Gone to London: My Roisin

Summary:

Roisin Sullivan is an immigrant, working for a family in London because that’s the only job she can get. She came to London because her family needed the money, the family she’s working for came a century or so ago for basically the same reasons, and now is focused on getting ahead. 

Is this the America of today? No, it’s nineteenth century London. We’re still playing the same games though, and putting up with the same savage inequalities. Only the cast of characters have changed. There are always reasons why people who are different can’t have the same opportunities as the rest of us. 

In this installment, Roisin (called Lucy, because her Irish name is too foreign, even for the Jewish family she works for) gets some bad news.

My Roisin, 

We will bury your mother and your sister today. Famine fever took them, as it has so many others. Please, on no account try to come home! The countryside is emptying as Dublin fills to bursting. The money you sent arrived yesterday, and I thank God for it for it has helped to give Michael and I the means to leave this deathly place. There is nothing but starvation in Ireland now. We will be sailing for America by the time you read this. I hope you will take care now and wait for word, as we will bring you out as soon as we find work. I will send your ticket as soon as we can get it. Carry our love with you until then, and may you stay safe and well in London, my darling girl. 

Your loving father 

The hand holding the letter slowly drifted down to my lap. I sat on the edge of the bed, dry-eyed, wordless. 

“Lucy?” Sarah seemed to appear from nowhere in the doorway of my tiny garret room, the candle in its rough pewter holder casting a pool of light  into the now dark room. “Mrs. Rosenthal is asking for you.” 

“Mrs. Rosenthal can go hang.” 

The circle of light wobbled as Sarah set the candle on our dresser. “What?” she said. “She’s not best pleased. The laundry is still in the yard and you’ve not laid the fire.” She came closer to look me in the eye. “Lucy?” 

I felt my hands clenching into fists, and as the letter began to crumple I remembered, and dropped it as if it were a burning coal. The last thing I might have from my family. I dropped to my knees and smoothed it out against the clean wooden floorboards. I laid it carefully on the dresser.

“Lucy, what’s happened?” 

I took a deep breath, and the rage receded, just enough for me to remember that Sarah was my employer’s niece, not my friend, even if she was kinder than the rest of them. She had nothing to do with the stealing of my life. “My mother–” The tears came, I couldn’t stop them if I’d wanted to. I was surprised to feel arms around me, and if they weren’t the ones I wanted, they were kind, and I could pretend that there was still someone in the world who cared for me. 

It was a long time before I was quiet. Sarah rose from the bed where she’d sat me down and got a cloth. She wet it with water poured into the basin from the pitcher I’d filled and brought up with the letter. The last ordinary act of a day that had my family in it. When she tried to  wash my face, I took the cloth and bathed my hot eyes. She understood, it seemed, and left me alone. 

Morning came, and I didn’t care. Sarah appeared at the door and called to me. 

“Lucy, you must get up. My Aunt is looking for you.” 

I said nothing. The bed was warm, and I wanted to go back to sleep. I pulled the covers closer. I didn’t see her take my letter from the dresser as she left. 

“Lucy?” 

A hand on my shoulder and a gentle shake. “Lucy?” 

It was Mrs. Rosenthal. 

I turned to face her, and sat up. My letter was in her hand, and my feet were on the floor. I snatched it from her. 

“Lucy!” The look of concern fell from her face, and her fists hit her hips. “How dare you!” 

“Where did you get that!” I shouted back. 

She took a deep breath. “I know you’ve had a shock, my girl, and I’m sorry for your loss, but I’ll thank you for remembering your place! This is my house, and I have a perfect right to know what goes on under my roof. I’ll thank you to get dressed and get to work.” 

Mechanically, I pulled open a drawer. Her footsteps receded down the stairs and I closed it, lay back down, tears streaming down my face. 

