With ease, Hank reached and pulled the ‘Sold’ sign from the ditch.
“Stand here guys, we need a snapshot of this.”
Limestone gateposts stood at either side as Jim the auctioneer pushed the time-worn wicket gate, which gave a piercing squeal at being disturbed. Akin to a welcoming or vetting committee, Holly Blue butterflies danced fairy-like through clusters of foxglove.
“This’ll do,” said Hank, holding the sign, his other arm around Betty; hair in a messy bun, her compact frame dwarfed by his beefy physique. All smiles as Jim captured the moment, the ivy-covered cottage and overgrown path the perfect backdrop.
“Worth the effort,” she said, jumping like a child, “I can’t wait to start the renovations.”
“And I gotta get someone to shift that shit heap in the middle of the meadow,” added Hank, eyebrows raised, but not cranky for once.
A contented couple of native New Yorkers, both mid-forties, they’d been together twenty years. Betty, despite having no children, was an acclaimed writer of children’s fiction and Hank a Wall Street trader with a sharp brain and a bruising reputation. He didn’t cut corners; he eliminated them through fear and intimidation. It seemed a contradiction, but Hank could paint. Meaningless to some, but his vibrant abstracts had a following, and sold well.
Then the bombshell. A routine medical revealed an enlarged liver and high blood pressure. The doctor didn’t hold back.
“Hank, you’ve gotta change your lifestyle. That job is too stressful, and you must lay off the booze. If you don’t, you’re in serious trouble.”
With enough money to last a dozen lifetimes, they quit the Big Apple. Finding a relaxing place to enjoy their wealth and stimulate their imaginations was their mission.
They considered everything from log cabins in the Catskills to sea-front houses in Laguna Beach until Betty, claiming a few drops of Irish blood in her veins, insisted they’d discover their nirvana in Ireland. After months trawling the net and crisscrossing the country, they found it. Outside the village of Nohoval, close to idyllic Kinsale, the cottage nestled at the end of a lane that corkscrewed its way through undulating farmland. Neighbours occasionally walked by, but little traffic passed other than Jimmy McCarthy’s tractors. Hank laughed the first time he saw the grass in the middle of the so-called road.
“This isn’t Manhattan. I love it. Honey, if this place doesn’t kindle our creative juices, nowhere will.”
“Wait till Trixie gets here,” said Betty. “She’ll love the set-up.”
Their pride and joy, a bundle of white mischief, the three-year-old Bichon Frise had to undergo quarantine before joining them.
The house and acre needed work, but the view convinced them they’d found their Shangri-La. Tucked into the side of a low hill, columns of cedar to the rear and below, misshapen fields displayed forty shades of green. To the South, glimpses of the Atlantic and hints of sea air. This being Ireland, the builder wasn’t in a rush and renovations took months, rather than weeks. Mondays and Fridays were slow days, with tradesmen recovering from or planning their weekends. As it turned out though, the timing was perfect. The excited couple and Trixie moved in as blackbirds started building, and daffodils appeared.
Cuddled together in the antique brass bed, their first night was somewhat surreal. Trixie twitching in her basket under the curtain less sash window and the Tick-Tock of the grandfather clock in the living room were the only sounds.
“Honey, I know this is weird, but can you hear the silence?”
“Yeah, isn’t it peaceful? I guess I’ve found the name we’ve been looking for – Tranquillity.”
“Perfect,” said Hank. “I can’t wait to take my easel out, but I’ve got to get rid of that eyesore. Don’t understand why nobody blew it away before now. It spoils the view.”
“I don’t know, 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 brambles flourished, but a random scattering of elder and hazel also battled for supremacy. An eclectic mix of wildflowers: cowslips, foxgloves and luscious woodbine thrived in among the stones too. It served no purpose, and there was no reason it should be there.
They walked daily, a constitutional that was often interrupted by welcoming and inquisitive neighbours bearing gifts. Aromas of soda bread and curranty buns wafted as housewives called, hoping for a nose around. Eager to try her hand at cooking made Betty an instant hit with the women. Creating her own clothes and a Bohemian appearance as she skipped along kept tongues wagging.
“What’s that smell?” asked Hank as they strolled hand in hand after a walk to the cove.
“Haven’t a clue, honey, they look like lily of the valley.”
“Don’t smell like any lily? Smells of onion.”
Turning a corner, they heard McCarthy’s tractor and leaning on the four-bar gate; they watched as a day’s ploughing came to an end. The field was rich and black.
Jimmy plodded over. Hands were shaken, and questions answered.
“’Tis wild garlic ma’am, fine to cook with”, said Jimmy, scratching his head through a knitted hat that had seen better days.
“And what about that shit heap out front? Can you shift it? I’ll pay well?”
Jimmy took a pull on his pipe before answering.
“Maybe ’t’would be best to leave it well alone.”
“Why the hell should I?” replied Hank, standing back and glaring at McCarthy.
“’Tis said to be a place where the little people live.”
“Little people. What a load of crap. You guys only invented that baloney about fairies and leprechauns to get tourists to visit. I got to 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 follows anyone who interferes with it.”
“Thanks, but I’ll take my chances.”
“Please yourself,” replied McCarthy, adjusting the belt around a formidable girth, maintained by nightly visits to his namesake’s pub. “But I won’t touch it.”
Weeks later, Hank found a contractor who used eastern European workers, mostly Polish. If the price was right, and you paid cash, these guys would flatten, level or erect anything you told them to.
The battered low-loader and bulldozer were of pensionable aa and Jakub, the driver, had difficulty negotiating the twists and turns of the lane.
