The Bellition Estate
The last of the Bellitions left Ireland for Malta in the mid-sixties yet Sandy-Bank Castel was still known among locals as ‘The Bellition House’ and stories of the family’s scandals and excesses were still in currency among the village gossip-mongers. My mother can still remember hearing many of these tales from older villagers who were employed by the Bellitions. Her childhood neighbour Arthur Mullen was employed as a grounds-keeper until ‘sixty-five’ when he was retired with a pension large enough to keep him in Teacher’s Whiskey and Murphy’s stout until he died eight years later. It was from Arthur via my mother that I first heard of Sir Norman Bellition, the turn of the century heir and inhabitant of the castle.
In the year eighteen-eighty-nine the twenty-one-year-old Sir Norman inherited the family estate when his father died. He ran the estate until his death in nineteen-twenty-two. Remaining unmarried and childless throughout his life he seemed preoccupied with maintaining the family hunting grounds. Three times a year he would organise week-long hunting parties inviting guests from what remained of the Anglo-Irish gentry. Among the throngs of ascendancy wastrels and duel-happy captains who attended these hunting trips was Lord Dunsany then at the height of his popularity. Apparently, Dunsany was impressed enough by Sir Norman’s own literary efforts to encourage him to privately publish two volumes of poetry and even recommended one of his plays for performance at the Abby Theatre. It seems that the play was indeed staged for three weeks in nineteen-ten and received modestly positive reviews from the Dublin Theater critics.
It was Sir Norman the writer that first caught my interest in my early twenties when I was a post-graduate student at the University College Northern Ireland. I was assisting with the curation of the ‘Ulster Poetry Archive,’ a crazily ambitious project which involved travelling to every obscure corner of the nine counties of Ulster trying to collect as much verse from as many minor poets as possible. After a mouth of touring Donegal unsuccessfully searching for old Catholic League magazines in order to collect the poems of a sentimetal Hopkins-loving priest, I became desperate to bring something back from the trip if only to satisfy the funding body. Remembering Sir Norman from my childhood, I contacted the current owner of Sandy-Bank castle asking if any copies of the poetry still existed in the house. As luck would have it four copies of his first volume and three copies of his second volume still existed in the library and the owner was happy to give me one each as long as I provided my academic credentials when I came to collect them. Two weeks later I made the journey back to Sandy-Bank.
It was one of those late September days when the sun seems to come out of nowhere to flood everything with light and the whole world seems to come to life again before winter. I followed the winding roads that cut though the Sperrin Mountains. Through the car window I could see the hills rise and dip on each side. As I reached the grounds of Sandy-Bank House the roads began to straighten and narrow, the multi-colored leaves had been swept into neat rows along each side of the path turning them into a kind of decorative road marker. In the distance I could see the house itself. In common with most of the ‘Big Houses’ in Ulster, Sandy-Bank house was designed and built with defense as its primary concern. The main building was hidden behind four twelve-feet high bare granite walls holding up a decorative arch. In the not-too-distant past a wooden gate would have stood underneath the arch, however as the castle was currently in the process of being renovated it had been removed allowing me to drive though it with ease. As I passed through the drive the changing nature of the property became apparent; throughout the years the parts of the buildings had begun to collapse. As such, the Castle’s original utilitarian Sixteenth-Century stone design had been replaced according to the tastes and preoccupations of subsequent generations.
This process was being enacted when I arrived that day. The Castle’s current owner, a local recently returned from Austria, was converting it into a bed and breakfast and was replacing the windows above the front door as I pulled up outside. An unusually tanned man, he was an early adopter of the kind of three-quarter-length cargo trousers and pastel pink polo shirts which would become the casual wear of choice for a certain type of middle-class professional.
“Dr. Glen I presume?” he shouted as he went in for a hug.
“Na, not a doctor just a bog-standard researcher I’m afraid,” I replied taking an awkward step back.
“Sorry never mind, anyway we’ve the library all set up for you. Anyway man, I was sort of hoping you’d have a look over some of the other books. We kind of want to turn the library into a sort of reading room for guests and we want to theme it around Sir Norman. That’s the reason we were so delighted to hear from an actual expert. If you don’t mind we’d like to put you up for the night, feed you from the menu the chef is putting together, and pick your brains on what you find over breakfast tomorrow. Do you have anything that would take you away from here?”
“No, not really but . . . .“
"Excellent my man, if you just want to head inside, go up the stairs, the library is the first room you meet on the right. If you want to get cracking you can have the first poetry book knocked out by dinner time.”
