David Butler

It was the awarding of ‘costs against’ that finished the old man. That the case might finally be lost was a prospect he’d gradually come to accept, as he’d once come to accept that mother’s illness was terminal. As the appeal drew near, Finley, the family lawyer, began to warn with increasing frequency and alarm; had advised again, on the very steps, to settle out of court, even though it would mean conceding the bloody point. My father was not the man for turning.

The case of ‘Cafolla versus Grogan’ began in the most trivial way imaginable. At the bottom of our drive stood a magnolia. This tree was mother’s pride, transplanted the very month they’d moved into the place. Ever since the chemotherapy had meant she’d had to quit being an English teacher, she’d become devoted to the garden. Gardening, and also bird-watching; these, she’d say, were her consolations now, because although she continued to write occasional poetry, the Muse seemed to operate increasingly at the whim of her noxious treatment.

At first the Grogans were sympathetic. The Grogans were builders, which is to say, Paddy Grogan was a builder, as his father had been. Indeed he’d built our place, all those years before, when there was nothing about but fields. I’d just turned two, so have no first-hand memories of how it was back then. I’ve seen the photos though, the rough field planted with improbably tiny shrubs and my mum and dad with their improbably long hair. Good fences, they say, make good neighbours, and sure enough, no sooner had he laid the foundations of our house than Paddy Grogan had had planted a row of leylandii on his side of the wire fence. The last point is not without its significance. The row of trees was on his land, not on ours. Also significant, that our property, which we held on a hundred year lease, lay to the north-east of that line of sombre monsters.

The years went by. The leylandii topped twenty foot, thirty. I entered secondary school. Then came mother’s dark diagnosis. I say dark, because of a poem she penned after her treatment began. She’d wanted it to be her epitaph, but for once father put his foot down. Alright, just so you don’t give my headstone any of your Cafolla photographs! ‘Malignant’, she titled the piece. I can still recite the punchline, which describes the dull ache abutting her ribcage: ‘an eyeless tuber grubbing the dark earth / to give birth to what Lilith?’ I never really got poetry, still don’t. Especially my mum’s. To my ear, it sounded like when she’d put on her telephone voice. I doubt my father got it either, any more than he ever really understood his Irish wife. But that one has stayed with me, down the years. Quitting her job was tough, but then, my mother was one tough lady, and before long the acre upon which our house stood became not merely her world, but a living sculpture.

She’d been on chemo about a year when one day one of Grogan’s trucks – they were forever going in and out of his place on weekends – took a few branches off the magnolia. Now as said, relations were still pretty amicable between the two families. They weren’t unsympathetic people, just so long as you didn’t cross them. Yes, there had been a spat about the tom that was continually fouling our beds and whose caterwauling on moonlit nights was the wail of a demonic infant. Several times, coming across a garland of feathers on the lawn, my mother had cursed the malicious beast. But he’d disappeared months since. I won’t say that my dad was directly involved; I will say he’d throw me a sly wink on any occasion the subject had been broached by Maureen Grogan.

But the magnolia was another matter. The affair caught Paddy Grogan at a bad time. There was all that business with the Riverside estate: the flooding and the backed up sewerage. And then, my father was never the most subtle of men, certainly not when it came to wording. As much as on her frail body, chemotherapy had wrought havoc on my mother’s nerves, made her prone to mood swings and fits of temper as though to make up for the long hours of lethargy and listlessness. Usually, she vented it on my hapless father. The morning she discovered the mutilated branches, she was coldly furious: pure fecklessness had devastated the great plant whose arms, she’d always said, stood like candelabra each March. I seem to remember a poem in which she compared it precisely to a candelabrum in the hand of Persephone, thrust up from the gloomy underworld to herald her return. Why, then, she entrusted the letter to my inarticulate father is anyone’s guess. I’m being unfair. I’ve no doubt he was articulate in Italian, or whatever dialect of Italian they speak around Palermo. After twenty years in Ireland he still spoke with a thick accent. But then, he was a computer programmer, and I guess interpersonal skills were not exactly at a premium in his workplace.

I never got to see the note he penned (and actually posted!) to our neighbour. Whatever it contained, it must’ve put the builder’s nose right out of joint. A couple of weeks went by, and then one morning a registered letter arrived from the firm of Bradley and McCoy, solicitors. There was some sort of a deposition; or a professional opinion (I was only fourteen at the time, and have never been entirely au fait with the legal shenanigans). In any case, an opinion was expressed, on National Road Authority paper, that the magnolia had become something of a hazard – both of our driveways gave onto a bend – and that it needed to be either removed or drastically cut back. The councillor who’d signed the letter was Grogan’s brother-in-law. Needless to say, mother was livid. Father, too. Something in his Sicilian blood must have been roused by the blatant chicanery of the move.

