Tuesday 18 June 2019

Scut Kelly's First Christmas

A Christmas short story by playwright Eugene O'Brien

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Eugene O'Brien

Scut Kelly hadn't been completely dying from drink this morning so was up out of the bed, and down to Lidl grand and early for to get the groceries all home and hosed before the Christmas Eve rush. Not that the purchases were in any way Christmassy. Burgers, beans, Birdseye Potato waffles and sausages and a few of them nice biscuits they do down there. Scut didn't ever go in for Christmas. In his two-up two-down council house, where he'd lived all his life, there wasn't a trace of a light or decoration, never mind a tree. Every year he'd go down to his local The Tap for the few of a Christmas Eve, and then home to batten down the hatches until the pubs opened again Stephen's Day. And he was preparing to do exactly the same this year.

He settled into his usual corner stool at the counter. Mag Carroll sat beside him. Mag had one large tooth in her entire gob which was grand as she never relied on it to chew much of anything. She sat and drank. She paid no heed to no one. She was lost in the 1970s. Like she was stuck. They say that she sat through every showing of Saturday Night Fever when it was on across in the cinema and that she had once been able to recite the entire lyrics of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. But now she never recited anything. She lifted her glass of B and B, Baileys and Brandy, and drank from it. Scut found her useful to have around, just in case he felt like talking out loud. It was handy like so you wouldn't be talking to yourself.

Scut got a text and before he even looked at the phone, he knew who it was. Every Christmas Eve without fail Eddie Byrne texted him and invited him for the Christmas dinner in his house. A house which would be full of Christmas sights and smells and kids and the whole 'Ho Ho Ho' shebang. Eddie loved Christmas and year after year tried to break Scut's aversion to it. He couldn't believe that Scut would prefer to be on his own. Both had turned 50 this year and had first met in high infants. Scut tells Mag how Eddie used to go swimming in the canal. Could stay under for ages, like he had gills and he used to torment the canal barge owners. Swim right up under the boats and sneak on board and nick stuff. One time Eddie ran bollock naked down the main street for a bet so they could afford the pictures. Eddie loved Bruce Lee and he loved going home to his Ma and Da and a rake of brothers and sisters. That was the difference, he loved going home and Scut did not.

The church had emptied out the Christmas Eve mass so The Tap was filling up now and Mag would take her leave as she always did when it got too full. She slipped off her stool and away out the door. Scut was now on his own against the onslaught of Christmas cheer which was really beginning to brown him. From all sides. He had amateur drinkers talking fierce short hand and the 12 pubs of Christmas brigade in their stupid jumpers squeezing in on top of him. He was suddenly seized by a flash back from today. Coming out of Lidl, he had felt a shiver up his spine, like a very acute sense that he was being watched. He had stopped and looked around. He felt it again nearer to home. Like there was a presence of something just behind him. He put it down to nerves, the drinking, the - "Jaysus I am definitely losing it this time", but it made him feel funny all day and now in the packed Tap he saw a Christmas long ago. A terrible Christmas. One that he'd barred from his head for ages. Ma and Da on the drink, Scut the only child, and the pair of them roarin' and the - "Get up to your room" and the plastic tree crashing down and tears and vomit and little Scut curled up in the bed. He knew there'd be no Santy now. He ached for some comfort. Head spinning in the darkness, under the covers. Wishing for the darkness, before he was born, before they let him out, to the two of them and the fights and shouts and booze.

Scut swallowed down the last of his pint. He needed to snap back to the world. He had to drown out this poor pathetic hard luck ah poor me f**kology. He tries to get Nobby Farrell's attention for another one. Then he hears his name being called. He turns to see The Badger Doyle and Noelly Nolan battling through the throng. They are googleyed and mad for more porter - "Howareye Scut" shouts the Badger, "how's it hangin!" and they shove some of the jumpers out of the way and slip in beside him. 'NOBBY, THREE PINTS'… and soon the laughs are flying and Scut can lose himself for a while in their s***e talk of scams and bookies and bad teeth and fights and babies they never saw and women they hated and everything always on the edge of trouble. But they were funny heurs be times and afraid of nothing nor no one.

