'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Cave

I've heard some very strange bird sounds in the garden. I'm hoping to see some very strange birds, but no luck so far. The wife's uncle would have a story or two to tell at this point if he was here. Apparently bird-watching was popular amongst soldiers in the first World War. The peace of birds must have provided some respite, although the highlight of my limited bird-watching experience was seeing two robins fight over territory. That's not the sort of thing you'd want to see to take your mind off a war. There you are, living in a trench, fighting for years, shelling soldiers in another trench and they shell you, all over a piece of land, and there's that little robin saying, "No, it's mine."

My cousin Bertie has been 'wooing' a woman called Miriam for years. He uses the word 'wooing'. He says it's the only fair description of what he does to her. He doesn't have a word for what she does to him because if there is any activity on her part it's too minute to detect. She hasn't killed him with a pitch-fork -- that's all the encouragement he needs, and even if she did he'd just think she's playing hard to get and he'd continue the wooing. He's been able to detect more activity in dead people than in her. Detecting activity in dead people is one of his hobbies. If she found out about this she'd leave him with the speed of a pitch-fork flying through the air, or else she'd kill him with a pitch-fork. He'd have words to describe what he's doing when he's dead. 'Wooing' would be one.

He took her on a picnic once. They went to the top of a small hill and they sat in the shade of a tree. For miles around they could see hills and valleys painted in the vivid colours of summer.

They were all alone for over an hour, until a hiker stopped for a chat as he was passing by. He told them about a cave he'd just passed. He heard some strange sounds coming from inside, and he thought he saw a faint light. He was going to go in, but as he was listening to the noises outside he had the keys in the ignition of his imagination and he left the engine running for too long. His mind came up with many different ways in which he could injure or lose his fingers if he went into the cave. He was a pianist, so he was sensitive about his fingers. He imagined a wild animal taking one of them, and he'd chase the animal for hours, or a rock could fall on his hand, or he could put his hand in a hole because of a momentary lapse in the part of his brain that lobbies against the policy of putting his hands into dark holes, and the hole could be the home of something that lives on fingers.

He listed out more of these possibilities. Bertie was fascinated by the insight he could get into people's minds by examining their fears of losing body parts, but he knew it wouldn't be to Miriam's taste, so he interrupted the hiker and asked for directions to the cave. The hiker duly obliged and he continued on his way. Bertie and Miriam packed up the picnic and went to the cave. Bertie's interest in the activities of dead people meant that he always carried a flashlight with him, so he decided to go into the cave, and to his surprise, Miriam wanted to go with him.

They went in, and they'd only gone a few yards when they heard a sound. They both stopped to listen. It was just a faint echo of the original sound, and it was impossible to identify the source. They walked on, and the sounds kept coming, getting louder all the time. They became increasingly certain that the sounds had a human source. They saw a light up ahead. Bertie turned off the flashlight as they approached it.

They stopped where the cave opened onto a huge cavern that was lit by two lights on ledges at either side. Four people stood in a circle in the centre of the cavern (or as Bertie said later, they would have been standing in a square if there was just four of them). They were wearing robes. Every so often one of them said something in a strange language.

There was a powerful lobby group in Bertie's brain that believed in retreat, but it wasn't strong enough to overcome his curiosity. He decided to make their presence known and say they're looking for directions. So he said, "Excuse me." They looked at him and Miriam. "I think we took a wrong turn somewhere and we seem to be lost."

"Where are ye going to?" one of the four said.

"Cahir," Bertie said, even though he wouldn't be seen looking at dead people in Cahir.

After arguing about which would be the best way to go, they were able to give him directions to Cahir.

"Thanks very much," Bertie said. "I hope we didn't disturb ye."

"Not at all," one of them said. "We weren't really doing anything."

After years of looking at Miriam, Bertie knew exactly what would constitute doing nothing, and they certainly weren't doing that. "It's a nice day for it," he said.

"Is the sun still shining?"

"Yeah, it's a beautiful day outside."

"We've been in here for hours."

"Ye should go out. The hills are the perfect place to do nothing."

"That's what I've been saying," one of the four said.

