'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Doctor With a Goldfish Bowl

A good autumn can make up for a bad summer. It's great to be outside in the strong wind and the cold air. The wife's uncle says that when he was young, himself and his friends used to have parties in the hills to celebrate the start of autumn. Some of the parties lasted for over a week because it took days for some people to arrive. One of his friends travelled everywhere by tunnelling, so he was always late. Another travelled by limping, which took even longer.

My cousin Craig went on a guided tour of a castle one afternoon in August. When the tour was completed he walked around the gardens. He sat on a bench to rest. He was doing his best not to fall asleep, but he struggled to stop his eyelids from covering his eyes, like a T-shirt being pulled down over a beer belly before springing back up again. He was just on the point of falling asleep when he stood up suddenly and looked around. In his mind he saw the image of a doctor holding a goldfish bowl that held a goldfish. The doctor, assuming he was a doctor, had a stethoscope around his neck (this was the only grounds for assuming he was a doctor). Craig felt sure that he had seen this as he was dozing off, but it could also have been the start of a dream as he drifted towards sleep. The doctor looked as if he didn't want to be seen. He had walked on quickly when he noticed Craig looking at him. Craig walked on the path the doctor took, assuming he was real.

The path led Craig to a lawn where a woman was posing for an artist, who was working at an easel. She was wearing a cream-coloured scarf and a long red coat. The artist had captured the colours perfectly, but her head was out of proportion with the rest of her body. It was much bigger than it should have been. Her name was Amanda, and the artist was Terence.

Craig asked him if he'd seen a doctor go by with a goldfish bowl. Terence said, "If you don't see it in the painting, I haven't seen it."

Craig looked closely at the painting. There was no sign of the doctor with the goldfish bowl, but there was a group of people standing behind Amanda in the painting. They were all wearing blue coats. Craig couldn't see them in real life. He asked Amanda if she'd seen the doctor and she said, "Possibly. Or possibly not. What does he look like?"

"I'm not entirely sure. But I know he had a stethoscope around his neck and he was holding a goldfish bowl with a goldfish in it. When it comes to identifying him, those features would be more important than the colour of his hair or his height. Lots of people are tall and have blond hair and blue eyes, but there can't be too many people with stethoscopes around their necks and goldfish bowls in their hands."

"What if I saw a blond man who was four feet tall and he had a stethoscope around his neck and a goldfish bowl in his hands, and I said, 'There he is! Get him!' And then it turned out that the man you were looking for was seven feet tall and had red hair. How would I explain that to the four-foot man?"

"Just blame him for it," Terence said as he pointed at Craig.

"I'm fairly sure he's not four feet tall," Craig said.

"But you're not absolutely sure," she said.

"No. It depends on how big the goldfish bowl was. If it was an average size goldfish bowl, then judging by the proportions, the doctor was an average size man. But it could have been a very small bowl and a small man. Or a big bowl and a big man."

"Or your sense of proportion could be wrong," Terence said.

"Yeah, that's possible too."

Amanda said, "When I was dressed as a maid once I got lost in the fog and it played havoc with my sense of proportion. Perspective too. My hands looked way too big."

Craig wondered if there was a link between her being dressed as a maid and getting lost in the fog, but he wasn't sure if he should ask. As he tried to think of an indirect way of asking about it, she said, "I suppose proportion and perspective would be linked. You'd know how big a man in the distance is if he was standing next to a tree."

"If you knew how big the tree was," Craig said.

"How far away was the doctor with the goldfish bowl?"

"I don't know."

"He could have been a long way away. And that could have been why you saw him as a four-foot man."

"I didn't see him as a four-foot man. At least I don't think I did."

"Are you sure you weren't in the fog at the time? Because when I was in the fog there was..."

"Dressed as a maid."

"Yeah, dressed as a maid. There was this man and he was huge. He appeared out of nowhere in the fog. He had a dog too. I noticed a little tear in his shirt and I pulled at it. I ended up tearing most of his shirt and all of his trousers off. He was made out of paper. It must have been a billboard. When I tore away the paper I saw a room in a country cottage underneath. I waited there until the fog cleared."

"Are you sure it wasn't just a dream?"

"What sort of a question is that?"

"Sorry. I didn't mean it as a 'sort' of a question. I was just... Sorry."

"That's okay. I suppose it's a fair question, given the bare facts I've outlined, but it wasn't a dream. I'd just been to the shop to get jam. You don't wander into a dream just after going to a shop."

"While dressed as a maid."

"Yeah, while dressed as a maid."

Craig said he should resume his search for the doctor with the goldfish bowl. He walked on again. He stopped at a fish pond and looked at his reflection in the water. He saw a huge goldfish, one that would be severely cramped in a bowl. He remembered the painting of Amanda, and the real version of Amanda, but he couldn't remember if her head was too big and the painting made it look smaller or vice versa. He wondered if he was the one who was dreaming. He couldn't rule out that possibility on the basis that he'd just been to the shop to get jam. He could understand why he'd dream of a woman dressed as a maid (rather than just a maid) but he didn't know where the doctor with the goldfish bowl came from, or where he went to. And Craig was losing interest in where the doctor went to. Whether this was a dream or reality, he was more interested in pursuing the line of inquiry relating to the woman who was dressed as a maid.

So he went back to them. As he was wondering how he'd raise the issue of the maid's outfit he noticed something odd in the painting. Terence had added in a doctor with a goldfish bowl.

Craig said, "Why have you added in the doctor with the goldfish bowl?"

"I must have seen him."

"You hadn't seen him the last time I was here."

"Well I must have seen him since then."

Craig asked Amanda if she'd seen him and she said she hadn't. Craig said to Terence, "I think you just saw him in your mind after I mentioned him. He looks nothing like the man I saw."

