“What’s wrong with living in a house called Hangman’s Cottage?” demanded Connor O’Sullivan.
His wife Maureen, tired of constantly arguing with him, gave in, as she always did eventually.
“Okay, but don’t expect me to like it,” she grumbled in her mouse-like nervous whisper. “It’s d-downright creepy—that’s why it’s in such a hell of a mess, and been unoccupied for so many years. And w-what about the ‘Gallows Tree’ in the front garden?”
“So it’s been used to hang people a couple of hundred years ago. Who cares? Are you expecting a pack of ghosts to swarm in through the window?” he jeered at her, sniggering at her expense as he so often did. “Don’t be so bloody daft, woman! I’m going to have the damned thing cut down anyway—it cuts out all the daylight.”
I was sitting in Maureen’s kitchen in the old cottage, as she outlined to me how they’d come to buy the semi-derelict building that she wanted me to organise the renovations for. Maureen was a dark-haired attractive woman in her thirties, whose nervous manner and scared eyes suggested deep unhappiness and years of domestic abuse. I noticed big bruises on her arms, and a hunted, wary look in her eyes, and felt very sorry for her.
“The thing is, Jamie, now you’ve explained what we can do, I can see it could be a nice house,” Maureen admitted in her timid, child-like voice. “I just hate the thought that a hangman lived here. And that so many people died on the Gallows Tree outside.”
“But the council will let you cut it down, won’t they?”
“I hope so. Jamie?” She stared at me imploringly. “You’re so kind and easy to talk to, I want to tell you something. The fact is, I’m scared of my husband—I suppose I always have been. When we were first married, I loved his macho, dominating ways until I found out what he was really like. You know, he puts me down all the time, and sometimes he hits me.” She hiccupped and covered her mouth with her hand. I’d seen her drink four glasses of whisky in the short time I’d been there, and she was clearly on the wrong side of sobriety, which was obviously why she was sharing her secrets with a total stranger. “We’ve been on the point of divorce more than once, and him insisting on buying this damned place is the last straw for me. I’m determined to leave him, but I’m terrified of what he might do.”
Connor O’Sullivan owns a string of betting shops, and he’s known for his shady business practices, and barely legal moneylending operations. There’s some mystery about how he got the money for his first ‘Betwad’ branch in London. Someone told me that his first wife had been very rich, and she’d died in distinctly strange circumstances. Presumably the fact that he’d inherited so much money after a particularly short marriage, had been why the police suspected him of arranging her very convenient death, and had even arrested him, but had been forced to release him for lack of evidence.
“Trouble is,” Maureen went on, “he refuses to divorce me. I’ve tried to leave him before, but he always catches up with me. He says that if I leave him again, he’ll deal with me in the same way as he dealt with his first wife. Make of that what you will!” She hiccupped again. “Knowing him as I do now, I reckon he killed her, the bastard! If there was any justice in the world he’d be in prison … I’m so afraid sometimes, Jamie. One day I’m sure he’s going to kill me too.”
As if to emphasize Maureen’s gloom, the large tree outside the window waved its branches miserably in the wind. In addition to its grizzly associations, the Gallows Tree was indeed a large, ugly monstrosity.
Of course I wanted to help her, but what could I do? The fact is that she was drunk, and so could have been lying or exaggerating her situation. And you can never know what goes on between a husband and wife, for which reason you can never interfere. All I could hope was that if he really was abusing her, she’d go to the police, as I advised her to do.
At the pub the following evening I was discussing the Gallows Tree with my friend Mike, a reporter on the local paper.
“That old oak tree used to be at the crossroads as tradition dictates for a gallows, before the new road was built, and the old highways became disused,” he explained. “It’s funny, it’s all very well to view that tree as a ghastly terrible instrument of death, but you could always look at it another way. Sure, people were hanged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for what we’d consider minor offences, but in fact most of those petty criminals were given lesser punishments. In those days, the vast majority of people who were hanged actually deserved it, I reckon. They were mostly murderers, cutthroats, men who would kill and rape without conscience. What’s wrong with protecting society from scum like that? Getting rid of a killer, so he can never kill again, makes a lot of sense in my book.”
“So you reckon the Gallows Tree did a good job?” I asked in amazement.
“If someone’s truly evil, and he kills a relative of yours, or a child, and you know he’s going to go on killing innocent people, wouldn’t you like him to be destroyed? Or would you rather he was sent to prison for eight years so he could be released and do it again? I know which I’d prefer. The Gallows Tree probably saved a lot of innocent lives in the long run.”
The work progressed on Hangman’s Cottage slowly, and after a battle, finally the council agreed to let Connor O’Sullivan cut down the Gallows Tree. And sadly, despite what she’d said to me, Maureen never did walk out on her husband.
The morning the tree surgeon arrived was dark and cloudy—evidently a storm was brewing. As the man touched his roaring chainsaw to the main trunk, the chain snapped and flew up, smashing into his face and lacerating his chest—unfortunately, he hadn’t been wearing his safety vest or protective mask.
After he’d departed in the ambulance, Connor returned home. As Maureen told me:
“Bloody hell, what an idiot!” Connor had fumed at his hapless wife, who’d witnessed the incident and was tearful and shaky. “You say he wasn’t wearing his safety equipment? Thank God for that at least.” He smirked to himself. “It means he can’t make any claims against me for the accident.”
“Is that all you care about?” Maureen yelled, still crying. “That poor man’s in hospital, he might lose his sight! He might have been killed!”
“What a confounded nuisance it is,” Connor rejoined, hardly listening to her. “Let’s hope the next ruddy cowboy I employ knows his arse from his elbow.”
Maureen was so furious that she stumbled out of the house in tears, leaving him alone there.
It was very lucky that she did.
For an hour later Connor’s tree problem was solved in a way he could never have imagined.
The storm began and a bolt of lightning struck the Gallows Tree and brought it down, flattening the house in the process. The same surge of electricity apparently passed through the phone line that was being used, and set Connor’s head on fire, just before his body was crushed to a pulp by falling masonry.
“You know, Jamie, I always used to hate that tree,” Maureen told me afterwards, smiling for the first time since I’d met her, and looking ten years younger. “I’m quite fond of it now.”