'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Twenty-Legged Man

The dog is happy with the autumnal weather. Things are back to normal and he can come out from under his blanket. My grandfather often said that when he was young it used to rain strawberries at this time of year, which would be anything but normal. A red blanket would cover the fields. They used to have strawberry fights and build strawberry men. My grandfather avoided the strawberries after he had a dream in which he saw a man made entirely out of eyes. He never trusted strawberry men or snowmen after this. He always got the feeling that they were looking at him.

My uncle Cyril went to the pub one evening. A discussion on the merits of sand paper was interrupted by an excursion to find a love-sick greyhound. All of the people in the pub went out looking for him because he'd won them all money in the past. Cyril and his friends walked through many fields that evening. After they found the dog they went back to the pub and returned to their drinks and their discussion.

Cyril was tired as he walked home down a quiet road that night. He came across a wooden bench at the side of the road. He had walked this road thousands of times but he'd never seen the bench there before. He sat down on it to have a rest. A few minutes later a bus came down the road. Cyril had never seen any busses on this road before, so it was a shock to see one at this time of night. It stopped at the bench and the door opened. Only then did Cyril notice the 'Bus Stop' sign next to the bench. The sign had been hand-painted on a piece of timber.

The driver said to Cyril, "Do you want a drive home?"

"That's exactly the thing I want," Cyril said, and he climbed on board the bus. He gave the driver directions, and he paid his fare. Cyril sat down and they set off, but they didn't stay on the road for long. The driver said he knew a shortcut. He turned through an open gate and he drove through a field.

He stopped at another bus stop in the next field. A man called Dermot got on and he said to the driver, "I'm looking for a man with twenty legs. Or else it's ten men together. Or twenty one-legged men."

"The river near the mill would be the best place to look for anything unusual," the driver said. "Not that there's anything unusual about ten men together. As long as they're not too close."

"They were close enough to act as one, assuming it wasn't a man with twenty legs."

"That is a bit unusual."

Dermot sat down and they set off again. The driver told Cyril that they'd have to take a detour on his journey home. As they drove towards the river, Dermot told them that the twenty-legged man or the ten men together were serenading Eileen when he first saw them. He was furious because she was the love of his life, and he had a doctor's note to prove it. This next time he saw the man/men he tried to catch him/them but he didn't have enough legs to keep up with him/them.

There was nothing unusual at the river. The driver suggested going to the old quarry, so they went there, but there was no sign of the man/men they were looking for. Their next destination was the castle. On the way there, Dermot said to the driver, "How many words would you use in a sentence?"

"It depends on who I'm talking to," the driver said.

"How many words would you use on someone you don't like?"

"One. No, two."

"How many would you use on someone who's just spilled tea on your sleeping bag, assuming it was an accidental spill?"

"Again, it would depend entirely on the person. It would be a lot easier to answer that question if the spill was deliberate."

"She said it was an accident and I took her word for it."

"That's the one word you can never be sure of. You're better off listening to the birds."

"I do that as well, but you can't spend the whole time listening to the birds. You have to listen to people as well."

"You can do both. When I was listening to the birds last week I heard a man and a woman talking about a rat. This was no ordinary rat. I've overheard countless conversations about ordinary rats. Where I grew up, you couldn't walk ten yards without hearing a conversation about an ordinary rat. It's awe-inspiring, when I look back on these things. But this rat I heard about last week isn't like any other rat I heard about before. He can read and write. He's discovered the technology of trousers. He's so sophisticated that he uses lamp shades. Can you imagine that? Not just lamps, but lamp shades. He's made a home in a cave on the side of the steep hill overlooking Molloy's house."

This hill wasn't far from where Cyril lived. He wanted to go home, and he was afraid that they'd be driving around the countryside for the rest of the night if they kept looking for the twenty-legged man, so he suggested abandoning their search and going to see the rat instead. Dermot and the driver agreed. The driver turned around and headed for the hill.

He parked the bus at the bottom of the hill. They got out and they climbed towards the cave. Cyril's plan was to say hello to the rat and then head for home, but they never got to the cave. Dermot saw the twenty-legged man walking down the hill. The bus driver told Cyril and Dermot to split up so they could round up the twenty-legged man or herd of men.

It was a herd of ten men who stayed very close together at all times, which made it easy to round them up. It was like rounding up sheep. They were herded onto the bus. They said they were a choir and they'd been hired to sing to Eileen, but they wouldn't say who hired them.

"We'll need to put them somewhere so we can interrogate them," Dermot said. "I suppose there's no chance the rat will let us put them in his cave."

"I wouldn't think so," the driver said. "But I know a better place for them, a place that will frighten the daylights out of them until there's nothing but the blackest night in their souls. Unless they tell us who hired them before we get there. This is a place that even the stupidest of rats would avoid, a place you wouldn't wish your worst enemies to even think about."

The driver started the bus and drove towards this place. He kept describing it on the journey. It only took two minutes for the choir to crack. They all cracked at the same time. "It's Ralph," they said in unison. "He hired us to serenade Eileen."

The driver turned the bus around and drove towards Ralph's house. When they got there he took a box out from under his seat. He took three guns out of the box. "These aren't real," he said. "The real ones are hidden in another part of the bus, a place you'd never think of looking in. But the fake ones should be fine for this job. Ralph would wet himself before being shot with a water pistol."

He gave a gun to Cyril and one to Dermot and he took the third one himself. They left the bus. The driver locked the door to keep the choir inside.

The bus driver, Cyril and Dermot went to the front door. Dermot rang the doorbell, but no light came on inside. They were just about to go around the back when they heard the bus's engine starting. The choir were making their getaway, but they didn't get far. They crashed into a ditch just twenty yards into their escape.

Most of them were injured, and some of them wouldn't be able to sing that night. They had taken the bus to get to their next appointment. Ralph was taking Eileen out to dinner and he wanted the choir to serenade her when they got back to her place after midnight.

Dermot was glad that they wouldn't be able to make this appointment, but Cyril thought they should do their best to sing there. He told them about his friend Dennis, who has a van full of mannequins. These mannequins had served many different purposes in the past, such as making up the numbers on a football team or frightening teenage vandals. A trolley full of mannequin legs had been pushed through the supermarket car park, where the teenagers had gathered. The vandals, or vandalists as they liked to call themselves, never caused any more trouble after this.

After the driver extricated the bus from the ditch he drove them all to Dennis's house. Cyril asked Dennis if they could hire some of the mannequins to replace the singers who weren't able to sing that night. Dennis was happy to do business at any time of the day or night. He had some old clothes and wigs in his shed, and they dressed the mannequins in these.

Half of the choir who stood outside Eileen's house were mannequins and the other half had bandages and bruises on their heads. Only the latter half could sing, but they couldn't perform with their usual vigour. Eileen was horrified by the sight. She slapped Ralph across the face for organising such a thing for her. She went inside and locked the door.

Dermot was delighted. One more name had been removed from the list of Eileen's potential suitors. All he had to do was to remove all other names apart from his own. He had a feeling that he'd be using the mannequins again.

The moose's head over the fireplace loves this time of year. He can spend hours listening to the sound of leaves falling from the trees outside the window. The wife's uncle says he knocked leaves, apples, footballs and an alarm clock from a tree when he crashed into it. The airbag didn't go off in his hot air balloon. He'd been trying to impress a woman by taking her for a romantic balloon ride over the fields, but the crash killed the romance.