'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Eccentric

The temperatures are creeping up. The trees are putting on their summer clothes. One of the neighbours often adorns her garden with well-dressed people on summer evenings. The place would look empty without a man in a suit holding a champagne glass. The role of the man is often played by a cousin of hers called George. People call him 'Gentleman George' because he's always impeccably dressed. His uncle Alfred taught him that you could tell a lot about someone's character by looking at their socks. He also said that it was rude to look at other people's socks. Alfred died in mysterious circumstances as he was trying to break into a Georgian house through the attic. In later years, George saw a deeper meaning to his uncle's advice about the socks. Most people didn't think there was any meaning to it -- they just thought it was typical of his contradictory views and advice. He had thousands of aphorisms, and some were bound to contradict others. Some of George's cousins are sure they heard Alfred say 'Never break into a Georgian house through the attic'. But the two aphorisms about socks stuck in George's mind. The meaning he read into them was that people with a truly good character feel no need to have it constantly on display. He did his best to live up to this, and he wore trousers that were slightly too long. We have plenty of relatives who could adorn our garden in a similar way, but then they'd start talking about things they've stood in, and the effect would be ruined.

My cousin Hector's twins, Alice and Grace, were trying to teach their puppy how to nod his head. They had made a little hat for him especially for the lessons. Hector was getting bored after an hour of watching them try to get the hat on the puppy. So he was glad when his friend Steve called.

They went to see Sean. He used to collect stamps and cough. He considered both of these activities to be hobbies. He only took up stamp-collecting because it was much more practical than being a butterfly collector, and he had wanted to be a butterfly collector because it seemed like a refined hobby. He thought that a bit of self-improvement was needed after he cleaned the house one Spring. He saw himself at point A, an unrefined man who coughed and pointed, and he saw the ideal at point B, a refined man. Being a butterfly collector was the only attribute he could hang on B, and it was written on a mental piece of cardboard hanging from a rusty nail that he hammered into B. Apart from collecting butterflies and giving up pointing, he couldn't think of any other attributes he could hang from it. And how to get from A to B was a problem too, even if B was just a butterfly collector who didn't point. Being firmly fixed at A meant he'd make an awful mess if he started collecting butterflies, so he went for the stamps instead.

When Hector and Steve arrived at Sean's place, he was taking photos of things around his garden. This was another attribute he'd hung on B. If he was still at A he'd have a zoom lens and it'd be focussed on the windows of other houses. They asked him if he wanted to go for a game of snooker. There were many A-like qualities associated with snooker, especially when the game is played in the local club, with its 8:1 ratio of rats to tables (there were two tables), but the professional players dressed up like butlers, and a servant to a refined man was as close as Sean was going to get to B, so he said yes. Actually he said, "That would not be unagreeable with the standards I've climbed a stairs to attain and look down from a balcony on the gardener amongst the roses."

They took that as a 'yes'. He was doing his best to sound refined, but being stuck in the wasteland between A and B gave him the freedom to sound refined without actually making sense.

He spoke like this to the balls as he was playing snooker. They met a woman there who was interested in his behaviour. He told her about his journey to refinement at B. She said to him, "I think you've actually reached C, eccentricity. It's probably not in C. Eccentricity wouldn't be in an obvious place like that. It'd be in M, or somewhere funny, like J."

"Where are you?"

"I don't know."

She was lying on the other snooker table when she said that, so she was probably somewhere funny.

Sean liked the idea of being eccentric. It sounded much easier than being refined, and the easy option always appealed to him. Laziness was a point he'd reached years ago (there isn't a letter for laziness -- it's all in the journey rather than the destination, or the lack of a journey). When they finished their game of snooker he wanted to go straight to the pub to start being eccentric.

As they waited for their drinks at the bar, he said, "I've been pointing at blue things a lot recently."

"Sean is an eccentric now," Hector explained.

A man called Dylan was drinking a pint at the bar. He said to Sean, "I have a job for you."

If Sean had thought that his career as an eccentric would involve doing jobs, he'd have chosen to be refined instead.

Dylan told them about how his wife's mother bought an antique barometer in an auction in the town hall. His aunt, Cynthia, was trying to buy it too. She says she put in a bid but the auctioneer had deliberately ignored her, possibly because she had previously suggested he was of the bovine ilk. So she went to the stage and took the barometer, leaving the money she had bid. She ignored the objections of the auctioneer and of Dylan's mother-in-law. His wife had been putting pressure on him to retrieve it. Dylan wanted Sean to distract Cynthia while he took the barometer from her hall.

"How am I going to distract her?" Sean said.

"She's always had a thing for eccentrics. Just be yourself and you could keep her entertained for hours."

When Sean found himself face to face with Cynthia he thought he'd struggle to keep her entertained for a minute. He said, "I've been pointing at blue things a lot recently. And a few grey things. But never red things. There was one green thing. It smiled at me. And I've also been... looking at... raisons... Swordfish."

Cynthia went to the sideboard and picked up a porcelain cat. Then she went to the window, opened it and said, "If you don't start re-tracing your steps right now, I'm going to throw the cat at your head."

Dylan returned the barometer to the hall with the speed of a man who knew how good her aim was.

She said to Sean, "You're the worst person they ever got to distract me."


"What was all that rubbish about the blue things and the swordfish?"

"It's... y' know... an eccentricity."

"You're an amateur."

"This is my first day in the job."

"You need a mentor. I can send you to a real eccentric. His name is Lawrence, and he lives about a mile away. Go to see him and you'll learn all you need to know about eccentricity."

