'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Finding a place to relax

The garden gnomes are looking forward to the summer. They have big plans. Some of them have been digging a hole in the orchard. I'm not too concerned about this. If all of them joined together they might be able to dig a hole big enough to trap me, but eight of them have formed a jazz band. I've heard them practicing at night. They made their own instruments from things they found in the shed. The musical instruments in the shed would be far too big for them. These instruments have been there since my grandfather abandoned plans for his band. He had recruited some friends to play with him, but there were too many disagreements, and he feared for their friendships, so he abandoned the band. At first the disagreements concerned things like the name of the band or what sort of headgear they should wear. Within a few days they were having ferocious arguments about whether or not you should carry on as if nothing had happened after you've spilt a jug of milk on the carpet in a neighbour's house.

My cousin Charlotte once found herself in dire need of a way to relieve her stress. At work she shared an office with two women who kept humming to themselves for most of the day. She had learnt to live with this until builders started working next door. The women just kept humming happily to themselves, and whenever the building noise ceased the humming seemed louder than ever.

In the evenings she often went for walks along the banks of a river to relax. She needed these walks more than ever while the builders were working in the office next door, but the evenings were ruined by a boat club who were planning on recreating a naval battle on the river. They practised for the event each evening. As far as Charlotte could make out, this practise was no more than men on boats shouting at each other through megaphones, each night getting closer to a real battle.

She was sure she'd be able to relax when she went to a pub to take part in a table quiz with some friends one evening. At the end of the quiz, the scores were tied between Charlotte's team and a team who called themselves The Dull Thuds. The quiz master said he'd ask each team a tie-breaker question to settle it. They had to nominate someone to answer this question. Charlotte's friends all chose her.

The other team went first. A man called Dennis was chosen to answer their question. The quiz master said to him, "Do you know where Tashkent is?"

"No," Dennis said.

"Correct. That means the other team need to get this right." The quiz master turned to Charlotte and said, "Where is Tashkent?"

Charlotte took a guess at Russia, but the quiz master said, "I'm afraid that's incorrect. The answer is Uzbekistan."

Charlotte was furious with the way they lost the quiz. Her stress levels were higher than ever. She met Uncle Cyril on the following day and she said, "I desperately need to do something to relax, and the fact that I desperately need something only makes it more difficult to relax. I'm starting to think I'm going mad."

Cyril said, "If you think you're going mad, talk to yourself about it."

"I'm not sure that's going to help."

"Then you could try helping clear the old newspapers out of my study."

"Is it going to help me or is it just going to help you?"

"Well it can't do you any harm."

It did do her harm. There were hundreds of old newspapers in the study. When she was lifting a pile of them down from the top of a bookcase she didn't notice that there was a jar full of pens on top of the pile until all of the pens and the jar fell on her head.

"There's a jar full of pens on top of that one," Cyril said.

Charlotte discussed her stress with a friend of hers called Elinor. "You're looking for relaxation in the wrong places," Elinor said. "You're looking for it in places where you think you'll find it, like the walk by the river or the table quiz in the pub. You have an expectation about how these things will go, and when they don't go according to expectations you get stressed. What you need is a leap into the unknown. Do something where you have no idea what's going to happen. Anything could happen and it wouldn't go against your expectations. Everything that happens will be exciting. Your mind will be engaged, and that's the way to ease your stress. When most people want to relax they try to do as little as possible, but I always try to do something new and exciting. You're welcome to come along on my latest adventure."

"What's that?"

"I'm going to spy on a chocolate factory tonight. I came across this place by chance last week when I was driving to a beach and I got lost on the narrow roads. This factory is out in the middle of nowhere. It's a huge square building, and it looks as if the exterior walls are made out of oak planks. Some people living nearby told me that the factory's owner, a man called Charles, hasn't left the building in over twenty-five years. He's very secretive about his methods. There are rumours that he's been working on a chocolate replica of a U-boat for years, and that he has workers who use telepathic powers to alter the flavour of the chocolate. One man told me that underneath the factory there's a particle accelerator that's used to make chocolate fudge bars. The canteen is as good as any restaurant. A chamber orchestra play there to calm the nerves of the workers. Happy workers make happy chocolate. This is especially true of the workers who use telepathy. Their sleeping quarters are like something you'd pay a few grand a night for in a hotel. Some of the workers hardly ever leave, and when they do it's always on busses or cars with dark windows."

