Three weeks later we decided to buy Clifford. It wasn't a decision arrived at by reflection and sound financial planning: it was a decision of the soul. Swept away by a tidal wave of beauty and romance, we could think of nothing else.
Whenever possible we had driven out to look at the house. The only view was from the far side of the river valley. Through a gap in the trees beyond a gate in a stone wall that ran alongside the road, we could glimpse the object of our desire seated majestically on its huge throne of white limestone, the shimmering river filling the floor of the valley below. The timeless symmetry between the house and landscape was so perfect one could be forgiven for thinking that the river had been placed there to complement the house and not the other way round.
Instead of giving us pause for thought, the inaccessibility of the place had made us fall even more in love with it; and finally one morning, after watching the mist on the river rolling and boiling below the house like a ghostly parade of fantastic water creatures, we knew we had to buy it.
"You call him," I said, handing Geraldine the phone.
"Why me? You call him," she replied.
"Go on, you do it. He's scared of you," I said sheepishly.
"No. You want the house. You call Morris," she said.
I knew Geraldine was right. It would have looked odd if she had initiated the purchase offer when it had been I doing most of the talking. I had simply thought we might have caught him off guard if it were she who called. Back then, Irish business was still very much a man's preserve, and unless a woman was a widow, estate agents preferred to deal with the husband in matters of property. Geraldine was a bit of a conundrum to the likes of Morris Coholan. She held a position in Irish society that commanded a great deal of respect. She was a hospital consultant, a specialist. Specialists were a breed apart: you saw a specialist only if there were something really wrong with you. In the eighties in Ireland, the higher echelons of medicine included females, but not so many that you would notice, so when a female achieved the rank, the traditional gender roles made things awkward for men unable to keep up with what was happening as Ireland modernized.
"All right," I said, "I'll call him."
"You want to make an offer? On Clifford, you say?" came the reply from an astonished Morris. "Well, a-are ye sure now?" he stammered.
I could picture him sitting in his luxurious office, staring out the window, a cookie in his pudgy hand, his mouth hanging open.
"I am indeed, Morris. Quite sure," I said as I made an offer approaching two-thirds of what they were asking. "Unless you think they won't be interested?" I added casually.
"Oh no. No, I'm sure they'll be interested, Dan. God bless you, don't be worrying your head about that now at all."
He covered the phone with his hand, but I could still hear him frantically shouting at his secretary. I didn't catch the whole conversation, but I did hear, "Sweet suffering Jesus, what fecking time is it at all in Brazil right now. Get him on the phone, girl. Hurry." He uncovered the phone, and in his more usual measured tone, said, "Leave it with me now, Dan; and I'll get back to you as soon as I can, all right?"
I hung up the phone with a sigh of relief.
"What did he say?" said Geraldine.
"He said he'd get back to us. He didn't sound too excited, but with an offer like that, I suppose we'll just have to wait to see how keen they are to sell," I replied.
"Do you think we should have offered more?" Geraldine asked anxiously.
"No, I think our offer is fair enough considering the market is slow now because of the recession. I would think the estate agents would kill for what we are offering as it's twice the price of the typical house sale. Then there is what has to be done to the place, and we have no idea whether anyone will lend us that much, let alone any more," I said, desperately trying to sound confident.
Morris called the next day, a Sunday. An estate agent working on a Sunday was unheard of in pre-"Celtic Tiger" Ireland, and I was so surprised I stood there with the phone to my ear saying nothing.
"Hello. Are you there at all, Dan?" Morris's oily tones oozed from the phone, and I gathered my wits enough to respond.
"Yes, yes, I'm here, Morris," I stuttered, a reply I immediately regretted as I thought it had made me appear a little too keen.
"Ahh, good," said Morris in a tone that conjured an image of a spider sitting down to dinner with a fly. "Well now, Dan, I'm sorry to disturb your Sunday, but what with the seller being over in Brazil and the time difference and all, things are moving quickly so I hope you don't mind."
"No, not at all, Morris, I wasn't doing anything." Again I cursed myself for my overkeen response as I heard Morris warm to his task.
"I've got good news and not-so-good news for you, Dan, so I'll start with the not-so-good news. There's another man interested in the place, a German. He'll have to be told about your offer, and I'd say it's very likely he'll want to make an offer of his own."
I saw Clifford slipping away as I asked, "So what's the good news then, Morris?"
