'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

The talking clock

I sat on a metal garden seat and looked out across the lawn. There’s just a small patch of lawn in this little corner of the garden. It’s easy to forget that the rest of the world exists when you sit here.

My aunt Beatrice once claimed that she was in the Guinness Book of Records, but she was trying to say something else at the time. She often gets things mixed up after a few drinks, and she has an extraordinary capacity for drink. Her son, my cousin Hugh, once ran as a candidate in the local elections. Two weeks before polling day, he called up the talking clock and the woman on the other end of the line said, “The time is seven thirty-five PM. It’s raining outside. You are wearing clothes.” The government had decided to withdraw funding for the Samaritans, so they combined it with the talking clock. They did a survey and found that the biggest worry for most people was with their clothes, so they thought the message ‘You are wearing clothes’ would be reassuring. They added in the Meteorological service phone line too. Their message was always the same: ‘It’s raining outside.’ Some felt that this wouldn’t help the people calling up for the Samaritans, but it would be true more often than ‘The sun is shining.’ But Hugh didn’t know any of this when he heard the message. It was raining at the time, and he wondered how the woman knew he was wearing clothes. Was she watching him? Around about midnight he removed all of his clothes and called her up again. She said, “It’s twelve ten AM. It’s raining outside. You are wearing clothes.” He said, “Ha! I’m not wearing any clothes! I’m completely naked!” The woman at the other end of the line just said that his call would be traced and she hung up. Hugh was arrested, and the press made a big deal of this story about a local election candidate sexually harassing the woman who did the talking clock. On the morning after his arrest, a group of journalists, photographers and TV crews arrived at my aunt Beatrice’s house. Hugh hadn’t told her what happened. A journalist asked her what she thought of her son’s arrest and she said, “His which?” “His arrest… for calling up the talking clock and telling the woman he wasn’t wearing clothes.” This rang a bell in Beatrice’s mind. She remembered an incident from the previous week when Hugh was walking along the coast with his girlfriend and they got stuck on a small island when the tide came in. They had to call the coast guard. She said, “Oh… I didn’t think you could get arrested for something like that. I mean, it’s just something he did with his girlfriend. I didn’t realise they were naked, but…” “His girlfriend was involved too?” “Of course she was. He wouldn’t have done it with another woman. It’s ridiculous, arresting them for something like that. But then I suppose if they were naked… But even still, it was just a bit of fun.” “Why did they call the talking clock?” “They got stuck on an island when the tide came in, without their clothes, so they called the… the talking clock.” Beatrice had a feeling that that didn’t sound right, but then she realised why they called the clock. She said, “They must have lost their watches when they lost their clothes, however they lost their clothes. And they needed to know the time because they wanted to know when the tide would be going out.” Hugh was much happier with this latest story. It sounded a lot better than sexual harassment, and the press were treating it as sort of a joke. But he wondered how he was going to explain this to his girlfriend. He decided to tell her that there was no truth in the story, obviously, but the press won’t believe their denials, and the only thing they could say in that situation was ‘no comment’. So that’s what she said when she was asked about it, and the press came up with many different stories to explain how they ended up naked on a small island. Hugh’s popularity soared and he topped the polls in the local election.

The moose’s head over the fireplace seemed to be looking up at the ceiling so I looked up at the ceiling too, but I couldn’t see anything. I wondered if he was looking like that because he was trying to think of something, and I found myself looking up at the ceiling too as I thought about this. I laughed when I realised what I was doing, and the moose continued to look up. But he wasn’t really looking up either – it just looked that way.