'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Headlines

It's nice to sit at the patio table and enjoy these long evenings. On some days it's even possible to eat outside. You could almost convince yourself you're in a different country. The garden gnomes are wearing sombreros, but that's a bit optimistic.

My aunt Audrey meets a friend of hers called Molly for coffee at least once a week. Audrey always looks forward to hearing her friend's latest news and Molly looks forward to telling it. Some news bulletins last for hours. Molly comes up with headlines like 'There's an ostrich in my garden', or 'I've been asked to demonstrate a hovercraft at a regatta'. When Audrey heard the headline 'One of my neighbours asked me to help him write his memoirs' she didn't take much notice of it because it came right after a report about being held hostage in a bank robbery that went wrong, but the memoir story became more interesting with each update in subsequent bulletins. This help involved accompanying her neighbour, whose name was Gordon, on visits to churches in the middle of the night, or posing as German tourists at a book launch.

Audrey was suspicious of Gordon. Molly didn't see anything unusual about the help she was providing because it was all just part of the roller coaster of her life, but Audrey was concerned about her friend. She tried to think of a way of making sure that Molly was okay.

While these thoughts were uppermost on her mind, she had to go to a shop one evening to get some biscuits and mustard. She really only needed the mustard, but she thought there was something odd about going into a shop and only buying mustard. If she had put more thought into it she would have realised that there was nothing odd about it at all -- people need mustard all the time, though perhaps not as often as they need bread or milk. But she ended up with mustard and a packet of chocolate biscuits, so her subconscious might well have been hindering further thought.

The shop was owned by a man called Roger, who was lighting his pipe when Audrey was there. It was the sort of shop where you could get away with smoking a pipe, one of a dying breed of shops where you might find eight different types of mustard but no cornflakes, where you could order a pint of Guinness when you went to get your morning paper, though your morning paper might be a week old.

As Audrey was paying for the mustard and biscuits, Roger said to her, "I heard you were concerned about your friend who's helping a neighbour write his memoirs."

"How did you hear about that?"

"Word gets around. It travels. And I have a habit of meeting words when they're on their travels, even the ones who move furtively at night. I can help ease your concerns. Possibly. I might end up making you even more concerned. I can find out information about the neighbour."


"I can't say how. You're better off not knowing that. You might be better off not knowing about the neighbour as well. It's up to you."

"I'd definitely like to know more about Gordon."

"Come back tomorrow and I'll have something for you."

When Audrey returned on the following day, Roger had a fifty-page report about Gordon's past. She took it home and read it. If it was accurate, then Gordon had lived an extraordinary life. After the failure of his career as an Antarctic explorer he spent a week as the favourite photographer of celebrities in India. Audrey felt that there was nothing to be concerned about. It seemed as if Gordon and Molly had a lot in common.

A few days later, Audrey found herself in urgent need of a tulip, so she went to the nearest florist. As she was paying for the flower, Rita, the woman behind the counter, said, "I hear you got Roger to find out about the man your friend is helping."

"How did you hear about that?"

"A florist hears lots of things. Sometimes no one comes in here for hours and I can hear the flowers talk. If you can develop an ability to hear the flowers then you can hear lots of things."

"Well you're right. I did get Roger to find out about Gordon's past."

"Do you want to know how he got the information?"

"I'm not sure I do, but I'm sure I don't want to remain in the dark."

"He broke into your friend's house when she was out helping her neighbour and he made a report from her notes on the memoirs."

"Why would he go to such lengths just to provide an occasional customer with information on the neighbour of a friend?"

"Because the next time you need information about someone you'll go to him. And you'll almost certainly buy something when you're in the shop. He'd go to almost any lengths just to sell someone something they don't need."

Audrey was horrified at the thought that she might have been responsible for Roger breaking into her friend's house. She had to find out if it was true, to put her mind at rest. But the only person who could help her was Molly. After much deliberation, she decided to tell Molly everything.

Before the headlines at their next meeting, Audrey told the story of Roger and the information he provided. Molly was eager to find out if he had really broken into her house, so she told Audrey to go back to the shop and ask him to find out more information about Gordon's stint at a photographer. They'd follow him after he left the shop in the evening and see where he went to get this information.

Audrey went back to the shop that evening, and she bought a packet of chocolate biscuits, even though she didn't need them. Before she had a chance to ask Roger for more information, he said, "I hear you've been listening to Rita's stories about my methods for getting information."

"How did you... Yes. I have."

"You can't believe a word she says. She's completely insane. It's the flowers. Spend your days with nothing but flowers for company and you'll go mad. After she leaves work in the evenings she goes to a pond and has conversations with her reflection in the water. 'Hello Rita,' she'll say. 'Ah Rita, it's so nice to see you. How are you?' 'I'm doing very well, Rita. How are you?' 'Very well indeed. Thanks for asking. Are you still thinking of buying that tank?'"

Audrey left without asking Roger for more information. Molly was waiting in a car nearby. They had planned on following Roger, but when Molly heard what Roger had said, she suggested following Rita instead to see if she went to the pond.

So they went to the florist, and they parked at the other side of the street. After Rita closed the shop in the evening she got into her car and drove away. Molly drove after her. Rita stopped outside a house two miles away, and she went inside. Molly parked nearby.

"Looks just like someone going home from work," Audrey said. "I wouldn't think there's much chance of her going to a pond to talk to herself."

"Let's just wait and see."

They had to wait for half an hour for something to happen, and it was even more extraordinary than Rita having a conversation with her reflection. Roger arrived in his car. He parked in the driveway and he went inside. He looked just like someone coming home from work as well. Nearly an hour later, both he and Rita went out into the garden. While she watered some plants with a watering can, he watered the lawn with a hose.

"They look just like a married couple to me," Audrey said.

"I know. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. I've heard about the domestic lives of married couples. I've read about it in books and seen it on TV in documentaries, but I've never seen this sort of thing before. I could watch them for hours."

She would have watched them for hours if Audrey hadn't insisted on going home, but Molly returned on the following evening to spy on them again. For the next few weeks, all of her news bulletins were filled with stories about Roger and Rita. Headlines like 'Rita has a cat called Mr. Jingle' didn't have the same impact as past headlines, like 'I fell off a train'. The news bulletins lost all appeal for Audrey, but she only had to wait a few weeks before Molly got bored of watching Roger and Rita, and she was able to come up with headlines like 'A spotlight keeps following me when I leave my house at night'."

The moose's head over the fireplace enjoys the peace of a summer evening and the silence of a night. Nights weren't always this silent. One of our neighbours often played the bagpipes after midnight, and we could hear him even though he lived over a mile away. But he gave up the bagpipes when he started playing a cello made out of jelly. This doesn't make as much noise as the bagpipes.