A Christmas Story by James Connarty
Joe went to Bethlehem once. It wasn’t Christmas Eve though. It was the height of Summer and he’d had to douse himself with insect repellent to keep the mosquitos from biting his face aff. His pals thought he’d cracked up, using his redundancy money like that – a mid-life crisis, they said, he’s no even a religious man.
That wasn’t what it was about. He didn’t think he could explain it, so he never bothered trying. He just went.
He did the sights – touristy now, couldn’t move from one side of the street to the other without attracting a crowd of beggars – but all the places you heard about in mass. He went to Jerusalem and visited the temple. He sat in the olive groves at Gethsemane and thought about where he was going next. He walked out of the city proper to Golgotha and sat on the hill eating his pieces. A wee beggar boy came over and he broke off a bit of his ham roll for the kid.
Sorry wee man, I already handed over all the sweets I had on the way up the hill.
The wee boy smiled. Sweets? he said.
I’ve no got any buddy. No sweets.
He held his empty hands out.
The boy shrugged and started eating his roll. He wondered if the boy was Jewish and maybe shouldn’t be eating that ham. It didn’t seem to bother the kid but – he was getting fired right into it.
Good view eh? Joe said. Can you see your house from here?
The boy looked at him quizzically. Joe handed him the rest of the roll.
I suppose not eh. Probably no got a home.
The boy stood up and pointed towards the city.
Home, he said.
Aye? Said Joe. Is that where you live?
The boy just shrugged.
I’m guessing you don’t speak a lot of English.
English? The boy said. He pointed at Joe.
Me? Naw, I’m Scottish.
He pointed at himself.
Scottish, he said.
He held out his piece box. The boy was good company, someone to talk to anyway. He’d not had a lot of conversation on this trip. It was different when you were part of a couple. People talked to you. That Derek and Sue from Tenerife still sent them a Christmas card every year. He wondered if Maggie would send them one this Christmas. He wouldn’t be on her Christmas list – that was one thing he was sure of.
He looked up the hill at the tourists kicking up the dust and the hawkers trying to sell them relics and rosary beads. It didn’t look like a holy place. This was where we killed a God. He didn’t really believe that but. Not anymore. Millions did though and more had gone to their graves believing it so that had to count for something. He thought that when his faith went it would have been replaced by something. A certainty. But there was just an absence. Faithless. Maybe that was just what happened in life – you felt things until the day you didn’t, then nothing.
Calvary, he said. Do you know that word?
The boy wasn’t really listening. He was back on his feet, throwing stones at the birds, protecting his sandwich. He shouted something at them – just a high-pitched screech to Joe. The birds retreated and the boy smiled and laughed. He said something to Joe that he didn’t understand and took a big bite out of the ham roll.
Aye, you show them wee man.
I always wanted to come here, you know – the Holy Land.
He spread his arms out to encompass it all.
Me and Maggie used to fight about it. That’s the wife, well she was, no anymore. Anyway, no place for kids she said. Then even after the kids were doing their own thing it still wasn’t right for her. No beach, no pool, no entertainment – just me. Just me now anyway.
You hear the names, but you can’t picture it.
Jerusalem. Gethsemane. Calvary – I like Golgotha better. Golgotha – fantastic! The sound of it. History. Everything feels old, ancient.
He picked up a stone and threw it down the hill.
I came here from Bethlehem, he said.
The boy stood up and pointed South.
Aye, I think so. It’s closer than I thought. Only a few mile, eh? Went to the church there – the nativity. Where it all started.
He took a long drink of water.
Jesus it’s hot. How do you stand it all the time?
Jesus, the boy said, sketching out a quick sign of the cross.
Aye, said Joe.
He did it too. The father, son and the holy spirit. Amen. How many times in his life must he have done that? Thousands.
The boy had finished off the sandwiches and looked to Joe for more.
None. All done, wee man.
Joe held the empty tub out for the boy to see. He shook it and turned it upside down over his head like a hat. The boy got up. He patted Joe on the shoulder and said something. He ran up the hill to the group of travellers taking one of the official tours, hands outstretched.
Joe went back to Bethlehem one more time, at night though they said at his hotel it wasn’t really safe. He didn’t know what he was looking for, but he didn’t find it. He flew back to Scotland with cheap fags and a few memories. He hadn’t even taken any photos.
After 2001 he knew he would never go back. It was a changed place. He read about the siege at the Church of the Nativity. Christ, was nothing sacred. It was worse now, after Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. They were running out of places to bomb. He watched the video of Aleppo – before and after. It made you want to greet.
He was sitting watching the news, having a wee Christmas bottle to himself when he just got the notion. He thought maybe he’d had too much to drive so he walked it, even though it was right dirty sleet. There was nobody else walking, cars just splashing past. It took him over an hour to get to the chapel. He could hear the organ playing carols, but everyone was still sitting down. It wasn’t 12 yet.
He paused before he went in. It had been a long time since he’d been here for anything except a funeral. He was here for Rab when he went. Everybody came for that. The dirty looks he got for showing up but there were things you had to do no matter what other people thought. That young African priest had smiled and said everyone was welcome – even if you’d not been in an age, even if you’d never been.
This is your spiritual home, he’d said. He made it sound true.
He was standing in the back of the church, shaking hands and smiling. The same priest; same smile.
Joe stopped and bent down to put a pound in the crib at the Nativity scene.
Thank you. Thank you.
The priest opened his hands and brought them back together again.
All welcome, he said to Joe.
Joe wasn’t sure if he meant the money or the people.
He reached out his hand to Joe and he took it. It was warm and dry.
It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? The priest said.
The nativity scene – family, warmth, welcome – it’s all there to see.
Joe lifted his chin up.
I went once, he told the priest. Bethlehem.
The priest clapped his hands together.
Wonderful, Wonderful! He said.
It was nothing like this but. Did you know they built the church over a cave? That was a surprise to me. Born in a cave – you’d think that would be better. More humble beginnings and all that.
I might use that in my sermon tonight. Humble beginnings, exactly.
The priest smiled and put a hand on his shoulder.
Humble surroundings, he said. He motioned a hand to the streets outside.
Every little town is Bethlehem, he said. Every life starts somewhere.
The altar servers came up in their white robes, the biggest one carrying the shining gold cross in his hands.
Excuse me, the priest said. Time to begin. I think there are a few spaces at the front.
I only came to make a donation to the crib, father. I’m no going to stay.
The priest nodded, still smiling. He motioned with his hand and a bell rang. The congregation stood up and the organ started in on Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.
Joe stood at the back for a bit. Only until the rain had stopped.
James Connarty, December, 2016.