Christmas Day – a story by Cornelius Doherty
Everything old was new again. The rust on the tin roofs of the outhouses disappeared. The black pitch on the byre – gaping and torn down to the rotten cladding was covered in the cold white of Christmas morning. A small robin landed lightly on the window sill, barely marking the untouched snow with her dainty feet. Old Neil revered the robin as a gentle bird and no harm could come of them under any circumstances – especially if they were close enough to touch or trap under a cardboard box with bread crumbs. All the boys knew that.
The robin flew to a safe distance and clutched onto the rim of the roof gutter and watched them. The odd socks on their hands were warm from behind the range and would soon freeze and their fingers bend orange and stiff in the cold. She wished them Merry Christmas and flew home by the most direct route to wake her brood for Mass.
Washed – what could be seen at least with hair combed flat and straight and black polish covering scuffed shoe toes, the four brothers stood waiting on Paddy Garvey for the lift to Mass at a quarter to eleven. Peeling snow off the stone walls next to the pillars with both hands, Seamus threw a tight, hard squeezed ball at the back of Jeromes coat. He ducked at the same time and the hard white ball reddened his cold white ear. The side of his face fell silent to the ensuing laughs.
“You bastard from hell” Jerome shouted and made a shoulder charge straight for the assailants’ guts.
There was a ruckus – an all-in, every man for himself, as Paddy, a mild set, single farmer of sixty three from the bottom end of the parish pulled up with the three eldest rolling in the snow. Joseph jumped into the front without a care throughout the confusion – feeling happy with himself for his abstinence in the matter. He slid across on the cold bench seat, eyes squinting in the bright frozen sun. Without a word, they waited on the other passengers and looked down at the Lough Swilly waves calmly lapping over the black rocks. The orange strand was the only other colour in the dusting of white.
“Wonderful too…it beats all, Joseph, does it not?” Paddy sighed heavily – looking out the window, elbow in the steering wheel with his scrawny bony chin resting in the palm of his hand.
The boy agreed that it did.
“What?” he prompted, interested now as the car shook with the soft thud of his three brothers banging against the back panel – cold metal bending and unwilling to give in, pushing back with a springy dong.
“How the snow nivir lays at the shore no matter that we might get three foot a snow o’ernight”
“It beats all, it’s wonderful alright – that’s for sure” he replied with a standard response that old Neil had taught him that suited anyone over the age of twenty one.
The front door opened in the farmhouse – the entrance was darkened by a lonesome black glowering frame – glaring menacingly out past the whitewashed pillars. The fighting magically stopped. Cursing and swearing ceased and the passengers embarked for holy Mass. There was nothing to see here – nothing happened, nothing but trampled snow.
It was late on – almost eleven by the time the boys squeezed into the same seat, six rows back behind the organ.
Everybody knew everybody in Barrantoor.
They carried the family name past the masses. I feel shame – pure shame over you boys and the cut of youse sometimes, their mother’s voice echoed in their buzzing ears and they walked tall and straight.
Before they sat down, post genuflection and before blessing themselves, they stood as one, like the descending copper flutes of an Anglican Church organ and the Catholic organ lady looked back and smiled to herself. Looking forward again – she settled her rump on the bench and fixed the sheet music that was already fixed. She was the pillar of the community and the four ruffians behind her in second hand gear from Scottish parcels were part of the community that she was the pillar of.
Thank God for music she thought and licked her thumb to turn imaginary pages.
There was shuffling and snuffling and sneezing of the congregation – waiting in baited anticipation for the round priest to make their day. Some knelt silently. Others fidgeted and thought of sleigh rides and toys and no school and black frost and pubs and drink and the front page of the Sunday World – in no particular order. It was a mixed bag. Hopefully the humour of the Priest was good.
