'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Finding a Fork

It's time to start getting the outdoor decorations out of the shed. This year I'll need boats for Santa and his reindeer. One of our neighbours is building an arc in her garden. She's going to fill it with elves, reindeer, Santa and his wife. It would be a strange world if it was populated entirely by elves, flying reindeer and the progeny of Santa. At Christmas they'd need something more magical than they are, like flying unicorns and a man who enters houses through taps at night to deliver gifts that will have grown their own legs by the morning so the elves and Santa's ancestors will wake up to find their presents walking into walls as they wait to grow eyes.

My cousin Hugh always did his best to avoid a man called Terence, who behaved in a way that made most peace-loving people want to avoid him. If he wasn't up to no good, he was on his way up. People who angered him could expect retribution, and it was very easy to anger him. One of Hugh's friends had a dog who once ran into Terence's garden to relieve himself. The garden was in such a bad state that the dog's present wouldn't have done anything to diminish its beauty. If anything, it would have been a slight improvement. But Terence didn't see it this way. He responded by dumping a load of dead badgers on the lawn of the dog's owner. He'd been collecting them for years. Some of the badgers hadn't fully defrosted when Hugh's friend found them.

It wasn't always possible to avoid Terence. One evening he turned up on Hugh's doorstep with a bucket of sugar. "Do you want to buy a bucket of sugar?" he said. "It's only twenty euros."

If Hugh ever found himself wanting a bucket of sugar, it would be very unlikely that he'd want it enough to get it from Terence. But he certainly didn't want to annoy Terence. He chose to annoy himself by buying the bucket and its contents. Judging by the smell from the sugar, it would have been more likely to spoil food than to sweeten it, unless that food smelled even worse than the sugar, like Terence's garden being beautified by what the dog left behind. Hugh threw the sugar away.

On the following evening, he got a phone call from his fiancee, Annabel, who said she was calling around and they'd be going to visit her aunt, Stephanie. Hugh was annoyed because he hated visiting Stephanie. She never stopped asking him questions about his life and his views on life. She'd be disappointed if he didn't give a good answer to questions like 'Would you rather spend a week in the south of France or knock down a wall with a sledge hammer?'.

Shortly after this phone call, the doorbell rang. It was Terence again. "Do you want to buy another bucket of sugar?" he said. "It's only thirty euros."

Hugh was already annoyed after being told of his trip to see Annabel's aunt, and the additional irritation provided by Terence made him behave in a way he never would have foreseen. "Go away," he said, and he slammed the door.

He regretted his actions immediately. He knew he should have saved this reaction for Stephanie and humoured Terence. It would be almost impossible to avoid Terence. For the next few days, Hugh was nervous every time he left the house. He kept looking around him, terrified that Terence would emerge from behind a hedge and attack him.

He had to wait until Friday evening before the inevitable meeting arrived. Terence came over to him in the pub and said, "I want a word with you. I was very surprised by the way you reacted the other day. I never knew you were like that. I didn't think you had it in you. You've got balls. I need someone to help me with a job, and I think you're just the person. I want a lookout man, someone who won't lose his nerve and run away."

"What sort of job are you doing?"

"I want to get my fork back. The fork ended up at Janet's house because she offered me some cream cake when I was there. She was going to give me one of her own forks to eat it, but I prefer to use my own. I had it in my pocket. I could tell you lots of stories about people being poisoned by forks, and all of those people deserved it, no matter what any of them will tell you. When I was sitting down to my dinner later that evening I put my hands into my pockets to get my knife and fork. I found the knife in my right pocket but my left pocket was empty. I realised I must have left the fork at Janet's house, so I went back there. She told me she had washed it and put it into her cutlery drawer, but when she looked in there she couldn't find it. Fergus had called and she had given him some cake as well. He had used my fork and he must have put it into his pocket when he was finished with it. It was probably force of habit, she said, but I'd say if I asked him for the fork he'd tell me he'd never seen it before in his life. I need to get it back. That fork has sentimental value. I'd be here for the rest of the night if I started telling you about all the things it's been embedded in. I'm going to break into Fergus's house tomorrow morning when he's out walking his dog. I don't know how long I'll be inside because he might have hidden the fork somewhere. I want you to stay outside his front gate and if he comes back, stall him. Talk to him about... I don't know. I'll leave that up to you. Whatever you're comfortable talking about."

Hugh suspected that Terence was planning on taking much more than the fork, but he agreed to help because he was relieved to find that he wasn't on Terence's 'ten most wanted' list.