"You don't know what that man looks like."

"I know what he doesn't look like."

"The man in the painting is holding a goldfish bowl, has a stethoscope around his neck and he's between four and seven feet tall. He matches your description perfectly."

"I'm not so sure he is between four and seven feet tall in the painting. He's in the background, but how far back is he? And if you judge his size in relation to her head, he's tiny, but in relation to her body, he's huge."

"Whichever way you look at it, and you can look at it both ways if you want, he's between four and seven feet tall, give or take a few inches."

"How could you have seen a man who was between four and seven feet tall?"

"I didn't know how far away he was. And I tried to judge his size in relation to my hand, but one of my arms is longer than the other and I keep forgetting which one it is. When I hold my hands out, one looks smaller than the other because it's further away."

Craig was starting to get confused. He felt that the fog of confusion could be cleared away if he just had the answer to one question, so he asked it. "Why were you dressed as a maid?" he said to Amanda.

But she pointed behind him and said, "There he is! Get him!" She was pointing at a tall man with red hair.

The group of people in blue coats emerged from behind some bushes. They ran towards the tall man, who ran away when he realised they were heading for him. Amanda ran with them. They caught him and brought him back to Craig. "We got him for you," Amanda said.

The tall man said to Craig, "You better have a very good explanation for this."

"I... Well, no. I don't have a very good explanation. Or even a good one. I have a bad one, if that'll do."


"Can I have some time to find a good one?"

"Where are you going to find a good one?"

"If I found a doctor holding a goldfish bowl, everything would make perfect sense."

"I'll give you twenty minutes. Then I'll come looking for you."

Craig went inside the castle and wandered around the rooms. He looked at all of the paintings in one room. He examined the background closely, and sometimes he saw faces looking out at him. He tried to judge how big they were, but this only thickened the fog of confusion in his mind. The final painting was of a maid. There was a slight tear in it, and he couldn't resist pulling it, but the maid slapped him across the face.

"Sorry," he said. "I was looking for a doctor with a goldfish bowl."

"Is that what you expected to find beneath my dress?"

"Well I've looked everywhere else, so... No. That's not what I expected to find. I wasn't expecting to find anything, apart from maybe a room in a cottage. Now that I think about it I know what I'd find... Not that I'm thinking about that now... This isn't a very good explanation, is it?"


"What would constitute a good explanation?"

"That you expected to find what you thought about after you looked."

"That might be good in one sense, in the sense that it's complete, assuming it's not nonsense, but in another sense it's bad for me because it casts me in a very poor light. If I actually found the doctor and the goldfish bowl, would that make my explanation any better?"

"Only if you found them under my dress. And they weren't there the last time I checked. Don't worry about the explanation casting you in a bad light. I feel safer with certainty. I much prefer a believable theory that casts people in a bad light rather than a shaky theory that portrays the whole world as sweetness and light. There would be something inherently unstable about such a theory. Most people prefer certainty."

"Right. I don't know what this doctor looks like, and that's led to a lot of confusion, but if I came up with a definite description of him, even though it would obviously be a lie, that would make people feel more comfortable."

"Absolutely. People can gloss over any lie if you give them something definite. Give them a rock to stand on, even if it is just floating through space. You should say that the doctor has an eye patch, because it's much easier to find someone with an eye patch."


"And say he has a beard, and a limp. He's about six feet tall and he's dressed in a brown suit with a dark red tie.

Craig went to look for the tall man with the red hair. The maid went with him. They found the man near the fish pond. Amanda, Terence and the people in the blue coats were there too. Craig said, "I haven't found the doctor yet, but I have a good description of him. He has an eye patch and a beard. He's about six feet tall and he's wearing a brown suit with a dark red tie. And he has a limp."

The maid said, "I know that man. Follow me."

She led them all back into the castle. She took them to a room at the back, where the man with the eye patch was looking in a filing cabinet. The tall man caught him, with the help of the people in the blue coats. Amanda said to him, "You'd better spill the beans."

The maid said, "Do you still think my forehead looks funny?"

"If you don't talk," Amanda said, "we'll make you talk. And after that you'll never want to talk about this again."

"I have no idea what you're referring to," he said. "I demand an explanation."

"I'm sorry about this," Craig said. "There seems to have been a slight mis-understanding. Y' see, I saw, or at least I thought I saw..."

The tall man pointed at Craig and said, "There he is. Get him."

Craig ran away and the others chased him. He ran down a corridor and took a left at the end. He saw a stethoscope hanging on the back of a chair. A doctor had been called earlier because a tourist had fainted. He put the stethoscope around his neck and he went into a room. There was a goldfish bowl on a table inside. He picked up the bowl and went to the far end of the room. He stood on a chair behind a baby grand piano. The windows just behind him were huge.

Amanda, Terence, the people in blue coats, the tall man with the red hair, the maid and the man with the beard all looked into the room. They stared at him for a few seconds before moving on again. Craig breathed a sigh of relief.

As he was leaving the room he saw himself in a mirror, and he got a strong feeling of deja vu. He believed that the image he saw was just like the image he'd seen earlier. He didn't want to investigate this any further, given the problems his previous investigations had led him into. He took off the stethoscope, put down the goldfish bowl and left the castle as quickly as he could.

The moose's head over the fireplace enjoys the autumn too. There's so much more to see outside the window when the leaves start falling from the trees. Watching the rugby on TV is nowhere near as enjoyable as watching dead leaves fall from a tree, although there are parallels. There's still one last chance of redemption against Argentina on Sunday, and if they do redeem themselves, the reward is to be humiliated by New Zealand, so the leaves would still provide the more uplifting experience.