'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Christmas Ghost

The Christmas decorations are up. I've put some lights on the trees in the garden. Decorating trees is a tradition that started over a century ago in this area. A man called Felix decorated a tree in his garden, but he'd never heard of Christmas decorations. He thought the tree looked bare in the middle of winter. Everyone else got dressed up on Christmas Day and the kids were washed. He saw the tree as a human being. He had been staring at it for too long, and he saw poses and gestures in the branches, especially when the wind was strong. His neighbours started decorating their trees too, and rivalries developed. They tried to out-do each other. Felix was horrified. He thought that no one was respecting the personality of the trees. When he was going home from the pub one night, all he saw was hideously dressed trees. The wind was strong at the time, so he pulled down the decorations and he pretended that the wind had undressed the trees. But in the light of day all he saw was naked trees. He was horrified, for a while, but then he started to see the appeal of naked trees. His neighbours didn't share his vision, and they decorated their trees again.

My cousin Alan was short of cash one Christmas. He had bet a small fortune on a horse that couldn't lose. His friend Jonathon told him it couldn't lose. Jonathon had once convinced him to bet on a boxer who 'had to win', but he lost because he injured his head when he fell off his stool. The horse lost too.

Alan went to see Jonathon to complain. "I thought you said the horse couldn't lose," Alan said.

"You can never account for unforeseen circumstances. If you could, they wouldn't be unforeseen."

"What unforeseen circumstances were there in this case?"

"Who'd have thought that four other horses would run faster than him. I thought maybe one of them would, but not four."

"I need to make some money to pay my rent and buy Christmas presents."

"Why not go on one of those TV game shows? It looks like easy money."

"I'd be too scared."

"Most of those contestants are morons. You should never be afraid if you come up against a moron. Unless it's in a dark alley and they're armed. They'll sense that they can't outsmart you. They'll know it subconsciously, even if they can't form the thought in their conscious minds, and they do struggle with conscious thoughts and putting things into words. They'll use force instead of words. These people are stupid enough to go on TV to show how stupid they are. They have nothing. It's like being frisked to show they're not armed, and then handcuffed as well. And stripped naked. They're left with no weapons apart from their intelligence, and that's about as dangerous as a butterfly. They're forced to just smile and show the world how stupid they are. If you're afraid of going up against that, there's something wrong with you."

"Intelligent people can look stupid if they're overcome by nerves, and I'd be too nervous on TV. I need to find some other way of making money."

"There are loads of jobs you can get at Christmas. You could become a Santa."

"That's not a bad idea."

It wasn't a bad idea, but unforeseen circumstances meant that Alan only lasted an hour in the job. He became a Santa in a shopping mall. A German man was playing another Santa in the same mall. His accent confused the kids at first, but when they thought about it, it made sense. Santa wouldn't be from around here. So they were suspicious of the Santas who sounded as if they came from the locality. Alan gave up after an hour of being kicked on the shins by kids.

As a last resort he asked his landlady if she could wait until the new year for her rent. She laughed at the suggestion, but she had one of her own. Her brother owned a shop that rarely closed. He had found a woman stupid enough to get involved with him, and he'd been looking for someone else to look after the shop in the evenings while he goes out with her.

Alan agreed to do the job. Her brother, Dan, reminded Alan of Scrooge. He hated Christmas, kids, and spending money, but somehow he had managed to get a good-looking girlfriend who was ten years younger than him. Alan met her in the shop one evening. Her name was Fiona. He asked her how she ended up going out Dan and she said, "It was an in-depth knowledge of Voltaire that did it for me. For me, an in-depth knowledge of Voltaire would be more important than things like looks or personality."

"Or a willingness to spend money."

"Yeah. I'd also place an in-depth knowledge of Flaubert or of Proust above those things. That's not to equate Flaubert or Proust with Voltaire. They're all very different from each other. He hates Flaubert more than he hates Santa Claus. He said that if the entire works of Flaubert could be turned into a nail, it should be hammered into a tree and then the tree should be buried under concrete. He hates trees too."

"I wouldn't have thought he'd know anything about Voltaire. I know nothing about Voltaire, apart from... No, nothing."

"You're lucky you've got looks and personality."

On the following evening, Alan was supposed to look after the shop until eleven o' clock, but it was nearly midnight before Dan arrived back. He had a smile on his face, something Alan had never seen before.

"Your old boss is dead," Dan said. "I'm a new man. Something's changed, and I've seen the light. Fiona's sister organised a party for kids at the hospital. It's on tomorrow, and they were getting everything ready tonight, but someone lit a candle and it set off the sprinklers. The Christmas decorations and all the food was ruined. They only had a few hours to sort it out. Fiona asked me to help, and I didn't want to, but she told me it was one of those things I had to do. I'm so glad I did it. I became engrossed in the work, and when I thought about doing it for all those sick kids, it started to feel rewarding. It was like a dam bursting in me. I've been suppressing the need to do good for years, but now it's out. From now on I'll only do good. I came back to get the food for the party. I'm donating it for free. Sorry about keeping you waiting. You'll be well paid for the overtime."

When Alan met Fiona a few days later he said, "You must be delighted with the new Dan."

"No. It's terrible. He's so boring now. I fell in love with the old Dan, but this is a different person. I've met hundreds of men like the new Dan and they all bored me to tears. It was those experiences that made me more susceptible to someone like the old Dan."

