Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight

Two Stories

1. The image-boy's tale

Shoe Lane...

A miserable London morning, grey sky, grey buildings, grey smoke from grey chimneys, grey people. A scrawny, olive-skinned image boy crosses High Holborn from Saffron Hill, dodging two rumbling carts, a barking dog, an early-morning drunk and a small flock of dazed sheep. He heads for the shadowy canyon that is Shoe Lane, on the corner of which a speech seller is bawling some recently-executed miscreant's last confession into the morning hubbub. Bare-footed, the boy is still stiff from a night spent on a heap of straw, huddled beneath two old sacks, in a room shared with five other snoring, snuffling lads. He wants to blow on his chilled fingers, but can't, because he's steadying his tray of figurines on his head as he dodges amongst the throng. He's about eleven or twelve years old, born in Barga, a day's ride from Lucca, a place he only vaguely remembers for its white walls, green hills, dusty roads and warm sunshine. There are no hills in his London, and it seems to be always raining.

The crowd thins a little as he passes soot-blackened St Andrew's church, where two beggars crouch, muttering, each side of narrow doorway. One of seven siblings, he and a brother were sold to a grinning padrone by his recently-widowed mother when he was ten, and he has more vivid memories of the stumbling, exhausting journey across France than he has of his mother's tearful face. He doesn't know what she received, just that he was sold for three years, and that he has lost track of when those years are done. His stomach rumbles. In Saffron Hill, in what was once a kitchen, the padrone and two old formatore cast images in a low-ceilinged ill-lit basement where every surface is white with plaster dust, watched silently by shelves of wall-eyed figurines. The old men tell of the days before Signor Mazzini and his men came and talked with the padrone, and the beatings stopped.

The boy peers into gloomy Plumtree Court, where a few ragged children play outside their ragged school, while on one side is the rumble and thud of houses being demolished. This morning, on his board, pinioned by the spikes that prevent them tumbling off, he has images of striped and spotted gatti, two green and yellow pappagalli, Signor Napoleon standing proud, busts of Signor Shakespeare, the beautiful white Signorina Venus, piccolo Samuel. He knows that Signor Napoleon was a great French warrior, a man who stood up for peasants like his parents. Shakespeare was a great Inglese writer. Signora Venus was a palely-naked ancient Roman lady (he sometimes dreamed of her), and the little Samuel, who is praying, is from the bible.

The boy is wearing tattered breeches, but his short jacket is still blue enough to make him stand out from the crowd of chestnut sellers, chair menders, lounging pickpockets waiting to snatch handkerchiefs, orange girls, "catsmeatdogsmeat!" men, broom peddlers, and loose women who blow kisses at him and smile their gap-toothed grins over their shoulders. "Buy Images!" he yells "Buy my images! Very Pretty! Very Cheap!" There is a cart unloading coal. A pig is being led, grunting, to the slaughterhouse down an alley. The street smells of horse dung, cooking from an eating-house, bread from a baker, the stink of piss, of sweaty bodies, of smoking fires. A girl, his first customer of the day, shyly buys a little striped cat from him. He asks for twopence but she says she only has a penny. It is enough. Perhaps she will bring him good luck. "Buy images!" By Eagle and Child alley a woman stops to look at his board. She looks at a Samuel. "Leedle Sam, he pray. Very nice, very cheap!" he pleads. She snorts, turns and disappears into the crowd. Two small dirty boys try to trip him but he manages to avoid them, cursing them – "Basta!" – under his breath. They shout at him and guffaw but their voices are lost in the throng.

A lady stops him. She's hurried out of Plumtree Court, past old Mother Albert, who always squats at the corner and who gives him an apple now and then. The lady looks up at his tray. "You buy?" he begs. "Very pretty! Very cheap!" "Show me that Venus," she asks. He sets his tray down on St Andrew's church wall and lifts the goddess off her spike. "Very fine!" he smiles, "Very famous!" She cradles the image, almost lovingly. He can see the desire in her eyes, and knows he has a likely sale. "Only one shilling…" he says. She frowns. "…but for you, signora, only sixpence!" "I'll give you tuppence for it," she says. "Oh no, lady, for such a beautiful image." He takes the statuette back, goes to replace it on its spike. "Tuppence!" "Ah lady I am a poor boy." "Tuppence and this dress." She tugs a child's dress from her belt. The boy quickly examines it…he will be able to sell it for two or three pence to a Jew in Leather Lane, and he would have sold her the Venus for tuppence if she'd begun to walk away. Anything more than a penny keeps his padrone in a good mood. He sighs and groans as if in pain, then…"She is yours!" He hands her the Venus and stuffs the dress into a pocket. "Lovely lady for a lovely lady!" he grins. At this rate he will not get a beating tonight. The lady blushes, calls him a "cheeky monkey," but her face shines with delight, and she disappears jauntily back into Plumtree Court

The boy turns and beseeches the crowd…"Buy my images!"


