Come. Now that you’ve entered. Let me tell you the strange tale of a boy, a map and an empty house on a hill.
It all began many years ago, one cold November afternoon, as the winter light faded and darkness began to gently envelope the coastal district of Comaragawn, which, up till then, had been quietly minding its own business on Ireland’s rocky Western shore. At first the sea did no more than jostle the fishing boats huddled in the little harbour; the wind did no more than shiver the pools of rainwater on the stone surface of the pier; the rain did no more than splatter a leaf here and there and add its dots to the pavement. However, within minutes, like a monster pouncing on its prey, a murderous storm rose from the darkening Atlantic and unleashed the full force of its rage on all who were able to flee its path. Nothing was pared, whether it be man, beast, rock, tree, car, house or telegraph pole. No one could remember a tempest like it. Within minutes the wail of the wind had become a scream. Umbrellas were quickly blown inside out. People, clutching their hats, hurried for the shelter of their homes. There they crouched in the firelight, wondering how long their rooves would remain above them; some even muttering prayers, which grew in fervour as, first, the lights failed and then the phones went dead. Outside, shrimp pots, one by one, fled their stacks on the pier, dustbins rattled down garden paths, slates cart-wheeled across rain-lashed roads, while on nearby farms, corrugated roofing rattled and clapped like the Devil himself was delighting in the damnation of it all.
Two miles up the coast in George and Mary Noone’s back garden the tall pine was catching the full force of the blasts. Time and again it bowed under the violent onslaught of the wind; but, in the end, it could take no more. A loud crack marked the final moment of surrender. It was then that the roots parted from their farthest fingers and, with a heave, lifted the surrounding soil like a trapdoor into the earth. A crackle of breaking branches followed as the old tree collapsed with a sigh onto the nearby bushes, where it was to remain for many years, pointing like a long boney finger at the hill beyond.
Jerry Noone rose that night without waking his wife and baby son. Silently, he drew a leather satchel from beneath the bed. He then dressed, and tiptoed down his brother’s stairs, avoiding the creaking step that he knew so well from childhood. Once he had reached the bottom he felt his way along the hall to the backdoor. There he took his raincoat from the hook, and, without a sound, slipped out into the dark – never to be seen again.
Eddie Noone was eleven years, three months, two weeks, five days, seven hours, thirty-four minutes and seventeen seconds old when he realised that he was about to be killed by his mad mother.
Hedges were whizzing by on either side of the old Volkswagen beetle as it hurtled over yet another hump on the road: each time turning Eddie’s stomach inside-out for the umpteenth time that day. ‘Mum! Please!’
Rosemary Noone’s ringed fingers tightened their grip on the steering wheel. ‘Eddie, we’ve been through this a thousand times! You agreed!’
Sunlight dazzled his eyes as the car raced through a tunnel of trees.
She glanced down at him. ‘Eddie, this is the only chance I’m going to get!’
‘You’re supposed to keep your eyes on the road!’
‘I know how to drive!’
‘Bet that farmer didn’t think so!’
‘You didn’t even see him!’
‘Eddie, I’ve seen lots of farmers in the course of my life. Which particular one are you talking about!’
‘The one that had to jump into the ditch to get out of the way! He nearly swallowed his pipe!’
‘My flight is at five, Eddie. We’ve very little time.’
‘Why don’t you wait till I’m grown up!’
‘Grown up! What will we do for money in the meantime! How will I send you to college!’
‘Get a better job!’
‘Eddie, there aren’t that many jobs for a single mother! There are hardly any at all, in fact!’
Eddie stared ahead as the car burst out into the open country again. He knew this argument off by heart. She needed to go to London for three months to complete a course in some healing thing with a Japanese name. As far as Eddie could make out, it involved curing people of ailments by putting them, half-naked, on the kitchen table and wrestling with them until they gave up and paid the money. But what about him? How was he supposed to eat his dinner? How was he supposed to do his homework? How was he supposed to pass study for exams with his mother torturing her victims? It was hard enough trying to concentrate at teatime with all the noise she made, clattering pots and pans like some one-woman band gone bonkers.
In a flash the hedges on the right of the road were whipped away as if by a magician and there, before his eyes was the glittering expanse of the ocean. Then, just as quickly, the fields shrank to nothing and now the sea was threatening the very road itself. Jagged brown rocks rushed past, spilling foam back into the unruly waves and before Eddie knew what was happening, the car had jolted to the left, skidded on loose gravel and stopped.
His heart sank as his mother switched off the engine. They had arrived – arrived at Comaragawn, his father’s family home - a place whose name had always filled his mind with images of doom.
