'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Gift Donkey

I found the site of my grandfather's phone box at the back of the garden. He installed phones in the shed and in the glasshouse as well. He loved to hear the sound of the phone ringing. Sometimes it sang, but it had a terrible singing voice. A plain, old-fashioned ring was like music in comparison.

My cousin Charlie lived near a horse-trainer called Bob. People were always asking Bob for tips. They'd try to read between the lines when he told them to eff off. Bob was a man of few words. Usually only two would suffice. You'd need a magnifying glass to read anything into one of his statements, but the eager gamblers always managed to glean something, and occasionally they'd get it right. He once told Charlie's neighbour, Mr. Fleming, where to go (it was somewhere unpleasant), and Mr. Fleming used this information to back a horse called Two Lemons. When the horse won by a neck, Mr. Fleming bought Bob a bottle of whiskey to say thanks. The gift elicited another two-word tip from Bob, but he took the whiskey anyway.

Charlie never asked Bob for a tip, and it was for this reason that Bob came to Charlie's house on the rare occasions when he needed to borrow something. One evening, Bob was in urgent need of a bottle of wine. Wine was something he never thought he'd need, and he'd never have admitted to needing it if it hadn't been an emergency. Charlie was able to supply a bottle of red wine, and to show his gratitude, Bob gave him a tip. He said this horse couldn't lose.

The horse lost. Charlie was annoyed at losing his money, and Bob wasn't too happy about it either. He called to Charlie's house that evening to apologise. "I want to make it up to you," he said. "I thought about giving you another tip, but that might only make things worse. So I'm giving you a box of Christmas lights."

The box of lights was on the back of a cart pulled by a donkey, who was waiting patiently outside Charlie's house. Charlie didn't want a box of Christmas lights, but he couldn't refuse a gift. "Thank you very much," he said to Bob.

"You can have the donkey and cart as well."

Charlie didn't want a donkey and cart and he did his best to refuse this gift, but Bob said he'd be doing a favour for both of them if he took the donkey and cart with the box of lights. Charlie was going to point out that the purpose of giving a gift wasn't to do a favour for yourself. Gift-giving was really all about doing a favour for the person you're giving the gift to. But the idea of owning a donkey and cart began to grow on him, and he agreed to take them.

Owning a donkey and cart became even more appealing when he realised he could make money from them. People offered to pay him for rides on the cart. At first, Charlie only planned to offer the service on Saturdays, but demand was so great that he started doing it in the evenings as well. A middle-aged woman called Bessie used to go for rides on the cart nearly every day. She'd spend about an hour on the cart, and she didn't mind where the donkey took her. Charlie didn't mind spending so much time with her because he enjoyed her company. They'd talk about anything from art to politics to centipedes.

George was another one of his regular customers. Ever since he retired, he had plenty time to devote to wasting time on the back of a cart. He used to be a pilot. He often spoke about things that happened 'in the war', but he never said what war it was. It involved Germans, geese and a mysterious superior who claimed to be receiving information from aliens.

One day when Bessie was on the cart, Charlie mentioned in passing that George was another regular passenger. She seemed concerned. She wanted to know where he asked to be taken to and what he spoke about during their trips. Charlie told her that he never had any particular destination in mind, and on their most recent trip he spent most of the time talking about how an alien would get his own foot into his mouth to remove all the juices from it.

He was out with Bessie again a few days later when they went down a narrow lane and they were soon engulfed by a thick fog. Charlie couldn't see anything ahead, but the donkey kept going forwards. Charlie sensed that something was wrong. After travelling for nearly a quarter of an hour they still hadn't encountered any obstacles on the lane. Charlie had never been on a lane as long and straight as this before. Bessie seemed excited, but she didn't say a word. She didn't respond to anything Charlie said to her.

The donkey finally stopped at a round red-brick tower. It was a small tower, just two-storeys high with a steeple on top. Bessie's face was full of wonder, and Charlie could detect that same sense of wonder in her voice when she said, "I knew the donkey would find it eventually. And I knew he'd have to get lost before he found it. Knowing where I was going never helped me find it. It's been twenty years since I've last been here. The fog knew what I was looking for. It came to help the donkey get lost and bring me here."

She got down from the cart and she went to the door at front of the tower. She rang the bell, and a man opened the door shortly afterwards. They seemed overjoyed to see each other. After they'd embraced he said, "I knew you'd find your way back. And you've come by donkey, I see. I had a feeling that would happen. I thought it was going to be either a donkey or a hovercraft. I'm glad it was the donkey."

This man's name was Vincent. He wrote novels about the lives and loves of woodland animals, and he illustrated these books himself. Bessie used to visit him every day when she was in her early twenties. The tower was much easier to find back then, but it could still hide itself when it wanted to. Bessie spent a summer working in France, and when she came back she couldn't find the tower. Vincent had fallen behind with his rent, and the tower was doing its best to hide from George. Vincent rarely went far away from his home because he was afraid that he wouldn't be able to find it when he came back.

