'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Haunted House

When I was raking the grass I found an old coin. It reminded me of my youth when I used to collect coins. I found nearly all of the coins in my hair and in my clothes. When I was fourteen I realised that it was much more fun to part with the coins than to hold onto them. One day I found enough coins in my hair to buy football boots.

My cousin Bertie wasn't surprised when he found himself spending a weekend in a haunted house by the sea. This is the sort of thing that always happens to him when he lets his guard down. He'll close his eyes for a few seconds and when he opens them again he'll find himself involved in a religious ceremony performed by an obscure cult. As long as he's not being sacrificed, he doesn't mind.

He wasn't in the least bit concerned about the haunted house by the sea. He'd been in these situations many times before. He'd be spending a weekend in the house with some friends of his, and candles would be lighting for atmospheric effect. They'd hear strange noises around about midnight. The ghost would make his presence known and he'd express his disapproval of the guests in the house, usually making scathing remarks about their clothes. Bertie was used to hearing much worse from his fiancee.

John had a dolphin. The only person who had seen this dolphin was John himself. The only person who had seen John was Brendan, one of Bertie's friends. When Brendan started talking about 'my friend John' Bertie wondered if John was really real. Many of Brendan's friends had asked if they could meet John. Meetings would be arranged, but John would never turn up. Brendan would always have an excuse, such as 'John couldn't make it because he curled up his fingers to make a fist so he could punch a mischievous rugby player, but he couldn't uncurl his fingers. He had to go to the hospital'.

Brendan was at the haunted house, and so was his girlfriend, Kate. Eight other people, including Bertie, were staying there for the weekend. John was due to join them as well, but by ten o' clock on the Friday evening he hadn't arrived. "He might have got delayed punching something," Brendan said. No one responded to this.

It started raining. "It always starts raining," Bertie said. "The lightning will come soon, and then the power will go."

They had to wait until after eleven for the power to go. They lit candles, and they happily passed the time talking and drinking whiskey.

At midnight they heard a loud knock on the door. "Normally they come down the stairs," Bertie said. "A variation is always welcome."

Bertie opened the front door, and the others stood behind him. He was expecting to see a ghostly figure, so he was surprised to see a man in a raincoat, and then he was shocked when Brendan said, "This is John."

Bertie was amazed to find out that John was real. But he hadn't believed in Silly Mahony's moon either, and that turned out to be real as well. They invited John in. He hung his raincoat on a hook in the hall. He was fascinated by the house, even though he could only see the interior in candle light. He led the others on a tour of the place, and they listened to his commentary on the architectural features. He seemed to be an expert on this subject.

This wasn't his only talent. He was a very good pianist as well. There was sheet music on the piano, a song called 'When Wedding Bells Fell on my Head'. He played this, but it was a bit depressing, so he played something lighter to lighten the mood.

He spent an hour playing songs on the piano, and the others sang along. He took a break to look at the many sculptures in the room. He was very knowledgeable about sculpture as well. He knew what he detested, and he detested the two sculptures of tennis players, a man and a woman. They were facing each other. He was terrified when he saw the sculpture of a bearded man who was wearing robes. He mentioned something about an ancient cult, and then he tried to change the subject by talking about the carpet.

Bertie wasn't interested in the carpet. He said, "Tell us more about this cult."

John said, "It would be wrong of me to pass on knowledge I wish I didn't have. I suggest we all forget the whole thing. I have a bottle of brandy in a suitcase that could make a fleeing fox forget about the hounds."

"As long as I don't get sacrificed," Bertie said, "I don't mind."

John didn't respond to this. He got the bottle of brandy from his suitcase and he poured them all a glass of it. He sat down by the fireplace and told them his life story. He'd spent a lot of time thinking about his life because he was writing his memoirs.