Steam began to rise from the full gamut of settled Mass goers as the grey radiators pumped out clammy heat that rose under the clear lead light windows. The long arched frames of glass and diamonds disappeared in a blurred heat shimmer. A furious waterfall of mangled light rose up and filled a steamy glistening lake on the arched ceiling. Almost immediately, Joseph started unbuttoning his coat and looked to his nearest brother for help, bending over himself past Seamus and Jerome – afraid to move and disturb the holy and contrite lady with the jelly arms next to him, engulfing and smothering his very air. He melted under the unique fragrance of her smoky kitchen smell and overpowering perfume – warm and soapy. Claustrophobic now with the unbearable constrictions, he groaned across with buttons stuck and body unable to move – a feeling of having a cock of hay sitting on his chest or a stook of corn or Liam Doyle with his knees around his neck and arms pinned to the ground at school.
He panicked as only a youngest brother can, wriggling and writhing – his shoe stubbed off on the kneeling plank and shot forward into the seat in front, causing a kerfuffle and two fine twinned cutties with nut brown hair and fat red cheeks – identically dressed, looked behind in disgust at the annoyance as one and stared coldly into his roaring and panicked face with contemptuousness.
With his last breath released – there wasn’t the room for another, Finton slid on the pew, moving past the useless two and fixed up the boy with firm strong fingers. The long shiny timber toggles of the second hand duffle were released and the boy breathed again. The panic was over with death by a thousand screams averted. Sweat dripped from around Joseph’s eyes and steam rose from his crown. He looked for his shoe and the twins smiled at each other without speaking.
It was already gone eleven o’clock and Kevin Tourish, the grey, ancient Sacristan let go of the rope in the tower and stopped ringing the bell, sitting down for a blow…..finally, white steam clouds formed from his misty breath, bypassing the swinging rope and clanging bell and were sent skyward – enough moisture for three days rain.
From a distance of seven or eight rows back – on the other side of the aisle, a familiar cough – that of their ex lodger, rang out and bounced off the ceiling under the gallery. The cough turned quickly into a gargle of pleurisy as the youngest boy looked back with familiarity. In the sea of black and grey coats and white and red faces it was impossible to see him but it could be no one else but him – he was unique in more ways than one. Joseph looked across with eyes that asked can I sit with him…please? Finton whispered past Seamus “no you can’t… he’s sitting with the old men and you’re staying with me”
The drummy echo of the vestry door noisily screeched on a black spring as it opened of its own accord, the first two Altar Clerks stood in the opening – looking back, waiting for something or someone, eventually making their way onto the plush silent carpet being followed by Father Metcalf and then another two, red and white adorned Clerks with polished shoe toes and clasped hands. The organ lady played one handed, feet on the pedals and directed eight well versed young larks in the choir with a dancing poncy wrist. Away in a manger no crib for a bed…
Methodically bowing and making their way onto their shiny benches – the clerks blended into the background, heads resting against the walls and tried to look normal, as best they could. Father Metcalf stood upright at the front of the aisle, ignoring the nativity scene behind him and any frivolity it may conjure in the minds of the faithful – looking down upon the packed congregation on this happy day but most of all, a Holy Day of Obligation.
Coughing, shuffling, snuffling, sneezing and pleurisy gargling stopped there and then. What was the hold up and why the long face on the white haired Parish Priest?
Rocking backwards and forwards on his shiny black shoes, the old man held two index fingers with clasped hands under his nose and caused a fluted groove to descend and rest on his top lip. Watching down, nodding, counting stray sheep in the silence, eyeing off men standing by the confessional box and resting at the black holy water font by the draughty double doors, he paused, mouth open, almost spoke and stopped short. The people waited and watched his every move, eager to get started. Curious news fenders, especially the ones with the need to read the fine print and every memoriam announcement in Fridays Derry Journal – looked back in indignation, searching the crowd of black figures for the fiendish culprits.
“Ye weren’t standing at the back of the queue getting drink last night up the town street in any one of twenty pubs, I’ll warrant ye” condescendingly, almost jeeringly with delightful intent, he pulled at his soft pink earlobes that hung like giant fleshy conch shells from his snow white square head. His Roman Emperor voice carried like that of a BBC cricket commentator and left his full, well fed, cream horned and plump lips like the next Bishop in waiting. A man not used to the answer no – he continued as the stragglers pushed in on the overflowing flock. They breathed in as one.
“There are still seats available at the front, people shuffle up and make more room” he commanded now.