But all of this craic will come at a cost. The Badger and Noelly never offer up their company unless they need money. And sure enough at about 11 or so they ask for 50 and Scut always gives it to them and they always kind of ignore him then and go looking to chat to young ones. Scut pretends not to mind and he drinks more to fill the gap. Looking for something. The drink is going to get him nearer to something but he never knows what it is. He sees a text from Eddie - "If you change your mind you know you're always welcome". He doesn't answer it. Nobby Farrell shouts time and everything begins to fade and swirl, faces and voices lost in the murk. Back out into the cold. Stomp home to the empty house. His head racing with a walls closing in, can't breathe feeling of a life not lived. "What the f**k would it matter if you didn't exist" coursed the alcohol through his veins until it exploded into a - "Maybe this Christmas morning you won't bother to wake up". He takes the keys out on the doorstep but feels like there's something behind him. The hairs on the back of his neck go up. Someone watching him. Like this morning outside Lidl. He gets the door open as fast as he can. Closes it. He climbs the stairs. Empties the pockets. Into the bed. Doze. Half unconscious. In between this world and dreamland but he gets another strange feeling. He hears a noise outside the window, a loud creak on the stairs. He listens, trying not to breathe. There is someone in the house. A blast of cold air seems to fill the room. Scut bolts upright in the bed. He hears a whispering. Soft. He must obviously be asleep and dreaming. The cold breeze and the whispering. It sounds like a woman. Like his Ma. Her voice. Then he sees her. His Ma is sitting on the bed, looking at him. A look of love. He likes this dream now. He wishes he could stay in this dream forever. She calls him by his real name. Sean. Which is odd cause she had never called him that when she was alive. It was always Scut. His mother looks sad now, tears fall down her cheeks and she wishes she had done more for him. Wishes she had given him more love and care. She wishes that Sean had found more happiness in his life. She wishes they hadn't ruined him. One worse than the other. She never said any of those things when she was alive. She promises to keep watch over him and help him but he must promise something too. He has to believe in himself and the goodness that is in him. "It's not too late, please son, stop hiding. Give yourself a chance. Get up tomorrow and go out and live." Scut feels his heart about to burst. "I love you son." He reaches out to touch her but she's gone. The dream must be over. The breeze is gone. It is utterly silent now, around the house. He must have been sleeping but he doesn't remember closing his eyes.

Scut looks down at himself in the bed. He still has his clothes on from last night. Daylight streams through the window. He hears kids laughing and talking on the road. He sits up slowly. Christmas morning. He looks to where his Mother had sat. He smiles. He looks at the time. Nearly noon. Right, it's time to move. He grabs up the phone and texts Eddie. He would be delighted to come around. If the offer still stands. He jumps in the shower and puts on a clean shirt. A text back from Eddie - "Of course, that offer has been standing for 30-odd years!" He gets a sudden attack of the yips. The - "I can't face them"… the - "just as easy stay here with me supplies of drink". But he thinks of his Ma, the dream or her ghost or whatever the f**k it had been - "Please son, stop hiding"…and he forces himself out the door. He should feel odd or think he's finally gone mad after last night's visitation but he doesn't. He feels full. The hollow empty pit seems to have been filled in, whatever. No time to think now.

He runs along the road, waving to kids and their parents, has to get to Lil Coynes's corner shop before she closes. He just catches her and the last few selection boxes. Like he'd have to have something for Eddie's grandkids. Scut hesitates outside Eddie's house which is festooned with flashing lights and a model Santa and sleigh and reindeer. He rings the bell and a special 'Ho ho ho' chime rings out.

The door opens and Eddie shakes his hand and pulls him into the house. He is introduced to a flurry of people. Sons and daughters and a rake of kids, and Nuala, Eddie's missus, greets him warmly - "Long time no see Sean", and he hands the two youngest, Daniel and Emma, the selection boxes. He is offered a drink but he doesn't feel like one. Maybe later. Eddie nearly falls out of his standing. He'll have a coke instead. So he is handed charge of the bottle of coke and shares it out to the kids and he asks what they got off of Santa and they watch a bit of Willy Wonka and Scut really starts to relax and enjoy the warmth and chaos of Eddie's house. He laughs when the greedy girl turns blue and blows up into a ball and he loves it when Charlie gives the everlasting gobstopper back.

Dinner is brilliant. Everything tastes so good. The wine flows but he sticks to the coke. Eddie prompts him to tell a few yarns about the old days when they used to work together in O'Brien's yard and he does and people seem to knock great craic out of it. They pull crackers and read out the stupid jokes and later on Scut approaches Eddie in the kitchen, on his own and thanks him. Eddie nods and smiles and leans in and hugs him. Be Jaysus Scut hadn't been hugged in a long time and he surrenders into its warmth and comfort. Eddie lets him go and offers him a Quality Street and Scut takes one that nobody likes bar him, an orange cream. Eddie leaves his side and Scut closes his eyes because he feels like crying.

He silently thanks the Christmas magic or whatever it was that had sent his Ma to him the night before. He thinks of all the bad ol' s***e filled, no craic, lead stone weight in the pit of the stomach days. They all had to be endured because without them, without the depths of s***e that they were, this day would never have happened. This day. The best day. His first real Christmas.

Sunday Independent

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