'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Watchers

When I was trimming a hedge I found an old china tea pot with a matching cup and saucer. They were hidden deep within the hedge. I think they've been there for decades. The hedge is part of a maze that my grandfather made. It's a very simple maze, so it's difficult to get lost in it, but it's not so easy to get in and out of it. There's no entrance. My grandfather used two step-ladders to get in and out -- one to climb over the hedge and another to get down at the other side. He'd sit on a deck chair in the centre of the maze and drink tea. I've heard that he created the maze just to avoid looking at his sister-in-law's painting of a man swimming in a lake.

My cousin Jane and her friend, Claudia, once joined a bird-watching club, but they didn't get to see many birds. The president of the club gave long lectures on the art of seeing things. He taught them how to see a paperclip, but Jane was bored after a few minutes of looking. She said to him, "When are we going to look at birds?"

He said, "We could go outside and look at birds right now but the experience would be wasted on you unless you learn how to look at paper clips first. Or sausages. Next week we'll be looking at sausages."

Jane and Claudia decided to leave the club before they looked at sausages. A man called Greg left with them, but he continued his bird-watching. They often saw him with his binoculars in the park or in the fields around the town. When Jane was walking through the park one day she saw two birds on a sun dial right behind Greg. The birds were looking at him, but he was looking in the opposite direction, towards some people who were throwing a Frisbee at each other. It was only a matter of time before one of them got injured, so it was no great surprise that he found them more interesting than the birds. But on the following day Jane and Claudia saw him looking at a woman who was looking at a paper clip, and they started to think that he was watching people rather than birds. He was writing his observations in a notebook.

"I'd love to know what he's writing," Claudia said.

"So would I," Jane said. "And we're going to find out. He's almost certainly been watching us. We have every right to steal it and see what he's written about us. If you can distract him, I'll take it."

They took their chance to steal the notebook when they saw him next to a river one evening. He was looking at a house through his binoculars. The notebook was on a deck chair behind him. Claudia distracted him by pointing at a rock in a field and saying, "What's that bird over there?"

"I can't see any bird," Greg said.

"It's really, really small. I saw it trying to catch a worm, but the worm was putting up a good fight."

Greg looked at the rock through his binoculars. "I can't see it," he said.

"Maybe it flew away. Can you see the worm?"


"Wow. The bird must have won."

Jane was long gone by the time Greg noticed that his notebook was missing. She met up with Claudia in a cafe and they started reading his findings. Greg had observed nearly fifty people, and he'd classified them into different groups. There were only two groups, and one of them had just one member. A man who once shot a wedding cake was classified as an intellectual and everyone else was classified as a hippy. There were different types of hippies, such as stupid hippies, screechy hippies, self-obsessed hippies and about-to-explode-with-anger hippies. Jane and Claudia were classified as unimaginative hippies. They were furious when they read this. In Jane's entry he'd added the observation 'Looks like a member of Kraftwerk'.

"We've got to do something about this," Jane said.

"It's a bit late now."

"I mean revenge. It's never too late for revenge. We'll make him cross out the word 'unimaginative' and write 'vengeful' instead. Or 'imaginatively vengeful'. Or just 'insane'."

"I don't want to do anything insane."

"It might not come to that. We might not have to do very much at all. If we show this notebook to everyone mentioned in it, then the revenge might take care of itself."

Most people were furious when they saw what he'd written about them. A woman called Imogen was classified as a 'reactionary hippy'. He had added the observation 'A pacifist with a violent streak'. Jane and Claudia showed this to her. She remained completely calm as she said, "I think we should drug him, shave off all his hair and tattoo the word 'dog-kisser' on his face. I know for a fact that he dislikes being referred to as a dog-kisser."

"I think that might be a step too far," Jane said.

Only one man agreed that he was a screechy hippy, but he was angry about being observed. He suggested that they get revenge on Greg by observing him. It would surely stop him from observing people in the future.

So on a Saturday morning in August, when Greg stepped outside his front door he saw a crowd of people waiting for him. He'd been expecting to see them ever since his notebook went missing, so he acted as if this was the sort of thing that happened every day. The fact that they chose to act in this way only confirmed his view that they were all hippies.

He said 'good morning' to the crowd and he walked around them. They followed him into town. He never turned around or asked them what they were up to. In the park he met a woman called Sarah. She was doing her best to impress him. She said, "I have tickets for the theatre. It's a play about a man who puts a kettle on his head, for a laugh, and then he gets struck by lightning, and he can't stop laughing after that. It's supposed to be good. I thought you might like to go with me."

"The theatre isn't really my thing," Greg said.

"Yeah, I know. It's rubbish, isn't it? It was my sister who got the tickets and she didn't even want them... What is your thing?"

"I don't really have a thing."

Jane coughed and held up the notebook. Greg said, "Oh yeah. I spy on stupid hippies."

"That sounds like fun."

"Observing them from afar is far more pleasant than seeing them up close."

He went to the shop to get a newspaper and the watchers followed. Tracey, the woman behind the counter, was behaving just like Sarah. She said to him, "Do you want to come around to my place later on to try some cheese I bought when I was in Wicklow?"

