In our ‘Countdown to Christmas’, The Kilkenny Observer is delighted to welcome Dr. Joe Kearney as our first contributor in our Christmas short story section. Enjoy
By Dr Joe Kearney
We were more like shepherds than magi when we followed that star and if not shepherds then, more than likely, we could be considered black sheep. The stellar light in question was a strip of neon proclaiming the word ‘Watneys’ and the ‘stable’ it hovered above was the saloon bar of the Rifle Volunteer on Kilburn High Road in London.
On that particular Christmas morning, we wended our way through the concrete boreens of North London in some pale imitation of the rituals we remembered were being performed by friends and family back home. Ah! Back home – that was the common element binding us together; it was Christmas, and for yet another year, we had not made it back.
The atmosphere in the Volunteer was heavy. There were reasons for this, perhaps it was the swirl of tobacco smoke or the Thames fog leaking in whenever the barroom door opened, but mostly the air was heavy with unspoken loneliness. We carried the weight of Christmas on our persons as a hod-carrier shoulders a load of bricks at the end of a long day. Oh sure, we slapped backs, shook hands and bought drinks for perfect strangers. We had assembled in this plastic tinseled refuge pretending it was our notion of celebrating Christmas – but we knew it to be a lie – we were only in the Rifle Volunteer because we had nowhere else to go and it promised to remain open until 2.00pm on a Christmas Day.
The lad with me was from Cork. On the second round of drinks he burrowed into an inner pocket and withdrew a handful of Christmas cards, stamped, addressed but never posted, his scrawl like a scratched map of the quiet town lands he knew better than any other place on earth. He switched digs regularly. His family had lost connection he told me. He was someone who moved quietly through the world, leaving nothing traceable apart from the muddy imprint of his construction boots
Behind us, with his back to the frosted window, sat the man from Inisboffin. I knew him from outside the Crown, looking for ‘a start’. He carried scars of the trenches and tunnels of London and looked like a newly emerged mole. This morning his eyes were as glassy as a stuffed hunting trophy. The pint glass was dwarfed in his pick-and-shovel hand. Tilting back his head, his voice competed against the metallic stutter of a juke-box and fruit machine. With tightly shut eyes, he sang out a lament of loss that dampened our false gaiety. He sang the words of Anach Cuan,
“May burning mountains come tumbling downward.
On that place of drowning may curses fall,
Full many the soul it has left in mourning,
And left without hope of a bright day’s dawn”.
Someone unplugged the juke-box and allowed the song to fill the bar. In our heads we were in North London but in our hearts we were transported home. Home for the west of Ireland man was a place where surf shredded into foam on wild rocks, and where small windows offered the world-weary and the lost an unconditional invitation to warmth and light. For me it was frost flowered window panes, star bejeweled velvet nights and bells calling out from the Big Chapel. When the song filled the air it became sacred as a hymn. It swept us with it as a swollen river will carry a broken branch. In that most unlikely of spaces we became helpless hostages to memory.
The shutters clattered down fifteen minutes before closing time. Outside the fog had thickened and as we emerged we were glad it blurred the outlines of our adopted home.
We evaporated in the muted light towards our motley of bed-sits; moving through a day short on light but long on memory. The song dogged our footsteps. It was in our heads. We may have landed by boat but today we were drowning in the cold London fog:
The skeletal trees I passed beneath held, buried within them, a prospect of new life and growth. There would be springs, summers and other Christmases – the difference, I promised myself was that next year I would make it home – and at that – that very sacred moment, I really believed what I said.
Joe Kearney is originally from Callan. He is an award winning documentary maker, writer and contributor to RTE’s Sunday Miscellany. His collection of short stories, The Beekeeper and the River has just been published. It will be launched in January. Meanwhile it is available through Ballpoint Press at firstname.lastname@example.org, 086 8217631 or directly from Joe at 087 2633041