© Eamon O'Leary
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By Eamon O’Leary
With ease, Hank reached up and pulled the Sold sign from the bramble-covered ditch.
“Stand here guys, we need a snapshot of this.”
Two limestone gateposts stood proudly at either side as Jim the auctioneer pushed open the time-worn wrought-iron gate, which released a piercing squeal at being disturbed.
“This’ll do fine,” said Hank holding the sign, his other arm around Betty. Hair in a messy bun, her petite frame dwarfed by his beefy physique. Smiles all round as Jim captured the moment. The ivy-covered cottage and overgrown path the perfect backdrop.
“Definitely worth the effort,” said Betty, hands waving as she jumped up and down, “I can’t wait to start the renovations.”
“And I gotta get someone to shift that rocky mound in the middle of the meadow,” added Hank, arms folded, but not cranky for once.
Native New Yorkers in their early fifties, they’d been together twenty years. Betty, despite having no children, an acclaimed writer of children’s fiction and Hank a renowned Wall Street trader with a bruising reputation.
With enough money to last a dozen lifetimes, they’d quit the Big Apple. Their dream: to find a more satisfying and relaxing way to enjoy their wealth.
Claiming a few drops of Irish blood in her veins, Betty insisted they’d find their ideal spot in Ireland. After months trawling the net and crisscrossing the country, they purchased. Outside the village of Nohoval, close to idyllic Kinsale, the cottage sat nestled towards the end of a narrow boreen that corkscrewed its way through undulating farmland. Neighbours occasionally walked by, but little or no traffic passed other than Tommy McCarthy’s tractor. Hank laughed when he first saw the grass growing in the middle of the so-called road.
“This certainly ain’t Manhattan. I love it.”
The house and the acre needed work, but the view convinced them they’d found their dream home. Tucked into a hillside, a forest of fir trees to the rear and below, field after field displayed forty shades of green. In the distance, they could pick out glimpses of the Atlantic, hints of sea air filling their nostrils.
“Honey,” he said, “If this place doesn’t get our creative juices flowing, nowhere will.”
It seemed a contradiction for a guy with a tough reputation, but Hank could paint. Meaningless to some, but his vibrant abstracts had a following, his latest exhibition a sellout, each piece commanding ten grand plus.
“Wait ‘til Trixie gets here,” said Betty. “She’ll love the set-up.”
Their pride and joy; a bundle of white mischief, the tiny three-year-old Bichon Frise had to go through quarantine before joining them.
This being Ireland, the builder wasn’t to be rushed and renovations took months rather than weeks. Mondays and Fridays were slow days with tradesmen either recovering from or planning weekends. As it transpired, the timing turned out to be perfect, the happy couple and Trixie moved in as the blackbirds started building and the daffodils arrived.
Cuddled together in the antique brass bed, their first night was somewhat surreal. Trixie twitching in her basket under the curtainless sash window and the Tick-Tock of the grandfather clock in the adjoining living room were the only sounds.
“Honey, I know this is weird, but can you hear the silence?”
“Yeah, isn’t it so peaceful? I think I’ve found the name we’ve been looking for- Tranquillity.”
“Perfect, said Hank, “I can’t wait to get my easel out, but first I’ve got to get rid of that eyesore in the middle of the meadow. Can’t understand why nobody blew it away before now. It spoils the view.”
“I don’t know love, I’m beginning to think it’s kinda quirky.”
“No way. It’s going.”
It was unusual. A broken circle of boulders and rock where thorn and nettle flourished, but also a random scattering of elder and hazel trees battled for supremacy. An eclectic mix of wildflowers: cowslips, foxgloves, and luscious woodbine provided colour. It served no purpose and no obvious reason it should be there.
They walked daily, their constitutional often interrupted by welcoming and inquisitive neighbours. The local women, hoping for a nose around, called with gifts of freshly baked brown soda and curranty cakes. Heavenly, mouth-watering smells filled the cottage. Keen to learn to bake and asking for help made Betty an instant hit. Making her own clothes and a Bohemian appearance as she skipped along kept tongues wagging.
“What’s that smell,” asked Hank as they strolled home, hand in hand after a walk to the cove.
“Haven’t a clue honey, but those little flowers look like lily of the valley.”
“Don’t smell like any lily, smells like onion.”
Turning a corner in the boreen they heard McCarthy’s tractor and leaning over the four-bar gate, watched and admired as a day’s ploughing ended. The field rich and black. Seagulls feasted.
Tommy came over. Handshakes all round and questions answered.
“Tis wild garlic mam, fine to cook with,” said Tommy, scratching his head through a hand knitted, woollen hat that had seen better days
“And what about that shit heap out front? Can you shift it? I’ll pay well?”
Tommy took a long pull on his pipe before answering.
“Maybe ‘twould be better to leave well alone.”
“Why the hell should I?” replied Hank, standing back, narrowed eyes fixed on McCarthy.
“’Tis said to be a place where the little people live.”
“Little people. What a load of crap. You lot only invented all that baloney about fairies and leprechauns to get tourists to visit Ireland. I gotta admit you did a damn good job, but I’m not buying it.”
“Suit yourself, sir, but the fairy ring hasn’t been touched for generations. They say bad luck will follow anyone who interferes with it.”
“Thanks, but I’ll take my chances."
