A festive story written for the season that’s in it. Happy Christmas.
Jimmy was buried beneath his duvet listening both to the sound of his breathing and his mother’s footfall on the stairs. As the bedroom door opened he shut his eyes tight and imagined himself a winter hedgehog snuggled in a bed of moss and leaves. Balled up, he found his feet and pushed his fingers between his toes. He wondered where his socks had ended up. His mother was standing right by the bed now. He waited to hear if she was going to be angry or soft.
“Come on Jim-Jim, time to go.”
“Jimmy, are you in there? We better get going so we can back in time for Santa.”
Danny Kearney, Stevo Mullan and Francie Connors all said Santa was bullshit, that he wasn’t real at all and that he was only for babbies and mentals. But Caoimhe McNabb, Johnny Green and Precious Martin said that they were lying because they were from broken homes and that they were sad and angry. Jimmy just thought they were smart holes, but he was worried because once he’d worked out what it was, he realised he was from a broken home too.
“Does our home look broken to you?” his mother asked him when he’d brought it up.
He supposed not, even though it hadn’t been the same since it was just the two of them. His mother said the roof was on, the walls were up and the windows and doors all worked. Definitely not broken.
“Is that what they mean, Mam? I don’t think it is.”
“No love, I’m only messing. People used to call it a broken home when a mammy or a daddy left the family, that’s all.”
“Oh. Like Da leaving us?”
“Does Santa come to children in broken homes?”
“Santa doesn’t forget anyone, Jimmy.”
Under the duvet his phone rang.
“Jimmy! I told you not to sleep with your phone – it will fry your brain.”
It was his father.
“Hold on, Mam, it’s Da.”
As he listened to his father he tried to picture where he was. Was his house nicer than their house? Did baby Grace have a bigger bedroom than his? He asked about the weather and was jealous that they had proper snow. Then he sort of stopped listening to what his father was actually saying. The words. The jokes. He tried to listen behind the voice. He tried to hear love. It was there, kind of. But a scabby version, like watery soup.
“Okay Da, happy Christmas. Yeah, I’ll tell Mam. Will you give baby Grace a kiss from me? See ya.”
His mother pulled back the duvet. He passed on the Christmas wishes. She gave him a hug and smoothed his hair.
“Get dressed and don’t forget your glasses. And I don’t want to see that mobile phone in your bed again.”
“The glasses make me look like a spa, I’m not wearing them. Why can’t I have contacts?”
“You’re not ready for them Jimmy, remember? You scratched your eyeball the last time we tried. Anyway, we can’t afford them right now. Maybe we’ll try again at Easter.”
He grunted. And then he groaned. And then he swore.
That got her attention.
“Jim-Jim, we’re not going to ruin Christmas Eve with that sort of language. I don’t think Santa wants to hear that either.”
He didn’t want to say it but out it came.
“Fuck Santa and fuck this Christmas. I hate these fucking glasses. I want fucking contacts. And I don’t want to go on the fucking spastics’ bus today!”
He watched his mother like a hawk. He saw her run her top teeth over her bottom lip and mouth something very quiet to herself. She was calm. And still soft.
“That’s five euros Jim-Jim. One for every curse. I know you don’t want to talk like that because I know you’re a very good boy really. And ‘spastics’ is really not great, love. It’s just not nice.”
“Get your arse ready, we’re leaving in ten minutes. And if you’re anything less than lovely to Donal, I’ll kill you.”
Fifteen minutes later, they were on the road in a tinsel-bedecked mini-bus with a Rudolph nose on the front grille. Jimmy’s mother wore antlers and a Santa hat and had Christmas music blaring through the tinny speakers of the bus. He was slightly stunned by her good humour and decided it was a good time to apologise for the bad language.
“Sorry for cursing Mammy. Am I still getting Iron Man for Christmas?”
The mini-bus pulled into an old estate to pick up the first passengers. Robert Dunne and Mary Michaels were waiting by the Dunnes’ front garden Christmas tree. Robert’s father Gerry was waiting with them.
“Howreya Jean, all set for Chrimbo? Thanks for this, Robert’s been talking about it all week.”
People didn’t say spastics anymore. They were now called People with Intellectual Disabilities or People with Impaired Physicality. PIDs or PIPs. The kids in school spoke a lot about ‘paedos’ but PIDs didn’t get much of a look-in. Stevo Mullan said to be careful at this time of year because some of the Santas going round were paedos and you never knew what would happen if you sat in Santa’s lap. Jimmy didn’t know what he was going on about but it didn’t sound good. Maybe you’d get pinched or he’d piss on you or something. Precious Martin said Stevo was a bad apple.
They boarded slowly and greeted Jimmy who was sitting down the back. Robert had his football with him as always and Mary had on her own pair of antlers which slipped forward on her head when she laughed. She laughed often so the antlers were adjusted every few minutes. As they continued on their route the bus filled up quickly but no one sat in the seat beside Jimmy. Everyone left it because they knew Donal would go mad if he couldn’t sit there.
