That summer of 1981 I became familiar with urban poverty. By far, most of the families I encountered in Ardoyne relied on a government check, the Dole, to get by. How they managed to make the money stretch to pay their rent and what they called their rates (utilities) and taxes, I couldn’t imagine. Not to mention the money they spent on food, often at a chippie, which is what a fish and chip van was called. Sometimes they’d buy a curry from the truck that sat near the shops, but other times hunger drove them to serve their children “chip buddies.” This consisted of two slices of buttered white bread with French fried potatoes laid between them. Carbohydrate delight. Of course there always seemed enough money to pay for pints at the Shamrock and other social clubs.
I knew a woman from the college I’d attended in Spokane who had married a man from Belfast, and at one point that summer I contacted her for a friendly visit. She took me on a walking tour downtown and introduced me to her brother-in-law, who shared the opposite side of their huge semi-detached house on some private acreage to the south of the city. John was a bachelor, trained as a geologist, and comfortably situated after years of oil work in the Middle East. He was delighted to meet Sally’s college friends (I discovered that one of my dorm brothers had previously visited him), and he invited me to come to his house for dinner sometime when I wanted a break from the inner city.
My dinner with John was one of the most unusual events of that year, an evening of surprises. John had prepared a typical British meal, heavy on the green beans, meat and potatoes. At least the vegetables had come from his own garden. His home was immense and ill-lit. After dinner he lit a fire in a narrow sitting room, then decided we should throw back the collapsible wall to give us more space. He indicated a painting that leaned against the wall and asked me to pick it up for him. When I did I found myself looking into the eyes of a helmeted soldier in seventeenth century armor.
“Do you like it?” John asked me.
I had some Art History in college, and I choked out my reply, hardly daring to say, “It looks like something Franz Hals might have painted.”
John was delighted, “I hope it is. That’s what they told me it was when they sold it to me.” I remember feeling somewhat giddy at holding a Hals portrait in my hands. Then I felt a bit worried, like I shouldn’t be touching such a thing. You can’t do that in a museum, you know.
“You know your art, then?” John was saying, “Have you ever heard of William Payne?”
“I’m not sure…is that the man who invented Payne’s gray?” Late eighteenth century. Like I said, I had a little Art History.
“It is! Here,” John scrambled over and threw open a closet door, rummaged through a few paintings and pulled out a framed watercolor. He handed it to me as I gently leaned the Hals against a solid wall. The watercolor was a misty landscape of a river or harbor scene. “That one is a William Payne. He’s used his gray on it, you see?”
With the folding wall opened, the firelight penetrated feebly into the cavernous room behind the wing chairs John had pulled up to the grate. He threw a switch and lit a chandelier. There was a bay window at the far end, looking into the front drive where John’s little tan sedan sat. A pile of carpets lay on the polished hardwood of the floor and John brought me over to inspect them. It was the first time I’d ever seen true Turkish carpets, handmade masterpieces on a scale that dwarfed the tiny watercolor landscape I had just been holding. John showed me how you can distinguish factory produced carpets from those painstakingly tied and clipped by hand. He described how village women made these carpets, ruining their eyesight as they tied the delicate knots and clipped the nap with their hand shears. These carpets belonged to his brother, who bought them for resale when he made trips to the Middle East.
After a cigar and a brandy beside the glowing fireplace, John showed me to a bedroom upstairs. The ceiling seemed a long way off and a massive bedstead with a huge mattress left plenty of extra room for chests of drawers and a wardrobe around the walls of the chamber. Heavy curtains covered tall windows. John lived alone, but his home had been built in the days when a bevy of servants would have tended to the master’s every need. Those days were gone. The servants’ stairs were vacant and silent. John did his own cooking and washing up, although he did bring in a housekeeper to do the cleaning each week. But lying alone in that bedroom in that huge empty house, I could imagine what it could have been like in the days when it was populated. It might have served as the country manor setting for an Agatha Christie mystery.
Later that year John took me and one of the volunteers with him on a tour of the island. He needed to check up on some of his other properties. We took the tourist route, making our way to the Cliffs of Moher, where the sea crashed against the foot of the rocks six hundred feet below us. While we were there, John hailed a young man he recognized. It was a young German volunteer he had served a dinner a few months before. Ireland suddenly seemed much smaller.
Then we headed for Limerick, where John had a racehorse that would be running in the races. Once again he gave me a glimpse into the alien world of the aristocrats. We mingled with some of the richest bettors in the Republic and with unwashed masses of florid, rugged farmers in a flutter of torn betting tickets. John assured me that his horse had no chance of winning, and he was right. But he’d bet on it none the less. Later we stopped by his farm, where the horses were kept. It seemed odd to me that this wealthy Northern Irishman would keep property here in the South.
The puzzle John presented was perhaps not as difficult to understand as all that. He contrasted himself with his brother, who saw himself as English. John saw himself as an Irishman. After years of working overseas, he had returned to Belfast and the old hall his parents had maintained in aristocratic splendor. But Belfast seemed insular to him, and he didn’t feel like he fit in there anymore. It was this that made him welcome foreigners and show them the island, his home. While he invested in handmade carpets and old masters, racehorses and farms, in his daily life, he lived simply, keeping a garden and doing most of the housework himself. His car was far from flashy, and his clothing could have been used as costuming in any of those popular and nostalgic Irish village dramas you see on television.
When John took me back to Wheatfield Gardens, back to the scorched pavements where buses had recently burned and to the streets that glittered with broken bottles, I thanked him for his hospitality. He thanked me, too, and I felt like he meant it sincerely: somehow, just visiting had been a boon to him. Here in the crowded city, with suspicion and hatred abounding, I realized that John in his retreat on the other side of town was just a little bit lonely.