‘Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing?’
It was a girl’s voice, brittle as cut crystal. Río, day-dreaming amongst sea-pinks, wondered if the words were directed at her. Lazily, she turned over onto her tummy, pushed a strand of hair back from her face, and leaned her chin on her forearms. From her vantage point atop the low cliff she had a clear view of the shore, picture-postcard pretty today, with lacy wavelets fringing the sand. Below, on the old slipway that fronted Coral Cottage, a girl of around twelve years old stood, her arms ramrod stiff, her hands clenched into fists.
‘You!’ said the girl again. ‘Didn’t you hear me? I asked what you were doing.’
The boy squatting on the sandstone glanced up, took in the blonde curls, the belly top, the day-glo pink pedal-pushers, the strappy sandals, then resumed his scrutiny of the rock pool that had been formed by the receding tide. ‘I’m looking for crabs,’ he told her.
‘Smartass. I didn’t mean that. I meant – what are you doing on my land?’
‘Your land, is it?’ murmured the boy. ‘I don’t think so, Barbie-girl.’
‘You may not think so, but I know so. That’s my daddy’s slipway, and you’re trespassing. And don’t call me Barbie-girl, farm-boy.’
Río smiled, and reached for her sunglasses. Bog-trotter versus city slicker made for the best spectator sport.
‘Shut up your yapping, will you? There’s a donkey up in the field beyond trying to feed her newborn. You’ll put the frighteners on the pair of them.’
Río saw the girl’s mouth open, then shut again. ‘A donkey? You mean there’s a donkey with a baby?’
‘Yip.’ The boy rose to his feet. ‘I’ll show you, if you like.’
The girl looked uncertain. ‘I’m not supposed to go beyond the slipway.’
‘I’ve got new sandals on. I might get them dirty.’
The boy shrugged. ‘Take ’em off.’
‘Take my shoes off?’
‘They’re not nailed to your feet, are they?’
From the field beyond came a melancholy bray.
‘What’s that?’ asked the girl.
‘Dorcas is the mother donkey?’
‘What’s her baby called?’
‘She doesn’t have a name yet.’
‘What age is she?’
‘A week! Cute!’
‘She’s cute, all right,’ said the boy, moving away from the slipway.
The girl gave a covert glance over her shoulder, then reached down, unfastened her sandals and stepped down from the slipway onto the sand.
‘My name’s Isabella,’ she said, as she caught up with him. ‘What’s yours?’
‘Finn. Do you want some liquorice?’
‘Hello? Don’t you know the rule about not taking sweets from strangers?’
‘Liquorice isn’t really a sweet. It’s a kind of plant. Have you clapped eyes on a donkey before?’
‘Yes, of course. On the telly. What’s that stuff?’
Finn laughed. ‘Wait til you see donkey poo.’
The children’s voices receded as they moved further down the beach. Río was just about to call out to Finn, to warn him to mind Isabella’s feet on the cattle grid, when new voices made her turn and look to her left.
Two men were strolling along the embankment that flanked the shoreline. One sported a shooting stick, the other had a leather folder tucked under his arm. Both were muttering into mobile phones, and both wore unweathered Barbours and pristine green wellies. City boys playing at being country squires, Río decided.
The men clambered down the embankment, then meandered along the sand until they came to a standstill directly below Río’s eyrie.
‘Get your people to call mine,’ barked one man into his Nokia, and: ‘I’ll get my people to call yours’, barked the other into his, and then both men snapped their phones shut and slid them into their pockets.
As Isabella and Finn disappeared round the headland, Río heard Dorcas greet them with an enthusiastic bray. One of the men looked up, then raised a hand to shade his eyes from the sun. Leaning as he was on his shooting stick, he looked like a male model from one of the naffer Sunday supplements.
‘What’s that bloody racket, James?’ he asked.
‘A donkey. You’d better get used to it,’ said the man with the folder. ‘Noise pollution in the country is as rampant as it is in the city, only different. You’ll be waking up to the sound of sheep baaing all over the place.’
‘And birdsong. Felicity’s having a statue of some Indian goddess shipped in from Nepal, so she can greet the dawn every morning from her yoga pavilion.’