Hector and Steve went with Sean to see Lawrence. He was smoking a pipe in his front garden when they arrived. He liked to watch the smoke rising to the sky. He thought there was a little bit of him escaping with the smoke, on a trip to the blue sky, or when he's inside he's spread around the house, escaping through the open window in the kitchen. He felt there was less and less of himself the more he smoked. He said he once spent a night smoking his pipe under the window of a woman he was in love with, letting the smoke curl and weave and rise in the air, expecting it to take on a ghostly form in front of her window, a form that would somehow express his feelings for her. He put all of his mental energy into this, and it worked too.

He had songs in his head that he rarely let out to play with the smoke, but sometimes in the pub when the time was right he'd sing and the whole place would go silent to listen to him. He had a beautiful deep voice. It wasn't the best sort of voice to recreate bird calls, but he often went to the woods or walked through the fields shortly after dawn and he talked to the birds, trying to replicate their calls, but he said things like 'You there' and 'I'm busy' in different accents.

Sean told him about his choice of career and the doubts he was having because he didn't think he was up to the job.

"Have you ever considered a career as a litterateur?" Lawrence said.

"Wouldn't you have to read books for that?"

"Not necessarily, no. As long as you can come up with a good reason for not reading them. I knew someone who was able to sustain a considerable literary reputation despite having never written anything, and I don't think he read anything either. Someone would ask him what he thought of Baudelaire and he'd say, 'Baudelaire? I'll read Baudelaire when I'm in my own grave and I feel an overwhelming need to turn over.'"

"Yeah, but who's going to ask me if I've read Baudelaire?"

"That's a fair point. This isn't the sort of place where literary reputations thrive. It's the perfect place for people who don't read or write, but it's not the place for litterateurs who don't read or write. You could always have a go at being a raconteur."

"That's not a bad idea. I think I'd be less out of my depth in that line of work."

"In every life there are countless minor incidents that you can spin out into a sprawling story. And then there are a few more significant incidents that don't need spinning. For instance, I once had what you might call an 'affair' with Cynthia. I first met her when she was standing on a table at four o' clock in the morning. I decided that an affair was the only possible outcome of such an encounter. She agreed with my assessment and we proceeded to let ourselves be carried away by the gale force winds of a typical affair. We spent two months in an isolated house in the country while the owner was being chased through South America by a Russian assassain. It was an idyllic time. Even the sound of gunfire and shattering glass didn't detract from the experience. We toured the country with a German folk band and she acted as their interpreter, using her limited knowledge of German, their facial expressions and facial hair to interpret what they said, a process that was strongly influenced by the world view that pervaded her mind at the time. Everything was coloured by a beautiful Autumn melancholy, and the sound of German voices was the perfect soundtrack. I took her to a party in a house with a huge hall and a grand oak staircase. There were countless tables there for her to stand on. It was here that she met the man who took her away from me. He claimed to be of Russian nobility. He swept her off her feet and provided a place for her to stand (right in front of him) that was better than the most ornate table. He was probably lying about being of Russian nobility. Something about his vowels made me think he came from Waterford. She knew he was lying too but she's the sort of person who'd be more attracted to a man claiming to be of Russian nobility than to the genuine article. I probably could have killed that attraction if I told her he was really from Waterford, but that's not the sort of thing I do. To be genuinely noble is to gracefully withdraw from a woman's life in such situations and not to think about her again until someone tells you she burnt down a house. It was always going to end like that. She knew that as well as I did."

Sean was full of enthusiasm for his new career. He went to see Cynthia with Hector and Steve, and he said to her, "I'm a raconteur now."

"Of course you are. Sure God help us. Will you tell me a story so?"

"I will. This is a story about a man who releases himself into the world through smoke and a woman who stands on tables..."

He repeated the story Lawrence had just told them, with a few alterations. He mentioned that the Russian nobleman was really from Waterford and he also mentioned an incident when the other man used his smoke to seduce a woman on a balcony, which started an affair with her, so he was glad when the other woman fell for the man from Waterford.

Cynthia stared at him in shock. When Sean heard Dylan driving away outside he said, "I just made most of that story up to distract you while they took the barometer. He didn't really have an affair with a woman on a balcony. I don't know about the Russian man really being from Waterford. I know some people from Waterford. It's a nice place. Maybe out in Russia the women there would be sick of the sight of Russian men, but then a fella from Waterford comes along and he seems impossibly exotic. They'd love the sound of his voice. I wouldn't mind being exotic, now that I've given up on being eccentric, but that would take more work than anything because I'd have to go to somewhere like Russia. Or some backward country. Then I could appear sophisticated as well."

Hector and Steve had already left the house. They had headed for the exit as soon as she went to the sideboard and picked up the porcelain cat. It wasn't the first time Sean had a cat thrown at his head. The last one ended up enjoying it. Sean didn't. But at least that cat was soft, although the methods it used to cling to his head proved more painful than the initial impact -- that's when the cat started to enjoy it.

Hector and Steve could hear Sean's reaction to the impact of the porcelain cat. They waited for him outside. When he came out he announced his retirement as a raconteur. He was thinking of becoming an idler instead.

They went back to Hector's house. The puppy had eaten the hat. Alice and Grace were trying to teach him how to shake his head, but to little effect.

The moose's head over the fireplace is enjoying the snooker on TV. He can't predict who's going to win this year. The referees would be the butlers, and butlers aren't allowed to be eccentric. They're the ones cleaning the balls with their white gloves at the request of the players. True eccentricity would be spending all day hitting balls around a table with a stick and only calling the butler to say, "Could you clean that ball for me, Jeeves."