THE CHERRYWOOD BANJO
by Pat McDermott
When thieves trash Ronan’s Dublin flat, he and Andy drive up from County Mayo to assess the damage.
Gabbi uses the downtime to work on her fear of walking alone, the result of a violent mugging.
Her cameras help as she strolls along Westport’s Railway Walk.
She does well until a strange man approaches.
As if it were tasting the Irish air, Gabbi's camera made little sipping sounds each time she snapped the Reek and its bumps of surrounding hills. At least one image should make the cut for her online photo galleries.
“Am I so? We’re all tuned up and ready to play, and I’m expecting to hear some fine tunes indeed, Lady Fox.”
On she roamed, the point-and-shoot back in her pocket and ready for action. Elation spurred her step: she’d defied her own fears and taken a solo walk today. More would follow.
A bicycle bell. Gabbi whirled toward the sound, glad she’d kept to the walkers’ side of the path. A tweed cap covered the head of the elderly man who called hello as he sped by. Impressed by his courtesy, she returned his greeting.
A little past the skateboard park, a high safety fence enclosed some sort of ball court, though no one played today. She passed beneath a third bridge to another section of rock walls coated in greenery. Inhaling the scent of salt air blowing up from the harbor, she ambled along, watching the spaces between the trees for views of the Reek.
When she reached the end of the next curve, she spotted someone in the distance. Shadows covered that part of the path, yet she knew the walker was a man. A man coming toward her. He wore faded jeans, sunglasses, and a padded black jacket. The thick dark hair on his hatless head and the spring in his step marked him as young. Strong.
She’d sensed no threat from the older people she’d passed. Now, however, terror engulfed her. An urge to flee nearly overwhelmed her.
No. I Will Not Run. Deep breaths, deep breaths.
She could do this. Jaw set, lips pressed tight, she straightened her shoulders and marched on, looking everywhere but at the man, refusing to make eye contact. If he tried anything, she would pummel him. Break her camera over his head.
The man’s step slowed. Why?
Gabbi tightened her grip on her camera.
He stepped into the sunlight. “Gabbi?”
She froze and stared at him. “Ronan?” A rush of embarrassing heat swept over her cheeks. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“Stretching my legs. Seems like I’ve been driving for days. The bigger question is, what are you doing here? And all by yourself. Aren’t you leery of walking alone?”
The concern in his deep Irish voice sent ripples of pleasure through her. “I came here to work on that, remember?”
“Then I’ll leave you to it. The harbor’s not far.” He turned to go.
She grabbed his arm. “I’ve walked enough for one day. I’d like to go back. Do you mind if I walk with you? I’ve been out for hours, and I’m half frozen.” Little white fibs. It was only a tad past two, and her jacket kept her warm enough. Nevertheless, she wasn’t about to lose a preferred walking companion, not unless he had other plans.
From the cocky curl on his lips, he’d expected her to stop him. “Come to the house, Lady Fox. I’ll fix you a cup of tea. Will that warm you up?”
We can start with the tea.
“I’d love it.” She shifted her camera bags to link arms with him, and they ambled toward the skateboard park. “Nice jacket. Did you bring it from your flat?”
“Yes. I brought all my clothes back.”
“How was the ride from Dublin?”
“Fun. Andy’s first-class company. He takes the edge off things. We played some of the CDs I took from the flat and sang along with them almost the whole way home.”
“Don’t sound so surprised. I’m not the bell-voiced singer Andy is, but I am Irish, and when you grow up with the Morans and Connigans, you learn the songs by osmosis.” Ronan inclined his head to the left, where a path rose behind the playground. “Here’s Tober Hill.”
Gabbi’s calf muscles stretched as they climbed. “Who was Tober?”
“Not a person. Tober is the Irish word for well. Hard to believe that this place was once an important source of water. Two or three centuries ago, Deaf Hugh O’Fergus came home from Scotland to find a gang of bailiffs driving cattle into town. The herd was in rough shape, panting and frothing. Deaf Hugh learned that the cattle belonged to his father. The bailiffs had seized them in a rent dispute. Hugh found a stream here and ordered his men to dig. The hole filled with water and saved the cattle. He took care of the rent dispute and had the cattle sent back to his father. And that’s how Tober Hill got its name. My house is nearby.”
