'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Owl

In theory the weather should be getting warmer at this time of year, but it's getting colder. The garden gnomes seem to be enjoying themselves anyway. My grandfather believed that they were drunk pretty much all of the time. It would explain why they keep falling over, and why one of them keeps making a pass at the ugly gnome with the hatchet.

My cousin Jessica did something to her hair and everyone kept looking at it, trying to figure out what she had done. A man called Freddie was wearing a big blue hat and he asked her if he could touch her hair but she said no. He told her she could touch his hat if she let him touch her hair, and even though she was tempted to touch his big blue hat she still said no. He tried to pretend to be indignant but he gave up after a few seconds and he sighed. "What's the use?" he said. "We're all doomed anyway."

She said, "If it means that much to you, you can touch my hair."

"What's the use? We're all doomed!"

"I thought that once, for a few hours, but then I met a woman who was able to demonstrate that we're not doomed at all. You should meet her too. Her name is Carol."

Jessica took Freddie to meet Carol. Carol's method for instilling a positive outlook was to write speeches that were very positive and life-affirming. She'd make people like Freddie deliver these speeches in public and they'd start believing what they're saying, even if the audience wouldn't. There didn't even have to be an audience. Carol would try to get to know the person first, and then she'd write a speech that would be appropriate for their personality, and the setting of the speech would vary from person to person as well. Her most recent client had delivered his speech to the swans in the park.

After getting to know Freddie she decided that he should deliver his speech from a rock in the middle of a field with a stuffed owl on his shoulder. Only Jessica and Carol were there to hear it. Freddie didn't think the speech would have any effect on him, and this was reflected in the tone of his voice when he began speaking from the rock. But as time went by he became more animated. As he approached the end of the speech his voice was full of life, but a gunshot provided an unexpected full stop. The owl fell from his shoulder, and some of its feathers floated to the ground after it.

The old Freddie would have said, "We're all doomed!" And he'd have told his audience that we're all little more than stuffed owls who've been shot in the past and are destined to be shot again. But the new Freddie just wanted revenge. "We're going to find out who did this," he said. "We're doing this for the owl."

The gunshot had come from the woods nearby. They went into the woods on a narrow, twisting path. Freddie brought the owl in a bag.

It didn't take them long to find a man with a shotgun. They watched as he remained completely still for over a minute, as if he was listening out for some sound, and then he shot into a tree. They heard him say 'Damn!', which suggested that he missed whatever he was trying to shoot. He walked on again, and they followed him.

When the path emerged from the woods it led to a gate at the back of a garden behind a cottage. The man opened the gate and walked up the garden path. Jessica, Freddie and Carol remained behind in the woods and they watched him open the door of the cottage and disappear inside.

"What are we going to do now?" Jessica said.

"I don't know," Carol said. "At least we know where he lives."

"That's right," Freddie said. "If you want revenge it always helps if you know where someone's car or someone's house is."

"What sort of revenge do you have in mind?" Jessica said.

"I haven't really thought about that."

They spent twenty minutes thinking about that. The sun had gone down, and there was a light on in the cottage. When the light went off they went around to the front and they saw the man walking away down a narrow lane.

They followed him. He went to a house a few hundred yards away. All of the lights were on here, and there were people with drinks outside.

Jessica, Freddie and Carol saw all this through the hedge at the front of the house. "It looks like a party," Jessica said. "I wonder if we could sneak in and not be noticed. There must be lots of ways to get revenge on a man when he's at a party."

"It would be difficult to remain unnoticed," Carol said.

They kept looking through the hedge until they heard footsteps behind them. They turned around and they saw a woman who was holding a bunch of flowers. She was going to the party too. They noticed that the flowers had grey petals. They were attracted to the flowers like moths to light. They felt they had to go inside, so they followed the woman in.

They did their best to blend in with the crowd, and no one seemed to notice them. Freddie wanted to put the owl on his shoulder because he felt it was the owl's rightful place, but they managed to convince him to keep it in the bag.