2. A tale from Plumtree Court

Richard Phelps' old bells rang out the morning from St Andrew's Church tower: rang across sleepy Shoe Lane, clanged along the soot-black brick walls of Plumtree Court, jolting awake a beggar curled under a sack in the doorway of the Angel Inn and launching a papery flap of pigeons. Accompanied by a chorus of a dozen snores and snuffles, the bells filtered into and ended the dreams of the O'Neil family, instigating an echoing peal of groans, coughs, whines, snuffles and scuffles as they woke.

Mary O'Neil pulled her blanket around her shoulders and shuffled, yawning, over to the fireplace in the front room, pushing aside the cat with her foot and poking the faint glow in the range until a flame appeared. She held a taper into the grate, and straightening up, lit the candle on the chimney-piece. Mary crossed herself as she glanced at the crucifix, the flickering candle flame seemingly making the plaster cat come to life. She touched the head of the nodder for luck, and it nodded approval. As she returned with the candle to the back room, her shadow danced across the tumbled beds of her family, whose tousled heads were beginning to emerge reluctantly from a patchwork of blankets and coats. "Take the pots out Connor," she ordered the nearest wriggling hump of blanket. "And Maeve, water!"

Connor, knowing better than to argue at this fragile hour, stepped into his clogs, grimaced as he gingerly took up the two chamber pots, shouldered open the door and rattled across the creaking landing and down the stairs. He shuddered as he encountered the frosty morning air and almost-darkness, and his feet rang on the cobblestones, the contents of the pots steaming as he poured them into the sewer that already ran strong and rank down the middle of the lane. Maeve ran past on her way to the pump, swinging the empty kettle to cheer herself in the gloom. The first of the milk maids could be heard somewhere crying "Mio!" and a dog barked at a wagon clattering past the end of the lane on its way to Farringdon market.

Back upstairs, Liam groaned as he eased himself out from the warmth of the bed. It was a groan that reminded everyone that he had work to do, hard work…demolishing the old houses on Holborn, just around the corner. It was a groan that announced aching muscles but also pride in bringing home money. Though the sky was only just beginning to lighten, Liam could hear the rattling hobnails of his fellow labourers as they began to arrive along Shoe Lane and Farringdon Road and knew he had to hurry to join them. He would snatch breakfast from a street vendor on the way: the hot green peas man was already shouting "All hot! All hot!" in the distance.

By the time Maeve had returned with a kettle-full of water, and it had boiled on the stove-top, grey daylight was beginning to creep into the court. On the other side of the alley, men were swinging sledgehammers and cursing as they demolished houses Mary had known since she'd been a girl. There was the rumble of dusty bricks as another wall tumbled. You could see the sky for the first time from the front window. She sighed. Another day. Ciara would look after the three young ones until the ragged school started, then she, Aiden, Saoirse and Sean would start on the heap of clothes in the corner that were waiting to be mended.

She always kept a few pennies hidden beneath the plaster cat at the end of the mantelpiece — if she turned it to face the wall it was a signal to Liam that money was to be found there. Liam was a good man. He came home loudly drunk every Friday, but he still managed to hand over most of his earnings. This didn't mean, however, that Mary hadn't hidden some savings beneath that loose floorboard under their bed.

The morning sounds of Shoe Lane were filtering into the court. It was already buzzing with the cries of various hawkers. "Listen out for the coal man," she told her brood, who were sitting at the table chewing bread and dripping, the cat winding its way hopefully around their feet. "And I'll need potatoes and a cabbage." Children's voices, the sounds of play and mischief, drifted up from the Court. "Time for school you three!" Each child extricated a precious borrowed book from various rumpled beds and lined up to have shoes buttoned and clothing adjusted, before tumbling out on the landing and down the stairs.

Sitting in front of the hearth, Mary gazed around her at her world. Despite the weak wintery light coming in from outside, the mantelpiece glowed. She was especially fond of her bright green parrot, which was just a bit bigger than Mrs Wilson's next door and only had one chip on its beak. And no-one else in the court had such fine fruit bowls as hers. She did, however, envy Nancy Coles upstairs her Venus. Perhaps when the image boy came around next she'd pluck up courage and see how much she could bargain with him for a nice Venus, perhaps one with a few clothes to ensure her modesty! It was good for the children to see what beautiful things they made in ancient times. Like those statues she'd seen in the Egyptian Hall that time she and Liam had walked all the way to Piccadilly when they were courting.

Having two rooms, and the money to rent them, was fine for a family. The wallpaper was peeling a little, especially where the damp came through the walls, but she'd covered the gaps with pictures from old calendars. Plumtree Court was better than some of the alleys and lanes around here. The houses were worn out; Mary had been told that the Fire of London never reached this far, so they were over 200 years old, and many of them were crumbling away. Before they began knocking them down, she had known a fair few neighbours, respectable folk: bookbinders, bakers, butchers, people who worked at Pontifex's, the brass foundry in Shoe Lane. It was noisy when the inns were busy, and a few women of ill repute would linger in the shadows. But the ragged school was almost next door, and it wasn't too far to go to mass at St Anselm's. Before her neighbours began moving out, she would stand or sit at the front door, mending clothes and gossiping.

