Conleth Thornbury, Contributor.
One wooden chair was positioned carefully either side of the hearth and a well-used armchair sat between. An old table rested in front of the only window. The floor was laid with cold granite slabs and a rough lime plaster covered walls and ceiling. On a mantelpiece sat two heavy glass tumblers, either side of a half full bottle of whiskey. There was one picture. An old faded, black and white wedding photo, on the wall beside the fireplace.
Jamesy Mullan stood in front of the fire, hands behind his back. An old grey Arran jumper hung down over thick linen trousers that were patched at both knees and tucked inside his work boots. His hair was white and his face weather-beaten, the tough brown skin dense with fine lines.
At exactly seven – for Eamon Rooney was always punctual – two heavy knocks barged in on the stillness. Jamesy opened the door. The oil lamp on the mantelpiece threw a pale yellow rectangle into the garden and Rooney’s big shadow almost filled it.
‘You’re alone?’ he asked.
The men shook hands, though they had known each other a long time. Rooney stooped slightly to get under the lintel. No words were spoken as Jamesy poured the whiskey and handed a full tumbler to his guest. They sat either side of a smouldering turf fire, on hard wooden chairs. The armchair was ignored. Business to be done.
‘Reckon I’ll keep the cows inside from here on,’ said Rooney. ‘Not much grass left.’
‘I think you should.’ Jamesy stared at the floor. ‘I’ll leave mine out for a while. The back field is good for a couple of weeks yet.’
‘Aye,’ agreed Rooney.
A piece of smouldering turf broke in two and the fire crackled.
‘Thought more about my proposition?’ Jamesy looked at the big man sat opposite.
‘Aye,’ said Rooney. ‘I’ve considered it.’
‘You’ve always wanted my farm.’
‘I have,’ he nodded.
‘And it’s a bargain. No?’
‘Too cheap. You’ve turned down bigger offers from me, in the past.’ Rooney looked for a reaction.
‘Things change. You’re the only one I can sell to now. No one else would let me stay in the cottage.’
The big man rubbed his unshaven chin. It sounded like sandpaper on a block of wood. ‘That’s true, but…’
‘Not sure I can pay in cash.’ Rooney shook his head
‘Why break the habit of a lifetime?’ Jamesy smiled.
‘But it’s an awful lot of money to be paying in notes.’ He thought for a moment. ‘What about a banker’s draft? Good as.’
‘Has to be cash,’ replied the old farmer. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all be done proper. On the books. We’ll get someone to witness the handover.’
‘But why cash?’ The big man leaned back and folded his arms.
Silence for a few moments. ‘Jack has access to the account,’ he said. ‘Knows every penny that goes in and out of this farm.’
‘So that’s it.’ Rooney looked dubious. ‘You don’t want Jack to find out?’
Jamesy exhaled loudly. ‘He’s planning to have me declared not competent, not able to look after myself. He wants to sell the farm. Needs the money to put me in The Fold.’
‘The care home?’
‘But he can’t do that without…’
‘There have been a few incidents,’ said Jamesy quietly.
‘Didn’t think he’d stoop so low,’ scowled Eamon Rooney. ‘How did you find out?’
‘I have a lot of friends in town. More than he thinks. He has a loose tongue. Always had.’
Rooney thought for a moment. ‘I still don’t get it Jamesy. The money is no safer than the farm would’ve been. How will you keep it from him?’
‘Let me worry about that.’ Jamesy’s voice softened almost to a whisper. ‘This is the only way it can happen Eamon. The only way.’ He downed the rest of his drink. ‘Deal of a lifetime. Do you want the farm, or no.’
Rooney studied the fire for a few seconds, and then nodded. ‘How soon?’
‘Sooner the better. Or he’ll take it from me.’ He reached again for the bottle. ‘I’ll not let that happen. I won’t be driven from my home.’
The following evening, as the remaining daylight leeched from an already darkening sky, Jamesy had another visitor.
‘You coping all right?’ Jack Mullan shivered and walked over to the fireplace. His worn leather brogues rapped loudly off the stone floor of the cottage. ‘I know it hasn’t been easy for you since…’ He hesitated.
‘Since your mother died, is that what you’re trying to say Jack?’ asked Jamesy. He sat by the fire in his armchair, carefully polishing his good shoes. They were old, but shone like black mirrors.
‘Don’t get yourself worked up.’ Jack stood in front of the fire and rubbed his hands together. ‘It’s not good for you. Don’t want you taking another turn.’
Jack was an only child. Lived in the local town where he worked as a taxi driver. He was almost fifty now. Looked older. Divorced a good few years – ten maybe – and did not look well on it. He had been a big man, but was thinner now. Gave the impression of someone who was slowly shrinking inside his clothes.
Jamesy spat on the brush and ran it quickly back and forth over the toe of a shoe. His knuckles were white.
‘It’s bloody cold in here,’ Jack went on. ‘A few radiators wouldn’t go amiss. One would be an improvement.’ He slipped his hand into a trouser pocket and pulled out his phone. It cast a pale blue light over his face. His mouth assumed the form of a smile as he flicked his forefinger up and down the small screen.
Jamesy, slowly and deliberately, reached to the hearth and lifted a sod from the wicker basket there. He threw it hard into the fire. Jack jumped back as sparks sprayed out from the grate.
‘Jaysus da, watch the clothes.’ He brushed at his trousers.
‘You said you were cold,’ said Jamesy.
There was quiet then, mitigated only by the soft hiss of burning turf and a peculiar whistling as wind riffled the thatch on the roof. Ephemeral shadows moved around the walls as blue and yellow flames danced in the grate. A thin wire of smoke twisted its way up, and dissipated before reaching the chimney.
Jack’s voice disturbed the still air. ‘Was it Rooney I saw earlier on the bog road, driving away from here?’
‘And if it was?’
‘What was he after?’
‘Came round for a drink, that’s all.’
Jack looked round the room taking in every detail, like an estate agent estimating its value. ‘After the farm was he?’ He turned his gaze back on his father.
‘Eamon gave up on the farm a long time ago.’ Jamesy let no emotion show. This was not the time.
‘That’s what he wants you to think.’ Jack gave a pale imitation of a laugh. ‘And was that a new tractor he was driving?’
‘Aye,’ confirmed Jamesy. ‘He has a new tractor.’
‘The man has money to burn.’ Jack was at the hearth again now. He reached down, lifted another sod and placed it carefully on the fire.
Jamesy settled back into his armchair and watched as it caught. ‘Aye,’ he said. ‘He has money to burn all right.’