Spying on a factory in the middle of the night didn't sound very relaxing, but she decided to accept Elinor's argument that she'd only ease her stress by doing something that didn't sound very relaxing. As they were hiding behind bushes at two o' clock in the morning, observing the factory through binoculars, Charlotte did start to feel relaxed, even though their mission was likely to result in failure. There was a line of windows near the factory's roof. Lights were on in some of the windows, but they couldn't see in. The glass was blue.

Charlotte feared greater stress than ever when she heard a voice. "Spying on the factory, are ye?"

They looked around and they saw a man wearing the uniform of a security guard. They assumed he was guarding the factory.

"No," Charlotte said. "We were... bird-watching."

"Ye don't need to worry. Every night I meet people who come here to spy on the factory and I don't worry about it. If ye actually made it into the factory I'd probably lose my job, but it's never happened before. That's why I love my job."

"Can you tell us about what's going on inside?"

"I haven't been in there in twenty-five years. There wasn't anything extraordinary to see back then, but I know it's changed a lot over the years. Charles used to run the factory with a man called Edwin, but their business partnership came to an end with a disagreement twenty-five years ago. Edwin left to set up his own chocolate factory in Scotland. We get mail from there at least once a year. Ever since Edwin left, Charles has hardly ever left his factory. He's been entirely free to run the place according to his own peculiar ideas."

The security guard wished them luck in their observations and he walked away.

"I wonder what Edwin and Charles disagreed over," Elinor said.

"We'd have to go to Scotland to find that out."

"Let's go then."

"To Scotland?"

"Yeah. Come on." Elinor started walking away.

"Are you mad?" Charlotte said.

"I don't think so."

"Oh. Okay." Charlotte followed Elinor.

It took three days of travel down remote roads in the Scottish Highlands before they finally found Edwin's factory. They had given the security guard a small bribe to get the address. He would have given the address without a bribe, but he took the money anyway. He said he'd use it to buy something for a dog.

This factory was nowhere near as impressive as the one Edwin had left behind in Ireland. It looked just like a shed. Edwin opened the door when they knocked on it. He was pleasantly surprised when he found out that they had travelled all the way from Ireland just to see his factory. They were surprised when he welcomed them in to see his operation. They had assumed that he'd set up his factory in such a remote place because he was as secretive as his former business partner. On the subject of Charles, he was willing to tell them all they wanted to know. Their business relationship had ended because of a disagreement over what colour the security guards' shirts should be. Edwin wanted blue but Charles wanted grey. "It was just one of those things we couldn't agree on," Edwin said. "We had agreed to disagree on much bigger things, like wars or what to do about fires. But somehow the little things always caught us out. We nearly came to blows over how to make vegetable soup, and neither of us even liked vegetable soup. We couldn't reconcile our differences over the shirts, so I left to set up my own factory here, and make my security guards wear blue shirts. Of course, I never actually needed security guards, but I'm still glad I came here. I prefer the relaxed atmosphere of my factory. From what I've heard, Charles is anything but relaxed."

There wasn't much to see in Edwin's factory. He had a few employees making chocolate and baking. They spent most of their time sitting at a table, drinking tea and eating their creations. They asked Charlotte and Elinor to join them for afternoon tea, which went on until closing time in the evening.

As they were driving away, Elinor asked Charlotte if she had enjoyed the afternoon.

"I really didn't need to come to Scotland for that," Charlotte said. "I could have done it all at home. But it probably would have been really irritating at home. Someone would have called on the phone and asked me to look after their pet rats or their children. One of them would be referring to her children when she asks me to look after her pet rats."

"We should set up our own chocolate factory."

"That's a great idea. I could make some rhubarb pies for it."

"I know the perfect location. My aunt converted her garden shed into an office when she set up her dating agency, but that never got off the ground. I'm sure she'd let us use it for our factory."

They worked in this factory in the evenings after work. They only hired people who didn't make annoying humming noises, didn't have annoying laughs and were never likely to talk about pet rats or children in the factory. They consumed everything that they produced. Rumours started to spread about what was going on inside. It was claimed that they were using black magic to make the chocolate, or that the chocolate factory was really a cover for a bomb factory. People started spying on them. Charlotte liked the idea of people hiding in trees, observing them through binoculars. She knew she was probably helping them relax simply by relaxing herself.

The moose's head over the fireplace is looking very relaxed these days. I think he's looking forward to summer as well. Some people stare at him when they want to ease their stress. I find it impossible to relax when people stare at me. In fairness, the staring is very often the result of something I've done, so I've no one but myself to blame. When I'm covered from head to toe in strawberry jam, popcorn and feathers, I can't complain if I attract the attention of onlookers.