Mary Linders was the heart of a recent edition of Room to Improve, and if you didn’t catch it, use the bank holiday to go on RTÉ Player and find it. The date was March 11, and it’s probably the best outing the programme has had, thanks to Ma Linders. That’s not to disregard her daughters Marian and Anne, but the two of them know the score by now: The minute their mother enters the conversation, everybody else might as well hang up their conversational boots.
In the programme, my battered Martello tower appears a couple of times. In a small way, in the background to the shots of the house on the Quay. Mrs Linders is a physically distant next door neighbor, her house separated from mine by her son’s mobile home park.
When we moved in, roughly 12 years ago, I noticed the little green cottage at the corner and thought no more of it. My husband, however, decided to make an uninvited visit, which wasn’t easy, because what looked like the front door wasn’t. But he persevered, went around the back and knocked.
“I’m your new neighbor,” he told the white haired, apron-clad, flour-dusted woman who answered. “Are you good for a cup of tea?” Was she what. Tea. Fresh scones out of the oven and a bullying welcome (“Sit down there, no not there, there.”) The initial encounter started a best-mates relationship. One of the questions she asked him, that first day, was about his wife. Me. Was I into gardening? Tom laughed and shook his head. Couldn’t be less into gardening, his wife. Was he into gardening? No. Why? Because her late husband had laid out the gardens around the Martello, and she knew where every bulb and root was and more or less get the hell out of her way and she would restore the gardens to their former glory. At the time, they looked like Berlin after the Second World War.
A few days later, she marched in with a headscarf on her and a cigarette in her mouth, trowels and buckets in her big capable hands, and took over, giving the odd affectionate instruction to one of a bundle of yappy Pomeranians that accompany her everywhere.
If you got her to sit down for a cup of tea, it was like a tutorial in national politics or international relations, she was so well-informed. The radio was always on in her kitchen. Always tuned to current affairs programmes, and she read — and continues to read — the newspaper every day as if she was going to have to do an exam on its contents.
She also created an annual traffic jam in the one road leading past her house. This she did by having marquees erected in her garden coming up to the August bank holiday for her three-day annual sale, at which customers who knew their stuff could buy a bargain suit, a carton of biscuit packets, a solid mahogany dining room suite, a Le Creuset saucepan, a slightly dented high chair for a child, or something electronic. Manufacturers were bullied to contribute and any man with a van she happened to know got pressed into collecting those contributions.
During those three days, rain or shine, her glamorous daughters, dressed like they were auditioning for a harem, would run a wheel of fortune in the middle of the sale. They would greet you with a hug and an eye-roll: Look at what Ma is makes us do. Ma had a charity in Albania to do with prisoners to which she was dedicated with a dogged determination that demanded this year’s proceeds be considerably larger than those of the previous year, even if achieving this goal required that her volunteers (including immediate and extended family) die in the attempt. She was omnipresent during the sale, fixing displays, finding missing items and barking at customers and volunteers alike.
At the end of each evening, the volunteers would be fed like fighting cocks by Mrs Linders, especially the last night, when most of them were ready to fall over from exhaustion. It’s a fair bet that Mary Linders was the only one of them who was up at dawn the following morning to fold, package and prepare unsold men’s clothing for a container which would deliver them to the prisoners in Albania. That’s because she has no time to waste on stress or pressure. She may and undoubtedly does cause stress to other people, but her attitude is that they should man up because the objective is bigger than they are.
As far as she’s concerned, the road from The Quay, where she lives, and Donabate, where she goes to Mass, is fruitful hunting ground for lifts. It’s not that she stands on the grass marking, well out of danger, and advances a tentative thumb. Her style is to stand right in the middle of the road, facing cars headed for Donabate, and stop them by bodily obstructing their passage. The first time it happens to a driver, it takes a few minutes for their heart to return to where it should be, but thereafter, Mrs Linders demanding a lift is a predictable part of the journey, between 9.30 and 10 in the morning. And if you expect gratitude, you are barking up the wrong tree and missing the point of the encounter. What else would you do other than take her to to the church, since you’re going to pass it anyway? Gratitude would be redundant.
OLDER people who have been big personalities in their time tend to overact. They evoke Philip Larkin’s line about “pretending to be me”. They present radio and TV producers with a problem, because they can never answer a question with an unadorned sentence — the sentence demands of them that they sell the historic context for their wisdom as well as the wisdom. Mrs Linders doesn’t do any of that stuff. She doesn’t need approval or appreciation and so can sit silent, hand automatically stroking a hip-close dog, while conversation eddies around her, until it’s time for her to deliver her killer line — like telling Dermot Bannon all that was missing from the refurbished house was a Latin lover for her.
The reaction to the programme was one of fascination, not so much with the building as with the woman who has lived in the little green cottage for decades, back to when she was raising her family while working as a nurse in St Ita’s mental hospital. A woman who, in the face of every challenge, simply kept on keeping on, demanding what she needs to live a powerful life and be the best neighbour anybody ever had.
Watch the programme. Not for the house. For her.