His mother stuck the red nose of the mini-bus into Donal’s expensive looking drive. His family were well-off and Jimmy’s mother said he didn’t want for anything. The front door of his big house opened and out he came. Jimmy’s mouth dropped open involuntarily as he took in Donal’s appearance. He was wearing banana-yellow boot runners and a cherry-coloured velvety tracksuit. His flat-topped hair was dyed brilliant green. He looked like a packet of Skittles.
“Here he is, the star of the show!” exclaimed Jimmy’s mother as Donal made his way to the last free seat. He received high fives from all the other passengers and held an expectant hand aloft in front of Jimmy.
“Come on Jimmy, don’t leave me hangin’!” he grinned.
Jimmy slapped his hand half-heartedly as Donal plonked down beside him. He reeked of aftershave with which he appeared to have dowsed the large gold chain around his neck. Underneath the aftershave was the distinct odour of onions. Donal had a burger with fried onions for his breakfast every day.
The mini-bus got going again.
“So, how’s me main man? Do you like me Christmas gear? I look like Kanye West. I’m not gay Jimmy, I like girls. Here, look at this.”
He jumped up and almost rugby-tackled Mary in her seat to give her a massive kiss. Mary screamed and told Donal to feck off and that she could smell his onions. Jimmy’s mother shouted out that anybody not sitting down with their seatbelt on wouldn’t be allowed to see Santa. That settled things very quickly.
“I wouldn’t mess with your ma, Jimmy. She’s hardcore. What are you getting for Christmas? Is Santa bringing you something cool?”
“Yeah, I hope so, Donal. I think I’m getting Iron Man. Mam – am I still getting Iron Man from Santa?”
“Iron Man is cool. Do you know they’re making another ten films? Ten! I’ll be dead by the time they’re done,” said Donal.
Jimmy told him he liked the comics better. He stared out the window while Donal rabbitted on beside him about all sorts of things. As Cornelscourt eventually loomed into view he breathed a controlled sigh of relief. The car park was jammers but there was a spot for disabled vehicles out front and that was where they stopped. They gathered themselves into a conspicuous group with Donal taking charge as if he was a sheriff of a harmless, blameless posse.
“Right everyone, Santa’s gaff is just over here. I was here on Monday and last Thursday so I know how to get there. There’s loads of lights and it’s kind of pink inside even though it’s meant to be like a snow cave. Does anyone want to go to the zoo with me in March for my birthday? We can see a polar bear then. They’ve got black skin under their fur.”
Robert Dunne punched his football and spat a garbled but not unfriendly ‘shut up’ at Donal. The rest of the group cheered in mocking approval.
Donal lurched at Jimmy and grabbed his hand.
“Come on pal, let’s lead the way.”
There was a queue outside the grotto and Jimmy blanched when he immediately recognized Danny Kearney and Stevo Mullan right in front of him with their older brothers Gavin and Bubbles and a couple of older girls he’d never seen before. Danny was nice enough when he was on his own but he could be a dick when Stevo was around. They spotted Jimmy straight away.
“Alright lads,” said Jimmy. Donal was still holding his hand.
“It’s Gaffa-tape Gaffney,” said Stevo, “and his bodyguard, Bozo the Clown.”
“My name’s not Bozo, it’s Donal,” said Donal.
“Donal the Denser, is it?” asked Stevo. The other boys laughed but one of the girls spoke up.
“Don’t be ignorant, he’s got Down’s Syndrome. He’s grand.”
“Nice chain, Donal. Give us a go of it, yeah?” said Bubbles. He was called Bubbles because when he was a young fella his ear wax was so runny he could blow bubbles with it. And he did. That’s what Stevo told them in school anyway.
Jimmy looked behind him to see where his mother and the rest of the group were. He saw them still standing by the mini-bus in a state of disarray. It looked as though Robert had lost his ball.
“Jimmy’s da lives in Germany now and Jimmy has a little German sister” offered Danny for no apparent reason.
“So what,” said the other girl, “your da is in Naas. I’d rather be German than be a culchie.”
“You look fuckin’ mad, Donal. What look are you goin’ for there?” asked Gavin Kearney.
Jimmy hoped Donal wouldn’t say.
“Kanye West, aiiight!” said Donal accompanying it with a rapper’s in-turned hands followed by a little self-congratulatory thump on his own chest. He did everything a little bit slower than normal people.
“He’s hilarious,” said the first girl. “I’ll be your Kim Kardashian” she giggled.
Jimmy regarded Danny suspiciously. “I thought you said Santa was bullshit.”
“He is. We’re just here to wreck his head. Gavin and Bubbles are going to ask for sex toys. Me and Stevo have to catch it on our phones. Does he never let go of your hand, no?”