A great period of time transpired then and the four young men six rows behind the organ lady asked each other the time and tutted and blasphemed under their breaths in heated disgust at the delay. Joseph gingerly brushed fluff from his shiny blue trouser leg and started picking at a tiny hole on his knee. One of the cutties, the one with the elastic banded pig tails, glanced back and smiled. He looked away and blushed red, pushing the duffle coat under the seat with his socked foot. There was something about Marjorie Lynch with the red dimples in her face that Joseph liked but could never admit to and never in front of the boys. She kicked his shoe back and he smiled at her a broad grin of thanks.
“Of all days, there’ll be no one standing and mooching at the back today or I’ll not be starting Mass” the carpet groaned under the stout uncompromising frame of the Diocesan Clergyman – a man that hadn’t missed a meal or a bakery pastry at the local stations in many a long day.
A dark glowering figure of a man pushed in, one row in front of the wide seat where the green painted columns held the gallery floor above – generally left for old men with brown chewing tobacco teeth in tweed caps with bad knees and dicky hips.
In the kerfuffle and annoyance, the black figure thanked black suited gentlemen most graciously for the chance of being out of the spotlight as they moved their knees and groaned loudly and slid laboriously across leaving only enough room for his upright frame. He rested now and clapped at his jacket pocket for the sound of his smokes and tobacco box and matches. He felt the burning rays of people watching his every move. Cold sweat and last night’s spirits formed on his brow.
One last straggler sat down and Father Metcalf relinquished the pose – silently making his way to the Altar and started the ceremony. Jesus Christ in all his Glory was thanked accordingly by the masses.
The stout, black haired Altar boy that yawned at the sight of Father Metcalf sleepily noticed the significance of the backdrop to the Priest. Adorned by the twelve Apostles and painstakingly painted by the artist during the great potato famine, it depicted the first Christmas with the child in the warm straw manger – glowing majestically on a dirt floor cave with his parents kneeling and docile animals resting and three wise men rejoicing at the entrance. The full town of Bethlehem shone warm and lighted in the distance. A cloud of angelic beings in a white clouded mass hovered above the scene and rejoiced in their innocence as a lamb sat contentedly beside the baby. The Altar boy closed his eyes and yawned again. The baby in the painting slept.
The shiny morning sun broke through outside and reflected off the pure white snow, warming the cold grey walls of the Chapel. The mood changed and the people relaxed and dreamt of their dinners and family and warm fires and happy weans in the first white Christmas for near on twenty years.
Old Neil – a cantankerous one-time lodger in a warm house and four boys for company had been busy praying the Rosary at eleven, on his knees behind the wide seat.
His clasped hands had jutted forward into the seat in front until the shuffling and sliding of the latecomers and he pulled his hands back, arms vertical from the elbows now and he cupped his face in his large, cold white hands. Luke- warm parishioners of little faith were the bane of his existence and caused no end of delays and time wasting from stony faced Clergy, especially this one and what a fine man he was too and had the ability to belt out a great old long sermon on his best days.
“How can they not all be more like meself?” He wondered and what a marvellous world it would be if that were the case. He shut out the part this year when he drove off with the two bottles of milk still on the roof of the car and the shattering of milky glass by the bridge. No one is perfect he concluded and downplayed the blue level of swearing on the day. Other discretions had already been scraped from the tinker’s bucket of sins inside his chest including the argument with the dark glowering figure that was yet to be reconciled. If there was penance to be paid, then over the past three months of living on his own – he’d paid the price.
Closing his eyes in the muffled silence – his hands created the perfect dark cocoon and shielded his eyes from the light now streaming in the windows. The flashes of sharp white and grey and green and red colours ceased there and then.
The world began and ended in the palms of his hands as each thought swirled around and vanished in a mass of pink perfection before him. His spirit went outside to play in the snow and his physical body stayed put in the penitentiary. He resumed praying uninhibited and felt that his life needed a miracle – some sort of divine intervention or a sign, any kind would do and he prayed that upon opening his eyes, the answer would indeed come.
The request was received, considered and answered in an instant as he opened his eyes to the start of proceedings and the mumble of the well versed service.
