'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Hospital

The garden gnomes wear their life-jackets all the time these days. They're afraid of being swept away in a flood. My grandfather did a lot of work promoting the tourist attractions in the area, but he couldn't do anything about the rain. He tried. He got a witch to do a dance, but this might have been for his own entertainment. One summer he acted as a tour guide at the ruins of a castle. He wore his Aran sweater, but it claimed that it was wearing him. Tourists were more interested in what the sweater had to say than in what my grandfather said about the castle.

My cousin Albert and his friends, George and Neil, were curious about a black ambulance they often saw driving down the narrow country roads. The word 'Ambulance' was written in gold letters, and there was a phone number underneath it. The paramedics wore fur coats, and the pockets of the coats were full of coins. If you asked them questions they'd give you coins. Albert got a glimpse into the back of the ambulance once. He saw leather armchairs inside, and potted plants on shelves.

They wanted to find out more about the ambulance, so they got Neil to fake a head injury. He could do this convincingly because he's suffered so many head injuries on the hurling field due to his refusal to wear a helmet. They called the ambulance, and when it arrived they pretended that Neil had fallen on his head while climbing over a gate.

The paramedics helped him into the back of the ambulance. They told Albert and George they could accompany their friend to the hospital. The three of them sat on armchairs and listened to Bach on the journey. They couldn't see where they were going because there were no windows in the ambulance. The trip lasted about ten minutes, and when they got out they were in the grounds of an old manor house.

It didn't look like a hospital from the outside, and it looked even less like one on the inside. The paramedics took the patient to the drawing room, where Albert, George and Neil were given coffee and biscuits. None of the other people in the drawing room looked like patients. Some were reading books near the bay windows. Two men played chess on a coffee table near the fireplace.

Albert, George and Neil left the drawing room and wandered around the hospital. It was a very peaceful place. In other rooms they found people reading or just relaxing on armchairs with drinks in their hands. In the library they met a woman called Emma. George had met her once before. She had a silver car that had been in her family since the thirties. It looked very luxurious inside, and it was still in perfect condition. They had often seen her taking a silver horse from her handbag and screwing it into the front of her car before she sat on the driver's seat and drove away. The car wouldn't move without the silver horse.

George asked her why she was in the hospital and she said, "I'm here for the peace. I can't sleep in my own house because I can hear a noise in the garden every night. I have exceptionally sensitive hearing. I inherited that from my father. I inherited the house and gardens as well, and the car. He built the house in an isolated place and surrounded it with an idyllic garden and a high red brick wall. He needed the peace and quiet because he could hear every noise. He could hear spiders walking across the strings of his grand piano at night, and he hated the music they played. Over the past few weeks I've heard something moving in the garden, and I've never been able to figure out what it is. I'm used to the noises of the insects and the mice and the birds. Unfamiliar noises always keep me awake. I came here to get some sleep. The peace of this place has done me the world of good. I've been staying here for over a week now."

"We could figure out what the noise is," Albert said.

"Finding the source of the noise would involve hiding in the garden in the middle of the night."

"That sounds like fun," Albert said. George and Neil agreed.

"In that case," Emma said, "I'd be extremely grateful if you found the source of the noise and eradicated it, if it needs to be eradicated."

She drove them back to her house. Her silver car was just as luxurious as the drawing room in the hospital. After making them some tea she gave them a tour of her gardens. It took over an hour to walk down all the stone paths and around the lawns, and make their way through the maze. They were looking forward to spending the night there.

After midnight the place seemed less appealing. At night, the noises made by insects, mice and birds made these creatures seem about ten times bigger than they actually were.

At two o' clock they heard the sound of footsteps. As far as they could tell, this sound was made by just one person. It was three against one, if a conflict followed their confrontation.

The confrontation came at the end of a path between two hedges. Albert shone a flashlight into the face of the intruder, and they recognised him. It was a man called Maurice. They asked him what he was doing in the garden and he said, "The reason for my nocturnal visits is to make sure the lady of the house hasn't allowed the silver-tongue-caressed words of Danny into her head and allowed Danny into her house. Danny is a man of many shallows. These shallows are secreted all over his psyche, like seaside rocks full of rock pools. He's always discovering new ones, but they never come as a surprise. If, in past explorations of his psyche, all he's ever found is rock pools, finding another rock pool is merely cause for a wry smile. The abundance of rock pools is re-assuring. If he stepped into an unexpected depth he'd drown.

