'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Astronauts

One of our neighbours spends hours walking through the fields every evening. She loves the cold air. She goes into hibernation during the summer, just for her own safety. She thinks that when enough deck chairs are left outside they'll join forces to become an army, and they'll be even more deadly than the killer bees, although the music of the killer bees can be quite pleasant.

My cousin Gary was in the local shop one day when he met a man called Paudie, who asked Gary if he'd mind getting some jam down from the top shelf. "I'd get it down myself," he said, "but I'm having fierce trouble with my shoulders. It's from punching too many astronauts."

"How many is too many?" Gary said.

"When you reach up to get your 'Foster and Allen' DVD from the shelf and your shoulder hurts, you know you've punched too many astronauts."

"Where do you find so many astronauts to punch?"

"The forest is crawling with them. They've been building their own rocket there for years. They launch it nearly every night. I have to punch them because the wife thinks they're aliens. Punching them keeps her happy. She gets a bit funny every full moon. She'll stare up at the sky and she'll say things like 'The man on the moon looks down on space ships made of honey'. You just have to nod your head and say 'He does' when she says things like that."

Gary went to the woods that night and he found the rocket in the place where Paudie said it would be. He recognised one of the astronauts. It was Eddie, one of his old school friends.

"That's a very impressive rocket," Gary said.

"Thanks," Eddie said. "We've been working on it for nearly three years."

"Does it work?"

"It certainly does. Do you want to have a go?"

"Have a go?"

"Yeah. Be an astronaut."

"Isn't it dangerous?"

"When we started out there was ten of us, and there still is ten of us. Every other team I know have lost one or two over the years."

"How much training is there?"

"You don't need any training to sit down and enjoy the view. We have a space suit and a helmet that will fit you."

Only three could fit in the rocket at any one time, so they took turns at being the astronauts. The rest of the team would be the ground crew. Eddie, Paul and Gary would be the astronauts for this latest mission.

Gary was strapped into his seat in the rocket. It looked just as impressive on the inside. There were lots of buttons, switches, flashing lights and screens. Eddie was in the pilot's seat.

As they prepared for take-off Gary looked out the window. He noticed that the ground crew weren't in any great rush to clear the launch site. They walked over to some plastic bags on the ground and they took out cans of beer. They drank the beer as they watched the rocket take off.

Gary was expecting the rocket to be pointed skywards by the launcher, but it remained in a horizontal position. They took off shortly after Eddie turned the key in the ignition.

Ten seconds into their flight, Gary said, "This is basically just a car, isn't it?"

"The short answer to that is yes. And I suppose the long answer would amount to a yes as well. We spend most of our time working on making it look like a rocket. We realised early on that this was much safer than making it work like a rocket. Them things are dangerous, y' know."

"Cars can be dangerous too," Gary said as Eddie put his foot on the accelerator and they sped down dirt tracks through the woods.

"That's why we have the helmets," Paul said.

Gary was terrified during most of the mission. Just when he was starting to enjoy the ride, they crashed. They were relieved to find that no one was injured, but they were all filled with terror when they realised what they had crashed into. It was a shack owned by a man called Fergus. They had demolished it.

It was very easy to enrage Fergus and engage him in a fight. Sometimes all you had to do was make eye-contact with his good eye. And if he thought you were looking at his bad eye he'd be furious.

They needed to think about this. After a lot of pacing and scratching of heads, Paul eventually came up with an idea. "I know," he said. "We'll put on our thinking caps."

He went into the rocket and he brought out three thinking caps. They took off their helmets and put on the caps. You could tell that they were having some fantastic thoughts by the way they were smiling, apart from Eddie, who looked as if he'd just put the hand of thought into something sticky and smelly.

Fergus would know exactly what to do in this situation. He knew exactly what to do in every situation, but it always involved using his flame thrower.

Paul had another idea: ask Nancy to help them. She was a witch, or she claimed to be a witch, and she lived nearby. They went to her house. There was no light from the windows, and they couldn't see where they were going as they walked though her overgrown garden. When she opened the door the light of a fire flooded out. There was a cauldron over the fire. She said that this had nothing to do with witchcraft. It was part of a religious ceremony, possibly with a political element (at times she wondered if there was a clear dividing line between church and state).