Jimmy’s hand was sore because it was being held so tight. Donal looked stressed. Bubbles had moved a bit closer to them.
“My girl thinks you’re cool. I don’t. But it would be cool if you gave me your chain.”
Bubbles had been expelled from his school for throwing a chair at a teacher. That’s what Stevo said. Jimmy didn’t want to get hit by a chair. Maybe Bubbles would bash them with a shopping trolley. That would really hurt. He nudged Donal.
“Just give it to him Donal, your family can get you another one easy,” advised Jimmy.
Donal was confused. Jimmy looked to the mini-bus again and he could see a security guard was now involved. Fucking Robert and his ball, he thought.
“Come on Kanye, give us your chain,” hissed Bubbles.
“Leave him alone, Bubbles,” said the second girl, “can’t you see he’s getting upset?”
“If he gives me the chain, there’ll be no hassle.”
“Jesus Walks,” sang Donal.
“What did he say?” asked Gavin. “Is he into God?”
“It’s a Kanye song, ya eejit,” said the first girl.
“Give me your bleedin’ chain, yeah?” threatened Bubbles.
“Jesus Donal, stop being a fecking Mongo and give him your poxy chain!” shouted Jimmy.
As soon as he said it, he knew something wasn’t right. Not just the crap feeling he had for saying it but an extra ‘oh shit’ feeling that made him instantly dizzy. He turned slowly and saw that nobody was beside the mini-bus anymore. They were all right there in the queue. Everybody seemed to be holding their breath. And then his mother spoke.
Not soft. Hard.
“James Gaffney, you get over to that mini-bus right now. You can forget about Santa and you can forget about Iron Man and you can be bloody well sure your father will be hearing about this. Move!”
As he walked away from them all, even though he could hear his mother properly giving out to Bubbles, he felt hurt all over. He was crying. He’d ruined Christmas. He wished he could just be somewhere warm holding Baby Grace. He couldn’t get in any trouble just doing that. He cursed his father for not being there.
His mother was not long after him to let him in. He could see she was angry. But she was also upset.
“Get in there now and think about what you just said. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”
She marched off back to the grotto and as she rejoined the group Jimmy was able to make out Donal peering in his direction. He doesn’t even know to be angry with me, thought Jimmy.
When everybody got back on the bus he pretended to be asleep and that’s how he stayed until they got home. Donal had been first off but still had time to whisper a quick ‘Happy Christmas’ in Jimmy’s ear. His mother didn’t seem angry anymore. She made him beans on toast and let him watch TV when he was done.
That night he lay wide awake in bed. He wasn’t excited about Santa. He knew there was a good chance he wouldn’t be coming. He lay there hoping that things would be easier in the new year. He hoped he’d get to Germany to meet his sister. He hoped Donal would forget the shitty thing he’d said. He hoped Bubbles would die quietly in his sleep. Or else be hit in the head and wake up with a new personality. That would be better. He balled himself like a hedgehog, found his toes and drifted off to sleep.
His mother laughed her way into his room the next morning. She was wearing her antlers again. She planted a kiss on his forehead.
“Happy Christmas sleepy-head! Do you not want to see what Santa brought you?”
The Incredible Hulk. Jimmy pretended not to be disappointed. It looked like Stevo and Danny and Francie were right. Feck.
“That’s deadly. The Hulk is cool.”
While they were having breakfast the doorbell rang. Jimmy’s mother answered.
“You’ve got a visitor,” she said when she came back into the room.
He was standing on their front step holding a parcel. Jimmy could see Donal’s father waiting in their car on the road.
“How’s me main man?”
“Alright Donal, Happy Christmas.”
“Did Santa come to you, Jimmy?”
“Yeah, he did. But he didn’t give me what I asked for. I got The Incredible Hulk.”
“Santa must be having problems this Christmas.”
“He must be having problems because he dropped this at my house. And it’s for you.”
Donal handed over the parcel. The label on it said ‘To Donal. Happy Christmas! Love Santa’ but Donal had been crossed out and ‘Jimmy’ had been written in instead.
“This is yours, Donal.”
“No it’s not. Open it.”
“I’m sorry I called you a Mongo, Donal. I won’t do that again.”
“Open it, Jimmy!”
Iron Man. Brand new. The latest one. Red and gold. Six commands. Spare armour. Four different missiles. Lights in the hands, feet and eyes. And a mini-comic in the box too. Deadly!
“Donal, that’s class. But I think Santa meant it for you.”
“Maybe he did, Jimmy. But I’m twenty-three. I’m too old for Iron Man. You enjoy it. I’m into Captain America now.”
“Thanks Donal. Happy Christmas.”
Donal got into the front passenger seat of his Dad’s car and waved to Jimmy as the car pulled off. Jimmy was happy to wave back. He stayed where he was for a moment and looked at the box in his hands. He didn’t know who was looking out for him, but he quietly said thank you and swore to himself he’d believe in Santa for at least one more year.