So, this is Christmas. Almost. It’s about thirty degrees and everyone’s looking for ice-pops, or icy-poles, as they are known here. It’s my seventh Christmas in Australia and as with the previous six I find myself missing home and everything I associate with spending the festive season in Ireland. We do our best to create the magic of Christmas in our humble abode but in the blazing heat it’s somehow never the same. Sure, grand.
At the end of my first year here in 2010 I got the notion to try and write a Christmas story after enjoying Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales with a class of Australian-born Chinese English students. It seemed to be that with most stories set at this time of year there was often a bittersweet combination of darkness and sentimentality, and sometimes elements of tragedy offset by magic; self-interest overcome by a touch of grace. I tried to incorporate some of those things in Joe’s Last Christmas while paying a sort of tribute to Ireland’s colourful capital city. My protagonist is one of Dublin’s many homeless people and it seems timely to put the story in the public domain right now when homelessness is an issue that has suddenly found itself angrily front and centre in the media at home.
I did finish the story that first Christmas in Oz and I’ve no doubt my attention to the details of Dublin’s streets, placenames and famous figures was greatly informed by my homesickness. Some of you read it back then, maybe you’ll indulge your own Christmas spirit and read it again now. Happy Christmas everyone.
JOE’S LAST CHRISTMAS
Joe was ready.
Temple Bar sent a dark morning wind whipping across Ha’penny Bridge with a venom that was most unseasonal. Not for December but for Christmas. Joe dug himself deeper into his sleeping bag, for all the good it did. He tried to will himself back to sleep but the wind that had woken him so rudely wasn’t going to have a change of heart and suddenly become a summer breeze seducing him with sounds of ice cubes in cider and the laughter of beguiled tourists.
He knew it had been a heavy night. Otherwise he wouldn’t have ended up on the bridge. Stupid. Too soon. His skull was screaming and he was already dreading the low winter sun cutting the eyes out of his head. The quays were barely touched with traffic and there were hardly any people about as the shops had yet to open. The cries of seagulls sounded here and there and Joe wondered what it would take to get them to be quiet. He was freezing. Numb and tight and tense. There wasn’t a bit of him that wasn’t chilled to the bone. He thought it would nearly be worth his while to piss himself just to warm up. But then he’d have to walk around all day in wet underpants in the bloody cold. Not to mention the smell. He’d make his way down to the boardwalk in a second and do it in the Liffey.
He made one last hopeful attempt to nod off and found himself briefly in the fields of his youth eating strawberries and throwing worms at hysterical girls. He could smell the fresh earth and see and feel the juice of the fruit red and sticky on his lips and chin. A stream ran nearby, singing with the promise of life. The sun was shining and he was wearing shorts and sandals and an itchy shirt. The girls’ delicious laughter was still in his ears when Geraghty’s unmistakable whine of a culchie accent brought him back to the here and now.
“Come on now Joe, you can’t stay here, you’ll offend all the Christmas shoppers. It’s going to be a busy one.”
Joe desperately grasped at the fading images of his dream but they were gone. Poxy Guards. He must have actually slept as the sun was up now and the quays were busy. And here was this pain-in-the-hole standing over him.
“Come on, Joe.” Joe felt a persuasive kick on his hip.
“I’m movin’, I’m movin’.”
“That’s right, Joe. I’m moving you.”
Joe’s shaking fingers struggled to unzip the bag down near his feet so he could put his legs out in the fresh air. His boots were still on, as he expected, but as he lifted the bag slightly to check his laces were tied a half-empty naggin of Jameson’s fell out beside them. Joe’s hands were occupied holding the bag around his chest so he watched helplessly as Geraghty stooped slowly to pick up the whiskey. The young Guard didn’t say anything. He stepped across to the other side of the bridge, unscrewed the cap and poured the golden liquid into the dirty water below. The sunlight caught the whiskey as it fell and it glittered magically for the briefest of moments before the last drops fell. From his leather-gloved hand Geraghty proffered the empty bottle to Joe who would have made a better fist of glaring at his persecutor had the sun not been shining straight into his bloodshot eyes.
“Don’t give me the hard man eyes, will you, Joe? You’ll get me all upset on Christmas Eve.”