Yay! Río realised she was in for some top quality eavesdropping. Yoga pavilions! Indian goddesses! What kind of half-wits were these?
‘Did Felicity mention that she wants me to relocate the pavilion further up the garden -’ asked the man called James, ‘- in order to maximise the view?’
Sunday Supplement Man swivelled round to survey the bay, then nodded. ‘She’s absolutely right. Imagine starting the day with that vista spread out in front of you.’
‘She’ll be like stout Cortez.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Stout Cortez. Upon his peak in Darien. It’s Keats, you know.’
Río smiled. Something about the man’s demeanour told her he was bluffing, and that he didn’t have a clue about stout Cortez or Keats.
‘You’ll be able to moor your pleasure craft there,’ observed James, indicating a buoy that bobbed some fifty yards out to sea. ‘That’s where the previous owners used to moor their row boat, according to the agent.’
‘I’ll need a rigid inflatable to take me out. I assume there’ll be space in the garage for a RIB as well as the Cherokee?’
‘Of course. And space for the garden tractor, too. I was mindful of all that when I drew up the dimensions. But while you’re in residence you’ll be able to leave your RIB on the foreshore below the gate.’ James indicated the old five-bar gate that opened onto the foreshore. It was the gate into the old orchard that adjoined the property, the orchard where Río had often picknicked as a child because it was a designated right of way onto to the beach.
‘That’s commonage, yeah?’
‘Strictly speaking, yes.’ James opened his folder, and drew out an A-6 sheet. ‘But if you plant a lawn – see here, where it’s marked on the plan – that stretch of foreshore could easily be incorporated into the garden.’
‘Could be dodgy. People can be very territorial’
James shrugged. ‘Only someone with local knowledge will know it’s an established right of way, Adair. And I don’t imagine many locals go strolling here, away from the beaten track.’
I do! thought Río indignantly. I go strolling here! And not only that, but I go skinny-dipping here, too. And picnicking. And once-upon-a-time I even managed some al fresco lovemaking here. Try planting a lawn on that foreshore, Adair, and I’ll tether Dorcas there and have her crap all over it!
‘I don’t want to make any enemies, James,’ said Adair. ‘It’s going to look bad enough, pulling down the cottage and putting up a structure ten times its size.’
‘I shouldn’t worry too much about that. The cottage would be sure to have a demolition order slapped on it within the next year or so in any case – if you hadn’t had the nous to snap it up first. Derelict buildings are anathema to the boys in Health and Safety.’
‘And anathema to every developer worth the name.’ Spreading an expansive arm that took in the foreshore, the embankment and the cottage that Río knew lay nestled in the tangle of ancient trees beyond, Adair – looking more like Sunday Supplement Man then ever – sighed with contentment and said: ‘This will be our bucolic retreat, far from the maddening crowd. Our very own Withering Heights. There’s a literary reference for you!’
If Río hadn’t felt so pissed off, she might have sniggered.
‘Have you dreamed up a new name?’ James asked, with alacrity. ‘“Coral Cottage” will be a serious misnomer once you’ve increased the square footage.’
‘How about “Coral Castle”?’ suggested Adair, with a laugh.
‘That may be more accurate,’ agreed James. ‘But it’s hardly the most diplomatic of choices, if you want to keep the locals on your side.’
‘You’re right. As I said, I don’t want to make any enemies.’
Río bit down hard on her lip in an effort to stop herself shouting out the retort that sprang instantly to mind. But she was hungry for more insider knowledge and had no wish to alert these city gents to her presence – not just yet, anyway.
‘I’ve done a fair amount of tweaking since we last spoke.’
‘Good man, James!’