He said, "I decided to have a go at an autobiography after my attempts at fiction failed. I started writing at an early age. My earliest attempt at fiction involved dinosaurs and Shakespeare. The dinosaurs could talk. So could Shakespeare. He could write as well, though I don't remember ever mentioning this. I don't remember much about this first attempt at writing. It might well have been just as good as Shakespeare's earliest works, if he started writing when he was about three. The same comparison can't be made between our most recent literary endeavours. I remember liking my story about Shakespeare and the dinosaurs. The quality of my writing hasn't improved significantly since then. The subject matter remains more or less the same.

"When I was young I tried writing in the tunnels in our garden, but I was too excited to concentrate down there. My father's hobby was digging tunnels. The whole garden was full of them. It drove my mother mad. But it was a great place to hide, and there were so many people to hide from in those days, like that man with the long neck who used to call around and try to inject us with something. He'd chase us around the garden with a syringe, telling us it wouldn't hurt. He just wanted to inject this completely harmless chemical into our necks. He said he'd tested it on monkeys and on bread. Another man used to call around to hit us over the head with a yard stick. He said the same things: that it wouldn't hurt and it would do us good. He was counting people for a census, and his method of counting was hitting people over the head with a yard stick. We always managed to avoid being counted. There was a trapdoor in the kitchen floor, and we'd all escape through this. We'd be in the tunnels in the garden before the man with the yard stick had a chance to knock on the front door. He'd go around the back of the house. We'd hear him walking above us, but he never found us.

"Years later my brother was fishing in a river one day. He caught something big, too big to be a fish. He was expecting it to be a tyre, but it turned out to be the man who was supposed to count us. He looked very depressed. His failure to count us had affected him badly. My brother felt sorry for him, so he took this man to a nearby pub and bought him a drink. The drink didn't do much to cheer him up, as is often the case. My brother tried to think of what else he could do. The only idea he could come up with was to buy the man another drink. Just after he turned towards the bar he was hit on the head. He turned around and he saw that the man had a yard stick in his hand and a smile on his face. 'I knew I'd get you some day,' the man said.

"I've just finished writing about that in my memoirs. It's going much better than the fiction. After countless failed attempts at literary fiction I decided to become a horror writer, but that was a disaster. I've tried many other genres and styles. I even had a go at writing a self-help book, but that didn't work out. Then I decided to become a fantasy writer. Then I decided to become a science fiction writer. Then I decided to become a horror writer again, but that was a disaster. I've finally settled on autobiography, and I feel at home there."

John's life story was interrupted by the sound of raised voices outside the room. Brendan had just caught his girlfriend sharing a private moment with Darren, one of his friends. Various explanations and excuses were being offered.

John said, "This is exactly what I feared. It's the influence of the place. People abandon their standards. One sniff of this cult is enough to make the average person let their standards fall around their ankles."

Listening to Brendan, Kate and Darren arguing proved to be just as entertaining as John's life story, and much more entertaining than anything on TV. But the argument came to a sudden halt when they heard the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs. The door burst open and they saw something that even made Bertie's heart beat faster. It was more terrifying than any ghost he'd seen before. This creature was over seven foot tall. He wore strange robes. His face was concealed by a grotesque mask, and Bertie got the impression that there was something much worse beneath the mask.

Bertie grabbed a candlestick and he was just about to hit the creature over the head when it reached for its scabbard and pulled out a yard stick. It hit John on the top of the head and said, "I told you I'd get you."

John was reduced to tears. This wasn't because of the physical pain -- it had more to do with the disappointment of his defeat after putting up such a strong resistance to being counted.

This was more entertaining than the argument, Bertie thought.

The moose's head over the fireplace has a stamp collection. I hold the stamps in front of his face so he can examine them with a magnifying glass. I have to hold the magnifying glass as well. The wife's aunt says she used to collect potatoes when she was young. She could collect a whole field of potatoes in a day. They'd always go missing overnight. Almost all of them would be gone by the morning. She thought they were posting themselves around the world because they believed they were stamps.