Joe thought about saying something about Geraghty’s mother who allegedly was a hunchback and was also rumoured to have slept with a local Green politician who had a wooden leg. They reckoned that’s why Geraghty was such a sour little shit. But Joe realised he was still half drunk from the previous night and there was very little to recommend an obstreperous course of action. Had he been a little bit younger and a lot less hungover he would have taken his chances but he knew, by virtue of knowing it in himself, that there was a bit of badness in Geraghty and that made him unpredictable. Which was dangerous because you could never really read a culchie. Too much of the bog in them. Too much covered up, covered over.
Joe commenced his awkward shuffle down the bridge towards Lower Liffey Street when he heard the Guard call after him.
“Nice suit by the way, Joe, nice to see you getting into the spirit of things.”
The sleeping bag had slipped to his waist and as Joe paused to scowl back at the source of the voice he quickly appraised the situation. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been rendered speechless but that involuntary silence struck him once more as his stinging eyes strained to digest what they had just landed upon. It was a Santa suit. And Joe was in it. He emitted an apoplectic grunt that prompted a sneering laugh from the departing Geraghty. Christmas. Ah Jesus. He shouldn’t have been bothered by the further indignity and if it had been any other Guard he might even have been able to laugh it off but it wasn’t and his ears and neck burned with irritation and exposure. That surge of heat was quickly snapped away by a blast of wind. He pulled the sleeping bag up sharply and stood there for a moment swaying aimlessly until the swell of his bladder reminded him of his need to relieve himself. He turned to make sure Geraghty was actually leaving and saw him talking to the Banner who was behind the wheel of the squad car as he lowered himself into the passenger seat. He watched it on its way along Wellington Quay and once it had turned into Parliament Street he descended the last few steps of the bridge and stepped onto the boardwalk.
As he pissed into the river his mind snatched at flashes of the night before. Where the feck was his bag and who the hell had taken his clothes? He had gone with Gerry and Tina up to Conyngham Road because Gerry’s brother was having his work drinks at The Nancy Hands. They tapped him for a bottle of Powers but he’d only give them Canadian Club. Joe hated it because it was much harder on his teeth. But he still drank it. His gums gave out a little cry at the memory. He had an image of four or five D4 tossers in Leinster jerseys on The Joyce Bridge. A bit far up the river for them. He definitely had his bag when he was outside the Ashling because he had been reading Yeats to Gerry which was, as always, an exercise in futility. Or had that been down by Collins’ Barracks? Smithfield was full of ice-skaters and tracksuited gougers so he wouldn’t have spent much time there. He was wondering to himself how they managed to stay warm in tracksuits when he realised someone was giving out to him.
“Have you no shame? Put it away, for God’s sake!” The woman, in her early forties, was standing a few feet from him on the boardwalk with her young daughter over whose eyes she had placed her hands.
“What is it, Mam, what’s the man doing?” the young one asked, trying her best to peek through the censoring fingers.
“He’s being a sick pervert”, hissed her mother, growing increasingly irate. “It’s Christmas, you dirty feck. Is it that hard to find a toilet?” she barked.
Joe couldn’t quite work out the connection between Christmas and the availability of lavatories but this woman was a crazed virago ablaze with the indignant irrationality of the righteous. More than he was in any case, poised as he was with his mickey dangling between thumb and forefinger, trying to shake the last few drops of alcohol out of his ravaged body. He was enduring the slow motion processes of the severely hungover and as familiar as he was with their every nuance they were no less unpleasant now than at any other point over the last thirty-odd years. He muttered a half-hearted defence.
“I’m only taking a piss love, that doesn’t make me a pervert.”
She wasn’t interested in anything he had to say as her disgust seemed to have just crept up a notch.
“Are you wearing a Santa suit?” she asked incredulously. “You are an effing disgrace! I’d use stronger language if my daughter wasn’t here but you are a real piece of work. On Christmas Eve! And would you for Jesus’ sake put your yoke back in your feckin’ trousers. I’ll be reporting you to the first Garda I see.”
Joe slowly dipped his head and realised he had been in a state of semi-paralysis since the onslaught began and sure enough he was still exposed to the south side of the city. He fumbled himself back into a state of decency and turned back to the woman but she was already halfway to Merchant’s Arch dragging her child behind her.
