It was eight o’clock in the morning and the clown was there again, just beyond the hedge, staring in with that same mournful look on his painted face as he relieved himself on Hennigan’s roses.
Hennigan cursed. Again he pressed the switch. Again nothing happened: the curtains made the same whirring noise under the pelmet but wouldn’t open. He pressed the button to close the curtains. This time he heard a click, the curtains shuddered for a moment but again nothing happened. He swore. He grabbed one of the drapes and pulled. It refused to move. He leaned back and pulled even harder. This time the rail collapsed. It struck him on the head and he watched as runner by runner the curtain rolled off the track into a heap on the floor with only the last part hanging lifeless from his fist.
Hennigan felt his head heat with rage. He flung the curtain aside. ‘Go on! Be off with you! Scat!’
The clown made no move. Hennigan lunged for the door of the French windows. The handle wouldn’t turn. The doors were still in lock mode. He couldn’t remember the code. He brandished his fist again. ‘Jeezus, I’ll throttle you! Do you hear me? I’ll murder you!’
A light rain was falling. Eventually the clown buttoned up his trousers, turned and flapped away across the lawn in his huge flat shoes.
Muttering under his breath and with hands still shaking, Hennigan crossed to the fireplace and flicked through the mail. He selecting the letters from the bank and the one with the harp on the envelope, which he knew were from the taxman. He opened the door of the cast-iron stove and chucked them onto the embers and watched them burn. Then he closed the stove door and took the rest to the kitchen, placing them on the marble counter top in front of his wife.
Miriam, was seated at the table with her bowl of cereal before her, fondling her glass of goji berry juice and flicking through one her glossy magazines, which, to Hennigan, all seemed to contain the same sun-tanned chefs with big jowls, eulogising some ornamental concoction on a plate and the same skinny women glowering at you as if you were sitting on their chihuaha.
Hennigan carefully avoided glancing in the direction of Natasha, who was busy at the hob preparing the coffee. He still sensed that his wife knew something - just by the way that he hadn’t looked at the au pair girl. Ever since he’d transferred everything into Miriam’s name he had begun to feel that her radar had him under constant surveillance.
He took his seat as Natasha placed the coffee pot on the table and returned to the hob. The girl looked flustered. Miriam took a sip of her juice. ‘Eh, Natasha, would you ever be so good as to give Sebastian a call. He’s going to be late for school.’
Natasha was flipping bacon on the pan. ‘I hef geeve heem already a call. Fife meeneets. He won’t geth up.’
‘Well, would you ever mind giving him another call, please?’
The girl snapped the spatula down on the worktop and strode out of the room. Hennigan could hear her calling up the stairs just as his son entered from the living room, hair tussled, his school shirt sticking out the bottom of his pullover, and sleep still in this eyes. The boy flopped down at the table and scowled at the bowl of cereal in front of him. ‘I don’t like muesli.’
Miriam turned to a new page. ‘Sebastian. You know it’s good for you.’
Natasha was still calling but from upstairs now.
The boy continued to glare at the bowl. ‘I don’t like the nut things.’
Miriam ignored this. ‘Sebastian, have you written your entry for the poetry competition? Today’s the last day, you know. You’re the only child in the whole district who hasn’t sent one in.’
The boy pushed the bowl away. ‘I don’t know what to write.’
Natasha hurried back into the room. ‘He won’t get…’ She noticed the boy. ‘Oh.’ The bacon was beginning to burn. She muttered something in Russian and pulled the pan off the hob.
Miriam turned to a new page. ‘Jack, surely you could help him.’
Hennigan stared at his wife in disbelief. ‘What? Help him? Sure, what do I know about poetry?’
Miriam took another sip of her juice. ‘Well, you could always encourage him.’
Hennigan decided to say nothing. It was too early for a row. He took a cigarette from the pack, tapped it on the worktop and put it between his lips. He was reaching for the lighter as Natasha placed his bacon and eggs on the table with more of a clatter than was strictly necessary at that hour of the morning.
Miriam turned to another page. ‘Jack,’ she said, ‘if you wouldn’t mind. Remember our agreement?’
Wearily, he got to his feet to leave but his wife wasn’t finished. ‘By the way, Frank was calling you all day yesterday. Why didn’t you get back to him? What were you doing?’ She was staring at him now. He kept his eyes from flickering in Natasha’s direction. Miriam and the boy would be gone in a minute and he would have a chance to talk to the girl but for the moment his wife had him in the full glare of her suspicion. Her eyes narrowed. ‘He said it’s urgent. Is everything all right?’
Hennigan cleared his throat. ‘Yeah. Of course. Eh, I’ll give him a ring.’ He took his phone from the table and left the kitchen by the door into the hall, crossed the marble floor and opened the front door.
Outside the air was cool. He stood in the shelter of the portico and lit the cigarette. Between the fluted columns he could see the fields and beyond them the black slate rooftops of Barrabridge and the two church towers.
