The Two Faced Gift Horse




Twenty Years Ago, Ballharr, West Ireland 


Torin had put a life’s work into the wooden boat. It seemed fitting that, in the end, his life relied upon it.

As a small boy, at the start of every summer holiday at Ballharr House, he’d sanded the skiff smooth not stopping even after blisters burst on his hands. Then varnish. Each stroke of the brush was applied with the tenderness of a parent rubbing lotion onto their baby’s back. In his late teens, with money he’d saved from tedious weekend work at home in London, he’d bought the 20HP outboard engine from a fisherman in Galway. He’d learned to maintain it over the years so that it would start every time, despite its age and mileage. It had been used for adventure, fishing trips and exploring the coast. 

He never took it far from shore, as the water there was predictable only in its treachery. He’d never tried to cross the fast flowing narrows to the mainland, never had it out in darkness, never shown it bad weather, never used it in anger and he never thought his life would be reliant on his years of loving craftsmanship.

Yet, there they were.

Another wave lifted the boat enough to allow the propeller to wail in a free spin. The three figures onboard were silent in apparent ignorance of the danger of the storm that threatened to engulf them, and of the violent thud of the boat returning to sea and onward. Torin didn’t look at Catriona his wife and daughter Jane. That picture was more horrific than the waves and wind that sucked and spat them from one jolt to the next like they were in the hands of a drunk juggler. Dim lights from the mainland appeared between slaps of rain, and the irate rattle of stays clinking on masts in the harbour, suggested they may possibly make it. He’d fought hard to do so, frequently believing their journey would end at the bottom of the deep trench that separated the island from mainland. 

Even so, they reached the shore at Clavity without relief.

Taking Jane from his wife’s arms Torin ran, stooped low against the beating wind, towards the car. Holding her gently yet tight to his chest, protecting her like she was asleep. 

If only she was asleep. Jane felt icy through his clothing. The feeling startled him as he was already nearly hyperthermic and didn’t think anything could feel colder. 

But there was nothing in this world colder than the death of a child.

He didn’t bother to tie the boat. It drifted from the stone jetty into the dark currents of the narrows towards, given the nature of the sea in that strip of water, a swift end. The storm had arrived, as predicted, hours earlier and he should feel lucky they survived the crossing from Ballharr Island. But he didn’t feel fortunate in any way. At times he’d wished for a wave to drag them down, or for the engine to break, or for anything to end the suffering. No such easy exit was offered.

Or none taken, as he’d fought every wave and he’d fought them for his other daughter Eryn. For all the horror they’d endured, Eryn lived and visions of her at home in London waiting sustained him. Her birthday approached, she was about to turn five. 

The dead chill of Jane’s body made his thoughts of Eryn all the more acute. He’d never imagined such inner conflict as his grief battled with urgency, one wanting to root him to the spot the other driving him on. 

The scene came to him in flash back. The cellar, gunshots, terror as they ran, the chance that Jane may have survived, the unbearable sorrow as they realised there was no hope for her. Their scramble for safety - if there could be such a thing, for Lynch would do anything to stop them. The night’s biggest miracle was that they’d escaped Ballharr island. Maybe Lynch didn’t think they’d try to go out in the storm, or he believed that the storm would finish them off if they set out in that small boat. Perhaps, after what had happened, he just wasn’t thinking straight.

But they got away and thoughts of Eryn drove him onwards. Thank God she’d stayed behind for a few days in London. 

He’d failed Jane, he had to be there for Eryn. The danger Eryn would be in…he shook the thought away as he reached the car, Jane’s body, a dead weight as he groped for keys which were stuck to the sodden lining of his jeans. Their hasty departure meant that they were dressed in outfits befitting their activities before the journey began and not for the journey itself. He wore jeans and polo shirt suitable for relaxing after dinner with a whiskey, her in the floral nighty she had taken herself to bed in. Their luggage had been abandoned like his beloved boat.

In the face of the gale he fought to open the passenger door, allowing his wife to climb in. A snap of wind threw water into the car over his wife. If she noticed, she didn’t react, shock and the journey making her impervious to further discomfort. He passed her Jane’s body; her blood mixing with the rain looked black and surreal in the night. He dreaded light shining on the vision bringing colour and clarity.

He made to say something to comfort her. No words came that could satisfy what he needed to say. Her bleak expression suggested that no words existed that could help. Her lips parted as if to speak and closed again. She turned away.

He climbed behind the wheel, smeared tears across his face with a shaking hand and started the car. The wheels spun as they tore away from Clavity through the normally brilliant corridor of flowers that, when as a young man, had inspired his writing. Building up speed on the narrow roads he thought a twist of the wheel into a wall could end the nightmare, or he could park up and wait for the inevitable. With that thought he glanced in the mirror seeing only darkness. 

He again tried to find words and again they failed him. Catriona’s eyes normally a dazzling green, had become shadows, her black hair stuck flat with water, her expression mirrored his own feelings. They had each other and together they had one reason to live. 

Just one.

‘Eryn,’ he said. His voice sounded unreal. Catriona replied with a slight nod. It was only chance that Eryn had stayed, the two girls were normally inseparable. Just a few days, an injured ankle that had to rest and Jane excited for the trip. Mrs Montgomery their neighbour had been so kind to them since they arrived in London and Eryn had got on so well with her. Catriona was to collect her in two days. Looking back on the angst of leaving her in London seems irrelevant now, thank God they did. How will he explain this to her? If they make it.

