I blinked. Mr. Brady was turning puce, and making noises that a cat would make if you sat on it. His nostrils were flaring, their hairs bristling with indignation. He was gabbing like a goldfish. I kept my eyes down and focused on his tie; a half Windsor, broad, silk, and in a shade of burgundy that clashed quite brilliantly with his face if you ask me. I arranged my face in a form of polite indifference that I had been working on for quite some time now, sank an inch lower into the overstuffed armchair, and examined my predicament. I quickly concluded that I was in quite a mess.
The story I had just told was ridiculous, insane even, and this was coming from me. Far from absolving me, it only succeeded in turning Mr. Brady’s face every shade in the Dulux red catalogue. However, I couldn’t have told him a lie, because apparently the truth is always the better option. This case may be the exception to that rule.
McCarthy’s gallops were a local legend. Years ago, in the age of yore, or just after the age of yore, I can never remember, the McCarthy family was the wealthiest around. They had made their money, some mutter unfairly, off the backs of various, highly successful enterprises. Dry goods, wet goods, slightly moist goods, you name it, the McCarthys had a finger in the pie. Including horses. The horseracing world was a more recent addition to their portfolio, but was no less lucrative for it. A string of unbeaten flat horses cemented their stake in the racing world and the equine business at large. My granny says that their gallops were a sight to behold in their day. Rails gleaming, wood chips sparking into the sky as horses thundered past; eyes rolling, nostrils flaring, the slap of hooves reverberating in the still morning air.
At this stage the McCarthy stud was in the capable hands of one Peter McCarthy, the only son and last heir of the McCarthy dynasty, along with his wife Alice. They were young, they were in love, and they were rich. Everything seemed set for them to live a life of perfect happiness. But life has a way of pulling the rug out from under you when you least expect it.
It was a November when Alice got sick. It was December when she died. Despite the best medical care that Peter could get, the poultices, potions and salves, she died. Prayers went unanswered. The miracle never happened. He had become a broken man. It was a month later, during a particularly turbulent night, that Peter went out to the gallops astride his favourite horse, Salicional. A passer-by noted what happened next. He rode like a man possessed. A demonic grin was fixed upon his face; his eyes smouldered like the last coals in a fire. Round and round he charged, heels digging into the horse’s flank if it flagged, cloak flapping behind him. Lightning arced across the sky, framing the horse and rider for a moment in its terrible light. A savage keen issued from his mouth, lips parted in a grimace. Something had to give. The horse finally did. With a scream, its legs buckled beneath it, catapulting Peter from his mount into a nearby oak tree. He died instantly.
Thus ended the McCarthy dynasty, and with it went the land. Nature claimed it for its own, weeds sprouting in the yard, ivy poking through the barn, animal trails snaking through the gallops. No one would buy it. No one would even go near it. It was cursed. It was especially cursed if you were stupid enough to go to the gallops at midnight on the night of the supposed accident and stop in front of a particular oak tree. But no one had ever attempted the ritual, because if horror movies are to be believed that’s the sort of thing that can cause all sorts of inconvenient things to start happening; such as your untimely demise. But when your pride and twenty euro are on the line, long established conventions have the tendency to jump out the window, followed swiftly by common sense. Which is how I found myself ducking under a rotten rail at around 11:58 last night, ripping my favourite pair of jeans in the process.
It was raining, the sort of precipitation that gets you wet without it actually being rain. The world was holding its breath, apart from the midges, which were too busy dive-bombing me to have any sense of decorum. The oak tree itself was weird. I’m not a big fan of nature at the best of times but, speaking as an armchair dendrologist, it was a particularly ugly tree, as trees go, all gnarled and twisted. I was just about to leave when the wind, which had been nicely susurrant through the branches up until this point, decided to whip itself into a bit of a frenzy.
Then I heard it. The slow, barely perceptible clip clop of hooves on loamy soil. I hoped I was imagining it and turned to head home. Unfortunately, a large, entirely silent horse and rider were blocking my path. They weren’t exactly physical. More like coloured shadows but the rider seemed determined not to let that stop him from hurting me, as indicated by the fury emanating from his cold, dead, eyes.
I am proud to say that I did the manly thing. I ran. I ran for my possibly-to-be-cut-short-by-a-spectral-horse-and-jockey, life. In my zeal for self-preservation, I didn’t notice the fence post looming in the dark until it was too late. I crashed into it, executed a perfect somersault and promptly lost consciousness. Mr. Brady found me the next morning following reports that some of his cows were making a mad amble for freedom down the road thanks to a newly broken fence. I was carried to his office and woke up in a chair with him sitting opposite me, waiting for an explanation. So I explained my little heart out. But I wasn’t sure that it was what he wanted to hear.
Mr. Brady noisily clearing his throat stopped my brooding.
“I have decided what I’m going to do with you,” he said. “You will pay for the broken fence, and promise never to trespass on my land again.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but he raised a finger, silencing me.
“I am not finished!”, he thundered. “Furthermore, I recommend that you stay off McCarthy’s gallops, regardless of the size of the wager. It’s not a safe place for youngsters to go gallivanting around. Who knows what, or who, is out there?”
With that, we stood, and he ushered me out of the house. The sun was shining and it looked like it might not rain for once. Walking out of the yard, I glanced at the trail of destruction I had wreaked in the neighbouring field. It was probably the wind, but looking back at McCarthy’s gallops you could almost hear a horse neighing in the distance. A mournful sigh on the autumn wind.