Why did the weird old woman keep lobbing furtive looks her way? Gemma assumed that the elfin crone must be some sort of security guard. If not, she was clearly one noodle short of a casserole.
Though tempted to inform the old snoop that she wouldn’t dream of filching the All For A Euro store’s bargain-basement merchandise, Gemma hefted the shopping basket looped around her wrist and continued exploring the kitchen goods section. A week ago, she’d arrived in Westport, a small town in Ireland’s County Mayo, to find her “fully equipped” rental home stocked with little more than the basics. Since then, she’d bought a peeler, a whisk, and a garlic press. Bargain-basement items indeed. They’d be fine for the summer, but if she’d known, she’d have brought along a few of her own things.
Like her butter dish. A rainbow of square plastic butter tubs made for blocks of Irish butter sat on the shelf before her. She envisioned her trusty glass butter dish back home in the States. In turn, the butter dish conjured up Larry.
Take it back and get plastic…
Annoyed by his phantom intrusion, she ground her shoe on the concrete floor as if she were squashing a bug, a trick she’d learned in counseling. In the three years since Larry’s death, she’d gotten better at keeping him locked away. Sometimes, however, her writer’s imagination let him escape, a trick of her own to help her cope with the void his sudden departure had left in her life. And the guilt. Yes, things were better without her difficult husband. Still…
“Be a love and reach me that brown teapot.”
Startled, Gemma spun and blinked at the elderly Mata Hari. Did she really want the teapot? Maybe. “Here you go.” She placed the pot in the woman’s claw-like hands and decided she was no security guard. More likely, she was a local inspecting the new kid in town.
Beady eyes squinting, the woman turned the teapot upside down and read the price tag on the bottom. “Four euro. The feckin’ robbers! Here, put it back, then.” She thrust the thing at Gemma and sidled down the narrow aisle toward the garden section.
Definitely checking. Such busybodies were bound to inhabit a small town like Westport. Perhaps Gemma should have introduced herself, invited the strange little woman to tea. At the very least, she’d make a good character study. Gemma doubted they’d be great friends, but it wouldn’t hurt to be neighborly.
She replaced the teapot and glanced at her wristwatch. Noon. The cleaners should be done by now. They’d better be. Her laptop called, and the remains of last night’s fish chowder promised a tasty lunch.
Eeny meeny, she picked a blue butter tub from the shelf, amused by the way its squat little cover reminded her of Grandpa Keenan’s bowler hat. Picturing the table set for supper—set for one, but hey, she’d only just arrived—she added the tub to the plastic measuring cups and rubber spatulas already in her shopping basket.
She could afford better than plastic and rubber. Larry’s death benefit, her inheritance of their combined stock portfolio, and the sale of their oversized house had left her well off. Still, she would only be in Westport for the summer, a trial run to see if she liked living in Ireland. If she did, she would find herself a getaway place. Holiday homes, they called them here.
Why not? Her parents were gone, her son and daughter married. Joe lived in California, Karen in Texas, both a long way from New Hampshire. Gemma could do as she pleased. If she did invest in an Irish holiday home, she would buy herself an expensive crystal butter dish.
She’d been an eighteen-year-old bride when she’d bought the discounted glass butter dish thirty years ago. It wasn’t the crystal one she’d really wanted, but she’d loved the antique look of the diamond designs etched into the glass. She still did.
Larry had called her stupid for buying something bound to break and injure someone. “Take it back and get plastic,” he’d said.
I should have left you right then, Larry boy.
He’d hurt her feelings—again—but she’d gone and bought a plastic butter dish. Yet she hadn’t been a total pushover. She’d kept the glass butter dish too. When the plastic butter dish shattered soon after, she’d wanted to gloat, but she’d bitten her tongue.
She set her basket on the broad wooden checkout counter. “Hi, Annie. I’m back.”
Yes, she was back, and not only to the bargain store. Years ago, during a visit to Ireland, she and Larry had spent a weekend in Westport. The eighteenth century market town on Ireland’s west coast had entranced her, though he had complained nonstop about everything from the weather to the price of beer, and he’d belittled the local women for their seeming vanity.
“No one could have hair that black without dyeing it,” he’d said, but most of them did, even the men and the children.
Annie certainly did. The young cashier’s ebony curls framed a thin ivory face perfected by sky blue eyes. Her cordial smile revealed a row of straight white teeth. “You’ll be all settled in before long, Mrs. Pen.”
Her lilting accent reminded Gemma of her grandparents. She drew her wallet from her purse and handed over a twenty euro bill. “Please call me Gemma. I know Mrs. Pentrandolfo is a mouthful, but ‘Mrs. Pen’ makes me sound like a biro. Isn’t that what you call your pens here?”
