'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Colin's House

We've had some snow over the past few days. The mountain tops have a beautiful white icing in the sun. The dog likes the cold weather. I suppose you'd prefer winter to summer if you had a fur coat you couldn't take off.

My cousin Hugh walked to Uncle Cyril's house on a Saturday afternoon in July. Cyril lived a mile away, down a narrow twisting road lined with trees. He was in the garden when Hugh arrived.

"I met Walter on the way," Hugh said. "He said he had to shoot a badger."

"Fair play to him."

"It was self-defence, he said. But the badger didn't die, so he had to take it to the vet, and now he's nursing it back to health. But the badger keeps biting him. He's lost count of the number of injections he's had to get."

"He'd lose count after two if he's stupid enough to get bitten repeatedly by the thing he shot."

"I asked him if he was going to shoot it again after he nursed it back to health. He said he hadn't decided yet. I suppose it depends on how many times the badger bites him."

"Nursing a badger. Sure God help us. You go out and shoot something and you end up being a nurse. It's typical of the way the world is heading."

"Colin's house looked a bit lop-sided when I passed it."

"He hasn't come out in days. I suppose we should pay him a visit."

Colin lived in a two-storey timber house in the middle of a small field. There was no garden because he preferred the natural beauty of the field with its long grass, wild flowers, gorse bushes and moss-covered rocks. Inside, the rooms were small and the ceilings were low, but he liked this too because it had the feeling of an old country cottage.

He had to re-build the house every day. It always fell down in the morning as soon as he stepped outside and closed the door behind him. He kept the crockery and the glasses in a wooden box so they wouldn't break when the house collapsed. Sometimes a window pane would break, but the house's collapse was becoming less chaotic each day, almost as if it was learning how to neatly fold away all the walls and windows and doors, so the glass was normally left unbroken. The pine staircase often remained intact. The red tiles in the hall were never damaged.

He used to phone work and say he couldn't come in because he had to re-build his house. His boss, Dave, had been understanding. Dave was understanding about almost everything, even though he understood almost nothing. He once had a falcon. He let it go in the hills and watched it fly away till it became a dot in the blue sky, and then disappeared. He waited there for hours. He looked closely at every dot in the sky, expecting each one to be the falcon, but the bird never came back. He thought there was a valuable lesson for life in that. He didn't know what it was, but he knew its value. The advantage of not knowing what it was, but knowing its value, was that he could apply it to any situation. This was to Colin's advantage too. When he kept phoning to say he couldn't come into work because his house fell down, Dave understood because it was like the time his falcon flew away and didn't come back.

At first, Colin was frustrated by the constant collapsing. He believed that the house could stay together if it wanted to. It survived storms. He tried living in a tent for a while, and he pretended that he didn't care about the house. He used to play the guitar and write songs. One of them included the line: "I don't know why people live in a house, just to attract an appropriate spouse."

It was the potential spouse he was trying to attract that led him back to the house. The appropriate spouse for a man who lives in a tent would be someone like the woman who talks to the breeze, if she wasn't already married to a tree.

He was already engaged to Carol, and she wasn't happy with the tent. So he built the house again, and it fell apart again. He resigned himself to re-building the house every day. Dave said he knew exactly how he felt.

As each day passed, he started to enjoy re-building it more and more. On some summer mornings he'd sit on top of the stairs and look out over the land before starting work on the re-build. There was a museum nearby that had a similar problem to Colin's house. Bits of it were falling off every few weeks. It was a museum of local history. It contained artefacts recovered from archaelogical digs, and exhibits on past incarnations of the museum. It had been falling down since the twenties. They had to re-build it from scratch at least twice a year, and it was due for another total re-build. Colin often helped them with it because he enjoyed building so much. The timber in his house never broke. Re-building it was like building with Lego. He had done it so often he could have it finished by mid-afternoon, so he was able to go into work for a few hours.

But Carol still wasn't happy, and with good reason. The house didn't seem to like her. When she arrived for dinner one evening, one side of the house fell down, the side where the dining room was. On another occasion it fell down when she knocked on the front door. Colin was out at the time. When he came back he blamed her for the collapse and she was furious. She gave him an ultimatum: her or the house.

He told her he loved the house, mainly because of the location. "Fine," she said. "There's nothing wrong with the location, as long as the field doesn't start falling down too. But I'm sending an architect out to look at the house. Surely he can find a way of keeping it upright."