He exhaled with groggy relief and continued his recollection. His mind was starting to impose a firmer shape on things. He had to get his bag or he’d be struggling to be organised in time. Tina had walked off in a huff to North Circular Road at around nine o’clock.
“Is it the zoo or the women’s prison you’re going to?” Gerry had asked.
Tina will be alright.
He needed to get his hands on the Yeats. He wasn’t finished with that. It was a lovely little hardback edition of his selected poems in near perfect condition. He kept it wrapped in a thick plastic bag and it had survived countless airings to the courts of streets and alleys and benches. He read some to Kavanagh by the canal just to see his face. He declaimed verses to soppy Wilde languid on his rock in Merrion Square. Pages fifty-one to fifty-six were missing. In a moment of dire necessity he had chosen to wipe his arse on In Memory Of Major Robert Gregory and took An Irish Airman Foresees His Death with it as collateral damage. Major Gregory was one of his least favourites. He briefly contemplated just taking the last few pages of the book for the sake of simplicity and tidiness but that would have been too unedifying an end for Under Ben Bulben and The Circus Animals’ Desertion. Yeats the man sort of got under his skin but Yeats the poet was a balm to his battered soul. Page fifty-seven had survived to give him Men Improve With The Years. Joe almost laughed to himself. A weather-worn, marble triton among the streams. There was no bodily fluid he hadn’t lain in at one stage or another on his anaesthetising crusades but could he have called himself a sea god or even the son of one? Some Guinness-spewing deity perhaps doubled over in a coursing torrent of blood and vomit. He blanched momentarily at the image he’d created.
It was time to move on. He reckoned he knew where his bag was. His brain had unfolded itself enough to give him one more clue. He’d got into an argument with some Estonian skinhead on Wolfe Tone Street and he’d put his bag down by Mary’s Church as he readied himself for a fight. That flashback suddenly stung him halfway down the back of his right leg.
“Get a job, Irish. I kick in your hole. I am Estonian stupid old man, not Russian. Not Polish. Not Slovakian. I kick in your hole, racist Irish.”
All Joe had done was offer him a drink. He was too old now for anger. Rage. That fire was long gone out. Still, he was well able to argue in spite of that.
“Go on back to the Kremlin, Nikita. You’ll be happier there. I’m no racist, I hate all of yis the same. Bunch of unemployed, spongin’ wife-beaters, that’s all you are.”
Joe didn’t believe a word of what he’d said, he was just contrary and invited the beating on himself. He simply didn’t care. No rage. No fear. He took a couple of kicks and the Estonian was happy enough to walk on. Joe actually felt sorry for him. He had been filled with the same anger himself. Young, hungry, aggressive. Repelling every slight, spitting at the whims of Fate, shaping the world. Ridiculous. It shapes you. Old man. Triton. Who shapes water?
He had disgorged himself fully from the sleeping bag which was now rolled up under his arm. He limped gingerly along in the Santa suit occasionally catching his reflection in the decorated shop windows. The red bobbled hat that been sticking out of one of the coat pockets sat unevenly on his head. It was better than no hat and it was still freezing. He wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the mannequins and tinsel.
Time had sped up or else his grasp of it had slowed down as the streets were now properly busy and passersby were subjecting him to a barrage of comments.
“Looking a bit rough, Santa.”
“Jaysus, what happened Santa, did Mrs. Claus kick you out?”
“Daddy, why is Santy mad?”
“Recession hit the North Pole too, Santa?”
“What’s wrong Santa, is Rudolph on strike?”
Typical Irish, he thought, whatever you do, don’t let the evidence get in the way of a joke. Joe did have a beard but it was black. Whoever saw a Santa with a bloody black beard? He couldn’t find his bag quick enough. To his relief it was still lying there against the south facing wall of St. Mary’s. He stripped to his waist and fished out the three large tee shirts that he’d got on Henry Street a few days before. Robbie Williams, Jedward and Beyonce. He also had a Dunnes long sleeved thermal so he threw that on first and then layered the tee shirts over it. Beyonce on top, Robbie in the middle and those two floppy fringed gobshites from Lucan underneath the lot. Finally the Santa jacket fastened tight and topped off with an Ireland scarf around his neck. He squashed his sleeping bag into a carrier bag which he then tucked under a nearby bench. He sat down and checked his remaining possessions. He blessed himself. The Yeats was there. Some frugal toiletries. A large bottle of Milk of Magnesia. Chocolate syrup. The paracetamol. The rat poison. The heaviest item was the pestle and mortar.
