Rory’s father said the blessing, after which a heavy silence descended. The smell of meat, mint and rosemary had built up in the kitchen, as oppressive as the leftover heat from the oven.
Rory’s mother carved. “So you’re from Dublin, Mrs. Moore?”
“A city girl, that’s right. I hope you won’t hold it against me.”
“And you’re travelling alone?”
Rory followed his mother’s gaze to the pale skin circling the bottom of Ashling’s ring finger.
“You’ve such a beautiful home,” said Ashling.
“So you’ve said. And yours is where, did you say?”
Rory looked to his father, hoping he’d put a stop to this inquisition, but the man was oblivious, shoveling more meat and potato into his wet mouth.
“I’m afraid nowhere’s home at the moment,” Ashling said. “I’m keeping my options open.”
“I see,” said his mother, with an edge as serrated as her knife.
Ashling excused herself from the kitchen as soon as the meal finished. Rory’s father remained at the table, worrying the carrot from between his teeth with his dirty fork. His mother curled a solider of bread and sopped up the last of the lamb’s blood from her plate.
“She’s a strange one, isn’t she?”
Rory stood. “It’s beyond me why anyone would pay to stay here and put up with you and your prying.”
“Don’t talk to your mother like that,” his father said. “We charge a fair rate besides. Nothing she can’t afford coming from Dublin.” His parents carried on with their gossip while Rory washed the dishes with ferocity, smacking at the water in the sink and picturing there his mother’s face. He barely noticed their conversation fall silent as Ashling returned to the room with the chess case in hand.
“Rory? How about that lesson?”
“Chess, is it?” said his father. “I used to play years ago. And look at this set!” He reached for the lacquered case and gushed at the carved pieces inside. “Lookit, Dolores! Aren’t they something?”
“Tedious game,” his mother said.
“Let’s play, shall we?” He sprung from the kitchen with the chess case under his arm.
“It seems we shall,” said Ashling, flashing to Rory another apologetic little smile as she followed his father into the living room.
His father had remained at the chess board until late that night, each of the old man’s moves having taken far too long—his attention given more to the TV than the game. The next morning Rory lingered in bed before daybreak, fantasizing about Ashling in the room next to his. He burrowed deeper into the warmth of his sheets and repeated Ashling’s name in a whisper, yet as much as he strained to hear some life from her room through the thin wall, there was only silence. He pictured her splayed naked on the guest bed, her lips parted and eyes thick with lust, her pale finger beckoning him. His hand moved into his shorts and he stroked himself to the rhythm of her name, Ash-ling, Ash-ling.
After milking the cows and returning the herd to the pasture, Rory and his father worked the hay fields all through the morning and into the relentless noonday sun. By early afternoon the much-awaited silhouette shimmered in the distance—Rory’s mother come with the lunch, a large picnic basket pulling on the crook of her arm. As she neared, Rory shaded his eyes with his hand, confused at first by the slim, sculpted outline and then filling with excitement as he realized. His father greeted Ashling heartily and freed her of the weight of the picnic basket.
“I hope you’re not vexed with me after last night?” he teased.
“Never,” she said. “All’s fair in chess.”
Rory grabbed a ham and cheese sandwich from the basket and ate furiously. Why couldn’t the old fool just go off someplace? Did he not realize how daft he sounded, not knowing that she’d let him win? She pitied him, Rory was sure. How could she not?
Ashling settled on the baked ground and leaned against the haystack between father and son, her shoulder brushing Rory’s and sending electric charges down his arm.
“Are you up for another game this evening?” asked Rory’s father. “I promise to go easy on you this time.”
“I believe Rory wants his turn at besting me tonight.”
“I doubt he even knows how to play, do you, boy?”
“You’ve no idea what I know.”
Ashling sighed… [break]