Colin didn't like the idea of an architect interfering with his house, and he knew he wouldn't like the architect either. Carol said he was highly respected as an architect and product designer. His spoons were works of art. When he was designing a building he always started by designing the shadow it would cast. He often included electric fences in the plans to keep stray animals from interfering with the shadow. 'Animals' included certain humans who didn't match his design specifications. He believed that visitors had to cast a shadow that was in keeping with the building. If he had his way, only people who wore designer shadows would be allowed in.

The architect arrived in a long black car. He stepped out, removed his hat and hit a tuning fork off his head. He said it was to tune his head. It sounded out of tune to Colin.

Colin didn't trust the architect, so he sent him to the museum to work on that before letting him do anything to the house. And Colin was hoping that the architect would never even step inside his house. If it didn't fall down so often, he might be able to convince Carol to change her opinion of it.

The house had never fallen down while he was in it, so he decided to stay inside. He stayed there for three days and it didn't fall down, the longest it had ever gone without a collapse. But it was making some very strange creaking sounds. When he leant against a wall he could feel the house leaning to one side.

When Hugh and Cyril went there they were afraid to knock on the door in case the house fell over. Hugh shouted 'hello', and they heard Colin say, "I'm up here."


"Go to the side of the house."

One of the upstairs windows was open at the gable end. They could see Colin's hand holding onto the window frame. "I'd make ye a cup of tea," he said, "but I'm too afraid to move."

Cyril had a tall wooden step-ladder in his shed. He went to get it with Hugh. They brought it to Colin's house and put it up outside the window. Hugh climbed it and looked in.

Colin was holding onto the window frame with one hand, and the other was clutching the wire for the lightbulb in the centre of the ceiling.

"I think the house is going to fall over if I let go," he said.

"Hmm," Hugh said. "That's a tricky one. This is going to take a bit of thought to figure out."

As Hugh tried to figure it out, a wasp flew around his head. He swung his hand at it, but he lost his balance, and the step-ladder fell against the side of the house. The house started to fall to the other side. The window frame came off. Hugh caught Colin's hand and Cyril caught the bottom of the ladder. Hugh held onto the ladder with his legs. Cyril dug his heels into the ground and he was able to stop the house falling over, with the help of the ladder which was attached to Hugh who was attached to Colin.

It was this attachment to Colin that worried Hugh. He was a candidate in a local election and he was afraid that the press would find out about him holding hands with another man in the other man's bedroom. They could portray it in the wrong way.

Hugh called for help, and a few minutes later Walter arrived. Cyril said he needed help to hold the ladder, but Walter couldn't hold anything because both of his hands were bandaged.

"Is that because of the badger?" Cyril said.

Walter paused before answering 'no'.

"Go and find help so," Cyril said.

"I could go to the museum to get the architect and the builders."

"What did he say?" Colin said from upstairs.

"Nothing," Cyril shouted up to Colin. "It was something about a badger I can't repeat." Cyril turned to Walter and whispered, "Go and get them. Now."

Walter left. He returned ten minutes later with the architect and the builders. Colin knew something was going on. He thought he heard the sound of a tuning fork striking a head, but Hugh convinced him he was hearing things.

Colin couldn't bring a telephone wire into the house because of the frequent collapses, so he built a telephone kiosk in the field. The kiosk often fell down too. There was a telephone pole next to the kiosk. The architect got the builders to cut down the pole and lean it against the side of the house.

When the pole was in place, Cyril let go of the ladder. The house creaked as it came to a rest against the pole, but it didn't fall over, and it hasn't fallen down since then, even though it's very lop-sided. The pole is still preventing its collapse, but the house is solid. It couldn't fall over if it tried.

Colin started building wooden houses for other people. He said he had built hundreds of them, but he didn't say they were all the same one and they all fell down, apart from one that stays upright with the help of a pole.

The moose's head over the fireplace knew that Kauto Star would win the Gold Cup, but he couldn't possibly have predicted what would happen in the sporting world on Saint Patrick's Day. Ireland missed out on the Six Nations because of a last-minute try for the French, but we beat Pakistan in the cricket. I say 'we' but it's a sport I've never followed and I wouldn't have been able to name any Irish players a few days ago, apart from the one who plays for England. Now I know Trent Johnson, the Australian. If 'God Save the Queen' can be played on the sacred ground of Croke Park, and England can do us a favour by losing to us and beating the French, with the help of an Irish man, then it must be okay to support an Irish team in a sport as English as cricket. They did give us centuries of occupation, but they gave us Cheltenham as well.