“You try talking to her, Father. I bleedin’ give up.”
The fat, red-faced man struggled past an overturned shopping trolley. He clamped down on a clipboard with his elbow, so he could hold on for support.
He looked up again with a vinegary smirk. “So she’s called you in? Huh. You’re not allowed to give up on her. Thank God I’m a builder and not a priest. ‘S’all I can say.”
Dressed in a shiny suit and tie, with yellow hard hat and tabard, his wellies squelched unrhythmically down the lane towards the main road.
Thomas smirked. Thank God I’m not a builder, he thought, looking at the state of the place. Owenbraddagh, it said on the billboard. Affordable luxury housing, turn-key properties.
Owenbraddagh. Salmon River, it meant. Not a river in sight here though, nor any salmon. Just rivulets of dirty water running along a mucky track, and shells of uniform houses. Metal fences and keep out signs lay flat in the mud. Shreds of blue tarpaulin were strewn everywhere. Some sort of food wrapper with Ł’s and impossible consonant clusters printed on it. A hard hat tossed aside, by the look of it months ago. A metre high concrete pipe lay as an obstacle just up ahead.
Thomas watched the builder scramble into a four by four parked by the edge of the road. As he drove off and the beam faded on its way into town, the dusk sky looked suddenly inky. In the direction of the new development, among the dark eyes of boarded up windows, one was lit up, dimly, no curtain drawn over it. That must be her.
A parishioner he’d never met before had called that morning, in a state. Her signal kept cutting out, but she persevered in giving directions to her new house in Owenbraddagh, one of many new estates just out of town along the main Enniskillen Road.
Terrified, she was. Voice shaking.
Thought her house had an evil presence. Would he come and bless it. Exorcise it, she didn’t know if they still did that sort of thing these days. Anything, she said. She was desperate.
Nothing Thomas had ever dealt with fresh from his studies in Maynooth. He’d report it further up the chain. See if he could help the woman in the meantime to make sense of whatever was disturbing her.
He came to an aluminium door, with two wires hanging from the top left corner, one black and one blue. He could already make out the woman’s shadow at the bottom of a staircase. He knocked.
“Hello, Margaret. I’m here to see if we can help you.” He wiped thick lumps of mud onto a bristly doormat. He stepped indoors, past a flat-pack box with the bits of a cot inside and three rolls of powder blue wallpaper with storks on it.
o O o
“Can you feel anything, Father?”
“Erm, no. No, I’m not saying there isn’t any reason for what you’re experiencing –“ he added quickly. He sighed and started again. “Here, why don’t we have a seat and you tell me.”
And Margaret did. A litany of complaints first about the contractor, the site manager, keys not handed over, staying at her mother’s in between her old lease and the new house with husband and two kids in the one room. Walls not plastered, electrics left bare, water coming in, still not connected to the gas. Still no bin collection. Council didn’t recognize the street, didn’t want to know.
“Sounds stressful, Margaret.”
Her lips pursed. “I’m not imagining things because I’m stressed.” Her voice was flat, utterly convincing in its lack of passion.
“No. That’s not what I’m suggesting.”
“But you’re thinking it, aren’t you, Father?” Margaret’s eyes looked steely, like she hadn’t slept in a while.
“Margaret. I don’t know what’s going on or why. This evening, I’m just here to listen, ask a few questions. You tell me what you think’s important.”
“I want you to do something. I can’t stay here. Not like this.”
“Not like what?”
“Not with this ... presence. There’s something here. Something haunting.”
She’d said it. Haunting. Now Thomas had something to go on. Something to report to the bishop. He mentally flicked through the prayer book, what would help here ...
“Father, will you have a cup of tea?” And she was gone to the kitchen before he could answer, her face hidden from him by her hair.
“Or a coffee. Do priests drink coffee?” she asked through the wall.
“We do. I do, anyways. A coffee would be lovely. Wee drop of milk, no sugar, please.” He smirked.
And he heard the gurgle and hiss of an espresso machine.
o O o
Over coffee in the chilly living room, Margaret pointed to a mirror above the fireplace. “That mirror there. Just cracked one night. No reason. Just cracked, look, right down the middle. There was a picture on that other wall, just an old thing we got cheap after we got married. Fell off the wall one night, skidded across the floor to where we were sat.”
Thomas nodded in acknowledgement but without commitment.
