A Christmas story in two parts for your seasonal edification. The second part to follow over the next few days. I hope you enjoy.
Gary Neville Saves Christmas
Fibrous McNulty and Density O’Neill stopped the van on the brow of the hill that overlooked the village, the exhaust pumping thick white fumes into the frosty air. It was late and the bejewelled night sky comforted them not one bit. Nor did the festive lights of the distant buildings they could see through the windscreen of the knackered Hiace.
“Is this the last one?” asked Density, sucking on another pickled onion between sips of Lucozade.
Fibrous didn’t answer immediately but leaned forward over the wheel and glowered from under his gnarled eyebrows. “Aye,” he said in a lean, sour voice. He sat back and pulled an unhappy packet of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and was soon exhaling a lungful of smoke into the already pungent atmosphere of their vehicle.
“I thought you’d given up” said Density, a disappointed look on his crumpled face.
“Does it look like I’ve given up?” Fibrous retorted with a quiet snarl. “Don’t be thick.” He blew some smoke in his companion’s face to emphasise his point.
Density opened his mouth silently in acknowledgement of the evidence and turned his gaze back towards the village.
“I suppose we may as well get on with it, so.”
The van was put back into gear and began its slow descent towards their destination. The muffled cacophony from the back distracted neither man. In the moonlight it was possible to make out the faded logo on the panels of their transport. Miles & Myles: Going the Distance so You Don’t Have To! Fibrous knew it was good. The man at the night course had said so. The exclamation mark made them seem like happy campers. Fibrous smirked with grim satisfaction at the irony.
“Will we have some music?”
“We won’t. And no humming either.”
“How did you know I was going to hum?”
“Just don’t be thick, Density, just please Jesus, don’t be thick.”
But he was thick, that was the simple truth. Thick as thick could be. Not a glimmer of intelligence in his red haired skull and a face that didn’t conceal it. But it really didn’t matter. Fibrous wasn’t still putting up with him all these years out of love or loyalty – it was in the hands. Density O’Neill’s hands were smart and strong. They had old knowledge in them and they were the only part of him that wasn’t soft and mushy and indolent. They were hard as flint, wiry and agile and up to any task set before them. They were, in short, neck-breakers.
The offer brought Fibrous back to the there and then. He replied with a look that could wet a bed so Density deftly capped the liqueur and put it beside the rest of his stores. He reached for the half-cucumber he’d been saving but then thought better of it and popped a bullseye in his mouth instead. His hands snuggled deep in his sticky pockets as he indulged in a satisfied chuckle.
“Whisht!” spat Fibrous, “get yourself ready.”
To any other eyes, the village would have appeared breathtakingly idyllic. Twinkling Christmas lights dipped hammock-like between the telegraph poles, which served glittering sentries keeping watch on the hodgepodge of dwellings and pubs and shops that nestled shoulder to shoulder along the gently meandering thoroughfare. A river outflanked the village at the southern end and so the road rose across a crude but functional humpbacked bridge over the sides of which many a merry drunk had fallen on their wobbly way home. An early frost was already glistening on every available surface and stirred an urgency in Fibrous that was making him crankier by the minute.
“Have you the Russian’s number lined up?” he barked at Density.
“Da, comrade” came the reply through a mouthful of custard creams.
“No funny business, Density, I’m warning you. Here, give me the list.”
A sheet of paper was handed across that had stuck to it a cheese and onion crisp, a black jack and a bite sized piece of a Wham! bar.
“A Wham! bar, yeah? You’re some piece of work. You’re a real gem.”
Fibrous had pulled in beside the small church at their end of the village and was studying the piece of paper carefully. He was counting under his breath and nodding to himself.
“It’s going to be a good Christmas, Density, you can get as big a turkey as you like this year.”
He paused and looked sternly into the eyes of his accomplice.
“As long as there’s no messin’. Got it?”
“Yeah. No hassle.”
“Right, the first one’s up here. Let’s go.”
The two men quickly checked themselves in the mirrors available to them. A fingernail between the teeth, a lick of saliva transferred from fingers to hair, grimy stubble and lip corners wiped to unknown points along the chin and jaw. They got out of the van and walked purposefully round the back, stopping momentarily as they looked cautiously around. Satisfied of their secrecy, they lifted the back door and quickly grabbed a hession sack and some wire without pausing to look at the anxious eyes that stared fearfully from the depths of the van. The door closed, they made their way to the first door and rapped the knocker cheerfully.
