TWAS the night before Christmas, and not a creature in Larchville was stirring.
Actually, there are two lies there. It was two days before Christmas, and it was particularly noisy in Larchville because the Park Inn had just closed and fathers from all over the parish were falling out of the place singing about “scumbags, maggots and cheap lousy faggots”. 11 year old Robbie Flavin was listening to them as he did most weekends because his house faced right on to the bar. As usual, he was concentrating really hard, focusing all the energy of his senses towards his hearing so he might be able to hear his own dad. Experience told him that if his dad was singing, he’d be in a good mood and would more than likely sing himself to sleep that night. If he was quiet, he’d make a lot of noise once in the house, which would wake mammy up and that would be followed by so much worse noise.
Robbie had a Walkman that he got for Christmas the previous year. It was falling apart and ate most of the tapes that he put in it but there was one mixed tape, which belonged to his older sister Katrina that for some reason, played perfectly. The ear phones had a skinny metal bar which sat atop his head and each side had a fluffy orange sponge for each ear. They weren’t comfortable to wear in bed but on the nights that daddy wasn’t falling across the road singing, he’d turn it up full blast. The tape was mostly songs of Katrina’s taste – Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, The Bangles and her favourite of all, Madonna. Robbie had grown to love all the songs but thankfully, it was a 90 minute tape and there was a bit of U2 on there too.
Ears straining as much as they could, Robbie couldn’t hear his dad amongst the fairy tales of New York, so he stuck on “Where the streets have no name” as loud as he could and closed his eyes.
Waterford Shopping Centre
Tomorrow was a big day. Robbie had made a deal with his Mam that while she did her Saturday shop – in the Shopping Centre in the morning, and in town in the afternoon – he could play the recorder for people to try and earn some money for Christmas presents.
“They’ll more than likely stick that feckin’ recorder up your hole,” Robbie’s Mam said. “But if it keeps you from dragging out of me for the day, go for it.”
Katrina taught Robbie how to play it. It was a well-known fact that she was the best recorder player that the Presentation had ever seen. Her younger sisters Liz and Amy were, in the words of Sister Anne “a disappointment to the great family tradition”. Apparently Mam was fairly skilled too but hadn’t been heard playing since Hurricane Charley, when the whole of Larchville and Lisduggan fell into darkness and people could do very little else but play the recorder and burn toast beside Supersers.
“I want to play outside Neville’s first” Robbie had told his Mam.
Neville owned a men’s clothes shop and quite liked Robbie and his family.
“You can’t play indoors, and besides, you’ll frighten all his customers away,” Mam replied.
Robbie knew that Neville would more than likely send him on his way, but not before giving him a crisp pound note for his troubles.
With his recorder in hand, he made a quick stop at KG Discs first.
“Is it still put away?” he asked the man behind the counter.
“It is…but there’s only one left in the shop and I’ll have to put it back out tomorrow if you don’t get it today.”
“Grand job,” Robbie thought as he skipped out of the shop.
Zipping up his jacket and tying up his scarf, he took a look into Crazy Prices. He could never understand why everything was so yellow in there.
Robbie knew 10 songs, which wasn’t bad for an 11 year old. He threw his hat on the ground and started into ‘Danny Boy’. Looking disappointingly into an empty hat, he then played some ‘Frere Jacques’. These were the classics that Katrina had taught him but they were getting him nowhere.
“Can you not play any Christmas songs? For the time that’s in it…” an old woman said as she passed by without dropping so much as a 20p into the hat.
“Shit,” Robbie thought. “How did I forget about Christmas music?”
This was a test, but one that he was up to. He ran around the back of the Shopping Centre and began practising Jingle Bells. Ten minutes later he had something that resembled it. Next he tried Silent Night but it ended up sounding more like “We will Rock You” by Queen.