"I suppose we might as well go out," another one said.

They followed Bertie and Miriam out of the cave. It was three o' clock in the afternoon when they got out. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Bertie could see that the people in robes were all young, in their late teens or early twenties. He said, "My name is Bertie and this is Miriam."

The four introduced themselves as Pete, Alan, George and Rachel. George was a woman. Bertie came close to asking where was Timmy the dog, to make up the Famous Five, but he resisted. Instead he asked them if they'd like to join himself and Miriam for the rest of their picnic. They said they'd love to.

They found a suitable spot amongst the wild flowers. They ate cakes and drank tea. Bertie said they'd chosen very interesting attire for doing nothing, and he asked if they were part of a religious order.

"I wouldn't call it 'religious'," Pete said. "I don't know what I'd call it."

Bertie was used to persevering in the face of phrases like 'we weren't really doing anything' and 'I don't know what I'd call it'. He said, "Is it political or is it just a social activity?"

"There might be something political about it. I haven't really thought about that. Lots of things are political when you think about them, and until you think about them they're just something you do to say 'up yours' to the person who said you couldn't do it. You get to say 'up yours' to a lot of people when it's political."

"So ye're not saying 'up yours' to anyone."

"No. What was that other thing you said, besides 'political'?"


"Yeah, social. Not 'social' in a political way. Although maybe it is. I must think about that."

"So it's just a sort of a group activity, is it?"

"That's exactly what it is. We found these robes in George's grandmother's attic and we said we should do something with them."

Bertie always suspected they were doing something. "Where did your grandmother get the robes?" he said to George.

"She's not entirely sure where they came from. It was probably Grandad who got them. He was funny like that."

"What about those words ye were saying?"

"We make them up ourselves," Pete said. "Today I came up with 'newel'. It's a type of butterfly I invented."

"I think a newel is the central post in a spiral stairs."

"Oh well, it's not as if I was going to be able to make a butterfly anyway."

"So ye found the robes and ye decided to go to the cave and come up with words."

"At first we were just going to wear the robes, but then this film-maker asked if he could film us doing what we normally do. He's filming the lives of young people in the area. We didn't really do anything, so we thought we should do something for the camera. Standing in the cave and chanting words seemed like the perfect thing to do when we were wearing robes."

"The film-maker can't have been expecting that."

"No. A friend of ours, Dan, decided to take up pole-vaulting just to have something to do on camera. He's been stuck in a tree since yesterday. Everyone's being doing things for the film."

"Do ye mind spending so much time in the cave?"

"No. At first it seemed a bit odd, but then we found a stash of whiskey and it made the place seem more human."

Bertie didn't know what to say at first. Needless to say, he wanted to see the whiskey, so he said 'lead me to the whiskey', or words to that effect. And they had the desired effect. Bertie didn't know what to say when he saw the light of his torch reflecting off all those bottles in a narrow cave that led off from the cavern.

He thought of Christie, who was an expert on whiskey. He'd be the man to consult on this. Bertie felt that consultation was needed, just to put his mind at rest.

So he took a bottle to Christie. Pete and his friends went with them. Christie tasted it and started crying. He said, "I remember the day Veronica wore a flower in her hair at the funfair as if it was yesterday. It was last week. She was the love of my life. And now she's gone. To a two-day computer course."

"That sounds like the greatest whiskey ever," Bertie said.

"You shouldn't be listening to whiskey as good as this," Christie said. "Have a drink."

"I can't. I'm driving."

Miriam tried it, and a faint smile appeared on her face, a smile that could only be detected by trained observers like Bertie. He nearly fainted when he saw how powerful the whiskey was. He was determined to try it when he got home, so he poured it into another bottle replacing the whiskey with a cheap drink provided by Christie.

Bertie said he'd get a bottle for Christie as well, and they went back to the cave. As they made their way towards the cavern they heard voices. Bertie turned off his flashlight, and they slowly crept forward.

There was something familiar about the sight before them in the cavern. Seven people in robes stood in a circle. Hoods covered their heads. Six of them wore red robes, and one wore black. The one in black seemed to be the leader of this cult, or whatever it was. If they were anything like Pete and his friends they wouldn't know what they are.