‘Allow me to show you the redrafts.’ James spread a sheaf of plans over a flat rock, and both men hunkered down to study the drawings. ‘As I said, I’ve changed the aspect of the yoga pavilion. It’ll mean less privacy, but by angling it a fraction more to the east it will catch the morning sun full on, and…’
And on. And on. And on the architect went. Several more minutes of prime eavesdropping went by, during which time Río learned the following: the house was to have underfloor heating. It was to have a vast feature fireplace in the sitting room, floor-to-ceiling triple glazed windows throughout, and state-of-the art white goods in the catering kitchen. It was to have two family bathrooms, three en-suite bathrooms, a downstairs shower room, and a hot tub on the deck. It was to have an entertainment suite, a games room, and a bar, as well as a home gym and a home spa and a home office so that Adair could keep in touch with his business associates in Dublin and London and New York. It was to have a guest suite with more en-suite bathrooms, where Felicity’s friends could take up residence when they came down from Dublin for house parties. It was to have a swimming pool. A swimming pool, fifty yards from the sea! And of course it was to have a walk-in wardrobe-cum-dressing room in Felicity’s suite, where, Río presumed, the lady of the house could stash her Ralph Lauren country casuals. It was – in James’s words – ‘a home with a kick’.
A home with a kick? Whatever happened to a home with a heart? Or was home in Celtic tiger Ireland no longer where the heart was? Was it more imperative to construct a great big kick-ass des res that announced to the world your great big kick-ass status?
‘Felicity can start compiling her invitation list,’ was Adair’s final observation, as the two men got up to go. ‘She’s planning some serious parties. She’s asked Louis if Boyzone might be available for the house-warming.’
Boyzone! What planet were these people living on? Río rose stiffly to her feet and followed their progress from behind the dark lenses of her sunglasses. Their voices came back to her intermittently on the breeze as they trudged along the sand. They were talking money now. They were talking millions.
‘Adair?’ A woman wearing a butterscotch suede shirt-waister and matching loafers was making her way with difficulty along the overgrown path that flanked Coral Cottage. Her hair was swishy and stripy with highlights, her tan looked airbrushed, and her accent was a grown-up version of Isabella’s. ‘Adair!’ she called again. ‘Where’s Izzy got to?’
‘I thought she was with you?’ said Adair.
‘No, no! I thought she was with you. Where on earth is she?’
‘Maybe she’s exploring.’
‘Well, I hope she’s not. I told her if she set foot on the beach that she was not to go beyond the slipway. Izzy? Isabella!’ The woman’s eyes scanned the shoreline, and then her hands flew to her neck and clasped at the pearls that encircled it. ‘Ohmigod. There are her sandals.’
‘There, on the slipway. See? But where is Isabella?’
The tableau the three of them struck looked so much like something out of a Greek tragedy that Río felt like a deus ex machina as she stepped forward to the edge of the cliff.
‘It’s OK,’ she told them. ‘I know where she is.’ Raising a hand to her mouth and making an ‘O’ with the tips of her thumb and middle finger, she blew robustly. Her second whistle drew a corresponding one from beyond the western headland, and within moments Finn was silhouetted against the skyline.
‘Finn!’ shouted Río. ‘Bring the girl back here. Her mammy wants her.’
Twisting her hair into a knot, Río bent down to scoop up her espadrilles and her backpack, then proceeded down the cliff path towards where the gobsmacked trio of adults was standing. When she drew abreast with them, she slid off her sunglasses and gave them the benefit of her steely, green-grey gaze.
‘Hi,’ she said. ‘Your girl went off to have a look at the donkeys.’
‘Well, goodness!’ said a clearly discomfited Felicity. ‘She really shouldn’t have done that without asking me first! I emphatically told her not to go beyond the slipway.’
Turning, Río smiled at Finn as he approached the slipway. The sure-footed stride, the intelligent face, the lean limbed grace – all these traits reminded her of the Celtic chieftain after whom he was named. And as for the liquorice smeared around his mouth? That only served to emphasise the lopsided beauty of his grin.
Isabella was loping along beside him, gloriously dishevelled. Her blonde curls were tousled, her face was flushed, and her hot-pink pedal-pushers were covered in grass stains. Her mouth, like Finn’s, bore tell-tale traces of liquorice, and her smile was radiant.
‘Mummy!’ she cried, dancing over to where Felicity stood, still clasping her pearls as if they were rosary beads. ‘You should have seen the baby donkey! She was sooooooooo cute! And guess what we’ve called her? Pinkie!’