The day wasn’t going to get any warmer so he bought a pair of fingerless gloves as he was walked beneath Christmas lights past Arnott’s on his way to the Spire. He walked around the bottom of the pole three times and then took stock of his bearings. He supposed nowhere was more Dublin than O’Connell Street. He looked past Joyce down North Earl Street to Talbot Street and on to Connolly Station and thought of the Kylemore and Guiney’s and even the religious bookshop right down the end. Turning to his left he ticked off the Savoy, the Gresham, the Royal Dublin, the old Carlton and Ambassador cinemas and Parnell himself.
He considered the trinity of parliamentarians that divided up the thoroughfare. Parnell looked like he wanted to rest his hand on an acolyte’s crown. Or perhaps he wished to be led to the pillars like the benighted Samson so he could bring to its knees the House of Empire and Oppression. Larkin’s arms were raised in exhortation. Or was it despair? Joe’s muscle memory twitched in recognition of the gesture. The parallel ended in the form but not the substance as he doubted if Big Jim was reacting to spilled whiskey and alcoholic mania. O’Connell was regal without being imperious, an admirable combination of stature and humility. Not that that stopped the pigeons from shitting on him, his streaked face somewhat robbed of its natural gravitas. The GPO’s Promethean Cuchulainn was just behind him and further down you had Eason’s looking across at Clery’s and the Happy Ring House. He moved back to the other side of the Spire and regarded the way he’d just come. Henry Street was bustling with festive activity and he knew it would be busy all the way down to Little Mary Street where he always went to get his boots. He hovered for a second over Capel Street’s furniture showrooms and hardware shops and let himself pretend he was still a man who could use a good set of tools. Satisfied with his inventory, even if the majority of it had been conducted in his mind’s eye, Joe proceeded to a cheap cafe on Moore Street where you were still able to get a cooked breakfast and tea for under a tenner.
As he washed down his last bit of sausage, pudding and toast with a mouthful of stewed tea he reached his left hand into his underpants and pulled out the last of his money. Seventy Euros tucked away safely in a Bank of Ireland coin bag. Two twenties, two tens and two fives. He knew there was a handful of shrapnel lining the bottom of his bag but probably no more than four or five Euros. The holly hanging in front of the clock behind the counter made it difficult to read but as he couldn’t see the hands he decided it must be close enough to midday. Twelve hours. With food in his belly now and the clouds in his head parting, Joe was no longer concerned with finding his old clothes. It’s Christmas, he thought, as he gazed down at his red belly, no one will be bothered. He was itching for his first drink but the warmth of the cafe was seductive and so he ordered another pot of tea. Bing was crooning MacNamara’s Band over the speakers. He never cared for him. Didn’t trust him. Too smooth, too polished. He thought of Geraghty again. Too much bog. Bing, too much polish. Where did that leave you? He was neither bog nor polish. He couldn’t come up with an answer and by the time he’d drained the second pot that hadn’t changed. The sink in the toilet was tiny but he still managed to wash off enough of the night grime to feel on the verge of fresh. His eyes looked like they were covered in a film of red mucous and his teeth were yellowed badly where he still had them. The beard though, and most of the hair, were black.
“Thanks, that was grand,” he said as he placed a twenty by the till. The woman taking his money was attractive and in her mid-twenties. She had a soft sensuality about her that Joe found instantly intoxicating. He’d sucked in his gut and raised his chest without realising it when he impulsively told her to keep the change.
“That’s eight Euros,” she said. She made eye contact as she spoke.
“Happy Christmas, love.”
“Thanks, happy Christmas to you too, Santa.”
He winked his friendliest wink and walked out the door wondering if he shouldn’t have given her a little ‘Ho-Ho-Ho’. If it hadn’t been so cold outside he would have swaggered all the way to the drink section in Aldi’s. The offer on the Jameson’s was still on so he got two full-size bottles which left him enough for a sandwich later if he got hungry. The young fella bagging his bottles grinned at him cheekily.
“I hope you’re saving that for Stephen’s Day, Santa. Remember, don’t drink and drive. Oh, and I want an XBox360 please. It was in my letter but with the bad weather there a couple of weeks ago I don’t know if it would have got to you.”