Now that Bessie had found the tower again she promised to visit Vincent every day, but she was afraid that George would follow her there. Charlie came up with a plan to make George give up hope of getting the rent. He suggested building the ruins of a round tower. They could make it look as if it had been destroyed in a storm and abandoned many years ago. The donkey would then lead George to these ruins. If they could convince him that the ruins used to be his tower, he'd assume that Vincent was long gone, and that he'd never get his money.

Charlie and his friends built these ruins using red bricks from a wall that uncle Harry accidentally knocked down when he was trying to move the small mechanical digger he'd hired to dig the foundations for another red brick wall. This ruined tower was located near a stream, and it was hidden by trees. Vincent helped as well, but he didn't want to leave the real tower for long in case he couldn't find it again.

It took a few weeks to get the tower to look as if it had been defeated by a storm. After they'd finished work on the ruins, Charlie was taking George on a cross-country trip one day when he said, "This is very strange. I can't get the donkey to stop. This has never happened before. I've often had trouble getting him going, but never stopping."

"Just let him go wherever he wants to go," George said.

Charlie was hoping that the donkey wouldn't stop and refuse to go any further before they reached their destination. Thankfully, they made it all the way to the ruined tower without any breaks.

George was furious when he saw the ruins. He was determined to seek damages from whoever had destroyed the building, but Charlie managed to convince him that the culprit was almost certainly Mother Nature. It was much more difficult to convince him that he couldn't secure damages from mother Nature, though he did promise to leave as big a carbon footprint as he possibly could.

Over the following weeks, Charlie took Bessie to the tower every day. She'd normally go for a walk with Vincent while Charlie stayed at the tower, drinking tea and reading some of Vincent's books. They always found this secretive building by going to the same narrow lane. They'd be engulfed by fog, and they'd let the donkey lead them all the way to the tower. But one evening he stopped at another obstacle. It was a hovercraft, and they found the tower just beyond it. Vincent was already at the front door. He was talking to George, who looked very pleased with himself.

"My nephew finally got his hovercraft working," he said. "I thought it had come too late for me to find my tower, but I agreed to take it out for a ride, seeing as he'd put so much work into stopping the engine from exploding and the propeller from flying away. I was enjoying the ride until I was engulfed by fog, and I lost control of the craft. I tried hard to make the engine explode, but for once it remained stubbornly resistant to an explosion. It finally came to a stop here. Imagine my surprise when I found my tower and it was fully intact. It hadn't been interfered with by Mother Nature at all. Imagine my delight when I found that it was still occupied by the man who owes me over thirty-thousand euros in rent."

"I keep telling you," Vincent said. "There's no way I can possibly pay you that sort of money."

"You're going to have to think of something," George said. "Make me an offer. I suggest that all three of ye start thinking, because I have a suspicion that all three of ye played a part in making me believe that my tower had been destroyed."

"Instead of the money," Charlie said, "you could walk with the donkey whenever you wanted to."

George responded to this by shaking his head and saying, "I specifically stated that you should think. Start thinking and then make me an offer. A meagre amount of thought will show you how utterly ridiculous your offer is."

"It's a fantastic offer," Charlie said. "This donkey was trained by Bob. You already have proof that this is an exceptional creature -- he's able to lead us to the tower, and his engine has never come close to exploding. Sometimes when I'm walking next to him, strange combinations of words will enter my head. I've only recently discovered that these are the names of horses. I think he's telepathically passing on tips. I'm not a betting man myself, so I've no use for them, but they could be a nice little money-earner for someone with an interest in gambling."

George was a betting man. He couldn't resist the prospect of even marginally improving his chances of backing a winner, so he accepted Charlie's offer. On the following evening he started walking with the donkey while passengers sat on the cart. Charlie was getting all of the money paid by the passengers. If George's chances of backing a winner improved at all, it was only a very marginal improvement, but even this was enough to keep him happy. It was pleasing to know that he had access to information denied to his friends in the pub, while those poor fools were still relying on being verbally abused by Bob.

The moose's head over the fireplace is enjoying listening to the wife's aunt talk about sounds you can eat and snowflakes that blossom into hedgehogs as they fall and all the other things that occupied her mind while the World Cup was on. She only spoke about toast for the duration of the tournament to protest about all the sport on television (this was her version of a hunger strike). We missed her dissertations when she started to run out of things to say about toast, but she's hardly stopped talking since Spain lifted the trophy. She records what she says in her sleep. On Sunday she spoke for hours about the debate concerning whether or not it would be a breach of etiquette to inform someone that they're about to be struck by lightning.