Monday, 15 July 2013

The Haunted House

When I was six and a half we moved to Connemara. For those of you that don't know Ireland well, this is the most westerly scrap of land in a part of Ireland called Connaught. It was said, the next stop on any journey through Connemara was America. It is a wild and windswept place. Fantastic cliffs and bays cut from the land by the constant pounding of Atlantic waves.

It may be pretty but you can't eat a nice view. The gray limestone bedrock lies under the thin skin of this county like the rib's of a starving dog. So poor is the soil here that when the English's invaded, they occupied everything east of the river Shannon while famously telling the displaced Irish rabble "To Connaught or Hell".

Surviving on this barren headland was no easy task hundreds of years ago. The hardy men of the west managed as well they could. They fished from boats made of cow hide, sealed with tar. They gathered seaweed to spread on the meagre soil, fertilising it. Back breaking work done with donkey if you were rich, or man if you were not. Many a back was flayed where ropes cut deep running red with blood and sea water.

Galway is the main city in this area and is rightly called "The city of the Tribes". People from all over Ireland flowed across the river Shannon, to make a new life. With no food, little work, or prospect of survival, mass emigration was the only choice. Coffin ships left port constantly. Tightly packed with eager but starving people, on this side of the ocean. Arriving near empty in the new world, leaving a trail of floating corpses in its wake. Millions fled in a time where journeys were measured in weeks and months. Such migrations are beyond our imagining today.

My family's move to the west took place late in the 1970's. The country was in recession and we had to follow the work where dad could get it. He had finished his apprenticeship in cork and worked for a number of years in the Ford Factory, before he was laid off.

"Sorry Tony," the foreman said. " Just the way things go."

Like that our little family was on its uppers. By now Tony and Nancy had another boy and a little girl. I was the big brother and had to look out for them. I might not have under stood everything that was going on but I knew that something was wrong. I heard mam crying in the night and thought she was having scary dreams. They were cross with each other sometimes and Dad came home all wobbly and smelling funny once or twice.

In the end, we were all loaded into a beat up Morris Minor and followed the promise of a job in Galway city. The only down side to moving in my mind, was that I had to leave my school in Cork. Telling the truth, I didn't care one bit for the school, but Miss O'Brien was another matter. She was so tall and nice. She  was always smiling and we played fun games every day. Even the lessons were fun. I think she liked me best, because she always put her hand on my shoulder when she taught me my ABC's. When mom said we were leaving it broke my hart. I was inconsolable. I cried like I have never cried before,  or since. No matter what she told me, I knew I would never find another teacher like her.

I sulked while we loading the car, and cried a bit as we pulled away from our old house, but soon enough the excitement of the journey won through the tears. When we arrived in Galway, mom shook me awake too look at the lights of the city that twinkled off the water in the bay. The big white truck with all our things in it, was behind us all the way from cork. I thought truck drivers must be so clever to know exactly where we were going. I thought I might even be one, when I grew up. The first days in Galway were all a whizz of new places, new people, new everything. My brain was not big enough to take it all in. We stayed with Aunt Molly, one of Dad's aunties. Dad said she was his auntie and that made her my auntie as well. I did not like her so much, she smoked all the time and spit in the fire. The house was small, so we all slept in one room. I couldn't figure out why we left Cork, where we had three rooms, grown-ups are silly sometimes. In the end, I didn't mind, because it was a great adventure. One morning, my dad started his new job, in the timber yard. He didn't go every day, but  some days. It was not long before it was time to move again. This time, we only went a few miles, out into the country to our very first house.

The first day Dad took us to see the new house, I thought we were lost because he took us down a tiny road with grass growing in the middle. There was only fields and hedges for miles, and from the back window you could see the ocean, away in the distance. The grass around the house was so high, it was over my head. There was no running water, or bathroom, so we did our pee-pee in the field, out back. In the middle of the house was a big kitchen, off each side of that, was a bedroom. Along with the house we a few acres of land. I though we were big farmers, but dad said the only thing you would grow in those fields were rocks. What I remember most about the first time, was how cold it was. Outside, it was a lovely sunny day, but inside it was so cold, the goose pimples came up on my arms. Another thing I remember was my sister Katie, she wasn't happy at all. She cried so hard my ears hurt, in the end, Mam took her outside where she stopped bawling, after a bit.

Moving day came, and the truck man that knew everything, came back. We loaded the house things from Cork, back into the truck. I though we were like the snails in the garden, dragging our house around behind us. I thought we should live in the truck, and save all the moving. Dad said, I was a clever clogs. I don't know what clogs are, but clever was good, so I smiled when he said it. Soon, we had all the boxes piled up in middle of the kitchen floor, of the new house. We were all tired after unloading the truck. Mam lit a fire in the range, and made bean's on toast, with the red sauce. Then Dad pulled the big double mattress in front of the fire, and we all slept there for the night, like camping. It was the best night ever. I didn't even mind the funny smell that came in the middle of the night.

One thing about Galway people, is they're very friendly. Soon, every neighbor for miles had came to say, welcome. They brought gifts, mostly cakes, breads and jams, made in their own kitchens. Eggs and milk, came from chicken sheds, not the shop. Water was gathered in a tank from the roof. I don't think that we had as many people visit us in Cork in all my life, as came that first week in the new house.

A few weeks after we moved in, Mam had us working on the grass in the front garden.She was cutting it down with a big thing called a slash hook. We all had to stand well back when she was swinging it. My job was to gather the cut grass into piles in the middle of the garden. One minute we were all alone, the next, an old man was leaning over the stone wall looking at us.

My Mam got a big fright, and said a bad word. I went over and stood beside her. When dad was not home I was the man of the house, he said and had to look after Mam and the kids. So I was watching this fella to see if he was a bad one, or not.

