'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to use an evening

Many local people have been looking for alternative sources of income since the recession began. The farmer who owns the land around our garden bought an old ice cream van. Instead of paying a mechanic to fix the engine, he put the van on a trailer, and he uses his tractor to drive it through the fields. He's started selling more than just ice creams. When I was working in the garden on Saturday I was able to buy some weed killer and a choc-ice without even leaving the garden.

My cousin Nicola had to endure regular spells of boredom when she was in her late teens. Growing up in the countryside near a small town began to lose its appeal when she lost interest in fields.

During the summer holidays she'd meet her friends, Jennifer and Ruth, every day. They'd go for walks and talk about whatever came into their heads. They'd meet friends in the park or go to the wall. In the evenings, Nicola would search her head for anything worth talking about, but in looking through all the things her mind had acquired during the day she rarely found anything of value. She was nearly old enough to go to the pub, but spending the evening there seemed like just another way of doing nothing.

She was walking out of the supermarket one day when she saw Jason getting money out of a cash machine. She'd been to primary school with him, but she hadn't spoken to him in years. He'd changed a lot since she'd last seen him. He had long blond hair, but the thing that intrigued her most was the guitar case he was holding. She asked him if he played guitar, which seemed like a stupid question, but she couldn't think of any other way to bring up the subject. He was delighted to have a chance to talk about it. He told her he was the lead guitarist in a metal band called Fire in the Black Fog.

"I never knew there were any bands around here," Nicola said.

"There are four that I know of. There are probably more, but they usually keep their heads low until they figure out how to play their instruments with both of their hands at the same time, and then they'll start trying to use their fingers. Apart from Potato Staples. They've been going for about six months now and they're having trouble using both hands, but they're perfectly happy showing off how backward they are."

"Wow. I always saw this place as a sort of a cultural wasteland."

"It is."

"Yeah. I suppose I always saw it as a cultural hole, but now I see it's slightly better than that. It's a wasteland."

"It is a cultural hole. Do you want to hear me play something?"

"I'd love to."

"I was just on my way to the park to play. That's why I have my acoustic guitar with me. I like playing in the park in the sun."

In between playing songs for her, he told her about his blue electric guitar. The dials on it were black, and so was the fret board. He told her about how he liked fires. His blond hair had a slight curl and he thought it looked like flames. He grew his hair long to say 'I like fires'. He normally had to say the words as well because no one read that into his hair. He had a girlfriend called Michelle. "Her friends say I'm mad," he said, "and I say, 'Yeah, I know I'm mad.' And they say they have a different sort of mad in mind. I say I know the sort of mad they have in mind and that's the sort of mad I am, and I know I am. They say they're sure that my idea of mad isn't the same as theirs because their idea of mad is something bad, and I say that's exactly the idea I have. I had a conversation just like that once with someone who was saying I was stupid."

He invited Nicola to watch the band rehearse in his parents' garage later that evening. She said it sounded a hundred times more exciting than anything else she could use the evening for. He gave her directions to his parents' house and he said he'd see her later.

Nicola went to meet Jennifer and Ruth. She told them all about Jason. She thought they'd share her enthusiasm, but Jennifer said he sounded like an idiot.

"At least he's got some spark in his head," Nicola said.

"And we don't?"

"No. And I don't mean that ye're stupid. I just mean that ye don't have that spark."

"What spark?"

"Do you remember the time Rachel explained to you that you could never be an Eskimo, and you just didn't get it because you didn't fully understand what an Eskimo was?"


"This is like that. You don't have that spark, and you won't understand what you're missing because you can't comprehend what it is. I envy you. You're happy with all this, with next to nothing. People like me need more."

"'People like me'. You'd swear you were Roald Amundsen. He went to the Arctic. He probably met Eskimos."

"Jason might not be the most intelligent person in the world, but you can see that the spark has lit a fire and it's coming out in the flames of his hair."

"I know what Eskimos are now."

Nicola went to see the band rehearse that evening, but it didn't take long for her enthusiasm to drain away. They said they had to get ready mentally before they started playing. To Nicola, this looked like standing in the garden, and there was a perfectly good garden at home that she could be standing in. Michelle was there as well, and she seemed happy to spend the evening standing and yawning. Niall, the lead singer, smiled to himself every now and then. Whatever thoughts he was playing with, Nicola hoped that he'd keep them to himself. The rest of the band looked as if there was nothing going on behind their blank expressions. The breeze brought life to their hair, and Nicola got the impression that there was more going on outside their heads than inside. Sometimes Michelle seemed to be deep in thought, and sometimes she shared her thoughts with the rest of them. After half an hour of silence she said, "Why do biker gangs always say 'yah-ha' or 'whoo-hoo' or... 'hey hey' when they ride off? In films anyway."

Nicola was in desperate need of a conversation, but she decided to pass on this one.

Another ten minutes of silence followed, and then Jason said to her, "Do you want to hear us play?"

"Yeah, I would."

Their music was just as tedious as the silence. Nicola would have preferred if they'd kept it inside their heads, or whatever part of their bodies they stored it in. Niall sang lines like 'Anger take my hand. I want to kill the land'. To say he 'sang' wouldn't do justice to what he actually did to those lines. A serious assault or even murder would be closer to what he was doing, which is exactly what those lines deserved.

