'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Friday, February 23, 2007

The Aliens

The daffodils have emerged from their hibernation. The grass is growing quickly. I've never seen any great need to keep it short. My great-grandfather once planned to build a lawn tennis court in the garden, but the need to keep the grass short put him off. You wouldn't think he'd have to build anything. The lawn was already there, and he just needed to add the lines and the net. But he was going to build unnecessary red brick walls on the court. I think the purpose of the walls was to show how much he hated tennis.

My cousin Gary was looking out the window one evening. A bus passed by, but his mind was elsewhere, so he didn't notice the traffic. A strange sound brought his mind back from wherever it was to where he kept his brain. It was a sudden return to the real world, and the shock of it triggered a reaction that was just as strange as the sound. He raised one foot in the air and put his hand out in front of him, with all of his fingers extended. The look on his face suggested a combination of surprise, fear and regret at having sat on something that wasn't as dry as it looked.

His sister, Chloe, was just passing by the open door when she heard the sound. She was on her way to the porch to take a photo of a plant in a pot, just because she wanted to show the photo to some of her friends. She recovered from the shock of the noise in time to photograph her brother's reaction. She showed that photo to some of her friends, but it was such a great photo that it seemed wasted on the type of people who'd be interested in seeing a photo of a plant, so she sent it to a newspaper to see if they'd publish it.

The editor's name was Myles. He always wanted to be the editor of a newspaper because he was attracted to the life-style of smoking, drinking and stress-related illness. He married a model, also for life-style reasons, but she made him give up cigarettes, cut down on alcohol and take relaxing breaks to a house in the country. He was worried that his good health would damage his reputation, so he let people think he had a gambling problem.

He liked the photo of Gary because it looked so odd, and the reaction seemed to be spontaneous. But he couldn't put it in the paper just because it was odd. He might get away with that if he had a drink problem, but thanks to his wife he had been prevented from using many libelous stories and photos and then blaming it on the drink.

But then he remembered a story they were doing on the government's proposed funding for new schools. He decided to use the photo of Gary with this story. The photo appeared over the caption 'A voter reacts to the minister's announcement'.

Most people who saw it found it amusing. Gary's reaction would have been a perfect way to illustrate the government's crime policy, but no one was there to capture it on camera. His friends thought it was hilarious. Chloe found it funny too, but she decided to avoid her brother for as long as possible.

As it turned out, this wasn't very long. He found her and he was just about to complain when he heard what sounded like a dog howling. He looked up at the ceiling as he listened to the sound. His mouth was hanging open, and Chloe couldn't resist taking another photo of him. When the sound stopped he began his complaint about the photo. Chloe nodded at everything he said and apologised unreservedly. He accepted her apology and left, and then she sent the most recent photo of him to the editor.

Myles used this photo to illustrate the government's attitude to global warming. The government didn't find these photos funny at all. A minister said that Myles was out of control, and he loved hearing that. It felt like drinking a double whiskey in one go.

Gary became a minor celebrity because of his appearances in the paper. He was interviewed on a radio show, and he said that in the first photo he was just reacting to a very strange noise he heard. Other people phoned the radio station and said that they heard a strage noise at about the same time in the same area. And then someone phoned in and said they could identify the source of the sound.

A group of students in a local secondary school had planned to enter a science competition with a machine that tells you when your plants need to be watered. Early on in their work they discovered that their machine made a strange noise, so they forgot about the plants and concentrated on the noise. By the time they finished the machine they were able to classify the sound as 'a very strange noise'. When they were showing it to the judges at the science competition they pressed the button to make the noise. Everyone else thought it was a very impressive noise, but the judges didn't think much of it. The students left the competition without a prize. When they were going home on the bus they hooked up their invention with a machine that identifies the colour of paint, which came third in the competition. The result was the very, very strange noise that Gary heard.

The newspaper was selling tens of thousands more copies because of the publicity over Gary's reactions. Myles asked Chloe for more photos. She said she'd need assistants if she wanted to induce strange reactions in her brother again. He told her she could hire anyone and take as much from the expense account as she wanted. She hired the students who created the noise. She got them to work on different noises to surprise her brother. This method worked twice, once when Gary was in the garden and the noise made him climb a tree, and another time when the noise made him put his hand in his mouth.