"Good day Missus" he said, doffing his dirty flat cap.
"Hello" said Mam, still red in the face. "You put the heart cross-ways in me."
"Sorry about that, I didn't know anyone had moved in," he said. "How is the old place for yea?"
"Hard work," Mam said, rubbing the sweat from her forehead. "I'm sure it will be fine in the end.".
He looked down at me, and said. "Who is this fine young man?" I think he knew I was keeping an eye on him.
Mam rubbed my head, even though she knows I don't like it, she's always doing it!
"This is Squid, that is Stephen and Kate over there, and my name is Nancy McFinnigan," she said, holding our her had to the old man. When they shook hands, his skin was dirty with big cracks and ugly nails. I was a bit nervous because, only bad ones had such ugly hands.
"Squid is it?" he chuckled."That's a quare name for a young-fella." He dipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out a roll of sweets. He broke them in half, and offered some to me.
I didn't know what to do so, I held on to Mam's leg, even though I knew, I was the one that should have been looking after her.
"It's okay," she said. "They're only silvermints." I held out my hand, and took the half packet of sweets. They looked like white bits of chalk, but bigger. When I sucked one, they made my mouth tingle and tasted oh so good.

"So what is your name?" Mam asked. The man said, "Willy Barrett, Missus, from the next parish over, but I have a few fields down this way".
I made my mind up then and there, that Willy Barrett, must be one of the good ones, because only good ones would have silvermints. I left them talking, and went to share the sweets with Stephen and Kate.

"Squid!! don't give Kate any, she is too small," Mam shouted, when she saw what I was doing.
I didn't listen to much of what Mam and Willy Barrett were talking about, but I did hear him say,
"This old place has been empty a long time. People come and go from it. Don't remember anyone staying too long." Soon he was on his way down the road. I hoped he would come again and bring more silvermints.

We didn't sleep in the kitchen any more, like we had that first night. Mam, Dad and Kate, slept in one room, me and Stephen, had bunk beds, in the other room. Because I was the oldest, I got the top one. Kate still didn't like the new house, and sometimes cried in the night. She said she didn't like the old man, he was ugly. Mam said it was only bad dreams. I knew she was wrong, because sometime Kate cried in the day as well, and you can't have bad dreams in the daytime. The funny smell that had come the first night, came back sometimes. Now, even Mam could smell it. She pulled the kitchen apart looking for what was causing it, but she never found it.

One night, she was sitting in the kitchen plucking the feathers off an old hen that she had killed for dinner, when the smell came. Dad was home.
"There it is now," she said, sniffing the air. Dad took big sniffs as well, so did I, but only for show, because knew the smell already. It was like turf fire and hedges.
"That is strange," said Dad, at last. "It's pipe tobacco." The smell would stay a while, and then just go again. It happened so often while we lived there, that Mam would say, "He's here again." Like there was someone at the door. I don't think Mam or Dad ever minded the smelly pipe smell, but Kate hated it, and was never happy in the new house.

Later in the year, the winter was coming, and we were on our holidays from school. It was Halloween time, so we were getting dressed up to go to the neighbors house, trick or treating. There was only one neighbor, but we were excited anyway. Stephen was dressed in a old jacket, wellies, and had a fork, he was going to be Willy Barrett. Since the day Willy scared my Mam, we became great friends. He always had silvermints for me, and I would help him working in his field, or feeding the calf's when they were born. Tonight, I was going to be a fisher man. I was dressed in all my Dads fishing clothes, but Mom took the hooks off before she let me put them on. That was a pity, how can you be a fisherman with no hooks to feed the fish?

She had me standing on the table, rolling up my pants, so my feet would stick out bottom. I was looking out the window, across the field at the back of the house. I couldn't see the ocean today, it was very strange weather. The ground was covered in thick white clouds, so you couldn't see your feet. Mom said it was a sea mist, rolling in from the ocean. The evening still, and the mist was sitting low on the ground. The cows in the field looked funny, they looked like they had no legs, and were floating on the mist. Every now and again, they ducked there heads into it, and when they came back up again, they were munching on grass.

I was watching the cows, when the scariest thing ever happened. A huge bang! The back door flew open, slamming into the wall a few times. Cupboard doors flew open and banged. A glass smashed on the ground, all the pictures on the wall flapped and clattered. Then the front door flew open, and all the noise stopped.

I had let out a big scream, but so had every one else. Katie and Stephen were crying, I didn't, but I was scared, lots. Mam got an even bigger fright, than the day Willy Barrett looked over the wall, she was shaking all over. Things had fallen out of presses, and all the pictures were facing the walls. Mam cuddled us all at the same time, and said "Sush it's okay, lads. Sush, its only a bit of wind."

When I was a little less scared, I went and looked out the window. When I did, I knew that Mam was wrong. The cows were all still floating on the clouds outside. The wind should have made a mess if it had been blowing.

After that day, things were never as good in the new house. Kate saw the old man, more and more. She had lots of scary dreams, in the day, and the night. One of our cows was hit with lightening, right in the field where it stood. Dad lost the job at the timber yard, and even the car stopped working. In the end, we had to sell the house and move back to Galway.  The truck came again, and again, we loaded all our things. We had no car this time, so a friend of Dads, came to give us a lift back into Galway. I looking back at the house as we drove away. Just before we got out of sight, the curtain on the kitchen window billowed as if the wind caught it. A dark shape inside the house was watching us go. It made my tummy jump, and feel sick.  I looked away as quick as I could, and decided not to tell anyone about what I had seen. Let me tell you, I was very glad we weren't going to live in the smelly house any more.

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