just an unkempt fenced off area containing a few bored cows in need of more grass. Their heads raised toward me in bovine hope.

In winter it would have been a terribly desolate scene, but seen from the still distance of the drive, dappled with rays of summer evening, somehow it transformed into arcadia. My Ireland. Taking in the moment I slowed the car as it swept optimistically towards golden flumes of transparent summer flies hovering between the wild hedges to either side. 

Then, as if the most natural thing in the world to see (and couldn’t be unseen), in the distance, three granite steps up from the weed strewn gravel, a spare old woman in blouse thinned from the washing, and no bra. Skirt well hitched up, too well hitched up. Two spindly varicose veined legs mottled astride an old horsehair mattress are pulling it half-out an open front door. She too lifts her head to look down the drive. The mattress flops free corpse-like onto the steps. Nothing for it but to give her the John Paul II young people of Ireland I love you wave.

I am an auctioneer.

She might look like something belonging to the road but her bearing and telephone call say otherwise. Heart expands in love as I exit the car, touching the now real tie. I encourage the work.

“You got the better of it”

“A good grip”

“Such a fine afternoon, you’re blessed to live in such surrounds”

She cuts me a look, “Can I help you?”

“I’m the auctioneer”

“Oh yes, I have you, yes, please come in”

I sidestep the mattress, follow her into the hall.

It’s said the sweetest honey is inside the hive, and here was my honey. An untouched Irish eighteenth century red walnut hall table, shell carved to the frieze. No carved mask but no matter, still a winner. Under it, thrown onto flagstones, riding boots, a whip or two, other hunting attire. Dust too, lots of dust. We auctioneers, we like dust. The real deal. Turf permeated the walls. On the far side, a Kilkenny marble fireplace, fossilised oyster shells showing through black plain moulding. Looked kind of Queen Anne, but wider. No adornment, very restrained. Some styles came later to Ireland. What a chimney piece! Heart skips. Can’t sell it, but still, wonderful to see. Turf ash a foot deep. But look, look! I could sell those, a large pair of Georgian mahogany turf buckets sat to either side of it. Shell adorned again, Irish to their core. And so big! Just put the bridle on them Damien and lead them into the auction room, what a super lot they would be in any auction. It's love.

Swallowing nervously I turn toward her, look deep into her beautiful yellowed rheumy eyes, “What exactly is it that you’d like me to sell?”

“The lot of it”

“The furniture?”

“All of it, anything that’s here, I’ve no use for it now”

Something’s up, always has to be a relative lurking around. People like this, they don’t just sell everything overnight, that the generations before have clawed to keep together. Doesn’t happen.

“All of it?”

“Yes, all. I wish the house emptied, entirely”

Still not taking it on board, I ask again, “So all?”

“Yes, all. Must I repeat myself”

“And what might be the time frame?”

“The new owners hope to be in by the end of the month, so within the next two weeks or so, if possible”

Nothing is impossible when it comes to such a consignment. I reply without hesitation, and now with the deepest love, “That’s entirely possible”

“Good to know, shall we continue?”

“Yes, of course, lead the way”

Well, we went from one untouched room to another; silver, glass, paintings, mirrors, rugs, a library with fine pair of untouched six door period bookcases, each filled Morocco bound with full sets and folios. More than a wet dream. Played it cool. Even the flotsam and jetsam gold. A clearance of this sort hadn’t happened since old Major McCalmont’s Mount Juliet Estate back in the day. I ask the question.

“Might it be possible to have the auction on the premises, it’ll save a lot of moving and certainly help prices, people like to see where things originally sat”

Straight away she bats back, “No, no, that’s not possible I’m afraid, no one must know”

She said it was about privacy, that it was nothing, which meant it was something

“But people will know” I reply.

