Monday 16 September 2019

Eugene O'Brien: 'A Wonderful Life'

A Christmas story by Eugene O'Brien

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Eugene O'Brien

She had always loved getting the RTE Guide the week before Christmas and using a red pen to circle all the films and programmes she was going to watch. She never missed Willy Wonka, the Gene Wilder one of course, the original.

Her husband Kevin used laugh at her and go out to the greenhouse to his tomatoes. Leave her at it. Willy Wonka? He couldn't fathom it at all. He'd watched half of it with her one time. A weird sort of film really with all those funny little orange dwarves. Her other favourite was It's a Wonderful Life. She had seen it a hundred times. He'd seen bits of it but didn't really care for it either. Something about angels and a town in America or something.

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He wasn't one for films really. He liked documentaries and reading about wars. He liked growing things. He had never been much of a pub man. He liked the quiet life and since retirement from an administrative position in Bord na Mona, that is what he'd had.

He also liked her. His wife. Eileen. In fact he had loved her from the very first day he saw her, right up until the day she left him. May 23, 2018. A day he can't remember much about. A day that cut him to pieces, like a violent attack. It was very sudden.

This time last year she was getting bad headaches. She went in for tests. Diagnosed with a brain cancer in January. Gone by the end of May. Sixty four years of age. That's all. Didn't even make the bus pass.

And not anyone can lend comfort, not his friends, neighbours, nor his grown up son Michael. Not anyone can touch you. You are removed from the real world. You stand over here. Away from everyone else. Separate. You can never go back.

People say you can, time heals all. No. He barely existed now. It took great effort to even get out of the bed and now Christmas was only a month away. He had dreaded its arrival all year because she had loved it so much.

Kevin was to go to Leeds for Christmas. Their only son Michael was married over there. He'd gone to study pharmacy, met Valerie, a girl from York, and stayed, producing two grandchildren, Ben and Laura, aged six and eight. It was all arranged that this 'difficult' Christmas would be endured across the water. His flight was booked but Kevin really didn't want to go. He wanted to stay in his own house. He'd manage. He just wasn't up to facing people without her. Especially not his own family.

Eileen's greatest pleasure had been her grandchildren in the house for Christmas. She always insisted that the two kids said prayers with her in front of the crib before they went to bed on Christmas Eve. She wasn't terribly religious or anything but she felt that it was worth the effort to remind them about the real meaning of Christmas. Then when the kids were safely tucked up in bed she'd take out the Baileys and pour the adults a glass and help with getting the Santy things together. And every year she made him grow his beard. He was able to manufacture, within a month or so, a very thick white beard and that along with his expanding waistline... well he did look a ringer for you know who. So she'd make him grow the beard and make him wear a hat and on Christmas morning she'd make him give out the presents under the tree. He felt kind of foolish. Every year he felt embarrassed but then kind of got in to it. He wasn't the real Santa. The kids knew that. The genuine article had already been the night before with the reindeers and sleigh and the whole shebang. But the more Kevin let himself go and do the Santy voice, the more the kids enjoyed it and the more she smiled. She would look over at him, a look of love… a look of "I know you kind of hate doing this but you're doing this for me and I appreciate it". It had been good like that, their marriage.

She had been a saint with regards to his mother, who had been a very unhappy person. Eileen gave her much time and care. Trojan effort as Kevin used to say, and he loved her for it. Yes, it had been good like that, their marriage.

Sometimes he wished that they had been unhappy together and bickered like other couples so the loss would not have been felt as bad. The only consolation was that she had gone first so she never had to go through what he was going through. A small comfort, but Kevin was dreading Christmas.

He hadn't been able to do much of anything lately. He had gotten into bad habits. He had gotten into not cleaning. The greenhouse was unkempt and full of weeds. He didn't cook anything much, just heated up frozen meals. He saw very few people. The radio was on until it was time for Pointless on the television, followed by Eggheads and then he'd catch up with the news on RTE +1. He sat for hours sometimes. Not even sure what he was watching. It was company that he didn't have to talk to.

