An Irishwoman's Diary

 

MANY YEARS AGO, I lived in London. Then, as now, I accumulated books. Lots of them. They sat in my bedroom, in untidy, ever-mobile pyramids, frequently, and noisily, sliding floorwards. I built more pyramids than the Pharoahs, but unlike theirs, my structures only lasted days. It began to drive me mad.

I was sharing a flat at the time with the sister of the person who owned the place. It was agreed between them that the flat could do with more bookshelves, and I was tasked with the job of finding the shelves, with the understanding that they would be for my use as long as I lived there.

The budget was modest. I bought a copy of Loot, London’s listing magazine, in which you could find for sale everything from cars to wardrobes, from mixing bowls to hairdryers. And bookshelves. I perused the small ads. I found a set of shelves that were selling with free transport included. Since neither of us in the flat had a car, this number was the one I called.

That Saturday, at the appointed time, I stood on the doorstep of a mansion block in Primrose Hill and was buzzed into the building. As instructed, I took the lift to the third floor and rang the apartment bell. The door was opened by an elderly man, behind whom stood an elderly woman. I stepped in.

I don’t know when I first became puzzled; disconcerted. It struck me that the couple seemed extraordinarily dressed up; for what was a Saturday morning. Ned, the husband, wore a cravat and a crisp white shirt. He offered me a sherry. Simultaneously, Gloria in a blue taffeta skirt more suitable for evening wear, offered me a tour of the apartment. I was 23. I had never bought anything from a small ad before.

I had no idea what the etiquette of same was – or if there was one. But I was quite certain it did not involve a tour of every room of the seller’s apartment, a tour which included the bedroom. I stared at the blue candlewick bedspread, the reproduction of Constable’s The Hay Wain, the sleeve of a pyjamas sticking out from under one pillow. I was shown the kitchen, the bathroom, and finally, into the sunny living room, where the bookshelves awaited my inspection. I was unsure what to do with the sherry, so I sipped it.

The three of us sat there, holding our sherry as if at a party, and making small talk. They were utterly polite, but relentlessly curious.

What was my job? How long had I been there? Did I like London? Did I miss Ireland? What had I seen lately at the theatre? I grew more bewildered by the minute. I had expected a swift transaction, the briefest of visits, and to be already halfway across London in their car with the shelves.

It had struck me immediately that the couple were over-dressed for an indoor morning, but it was only gradually that I realised that the living room we were sitting in was rather sparsely furnished. It would be barer still when the shelves were removed. And then, when Gloria asked me if I was familiar with the Irish name Aoife – she spelt it out to me as E-e-f-a – their story slowly emerged.

They were from a small rural English midlands town. They had married late. Neither had children. When they retired, they decided with excitement that they would sell up and begin a new life. In London. “The bright lights,” Gloria explained, her taffeta rustling. “Shows, parties, city life,” Ned incanted.

It had not worked out. They knew nobody. They were lonely. They did not go to parties. They spent most nights on their own, three storeys up in the mansion block apartment.

“But then we discovered Loot,” Gloria said brightly.

“It’s free to advertise,” Ned explained. “And we have a lot of things we don’t need.” So each week, they advertised for sale in Loot something from their apartment. This was their social life. Some weeks – the good weeks – they had three or four people who came to see what they were selling.

The lure was the free transport, as it had been for me. Their apartment was composed of an architecture of loss. Over there, had been Gloria’s mother’s china cabinet. Beside me, a standard lamp that had gone to one of my compatriots, a man named Joe. Over there, a coffee table. They named the absent items; they told me about the people who had bought them. With the money they had made so far, they had bought a fancy new television. They had met, they told me, such nice people.

Last week the item for sale had been an antique wooden towel rail. “The girl from Balham bought that,” Ned said. “What was her name, now?” Gloria went over to the sideboard and took out a little notebook.

“Suzanne,” she said, reading from it. “Suzanne from Balham.” They recorded the name of everyone who came to their apartment. Then she asked me how I spelt my name, and if I would please give her the correct spelling for “Eefa”. She wrote it down carefully.

Lately, I thought of Ned and Gloria again because I’m moving house, and I now have very many bookshelves. I have told their story countless times over the years. In some ways, those two people have never left me.

I wondered if they were still alive. I wasn’t even sure if Lootwas still around. I looked online to see if it was. It is.