"I'll tell you now, Dan," Morris gushed. "I had a good, long chat with the owner and told him how keen you were on the place and how you would be the best people to bring the place back to life and not some German that wanted the place only for a holiday home a few weeks a year."
"That was very good of you, Morris," I said cautiously. "And what did he say to that?"
Morris went from oily to positively gelatinous. "He said if you came up to within ten percent of the asking price, you could have it--and we'd say nothing to the German. How's that now?"
My hopes collapsed. "Well, obviously we'll have to think about it, Morris. That's a lot more money to find."
"I know, sure indeed I know, Dan, but 'twas the best I could do. So what'll I tell him?"
"Can I call you in a couple of days, Morris? I can't decide anything now," I said.
"You can, of course, Dan. But don't leave it too long. I've to give the German the nod if you don't get back to me by the end of the week. God knows I did what I could for you, but your man won't move any further. So get back to me as soon as you can, all right?" Morris said with a sympathetic tone so false it would have done credit to an undertaker.
I put the phone down slowly.
"Who was that?" asked Geraldine, wiping the remains of the Sunday lunch plates into the bin.
"Morris," I replied.
"On a Sunday?"
"I know. Odd, isn't it?" I mused.
"Well?" she said, barely containing the rising anticipation.
"Well, it looks like we may not be the only ones in the running. There's a German chap interested, and they want us to offer a lot more money."
We sat down together and said nothing for a while.
"How much more do they want?" asked Geraldine.
"Ninety percent of the asking price," I sighed heavily.
"So that's it then," Geraldine said as she leaned against the kitchen window, her finger tracing aimless patterns on the steamy glass. We can't afford a bidding war against a German."
"I know," I muttered as I cleared the rest of the plates from the table.
We had been renting a new modern house just outside town for the last six months. A neat, little plaque on the gate said "Mount Pleasant." It was a clean, warm, efficient, and convenient place. There was nothing wrong with it except it wasn't what we wanted. As the prospect of life in Clifford receded that Sunday, my hatred for Mount Pleasant knew no bounds.
Monday came and went, and I could see no way of raising our offer. That night as we sat watching TV, we reluctantly decided that I would tell the realtor that we were no longer interested.
I called Morris the following morning. His secretary told me he wouldn't be in until the afternoon and asked if I would like him to call me. I told her I would call again later and put down the phone, disappointed that I hadn't resolved anything and that it was going to drag on a little longer.
I heard a tap at the door. I could see through the dreadful orange-patterned glass that it was Mr. Nelligan. His hunched back and flat cap generated an unmistakable silhouette. I debated whether to open the door, but as things turned out, I was very glad I did.
One evening earlier in the week, Geraldine came in from work carrying a tattered plastic bag full of assorted vegetables. "Where did you get those?" I asked prodding at the heap of mud-covered potatoes and cabbage she dumped on the kitchen table.
"They were hanging on the front door when I arrived," she said as she exasperatedly picked at the fresh scabs of mud on her dark navy suit.
"I wonder who left them. We hardly know anybody here, and the house next door is empty," I said.
"Well, I hope they don't leave any more because the cleaning bill for this suit would buy five bags of those bloody vegetables," she said as she stormed off to get changed.
I abandoned my self pity and forgot about Morris for a moment. I opened the door, and found another bag tied to the door handle like the last offering. I went to the gate, looked down the road and saw Mr. Nelligan waddling towards his little cottage as fast as his twisted frame could carry him. I called after him, but not knowing his name at the time, all I could shout was a rather confused "Thanks for the spuds!" The old man didn't turn around but waved his walking stick in the air in acknowledgement. Mr. Nelligan lived a few hundred yards down the road from us in a neat, little slate-roofed cottage that had once been a farmhouse. Much of the land along our side of the road had been part of the original farm but had been sold off for development as the nearby town grew.
I returned to the house and emptied the second vegetable gift onto the kitchen table. It was the same mud-spattered produce but of a much better quality than anything you could buy in a grocery store and clearly home grown. I decided to repay the kindness as soon as possible, and that afternoon I picked up a six-pack of Smithwick's beer in town and called at the little farmhouse.
