An episode from a novel, as yet untitled, which weaves together the lives of three people living in a small community in the west of Ireland
The familiar crunch of gravel outside prompted Maggie to grip the arms of her chair for support and rise to her feet. She hadn’t received post since the previous Monday, so Chris was sure to have a bit of news for her, news of who had married, who had left, who had come back, who was dying, but she knew she would miss him if she didn’t get the door opened in time. She never cared much for the post he brought as she had long ago stopped receiving anything other than electricity bills, election literature and booklets about referenda in which she would not vote. Only at Christmas would she receive a card from Eddie, but even that had been penned in someone else’s hand for the past few years.
She fumbled with the key, her jittery fingers struggling to turn it. When she finally managed to open the door, cold afternoon light jostled past her into the room. There was someone on the garden path, a rake of a man with dirty blonde hair and wide eyes: a stranger. He quickened his pace as Maggie hastened to shut the door, but she was too slow. He held the door open and leered in at her, his white van visible over his shoulder, crouching by the roadside like a watchdog.
‘How’ya?’ he said. ‘I’m with the Council.’
Maggie clutched the handle with one hand and worried at the hem of her cardigan with the other.
‘Only there were such bad storms back in February,’ he continued, ‘so we’re going around cutting down trees that might, eh, pose a threat.’
His accent wasn’t local, but there were so many people who’d come from elsewhere these days, people who’d married someone from the area or found work in the town. And there was something familiar about his way of holding himself, his tousled hair, his smile.
‘From the Council,’ Maggie said. She had an eye on the sweeping bend of the road, but there wasn’t a soul on it. ‘Do you know Mike?’
‘Ah, Mike, I do.’ He smiled and she suddenly realised why he seemed familiar. He looked like her brother, his smile lighting up his face just as Eddie’s used to. ‘Big fella, isn’t he?’
‘He is,’ Maggie said, her grip on the handle loosening.
‘So listen, I’d say these trees could do with being cut,’ he said, lifting his eyes to scale the evergreens that towered up next to her cottage. She remembered their terrible groaning on days when the wind howled in the chimney flue and buckets clattered across the backyard. The man looked young, hardly out of school, but it was good, she supposed, that the Council was taking on people like him. It might convince some of them to stay rather than jet off to Australia or America.
‘I can cut them so they won’t end up in on top of you, you know?’
He was nearly on the threshold. Perhaps he should be wearing a uniform with the Council logo on it – and didn’t the Council vans that passed usually have writing on the side? But maybe it was his own van. There was no money for anything anymore, so it wouldn’t surprise her if people had to use their own vans for Council work these days.
‘Yes,’ she said, for it would be a comfort to her to know that they wouldn’t fall on the house during stormy weather, that she was safe.
‘Great.’ He was smiling at her now and he didn’t seem so close, like he’d taken a step back. She knew she could be too wary of people sometimes, but she’d heard so many stories. ‘I can get to work on them today then. Because they’re not too far from the electricity lines and we wouldn’t want them falling on those either, would we?’
‘No,’ Maggie said, her eyes flitting to the thin black wire drooping in the sky behind his head like a clothes line. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Me own name’s Jack, Jack O’Connor.’ His smile spread the whole way across his face just as her brother’s would. Eddie had always been the comedian in their house. It had been so long since she had seen him that it was his younger self she remembered best, how he had looked before he left, before he married, when their parents were alive and they were all still living under the one roof. She smiled.
‘I have your approval to go ahead then?’ he continued. ‘Only, the Council is charging a small fee. You know how it is these days. Once I have it I can get to work. I’ve the equipment in the back of the van.’
‘How much?’ Maggie asked. It was Wednesday, so she didn’t have much of her pension left, but it’d be a shame not to get the trees sorted out while she had the chance.
‘Just fifty euro. To cover the costs, you know?’
‘Right,’ Maggie said, a hand rising to her mouth as she tried to calculate how much she could scrape together. She cast him another glance. He was so like Eddie, smiling, slightly stooped, thick arms well used to lifting things. ‘Can you wait a minute?’
‘I can, yeah,’ he said, shrugging as if he had all the time in the world.
