23 December 2021
A Christmas story.
By Neil Tidmarsh.
Was that the postman at the door just now? And did he bring anything for your great uncle Patrick? He did? Well, well, well. Who’d have thought so many people would remember an old man like myself at this time of year?
Go on, sit yourself down and I’ll pour us both a glass of the good Irish. Perhaps you’ll be kind enough to open those Christmas cards for me, and I’ll tell you a tale for this cold Christmas Eve – a tale from a Christmas Eve of my childhood, long before I did a Dick Whittington and found myself trapped by the gold and glass and steel of the City of London. I’ll take you back seventy years to the hills and moors of the old country and my very first day of hard adult labour. I’ll show you a twelve-year-old’s first glimpse of the grown-up world of work and worry.
You should have had the postman in for a glass of whiskey. I know things are different in this big bad English city, but back home we’d always have the postman in for a drink or two on Christmas Eve. Well, what else was going to get the poor man up over the hills and out across the bogs in the cold, dark miles between one lonely farm and another?
I remember the year Michael O’Rorty the postman’s first baby was born on Christmas Eve. Now in those days such an event was something for the whole parish to rejoice in. So that afternoon, as Michael carried the good news through the neighbourhood, there was a double celebration waiting for him behind every door.
I was helping my brothers and sisters put up such Christmas decorations as we had in those days – holly and ivy and sprigs of yew – when we heard him coming, miles away up the road. He was singing. Christmas carols. Way out of tune, mind, but he was singing, which was strange enough. You see, he was much loved and respected, was Michael, but he was a quiet, reserved sort of man. His mother’s father was English, which probably explained it. We heard his bicycle turn off the lane and into our yard, and then there was a crash and a splash and a squawking of hens and no more singing. We all rushed outside, and there was Michael O’Rorty on his back in the mud, his bike beside him, and a flutter of chickens strutting all over man and machine, the one lying as still as the other.
“Is he dead, ma?” One of my sisters began to cry. “Is he dead?”
“No, sweetheart” my mother said. “He isn’t dead. He’s just a bit poorly.”
“Dead drunk, that’s what he is” my aunt said. “It’s shameful.”
So we got him inside and stretched him out on the stone floor and there he lay, snoring his nose off and smiling deep in his sleep with the twin joys of fatherhood and drink. My grandfather took one look at him and then, with a guilty stealth that escaped even my aunt’s notice, he downed the glass of whiskey that had been waiting for the postman. “Well now, Michael won’t be needing it, and waste is a sin” he mumbled, winking at me.
“He won’t be moving before midnight mass, to be sure, and here’s his postbag with half the Christmas post still to be delivered” my mother moaned. “And with my husband out on the hills counting the sheep, who’s going to finish Michael’s round for him?”
“Sean” said my aunt. “Sean’s the oldest.”
“I can’t” said Sean. He was three years older than me. “I’ve got to milk the cows in half an hour’s time.”
“Well then. It will have to be Kelvin.”
“But ma, it’s cold out there. It’ll be dark soon, and I’ll get lost on the hill and the ghosts and the spirits and the little people will get me.”
My sisters began to tease poor timid Kelvin, who was only a year older than myself, and then I said “I’ll do it. Give me the bag. I’ll do it.”
“No, Patrick. You’re too young. And you can’t ride a bicycle.”
“I can that” I said. “Miss Byrne lets me ride hers.” Miss Byrne was the teacher at the village school; a ride on her bike was the prize for coming top of the class in her weekly tests.
My mother didn’t have any choice, and my aunt was the kind of woman who believed little boys should be sent down coal mines or up chimneys as soon as they could walk. So I took the bag and put on my coat and out in the yard I found the postman’s peaked cap lying in the mud so I picked it up and put it on. I picked up his bicycle and scooted out of the gateway and swung myself up onto the saddle as I came out into the lane. I could hardly reach the pedals and the cap kept on slipping down over my eyes, but I was on my way, a postman, on that cold winter’s afternoon.
A postbag is a heavy burden in the season of goodwill – you’re carrying the greetings of a whole year on your shoulders. It warms your soul to be their bearer, but it’s a mighty weight for human flesh to cope with. But I had reasoned, with childish innocence, that volunteering for O’Rorty’s burden would automatically qualify me for the alcoholic hospitality the man enjoyed as a Christmas Eve right. At the age of twelve I had never tasted whiskey before – and of all the many gaps in my experience it was the one I was most keen to put right.