Annie laughed, a delightful tinkling sound. “Yes, and it fits. You’re a writer, after all.”
Small towns. After spending most of her life in Boston, Gemma had wanted to live in one. When Larry died, she moved to a condo in Portsmouth, a modest New Hampshire seaport. She loved it, loved the people, loved being able to do as she pleased.
For this trip, her first summer sojourn alone, she’d chosen Westport hands down. She’d told the realtor—Annie’s older sister—that she’d be the only tenant in Sea Moss Cottage because she needed solitude to write. Not a mistake, exactly, but if she could do it over, she’d keep her personal business to herself.
“Today’s Friday,” she said to change the subject. “I’ve been in Westport a week, and it hasn’t rained once. Unusual even for early June, isn’t it?”
“’Tis. Everyone’s starting to worry they’ll have to water their gardens.”
“When the bees are busy after sunset, the weather will change.” The elderly snoop plunked a box of plant food on the counter and wiggled her eyebrows as if she were scanning Gemma with radar. “I’m Mary Dunn. You’re in Fallon’s old place. Sea Moss Cottage. We’re neighbors.”
Placing her purchases in her grocery bag, Gemma smiled politely. “For the summer, yes. Gemma Pentrandolfo. Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Dunn. I don’t know any of my neighbors yet.”
“American, are ye?” Swirls of wrinkled skin danced beneath the woman’s eyes. “Call me Mary. Hope you don’t mind if I call you Gemma. Not even going to attempt that last name. Funny, you don’t look Eye-talian. Thought you were one of us till you spoke. Do you have people here?”
“None that I’ve met.” Gemma took her change and gathered her purse and grocery bag. “My maiden name is Keenan. My grandparents emigrated from Sligo a century ago.”
Mary pushed the plant food toward Annie. “Ah. A good Sligo woman. I’m only two doors down. Clady House. Come by for a cuppa.”
“Thanks, I will. Thank you, Annie.” Gemma slung her purse strap over her shoulder and made her escape.
Sunshine coated the gaily painted shop fronts like a heavenly blessing, not that she believed in such things. She plucked her sunglasses from the collar of her green gauze blouse and slipped them on, stepping aside to let a middle-aged Asian couple pass.
When she turned, she nearly collided with two young men in their late teens or early twenties. Their prompt apologies—Sorry, ma’am! Oh, sorry!—proclaimed them Irish, though had they been silent, the green and red of their sports shirts would have pegged them as Mayo natives. The emblems on their chests read Maigh Eo, the Irish spelling for Mayo. It meant “the Plain of the Yews.”
The boys hustled up High Street, the steepest road in town. For a lecherous moment, Gemma ogled their trim physiques, and then she sighed. They were probably younger than her son. The realization made her feel old.
Yet she wasn’t too old to admire male muscle, and she’d enjoyed plenty since arriving in Westport. Men of all ages played sports in Ireland, and she’d seen few in less than perfect shape.
She’d be in perfect shape herself if she climbed High Street all summer. Not that she’d ever been in bad shape. Nevertheless, she’d joined a gym after Larry died, another of the counselor’s suggestions. The added exercise made her feel more confident, more energetic, and she had to admit, her clothes fit better.
Grocery bag swinging in time to her steps, she passed the antique phone booth next to the statuesque town clock and climbed the hill, strolling by busy pubs and shops. On her first night in Westport, she’d tried the Italian restaurant, one of several in town. The Pollo alla Cacciatora had been good, the Chianti decent. Since then, she’d fixed her meals at home so she could have more time to write.
For years she’d been writing and selling short stories. With Larry gone, she had both the time and the means to create something longer, and she meant to finish the first draft of her first novel before September rolled around. Her only problem was, she had so many ideas, she couldn’t settle on one plot; a single cast of characters eluded her. Contemplative strolls during the day helped sort her thoughts, yet her writing had found no focus.
For a week she’d been glued to her laptop or setting up house. She deserved a treat tonight. A casual meal in a pub would do. She’d catch some music. Meet some people. Maybe a man. Deep inside, she hoped Irish men were different from their American counterparts, yet as she climbed the hill, she couldn’t help feeling pessimistic.
A year after Larry died, her daughter suggested Internet dating. Gemma told Karen she had no intention of letting a man derail her newfound freedom, but Karen persuaded her to give it a try. Why not? she’d thought. They couldn’t all be as bad as Larry.
Until then, she’d known what she didn’t want in a man. By filling out the registration form, she realized what she did want, but apparently said man—good conversationalist, thoughtful, somewhat cultured, well read, and willing to go beyond basic rutting in bed—only existed in romance novels.
