Real Estate was published in the Scottish literary journal Causeway/Cabhsair (vol. 3, issue 2) in 2012.
Photo Enda O'Flaherty
The beat Corsa jogged violently taking the corner. Red hit the accelerator to compensate. Timing belt. He realised too late, gunning the embolized engine further and revving up a chewing, metal on metal sound. Pistons ground valves and the car bucked to a stop throwing him against the hard tackle of the seatbelt. Air huffed from his lungs and the recoil spilled him disdainfully back into the seat. A falling whine from the engine. Silence rushed in to the vacuum. In the grey exhaust choked hedgerows, thrushes trilled in spite of him. The butt of his palm hammered the wheel. Twice. Three times before he threw open the door.
Behind him the country road snaked around in a blind bend. He was a sitting duck. He disengaged the gears and scrummed against the doorframe. With his left hand he wrestled the wheel towards a break in the hedges. The effort opened ugly, fresh scabs across his knuckles. Lines of blood braided routes along his fingers, exhausting themselves by the time they reached the wheel, delivering thick drabs onto the odometer display - the pedals - the exposed steering column.
Two pebble-dashed pillars marked the spot. His feet skidded on the cattle grid across the gateway and the car’s forward impetus stalled on the lip of the drive. The two front wheels loitered on the verge, resisting. Red pushed himself deeper into the frame. Then he felt the fulcrum pitch and the wheels edged over the threshold. The weight of the engine took the gravity, pulling the car down the incline. He shoved it on, watching it pick up speed and roll off the gravel into the lawn. Its freewheeling was arrested by the drag of the navel-high grass.
Red stepped back, breathing heavily. Where it sat, down in the garden, the Corsa was invisible, shielded by a stand of ewe trees fronting the road. Only the swathe of grass stalks lying broken and bleeding in its wake drew the eye. He prayed it might go unnoticed in the darkening day. No sound of traffic. A sun heavy silence had again reasserted itself. Before him the road led on between low fields and the odd disparate farmhouse. A water treatment works marred a hill. He felt steadied by the dull scene. The curtains of the evening had opened up, admitted him and had fallen closed seamlessly behind.
He walked back through the pillars, oblivious to the hopeful shards of mirror set into the mortar. His hand worried his throat as he went. By the gateway a yellow sign hung on a frame of damp timbers. The low evening sun rolled off the old sheen of its surface, muddling its message as he passed: For Sale.
The house stood well back from the road, sheltering behind a tall evergreen bush cut through with a clumsy arch. His heart butted against his ribcage as he approached and he clenched his fists, taking strength from the feeling of his cuts stretching and the sensation of his nails pressuring the palms of his hands. He moved cautiously past the dark and lifeless windows. Net curtains speckled with mould attempted brightness from behind the glass. Around the timber frames, ivy fighting the brambles squeezed threads of roots through fissures in the paint. These little details calmed him and his mind reacted with thoughts of the old Doyle house down the cul de sac.
As children they had explored it, Red, his cousins and Rolo scaling the back wall and pushing through the sheet of plywood over the empty doorframe. He still remembered the delightful horror of the broken mundane. The milk solid in the bottle on the sideboard. The teabags dusted green in the sink. Damp infused and cold. The Mary Celeste atmosphere substantiating sub-urban legend. They smashed a porcelain figurine over the fireplace and upstairs, in a room with a bare bed and a mound of dirty clothes, they found the painting. She stood in her creamy glory, blond ringlets and bare classical buttocks obscene against a sickly green background. Eighties cheap. They broke it up, angry and aroused, frustrated that somehow they couldn't disrobe her; that they couldn't see more. Little erections at the danger and volatile freedom. Pissing upstairs in the bedroom was the worst they could think of, the wall paper already mouldering. Someone hurled the milk bottle against the kitchen wall and they all ran. Through the guts of the house they went, kicking and belting out. Excitement choked them with laughter as they fought through the doorframe. And when they looked behind, it was still there. The house stood still, poised and static as they stopped running and found themselves at odds with the dull, uninterested evening.
Retracing the past, he moved around the gable looking into the dead windows. The grass in the garden brushed his hanging knuckles and clotting platelets picked up a fuzz of seeds. His jellied reflection in the wired windowpane of the back door told him it was all Rolo’s fault. Rolo had been at him again, goading him. As it was in their youth, so it was now. Rolo was a master at planting ideas and Red was fertile soil.
He put his weight against the door and it shoved in drunkenly. The kitchen opened up before him, long and narrow and leading the eye in. Empty bean tins cluttered the sink and cupboard doors lolled from their hinges. He entered.
And there were more. Empty places peppering the past. He remembered Amy by his side, full of girlish delight as they viewed the house in Balbriggan. The fresh paint smell mingled with the redolence of plaster and trails of plumbers gum on the hollow walls gave the place an unsubstantial feel; like a film set. They walked around with the shark eyed agent effusing and a creeping unease played over him as they passed through the lifeless, sterile space. Amy clutched at his arm in each new room, disbelieving and pointing out corners and what they'd be good for. Where the baby would go and the television and all the rest. It had happened right in front of his eyes and all he had to do was sign.
