“The realtor said Castle.”
“Well, this must be what they call a castle around here.”
John and Jane surveyed their new home and acknowledged disappointment in their different ways. John said, “Let’s get in, away from the rain.”
“Yes, why has it never stopped?”
They’d come a long way, and purchased Balmore Castle through an online auction, on the other side of the ocean from their old home among golden cornfields. They were accustomed to a lot of flat, open spaces, and the dips and lumps of Ireland confused the eye at every turn. The rain, too — it seemed endless.
The alleged castle stood on the outskirts of a small town near the west coast of Ireland. The place was pretty big, by John and Jane’s standards. There was no population number on the Welcome To sign, but it seemed like a small city. “If it was a city it’d have a cinema,” said their taxi driver with a shrug.
“You mean a movie theater,” corrected Jane, who was a stickler for the proper terms.
“Those moving pictures sure do amaze us,” said the taxi driver.
“Right,” said John. He tipped the guy, out of embarrassment, and the man became galvanised, helping them out with their luggage and saying he’d be around any time to give them a hand with any little jobs. His brother in law, too, was a genius with plumbing, electrics. John could call on them, any time, he repeated, before driving away.
And here they were, at the gate of their new home.
“It said castle,” repeated Jane. She elbowed John, scowling.
Their new property was grey, made of stone, and to inexperienced eyes looked like a bungalow.
Its gate bore a sign: Balmore Castle.
“We’ve been duped,” said John, collapsing into the plastic chair which was the only feature in the castle’s small front yard. “It’s classic. Dumb Foreigners, tricked into buying a castle.” He wanted to laugh, but Jane’s face wouldn’t allow it.
“We’re going to call them up right now,” she said, “and get our money back. John.”
He pulled out his phone. There was no signal, and he remembered that he had not yet bothered to set up Irish data. The journey over had proved too exhausting to contemplate cellphone negotiations. A Boeing 767 is a cramped and limited thing, with just three options: the toilet, your wife or the empty air. “Dead,” he said, not wanting to explain.
Jane marched to the front door, applied their key, and yanked it open. Inside, all was dim and dusky. Jane pointed at the matted carpet. “There’s a telephone right there,” she said.
John lifted the receiver — a beige item direct from 1994 — and found no dial tone. “I’ll do it tomorrow,” he said. “Let’s make ourselves comfortable.”
“All very well for you to say.”
They spent the night sleeping in the twin beds in the big master bedroom. “Plenty of space,” said John. “These twins fit in here just great.” There was three feet of space between them.
“It’s plain peculiar sleeping downstairs,” said Jane from her side. She began to cry with a forced, squeaky noise John knew very well. “I thought we’d be sleeping in a turret.”
She must have not looked closely at the ad, John thought, which even though it showed a grey stone building in a highly favourable light, had never promised turrets. But he had been married to Jane for ten years and so he said nothing.
The castle was their adventure, their marriage saver, their quest together to make up for the fact — never discussed — that things had cooled between them. If they had ever been hot, that warmth was less than a memory, more a wistful dream.
“We’ll move to the Auld Country,” Jane had said, “and start over. We can afford it, land is cheap, we could buy a castle!”
Entering into the spirit of this, John found a castle for sale. Jane loved the idea of it. She leaned over his shoulder while he squinted at the blurry real estate website, and persuaded him that they could do it, could sell their house, could really go and live in a castle. So despite low image quality, John sold their house, and bought Balmore Castle. The idea, he thought, would grow on him, the way his wife — a relentless presence at his shoulder — would eventually grow on him.
Jane was thrilled. She told everybody. She became, truth be told, a little overpowering on the subject of castles.
He rose early next day and walked outside. It was only raining slightly.
In back of the bungalow was an overgrown garden descending in a sharp slope to a little dell. There were some trees. It might be pleasant to walk among Irish trees, he thought. A little — escape.
Twenty hours in transit with your almost estranged wife merits a little escape. He felt a twinge of guilt, but she had made him come here. And she was still asleep.
He trod cautiously down the grassy slope and entered the copse at its foot. Instantly grey morning became dim night. The trees — some thorny, twisty breed — covered the sky utterly and blotted out the Irish morning.
He must stop labelling everything Irish. At home he didn’t wake up and think, what a great American day! But here was so foreign, so different, that it was hard not to look around and think, it’s grass, but it’s Irish grass.
The Irishness was on Jane’s side. John’s family had come from Scotland, but Jane felt Scotland would be cold and Ireland would be full of music and the Fair People, so she had won.
John was prepared to be Irish by marriage. Why not? It was an adventure. Previous adventures had been limited to driving home the long way round, and one vacation to Dominican Republic.
This was bigger than a detour, more permanent than the ten-day headache while Jane made him scour the resort searching for regular food. No amount of tipping blotted out the insult to the locals. That was nearly the end: a beautiful beachside table with a bowl of fragrant sancocho between them, and Jane in a thunderclap threatening to leave.
John had begged her not to, mainly because people were watching. Everyone spoke English.
Under the leaves now, John breathed deep. This was not so bad. The bungalow could be fixed up. Those plastic chairs could go in the trash for starters.
He could make it work. He had years of practice, and could persuade Jane that the Castle was sufficiently Irish and contained all the heritage she sought, and they would stay, and make a fresh start, like they’d promised. “It will be grand,” he said out loud. “Just grand.”
He could persuade her. The question was, did he want to?
Unbalanced by this treacherous thought, he took an unwary step to his right, and fell twenty feet into a thorn-tangled eighteenth-century moat.
From the point of view of the invader, the moat was a terrific thing. It took John an hour to find a point at which he could attempt to climb out. When, drenched and scratched, he finally reached the top, he found himself facing a rubble of grey stone and green ivy. The castle.
He turned around. The bungalow was invisible from here. Perhaps it stood where the lodge or gatehouse might have been. Or perhaps it was entirely coincidental. In any case, it mattered not a jot here, within the walls of the thing itself.
John paced. Each wall was four feet thick. Some were little more than knee-high now, their stone having been looted over the years by locals keen on free building materials. But two sides stood tall, with arrow slits shaped like crosse, and hefty buttresses like the prows of ships, jutting into the undergrowth.
He found a blackened arch on one wall and surmised that this was the kitchen. Treading carefully he uncovered the remains of a little chamber, which with only minimal work could be made into a room once more.
“I’ll need tarpaulin, first, then some timber, put in a suspended floor . . .”
That taxi driver’s brother. He was the one. A couple of weeks and this little cubby hole would be homey enough for anyone. There was room for a chair, table, a little bed. He could run power out here, cable even. It was truly an adventure.
He pulled out his phone and checked the time. Holy smokes. Jane would be furious.
Reluctantly, taking a last few breaths of castle air, he turned back towards the bungalow.
Jane was furious.
“I was exploring,” John said.
“Have you even tried to call the realtor?”
She had a lot to say on this subject.
John stood patiently, wondering if he had the taxi driver’s number.
“I hate it here! I’m going home!” She tossed her head and stamped like thunder.
He suspected Balmore was the kind of place where you could ask anyone in the street about a taxi driver’s handyman brother, and they would know instantly who you meant and how to contact him. He grinned, remembering too late that the thunderclap was his cue to begin damage limitation.
“What’s so funny?”
“. . . Sorry.”
Jane was momentarily speechless.
John contemplated his wife, and the prospect of sharing his adventure with her. “Sorry,” he said again, without explaining what for.
“Typical,” said Jane. “What were you exploring anyway for so long? What’s out back?”
John took a deep breath of Irish air and fresh starts and said, “Nothing.”