'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Walk Down the Avenue

The garden gnomes are starting to enjoy the heavy rain because it gives them an opportunity to sail around the garden in their ship. They even built a life boat for it. This came in useful when the ship hit the rockery and sank.

My cousin Ronan set up a local newspaper with a friend of his called Shane. Their printing press was a photocopier, and the stories they printed were the sort of things the other newspapers would steadfastly ignore. They wrote about UFO sightings, aliens, ghosts and other paranormal activity.

Shane used to collect and repair antique robots. One of his robots escaped and it went into Mrs. Sheehan's house down the road. It made an awful mess in her dining room, over-turning all the furniture, breaking vases and pulling paintings from the walls. Mrs. Sheehan was furious. After Shane made the robot apologise (which took a few hours of tinkering inside its head) he agreed to pay for any damage done and to clean up the mess. Ronan said he'd help.

When Shane was putting a painting of a horse back on the wall he noticed an envelope taped to the back of it. He removed the envelope and opened it. There were photos inside. One of them showed Mrs. Sheehan's father working on a model of a UFO. Another photo showed him proudly standing next to the finished model. Shane recognised it straightaway. This flying saucer had been seen in 1963. A photo had been taken of it, and when Shane was growing up he heard the stories of many people who witnessed it that evening. This incident is what first got him interested in UFOs.

Shane cried when he saw these photos. It was worse than finding out that Santa didn't exist. The realisation that Santa didn't exist had come after ten years of investigation, during which time he had become increasingly sceptical about Saint Nick. The realisation that the UFO was a fake was brutally sudden.

After the sadness passed, anger took over. "We've got to publish these," he said to Ronan.

"They're not exactly ours, are they? Technically we'd be stealing them."

"I don't care. Journalistic integrity allows you to rise above technicalities like that. People must know the truth."

Mrs. Sheehan was furious when she saw the photos in the paper. She threatened Ronan and Shane with legal action. Shane told her she could take whatever action she wanted, if she wanted to attract even more attention to her father's unforgivable hoax.

"Fine," she said. "Forget about the legal action. There are other avenues that I can... No. I won't say what I'll be doing on those avenues. It'll be a surprise. You might find me walking down the avenue or skipping down the avenue or dancing down the avenue with a balloon stuck to my head."

A few days later, Ronan and Shane received an anonymous report of ghostly activity in an abandoned house. The spirit of a young woman was seen at a downstairs window of this house close to midnight every night.

Ronan and Shane went to the house that night. They got in through the back door. The rotting timber didn't offer much resistance. In the kitchen, the only bits of furniture that hadn't been removed were in pieces on the floor. The wallpaper was peeling off the walls in the hall and the carpet was wet.

They went to the room where the ghost had been sighted, and they were surprised to find that it was well furnished and in very good condition. There was a piano in one corner and a round table underneath a chandelier. There was a vase full of flowers in the centre of the table. Their flashlights illuminated paintings on the walls, but they noticed that one painting was on the ground. They guessed that it should have been hanging on the wall to cover the safe.

The safe door was open. When Ronan shone a flashlight inside he saw a red velvet bag. Just as he reached in to get it, a light came on in the room. They looked towards the door, where they saw Mrs. Sheehan taking a photo of them.

"This is what I've been doing on the avenue," Mrs. Sheehan said. "I've been redecorating on the avenue, and writing anonymous letters on the avenue, and taking photos. What's the most likely story you'd come up with to explain this photo? What would the proper newspapers make of it? I'd say it looks like two youths up to no good. They've got a very good scam going. They use a robot to go into someone's house and wreck a room, claiming that it was all an accident. And then when they're cleaning up they have a great chance to spot all the valuables, and find where the safe is. They break in at night to steal from the safe. But they were caught in the act and the owner of the house took a photo of them."

"Blackmail," Shane said. "That's the only story to explain what's going on here."

"It's not blackmail," Mrs. Sheehan said. "I'm only demonstrating how easy it is to fake photos. So now ye can see that the photos of my father faking the UFO were fakes. I want ye to print this in the paper next week."

"Never," Shane said. "People must know the truth."

"If I don't read an admission that the photos are fake in next week's paper, I'm giving these photos to a proper paper. I'll leave ye to decide what ye're going to do on the avenue."

Ronan wanted to print the admission, but Shane wouldn't give in. Truth was more important than anything, he said. That's the only reason he started his newspaper. He didn't care if people thought he was a thief as long as they knew he was honest.

On the following day they went to interview a man called Riley. He wanted to tell them about his voyage on a ship that had a cargo of whiskey.

"The ship hit an ice berg," he said. "It wasn't entirely the ice berg's fault. It's the whiskey I blame. And I suppose myself and the other crewmen would have to take some responsibility for consuming the whiskey. At the start we agreed to drink only a little bit, but we took a little bit more than a little bit, and we were worried about getting in trouble. So we drank a little bit more to ease our worries. But that only made us more worried because even more of it was gone and we'd get into even more trouble. So we drank some more. When the ship hit the ice berg and sank we were relieved because we'd drank most of the whiskey but we wouldn't get blamed for it. The loss of the cargo was the ice berg's fault, we'd say. There was a lot of singing and drinking on the lifeboat as we watched the ship go down. We had taken the last of the whiskey with us. When I saw another crate of it in the water I reached in to get it, but I fell overboard. My colleagues were too inebriated to notice, and they were singing too loudly to hear my cries. I managed to climb onto the ice berg that had sunk the ship. I retrieved as much wreckage as I could. I found some food, and I made a shelter with bits of timber. And of course, I had my crate of whiskey.

