'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Cheese

It's nice to walk around the garden and hear the sound of the dead leaves under my feet. The dog is fascinated by the sounds of autumn. The other day he stopped suddenly when he heard something. He spent nearly a minute frozen in that position, with one paw suspended in the air. It reminded me of the time my grandfather taught puppies the art of mime. All of the neighbours thought he had glass walls around the garden.

My aunt Joyce often tells stories of the people in the place where she grew up. In her late teens she used to meet her friends in the evening and go for walks down quiet country lanes. They often met a man called Peter who was over seven foot tall (according to Joyce, he had an exceptionally long neck). People used to point at him and ask him where the cheese was. It was meant to be a joke, but after years of doing it, no one could remember why it was funny. Peter himself certainly couldn't remember. He'd say he left the cheese in his shed, so they'd follow him back to his shed (Joyce is fairly sure they didn't do this when the joke started). On the way they'd meet other people who'd join Joyce and her friends. Peter often had a crowd of over twenty people following him.

In his shed they'd find his robot, which looked just like Elvis in his Vegas years, but this was before the Vegas-era Elvis (so Elvis could be regarded as the first look-alike of the thing in Peter's shed). No one knew what to make of this terrifying thing with flashing lights that moved around the shed when Peter removed the blanket that covered it. Then someone would say, "The cheese! What about the cheese?" Someone else would say, "Yeah, Peter, what about the cheese?"

At this point he'd put the blanket over his own head to immerse himself in thought. The crowd would assume that he was looking for the cheese, and to pass the time they amused themselves by playing Hipcat. Hipcat had once been an entertaining game, but no one could remember the rules, so (wearing my cutter-of-long-stories-short hat) they fought, which was more entertaining than Hipcat had ever been.

The fighting would come to an end when the robot started hitting its head with a hammer. This is when the crowd would notice that Peter had gone. They'd go outside and look around. People reacted to this situation in different ways. Some would go through the fields to look for him. Others would dig a hole, and then go into the hole, and form a committee in it. They'd only communicate in writing with people who weren't members of the committee. This would annoy some people, and Joyce would be in this group, who were unofficially known as the anti-committee collective. They'd come up with a plan to annoy the committee, a plan that almost always took the following form: throwing objects at the people in the hole. They often threw fish. The committee would object strongly, in writing, and a member of the anti-committee collective would say, "But ye asked us to do it."

The committee would insist, also in writing, that they requested no such thing. The anti-committee collective would produce a piece of paper that said 'Please throw fish at us when we're in the hole. We like it'. Joyce would say that this note was delivered to them and they were told it came from the committee in the hole. The committee would emerge from the hole and ask who gave them the note (when they were out of the hole they were freed from the restriction of having to express themselves in writing). Joyce would say it was a man, and in describing him she'd come up with outlandish details, like a big red hat or Cuban heels or leather trousers held up with a blue rope.

The committee would seek to identify this person. This quest would become the committee's reason for existence, and it gave them a new lease of life because they would have all recognised the limitations of staying in the hole. Their quest normally led them to a man called Andy, who used to be the lead singer in a rock band, or at least this was the excuse he used for his outlandish dress sense. The committee would confront him, and the anti-committee collective would be present too. The chairman of the committee would stand on a milk crate (because Andy was much taller than him) and publicly berate Andy for writing the note. Andy always responded by pushing the chairman off the milk crate. The other committee members would be frozen in shock, which was a convenient cover for the fear that would prevent them from doing anything other than running away. The chairman would eventually be returned to his feet. A brief committee meeting would take place, in which they'd agree to express their outrage in writing. They'd leave. The anti-committee collective would be left alone with Andy, and he'd always suggest going to see his brother's TV show.

Andy's brother, Joey, had a personal assistant who always carried a basket of flowers, and he pretended that that's what he wanted her to do. He was plagued by witches, and he pretended that that's what he wanted them to do because at night they were like beautiful sparkling stars around his head and they staged dramatic dreams for him that kept him entertained at night. He managed to convince everyone that he was blessed by the witches. People went to him when they needed advice about toast or frogs or anything. He insisted on measuring people's heads before giving them advice. He'd call out the measurements to his assistant, but she never wrote them down. She'd just hold the flowers, and he pretended that this is what he wanted her to do.