They told her about how they had demolished Fergus's shack. She said, "I know for a fact that Fergus won't be moving for at least another twelve hours."

"How do you know?"

"Because I gave him something for his athlete's foot. He didn't make it as far as the garden gate."

She shone a torch out the front door and they saw him lying unconscious in the long grass of her garden. They had walked over him on the way in. Gary said, "I was going to ask you why the ground was snoring."

"Will it really cure his athlete's foot?" Eddie said.

"Well he certainly won't be troubled by it over the next twelve hours. If he takes the cure twice a day he won't be troubled by it at all."

"In twelve hours we could re-build the shack," Gary said.

"There are lots of DIY and building books in the mobile library," Eddie said. "There aren't many other books in it, but for some reason there are small boxes full of used pencils and screws."

"We don't have time to wait around for the mobile library."

"It's only a few minutes walk away. It's been parked outside the woods for nearly a week."

They went to the mobile library and they found the librarian, Clive, asleep inside it. There were empty bottles on the floor, and they got a strong smell of alcohol. Over the previous week he'd been reading a book written by his girlfriend (it was hand-written). He didn't like the negative way he was portrayed in it, and the positive way she portrayed countless other men.

"I have a better idea," Eddie said. "Clive looks as if it would take a lightning strike to wake him up. We'll drive the library to the shack and make it look as if Clive knocked it down."

"That wouldn't be right," Gary said.

"He loves building things. We could help him re-build the shack. We need his expertise."

Clive didn't wake when Eddie started the ignition. He drove the library bus to the shack, and then they put Clive into the driver's seat. They had to shake him to wake him up. He was shocked to see where he was, and the demolished shack in front of him.

"We saw everything," Eddie said. "You were driving erratically through the woods, and then you crashed into the shack. It's Fergus's shack. But there's no need to worry. He won't be back until tomorrow. You have plenty time to re-build it, and we'll be only too happy to help."

Clive was delighted to have the chance to re-build Fergus's shack. He became immersed in the work because it was a good way to forget about his girlfriend's book. When he finished the shack he started work on an extension that had an attic room above it. A spiral stairs led up to the attic.

Fergus woke in the middle of the work on the extension. Nancy was next to him. She said, "Now you have to take the cure for the other foot."

She had mixed the cure with some whiskey in a glass. She made him drink this, and he slipped into unconsciousness again.

The shack and its new extension were finished by the time Fergus woke up that night. Nancy said to him, "You won't remember anything of what happened over the past twenty-four hours."

"Wasn't I unconscious?" Fergus said.

"You certainly were not. You were full of life. As soon as you drank the cure you took off with a spring in your step. I've seen that happen many times before. People are filled with energy. They come up with all sorts of plans and ideas and they have the energy to put these plans into practise. One man designed and built a miniature golf course, and he had no memory of doing any of it."

Fergus went back to his shack. Gary, Eddie, Paul and Clive followed him to see how he'd react. He looked confused when he saw the new extension. He had no idea why he'd build something like that. It looked like something you'd see on a house make-over show on TV. He was afraid of what was lurking in his subconscious mind. He did the only thing he could think of doing: he got out his flame-thrower and he set the shack on fire.

The rocket's launch site was nearby, and they always kept a few fire extinguishers there. The crew were able to put out the fire, but the shack was badly damaged.

Fergus thanked them for their help. "I've been meaning to start thinking before starting fires," he said. "Burning your house down is rarely the solution to your problems, especially if it's not insured."

"I'll help you re-build it," Clive said. He had been depressed ever since they had finished the extension because his mind was free to think about his girlfriend's book, so he was glad of the chance to start building again. Gary, Eddie and Paul helped as well because they still felt guilty about knocking down the shack and making Clive think he'd done it.

They ended up building a four-room house, and with Fergus's input they were able to make something that he wouldn't want to set on fire.

The moose's head over the fireplace is reading a book, which means I have to stand in front of the fireplace holding the book in front of his eyes. It's a tourist guide book about the locality. My great-grandfather wrote it. I found it in the attic last week. In the first chapter he says that if you come across a man with a donkey's tail you should try to find the man with dynamite in his hand. I often see a man with a donkey's tail in his hand. The tail is attached to a donkey.