'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


I've put up some of the decorations in the garden. The illuminated plastic Santa has decided to flicker on and off this year, and I'm quite happy to let him do as he pleases. One of our neighbours objects to any visual representation of Santa because he still believes in the real thing. He says it's like making a visual representation of God, and that by giving them both white beards we're just trying to make them small enough to fit our understanding. But he makes claims about Santa that he'd never make about God. He says that Santa is Scottish. He also believes that Santa travels through the sky on a ship with masts and sails, and there are tiny cymbals attached to the hull. When birds hit the cymbals it sounds like sleigh bells ringing, and sometimes Santa deliberately tries to hit birds. I think these claims are derived from actual experiences.

My cousin Hugh and his fiancee, Annabel, once spent a weekend with Annabel's sister, Amy, and Amy's husband, Gavin. They live in an old house out in the country. The weekend away was shortly before Christmas, and the ground was covered in snow.

Hugh drove to Amy and Gavin's house, and Annabel kept talking throughout the trip. Some of her sentences were ten miles long. Hugh was more interested in staying on the road than in following the winding route her words took. She spoke about how there were different types of Christmas. There's one for the shoppers. This one begins shortly before Halloween, as soon as they've got their Halloween shopping out of the way. It really gets going in November and it doesn't stop until the sales in the New Year. She said she could be a shopper without taking the role too seriously. She knew it was just a role, even though she enjoyed playing it, but in essence she was a lover of a traditional, simple Christmas, a time when little money was spent on presents, and decorations were kept to a minimum. If he'd been interested in starting an argument he'd have pointed out that she spent a lot of money on presents and that decorations were only kept from the maximum by her inability to put lights on the cat.

When they arrived at the house, Gavin was busy laughing at a joke he'd heard three days earlier. Amy and Annabel were going to a nearby town to do some Christmas shopping. Hugh decided not to join them. Amy told him to help himself to a drink while he waited for Gavin to finish laughing.

Hugh poured himself a whiskey and he sat down by the fireplace. He noticed a book on a small table next to the armchair. It was about the myths, customs and characters associated with Christmas in the local area. He read some of it to pass the time.

According to the book, in the seventeenth century people believed that a bright eye would appear in the sky every Christmas Eve. The eye would see into their souls, and its light would pass right through them, illuminating their sins, and these sins would be visible to anyone standing behind them. This is why people would go to confession just before Christmas, or else they'd make sure no one was standing behind them. Another story dealt with the man who ran through the fields every Christmas night. He had cups and cans attached to his coat. Amy had written a note in the margin here. It said that her idea of a holiday was running at night, and that she could think of herself as a bird as she ran through the fields.

One chapter was devoted to a monastery, and the activities of the monks at Christmas. Amy had written another note here. It said that the monks' way of life was often on her mind. They seemed so happy. She wanted to escape those thoughts. She found it easy not to think about things she couldn't have, but she couldn't escape thoughts of what she could have if she gave up everything she had. It was always niggling at her mind, the idea of clearing away all of the unnecessary things from her life and starting again.

Hugh hated having to read these notes. He knew that she only wrote them so other people would read them. He tried to focus on the book. He came across a story about a monk who was known as Giles, but this was just a nickname. Before he became a monk he had an unfortunate habit of seducing married women, of running away through the fields in the middle of the night, jumping over ditches with angry husbands in pursuit, their bullets overtaking him.

A group of locals who called themselves 'The Ethics Committee' decided to do something about him. They told him to abandon this lifestyle or else face action. He thought they had no power, but after their warning he had a feeling he was being followed at night. After a few weeks he was reduced to a nervous wreck, and he decided to became a monk to get away from the women. He moved into the monastery. The feeling went away and he recovered his mental health, but over time he began to return to his old ways.

The monks were getting a bad name because of his behaviour. Some of them wanted to do something about Giles. Some used him as an excuse to behave badly themselves. Giles would get the blame if a man returned to his house late at night and saw a monk leaving through a window.

One of the monks taught him how to paint, as a way to take his mind off women. He painted elephants and giraffes when he was full of passion; mice and ants when he felt empty. This new hobby did have some impact in curtailing his nocturnal adventures.

He taught some of the monks how to read women's minds by looking at their necks, and this was actually beneficial to the daily lives of everyone in the monastery. Before Giles had arrived, anarchy would take hold in the monastery about once a year and it would last a few days. A lot of drink would be consumed, women would be allowed into the monastery and parties would go on long into the night.

But it always left them with an empty feeling. They'd return to their very rigid rules. This is how the monastery used to operate, but they found that Giles brought a balance to their lives, just the right amount of anarchy, enough of a bad influence on the others, but not too much. They no longer vacillated between two extremes.

