'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Albert's Debt

I could spend hours in the glasshouse, looking out at the garden in the wind and the rain. It's much more relaxing than fishing. The last time I went fishing I failed to catch anything edible, although the dog did try to eat a shoe I caught. He covered it in a hollandaise sauce first.

My cousin Albert called to a neighbour's house one evening to return a chainsaw. Albert's father got a loan of the chainsaw to cut down a tree that was annoying him. The neighbour, Walter, invited Albert in for a glass of whiskey. A poker game was just about to begin in the kitchen. Three of Walter's friends were sitting at the table, and Walter asked Albert to join them. Albert thought he'd end up losing money and exiting the game early if he took part, but he'd have a limitless supply of whiskey if he played, so he agreed.

Two hours later, only Albert and a man called Terence were still in the game. Albert was amazed to find that he was on the verge of winning nearly three-hundred euros. His excitement blinded him to the fact that there are occasions when it's better to lose. Only after the final hand was played and he collected his winnings did he notice the look on Terence's face. It was a look of anger on a face that had been in many fights.

Albert said his goodbyes and left the house. He could feel the red hot glare of Terence's eyes on the back of his head, and he was terrified of feeling the dull thud of a plank on that same spot. He knew that Terence would seek revenge.

Over the next few days, Albert was nervous every time he left the house. He sensed danger around every corner and behind every wall. When he was walking down a quiet road one day he saw a woman looking into a ditch. She was holding tweezers in her hand. When she saw him she held up the tweezers and she asked him if there was anything she could extract from him. He wondered if this was a threat, but it turned out that she just loved extracting things with her tweezers.

Her name was Valerie. He spent the rest of that day watching her extract things. They enjoyed each other's company, and they spent a lot of time together over the following weeks. He spent most of the money he had won on a trip to Achill Island with her. They went there to see one of her friends play the trombone.

She loved flowers, especially daffodils. When he was walking to her house one day he saw some daffodils on the side of the road. He picked a few for her, and he started to wonder if he was falling in love. Picking daffodils was a sure sign that his brain was being affected.

These thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a man shouting at him. This man lived nearby, and he claimed to be the rightful owner of the daffodils. Albert ran away, and it wasn't long before the shouts faded to silence and he was able to return his thoughts to Valerie.

He spent a few hours watching her extract ants from ice cream. When he was on his way home in the evening his thoughts of Valerie were put on hold when Terence emerged from behind a gate and blocked his path.

"I heard what you did to those poor defenceless daffodils," Terence said. "I was shocked. Dinny is still dazed. He can't understand how anyone could be so callous. 'My daffodils never harmed anyone,' he keeps saying. You're going to have to pay for this. Recompense is needed, and you have two options. One is that I do to you what you did to the daffodils. The other is a financial settlement. Something in the region of three-hundred euros. Two-hundred and ninety-four."

"Isn't that how much I won on the poker game?"

"Possibly. I haven't had time to compare the figures. Give the money to me, and I'll make sure Dinny gets it."

"But I spent the money."

"Well you're going to have to find it then, aren't you. Or else go for the other payment option."

Albert discussed the problem with Valerie and she said it wasn't really a problem at all because her uncle George was such a great source of revenue. At every major event in her life he always gave her as much money as he could find in his vicinity. She just needed to invent another major event, and she came up with the perfect plan. Valerie and Albert would pretend to be engaged.

They called around to George's house. He took them into his living room and he said he'd pour them a drink, but he couldn't seem to find the bottle or the glasses. The room was a mess. There were books and stacks of paper everywhere. George was writing a book about the history of stairs.

When Valerie said that she and Albert were engaged, George congratulated them. After wishing them a long and happy life together he took some bank notes from his pocket and he gave them to Valerie. "Take these," he said. He found some more cash underneath a book. "And these." The next stash was hidden in a folder. "And these as well."

