By Carlo Gébler
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A young mother returns home to Belfast for Christmas and finds herself separated in more ways than one.
She re-did her lipstick and found her coat. Then the three of them went out to the car. Her father had put one of Rosemary’s child seats in the back. He was thoughtful like that.
They set off. The streets of west Belfast were empty, just one row of low houses after another, crouched under a low grey sky. The only points of colour were the fairy lights on Christmas tress glimmering behind the net curtains of parlour windows. Marie was glad she had left her own lights on at home, making their own small contribution towards lessening the gloom.
The McAlister family house was detached. It was not far from the motorway and Dunmurry where her father worked. It was a private house, not a Housing Executive house; her father had made his first down payment in 1969; twenty-five years on and it was his.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, she remembered, her mother had asked about her plans for the future, and Marie had said it was her and Paul’s intention to formalise their separation with a divorce. Mother had received the news silently, since when the subject had never been mentioned, or even alluded to until now. But that was it, wasn’t it? That was the seed from which all this had come. Angelica couldn’t countenance her divorcing. Catholics did not do that.
“What is it?” Marie had heard herself saying, the level of her voice rising but what the hell. “What is it about me? Why is it that I don’t get the same treatment as everyone else in this family? Why for Rosemary, one set of rules, and breakfast and smoked salmon, and for me, another?”
“It’s been fair play in this house,” said her mother grimly, “from the moment you were born, to the moment you walked out that door, went to Leicester and embarked on your life. Since when …” and at that Angelica suddenly closed her mouth.
“Since when?” Marie shouted. “Since when? Go on.” She was as much delighted as she was angry by her mother’s slip. “Yes. Since when, what?”
“I don’t want to have an argument with you. It’s Christmas Day,” her mother cut Marie short.
“Since when – what?”
“Since when,” said her mother, “you’ve made your bed, and a fine frigging mess you’ve made of it too. Now, you learn to lie in it, my girl. It’s hard, I know, to be alone. I’m sorry for you, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Her mother had picked up another glass and began to dry it furiously.
Marie took another huge gulp of wine. To hell with abstinence and caution. And her mother was right, damn her. She was somewhat to blame for what happened. And now her husband was seeing another woman who was giving him what Marie had not.
When the plates were cleared away, and the children had gone off to play, Veronica told her story. She told it faithfully every Christmas Day. She was a stern and modest woman but on Christmas Day she couldn’t stop herself rehearsing what she regarded as one of the finest moments, perhaps the finest moment in her otherwise loveless and miserable life.
One afternoon, sometime during the early seventies, two men had run into her house. They were carrying a bomb.
Veronica led them to her coal shed, made them lie down, and covered them over with coal.
Moments later, the soldiers who were in hot pursuit of the bombers were running all over Veronica’s house.
“They’re not here, whoever you’re looking for,” she told the English Captain haughtily, “and now kindly get out and let me get on with my baking.” She gestured at the flour and baking utensils which she had strewn, as a ploy, on the kitchen table. The soldiers apologised and left.
Five minutes later, two black-faced members of the IRA slunk out of her coal shed, muttered their thanks, and disappeared down to the Lagan. According to local lore, they supposedly threw the bomb into the river.
Everyone laughed at the story. Marie laughed as well. Veronica’s tale of military stupidity and native Irish cunning was Christmas as much as the turkey and the crackers; they couldn’t have Christmas without it. It was also, Marie recognised, the climax, the last obligation. Christmas day was over now for her. She was free to go.
Half an hour later, she was in the front of the car, her father was at the wheel, and Justin as asleep in the child’s seat in the back.
Everyone came out to the front door to wave her off, and then her father drove away down the street.
The traffic light ahead of them was red. Her father slowed and then halted. There was an army Land Rover parked against the bollard in the middle of the road. That first ceasefire Christmas, there were still soldiers around. As neither Marie nor her father had been speaking – they hadn’t spoken properly since her father had reprimanded her – they were both grateful to have something to look at.
The back door of the Land Rover was open, and Marie saw that there was a loop of silver tinsel hanging down inside the door.
She pointed. Her father nodded. He had seen it too.
There was a soldier on the bench inside and now he ran his finger along the tinsel, much as a child might; and then, suddenly realising her had been seen, he looked back at the pair of them in the car.
The soldier smiled and mouthed the season’s greetings.
The traffic lights were turning. Marie raised an arm and waved expansively.
Then she saw that the most extraordinary look of surprise, mingled with alarm, had appeared on her father’s face. He was horrified. And her mother, when she heard, would no doubt be horrified. As would Veronica. As would everyone else. You didn’t wave at them.
But she had, and now the soldier waved back, his hand curling, his grin wide and surprised.
Copyright © Carlo Gébler (1996)
From the collection W9 & Other Lives.
The story highlights the experience of Christmas at a time when a ceasfire was in place between the paramilitaries. It explorers the differences in religion and also the military presence that existed there during the Troubles.
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