Dragged back by the old sow


Sometimes things turn out best when they're not planned. Like falling in love or having children - or even finding your dream house. Having been through the first two I wasn't even thinking about the last, one spring morning in London when, without warning, I was hit by a wave of homesickness. A sweltering flat in Soho was no place to be with a one-year-old and Jim, who wanted to write in peace. Of course it wasn't only that. Ireland, the irresistible old sow, was calling me back. Not the Ireland I'd come from - Dublin with its familiar faces, friendly pubs and promise of success if you stood still long enough. No, the other Ireland. The one that exists in the mind's eye when you've been away too long. Wild, desolate, eternal, impossible . . .

We put an ad in The Irish Times. "House wanted by the sea, cheap." The one reply we got was enough. It came from a Mrs Carew, who was offering a house on an island off the coast. It overlooked a sandy beach and had started life as a ballroom until the bishop closed it down because couples kept disappearing off into the sand dunes. The rent was £7 a month and it was free until July. After that we'd have to take pot luck but, Mrs Carew assured us, there were plenty of other houses going.

We packed in our well-paid jobs with the usual alibis - sudden death or disablement in the family back home, crammed everything we owned into four tea-chests and left.

The journey took a day and a half. As the bus pulled away, leaving us and our possessions on a quiet pier in west Cork, a boatman in a peaked cap summed us up at a glance. "You're staying a while. There's time for a drink so."

Over a pint he introduced himself as John Willie and told us how he'd got the job. The ferryman before him had caught this terrible chill he couldn't shake off so he'd stripped naked in front of a roaring fire and rubbed himself down with whiskey, taking a slug now and then. "But didn't he get too close to the fire," said John Willie solemnly, "and next minute went up in flames." He erupted into a fit of laughter and grew serious again. "Wasn't that a terrible thing?"

A few pints later he took us across. A small knot of people had gathered to meet the ferry. "That must be the wife," I heard someone whisper as Jim carried the child ashore. I couldn't see how Jim, at six foot three, could ever by mistaken for a woman but then the 1960s, with its long hair, frilly shirts and beads, hadn't arrived in Ireland yet.

We settled quickly into the rhythm of the island. Like everyone else's, our lives were dictated by the weather. When it got too relentless you took to your bed and waited for it to pass. The pub never closed. Even when the publican went to the mainland he left pencil and paper on the counter so you could write down what you'd had. There was always too much money in the till when he came back as no one liked putting their hand in for change.

The time flew. It was nearly the end of June when we discovered there were no houses going. Everything was booked solid. We were in despair until Jim met an old woman along the road one day and helped her home with her bags. "I hear you're looking for a house," she said. "I've one might suit you."

We couldn't find it at first. The road petered off into marshy bogland and gorse. We clambered over stone walls, and across prickly fields until, suddenly, the house appeared, tucked away at the bottom of a long valley, an old, stone building sitting on top of the ocean. We had to hack our way to the front door. There was no sign of water or electricity and, when I looked in the window, I nearly wept. Beach pebbles hammered into the earth for a floor, orange boxes for furniture and a great, black hole of a fireplace. It's impossible, I thought. We can't stay here. But it was either that or take the boat back to England. The only consolation was that the rent couldn't amount to much.

"How did it suit you?" asked the woman shyly when we called in on the way back. Her name was Cissie and, over a boiled egg, she explained that she and her brother had given up the old house when neither of them could manage the walk. They never stopped thinking about it, though, and her brother, who was failing, vowed he'd pay one last visit before he died. "So now," she said after we'd eaten, "maybe you'd care to make me an offer." We suggested £5 a month.

"Ah no," said Cissie politely, "you're mistaking me. I mean for you to buy." Jim and I looked at each other. We hadn't a penny. Barely enough to last the summer and pay the fares back. As we wondered what impossible sum she had in mind, Cissie explained that her brother was falling away. Planting potatoes one week and pulling them the next. He'd never see another winter. She wouldn't be far behind him and what would happen to the old house then? "The roof will fall in, the cattle lay waste and that will be the end of it," she went on. "I'd rest easier thinking of a young family to take care of it and not see it fall to ruin." We told her we'd love to but couldn't afford to buy.

"Surely you could manage something," said Cissie.

"At the moment," said Jim, "I'd be lucky to find even £50."

"Seventy," said Cissie.

"Sixty-five," suggested Jim.

And on that we settled it. When we went on to the pub to celebrate, the news had arrived before us. "£65?" said John Willie. "You were robbed, the pair of you. You could have had it for £50."

"And come winter you'll be washed out of your beds," piped up his companion.

Cissie's brother never did see another winter. He died a few weeks later, the day before we moved in. Between a howling gale, the flickering candles and his promise to pay a final visit, we didn't sleep a wink, expecting him to float in the door any minute.

Cissie wasn't far behind him. Towards the end she seemed to take a turn against us, passing on the road without a greeting or closing her door when we came by. Then, suddenly, she was as friendly as before. We were puzzled until John Willie explained that some young divil had climbed up on her roof one night and called down the chimney: "Cissie, Cissie, it's your brother calling. I'm up here in Heaven but I can't rest easy thinking of our old house and how you let it pass to strangers." He roared with laughter and added quickly: "But don't worry. I gave him a good talking to. And herself, too, for such foolishness."

By now, Cissie and her brother should be resting easy. Remembering how it was when we first moved in, I think we've taken good care of it. So far, touch wood, we haven't been washed out of our beds although once or twice the Atlantic has come knocking at our door. And, after 30-odd years, we're no longer strangers.

Blessed Art Thou A Monk Swimming by Miriam Dunne, published by Headline Review, is available in paperback at £6.99.