'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
Click here to buy the paperback or download the ebook for free.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Woods

We haven't had much of a summer but I appreciate the rain because it keeps the wife's aunt out of the garden. She likes to stand on the lawn and sing, letting the wind take the songs away to someone else. The wind brings her songs too. She moves around as if she was moving an aerial, trying to get a better reception. She sings what she hears so we can hear it too. She's our radio. It makes you appreciate radios you can turn off. Yesterday she sang a song about snails floating away in bubbles.

My cousin Gary was once in a pub by the river with some friends of his. One of his friends, Monica, said, "I'd love to live on the river. In a boat."

"I'd love to live in the woods," Gary said.

"You'd have to kill your food."

"I could become a vegetarian."

"How are you going to grow vegetables in the woods?"

"I could make a clearing."

"Where are you going to find the energy to cut down all those trees if you don't have any food?"

"I could just go to the shop too."

"You wouldn't survive a day, even if you were within a hundred yards of a shop."

"I would. The more often people tell me I couldn't do it, the more determined I'd be to do it. Remember the time Martin said I couldn't wear a party hat for a week? I even wore it at a funeral."

"You wore another hat over it at the funeral."

"For most of the time, yeah. But most people wouldn't have worn either. Most people would have said, 'To hell with this. I'm just going to kick Martin.' Which I've also done just because he said I couldn't do it."

"Okay then. Prove me wrong by spending a day in the woods. Twenty-four hours."

"Alright. I will."

He had often gone camping before, so he wasn't too daunted by the prospect of spending a night in the woods. Monica and some of his other friends went with him to the entrance of the forest to see him off. Martin had a camera. It was eight o' clock in the evening when he left them and set off to find a camp site in the trees.

There was a wide path through the woods, and there were a few narrow paths that led off it. He followed one of these. It led him up a hill, next to a stream. He crossed a wooden bridge. The forest at the other side was thicker. It was like entering night, but he re-emerged into the end of the day when he came to a small clearing. He decided to make his camp here.

By the time he'd set up his tent, the stars were out above. He turned on a battery-powered lamp, and he took a photo of the tent with his phone. He sent it to Monica to show her his surroundings.

He turned on his radio, but he got the feeling that there were things hiding in the trees, and they were listening to the sound of the radio, approaching the source of the sound, getting ever closer to him. His imagination created these 'things' in the trees all around him, but it didn't draw a clear picture of what these things were. He turned off the radio, and he imagined the things halting their advance. He listened carefully. The symphony of bird song only drew pictures of birds in his mind.

Before long, the sky above was black. He wasn't tired enough to go to sleep, and he was afraid to go into the tent in case his mind drew the things entering the clearing. He regretted agreeing to spend a night in the woods just to prove to Monica that he could. If he managed to get out of it alive, she'd say, "Well done," and she'd have forgotten about it in five minutes. Her mind was always jumping from stepping stone to stepping stone. His was always slipping into the water. He'd agree to do something, and it would always seem like a brilliant idea at the time, but when he'd get to the banks of the river he'd find that he's soaking wet and it's cold.

At half-eleven he thought he saw a flashing light out of the corner of his eye. He turned and stared into the blackness where the trees should be if they keep existing when no one sees them. He kept looking for ten minutes and he saw nothing, which was much more terrifying than trees because it was a blank slate for his imagination to draw on.

He gave up his vigil, and he started walking around the tent, hoping to tire himself out. On the hundredth and twenty-first lap of the tent (he was counting to take his mind off of his surroundings) he thought he saw the light again. This time it was coming from a different direction. It was close to the path that led out of the clearing. He stared into the blackness again. He knew he'd never be able to convince himself that there was nothing there just by looking at nothing, so he decided to take a walk down the path.

He moved as quietly as he could. Every time he heard a sound he'd stop and listen. He'd stand completely still and hold his breath, and when he'd convinced himself that it was just a squirrel or a bird, he'd move on again. But then he heard a voice and he couldn't convince himself that it came from a squirrel or a bird. As he inched forward he heard a conversation between two men. They were talking about fishing. When he came to a turn in the path he saw them. They were just a few yards away, and they saw him too. They said hello, and Gary responded with a faint 'hi'.

One of them said, "It's a nice night."

"It is."

"Are you just visiting?"

"I suppose you could say that. I'm camping here."

"Fair play to you. Are you thinking of making a permanent move?"

"No. It's just for the night."

"Have you sampled any of the night life yet?"

"I don't know. It depends what you mean by 'night life'."

"Come on and I'll show you exactly what I mean."

Gary followed the two men down a path. They introduced themselves as Liam and Ivor. Gary could hear other voices and the sound of music. The path got wider, and then he saw the first house. It was a small log cabin next to the path. There were more cabins at either side of the path further on. It was like coming into a small wooden town.

"Do people live here?" Gary said.

"Oh yeah. We both live here. We couldn't afford to buy a house outside the woods."

They came to what looked like a main street. It wasn't wide enough for a car, but that wouldn't be a problem in the woods. There were wooden shops at either side. Most of them were closed, but their windows were lit up. At the end of the street the path went off in two different directions. In between the two paths there was a pub, and this is where the music was emanating from. A band was playing inside. There was a mannequin on the stage. It was holding a guitar.

Liam insisted on buying Gary a drink. The three of them sat at a table, and they spoke about living in the village. Ivor said he was carving a bath in his house.

A woman came over to them and she said to Gary, "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

He looked up at her, and he thought she looked familiar. "Are you one of Monica's friends?" he said.

