If not him, someone else would have done it. There was always someone else, willing to sully their hands with even the filthiest of tasks, for money, for prestige. He had thought his status above the destitute, his position one that to even consider helping the poor, by whatever means, was to be praised, was his Christian soul ensuring its place in the halls beyond. But now he wasn’t so sure.
He’d returned from his residence in Dublin, seeking solace from the damp there, a damp that sought to impregnate his very bones. Neither could he sleep in that house, the wind had a way of knocking at his window, had a way of sneaking into his deepest thoughts and calling him out of slumber.
So, it was he found himself again, back in the familiar streets of Twickenham, the buildings, and the parks, dragging a rattling cough behind him. His lungs no longer took to the open air and he spent his days perched before the fire, the flickering light making chasms of the many lines on his gaunt, drawn face, as he stared into the flames, wondering at his imminent reception.
It’s funny, how the mind can block certain things, can filter moments so they appear different in memory, can shape them just so, fitting them neatly into a different picture, a prettier picture, a fallacy we then take to be true. But ill health and too many years have a way of stripping down the façade, that, and the lonely echo of a parlour, the four walls looming like judges.
Surely, they would understand it was his art, his passion. That his heart had always been in the right place, even if his hands, his pencils, his ideas were not. Surely, he thought, his tired, glazed eyes reflecting the slowly dancing flames in the hearth. Surely.
He had been jubilant the day he received the news. Under his father’s tutelage, the years of study, his skills had flourished, and finally now they were being recognised. He had done but one other commission, a small project in his home town of Witney, but this day he had won the chance to design not one, but three workhouses. They had accepted his plans, all the late nights, the self-doubt. His love for architecture had been given its opening and he had stepped through, euphoric.
He had been anxious to start, fretful he wouldn’t be able to bring life to the requirements of the Poor Law Union, afraid he would fail to bring something beautiful to their practical, domestic needs. But he shouldn’t have worried. His flair for Tudor and Gothic designs spilled onto the pages and soon his commissions started to gather, his fingertips resigned happily to never be clean of lead.
He only ever saw the workhouses before they were opened. He would lead the Union members through the rooms with pride, into the exercise yards and the mess halls. They had lavished him in praise. He was sent from providence they said, to build shelter for the needy. A place for them to transition, to pick themselves up again and go forth on the path that our Lord intended. And he slept well. In those days, nothing but the prospect of arches and towers could rouse him. But the beautiful façade of the front gates and the entrance halls, like his soul, could not hide the truth forever.
As his name became cemented in all the right circles, he was soon called forth for his highest distinction. Ireland has just been divided into 130 unions, each with a need of his careful design, and it would be in his majesty’s colony that he saw the true efficiency of his skill. The workhouse in full swing, a visit to survey his accomplishments, a visit to revel in his feats. But upon passing the gates his mind could no longer weave its usual story, sing its usual philanthropic tune. It’s harder to drown out reality when what you are witnessing strikes all five of your senses at once. To see something alone, memory has a way to placate the mind, but not when your body is surrounded, your whole being assailed with a cascading shower of wretchedness.
“There is simply a higher calibre of poor here Mr Wilkinson,” the master said, leaning in. “No surprise really, the way they breed.”
But he wasn’t listening, his eyes wide to the drudgery, the bent backs, the arms like saplings ready to break under the lightest load. And the smell. His handkerchief did little to stop the stench, his eyes streaming as he was lead through this room and that.
“The men, women and children are segregated at all times, as you can see, even meals are staggered to keep them apart.” The master’s hand gestured to the men piled together on benches like rag dolls, eyes hollow, bowls small. “It works better we find, we don’t want to them to get too comfortable now you understand, we don’t want them here forever.”
Yet it was the silence of the children’s yard that stayed with him. There was no laughter, no cries, just the faint crunch of bare feet on gravel, their little eyes following him as he passed, like sandy, dead pools. Better here, he thought to himself. Better here, he told himself. Better here than where they came from, he said aloud. But he shuddered as he made his way to the exit, struggling to conjure, failing to imagine, any place as worse as this.
That night as he dined he allowed the praise once more to build up his pretence, allowed himself to be warmed by the whiskey and the mirth. It’s God’s work they chimed, God’s work. For us where would they be? So, he drank, and he smiled, until his memory was blurred like the sweet dram in his veins, but no sleep came to him that night, only the tapping of the wind, like the distant thud of a hammer on stone.
He never went again to see his work yards, or his laundries, his windows small and high. He never went back to see how many shivering bodies each dormitory could hold, or how many pots of watery porridge the kitchens could produce. He declined any further visits, letting his assistants go in his stead, a bad cough he said. Instead, he stayed inside and finished his commissions, putting them aside in his mind, to gather dust and fall out of memory.
And so, it was here he finally found himself, amidst a fine house and sturdy walls, walls that inched a little closer to him, as the clock chimed its slow and graceful tune. Yet even from here he could hear it, that incessant hammering from across the sea, until eventually it matched his heart, a steady laborious beat he could not escape. And all the while they waited, in the shadows beyond the fire. Their listless, empty eyes watching, waiting patiently for him to draw his last breath, so they could gently take his hand and show him what designs they had for him.
Claire Loader was born in New Zealand and spent several years in China before moving to County Galway, Ireland, where she now lives with her family. With a passion for writing and photography, she is the creator of www.allthefallingstones.com and is currently writing a memoir.
Photographs: The Irish Workhouse Centre, formerly Portumna Workhouse, Co. Galway. Credit: Claire Loader