If you walk up the Main Street in Ballycondon, past St Columba's Church on your left and Sean O'Connor's pub on your right, you come to the Mushera Road. Continue on for a mile or so along the Mushera Road — you will skirt the foot of Mushera Mountain and the Grotto to Our Lady on your left — and a hundred yards further on you will come to Tom Joe Murphy's cottage on the right. That would be just before you come to the Poor Law graveyard.
The cottage had belonged to Tom Joe's widowed mother. It had come to him three weeks ago when his mother died at the grand age of 88. Tom Joe himself was 48. There had been others in the family, but they had long since gone to America and, apart from the traditional Christmas cards, they did not write any more. When he sent telegrams on their mother's death, one sister had come from New York to the funeral. She attended the funeral, took one look at the humble cottage, another at her late mother's Post Office Savings Book, shed a few sad tears, promised Tom Joe that they must keep in touch and then took the next flight back to the good old US of A. Her husband and children needed her there and there was nothing here to detain her any longer.
Tom Joe thought it best not to mention anything to his sister about the £3,500 and more that he had saved over the last 28 hears from their mother's pension. There might have been a misunderstanding and she might have thought that the money rightly belonged to his mother and should form part of her estate. His mother had given him the £1.50 each week to invest and this he did, being careful to do so in his own name. By the time she died, the total savings plus interest amounted to a tidy little sum indeed. He counted it as a wage for the time he worked the tiny mountainy farm and, as soon as his sister was out of sight, he had the cottage completely modernised, and it looked so pretty now and happy (during the daytime) that he wistfully wished he did not have to leave it for good.
He took down the 20-year-old copybook, still marked '5p' in pencil in the corner, which served as his accounts book. If there was any way he could have remained here, he would have only the meagre weekly income from the sale of a few dozen eggs and the vegetables from the small garden to support himself.
The pitifully-balanced accounts were all right for his mother, but he wanted more out of life. Over the years he had applied for some of the few jobs going in the small town. Somehow, no matter what the job was, he would never be suitable. When he was young he was told that he was too young or that they needed somebody with experience. Other times they would want somebody they could train, somebody a bit younger. Or they wanted somebody who could drive. When, having applied for a job as a shop assistant, he was told that they wanted somebody actually living in the town, he realised that he would not be suitable for any job locally. He realised in fact, that anybody else, whoever he might be, would be more suitable for a job in this town than he was. Then he gave up and waited for his chance to leave for ever.
He wanted to live a little. His loneliness over the years had been aggravated by his mother's eyes following him around the small house. He knew that she could read his very soul. He was almost afraid to read the paper in her presence. If he looked at a picture of a girl in the paper, he instinctively lifted his eyes to meet those of his mother. She would immediately avert hers as if to say that his thoughts were none of her business.
He had understood her little game, all right. It was her way of trying to prevent him from forming a relationship with any of the local girls and binding him more to herself — to keep him from leaving her on her own. He knew that for all her bravado, she too would have dreaded the thought of living here by herself.
'There can never be peace for our family in this house,' his mother used to say in her sad ramblings. 'What in God's name is to become of us?' What a miserable lonely life his mother must have had here, he thought. She had been bound to it first by marriage, then by her children, and finally by her age. It was as if she had been going through her purgatory on earth, living in this cottage. But she at least was now free from its grip. Tom Joe had never known for sure exactly what it was about the house that would give them no peace, although he had his suspicions, and believed that it was connected to the fact that nobody in the village would employ him.
Life of Prayer
The rosaries that his mother had prayed nightly and the twice daily angelus that she had said when she heard the church bells ring had kept the darkness at bay. Tom Joe's beliefs did not extend to a life of prayer only and without constant prayer, he would not be able to survive in this, his own cottage, and his home. Even now, as dusk cast long shadows over the valley, he had to admit to himself that he was grateful for the protection of the cross on top of the mountain. He shivered when he felt the night cold and quickly drew the curtains together and locked and bolted the door.
When he analysed his feelings about his home, Tom Joe knew that the terrifying experiences he had were not actually in the house. They were outside, waiting for him to come out, especially at night when the darkness had the valley in its thrall. He could mentally visualise two hands — a woman's hands — just outside the door with fingernails raised to scratch his face in hatred. Yes. That was what was outside his home. It was not evil. It was hatred. And he knew that there was only one way to appease it.
The first people who viewed the cottage were the Moriartys. They had been waiting for a few weeks until it was decorated and ready to be put on the market. The city agents had given them the address and the date for viewing. They contracted to buy it on sight as a retreat for the holidays. And the husband could use it whenever he was in Ireland on business. He fell in love with the quarry tiles on the floor, the old black beams in the kitchen and the honeysuckle plant outside the door. There would be space for two children, he remarked, as he looked at his young wife.
She feigned seriousness and gently teased him by remarking that with careful use of space they might fit in three. The wife was delighted that they had retained the open fire as well as installing the new central heating system and said that it was good that they had kept the cottage door at the bottom of the stairs. It kept the house so warm and snug, she said. Yes, Tom Joe thought grimly, it was just as well that they had come in the afternoon when the sun was shining and there was a cheerful aspect about the old homestead.
There was very little in the house that Tom Joe wanted. The memories he wanted to keep were in his head, and he put the few photographs he had into a plastic bag and folded it into the bottom of his suitcase. He did not have many clothes either. He had no sentimental attachment to any of the furniture. He wanted to leave this house behind, not take its secrets with him.
The one car available for hire in Ballycondon would, of course, be free to take him to Dublin. Anyone in the village would be glad to help him leave. If he wanted to leave in the morning he could have gone by train or bus, but he needed to leave at nighttime. He had something to do before leaving the area. He had to make his peace with Hannah Farrell. And that had to be done in darkness.
Three-quarters of an hour before the car was due to arrive, Tom Joe left his two suitcases at the front gate and, forcing his way through an angry blustering wind, walked the hundred or so yards to the Poor Law Graveyard. The rusty gate of the neglected and now disused graveyard was tied to an ancient broken post by lengths of wire.
When he put his hand on the gate, the wind came to a gasping and terrifyingly sudden halt. Suddenly the overwhelming fear he had felt throughout his life turned to pity as he pushed aside the excuse for a gate and by the light of the full moon went to the oldest part of the graveyard. There was very little here to distinguish one grave from the other. The souls buried here were all nameless now — travelling people who died while passing through with no kin to pay for their burial, the poor who died during the famine and, of course, the poor who had been evicted from their homes because they could not pay their rent and died from broken hearts. Tom Joe prayed for guidance now to find the right words to say to the woman who once owned the house his ancestor had bought in the dim past.
'Hannah Farrell,' he whispered softly. The long wild mountain grass waved threateningly, making a soft hissing sound. 'I can't ask you to forgive me,' he continued 'for I cannot be blamed for my great-grandfather’s sins. It was a dreadful thing he did, to buy the house when you and your little children were evicted, but will you forgive him now?'
There was a whooshing noise as the wind seemed to gather force again. 'You can't really blame me for having his blood, either,' he whispered gently. 'I am leaving your house now, this very night. Next week the Moriartys are moving in. They are a nice family, Hannah Farrell. They have done no wrong to you. Be kind to them and to their children.'
A soft breeze drifted past him. Tom Joe turned at the gate and whispered, 'Rest easy, Hannah Farrell, the Murphys have gone from your home for good.'
The sound of the taxi could be heard coming along the winding road. As he heard the noise of the taxi approaching the gate of the house, Tom Joe felt tears come to his eyes — and a warm, forgiving night breeze touched his cheek.