'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ivan's Newspaper

The coal shed is nearly empty. I noticed some faint drawings on the wall where the pile of coal had been. These drawings seem to be telling the story of an alien landing. It could be the landing of the aliens my grandfather saw one summer night when he was trying to swat away the flies swarming around his head. He became so engrossed in the task that he didn't notice he was walking. By the time the flies had finally got the message, he was miles away from home. He wouldn't have had the courage to go so close to the aliens if he'd seen where he was going. They weren't concerned by his approach. They wouldn't have felt much of a threat from a man who struggled to deal with flies. They asked him to take them to his leader, so he took them to a man known as Biscuit, who lived in a caravan. Three weeks later, the aliens had converted the caravan into a three-storey mansion. My grandfather was sorry he didn't pretend to be the leader, but they might not have believed that after seeing his struggles with the flies.

My cousin Ronan and his friend Shane often saw a man sitting on a stone pillar near Shane's house. There was a beautiful view of the fields from that pillar, but the man was always engrossed in a newspaper, and they noticed that he was always reading the same paper.

One day they offered him a copy of their own newspaper, which they printed on a photocopier. Alien landings often featured in this. The man said, "Thanks for the offer, but I'd rather read this. This is one of Ivan's papers."

"Who's Ivan?" Ronan said.

"Now there's a question that has many answers. Ivan is a man who's well-known for his idiosyncratic views on life. The flow of time enthrals him, filling his senses with a never-ending supply of playthings. Some are taken on board. Some are cast aside to go over the waterfall into oblivion. It's important to stand firm and not be taken over the waterfall. The need to collect new playthings is a good reason to avoid fading away. These diversions for the senses are designed by the family who live in the castle at the source of the stream, or so Ivan claims. He's been inside the castle. He won't say how he managed it, but he left the stream and stood on the bank. This higher ground provided him with a higher vantage point on life. His understanding was deepened. He saw more than he could ever glean while his senses were immersed in an autumn sunset or a star-filled night.

"He followed the stream until he came to the source. The water emerged from underneath a castle. A man was playing croquet on the lawn. He walked over to Ivan and introduced himself as Flaherty. He said, 'I assume you're here about the wine,' and before Ivan had a chance to say anything, Flaherty was leading him into the castle's kitchen to sample the wine.

"In the kitchen, Flaherty's daughter was talking to the cook. The butler poured a glass of wine for Ivan and he tasted it. When Flaherty asked him to guess what it was made of, his daughter interrupted her chat with the cook and said, 'Don't even think of trying to guess what it's made of.' Flaherty considered the matter and decided that his daughter was probably right. He said, 'Come with me and I'll show you something to make you forget all about the wine.'

"He took Ivan to a long corridor to see a statue of a man holding a newspaper as if he was just about to throw it. As they were looking at that, another man walked towards them down the corridor. He was wearing a grey shirt and black jeans. His skin was as white as snow. He had no hair.

"As he got closer, Ivan realised that he didn't have skin at all. Whatever he had, it was moving. It reminded Ivan of people who cover their head in bees for a record attempt or just to pass the time. These white things were smaller than bees and they looked like a permanent fixture on the man's head, if he actually was a man at all. He had the eyes of a man, but he didn't have any ears. His mouth only became visible when he spoke. His name was Ray. Flaherty introduced him to Ivan and they shook hands. Then Ray said to Flaherty, 'Make sure you tell the organist to start playing at midday,' and Flaherty said 'Yes, sir'. Ray said goodbye to Ivan. He turned around and walked back down the corridor. After he had gone, Flaherty said to Ivan, 'He thinks he's the boss around here, and you'll get a lot more peace if you let him think that, but he's not really. Although in fairness, he's come a long way since he started work delivering newspapers.' Ivan noticed that framed newspaper pages were hanging on the walls of the corridor. One headline was about a family of walls taking over a house.

"Flaherty led Ivan back to the castle's door. Before Ivan left, Flaherty shook his hand and said, 'And remember, forget about the wine.' Ivan went back to the stream and returned to the everyday flow of time. He can sit for hours in a cold barren wasteland and be perfectly content, now that he's seen the other side. He doesn't do this on a regular basis, only from time to time. One thing he does do on a regular basis is read newspapers. I've noticed that all of the newspapers he reads feature articles about families of walls. I came across this paper with an article about a family of walls and I've read every word in the entire paper hundreds of times. I get the feeling that somewhere amongst these pages is a way out of the stream, a boat to the water's edge and a chance to find the castle."

