Yes, it was time to come home. He had put it off for long enough. He’d even felt good about it, touching down at Belfast City. Already the air tasted cleaner, and he was looking forward to seeing big glistery clusters of stars before it even got dark.
By the time he returned to London, John decided, he would be rejuvenated. Ireland would be good for him. He would assuage his guilt. He would abandon the diet. No more sprouted salads or charcoal smoothies. Instead, slabs of pan-toasted potato farls, pinched with the butter knife so the salty, golden butter seeped in; soda bread, fried, the flour dusted on the rind; dark, malty Veda bread and jam; cheese and onion potato-crisp sandwiches; tea with whole milk; lovely tall golden pints of unfussy lager and Guinness. He would start a temporary love affair with carbohydrates. He would sit and work on his computer in sticky pubs. He would smile at strangers without being assumed deranged.
But now that John had collected his bags and met his father, Clare, at arrivals, paid parking, and hit the road, all that goodwill was rapidly evaporating. Clare had been appraising him, narrow-eyed, saying little except that he was glad to see him, which John knew was true, but such brevity was uncharacteristic. John found himself struggling to think of what to say.
As he drove, John watched the road carefully—a narrow winding ribbon, silver with rain. The soft green patchwork of countryside on either side, the farm machinery, hedgerows, squat stucco bungalows, pre-famine cottages made of stone, roofless and wild. It was all just as he remembered. His father was talking about the shop and how it was still “trundling along.”
“Your stepbrother helps me, at the auctions, fairs…with the heavy furniture. I’m not able like I used to be, so he’s a good help.”
“Yes, that’s good,” agreed John vaguely.
“You two should go out for a pint tonight. You haven’t seen him in so many years.”
“Maybe. I’m a little tired.”
His father wound down the window—it was an old car—and lit a cigarette. “Let me guess—what’s to chat about, because you don’t have much in common.”
“Something like that, yes. And you shouldn’t smoke.”
“At my age it doesn’t matter,” Clare scoffed. “As for Ciaran, he’s a man’s man. He works with his hands. You’re right that you don’t have anything in common with guys like that. Anybody without a degree, without the right clothes, or that voice you’ve affected, anybody salt of the earth—you dismiss them. It’s an ugly trait in you, and I don’t know where you got it from.”
“Both you and Ciaran think the audacity of bettering oneself is ugly. When we do go out for that drink, whatever I order will become a tedious referendum on whether or not I think I’m better than people round here…” At the last part of his sentence, John’s voice twisted into a cruel imitation of the roughest accents in his hometown.
His father shook his head luxuriously. “John, John, John.” He looked around the car in disbelief, as if appealing to an imaginary audience.
John let go of the gear stick and stuck his hand out. “Give me one.”
“You just lectured me about fags. You don’t smoke.”
“Not for years, no. Just please give me one.”
“All right, all right.” Clare lit the cigarette and placed it between his son’s fingers.
John took a long drag. Menthol. It was good. He’d spent so many years claiming that he found it disgusting. His body melted a little. Beside him, in the passenger seat, his father began to laugh. Warmly this time.
The countryside thinned out. They were getting closer to home—John’s childhood home, which was not a house but an apartment above Clare’s antiques shop, on the outskirts of the outskirts of Belfast, just on the North Coast scenic route by the skin of its teeth. A place too small to be a town and too large to be a village. Churches of both persuasions, two pubs, a high street that still had separate greengrocers and butchers, a small supermarket, terraced houses, a primary school, an Orange Lodge, off licences, Chinese takeaways.
Clare had owned the antiques shop since before John was born. It was located on a stretch of winding road, hemmed in on either side by fields studded with sweet-natured cows and bright yellow rapeseed. The road was seldom frequented by locals but caught enough tourists passing through on coach tours for the shop to survive. Clare charmed tourists almost as well as he plucked treasure from auctions, car-boot Sundays, and estate sales.
He supplemented his income by making furniture: pieces made from driftwood and salvage from derelict Big Houses. Settles, sideboards, writing desks, and cheerful, sturdy kitchen tables. He worked on these commissions in the winter, the off season, when customers were only occasionally enticed into the shop’s warmth by the lozenge-yellow glow of oil lamps.
They were home now. John turned off the ignition and peered through the drizzle. The sign, which read Under the Hill: Anything Old Bought and Sold, was peeling a little.
The morning was dark because of the rain, yet Under the Hill was glowing. Every old lamp, library light, dusty sconce, lantern, and candle was either switched on or lit and flickering.
“Shop sweet shop,” said Clare as he heaved himself out of the car.
This was the kind of place hipsters and gentrifiers couldn’t touch, John thought. Obliviously anti-minimalist. Peeling paint and camphor. Nobly inefficient things for sale—not selected ironically but simply appreciated for what they were. The aura of Dickensian disarray was not curated; it was a real manifestation of love for imperfect, tangible objects, for shabbiness, for character.
John dragged his suitcase into the shop and heaved it onto one of the overstuffed horsehair sofas.