Of all the rooms in the house, the library was the one which had changed the most over time. Later in the evening I was to learn that Sir Norman had made most of these changes during his time as lord of the estate. During his only trip abroad, he’d witnessed the early days of Art Nouveau among some of the great houses of Paris and as a result he altered the tiny library on his estate in accordance with this trend. Decades of neglect had however taken their toll on what would have once been the most splendid room for miles around. The wood for both the floor and the book shelves had been taken from the surrounding oak forests, with the shelves themselves coiling round the center of the room in which sat the main reading desk. Above the desk there was a domed window giving the reader a source of natural light. The rest of the celling was fitted with a layer of marble. As I sat at this desk I could feel my muscles slacken and the tension leaving my neck. All afternoon long I’d been on uneasy social ground and now at last I could have a few hours alone.
Sir Norman’s first volume of verse and the manuscripts for his plays were bound in the type of black cloth one would expect from books privately published by an aristocrat. It was therefore surprising that his last (and strongest) collection was printed on cheap paper and Copticly bound. Whereas the poems in the first collection were the standard Keats-haunted odes to imagined melancholia and maidens who never existed, the final poems written during the last decade of his life are where Sir Norman’s personality and personal surroundings entered his art. The poems contained some superb descriptions of the hunting grounds, and one long poem closed the text and was maybe Sir Norman’s strongest single piece of work. A long narrative poem describing one of his famous hunts, the poem reaches its climax as the stag which is being pursued disappears while the hunting party chases it over the bridge in the middle of the Estate. I turned the page to read the last few stanzas when I saw a shadow standing in my light. I caught a waft of cheap deodorant, and springing from my seat I saw a tall copper-haired woman dressed in combat fatigues.
“You’re the professor then."
“No, I’m a Post-Doc researcher. I might not be a professor until . . . ."
“Aye the brother said you were persnickety about titles. Anyway I’m Jackie. I heard you were up here. I wanted to come and meet our guest and let you know that dinner will be ready in half an hour. The dining room is not ready yet so we’re eating in the kitchen. Himself has already started on the wine, so you may as well come down and join us assuming you enjoy that sort of thing.” She shot me a look that suggested she absolutely did not enjoy that sort of thing herself before she turned away and bolted out the door. I stood listening for the sounds of the footsteps on the stairs until I was sure I would not meet Jackie on the stairs and then made my way downstairs.
In the kitchen, we sat at a fold-out picnic tables with a screen separating us from the chef while he prepared our meal. Before the first course I tried my best to ask the owner, Barry as he insisted I call him polite questions about the renovation. Unfortunately, when Jackie said that he had already opened a bottle of wine she had failed to mention that it was his second one of the day. He sat opposite me leaning forward with his eyelids halfway dropped replying to my questions with a wave of the hand and a muttered “all good my man.” Jackie sat the head of the table with her arms folded shaking her head and shaking her head every time Barry knocked over his empty wine glass. It was not until we had finished the Spiced Red Pepper Soup that she turned to me and said,
“So you’re local then?”.
“Yes, I grew up in Ballymuion and my mother is from Sandy-Bank”.
“Good I wasn’t sure about letting some edijjt poke around the valuable books up there when your man told me about you. But when he told me who I were I knew you’d have enough sense to keep certain things to yourself. “What do you mean”?
“Are you from here or not do you not know the story of Sir Norman’s last hunting trip, the one that kept him at the books for the last decade. Never mind you’ll soon find out just remember when you do that you’re here though our generosity and anything you find belongs to us”. For a moment, I tried to explain the nature of intellectual property law but though better of it. Jackie then spent the rest of the meal on her phone and I began to accept the large glasses of wine Barry offered.
Back the library I sat with the books open and my eyes closed leaning back in my chair I heard a thump on the other side of the door, before I had time to get up Jackie was standing in front of me, her hair pulled back into a bun, her camo jacket zipped up to the neck.
“I know full well what you thought of our wee exchange downstairs and ordinary I wouldn’t really care but I suppose your research will help us as well, so you really do deserve an explanation. We’re not related to the Bellitions that’s true but we’re not blow ins either. My brother and me have the responsivity to the families who owned the estate before us. Barry looks around him and sees a smart investment but he’s no respect for history or for tradition, I do. In that sense, I’m the real owner here, the deeds might be in his name and he might have put up the money, but I know the house and the land, I care. If you spend the next day and a half with your nose stuck in Sir Norman’s books your bound to uncover a few things and its maybe better if I show them to you first just so you understand while you’ll have to keep your mouth shut when you leave. She reached for my wrist to pull me towards the door. “Come on I the moment you think I’m raving and the only way I can show you I’m not is to take you on a tour of the grounds”.