Moving through the decaying kitchen, Red reached the front room, stepping over debris and disintegrating memories. He stood silent, drinking in the details around him. Against the wall, a dresser with curling religious pictures amid the clutter. A battered kettle sat askew a rough board table. Vines of ivy intruding and a cushion of bracken, woodchip and plaster covered the floor. The last of the sunlight bullied its way down the hall, over exposing a slice of the room. Dust motes blazed like filaments and an old axe leaning by the door took the glare full on. A heavy rusted thing with the edge silvery somehow. It held a gravity of its own, loud in the silence. It shone there, the only spark in an otherwise defunct space, the edge keen amid dirty traces of lives lived.
And not so long ago, when times were still good, there was the house he and Amy had found in the hills behind Alicante. Their mo-ped slithered along the dirt drive. She held tight, screaming as he threw in little skids. Then it hunched up its shoulders, unexpectedly before them. A massive lump of a farm house - dry and waiting. In stasis. and not a modern fabric in sight. Tile, stone, wooden beams. The swifts scared from their nest hovered noisily in circles around the ceiling. And they walked around the hushed space, fantasised about coming back. They’d buy the place for a song she said, make a bar out of it. Then they drank more aguardiente from a squat bottle and kissed and swam in the reservoir there full of cold spring water.
He stood thinking of that sun blue feeling, the frigid waters and the freedom. The memories brought back the debts those days had left him. Reminded him of the job he had lost and couldn't replace. Of Amy. They had spent freely back then, holidays, nights out, the car and the new mortgage nothing to worry about. Sure didn’t they deserve it? That was before things went arse up in the playboy nation. All the jobs going. And then she hadn't wanted to know. She had stepped back from the debts, the baby in her arms. Suddenly she was back living at her mother’s as the bills accrued and the envelopes piled up inside the door and the banks closed in, shark eyes on the lot. Over the top of it all, Rolo’s voice whispered conspiracies. Red stood in the present - realities crystallising and the thoughts he had been fighting to suppress made an unexpected sobbing sound come out of his throat. He grabbed his face roughly in his hand, squeezing his temples until the feeling subsided.
He breathed forcibly, allowing himself to feel the house around him. The forbidden space excited tendencies. His fingers reached behind for the axe handle. Intake of the morbid, brooding atmosphere and the axe head bounced off the dresser. Dust and peels of paint took to the air, crockery and tin mugs scattering. He breathed savagely as the axe bit into the metal kettle, flinging it to the ground. He hacked at the table and tore lime wash from the walls. The axe burst effortlessly through the rickety door into the next room where a sodden mattress lay humped against the wall and a spread of old newspapers covered the ground. He smashed through a jug on the windowsill, showering an old pair of boots with shards and turned violently for more. At the far end of the room a line of bailing twine stretched wall to wall with trousers and a vest drip drying. From a sleeping bag in the corner, two haggard eyes flared, alive with fear.
“Jesus” Red had time to say before the axe clattered to the floor. The jumbled shape folded up on itself. A cracked voice let a stream of sound. Curses and nonsense. Red hesitated and then took a step forward with his hand up. He shushed mindlessly, as if to a child, or a horse. The figure curled itself up tighter into the sleeping bag.
Curses became whines until the man was crying. Red backed out of the room and then he was careening through the kitchen. “Jesus” he said out loud as he went. Twice in one day. He paced up and down through the grass out back, tugging the hair back off his forehead and dragging destructively on a cigarette. How could this have happened twice in the one day? Adrenaline had turned sour in his stomach.
“The recession won't hit the cash-in-mattress crowd” Rolo had said more than once over a jar. Then later, on the phone, using his ridiculous code he said “there’s plenty of real estate out past Mullingar”, emphasising each syllable. Twice in the one day. The other door he had pushed in, the other rooms he had crept through.
Red composed himself and walked back through the rotting house. “Hello” he said loudly as he went. In the bedroom the vagrant had pulled himself upright, the axe lying across his feeble knees. His face was deeply lined, his matted beard black at the root.
“I'm sorry for the intrusion,” Red said with his hands out to pacify. It was said in all sincerity. Fishing in his pocket he counted out sixty euro.
“Here, take this” he said handing it over, “for your trouble.” The vagrant's crooked fingers came up warily. They closed on the three twenties, pinching them into a tight, angular shape.
“Which way to Mullingar?” Red asked. The eyes looked him through, set deep with hard lines radiating out from their corners as if from a compass rose on an old map. Fingers motioned for a smoke. Red crossed the divide and handed over the pack, then lit him up. The vagrant eased back into his blanket, smoke infusing the old crag of his head. His eyes left Red’s face and stared defiantly at a corner over his shoulder where the sagging ceiling met the sweating wall. The upturned eyes of a Galilee sailor.
Red hurried across the fields, hugging the hedgerows. His body was shaking now, with the shock and the fear not far behind. And every now and then a rough sob forced out of his flushed face, shooting spit and sad sound into the dusk. He stumbled on, his head flooded with images. Not least among them an image of the vagrant sitting in the stale light, oblivious to the gash of red along the horizon, to the house crumbling around him and to the scarlet flecks soaked into the white edging of the notes in his lap.