Authors: John Kinsella
LLISTER FELT A STIR OF EXCITEMENT
as he caught his first glimpse of the lighthouse and urged the Ford Sierra towards Black Head.
The road would soon swing gently to the south-west and, to his right, the confines of Galway Bay would open into a vast ocean stage reaching far beyond the footlights of the Aran Islands.
He took a slow satisfying breath, exhaled deeply and was completely at one with life - a feeling he often experienced on this Atlantic Burren coast, this strange landscape where grey limestone mountains and moody ocean merged together into a brooding, elemental, cocktail of Nature.
The trip from Dublin had been without incident. McAllister had, for the first time, enjoyed the Athlone by-pass. “Thank Heaven for European funding,” he had smiled to himself.
Taking his favourite shortcut from Craughwell he had sped through Kinvara and nodded approval as he passed his favourite restaurants in Ballyvaughan. Now in the early August evening he was approaching his destination in Derreen.
“I wonder how Frank and Susan are settling in”, he mused idly. “Lucky so-and-so’s. I could do something dramatic too with £180,000. No question about it. Bring the wedding forward, perhaps. Yes I could surprise Ann. Sweep her off to New York by Concorde and get married in the Big Apple. Or Paris… no… I’ve got it. Rome! Yes, that’s it. She’s always been longing to go to Rome. We could get married in St. Peter’s , honeymoon in Capri , or sail down the coast… Ischia..Sorrento… Amalfi…….Wine….pastas…giant prawns…tortellini…. Ah well, …… maybe, … some day………. “
When hunger began to sneak up on him McAllister’s nobler thoughts inevitably turned to food fantasies and with this spur he once again concentrated his attention on propelling the Sierra towards Derreen.
But not for long.
Two things happened in quick succession.
He was momentarily distracted by a movement out to sea and turned briefly to admire a school of dolphins leaping in the glistening water. Then his body stiffened as he realised a car was hurtling towards him at high speed around a bend on his side of the road!
McAllister’s limbs went rigid as he slammed down the clutch and brake together and gripped the steering wheel with fingers and arms of steel.
His face contorted in horror as he waited for the collision but a combination of his quick braking and a lurch across the road by the other car averted disaster. There was a brief glancing clash of metal on metal as the cars skimmed past each other and then an awful grinding as the Renault used the seaward stone wall as a long sustained brake.
“Thank God ,thank God…” McAllister jabbered to himself as his body slumped across the wheel in momentary collapse.
The Renault had stopped quite some distance behind him and he noticed in his wing mirror that it was jammed side on against the loose stone wall with it’s boot lid fully raised. There was a deadly silence.
McAllister leaned back in his seat and let his arms dangle at his sides for a moment. Then gently easing his trembling body from the car he looked back towards the Renault.
A young woman had emerged but instead of acknowledging McAllister she made a priority of slamming the boot lid while her male companion attempted to restart the car.
“Hey, are you alright?” shouted McAllister as he stiffly made towards them, noticing now that the car showed a French registration.
The woman signalled to him with a wave of her arms as if to dismiss him and quickly got back into the passenger seat. The driver was still frantically turning the ignition key when McAllister reached them.
The woman made no attempt to lower the window and he found himself shouting at them about exchanging insurance information and reporting the accident.
Suddenly the engine burst into life, the woman lowered the window briefly and said in a marked French accent “It’s O.K.
O.K. We’re O.K.” , and with that the badly damaged Renault detached itself from the wall and sped rapidly out of view. McAllister remained motionless until the sound of the engine died away.
He slumped onto the wall and stared fixedly out to sea as his nerve ends came off the boil. The dolphins were speeding merrily on their way and he gave them a wry look.
“Those damned idiots,” he thought. “Why didn’t they stop? Very peculiar….very peculiar indeed. I’ll make a report to the Gardaí first chance I get. I never thought of getting their registration number, of course. However, it’ll be easy enough to spot them with one side of the car relieved of it’s paintwork.
Must have been frightened out of their wits to take off like that, but it really was a most puzzling reaction.”
Thanking his lucky stars for very minor damage to his beloved Sierra McAllister set off on the last few miles of his journey.
Derreen was as beautiful as ever. He pulled in gratefully on the tarmac outside the “Atlantic” Guest House and Restaurant and admired the new building.