Her icy glares had rebuffed blunt inquiries into her financial status. Encouraged by Karen, she dated more promising prospects, but a series of egomaniacal monologues and miserly dinners made her withdraw her membership. She would create her dream men in her stories.
High Street’s shops and eateries soon gave way to multicolored rows of townhouses with paved-over front yards that served as parking spots. At the top of the hill, she turned onto an asphalt path whose downward slope eased the strain on her legs.
Gemma loved the Railway Walk, a pedestrian/bicycle path that followed the ghost of a train track all the way down to The Quay. Its jungle of greenery was so lush in spots, it formed small tunnels that trapped the tangy salt air drifting up from the harbor.
Ambling contentedly, she passed joggers and helmeted bicyclists, women pushing baby strollers, and panting dogs walking their people. Then the guessing game began. Would Croagh Patrick, St. Patrick’s holy mountain, be visible in the distance today, or would the ever-churning Irish clouds obscure it? She approached the old humpbacked bridge, delighted to see its graceful archway framing the conical mountain against the clear blue sky like a picture in a camera lens.
Cars rolled above her head until she emerged from beneath the bridge. On the other side, shouting children amused themselves in a modern playground. Beyond it, teenage boys kicked a soccer ball in a court enclosed by a tall chainlink fence.
A tweed-capped old gent sat smoking his pipe on a wooden bench. He tipped his hat and waved the pipe. In Boston, she’d think him deranged and rush by. Not here. Shopping bag raised in salute, she called hello and pivoted up the next footpath.
Tidy gardens enhanced the vintage homes. Fat yellow bees buzzed through hedges speckled with bright pink fuschia. Roses and lavender scented the air.
“What a fabulous day,” she said aloud, turning down a crooked lane to a fenced-off row of blooming back yards.
A dog yipped, no doubt to warn of her presence.
“Get out of that, ye mangy mutt!” roared a husky male voice that sounded more cheerful than angry. “Do you think I spent the morning weeding praties to give you room to play?”
In the yard to Gemma’s right, a miniature black and white border collie chased a ball thrown by a man in a filthy T-shirt and faded jeans muddied at the knees. He turned and bent, and she gawked at the denim hugging his sturdy butt. Biceps rippling, he yanked a garden hose from a point beyond her line of vision. The dog abandoned the ball and ran back and forth, chasing the hose, barking with joy.
Gemma slowed her step to admire another Irish male in tiptop shape—and this one was no boy. From the silver speckling his thick dark hair, she guessed he was close to her own late forties, perhaps older, but that didn’t mean he no longer played sports. If he didn’t, he did something to keep his six-foot frame fit. Gardening, perhaps?
Bending again, McHunk collected a scattering of garden tools, which he tossed clunking and clanging into a wheelbarrow. Then he stooped to retrieve the hose. His grace and agility, not to mention the rear denim view he presented unwittingly, mesmerized Gemma.
She glanced up and down the lane. No one was around. Holding her breath to keep from inhaling a pungent blend of soil and manure, she inched toward a bank of fuschia, stopping well away from the humming bees. McHunk would never catch her peeking at him through the dense green leaves.
He untangled the hose and twisted the gun-shaped nozzle. The resulting mist set tiny rainbows flickering in the sunshine. The delighted dog yipped again and received a playful spritz. McHunk laughed and aimed the spray at his tidy rows of mounded plants. Praties, he’d said. Potatoes, though from the variety of leaves in several raised beds partitioned by stepping stones, he’d planted all sorts of vegetables.
Pink and white roses flourished against the far fence. Before them, miniature daylilies grew beside crumply red poppies with big black eyes. Standing like a well-formed albeit grungy god surveying his domain, McHunk changed the spray to a narrow stream and watered the flowers.
Gemma smiled. She’d seen enough. She turned to go.
A bee flew at her eye. She dropped her bag and purse and shrieked, swatting at the air.
The dog barked a frantic warning. McHunk shouted, “What the—”
The sound of the water changed. An ice cold flood soaked Gemma from head to toe. She shrieked again, louder this time, and tried to wipe the water from her eyes.
“Ah, feckers!” McHunk dropped the hose and rushed toward her. The fence stopped him from reaching her. Frenzied yips sounded somewhere behind him. “I’m so sorry! Are you all right, love?”
“I’m—yes—oh, I’m—” Dripping, sputtering, and mortified, she gawked at him and looked away, only to see old Mary Dunn coming down the lane, her fertilizer nestled in her arms. “I’m fine. Fine!”
Caught but good, Gemma snatched her things and ran.