When he arrived here, he was ready for closed ranks against the stranger. He was OK with that, as long as no one set his place on fire; he wasn't looking for golf buddies and dinner parties. But it didn't turn out that way. People were neighborly. The day Cal arrived and started hauling stuff into and out of the house, Mart wandered down to lean on the gate and probe for information, and ended up bringing over an old mini-fridge and recommending a good building supplies store. Noreen explained who was what kind of cousin to who and how to get onto the group water scheme, and—later, once Cal had made her laugh a few times—started offering, only halfway joking, to set Cal up with her widowed sister. The old guys who apparently live in the pub have moved from nods to weather comments to passionate explanations of a sport called hurling, which to Cal looks like what you might get if you kept the speed, dexterity and ferocity of ice hockey but took away the ice and most of the protective equipment. Up until last week he felt that he had been, if not exactly welcomed with open arms, at least accepted as a mildly interesting natural phenomenon, like maybe a seal that had taken up residence in the river. Obviously he was always going to be an outsider, but he was getting the feeling that that wasn't a big deal. He's no longer so sure.
So, four days ago, Cal drove into town and bought a big bag of garden soil. He's aware of the irony of buying more dirt, when he just spent most of his savings on ten acres of it, but his personal dirt is rough and chunky, shot through with grass roots and small sharp rocks. For this he needed fine, moist, even stuff. The next day he got up before dawn and spread a layer of it by the outside wall of his house, under each of the windows. He had to pull weeds and creepers and scrape back pebbles to get a decent surface. The air was cold right down to the bottom of his lungs. Slowly the fields lightened around him; the rooks woke up and started bickering. When the sky got bright and he heard Mart's faint peremptory whistle to his sheepdog, Cal crumpled up the soil bag to stuff at the bottom of the trash, and went inside to make breakfast.
Next morning, nothing; morning after that, nothing. He must have got closer than he thought, the last time, must have given them a scare. He went about his business and kept his eyes off the windows and the hedges.
This morning, footprints, in the dirt under his living-room window. Sneakers, going by the fragments of tread, but the prints were too scuffed up and overlapped to tell how big or how many.
The frying pan is hot. Cal throws in four slices of bacon, meatier and tastier than what he's used to, and once the fat sizzles cracks in two eggs. He goes over to his iPod, which lives on the same left-behind wooden table where he eats his meals—the sum total of Cal's current furniture is that table, a left-behind wooden desk with a busted side, two scrawny left-behind Formica chairs, and a fat green armchair that Mart's cousin was throwing out—and puts on some Johnny Cash, not too loud.
If he's done something that pissed someone off, the prime candidate has got to be buying this house. He picked it off a website, on the basis that it came with some land, there was good fishing nearby, the roof looked sound, and he wanted to check out the papers sticking out of that old desk. It had been a long time since Cal had got a wild hare like that and chased after it, which seemed like an extra reason for doing it. The estate agents were asking thirty-five K. Cal offered thirty, cash. They about bit his hand off.
It didn't occur to him at the time that anyone else might want the place. It's a low, gray, undistinguished house built sometime in the 1930s, five hundred and some square feet, slate-roofed and sash-windowed; only the big cornerstones and the broad stone fireplace give it a touch of grace. Going by the website photos, it had been abandoned for years, probably decades: paint peeling in big streaks and mottles, rooms strewn with upended dark-brown furniture and rotting flowered curtains, saplings springing up in front of the door and creepers trailing in at a broken window. But he's learned enough since then to understand that someone else might in fact have wanted this place, even if the reasons aren't immediately apparent, and that anyone who felt they had a claim on it was likely to take that seriously.
Cal scoops his food onto a couple of thick slices of bread, adds ketchup, gets a beer out of the mini-fridge and takes his meal to the table. Donna would give him shit about the way he's been eating, which doesn't include a whole lot of fiber and fresh vegetables, but the fact is that even living out of a frying pan and a microwave he's dropped a few pounds, maybe more than a few. He can feel it, not just in his waistband but in his movements: everything he does has a surprising new lightness to it. That was unsettling at first, like he had come unhitched from gravity, but it's growing on him.