'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A Ramble in the Country

You could almost believe that this is a summer day. Only the bare trees give the game away. You'd have to visit Rose, one of our neighbours, to see trees that show signs of growth. The bread that grows on her trees is starting to sprout. She's been developing a tree that will produce bread already sliced.

My cousin Ted and his wife, Anne, once went out for a walk in the country on a fine July morning. They climbed to the top of a hill and they spent a few minutes admiring the spectacular scenery beneath them. On their way down the hill they met a man who was sitting on a stone wall. He was busy ignoring the view, looking at his head in a mirror instead. He said he couldn't think of scenery nicer than his own head. "And not just the face. I love the back of my head as much as the front. Some people say I'm vain, but they're wrong. If I was vain, would I have these stains on my trousers? No. I just love my head, the outside of it anyway. It's much nicer on the outside than it is on the inside."

He walked with Ted and Anne as they travelled the narrow roads. He told them about some of the adventures his head had led him into, and the awards it had won.

When they emerged from the hills and valleys they came to a vast, flat land. They walked down a long, straight road, and no cars passed by. They came across an elevator at the side of the road. The woman who operated it had a diamond on her forehead, and she claimed that this gem was another eye. It was held in place by an elastic band that went over her ears. She loved the sound it made when the wind blew on the side of her head, and the wind was very strong at the top of the elevator. A narrow tower had been erected next to the elevator. There was a single room on each level.

The man who was fond of his head asked her which side of her head she liked most. "That's a difficult question to answer," she said, "because I've separated my head into sectors. I store different types of information in different places. So if you were to ask me about my family, I'd say, 'Family, 3rd floor, section A, room two.' And then I'd be able to access all the information on my family. Everything I learnt in school is kept in the basement of my brain, and I find it much easier to retrieve things from it when I'm in the actual basement." She pointed down when she said this.

"There's a basement here?" Anne said.

"There is. I'll take ye there."

After they all got into the elevator she pressed a tiny silver button near the ground. The doors closed, and shortly afterwards they could feel the elevator descending. On the way down, the operator introduced herself. Her name was Maeve.

When the doors opened they saw a basement that was bigger than an airplane hanger. Thousands of people were working at desks or putting files into cabinets or making deliveries on scooters.

"I'd never have guessed that anything like this would have been hidden underneath the ground," Ted said.

"That's good," Maeve said, "because it's supposed to be a secret."

"Doesn't the elevator draw attention to it?" Anne said.

"People think the elevator only goes up. And no one would suspect that if you had a basement you wanted to hide, you'd put an elevator over it."

"If it's meant to be a secret, why are we here?"

"Hmmm... I'm not sure what part of my brain I should visit to answer that. Because it's not exactly a question of fact. Some people would question the fact that any of us are anywhere, so..."

"Assume we all exist, and we're in the basement. Is there a place in your brain where you file the decisions you make?"

"There are lots of places where my decisions go. It depends on the type of decision. I'm just trying to remember what sort of decision it was."

"Is there a place where you store your decisions on what sort of decisions you make?"

"I don't know."

Ted said, "Why don't you just try to remember the instructions they gave you when you got the job."

"Right. Fourth floor, Section F, room... Oh God no! 'Never take anyone into the basement'. That's what they said, and they underlined the word 'never' by moving their fingers from side to side in the air. I'm going to get fired!"

"Don't panic," Anne said. "I don't think anyone has seen us yet. They're all too busy at work and we're hidden over here in the shadows. We'll quietly go back up in the elevator and no one will ever know we were here."

"The elevator tends to draw attention to itself when someone is going up. If I press the button to open the door, it'll play music that everyone hates. They'll all look in our direction. Then I'd get fired, and it wouldn't be so easy for ye to get out of here. Our best hope is to stay in the shadows at the edges, and find some other way out. We could go to the janitors' room, and ye could pretend to be janitors."

They walked around the edge of the room until they came to a glass door. This led them to a long corridor, and the janitors' room was at the end of this. Two janitors were asleep inside. Maeve, Ted, Anne and the man who was fond of his head tip-toed across the floor to the cupboard where the spare uniforms were kept. Maeve found three new uniforms, and her guests managed to get into them without waking the snoring janitors.

They left the room through the back door. Maeve led them down another corridor, but they were stopped by a man who said, "Come with me."

He took them to a small room that was lit by a fluorescent bulb. A man was bending over a strange machine in the corner of the room.

The man who had brought them there said, "Jason was trying to fix the anorak machine and he got his arm stuck in it. See what ye can do to get him out. And if ye can't get him out... just leave him there, I suppose. I have work to do."

The man who had work to do left to do his work. The man who was fond of his head said to Jason, "Did you get your arm stuck in it?"

"I did," Jason said. "I was trying to fix it, but... I got my arm stuck in it."

Maeve said to him, "Jason, if we get you out, could you do us a favour in return?"

"Name it."

"These janitors need to go upstairs. Is there a delivery you could get them to make?"

"I think I could manage that. Roddy in deliveries owes me a favour. I freed his head when he got it stuck in a floating machine."

"Ah, the joys of a free head," the man who was fond of his head said. "You'd promise anything to the person who restored your head to its natural, wild state."

It took them half an hour to free Jason's arm from the gears in the anorak machine. After getting his arm to thank its rescuers by shaking hands with them, he took them to Roddy's office.