Michelle was deep in thought throughout the song. When it finally came to an end, after a guitar solo, bass solo, drum solo and a minute of Niall kicking a wheel barrow, the silence that followed seemed like a void. Nicola felt she had to fill it with applause. Her appreciation sounded half-hearted, but Jason thanked 'the audience'. Michelle said to Niall, "If you were part of a motorbike gang and ye were riding away, what would you say?"

"I'd tell them to eff off," Niall said.

"Who's 'them'?" Nicola said.

Niall didn't respond.

On their way to the park he was much more talkative. He kept shouting 'eff off' to the people in cars who were shouting abuse at him. When they were walking past the Town Hall, all of the band shouted abuse at the empty building. The source of their anger was the Mayor, who was always known as Larry, even though that wasn't his name. He'd recently sparked a controversy with remarks he made during a radio interview. One of his political rivals had bought an electric car to show how environmentally friendly he was. When Larry was asked what he was doing to help the environment he said he once used an electric wheelchair. It was great fun, he said. He was tempted to go away in it and leave its rightful owner by the side of the road. He couldn't make a quick getaway in an electric wheelchair, but it wasn't as if she'd be chasing him.

"We're going to play a prank on Larry," Jason told Nicola. "My brother made a paint bomb. It's basically just fireworks in a paint tin. We're going to set it off in Larry's garden."

When Nicola heard this she struggled to contain her excitement. "When are ye going to do it?" she said.

"We haven't set an actual date for it. Maybe tomorrow."

"Let's do it now."

"I don't know. We were going to make a banner first, something that we'd leave in his garden to explain why we did it."

"We can make it now. What will the banner say?"

"'Eff off'," Niall said.

"That would certainly be to the point, but I'm not sure what point it would be to."

"What about 'Disabled people did this'," Jason said. "That way he'd never know it was us."

"Why don't we just say 'Enabled'," Nicola said. "Everyone will know what it means."

"I suppose so." Jason didn't seem very enthusiastic.

"Ye do want to go through with this, don't ye?" Nicola said.

"Oh yeah. Absolutely. We were just waiting for a date. And now we have it. It's today. And that's good."

The others nodded.

They made the banner on a piece of cardboard. Just after the sun went down they set off for Larry's house. Nicola got the impression that her accomplices didn't share her enthusiasm. As they approached the Mayor's house, Jason said, "Maybe we need a bigger banner."

"The size of the banner doesn't matter at all," Nicola said. "Its message is enormous. This is going to be fun, and we're doing something worthwhile as well."

Only Nicola looked as if she was having fun. After Jason had put the paint bomb on Larry's lawn he said, "Maybe we should test the bomb first. What if it explodes or something?"

"That's what it's supposed to do."

"Oh yeah. Well what if it doesn't explode?"

"And what if you take it home to test it and it does explode? Your parents' garden would be covered in paint."

"Oh yeah. I could do it in my bedroom."

"Then your bedroom would be covered in paint."

"Oh yeah. But my bedroom already is covered in paint, so it wouldn't really make any difference."

"You won't be able to use the bomb here if it goes off in your bedroom."

"Oh yeah. But I've been thinking of painting my bedroom a different colour. And if I used the paint bomb there I'd have the job done in, like, a second or something. So..."

Nicola lost patience. She took Jason's cigarette lighter and lit the fuse. They all ran away, and as they made their escape they heard the sound confirming that the bomb had worked. Nicola was so excited she shouted 'yah-ha', 'whoo-hoo' and 'hey hey'. Michelle and Fire in the Black Fog were terrified of getting caught.

They saw the aftermath of the explosion in a photo that appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. The prank went down very well amongst the locals. Jason and his bandmates spent weeks boasting about how they did it.

Nicola chose not to spend any more time with them. She went back to Jennifer and Ruth. When she met them on the day after the prank, Ruth told her that they'd formed their own band.

"Can I join?" Nicola said.

Ruth said yes, but Jennifer said, "No, I don't think that would be possible now. We've already done a song about snow. And I think it would disrupt the balance of things if... y' know... we had someone in to... y' know... It's a very finely balanced song."

"Can I hear it?"

"It's very... y' know... It only really sort of exists in our heads and... It's very finely balanced at the moment."

"I'd love to hear it anyway."

"I suppose we could do a bit of it."

Jennifer started singing and Ruth joined in half-heartedly. That half faded to nothing within seconds. Jennifer sang, "Look at the snow... The snow is falling... And I forgot my... glasses." She stopped singing and said, "Alright, you can join."

"Thanks. This is going to be so much fun. That song could really be good."

"Yeah. We just need to work on the balance."

The moose's head over the fireplace enjoys listening to the sound of the ice cream van and the tractor engine. I like the sound as well. I find it relaxing because it suggests a slow pace of life. Sometimes you can hear those sounds for half an hour as the old tractor makes its way through the fields. The farmer often brings his kids in the trailer, and they play traditional versions of ice cream van standards.