'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
Click here to buy the paperback or download the ebook for free.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


This is the sort of weather that makes you go outside and sing to something. Even the sound of other people singing didn't dampen my mood on Sunday. I spent the afternoon strolling around the garden, just appreciating familiar things dressed in bright sunlight or dark shadows. Most of the neighbours chose to spend the afternoon with the unfamiliar sights at a knitting festival. People are still telling me about the knitted teapots for stainless steel tea cosies, the knitted sheep, and the hundreds of knitted scarecrows I missed out on, but I'm glad I stayed in the garden.

My cousin Albert was planning on spending a few weeks doing as little as possible in the sun after finishing his summer exams in college one year, but when you want to do nothing, something always comes along. One morning, just two days after finishing his exams, he got a phone call from one of his neighbours, Denise, who had a small farm a few hundred yards away. All she said was, "I'm using that favour now."

He knew exactly what she meant, and he knew what it meant for his plan to do nothing. But a promise was a promise. He said, "I'll be there in a few minutes."

Denise had done him a favour six months earlier, after he bought a caravan in the pub one night. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but he regretted it on the following morning. He started to see the drawbacks then. Chief amongst them was the fact that he didn't want a caravan. He couldn't remember why he had wanted it on the previous night. There must have been some reason why he had agreed to pay far too much for it. He strained his aching head in his efforts to unearth that reason, but he found nothing. He didn't want a caravan, and even if he did he wouldn't have wanted one with holes where there shouldn't be any holes at all. He was faced with a simple choice: either give his head a rest and then try again to remember why he had wanted it, or else sell the caravan. He tried the latter option first, but he couldn't find a buyer, so he started searching his head again. He couldn't think of any reason why he would possibly want a caravan.

He was starting to think he'd have to resign himself to owning a caravan until Denise agreed to buy it. He said she could have it for nothing, but she insisted on paying him. He felt the lightness of heart of a man who didn't want a caravan and didn't have a caravan. He told her he owed her a favour. And he wasn't just saying that, he said. She had to use this favour.

Saying that seemed like a good idea at the time. He didn't think it was necessarily a bad idea when she phoned him and asked him to come over. He thought she'd get him to do some job on the farm, but when he arrived at her farm yard and saw her standing next to an elephant he started to worry. He thought it might be wise to ignore the elephant. He started talking about the fine weather, but she interrupted him.

"He's real!" she said. "The elephant! He's actually real!"

"Yeah. I thought he might be."

"My aunt Elsie has been talking about her elephant for years. 'I'm knitting Christmas stockings for my elephant,' she'd say. Or, 'Toby goes to the library with me.' Toby is the elephant. This elephant. We always thought he was a figment of her imagination, like her stories about armoured cars and gun-running, but he's real! She lives in Louth and I haven't visited her in years. We send each other two or three letters a year and there's the occasional phone call. Last week she phoned me and asked me to look after Toby for a few weeks while she attended to 'important business overseas'. I said I'd be delighted to look after him, thinking I'd hear no more about it, but this morning a truck arrived and Toby was on the back of it."

"And where do I come into this?"

"I'll be keeping him in a cow shed by night, but he'll be in a field by day, and I need you to watch him so he doesn't get away."

"Wouldn't I just be taking work away from a fence?"

"He can climb over fences, ditches or gates, or just demolish them. As soon as you turn your back he'll try to tip-toe away. Being an elephant, he'll make noise no matter how softly he treads, so there isn't much chance of him getting away as long as someone is there to watch him."

Albert remembered the caravan and he told himself it was a fair valuation of the favour.

But after two hours of watching Toby he started to wonder if this was another bad deal. He'd gone beyond the age when he'd pay to see an elephant in a zoo, and even when he was young and the sight of an elephant was a source of wonder he used to get bored after about twenty seconds of looking and pointing at them. After two hours, concrete walls of tedium were being built in his head.

He was distracted by the sight of a butterfly flying around in circles. He couldn't tell how long he was looking at the butterfly, but it was long enough for an elephant to escape. When Albert looked back he saw the gap in the ditch where Toby had left the field. Albert knew he'd have trouble explaining how a butterfly flying in circles could be more noticeable than an elephant tip-toeing through a ditch. He'd have to do his best to get Toby back before explaining this to Denise.

He ran after Toby, who started running when he heard Albert's footsteps. Toby seemed to be enjoying the chase. He resolutely refused to stop until he was too tired to go any further, and then he resolutely refused to go any further, even though he was lying on flowerbeds.

Albert didn't know who owned this garden. A man emerged from the house and slowly walked down the garden path towards Toby. After spending a few minutes inspecting the contents of the flowerbeds he said, "I think there's little doubt that this elephant is not real."

"That's where you're mistaken," Albert said. "You wouldn't be the first to make that mistake, but it's a crucial one."