Joe wasn’t in the mood.
“What’s the address again, 4 Gobshite Heights?”
“Ah you’re hilarious Santa, aren’t you?”
But Joe was already gone.
The day was ticking by now but he still had about ten hours to go. It was too cold to spend the day wandering around like an eejit and he didn’t want to see anyone and probably no one wanted to see him either. The Wandering Jew. He probably had taunted his share of martyrs in his time. The wandering would be over soon enough. Cain. The banished son. That wasn’t him. Though he let people believe what they wanted. They thought he hated Christmas because he found his wife shagging his cousin under the Christmas tree. It never happened. He left that life of his own accord. An act of his own volition. It wasn’t even December, it was June and his wife had begged him to stay and he said some truly cruel things and he left. He had been wronged in no way at all. But they believed he was a victim of some sort. Victimhood was currency in the street. He’d heard all the stories and some he even believed. He was no better than anyone else out there.
He crossed O’Connell Street and walked down the steep stairs of Burger King and locked himself into one of their toilet cubicles. He lowered the lid of the toilet seat and put the pestle and mortar on it. Then he got out the paracetamol and methodically popped each tablet from its place on the blister packs. It was a laborious process. Twenty packs of twelve. Two hundred and forty tablets in total. Add two tablespoons of rat poison. Stir in a circular motion with the pestle until you are left with a fine powder. The bowl of the mortar was full to the brim. He placed it carefully on the scummy floor. He poured half the Milk of Magnesia down the jacks. Then he replaced half of what he’d got rid of with the chocolate syrup. The powder went in next via a simple funnel made from a napkin that Joe had picked up at the cafe. He screwed the cap on tight and shook the bottle vigorously. Holding it up to the light he fancied he was like a mad scientist but it was the first time all day his hands had served him to the letter. He asked someone the time on his way out. Eight and half hours.
He didn’t want any hassle today and he knew things were going to ease off in the afternoon when only the most desperate last minute shoppers would remain. Then the pubs in the suburbs would do a roaring trade as people gathered in the haunts of their youth to raise a glass with the friends and family that bound them. All Joe wanted was a quiet spot to lie low for a couple of hours. He could have gone over to St. Patrick’s or even up to Christchurch but the thought of negotiating College Green and Dame Street and the abuse off the gurriers round the Ivy flats made the decision for him.
He stopped around the corner from the Pro Cathedral to swallow several long gulps of the Jameson’s. He gathered himself and went round to the entrance. He sat inside the door to the left three rows from the back. He had removed the dust jacket from the Yeats so it resembled a prayer book and he rested his folded hands over it in his lap. The priest approached him and wished him a happy Christmas. Against his usual instincts Joe warmed to him straightaway but he couldn’t tell why. It was a disarming sensation. He looked about the same age as Joe which meant he was probably about seven or eight years his senior. He didn’t seem pious, maybe that’s what was attractive about him.
“I haven’t seen you before,” said the priest.
“I haven’t seen you either,” said Joe.
“Are you a shop Santa somewhere?”
“I’m afraid not. I woke up in it.”
“Might I ask your name?”
“You might. It’s Joe. Joseph.”
“Good man Joseph, I’m Father Behan but you can call me Declan if you prefer.”
“That’s alright Father, I’m sure you’ve earned your title.”
“I suppose I have. And will you be alright for a place to stay tonight?”
“I don’t anticipate that being a problem, Father.”
“And is this a good time of year for you, Joseph?”
“As good as any, Father.”
“Will you be with your people for Christmas?”
A children’s choir being rehearsed for midnight mass started to sing Away In A Manger.
“Ah, Away In A Manger. I am particularly fond of that one. Do you like it Joseph?”
“I’ve yet to meet a Carol I didn’t like, Father.”
The priest’s eyes twinkled with laughter.
“A ladies man you are, Joseph? I hope that hasn’t landed you in any hot water.”
“Not in recent years Father and certainly not in this weather. Once In Royal David’s City.”
“Oh yes, a very moving air. Beautiful, actually.”
“Yes Father, I think so.”
“And your people, will you be celebrating with them?”
“I’ll be with them soon.”