They wandered on in affable silence. He escorted her through back streets she could never navigate on her own. Soon the white van parked in his driveway came into view.
The house was chilly inside. Ronan adjusted the heat and hung up their coats. As he did, Gabbi admired the way the blue plaid of his thick flannel shirt enhanced his eyes.
Was he going to kiss her?
We’ll fix that.
He passed her and went down the hall. “I’ll give the stove in the parlor a kick. We’ll have our tea in there. Put your things in the kitchen. I’ll be right out.”
Gabbi set her gear on the table and texted Suzanne: Having tea at Ronan’s. See you soon.
He came in as she finished. “That old stove has a mind of its own. I’ll have to replace it at some point. It’s working for now, anyway.”
He filled the electric kettle while she rinsed a teapot with hot water and reached for the metal tea container she’d found the day before. They soon brought their steaming mugs to the living room, where they sat facing the stove.
She noticed the suitcases near the opposite door. “Did you recover all your things?”
“What was left of them, yes. Mostly clothes and files, and a few books and CDs. My banjo's gone for good, though. Andy was a massive help. He still is. After he and Suzanne got home, he called his father about organizing everyone here tomorrow.”
“He and Suzanne? You didn’t drop him off?”
Unbelievably, Ronan blushed. His darting glances about the room proclaimed…what?
“Ronan, did you drive Andy home?”
“Um, no. He called Suzanne when we were coming into town. She picked him up after he helped me bring the bags in.”
Biting the insides of her cheeks to keep from laughing, Gabbi conjured an air of annoyance. “So you knew I’d be on the Railway Walk. Suzanne told you.”
“I did want a walk, Gab. All those hours in the car had me desperate for it.” His guilty look vanished, replaced by the iron mask he’d worn in Murrisk. “And what if she did tell me you’d be there? She was worried. So was I. Was it wrong to want to know you were all right?”
Powerless now to suppress her mirth, Gabbi took his mug and set it on the table next to hers. “It’s a good thing I recognized you. You have no idea how close I came to clobbering you.”
He seemed to deflate, though he managed a guilty smile. “Fancied your little game, did you?”
“Yes. Especially because”—she scooched closer to him and lowered her voice—“back on the trail, when you moved your head in the sunlight, I noticed those silver strands you mentioned.” She fingered the hair near his left ear. “I like it. It makes you look distinguished.”
“You’re coddin’ me.”
“I’m not.” She had to play this right, and fast, before her own desire overwhelmed her. She brushed the hair near his right ear. “I’m sorry about your banjo, Ronan.”
He blinked in confusion. “My banjo?” A hint of a rasp had crept into his voice.
“You still have the one Nora gave you, don’t you?” Gabbi ran a knuckle down his cheek and between his lips. “Though she only lent it to you. You still have no banjo of your own.”
His quickening breath set his chest heaving. “What? Why are you going on about it?” Suspicion darkened his eyes. His breathing evened out. “I see. So I’ll have to play you, yeah? I won’t deny it hasn’t crossed my mind.” Crisp and decisive, he rose to his feet, snatched her hands, and pulled her up beside him. “Will we have a banjo lesson then?”
A stunning mix of lust and delight prevented Gabbi from answering.
“Position first.” He sat back down, pulling her with him, aligning her so she lay across him, legs on the couch, head in the crook of his left arm, backside on his lap. “Placing the banjo on your thigh gives your arm better access to the head and neck.” He stroked the exposed flesh of her neck.
Now Gabbi’s chest was heaving.
“The tailpiece secures the strings to the banjo at the banjo head.” He slid his fingers under her butt and pressed. “Here’s the fingerboard and its frets.” Lightning fast, the same hand shot from the collar of her sweater to the zipper of her jeans. “It’s critical that the frets are properly rounded for smooth sliding action.” In mock assessment, he focused on her chest. “No problem with proper rounding that I can see.”
Her giggle became a gasp when he stroked the spot between her breasts.
“To tune the banjo, we correct the tension of the strings by adjusting the tuning pegs.” His hand covered her left breast and tenderly squeezed. Then he “tuned” the other breast, sending sparks of explosive pleasure through her.
“Ronan, you’re killing me!”