'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Snake Playing the French Horn

The garden is the perfect place to be on spring days that make you feel like skipping. But obviously skipping wouldn't be in keeping with the image I'm trying to project. I'm not entirely sure what I'm projecting it onto, seeing as most people I've met recently have asked me about a smell that made me faint, and the image's projector needs to be switched off while I'm talking about that. It's an image of sophistication, of a man who's seen it all and done it all, who'll never come across anything to make him skip or shoot randomly into the air.

My cousin Charlie went to a soccer match with some friends one afternoon. It wasn't much of a match, but it was too fine a day to complain about the quality of the play. Even the goalkeeper didn't complain when the ref booked him for eating biscuits.

Charlie was in his study in the evening, wondering what to do to pass the time. He looked out the window and he saw a garden hose attached to a brass tap. In his mind he saw a snake playing a French horn, and he decided to make a sketch of this image in his mind.

He sat down at his desk. He got a blank sheet of paper, and with a pencil he drew a line to represent the ground, but the line kept going after he lifted the pencil off the paper. The line left the page and went onto the desk, where it headed for the wall. When it got to the wall it went to the door and left the room. Charlie stared in shock at the grey line across the wall. He couldn't say how long he stood there looking at it, but eventually he wondered what the line was doing outside the room and he followed it. It led him down the hall and out the front door. There was a perfectly straight line down his driveway, and it went right when it got to the road. He ran after it.

He ran down a quiet country road until he was out of breath. He knew he'd never overtake the line, so he stopped running, and he walked after it instead.

The line turned into the driveway of one of his neighbours. The house was on the side of a hill. The tarmac drive rose to the front of the house, where its owner, Jimmy, was playing the trumpet outside the front door.

Charlie went up to him. He saw that the line had drawn a circle around Jimmy and then go back down the driveway. Charlie told Jimmy about the line that started with his drawing of a snake playing the French horn.

"Don't talk about snakes," Jimmy said.

"Why not?"

"Because I have a fear of crabs."

"What does that have to do with snakes?"

"Snakes remind me of crabs."

"What else reminds you of crabs?"

"Lots of things. Beaches. Rock pools. Lobsters. Batman. Have you ever wanted to knee Batman in the groin?"

"Do you want to do that because of your fear of crabs?"

"Yeah. I reckon that'd be his one weak spot."

Charlie left to continue his chase of the line. It took him back to the road, still moving away from his house. The people who lived in the next house were having a barbeque. The line kept going, and it took a right turn down a narrow road with grass in the middle. He walked into the shade when he passed an old abandoned house surrounded by trees. The next house was a few hundred yards further on, and this was where the line was heading for.

It went up the driveway and it entered the house through the front door. There was a garden at the back and at the sides of the house. The edge of the garden was delineated by a fence, and beyond the fence there was a field. Charlie didn't see how he could find the line if it disappeared into a field.

He rang the doorbell, and a woman opened the door. Her name was Vivien. He told her about the line, and he asked her if he could follow it. She traced its course with him, but they didn't have to go far. The line stopped on the wall in her hall.

"I'm terribly sorry about this," Charlie said. "It just got away from me, and I wasn't able to keep up with it."

"That's okay."

"It started with a drawing of a snake playing the French horn, but I only drew a single line. And this is it."

"Why don't you finish your drawing on the wall?"

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. It would look odd with just a single line."

Charlie had the pencil with him, and he drew the snake playing the French horn.

"I like it," she said. "I think the grey of the pencil works well on the cream-coloured wall. All it needs is a frame."

She got some red paint and painted a frame around his drawing. They looked at it, and they wondered what it could mean.

"Why do you think the line led you here?" she said.

"I don't know. Maybe there's no reason for it."

"I drew a wine glass on the notepad next to the telephone table." She showed him the drawing. "But I didn't know what I was doing as I was doing it. And it doesn't make any more sense in the context of a snake playing the French horn."

"I hope you don't have an aversion to snakes," he said.

"I don't mind snakes. But I prefer turtles."

She showed him the turtles in her aquarium.

"I called them John, Paul, Ringo and George after The Beatles. Someone said that calling turtles after Beatles was like calling cats after ostriches, but I've never come across a beetle with a name. I suppose ostriches would have names. But I've never met anyone with an ostrich."

"Do you like The Beatles?"

