A seasonal short story for those in the mood. Happy Christmas
The Prague Bauble
They weren’t bothered either way if he made himself a cup of tea. Why would they be. It was his place now. To do with what he wanted. He heard the sounds of drills and banging and didn’t move. There was little purpose in checking what was being removed or stripped or taken down. Too easy to unthink things, to get sentimental and muddy-headed. Easy, now. The kettle boiled, he threw a bag in an old mug from the press and poured steaming water over it. He remembered too late there was no milk in the place and cursed under his breath. Maybe one of the lads would have some. Bound to. They’d hardly come up here at this time of year without a hot flask close to hand. There’d be a drop of milk for him in one of their vans somewhere. He grabbed one of the young fellas on his way past and soon had a small container in front of him. He used what he needed and watched tinted clouds unfurl themselves in his mug. Wincing as he pinched the piping hot teabag between his thumb and index finger, he had a flash of his father’s fingers performing the same action countless times. The teabag would then be disposed of with a little benediction. ‘Thank you, teabag.’ ‘Thank you for giving so much of yourself so that I might be satisfied.’ ‘Thank you, voyager from the Subcontinent.’ Old fool. No address nor blessing was uttered as he dropped the teabag in the sink.
They had the radio blasting Christmas songs, and were singing along with mock enthusiasm. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year came on. He wasn’t convinced. He held his tea and stared out the window. He’d been right for her not to come. What an escape. She’d have driven him demented with wanting to talk about everything. Christ. Not everything had to be pored over and dissected and discussed till the bloody cows came home. Some things were better left unsaid. But try telling her that. He’d get this done and be back at the house in time to have a bit of craic with the kids.
What he was feeling wasn’t nostalgia, but the sense of memory, the presence of it, was overwhelming. How could it not be? The old battleground. He’d fought for a long time before leaving others to take up the cause. He learned the hard way the pointlessness of flag-waving. In that household, anyway. ‘A story can only have one hero, son. What you have to decide is if you’re in your own story, or someone else’s?’ Great wisdom, but totally dishonest. There was only one story and one hero that his father had been interested in, and it had had very little to do with any of them. No one else seemed to see it, though. They were all charmed. Little glazed bunnies, nibbling on their carrots. Like those chocolate ones you’d see around Easter.
His phone bleated from his pocket. A shopping list. Breadcrumbs. Brussel sprouts. Sherry. And then the one he hated. Gift for Aunt Lizzie, if you happen to see something. Nothing too fancy. But not cheap. You nearly done? No, he wasn’t nearly done. But he’d be better off not lingering there too long in any case. No good for his head. Aunt Lizzie. A weapon of the sharpest order. He fancied ordering a load of coal to be dropped on her front step. She’d have to burn her way out. That would warm her up. And keep her out of his hair for Christmas. But no, he knew the following afternoon he’d be staring across the table at her grim and disdainful mug, enthralled by her monosyllabic conversation, his soul being burnt alive by her glacial eyes. The kids were onto her, so at least he’d be able to share a joke or two with them at the old battle-axe’s expense. Discreetly, of course. His wife was a saint who took a very dim view of such irreverence. Which was another reason to do it.
“How much longer do you think you’ll need?” He was facing the man in charge. Mid-fifties, tufts of errant red hair surprising the backs of his ears, nose destroyed with shot capillaries, weight-lifter’s belt fastened tight around his not insubstantial midriff. He called out to one of the other men.
“Another hour or that, Johnny? What do you reckon? This man has places to go.”
“Don’t we all!” came the reply. “No hassle, hour and a half, tops.”
“There you have it. We’ll be well done by midday at the latest. Is that good enough for you?”
“Fantastic, thanks. I’ve already settled things with your office but here’s something extra for you and your crew. Christmas Eve and everything.” He extended a couple of fifties.
“Oh good man, that’s very decent of you. Much appreciated. Sound out, now. Don’t worry, we’ll take excellent care of your stuff.”
“I’ve got to get a few things for the wife, so I’m just going to duck out for a little while. I shouldn’t be more than an hour. I’ll be back to lock up. Do I need to sign off on anything, in case I miss you?”
“No, you’re grand. It’s all done. We’ve got everything we need. Bang on. Happy Christmas to you then.”
They shook hands. Jesus, the strength.
“And to yourself. All the best.”
He was sitting in the car about to pull out when there was a tap at his window. The young lad who had gotten the milk was standing there. He put the window down.