But the third noise didn't work at all. Chloe was standing nearby with her camera. Gary turned to her and said, "Ha! I'll never fall for that again."

He gave her a single-finger salute, which she photographed. The photo was used to illustrate the government's defence of the health service. Myles expected the government to be furious, but they had changed their opinion of Gary's reactions. He was getting a lot of media attention, and they thought they could use it to their advantage. They told Gary they'd like to photograph him in a hot tub with a former Miss World. They wanted to use this to illustrate their tax policy.

Myles had no interest in using the photos if the government supported them. That's why Chloe decided to make Gary react while he was with the former Miss World. She knew that Myles would use a photo of that because of the presence of the former beauty queen and because it would ruin the government's photo shoot.

Gary had stopped reacting to the noises on their own, so she needed to think on a bigger scale, and there was no limit to the scale because of her access to the expense account. She thought that Gary would be un-nerved if he saw a game of human chess. He'd let his guard down, and that would be the time to pounce with the latest noise. It would have to be the most disturbing noise of all.

Chloe hired actors to play the chess pieces, and because of the limitless funds, she hired another set of actors to play another set of chess pieces. The second set would arrive at the chess board (on a lawn outside the hotel where Gary was meeting the former Miss World) and they'd see the first set, who'd be ordered off the board. This would un-nerve the second set. Gary would be even more un-nerved by a set of human chess pieces who looked nervous as they stood completely still on the board.

When Gary met the former Miss World he told her he always got to know women before getting into a hot tub with them. They drank champagne.

The second set of chess pieces arrived outside. Some of them asked what was going on when they saw the first set on the board, but no one answered their questions. They were told that they'd hear a noise as Gary looked at them, and they should remain completely still all the time.

The students had come up a noise which they classified as 'very disturbing'. In tests it had made mice cover their ears with their paws. As the students waited for Gary to appear on the scene, they switched on their machine. A red light was supposed to come on, but it didn't. One of them tried pressing the button to make the noise, but no sound came from the machine. He pressed the button again, and again and again until the button jammed. The power cable was attached to an extension lead, and one of the students followed the lead back to its source, where he found the cause of their lack of power: it wasn't plugged in. So he plugged it in.

The machine emitted its disturbing sound, and it kept making the noise. It terrified the two sets of chess pieces, and their reaction was to fight each other. The chess board became a battle field, and the continuous noise only made the fighting more intense. The participants didn't know if they were supposed to be fighting pieces of the opposite colour or the pieces from the other set, so they just fought anyone.

Gary had been getting on very well with the former Miss World. Even the noise outside didn't divert their attention from each other. The champagne certainly helped. She didn't speak much English, but Gary was able to translate the expression on her face as 'kiss me'. He double checked his mental dictionary to make sure. If it wasn't for this pause he might have got to kiss her, but just after he closed the dictionary eight screaming bishops ran by. Her expression changed. Gary checked in the dictionary again, and the best translation he could come up with was 'Eight bishops. Wow'. She went outside to see what was going on, and Gary went with her.

One of the students eventually remembered why the machine had refused to make its sound earlier. He unplugged the extension lead and the noise ceased. The battle halted immediately. No one moved -- this was their reaction to the eerie silence. The scene had all the desolation of a battle field after a battle. The former Miss World walked slowly across the chess board. Chloe took a photo of her, and it appeared on the front page of the paper on the following day. Most people translated her expression as 'Your country's weird. I'm going home'.

Chloe gave up photographing her brother's reactions. She remembered her roots, and she photographed the plant in the porch instead.

The moose's head over the fireplace is good at predicting the weather, or so the wife's uncle claims, but he says the same thing about swallows, snails, dolphins, dead butterflies and a wire clothes hanger he found. He looks into the moose's eyes and says 'It's going to rain' or 'It'll be fine tomorrow'. Actually he's never said 'It'll be fine tomorrow'. In fairness, he's been very accurate so far.