'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Curtains

I found an old bike in the shed. My grandfather used to use it to cycle to the pub. It rarely got him back from the pub. The bike would turn up in some unusual places. When I was young I used to cycle in circles. I was hoping to cycle fast enough to catch up with the sight of myself. Sound moves very slowly where I come from, and I was hoping that light would do likewise. I rang the bell as I cycled, and I was able to catch up with the sound easily enough.

My cousin Jane once stood at a gate with her friend, Claudia. They looked out over a field. When it started raining, neither of them moved, and neither of them said anything for a few minutes. It was as if they were trying to figure out what was going on. Jane eventually realised that there was nothing going on, apart from what was coming down from the clouds. She said, "I suppose we better go inside."

They went inside and looked out the window. Jane wasn't prepared to accept that they had stood out in the rain for nothing. She wouldn't let go of the idea that something was going on. "I can't help thinking there's something we've forgotten," she said. "Or that there's something staring us in the face that we haven't seen."

Claudia said, "I was thinking of that time we were at the train station, when it started raining. We stood under the canopy on the platform and we looked out at the rain. The only other person on the platform was a man who started tap dancing."

"That wasn't tap dancing."

"What was it then?"

"It was... At best it was attempted tap dancing. It was horrible being alone on a platform with someone guilty of attempted tap dancing."

"I liked it."

"You would."

"Why do you say that?"

"Well you did like it, didn't you?"

"Yeah, but why 'would' I like it?"

"Why do I have to explain that when you 'did' like it?"

"The reason I liked it was because I thought it was good."

"You would think it was good."

"Why? And don't say, 'Yeah well you did think it was good.'"

"You liked that mime artist who pretended to be a pinball machine."

"He was brilliant."

"He was an idiot."

"You don't have to be clever to be able to mime a pinball machine."

"Well no, you couldn't possible be clever if you contemplated doing such a thing."

"Everything has to be clever with you, and that's just stupid. You always wonder will you look stupid if you admit to liking something."

"I don't. I just don't like stupid things. And even if I did like mime artists, that one was terrible. The tap dancer was even worse. The rain had more rhythm. Even the mime artist's pinball machine had more rhythm."

"You have less rhythm than an ironing board."

"That's why I don't start dancing in front of other people on train platforms. I think we should go back to the platform. Maybe I'll remember what it is I've forgotten there."

It was a small train station, and it was only busy in the mornings and evenings. Jane and Claudia went there and stood on the platform. There was no one else on it. They looked at the trees at the other side of the track. Jane tried to empty her mind, hoping that the thing she was trying to remember would come inside when no one else was at home.

"How exactly would you have more rhythm than an ironing board?" she said. "If you can have less, then you must be able to have more as well. I'll never be able to get that thought out of my mind now."

"I can't stop thinking about what you said about Stan dancing in front of other people on a train platform, but we were the only ones there."

"We're other people."

"Yeah, but it's not like a crowd."

"It would have been better if it was in front of a crowd. It was uncomfortable when just the two of us had to be the other people."

"He didn't dance in front of us. He was a long way down the platform, out in the rain."

"Did he think we wouldn't notice him?"

"He might have done."

"How could you not notice someone tap dancing on a train platform when there's no one else there? He might has well have mimed a pinball machine. In fact, it was so bad he might well have been trying to do that."

"Well let's ask him."

Stan, the tap dancer, worked in a bakery. They went to see him, and Claudia said, "We were just waiting on the train platform and it was so boring without a tap dancer to keep us entertained."

He smiled and started dancing again. When he stopped, Claudia applauded. Jane reluctantly joined in. He said, "Were ye waiting for a train?"

"No," Jane said.

"Oh... Were ye waiting for someone on a train?"

"No," Claudia said, "we were just waiting for Jane to remember something. She doesn't know what it is. Because if she knew what it was she wouldn't be waiting to remember it. She thought it might arrive at a train station."

"Is it a train?" Stan said.


"Because only a limited number of things arrive at train stations, and trains would be the most obvious ones."

"It's not a train."

"Or is it a person?"

"I don't think so. It might relate to a person in some way, but I don't know."

"I write down things relating to people so I won't forget. I'd never remember birthdays if I didn't write them down."

"That's it!" Jane said. "It's my brother's birthday! I left his cake outside the back door. I put it on the ground when I was trying to find my keys, and then I forgot about it because the phone was ringing inside."