Terence called to Hugh's house on the following morning and they went to Fergus's place. They hid behind a ditch as they waited for him to leave with his dog. After he had gone, Terence went around to the back of the house and Hugh took up his post outside the front gate.

Hugh didn't think it was likely that Terence would be in there for very long. He had years of experience at getting in and out as quickly as possible, his pockets stuffed with plenty of things to keep his knife and fork company. But this job was taking longer. Perhaps he really did want the fork, and he was having trouble finding it. Hugh started to think about what he'd say if Fergus arrived back.

He had to think very quickly when Fergus arrived back sooner than expected. "I wanted to talk to you about something," Hugh said. "The thing I wanted to talk to you about was... Someone was telling me you had an interest in... ahm... Norway. This person might have been mistaken about that, but I have an interest in Norway myself. A slight interest. So I thought I'd come to see you and talk about Norway."

"I know why you're really here," Fergus said.

"You do?"

"People never come straight out with it. They always have to beat around the bush. They feel embarrassed by it, but I'm not in the slightest bit embarrassed by the fact that I can communicate with the dead."

"You're not?"

"No. I've never tried to hide the fact that I have a dead friend who follows me around."

"A ghost?"

"No. He's dead."

"Is he here now?"

"He's right behind me. His name is Jack. We solve crimes together."

"Are you sure you haven't got this idea from a TV show?"

"No. A TV show got the idea from me. Isn't that right Jack?... Really?... Are you sure?... I'm very disappointed to hear that."

"Did Jack tell you that you got the idea from a TV show?"

"No. He didn't. He told me that you're only out here to stall me while Terence is in my house."

"I don't know where he'd get an idea like that. From a TV show, most likely. What have you been watching on TV, Jack?"

"I'm going inside to deal with Terence and I'll leave Jack out here to deal with you."

Fergus went in. Hugh waited outside for a few minutes, but nothing happened. "Are you finished dealing with me, Jack?" he said to the empty space in front of him. The empty space didn't respond. "Then I suppose I'll be off home," Hugh said, and he left.

He forgot about Jack later that day when Annabel informed him that they had to pay another visit to Stephanie to cheer her up after she broke her china teapot.

As he tried to go to sleep that night his mind was full of the questions she had asked, like 'Do you think you could train a sheep to understand how traffic lights work?'. He was only able to forget about her when he became preoccupied with something more serious. He started to get a feeling that something was wrong, but he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.

When he heard noises downstairs he wished he hadn't been able to put his finger on it at all and that he was still thinking about Stephanie. He'd even settle for still being with Stephanie, still answering her questions about electricity and cheese. He knew he had to go out to investigate. He got a golf club to protect himself.

As he was walking down the stairs he saw something that couldn't be beaten away with a golf club. It was the ghost of a man who looked as if he had been alive in the nineteenth century.

Hugh started screaming, but he stopped when the lights came on. Fergus was there, and he was holding a camera. "It's a night vision camera," he said. "I've recorded your reaction. It's hilarious. I would have been completely against modern technology a few years ago, but here I am with my night vision camera and my digital projector to create the illusion of a ghost. God only knows what I'll be using next year. Jack knows as well, but he won't tell me because he doesn't want to ruin the surprise."

"I thought you were going to let 'Jack' deal with me."

"I was going to, but then I remembered that you thought Jack was a ghost. I had the ability to create the illusion of a ghost and you believe in ghosts. I couldn't let an opportunity like that slip by. So I let Jack deal with Terence instead."

Hugh was angry that Terence, the brains behind the operation, had gotten off so lightly, and he was afraid that Terence would be furious with him for throwing a spanner in the works. He'd say the operation required scalpels and tweezers, not spanners and pliers. Hugh couldn't help thinking that his face would need scalpels and tweezers in the safe hands of a medical practitioner after Terence had performed surgery with spanners and pliers. He tried to avoid Terence for as long as possible, but a meeting seemed inevitable a week later when Hugh saw him approaching on the street. Hugh feared the worst, but Terence walked right past without even looking at Hugh. He seemed preoccupied, as if he'd seen something much worse than a ghost. Of course, he might have just been pining for his fork.

The moose's head over the fireplace is wearing his red Christmas scarf instead of his green one. This is the only concession he'll make to the season at this stage. He refuses to listen to any Christmas music, so we never turn on the radio. He won't be happy if he sees the Christmas decorations floating past the window, so I'm going to have to tie them to a tree. The wife's aunt is wearing a grey hat that she intends to take off in January. It's just a plain grey hat now, but she's going to be decorating it over the coming weeks. The last time she did this, the hat became so big that she had to go down on her knees when she was going through doors.