Sarah came up long after dark, a bowl of cold stew obviously filched from the kitchen  in her hand. I knew it hadn’t come from Cook. For a moment the ice where my heart should be began to thaw. She was kind, but she wasn’t my friend. My letter lay between us, even though I had it tucked under my pillow. 

The smell of food woke my body to its needs, and as I ate the floating, bodiless feeling I hadn’t noticed receded. I listened with half an ear to Sarah as she told me what I must do, to obey her aunt and do my work. I nodded at the right moments, said “yes,” and “I’m sorry,” and anything else she wanted to hear until at last she left me alone again. 

I lay down, crying silently until I drifted into darkness. 

The next morning my limbs were like lead, my spirit grey as the rough blanket covering me. I closed my eyes again and turned my face to the wall. 

I woke to Mrs. Rosenthal pulling the blanket back from my face. I pulled it out of her hand and turned back to the wall. 

“Lucy?” she said, more quietly than I’d expected. “You must get up now. This cannot continue.” 

If I stayed silent, surely she’d see reason and let me be. Instead, she stripped the blanket from me, grabbed me by the wrist, and pulled me from the bed. She stood in the doorway while I shivered my way into my clothes. As she turned I grabbed the letter and stuffed it into my pocket. I followed her downstairs, the picture of the obedient servant I’d been for the last fifteen years. 

I laid the fire in the sitting room with all the coal in the scuttle. I put Mr. Rosenthal’s’s newspaper on as well and lit it. I left it blazing on the hearth and went out into the yard. I didn’t collect the linens, I didn’t fill the coppers. I didn’t light the fires. I just stood there. 

The house didn’t burn. Mrs. Rosenthal found the flames licking at the mantel and ran to the scullery for a bucket of water. She sent Sarah to sit with me, and though I know she spoke to me, I have no recollection of what she said. Mrs. Rosenthal soon returned with my small case. She took me by the hand and walked me through the scullery to the back door. The cook looked daggers at me from her place at the stove as we passed through the kitchen. 

Mrs. Rosenthal walked me outside, out of earshot of any of the household. “I can’t have you here, Lucy,” she said quietly, “I’m sorry for it, but you all but had the house in flames. My home, my family aren’t safe with you under our roof.” She took my fingers and wrapped them around a handful of coins. “Go, my girl, and I pray you find some peace, but if I see you near my home again I’ll call the law.” 

I walked. Our court met the street, then a larger one, and then I was on the high road leading to the river. See me again? She never would. I walked along the river until I found a place where the walkway passed over the water.  I dropped the bundle I carried at my feet and looked down at the tumbling water below. I set my hand on the low wall and began to pull myself up on it. 

To Be Continued

Link to Archive Of Our Own: https://archiveofourown.org/works/32247553

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

An Ever Narrowing Stage

A Family Outing To Renaissance Faire 1968
A Family Goes to Pleasure Faire, 1968

I unearthed a lot of photos last weekend. The long look back over forty-plus years of Faire was useful. It gave me perspective on the current situation. I had forgotten just how big Faire used to be. I’m not just talking about size, though there was a lot more space, and there were a lot more of us. No, the quality of the spell we cast collectively created an energetic container that we filled with a place that never was, and always will be. Back then we were a community, trusted to play our part in the act of creation. There were fewer rules and more magic.

I was told by a dear friend “If you’re not having fun, it’s on you.” It was meant well, more the Zen master with the rod than Bill Sykes with a bludgeon, and I did try seriously to follow the core of truth in that advice. Maybe it is me. I’m older, and perhaps not as easily amused. My old friends are fewer, and there are new faces among them, but that isn’t it either. I  play on the streets, but with the determination of the lone salmon fighting its way to the source instead of the player grabbing an outstretched hand, leaping effortlessly in the dance, trusting the magic will be there to catch me. I even tried creating a new character and going back to busking to see what would happen. There are bright spots. Singing choruses in the afternoons with great and generous people in an environmental area that is open for the public to join us is tasting the past. It’s good to see the friends that are left. It is still possible to catch the edge of magic, and just for a moment lose oneself in Faire. Spirits still move between worlds. I can’t expect things to be the same as they were years ago and they shouldn’t be. Time marches on, change is part of life, but the river flows from the same source.