Ronan and Shane let the man on the pillar return to his re-reading of the paper. When they were walking down the road on the following day the man was gone, but the newspaper was on top of the pillar.

"Do you think he's found his way out of the stream?" Ronan said.

"Possibly. Maybe he left the newspaper behind for us to find our way out."

"What if we get out and we can't get back in again?"

"Getting in is surely easier than getting out. You can see where you're going when you're going back in. There's no harm in reading the paper anyway."

They started reading Ivan's newspaper and they came across an ad that was circled in red ink. The ad was for the sale of a second-hand robot that had its wedding head switched on. Shane collected and restored antique robots, so there was little chance of him resisting the temptation to investigate further.
The address in the ad led them to a farmhouse on a narrow winding road. They met the farmer in the yard. When they asked him about the robot he said, "Ye're too late. I sold it to a man this morning."

"What did he look like?" Ronan said.

"He was tall. Actually, he was small. Very small. Or very tall. He had a moustache. A beard. In his hand. He had no hair."

"Did he have any ears?"

"I don't know because his thick curly hair covered nearly everything. Now that I think about it, I don't really know what he looked like. That's strange because normally I do know things. Some things. Or nothing. One thing. I know one thing and it's this: he told me about the clouds with bulging eyeballs and they laugh at you and drop things on your head, unwittingly enthralling you with their golden edges in the evening sun. You can go inside to Fay who's trying out her new recipe for pea soup. Peace pervades the atmosphere. Even if you hate the soup you can still feel as if you've been blessed by an authority that's higher than the clouds, and you can go outside and say this to the clouds, but they'll be gone by then."

As Shane and Ronan walked away they spoke about the ghost-hunter they once interviewed for their paper. There were times when he'd stick a pin into his hand to make sure he wasn't dreaming, because sometimes he was dreaming. Ronan and Shane had developed a similar method. Shane would punch Ronan on the arm and Ronan would kick Shane's leg. They tried this as they walked down the road and they agreed they weren't dreaming.

They came across a garden where a woman was trying to coax a man down from a tree. They asked her why he was so reluctant to come down. She said that this morning there was a small red brick wall in her garden and she was sure there had been a pile of bricks there the last time she had looked. She was going to call the police, but there was a good chance they'd arrest her, so she called Lenny instead. He came around, and while he was looking at the wall, a cat appeared behind him. This terrified him, and he climbed up into the tree. He wouldn't come back down.

She told Lenny that the cat had fallen asleep in the shade at the other side of the wall, but this only made him cling even tighter to the branch. She whispered to Ronan and Shane, "I think I'll have to wait for the clouds with the bulging eyes to arrive and frighten him down." The whispering did nothing to ease Lenny's nerves.

Ronan and Shane walked on down the road. There was a man standing in front of the next house. He was reading a newspaper. The headline on the front page was 'More Walls'. The front room of the house behind him was on fire, but he took no notice of this as he read the paper.

Shane asked him if he'd ever heard of Ivan, and the man said, "I am Ivan."

"We've heard a lot about you," Ronan said. "Actually, we haven't heard all that much, but what we have heard is much more interesting than the detailed histories of other people's lives we have to endure. Is it true that you left the stream of time?"

"To put it bluntly, no. It's just a lie I had to tell. I once joined a suburban government. Erasing personal histories was an essential part of being a member. You'd be assigned a role within the government and you'd be expected to lie about your past so you'd fit into the role. I had to make up a story to prove I was qualified to be the Minister of Defence. I used to tell people about the time I conducted a military campaign from the roof of my house. This led to other lies, a long stream of them, culminating in the lie about the castle, a lie that was analogous to the castle in my lie, the source of all the other lies. None of it is real, but in one sense it's all true because within the lie nothing is real when you're immersed in the stream. If you believe the lie, none of this is real, and neither is the lie. The lie is a lie."

"It's not necessarily true either," Ronan said.

"But what is truth?"

"I don't know."

"The castle is the source of truth."

"I thought you lied about that."

"Did I?"

"I don't know. Did you?"