It seemed rude to close the door, so Maggie left it open a crack. She went to the table and peered into the open mouth of her bag, then reached in and took out her purse. She found only a crinkled fiver and a handful of coins. Seven fifty in total. She clutched the note and the coins in her fist as she shuffled into her bedroom. The blankets were piled high on the bed and there was a lone cup and a scattering of scrunched-up tissues on her bedside locker. She knelt down before it and opened the top drawer, which contained a pool of receipts and Mass leaflets. She began to sift through them until her burrowing hand came into contact with the cold glass of a jar at the back of the drawer. She took it out with great care, as if the glass might shatter if she held it too tightly. Its label was green and faded and had upon it a garland of plump oranges surrounding an image of somebody’s kitchen. The jar was lent weight by the coins that sat like sediment at the bottom.
She heard a sound, a quiet click, and her grasp on it tightened. She cocked her head and listened, but she heard only the keening of the wind. It had probably been a bird, its talons clicking on the windowsill or the roof. Or she might have imagined it. She was so sensitive to noise these days. The house had grown terribly quiet since her parents had died, so even the slightest creak startled her. It had never been a quiet house in her youth. There had always been the sputtering of the tap, the hum of the range, the staccato chopping of vegetables, the crackling music emitted by the wireless, the smack of Eddie’s ball hitting the walls of the house, the grumble of the tractor and the sound of people talking, neighbours and family. But of course all that had stopped years ago.
When Maggie twisted the lid off the jar, she caught a whiff of bitter metal, the acrid tang of the coins trapped inside. She withdrew a crumpled roll of fives and tens. If she had seven fifty, she’d need forty-two fifty more. The speed with which she could do such calculations still filled her with pride. She had been praised for it when she had worked in the shop. She began to lay the notes on the bed, carefully flattening each with her hand. When she had laid out a ten and two fives, she heard a scuffing sound and shot a glance over her shoulder at the bedroom door, which she had left half open. Perhaps it had come from outside. Perhaps the man had grown tired of waiting and was walking around the garden. She returned her attention to the notes, but her hands were quivering and she worked quickly now.
When she had counted out thirty euro, the door’s hinges squealed behind her and the sound was so familiar to her that she knew before she turned her head that he had entered, that he was in her bedroom, that he did not work for the Council. Her heart began to beat furiously. Suddenly he was at the bed, sweeping up the notes she had laid out. His eyes looked cold to her now, nothing like her brother’s, and his smile had vanished.
‘Ye never fuckin’ learn, do ye?’
She tried to stem the flow of fear with silent pleas to God, but she could not focus on the words and her eyes kept darting back to him. He was rifling through her drawers, sending paper fluttering through the air. The last drawer contained her clean underwear, which he pulled out with his big, dirty hands, throwing them on the floor, emptying the drawer. She averted her gaze as the heat rose in her cheeks and she felt her eyes prickle.
‘There has to be more,’ he said. ‘There’s fuck all in this jar.’ He shook it violently before her eyes, causing the coins within to chink loudly. ‘I can waste my time looking, but you don’t want that because time-wasting makes me very fuckin’ angry.’
Maggie was still on her knees, which were beginning to cause her pain, but she couldn’t move. Her heart was thumping so fast she was afraid it might give out.
‘There’s – there’s no more,’ she said.
‘Don’t fuckin’ give me that! I told you I don’t like time-wasting and you don’t want to mess with me.’
‘There’s no –’
‘No!’ he shouted, his face a knot of anger, sharp lines shooting up between his eyebrows and around his mouth. He cast a glance at the window, then grabbed her by the shoulders, hunching down so his face was inches from hers, his eyes open wide, his breath thick and vinegary. ‘If that’s all the money, where’s your jewellery? Necklaces, wedding rings and that. Where are they?’ He shook her, his hands clasping her shoulders. ‘Come on, woman!’
‘They’re – the box,’ she said, her voice hardly more than a whisper. ‘The dresser, on the dresser. But my mother – will you leave my mother’s –’
He thrust her away from him, sending her sprawling. She felt her head hit the sharp edge of the locker, the blow translating into flashing white pain. Her teeth were knocked loose when her back hit the floor. She saw the pulsating white spot of pain gliding across the stippled ceiling and she heard a ringing sound, as if an alarm were going off in her head. She also heard the jangling of jewellery, the screeching of hinges, heavy footfalls and a crash, then the bark of an engine, the growl of the gravel. She tried to focus her mind on the words of a prayer, but her head was pounding and her leg throbbed insistently. She felt for something she could grab onto to lift herself up, but there was nothing. She could see the rippled surface of the radiator above her, the crawling foliage of the dark wallpaper, the white of the ceiling.
‘Hello?’ she called.
But the only sound now was the keening of the wind.