Strangely, the sun was still shining cheerfully and the air was unusually free of the stink of hellish vapours as he stepped out of he car. No evil eyes peered from the hedges. No snakes slithered in the roadside grass. No devils lurked in the shadows of the tall fir trees. Instead the air smelled of seaweed and pine needles, though he was sure the trees were already whispering of trouble ahead as he hauled his bulging rucksack from the back seat. The five grim houses facing the ocean had shrunk since his last visit but with their grey walls and dark roofs they still seemed to peer down on him with a look of disapproval in their lace-curtained windows.
He closed the car door as a crow fluttered from one of the crooked chimney pots. He watched it fly off over the fields, leaving its jagged warning drifting on the breeze. Mum was already on the doorstep of the second house exchanging hugs and kisses with Uncle George and Aunt Mary. Eddie pushed through the little metal gate whose bars had grown fat on years of black paint. He trudged up the concrete path and caught sight of himself reflected in one of the narrow front windows and felt like a fool. The barber had plastered his fair hair to his scalp with some kind of oily stuff that smelled like perfume and Mum had forced him to wear a jacket and a pair of shiney new shoes that a TV leprechaun would be ashamed to dance in.
At the door he endured the inevitable handshakes and then stood as they marvelled at how he’d grown – they never said how much he looked like his Dad. No one ever did.
Tears glistened in Mum’s eyes. ‘Now, Eddie, promise me you’ll be good.’
He hung his head with embarrassment and gritted his teeth. ‘Mum, I already did. About ten times!’
‘Eddie,’ she warned, before he could say anymore. ‘I’m depending on you. Don’t let me down.’ She bent and kissed him good-bye and suddenly the tears welled up in his own eyes. He wanted to throw his arms round that waist and hold on forever – but they wouldn’t have reached – and anyway it was too late - she was heading for the car. Only the scent of her face powder remained as he stood wondering why she was the one dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. After all, she was off to enjoy life in London. He was the one who was going to have to share a house with a couple of lunatics who’d lived all their married lives without the joy of children of their own to persecute. They didn’t even have a TV!
Sudden fright took hold. He raced down the path after her. ‘Mum! The telescope!’
George helped ease it from the boot of the car but Eddie carried it into the house as the throb of the Volkswagen engine faded into the distance. In the dark hallway he stood beside the small table bearing the telephone and some papers. The air was heavy with the familiar smell of floor polish and the walls were still hung with the same gloomy paintings that he remembered from the past; some featuring ancient country folk with wooden rakes and others depicting cows standing knee-deep in muddy streams, looking depressed. Eddie knew how they felt.
The hall grew even darker when George closed the front door. He rubbed his boney hands. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you’re a bit of an astronomer!’
Eddie didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t a bit of an astronomer. He liked looking at the stars, that was all. He was still trying to think of a reply when his aunt called him. He trudged up the stairs after her, passing a succession of sullen-faced relatives staring from picture after picture on the wall. George followed. ‘We’ve lots of stars in the sky here in Comaragawn!’
Mary opened the door to a small bedroom overlooking the front garden. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, George. There are the same number of stars everywhere!’
George hesitated on the top step. ‘Not in the city, dear.’
She was straightening the eiderdown on a narrow bed. ‘Nonsense!' she said. 'Why should there be fewer stars in the city!’
‘Eh, because of the lights, dear.’
‘Lights! Really, George,’ she said, fluffing up a pillow. ‘Sometimes you spout the most appalling nonsense. How could lights possibly help you see the stars! They’re much too far away!’
‘Eh, you don’t understand, dear. They don’t. They stop you.’
‘Exactly!’ Mary strode across the room and raised the window sash. ‘So stop trying to confuse the boy!’
The room smelled of old blankets and dust despite the sea breeze now toying with the patterned curtains. When the quarrel had moved downstairs Eddie sank onto the bed and the springs scrunched under his weight, the whole thing sagging in the middle as if it really wanted to be a hammock but wasn’t allowed. He stared out the window at the ocean.
It didn’t look like a murderer. In fact the sea looked quite innocent: just a vast expanse of blue, glittering in the sunlight. But he wondered would the bones be bleached white by now, picked clean by the creatures of the seafloor. Would they be visible in the faint watery light filtering down from that ever-restless ceiling above? Did they toss and turn in the swaying of the tides, day after day, year after year as if unable to sleep - trapped in some endless seafloor dance with the crabs? Or had eleven years of grey winter storms scattered them? Were they now buried deep in the silence of the silt? Did they lie in a hundred different graves with only the cold kiss of a worm for occasional company while somewhere, half-buried up to the empty eye-sockets, staring in disbelief…
He stood up. His heart was thumping. He should never have agreed to come to this place. Nothing but misery lay ahead. It was all a mistake. And, worst of all, tomorrow he would face the most horrible ordeal that adults can inflict on a child: he would be forced to go alone and endure his first day in a new school: the local school, where, he, the frightened outsider, would be the butt of every joke, sniggered at by every fool, and at the mercy of all the thugs and sadists as soon as the teacher's back was turned.