“Careful!” Ciaran emerged from behind a bookcase, scowling. He had grown out his auburn hair since the last time John had seen him; it almost touched his shoulders. He was tall and lean, and his body, as it did with all clothes, somehow made the tacky football top, the steel-toed boots, and loose, paint-stained jeans he was wearing look deliberate and artful.
“Long time no see,” said John. Neither he nor Ciaran took a step towards each other.
Ciaran performed arranging the leather-bound books on the shelf. He smiled faintly. “What’s with the accent?”
“You’ve got an English accent now. Where’re your original vowels? Here, quickly, tell me what you stand up in to wash. And what you dry yourself with.”
“A shower, and a towel.”
“Now you’re trying to cover it up.”
Clare stood between them. “Want the tour?” he said. “It’s been a while.”
“Yes, just let me take my stuff upstairs.”
John climbed the rickety stairs to the small apartment above the shop. Before he unpacked, he wanted to look around. Over every doorway was a design of wrought iron, snaking down around the wooden frames. There were also countless crucifixes on the walls all over the apartment—of ceramic, wood, and metal. The effect was disconcerting. When was the last time any of them had darkened the door of a church? It was the same in the bedrooms, where bushels of sage, holly, and mint covered the walls alongside the crosses; they were even in the bathroom, dangling over the bath, which was filled with old books.
John’s childhood bedroom was a makeshift office now. The only trace of his old self was a strip of faded cowboy wallpaper. He leafed idly through some of the files and tried to go through the drawers of the desk, but was thwarted; they were padlocked shut.
His gaze drifted to the shelves and some old family photos. With a slight swoop in his stomach, John recognised his mother, her wan smiling image regarding him from a distant summer’s day. He had a vague recollection of seeing that photo when he was very young, but it had been relegated out of sight when Clare married Teresa.
He studied his mother’s face. She was seated on a blanket in the garden behind Under the Hill, her head tilted, her posture relaxed, forearms on the ground behind her, ankles crossed, an open book splayed beside her. She wore an oversized blue shirt and a long floral skirt—the outfit now synonymous with her in John’s mind. On her head was a daisy-chain crown. Had John made it, or one of her students? Revealed by the sun, a blaze of cherry-coloured light shone in her dark hair.
Pinned to her shirt was a large brooch. As a child, looking at the photo, John had thought it was pretty, but now his auctioneer’s eye lingered on it: a deep-blue stone set in gold, shaped like an egg, and shot through with bolts of colour. Even in the low resolution of the photo he could recognise its specialness. What stone? He squinted. He’d trained in jewellery at Christie’s, but he’d never had to determine value from such a low-quality photograph. The stone was marbled, like a dyed Easter egg or the frontispiece of an antiquarian book. If it was an heirloom, he’d never encountered it. With a jolt of anger, he wondered if Clare had sold it. As Christine’s only son, John was entitled to that brooch. Julia could wear it at their engagement party. It was my mother’s, he imagined himself murmuring mysteriously into a champagne flute.
The only thing he remembered, blurred and murky from early childhood, was a smell of rose perfume and spearmint chewing gum, and then, later, the explanation for her death, when he was old enough to ask questions. He’d felt rejected by a choice he didn’t understand, and was considered interesting and dark by other children because of it. “She was sick and she loved you very much,” was Clare’s way of explaining it. That had been the extent of their discussion on the matter.
John went down the steps, calling out as he did so, “What’s with all the paraphernalia up there? Since when are you religious?”
Clare ignored the question. “Look through the books in the bath. Take what you want. Now, do you want the tour or not?”
“We’ve been working hard on it,” said Ciaran, as they ducked through the doorway into Clare’s workshop. “You’ll hardly recognise the place.”
As they entered the workshop, the familiar smell of furniture polish, sweet sawdust, and paint stripper greeted them. Added to this aroma was a strong, sharp smell of tannins, wafting towards them from the industrial sink where Clare had been throwing used teabags for years, accumulating them until he eventually relented, made compost, scrubbed the porcelain, and started the whole process again.
The only evidence of his father’s natural chaos was that sink full of teabags. The rest of the workshop was ordered, efficient, and overwhelmingly pleasant to be in. The workbench was full of tidied, clean, gleaming tools, all in their place. Bins full of table legs and groove joints were, surprisingly, not overflowing. An Edwardian escritoire stood upturned in the middle of the room. Cans of paint and bottles of screws were stacked and labelled on the shelves, presumably to avoid a repeat of the incident in which Clare, having stored turpentine in a tinted bottle of Jameson, took a swig, didn’t notice the difference, and then took another. The radio murmured softly, perpetually tuned to BBC Radio Four, Clare’s only capitulation to the British empire.
“I’m impressed,” said John, stroking the escritoire.
He wandered past the kitchenette, flicking on the kettle as he went, and out into the courtyard. Then his mouth fell open.
“What do you think?” asked Clare quietly.
“You can see the tree,” said John.
“Yes, you can.”
“Why would you take down the wall? Why would you do that?”
“It wasn’t my idea.”
“But you’re fine with this?”
Ciaran’s footsteps approached. “This is just the start. It’s going to look great in time for the summer.”