According to the book, Giles was in his sixties now, and he was still a monk. The monastery wasn't far from Amy and Gavin's house, so Hugh decided to go for a walk through the fields to find it.

It was late in the afternoon when Hugh found the monastery. He walked all around the outer walls. He was just about to head back towards the house when a man came running around the corner. He opened a door in the wall, and Hugh saw that there was a storeroom for gardening tools inside. The man hid in there. A few seconds later a group of about ten men came around the corner. They were holding sticks and guns. One of them said to Hugh, "Did you see a man go by?"

"Yes," Hugh said. "He went into the monastery through the front gate."

The men ran on and went in through the gate. The man emerged from the door shortly afterwards. "Thanks for that," he said to Hugh.

"You were lucky they weren't following the footprints in the snow."

"Guns aren't much use if you don't have the brains."

"I still wouldn't trust a man with a gun if he didn't have much in the way of brains."

The man went over to Hugh, shook his hand and said, "My name is Giles."

"Giles? The Giles?"

"I suppose I have to take responsibility for my actions and admit that I've brought the 'the' on myself."

"I've just been reading about you."

"I'd love to stay here chatting, but I need to leave. They'll meet someone inside who'll pour them a drink while I find a place to hide."

Hugh asked if he'd like to come back to Amy and Gavin's house, and Giles accepted the offer.

The house was in silence when Hugh and Giles arrived. Hugh assumed that Gavin must have gone out. He poured a whiskey for Giles and one for himself, and they sat down by the fire. Hugh said, "Forgive my curiosity, but I have to ask you why those men were chasing you."

"I'm only too happy to tell the story," Giles said. "If you've read about me, you won't be surprised to hear that there's a woman at the centre of this story. Her name is Sylvia. She's no ordinary woman. The hairs on her head can sense things, the sort of things that are beyond human perception. They pass messages on to her, and she passes the messages on to whoever they concern. Some messages are cryptic, like 'The blue ants hide in pies when the yellow sun hops behind the rock'. Some are easier to comprehend, like 'Watch out for that swan'.

"There's a group of people who live in a converted barn not far from here. I suppose you'd call them a commune. People are suspicious of communes. There was a time when people were suspicious of monks. This particular commune in the barn spend their days playing the roles of hairs on an invisible head. They have a strong sense of the head's presence, even though they can't see it. They'll never claim that the head is divine, but they won't deny it either. They all wear the same colour clothes and they stand closely together. It looks like a lot of fun. Sometimes they dye the hair and they change the colour of their clothes. Sometimes they'll give it a new style. Recently Sylvia has started to feel a connection to them. A lot of the messages her hair was picking up concerned them.

"This was of little concern to me when I fell in love with her. There were occasions when we managed to find a few quiet moments together, a chance to express our love for each other. But while each of these encounters took place, the hair commune went on a rampage. They broke windows in houses and in cars. They vandalised sheds. This only made Sylvia want to do it more often.

"When news of our affair became public her husband was furious. Sylvia deals with every awkward situation in the same way: she makes a salad. This is what she did for her husband, and it worked. It always works. His anger dissipated. The people who were chasing me all had their property vandalised by the rampaging hair. They're blaming me for it. They said I could have put a stop to it after the first or second time."

"Aren't you worried they'll catch up with you eventually?"

"No, they'll be fine after Sylvia has had a chance to make salads for them."

Hugh re-filled their glasses and Giles told more stories. When it was completely dark outside, Hugh noticed that the flames from the fire were creating some unusual dancing shadows on the wall. He looked at the shadows, and he became transfixed by them. He thought he could see people dancing.

His trance was broken by the sound of Gavin laughing upstairs. When he looked around he noticed that Giles was gone.

Amy and Annabel returned from their shopping trip. All they had bought were two twigs with fake snow on them -- they had bought one each. The twigs were Christmas decorations. Amy said they felt completely fulfilled after their afternoon's shopping because the twigs were the perfect example of the simplicity she was looking for.

The balance was all wrong, Hugh thought. He felt a need to go shopping, to buy widescreen TVs and iPhones, things he didn't need and expensive gifts that no one wanted. But then he found out that each twig cost two-hundred euros, and everything seemed right again.

The moose's head over the fireplace will be appearing in the local pantomime again this year. They're doing 'Jack and the Beanstalk'. The beanstalk is being played by two small men after a tall man had to pull out of the production (he got his finger stuck in a bottle). The two small men used to be the donkey in previous pantomimes. This year the moose's head will play the head of the donkey. The rest of it will be played by a pig and a woman called Deirdre.