It was in two parts. A sleek restaurant with a sharply sloping roof to the rear, simple and handsome with an integrated one storey guest house to the side. The large elliptical windows of the restaurant looked eagerly out to sea and the whole structure was painted pure white, giving a fresh and inviting appearance.
Frank Holland approached from the rear of the accommodation building, smiling broadly with his arms extended in an expansive gesture of welcome. McAllister noted he looked younger than when they had last met, certainly younger than his forty four years. Tall, still quite athletic, handsome as ever, his shock of black, gently waving hair showing just a tinge of grey. His famous smile enhanced now by a deeply bronzed complexion.
McAllister stepped from the car and they shook hands warmly.
“Well, well, if it isn’t John McAllister, all the way from Dublin to see his old friend in retirement,” joked Holland.
“If this is retirement tell me all about it. I’ve never seen you looking so relaxed and so……” McAllister searched for a suitable word. “So…healthy,” he blurted out eventually, “And as for the new residence I am very very impressed”.
“Thanks John. Susan and I put an enormous amount of work into it and it has absorbed my entire Lotto windfall, but we’re both very happy with the situation. Even though we don’t have a penny to spare we don’t owe a penny either and we’re only hoping the business will be successful.”
“I suppose you’ve had to abandon your photography as the price for all this,” assumed McAllister.
“Just for the moment, John,” said Holland. “I still have some long term contracts in hand and hope to be able to resume limited travel when the business establishes itself. It’s all up in the air at the moment, but I have options. In the meantime I find this area here very stimulating for experimental camera work and wander all over the place when I have time to spare. But come on and get settled in. Susan will be here shortly. She had some business in Ennis.”
“Incidentally,” he added, looking at his friend with some concern, “I hope you don’t mind me mentioning that you look a bit out of sorts. Have you been overdoing things, or was the journey tiring?”
“Well you could say the journey was not without incident, but it was perfectly fine until I rounded Black Head. Then things changed somewhat. But I’ll fill you in on that later if I may.”
McAllister unpacked, showered gratefully and had just joined Holland for coffee when Susan arrived.
Small, vivacious, English, nine years younger than her husband of six months, her blonde hair and peaches and cream complexion contrasted strikingly with Frank’s darker tones.
She greeted McAllister warmly and having arranged that they would dine together she left to have some last minute consultations with the chef and other staff before the evening’s business began.
McAllister felt completely relaxed in the beautiful surroundings, the familiar company of good friends and the prospect of dining on some of the finest seafood in the world.
He had no inkling of what was in store for them. It was, perhaps, better that way.
HAT MEAL WILL GO DOWN
in my memory as one of the great experiences of my life”, smiled McAllister as he eased back his chair and surveyed the busy dining room. The diners were mostly couples and foursomes with one larger party of American tourists. A sense of quiet enjoyment prevailed, aided by a very efficient service, and it was obvious that Holland’s restaurant had already established a reputation in it’s first season.
“Thank you, John,” smiled Susan leaning over and putting an arm on his shoulder,” and what am I to say to that with two tall strong hulks for company ,one dark and one fair. I must say you make a pretty picture together. Surely this must be one of the great experiences of my life.”
She winked at Holland.
They had dined on a fish chowder which extended McAllister’s epicurean horizons and a regal cold salmon with remoulade sauce accompanied by a crisp and refreshing green salad. A chilled Muscadet had wrapped it all into a heavenly concoction. Desserts were out of the question.
During the meal they had talked eagerly about their busy lives, especially as they had not met for some time. Frank Holland ,a professional freelance photographer, had met Susan in London the previous year. Then just before Christmas he had won £180,000 in the Lotto draw - his share of a large win by the syndicate of which he was a member. On impulse Frank and Susan had decided to marry and, pursuing one of his lifetime’s ambitions, had opened this guest house and restaurant on the Atlantic coast.
McAllister noted that they seemed very happy together and that Holland had apparently lost all traces of the surliness which had sometimes marred an otherwise amiable personality.
Susan enquired about Ann and their plans to marry the following year, and about their careers.
McAllister, being a taxonomist, had come to the Burren to do some fieldwork and research. He was also due to commence a lecture series at Gregans Castle Hotel, in the interior of the Burren, on the following Sunday evening and to lead field trips to study the extraordinary plant life of the area.