"I don't know. That's why I asked you."

"You said you lied about it."

"Did I?"


"How do I know you're not lying about that?"

Shane said, "If I were you I wouldn't wait around to see if the fire in your house was real."

"My living room is on fire to keep me warm," Ivan said. "It's been burning down for years. The wallpaper has long gone, and I wasn't sorry to see it go. People have said to me that when the walls have burnt down I'll be colder than ever. As soon as the walls have gone I'll start building them again. I'll start with the wallpaper, which I've already acquired. When that's in place I'll begin pasting the walls to it.

"The fire started when the dog tried to light his pipe. Some dogs start a fire every time they try to light a pipe, so you're better off lighting the pipe for them, even though you might be trying to discourage the habit. Every time I light my dog's pipe I use the occasion to deliver an anti-smoking lecture he wouldn't normally stay around to listen to. When I'm lighting his pipe he stays there for the entire course of the lecture, although he still doesn't listen to a word I say. When he started the fire in my living room I wasn't there to light his pipe. I was in a pub. There are times when you'll go into a pub and something about the bar man's demeanour will make you ask him if everything is okay. Sometimes he'll ask you what 'everything' is and his tone will suggest that everything is not okay. It's best to change the subject to something other than everything. I've learnt this from experience. While the dog was starting the fire, I was listening to a bar man tell me about being at the wedding of the love of his life. She was marrying another man. No one said a word throughout the whole wedding, but somehow words weren't needed. The silence didn't hinder the proceedings. He got the impression that it would have been rude to say anything. When he was given the opportunity to raise his objections to the marriage and express his love for the bride, he said nothing.

"I spent hours listening to him talk about her, and we ended up standing outside her house in the middle of a freezing night. There was a fire in one of the front rooms. I didn't think it was anything to worry about, but he was afraid that he'd get blamed for it. If he put the fire out they'd say he started it deliberately just so he could pretend to be a hero and impress the woman he loved. What are the chances of him arriving there in the middle of the night just as the room was on fire? Quite good if he goes there every night, but he didn't want to tell them that. He could ignore the fire and walk away, but if someone saw him leaving the scene he'd definitely get blamed for it.

"As he was explaining his dilemma to me, an old woman opened an upstairs window and said, 'I'm trying to get some sleep up here.' The bar man realised he had got the wrong house. The love of his life was next door with her new husband. He asked the old woman if she wanted us to put the fire out. She said, 'Put the fire out? In this weather? It would freeze outside. That's why I let it stay in the house instead of sleeping in its kennel. It wouldn't get much protection from the cold out there, even if it hadn't burnt the roof off its kennel.' The bar man told her that we'd be going next door, and she told us to make sure to wake them up because they were always waking her up with their arguments, shouting insults at each other, and throwing things too. The bar man's smile was as bright as the fire after he heard this. Everything was okay again. I went home to find that the dog had started this fire in the living room. I had to pretend to be angry with him. In truth, I was glad of the warmth. I lit his pipe, but I kept the lecture short."

Shane punched Ronan on the arm and Ronan kicked Shane's leg.

They walked on. As they were approaching Shane's house they met a man leading a donkey that pulled a cart. This man had red curly hair and a beard. The cart was full of bottles of red wine. He asked Ronan and Shane if they'd like to buy some of his wine. They saw the ominous clouds appearing on the horizon, and they thought that wine would be just the thing to keep the clouds' menace out of their minds. The bought a bottle each.

When they got to Shane's house they kicked and punched each other one last time before going their separate ways. Ronan went to meet his girlfriend, Audrey. When she saw the bottle of wine she said, "I knew you'd remember our anniversary. Everyone else said you'd forget, because you forgot my birthday. Remember that?"


"But I knew you wouldn't forget our anniversary."

They drank the wine and Ronan listened carefully to her stories to convince himself that he was immersed in reality. She spoke about a cat she saw who looked as if he wanted to recite a poem he'd composed to express his love for the moon, so things couldn't have been any more normal than that.

Shane chose to escape reality by organising robot weddings.

The moose's head over the fireplace seems perfectly content with the reality of being a moose's head over the fireplace. All he needs is Bach and Beethoven to embellish the flow of time. The wife's aunt has formed more elaborate methods for decorating reality. She's currently reading a physics book to a plastic butterfly.