A small elderly woman answered the door. She had an unmistakably Irish face. Her hair was the steely gray color of a silver teapot that needed polishing, pulled tight and wound into a small bun on the back of her head. Her twinkling blue eyes sat deep in a well-scrubbed, shiny, pink face with a little upturned nose. It was a face that would be equally at home in the backwoods of Appalachia or the streets of New York or Boston, a face you could find staring out at you from photographs taken a hundred years ago. All that was different were the clothes she was wearing. Mrs. Nelligan was clad in a nylon housecoat that had started life a myriad of floral patterns and colors. However, years of washing and farmyard duties had reduced it to a sad, shapeless brown whose drabness was relieved only when she lifted up her arm to reveal faint traces of its former floral glory where it had been afforded some protection from the years of daily wear. Underneath her coat was a navy skirt, and below that was a pair of matchstick thin legs and dainty feet that wallowed in a huge pair of men's brown leather shoes with no laces.
"I'm Dan O'Neill from the house up the road. I'm sorry, but I don't know your husband's name," I said sheepishly. "He very kindly left us a few vegetables, and I'd like to leave him a little something in return."
She smiled shyly, revealing a row of perfectly aligned false teeth two sizes too large. They were like the front row of tombstones in a war memorial. "His name is Charles," she said, "but everyone round here calls him Dig or Digger."
"Is that so? Is he from Australia then?" I asked.
She looked nervously up and down the road and then motioned for me to come inside. "Not at all," she giggled. "Sure he's never been west of the Shannon his entire life."
I stepped inside. The welcoming smell of peat smoke from an open fire hung in the room like incense after High Mass. "They call him the Digger on account of that's what he drove for the county council." She nodded her head in the direction of a corner of the dark kitchen. "Sure you can ask him yerself. Indeed, I'd say you'll not be able to stop him tellin' you all about it."
It was a fairly typical farm kitchen. The only light was coming from small windows and an open door. Undulating, gray flagstones made navigating in the gloom a challenge. A large open fireplace took up most of one wall, and a perpetually boiling black kettle hung on a hook over the neatly stacked turf fire. Beaded pine planks lined the walls, the smoke and heat from countless cigarettes, pipes, and open fires having cracked and re-cracked the thick varnish in a million places and turned it a dozen shades of deep golden brown. Firelight rippled lazily across its scaly surface making it look like the skin of some fabulous, gigantic Amazonian snake. Smoked hams, their wrinkled black skin showing odd patches of bristles, hung from the low ceiling. A large sturdy, dark wood table stood to one side, the bottom stretcher reduced by almost half of its original thickness from the wear of generations of hobnailed farm boots. Tucked up against the table were a couple of handmade chairs with straight backs and woven rush seats. Known as sugans, they were common all over rural Ireland before the advent of plywood and mass production drove them from all but the oldest of households. The chairs were usually made of Irish white pine, turned on a pole lathe and stained and varnished a deep brown in attempt to ape their superior mahogany cousins in the houses of the gentry. Much of the Nelligans' furniture, however, had been painted a canary yellow, not once but dozens of times, each coat of paint applied over the last without thought to preparation. Layers of paint had built up on each imperfection in the finish until the entire chair rippled with protrusions and indentations, which reminded me of a film about the Catholic leprosy missions I had seen as a terrified child at my convent school.
Behind the table, against the wall, was a rack, another remnant of a bygone age. The rack was a long wooden bench rather like a church pew but with arms on either end. It was the usual seating area for the children of the house as it could accommodate so many. This one was covered in cracked and faded brown leather held in place by a row of big brass tacks, the dark horsehair stuffing peeping out wherever a tack was missing. The yellow painted arms of the rack bore the same signs of wear as the table and the chairs, and I guessed the furniture in that kitchen had not been outside the door for the best part of a hundred and fifty years.
Pictures of Jesus and the Holy Family clamored for space with huge blue and white willow pattern plates and ancient faded black-and-white family photos on the shelves of a very elegant oak dresser that sat in a recess beside the chimney breast. The dresser, older than the rest of the furniture and of much finer quality, bore signs of a long and hard life but was clearly well loved as its brass handles were almost worn thin from polishing, and a large dark stain in the wood of the drawer surrounded each handle, a testament to the generational elbow grease invested in polishing the brass. Sitting in the shadow of the dresser, in a large armchair with his foot on a stool, was Charles "Digger" Nelligan.
"You're very welcome, Mr. O'Neill. Come in and sit down, will you? Katy, a chair for Mr. O'Neill," he said as he pointed at one of the sugans with his walking stick.
"No, please, don't go to any trouble," I said, grabbing one of the chairs and sitting down before Katy had time to react.
"You'll take a drop?" asked Charlie hopefully.
I looked over and Katy was already pouring a large measure of whiskey into two dusty glasses. "No, I won't, Mr. Nelligan. It's a bit early for me."
