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

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Caravan Park

I spent most of the weekend appreciating leaves in the garden. I never realised how fascinating they are. Their shadows and their movement in the strong wind enhanced my appreciation of them. My mind was operating at the right speed for looking at leaves. When my mind slows down it can be dangerous to attempt a task that's more complex than sitting on a deckchair while looking at the shadows of leaves dance on a concrete path. When I tried to make beans on toast I nearly burnt down the kitchen, and that was before I'd even opened the tin of beans.

My uncle Ben has a mind that's ideally equipped for sitting on a deckchair in the sun and falling asleep. Having successfully accomplished this task one day he woke to find a snail on his hand. Ben was always hitting his hand off things, but the snail could have had no idea of how dangerous it was to park his caravan in this place. Sometimes he had to hit something with his hand to get it working again, like the television or the fridge, but most of the time he hit his hand accidentally. He had to make sure that this didn't happen until after the snail had moved on. After his guest had set out for another destination, Ben would be free to hit his hand off whatever he wanted, and he had a growing list of things that he wanted to hit. There were plenty of things around the house that needed to be fixed, and a few things that needed to be broken.

He had to eat his dinner with a spoon that evening because the snail hadn't moved on, and he could only use his left hand while the right one was being used as a caravan park. The other people in the restaurant were wondering if he was going to eat the snail. His wife, Greta, insisted that he get rid of his diminutive guest before he went to bed that night, so he carefully pushed the snail onto a cushion.

When he woke in the morning he went downstairs to look at the cushion, but the snail had gone. He could see a trail across the sofa and down onto the floor, so he followed that. The snail had travelled a long way during the night. Its trail went all the way down the hall and under the stairs. Ben had to get a flashlight to follow the rest of the trail.

He found the snail parked next to a small black button near the ground. Ben had never seen this button before, and he had no idea what it was for. He was afraid to push it because it was probably put there by his father-in-law, who built the house. Jack, his father-in-law, was an intimidating man. Even when he was lying in his coffin, his gaze was just as frightening as ever. The coffin made him seem even more frightening. He used to take a rest in it every afternoon.

Ben was very tempted to push the button because he was curious about what would happen, but he knew that the safest thing to do would be to ignore it. He put the snail back on his hand to help him refrain from giving into temptation.

After a few days, Greta was sick of seeing the snail at the other side of the dinner table, so she pushed the button herself. It opened a door that had been hidden in the wall under the stairs, and this led them to a tiny kitchen. Neither of them had ever seen this room before. There was a notebook on a shelf. It was full of recipes for cakes, and Greta was shocked when she recognised the hand-writing. The secret baker was her father.

Ben found it very difficult to picture Jack working in a kitchen, unless he was doing something with a meat cleaver. But you couldn't bake a cake by repeatedly hacking at something with a meat cleaver. A more subtle approach was required, an approach that was completely at odds with Jack's normal way of doing things. He managed to keep the baking a secret all of his life and he maintained his reputation.

Ben looked through the recipe book, and some of the cakes seemed delicious. He found it very difficult to resist the temptation to bake them. He tried putting the snail on his hand to stop himself from becoming a secret baker like Jack, but the snail proved to be an obstacle that was easy to surmount. Ben started baking in secret late at night. He used Jack's recipes, and he was amazed at how well the cakes turned out. He'd discovered something he was good at, after a lifetime of being good at discovering things he was bad at.

It wasn't long before his secret was out. Greta woke up one night and she found him eating cake in bed. He came clean about his secret hobby. He wasn't bothered by her laughter, but he was surprised by the praise she lavished on his cakes. She was normally very critical of other people's cooking and baking. He was annoyed when she told all of her friends and the neighbours about his new hobby, but he soon got used to the jokes about baking his watch in a cake or poisoning half the village.

Greta was a member of the local community council, and they had organised a jumble sale to raise money for repairs to the roof of the community hall. Ben agreed to make a few cakes for the sale. He wanted his cakes to be as fresh as possible, so he made them on the day of the sale. It was a rush to get the icing finished. Greta kept reminding him of the time because she was supposed to take the cakes to the sale and she wanted to get there early to help set up some of the stalls.

Despite the rush, he was pleased with his creations. Greta put the three cakes in the back of the car and drove away. After she had gone, Ben looked at his watch, but something seemed missing. He remembered that he had put the snail on his hand that morning, but his new friend had gone. A horrible thought dawned on Ben: the snail had ended up in one of the cakes.

He spent a few minutes mourning the loss of his friend, and then he remembered that someone would eat the cake containing the deceased snail unless he stopped them. Greta had taken the car, so he had to cycle to the jumble sale. By the time he reached the community hall the cakes had been sold, but the woman at the cake stall was able to tell him who had bought his creations.

Mrs. Moriarty had bought his Madeira cake. When he offered to buy it back for three times what she had paid for it, she was suspicious. He wouldn't tell her why he wanted it back, but he made it perfectly clear how much he wanted it back. Negotiating a good deal is another one of those things Ben is bad at. He ended up paying twenty times what she had paid for it. He paid exorbitant prices for the other two cakes as well, but he didn't care because he was so relieved to get the cakes back. People had made jokes about him baking snails. It wouldn't have been funny if that turned out to be true.

When he got home he cut open the cakes to search for the dead snail. He spent a pleasant afternoon eating the snail-free slices as he conducted his search. That search proved fruitless, even his search of the fruitcake. He wondered what could have happened to his tiny friend. Greta arrived home as he settled down to an evening of detective work, the sort of work he normally conducts on a deckchair with his eyes closed. She asked him why he put the snail on his shoulder, and that was the end of his detective work. He remembered that he had put the snail on his shoulder to avoid inadvertently baking it. He was kicking himself for paying so much money to get his cakes back. But it was probably just as well that he bought them back because he found a screw, a key ring and his wedding ring in them.

The moose's head over the fireplace enjoys looking at the shadows of the trees outside the window in the evening. According to the wife's aunt, if you stare at the shadow of a tree for long enough you'll form a bond with its soul, and in your dreams you'll be able to see everything the tree has witnessed during its life. This is how she saw her father set fire to a shed when he was five. The shed contained bottles of his grandfather's homemade wine, and only his grandfather thought the arsonist deserved punishment rather than praise. She wouldn't say any more than this about the incident because she remembered her vow to only talk about toast until the end of the World Cup.