'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Puppet

The song of the wind and the rain was ruined by the wife's aunt, who kept saying she loved Paris in the springtime. I don't know what she's trying to say. It's the wrong time of year for that. The wrong place too.

My cousin Craig wanted to be a ventriloquist. He had a puppet called Alexander, but Craig could only talk in monotone when he did the voice of the puppet because all of his concentration went into speaking without moving his lips. He never paused in his speech either. A friend of his called Clara tried to help him. She attached a piece of string to his ankle and every time she pulled it he'd pause. She read from the script as he performed his act, and she pulled the string at every comma. She pulled it twice for a full stop.

After a bit of practise this method came to work very well. She thought they could add inflections to his voice by just adding other pieces of string. She attached one to his other ankle and when she pulled this he'd lower his voice. She attached strings to both of his arms and his ear lobes as well. By pulling the strings she was able to make him raise, lower, speed up or slow down his voice. She could make him sound sarcastic, sad, angry, happy or excited. After a lot of practise, these reactions became automatic in Craig, and he was able to devote all of his attention towards speaking without moving his lips.

During performances, she used to hide at the side of the stage and pull the strings. They became very popular. Clara always came onto the stage at the end and took a bow during the applause. She saw herself as a puppet-master, and he was her puppet, but he preferred to think of himself as a rally driver, and she was his co-driver. "Punctuation is like a map," he said. "You're just reading from the map."

They used to argue about this, and they started arguing about other things during their rehearsals. When he forgot a line one day he said, "I know this."

"Well say it if you know it," she said.

"Shut up for a second so I can think."


"Don't tell me."

"You'll get it wrong."

"I won't. I know it."

"Say it if you know it."

"Shut up for a minute."

"Why won't you just listen to me? I'm looking at it."

"I know this."

"You never listen to me."

"Who's doing the driving here? It's me. Would you just shut up and let me get on with it?"

"You'll get lost and we'll be here all day."

"My ears are sore from your constant tugging."

"All you have to do is ask me. I'm looking at it."

"I know it. It's..."

"'It wasn't even my potato'."

"I knew that."

Just before a show they argued about a string she wanted to attach to his neck. While he was on the stage she pulled on the strings very hard and at the wrong times. They argued again after the show, and this time she said she had enough of the act. She left him.

He tried it without her, but it was like driving without brakes. He started off quickly, and he got quicker, without any pause for breath. He often fell off his chair, and the audience enjoyed this. They loved it when the puppet's head fell off. Craig was getting bigger audiences than ever, even though his performances were much shorter.

But people lost interest in him when a new act came on the scene. A man called Mackenzie played the part of a beach ball in a low-budget film. Hiring him was cheaper than using a real beach ball. He just had to roll over the sand. They used actors to play things like passing cars and tables, and the inanimate objects were much more interesting than the main characters. A hat stand completely outshone the leading lady.

Mackenzie became a mime artist. He'd stand completely still on a stage and pretend to be a filing cabinet or a locked door. People loved the slowness of his act, and they lost interest in the speed of Craig's ventriloquism.

He knew he had to get Clara back if he was to have any chance of regaining his audience. He went to her with flowers and said, "We have to stick together. We've got to make this work for the sake of the kids."

"What kids?"

"The ones in the audience."

"Oh. I don't know. Is it really in the kids' interest to see us arguing all the time?"

"It'll be different now. I realise just how much I need you. I promise to listen to you."

She agreed to return to her role with the strings, but they needed to find a way to win back their audience, and the most obvious method seemed to be the destruction of Mackenzie's act.

They came up with a plan. They knew someone who was making a film, and they suggested Mackenzie for various parts in the film. Mackenzie pretended to be a tee pin in his act. He'd stand completely still and hold a golf ball above his head. They showed a video of this to the director of the film, and he immediately cast Mackenzie as a tee pin. He was so impressed with Mackenzie's act that he also hired him to play a filing cabinet and a door. He created roles for all of the objects that Mackenzie did in his act.

The star of the film was drunk for most of each day. When they were filming the scene on the golf course, Mackenzie stood on the tee and held the ball above him, but the actor just kept hitting him on the legs with his driver. It wasn't much easier to play the filing cabinet. The actor kept pulling his nose. Putting the key in the door was difficult for both of them.

The experience shattered Mackenzie's nerves. The next time he did his act, he couldn't stay still, and the audience booed him. He tried drinking, and this eased his nerves, but it didn't help him stay still.

Craig's ventriloquism act enjoyed a revival. He enjoyed working with Clara again, and she enjoyed working with him. But their favour amongst the public came to an end when the film came out. People loved Mackenzie's performances as the tee pin, the filing cabinet and so on. He added another performer to his act: someone to get drunk and hit him across the legs with a golf club or pull his nose or whatever the situation required. He became more popular than ever, and people lost interest in Craig again. The tension between himself and Clara re-surfaced. They'd argue during rehearsals and before performances, and one night he stopped in the middle of his act to tell her she was pulling too hard on his ears. She came onto the stage and said, "Well duh."

This was the start of a heated argument, and the audience thought it was part of the act because the puppet was looking back and forth between the two of them. They got a standing ovation at the end. They incorporated the argument into their act and they became more popular than ever. And the repeated heated arguments completely drained away all the tension between Clara and Craig.

The moose's head over the fireplace likes having his photo taken, but he always looks stunned in the photo if you use a flash. He likes to look good in photos. I once photographed various family members standing in front of the fireplace. In the photo, the moose's head was wearing his monocle, and I'm sure he wasn't wearing it for the rest of the evening.