Charlie pressed on, "Arra, go way outa that. 'Tisn't off to confession we are. Take a drop will you-'tis only good it can do you."
"I won't, but thanks all the same," I said, but I could see it was no use. Katy was advancing with the two glasses clutched in one hand, her fingers sunk deep in the whiskey of each glass.
"Ah go on, you will of course," said Charlie, and with that Katy pressed a glass into my hand. The other she gave to Charlie, bowing her head ever so slightly as she did so, as an altar boy would as he handed wine to the priest during Mass. Charlie eagerly finished his glass and waved it in the air for Katy to fill again as I lifted onto my lap the plastic bag I had brought.
"Thank you for the vegetables, Mr. Nelligan," I said. "This is just a little something in return," and I took the six-pack of beer out of the bag and set it down by his chair.
The expression on his face told me I had made the right choice of gift as he beamed and said, "The name is Charlie or Digger. No one calls me Mr. Nelligan."
"And I am Dan," I said, shaking his huge outstretched hand.
"Well Dan, them bottles will come in handy so they will. A little drink always helps me get off to sleep, isn't that right, Katy?"
Katy rolled her eyes at me, and I smiled.
I noticed a bowl of water and a roll of bandages on a shelf next to Charlie's chair. I looked at Charlie's leg lying on the stool and spotted the dreadful ulcer on his shin. It looked as if Katy were about to dress his leg when I called.
"That looks pretty painful, Charlie," I ventured cautiously and stood up to get a closer look.
"Oho, 'tis a bad do all right," came the reply. "I've had it years, and it doesn't seem to get any better."
"What did the doctor say about it?" I asked.
Charlie stiffened, and a forced smile appeared. "Ach, I don't like bothering the doctor with this oul' thing. 'Tisn't that bad, and Katy knows what to do with it, don't you Kate?"
"Indeed I do," she replied and produced a bowl containing an evil-looking yellow mush the consistency of thick porridge. "Bread and mustard poultice, takes all the bad out of it, and keeps it clean," she explained. "Now sit down there out of my road like a good man," she said pointing at my chair.
I winced almost as much as Charlie did as I watched her wash the ulcer then apply her poultice to the red, raw skin. Charlie downed his second glass in one gulp, and I didn't blame him, the pain must have been excruciating. Katy gently wound the linen bandage round and round the poultice until the yellow stain no longer soaked through to the surface.
Charlie finally relaxed, and as darkness fell outside, Katy turned on the light, a single, cobweb-covered bulb hanging from a beam in the middle of the room. As its harsh glow flooded the room, I finally got a good look at Charlie. He was a large man, in his early seventies, and from the state of his leg, I guessed he was not in the best of health. His skin was pale, almost translucent, with a yellow tinge and covered in large faded freckles. His once-bright red hair was reduced to a few tufts of sandy gray, and his watery brown eyes told their own story of pain and suffering.
He described his career in great detail as Katy had predicted. Most of his adult life had been spent operating an excavator for the local roads authority. He puffed with pride as he declared, "Sure there was never a driver like me before or since. Isn't that why they call me 'the digger'?" He recalled the fateful day ten years ago when a large rock fell from a truck he was unloading and rolled onto his leg, breaking it in four places and ending his working life. "I gave a year in that oul' hospital, and they still couldn't set the thing straight," he spat bitterly. "They kept breaking it and setting it again. I had enough of it in the end and told them to leave me be--and came away home for myself." He gestured to the ulcer. "This thing arrived soon after, and I've had it ever since."
I swallowed the rest of the whiskey in my glass and asked, "Have you not been back to the hospital since then?"
He snorted, "Sure what would take me back in there for the love o' God after the job they did on me the first time?"
I was astounded. "Have you not seen a doctor in ten years?" I asked.
He turned his empty glass upside down and slowly placed it on the dresser next to him. "Oh no, the doctor comes out here from time to time to see Katy, and he gives a look at me, too, but I won't go in to see him, and I told him so."
"What does he say about this?" I said as I pointed to the bandage, which was beginning to turn bright yellow with a few flecks of red showing at the margins.
"He knows nothing about it, and I'm keeping it that way. Katy knows what to do, and there's no need for a third party, so to speak," and with that he gave me a long hard look, and I knew I was included in that prohibition.
