'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Book Club

The fine summer weather is welcome, but the sun can make people act strangely. The wife's aunt is talking to the apple trees, although this sort of behaviour is relatively normal for her. One of our neighbours has come to believe that he's a river. He refuses to sleep at night because he's afraid of poachers taking his salmon.

My uncle Ben once joined a book club despite having little interest in books, and less interest in reading. The club was organised by one of his neighbours, a man called William who owned an old manor house near where Ben lived. William invited Ben to join the book club when they met in the local shop. William thought it would be a good way for him to get to know the neighbours, and to put his personal library to greater use. Ben agreed to join because he wanted to have a look around William's house.

On a Saturday afternoon, Ben went to the first meeting of the club with a friend of his called Eugene, who had also been asked to join the club. William greeted them at the front door. They were the first to arrive, and while they were waiting for the others William showed them around some of the rooms on the ground floor. He told them about his ancestors depicted in the portraits in the hall. They were fascinated by his great-grandfather, who devoted most of his life to perfecting his techniques for brewing compost. In the drawing room he poured them some wine. As each member of the club arrived in the room they were given a glass. When they had all arrived, William topped up their glasses before leading them to his library to begin their meeting.

The first book they'd be reading would be the memoirs of William's great-grandfather. There were more than enough copies of the book for everyone in the club. William had hundreds of copies of unsold books written by his ancestors. Ben would have joined a book club years earlier if he'd known they'd be drinking wine and reading books in which compost features prominently. William spent most of the first meeting telling them about his great-grandfather's life. To Ben's surprise, some of the club's members had no interest in compost. Nancy started knitting during the meeting.

Ben had plenty to say about the book when the club convened for their second meeting. William was delighted to hear that it was one of the best books Ben had ever read. Eugene had plenty to say as well, but the rest of the group didn't share their enthusiasm.

Nancy had nothing to say. She just kept knitting. Maurice started mumbling something about the book, but he soon digressed to tell them about his personal problems, and he broke down in tears. He said something about his wife leaving him and his dog howling at the moon, or his dog leaving him and his wife howling at the moon. He kept rambling on about his life. Ben paid no attention to this because it didn't seem to bear any relation to compost, but the rest of the group were fascinated by it.

At the end of the meeting, William said they'd continue discussing the book next week, seeing as they still had so much to talk about. Ben was hoping that they'd focus on the book again at that next meeting, but as soon as it began, Maurice picked up where he'd left off on the previous week. When he finished telling them about his troubles, other people started talking about their lives. Even Eugene told the group about his unrequited love for a woman who reads the news on a local radio station. The book club was turning into a self-help group. Ben had been hoping that if it was going to morph into anything it would be an organisation devoted to compost, or a forum for troubles encountered while raising chickens. He had no intention of contributing to a self-help group, but he kept going to the meetings for the free wine. He did occasionally say something, but only to convince people that he wasn't just there for the wine.

Three months after the first meeting, Eugene came to see Ben one day, and he seemed troubled. He told Ben that Nancy had knitted her own book, and that this book was a record of the stories told in the book club. Astonishingly, bits of it were actually legible. People would be able to read about all the embarrassing secrets divulged during their meetings, and there was even a possibility that this book might be featured on TV. Nancy was displaying her book at a crafts fair, and this fair was being featured on a TV programme that was being filmed later that day and would be broadcast on the following evening. The members of the book club were hoping to steal the book before Nancy took it to the crafts fair.

Ben agreed to help, but only because he thought there was a chance of free wine. As it turned out, there was no wine, but he enjoyed himself anyway. He knew he had nothing to worry about, and he felt some satisfaction in seeing how worried the others were about the airing of their secrets. He thought they were getting their just rewards for the way they abused the book club, and he was delighted when they failed to steal Nancy's knitted book.

But Ben had said much more to the group than he thought he had. A few glasses of wine will make him do things he doesn't know he's doing. Nancy's book was featured on the TV show, and she chose to read extracts from the chapter on Ben to illustrate the contents of the book. She had portrayed him as someone who had been given an interest in compost to replace the emotional life he'd lost, or had never acquired in the first place. She read the story of the time Ben spent a weekend trying to catch a cheetah in his garden. He went to great effort and expense in his pursuit of the creature, but it turned out to be a Labrador. She sensationalised her account of Ben's adventures, adding in a fictional love story that you'd expect to find in a tabloid newspaper, and certainly not in a book that had been knitted.

Despite the embarrassment Ben suffered, and the trouble he had explaining the love story to his wife, he was glad he joined the book club because he had some outstanding compost that year. He went to the next meeting of the club, and to his delight, they returned to a discussion of the book and no one said a word about their personal lives. Nancy's constant knitting made them keep their guards up.

The moose's head over the fireplace has been spending a lot of time staring at a painting on the wall. We change the paintings on a regular basis to keep him entertained. There have been too many dull matches in the World Cup so far to keep his mind occupied. The latest painting is of a double-decker bus. Some of the passengers look happy and some of them look sad. It's difficult to tell how the driver is feeling because he's a penguin, which would be a reason to look sad if you were a passenger. Or worried. If I was on a bus and I realised that the driver was a penguin I'd be worried.