Anna Allen, born in County Wicklow, has lived in Connemara for over thirty years. Though the idea of writing nagged and haunted her, having married and started a family that grew and grew, there were too many other calls on her time. However, the day came when she realised the only cure for the torture of wanting to write - was to write. Her first contribution was published in 1972 to be followed by many more reflecting her views on relevant subjects of the day, in the Evening and the Morning editions of the Irish Press. Short Stories came later. When the chance to become a mature (University) student presented itself, Anna grasped the opportunity. In 2007 she emerged from NUIG with an honours BA (English, Archaeology, Sociology/Politics and Philosophy, followed by an M Litt. in Feminist Philosophy.
By Anna Allen
As a lone woman staring into her latter years, Eleanor jumped at the chance of selling her house in the city for an unbelievable price. She could now put out to the Universe for the charming cottage by the sea, an image long since awaiting realisation. The cottage could be as run down as it cared to be. As the vision resided in Eleanor’s imagination, she alone could make it a reality. Its ideal whereabouts included a view of the sea in an area conducive to landscape and seascape painting where she might finally bring to fruition her latent talent. Peace and quiet, inspiring views, add in kindly neighbours and what more could a woman, at her time of life, desire?
She was fortunate enough to wish, at a time when wishes for better or for worse, had a chance of coming true; it wasn’t long before she hit upon, or rather was hit upon by an agent offering the very thing she had in mind. Needless to say much love and much work, regardless of much money must be ploughed in before the semblance of a dream could even think of becoming a reality. Although the price did reflect, if in a paler hue, the general spiral she could scarcely believe her luck in procuring a traditional home in an area where property was more likely to remain within family ownership. Though sitting on the shores of the Irish Sea “Primrose Cottage” was surrounded by peaceful farmland with mountains and forests waving from the mid-distance and the neighbours she’d been told, were the salt of the earth. Without further ado she paid up the asking price, said goodbye to her Dublin neighbour and moved out and in without delay.
Pretty quickly it became obvious that the fixtures and fittings were, like herself, a little rusty and the need for running repairs could crop up when least expected. As things turned out it was just as well she had money to spare as “Primrose Cottage” rather enjoyed gobbling it up. But help was at hand. Her kindly neighbour, Mary O’Hagan, lost no time in recommending her husband, Paddy, as the man who could cater for any eventuality under the sun, or under the rain as events were most often to prove. He made his living this way and was sought after within a wide radius as the man to hire both for his expertise and his reasonable prices. His wife furnished Eleanor with both their mobile phone numbers together with a packet of “Marietta” biscuits and strict instructions to call them any time of the day or night no matter how small or how big the problem. She also promised to look in on a regular basis to make sure the new inhabitant of “Primrose Cottage” hadn’t died in the night; or if she had there was somebody on hand to raise the alarm.
Soon, freshly-painted white walls complimented with bright red windows and front door, around which roses obediently began to creep, were going a long way towards making Eleanor’s dream a reality. Under her instruction and Paddy’s endeavour “Primrose Cottage” gradually grew into an enviable habitat; even by the standards of those who had begun to regard the word “cottage” as a minor insult; an invader from the past, best forgotten. The name, it was suggested to Eleanor who was now regarded locally as a bit of an oddball, could be changed to “Villa” or at a stretch of the imagination, “farmhouse” and surely “primrose” was well past its sell-by date.
Then, with scarcely any stealth at all, the narrow by-road by whose side the new edition of “Primrose Cottage” was trying to nestle, began to take on the semblance of a main thoroughfare. The cars blossomed from small to medium to large and lumpy with many four-wheel drives, bearing names such as “Cherokee” and “Discovery”, if you could catch a glimpse of their origins as they sped by faster and ever faster. Add to this flow the lorry-loads of sand and gravel, cement blocks and ready-mix concrete twisting and winding their way to whatever bits of coast-land had, so far, escaped the cement-mixer and the JCB. More nerve-racking still were the canvas covered articulated monsters heading for the fish farm suddenly lying, innocuously, in the bay.
Over a surprisingly short period of time, the charming cottage-with-roses-around-the-door idyll had slipped slowly but surely from its moorings. Quiet spots to park up and erect an easel had disappeared in the madness to pour concrete over everything that stood still. It was mystifying that no one person or so-called “authority” had the wisdom or integrity to put up the – stop sign.
