RTE Radio’s annual short story competition closes this week. Expanding a piece written last year, this is this year’s entry. This is the only place it will appear!
The cottage’s garden gate opened directly onto a road where a vehicle might legally travel at a hundred kilometres an hour, and some did. Sitting among other buildings on a rise in the ground at a bend in the road, it might be easy to drive the route without ever noticing the cottage was there. If one drove at a speed approaching the limit, there would not have been opportunity to take in details of the small low building set a dozen or so feet back from its roadside gateway. If one drove at a speed approaching the limit, turning to look at the cottage would have been dangerous.
The cottage had about it an air of neglect. It would have been reasonable to have assumed that one of the modern bungalows that had been built nearby had been a replacement for the grey, slate roofed dwelling. It would seem likely that a twenty-first century family would have found the cramped space and basic amenities that the cottage might have offered not adequate for the current times.
The discovery that the cottage was occupied came by chance one summer’s day as he drove northward on the main road from the city. In the gateway stood a woman of an indeterminate age, who waved as if for him to stop. Lowering the nearside window of the car, he leant across to inquire if all was well. “I’m grand”, said the woman, “could I get a lift into the town?” He gathered the items that had accumulated on the passenger seat of a car that rarely carried passengers and threw them onto the back seat. As the woman stepped into the car, the traffic approaching the rising ground and the bend in the road from behind where had stopped was braking hard before moving out to avoid him. It was not a safe place to be parked. “We are causing an obstruction here”, he said, “we had better move”.
The woman looked at him as if he were speaking in a foreign language. He felt compelled to try to explain to her what he had meant. “The gateway there is not really a safe place to stop; there’s no place to pull off the road and the traffic goes quickly”.
The woman seemed unimpressed, seemed to have felt that there had been an infringement of her property rights. “That’s my gate”, she asserted.
As he resumed his journey toward the country town that lay to the north, he asked the woman, “Do you ever take the bus into town?” It seemed a silly question; no bus driver would risk stopping at such a spot.
The woman was dismissive of the idea, anyway. “The bus? The bus never goes at a time when I want to go to town. I stand at the gate until someone stops – as you did.”
No-one could argue with such logic. Anyone who saw someone standing in at the cottage gateway and waving would have assumed that the person was in need of help, would have assumed that some emergency had occurred, and would have stopped.
The woman sat in silence as the journey north continued.
“Do you farm?” he asked her.
“I did, but I have the land let, now. I keep a few acres and a few cattle to have something to do”.
There was another silence. The woman was presumably used to many hours spent in her own company and was at ease with quietness. They approached the speed limit signs.
“Where do you want to go in the town?” he asked.
“Either of the supermarkets will do. Sure let me out just before them; I go into both of them – to see what they have”.
“Will you take the bus back?”
“It depends if the bus suits me”.
Maybe the woman stood at the edge of the town with a hand raised in appeal to passing motorists. It was not a question of saving the fare – for her age would have allowed free travel – more, it seemed, a matter of convenience, if the timetable reflected her inclination.
Perhaps a month passed before he saw the woman again. Seeing her standing at the gate as he approached the bend, he looked into the rearview mirror and, seeing a clear road, slowed to a halt and leant across and opened the passenger door. “Going to town?”
“I am”, she said and stepped into the car. “That was good timing, sometimes I have to wait a while”.
The following Saturday, as he walked down a street in the city centre, he saw the woman. Some shopping requirements must have brought her to the city, instead of taking her to the town where she would have visited both the supermarkets. Had she stood at the roadside opposite her garden gate and waited until someone responded to her waves? Did she go to all the supermarkets in the city to see what each of them might have? What about her journey home? Where might she stand at the edge of the city in order to wave down a passing motorist?
The woman was carrying two shopping bags; her morning must have been busy. Feeling that it was important that he should acknowledge the woman as they passed on the pavement, he asked, “How are you?”
