When I was a child, you didn’t mess with money

I met a man the other night who had grown up in my parish. We got to talking about money, or the lack of it, and how it had shaped us

Neither of us came from money, both of us knew financial instability

Neither of us came from money, both of us knew financial instability


I met a man the other night who has made a lot of money in this country, money that unnerves him. I was trying to establish how, but it was late and we were rolling around in a sea of empty plates and emptier bottles. I’d like to think that I was interrogating him with erudition and wit; the truth, I suspect, was a little more incoherent.

Maybe you are the kind of guest who sits politely around the table, chatting about the season’s riotous laburnum and the new interchange between Ballylickey and Lickybally. Maybe you keep an eye on the time lest you wear out your hostess with your dainty chat. Maybe you lay your palm firmly over your glass, refusing another refill. Maybe you don’t plant your elbows on the table and shout at people you’ve never met before.

Well done you.

We ascertained, the man and I, that we were brought up in the same parish and, as children, attended the same church, a building that loomed over the area like a scowling mother ship.

On the rare occasions when I warmed the pews in that echoing church, I slunk around under my mantilla, checking my palms for stigmata; my new acquaintance, in contrast, confessed that he sat counting the tiles and rafters and the great big pillars, multiplying and dividing the totals and building an ark of numbers and calculations that would eventually carry him to the kind of monetary success he was destined for.

Neither of us came from money, both of us knew financial instability; my new friend said it was this that had spurred him on. I told him about a survey that said most writers make about five grand a year for their efforts. As the night wore down and our hostess dozed in the lemon meringue, he told me that, no matter how much money he made, he never really felt secure.

When I was a child we moved away from that suburb in the shadow of the big church and began renting a series of small houses. At one stage, despite our straitened circumstances, we lived on a road known locally as millionaires’ row. The road had all the features you would associate with a monied enclave: gently winding, furnished with a variety of elegant properties, some gabled and arching, some red-roofed and
mock-Tudorish, most decorated with blooming camellia bushes and small tribes of arthritic Labradors wandering around the manicured lawns.

There were hidden houses too, houses that loomed up at the end of mysterious dappled driveways, the occupants so deeply ensconced in privilege and privacy that they almost disappeared into the landscape. And strewn around the verges like expensive packaging were a couple of low-slung modern pads, cribs that looked like they might rock up in a David Hockney painting, the floor-to-ceiling glass reflecting the big grey sea.

You could creep past the oriental grasses, skirt the pergolas and mock wishing wells, duck under the gaze of puffed-up plaster eagles standing sentry on pillar tops, peep through one of those long windows and never see a person inside, just the edge of a coffee table, or a kitten-heeled mule carelessly kicked off on a hand-knotted rug. These interiors, though, were probably in my imagination only, because no matter how curious I was as a child, I don’t think I ever had the temerity to creep around the neighbours’ gardens and sneak a peek at their rooms.

You didn’t trespass because you wouldn’t dare. Money was stern, money was implacable, money bought respect and envy; you didn’t mess with it. You certainly didn’t want to be squirming on the end of its pin, attempting to explain to some willowy resident why you and your wellingtons and your special home-sewn invisibility poncho were staring in through their window wondering what was on their hostess trolley and why their television set was in colour.

I recognised the boy in the man that night. I recognised his yearning to build a fortress and keep past vulnerability beyond the gate. I said goodbye, apologised for haranguing him, woke my hostess, scraped the lemon curd from her hair, thanked her and walked home. Head down into a big howling gale that didn’t give a damn where it blew or how many mock castellations it swiped in its wake. I was grateful to this wind for blowing away the residual memories of inferiority the evening had stirred up, the broken fragments of misplaced childhood awe.

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