After uncovering cash from locations all around the room, Albert had more than enough to pay Terence. They thanked George for his generosity, and they left so he could continue working on his book. Albert was glad to have the money, but he had some reservations about pretending to be engaged. He said to Valerie, "Won't he find out the truth eventually?"

"Our 'engagement' won't last long. I'll tell him I left you after I found out that you were sleeping with one of my friends. Or if it makes you more comfortable, I'll tell him that I was sleeping with one of your friends. He might give me more money."

Albert paid Terence, and he was able to think exclusively about Valerie again. He spent most of his free time with her. He went for a walk in the woods with her one day, and when they went back to her house in the evening they found a crowd waiting there for them. It was a surprise party to celebrate their engagement.

"Why didn't you tell us you were engaged?" her mother said to her.

"Yes," her father said through gritted teeth. "Why didn't you tell us?"

"It was meant to be a surprise," Valerie said.

"Well we got in there with our own surprise," her mother said. "I hope ye both enjoy the party."

"Yes," her father said. "I hope ye enjoy it." It sounded as if he wasn't enjoying it at all. Albert noticed that the look on his face looked remarkably like Terence's expression after he'd lost money on the poker game. He made his feelings known when he shook Albert's hand. Albert struggled to stay standing.

Most of the other relatives were more heartfelt in their congratulations. After nearly an hour of introductions and handshakes, Albert finally managed to have a private conversation with Valerie. "I suppose now wouldn't be a good time to announce that one of us has been sleeping with someone else," he said.

"We'll have to put that off for a few weeks. Or a few months. We can just play it by ear."

Albert noticed that a new arrival was glaring at him just as intensely as Valerie's father or Terence had. "Who's that?" Albert said to Valerie.

"That's Paul," she said. "He's... or he was... and I suppose in some senses he still is... But in other senses... He's been in Canada for a few months. And before that we were sort of... But not really. Because if we really were he wouldn't have gone to Canada for a few months. I wouldn't say he was ever my boyfriend but... I don't know."

Paul knew, judging by the look on his face. He was bigger than Terence, but the look of anger on his face was similar. Paul looked as if he wanted to take his anger out on a punch bag capable of saying 'Please don't punch my face'.

Later that night he managed to corner Albert. He said, "I'm going to break something of yours. I don't know what it is yet. But don't worry. You'll be able to fix it again, either with glue or with months of medical attention and physiotherapy."

Albert came to the conclusion that no matter what he did he was bound to enrage someone, so instead of trying to placate everyone he started to wonder which one of them would be the best vessel to fill with anger. He could go on pretending to be engaged to Valerie and risk the wrath of Paul or he could tell the truth and infuriate George. The latter option seemed more appealing. George didn't look like the sort of man who'd go for physical violence, even when he was owed a few hundred euros.

Albert consulted with Valerie, and she agreed that the best way out of their predicament was to come clean. So they announced to the guests that they were never really engaged, and that it was all just a scam to get money from George.

Albert was relieved to find that George wasn't angry at all. He started laughing, and he didn't stop laughing when Albert explained that he didn't have the money to pay him back.

When George finally managed to stop laughing he said, "Don't worry about the money. There's no need to pay me back. You can work off the debt instead. I need an assistant to help me with my book."

Albert thought that helping a man write a book about stairs was much better than being punched in the face or having something broken, but after a few weeks of working with George he wasn't so sure. When he wasn't trawling through pages of tedious text about stairs he had to listen to long dissertations about newel-posts. He came to the conclusion that a punch in the face would be better than this, but months of physiotherapy would be just as tedious.

The moose's head over the fireplace has given up trying to listen to the sound that the wife's aunt claims to hear, but the dog often gets transfixed by a faint buzzing noise in the garden. The wife's uncle says that a friend of his can transfix animals by playing the flute. He tried it on a group of women once, and it worked. They were all drawn towards him. He noticed the murderous intent in their eyes as they approached him so he stopped playing, but still they kept coming. He did what he always does in such situations: he took out his false teeth and he threatened to throw them. The women ran away screaming.