His first instinct was to go to law. Two can play at that game, he said (he had the love of cliché and saying of the imperfect speaker). Mother prevailed. She’d have a word with Maureen Grogan, first. They could take her tree after she was gone. Would it kill them, to wait? After all, she’d remind her, when the Grogans were looking for planning permission to put in that extension with the picture-window into their roof and the Farrellys had objected, which side had they supported? ‘But dear, we object was too high,’ shrugged my father. ‘Well it was too high! But we didn’t object outright. That’s the point I’m trying to make. If we had’ve objected outright with the Farrellys, there’d be no picture window now for them to look out of. That’s the point, Fabrizio. It’s as well to remind them.’ If that tack didn’t work, then we might try a countermeasure. In proportion as the leylandii had grown, so too had their shadows. By this time half of the garden was in perpetual shade, the lawn mossy and threadbare. ‘Go you,’ she instructed, ‘and have a word with Fergal Finley. Tell him what the situation is. If they so much as touch my magnolia, I’ll have them take down their precious leylandii so I will. We have a law in this country called daylight saving.’

At this time, as said, the Riverside estate was weighing heavily on Paddy Grogan’s mind. To that extent, as my old man repeated with glee, we had him over a barrel; the last thing he wanted was another lawsuit on the books from another disgruntled plaintiff. The upshot was, without any recourse to Finley, not only was the magnolia left intact; the builder even agreed to have the leylandii trimmed. But he wasn’t altogether the eejit. ‘I don’t mind doing it, Fabrizio, if it gives your missus a bit of pleasure. The only thing is, I think you’ll agree it’s only fair we go halves on the expense. Now, how does that suit you?’ My dad held the other man’s gaze, behind each of their eyes an entire ancestry of cunning. He too could be magnanimous. ‘And we forget about magnolia?’ ‘That’s what I’m saying to you. Have we a deal?’ They had, they spat, and they shook on it.

It took two full days to trim that hedge. Special machinery had to be brought in; a cherry-picker, two workers, a truck to take away the branches. A week later, the bill arrived. ‘The guts of three grand, are you mad?! Well the cheek of the man! He’s charging us for the hire of his own machinery, look it Fabrizio!’ Examining the invoice, this was certainly the case; even the two workers (on overtime) were employees of Grogan & Son plc. ‘You’re not thinking of paying this, I hope.’ ‘Over my dead body,’ declared my father. ‘You think I’m born yesterday?’ And that was when he was allowed follow his first instinct, to the law.

Fergal Finley had been the Regan family lawyer from time immemorial. Never mind the present house, it was Finley had signed the contracts on my maternal grandmother’s house, up in the village. It was Finley who’d drawn up, and seen executed, three generations of the Regans’ wills (a taxonomy of cancers had played havoc with my mother’s side of the family tree). But he was semi-retired now, all his life had been a small-town lawyer, whereas Bradley and McCoy were city solicitors. ‘Am I correct in saying there was no actual contract drawn up between you? The trees, d’you see, are entirely on his side of the boundary.’ He and my father were pacing the bald lawn to our side of the mutilated hedge. ‘No, is wrong. We shake on it.’ ‘Yes but Fabrizio, the point in law is that there is nothing in writing.’ They paused at the magnolia by the gate as Finley sized up his client. ‘Was there a witness, itself?’ ‘My son. He witnessed.’ Under wild eyebrows the lawyer eyed me. I shrugged, as much as to say, what do you want, that’s my old man for you! He’d have to find a tack more sensitive to Sicilian notions of honour.

The result, of course, was a foregone conclusion. It was round one to the Grogans. To be fair to Paddy, he’d tried to reason with us. ’Do yourselves a favour. It goes to court it’ll end up costing you ten times as much. There’s no one wins from these situations only the lawyers and with your poor missus the way she is, well…! Look, you can pay me back in instalments if you’d find that easier…’ He may as well have spat on Fabrizio Cafolla as add that last suggestion about paying by instalments. Perhaps that was why he said it; because as we were to find, that man had a vicious, vindictive streak in him. But then, as he was to find, where my father’s sense of honour was concerned, reason could take a back seat.

