Acheron – Chapter 3
It didn’t look much like any farm I’d ever seen — and as a country boy, I’d seen a few.
There was a lack of straight lines, clear divisions between crops, obvious order. Earthworks appeared to have been started haphazardly, then abandoned. Sheep, chooks and a cow seemed to have escaped into a small orchard and were roaming at will. There were saplings everywhere, dotted at random. Some I recognised as fruit trees; others I couldn’t identify. There were none of the usual cypress windbreaks.
As we came round a bend in the track, a ramshackle glasshouse came into view, patched together from old window panes. But where was the farmhouse? Where were the sheds and farm vehicles?
Áine laughed. ‘It’s probably not what you’re used to. Mam and Da like to experiment with new ways of doing things … It’s called Permaculture — a mix of traditional farming techniques and new ones. The idea’s to live lightly on the land …’ I had no idea what she was on about.
‘Just a minute …’ She stopped and bent down, pulled off her shoes and socks. ‘That’s better! Hullo, toes!’ She wiggled them fondly. ‘Now you can breathe again at last, you poor babies …’
I looked at her bare feet in the dirt. Didn’t they have bull ants in Ireland? Bindii? Were there no scorpions on their farm? No snakes? Had she never been stood on by a cow? Did her farm animals not shit?
‘What?’ She followed my stare to her bare feet, looked at mine in their sturdy shoes. ‘Are you really going to keep those on?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Suit yerself … C’mon, I’ll race ye!’ She sprinted off up the track, bag dangling by one strap, hair flying. I did my best to catch up. Somewhere a dog barked.
It turned out that the glasshouse was the farmhouse. Or rather, one side of it. Áine said something about ‘passive solar’ over her shoulder as I followed her through to the kitchen. ‘Da! I’ve brought a visitor …’
Áine’s father was in the kitchen. She introduced me. ‘This is me friend Pan, from school. This is me Da …’ Her accent became even broader than at school.
‘Colm Doyle, pleased to meet you.’
‘Panayiotis Nikolopoulos, Mr Doyle. But you can call me Pan. Everyone does.’
‘And you can call me Colm, Pan. Everyone does.’ He grinned.
Colm Doyle was a soft-spoken man. The farmers I was used to only had one volume setting: a full-throated bellow to carry across paddocks, over livestock and farm machinery.
He had the same long face and nose as his daughter, and the same thatch of hair. In his case, it was iron-grey, and plaited down his back rather than worn loose. Despite the grey hair, I guessed his age at about forty, like my Uncle Andy; ten years younger than Dad.
Like his daughter, Colm was barefoot. Standing in the kitchen in his colourful cotton shirt and patched dungarees, he looked a typical hippie. Not that I’d ever actually seen one in real life. He regarded me through wire-framed round spectacles like the ones John Lennon wore. There were laughter lines in the corners of his eyes which, unlike Áine’s, were a soft hazel.
‘What do you reckon, then?’
About what? Surely he wasn’t referring to his daughter? I almost said, ‘I think she’s great,’ but stopped myself in time.
‘Oh. It’s very … uh, different to what I’m used to.’ I shrugged helplessly, not knowing what more to say.
He chuckled. ‘I dare say. I dare say … It’s early days yet, you understand. Very early days. It’ll take five years, oh … longer, to bring this soil fully back to life. It has been dreadfully mistreated. Dreadfully.’ He looked suddenly sorrowful at this thought: of disrespecting, maltreating the earth.
Áine handed me a glass of homemade lemon cordial. ‘Here ye go.’
A few minutes more of awkward, slightly odd conversation, then Áine walked me back up to the road. Their Border Collie kept a close eye on my heels all the way: probably wondering if I needed a nip to hurry me along.
‘I like your Da,’ I ventured at length.
‘Good. He likes you too, I can tell.’
‘I like you, Pan.’ She slipped her hand in mine, gave it a gentle squeeze. ‘See you tomorrow on the bus?’
‘Yes. See you then … I like you too.’
‘That’s good. Off ye go, ye daft bugger …’
I swear, I floated those three kilometres up the hill in the hot, late afternoon sun. So immersed was I in thoughts of Áine that Dad gave me a start when he emerged from the vines, pruning shears in hand.
‘Yeia sou Pano! Dreaming again? When are we going to meet this girlfriend of yours?’ So much for vows of secrecy, Mum.
‘Yeia sou Bampá. Give over — she’s not my girlfriend.’
‘You mean bullshit.’
‘I say “cowshit”. And don’t swear in front of your father.’
‘You started it.’
‘This is what happens, you see?’ Dad appealed theatrically to the sky. ‘The young people today, they show no respect, mock their parents, who worked their fingers to the bloody bone to give them everything …’
It amuses him to carry on like this. Seeing I wasn’t to be drawn, he changed tack.
‘You’ve met the parents?’
‘Just her dad. He’s alright.’
‘Maybe, maybe. But he has strange ideas about farming.’
‘It’s perma-something. Living lightly on the land.’
Dad snorts. ‘It will be floating lightly down the river, when we get real rain.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’ve seen where they put the house? I use the word loosely.’
‘Yes. In the middle of their property. So what?’
‘Too low. It will flood.’
‘It’s way above the river, Bampá mou. Metres.’
‘Perhaps. But it’s not ten metres above the river, which is where it needs to be. That’s why Wagner put his house up by the road. He only ever had a cowshed down there, where the Doyles have built.’
‘Ten metres? We’ve never had a flood like that.’
‘I’ve never seen it that high, and if you have, you’ve never told me.’
‘How do you think this valley got a nice, flat, wide bottom, yie mou? Floodplain. It’s all a big bloody floodplain. Soon or later, it will be under the water again.’
‘Things have changed, Bampá. Everyone says it. We don’t get as much rain now.’
‘If it happened before, it will happen again. Maybe a hundred years until the next flood. Maybe next month. Meanwhile, they’re busy felling trees up in the catchment. That means more runoff, faster, when it does rain.’
‘Why didn’t anyone tell the Doyles? Before they built their house there?’
‘They did. The neighbours all tried to tell them. But Mr Hippie knows best. Says he did his research, climate data, historical flood records, blah blah blah.’
‘Maybe he’s right, then.’
‘Maybe.’ Dad shrugs. ‘Or maybe he should look around him. Read the land, not so many books.’
He goes back to his vines.
Next week in ‘Acheron’:
Chapter 4 – Closing the Circle
Pan gets to know Áine’s sharper side … and fails to keep his mind on the job.