'Darcy and O'Mara' is a novel by Arthur Cronin.
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Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Dog with the Pig's Head

I see signs of the changing seasons everywhere I look. Brown leaves are falling from the trees. The shops are straining to unleash Christmas. This seems to have affected some of the neighbours. Christmas decorations have been put up in gardens, and they've been disguised as Halloween decorations. Santa's rosy cheeks are white, and the smiles of his elves seem sinister when pitch forks are tied to the little plastic hands. I've gone for a natural look. Dead leaves decorate our garden. I'd gladly leave them there until Christmas, but I know I'll be put under pressure to sweep them away and replace them with plastic reindeer who can fly and break windows every time the wind blows.

My cousin June's kids, Daisy and Graham, once heard that a neighbour of theirs got a new dog that had the head of a pig. They wanted to see the dog even more than they wanted vegetables to be made out of chocolate. For nearly a week they kept pestering their mother to take them to see the dog. They abandoned all of their efforts to convince her of the merits of chocolate potatoes, and they did their best to subtly steer every conversation in the direction of the dog with the pig's head.


   June: Do you want some chocolate potatoes?

   Graham: Do you know who'd love chocolate potatoes? The dog with the pig's head.

June was reluctant to take the kids to see the dog, partly because she knew that such a creature couldn't exist and partly because she was afraid that it did. But the kids finally wore down her resistance and she agreed to ask Fergus, their neighbour, if they could see his new dog.

Fergus showed them the dog. On any other occasion, Daisy and Graham would have been as happy as a Labrador puppy if they saw a Labrador puppy, but they were disappointed because this one had the head and body of a Labrador puppy. When people said that he had the head of a pig they meant that he'd stolen a pig's head from a butcher's shop (a head that had once been attached to the body of a pig) and he wouldn't let anyone take it off him. The head was nearly as big as him, but he was getting bigger and the head was getting smaller.

"The puppy's name is Freddie," Fergus said. "I called him that after my sister's dog. I couldn't think of anything else. My sister's dog is called after my nephew, who's also called Freddie. It's critically important to point out that my Freddie is called after my sister's dog and not her son. Her son called me a weasel."

"Haven't you tried taking the pig's head off him at night?" June said.

"Every night I spend hours trying to get it off him. I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway because of the smell. Freddie doesn't seem to mind the smell at all. He only wakes up when I get anywhere near the pig's head."

"We could help you get it off him," Daisy said.

"We could definitely get it off him," Graham said. "He doesn't stand a chance against us."

The kids were full of enthusiasm for their latest scheme. They needed something to replace their well orchestrated campaign of pestering their mother, and there didn't seem to be any likelihood of pestering her into making chocolate potatoes. Their first plan was for Daisy to distract the puppy with socks while Graham took the pig's head. Graham had to undertake this part of the plan because Daisy refused to go anywhere near the pig's head (though she'd gladly have picked it up if it had been a choice between that and Graham's socks). Their plan failed because Freddie valued a rotting pig's head more than socks, and the kids knew that this creature might have a perfectly normal puppy head on the outside, but something very strange was going on inside.

They needed help, so they went to see Gareth. Every Halloween, Gareth came up with an elaborate costume for a competition in the park. He always won, even though no one was frightened by the costume. Animals were terrified of him. Many animals were scared of him when he wasn't wearing the costume (and they were right to be scared -- unwary animals have ended up being incorporated into his costumes). Halloween was just a few days away and the kids asked him to use his latest costume to frighten Freddie. They expected the puppy to drop the pig's head so he could get away as quickly as possible, but Freddie just wagged his tail when he saw the costume, much to the annoyance of Gareth.

Gareth was furious when he came back to Fergus's house that evening. He said he'd gone out to his shed to do some more work on his costume after dinner and he found Freddie asleep inside one of the costume's five legs. The pig's head was in there as well, and there didn't seem to be much chance of getting either of them out. Freddie growled and snarled every time Gareth put his hand inside the leg. And there was no way the smell was leaving any time within the next year. The puppy and the situation were getting a bit too strange for Daisy and Graham. They decided to devote their attention to a new scheme, which involved Black Forrest Gateau Brussels sprouts.

They didn't see Gareth again until the costume competition in the park on Halloween. This year everyone was terrified when he arrived. A spine-chilling sound emerged from the neck of this headless creature, and even if you couldn't hear the sound you'd have been unnerved by the manic movement of the many arms and legs. The crowd fled in terror when this beast fell over and a rotting pig's head rolled out of the neck. Only the local butcher stayed behind. He was delighted to get his pig's head back. Freddie was heart-broken when he emerged from the neck and saw that his pig's head was gone. His howls made the crowd run faster.

But they soon realised there was nothing to be scared of. Freddie's howls became barks of delight when someone gave him another pig's head. Gareth's howls from inside the costume just made people smile.

The moose's head over the fireplace has been trying on his costume for our Halloween party. He'll be a pirate with the skeleton of a parrot on one of his antlers. The wife's aunt will be going as a lamp again. She wears a hat shaped like a shade. She smiles brightly at people and sings songs of love and happiness, making sure that nothing but light emanates from her head. It's truly terrifying.

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.

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.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I've decided to update this site once every three weeks instead of once every week. The moose's head over the fireplace thinks it's probably for the best, but he's agreed with everything I've said since Sunday. Watching Cork reach the All-Ireland football final has left him in a permanent good mood. Beating Dublin to get there was an added bonus. And on top of all that, we let the Dubs think they'd win for almost all of the game, only to steal it at the end.