The grey flowers were in a vase in the centre of a table. They seemed real. The woman who brought the flowers saw Jessica, Freddie and Carol looking at the grey petals. She went over to them and said, "The flowers came from my garden. The cook found them. She once had a habit of covering her ears when you wanted to talk to her. If you said you wanted to talk to her about grasshoppers she'd listen attentively. But you'd have to get in quick with the mention of grasshoppers before she covered her ears. You'd say, 'Grasshoppers, Janie. It's about grasshoppers.' And then you'd say whatever you wanted to say to her and add in something about grasshoppers at the end. One day I asked her to go outside and stand next to the glasshouse because there was something wrong with the cat. He was walking across the roof but he looked unsteady. So she waited at the side of the glasshouse in case he fell. While she was there the man who represented the gardener arrived with a list of all the things wrong with the garden. The gardener was too upset to deliver it himself. He was upset because the list was so long, and the list was so long because he was upset. Every week the list got longer and he got more upset. He was too upset to do anything about the garden. He felt he was powerless to solve anything. The weeds would always make a comeback. The grass would need to be cut again. He was certainly powerless to do anything about some of the items on the list, like world hunger, which didn't have much to do with the garden. The vegetable patch wouldn't put much of a dent in that problem. The man who represented the gardener didn't really care who he delivered the list to, so he read it out to the cook at the glasshouse. She covered her ears for most of the list, and she didn't notice that the cat had fallen. He fell down the other side of the roof and he landed in a bucket of water. When she realised what had happened she took the cat out and dried him. When I went out later I saw her dancing with the cat. She's been a changed person since she saved the cat's life, or one of his lives. She never covered her ears again. She plays hide-and-seek with him in the garden. There are lots of places to hide now that it's so overgrown. She found these grey flowers when she was looking for the cat one day. I like the garden the way it is now. It's worth paying the gardener to do nothing to it."

Freddie pictured the cat playing in the garden. He thought of the stuffed owl in the bag and he said, "We're doomed. Doomed!"

"The concert should cheer you up," the woman said.

"What concert?" Jessica said.

"We meet here every week for a concert. This house is being haunted by a ghost who makes a vain attempt to sing every night. If he was a tenor when he was alive he didn't retain this ability after death, but it doesn't stop him trying. Edith, the owner of the house, has an aunt who can frighten ghosts by acting strangely. She does something with her knitting needles and a cushion and the words 'Where's Archie?' that would make you back away. So Edith brought her aunt to the house to frighten the ghost, but her aunt loved the sound of the ghost's voice, and she started singing along. They sing duets once a week now, and it's strangely entertaining."

The ghost arrived at midnight. He entered the room through the wall. He took up his place by the fireplace and his arrival was greeted with a round of applause. Edith's aunt stood at the other side of the fireplace, and they began their song. Jessica thought it was certainly strange, but not very entertaining. Freddie looked as if he wasn't enjoying it much either.

Near the end of the song he was distracted by something moving at his feet. He looked down at the bag and he noticed that the owl was moving around in it. He opened the bag and the owl flew out. The song came to an abrupt end. The man who had shot the owl dropped his glass when he saw the bird. The owl perched on the back of a chair and stared at him. He vowed never to shoot another living creature again.

Freddie was smiling. It looked as if the positive Freddie had been restored. He opened a window to let the owl fly away. When the owl had gone the ghost and Edith's aunt started singing again.

Jessica said to Freddie, "Do you want to touch my hair now?"

"Yeah, alright," he said.

The moose's head over the fireplace is looking forward to the Champions League final this evening and to the Heineken Cup final on Saturday. He doesn't need alcohol to enhance his appreciation of these events, or of any event, and he doesn't have to worry about falling over and making a pass at something with a hatchet. When we have parties he prefers to remain above the alcohol-inspired misbehaviour beneath him. I've often woken up on the floor and looked up at his disapproving glare. It's a horrible feeling. After the last time I vowed never to let it happen again, so I always go to sleep with a blindfold now.