Gone To London: The River

The hand I placed on the stones was full of Mrs. Rosenthal’s money. I’d forgotten I even had it. I truly think I would have done it, not because I wanted to die, but because I didn’t see any way to live or anything to live for. No more letters from my Mam. No way to receive any from my Da now that my place was gone. All those years spent washing and working, sending my wages to support a family that was lost to me now. After what I’d done, I couldn’t even go back to see if a letter arrived. The events of the day hit me like the cold water below, and the shame of what I’d done drove me to my knees. I would have thrown myself into the water then, had I been able to stand, but all I could do was curl up in a ball and cry, that handful of money clutched to my heart.

Mrs. Rosenthal had been kind, as employers went, though we were never close. Hiring me had been a mark of how far they’d come up in the world, able to afford a real servant, not just a girl who came to help on the Sabbath. Being Irish and Catholic, I was hardly going to be part of the family, but it was a good place. I was lucky to have it. Jewish families in London could hardly attract English servant girls, and the English would not hire us. We were dirty, unskilled and lazy, they said.

In Dublin, my prospects were poor. So many girls in my position went to England or America where we could earn so much more than we could in Dublin, and send money back to our families. Why shouldn’t I do the same? If I went to America I’d never see home again, but if I went to London, perhaps our family’s prospects would be better in a few years. I was fifteen and knew there was nothing for me in Dublin. I was ready to see what London had to offer.

I’d done so much more than washing at first. Mr. Rosenthal was still doing contract work for the tailor who’d taught him the trade, and when he found I could already sew well enough to keep the family’s clothes respectably mended as well as washed, he saw an opportunity. I was glad to learn as much of the tailor’s trade as I could, but in the end he used my labor to acquire premises of his own and my services as a seamstress were no longer required.

By then, Mrs. Rosenthal had had her second child and I was needed more and more as maid of all work. I began to feel as if I was carving a path through an endless mountain  of laundry until I could at last go home to Ireland and perhaps start a family of my own. It was exactly the sort of life I’d come to London to avoid, but at least it wouldn’t be forever. One thing I’ll say for the Rosenthals–as they prospered, they paid me what I was worth. They considered it their duty, according to their faith. Most employers wouldn’t do that. I passed every penny I could on to my family in Dublin, hoping to go back where I belonged all the sooner. I lived on hope, and letters from home.

The Rosenthals moved, not far, but into a home, instead of rooms above the workshop. They hired a cook, who hated me on sight simply because I was Catholic, and Irish. Sarah, the daughter of Mr. Rosenthal’s brother, moved in shortly after to help with the two boys, and then the third son was born. As the family stepped closer and closer to respectability, they became more English and more distant. To their credit, the family never came to hate me, but the proper relationship between servant and master for their future station was established and maintained. As Mr. Rosenthal said, he had established himself through hard work and high standards, and there was no reason I could not do the same.

I was still curled up against the wall next to the river, but no longer willing to let London break me. If the Rosenthals wanted to be English, then good luck to them. I opened my hand and just stared for a moment. There were ten shillings there. A month’s wages from a woman whose house I had tried to burn down. Mrs. Rosenthal was not yet as English as I thought. Perhaps there was a way to get back on my feet and find my way to Boston, to join Da and Michael.

A tall man, whiskered and with a top hat that had seen better days had stopped on the path and was looking my way. He took a step towards me. I scooped up my bundle and ran back down the path, heart pounding, my hand tightly wound around the first money that was just mine since I’d arrived in this dirty, crowded place. I was alone, but I was free to do as I pleased for as long as it lasted.

I ran all the way back to Eastcheap before I stopped, my lungs heaving, my legs burning. There was no sign of Top Hat, and I sank down on my bundle. My stomach cramped as the smell of fried fish and potatoes reached me. The street seller coming down the street had a tray around his neck full of food, and I realized just how long it had been since I’d had a proper meal. Tuppence bought me a large portion and I held out a kerchief from my bundle for him to put it in. I gnawed at the food as I walked, unable to wait till I could find a crate to sit on by the side of the road and get at it properly. The hot food was a greasy blessing on my new freedom and though I still ached for my lost family, I was a different girl from the one who had nearly thrown herself in the river. Sitting there, wiping my oily hands on my dirty kerchief I felt myself returning to life. My next problem was finding a place to sleep. Tomorrow I’d have to find a way to make a living.

Link to Archive of Our Own

Gone To London:The Life Of Roisin Sullivan

Dickens Fair is in the process of transformation. It is a matter of changing or dying. Times have changed and it is no longer possible or desirable to privilege one group over another, or to deny the needs and chances of people on the basis of appearance, gender, or identification. I hope we make it through. 

In the meantime, I have gone back to my roots, remembering why I loved Renaissance and Dickens Fairs so much, and how my feelings have changed. My Bartstationbard.com site has those posts. 

I have also gone back to what amounts to an electronic version of the Faire application that used to be the standard. After all the contact and workshop info, we were faced with a blank page to be filled with our character bio. 

A couple Dickens back, I tried to go back to busking. My character has a tin ear, and I was tired of playing a tart, so I created another. She lasted a year, I found the new rules unbearable. We were to be confined to one defined spot, and our repertoires were to be cleared in advance. We were carded on a regular basis. My gig became robotic, my mind on whether or not I was boring the boothies I was stationed in front of to tears, and where Security was. It was hard to spark interaction with the customers or the cast tucked away in a corner as I was, and by the end of the run I was through. 