“Well Joseph, I wish you and yours all the best. God bless.”
The priest walked back up to the front of the church and was soon immersed in the duties of the day that was in it.
Thanks Father. Joe’s eyes grew heavy as he allowed himself to be lulled to sleep by the boys’ singing.
The buzzing of a vibrating mobile phone woke him up. His ears woke first. The scritch-scratch of pencil on paper. The muted tic-tac of fingers on the buttons of a mobile phone. The whisperings of a voice talking to itself. A fart.
His eyes opened. His nose sniffed tentatively. No smell. He could feel the movement to his right before he looked down to see a small black boy doing maths in a copybook. He was mouthing calculations under his breath and would every now and then wiggle a finger or two as he double-checked his efforts. His hair was short and he was wearing a school uniform. He was writing with his left hand. He was kneeling on the pew and leaning forward on his elbows as he did his work. His stockinged feet stuck out behind him. He had on red and yellow socks. Just beyond him on the floor Joe could see a coat, a schoolbag and a pair of shoes.
The boy looked up from his work and let a huge smile emerge from behind his mask of concentration. He was a handsome child and he gave the distinct impression that Joe’s waking up at that specific moment was entirely to his satisfaction. When he spoke he whispered in a soft African accent but it was with a confidence that belied his lack of years.
“Ah good, Father Christmas, you are awake. Are you ready for what you have to do tonight? I hope so. I have been a very excellent boy and I am looking forward to some most beautiful presents for myself and my parents. Do you see? I am doing my mathematics. This is division and it is not difficult for me. I sometimes help the other boys in my class when they are stupid. They call me Africa and say that I am an import but they are only joking Father Christmas so please bring them presents also. They love me when I play hurling because I am a natural with the caman and teacher says if I keep it up that there is hope for the Dublin hurling team. Do you know what a caman is, Father Christmas? It’s another name for a hurl. That’s the stick we use. ”
“I know what a caman is, thanks.”
“Do you, Father Christmas? I did not think they played hurling at the North Pole.”
“You’d be surprised what they do at the North Pole. Anyway, do you not think I’ve given lots of Irish children camans for Christmas before?”
“Ah, that is a good point Father Christmas, I had not thought of that.”
The boy lapsed into silence as he reflected on the wisdom that had just been imparted. He was sitting back on his heels so Joe was able to see a white name tag pinned to the boy’s navy jumper.
“How do you say your name?”
“That is Obafemi, Father Christmas. Oba. Femi. Obafemi. It means ‘The King Loves Me’.”
The boy held the part of his jumper with the name tag in two hands as he examined it for a moment, perhaps searching for greater significance. Still holding it, he looked up at Joe curiously and asked him who he thought the king was.
Joe thought the name probably referred to God but he had mixed feelings about that and didn’t speak about God lightly. He considered saying Elvis but felt the boy’s sincerity deserved better than that. He pictured some composite image of the clichéd African tribal leader, holding a baby aloft over mud huts to the ululations of beautiful women. But that too seemed unsatisfactory.
The boy’s eyes were a brim with anticipation but a slight hint of disappointment was stealing into them.
“Don’t you know, Father Christmas?”
Joe looked at him. What the hell do I know?
“The king is a great man who cares for his people and his place and he looks after them. People respect this man. And he respects himself.”
“And he lives in a great palace Father Christmas!”
“Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes the king is just someone who knows where he is and is happy to be there.”
“I don’t understand, Father Christmas.”
“Here, let me read you something. It might help.”
Joe opened his Yeats and read the boy The Fisherman. The boy hung on every word and when Joe was finished neither of them said anything for a while. The boy spoke first.
“That was quite a good story, Father Christmas.”
“Yes, Father Christmas, a poem. This fisherman, he is happy on his own. He likes the river in Connemara and he likes fishing.”
“That’s right. That’s his kingdom. He’s the king there.”
“Yes, Father Christmas. And maybe he loves me. This is good. I will sing for you now. I am in the choir.”
The boy composed himself and quietly sang Silent Night to Joe.
Joe had a look of utter consternation on his face that had barely shifted by the time the boy had finished. For the second time that day no words would come. The boy’s phone suddenly buzzed to life and the message quickly read. The boy gathered his things and put on his shoes and coat.