Some people believed that the witches were really just moths, and that they were attracted to his head because of a smell. His assistant would just smile when people asked her about this.

Joey's TV show was really just a play. Every evening he staged a new play in which actors acted out the dreams that the witches created for him. He was always asking people to tell their stories so the witches could hear them and then re-interpret those stories in dreams. The plays were performed on a stage in a field behind Joey's house. Andy would arrive with Joyce and the rest of the anti-committee collective, and they'd watch the play. Joey liked to think of it as a TV show because he believed he was competing with TV. The plays normally revolved around what happened to Joey on the previous day, and so the previous day's play was often featured again. Rita, who was a friend of Joey, was a recurring character, and for her it was like a recurring nightmare. She was always thinking about her hair. She wanted it to be a perfect statement of who she was, but she didn't know who she was. Then she met an archaeologist and she developed an interest in archaeology. She completely forgot about her hair for a few months. She became much less self-conscious. She even got up on Joey's stage to sing one evening, but she noticed everyone staring at her (as they do when you get up on the stage to sing) and she worried about her hair again. She was horrified when she saw herself in the mirror. Variations of this story were played out almost every evening, but it gradually changed every time. After a few months, she started laughing when she saw her hair in the mirror. She felt confident about getting up on the stage, and she even played herself in the play. The story about how she prepared for the role became part of the play too.

Joyce and the others would watch the actors perform until after the sun went down. At the end, Joey would ask the audience for more stories for the witches to interpret. Joyce would tell him about the cheese and their plan to annoy the committee. At this point the committee would emerge from the bushes, and the chairman would say, "I knew all along it was just a plan to annoy us. I'm going to put it in writing to prove that I knew all along."

"We didn't really want to annoy ye," Joyce would say. "But a woman in a mini-skirt told us to do it."

Joyce would describe this woman and they'd take down the details. It nearly always led them to the same woman. Before going to look for her, they'd present Andy with their written complaint about his behaviour when he pushed the chairman off the milk crate. Andy would always set this on fire. The chairman would say, "Expect an even stronger-worded complaint the next time."

The committee would leave. Joey would want to find out more about the people who went through the fields to look for Peter, so the witches could hear their story. Andy and the anti-committee collective would go to look for these people.

On one occasion they found the other people with a ship's captain. They were helping him look for some of his crew, who ran away because they were afraid of a were-wolf. On most other nights they found the other people with a man called Conn, who used to walk through the fields every evening. He'd tell them stories about supernatural creatures that he'd shot. He might well have met the crew from the ship and frightened them even more, or else eased their doubts by convincing them that he'd shot the were-wolf.

They'd all go back to Peter's shed because someone would notice a fire next to it. The robot would have started a bonfire. They'd find Peter under the blanket in the shed. Someone would lift the blanket and he'd hand them a piece of paper or a battery or whatever he had found in his pocket. "There it is," he'd say.

The next time they'd meet him on the road they'd say, "Where's the cheese?" And then they'd go back to his shed and go through the whole process again.

These evenings would be represented in Joey's plays on the following evening. The plays always included a scandalous story about what the committee got up to with the woman in the yellow mini-skirt. The committee would issue a statement denying the story, and they'd blame political rivals for trying to bring them down.

The moose's head over the fireplace is still wearing his headphones after our neighbour, Sam, called around last night. The moose would rather listen to The Stone Roses than hear any more of Sam's theories. He believes that God is a puppet master. He'd like to be able to cut the strings, but he's afraid he'll cut the one holding up the sword of Damocles. He blames God for all of his mistakes. If God is responsible, I think it's more like a ventriloquism act, where the dummy, in this case Sam, says things that embarrass the ventriloquist. Why else would God make his creation get his head stuck in a bucket or touch wires to see if they're live.