He was also taking a little tipple most evenings, something he had never done much of before but it was the only thing that brought relief now. Two or three whiskeys. Sometimes more. A numbness he could go with. It made him slow in the mornings and he stayed in bed much longer than he ever had in his life.

Eileen's younger brother Danny called once a week. The only person he really saw. Danny was a youth worker and tried to steer kids from troubled backgrounds on to the straight and narrow. Kids not used to anyone listening to them, well, Danny lent the ear. It was a stressful enough job and he'd be up and down about it. He did most of the talking over cups of tea and week by week Danny could see that Kevin was beginning to let things go. He also noticed that despite Eileen not being around to make him, the white beard was really coming on this year. Through neglect rather than design. This prompted Danny to tell Kevin about the panto they were doing to raise money for the youth centre. They'd written it themselves and it was set in the future where Santa and Christmas have been outlawed and forgotten and this young one and an elf have to find Santa to defeat this baddie and her all-powerful computer. Kevin nods and makes an effort to be interested. It's the kind of stuff Eileen would have loved, kind of mad like her Willy Wonka and all that malarkey.

Danny tidies up around and sees a half-empty bottle and just says to Kevin that he might lay off that stuff, it never helps in the end. Danny takes his leave and Kevin suddenly felt a terrible fit of anger. He'll drink what he likes. It's none of his business. He'll drink until his liver explodes. F**k him! Do-gooder Danny and all his delinquent teenagers. Lock them up and that would soon cop them on. Not all this touchy-feely stuff. He pours himself a large one and he so wishes that Eileen was here with him and she'd put toast and cheese under the grill - "A little snack", she'd say, "to keep us going", so he'll do that. He can manage. He puts bread and cheese under the grill and settles down in the chair.

Drinking the whiskey, and he feels heavy and he dozes and he wakes to a funny smell. Smoke. Smell of burning. He had left the grill on. He wakes just in time to reef the burning cheese and toast from under the grill. He opens the kitchen window and throws them outside. He waves a towel around to get rid of the smoke. He coughs and wonders why is he bothering to go on. What is the point?

The days drag on. Christmas getting ever closer. Kevin is reading a book about the siege of Leningrad. All the horror and starvation comforts him in a strange way. He gets a text from Danny. He is on his way over. Kevin opens the door and Danny is all business. Danny has a problem with the panto. Willy Walsh the postman has dropped out due to a dodgy back. He's poleaxed and just can't manage it. He has been Santa for the past few years. So there is a crisis. Danny was wondering whether Kevin would be into it? Kevin shakes his head immediately. Not a chance. Do it yourself. Danny would but he just doesn't look anything like Santa. He has to seem the real deal or the whole thing won't work. "Well Jesus," says Kevin, "it's a show in the local hall. It's not the West End... just do it." No. Danny and the team work very hard to make the panto as professional as possible. It's their own. It's important to them. With his great belly and beard Kevin is perfect! Besides, it would get Kevin out of the house which would be no harm!

Kevin can feel himself getting annoyed again. He is sick of Danny coming around here telling him his business. Danny makes one final plea and asks him to think about it. That he should see the kick the kids get out of the shows. Kevin shakes his head and slams the door.

Kevin is unsettled all day by the visit. He takes a drink. He is fairly squiffy by the time he climbs the stairs to bed. He conks out and he dreams. A dream so real. Eileen's face is hovering above him, her voice as clear as day. She wants him to do the panto. She will rest easier. It will be good for him. She wants him to be Santa. He wakes suddenly but the room is empty. He turns on the light. She was here. He could have sworn it, or maybe he really is losing it. He must be, because he knows what he has to do. He heard her voice. She wants him to be Santa so he has no choice.

