Fiona's Room: the big lie I've lived with all my life
I’ve had 24 bedrooms in my life but never a place to call home, writes Fiona Cassim
When I was a child, I had a small ceramic plate that would hang on my bedroom door. It had a picture of a dancing clown with balloons in bright reds and blues. "Fiona's Room" was carved out in jet black ink. I found that plate in a box the other day and I counted the number of doors that it had hung on. I stopped counting when I got to 16 because the realisation profoundly upset me. Let me tell you why.
In total, I have had 24 different bedrooms. I have had 19 different groups of friends. I have never had a place I have called home, that place that others have, their family home that is always there whenever they need it. I am envious of these people because they have walked through the same front door all their lives. They have had one bedroom that will always be theirs and the little ceramic plate that hung on that bedroom door is probably still there, faded with time and forgotten because it has been there so long. It was fixed to that door once, and it remained there.
There are 12 different pieces of Blu Tack on the back of my ceramic plate, from all the times it was carefully taken down by a confused heartbroken little girl and dutifully replaced in a new place, on a new door. My memories are hazy now, so many years later, but I can still see the cardboard boxes that lined the walls and the familiar things in unfamiliar places.
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I remember the musty basement flats that my mother would bring me to, all her pitiful budget could afford, the ways she would try to make it exciting, like an adventure. In truth, it was exhausting, for us both. In some of these places, I did not hang my little ceramic plate on the door, because I shared the room or the bed with my mother. In these places, I saw the plate as a lie, because I didn't have a room.
There were other places, dark, damp places where my mother had neither bedroom nor bed. She slept on a fold-out couch that touched the cold tiles of the floor. She tried to give me the bedroom. I slept in a windowless room that had no light or air. The door was one that had been taken from a horse's stable and wouldn't close properly. Sometimes I could hear my mother crying at night. I know she heard me.
What becomes of those who live within the limbo of poverty? Those unlucky people who are left to the mercy of the State, who earn a decent wage to survive, to pay bills and put food on a table but never enough to ensure that one roof will be all you see over your head.
If I feel unlucky or hard done by, I think of my mother, a survivor who did all she could to provide for her only child. She was a warrior who stood against 22 landlords and lost every time. A simple notice of termination meant that she was back at square one. How many times can you start all over again without losing all hope? Frightened, worried and alone, she did it all. She was faced with uncertainty and insecurity at every turn because she was dealing with the most ruthless and corrupt professional and legal corporation in this country: the private landlords. She settled for anything she could get, simply because she had to. Because she had no choice. There were no such things as standards or environmental inspection officers.
Those were the 80s and 90s and now, at the age of 35, I can see that nothing has changed. My mother is still at the mercy of landlords. She is 65 years old and she will never own her own home. It is 2016 and there are more people sleeping on the streets and facing homelessness than ever before. Landlords can evict tenants at will and these tenants have very little comeback within the careful confines of the law. There are promises of new legislation that will give tenants more rights and landlords less power, and yet these legislations are merely whispers on the wind.
It is still the 1600s in Ireland and landlords are still getting the last laugh.
I have a degree and an MA, I am well educated despite the unsettled feeling that I struggle to live with every day. I suffer from depression, panic attacks and an overall feeling of sadness. I have never belonged anywhere, and now I don't think I ever will. I will never own a home; I simply do not have the financial capability most lenders require. I can afford to pay a decent rent each month, but am I prepared to pay €1,000 for a place where I can reach the cooker from my bed?
I put the little ceramic plate back into the box where I found it. It was an odd moment, filled with grief and an overwhelming loss. But I realised that the little plate was a lie all along - deceiving a small child into the belief of a better future some day. Fiona's Room never really existed at all.