The simple pleasure of walking the roads, no matter how scenic and winding, took on “no-go” connotations. Manoeuvring her small car out the cottage gate, where corners had grown ever blinder in tandem with the density and aggression of the traffic, sharpened Eleanor’s dare-devil instincts.
‘It’s like playing “Russian Roulette”,’ she told her erstwhile city-neighbour over the phone. ‘If I survive long enough I’ll surely end up with eyes in the back of my head, organically evolved from the sheer necessity to see around corners.’ Large stones, unsettled by the weight of traffic, found their way from precarious stone walls onto the middle of the road defying the man-made machines to jump over them. The carcasses of mowed-down animals littered the roads and, to a lesser extent, the ditches. There was no mercy for dogs either and humans had better make friends with the ditches because hugging them was their only salvation while threading the roads, many devoid of footpaths.
Eleanor’s Man Friday, as she liked to call her neighbour’s husband, had lived up to his job description, kind of, and was nice enough to become apologetic when repair and maintenance expenses began to spiral out of all proportion. As his prices rose his availability fell. He was becoming much sought after and according to his wife, he’d been head-hunted from as far away as the nearest town where the building of a new shopping-plaza was in full swing. No! He was no longer on call for little bits and pieces that might crop up in a rickety old cottage any time of the day or night.
‘That’d be the kind of thing he’d get around to when he was good and ready,’ she said, kindly, if with a slight upward curl of her lip.
If Eleanor thought this meant she was free to go in search of a replacement she soon found out that this wasn’t how things stood at all, at all. Without knowing how or when it happened, she discovered herself joined at the hip to the Man Friday she already had. It came as something of another surprise that she was similarly conjoined to his wife who doubled her surveillance efforts as to the welfare of, not alone the elderly resident of “Primrose Cottage”, but to that of the cottage itself.
Over-grown grass would be taken care of the very next time Man Friday had a split second to spare. No worries there. Dripping taps; storm-damage; water-logging problems; sluggish sewage; refluxes in the loo; all were noted, put on the to do list. His wife would see to that.
Late September brought not only Eleanor’s seventy-fifth birthday but a wind and rain storm to beat all in living memory. In her small bed, the occupant of “Primrose Cottage” twisted and turned in tandem with the uneasiness of all living things. The roaring hullaballoo in the rafters was past description. Eleanor gave little credence to the idea that the devil had forsaken hell in favour of her habitat, but that the Cosmos had taken leave of its senses, there was little doubt.
Winds whipped through the house whinging and whining like a demented vixen fox. Windows rattled with ominous vexation; ceilings hurled abuse from above; doors slammed with a vengeance and whether real or imagined Eleanor became acutely aware that strange influences were afoot; had taken over and had somehow turned all logic and intelligent life on its head. Leaping from her bed to get her head around the feel of this new chaotic world she clicked on the light switch but the bulb failed to ignite. Utter darkness encased her.
‘The range, the range,’ she shouted when the chill of an invading force reduced her to a shuddering mass of hysteria. The range may still have a spark and the kettle may still be hot. Maybe the space-invaders would allow her to make a cup of tea. Once in the kitchen she saw a small ray of light in the sky and was drawn towards it with astonished expectation only to discover that the slates, at the vulnerable end, had flown away and a large section of the roof was no longer where it should be.
Convulsed with horror and dread she reached for the telephone; but quickly
remembered her new relationship with her kindly neighbours. On the other hand the hole may have been big enough to warrant the prompt services of Man Friday but no matter how dangerous the situation or how big a job it might be, she knew better than to think she could get him up in the night.
‘You’re lucky,’ he said the following morning, ‘if it had been the other end you’d have to move out. At least you can still cook and the sink is still where it was.’ So he was able to patch up the gaping hole and seal off the offending portion with a temporary partition. He then used the magic words: ‘this’ll be a big job.’
‘How big?’ asked Eleanor, meaning how soon?
‘We’ll worry about that when we come to do it. It could take three men as well as myself to patch this hole up, when we get around to it, that is.’
‘And when might that be?’ she asked making a brave effort to keep all sarcasm from her voice while wondering if she’d enough money left to cover the cost.