"I am. I think met you with Monica once."

"I remember. It's Emily, isn't it?"

"Well done. I'm afraid I can't remember your name."

"It's Gary. I'm only here because of Monica." He told her the story about the bet, and she said she'd show him around the place. They left the pub and they took a path that led down a hill. As they walked she said, "I'm always fighting with Monica. She blamed me for telling everyone about the hamster she killed. I told her that no one needed to say anything about it because the look on her face said 'I killed a hamster'. She said, 'You must have done something to your head because the stuff that's coming out of it is cuckoo.' And I said, 'Nobody says "cuckoo" any more. You should go away and... do something with... a dog.' I can't remember what I said, but she looked as if her head was a grenade and I'd just pulled the pin. Or she looked as if her head was the pin and I'd pulled a grenade."

The path led them to a small pond. There were couples in boats on the water. Some people were fishing. Gary and Emily walked around the pond, and they took another path back towards the village. They stopped to look at people playing lawn bowls, and Emily started talking about Monica again. "I said to her, 'Well, y' know, you did kill that hamster, didn't you?' And she said, 'Yeah, well, y' know, it's all up in the air with the clouds and the birds and the bees and the booze and those blue things my aunt Imelda threw at what's-his-name who owned the thing, so I don't know if I can give a more definite answer than that.' And I said, 'Yeah, alright, I don't really care anyway.' I was going to say, 'I couldn't care if your aunt Imelda ate one of the blue things and... punched the man with the thing.' That would have driven her mad because she once punched a man with a thing. It wasn't much of a thing. It was just a pen. Leona once said to her, 'You look like something the cat dragged in during one of its bad spells.' Leona's friend has bad spells when she paints everything black. Well, not everything."

When they got back to the village they met the band who had been playing in the pub earlier. Gary asked them why they were carrying a mannequin around with them. The drummer said, "What mannequin?"

"That one," Gary said, and he pointed at it.

"That's our guitarist."


"I mean, I know he doesn't move very much, and we often have to carry him, but he's not a mannequin."

"He looks like a mannequin to me," Emily said. "If ye see a guitarist, that's fine. I used to see a white horse every morning. Sometimes it was smoking a cigarette. People used to tell me it was the milkman, but I always saw him as a white horse. And then one day I saw him walking into these woods so I followed him in. That's how I discovered this village. I've often come back here since then, and I hope to move here permanently."

"Now that's interesting," the drummer said. "If our manager was here he'd faint if you mentioned a white horse. But he's not here. He doesn't do much in the way of managing, or if he does, it has nothing to do with us. He wanted us to follow a white horse. He was upset that this horse was being left unfollowed, so he followed it himself, and as far as we know he still is following it, all along the coast. He believes that it will give us the gift of song-writing. Or maybe he just wants to walk along the coast. We haven't seen him in months."

The lead singer said, "We already have all the song-writing ability we need."

Gary had heard them earlier, and he thought their manager was right to believe that they could write better songs with a horse. The horse couldn't possibly come up with anything worse.

"This probably doesn't have anything to do with anything," Gary said. "But I was building a house of cards once, and I kept getting the feeling that a pony was looking over my shoulder. The higher up I went, the stronger this feeling became. And once I saw a pony in a field and he looked just like the one I imagined behind my shoulder. He stared at me, and I could tell he was thinking... I don't know what he was thinking, but he was definitely thinking something. Something about the cards."

"We've been brought here for a reason," Emily said.

"Have you seen the white horse here?" the lead singer said.

"Yeah, I saw him in the doorway of the house next to the restaurant."

They went to this house and Gary knocked on the door. When the door opened, Emily saw a white horse, and the others saw a former milkman. His name was Peter He invited them in and Emily told him about how they had been brought to him for a reason. She found it difficult to talk to a horse without laughing.

When she finished the story, he said, "I think I must have been brought here for a reason too. I lost my job as a milkman because of too many late nights. I used to go to gigs and play gigs. I often played with a busker I met on the streets, but then his career took an unexpected turn. His name is Harry. The story I heard was that two record company executives had a bet. One of them said he could make anyone a star and the other one bet him a million euros that he couldn't. They chose Harry to be the 'anyone'. This executive went to him on the street and offered him a brilliant contract, but Harry thought that the executive was a donkey, which made for a difficult working relationship."

"That's definitely a sign," Emily said. "We should go to see Harry."

They all went to see him on the following day. Peter was able to track him down through friends of his. When the band saw him they were shocked. Harry was their guitarist, or their former guitarist. He had left the band without telling them, and he got the mannequin to take his place. They saw that their new guitarist was really a mannequin when they saw Harry again. He apologised for leaving, and he asked if he could re-join. They welcomed him back into the fold, and he convinced them to recruit Peter as their rhythm guitarist. They sounded much better with the addition of two guitarists (the mannequin was moved to tambourine duties). The executive was happy with this development because working with the band was much easier than working with Harry on his own. He vowed to make the band a success.

The manager was delighted when they told him they had found the white horse, but it was a bit of an anti-climax when he returned and saw the milkman. But he was proud of the brilliant job he had done with the band. He believed he was responsible for the record deal. He said, "Trust your instincts -- that's what I always say. If your instincts are telling you that the best way to manage a band is to look for a white horse, then that's what you should do."

The moose's head over the fireplace is looking very distinguished in his tie. The wife makes him wear a tie when she plays music that can only safely be performed by a man in a suit. Some songs call for a cravat. When I play my prog rock records she makes him wear ear muffs.