A mile up the valley, under a sky heavy with snow, I made my first delivery.
“Why, it’s little Patrick!” exclaimed Mrs O’Connor, standing in the doorway of her cottage with a baby in her arms. “Whatever has happened to Michael O’Rorty?”
“His wife has had a little girl and he’s had too much to drink and he’s fallen over.” I was still panting with exertion from the ride. “So I’m the postman today.”
“Well, who’s a brave little boy, then? Come inside and get your breath back.”
Mr O’Connor had two glasses of whiskey poured out, waiting, but when he saw me he laughed. “Well, Michael O’Rorty won’t be wanting this now, will he?”
“Can’t I have it?” I said.
“No, you can’t. Still, it’s a shame to waste it.” And with that he downed both measures himself.
“I’ll put some milk on to warm up for you” his wife suggested.
“But can’t I have any whiskey?”
“No, Patrick. You’re too young for such things.”
So I had to make do with warm milk. Which I’ve always hated. I left the O’Connors with their Christmas greetings and a deep sense of disappointment, and cycled on, another mile uphill against the wind, to the Kennedy’s. The Kennedys were an old couple living alone in a big ramshackle farmhouse so old it was falling down around them.
The front door was ajar and no one answered when I knocked so I pushed it open and stepped inside. It was dark in there and smelt of mice. Mr Kennedy was asleep by the fire. “Hello” I said. “Hello!” He stirred and grunted. “I’ve brought your post for you!”
He rubbed his eyes, blinking in the firelight. “Eh…eh… post, did you say? Post?”
“Yes, Mr Kennedy. Christmas cards. Mrs O’Rorty’s just had a baby, so Mr O’Rorty couldn’t come, so I’m the postman today, Mr Kennedy.”
“I see. Eh… ah… I see.” He muttered to himself, groping around beneath his chair, and produced a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. “Well, sit yourself down, sit yourself down.”
I watched him pour the whiskey with growing excitement. At last, I thought, at last… And then a voice exploded behind me and a hand snatched the glass away just as I was about to take it.
“Shame on you, Dermot Kennedy, shame on you! What do you mean by giving whiskey to the poor young boy? Do you mean to poison him even before he grows to manhood?” It was his wife. Mrs Kennedy was as old as her husband, but twice the size and ten times as loud. Mr Kennedy was afraid of her.
He shrank back in his chair, mumbling excuses and shrugging. “But I thought it was Michael O’Rorty” he whined, peering at me. “I thought it was Michael O’Rorty!”
“Why don’t you wear your glasses, you silly old fool?” She turned to me and smiled. “Don’t mind him, dear, he’s a little deaf. And daft. Now come with me and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.”
It was like that all afternoon. There were men drinking whiskey in every home I visited, but not a drop of it passed my own lips. There I was doing a man’s work, and no one was going to give me a man’s drink! I was beginning to appreciate the injustices of the big grown-up world I was edging my way into.
Anyway, within a couple of hours I’d made all the deliveries. Except one. The one I’d been both dreading and longing for all afternoon.
The Hogans were a wild lot, living out on the moors above the valley. Mr Hogan was a notorious poacher, and they said his wife was a gypsy he’d fallen in love with and kidnapped from her tribe and held a prisoner ever since. But Mary Hogan, their daughter, was in my class at school. And I had been in love with her all term. She had black hair and white skin, big blue eyes and a sharp little nose, and lips so full and red you’d think they were sweet, ripe fruit. But she was a cold, clever beauty. Her brother Eamon was the school bully, and I’d picked a fight with him only the week before when he’d tried to pull his little sister’s hair. But even that hadn’t impressed her.
It was very cold and darkness was falling quickly as I cycled up the hill. The wind was howling when I came out onto the moors and there was more than a hint of snow in the air. Perhaps the road back will be blocked by snowdrifts, I thought, and then I’ll be cut off and who knows if ghosts and spirits and little people don’t wander this desolate place at night as Kelvin had feared? I put my head down and pedalled hard and tried to force such phantoms from my mind with thoughts of Mary Hogan. I cycled up to their cottage, hoping she’d see me on the postman’s bike and carrying the postman’s bag. But there was no sign of her outside. I lent the bike against a turf-and-drystone wall and went inside. There was no sign of her there, either. Just Mrs Hogan and a whole crowd of her other children. Including Eamon, who scowled at me through the traces of a black eye.