Roisin, however, thrived. We talked constantly with each other, and when Fair was over she was happy to go back to busking the transit stations with me. She discovered the Dropkick Murphys and fell in love with punk. She loved the freedom of my time. When we decided to pack it in at the end of the run we planned her exit. Her life had been largely chosen for her. I may have set the parameters, but in my head she told me her story. I have always done my best to let characters, whether written or played at Faire, tell their own stories. Choosing for them either leaves me alone in my costume, or produces a story with the consistency of cardboard. 

Roisin’s story was built on my gig, and the what-if of giving it to an Irish girl who had been put into service in London because her parents could not support either her or themselves. What if, after fifteen years, when the Famine came, that family was destroyed, some dying in Ireland, and the rest emigrating to America? What if she lost her place, and met Jeremy? 

Believe it or not, after setting her up with that awful situation, she still speaks to me. She quickly made a deal with Jeremy, continued to busk on the same terms the girls had, and at the end of the run, he got her on a ship to Boston where she joined her family. That was all I knew. It was plenty to work with then, and now it is a great excuse to do the rest of the research and tell that story. After all, one of the reasons it came alive so easily is that we have not worked through these issues to this day. All we have done is to cast other marginalized people in the roles. Now that the Irish have become white, it is quite clear what was going on then, and now. 

Archive of our Own hosts original fiction as well as fanfic. It’s a great place for us to tell our character stories. When Fair has worked through the issues, we might just know each other better on and off the streets of London. 

Gone To London:The Life Of Roisin Sullivan

Respect For The Performer

A busker suspended in a collage of Renaissance Faire Images

We spent a lot of time last weekend looking at our old photos of Faire, and topped it off with videos on YouTube. The videos in particular reminded me of the shape of the illusion we all created. While it is true that LHC made the playground, we made the Faire.

Over my desk there’s a collage of images. They cover much more than Faire. In the center is a woman made of branches, her heart of fire green in her breast and her face uplifted to the sky among her leaves. An enhanced computer image of Long Meg, with all her cup-and-ring decorations towers over her, scarred by the passage of time and floating in a black background. My backpack, outer clothing and bodhran case are grouped around a tree on the shore of Llyn Tegid, in Wales, but the image I look to now is of myself, bodhran in hand, in leine and wool bonnet in Witches Wood, at Black Point.

Back then things were far from perfect, but I walked into another time and place every morning. My bodhran and basket were on my back and the day was there for the living. I started my journey as a matter of fact, the same way I started my day at Dickens, with a cup of Chai at the Mullah’s and conversation with good friends. Kenny Millikan might regale us with the tale of the Dawn Haggis, a creature we could only glimpse in his words. He had a jar of soft sculpture backsides, which he swore were pixie butts. The Pixie would take up the story at this point, telling us how they fell off in the fall, and that each Pixie had a special dance that sent them flying.

We carried stories like this into the streets and told them to Travellers. Some embellished them further or spun off wild tales of their own. There were a pair of Celts who came to Faire every year and found me busking on the streets. They would persuade me to take a trip to an alestand with them, and we would roar through the Faire. I would drop off after a while to play another set, and let them continue their colorful ramble through the playground they visited once a year. You may remember them, or you may not, for they were an ornament to the time and place we all created together, and while they were the very picture of uproarious revellers, they never, to my knowledge, caused a problem. Would they be welcome today? I don’t know. They chose their level of participation, and had complete freedom on the day per year they chose. They would not have been out of place backstage, though of course they were never seen there. Some lines, it has been made quite clear to me, are not to be crossed.

As a busker, I walked until I was tired, kept my tankard full of water when I played–both singer and bodhran found song a thirsty business–and told tales in rhyme to the beat of the drum. I stopped when asked, as some of the vendors would want me to grace the area around their booths with my music, and also when the Faire beckoned. While I had specific places I favored for a set, I was not in any one of them for longer than an hour or so. I made it a point to never repeat a song within a set lest I cease to please and begin to grate on those whose trade kept them in one place.

To me, that endless round through the streets is now missing. Every nook and cranny is filled with a booth or a stage, and there is nowhere to stop without stepping on the perfectly timed shows. Performers run from one to another, rarely stopping to play in streets too small to build a world in! We are watched, and our flaws marked. While there do of course have to be certain standards, we are no longer trusted to want to uphold them, not because they render a world deeper and more colorful than the one we return to after the last chorus is sung, but because we have people working to reveal our flaws instead of praising our glories.

There are still good times to be had, and bright spots in days growing ever longer, but as a busker I have been chased from these streets. I am no longer Jeremy’s messenger, part of the web of the underworld of London. While I miss Roisin, or Lucy, as she was called in London, I take heart in the knowledge that Jeremy’s girls were only a temporary shelter for her. In the end she did manage to join her family in America where they fled from An Gorta Mor. Perhaps Lucy’s story will fork, as did Jeremy’s and Jenny’s. Perhaps not. The characters I played never were wholly confined to the Faire. They came from somewhere, and kept going after it was over. Knowing who they were and in the end where they went was a part of their living presence on the streets, and the memory they leave for me when they move on.