His heart skipped a beat, then started, stopped and skipped again at the sight before himself as he squinted to adjust to the light. Sure as God, it was a sign from Heaven alright on one of the only days of the year when the handshake of peace was employed. The tall dark frame in front, his unmistakeable sideburns and dusty Donegal Tiger cough, the stumbling block to the treaty table, the shaking hand that could well sign the Armistice and end the standoff was close enough to touch – to shake if the time was right. He prayed on the Priest remembering at the right time and his nemesis, unable to move or remonstrate, couldn’t but oblige under the circumstances with the agreement set in stone and twenty locals party to the sight. It was a miracle and no doubt about it.
The scene played out in front of him now like a pantomime with the boys carrying the coal bucket into the lower room and the great roaring fire lit and and the treacle scone bread for supper. Crackling flames dancing on the ceiling as he closed his eyes, searching out the dark corners of the room, shadows of walls moving with every flicker of heat and the company too of course. Their mother fussing over him like her long lost father, welcoming him home, fluffing his seat by the fire for it was his seat and no one else’s and calling him for Christmas dinner with the place so warm and inviting and enough laughter to fill a thousand flat and empty sandbags.
He remembered the tin of Fray Bentos on the dresser of his own house – cold and uninviting – a poor meal for one.
“It’ll do till the New Year” he allowed to himself in advance and tuned back into the hum of the Mass for fear of missing the important cue.
‘You take away the sins of the world, grant us peace’ The Priest paused, silently, about to move on – pondered, caught Neil’s thought in the ether and announced
“There may be someone that has tried us this past twelve months. Things may have been said or done in the heat of anger that we think better of now with the value of time. Love has no boundaries, no stone walls; it overcomes all through the Power and Grace of Jesus Christ. Let us offer each other the sign of peace on this special day – peace be with you all”
The old man watched the dark figure make great with local men on either side of him and mumbling “peace be with ye” and glad of their accommodating him earlier less he’d have been a shag on a rock in the aisle.
The dark frame felt a tap on the shoulder – a hard, annoying tap, like a niggling child that wanted sweets from an empty brown paper bag, knowing full well that there was nothing to be gained – but being a nuisance anyway and cadging for more. At first he paid no heed, sure it was a mistake or a geriatric old man had overshot his arms in full and contrite prayer. It happened again, more stern and forceful this time as long hard fingers dug into his back and a familiar grumble and roof of mouth clack of ill-fitting false teeth and wide mouth.
‘Peace…be with ye….it’s me…sure….sur….Nee….illl!’ Glancing around, he caught the outline of the long bandy frame, surely it could only be him, and how unlucky could one man be? He asked himself and turned around slowly to greet him. Without words – the picture told a thousand stories. The old man’s eyes were moist and full of sincere compassion. Things would be different now if he could have the second chance that surely everybody deserves, and sure what? He’d be no bother at all in the scheme of things.
“Peace of Christmas be with ye” he swished again in a meek and defenceless gesture.
The dark frame shook his head and wondered why God under no circumstances liked seeing him happy. Throngs of Heavenly Angels lifted his right hand as his head disconnected from the rest of him. Like Joseph in the clammy heat – not only was there a cock of hay and four heavy stooks of corn sitting on his chest, but the whole hay stack squashed him and the sheaves of corn – strap untied, were pushed head first into the thresher – crushing him into submission as the annoying old child poked his fragile being again for reconciliation. Every old man in Donegal looked on for it was the only thing to do for their chum with a humble and contrite heart.
Quietly, in silent slow motion, their hands met in a cold shake as Neil’s heart glowed in exaltation and delirious delight.
He smiled at himself as his spirit flew high above the painted nativity scene, doing somersaults over the plump Priests head in all his grand finery. A day of new beginnings and peace to all mankind on earth and never a truer word said. The finer details of the flit would sort themselves out as they stood under the bell tower with backs to the wind and lit fags howling bright red like hells bellows. Christmas dinner and warmth and company was the deal, for a handshake was as good as a pound note and a spit in the palm with shiny brown dealers boots to go with it for good measure.
A miracle – no more and no less, a pure miracle,
25 December, 2017
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