“I’m well”, smiled the woman, and hurried on up the street with her shopping, showing no inclination to stop and pass the time of day.
“Who were you talking to?” asked his companion as they continued their walk to a cafe. It seemed an odd question, what did his companion mean?
“A countrywoman to whom I have given a lift a couple of times.”
No further comment passed between them, even the encounter slipped from the mind until it became a point to ponder.
A year or more must have passed until a bright May afternoon when he was driving northward from the city toward the town. A familiar figure stood at the cottage gate. He braked and drew up where she stood. His car was much more untidy than usual and he gathered a pile of papers and put them on the back seat of the car, among the chaos that would spill onto the floor when he went around a sharp bend.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time”, said the woman, as she opened the passenger door and got into the car.
“No”, he replied, “it must be at least a year. How are things on the farm?”
“Oh they are fine. I have had some unpleasant callers. There was a man trying to sell me a knife for €5. I had to tell him where to go. I won’t tell you what I said”.
It seemed an odd story; perhaps the woman was a little muddled. Why would someone call trying to sell a knife for €5? Even if the knife had cost nothing, there would have been little income in a day spent trying to sell such knives to countrywomen who chased you from their door.
He felt that it was better to stick to safe and familiar stuff; stick to the farming and not ask further about something that had obviously caused the woman a good deal of upset. He looked across the farmland that lay on both sides of the road. The spring was past and there were routine questions that might be asked, without there being any risk of upset or offence.
“How did calving go?”he asked her.
“Oh, I don’t worry about calving, now. I buy stock in and fatten it before selling in the autumn. I bought ten animals a couple of weeks ago”.
He thought about asking from where she had bought the cattle, but she might think it was an intrusive question. Certainly, she would think it intrusive if he asked if the cattle had come at a good price, not that he had any idea what a good price might be.
“What stock do you keep?” he asked.
“Oh, I have four black and white ones, four black ones, and one speckled one.”
Four, four and one didn’t make ten; he refrained from doing the mental arithmetic aloud, lest she thought he was suggesting that she was not truthful. What was more surprising than the arithmetic was a countrywoman who did not know the breed of her cattle. “Are the black ones Aberdeen Angus?”
“Oh, yes, I think so”, said the woman. “I don’t know what the others are”.
He didn’t venture further suggestions of what the breeds might be. Perhaps the white ones were Charolais, perhaps not. The speckled one, who knew? Did farmers really talk about cattle as “speckled”? Perhaps he should go to a mart sometime and find out what words were used. If the woman did not know the breeds of her cattle, how would she know if she was being offered a fair price for them? Even he knew that one breed of animal might command a considerably higher factory price than another. Perhaps the woman was not too worried, perhaps the cattle were just a hobby.
They approached the small town to which he had driven the woman on previous occasions. “Do you want to be dropped off near the supermarkets?”
“Yes, please”, the woman replied.
“Which one is it to be today?”
“Either will do, you could let me out up here on the left”.
The street was wide, the traffic was light, and it was easy to pull up without causing delay.
“Thank you very much,” said the woman and opened the door of the car and stepped out on to the pavement.
Going to one of the supermarkets would have meant the woman just walking along the pavement to the shop doorway further up the street ahead; going to the other supermarket would have meant her crossing the road behind the car. There was no sign of her walking up the street to the supermarket on the left. Looking into the car mirror, there was no sign of her crossing the road to go to the supermarket on the right. Turning around and looking to the left and to the right, there was no sign of her anywhere. She seemed just to have disappeared.
He paused and pondered her absence. “Hmm”, he thought, “that would explain €5 knives and speckled cows”.
Doubting what he had not seen, in the months that followed he watched for her each time he passed the cottage. Once, he thought he saw her crossing the road that passed her gateway, a white bucket in her right hand, a collie dog at her heel, but there were no cattle of any colour in the field, neither nine nor ten. Vendors of €5 knives would find little custom.