"So it didn't have anything to do with trains," Stan said.


Jane and Claudia went back to look at the cake. It was in a box, but the box had been in the rain for too long, and the cake was resting under wet cardboard. "I'll have to get another cake," Jane said.

"It's just like that song, MacArthur Park. 'Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don't think I can take it, coz it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have that recipe again'."

"It's nothing at all like that. I left my brother's cake out in the rain, and I might not have the recipe, but I didn't bake it. I bought it in the supermarket from the woman with no eyebrows."

"The cake in the song is probably a metaphor for something else."

"Well this is even less like whatever it's a metaphor for."

"I'd love to see Stan tap dancing to MacArthur Park."

"He couldn't dance to a song like that."

"He could."

"You would say that. Stan tap dancing to MacArthur Park would be like the mime doing the pinball machine in slow motion."

"We can put it to the test. I have that song on CD, and I have a portable CD player. We could go back to the bakery to get another cake."

That's exactly what they did. Jane bought another cake and Claudia said to Stan, "I couldn't help thinking of MacArthur Park because there's a cake in the rain in that song. And when I played it again I couldn't help picturing you dancing to it."

Claudia pressed 'play' on the CD player. Stan started dancing, but it was a very half-hearted dance. He started crying, and his legs slowed to a standstill.

"Is anything wrong?" Claudia said.

"It's just so sad," Stan said. "The cake out in the rain. And it took so long to bake it, and he doesn't know if he'll find that recipe again."

"Are you okay?" Jane said.

Stan seemed confused. He looked down at his body.

"I don't mean physically," Jane said. "I mean the other one... Mentally."

He stared back at her, still looking confused.

"Not everyone dances on train platforms," she said. "And not everyone cries because of songs about cakes in the rain, unless it's a metaphor for something else. Have you been crying a lot recently."

"No, I never cry. Apart from just now."

"Is there anything on your mind that you want to talk about?"

He thought about that for a while and said, "I was thinking about curtains earlier."

"What about them?"

"Just about how useful they are for keeping the light in and the dark out. And you can hide in them by day."

"Do you feel a need to hide in them?"

"Sometimes. If there's someone I need to hide from. It's nearly always a person. Sometimes I need to hide from animals too, but there's no point hiding behind curtains because they'd just smell you out. Humans can't smell as well. But they can smell as bad. I don't mind bad smells in animals, but in humans they can be a bit... stand back from the edge of the platform. No one ever complains about an animal sweating."

"What do you do when you need to hide from an animal?"

"They normally catch me. I suppose I could try crossing a river or something... Is there anything on your mind that you want to talk about?"

"No... Not really... I was thinking about what would have more rhythm than an ironing board earlier, but it doesn't matter. Do you often have to hide from people?"

"Sometimes I just do it because I've got nothing else to do."

"Wouldn't you have nothing at all to do when you're hiding in the curtains?"

"Well it depends on the curtains. The ones at my aunt's house are always fascinating. I'll be getting off for lunch in a few minutes. I could take ye there."

"Wouldn't your aunt be bothered by you bringing strangers around to see her curtains?"

"No, people are always dropping by to hide in them. People have met future wives and husbands in there. And some people have met current wives and husbands and threatened to make them ex wives and husbands because of what they're doing in there."

The curtains sounded intriguing, so Jane and Claudia said they'd go. His aunt's house was about a mile away. It was at the end of a twisting, tree-lined drive. The red velvet curtains were at either side of a huge window at the front of the house. "I prefer the curtains on the right," he said. "Some people prefer the other ones. I suppose they prefer the sort of people who go there, but I prefer these ones."

He led them into the curtains. Jane and Claudia had been expecting to reach a wall as soon as they got inside, but he kept pushing his way through the velvet for over a minute. It was dark in there. They met a woman who looked lost. Stan knew her. "This is Mrs. Decibel," he said. "She knows everything. Ask her anything and she'll know the answer. Ask her about the ironing board."

Jane said, "What would have more rhythm than an ironing board?"

"A crow," Mrs. Decibel said.

"In what sense?" Jane said.

"In the sense that a crow would have more rhythm than an ironing board. Do you doubt that?"

"No. But how could a crow possibly have less rhythm than an ironing board?"