“I have to go now, Father Christmas. I have enjoyed talking with you. I was watching you Father Christmas. I saw your Ireland scarf. I saw your big black beard. I saw you go to sleep and I decided to mind you when your sad eyes were closed. I have heard your voice and it is not jolly the way I thought it would be. But I know you are in disguise so you can rest before everything you have to do tonight. I think you are a great man, Father Christmas.”
Before Joe could stop him, the boy had clasped him in a huge hug and kissed him on his cheek. And then he marched out the door into the cold without a backward glance.
Another heave of puke hit the ground between Joe’s feet as he groaned in a spasm of pain. He puffed his cheeks, exhaling slowly. His face was etched in a familiar grimace of internal revolution. That boy had got inside his head. And then his stomach followed. It was a few hours since he’d left the cathedral and he was finally purging himself of the demon that got in his gut around the time the boy had started serenading him. He’d had to drink the rest of his first bottle of Jameson’s to silence it but he was pretty sure if it hadn’t drowned in alcohol it was least going to end up in the drains of the Abbey Theatre. Not the first bit of regurgitated whiskey they’d have seen. He was bent over at the side of the building with one hand up against the wall. Clenched in his other fist was the empty bottle that he had recently used to toast James Connolly whose statue was about two hundred metres from where he stood. He had sat himself at the base of Connolly’s plinth and endured, encouraged and exchanged Christmas greetings with all the travellers rushing to catch buses and trains at Busaras and Amiens Street. And in such proximity to the plough and the stars that formed the proud backdrop to Ireland’s premier comrade he felt compelled to not only raise his bottle to Liberty Hall across the road but also to O’Casey. His plan was to honour the playwright with a Yeats recitation outside the national theatre and he was en route to that appointment when his body brought the procession to an unavoidable hiatus.
And now he was bent over awaiting the next assault. None came. He wiped a sleeve across the bile, spit and snot that smeared his mouth and mopped his brow with the scarf of the Boys in Green. The time for frivolities was passing and Joe found himself possessed of an urgency that was shouting down the muddy grogginess of his brain. The contents checked, he slung his bag over his shoulder and headed in the direction of Grafton Street. There was a spot in Stephen’s Green where Joe planned to make his peace and go wherever the darkness would take him.
He passed Molly Malone without even a glimpse at her ample bosom and Christmas revellers were no more than a colourful stream of voice and movement shepherded on either side by the neon trails of ornate window displays and the fairy lights that formed an archway overhead. His demeanour grew more grim and determined with every stride that took him closer to the Green. He paused at Harry Street to place himself one last time in McDaid’s bar. He had already turned back to his path when a familiar voice called out to him.
Joe looked back up Harry Street but no one appeared to be there. He was running out of time. He turned to move.
“It’s me, Joe.”
Joe looked again. There were smokers lined up outside McDaid’s and Bruxelles and Joe strained to pick out a face he knew. Nothing. No one.
“Am I invisible, Joe?”
Joe scratched at his beard in puzzlement but still the speaker didn’t present himself.
“Jaysus Joe, come on, open your eyes, I’m right in front of you.”
Joe cautiously stepped back into the street and dared himself to look over at the statue of Phil Lynott.
“You’re getting warm Joe, that’s it, don’t be afraid.”
Joe pushed his Santa hat back on his head and stooped his face slightly to peer closer at the statue.
“Good man Joe, you have me! Come over here and say hello properly.”
Joe looked around and it was clear that nobody else in the vicinity was privy to this conversation. He walked right up to the Thin Lizzy legend and stared into his lifeless eyes.
“I always knew you were a friend to the black man, Joe, fair play to you. Don’t bother looking at my eyes, nothing happening there. It’s all in the mouth. And the hips.”
The bronze lips moved almost imperceptibly as he spoke and Joe thought he also saw the faintest sway halfway down the body.
“What are you doing, Phil?”
“What am I doing? What are you doing, you mean!”
“What do you know about it?” said Joe defensively.
“Tonight There’s Gonna Be A Jailbreak.”
“Some Of Us Won’t Survive.”
“Tonight’s The Night All Systems Fail.”
“Phil, I’m sorry, I was never really a Lizzy fan, I’m not really sure what you’re on about.”
“‘Jailbreak’, man. ’76? One of our best. It’s you, Joe, I know you’re breaking out.”