I got the message, and Katy changed the subject. She knew that we were just renting our house until we bought something. (Her friend in the rental office in town had told her all about us.) She asked how the search was going, and I told her that we had found a place we loved and had made an offer but that there was a German man interested as well. We couldn't afford a bidding war, but we thought we might throw in all the money we had in an offer and see if it would be enough.
"Ye'll do no such thing," said Charlie. "That's the oldest trick in the book. There's always a 'German' or an 'Englishman' or 'a fella from Dublin.' It's never a local person that you could make inquiries about. My brother worked for an estate agent in Limerick, and I used to see him at that carry on all the time, may God forgive him for it. Tell him you can't do any better, and they'll have to take it or leave it."
"I don't know about that, Charlie," I said. "He sounded pretty genuine on the phone."
"Well, go on and throw more money after it then. I'm telling you there's no German," said Charlie as he opened the first of the bottles of beer I had brought.
He offered the pack to me to take one for myself, but I stood up and said, "Thank you, but no, Charlie. This time I really had better go home. If I started on those I'd get too comfortable and you'd never get rid of me." Charlie chortled and tapped on the floor with his stick.
"And 'tis welcome ye'd be to stay, Dan, but I'm after seeing Mrs. Doctor's car passing us a good twenty minutes ago, and I'd say she'll be wondering what happened to you." Katy chuckled and opened the door letting the cool evening air drift into the snug kitchen diluting the richness of the peat smoke and breaking its soporific spell.
"I'll be off then, and thanks for the drink," I said, hurriedly making my way out onto the road, Charlie's farewell just barely audible as Katy closed the door tightly again on their little world.
As I walked up the lane towards the hated Mount Pleasant, I thought about what Charlie had said about "the German." What if there really were no second buyer, what if it were as Charlie said, just a ruse to squeeze the best price out of us? We were going to need a lot of money to finish the house. I knew that. There would be no point in buying a place we couldn't afford even to furnish. I decided calling his bluff was worth a try so the next morning I called Morris.
"Good morning, Dan. How are ye today? Have ye good news for me?" came the clearly well-rehearsed line.
"It depends what you mean by 'good news,' Morris," I said, struggling to keep the nervousness from my voice. "I'm afraid we really can't go any higher so you'll have to let the German chap take it if he wants." I waited a second or two for that to sink in, and as Morris was drawing himself up to deliver another of his painfully slow "sympathetic" speeches, I delivered the news that I hoped would unsettle him even more. "I called to see you yesterday, Morris, but you were away for the day so as I was passing, I dropped in to see Jim O'Sullivan in Sotheby's down the street from you. He has a nice place that might do us if we don't get Clifford. It's not as good as Clifford, but it's a lot cheaper and he tells me there are no Germans interested so it may all work out for the best in the end."
I hadn't visited Sotheby's at all, but I knew that O'Sullivan and Morris hated the sight of each other. They were the two biggest fish in the small pond of Cork real estate, and sooner or later one was going to devour the other. My nails dug into my palms as I struggled to control my breathing and remain outwardly composed.
There was a silence, and then, "I see, and what would be taking you to Sotheby's?" Morris enquired politely but with the undertone of a man about to commit a violent act. "Sure, can't I show you any house they have on their books? 'Tis all the one."
I could sense that I was not alone in trying to remain calm on the phone. Seizeing my chance, I pressed a bit harder. "Well, I was just passing, Morris, that's all. I know you have to represent the best interests of the man who is selling Clifford, and I can't expect you to do me any favors so I just thought perhaps it's best if I look around a little as I don't want to be putting you in any kind of an awkward position with the seller." I bit my tongue hoping I hadn't said too much.
I heard a deep intake of breath on the line, and then Morris began. "Well now, Dan, I didn't say you couldn't have the house, now did I? I just said there's another party interested, and in all fairness we have to give him an opportunity to bid. That's all I said. There's no need to go running to O'Sullivan just yet. Let's see what we can do here first. I'm sure we can work something out."
Sensing for the first time that there might be something in what Charlie had said about the "German," I replied, "No Morris, I don't want to 'work something out.' You have our offer, and I'm sorry, but that's the best I can do."
More stony silence flooded the other end of the line. Then, after yet another long sigh, Morris spoke. "Lookit, I'll ask the German if he wants to bid and then depending on what he says, I'll have to see what the seller wants to do. 'Tis out of my hands, Dan, completely out of my hands."
"I know Morris...I know." I replied, hanging up the phone and permitting myself a faint glimmer of hope and a hint of a smile.