James Madigan got out of the car and looked around. To his right he could see the imprints left where children had frolicked and carved out snow angels. The hollows left behind were starting to fill with fresh snow that whispered and capered as it descended upon the silent, frozen and calm earth. The flakes fell everywhere on the glittering pine trees, the roof of ice that sheltered an adjoining lake and in silent drifts on all the bare places. The snow crystals maintained their subtle dance wafting sideways on the gentle stream of the breeze until a white mantle would conceal and hide everything and nothing. Until the landscape had vanished into an expansive and quiet snowbound domain where the Winter powered over all.
He was on the outskirts of the village of Danesfort which stood amidst a forest that sheltered it from behind and at its approach was a flowing brook that slipped slowly under a narrow stone bridge.
A church positioned reverently at its heart. Adjacent to it the home of the Priest. Across from the graveyard carcasses of cars were scattered around the black and oil-soaked earth of an abandoned garage. Next to it a weed covered wasteland that engulfed two decaying homes.
Across the road the first of two Pubs, Thomas Casey, publican and undertaker proudly inscribed on the filthy overhead sign. Further up the street a grey National School building, a row of four houses and the second watering hole, Darcy’s Lounge and Bar. Six silver beer barrels were lined up outside with two teenagers perched upon them dreaming of better days.
Outside a small grocery shop wilting cabbage heads piled over the side of damp cardboard boxes which balanced on yellow Calor gas bottles. The shop keeper stood at his door inspecting the street, looking at his watch, contemplating closing.
A drunk crossed the main thoroughfare at a tangent. His head going forward, but his legs had different plans. He cursed to himself with a pointing finger trying to lecture his wayward legs to behave as he navigated the way home. A car stopped in the middle of the road and its young occupants mocked and jeered the staggering man.
A child played on a battered black bike that had no brakes, he crashed into a wall to bring it to a stop. He looked around red faced and embarrassed to see if anybody was watching. On a footpath outside a post office a black dog tore and bit at his fleas in the low Winter evening Sun, but a light snow shower was teasing, falling upon the dead brown leaves that congested the gutter. A faint breeze blew through the whining alder trees. Their sound seemed to hiss and sigh in the dying hours of twilight.
But there’s always a dark side to these places, dark windows with dirty grey net curtains stained with the dark red excrement of the house fly. Already Madigan could observe the nets moving and masked faces peering through them as they pondered who he was. He knew before he even opened his car door and put his foot upon the tarred surface of the road that he was the topic of conversation across narrow kitchen tables. The shutters were already going up and it would be hard for him to drag them down.
A five-minute walk delivered Madigan to the end of the village to the place where he lived forty years before.
The cottage was in a desperate state and it appeared to be drowning in a delicate curtain as the falling snow encircled the old building, as if it was an ethereal being eerily dancing around it. Its bedraggled time eaten gables and eroded chimney stacks pierced the ashen evening sky. The crumbling lodge stood as a dark and foreboding monument in the stark and barren setting of the surrounding rush infested marsh land that swept out towards the grey Atlantic Ocean. The bitter and unforgiving location endured the full lash of the harsh rain dowsed maritime winds.
Madigan buttoned up his coat and pulled a black hat tight over his head. He stood and stared at the cottage and surveyed the devastation before him. The house had been forgotten and plundered by time. An old rotten wooden door on which flecks of red paint clung to in spots was hanging on its hinges. At some stage in the past it had been roughly repaired with a section of a galvanised iron sheet nailed to the bottom of it. The roof was sinking in and a young ash tree was taking hold on the ivy-covered chimney. Part of the kitchen window frame had fallen onto the yard outside and was left lying there to rot. A red curtain waved out through the broken window frame and scratched against the low grey sky. As it flapped it appeared like macabre hands and fingers, beckoning to him, calling him in.
He nervously accepted the ghostly invitation and walked towards the window, peering inside into the darkness. Through the broken window he could see the dejected and desolate interior. It drew him in as he pulled himself up on to the window sill, arching his body to get inside without cutting himself on the small jagged shards of glass that protruded menacingly on one side of the frame.
The interior was a tragic reminder of the past. A large black gaping void now existed where once a warming stove had stood. The floor was covered in papers and loose plaster that had fallen from the walls. Fag butts and empty beer cans were strewn around, the remains perhaps of an adolescent party. Traces of dried dung revealed that it had also acted as a shelter to animals. A couch was deconstructing in the middle of the floor, torn apart by vermin and scattered by the elements. A table sat next to the far wall, its form slowly devoured by woodworm. On the table a calendar rested. A once pretty scene of a boat on a lake on the top of the calendar was now ugly and brown. Madigan could make out the year, Christ, had nobody lived here since then.
Outside the falling snow had turned to heavy rain which was now relentless. Rain hammered viciously on the leaking roof, like a priest beating at a pulpit, as water gushed from the clogged up and collapsed gutters and flooded down the walls and over the broken windows.
The rain was carried by a brawny wind. The garden trees, trying desperately to hold on to their few remaining dead leaves, danced in the gusts like demented geriatrics, and the unlocked wooden gate at the end of the lawn flew forward and back as it hit off the fence post. Fishing boats were riding the rough stormy waves in the distance as dense dark grey clouds sailed in from the Atlantic.
The ceiling above his head was partly hanging down and looked like it would collapse soon and bury the kitchen. Only a large old wooden dresser was holding it up. Madigan walked towards it and pulled opened the two stiff drawers. The first one contained a few pieces of rusted cutlery, the second a small photo album. He quickly flicked through it. All of the photos had been removed apart from one. He stared at the faded yellow image. It was of a boy of about four or maybe five sitting on a red bicycle. Behind him a tall and lean woman in her early thirties with a white apron decorated with flowers was crouching down and holding the saddle of the bike, supporting the boy as he prepared and primed himself to move off independently. Her hair was long and dark, and her mouth was smiling. The boy looked anxious, unsure if he was equipped or ready to let go. Afraid that he would fall but he knew that she would be right behind him to pick him up. It was his mother in the photo and the boy on the bicycle was him.
Madigan placed it in his inside coat pocket as he looked around the interior of the decaying dwelling one final time, He went out as he had come in through the crumbling window frame. As he closed the garden gate behind him and the rain danced upon the road he watched the red curtain wave towards him again and he thought of the red bicycle and his mother’s hands guiding him.