The magic has been squeezed into such a tiny space! The eyes are always on us. What are we wearing? What are we doing? Must be sure not to step out of line, to draw focus from a performance or break a rule. Above all, if you do, don’t get caught!  Now we sit in neat rows in  Mad Sal’s, singing along at the right times to prompt the crowd and create the proper soundscape. We take our gigs and conversations outside, the designated place for background color and noise. Living your character all day long is the exception, not the rule, and enough people drop character at the curtain to make it the boundary of the lovely illusion that is only half there as it is. We work Faire, instead of play. Disney has replaced Dickens. Our passes must be shown without exception to pass back and forth past the guards hired for the event. There is no more security and crew, people who knew us, were part of us.

Safety is an issue, I understand that. Trust has long ago been broken. Space is at a premium in a venue we have long outgrown. There have always been broken stairs and differential treatment that mirror the society we live in, but the sharp separation between customer and Faire folk was never so stark, and we looked after each other far more than we do now. The constant carding at the door and in the venue by strangers jerks us back into the present we are supposed to be casting a temporary spell on and we can’t pull the willing visitor into the dance any more.

Faire was always a dance on the edge. We played with time, with language, with the energy. It was never safe, and things have always happened that shouldn’t. Yes, it is past time to change some of those things, but never before were we ever so powerless that our only real option was to strike. We let union be, a song instead of a movement. We were a community, that family that management–for they have become management–keeps talking about.

Faire was a dance on the edge, but it wasn’t just physical. For a few short weeks we were part of another time and place, and the people who paid to get in came to taste it, and sometimes become part of it. You could get in free of charge if you did the thing Faire asked of you that day. Perhaps it was wearing a specific costume or the reciting of a Shakespeare sonnet. You played Faire and were let through the magic door to play your part. There were more participants and more room. Every inch was not sharply delineated for stage and booth and alestand. The village or London Town had twists and turns and places where magic could happen. The streets did not run in straight lines. There wasn’t a microphone to be found on the site and silence was not required at the sharp barrier where street now becomes stage. Players did not demand absolute attention because they knew how to take and hold stage, and when to release it. Our allegiance was to the illusion, not the script. Mad Sal’s roared with laughter and song, and you could play skittles inside, drink and converse in what was for a brief moment a real dockside alehouse, not a stage set with a bar outside.

Faire was always trying to rein us in, but back then they never succeeded. Danse Macabre could get away with tiptoeing across Main Stage and the players adapted instead of objected. A whole procession could disappear into a magic privy because the crew built the privies and one of them had doors on both sides. It was years ago before rented plastic boxes became the norm, before people of color were hired to clean the bathrooms and pick up the trash, no longer part of the crew, part of us. Yes, times have changed, the books balance much better than they did back then, but where is the magic that flowed like water and carried us halfway to Faerie? The ragged heroes have long disappeared around the last bend. The day has died like a rose. The Faire has come to a close.

Times change and so do we, the spirit of Faire a sleeping Beauty lying somnolent in the bed of Procrustes. Black Point has become Patterson Abbey. We are more concerned with the distance between plate and cutlery than we are with the people who spin a continuous reality out of the whole cloth of history. It is more important to have a costume, pattern carefully selected from an ever-dwindling range of years that matches the palette of the show than to wear clothes that suit our characters and their stories. We will be measured and photographed, the garb we provide at our own expense cleared in every detail before it can even be made. A tart may not wear a tattered ball gown she purchased at the old clothes market no matter how careful the research the participant has done to build the backstory. Like goes with like, the regimented sections of the stage will be respected. We will have Fagin and Oliver Twist, but Sikes must not kill Nancy. It’s a family show, after all.