At that time I was with this bloke, Paul. God knows how I got myself mixed up with him, but we’ll draw a veil over that for the moment. At least he had a car and was prepared to drive me around during a critical spate of house-hunting. The one thing he didn’t mind was driving. So when it turned out I wasn’t going to be able to afford anything on the coast he said we’d go to Dunlash and call into the estate agents there. So I breezed into Kiernan’s and asked, ‘Have you got anything under £30,000?’ This was a good few years ago, obviously, though my house-buying budget was pitiful even then. Tim Kiernan laughed derisively. I was getting used to this kind of reaction. As we turned to leave, he said, ‘There’s an old place up at Cotter’s Cross, but you wouldn’t be interested in it. An old farmhouse.’ It had a converted barn. It sounded perfect. I persuaded him to give me the keys. We drove along rambling, no-hurry roads, through crumbling hills and bogs strewn with orchids. We passed villages where no one was about, where it was hard to imagine that anything had ever happened. We turned onto a single-track lane with heather and stunted furze growing amongst the grass that covered a wide strip down the middle of the road. When we reached the cross I said, ‘This must be where we turn left.’ Paul said that no, he wasn’t sure this was it. He was just awkward like that.
So I got out of the car and explored the little track on my own. It was so bendy I couldn’t see what lay ahead. The sides of the road were a wall of foliage seductively scented with honeysuckle and meadowsweet. After a couple of hundred yards I came round a bend and there it was, the house. It sat square and solid as though it had been there forever. It had been empty for a while and was all shaggy and overgrown. Behind an unruly tangle of rambling roses I could see stone outbuildings, an old pig-house. Tall ash trees swayed above them. A horde of Great Tits complained angrily.
I unlocked the door and entered the huge kitchen. At one end was a range with its
stovepipe stretching up to the vaulted roof. At the other was a mezzanine floor that you could access by a ladder – the perfect sleeping loft. The thick stone walls had been roughly plastered and nothing was perpendicular; there wasn’t a right angle in the whole place. Paul wandered in behind me making approving noises. Since he was renovating his own place I rashly trusted his assessment of the soundness of the building. I explored the rest of the house, its large, airy rooms, its exposed beams, and was enchanted. There was a dreamy tranquil vibe to the place.
Then I remembered the barn. It was across a grassy yard from the house and was built into the hillside so that from one side it looked like two storeys and from the other side, like one. The lower floor was an old cattle shed, but I saw immediately that it would make a perfect woodshed. In fact, someone had left a bow saw hanging from a nail. Four or five swallows’ nests nestled under the ceiling. A rusty wheelbarrow was disintegrating slowly in a corner.
The top floor of the barn had a proper
floor, electric sockets and Velux windows. It was large, and light – it was what I had always dreamt of – my perfect studio. I couldn’t wait to move in. There was a magic organic garden as well, and beyond it nothing but mountain and bog. I thought the lack of a septic tank and flush toilet was a small price to pay for this irresistable property.
That November, on a day when the road was flooded, with the electricity not yet switched on and the chimney blocked by jackdaws’ nests, I moved in. It took a month to get the electricity on, and a couple of weeks later it was off again due to ferocious Christmas storms. Things didn’t all work out quite as planned, naturally. There were traumas and tragedies, trials and triumphs. Paul, the bloke, was already history. Trees came crashing down during gales. Roofs leaked. I grew strong, chopping firewood and gardening. I feasted on mangetout peas and purple sprouting broccoli. A stray goat gave birth to kids one icy morning in my derelict garage. I learned set dancing at the village hall. I made a living, freelancing from home. The farmers’ market flourished and declined. The Celtic Tiger came and went. They axed our local bus – my lifeline. The economy collapsed.
Life never works out quite as you intended, but sometimes the unplanned parts are the real treasure, the times you never forget. And who needs a flush toilet anyway?
Names and place-names have been changed to protect the innocent.
JULIA FAIRLIE, 55, lives in West Cork, Ireland, and works as a copyeditor and proofreader. In some of her previous lives she was a bookseller, hospital cleaner, typesetter, microelectronics technician and played fiddle in a ceilidh band, the Redheughers. Her poems have appeared in several publications including The North, The Shop, The New Writer and Agenda.
CURIOUS INCIDENTS: Discovery
Curious Incidents challenges you to mine your memory for true-life events that will touch us or teach us. Issue 44’s topic is ‘Safety Net,’ but we will consider Curious Incidents on any autobiographical topic. Submissions of 850 to 900 words, please, plus a biog and SAE, to the usual address.
Flash fiction: Eyebrows
Flash fiction tells a complete story in as few words as possible. Next theme: Tattoo Word limit: 150
Arabella Marshall was a wicked woman – destined to die at an early age. She divorced her husband for adultery instead of lying back and thinking of England as a good wife should. In 1922 she shocked the population of Little Risling by wearing a white silk trouser suit before midday. You could smell her Chanel before you saw her – no pious lavender water for her. She smoked Turkish cigarettes in a tortoiseshell holder. Her golden hair was shingled and she wore red lipstick, but her eyebrows were what everyone remembered. She plucked out all her natural ones and drew bold arches with a small brown pencil. The left was always slightly higher than the right, making her look as if she was permanently on the verge of offering an intimate invitation. Against all expectations, Grandma lived to be 94. SUE JOHNSON, PERSHORE
30 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09