“Well now, you’re mighty young to be a postman, aren’t you?” said Mrs Hogan, a woman of mysterious beauty, as I passed her the very last bundle of mail.
“I’m not” I said. “I’m twelve years old. I’m a grown-up.”
“Will you be stopping to take a bowl of hot broth with us then?” she asked, indicating a big cauldron bubbling on the fire.
Now, it did smell good, and I was indeed cold and tired and hungry, but Mrs Hogan was reputed to command sinister and mysterious powers. “Thanks, but I’d better be going back now. It’s dark and snowing and I think my ma might be worrying about me.”
“And you’re scared I’ll cast a spell over you with that witches brew” she said. Then she laughed. “No, young man, I’m only teasing. You’re right. Your poor mother will be worrying. So run along now. And a very happy Christmas to you.”
I left the cottage and its warmth and returned to the bicycle. Mary was leaning against the drystone wall, waiting for me. She looked magnificent, the wind in her wild hair, her skin in the twilight as white as the snow.
“I like your cap” she said. “Can I have it?”
“No, you can’t” I said. “It’s a postman’s cap. You’re not a postman.”
“Neither are you” she grinned.
“Oh yes I am. Didn’t you see me give those cards to your mother?”
“I don’t care.” She shook her dark hair out of her blue eyes. “Eamon says him and his mates are going to get you when we go back to school after Christmas.”
“I’m not scared of Eamon.”
“That cap suits you. It makes you look bigger, and older.” She looked me up and down, and there was something in her eye that made my heart lurch. She was waiting for something. She was waiting for me to do something. And somehow I couldn’t move, fool that I was. She leaned forwards. “Aren’t you going to kiss me, then?”
“Now why would I want to do that?” I asked, playing it cool myself.
“Because – ” She climbed up onto the bike and sat on the saddle. “ – I won’t let you have the bike back unless you do.”
Well. That was that. I kissed her. I kissed her and she put her arms around me and I had to put my arms around her and hold her tight or she’d have fallen off the bike. It was like nothing else I’d ever done before and it seemed to last forever, and then she broke away and jumped down.
“Happy Christmas, Patrick!” She ran back to the cottage, laughing, and disappeared inside.
The wind dropped on the way home, and the snow fell thick and fast through the silent night. The postbag was light and empty, and it was downhill almost all the way, so I raced back through the darkness at an exhilarating speed. But I felt an uneasiness running through the exhilaration. It was as if Mary, not her mother, was the one adept at casting spells, and the magic seemed to promise something very important for the future. A promise of pleasures for all those adult years ahead, but dangerous pleasures I would be wise to approach only with the greatest caution.
Oh, it was an awakening, all right. I knew then, with the weariness of a day’s labour on my shoulders, that the empty hours of my carefree childhood were not to last forever.
My father was already home when I returned. He was chatting and laughing with Michael O’Rorty, who still looked a bit pale. My mother started to fuss straight away – “it’s so late, Patrick, are you all right, we were so worried” – but my father laughed and said:
“Leave Patrick alone, will you, he’s been out doing the work of a grown man, and grown men shouldn’t have their mothers clucking around like anxious hens.” And then he looked at me and said “Well, son, did they all give you whiskey as they should have done?”
I hung my head and said nothing, not wishing to lie and yet not wishing to admit that they had all seen me as a mere child.
My father laughed again. “Well then, perhaps you’d better have this.” He gave me his own glass. His own glass. The golden liquid winked cheerfully at me. “But take it slow, mind.”
My first drop of whiskey. I will never forget it. Do you know what it tasted of? I’ll tell you. It tasted of the Fall of Man. Yes. I knew, after that day, exactly what a man could expect from a life on this earth as an exile from the Garden of Eden. Work. Hard work, and the consolation of the dangerous pleasures that had driven him into exile in the first place. The delights Eve shared with Adam were all that remained of the Paradise they had lost forever.
Now fill up those two glasses again and tell me Mary Hogan has sent me a Christmas card after all these years.