"Emma has succumbed to his charms in the past. She has allowed the words in, even though she knows she should keep all the doors and windows closed. She asked for my advice on the subject and I told her she must put locks on the doors and windows if she doesn't want a future infected with Danny. You can allow yourself to lapse once or twice, but you have a duty not to let it happen three times. When the dolphins of duty duly arrive on the shore of the sea where we bite champagne and paint the seaside town red on a daily basis, we must be ready to receive the dolphins' dolorous message, to understand their language, to recognise the import of their message and not let its impact crush us under its hellish, whale-ish weight, and not let the rumbling of its earthquake reduce us to a crumbling pile of rubble. When duty calls we must break down the walls of routine, however re-assuring they may be, however art-endowed they are, however painted or papered or peppered with tapestries depicting rural idylls or the raucous, rowdy ruckus of city dwellers engaged in acts of festivity. We must face the unforgiving winds of fate, the swirling whirlwinds bearing whooshing daggers with kite-like wings and nightlight candles to advertise their trajectory into our backs even in the darkest of storms, and let those winds reach hurricane force if they must, tearing down every mast, ripping sails to shreds and tipping heads over shoulders so they'll fall on the deck and roll away to drop in holes, putted like golf balls or pitted against each other like pitiful pit bull terriers starved of food for days until their ferocity would make the hurricane whimper and cower with its tail between its whippet legs, but even when struck down by the evil glare of the hurricane we'll struggle to our feet and stand firm once more. We'll look the storm in the eye and say, 'Nothing will prevent me from fulfilling my duty, however foolhardy that may be.' This is how we must react when duty calls, and when our heads roll off we'll put them back on again and put on our sunglasses, even in the darkest storm.

"This is what I told her. She told me she agreed, and that her agreement was comprehensive. On the following day she instructed her left leg to position her left foot on the area of ground in front of her right foot. When this had been accomplished she issued a similar instruction to her right leg, only this time her right foot was to be placed on the vacant ground in front of her left foot. All of the commands were obeyed by her legs. The cumulative effect of these operations undertaken by obedient legs was as follows: Emma walked down the road towards Danny's house.

"Obedience to one's superiors is important in any walk of life. The oats of obedience may sway in a storm but they refuse to be flattened by an ego-fattened wind. The ego is the enemy of obedience. The self is a foot soldier who thinks he's a general. A grossly overweight self-indulgent windbag blows a ferocious, foul-smelling wind every time we have the courage to unfurl the pristine white flag of surrender to a higher power. The windbag will exhaust all its resources of air in its attempt to blow the flag away, but we must hold tight. It takes great courage to raise the white flag and send our signal of surrender to a higher power. It's an abnegation of the self. 'You're greater than I am,' it's saying. 'I recognise my insignificance when the headlights of your being shine a light in the nooks and crannies of the edifice I've been constructing for many years, an edifice I was proud to call my "self" until your bright light brought it out of a night I had thought was day. You showed me how bright a real day really is, how insufficient my edifice is in the light of a real day, how the nooks and crannies are home to things that can only ever be pleasing to the eye in the darkest depths of night.' It takes courage and wisdom to choose to be a foot soldier rather than a general. If the windbag succeeds, the self will be stronger, but much uglier. It will be filled with an unwarranted confidence to grow even further, to rule rather than obey, like a housing estate polluting the landscape when it should be meekly asking the land which chair it should sit in and which tea cup it should take. It's a house guest who believes he is the host. Your feet should always be foot soldiers and not generals. You can take them out for a walk in the park, but don't let them off the leash. Havoc will reign and ruin will pervade the aftermath of a decision to allocate decision-making responsibility to your feet. Of course, some people will exhibit courage and wisdom by taking on the role of a general. Emma had made that decision under the guiding light of duty. Her feet were willing foot soldiers, the oats of obedience made rigid by the bamboo sticks of duty, which have been strengthened by the batons passed on to them by the dolphins. She had made up her mind. She was on her way to tell Danny that it was over between them. A commendable operation.