By the time we left the house the sun had already set, an absence of street or lamp lighting on the estate meant that the path which would take us in the forest was not clear. Jackie had we wait outside one of the newer sheds while she went inside to look for torches. The door of the shed was open ajar giving me a view of Jackie rummaging through the top shelf of the back wall. The dimmer light of the shed softened her features, her freckles were less obvious and her hair Colour seemed closer to red than orange. For a moment, I tried to imagine what it would be like to get closer to her. I banished these thoughts as quickly as they came after all to move on Jackie would be like trying to pet a wolf, tempting but you’d likely lose an arm. After about five minutes Jackie found two torches and we were on our way.
We’d walked about twenty yards south of the house and were about to head towards the river when Jackie turned to me shone her torch in my eyes. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you looking at me while I was in the shed, I’ll let it pass for now because we’re busy tonight but just to let you know it’s not happening. Now if you want to go on ahead follow the sound the river until you get the bridge.” To say I lead our party of two forward would be over generous. I took tiny steeps forward to avoid tripping over branches and twigs. My Torch was the weaker of the two and the faint needle of light it emitted was my only source of illumination. After I avoided walking into my second tree trunk I realized I was being punished for my earlier near indiscretion. Jackie seemed to know every path through the forest and could have made this journey at any point during the day blindfolded but I had to be made to suffer somehow, it was almost a point of principal.
Step by step the rush of the river became ever more audible until at last I could make out the outline of the bridge. As I got closer I could see that the broad birch planks had been reinforced with steel and had been given solid railings. Confidant that it would support our weight I stopped and waited for Jackie to give further instructions. It was only then that I realized that I had not heard Jackie make a sound for close to fifteen minutes. The path behind me was completely obscured by the darkness if Jackie was there she had decided to turn her torch off. I had begun to shout her name when I heard a weak chuckle coming from the bridge. “Not as easy to find your way as might think”. At first, I could only hear her voice then gradually the bridge began to fill with light as if someone had struck a match the size of a hockey stick. In the newly bright area ahead of me Jackie stood seeming somehow taller than before, her hair was loose, and it fell down the left side of her face in a bunch of curls. She had discarded her combat jacket revealing the light blue tank top she had on underneath. At her side, as high as her waist stood something bipedal and roughly canine shaped. Its fur was a sort of caramel brown, though only about as long as a standard Labrador it sported a tail as long and thin as a strand of cat o nine tails. Jackie looked down at the beast, scratching it behind the ear and gave it a smile I was certain very few humans had ever seen.
“When you take on an estate like this one you have to reckon with history, with all of those who lived here in the past. Not just the owners, one generation of dickhead on a horse is much the same as the next. Inside when I mentioned the responsibly I had to this place, I was talking about the responsibly to the memory of everyone who labored on this land, everyone who endured cold and starvation and above all those who lost their homes who became displaced during the creation of this grand hunting ground. Not all of them were human, some were like my friend here. Come forward I won’t tell you they don’t bite but if you keep your wits about you you’ll be grand. “
I’d always been nervous around even slightly large dogs and as I approached the creature memories of a terrifying encounter with a childhood neighbor’s Jack Russell surfaced. Seeing my discomfort Jackie squinted her eyes and stuck out her tongue at me. “You don’t get outdoors, much do you?” My cheeks began to burn on hearing her indulgent condensation. “For your information I’m a member of a hill-walking group it’s just that you’re asking me to get dangerously close to an animal no one but you has seen before and frankly I have no way of predicting its behavior.” “Ah right I knew from the very minute I met you that you’d a good streak of common sense but it’s not until now that I find out this comes from being a complete wuss.”
“You said yourself it might bite me”
“Aye it might but you still need to come forward if you want to understand what it is and what it has to do with Sir Norman”.
In the end Jackie became bored of my tentative shuffles towards the light, as soon as I was close enough she grabbed me by the arm and pulled me forwards. Once I was on the bridge she pulled my head forwards until my face was just two inches from hers. “This is the third time this evening I’ve stopped to tell you something important. I won’t go on as much this time I only want to warn you. You’ve been let in on some big secrets tonight and you are about to see some more. You say you can keep your mouth shut and I’m inclined to believe you but if you do blab you might find something nasty scratching at your back door” She then looked down and nodded at the thing at her feet. “Understood”
She pushed me away from her before shouting. “We’ve a fair bit to go yet before you can have your answers but luckily, we’ll have a bit of light and a guide.” She took her hand away from the animal’s ear and it began to walk forwards. As it turned away from us our section of the bridge began to darken. It was almost as if the creature was dragging the light away with it. The light was somehow coming from the animal.
