THE FACT OF THE MATTER
The week before the Christmas of my 17th year school was breaking up. On my walk to my bus home I was joined by Micheál, a boy in the same year as me but not the same class. He lived in a neighbouring estate.
Although at 17 I felt man-enough for anything, I still kept Christmas to a traditional pattern, in that I would visit the homes of the lads Christmas morning to share a bottle of Guinness and bid them good joy. Christmas night, however, after the sumptuous feast, I would stay in with my parents and siblings and play a game of Ludo or watch Maureen Potter on the black and white Teilifís Éireann, to a feeding frenzy with my Selection Box.
As we reached the bus stop, I said to Micheál: “If you are doing nothing on Christmas night, pop over.” I do not, to this day, know why I said this, as I did not know Micheál that well. He was not a pal, but say it I did. Perhaps, it was my innate sense of the Christmas good will to all men.
With me now being a ‘big boy’ of 17, the eldest of three children, my Father had said to me: “Now that you’re almost a man, perhaps on Christmas Day you can have a ball of malt with me, and maybe a cigar if you’d like.” I said: “I’d like that.” And I could see that my readiness to be with him pleased him.
Christmas morning dawned and I awoke with the mother-and-father of a streptococcal throat, something I was occasionally prone to in my youth. Boy, was it bad. My throat was inflamed and so sore and I had a high temperature and was listless. Getting into the festive spirit was the last thing on my mind, as was the idea of drinking whiskey or smoking a cigar. I was so ill I could not even eat Christmas dinner. I just wanted to go back to bed, but endured for the sake of my parents. (My Father drove me to A&E the next day where a young nurse gave me the needle).
Christmas night, about eight o’clock, I was sitting by the fire in the good room, totally joyless because of my inflamed throat. On the window sill, by the tree, was the traditional lighted candle, its shadow welcoming all here.
There was a knock on the hall door. My Mother went to answer it. Momentarily she returned saying: “There is a young man called Micheál at the door, asking for you.” I suddenly remembered my invitation of a week earlier. Micheál stood at the door, half frozen with the cold, and under each arm he had a six-pack of Guinness. He had come bearing gifts.
But before he could utter a word I said to him: “With the best will in the world, I am not inviting you in as I am very ill and am going to bed.” And I shut the door, literally, in his face. I knew there and then I had done the wrong thing. We never saw each other after that, leaving school finally that summer and going our separate ways.
However, each and every Christmas thereafter I would be overcome with guilt, when I would recall shutting the door in Micheál’s face that night of my 17th year.
Fast forward 40 years and I was at a dinner party where I was introduced to the new man in a friend’s life. It turns out Pat was Micheál’s younger brother, so I told him my story. “Don’t recall the brother ever recounting that tale,” he said.
About six weeks later I bumped into Pat, heading for a drink at a nearby hostelry. “Micheál’s joining me. He’s down for the night,” said Pat.
Right, says I, here’s my chance to say sorry, ask for forgiveness and rid myself of this terrible guilt that annually envelopes me. So, I followed to the pub some 10 minutes later. Micheál was there, standing at the bar. Forty odd years on I’d have recognised him anywhere.
As I approached him, my hand out, Pat said to him: “This is Paul I was telling you about.”
And he stared at me and without batting an eyelid said: “Not alone do I not remember that story, but I don’t remember you.”
I apologetically turned and left the pub, the winter sun blinding me, thinking, You’re some turkey. All that guilt, all those years…
In memory of Pat Lennon