They’d had no choice but to run from Ballharr. Lynch would have killed them all. Still could. Still would. Lynch’s reach was long. He had to get north. He couldn’t trust anyone down there, not the police not even Jimmy, his brother. 

Especially not him. 

The car careered along narrow twisting byways in the West of Ireland towards Belfast as if their speed would dispel the sorrow, betrayal and death that completely overwhelmed him. That was never going to happen, the terror of the last few hours would stay with him forever. He knew too that escape was unlikely and was surprised they’d got so far. He checked the mirror again for a chasing vehicle.

The wipers barely cleared the window, the sound, swishing swashing reminded him of Jane’s favourite song, Gotta See Jane. An R Dean Taylor number he once had on vinyl that she used to play on repeat on an old record player in his study.


Red light Green light crashing through the dark night,

I gotta see Jane….

Windscreen wipers swishing swashing

I gotta see Jane….


He swore, a song that until then brought so much joy, would now only bring sorrow. He focused instead on the noise of rain on the roof, like rivets in a steel tank. Twice the car skidded. Neither time did he slow. 

Justice, sorrow, anger, there were insufficient words to help him explain how he felt. Jane, his loving, trusting daughter, a cold and bloodied corpse in his wifes lap. The vision encouraged his recklessness. He breathed deeply attempting to control his torment, his mind again battling between rage and grief. 

Catriona had said nothing to him since leaving the island. A ghost of herself, somehow finding the strength to know what to do, to leave. He glanced at her tear-stained, face and became overwhelmed with guilt because it had been his side of the family that brought so much pain to them. She resembled Jane and Eryn with her black hair green eyes and small stature. It was those distinctive eyes that pulled him to her when they first met at teaching college. She always laughed and her playfulness hid a determination and shrewdness that surprised everyone. 

Catriona rubbed Jane’s head and whispered a song in her ear. He couldn’t hear the words. God, he wanted to hear them. 

His anger returned and he accelerated hard out of the bend, the engine whined and he was rewarded with another skid into a verge. Somehow he regained control of the car and continued his onslaught north without loss of focus or momentum.

A few hours later the approaching lights of Belfast City gave little relief from the hours of impulsive driving, although they sparked a fickle hope of sanctuary or escape. They passed estates and abandoned industrial sites, but as they closed in on the city centre their progress slowed with roundabouts and traffic signals. Green light ahead, changed to red sparking a memory that retuned his ear worm.


Red light green light chasing through the dark night

I gotta see Jane….


He rechecked his mirror before braking towards the pedestrian crossing. Two A.M., dark and wet, an odd time, he thought, for people to be out walking in the rain in this area of Belfast city. He eased his speed and considered jumping the lights.

A girl appeared from a bus shelter and stood at the crossing. 

‘Bollocks!’ he yelled. He braked hard, almost stopping. The girl didnt begin to move, she just stood there making a phone call from a mobile. He swore again, shoved the car into first gear. The engine screamed in complaint, like it had done a thousand times on that journey, the car lurched, he changed gear and ran the red, he revved the engine hard, accelerating, fifty, sixty…

Belfast lights drew nearer. Again, he checked his rearview mirror. No one had followed. He was certain of that. He dared to think that they may just make it and eased the accelerator slowing close to legal limits. A vague plan formed in his head, he would go to the police in Belfast rather than head directly for the ferry to Scotland. He knew he couldn’t trust the local police near Clavity but here, in the north, Lynch’s influence was unlikely to reach. The main road stretched straight ahead into town. There were no other cars. 

His mind drifted. His own brother Jimmy. His own fucking brother, the one who got everything. The eldest, the rebel, the spoilt child. Primogeniture, they called it - his parents of old monied stock. Give the entire estate to the eldest son to save tax and prevent it from being carved up. These views never considered the possibility of the eldest being a wasteful bastard and never considered the other children. He’d become an English teacher, his brother Jimmy a landed gent. He thumped the wheel in anger.

His wife jumped at the sudden bang.

‘Sorry,’ he said, his voice barely audible. He placed a hand on his wife’s leg, sticky from their daughter’s blood. She turned without replying. The image was stark and terrible; the white of Jane’s nighty contrasting grotesquely against the dark red of blood. Lifeless limbs hanging over his wife’s embrace. He touched his daughter’s leg. It felt icy and he jerked his hand away like he had received an electric shock. His eyes met his wife’s gaze for the first time since their escape. The shocking scene took his mind off the danger. Adrenaline and fear eased from his body to be replaced with pain and despair. His body began to shake, his despair distracting him enough to miss the fast approaching lights from his left. 

They were struck on the passenger side, a roar of engines and tearing of metal and the car topped and tailed across the road towards an industrial gas tank. His final thoughts before the car and tank exploded were of Eryn. She had nobody to protect her from Lynch’s ambitions. What Lynch would do to Eryn, what wouldn’t he do, if he knew she stood in his way? He’d seen what Lynch was capable of, yet, even after all that had happened - because of what had happened - his brother Jimmy was never going to help. In fact, Eryn’s only hope was that Jimmy kept his mouth shut. He screamed her name but the effort was lost in a barrage of fire and noise.





Twenty Years Later, Guildford, England



Last university exam completed with distracted determination, Eryn sat in the waiting room of Gladstone's Guildford law offices. In her hand was a letter from them suggesting she make an appointment as she may be a beneficiary in the estate of Mr James O’Boyle. This was a surprise to her because she had no family, no idea how Gladstone’s found her and she certainly knew nobody called O'Boyle