Despite Jackie’s warning about still having ‘a fair bit to go’ before we arrived at our destination the journey was considerably shorter than the one that came before it. Once we crossed the bridge we followed Jackie’s beast for what could not have been longer than five kilometers until we came to the foot of Sawel Mountain the highest peck of the Sperrin range. We stood looking up at this six-hundred and seventy-eight-meter-high slab of limestone while the creature prowled around the moss-covered stones around us its nose to the ground its tail raised above its head. At periodic points it stopped tensed its upper torso and bagged its tail on the ground. The creature came to a standing stone close to the slope of the hill, it raised its head and sniffed the air around it. Dropping to the ground it brought its tail around and touched the bottom of the stone. While all of this was going on I was leaning against a tree feeling my temples as my head began to throb, it had been a few hours since I’d had my last glass of wine. For this reason, my interest in the movements of the creature was detached at first until I realized it was searching for something. I was watching what may well have been an entirely undiscovered animal prowl around its territory, it was checking these stones with human-like diligence. Once it had established that this stone was the one it was looking for it began to dig.
Jackie came up behind me and wisped in my ear. “They’re old you know, been hear as long as we have, I’m not the first to discover them. As far as I can work out Sir Norman came across them shortly after he came into his inheritance. It’s all in those papers you were looking though back in the house. He was having a hunting party, over the days of chasing the stag all throughout the grounds. They routed out every corner and hole. Their horses trampled over all the dirt of the forest, in the end they found them. At first Sir Norman wanted to kill it, it was on his land, it was strange no one knew what to do with it. Then the miracle happened, it showed Sir Norman something, something it is about to show us”. Jackie pointed towards the creature and what it had been digging. In the short amount of time we had been talking it had dug a much larger hole than I would have expected. The hole was perfectly round and roughly five meters in diameter, from the center light like the kind that was emitting from the creature shone faintly at first.
As the light grew stronger it changed Colour becoming blood- orange red. The creature turned around to face us, it nodded its head towards the hole. Jackie moved forwards and bent down to look at the hole. “From the day Sir Norman saw what we’re looking at now to his ‘death ‘a decade later he visited our friends four more times, from what I understand they made him a sort of promise. If he would keep people away and preserve the area for them then when the day came they would show him what goes on at the bottom of these holes. I know this because they have made the same deal with me. I bought these grounds with my brother fifteen years ago and in that time, I’ve worked hard to keep him away from certain places. In the last few mouths it’s gotten harder as he’s got his bloody B and B idea. Tonight, it seems I’m done, that’s why you’re here.”
The creature had moved and was now laying at my feet, in the distance I could hear a strange drum beat. All my pervious apprehension about these animals vanished as I reached down to stroke it. It’s hide was much cooler than I had anticipated, and I pulled my hand away in surprise. Looking up I saw Jackie jump into the ever-widening hole, before she disappeared entirely she looked at me and blew me a kiss. When she had gone, and the light began to fade the creature departed from me and leapt into the hole. I was left to make my way through the darkness back to the estate. I was stumbling though some brambles when I felt something breathing behind me. My last memory of that night was of seeing the tail of one of the creature’s landing on my head. By the time I became conscious again it was morning.
Twenty years have passed since that night at The Bellition Estate. Over the years I have befriended Barry and visit him serval times a year. On the evening of October, the third the anniversary of Sir Norman’s death we host charity ‘Bellition Suppers’ where we have dinner while reading from the volume of his collected poems I published the year of that first night. We always end the night by going on a midnight mock hunting trip. It amuses Barry that I always stay behind when the rest of the group goes back to the warm house. Every couple of years I come across one of the creatures. During these past few years they have found me more frequently, I am taking this as a sign that I have nearly fulfilled my end of the bargain. Next week I am planning to take my niece Mary out to show her the creature just as Jackie showed me all those years ago. It somehow feels right that someone who grew up around here should take on this strange stewardship. Perhaps if enough of us share in the collective responsibility for looking out for those creatures then they might come out of hiding and live among us.
As of yet I have not yet encountered Jackie, on the night she went away with them I returned to the house in a panic. Initially when her disappearance was being treated as suspicious I was of course the natural suspect, it was not until I could prove that I had been knocked unconscious’ before’ the disappearance that I was ruled out. A fortnight later we found a letter in Jackie’s bedroom. In extremely neat handwriting she informed the world that she had left of her own accord and we were ‘never to mind where’. The brisk impatient tone of these letters always caused me to smile. I feel somehow that if these creatures really are going to show me their world then Jackie will be my guide.
© Enda Boyle