Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Christmas Eve

I still remember that bicycle. It was shiny and royal blue, and it had stood in Alfie Cadogan’s shop window for a couple of months. I must have been about ten or eleven at the time and it was approaching Christmas.
I mentioned it in an off-handed way to my mother. Funny how back in those days you never thought of bringing up life and death matters with your father. Anyway, I knew things were tight and didn’t hold much hope; still, you never knew.
Things were tight in Wexford. There wasn’t a person I knew who didn’t have close relatives in London or Birmingham. In fact, a number of my friends’ fathers worked the year round “over in the smoke,” and only made it home for the week at Christmas and the summer fortnight.
My own father was a merchant marine and gone a lot too – four or five months down the coast of South America – then home for a two months break.
But to my mother’s delight he had been back for three years working with his father, a well to do cattle dealer. And still things were tight.
The two men were alike in many ways and for the most part got on reasonably well; but when they clashed neither would back down. To add fuel to the fire, my father, “had an independent turn of mind.” After his years of independence at sea, he hated being beholden to anyone.
My grandmother was the opposite of both men – she was very outgoing and given to sentimentality, and I could sense the tension by the worried look on her face. Apparently my father had lost a good deal of money on a recent cattle deal and that did not sit well with my grandfather.
Still, at that age it’s easy enough blot out the problems of your elders; besides, I wanted that bike so badly. I haunted Cadogan’s to make sure no one else had bought it.
Christmas Eve arrived and the town was sparkling. But not me - we only received one present each back then and I knew that bike cost far too much. Still, I was as usual gazing in the window listening to a song by Elvis. Oddly enough, bicycle shops sold records back then, and Elvis never sounded better than through Cadogan’s tinny speaker.
I was surprised at the firm grip on my shoulder, more so that it was my father – men were not touchy-feely in that era.
“That’s the bike you’re keen on,” he muttered nonchalantly, never a man for many words.
“Yeah, but it’s real dear,” I answered resignedly.
“Me and Alfie went to school together.” He shrugged and strolled into the shop.
On Christmas morning I nearly died and went to heaven when I found the bike in the hallway. My mother seemed concerned but my father shushed her, “I got it for a song. Told Alfie I’d throw him a couple of quid the next time I back a winner.”
I must have ridden that bike up and down the street a hundred times, preening and standing up on the pedals as I rang the bell.
A couple of days later the row exploded. It seemed to come from nowhere. My father mentioned to my grandfather that he needed an advance. The old man had even taken out his wallet but then he murmured that my father “had no head for money” and did he think it grew on trees?
It was all over in a flash, with my father slamming the door and roaring back that my grandfather knew exactly where he could stuff his big bloody farm.
Then my grandmother was holding me tight as we watched my father back up his car with a screech of brakes and accelerate down the gravelly avenue.
When he came back from sea six months later both men acted as if nothing had happened. However, in the end, my grandfather left the farm to another son and every square inch of its lovely hundred acres is now smothered beneath a vast housing estate.
They’re all gone now but whenever I go back I drive, or even walk, miles rather than pass by the memory of rich green grass and grazing cattle.
And I never fail to think of that royal blue bike and the song Elvis was singing the Christmas Eve my father bought it for me.

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