'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Don't Look Up

The garden gnomes aren't enjoying the rain anymore. They want to return to dry land. They've had to tie themselves down so they won't injure themselves by hitting off each other when their ship is being battered by the wind. The novelty of being tied down wore off fairly quickly.

My uncle Alan plays the harp and he writes his own songs. In his younger days he took the song-writing much more seriously. There were times when he'd be inspired and the songs would come easily, but sometimes it was a struggle. One summer, when he was in his early twenties, he found himself short of inspiration. The best he could come up with was a song about prejudice against people with glasses.

He needed a change of scenery to get out of his rut so he decided to go on a camping trip in the country. He took a train to a small town out in the back of beyonds. When he stepped off the train and stood on the platform he saw a beautiful unspoilt countryside before him. He decided to walk in this direction.

After walking for hours he thought it might be useful to know where he was. Someone could easily accuse him of being lost if he didn't know where he was. He decided to ask the next person he met on the road.

He had to wait half an hour before he met anyone, and he met more than twenty people then. They were in a marching band, but their march was much slower than his walk. Their pace suited the funereal music they were playing. The musicians were too engrossed in their music to tell him where he was. He walked on ahead of them.

A few minutes later he came across an old woman. A shawl covered her head. He couldn't see her face because she was crouched over as she walked. A walking stick prevented her from falling forward.

"Excuse me," Alan said to her. "It might sound as if I'm lost, but in actual fact I'd really just like to know where I am, purely for the sake of knowing where I am. I was wondering if you could help me out."

She stood up straight and removed the shawl. Long golden hair fell over her shoulders and he saw that she was really a beautiful young woman. She told him her name was Alison, and that she was wearing this disguise to hide from her ex, whose name was Con. He'd been trying to win her back ever since she ended their engagement, which had happened shortly after the beginning of their engagement.

"I saw him in a completely different light after I accepted his proposal," she said to Alan. "I found out that he collected dead birds. He told me that he often mentioned this before we got engaged, but I wouldn't have taken much interest in him then. He comes from a rich family, and he loves reminding people of it. He smokes cigars and he uses people's hats as ashtrays. He refuses to accept that I don't want to marry him, and it's very difficult to hide from him. If only I could find someone who'd pretend to be engaged to me, just to get Con off my back. Ideally this man would be a stranger so I can say that he's an old flame, someone I met on my travels around Europe."

"I travelled around Europe," Alan said.

"And you're a stranger as well, aren't you?"

"I am."

Alan believed he could get a great song out of this, so he agreed to pretend to be engaged to her. She was delighted. She took him home to meet her parents.

She obviously came from a rich family as well. The house was huge. After meeting her parents, he was introduced to brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents. She always introduced him as her new fiance. She had told him she couldn't tell them the truth because no one in her family was good at keeping secrets. Most of the people he met felt a need to point out how angry Con would be.

He was given a room in the house that night, despite insisting that he'd be happy to sleep in his tent on the lawn. Dinner was served by the butler in a huge dining room, and afterwards they had drinks in the drawing room. When Alison's father made a toast to Alan's health, everyone laughed. Alan laughed as well because he was drunk.

On the following morning he finally managed to get directions from one of the servants. He wasn't lost, he said, but he wanted to become better acquainted with the lay of the land. He was pointed in the direction of the nearest village, which was just over a mile away.

He walked to the village. Everyone he met there said hello to him. Some people shook his hand. When he went into the pub all of the drinkers knew who he was, and they all shook hands with him. He couldn't tell if they were offering congratulations or commiserations. The bar man told him that it was custom for newcomers in the village to try their gin. It was free. Alan couldn't refuse a free drink, and it wasn't as bad as he thought it would be. The bar man told him about Con. The more Alan heard, the more worried he was. Con had his own helicopter. In truth, there wasn't much chance of the helicopter getting off the ground. Alan didn't know that it had been built by the local blacksmith.