Bertie desperately hoped they were like Pete and his friends, but it wasn't to be. They saw a light behind them, and they heard a voice ordering them forward into the cavern.

They did as they were told, and they were followed in by another two members of the cult, one of whom held the light.

The leader (the one in black) said, "Our altar has been defiled by the presence of the uninitiated."

Bertie thought they'd be furious if they found out that the reason for their presence was to bring about the absence of the whiskey, and he didn't want to find out what a furious cult would do to extinguish their presence from the cave. Anyone with whiskey as good as theirs was either close to God or to the devil. Most signs pointed towards the latter. He said, "If..."

"Silence! We have evidence to suggest that our cave has been desecrated by the rituals of pagans."

"We were just talking about this," Pete said. "We don't really do anything. It isn't a religious thing at all."

"That's more-or-less what 'pagan' means," Bertie said.

"Oh right. I was hoping it was a mouse with wings."

Bertie saw a chance to distract the cult. He said to Pete, "What name did you give to the animal who was drinking the whiskey?"

All of the cult members rushed to where they kept the bottles. Pete said, "Was that one the 'carpet bag'?"

He didn't get a chance to answer his own question. Bertie pointed towards the exit. Pete, Alan, George and Rachel all understood what he meant. Miriam was already on her way out of the cave.

They heard the cult chasing them. Bertie heard something about a missing bottle too. As they ran away, Pete suggested going to the film-maker. "I think we're less likely to come to any harm when we're being filmed," he said.

The film-maker was with Aaron and his brother, Craig, who lived on a farm near the cave. The brothers had decided to do something for the camera as well. Bertie and the others saw them in a field near the farm. They were both on horses. They had taken either side of an old wooden door frame, and sharpened the ends with an axe. They got the idea for this from seeing jousting on TV. It was only when they were holding the bits of the door frame on horseback that they realised how dangerous it was, so they were just circling each other as they were being filmed.

Bertie and co stopped when they got to the safety of the camera. They looked back and saw a line of figures in robes, about a hundred yards away. Aaron and Craig couldn't work up the courage to ride towards each other, but they were perfectly willing to charge towards the people hidden beneath the robes. The robes couldn't possibly conceal anything as big as a door frame.

The brothers made a war-like cry as they began their charge, which triggered a cry of terror from the tree between them and the people in the robes. Dan had been clinging to a branch of the tree since the failure of his pole-vaulting experiment on the previous day. He was afraid he'd fall if he loosened his grip. But the fear of the horsemen was greater than the fear of falling, so he finally let go and made his way to the ground.

He ran away screaming, and his scream got louder when he saw the line of people dressed in the red robes, with the leader in black in the centre. He turned around and ran the other way, until he remembered the horsemen and turned back. But the people in robes were still there, so he turned back again.

The cult had remained motionless when the brothers began their charge, but they were scared of this screaming mad man running in circles, having been deposited in front of them by the tree. They turned around and ran.

Dan eventually found the appropriate direction to take
him away from the horsemen and the cult. Aaron and Craig both thought the same thing at the same time: if Dan had pole-vaulted into that tree, then his pole must be on the ground nearby, and if one of them had something much longer than a door frame they could torment the other one for hours.

They got to the tree at the same time, and they fought over the pole, using the bits of the door frame to hit each other. The film-maker got the whole thing on camera. He had been expecting to film teenagers doing nothing, with long silences punctuated by incoherent words that conveyed less meaning than the silence, but with the appropriate editing he could make this film into a thriller.

The moose's head over the fireplace enjoys the fleeting company of the cuckoo in the cuckoo clock. They were both surprised the first time they saw each other. The surprise faded with each re-appearance of the cuckoo. The wife tried to re-ignite the surprise by putting the moose's Sherlock Holmes hat on his head, and putting a tiny straw hat on the cuckoo. I can go bird-watching from the comfort of my armchair near the fire. I often have to wait to see the cuckoo, but it's rarely surprising when he does appear, unless he's wearing the straw hat or a waistcoat.