Roddy's head held vivid memories of the time it was stuck, and he was only too happy to arrange for Ted, Anne and the man who was fond of his head to deliver a package 'upstairs'. He told them they'd be delivering a small box to a man who lived in a lighthouse. They'd travel there using a cart pulled by two old horses, and they'd disguise themselves as peasants.

Ted said, "Wouldn't we stand out as peasants? Peasants are more or less extinct these days, at least in these parts. Give it another twelve months and they might make a comeback, but go up there now and you could walk for miles without seeing a single peasant."

"You don't see too many elevators out in the middle of nowhere either, but it's been a perfect disguise for this operation."

Roddy took them to the costume room, where they were fitted out with their peasant clothes, and then they were led to the mail room, where the horses were waiting with the cart. The man who was fond of his head climbed into the back of the cart with the package. Ted and Anne sat up front.

"The package contains a map," Roddy said. "Ye must deliver it to Bramwell Battenosh at the lighthouse. He's a famous historian."

"I've never heard of him," Ted said.

"Here's a copy of his memoirs. Study this book on the way, because he'll be upset if he thinks ye don't know all about him. He wrote it when he was a famous historian, before he actually became a real historian, but he's never been interested in history. In later editions of the book he added a final chapter about being a historian, but ye don't need to read that. He's only likely to ask questions about his fame."

"How could he be a famous historian without being a historian, or without being interested in history?"

"To be a famous historian you just have to present a TV show. After becoming famous on his show, he studied history by examining past times through accounts of people getting struck by lightning. This is what led him to the lighthouse. A former lighthouse keeper was struck by lightning when he climbed to the top of the lighthouse to say something to God. Admittedly, it wasn't a very nice thing he said."

Before they left, Roddy gave Anne an envelope and he said, "Ye'll meet Clement at the exit. Give him this. He might ask if you like having guitars broken over your head. Say 'yes'. Or 'no'. Or just answer truthfully. It doesn't really matter. It's just something he's interested in."

Roddy, Maeve and Jason wished them luck and they set off on their journey. The horses pulled the cart up a spiralling ramp that took them back towards ground level. Clement was sitting at a desk near the exit. He was reading a newspaper when they arrived. Anne gave him the envelope and he opened it. He absentmindedly read the letter inside. He didn't say anything about guitars. His mind was still occupied with a newspaper story about a radio station for dolphins.

He opened the doors to reveal a blue sky above. Ted, Anne and the man who was fond of his head left the underground world. The doors were closed, and they were covered with gorse bushes to conceal the exit.

On the way to the lighthouse, the man who was fond of his head read Bramwell's memoirs. He was interested in history, and not in fame, so he only read the final chapter. He learnt that Bramwell spends most of his time in the lighthouse studying the history of the ocean, hoping to figure out what it's going to do next. He focuses his mind on the sea rather than on the land behind him. Every time he looks back towards the land through his telescope he can see himself looking through a telescope.

Late in the afternoon, they were still ten miles away from the coast when they came across a ramshackle tower out in the middle of nowhere. The man who was fond of his head pointed to the man standing on top of the tower and he said, "From here he looks just like Bramwell." He showed the photo on the front of the book to Ted and Anne, and they agreed that there was a definite resemblance.

The man who was on top of the tower set out to become the man at the bottom of the tower, and while he was striving to accomplish this, Anne scanned through the first chapter of the book. She said, "There's something about being abandoned at birth, an orphanage and a long-lost twin brother."

When the man at the bottom of the tower came into being they noticed his unkempt look, whereas Bramwell looked as if he was always perfectly groomed. This man's clothes were torn. His hair and beard were growing wild. Anne showed him the photo on the cover of the book and she said, "It must be like looking in a mirror?"

"What's a mirror?" the man said.

Judging by his appearance, it seemed plausible that he had never used a mirror.

They told him about Bramwell and his long-lost twin, and they took him to the lighthouse. His name was Higgins.

Bramwell heard the cart approaching, and he went outside to greet them. As soon as Bramwell and Higgins saw each other there was an instant recognition that they'd found their long-lost twins.

Higgins got down from the back of the cart, walked over to his brother and said, "So you thought you'd get away from us, y' little fecker."

"I was only an infant when I was taken away."

"I've heard it all a thousand times before."

"You've heard nothing before."

"I've heard it all in the womb and it's been ringing around in my head ever since."

"You weren't exactly a barrel of laughs in the womb. I had to put up with your tiger imitations before you even knew what a tiger was."

"I knew exactly what a tiger was, and is. It's the tiger that doesn't know what a tiger is."

"Typical. It's always someone else's fault. Like that time you said we were going to meet the Huguenots..."

Ted, Anne and the man who was fond of his head put the package on the ground and they left with the horses and the cart. They listened to the raised voices as they departed, and they couldn't help smiling. It was heartening to hear them fighting like brothers, even after being apart for so long.

The moose's head over the fireplace has been listening to the sound of the hang-gliders and the other people stuck in the trees after the strong winds. They sing songs to pass the time. They sing to each other, and they compose songs for each other as well. I don't know if their minds are going or if it's just a game they're playing, but for the past three days all their songs have been about rosary beads made out of eggs and if you pray too hard you'll crack the eggs and tiny birds will emerge and fly around your head.