"It couldn't. I'll prove it."

She led them on deeper into the curtains until they came to a small room that had been created with pieces of timber like rafters overhead. There was a crow in the centre of this room. "I don't like this place," Stan said. "I knew we should have gone for the other curtain."

"I could get an ironing board for you to compare it to the crow," Mrs. Decibel said to Jane.

"I don't doubt that a crow has more rhythm than an ironing board," Jane said.

"The one thing I wanted to hide from was a crow," Stan said. "The one thing. And it's the one thing I ended up meeting. Would a crow be able to smell me?"

Claudia said, "If you started dancing he'd sense your rhythm, assuming a crow really does have more rhythm than an ironing board."

Stan started dancing and the crow walked around in a circle. Stan stopped dancing and started crying. "That's the one thing I didn't want to happen. The one thing. Now every time I dance I'll think of a crow. I should have gone to the left curtain. Isobel might be there. And yes, she thinks I have less rhythm than a kettle, but at least when I used to think of her every time I danced I never cried. Or I did cry, but that was the one thing I wanted to do when I thought of her. The one thing. Sometimes I remember the days when we had humming contests. She could hum monotonously with more rhythm than an ice cream van. And she's always with her Australian friends now. So I'm glad I didn't go to the left. I'd rather see a crow than see them. But a crow is the one thing I didn't want to see. The one thing."

Jane said to Mrs. Decibel, "Would a crow have more rhythm than a kettle."

"It... would depend on... I don't know. I suppose we'll have to test it and see."

Stan left to get a brass kettle. When he returned he put it next to the crow. "What if we plug it in?" Jane said.

Stan left to get an extension lead. When he returned they boiled the kettle. "I think the kettle has more rhythm," Mrs. Decibel said.

Jane said, "What if we put a metal ball into the kettle as it's boiling, like a ball from a pinball machine."

Stan left again and he came back with a small metal ball. He put it into the kettle. As the kettle boiled they heard the ball bouncing around inside. Stan started dancing to the sound. He smiled and said, "Now I know what it feels like to have as much rhythm as a pinball ball in a brass kettle next to a crow."

"That's a much better interpretation of a pinball machine than the one the mime did," Jane said.

"I can interpret a kettle through tap as well."

Stan did his tap dance interpretation of a kettle. They all stood back at the end.

"That was brilliant!" Jane said.

"I liked it too," Isobel said. She had arrived just before Stan boiled. He didn't notice her until she spoke. "It's a pity you still can't interpret a man who doesn't insult my grandmother," she said.

Stan said, "This is my interpretation of the brain activity of your Australian friends." He stood completely still for thirty seconds. "And this is my interpretation of an ironing board." He stood still for a while and then he fell over.

She said, "You do know they're standing right behind you, don't you?"

He turned around and looked up at the three Australian men. He ran away and they chased him. A scuffle ensued. 'Scuffle' is the best way to describe the shouts and flailing about in the curtain. Jane and Claudia made their way out of it. Isobel was waiting on the outside. Jane said to her, "He didn't really mean to insult you or your friends. He got you this cake."

Jane gave Isobel the box with the cake. Isobel opened the box and said, "Aww. He remembered my birthday next month."

She reached into the curtain, felt around for a while and when she removed her arm she was holding the back of Stan's shirt. She took him to the curtain at the other side of the window. The scuffle continued. Judging by the sounds that emanated from it, the crow was deeply involved. Mrs. Decibel crawled out from under the curtain. She remained on her hands and knees. She started smiling, and then laughing. "That was the most fun I've ever had in my life," she said.

She crawled back in again. Jane and Claudia stayed outside and listened.

"What are you thinking about now?" Claudia said.

"I don't know."

"I often feel like that. I don't know what I'm thinking half the time."

"I know."

They listened to the curtain for over twenty minutes. The sound changed as time went by. Laughter replaced the shouts, but there was still a lot of flailing limbs.

The moose's head over the fireplace has a new companion. The wife got a miniature moose's head to hang on the wall next to him. She got the idea after seeing a pirate on TV. The pirate had a parrot on his shoulder, and the parrot had a tiny parrot on its shoulder. It also had an eye patch and a wooden claw. She hopes that the moose's head will pass on some of his knowledge to the miniature moose. The miniature one is already copying his teacher's look of superiority when he looks at me.