“Things keep switching themselves off. I know the electrics are bad, but the TV, the radio, clocks, they just stop. No reason. And things switch on. Themselves. I came into the kitchen the other day and everything was on full-whack, hob, grill, oven, the lot.” She paused, fumbled with her hands.
“And Father, I hang clothes in the wardrobe, I put them in drawers. And I come back later and they’re folded on the side again, and the wardrobe’s empty. Or I’m in here and I hear this drip – drip – drip, and I go in and the tap comes on. Or I come in and everything's on, the kettle's boiling dry, the Krupp machine, everything's on full whack, the hob, the grill, the oven.”
She was tense now that she was saying it all out loud. Her shoulders were hunched forward; her eyes flitted right and left as she spoke.
All very movie-like, thought Thomas. Everyday things in a half-finished house not quite connected to civilization. Easy to get jittery about such goings-on. Such a silent house. No noise of traffic this far off the road, every other house in the street empty or half-built. Easy to let the old imagination run ...
A baby cried from upstairs. Just a short little cry and then a couple of coughs as if stirring in its sleep.
“Is that your youngest, then Margaret?”
“The twins are six. We didn’t have another, too expensive, you know, with childcare, that’s the killer. Mick’s out with them, at his mam’s. Not the type to talk to priests.” She smiled weakly, slightly embarrassed at saying so.
“I see. Well, I know we’re not everybody’s cup of tea these days. And the one upstairs?”
“There’s nobody upstairs, Father.”
Thomas’s stomach felt like he’d driven too quickly over a hill.
“But - There’s ...?” It was out before he could conceal his shock, his white face, the icy rush of blood to his internal organs that urged him to run.
Margaret looked at him, for the first time that evening, right in the eye. An outsider had heard. She was terrified, but she wasn’t alone. Nor mad.
“I see. But the boxes in the hallway. The cot, the wallpaper ...”
“Thought we couldn’t afford it, but accidents happen.”
“No. No, I’m not. Stress, the doctor said probably caused it.”
Thomas set down his cup and took his prayer book in both hands. His knuckles formed a white rosary.
o O o
Margaret knew the area before it was called Owenbraddagh. There had never been a river here, nor salmon. It had been bogland. No past traumas that she knew of. No old famine cottages, no murderous landlords or other scandals. Just acres and acres of rain-logged peat. Tufts of rushes, clumps of gorse. She found bones of foxes and badgers and hares there as a child, when she helped cut turf in the lead-up to Easter when she was off sweets for Lent. But they were just animal bones, she said, nothing sinister about that in the wilds of County Cavan. She knew the old land, she’d heard the slice of the turf cutter, seen the cuckoo spittle on the stacks of peats. Her hands knew the benign itch of the heather when you’ve run through it and it gets into your socks.
“It was soft land, Father. Nothing that would lead to this.”
“Maybe, Margaret, maybe it’s not the land. Is there anything, you know, you’ve been involved in?”
Margaret sighed. She’d been to a fortune-teller a few times. But she was pretty sure it was just an old woman making a pound or two. No mystic powers, certainly no connection to another world. Just an intuitive woman in a room with lots of heavy curtains. Told her just enough but claimed she couldn’t see more, but come back another day when things might be clearer.
“It was just for a laugh, Father. I didn’t need to pay fifty euro to nobody, for her to tell me my future. Sure it was all over the news, in the papers, everywhere you looked, there was our new prosperity. Big bypasses, all these great jobs to come from America. We built our grand houses and got ourselves mortgaged to the hilt. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
She looked at the wall and took out a hankie from under the cuff of her sleeve. Thomas noticed a big tear falling slowly down the wall from a crack in the plaster. Margaret wiped it away with one slow vertical stroke.
And Thomas realized.
There had been no past trauma here on this soft bogland in rural Cavan. No angry spirit prevented from entering paradise, no unresolved injustice lingering on from yesteryear. No, this was a different kind of haunting.
The haunting of a future that was supposed to be; violently broken off, vanished like a dream moments after waking bolt upright in a cold sweat.
The baby woke. It screamed, screamed like it was suddenly hungry. Margaret rose to her feet.
“Excuse me a minute, Father.” And she walked to the hallway door, past the boxed up bits of cot, and climbed the stairs.
An unborn baby crying upstairs in an unfinished house, where there’d never been any river with salmon in it.