"But it wasn't over between them. Her feet couldn't do anything about her mind's lapse because they were off the ground. They need ground to be able to retreat at the right time. Feet that can walk on air are a rare commodity. I've met people who can walk on air, but they barely qualify as people. 'Ghosts', you might call them. Or 'spirits' who have retired from being people. Even if her feet had found ground they wouldn't have gone against her mind's wishes. Like good butlers they'd always stand by and watch a disaster unfolding rather than disobey their master.

"In the midst of all these disasters I might have muttered something about the love I felt for her. Words sneak out of my head when I'm looking at the walls' adornments, paintings born of creative impulses ignited by the spark plugs of fear or the dark thugs of desire who creep up behind you and wrestle you to the ground, tying your hands behind your back, leaving you powerless, at the mercy of their will. Those words that sneak out often aren't allowed outside. They're the deformed younger brother locked in the attic until he escapes and shocks those who see him outside the house. I apologised for letting my words out and she didn't respond. I've been coming here at night to make sure Danny isn't visiting. Perhaps I need to become that deformed younger brother, and lock myself up in the attic until Death taps me on the shoulder and says, 'There's a spare seat in the back, if you'd like to come along.'"

"But Emma hasn't been sleeping here for over a week," Albert said. "She's staying in the hospital."

Maurice looked behind him. "You can tap me on the shoulder now," he said into the blackness.

"You don't need to worry," Albert said. "She isn't sick. She just needed a good night's sleep because she heard you in the garden."

"I know she's not sick. No one in that hospital is sick. Danny is a doctor there. If anyone there was really sick they wouldn't benefit from Danny's medical expertise."

"You're heading for the manacles in the attic alright," George said. "Why don't we go to the hospital and see what's going on. If she's on her own, then she's perfectly capable of resisting Danny's charms. And if she's with him then she's incapable of resisting his charms and you'll need to find a new hobby. You need to know one way or the other. Otherwise you'll drive yourself mad."

"I hear a tune of truth in that," Maurice said. "It's loud enough to drown out the music of madness, which is still a faint sound, but it's getting louder. To the hospital, before the music makes me start dancing."

They called the ambulance and they got Maurice to pretend he had fainted. When the ambulance arrived they helped him into the back and put him on an armchair. Albert, George and Neil went with him to the hospital.

He was taken to the drawing room in the hospital. Danny was called, and when he arrived in the room it looked as if he had just got dressed, which wasn't surprising given the late hour, and he also had lipstick on his face, which wasn't all that surprising either. "What seems to be the trouble?" he said to Maurice.

"Bit of a dizzy spell," Maurice said. "I thought I felt a tap on the shoulder and I was afraid it might be you-know-who, and the next thing I know I was looking up at my feet."

"Looking up at your feet every so often can do you no harm. A glass of brandy is what I always prescribe for patients with your symptoms."

A nurse brought the brandy and Danny left the room. Albert, George, Neil and Maurice followed him. When he opened the door to his room they got a glimpse of the woman inside before he closed the door. It wasn't Emma. It was one of the nurses. "So now you know," Albert said. "And I think Emma needs to know as well."

They went to find Emma's room. Neil stayed behind to look through the keyhole. Albert knocked on Emma's door and when she opened it he said, "We've found the source of the noise."

"That's a relief," she said. "What was it?"

"You can see for yourself, if you just come with us."

They took her to Danny's room. Neil couldn't see much through the keyhole, but it was enough to make his jaw drop. They told Emma to open the door and look inside.

Her jaw dropped as well, but it wasn't long before it was moving again. The words she shouted at him drowned out his attempted explanations.

She slammed the door. There were tears in her eyes, but she had Maurice there to comfort her. Albert, George and Neil left them alone.

The moose's head over the fireplace ignores the pigeon who looks in the window at him. The wife's uncle says that he was once on a train and all of the other passengers in the carriage were pigeons. He did his best to ignore them, but he couldn't because they kept talking about penguins.