“And that’s fine too sir,” replied McCarthy adjusting the belt around a formidable girth, maintained by nightly visits to his namesake's pub in the village. ”But I won’t be touching it.”
Weeks later, Hank found a contractor who used eastern European workers, mostly Polish. For the right price, paid in cash, these guys would knock or level anything. Jakub agreed to do the job as a nixer the following Saturday.
The battered low-loader and bulldozer were of pensionable age and Jakub had difficulty negotiating the twists and turns of the boreen.
“Hang a left,” said Hank followed by a quick “Stop, stop.” But watched over by a single magpie perched in a hawthorn tree, the machine squeezed through the limestone pillars. Jakub, an Adonis specimen, quarried rather than born, with a ponytail of long blond hair, his muscles bursting through a tee shirt a size too small. A half day’s work finished in two hours. The ancient, yet powerful machine, reduced the fairy ring to a lifeless muddy patch.
Delighted, Hank threw in an extra fifty for good measure.
“A damn fine job.”
As a menacing convoy of clouds, black as coal, moved in, threatening to empty themselves at the slightest invitation, the loading of the bulldozer onto the trailer began. A slow process. Inch by tedious inch the tracks moved forward. Satisfied, Jakub, beads of sweat trickling down his neck, attached three well-worn chains. Ready to roll.
The magpie took flight as lightning, followed by a clap of thunder spiked the darkened sky. Spears of rain fell in biblical proportions. Hank, fists clenched looked skywards and cursed. Cold shivers ran down Betty’s back. As the cab cleared the entrance, the loader shuddered. A grating screech of metal on metal. The dozer shifted. An ancient chain snapped as Jakub jumped from the cab. The remaining chains groaned under the pressure, links taut and strained. With a ghostly bullwhip whoosh, they gave way. Five tons of metal pinned Jakub against the gatepost, his deathly screams sent flocks of crows into the air. Hank cursed again.
Neighbours and emergency services tried, but the doctor said he would have died instantly. Some solace perhaps for his heartbroken wife, but two young children lost their father.
The following weeks were difficult. Visits from the neighbours petered out. Betty slept poorly, her tossing and turning irritating Hank.
She kept hearing noises.
“Can’t you hear it, sounds like babies crying?”
“You’re imagining things, I don’t get it,” he said turning over, “probably the wind.”
“But there is no breeze tonight.”
This was a nightly ritual until Hank heard something. A dull thud coming from the living room.
“I’ll go check,” he said, “probably Trixie having a wander.”
A framed photograph of the couple lay on the floor. He re-hung it. Next night, the same noise, accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. On the ground the photo, its frame smashed, the picture slashed by shards of glass. Tears flowed down Betty’s cheeks, the muscles in her chin trembling like a child. Her favourite wedding day memento lay in tatters. The clock had stopped ticking.
The vet offered no medical reason for the sudden change in Trixie’s behaviour. She’d settled into her new surroundings, the freedom she found running around the meadow a joy to see. Chasing rabbits became part of her routine, but this stopped after they destroyed the copse. Now, she trembled in her basket and wouldn’t venture further than the half-door.
Hank had his own problems. Despite the good weather, no matter where he placed his easel, he couldn’t find the right light.
“Honey, I hate to admit it, but maybe it’s time I got glasses.”
A visit to the opticians confirmed that he still had twenty-twenty vision
It made no sense, but whatever way he sat or looked, a mist or fog hung in the air where the fairy ring once stood. Frustration and anxiety replaced his original euphoria for Tranquillity Cottage. Grass refusing to grow did nothing to improve his mood. Three times he’d sown seed. Three times it died within days. A brown scab remained on the cleared ground.
With a flavoursome aroma filling the kitchen, Betty bent to take her latest loaf of soda bread from the oven. Proudly, she took it to the living room to show Hank. Staring out the window, he showed little interest. She couldn’t believe her ears when he announced:
“I think I’ll go to the pub and have a drink with McCarthy and the locals.”
“Are you sure that’s a good move, honey?”
He sprang to his feet, pointing at her.
“Look, Betty, the pressures of business caused my drinking. Nothing more. I’m able to handle a drink or two.”
She didn’t offer a reply.
Visits to the pub became a nightly routine and within weeks, a bottle of bourbon disappeared down Hank’s gullet every day. His days spent brooding and looking for trouble.
To avoid conflict, Betty walked alone. Her hippy, free spirit appearance was different, but it was her smile that made her so popular. She parked the smile when she lifted the latch on her return. A cool, hostile atmosphere awaited her.
Betty’s writing suffered, not a word written since Jakub’s accident and her publisher had lost patience. She took a mild tranquilliser to help her sleep but went to bits when Trixie died. No apparent cause, the vet told them. She doubled up on the sleeping tablets.
He never hit her, but an acid tongue and cold unblinking gaze did the damage. Before a year passed, they finished it. No celebrations for their twenty-first anniversary. Instead, Jim erected a For Sale sign. No photographs this time.
They left Tranquillity. Betty returned to New York. She didn’t know or care where Hank was heading.
Months later the auctioneer arrived with potential buyers. Clouds lingered, a chaotic array of white fluffy shapes played with a sun giving its first lick of summer. The views were obvious, and the acre offered endless possibilities to the recently retired couple, both avid gardeners. But it was the collection of wildflowers and young saplings in the quirky circle of virgin grass that impressed them most. An omen perhaps that the little people had returned.