The door opened and a portly old woman who smelled of sherry and butterscotch stepped to the threshold. She had to lean back to fully take in the two strangers before her. Her nose wrinkled in distaste and she suddenly called over her right shoulder back into the house.
“James? James! There’s a couple of itinerants here for something. Grab a couple of non-perishables from the kitchen and we’ll send them along. James, come here and deal with this!”
Fibrous bristled but quickly composed himself and smiling his most charming smile, he addressed the woman unctuously.
“Madam, I can assure you we are no more itinerants than you are yourself. Miles and Myles, madam, at your service and from excellent stock. Indeed, you can trace our lineage to the high kings themselves. Only the other day I was saying to my colleague-”
The sharp slam of the door cut him off mid-sentence.
“I don’t think she was interested, Fibrous.”
“Miles, call me Miles you fool!”
The door opened again and this time a man stood there and extended his right hand in greeting.
“How are ya lads, glad to see you. Although I was beginning to worry you wouldn’t make it.”
“We’re men of our word Mr. Doyle and our word is our bond, as the saying goes.”
“That’s right” chimed in Density, “yeah.”
Fibrous smiled at his sidekick with dead eyes and sharply turned back to the man in the door.
“I believe you have something for us, Mr. Doyle?”
“Of course,” said the man, somewhat guiltily, “Give me a second.” He retreated back into the house a few steps and returned with a box which he handed over to Density. The hession sack came out and the box went in it.
The man looked ruefully at the sack but was interrupted by Fibrous’ honeyed voice.
“All for the best Mr. Doyle, all for the best. And now, I believe you might have something else for us?”
A look of panic passed over the man’s face.
“What? No, no. I don’t have anything else. Nothing at all.”
Fibrous frowned at him, though he tried to disguise it as a smile which simply resulted in his face wrestling with itself, making him look more intimidating than normal.
Mr. Doyle got the message and a spark of understanding flickered into his eyes.
“Oh! The fee. The fee. Right. No problem. I have that right here.”
He looked at the experts carefully and leaned towards them. They leaned forwards in kind.
“I don’t suppose you’d take the mother-in-law too?” he whispered.
Fibrous and Density said nothing but leaned back to their previous positions.
The man laughed nervously, produced a wad of cash from his back pocket, thrust it into Fibrous’ hand and disappeared behind his closed door. The men walked slowly back to the van to dispose of their boxed and bagged burden. They were oblivious to the two sets of eyes watching them surreptitiously from the upstairs window of the house four doors down from where they had just been.
Flippers Keogh was fourteen years old and six foot three. He earned his nickname on account of his inordinately large hands and feet which contributed significantly to his success as the regional schools’ swimming champion. Only his mother called him by his given name, Dermot. His father, whose only contact with him was by text or occasional phone call addressed him as ‘F-Dog’ or ‘The Big F’ or ‘F-Man’. His father had left when he was five because he ‘had some business to do’. It was another couple of years before the other children in his class would intimate the exact nature of that business, and with whom. It seemed his father had fallen in love with a country singer from Monaghan who called herself Belle Tail. Flippers’ father had gone to see her sing in one of the local pubs one night and simply never came home. Flippers’ abiding memory of him was seeing him walk out the front door in an oversized cowboy hat, checked shirt with collar tips and one of those cowboy tassel things hanging from his neck. The lower half of his outfit consisted of green O’Neill tracksuit bottoms and Dunnes Stores runners, which led Flippers to conclude that he must have been sitting behind a counter or with his legs hidden under a table when he was making eyes at Belle Tail, otherwise she hardly would have been impressed enough to take him back to Monaghan with her. They moved to London and ended up in Turnpike Lane where they still managed a pub called The Cow and Tussock. Flippers didn’t care for English pub names. Or country music.
A sniffle and meaty yawn from his chest brought his attention to Gary Neville, the nine-year-old Siamese cat nestled about six inches below his chin, its face jutting unapologetically over the three-quarters-hoisted zipper of his Manchester United replica training ground jacket. The cat was named for the defiantly obnoxious defender that happened to be Flippers’ favourite player. He stroked his companion gently on the head and received an appreciative mewl in response. Gary Neville was chatty, and by virtue of travelling around with his head protruding from Flippers’ chest, often appeared slightly confrontational, his intense feline gaze and scrunched up face perpetually unimpressed.
To be continued…