'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Valentine's Day

The roses were a welcome sight in the garden after a cold winter, but they were just there for Valentine's Day. I had to do something to get back into the wife's good books after I broke a vase she made in a pottery class. If I hadn't done it, someone else would have. Not deliberately. The vase was so fragile it couldn't have survived long in the world without being broken. Even looking at it in the wrong way would have cracked it, so it didn't stand much chance when I dropped a portable television on it. Not deliberately.

My uncle Cyril once upset his wife, Joyce, by completely failing to make any reference to Valentine's Day until the day was nearly over. That reference came when he pointed at a picture in the newspaper and he said, "Look at that eejit with the roses."

He could tell that Joyce was angry by the way she glared at him, and he felt guilty. He decided it was time he did something with his wife. As the years go by it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid this conclusion. One alternative is to do nothing, but this isn't always the best course of action, even for men who are terminally lazy. The other alternative is to do something 'about' the wife'. But Cyril wanted to do something with her, to show her that being with her was more than just a legal technicality, that he was in favour of her policies and he was willing to demonstrate his support by turning up for events and accompanying her on public outings. It was something in the form of a public outing he had in mind when he thought of something with her.

He decided to take her out to dinner. He had been to a restaurant called 'The Bucket'. It wouldn't have been appropriate for a romantic dinner in its old guise, but it had been taken over by new owners who had transformed the place. They kept the old sign, and they altered the word 'Bucket' so that it read 'Basket'. The 'The' was erased, and small words were painted in its place. You had to stand close to the sign to read the new name of the restaurant: 'Put all your eggs in one pocket and all your buttons in one Basket'.

Diners in 'The Bucket' used to get an empty plate and their food would be emptied onto it from a bucket. Sometimes they wouldn't get a plate. At least they'd get a lot of food, although some of it would escape unless it was stabbed with a fork. Sometimes they wouldn't get a fork. They'd get a stick, and they could use their knife to whittle it into a spoon, if they got a knife. The menu was written on the back of the waiter's hand. Asking to see it was offering him an invitation to hit you. It didn't matter anyway because everything looked and tasted the same after it had been left stewing in the buckets for a few hours. After the waiter brought you your food, the empty bucket would be left by the table in case your stomach decided that some of its contents didn't qualify as food. Pigs ate in the restaurant. Many people loved the place because they didn't feel a need to observe any table manners while the pigs were eating off the ground. They could even get down on the ground and eat after the pigs had eaten their fill of swill.

Cyril heard that the place was very different under the new ownership. Diners weren't expected to make their own cutlery, and dinners were always brought on plates. The pigs had gone and they'd taken their smell with them. Cyril felt that he was sending an important message to Joyce by taking her to this restaurant after the transformation rather than before. He'd show her that he had a considerate side.

Their dinner succeeded in this regard, but it failed in what Cyril considered to be the primary role of a meal: to satisfy his hunger. The quality of the food had undoubtedly improved since the days of 'The Bucket', but the quantity had diminished. Cyril didn't complain because Joyce was enjoying the evening so much. On the way home they passed an ice cream van that was parked outside a pub. The name of this mobile business was 'Two Monkeys and a Parrot'. The monkeys and the parrot were puppets. These puppets were meant to be a way to attract kids to the van to sell the ice creams and chocolate bars, but drunks coming out of the pubs got more enjoyment from the puppets than the kids did. Cyril always wondered how many people were in the van. Three hands were needed to operate the puppets, so there were at least two members of staff.

He stopped to buy an ice cream and a chocolate bar. A monkey called Bongo got the ice cream from the fridge. He was being subjected to constant abuse from the other monkey, Hilary, and from the parrot, Dolores. Occasionally Bongo got a line in, like 'I said I was sorry', or 'I was busy'.

Joyce got the impression that the hands giving life to Hilary and Dolores belonged to the same person, a woman who was also providing their voices, and that Bongo was voiced by a man who had done something to upset the woman.

"Did he forget about Valentine's Day?" Joyce said.

