Thursday 19 September 2019

A sensitive son, a devoted dad ...and a smiling snowman with a secret signal

Image from ‘The Snowman’ by Raymond Briggs
Image from ‘The Snowman’ by Raymond Briggs
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Mush Frenston was praying the roads would clear of snow and he would be able to get to spend the allotted two hours with his son Andy on Christmas Eve.

The plan was they would go bowling, visit the toy shop and finish up with a burger and chips.

Mush, as you might have guessed by now, was a separated father.

I will not go too deeply into the reasons for the divorce but there were those in our town who considered Mush's wife Lil to be the guilty party in that she took up with another man.

More took Lil's side and argued Mush was a hapless loser.

Whatever the cause, they were separated and, as is the way, Lil was awarded custody of their little boy Andy, who was only seven when his parents broke up, barely two years ago.

Mush was by no means the world's greatest businessman. Some of his ventures were before their time and more after. The net effect was Lil barely held on to their family home and only then with help from her family.

But even Lil admitted Mush was a good dad. He never missed a football match or a parent-teacher meeting. Mush did his best to keep in touch with his son but his access was limited by the courts, practicalities, economics and geography.

After failing in a succession of jobs, Mush was forced to move to the city where work was more plentiful and employers less choosy, but it meant he would have to travel a round trip of more than 100 miles to see his son.

Still, Mush never missed a day with his boy.

He was what the smart boys around the town termed a 'McDonald's dad'.

His bedsit was tiny. So McDonald's or the cinema were the venues for his visits.

In summer there was the beach or the mountains but in deep and darkest December the options were limited.

Mush, I can tell you, was devastated after the divorce and even more upset when another man effectively took over the rearing of his kid.

The two previous Christmases he spent apart from his little boy almost drove Mush to the edge of despair.

The first Christmas was the worst. Mush spent the day with his brother and his family. He was made welcome and treated as the guest of honour, but it broke Mush's heart to see his nephews and nieces having such fun with their parents and all he could think of was Andy's Christmas morning wonder eyes.

Mush broke down after speaking to Andy on the phone and went to bed immediately afterwards. The next morning, Mush's pillow was as wet as if it had been left out in the rain.

Andy suffered too. He loved his dad and it seemed to those of us who knew them well that they were more like brothers than father and son. Indeed, I always felt young Andy was looking after his dad, rather than the other way round.

Mush messaged his boy every day they were apart. The message gave opinions on everything from who would win at football to advising on Andy's final selection in his Santa letter.

The messages were always signed: LOVE, DAD.

And at the end of every message, Mush art-clipped a simple drawing of a smiling face with the upturned happy lips in what Andy said looked like "the shape of a half a moon lying on his back".

It was their secret sign. Always keep on smiling.

But Mush wasn't smiling up in the snowy road between Cork and Kerry. Mush's car was an old banger. It was as much as he could afford, what with the maintenance he paid to his wife for Andy and keeping his dingy but expensive bedsit in the city. The car broke down.

There wasn't another vehicle to be seen on the road. The snow was that deep it had stopped all traffic for the night.

Mush was distraught. He had arranged, or rather negotiated, a two-hour window with his boy on Christmas Eve. He would be allowed into his old home for the first time since the split.

The New Man would be out and father and son could exchange gifts. It was as much as Lil could do for him.

Lil felt for her ex- husband but she could never erase the bitterness she felt towards Mush over what she termed his "uselessness". Lil was a planner.

She made it quite clear the visit to the house was a once-off and even had her solicitor write to Mush informing him "not to enter the former family home thereafter under any circumstances whatsoever or the matter will be referred to the courts and could result in a variation of your access".

Not only was Mush's car conked out, but so too was his mobile. Mush forgot to charge it. It seems everyone bar Mush took heed of the warnings issued by the police and the weather people but the radio in Mush's car was on the blink.

That was Mush, I'm afraid, and that was the way he would always be.

He left the car and made his way to a nearby house. The wool on his duffel coat turned white with the snow and frost.

The people who lived in the house, as is the way of the natives of those parts, were fully sympathetic. But there was no way through, they said.

He was welcome to stay with them for the night. Tomorrow he could continue his journey.

Mush was in torment. He started to cry. The couple who took Mush in had young kids and were mindful of how lucky they were themselves. The lady of the house gently found out Mush's story.

She prevailed on her husband to try his mightiest to get Mush to Killarney to see his little boy. Sure hadn't he a son of the same age and he knew Andy from the football.

"A good little player," he said, "with a mighty left. But maybe, if you get a chance, and if you don't mind me saying, he might practise a bit with the right."

Mush was delighted with the praise and his mood brightened considerably. The two hit out for town in a slow, careful crawl but they were only gone a mile at most when the car went into a spin and slid off the road.

"I can't let you do this," Mush said. "You have a young family. You must go back. I will hit off on my own. But first can you let me make a call on your mobile? I'm afraid mine is down."

Lil refused Mush's pleadings to reserve time and space for him to see their son on Christmas Day. She had plans, she said. And he was always messing her plans up. His arrival would spoil the day for everyone. She was in a new relationship now and her partner's family were staying over for Christmas. It would be very awkward. Surely he understood that much. "And it is almost certain," Lil said, "you will arrive ages late, full of excuses."

Eventually, Lil consented to allow Mush to speak to his son. The boy was obviously disappointed but he understood his dad and his shortcomings. He was a good boy who was sensitive to the needs of others, and his dad in particular.

"Dad, sure can't you buy me the present next week and by then the boots I wanted will be on sale? And we can build a snowman together if the snow is still there? Is that OK, Dad?"

Mush picked up on the sadness in his son's voice but cheered a bit when Andy commiserated with his father on the series of misfortunes that led to the cancellation of the Christmas Eve visit. Mush promised to buy the boots and build a snowman.

"Love you, Andy."

"Love you, Dad."

And that was the end of their Christmas together.

There was a silence in the car for a few minutes. Mush's new friend made it clear there was still a bed for him.

They would ring again tomorrow and maybe Lil might relent. She was obviously annoyed but there was a thaw forecast for the following afternoon and maybe by then Lil would have thawed a bit too. And he would drive Mush into town once the roads improved even a little bit.

In the meantime, that decent man phoned his wife and she told Mush he was more than welcome to have the Christmas dinner in her house.

"How far is it to town, would you say?" Mush asked. "About 13 miles," was the reply.

Andy woke on Christmas morning and looked out his window to see if there were the tracks of a sleigh in the snow. He said a prayer his dad would be OK in the blizzard and that Santa was able to get through the drifts.

He was about to rush down to the kitchen to check under the tree when he noticed a tall white figure standing motionless just outside the front gate.

It was a snowman.

Andy ran out in his slippers. In seconds, he was soaking wet but he just knew. He just knew.

The snowman was even taller than his dad, with a carrot for a nose and two bits of sticks for ears. The eyes were two big duffel coat buttons but the mouth made from red sandstone pebbles was the best bit of all.

The snowman was smiling with his upturned happy lips in the shape of a half a moon lying on his back.

Irish Independent

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