"I can't. I'm busy."

"Oh... Why do you have an audience?"

"Ignore them. They're just hippies."

"They weren't there when we, ah..."


"I don't mind them being there if you want to, ah..."

"I can't. I'm busy."

"Right. Maybe some other time then."

Greg left the shop with his audience. He was walking down a street towards the bookies when he met a woman called Ruth. This time he was behaving like Sarah and Tracey. He said to her, "I thought you might like to go to the theatre with me. There's a very good play on. It's about a man who puts a kettle on his head and he gets struck by lightning."

"I can't. I'm... doing something else."

"Oh. Okay. Maybe some other time."

"I have to go now."

She walked on without saying goodbye. He kept looking at her until she disappeared around the corner.

"I can't believe you like her," Jane said to Greg.

"Who said I liked her?"

"Your whole demeanour is like a flashing neon sign that says 'I like her'."

"Maybe I do. What's wrong with that?"

"She's evil."

"That's what I like about her."

"I once saw her threatening to set a man's car on fire just because he was wearing shorts in a supermarket. And she used a cattle prod on carol singers."

"Only a hippy would find that behaviour objectionable."

Jane and the Greg-watchers followed Greg back to his house. He didn't invite them in. As they waited outside in the garden Claudia said, "We should do something about Ruth and Greg."

"What could we do?" Jane said.

"We could bring them together. What better revenge is there than getting him involved with a woman who once set her boyfriend's car on fire?"

"Yeah, but he'd probably like that. A better sort of revenge would be to make her despise him forever."

Brendan, one of the watchers, said, "Greg used to be in a folk band. They released an album called 'Buttercups and Rabbits'. I have a vinyl copy of it at home. On the cover they're all dressed in Aran sweaters and they're in a field with buttercups and rabbits. My niece said it would make a nun puke, and she's normally right about these things. There's a song on it about looking at clouds. And there's one called 'I love her knees and toes'."

"If Ruth were to see that album cover," Jane said, "she'd never be able to look him in the eye again. She wouldn't even need to hear any of the songs."

Jane, Claudia and Brendan called around to Ruth's house later that day. Brendan brought the album. When Ruth opened the door Jane said, "We saw Greg talking to you in the park earlier on. He clearly has a thing for you. I don't know if you noticed that. We just thought the two of ye would make such a great couple. He's such a great guy, but you probably haven't seen the real Greg. That's why we brought you this album he made when he was younger. It will give you an insight into his personality."

Brendan gave her the album. She stared at the cover. "Thanks," she said, without taking her eyes off Greg. She closed the door.

Jane, Claudia and Brendan went back to Greg's house, where the other Greg-watchers were watching him mow the lawn. They were taking notes.

Ruth arrived at eight o' clock that evening. They were expecting her to set his car on fire, but she knocked on the front door. He opened it and she went inside. The watchers outside were waiting for the house to catch fire, but after an hour of waiting they heard him singing the song about clouds to her. She had a soft spot for men in bands, no matter what type of music they played. She once had a fling with a man who dressed as a jester and played the lute.

Ruth and Greg left the house later that evening. They walked to the pub, and the watchers followed. There was just as much to hear as there was to see. For the first time ever, they heard Ruth laugh.

They all went into the pub. The bar man was delighted with the sudden influx of customers. The watchers felt like drinking to raise their sinking spirits because it was becoming more apparent that they'd done Greg a favour in their attempt at revenge. Imogen said, "I think my idea is even more appropriate now. Drug him, shave his head and tattoo 'dog-kisser' on his face. She'll read that every time she goes to kiss him. She'll never kiss him if she thinks he's just been kissing a dog."

"No," Jane said. "It wouldn't feel right to come between them now. We'll just have to let nature take its course. Surely it'll end in tears. With Ruth involved it'll end in blood as well, and a tattoo on his face."

The watchers took turns observing him over the following days. They were outside his house when Tracey spray-painted a word on the side of his car. It was similar to dog-kisser, only this one related to sheep. She did this after he said he couldn't meet her because he had to visit his sick grandmother, but she saw him with Ruth. Sarah threw a potato at him. Many other women in the town were angry with him because of his relationship with Ruth. He was obviously afraid of what they'd do to him. Jane and Claudia observed him from a distance through binoculars, and they could tell that he was nervous every time he left his house. It was much more entertaining than watching a paper clip or a sausage.

The moose's head over the fireplace doesn't mind being observed for long periods of time. I've had many staring matches with him over the years, but he always wins. He doesn't mind people singing to him, but he does have a problem with people singing at him. The wife's niece once spent three hours singing 'The Wizard of Oz' at him. She kept singing the words 'The Wizard of Oz' over and over again, constantly re-inventing the tune. When she does that to me I can run away and lock myself in the shed (I had the place sound-proofed for such eventualities). But the moose's head can't get away. He has to wait until the final 'The Wizard of Oz', which is followed by the words 'does judo', 'eats pigeons' or 'keeps crying'.