'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Life of Letters

I'm going to have to get the Christmas decorations out of the shed soon. Some people have their decorations up already. Some people have hidden their houses beneath lights and plastic reindeer. My great-grandfather wrote a dissertation on Christmas decorations. He did a lot of research in the library and he came to the conclusion that all you'd need to decorate your house was an apple and a feather.

My cousin Craig used to live in an apartment with some friends of his from college. One of those friends, Thomas, used to make his own music. He believed he had discovered a type of music that would send nurses into a trance, making them move en masse at night, like zombies. He never played this music. He was saving it for when he needed to repel actual zombies (unless they were good zombies). He had another sort of music that would make women's hair fall down over their shoulders.

Craig always kept a CD of this music in the CD player in case Sharon came to visit. She worked for an interior design magazine. She went around to apartments and houses and inspected them for possible inclusion in the magazine. Craig invited her to inspect his apartment. He had no desire to see it in the magazine, and neither would Sharon after she saw it, but he really wanted to see her again. He'd play her the music and her hair would fall down over her shoulders. She'd drop her clipboard and forget about the apartment, becoming fascinated by him instead. Two months went by and she still hadn't called around, but Craig didn't give up hope.

Beverly lived across the hall. She wrote an advice column for the local newspaper. A lot of people wrote letters to her simply because they enjoyed writing letters. Some of those letters would be over ten pages long, and the pages would be stapled together. Some people sent the staple in a small envelope of its own, and there would be two tiny holes in the corner of each page. There would be a note telling her she could insert the staple if she wanted to. She hardly ever got paper clips. She could spend hours talking about this.

One day she called around to Craig's apartment and asked if she could use his phone. She had lost her own phone in her Christmas tree and she couldn't find it. The tree was too thick. It had been engulfed in ivy as well, and there were animals living in it. And then there was the layer of decorations. She searched for the phone every time it rang, but to no avail. She didn't mind because most people communicated with her by letter.

Just before she knocked at the door, Craig had been listening to a Christmas song that Thomas had recorded. He performed it in the style of MC Hammer, only he did it with a Chinese accent so no one would accuse him of copying MC Hammer. Some people accused him of copying a Chinese MC Hammer impersonator.

After Craig opened the door and let Beverly in he pressed 'play' on the CD player so she could hear the Christmas song, but he'd forgotten that force of habit had made him remove the CD and replace it with the one that would make hair fall down. When he realised his mistake he turned around to look at Beverly. She looked much more beautiful with her hair down over her shoulders, and she was smiling at him. He asked her if she'd like to go out for a coffee, and she said she would.

They went to a cafe at the other side of the street. She told him about a man called Ron who had been writing letters to her for over a year. In the first letter he had sought advice on growing turnips. Beverly didn't include this one in her newspaper column but she responded with a letter that contained everything she knew about turnips.

He wrote back to her. He thanked her for her advice and he told her how much he had enjoyed writing to her. He asked if it would be okay for him to write to her again. She wouldn't need to respond to any letter he wrote in the future. All he wanted was the reassurance that someone was reading them. She wrote back to him and said she'd gladly read anything he sent her.

Ever since then she'd been getting letters from him once a week. She gave Craig this summary of the previous year's worth of letters:

He bought some geraniums. He saw a horse and a cart on the road. His aunt went to Scotland. He bought some homemade butter. His wife died in an explosion on a boat. He lost his scarf. He had his piano tuned. He married a woman called Imogen. He came to the realisation that there were nothing special about strawberries. He got his car serviced. His dead wife started haunting his house. He found a Toblerone. A woman known only by the initial Y came to live with them. She promised to get rid of his wife's ghost in under a month. There were minor inconveniences surrounding Y's presence in the house, like having to fight off demons, and finding eyes in the soup. He's been watching snooker on TV.

Three weeks had gone by without a letter from Ron. Beverly had written to him, asking if everything was okay, but she didn't get a response. She had considered visiting his house, but she didn't want to go there on her own, so Craig said he'd go there with her.

Ron lived in a Georgian house on a quiet street. Beverly rang the doorbell, and the man who opened the door looked as if he desperately needed a good night's sleep. Beverly introduced herself and Craig. The man's face lit up. "I'm Ron," he said, and he shook her hand.

He invited them in, and he explained the reason for his lack of sleep. Y had been missing for weeks, but throughout this time they could hear her voice. She was talking to Ron's dead wife, Martha. They kept talking through the night, often rambling on about stupid things and laughing for no reason.

As Ron, Beverly and Craig sat in the drawing room they heard the voices of Y and Martha.

"It's very, very odd," Y said.

"Very odd," Martha said.

"Very, very odd."

"What is?"

"You were the one who asked me about it."

"What did I ask you about?"

"Something that was very odd."

"Oh yeah. It's very, very odd."

"I was just thinking that myself."

"I said to him, 'What are you going to do with that beard?'"

"And what did he say?"

"He didn't say anything. He just cried. No, not 'cried'. He sobbed. Softly."

"Do you know what else is odd?"



Beverly joined the conversation at this point. "I have a very odd cat," she said loudly, almost shouting. "A very, very odd cat."

There was silence for a few seconds. Then Y said, "In what way is he odd?"

"It's difficult to put your finger on it. There isn't any one thing. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the parts add up to a very, very odd cat. I have him here if you'd like to see him."

"Very much so," Y said. "Go to the spare bedroom on the second floor and look behind the wardrobe. You'll find a small brass button on the skirting board. Press that."

Beverly and Craig followed Ron to the spare bedroom. They pulled back the wardrobe and looked for the button. Beverly found it, and when she pressed it a small door opened in the wall. It had been concealed by the wallpaper. There was a long, narrow room at the other side.

Ron was the first to look into the room. He saw Y and Martha. At first he thought he was looking at a ghost, but she was holding a glass of brandy and eating chocolates, and the idea dawned on him that she was alive and well.

She confessed to being alive. She had a few other confessions to make as well. She had faked her death on a boat because she was having an affair. She wanted to run away with this other man and start a new life. But the man she was supposed to run away with ran away from her when he fell in love with the nurse who came to his aid when he fell into a hole.

The secret room had been built by the previous owner of the house so he could hide from certain relatives -- he had told them he had gone into space. He installed vents in all of the rooms and they were connected to the secret room by pipes, so he could hear the relatives whenever they were in the house and he'd know when they'd left.

Martha had discovered the room years earlier. She used to hide her supplies of brandy and chocolate in there, and she hid there with them after her planned new life fell to pieces. She was furious when Ron re-married so soon after her death. One night she was saying something about him in her sleep. He heard it through the vents and it woke him up. She woke up shortly afterwards, when she heard him panicking about the ghost in the house. She realised that the ghost of his dead wife would be the ideal spanner in the works of his new marriage, so she'd been 'haunting' them ever since.

Ron laughed when she finished her tale. The sight of so much brandy always had a strong influence on his spirits. Beverly and Craig thought it was a good time for them to leave, but Beverly was looking forward to the next letter.

It arrived a few days later. It started like this:

Dear Beverly, it's a nightmare having to buy Christmas presents for two wives, and for Y. Christmas dinner with three women isn't likely to be much fun either. I'm reading a very interesting book about spiders...

The moose's head over the fireplace has been listening to a lot of hip hop recently. I think it's just a way of drowning out some of the Christmas songs in his head. The wife's uncle says he once played piano on a Christmas single released by a country band. The song was about a sad duck on Christmas Eve, but his Christmas wish came true when Santa brought him a wig that made him look like Joan Collins.