'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

George's Absence

I love standing outside in the wind. It would be even more enjoyable if the wind stopped throwing things at me. I've been asking people for tips on how to stop books from falling on my head. Some people suggest using an umbrella. Some say cardigans. Some people always say 'cardigans'. I envy those people. I tried always saying cardigans once, but I only lasted ten minutes. The mistake I made was to keep saying it even when I didn't need to say anything. Thanks to 'copy' and 'paste' I wrote a novel called 'Cardigans' in those ten minutes. A three-thousand-word review said 'It was terrible' a thousand times. I could have come up with a better way of saying it was terrible. The people who only say 'cardigans' hardly ever have to say the word because everyone knows what they'll say before they say it. And somehow people understand them.

My cousin Craig had an extraordinary flair for catching spiders using just his hands and his cunning. His ability to fit into small spaces helped as well. When he was eighteen he was six foot tall but he could fold himself up and fit into a suitcase. Relatives and neighbours were always getting him to catch a spider, and then friends of relatives and neighbours started hiring him.

One day he was called to the library to remove a spider. A woman called Edith worked there. She had been in Craig's class in school. He had loved her for years, but he was too shy to say much to her. During all their years in school he only said two words to her ('owl' and 'moo').

When he met her in the library he found it easy to talk to her about spiders. She said to him, "You shouldn't have any trouble catching him. He refuses to move. It's almost as if he's sat down, folded his arms and said, 'I'm not going.' But they don't have arms. Legs. If he folded four sets of legs he wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry."

Craig caught the spider and took it outside. He left it in the shade amongst the roots of a tree, where it could happily refuse to move all day long. Over the following month, Edith called him back three times to catch spiders, and one day she asked him to help her find George.

George would leave evidence of his presence everywhere he went, evidence that could be seen in his absence. He never stayed in one place for too long, except on rainy days when he'd listen to the rain drops fall on the overly-sensitive head of a banjo player who played on the street outside a pet shop. Each drop gave him a minor shock that would be expressed on his banjo. George could look at the banjo player for hours, and leave a pile of things around him.

People rarely saw George, but they knew he'd been around because of the muddy footprints, or the cigarette lighters he was always leaving behind, or the paper coffee cups he carried around with him. But then one day they stopped seeing this evidence and they missed him.

They missed his absence rather than his presence, the absence that reminded them of his presence. They thought that if they were subjected to his presence for longer than five minutes they'd probably want to kill him, but the place felt empty without his absence. There were no cigarette lighters or paper cups to say he had been there but he was gone now. He was just gone now.

Craig agreed to help Edith find George. They followed the path he normally took on his daily rounds. He'd start in a cafe and then go to a corner shop. His next stop would be the bookies, before going back to the cafe for another coffee. Then he'd go to the library.

The man who ran the cafe was too depressed to talk about George. Business was way down since his best customer disappeared. The woman in the shop said that George used to buy the paper there every day. Sometimes he'd get milk or bread as well. He was always very polite but he never had time to stay and chat because he was always in a rush.

When they were walking past the pet shop they asked the banjo player about George. Craig had often been called to catch a spider who was lost on the banjo player's head. George would get a call from this street musician, and it was always difficult to make out what the man was saying on the phone because he could feel every one of the spider's footsteps on his head. When he spoke he sounded a lot like Craig's friend Paudie when he had a ferret down his trousers.

The banjo player told them that he had heard that George was hiding in the fields near where Mr. Maloney built his windmill. Craig and Edith went there. They met Laurence, who was a local wildlife photographer. His hands have been shaking ever since he photographed the beetle-snake. All of his images are blurred.

They asked him if he'd seen George. He showed them a photo he'd taken on the previous day. All they saw was a blurred field, but Laurence pointed to a blurred head peeping out of the ground. "I don't know if it's George," he said, "but it's certainly someone in hiding."

Craig and Edith went to the field. They examined the spot around where they'd seen the head in the photo. They found a piece of green carpet that was covered in moss, twigs and leaves. Edith said, "If you're in there, George, it's only me, Edith. From the library."

A head peeped out from under the carpet. It was George alright. He was glad to see friendly faces. He invited Craig and Edith down into his lair and he told them why he was in hiding.

His trouble arose because of a game of human ten-pin bowling. In this sport, ten people stand as pins. The bowler is also the ball. The ball will stand twenty yards away, facing towards the pins they want to knock down. Then they're blindfolded. They run in a straight line and try to knock over as many of the pins as possible.

The local soccer team were playing the role of the pins. They had lost one player, so they couldn't play soccer until he came back. Their coach made them become pins to keep them fit. He seemed to think that getting hit repeatedly was ideal training for a game of soccer.

George won his match. He needed a strike at the end and he got it. Some of the pins might have gone down easily because they didn't like his opponent, and they all liked George. They seemed happy for him, but George wasn't too pleased when he was paid his winnings in coins.

