'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Christmas Train

We've found dry land again. Most of the decorations are up in the garden. The gnomes' footprints suggest that they've been trying to operate Santa's sleigh at night, now that their ship is stuck in the mud. But the sleigh isn't going anywhere either. Santa's sack is full of bricks to stop it blowing away in the wind. Some people think I did my Christmas shopping by knocking down a brick wall. It has been suggested that bricks would be far superior to the presents I normally give. If you're going to get someone a present that's likely to anger them (and in my experience it's extremely difficult to get anything else), you're better off giving something that isn't going to cause a serious injury when they throw it back at you. That's why socks are the ideal gift.

My cousin Charlotte uses natural decorations in her house at Christmas. She'll fill her house with things she finds in the woods, as much for the smell as for the look. A few days before Christmas one year she went out to search for holly and anything else that would add to the festive feeling. She found some moss and bark in the woods, and two logs that would look good next to the fireplace, even though she didn't have the heart to burn them. When she got to the pond she met Justin. He told her he was looking for a bag of nettles. He'd been collecting them all morning. He was going to take the nettles home and beat himself with them because someone had told him that this was a good way to cure boredom. He had misplaced the bag.

He was very surprised to hear that she was collecting wild Christmas decorations. She said she preferred simple things: home-grown vegetables rather than processed foods; vinyl records rather than CDs; acoustic eels rather than electric ones. She said she'd help him look for his nettles if he helped her look for decorations, and he agreed.

Their search failed to yield a bag of nettles, but they did find more moss, pine cones and twigs for Charlotte's house. When Justin saw a plastic bag stuck in a tree he said, "If I was decorating a Christmas tree it would probably end up looking like that. I'm no good with these things. That's why I'm perfectly happy waiting until spring when nature decorates the trees with leaves."

Charlotte hated the sight of the bag in the tree. She knew she wouldn't be able to forget about it if she left it there, so she climbed the tree to remove the bag. She found it very easy to forget about the bag after the branch broke and she fell to the ground, hitting her head off a root of the tree. She forgot where she was as well, but she recognised Justin, even though she called him Kevin. Justin could see that she needed medical attention. She was able to walk, so he led her back to his place, and then he drove her to a doctor's surgery. He was worried that she wouldn't have recovered her faculties enough to be able to pay the doctor, or that she'd have recovered her faculties enough to be able to pretend that she hadn't recovered her faculties enough when the time came to pay. This was why he took her to a doctor called Paul, who was known to be the cheapest doctor in the area. They'd get a very good deal from him, even though this was before his January sale.

Shortly after Charlotte finally figured out that she wasn't in a tree she realised that she was in a doctor's surgery. Paul held up four fingers in front of her and said, "How many spider's legs am I holding up?"

There were dozens of spiders on his hand, and they kept moving, so it was impossible to count them. And even if she could, she didn't think it would be safe to assume that all of those spiders had eight legs. She chose to ignore his question. She said, "How did you lose your finger?"

"I didn't lose it," he said. "I gave a loan of it to my brother."

"What's he doing with it?"

"He's using it to attract lightning. He thinks he won't get hurt if he holds my finger over his head in a storm. He probably thinks I'll get hurt instead. I'd tell him the truth about that, but I'd like to see him get hurt."

She noticed a headless mechanical Santa on his desk. She said, "Does that Santa keep his head in the sack on his back?"

"If any other doctor heard a question like that they'd say you're concussed, but my reaction is to point out that we have a lot in common."

Charlotte didn't have any reaction to that. A voice at the back of her mind told her she was concussed. She told him about her natural decorations and she asked him how he decorated his home. "I have no decorations at home," he said. "I hate being reminded of Christmas. The decorations here are for my patients. I'll be going home in a few minutes, and I can't wait to get back to a train carriage devoid of flashing lights and tinsel."

"We certainly have that in common, but I love being reminded of Christmas. What have you got against it?"

"When I was ten, all of my Christmas presents were made out of jelly. I cried as I ate the train set I asked for. Ever since then I've disliked the season. Although right now I can see the appeal of a jelly train. A woman used to come to my house in the evenings and cook a stew for me. As she cooked, I'd smoke cigars and tell her about my day's work. One evening she complained about my cigar smoke. I told her it added to the flavour of the stew. She was insulted. She said her stews didn't need any extra flavour, that she had brought them to a state of perfection and that anything added would necessarily diminish them. I should have apologised then, but I pointed out that she kept saying 'shoes' instead of 'stews'. I asked her if this was a Freudian slip. She's more sensitive about her shoes than she is about her stews. She left and she never came back. I've been trying to make my own dinners since then."

"I'd be delighted if you'd join me for dinner this evening. I'll cook."

"I'd be even more delighted to let you."

Justin was more delighted than anyone when he heard that he wouldn't have to pay. She invited him for dinner as well. The three of them went back to her place. Paul liked her Christmas decorations because they didn't remind him of Christmas at all.

As they were eating the dinner, Charlotte said, "Maybe the blow to my head has made me mix up what you told me about the jelly train, but did you say something about living in a train carriage?"

"I did. I do. I used to live in a house, but I sold that to buy a barge on the river, which was my dream. The barge sank. This also happened in my dream. I didn't have any insurance so I was forced to look for a more basic form of accommodation. I found that all I could afford was a coffin. The coffin-makers gave me a discount because I'd sent business their way before. Noel, my uncle, let me put it in one of his fields. I really enjoyed my time in the coffin, though I did have to put up with frequent visits from gravediggers looking for work. Noel's hobby is building towers. In the field where I lived he built a tower with wheels along one side so that when it fell over, as all of his towers do, he could use it as a train. When it fell over it crushed my coffin. I was at work at the time. I was lucky I wasn't killed when my coffin was destroyed because they'd have buried me in a cardboard box. Noel said I could live in one of the carriages of his new train. It's much better than the coffin. The train keeps moving, but only very slowly because he has to build new tracks every day."

Justin and Charlotte both said they'd like to see his carriage. Paul said they could call around on the following evening.

Noel had just finished work on the latest section of tracks when they arrived. The train had moved three feet that day. Paul gave them a tour of his carriage, which was very lavishly decorated. It reminded Charlotte of the Orient Express.

Charlotte came back to the carriage on Christmas Day with a present she'd made herself. It was an edible train set. The engine was made out of turkey. It was tied together with string to keep the stuffing inside. The final carriage was a cake that was iced. This meal was enough to restore Paul's love of Christmas. When they'd finished eating the train they went out to hunt for decorations to put up in his carriage. They saw a cardboard reindeer stuck in a tree. Charlotte was very tempted to bring it down and burn it, but she managed to forget about this one.

The moose's head over the fireplace loves the smell of Christmas cakes and puddings. He's in such a good mood he can even tolerate the occasional Christmas song, though he still frowns on anything I attempt to produce with an accordion. My great-grandfather could use the accordion to evoke the spirit of Christmas at any time of year. His accordion was always being invited to parties and he was expected to accompany it. To cope with the busy party schedule at Christmas, he learnt how to play and sing in his sleep. People were always telling him that he produced the most beautiful music they ever heard when he played in his sleep, but he could never remember the music and neither could they.