'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Beast

I've been spending more time in the garden, now that the daylight is lasting longer. I stand in the orchard and look at the sky through the bare branches of the trees. Sometimes I'll see my neighbour floating by in her hot air balloon. She'll drop a cake for me to catch. This is how she started delivering her cakes when the roads were too icy to drive on. For an annual subscription she'll deliver a cake once a week, and once every month she'll bring a hamper of jam, honey, bread and cheese. I ended up in hospital the last time I tried to catch that.

My cousin Charlie once spent a few days in the countryside to clear his mind of the stresses and strains he'd been accumulating while working in the city. He stayed in a guesthouse with a beautiful view of a valley. Mrs. Twomey, the owner of the guesthouse, showed him his room on the second floor and she pointed out all the sights he could see from his window. The nearest house was a few hundred yards away. She told him that a magician called Felix lived there.

As they were looking out the window there was an explosion in the shed behind this house, and shortly afterwards, Felix came staggering out of the shed. Charlie and Mrs. Twomey went downstairs and ran to his house.

On the way there, she told him more about Felix. Some people believed that his magical powers came from a pair of leather, fur-lined gloves. There were only two members of 'some people' and they both enjoyed the hobby of burning things made out of plastic. He once performed a trick in a house that was said to be haunted. The ghost had first been sighted over seventy years earlier, when he was seen sleeping on an armchair near the fire in what was described as a 'drunken posture'. There had been numerous sightings since then, including one in which he was blowing up a balloon. The owner of the house thought that the ghost might have inserted part of himself into the balloon, but it was impossible to say which part. The owner was afraid to burst the balloon. Someone suggested that he take it to the woods and just leave it there, but he was afraid that he'd anger the rest of the ghost. He said, "If you had to live with a one-armed man, how would you explain to him that you took his missing arm to the woods and set it free?"

When Felix was performing a card trick for a spellbound audience in a candle-lit room of this house, he stopped talking in the middle of a sentence and looked up. He said, "But I've already started."

Everyone looked up, but there was nothing there. They all assumed he was talking to the ghost. After a pause he said, "Are you sure?... Alright then. I just hope you're right."

The balloon burst shortly afterwards. Screaming ensued, and a lot of people ran from the house. Some of them wanted to burn down Felix's house, and then stand down-wind of the fire in the hope that it contained a lot of plastic.

When Charlie and Mrs. Twomey arrived at Felix's house he reassured them that he wasn't injured, but he seemed a bit dazed. His face was black with soot, and smoke was coming from his shed. He said he was working on a trick in there. He invited them into his house for a cup of tea. They accepted the invitation because they wanted to make sure he was okay.

His dining room was huge but it lacked a table. He had taken it out to make room for the audience who came to see his act every Friday evening. Shelves hid two walls of the room. They were illuminated by the windows on the other walls. Charlie was fascinated by the books on magic, the cloaks and the props, many of them antiques. Felix asked him if he'd like to take on the role of assistant for his next performance in the house on Friday evening. Mrs. Twomey was standing behind Felix. Charlie could see her waving her hands from side to side, shaking her head and mouthing the word 'no'. He wondered what was wrong with her. But he couldn't wonder for long because he had to respond to Felix. He said he'd be delighted to be the assistant. Felix said he'd be performing a trick called The Guillotine.

On their way back to the guesthouse, Mrs. Twomey told Charlie that Felix's last assistant went missing a few weeks earlier. He made her disappear for a trick, but he was supposed to make her re-appear again. This part of the trick didn't go according to plan. When he opened the wooden box in the expectation of seeing Lorraine, his assistant, there was no one there. Shortly afterwards they heard Lorraine's voice. "Where am I?" she said. Felix was unable to answer that question. The audience helped him search the entire house, but they couldn't find her, even though they could hear her voice in many rooms. Felix suggested that she had entered another dimension. She sounded perfectly content there, so no one felt a need to rescue her.

Charlie returned to Felix's house that evening and he asked about the assistant. "It was all just a trick," Felix said. "Lorraine wanted to get away for a few weeks so she could work on her novel without being interrupted. A man called Fintan has been devoting a lot of attention to her recently. He was becoming a bit of a nuisance, and he wasn't recognising any of the hints she was dropping. So we planned this trick. Fintan often calls around to hear her voice, but it's just a recording."

Felix pressed a button underneath a table and they heard a recording of Lorraine saying 'That dog looks just like the dog he's trying to hide behind'.

"She's staying in an abandoned hotel near the woods," Felix said. "Fintan wouldn't go there because it's become a sort of a commune for people who don't use hints when they want to tell you to leave them alone."

Felix took Charlie to the hotel to meet Lorraine. She was staying in a room overlooking the front garden, but she had to remove the pieces of timber covering the window if she wanted to admire the view. She told Charlie about her novel. "All of the characters are based on my toes," she said. She was wearing sandals to reveal her toes. "The big toe on my right foot is a woman who believes that in a past life she was a princess whose favourite hobby was knocking over peasants. The big toe on my left foot is a man who has attracted a large group of followers, all of them dogs. He believes that in a future life he'll be a man who believes that he was Winston Churchill in a past life. I wear sandals so I'll have a constant supply of inspiration. It's been nice to get away from Fintan for a few weeks, but there are other distractions here. I'm writing a film for the people who live in the basement here. They make their own horror films. They were working on a film about man-eating aliens when the beast re-appeared."