“I found this under a loose floorboard in one of the rooms and Coco said I should give it to you.”
“The boss man.”
“Is that his name? I thought it was Gary.”
“We all call him Coco. I think because he looks like a clown. So, do you want this or will I get rid of it?”
He was holding a small cardboard box with a lid on it. It was faded, but he recognised it immediately.
“Good man, I will take it. Thanks.”
“No bother, mister. Happy Christmas.”
He placed it on the passenger seat and stared at it. Of all the bloody things to be handed to him, it had to be this little box that he had years ago squirrelled away with an almost possessed secrecy. To what end? What had he been so determined to preserve? Something that was his alone. A surge of emotion rose in him as his memory reached out to his nine-year-old self. You poor little gobshite.
He had always had a delirious enthusiasm for Christmas and everything that went with it. His appetite for festive sentimentality was insatiable. As far as he was concerned, it was a compact to which he was happily bound, an offer he fulsomely embraced. He would savour the anticipation, relishing the thoughts and future sensations of what was about to come. At night especially, the fervid excitement of his pre-sleep imaginings was almost unbearable. But there was also something in the air in the world of grown-ups. Was it a long, communal exhalation of relief, a mutual understanding that another year had been survived? Was it a suspension of all things cynical and real, a willingness to contribute to the illusion of magic not only for the children of their families and communities, but also to indulge their own melancholic nostalgia? Whatever it was, he felt it as a weave of something otherworldly and spellbinding, a sprinkling of something entirely intoxicating that, for a short, wonderful time, transformed the very fabric of existence.
He opened the box and carefully pulled apart the depressed crepe paper that was obscuring its contents. As he did so, the sunlight coming through the windscreen lit up the reflective surface of what he was looking at. It was a bauble. Perfectly spherical, approximately the size of a grapefruit, it was of the most vibrant shade of teal and had been glazed with a mirrored surface that was startling in its clarity. He was briefly mesmerised as he fell under its spell, just as he had so many times before. More than anything else, the Christmas tree was the totem to which his sense of festive magic had been tethered. As soon as it was up, he used to spend hours just staring at it, inhaling its sharp aroma and in thrall to its cornucopia of shimmering tinsel, dangling ornaments and iridescent lights. It was always best early in the day and late at night, when there was less light, so the tree could more brilliantly assert itself in the room, a bewitching entity whose aura pulsed with a glowing power that was the product of an unlikely chemistry between nature and artifice.
The old man had been a sales representative for a trans-European pharmaceutical company and all year round he was the great giver of gifts from all corners of the continent. He took conspicuous delight in presenting them with all manner of gewgaws, knick-knacks and thingamajigs, that he claimed to have found in obscure artisan studios located under shrouded arches at the end of mysterious cobbled streets. No season bore richer fruit than Christmas as the glittering gimcracks of the period were particular in the brilliance of their colours and design. The bauble he was now looking at had come from Prague. It was one of a set of four that his father had come upon in a tiny snug of a shop that he had memorably described as “a veritable treasure trove of exotica”. He told them the proprietress had smoked a pipe and ate purple pickled onions from a bowl that sat on a tall stool that itself was overlooked by an enormous marmalade cat who purred noisily from a cantilevered shelf above the shop owner’s head. Rubbish. Four. Ochre, vermilion, magenta, and teal. Perfectly formed, resplendently shiny, and possessing a deceptive heft that meant branches had to be chosen judiciously.
Once appointed, his favourite thing to do was press his nose to the tinny surface of the baubles to see how they distorted and reshaped the world. Each different globe would cast everything and everyone in a saturation of red or pink or orange or green. His younger sister had coveted the magenta, but it was the teal to which he constantly returned. It seemed to quieten what was reflected in it and he immersed himself in the strange alternate universe where he surreptitiously observed the everyday dramas that played out in the household. The busiest room in the house was the high-ceilinged, split level kitchen-living room, and that was where the tree was always set up, by the window that could be seen from the road. If he got his angles right, it was easy to see his sister sneak a chocolate behind their mother’s back. Or to follow the dog as he waited patiently for an offcut of meat to be thrown his way as dinner was being prepared. His brother, the youngest, could be seen messing with matches or lighters and burning his fingers. But it was his father he liked to watch most closely.
