'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Friday, September 24, 2010

Tea and Biscuits

Autumn has begun. The leaves are falling off the trees and the weather is getting colder. We can look forward to months of short days, open fires and tales of my aunt's adventures with jigsaw puzzles. She often spends winter evenings working on jigsaws, but most of the fun comes from her attempts to track down the missing pieces. She'll give us daily accounts of her investigations. Last year one of her searches went on for months, and we all developed an emotional attachment to the missing piece, which was part of a ladder. For a long time she believed that she had to find a yellow sock before she could find the piece, but with the help of a Tibetan monk she came to realise that the yellow sock was a metaphor for something else. Only she could discover what it was a metaphor for. She found the missing piece before she found the meaning of the sock. It was underneath a teapot.

My aunt Bridget and uncle Harry live near a couple called Julia and Liam, who often call around for tea and biscuits. Harry tries to avoid them, but Bridget encourages their visits. She used to spend hours just listening to them talking. Liam would tell her about all the things he'd achieved since their last visit. These achievements could be as small as getting the lid off a tin of shoe polish or teaching his dog how to spit, but there would always be plenty of twists and turns in his stories about how he arrived at his goal. He'd only stop talking to eat a biscuit. Sometimes he'd have a biscuit in his hand for half an hour as he finished a sentence. When his sentence finally came to an end with the full stop of a chocolate Digestive or a Hob Nob, his wife would take over. Julia always began by saying 'He's an awful eejit', and then she'd go on to contradict almost everything Liam had just said or to list out all the mishaps he'd suffered while working towards his goals. Opening a tin of shoe polish can be a perilous enterprise if you forget you're holding a lighting candle in one hand. Liam wouldn't hear any of this because he'd be too busy appreciating the biscuit. He could easily get twenty minutes appreciation out of a single chocolate biscuit.

Bridget preferred listening to Julia, so she started making biscuits with lots of different ingredients to keep Liam occupied for longer. He could spend an hour trying to identify a biscuit's constituents while Julia spoke about all the things that get stuck to his back during the course of a day. But on one occasion Bridget put too many ingredients in a batch of biscuits, and he spent hours trying to identify all the different spices. Julia started running out of things to say. She seemed terrified by the prospect of silence, and she frantically tried to think of something to talk about. She told old stories about the time Liam wrote a play that culminated in a wrestling match between Jeckyll and Hyde, or the time he failed to get his fountain working because he couldn't get robins to understand the concepts of traffic lights and of stop signs. When the silence eventually arrived it only lasted a few seconds before she said, "I'm having an affair with the burglar who breaks into our house every night."

Liam was too busy with the biscuit to notice what she had said. The silence that followed Julia's admission was very uncomfortable for Bridget, so she started talking about the time Harry knocked himself unconscious while trying to open a tin of paint. But she ran out of things to say as well. Liam was still immersed in his study of the biscuit, so she asked Julia about the burglar.

"When he first broke in I told him not to do it again," Julia said. "But I said it half-heartedly. He has a charm that I find impossible to resist, and he must have noticed my lack of conviction because he broke in again on the following night. Liam didn't hear a thing because he was dreaming about tasting biscuits. You can tell by the way his mouth moves as he sleeps. You wouldn't believe how annoying the sound of his mouth moving can be at night. I know plenty of women who'd say they love the sound of their husband's mouth moving without any words coming out, but I find it much easier to sleep when he's talking. I told myself I was fully justified in having an affair to pass the time while he keeps me awake. Now I see that I was fooling myself, but I still can't resist Lawrence. He says his name is Lawrence, though I can't imagine a thief giving his real name. Even when I can't see his face I find it impossible to resist him. Sometimes he wears a balaclava. I'm fairly sure it's the same man each night."

"You must put an end to this."

"I know. I keep telling myself that. But his charm is overpowering."

"I'll help you. I'll call around late tonight, after Liam has gone to bed, and we'll wait up for Lawrence. Three is a crowd. I'll be there to support you when you tell him not to come back or you'll call the police."

"That's a bit drastic, isn't it?"

"It's the only way to deal with burglars who keep coming back."

"Okay then. Call around after midnight and we'll wait up together."

Bridget brought some more biscuits with her, and Julia made a pot of tea. They sat in the kitchen and waited for Lawrence. They didn't feel a need to talk all the time, and in the moments of silence Bridget thought she could hear the sound of Liam eating imaginary biscuits, but she might have just been imagining that.

It was nearly three o' clock in the morning when Lawrence arrived. He must have been surprised when he arrived in the kitchen and saw Bridget there with Julia, but he didn't show it. He looked as if nothing could possibly disturb his calm demeanour. Bridget said to him, "We need to have a word about your nocturnal activities. Carry on with the burglary, by all means, but these affairs must stop. Especially the one with Julia. Have some biscuits and a cup of tea if you want to talk about it, but the outcome of any discussion will inevitably be the termination of your relationship with Julia."

He tasted one of the biscuits, and Bridget was amazed to see that his calm demeanour was shattered. He looked frightened. He put the rest of the biscuit down, and he fled from the house. Julia said she felt a weight off her shoulders now that he had gone, and judging by the look on his face, he wouldn't be coming back. She said she never suspected that Bridget was going to use her biscuits to threaten him. Bridget never suspected that her biscuits would have such an effect either, but she pretended it was all part of the plan.

She went home and went straight to bed. As she was drifting off to sleep she heard a noise downstairs. She down to investigate, and she found Lawrence waiting for her in the hall. Her heart was beating quickly. She didn't know if this was down to fear or to something else. She was afraid it was something else. She nearly fainted when he smiled at her. He walked slowly down the hall, stopped right in front of her and said, "I really need to know what was in that biscuit."

His words pulled the plug on his charm. She picked up an umbrella that was hanging on a hat stand in the hall, and she was just about to hit him when she heard the sound of a shotgun being loaded. Harry was walking down the stairs with the gun in his hands, but Lawrence was gone before he had a chance to aim. Bridget's heart started beating quickly again, and this time she knew it wasn't fear. She was glad she had a husband who had such easy access to firearms, rather than one who ate biscuits in his sleep and thought he could make a high chair for a baby after he had killed a bird with the bird table he made, in the process destroying any trust he had built up with the robins. All of Harry's faults were forgiven, at least for a few weeks. He could tell his hunting stories in his sleep and Bridget would just smile. Even when he accidentally shot the piano the smile remained in place, though it did begin to crack when he asked her why she had to make so many biscuits.

The moose's head over the fireplace is looking very pleased with himself these days. Most of the locals look happy. Cork won the All-Ireland football final, Kilkenny didn't win the hurling, and the smell has gone. It stayed with us for over a month. Some people said it was so strong it could bend iron bars, but I doubt if the recent spate of vandalism on metal fences had anything to do with the smell. No one knows where it's gone, though there have been reports of a very strong smell looking out over the sea in Waterford.