"The old one can't be too far away. He must be lurking just beneath the surface."

"I'd give anything to get him back for Christmas. If you can help bring back the old miser I love, I'll pay your rent."

"Why not copy 'A Christmas Carol', only in reverse. Arrange a visitor in the middle of the night to remind him of his past and suggest that he can't escape it, and that he shouldn't escape it because being a curmudgeon is a noble calling in life."

"He believes in ghosts, so that could work, but only if he was drunk enough to believe that a ghost would visit him to tell him to become a miser again."

She spoke about the sort of people Dan would listen to, and she said he believed that German people had a natural authority in their voices. Alan remembered the German Santa in the shopping mall, and he seemed ideal for the role of a Christmas ghost.

They went to see him and they told him about the job they had for him. He was perfectly happy to help. He said he'd often been asked to visit people's houses in the middle of the night dressed as Santa, but that was just to scare people.

Dan lived above the shop. Fiona visited him one evening and she brought a bottle of whiskey. She made sure he drank enough of it to make the world around him warm and blurry and full of ghostly visions. He went to bed, and just after midnight his visitor arrived. The German man was wearing his Santa suit. Fiona had a key to the back door and she let him in. He went upstairs to Dan's bedroom.

Dan was terrified when he heard the loud German voice. The ghost said, "You must change your ways. You must go back to being the man you really are. Remember when you enjoyed being mean? And you were such a good curmudgeon. You still are, beneath the surface. You can't just change overnight. Or you can, but you'll change back again on another night. And tonight is that night."

"Is that all you came here for?"

"You make it sound insignificant, as if it doesn't matter. I'm telling you something that will change your life. It will make your life better. It will make the people around you happier."

"I'm bored with sneering and scowling and being a miser."

"You can't get bored with who you are for very long. It's your nature. It won't take long before you'll get bored with who you're not. You're probably feeling that already."

"I'm not."

"You are. Admit it. When I told you to go back to your old ways, you were relieved."

"I was relieved because I realised you weren't going to kill me. Or steal my money."

"Aha! You thought about your money. That was an instinctual reaction."

"Just because I've stopped being a miser it doesn't mean I want to be burgled."

"I looked into your eyes and saw the man you really are, and he's not the man you think you are. He's the man you once were."

"So you're saying there's no possibility for change. Forget about self-improvement."

"But is it really an improvement? You've lost your true self and it's been replaced by a self that doesn't burn brightly. There's a tiny birthday cake candle lighting up your lantern. The world around you is a darker place. I'd rather see someone who's true to themselves rather than someone who tries to be something they're not."

"What if I could only be true to myself by torturing puppies?"

"In that instance I'd side with the puppies. They can only be true to themselves if they're not being tortured. But you don't want to torture puppies. You want to be again the man you used to be, and there's nothing wrong with that. You must go back."

The German Santa left and Dan fell asleep shortly afterwards.

Fiona was hoping that the nocturnal visitor would have an immediate effect on Dan, but he was still intent on doing good on the following day. She spoke to Alan about it. He said, "He's heard the theory and now he just needs to see it in practise. He needs to be in a situation where the appeal of being mean is obvious. Is there any way you could get him to dress up as Santa and go to a shopping mall?"

"I doubt it."

"Then we'll have to bring the kids to him. And I know just the two kids for this job."

On Christmas Eve Alan brought his niece and nephew, Daisy and Graham, into the shop to meet Dan. They had their pet duck, Sleepy, who was wearing his miniature reindeer antlers. Dan was delighted to meet them, and he gave them chocolate Santas. Just as they were about to leave, Sleepy fell asleep, and they said they had to wait until he woke up. Dan told them to take all the time they wanted. Daisy and Graham started arguing as they waited. Graham asked questions like 'How many snakes does it take to play Bobby-snob?'. Daisy answered this by saying, "I keep telling you, you don't need any snakes. You don't know how to play Bobby-snob."

Sleepy woke up and took a few steps towards the door, and then he fell asleep again. And the kids started arguing again. Dan was still smiling, but it was obviously a strained smile. Sleepy woke up and fell asleep shortly afterwards, and this finally tipped Dan over the edge. The smile became a scowl and he said, "Either stay in or get out, and if ye're staying in, shut up."

Sleepy woke up and looked around him. Daisy and Graham cheered because Alan had promised to buy them presents if they made his boss angry. Fiona paid Alan's rent and she bought him a present to say thanks for bringing back the curmudgeon she loved.

The moose's head over the fireplace looks confused. The wife's aunt did a painting of him when he was wearing his Santa hat. She depicted him as a scuba diver in a Santa hat. This would be considered normal behaviour amongst the other members of her art class. One man is telling his life story in a tapestry. It started out as something he drew on his hand. The tapestry depicts a strange Santa from the artist's youth. This Santa had long pointy shoes. He appeared every year when the carol singers did their rounds on Christmas Eve. He did a dance and delivered gifts to the houses that the singers called to. His red suit was very tight-fitting and the legs were too short. In the tapestry he has a huge pet rat, but this is just something the artist imagined. The wife's aunt did a painting of this Santa in his sleigh. She depicted him as a tall scuba diver in a van full of fridges.