"I'd be very surprised if this turned out to be real. If the elephant is real, then the lion in my glasshouse is probably real as well, and the leprechauns drilling for oil in my kitchen."

"Right. All I can say is that the elephant is definitely real."

"It doesn't matter what you say. The fact that you insist that this is real makes it very likely that you're not real. I haven't slept in over a week. It's this warm weather. I can never sleep in warm weather. And a few niggling worries aren't helping either. I find it much easier to deal with the big worries. It's the niggling ones I hate, like my sister's insistence on calling me by my real name after so many years of calling me Spitty. She started calling me that when she was three. Why did she have to suddenly stop when she's forty-three? Was it something I said or did? I've been hallucinating a lot recently. There are many occasions when I have to decide if something is real or not real. It's obvious that the elephant in my garden is not real."

"There's nothing I can say to convince you that it's real, but I know someone who can help you get to sleep. He's a psychiatrist. Sort of. After a brief chat with him you'll have no trouble nodding off. He'll ask you a few questions and he'll figure out exactly what needs to be said to put your mind at rest. I used his services a few weeks ago when I was struggling to sleep before my exams. I remember him asking me if I had any bad childhood memories relating to peas or celery, and the next thing I know I'm waking up on the floor of the pub on the following morning. And if you think I woke up there because I was drunk, you're wrong. They would have thrown me out at closing time if I was drunk. They knew I badly needed the sleep, so they left me there. People just stepped over me on the way to the bar."

The man who owned Toby's new bed agreed to watch the elephant while Albert went to get Frank, the sort-of-psychiatrist. He had a sort-of office in a pub. Albert took his time going there because it was a break from his elephant-sitting duties. Frank and Albert both took their time on the way back to see the patient. Albert spoke about the patient's lack of sleep, about being called Spitty and then not being called Spitty. It all made perfect sense to Frank. "I have a filing cabinet full of files on cases relating to childhood nicknames," he said.

"I didn't know you kept files."

"They're all in my head. Where else would I keep them? I can't explore other people's heads without living in my own."

Frank told Albert about a recent case involving the nickname 'Gorilla' and a confusion about what you'd find inside a light bulb.

When they got to the garden, they saw the man Albert had asked to watch the elephant, but the space he was watching was noticeably lacking in elephants.

"I thought you were supposed to be watching Toby," Albert said.

"Some pixies led him away. I assumed they weren't real. I have a memory of being fairly convinced that pixies aren't real. So what could I do to stop them? I have some control over what's in my garden but I have little control over the garden in my mind."

Albert followed the trail of destruction Toby had left on his exit from the garden. Frank stayed behind with his patient. Albert heard him say, "Would I be right in saying that one of your earliest childhood memories is of a frog?" Albert didn't hear an answer to that question. He just heard the sound of the patient landing on a flowerbed as sleep finally overcame him.

The pixies turned out to be kids who were playing with Toby in an orchard. Toby was lying in the shade, occasionally reaching up with his trunk to pick an apple. The kids were running around him, pretending that he was playing with them. They told Albert that this was their elephant, that his name was Henrietta, and that tomorrow would be a big day for Henrietta because the President was coming to meet him. Albert was in no mood to argue with kids, and he didn't think it mattered anyway because Toby looked so content in the orchard that it didn't seem likely he'd be moving any time soon. So Albert went home to get something to eat and have a rest. He watched horse racing on TV, and then he sat outside in the sun for an hour before going back to the orchard.

Toby had already left. Albert followed the trail to another garden. This one was owned by Mrs. Foley. She had no trouble believing that the elephant was real because she could see the evidence of the destruction done to her flowerbeds. She reacted like someone staggering through a battlefield in the aftermath of a ferocious battle. She was overwhelmed by the destruction. Albert thought it would be a good idea to get away before she returned to being whelmed, and Toby seemingly shared this thought because he agreed to be led back to the farm.

He slept soundly in the cow shed that night. Albert had a good night's sleep as well, but he wasn't looking forward to a full day of elephant watching. After two hours of looking at Toby in the morning, and ignoring butterflies, he didn't think he'd be able to cope with the stress of a full day spent watching an elephant. His plan to do nothing for a few weeks had distinctly less of an elephant flavour than this. He had to do something, so he decided to play hide-and-seek with Toby. He turned around and started counting to a hundred, and he kept counting when he heard Toby knocking down the gate.

The moose's head over the fireplace doesn't need to be watched to make sure he doesn't get away. Maybe there's someone out there who owns the body of a moose, and they have to keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't wander off. The wife's uncle says that one of his first jobs was looking after a sleep-walking donkey. The donkey led him into all sorts of trouble, which they both enjoyed. That donkey was probably the only donkey ever to go hang-gliding and never to find out that he'd been hang-gliding because he slept through the whole thing, and afterwards his minder struggled to explain the concept of hang-gliding to him.