"The beast?" Charlie said.

"Haven't you heard of the beast?"

"I'm new to the area."

"He's been appearing on and off in this locality for hundreds of years. Many years might go by without a single sighting and then he'll be seen every night for a few months. He starts fires and he bites the branches off trees. He re-appeared two weeks ago, and he's been back every night since. He has enormous horns that look like branches. He's over eight foot tall, and his eyes are a luminous green. The basement-dwellers abandoned their film about man-eating aliens to make a film about him instead because he looks much scarier than any of their costumes. I have to write the story around what they can film of the beast at night. They're not too keen on the love story I'm writing -- they think I'm just trying to write a part for myself -- but they're very interested in the idea of a character who pushes over peasants."

Lorraine led Felix and Charlie down to the basement to meet the film-makers. A few candles provided the only illumination, but Charlie saw all the faces light up when they heard that he'd be taking part in The Guillotine trick. They asked if they could film it, and Felix said they were more than welcome. Charlie remembered their interest in filming real-life horrors like the beast, and he hoped that this was distinct from their interest in filming The Guillotine.

Felix went home but Charlie stayed with the film-makers so he could go out on their nightly expedition to film the beast. He wanted to see this creature for himself. Lorraine went with them as well.

The beast always emerged from the woods. The film crew patrolled the perimeter of the woods, and they saw him shortly before midnight. The horns on his head reflected the light of the moon. His green eyes turned in their direction, and he started walking towards them. The walk became a run, and their composure evaporated. They ran back to the old hotel. They climbed to a room in the attic, and they tried to film the beast from a window, but they couldn't see him. Charlie returned to Mrs. Twomey's guesthouse at one o' clock.

Fintan called to see him at the guesthouse on the following morning. He said he had heard that Charlie was Felix's new assistant, and he was wondering if he had seen Lorraine when he was in Felix's house. Charlie said he hadn't seen her, but he did hear her comment about the dog hiding behind another dog.

Fintan came up with various interpretations of this remark, all of them involving her desire to see him again. When he had exhausted this topic he started talking about the wildlife around the river. Charlie could understand why Lorraine would want to avoid him. He had a flair for identifying the least interesting aspects of a subject and then discussing them at length, and an inability to discern when his listeners had lost interest.

Charlie went to see Lorraine again that night for another expedition to film the beast. This time they saw the creature starting a bonfire near an old stone bridge. They were able to film him for ten minutes before he saw them and they had to flee.

A huge crowd turned up at Felix's house to see his act on Friday night. Charlie had been hoping that The Guillotine was a card trick, so he was dismayed to see an actual guillotine in the room.

Felix told the audience about how dangerous this trick was and how under no circumstances should they try it at home, assuming they had a guillotine, but he was interrupted by screams from outside. A lot of people were looking in through the windows because they couldn't fit into the room. The beast appeared at one of the windows and he roared. The audience responded with a scream.

But the beast underestimated how many people were interested in seeing Charlie risk his head. The crowd outside the window were able to overpower the beast. The screams became cheers after they had bound his hands and legs. They brought him inside and they put him into the guillotine. Some of them seemed to believe that this device really was as dangerous as Felix said it was.

They were disappointed when the beast's head fell off before the blade fell. Another much smaller head was revealed underneath the head with the horns and the green eyes. It was Fintan.

The audience were engrossed as he told his tale. He came up with his beast costume because he wanted to stop a housing estate being built near the river. He was hoping that the developers would abandon their plans because of a fear that no one would buy a house in a place frequented by a beast. When he saw Charlie and Lorraine with the film crew he thought they were up to something. He became convinced that they were having an affair because Charlie denied ever even meeting Lorraine. So Fintan came to the performance of The Guillotine to scare Charlie away, if the guillotine hadn't already done that job for him.

Just as he finished telling his tale they heard more screams from outside and another beast appeared at the window. The crowd had seen Fintan's realistic beast costume and this beast looked real in comparison. He was taller and his legs were as thick as tree trunks. The ground shook when he moved. Smoke came out of his nostrils. He let out a deafening roar and everyone outside ran away. The people in the room looked for weapons, but they didn't need to use them. The beast disappeared into the night. They heard his pounding footsteps fade to silence.

The appearance of this beast was enough to make the developers scrap their plans for the housing estate. Charlie often wondered if this beast had been Fintan's creation as well. Or perhaps it was one of Felix's tricks. One other possibility was that the beast was real.

Lorraine was enormously impressed by what Fintan had done, and she stopped trying to avoid him. She was given free rein to write the rest of the film about the beast, now that the fake beast had been officially hired as an actor. Fintan excelled in the role. The basement-dwellers gave in to Lorraine's demands to include a love story. She played the part of the beast's love interest. She acted in many more films for the basement-dwellers, and she wrote most of them. Fintan became their costume-designer.

The moose's head over the fireplace was once the assistant in a magic act. He wore a top hat. When the magician lifted the hat, there was a white rabbit on the moose's head. It was meant to be a card trick. The moose liked the feeling of the rabbit on his head, and the rabbit seemed to enjoy being there as well. Whenever the wife's niece brings her pet rabbit, she always puts him on the moose's head. They'll happily spend an afternoon in each other's company.