When he was walking home he stopped to look up at a cloud that was shaped like a butterfly. He spent a few minutes looking at it floating by, and when he looked down again he noticed that he was surrounded by swans, and they were converging on him. He had to act quickly, so he ran at them and jumped over the line of swans. He kept running until he got back to the house.

He met Alison in the garden and he told her about the incident with the swans. She said, "It sounds as if you're cursed."


"You didn't drink the gin, did you?"

"I did."

"Then you're definitely cursed."

"What do we do?"

"The safest thing to do would be for us to end this fake engagement right now and never to see each other again."

"How will that make things safer?"

"Well, it'll be safer for me because I might get injured while the swans are pecking you to death. Y' know, there were times during our fake engagement when I wished we were engaged for real."

She kissed him, and then she ran away as fast as she could.

The end of their fake engagement didn't stop the engagement party in the house that evening. You had to put the brakes on these parties a few days in advance if you wanted to stop them in time. Alison wasn't there. Alan heard that she was on her way to the south of France.

A chamber orchestra played in the garden and waiters carried glasses of champagne on trays. There were fireworks after the sun went down, but Alan was afraid to look up at them in case the swans returned. Seeing as Alison had already left this party in honour of their engagement, and taking into account the fact that this engagement was no more and that it didn't amount to much in the first place, Alan felt that it wouldn't be a breach of etiquette if he left. He got his rucksack and he managed to sneak away without being noticed.

After he had left the grounds, he walked away on a narrow, winding road, and he decided to take a left turn down a dirt track through the fields. He thought he'd be better off getting lost because it would be more difficult for anyone to find him.

He was wrong about this. After walking for five minutes on the dirt track he heard the sound of an engine behind him. He looked back, and in the light of the moon he saw a van. It was moving slowly because of all the people who were either hanging off the sides of it or crouching on the top. They all had weapons. Many more armed passengers must have been inside it. Alan guessed that Con was driving the van because he could see the red glow of the cigar inside.

He ran down the dirt track, and soon he came across something that looked like a car. There was a key in the ignition. If he'd known that this vehicle had been made by the blacksmith he might have been more cautious about using it to get away from his pursuers.

He thought it was a brilliant means of escape until he tried to stop it when he was going down a hill. The brakes didn't work. He had to use a river to stop the car, not that he had any choice in the matter. If he had a say in it, he'd have used the river to slow the car down rather than stop it, but the car stopped right in the middle of the river. He got out and climbed onto the roof. He saw the van coming down the hill towards him. He heard the sound of music coming from the other side of the river, and he saw the marching band slowly making their way down the hill at the other side. They were still playing the same sad music, and they were walking behind pall-bearers who held an empty coffin. Alan got the impression that the coffin was intended for him.

This impression was reinforced when the swans arrived. As they converged on him, he started singing a song about a depressed farmer. He thought it was the best song he'd ever written, and that it would be appropriate for his final performance.

The swans stopped to listen. The band stopped playing. Con parked the van on the banks of the river and all of its passengers got out or climbed down to listen to Alan's song.

They applauded at the end, so he started singing another one. The band joined in. He ended up singing all of the songs he had written, and by the end of his performance there were hundreds of people there to hear him. A boat was sent out to the car, and Alan received a rapturous ovation as he returned to dry land. Con shook his hand and offered to fly Alan home in his helicopter. Alan didn't realise that this was another attempt on his life, but he declined the offer anyway. He said he wanted to complete his camping holiday.

He didn't ask anyone for directions during the rest of his holiday, and he didn't mind admitting to himself that he was lost. He only attempted to find out where he was when he thought it was time to return home. He felt refreshed after his break, and he was sure the font of inspiration would produce a torrent of crystal clear water. The first song he wrote was about the joys of eating cornflakes.

The moose's head over the fireplace is still wearing his green scarf in protest against the result of Ireland's World Cup play-off against France last week. He was looking forward to seeing Ireland playing in the World Cup. The wife's uncle says that he's organising a World Cup with his friends, and that France won't be invited. He won't say what sport it is, but we've figured out that it involves ducks.