“They can know if they wish, but not know. I really don’t want the name of the house mentioned, this is key”

“It’s all lovely and all will sell very well, but having the name of the house in the advertising changes things, for the better”

“No, most definitely not”

“If that’s your instruction I’ll abide by it, of course, but I have to let you know my opinion”

“It is my wish”

“Absolutely, I work for you”

Is the love syringe full Herr Doktor? Inject me, inject me here.

We retired to the drawing room, for tea.

Maybe it was me, or maybe it was just the lack of time she had time left, but it had been a long time, if ever, I'd say, since she opened up as she did to me that afternoon. She’s dead now so I can let you in on it.

We all know our fate, but not the time of it. She knew. She knew the when of her passing would be. Cadaverine putrescence was just around the corner. Cancer. Rare for it to be so aggressive at age sixty eight, but, as the blues song went, if she didn’t have bad luck she’d have no luck at all. Has to be said though, she bore the information remarkably well, stiff upper lip and all that. The doctor had given her the choice of treatment six months previously, a 70/30 chance, if that. She refused. The treatment, as she described it to me, was nearly worse than the cure. Her hope was to see six more months in reasonably good health. But then, then it was going to be the hard road for her. To the end.

Putting the house on the market, and the clearing of the contents, was her attempt at levelling the score, before her estranged sons might cotton on to her limited days. After a life-time short supply as regards money and comfort, she wanted a chance to level up the score, if even just a little, before her body would let her down entirely. We can pray away, but over or under it, we’re ground based, one-by-one unwillingly filing into freshly creased graves. Oh well, fuck it, sup on some nectar while you can, that was her unspoken thought. And one she fully intended to realise. Obviously the F-word is mine, but you know what I mean.

Life you see, it had negative impact on her existence the whole way through. A bad marriage embarked on soon after rudimentary schooling in the nursery hadn’t exactly set her up for anything other than holding a knife and fork with a straight back. Her father chose her husband, a socially well-matched man. And that was about the height of care put into it.

She didn’t know it, no one did, until the night after the walk down the aisle. Not only was the groom a huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ type, but he was a drinkin’ beatin’ rapin’ harranguin’ one too. Nobody ever did get to know, she kept it that way. Pride maybe. Shame. And his was not a light hand. Somehow, in between twenty years of assault she bore him three sons, serving out her time. But, one lovely day, an angel came floating down from heaven, and through an open window. Everything's temporary if you wait long enough, and she was done waiting. In that moment she became a man killer. With opportune gentle push, out he went. Head first, forty-nine and dead.

She, born attractive and thirty-eight at the time of his demise, would have been young enough to go again, excepting for a few marriage-acquired things; broken nose, displaced eye socket, missing tufts of hair, paper-thin veined skin not helped by puffing at sixty fags a day to help cope with the trauma. These were the add-ons, the shake in her hand. Any future marriage proposal for consideration of her looks wasn’t going to be on the cards. Not that it mattered, she’d had any romantic hopes well beaten out of her. She was a realist now. After all, she who is down need fear no fall.

The boys at the time of the terrible accident were twenty, nineteen and seventeen. They would, she hoped, soon be leaving to live their own lives. They adored and loved father, they thought him the absolute best daddy in all the world, the best daddy any boy could have. Mummy on the other hand, to them she was just a silly odd little mouse. Always quietly hunched, always entering and leaving rooms, forever looking out windows. The house was a very big house you see, and Daddy picked his places. Mumsie to the boys was really just so clumsy, forever falling over. Silly Billy the boys called her, Silly Billy they’d sing and rhyme;

Silly Billy took a fall

While not looking down the hall

And now she’s all black and blue 

Aren’t you glad it’s not you

How they’d laugh and howl, every time. Four against one, poor odds for happiness.                                                                                                                                                                               

As befits her class, no money was left behind after the defenestration incident, just overdrafts and loans. And most not cleared since before they were married. At the time of this first death, the late 1980s, bank interest was at a ruinous rate. A decision had to be made. So, before the husband’s grave had settled the depth of a coffin, out at the gates went up the sign, For Sale.

For the first time.