On the mantelpiece, the head of the nodder moved cheerfully in the heat rising from the stove, where the kettle steamed. Mary wished she had more space to show off her knick-knacks. She'd bought them over the years and each one was associated with a pleasant memory. The big cat had been the first. He'd cost a penny, not long after she and Liam were married. She'd had to pawn him and the others regularly in those first difficult years, but always managed to redeem him. The white chip on his nose was the result of the only time that Liam had become violent, and had swept everything from the mantelpiece in a drunken rage. He was so horrified by what he'd done that he bought the nodding cat as a present the very next day, while his head still ached. Mary could probably have easily replaced the cat, but she liked to think of it as a reminder to her husband.

She'd met an Italian image-boy one evening in Leather Lane about ten years ago, and he'd persuaded her to buy the parrot — "my lasta h'image signorina!" He had such big beseeching eyes, and brown skin, and she'd heard of the awful lives the little boys led up in Saffron Hill, so the tuppence seemed to hand itself over, and she didn't mind that as soon as she turned away clutching her purchase the boy instantly produced another "lasta h'image" from a pocket. The parrot's chipped beak was a memory of her first-born, who had climbed up on a chair to reach, and drop, the figure. She'd been more frightened of him setting light to himself than the damage he'd caused the ornament, so her explosion of anger was enough to terrify the poor wight, and no-one else has ever touched her images since! The two corn dollies, which she'd bought for a farthing from Mother Albert, were a link to her Irish parents and the first few years of her life, which were spent on a tiny farm in Donegal. Her father would bring a bunch of the last corn of each harvest back to her grandfather, who despite being blind, would weave it into a doll and hang it on a nail well out of her reach. There, he would tell her, the spirit of the corn would rest in the knot until the next year's seeds were sown, when they would plough the doll into the stony soil.

Mary remembered her few school years with affection. She loved history, and the stories she heard and read about the ancient Greeks and Romans, read to them by nuns whose eyes would become dreamy as they spoke of faraway treasures. A little frightened by what she felt was the immodesty of so many of the plaster statues the Italians hawked around the streets she had so far limited herself to the urn, which she would imagine had come from some ancient temple and contained at least the spirit of those far off exotic times. And then there were her two lovely bowls of fruit, admired by every visitor, fruits of all colours, nonsense fruits she would never taste, but which seemed to her to represent the finer things in life.

And yesterday that nice Mr Godwin had knocked on the door and asked if he could pay a quick visit. He'd tut-tutted a little over her telling him that they slept in just four beds (she smiled to herself) so in innocent revenge she'd got a little carried away and told him that next door there were forty people in just one house (instead of just twenty). Mr. Godwin had turned to the other nice man, she didn't remember his name, and exclaimed "Quite monstrous!" and had written a line in the little book he was carrying. The other nice man had looked around and said "What a lovely collection of bric-à-brac you have on your chimney-piece Mrs O'Neil!" "Oh I do love a nice bit of art, sir" Mary had replied. "Indeed, indeed!" Mr Godwin had said, and turning to his companion, asked: "Will you make a quick sketch of Mrs O'Neil's barbarities, please?" "I'm going to put your chimney-piece in my journal Mrs O'Neil," he explained to Mary. She wasn't quite sure what he meant by barbarities, but was flattered that her home was going to be famous. "Well, I do declare!" she declared. "I'm honoured to be sure, sir, though you'll find much better mantels around the courts here. Mrs Coles upstairs not only has a nice Shakespeare done in all natural colours and also a Venus with no clothes on…it's art of course. And Mrs Flynn, next-door-but-one, her late husband was a seaman, she has two lovely parrots, all yellow and red. And you ought to see Mrs Arthur's two little plaster boys, nicely bronzed, reading and writing. Beautiful they is!" "Indeed Mrs O'Neil, and thank you, but we have to be off to visit the more distant of your neighbours, and in truth, madam, nowhere else have we seen such splendid bowls of fruit!"

Mary smiled to herself. The cries of a knife sharpener and someone selling pins could be heard in the Court. Old Mother Albert would already be squatting at her corner, opposite the Plum Tree Inn, with her basket and her clay pipe, croaking "Apples!" All Holborn seemed to be vibrating: in the background was the rumble of carts on Farringdon Road, the thud of demolition, the rattle of construction on High Holborn, the shouts of workmen. Then she hears the distant piping voice of a boy yelling "Buy my images! Vera pretty, vera sheep!" "Venus!" she thinks, and lifting the big cat on the mantelpiece, she retrieves a penny and two halfpennies from beneath it. "What if the image-seller wanted more than tuppence," she hesitated. Looking around the room she remembered a dress that Maeve had grown out that she'd been keeping to sell to the sad old Jew second-hand-clothes man next time he came around. Clutching the little dress and the three coins she hurried downstairs and out into the Court, turning left towards the siren call of the little boy: "Buy my images!"

Last updated 1st February 2020