'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Unfriendly Ghost

I love September. Autumn will cough to attract our attention to its presence, although because of the re-opening of the schools we've inevitably had a spell of summer weather. My great-grandfather used to spend most of September in the glasshouse, just admiring the show outside. A glasshouse wasn't a great hiding place when he wanted to avoid someone. He used to wear disguises then. He could do a very convincing imitation of a tomato plant.

My cousin Hugh and his fiancee, Annabel, spent many summer evenings visiting Annabel's aunt Dinah to keep her spirits up after her pet fox ran away. The fox wasn't really a pet. Sometimes he used to stand in her garden and stare at her. He reminded her of her late husband, who used to stand and stare at her as well, when he was alive. Sometimes it was difficult to tell if he was alive. He'd insist that he was alive and well, but there would be ample evidence to the contrary. And then when he really was dead no one would believe him.

It didn't take long for Hugh to grow bored of her company. She'd make a pot of tea and the three of them would sit in her living room while she told stories about all the things she'd like to see invented. Hugh gave up telling her that almost all of these things had already been invented because it only made her more depressed. One evening he suggested going somewhere, just to get out of the house for a while. The change of scenery would do Dinah good, he said. Both Annabel and Dinah liked the idea. It needed a few minor modifications, but essentially it was a good idea, they said.

After it was modified, the idea was for the three of them to spend a weekend in a guesthouse by the sea. Hugh pointed out that they had subjected his idea to major modifications, rather than minor ones, and his good idea had been obliterated in the process, but Annabel and Dinah were too busy planning the trip to pay attention to his objections.

On that Friday evening he found himself drinking tea in a room with a sea view, as Dinah spoke about the inventions. A fourth member had been added to the party: Rita, the owner of the guesthouse. She was fascinated by the inventions. She didn't seem to know that most of these things had already been invented. Hugh felt uneasy about staying in a guesthouse run by a woman who was unfamiliar with the concept of a toaster.

Rita told Dinah about the many inventions people had come up with to catch the ghost in this house. The ghost was called Jasper, and he used to own the house when he was alive. He was a rich man, and it was rumoured that he'd buried most of his money. Many gallant efforts had been made to apprehend his spirit and find out where the money was. Some people had built time machines. Some had hammered nails into planks. None of these techniques had worked, and the planks proved to be just as effective at time travel as the time machines.

Hugh managed to convince Annabel to let Rita baby-sit while they went out for the evening. They took a walk along the beach as the sun began to set. They went to a pub, where a man played the banjo and sang songs about the sea. When they left the pub it was dark. Black clouds veiled what was left of the blue sky, and a strong wind roused a symphony of sounds on the seafront. When they got back to the guesthouse, there was no one there. They found a note from Rita and Dinah, explaining that they had gone to visit Rita's sister. They wanted to find out if anyone had invented a machine for making coffee. Her sister was an expert in these things.

A storm was brewing. At eleven o' clock, Dinah phoned to say that herself and Rita would have to spend the night at Rita's sister's house because of the weather. There were no other guests staying at the guesthouse that night, and Rita told them to make themselves at home.

These latest modifications were making Hugh's idea seem like a good one again. Himself and Annabel had a sea-side guesthouse to themselves, and they'd managed to lose Dinah. He lit a fire, and they made some tea in the kitchen.

At half-eleven, the doorbell rang. Hugh and Annabel both went to the front door to see who was there. They found a very wet family who were looking for a place to stay for the night. The Donovans were on holiday. They had booked into a guesthouse in this town, but they couldn't find the place. Rita had told Annabel and Hugh not to take any guests for the night, but Annabel took pity on the family and she told them they could stay.

There were five young children in the family, three girls and two boys. The thought of sharing a house with five unruly kids sent shivers down Hugh's spine, which is why he tried to scare the guests in the hope that the Donovans would look for somewhere else to stay. He told them about Jasper, the unfriendly ghost. He said that this spirit didn't like kids, and no child had ever managed to stay the whole night in the house with him.