A man and a woman appeared at the window. "No," the man said.

"Yes," the woman said. "He completely forgot. Again."

"I said I was sorry."

"You always say you're sorry. Your cousin says he's Clint Eastwood, but he isn't."

"He's not claiming that he's the Clint Eastwood."

Joyce was in the mood to act as a peace-maker after her dinner with Cyril. "Why don't ye come back to our place for a coffee and a chat? Maybe we can pass on some of the wisdom we've acquired after a long marriage. Relationships are more important than selling ice creams to drunks coming out of pubs."

Cyril was sure he hadn't acquired any wisdom from years of marriage and the last thing he wanted to be doing was acting as a counsellor for puppeteers, but when they agreed they said they'd drive Cyril and Joyce home in the van. Cyril was much more enthusiastic about being a counsellor then. He ate ice creams and chocolate on the journey home.

The man's name was Eoin and his girlfriend was Susanne. Joyce suggested that Susanne and herself should have coffee in the kitchen while Cyril spoke to Eoin in the living room. Cyril was relieved when he realised that his client didn't feel a need to be counselled.

"We fight like this every few weeks," Eoin said. "I'll do something or forget to do something or forget I've done something and she'll get angry. I'll buy her flowers or chocolates and it'll all blow over."

"Glad to hear it," Cyril said. "Because I don't think I could have told you anything other than 'Buy her flowers or chocolates'. Or 'Take her to a restaurant.' That one worked for me."

"It's annoying when she's angry with me. I can't do anything then. I wanted to go to the bull fight tonight, but that would have upset her more."

"Bull fight?"

"They're not real bulls. It started with a pantomime horse with cardboard horns taped to its head. It wasn't much good as a sport until people realised that it was more entertaining to watch two bulls fight each other. Other animals have been added since then. You can see a giraffe fight a buffalo, or a deer versus a unicorn. It's on now in the field behind the pub where they have the mice races."

"I'd love to see that," Cyril said. "Maybe there's a way we can get out without upsetting what's-her-name."


"Never forget their names. That's the one piece of wisdom I've acquired from a long marriage."

Cyril went to the kitchen and said to Joyce, "We have to go out to get something," and then he winked.

Joyce put her thumbs up. She assumed they were going to get flowers or chocolates.

Cyril enjoyed the pantomime animal fights. A zebra won the tournament, easily defeating a lion who was hindered by the fact that his rear end seemed inebriated. The first prize was a bottle of wine. The two men who made up the zebra argued about how and when they'd divide the wine. Cyril came up with a solution. He convinced Eoin to buy the wine from them. This would be his present for Susanne.

On the way home, while Cyril was eating another ice cream, he came up with an idea for 'Two Monkeys and a Parrot'. "Why don't ye stage fights between animal puppets," he said to Eoin. "It might not be as entertaining as the pantomime animals, but it could certainly attract more customers."

The wine helped Eoin get back in Susanne's good books, and she was very enthusiastic about the idea of staging fights between the puppets. Eoin was worried that she was too enthusiastic. Was he really back in her good books if she was so keen on attacking his hand with a knife-wielding squirrel?

They attracted many new customers with the staged fights between squirrels, rabbits, badgers and other animals. It helped their relationship as well. They could let out all their tension in these fights. Susanne normally won because she had more tension to let out. Kids loved the fights. It was much better than 'Punch and Judy'.

The moose's head over the fireplace has been contemplating a new painting hanging on the wall opposite the fireplace. It's an abstract piece, mostly blue paint with bits of gold and white thread. It inspired the wife's uncle to ask the question 'What is art?' and to deliver his endless lecture attempting to answer it. The question can have a different meaning for everyone, he says. Some people would find the question as offensive as 'What happened your trousers?' or 'Was that you I saw coming out of Eileen's house at three in the morning?'. Other people would find it as inoffensive as 'Do you take sugar?', and considerably less important. I normally stop paying attention at this point in the lecture. I'll only listen in again when he starts telling his story about meeting Bjorn Borg.