‘I’d say it’ll be soon,’ Man Friday shot a significant glance in the direction of his wife who stood by, ‘things are beginning to slow down, a bit, but that doesn’t mean I can down tools and leave jobs unfinished.’
‘No,’ said his wife shooting her own significant glance in Eleanor’s direction, ‘he might never get paid.’
If the “boom” had been slow in coming to Ballinahinch it was quick to leave. The passing of mere days slowed down in tandem with the traffic, both heavy and light. The fall deepened and knowing winter wasn’t far behind, Eleanor showed heroic resilience as she waited and waited for the restoration of her kitchen.
‘Any day now, he’s getting around to you,’ was the wife’s anthem as she unearthed the packet of “Marietta” biscuits from the bottom of her bag and placed them on a plate, ‘eat up and relax, I’ll make the tea,’ she said.
‘It seems like months ago,’ said Eleanor, ‘that the Builder’s Providers rang to say he was ready to deliver. I went straight over and paid him.’
‘Of course you did,’ said the wife, ‘sure you’re a great pay. I’ll give you that.’
‘But I’m still waiting and frozen with cold,’ Eleanor said buttoning up a second cardigan.
‘I can guarantee you’ll have your roof mended this side of Christmas; if I have to do the job myself.’
And I wouldn’t put it past you, Eleanor thought deciding there and then to cast about for a substitute. After all, things were slowing down; it couldn’t be impossible to find someone else, a proper tradesman at that.
When Easter became the next feast on the Christian calendar, in spite of the wife’s regular visits, the promises, the “Marietta” biscuits and the many consultations with her phone friend, Eleanor decided to Google a substitute. If she’d hung her knickers on the telephone pole at the gate it couldn’t have made more of a flutter. The new man, with his classy van advertising his company’s expertise and its whereabouts in an adjoining parish, worked away seemingly oblivious to the smirks and knowing smiles on the faces of passers-by not to mention drivers slowing for an eyeful of the situation.
‘I think they may know something I don’t know, I’ve a creepy feeling that I may have upset someone,’ Eleanor said to, Eileen, her phone friend.
‘I’ve a creepy feeling you may have done just that,’ was Eileen’s opinion.
‘Anyways,’ she added, ‘prepare yourself because you’ll find out soon enough!’ Eleanor had no sooner put the phone back in its cradle than Man-Friday’s wife let herself in through the back door, banged it behind her and stomped through to the living quarters.
‘So you’re going ahead,’ she said, mouth frothing, eyes on fire.
‘I couldn’t wait any longer. Sure I was frozen to death and the roof was deteriorating. By the time Mr O’Brien got here it was already too far gone. A whole new roof is the only answer now.
‘Mr O’Brien is it? Well I hope you know what you’ve done because the next time you want Paddy, or should I say, Mr O’Donohue, to do some shitty little job or you need someone when you’re dying in the night, you needn’t call on us. And I wouldn’t mind only we’ve been so good to you, Paddy never let you down.’
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ said Eleanor, ‘but the situation here was dire. I had to take my roof, not to mention my life, into my own hands.’
‘The work’s all drying up and he’ll never see the half of what he’s owed; that Shopping Centre bastard’s gone to the wall,’ she announced while throwing a half-packet of “Marietta” biscuits on the table.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Eleanor said.
‘I wanted to let you know in case you needed anything done in the meantime and there you are getting a new roof and Paddy can’t even get the dole.’
‘I won’t have a bob left when this job is done. If the hole had been fixed in time it might not have come to this.’
‘Good enough for you,’ said the wife making for the door. He’ll probably have to go back to England, that’s if he can get his nose in anywhere, most of his friends and contacts came home because of the boom. So don’t tell me your troubles.
‘All the money you put into that place and now it’s not worth buttons. Your kindly neighbours have shown their true colours and even the sea has not been enhanced by that ugly fish-farm, now has it? You might as well have stayed here.’
‘Peace and serenity are back,’ sad Eleanor. ‘ The road outside is quiet as a graveyard. You could lie down in the middle of it and not get run over.
’‘No,’ said Eileen straightening her face as if they were in the flesh, ‘they couldn’t even get that much right.’