The old man danced. Everything was movement. He was never still. Whirls and shimmies, cuts and thrusts, he was playful and charming, but there was a slipperiness that came with it. The Christmas of the Prague baubles, he began to see things more clearly. There was tension between his parents and their performance of high spirits was poorly acted. Moving his eyes round the teal globe, he seemed to catch his mother staring into space more frequently. Or pausing over a chopping board to drop her head. He knew now that many of those moments were her attempts to hide her tears from her children. The old man had no tears to hide because he wasn’t grieving for anything. Not then. But he soon would be.
The bauble had become his Christmas movie. He could almost hear the ticking of the projector and see the dust motes floating in the light as it radiated towards the screen. It was Christmas Eve night and he had taken himself over to the tree for one last viewing before heading to bed. The dog had come to join him and placed his head in his lap. As he leaned into the bauble, he realised that his face must have taken on the teal’s greeny-blue hue and he remembered looking around to see if anyone was taking note of his new skin-tone. They weren’t. His siblings were no longer in the room, it was just him, the dog, and his parents, who were in the middle of a hushed contretemps near the kitchen sideboard. They were oblivious to his presence, but he could only bear to spy on them in the reflected world suspended so elegantly from the needled limb in front of him. Even in miniature, he could see by the set of her mouth and the angle of her head that his mother was livid. She had never been a fiery woman but everyone in the house nonetheless knew when she was angry. She could seethe with a cold fury that was almost audible. This was one of those times. The old man was doing his soft shoe shuffle, giving her the patter, giving her the one-liners, the twinkly eyes, the full mock array of dissembling jives and jabs. Pause.
He wondered now at the prescience of his younger self. Had he really worked out the old man at that stage? Already? It seemed unlikely. But maybe he only thought it unlikely because there was still a pathetic part of him that couldn’t help but try to protect his father. Even now. He closed his eyes and shook his head at the thought. Play. It was the transaction that followed that sealed the old man’s fate. He’d been treading water for a while, but it was now time to swim for shore. From inside his suit jacket he produced a slender oblong box with a ribbon around it and presented it to his wife. She didn’t take it immediately. She exhaled a long, slow controlled breath before opening it cautiously. A diamond necklace on a bed of velvet. The magic of his bauble imbued the jewels with a sickly pallor that foreshadowed his father’s misstep. He saw his mother place the gift on the sideboard. She then looked the old man in his grinning eyes and said, “I’d rather have this one.” She withdrew from her apron front an identical box with an identical ribbon. The smile fell from his father’s face as the exposure of his deception hit him like a sledgehammer. She put the box beside the other one and left the room. She hadn’t taken her eyes from his once. His father stood motionless, indicted by his own vanity and arrogance.
He had a whiskey in his hand before he came over to stand by the tree. He felt his father’s other hand rest on his shoulder, but he didn’t turn or offer an acknowledgement of any kind. He just kept staring deep into the Prague bauble. He could recall the old man’s voice gently rumbling behind him, and he felt he could even see his lips move as words were spoken, but he had absolutely no memory of anything that was said. He now presumed it was various forms of denial or justification or delusion, but then, in that moment, he was simply willing himself into the world of the bauble where a different Christmas soundtrack was playing, one that didn’t involve his father’s self-aggrandisement or his mother’s silent tears. In that teal universe he was at peace. There, he was in no danger of being consumed by the anger that would soon lead him into vicious battle with the old man. There, he could save something of the world that hadn’t been danced on.
“You okay, mister? We thought you were heading off.” The young lad again. “We’re all done, anyway.”
“Oh. Right. Yeah, that’s great. Thanks.” He looked at the young man thoughtfully. “You’re hardly a father, are you?”
“Me? Are you mad? Sure, I’m only seventeen.”
“Any little ones at home?”
“Me older sister has a little girl, yeah.”
“And you have a Christmas tree?”
“At home? Of course.”
He handed over the cardboard box. “Here, hang this on your tree.”
“What is it?”
“Have you ever been to Czechoslovakia?”
“You mean the Czech Republic? No.”
“Well, that’s a bauble from Prague. When I was a lot younger than you, it was sort of magic to me. Make sure you show it to your niece. She might find it as beautiful as I used to.”
“A magic bauble? Cool, I’ll give that a go. Thanks mister. Happy Christmas again.”
“Thanks, the same to yourself.”
Once the vans were gone, he went through the house one last time. Empty, save for a thousand memories and the light and shade cast by the illumination of a midday December sun. He got in his car, pulled out on to the road, and went in search of reflections new.