‘Hello? You called her that,’ said Finn.
Felicity stepped onto the slipway, and looked pointedly at Isabella’s abandoned sandals. ‘Put your shoes back on, Isabella,’ she said. Then she turned to Río. The smile that she stapled onto her face made her look as if she were sucking on a lemon. ‘How do you do?’ she said. ‘I’m Felicity Bolger. This is my husband, Adair, and this is our architect, James McDermot.’
‘I’m Río,’ said Río. ‘And this is my son, Finn.’
Felicity Bolger looked at Finn with ill-concealed distaste, and then she turned back to Isabella.
‘Can we get a donkey, Mummy?’ breezed Isabella, fastening her sandals. ‘We could keep it down here and Finn could look after it for me when we’re in town. Finn says donkey races are great craic. He says he could organise them and we could charge people money to come and watch and take bets on which donkey’s going to win. I had a go on Dorcas, and even though I fell off, Finn says I have quite a good seat and -’
‘Oh, do stop your chattering, Isabella, and concentrate on what you’re doing,’ snapped Felicity. ‘We’re going to be late for this reception.’
Isabella gave her mother a mutinous look. ‘I don’t want to go to a stupid reception,’ she said. ‘I’d rather stay here and ride Dorcas.’
There was an ominous silence. Then James cleared his throat, Adair whistled a bar of some random tune, and Felicity drew in a small, shuddery sigh.
‘All right, then!’ she said in a tremulous voice. ‘Stay here and ride Dorcas, if that’s what you want. I can’t bring you to the reception, anyway, looking the way you do. You can travel back with Daddy in James’s jeep. I’m going on by myself. Give me the keys to the Merc, please, Adair.’
‘Give me the keys.’
Reaching into the pocket of his Barbour, Adair drew out a set of car-keys and handed them over. Then, with a barely audible: ‘Thank-you. Have fun…’ Felicity flicked back her frosted hair and fled without another word.
Another silence fell, and then Adair Bolger said: ‘Go after her, darling.’
‘But, Daddy –’
‘Go on. I’ll join you in an hour.’
‘Please, sweet-cheeks. This reception means a lot to Mummy. It’ll be her first big social event in Coolnamara.’
Isabella gazed after her mother, who was stumbling along the shore, looking wretched and unloved. Then she looked back at Finn, who had resumed his scrutiny of the rock pool.
‘Oh, all right,’ she said. She quickly finished fastening her sandals, then jumped off the slipway. ‘Mummy, Mummy!’ she called. ‘Hang on! I’m coming!’
Felicity paused, drooped, then made a helpless gesture with her hands. ‘But your clothes…’
‘She can change in the hotel,’ replied Adair, quickly. ‘Run, Isabella.’
Isabella ran. Halfway up the beach, she turned, and waved at Finn. ‘Next time I see her, she could be ready for racing!’ she called, before continuing on after her mother. ‘Mummy – wait up! Finn’s going to allow me to ride Pinkie when she’s old enough. Maybe I could get jodhpurs and proper riding boots? And a hard hat.’
‘Don’t be stupid, Isabella. You’re talking about riding a donkey, not a thoroughbred pony.’
‘But it could be fun! Remember that film where…’
Isabella’s voice grew reedier and reedier, and then mother and daughter disappeared along the path that led to Coral Cottage.
‘I think you said your name was Río?’ enquired James, turning to Río with a polite smile. ‘Río… um?’
Río knew the architect was fishing for her surname, but she was damned if she’d volunteer it. ‘It’s short for Ríonach,’ she told him.
‘That’s an unusual name.’
‘In Irish, it means “queenly”.’
‘How fascinating. Well, nice to meet you, Río,’ said James.
‘Likewise,’ said Adair. Now that Río saw him up close, he didn’t look like a male model at all, she realised. There was something about him that was a bit rough around the edges, despite the county gent casuals. His nose was too big, and he could do with some exercise. Río could bet that he played golf, when he should be incinerating calories by playing squash. ‘Do you live locally?’ he asked her politely.
