'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Snail Wearing a Beret

Indians have set up camp in one of the fields behind the house. They're not really Indians. They're natives of Waterford rather than of America. They say they have a right to practise traditional ways, like scalping, but it's really just an excuse to steal wigs and sell them on Ebay.

My cousin Jane was looking through her diary on an evening in July, and on the page for the following day she saw a bad drawing of a snail wearing a beret. She could vaguely remember drawing it after a party a few days earlier. She got the feeling that it was supposed to remind her of something, but she had no idea what that could be.

After breakfast on the following morning she tried to remember the party. She was able to recall something about a man wearing paper clothes, and a bowler hat in the middle of the floor, but most of the rest of the night was a blur. She couldn't see how these things related to the snail, apart from the tenuous link between the bowler hat and the beret.

She met her friend, Claudia, later that day and she told the story of the snail in the beret. "All I can remember is a man wearing paper clothes, and a bowler hat on the ground," Jane said.

"Maybe the snail was under the bowler hat."

"Then why did I draw him wearing a beret?"

"That man wasn't wearing paper clothes. He'd just written and painted lots of things on his clothes. He's an artist. He has an exhibition in the gallery at the moment. Maybe we'd find out more about the snail there."

They went to the gallery, and the artist was there in person. His name was Melvin. He had a palette and a brush, and he was altering some of his paintings. Jane asked him if he often altered paintings in galleries and he said, "All the time. Nothing is ever truly finished. Everything is a work in progress. I see life as a never-ending film. You can change the film as it happens. You can change things so they'll fit with the template, sometimes by squinting and imagining things that aren't there, sometimes by physically altering the world.

"What do you mean by a template?"

"I try to perceive the world according to an inner template I've formed. It's not possible to define that template in terms of an over-riding concept or the methodology I've used to form it. There's no single concept or methodology. For instance, I believe that turtles are made out of Lego. This doesn't have anything to do with anything else I believe."

"Have you ever tried to take a turtle apart and make it into something else?" Claudia said.

"No. I just stand back and squint when I see them."

"What are snails made of?"

"Snails are just toes that escape. They hide for a few years, and during that time the toe nail will turn into a shell."

"So you could say they're toes in disguise," Jane said.

"You could say that."

"A snail wearing a beret would suggest a disguise."

"Or a snail trying to hide."

"Do you know of something that's supposed to happen today that relates to a snail wearing a beret?"

"No. Why do you ask?"

"No reason. Well, there is a reason but I'm not entirely sure what it is. It has something to do with a snail wearing a beret."

"The only thing I can think of that relates to snails wearing clothes is this: I come from a small village, and a few years ago the government wanted to close down the school because there weren't enough pupils. They organised a protest, and I agreed to help them. I wanted to make more kids to symbolise the fact that there will inevitably be more kids in the future. So I made things out of slugs and snails and puppy dog's tails, and out of sugar and spice and all things nice, or some things nice. I dressed them in school uniforms."

"Did the protest work?"

"Yeah. I think they were scared."

"Do you remember telling me about this at the party?"

"I can't remember that. I might have."

"Maybe that's what put the snail in the beret into my mind."

Jane and Claudia left the gallery. "The snail in the beret could represent a French boy," Claudia said.

"Or part of a French boy. He's missing his slugs and tails. Maybe he ate them."

"I can vaguely remember Jill saying something about a French boy throwing a cabbage at her."

"Why would a French boy throw a cabbage at Jill?"

"Why wouldn't a French boy throw a cabbage at Jill? If there was a French boy with a cabbage within ten yards of Jill and he wasn't throwing it at her you'd think, 'Why isn't he throwing the cabbage at Jill? What's wrong with him?' And it's not just French boys. Nelson Mandela would struggle to resist throwing a cabbage at her."

They went to see Jill, and she told them that the French boy was her nephew. His name was Frederic. Her sister lives in France, but she was over here on holiday with her family.

Jane said, "Do you know of anything that's supposed to happen today?"

"No. Is he planning something for today?"

"No. I don't know. I've never even met him."

"He's planning something, isn't he?"

"How would I know if I've never met him before?"

"He's planning something alright. He's at a soccer camp today. Yesterday he put ear drops into my tea, and he stirred it with the thing used to apply the ear drops. He only told me this after I drank the tea."