“Hang a left,” said Hank, followed by a quick “Stop, stop.” Watched over by a single magpie perched in a hawthorn tree, the machine squeezed through the limestone pillars. Jakub, an Adonis of a man who’d been quarried rather than born, with a ponytail of blond hair, muscles bursting through a tee shirt a size too small, got the half-day’s work finished in two hours. The ancient, yet powerful machine reduced the fairy ring to a lifeless muddy patch. It was December 21st, winter solstice, and a potent day for the spirits.
Delighted, Hank threw in an extra fifty.
“A damn fine job.”
The loading of the bulldozer onto the trailer began as a menacing convoy of clouds, black as coal, approached, threatening to empty themselves at the slightest invitation. Getting the machines together was a slow process.
Inch by inch the tracks edged forward. Satisfied, Jakub, sweat trickling down his neck, attached three well-worn chains. Ready to roll.
The magpie took flight as lightning spiked the darkened sky. Thunder followed. Spears of rain fell in biblical proportions.
Hank cursed. A chill ran down Betty’s back. The loader shuddered as it cleared the entrance.
There was an ear-piercing screech of metal on metal. The dozer shifted. An ancient chain snapped as Jakub jumped from the cab. Two remaining cables groaned under the pressure, links taut and strained. With a ghostly bullwhip whoosh, they gave way. Five tons of steel pinned Jakub against the gatepost. His screams sent flocks of crows into the air. Hank cursed and ran for help. Betty fainted.
Neighbours and emergency services tried their utmost, but Doctor Hennessy said Jakub had died instantly. That might have been some comfort to his heartbroken wife, but two babies lost their father and there was no comfort for them.
The following weeks were tough. Visits from the locals petered out. At night, while Hank embraced his dreams, Betty’s mind churned like a rollercoaster, every toss and turn signalling another nightmare. She kept hearing noises.
“Can’t you hear it, sounds like babies crying?”
“You’re imagining things, I hear nothing,” he said, turning over. “Probably the wind.”
“But there is no breeze tonight.”
This became their nightly ritual until finally, one night, Hank heard something. A dull thud coming from the living room.
“I’ll go check; it’ll be Trixie having a wander.”
A photograph of the couple lay on the floor. Picking it up, he checked the string was taut and the hook still in the wall.
He re-hung the picture above the fireplace and returned to bed.
The next night, they heard the same sound, this time accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. On the ground lay the photo, its frame smashed, the portrait slashed by shards of glass. Betty cried. Her favourite wedding day memento was in tatters. Stepping over the debris, she thought she picked up a high-pitched giggle, but said nothing.
The clock had stopped ticking.
The vet offered no reason for the sudden change in Trixie’s behaviour. She’d settled into her new surroundings and watching her run around the fields was a joy. Chasing rabbits had become part of her routine, but that ceased after they destroyed the copse. Now she trembled in her basket and wouldn’t venture further than the back door. She growled anytime Hank approached.
He had his own problems. Despite the pleasant 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, a mist or fog hung in the air where the thicket once stood. His fist went through many a canvas and broken brushes littered the floor as frustration replaced his original euphoria for Tranquillity Cottage. The fact that grass refused to grow on the copse did nothing to improve his mood. Three times he’d sown seed. It had died within days each time. A brown scab remained in the centre of the field.
The last Friday in August promised much but delivered little. A mist crept in and pushed aside early morning sun, smothering the green of the fields, and turning everything a strong grey. Betty baked. The aroma of tart apple, buttery pastry and hints of cinnamon filled the cottage. Pleased, she took the pie to show Hank. Slouched in an easy chair, staring out at the drizzle, he showed little interest. She couldn’t believe it 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, bulging copper eyes fixed on her.
“Look, Betty, the pressures of business caused my drinking. Nothing more. I’ll be able to handle a drink or two.”
She didn’t reply.
Visits to the bar became a nightly routine and within weeks, a bottle of bourbon disappeared down Hank’s gullet every day. His time spent brooding and looking for trouble.
To avoid conflict, Betty walked alone. Her hippy, free spirited appearance was different, but it was her smile that made her popular. She parked the beam when she lifted the latch on her return. A cold, hostile atmosphere was the norm.
Pills helped her sleep, but when Trixie died, she went to pieces.
There was ‘no apparent cause,’ the vet told them.
She’d written not a word since the accident and her publisher had lost patience. The letter, when it came, was oddly formal. ‘No longer have confidence you can deliver on promised works…’
She doubled up on the sleeping tablets and walked less. She felt nervous walking, thought someone was watching, and she heard the noises. Babies or little children, sometimes crying, frequently laughing, but when she turned, there was nothing to see.
Showering became a chore for Hank. He wandered around in the same clothes for days, often weeks, before dumping them on the bedroom floor to ferment. The once pristine room stank, and so did he.
Betty moved to the guest suite, citing Hank’s snoring as the reason. She gave no reason for locking the door. It wasn’t as though he roused himself to come and find her.
He never hit her. An acid tongue and cold, unblinking gaze did the damage.
There were no celebrations for their twentieth anniversary. Instead, the auctioneer 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, Jim visited with a potential buyer. Cloud lingered, a chaotic array of white fluffy shapes played with the sun, giving its first lick of summer. The views were obvious, and the acre offered endless possibilities to a couple of avid gardeners, both retired.
But it was the quirky circle of wildflowers and saplings in the heart of the meadow that impressed them most.
Released early from a life sentence working in financial services, I started writing short stories. To date, it's been much more successful than my golf, which is terrible. No particular genre. An eclectic mix.