Ellie. Her story still has many gaps and many assumptions but I have begun to try and map out parts of her life for this project.
When Ellie’s older brother married, she went to live with him and his wife as they raised their eight children. She remained unmarried, without money or dowry for the rest of her life. Choice would be different for Ellie as would her identity. She lived during a fairly conservative age in Ireland and would no doubt face a fortress of public opinion at times. It was a time when singleness for any reason resulted in teasing, berating, judgment and otherness. A nuisance. A lonely watcher of other women. Maybe she was seen as something of an oddball, strange and different. She was a woman in another woman’s home.
As time passed, the mystery of her life coupled with the parallels to the modern world and women that I have worked with in similar situations began to creep through.
I thought of the women that I had worked with during a brief stint with a supported housing charity in London. I was assigned to support a small group of women who lived close to the Kilburn high road in London. It was a place very familiar to me, having spent some of my younger years there. My parents had begun their life in the UK in this area. Like many they had moved in and out of different jobs, finding digs with like minded people as well enjoying a good night at the Galtymore in Cricklewood. For those that don’t know, it was a local dancehall which was home to many Irish people living and working in London. A home from home, reminiscent of the dance halls of Ireland. It was an important place to visit, to see and be seen. Many people met their future partners in the Galty. It was a particular moment in time for the Irish. Saturday night at the Galty was one of the moments of Irish life in North London during the 1960’s.
But, over the years many people returned home to Ireland and the gaze of the Galtymore began to fade. Many Irish people became lost as more of the Irish community scattered to more suburban areas.
The three women that I worked with were some of the lost. Disconnected from their families or homes back in Ireland, they had experienced lost relationships, poverty and isolation as well as painful moments in their lives which had impacted harshly on their mental wellbeing. They all bore their stories in different ways. One woman would dress herself each day in her best clothes and wait for a dancehall event that never arrived. Another woman would periodically clear the entire house of all objects and clothes and dispose of all the items along Cricklewood Broadway. Margaret was the lady that I remembered the most. She was popular and earnest. She would clean the house and care for all of her housemates with an instinct and duty that was so familiar to her. She had no family that she wanted to return to in Ireland, instead choosing to navigate her life through small achievable domestic tasks each day in a supported home.
On the morning of her death, I arrived at work to find her two friends sitting in the kitchen making repetitive statements to one another. The anchor to their daily life has suddenly and abruptly gone.
Her bedroom was the smallest room in the house. A makeshift dresser was positioned at the far end of the room. A few small ornaments and colourful trinket boxes were placed on a number of different surfaces. Objects of affection, play things if you will.
She had left behind an unused dress belt which lay on the floor, a stray shoe dangling down at the back of the wardrobe and a pair of used tan tights which had been screwed up into a little ball and wedged behind the radiator.
Under the bed, a suitcase lay. A blue old fashioned overnight train case. The suitcase was a little stiff and difficult to budge open. The fastenings on one side were resistant to the click but with a knife wedged into the corner of the fastening, it soon popped open. I wasn’t sure what to expect but there inside the suitcase, wedged into each and every corner, stacked neatly on top of one another was soap. Used soap. Just soap. No new soap. All used soap. Some large, some small, some just a slither of soap. Some with finger marks still etched into the surface. Soap that moved from hand to hand, slipping and sliding as it settled into a comfortable corner of the case. Soap that would gather dust and rust between each crease. There must have been over 100 bars of soap squeezed into this blue suitcase. This was Margaret’s story. A lost woman with a suitcase full of soap.
Now, near the end of her life, Ellie took to the streets, walking and visiting local people to tell them her story. Was she seeking voice and acknowledgement? Was she seeking help? A new life perhaps? A last chance, a change, hope or a home.
And here begins my studies