Still, things might have blown over if fate hadn’t intervened. A full year had passed since the affair of the damaged magnolia. Mother’s condition had deteriorated, and that week she’d been admitted to Castlebar for observation. She was due back out on the Saturday. It was early May, the month where promiscuous country roads have their hedges massacred, so that I wasn’t surprised to overtake a leaf-eating tractor as I cycled home from school on the Thursday. But the council truck pulled up at the foot of our drive was another matter entirely. I immediately phoned my dad, but by the time his car pulled up the damage was done. Mother’s splendid magnolia was no more. I followed the train of dark Sicilian curses to the Grogans’ front door. Now, it may well be that Paddy Grogan had forgotten all about the affair, as Maureen insisted. In all likelihood he had, for he had far bigger fish to fry. The downturn had left his business with a mass of debts and lawsuits. That’s as may be Mrs Grogan, the point was, from the moment he’d involved his brother-in-law, the councillor, he’d set in motion a process that had led to this crime. Yes, crime! And he must pay.
In proportion as mother’s condition worsened, father became more intractable. Perhaps it was his way of feeling he was fighting her disease; perhaps his way of not thinking about it too closely. One way or another, the less time my mother was able to spend in her garden, the more my father fought over every square inch and every legal scruple. I’m sure there’s an irony in that, but if there is, for my money it’s an admirable irony. Now, one unforeseen consequence of chopping twenty feet off the giant leylandii was that our house was now overlooked by the Grogans’ box window. Worse, it overlooked the patio, which was south-facing, and so was where mother liked to sit out, on her good days. ‘We should never have allowed them to build that monstrosity,’ she sighed one weary morning. And whether that was the germ that infected my father, or whether it was a campaign over which he was already sitting in brood, from that day he began to show up at work less and less, and to be seen more and more in the offices of Fergal Finley and of Castlebar Town Council.

Mother died that August. It did nothing to dampen his agitation. If anything, it poured fuel on it. The kitchen table was taken over by plans and blueprints. A land surveyor was called in, and for several days, our garden was host to all manner of tapes and tripods. Grogan looked on with sarcasm and derision. He’d fought his own losing battle with the banks, but he’d be damned if a crackpot Italian was about to get the better of him in his own back yard. And what it all came down to, in the end, was a matter of six inches. (I’ve endeavoured to be as accurate as I can in this, but Finley is an old man now, and from my father, of course, there can be no hope of accurate information.) At the time of the proposed extension, unlike the Farrellys who had lodged their objections in the strongest terms, our family had objected only to the scale of the affair. The plans had been modified, the extension completed in record time. All that was old history. The Farrellys had sold up years since. If it was out of scale, the window had never been an issue between our families. But, meticulous measurements were now revealing that, all along, the bould Paddy Grogan had flouted the new plans by a matter of three inches. ‘We have him!’ cried my father, his fist pounding the table. Finley wasn’t so sure, but they went to court on it.

It was thrown out. The judge, a woman, was not impressed. Fabrizio Cafolla was not impressed by the judge. By this time he was no longer an employee of Horizon Computing, and could devote all his energies to the niceties of the law. Finley he cajoled, bullied and begged, and between them they drew up an appeal. Justice Deirdre Brennan had ruled that the breach was trivial. That in itself was scandalous! No breach of regulation could be deemed trivial. There was a point of law to be ruled on. But then, added to that, my father had brought in a civil engineer, an expert on soil mechanics. He could demonstrate that, over the eleven years since the monstrous room had been added, there’d been a subsidence of a minimum of three inches. That meant that that the original breach, the original flouting of the law, was a matter not of three but of six inches. Six inches, minimum! ‘We will see that in this country there is justice!’ cried my father. This time, it was not on the table that his defiant fist came down. This time, it was on the headstone of my mother’s grave.

The appeal was dismissed, in even rounder terms. The old man still held out the hope that, in the matter of costs, the judge would be a Solomon. Surely he must understand that a point of principle was at stake. Finley shook his head, and the gravel voice of the law berated my father for wasting the court’s time with such trivial nonsense. Costs, in their entirety, were awarded against, and Bradley and McCoy, solicitors, did not come cheap.

The costs were ruinous. We would be forced to sell up. But that in itself wasn’t the worst of it. Two days after the Judgement, catching sight of Grogan’s smug countenance peeping through the leylandii, my father seized up a garden shears. He made it two-thirds the way across the lawn before a stroke felled him. It was the first in a series. These days he sits, hour after hour, in the nursing home, one side of his body stupefied with paralysis, his mouth depressed, his eye indignant. There are times, few enough, when I have succeeded in raising a spark in it. When I told him that the Grogans, too, had had to sell up, for instance. Or the time I told him that his father had died. Thanks to the small inheritance, I would after all be in a position to do a law degree.