The Donovans certainly looked scared. They were shivering, but this might have been due to the fact that they were getting wet in the rain, and this might well have influenced their decision to stay. While Hugh showed them to their rooms, Annabel made them hot chocolate in the kitchen. They drank this as they sat around the fire. The kids kept asking questions about the ghost, apart from one of the boys, who only wanted to talk about wrestling. When he realised that no one shared his interest he started asking questions like 'Does the ghost have an interest in wrestling?'. In his answers, Hugh tried to make Jasper sound as frightening as possible. He said that wrestling was far too civilised a sport for this spirit. He preferred the sort of sporting occasions where even the spectators would be arrested if the police arrived. Spectators often get killed at these events, he said, and Jasper's biggest regret in death is that he's no longer able to get killed. This has diminished his enjoyment of the sporting events he loves.

After the kids had run out of questions they had nothing left to do but be scared, which was something they could do in silence. Hugh expected Annabel to be thankful to him for the way he subdued five kids on their holiday, but she didn't share his enthusiasm for scaring children. Even as a spectator sport it wasn't much fun, she said. He pointed out that sleep was one of her favourite pastimes, and she wouldn't be able to partake in this if he hadn't dampened their holiday spirits.

He had to retract this claim when he was woken in the middle of the night by the sound of five screaming kids, which was soon followed by the sort of sounds you might hear at one of those sporting contests that get banned. Furniture, crockery and glass were being broken downstairs, and the kids were still screaming.

They had been unable to sleep, so the five of them had gone out to explore the house. When they were in the kitchen, a flash of lightning cast the shadow of a tree onto the wall. The strong wind made the branches and their shadows move wildly. The kids thought this was Jasper and they started screaming. Matters got worse when they tried to turn on the light. The electricity had been knocked out in the storm. So after little or no deliberation they decided to partake in the pastime in which they excelled: they panicked.

Running around in the dark and breaking things would have been fun if they weren't so scared. One of them tried out his wrestling moves on the ghost. His efforts had no effect on Jasper, but he did defeat all of the crockery in a cupboard in the kitchen.

They surveyed the damage in the morning, when Dinah and Rita returned. The kids tried to explain what had happened, but it was difficult to make sense of their story because five different versions were being told at once. Some versions emphasised the weapons that Jasper held in his eight hands, and one version included a list of all the famous wrestlers who had joined the fight against the ghost. Despite the tangled story, everyone agreed that Hugh was to blame. He felt he had no choice but to pay for the damage and to clean up the mess. He spent the day sweeping floors, repairing furniture and spending money, while Rita took the Donovans on a boat trip to an island. This was her way of apologising for their traumatic stay in her guesthouse. Annabel went with them, but Dinah stayed behind because she was afraid of boats and of islands (she refused to think of Ireland as an island. She always imagined it joined to Canada. In some ways it would have been much easier to imagine it joined to Britain, but in other ways this would have been much more difficult to contemplate. Her father would turn in his grave if he thought she was dreaming of Ireland united with Britain. Her husband would remain completely still in his coffin, but that's not to say he wouldn't be upset). Under Rita's orders, Dinah supervised Hugh's work. She wasn't allowed help him. She didn't do much supervision either because she was too busy telling him about the electric clogs she'd like to see invented. Hugh often got the feeling that he was being watched. He wondered if the house really was haunted, and was the ghost Dinah's husband or was it Jasper. He started to think that his suffering was proving to be an enjoyable spectator sport, although Dinah's husband enjoyed staring at almost anything. He could gape with child-like wonder at a piece of string he'd dropped on the ground.

The moose's head over the fireplace is looking forward to September as well, especially the All-Ireland football final in a few weeks. It's Cork versus Down. Of course, there's the hurling final to endure first, and the prospect of Kilkenny winning five in a row. One of our neighbours has started flying a Tipperary flag, and he once launched a campaign to have Tipperary systematically ignored by the rest of the country. The county would never be mentioned again. It would be removed from maps and replaced with a lake.