“I’m not in jail, Phil. I’m a free man.”
“I know what’s in your bottle Joe. I know. I’m like The Happy Prince except I don’t have a swallow. It’s the fans, man, they tell me everything. Don’t do it. Look at me, I died too young. And here I am stuck with a view of South Anne Street for the rest of me bleedin’ days. McGonagles gone and all, that was a great joint.”
“Phil, my mind is made up. I’m done. And I’m alright with it.”
“Bollocks you are! You’ve too much soul, man. Don’t fuckin’ waste it like I did.”
“I’m sorry Phil, I swore this would be my last Christmas. Come midnight, it’s all over.”
“Shite. I didn’t take you for a quitter Joe, I thought you had more about you than that. You’ve hung on to the Yeats for years, man. What about that?”
“Some things are worth keeping.”
“Keep yourself, Joe.”
“I have, Phil, for too long. I’ve nothing left.”
“I’ll hit you with another one of my lyrics -”
“It’ll be wasted on me, I was more of a Van Morrison fan to be honest.”
“Well I don’t see any statues of him here, do you?”
“He’s not dead yet, Phil.”
“I suppose. Still. Anyway, never mind all that, Joe. Just do me a favour.”
“Think of the girl in the cafe and think of the priest and think of little Obafemi and you can even think of the Russian and the smartarse in Aldi too. Think of the woman giving out shite to you on the boardwalk this morning.”
Joe started to walk away. It was time. Lynott’s voice followed him.
“There was life there, Joe. Real life. Living now. Your life, Joe.”
Joe hauled himself over the railings and fell heavily into the bushes on the College of Surgeons side of the park. He lay there looking up at the frosty night sky and searched the constellations for an answer. When none came he opened the second bottle of Jameson’s and sunk half of it there and then. He rolled over on to all fours and crawled out to the path. His bag was still on his back although it was now besmirched with dirt and foliage. He wobbled towards the centre of the Green and finally arrived at his destination. The bandstand. He stumbled up the steps and fell over the little gate that barred the entrance. It was one of those slow motion falls he knew so well and had he been sober it would have hurt a hell of lot more than it did. He righted himself and sat like a drunken, bearded toddler looking back towards the city centre.
He had no watch. He had no phone. But he knew what time it was. He slid the bag off his back and pulled from it the concoction that he had foreseen what felt like an age ago. He stared at the bottle intently and felt tears sting his eyes as girls’ voices giggled in his ears. He put the bottle down between his legs on the floor of the bandstand. Joe then heard his own voice coming from somewhere inside him. He was singing. Soft and drunk and messy, but singing.
“Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child.
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.”
He drank the rest of the whiskey in snotty gulps. A hand that didn’t seem to be his reached out and grabbed the other bottle. It unscrewed the cap. Joe stuck out his tongue to receive his final communion. Nothing. He looked at his hands. Left hand. Jameson’s. Right hand. Nothing. He looked between his legs. Nothing. Then a sound. A splatting sound of thick gloopy liquid hitting the ground from a short height. Then a voice. A culchie whine. Geraghty.
“Do you think I’ve nothing better to do than empty your bottles from one end of the day to the other?”
“Your mother’s a hunchback and she’s riding a cripple.”
“You can’t choose your family, Joe.”
“No, you can’t. You may be a lot of things, Geraghty, but you’re not thick.”
“Come on Joe, you’re in some state, we need to get you a bed for the night. It is Christmas, after all.”
The young Guard helped Joe to his feet and led him towards the main entrance of the park.
“Do you like Thin Lizzy, Geraghty?”
In the back of the squad car Joe closed his eyes and found some words for his last Christmas. As far back as he could remember every Christmas had been his last one and yet here he still was. He saw a black boy doing maths in a cathedral. He saw a mother fiercely protecting her child. He saw a young immigrant wounded by anger and hurt. He saw a priest who hadn’t lost his way. He saw a beautiful young woman lit by a touch of grace. He saw great men who cared for their people and their place.
And yet, and yet,
Is this my dream, or the truth?
O would that we had met
When I had my burning youth!
But I grow old among dreams,
A weather-worn, marble triton
Among the streams.
Joe exhaled slowly and smiled a quiet smile to himself. Fuck it, I’ll carry on.