Frank answered after only three rings. ‘Jesus, Jack, where have you been? I was trying to hunt you down all yesterday. I have an investor!’
‘Jesus. Who is it? An arab?’
‘No. English. Anglo-Irish, whatever. Landed gentry. Rotten with the stuff.’
‘Christ! How much?’
‘Two and a half. He liked the figures.’
‘Bloody Hell! When?’
‘Straight away. We can chuck something to the others, pay a few bills and keep the Revenue at bay for a little longer. You heard about Charlie?’
‘They’re taking everything. Rockfield, the boat, the firm, the works.’
‘Surely to God they can’t take his house?’
‘It’s not his house. It’s the bank’s.’
‘They just stormed in. No warning. Went through the whole place. Made a record of every last thing. They even took the kids computer! And, Jack, they knew about the Jersey accounts.’
Hennigan coughed. ‘What? How the feck do they know about them?’
‘You tell me! Anyway, our friend wants to meet. The honourable Charles de Lacy. He’s a baronet or something.’
‘You know, aristocracy. That kind of thing. Consultant in fine art. He’s coming down today. Wants to have a look at Clenane House.’
‘What? Sure it’s a wreck!’
‘I’m just telling you what the man said.’
‘But I can’t knock it. There’s the bloody preservation order on the damn thing.’ Hennigan rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. ‘Unless I get Mongan and the boys to do a night job with the digger.’
‘Look, I’m up to my eyes. I’ll talk to you later. Oh, and, by the way, he was asking about accommodation. I put him onto the Fitzholbert Arms.’
‘Jesus, the rats will eat him. Tell him I’ll put him up here. He can have one of the guest rooms.’
‘Very good. Talk to you soon.’
Hennigan took a long pull from his cigarette. The hills had reappeared. It was looking a bit brighter in the East. The sun was about to break through the grey blanket of cloud but a movement to his left caught his eye. A camel was standing on the lawn, chewing. It ambled out onto the drive and, before he could shout, it raised its tail and off-loaded a cascade of glistening brown dung balls which plopped one by one onto the gravel. When it had finished it strolled across to the other side and began to nibble the privet hedge.
Jack flung his cigarette into the rose bed and stormed back into the house. ‘That bloody circus has got to go!’
Miriam was wearing her beige coat with the dark fur collar and cuffs. She was fussing at her face in front of one of the hall mirrors. ‘Well, Jack, it was you who insisted on buying it.’
‘Sure, it was going for half nothing!’
‘I know that, Jack, but what’s the good if he never even watches them!’
Sebastian was stuffing a book into his schoolbag. ‘I did watch them!’
'Once,' muttered Miriam.
'Once was enough,' growled the boy.
Miriam was dabbing at her nose. ‘Jack, didn’t I tell you at the time that a plasma TV would have been a much better present. He needs one for his room.’
Sebastian closed his school bag. ‘The juggler broke all the plates. That circus is crap!’
Hennigan rounded on the boy. ‘Don’t you be using that kind of language in this house!’
‘And Jack,’ said Miriam, her reflection eyeing him from the mirror, ‘if you’re talking to Natasha,’ she hesitated at this point to finish putting lipstick on her upper lip, ‘remind her to prepare the front guest room, will you?’
‘Front..? Why? Who’s coming?’
Miriam drew the lipstick along her lower lip and pressed her lips together. ‘Augustine Higgins.’
She leaned one hand on the hall table, placed the other on her hip and gazed at her husband in the manner of a dermatologist examining a particularly interesting scab. ‘The poet, Jack. The Nobel Laureate. You do remember the Hennigan Homes Poetry Prize, don’t you? The poetry competition that Hennigan Homes are sponsoring! Or have you forgotten that as well! The award ceremony is tonight! I repeat. Tonight! How many times do I have to remind you!’
With a sick feeling in his stomach Hennigan foresaw himself trapped in a suit for the evening and stuffed shoulder to shoulder into the function room of the Fitzholbert Arms with every art-farting windbag in the district prattling like a flock of turkeys at feeding time and swilling booze that he was paying for. ‘Yeah, right,’ he muttered.
Miriam pronounced her words carefully. ‘And Augustine Higgins is staying here – in the front guest room. So Natasha needs to prepare the room. Okay?’ Miriam had gathered her handbag and was heading for the door. ‘Oh, and by the way, the Poetry Committee are wondering about the cheque for the prize money. You’ll bring it along this evening, I presume?’
Hennigan grunted assent as his wife stepped outside followed by his son. Then he remembered the investor. He hurried after her. ‘But, hold on, why does he have to stay here? Why can’t he stay in the Fitzholbert?’
Miriam didn’t even look round. ‘Jack, he’s our guest of honour. He is presenting the prize. We want him to survive the visit!’