Jane and Claudia tried not to laugh. They said they'd let her know if they heard about his plans.

When they were walking back through the town they met Melvin again. He was painting a mural on a wall. The mural showed a housewife being confronted by a snail wearing a beret. "The idea that something is going to happen that relates to snails in berets had a big effect on my template," he said. "I pictured an invading army of snails. These murals are intended to warn people of the danger. I've done another one of a snail rounding up hippies."

"I really like this one," Jane said. "It's unlikely that I drew the snail in my diary to remember an invasion, but still, I like it."

Rory arrived on the scene. Jane had been talking to him at the party. He said to her, "I might have known you'd be behind these murals."

"What do you mean?"

Rory rolled up his shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a snail in a beret. "You talked me into getting this," he said to Jane. "You convinced me it would look great, and I was drunk enough to believe it."

"It's all coming back to me now," Jane said. "But why would I draw the snail in my diary for today?"

"Because we were supposed to go to see a film today."

"Oh yeah. That was it."

Melvin said, "I'm sticking with my idea of the invasion."

"I'm stuck with this bloody tattoo," Rory said.

"I know a tattoo artist who could help you out," Melvin said. "He could turn that into a puma attacking a caveman. I'll show you what it would look like."

Melvin painted a small mural of a puma attacking a caveman. Rory liked it, so Melvin took them to meet Flanagan, the tattoo artist. He had only just woken up, and he was trying to get over a hangover. After a few cups of coffee he was able to look at Rory's arm and not see a blurred image of one of the aliens who appear in his dreams. They took him to see the mural of the puma attacking the cavemen. Flanagan took a photo of it. "Can I have it without the caveman?" Rory said. "I'd rather have the puma on its own."

"I think I can manage that."

Rory and Flanagan went away to work on the tattoo. Jane, Claudia and Melvin went to see the mural of the snail rounding up the hippies. On the way they met Jill. She was running towards them, and then she ran past them. They ran after her. She told them that she was running away from the police because they thought she had painted the mural of the snail. She had seen the mural and she thought it would be a perfect way to get back at Frederic. She painted his name on the wall to suggest that he was the snail in the beret, but the police caught her in the act and she ran away.

Melvin painted an arrow on a wall that pointed to the left, and he went to the right with Jane, Claudia and Jill. The police followed the arrow.

"This has certainly been an interesting film," Claudia said. "There's a romantic subplot between Jane and Rory, an invasion, a police chase and a French villain. So how are you going to end it?"

"There is no end," Melvin said. "This could go on forever."

They heard an ominous noise. "I really wish this would end right now," Jill said.

Frederic appeared at the other end of the street. He was joined by ten other boys from his soccer camp, and they were all holding water balloons. When Frederic saw Jill he said, "There she is," and the boys started running towards her. Jane, Claudia, Melvin and Jill ran away.

Jane said to Melvin, "Have you been making more kids?"

"Not personally, no. But this all fits the template."

"Couldn't you make something with sugar and spice and all things nice to counteract them?"

"It's a bit late for that."

Melvin used the arrow trick to lose the boys, and it worked again, but he knew they'd keep looking for their prey.

Jane, Claudia, Melvin and Jill went back to the street where Melvin had painted the mural of the puma attacking the cavemen. Twenty girl guides were staring at the mural. They were all holding ice creams. They wouldn't have been made with many nice things. There would have been shards of glass in the sugar.

"An army of girls," Melvin said. "I only need to make a minor adjustment to the template to fit this in."

"They're girl guides," Jane said.

"Then why the military uniforms?"

"That's what girl guides wear."

Jill explained the situation to the girls, and they were only too happy to take on the boys. The boys were terrified of the girls wielding ice creams. Frederic and his army retreated. Jill was worried that Frederic would try something else, so Jane got a paintbrush and painted 'The End' on a wall. This put Jill's mind at rest.

Rory was happy with his puma tattoo. Jane went to see a film with him, but it was an anti-climax after the real life film they'd just seen.

The moose's head over the fireplace is an expert on antiques. We hold objects in front of him so he can examine them, and you can tell by the look on his face whether or not he thinks it's valuable. His eyes lit up when he saw the vase that my great-grandfather bought from a man who believed that a vampire was always standing right behind him. He sold the vase for next to nothing because he thought it would annoy the vampire.