"I don't mind them. But I prefer The Rolling Stones. That person who objected to calling turtles after Beatles wouldn't object to calling them after The Stones because she gives names to the stones in her garden. She has to determine what sex they are first."

"How does she do that?"

"I don't know. I didn't want to pry too deeply into that. Because I didn't think I'd be prying into the physical make-up of stones, but rather into her own mental constitution."

"Yeah. It's not something you'd need to know anyway."

"No. Life's complicated enough already."

Charlie wondered if the other end of the line had moved. He said he should go back to check on it, and she said she'd like to see it too.

So the two of them followed the line back towards Charlie's place. They stopped outside the abandoned house. They thought they heard the sound of a tuba somewhere. The birds were singing to the sound.

"Maybe the line is trying to draw a picture," she said. "It's assembling various constituent parts to create a whole. Or else it's just putting together a band."

"It could have just drawn a circle around the turtles if it wanted a band."

"It could. Although they'd be more like a boyband, rather than The Beatles."

"They've got their image. They all look alike. The birds could do the singing and the turtles just need to learn how to lip synch."

They walked on again. Jimmy was still playing the trumpet outside his house. They stopped to listen for a while. Charlie wondered if he should mention the turtles to see if they reminded him of crabs to remind him of kneeing Batman in the groin, but he didn't think it was the sort of thing he should be talking about in front of Vivien.

They walked on to Charlie's house. He took her to his study and showed her the sheet of paper where he'd started the drawing. The other end of the line had moved, but it didn't seem to know what it was doing. It just kept going around and around on the page.

"That could be a snake too," Vivien said. "You just need to add a French horn to the end of it."

Charlie drew the French horn. "This end must be the head of the snake if it's playing the French horn," he said. "And the end of the snake is the ground where the other snake sits in your house."

"I wonder if that end has moved since you drew a French horn to curtail the movement of this end."

They went back to her house. The line was trying to escape from the frame, but it couldn't get out. The red paint was still wet, so she got a cloth and removed some of it. The line left through the gap in the paint. It went back down the hall towards the door and left the house.

Charlie said there was no point in trying to keep up with it. They walked slowly after it, and it led them to a quiet country pub. They followed the line inside, but it disappeared under a door. There was a pane of frosted glass in the top half of the door, and on the glass the word 'Private' was written in red letters. There was a door to the right and another to the left, and each one had a similar pane of frosted glass. They went for the door that bore the word 'Lounge'. The light shining through the glass made it seem more appealing.

They stepped inside and saw a huge window facing the setting sun. There was a small stage at the other end of the lounge. The man who owned the pub had married a soprano who had performed in operas all over the world. He wanted to add a bit of culture to the pub, and he wanted something to replace the table quizzes, which were too taxing on people's minds. His wife was able to kill both those birds with one stone. She used to sing in a language she made up herself, and then the audience had to guess what she was singing about. If you guessed correctly, you'd win a prize. There was a fifty-fifty chance that she was singing about a teapot. There was also a fifty-fifty chance that you'd win a teapot.

She arrived on the stage shortly after Charlie bought drinks for himself and Vivien. They sat at a table near the window. The soprano started singing. Charlie couldn't help thinking of a snake as he looked at the movement of her hands and listened to the flow of her voice from syllable to syllable.

When she finished her song, he put up a hand and said, "Were you singing about a snake playing the French horn?"

She looked at him without saying a word. Everyone in the lounge looked at him without saying a word. He eventually broke the silence himself when he added, "With a scarf."

"Yes," she said. Charlie won a toaster for that. He got a round of applause. It was really the line they should have been applauding. It had drawn the snake wearing a scarf and playing the French horn on the wall next to the stairs behind the door marked 'Private'. She had seen it on her way down to the lounge.

When the applause died down, the singer said, "It's their own fault they hear the sad sounds on the summer days they find themselves embedded in. They make poems out of smoke from cigarettes and knit jumpers out of sheep on the hills, and so on they go into gone to stand on the hills and beat the living hat dance out of the people who say, 'Well yeah, I don't really know, it's your fault.'"

Someone put up a hand and said, "Was that about a teapot?"

"Yeah," she said, "it was." She smiled broadly.

The moose's head over the fireplace likes a neighbour of ours called Rose who sings him old Irish songs. The wife's uncle likes her too. He says she reminds him of a woman he knew who trained her dogs to jump into the side of a caravan.