Well, I learned something new this week; something new to me that is. Something I could have learned any week of my life, it being an old fact that had merely passed me by.

I was dipping, as I’m wont to do from time to time, into that fund of short stories, Hammerton’s The World’s Thousand Best Stories, and came upon The House of Fahy, by Somerville and Ross. These two have always made me think of cowboys for some reason. Perhaps it’s down to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which would explain the Ross, if not the Somerville. (I’ve never managed to track down any of the stories by Ross & Cromarty – I think Cromarty withheld the copyright after Ross’s death, something to do with a writing-buddies’ fall-out over royalties perhaps…)

The House of Fahy concerns a dog called Maria, a boat trip leading to a shipwreck, and a landfall leading to the eponymous house, which in turn leads to the loss of a parrot! It’s a funny story, with that slow-burn style of comedy that builds incrementally to the comic climax, itself overtopped by the delightful last line that both wraps up, and unexpectedly moves the story on another notch!

It’s told in the voice of a grumpy husband who is a poor sailor, but whose wife has no trouble with rough weather and choppy seas. I can vouch for the realism. This little dynamic alone gives cause for some great one liners. ‘I was not feeling ill, merely thoroughly disinclined for conversation.’ Comedy using the first person voice can reveal the narrator failing to conceal their true nature, or failing to see it. Here’s the narrator commenting on the dog, which has followed them to the coast, and paddled out to the yacht alongside the wherry: ‘This was Maria, feigning exhaustion, and noisily treading water at the boat’s side.’ I take that to suggest drowning, by the way!

Of course, we might not notice that latter, had we not been alerted to the technique by the more obvious earlier examples. The story opens with a long paragraph focusing on the dog, including an incident with a piece of beef, intended to be used for luncheon. ‘all we can do with it now’ the cook says, ‘is run it through the mincing machine for the major’s sandwiches.’ Later, we’re told that the ‘sandwiches […] tasted suspiciously of roast beef.’

These little asides make the story a lesson in detail, and its uses. The voyage, with the narrator’s oblique references to the sea-sickness growing more and more explicit, concentrates more on the activities of the human characters, with only brief reminders that Maria is present. After all, it is not really a story about the dog, but about the narrator, and his relationship with his family and boating friends. It is his, and their, behaviour, rather than Maria’s that sustains the comedy, during the voyage, the shipwreck, the landing, and the night spent in the Fahy House. But Maria edges her way back into the limelight, with the appearance of the Fahy parrot. It is in fact a cockatoo, and it makes itself a nuisance. Maria, helpfully, kills it, which puts the castaways, who have already done several pieces of damage to the property, in a difficult situation. Help is it hand though, for as morning breaks, they see the ship, having floated off the reef it ran aground on, sailing past on ‘a light northerly breeze’. They decide to quit the house, having secretly buried the deceased bird in the garden. The focus finally shifts back to Maria, who (which?) closes the story in an unexpected way, but one that reminded me of a much later shaggy dog story, told by Mike Harding, and involving a rabbit!

Somerville and Ross, when they were not riding the range, were best known for their The Experiences of an Irish R.M. What I hadn’t known, but do now, is that they were two Irish ladies.

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