As he was about to leave, a man known as Hockey arrived, and he challenged George to a game of bowling. You don't say 'no' to Hockey, unless you want trouble. George was always keen to avoid trouble, so he agreed to the game.

Another thing you don't do to Hockey is beat him in a game of human ten-pin bowling. George had no intention of winning, but matters were complicated by the money riding on the game. Hockey suggested a wager of one-hundred euros. George was tempted to say 'no'. He only had twenty euros in his pockets, and Hockey wouldn't appreciate being paid in coins.

Reluctantly, he agreed to the wager, but he came up with a plan. After being blindfolded, he'd run towards the pins, but he'd miss them and keep running. He wouldn't stop running until he got home.

Some of the pins tried to escape when they saw that Hockey was going to play, but he glared at them and they stayed. George nearly lost his nerve when he saw this, but he managed to convince himself that his plan would result in the least amount of trouble, though obviously it was far from being trouble-free.

Unfortunately, the coins in his left pocket were heavier than the ones in his right pocket. He veered to the side as he ran towards the pins, and instead of running to safety he crashed into something resembling an oak tree. When he removed the blindfold he saw that it wasn't an oak tree at all. It was Hockey, who looked furious.

"Assaulting an opponent means immediate disqualification," Hockey said.

"Right," George said. "Complete accident, but I can see your point. Assault is assault. You're absolutely right. So I suppose the same would apply to you? I'd feel awful for you if you accidentally assaulted me and had to be disqualified."

"Thank you for your concern," Hockey said. "But I can put your mind at ease on that point. No accidents will befall you as long as you pay me the money you owe."

"I don't have it on me right now. I have some money on me right now. Will you take coins?"

"Paper would be better. I'll give you until this time tomorrow to pay. I'll focus all my attention on avoiding accidents until then, but after that I'll focus all of my attention on the little birds who eat seeds on my bird table, and if I become a fountain of accidents, so be it."

George didn't have the money, so he chose to go into hiding. Craig suggested getting a part-time job with Mr. Maloney, who was looking for someone to help him build the brick maze in his garden. He's been collecting the bricks for years. He'd smell each one. Most of them were rejected on the basis of smell. Mr. Maloney's brother was writing a book about all the legs in the town. He had no interest in what was above the legs. This is why Mr. Maloney was seen as the normal one in the family, and no one thought there was anything odd about his brick-smelling.

Mr. Maloney agreed to hire George. When he had made enough money to pay off his debt, with a bit extra to cover any interest he might owe, George went to see Hockey. Craig and Edith went with him. Hockey was angry about having to wait for so long, but he was appeased by the interest George offered to pay. He agreed to stop thinking about the birds and to focus his mind on making sure there were no accidents.

George continued working on Mr. Maloney's maze. There was a lawn tennis court in the garden. George used to play matches against Mr. Maloney's brother after work, and he discovered that he had a great flair for the game. He joined the local tennis circuit, and he soon became one of its biggest stars. There were very few spectators at the matches, but people all over the country would read the match reports in the newspapers.

Craig had spent a lot of time with Edith while they were helping George. He felt comfortable talking to her about almost any subject, and not just spiders. He finally found the courage to ask her out on a date. He went to see her in the library one day. He said to her, "Have you ever heard of a play called 'Look at Gerty Moth'?"

"I was just about to ask you that question," she said.


"Yeah. George is taking me to see it. He asked me yesterday. He doesn't know anything about the play, and he doesn't really care. He says I'll be the main attraction of the evening. He's really blossomed since becoming a professional tennis player. He's so romantic. He has you to thank for that."

Craig felt crushed. The man he had helped out of a hole had stolen the heart of the woman he loved. He had never suspected that George loved her as well. When George and Edith went to the theatre they spent most of the play looking at each other rather than at Gerty Moth.

Craig was going to give up on humans and focus on getting to know the spiders better, but things took an unexpected turn when George found himself in more trouble. He entered a mixed-doubles tournament with a model called Cathy. This didn't go down well with Edith, who was angry because of how well he was getting on with his tennis partner. Then a newspaper report on their latest victory implicated them in a match-fixing scandal. This article was even further removed than normal from the realities of the local tennis circuit. It was more like the plot of a thriller. George went into hiding again, and this time he took Cathy with him. He claimed that it was all perfectly innocent, that Cathy had to hide as well, but Edith didn't see it that way. She dumped George. Craig wasn't going to let another opportunity slip by. He asked Edith if she'd like to go with him to see a play called 'Under the Postman's Bloodhound', and she agreed.

The moose's head over the fireplace misses the Winter Olympics. I'm surprised by how many local people are missing it just as much as he is. Some people became devoted followers of winter sports. An ice hockey team and a curling team have been established. The lack of ice hasn't hindered them. If anything, it's a benefit. Ice would only highlight their shortcomings. They still haven't found other ice hockey or curling teams to play against, so they play against each other. You'd think it would be difficult to merge the two sets of rules, but the lack of ice makes these considerations irrelevant.