"The ice berg became my home. I let it take me wherever it wanted to go. We got on well. It never tried to throw me off, which I thought was a good sign. One day I woke up and I was surprised to find that I had a visitor. A man in a brown suit was standing outside my shack on the ice berg. He told me he had spent the previous six months trapped in the hull of a ship. He was all alone with spiders who kept growing. He could hear the creaks and groans of the spiders as they grew. I said to him, 'Are you sure it wasn't just your imagination?' He said, 'I'm certain. I saw them twice, just brief glimpses of them. The second time I saw them they were enormous.'

"He had escaped from the ship, and after floating for days in the freezing water he was starting to wonder if he'd get out of this escapade alive, but then he came across my ice berg. I was worried that I'd be stuck on the ice berg with him for years, but shortly after he arrived we sighted land. We built a raft and we rowed ashore. We consumed a fair amount of whiskey in a pub that night to celebrate our reunion with dry land, but on the following morning I had lost the celebratory mood. I failed to see the appeal of dry land. I needed the frozen land of the ice berg, so I decided to return. I filled my raft with as many supplies as I could gather and I rowed back to my ice berg.

"I spent many happy years on it, returning to dry land every few months to get some food. As time went by I started to sense that there was something growing in the centre of the ice berg. I could see it in my dreams. When I woke, I never remembered what it was, but I had a sense that it was benevolent, not like the spiders. I developed an ability to communicate telepathically with it. It told me that I could use the berg's ice to control other people's minds. If someone else consumes some of the ice, I can develop a telepathic relationship with that person, and I can control them. I have a whole freezer full of that ice. I go back to the ice berg for my summer holidays every year, and I always bring some ice home with me."

"Could you demonstrate this for us?" Shane said.

"I certainly could. Is there anyone in particular you'd like to control?"

"Yes," Shane said with a smile. "Yes there is."

He told Riley about the trouble they were having with Mrs. Sheehan. Riley gave them two ice cubes and he told them to put the cubes into a glass of whiskey and give it to her. Then he'd be able to control her. He'd make her say uncomplimentary things about her friends and relations. Shane and Ronan would record everything she said, and then she'd be forced to withdraw her threat to distribute the photos she had of them. He told them that the ice cubes cost fifty euros each, but that they didn't have to pay him until after they'd seen that the ice worked.

Shane invited Mrs. Sheehan around to his house to discuss the photos. They had hidden a video camera in his living room to film her talking about her friends and relations. When she arrived, Ronan and Shane explained their latest position. They had had a change of heart, they said. After carefully inspecting the photos of her father with the model of the UFO, they had come to the conclusion that the photos were fakes. They were sorry for any upset they had caused her. They offered an unconditional apology, and this apology would be printed in the paper.

She accepted their apology, and she gladly accepted the offer of a glass of whiskey. Ronan made sure she got the glass with the ice cubes in it. For the next twenty minutes, she spoke about breeding rabbits. This didn't give her any opportunities to say bad things about her friends and family.

When she finished the whiskey, Shane offered her another. She said she'd love another. He apologised for running out of ice cubes. "It doesn't matter," she said. "Ice cubes are just a tiny cherry on top and the whiskey is an enormous chocolate cake with a thick layer of icing."

After five glasses of whiskey she finally started talking about her friends and family. She said that when her sister spoke she sounded like someone talking in the voice of a horse. Most of her friends were ugly, she said.

After another few drinks they had trouble understanding what she was saying, but they had more than enough on tape to make sure she'd drop her threat. While she was laughing at one of her own jokes, Shane whispered to Ronan, "They work. The ice cubes actually work."

"They do not," Ronan said. "It's the whiskey that's making her say these things. There's no way I'm paying for those ice cubes."

"We have to pay. Now that we've got her off our backs, do you want to make another enemy straightaway? At least wait a few weeks."

Ronan knew that infuriating Riley would be too risky, but he still didn't want to part with the cash. So when Mrs. Sheehan presented them with an opportunity to make some money, they took it. She started talking about the robot who had wrecked her room. She loved the way he looked, she said. He was impossible to dislike. Ronan said she could buy him for a hundred euros. Shane told her that the robot would be a bargain at that price because he'd done a lot of work on its brain so he'd stop wrecking rooms and start cleaning them instead.

It was definitely the drink that made her believe what Shane said and pay a hundred euros for the robot. She regretted her purchase on the following day, and she was furious when Shane and Ronan told her that they'd recorded everything she said. She told them she'd be slinking back down the avenue for now, but one day she'd be returning with her robot, who'd roll steadfastly down the centre of the avenue, with a brain programmed for vengeance. Her nephew was an expert on these things, she said.

Her nephew still hasn't made the robot roll down the avenue with vengeance on its brain. He seems to have become side-tracked with a project to make the robot pick its nose, but Mrs. Sheehan still has her hopes for vengeance pinned on the robot.

The moose's head over the fireplace looks very distinguished in the photos taken by the wife's aunt. He's wearing glasses in them, and he's drinking tea from a china cup. The cup was part of a set that my great-grandfather bought. It was designed for tea parties for robots. These parties were always very tense. It was only a matter of time before one of the robots started crying and over-turned the table.