‘Yes,’ said Río. ‘I’ve lived in Lissamore all my life.’
‘In the village? Or – um… ’
‘In the village. But here is my favourite place. It’s so unspoiled. Did you know that it’s a designated area of outstanding natural beauty?’
Adair and James exchanged neutral looks. ‘Is that so?’ said Adair.
‘You mean you weren’t aware of that when you made the decision to bulldoze Coral Cottage and build your Legoland mansion?’ Río gave him a disingenuous smile. ‘That’s a shame. You might want to take things a bit more slowly, Mr Bolger. People in the country don’t like it when things happen too fast.’
‘I’d hardly describe the planning procedure as “fast”,’ said James, with a supercilious smirk. ‘Each application is subject to rigorous examination by the relevant department and –’
‘Don’t patronise me, and don’t push your luck,’ returned Río. ‘You might just about squeeze permission to stable a donkey here. But I’ve never heard of planning permission being granted for a yoga pavilion in Lissamore. And as for mooring a pleasure craft…’ Raising her chin, she gave them a challenging look. ‘Let’s just say you could find yourselves with a fight on your hands. Slán, lads.’
With a toss of her head, Río strode away from them, back in the direction she’d come. The climb up the cliff path was a stiff one, and by the time she got to the top she was breathless with exertion and anger. Looking down, she saw that the beach was deserted now but for Finn, poised above his rock pool. Fishing in her backpack for her phone, she dragged a couple of deep breaths into her lungs before jabbing the keypad. What she was about to do was going to take some nerve. She was going to phone her sister.
Río had read some aphorism somewhere, about sisters being bonded by childhood memories and grown-up dreams. She and her sister Dervla shared plenty of childhood memories, but she hadn’t a clue what Dervla’s grown-up dreams might be. The Kinsella sisters hadn’t spoken in any meaningful way for over a decade, and the reason for this was quite simple. They had learned to loathe one other.
‘Dervla?’ said Río, when the number picked up. ‘Why didn’t you tell me that Coral Cottage was on the market?’
‘Because it never was on the market,’ came the cool response. ‘It was sold privately.’
‘Did you handle the sale?’
‘I may have had something to do with it, yes.’
‘How could you, Dervla? You know it’s always had my name on it.’
‘Oh, Río – give me a break! It never had your name on it. It never will have your name on it. I thought you’d given up on that dream years ago. Oh – excuse me one moment, will you? I have a call coming in.’
‘On-hold’ music jangled down the line, and Río repressed an urge to fling the bogging phone off the cliff. Then she took another deep breath, bit down hard on her bottom lip, and decided instead to use this Greensleeves interlude to count to ten, the way she’d learned to do any time she had dealings with Dervla.
As she counted, she compared herself to stout Cortez in the poem, except she was viewing the Atlantic, not the Pacific, and this view was her birthright. To the west, the bay gleamed lapis lazuli, its islets blazing emerald in the low-slung sun. Below her, a low, fluting call and the glissando of wings announced the arrival of curlews on the foreshore. An early season Cabbage White fluttered past – insubstantial as tissue paper – and a honey-bee buzzed over the bright cotton of her skirt, thinking, perhaps, that Río might be a flower. And then, beyond the headland, came the riotous, discordant guffaw of the donkey.
‘Is that a friend of yours I hear?’
Dervla was back on the line, and because Río had only got as far as seven, her voice shook with rage when she spoke again.
‘You – Dervla Cecilia Kinsella – are a conniving bitch. I will never forgive you for this.’
‘I’m quaking in my Manolo’s, darling. Incidentally, what sartorial statement is your footwear making today? Are you sporting espadrilles? Or Birkenstocks? Or are you wandering lonely as a cloud, barefoot along the beach in Lissamore with sea pinks in your hair and –’
This time, Río did obey the inner voice that had urged her to hurl her phone off the cliff. She followed its trajectory as it sailed through the air, bounced off a boulder and fell with a splash into the sea.
Shit, shit, shit! she thought – that impulse, that fit of pique, that little act of what my sister would describe as lunacy – just cost me the best part of a hundred bogging punts…
Return to the book page by clicking here.