For as long as John could remember, the back door of the workshop had led to a small, dirty, walled courtyard. Clare had built the wall, brick by brick, after Christine’s death, to shield the rest of the garden and the hawthorn tree from sight. Occasionally some wildness would intrude over the wall before being hacked back, but for the most part the only greenery had been a sad potted shrub, cowering beside the massive, rusty caustic tank in which Clare stripped and dipped doors and furniture.
Reeling from the visual impact, the bizarre fact of the hawthorn tree, brazen and flowering, as it thrust up into the sunlight, John found himself cataloguing the work that transforming the garden must have required. He could feel Ciaran waiting for him to ask.
“How long did all this take?”
If Ciaran had expected or noticed John’s shock, he did not show it. “A few months,” he said.
John hadn’t realised how large the area was beyond the walled yard. He’d always assumed it was just a patch of weeds and nettles, but really it was a few acres. The boundary was the old town wall, beyond which was scrubland and fields and the McKennas’ farm.
“You found the wall?” he asked.
“Took a lot of hacking,” said Clare, his voice unusually pitched. “It’s made it look a lot better out here. Don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.”
“You must have added God knows how much to the value of this place.”
“Aye,” said Clare dismissively. “It’s never been worth much.”
New paving stones had been laid down to create a path and a patio, on which was a collection of tables and chairs with folded umbrellas and glass sconces for candles. The last of the rain dripped from the roof of a small, makeshift bar. At the edges of the garden were bags of fertiliser and recesses in the soil—the beginnings of flowerbeds.
“So what are you trying to do here?” asked John.
“A coffee shop for the customers,” Ciaran replied.
“But it’s an antique shop, in a culchie town. People don’t even drink coffee here, for God’s sake. What do you need this for?”
Clare interjected: “We thought it would be good for the shop. We thought it would create an experience, a reason for people to stay and browse, extra income…”
“A bit more genteel Antiques Roadshow, middle-class antiquing, lattes and pilsner? A bit less tattooed blokes asking if you have any ‘German’ memorabilia?”
“Right, exactly,” said Clare.
But John wasn’t listening. The overgrowth and weeds had all been cut or burned away, but the hawthorn tree stood at the bottom of the garden as it always had. Although the weeds around it had been trimmed, the interference was slight, so that a corona of emerald wildness remained circling its trunk, in stark contrast to the rest of the manicured grass. The hawthorn’s frothy white blossom swayed on its branches. As if he’d regressed to childhood, John shivered unpleasantly at the sight of it.
John Creedy has always resented the superstition and provincial attitudes of the sleepy Northern Irish town where he grew up, living above his father Clare’s dusty antiques shop (Under the Hill: Anything Old Bought and Sold). These two details I share with my protagonist. Beyond this, our stories start to differ.
After years away, John returns home to find a frosty reception and, ominously, the hawthorn tree beneath which his mother took her own life, uncovered after twenty-five years. His father’s paranoia about “the other folk,” the local name for faeries, has reached fever pitch. At first John is contemptuous, but when his capricious stepbrother, Ciaran, vanishes, lifelong sceptic John becomes convinced that something supernatural is afoot.
As the story unfolds, we discover the truth about the past and what happened to John’s mother after her encounter with a mysterious and alluring figure, Sheridan, the wayward son of an ailing faerie dynasty. We learn about the subterranean realm of the other folk through the work of the folklorist Dr. Kavanaugh, who holds the answers that the Creedys seek. They must also deal with Eamonn, a “reformed” paramilitary who has a long history with the Creedys.
As they dive deeper into the murky world of superstition and antiques, the Creedys learn that they must retrieve three special artefacts in exchange for Ciaran’s life. On their quest they confront mythology in the flesh and discover a world in which folklore is as essential as a forged auction catalogue, a world in which sectarian violence is as relevant to the past as a nun seduced by a faerie, a world in which the beauty and terror of Irish myths fuse with counterfeit antiques, paramilitary violence, and family secrets.
Under the Hill was begun and furiously typed after work in various coffee shops when I lived in South Korea. The distance allowed me to see Ireland as a truly foreign country—the strangeness of its rituals, how small and large it is at the same time. The novel marries all of my associations with home together. The positive: my lifelong obsession with the underworld realm of the sidhe; the wild, lush landscapes where the existence of faeries seems wholly plausible; the verbal genius of the average man on the street; home and family. And the negative: the spectre of the Troubles; anger at the arbitrary nature of justice, of identity, of belonging; feeling like an outsider in a place that can be stifling and often cruel.
I have taken Under the Hill seriously—it has an intricate, complex plot and something sincere to say about the past, about home, about stories. I’ve enjoyed a lonely impulse of delight in weaving my own mythology into it. But it’s also not too serious; it’s meant to be fun, a friend telling a compelling story at the pub. That is my intention, and I hope I’ve come close to achieving it.
Louise Charewicz is from Northern Ireland, but she now lives in Bristol, England. She fits her creative writing around her day job, which is creating educational content for schoolchildren in the UK. Her work has been published in The Ogham Stone, THRESHOLDS, The Erotic Review, and Three Drops from a Cauldron.
Embark, Issue 16, April 2022