Thirty minutes, and what looked like about five pounds later, a foxy girl from Kavanagh’s Sweet Shop shouted at him to learn another song or she’d “give him a kick in the Jingle Bells”. As it happened, it was time to depart the shopping centre anyway. Mam had the bags from Crazy Prizes, The Freezer Shop and Homemakers and it was time to bring them back home before hopping on the bus into town.
Robbie had a very specific plan for town. He would play a few songs outside Burger Land, then move down to the Savoy, maybe the middle of Red Square before hitting the Giving Tree in George’s Court. If everything went according to plan, he’d have the other fiver that was needed to buy the record in KG Discs and then he could spend any extra money he got in Fitzmaurices. He was a fan of those little Styrofoam Airplanes that he never seemed to be able to get anywhere else.
“Do you know any other songs?” a woman from the KK Discount Store shouted after Robbie’s fourth rendition of “We Will Rock You on a Silent Night”. That was his cue to move on.
Despite getting distracted in the Pound Shop, Robbie had made enough outside the Savoy to complete his plan, get the plane from Fitzmaurices, and join his mother and Aunty May in the Wimpy for a Junior Burger Meal. He was, for all intents and purposes, elected, and like all children who had gotten what he wanted, he now wanted to leave town (and hot foot it back to KG Discs).
“You may wait now ‘til we’re ready to leave,” Mam said, horsing a burger into her mouth.
Robbie needed to get up before 5:30pm and he knew the mother still had to make her usual stop at Cassidy’s, Kelly’s and Wyley’s for a scratch card before the bus home. It was going to be a close one.
Before Robbie’s class had broken up for Christmas – on the last day – they were all allowed to bring in a game from home. This was a challenge for Robbie because every board game in the house was missing at least five essential pieces. He would have loved to bring his Walkman and just sit in the corner singing away to himself but he knew that it would never be allowed. His mother told him to bring Screwball Scramble except it was a bit pointless without the screwballs. He settled on a game called ‘Downfall’, which involved turning a succession of wheels and trying to drop discs into a tray at the bottom. Robbie knew that even though most of the discs were missing, it didn’t matter because every house in Waterford had the game and everyone also hated it. Nevertheless, he opened the box and saw something that made him smile. Written on the inside of the box were the names Katrina, Elizabeth, Amy, Mam and Dad. Beside each name was a series of ticks. Dad had the most ticks, followed by Katrina, Elizabeth, Mam and finally Amy, who only had one tick. Robbie was sad that there was a time, when he was too young to remember, when Dad played with the rest of the family. It was only a few names on a bit of cardboard, but it represented a happiness that Robbie was too young to share with them. It gave him a new found respect for ‘Downfall’ and he forced his friend Richard to play it with him.
Christmas Day is only a state of mind. Even though it looks like any other day of the year, it doesn’t feel like that. From the moment you open your eyes and sneak down the stairs, it’s Christmas. You have half a selection box for your breakfast and you bring your toys to Mass. It may be a Monday, but it’s like no Monday you’ve ever seen. Your mind has confiscated the common calendar and for the rest of the week, there are no more Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays…just the 12 days of Christmas.
Monday, December 25 1989, Robbie got out of bed, jumped into the warmest clothes he could find, pulled the record – in the paper KG Discs bag – from under the bed, and ran downstairs. Instead of opening up the sitting room door, to see what presents were glistening from him in the dark, he quietly opened the front door instead. It was dark, as the clock hadn’t yet found 6am, but Robbie knew he’d be back home and all before 6:30am, half an hour before his sisters would even contemplate emerging.
About a half a mile away, Robbie stood in front of his sister’s grave and took out his recorder.
“You don’t know this one, but I think you’ll love it,” he said before playing the first few bars of “Like a Prayer”, recorder style. When he was finished he put the record beside the gravestone, next to the Madonna T-shirt that he put there last year. He wished her a Happy Christmas, told her that he loved her and kissed the gravestone.
He then walked back to a house that hadn’t been a home since the worst day of their lives, two years earlier. Christmas stops for no man.