Next morning he calls Danny and volunteers. Danny is surprised and delighted, and Kevin will have to start immediately. There is a rehearsal that evening. Kevin steps into the hall and feels an immediate dread coming over him. He can't help cursing his wife for making him do it. For surely he wouldn't be here without that dream he'd had. There are loads of kids and Aggie Farrell greets him with a big handshake and a quip about how delighted she is to meet her new husband. She's playing Mrs Claus, and a nice polite young lad called Tom is playing Jimmy the elf and before he knows what way is up he's on the stage reading out his lines and it's mayhem. The kids in the choir sing and a dance number starts up to a pop song with the words changed to SHUT UP YOU'RE BROWNIN' ME, because that's the name of the show. SHUT UP YOU'RE BROWNIN' ME SANTA!

Three hours later his head is spinning with dance moves and trying to remember lines and kids' excited chatter and Danny's infectious energy, and he goes home and he's so tired he falls straight asleep. Without even a drop of whiskey.

The shows are absolutely mad. The kids hiss and boo at the baddie and cheer through the roof when he comes on at the end to save the day. He finds himself really getting into it. After the shows he even likes to see all the kids off at the exit. High-fiving them and chatting with them and bellowing out a "Ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas" as they load on to their buses to take them back to school. The night shows were different as they were mostly adults and they were great too but the matinees were his favourite. Seeing the way the kids reacted. There was one little girl who'd stood out. She was around six or seven and stared into his eyes and he asked her what her name was and she said Trudy. She was shy with him like she was awestruck. He patted her head and she walked on, looking back at him and giving him a little wave.

It was the end of the last show and the cast and crew had a drink in the local to celebrate but he went home early.

A few days later he felt very down again. The positivity of the show had been such a shot in the arm but he felt that awful emptiness returning. He was faced with a bare fridge so he walked to Lidl and was picking up a few bits when he stopped at the fruit and veg and started to plot how he'd avoid going to Michael's for Christmas. He would simply just miss the flight. Say that he had come down with flu. The ticket to Leeds hadn't cost that much. He was lost to the world, and deciding between common cold or full-on flu when he heard a little voice below him.

He looks down. He sees little Trudy staring up at him. She seems quite nervous. She glances around as if to check there's no else in their vicinity. She whispers something that he can't quite catch so he has to lean down a little. Trudy whispers again. He hears it this time. She says: "I know who you really are. I know that you are the real Santy. The Lapland one is only made up." Trudy checks around again to make sure that nobody is within earshot. Kevin opens his mouth to respond. He should put her straight but then how could he? He has no choice but to play along. Trudy goes on: "I won't tell anyone. It's our secret." The child is so earnest that Kevin finds himself nodding and he gives her a small conspiratorial wink, "Thanks Trudy". Trudy allows herself a little smile. "No, thank you Santy. For everything."

A woman approaches them pushing a trolley weighed down with a big Christmas shop. She smiles warmly at the sight of the two of them. Trudy winks at her, nods towards Kevin and touches her finger to her nose. Kevin realises that this is Trudy's mammy. He repeats the gesture. Trudy's mammy smiles in gratitude. Trudy turns on her heels and heads away, turning back once for a final little wave.

Trudy's mother thanks Kevin. She tells him that Trudy really does think that he is the real Santy. Ever since she saw him at the panto. She is convinced. Trudy hasn't been this happy about anything in such a long time. The woman is about to go but then stops. "It's been a very tough year. We lost her daddy, but thinking that she knows the real Santy personally, well it's really made a difference to her. You have no idea how much it's meant. Thank you." The woman moves on.

Kevin stands stock-still. He feels tears. He has to get out of the store. He drops his basket and walks.

He walks up the main street and up on to the canal bank where he used walk with Eileen and he cries. Proper tears. For Eileen and his loss and for Trudy and her daddy, and he knew now that he was going to have to make this Christmas a special one to remember. A Christmas to celebrate the life of his wife, his Eileen. He would go to England and do Santa for his own grandkids and he'd make them do prayers at the crib and they'd watch Willy Wonka and It's a Wonderful Life and he'd tell stories about their mad granny and her wonderful life and he would somehow learn how to live on.

He had to believe that he could do that much, so he went home and took out his suitcase and started to pack.

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