The tree is a Nobilis, because Mam says it sheds fewer needles on the carpet. We tie it to the top of the car with twine and drive it home in the rain; Mam and the Old Man in the front seat, me in the back reading the Topper. The Old Man declares it, “foul weather,” and the windscreen wipers “thup” rhythmically as we navigate the city streets. As we drive past Biddy Mulligan’s pub in the Liberties, the Old Man launches into the song, his tenor filling the car, “You may travel from Clare to the County Kildare, From Dublin right down to Macroom, But where would you see a fine widow like me, Biddy Mulligan the pride of the Coombe, me boys! Biddy Mulligan the pride of the Coombe!” Mam hums along beside him, her wedding ring clicking on the dashboard.
At home we get out the boxes of decorations from the pantry under the stairs where they’ve lived since last Christmas. Mam calls the triangular space “the pantry,” but Mrs. Toomey up the road has a real pantry, with windows and a glass door. Her pantry is stuffed with only food and drink. Ours is the place where things go to die. On a shelf at the back, cardboard boxes gather, filled with old clothes that no longer fit, and photograph albums of ancient black-and-white snapshots of dead relatives and friends resting in perpetuity.
The fairy lights uncoil on the carpet like the skeleton of an ancient reptile. Painted glass balls frosted with sparkles sit in tissue paper, some of them shattered into small pieces, some spared. Other decorations attach to the tree limbs with pipe cleaners, elves perch precariously above the steel bucket that holds the trunk in place. The Old Man fills the bucket with soil from the flowerbed in the back garden and sets the tree-stump inside it. He believes in shortcuts and prefers to lean the tree in the corner, instead of anchoring it properly to something.
Mam shakes her head and covers the exterior in last year’s wrapping paper, making sure to put the ripped bits at the back. This method works well for the most part, mainly because our old white cat, Moses, the one who scaled the tree after an elf the previous year, is now buried in the shadow of the garden shed. Now there’s no need to police the house to ensure the cat doesn’t topple the tree.
We took the cat in when we arrived here from the country. It had belonged to the previous owners of the house and they’d left it here because they were moving overseas. Mam is too polite to say she’s glad the cat had died, but I know she didn’t like it much. We only kept it because it sat outside the backdoor and cried for a week until we let it in and fed it. Mam is from the country and has strong views on issues like cats and pasteurization, but she’s a softie underneath and wouldn’t see the cat homeless.
With the tree trimmed, the Old Man declares it to be “game ball,” with a wink. Mam unfurls the paper-chains and I steady the chair as he ties them to the chandelier in the center of the room. When he stretches the colored chains into the corners they remind me of the hospital decorations from when I had the nephritis. On the mantelpiece, Mam places a sprig of holly with shiny red berries in each of the Waterford crystal vases. She carefully unwraps the tiny Christmas tree she brought me in hospital and places it on the table next to the Old Man’s armchair. The snowmen’s arms are made of pipe cleaners and they wear crooked smiles like the tinker who drives the horse and cart up the avenue looking for scrap iron every few months.
By teatime the space beneath the tree overflows with packages wrapped expertly by Mam, because the Old Man is no good at that kind of thing, and he’s already into the Jameson’s like a ship in a bottle. This year I want a guitar, so I can be like Eric Clapton in Cream, and every night when I say my prayers I ask God to grant my wish. I know that my wanting a guitar is unattainable because I heard them fight about how small the Old Man’s pay packet is on Fridays. Every weekend he comes home and hands the brown envelope to Mam and she sorts the notes into a pile and hands a few back to him so he can walk up the road to the ‘Diggers for a pint.
I lie by the fire and read a comic, the lights twinkling, the room transformed into a treasure cave. Mam and the Old Man are in their armchairs. He reads the horse racing reports for Saturday’s races in Fairyhouse and she punches holes in a sheet for her electric knitting machine. Even the Elves on the tree seem content, sheltered from the terrors of the cat, cold-boned and dead in the garden.
My wooden heart cracks between the nutcracker’s tongs, the sinew and pulp of my body spilling onto the ground. These are the closing days of the year, the moon a low world afloat in the night sky, and the days dwindling to kindling along with the spread heart below me. After dark, a ship sails along the silhouetted foothills to the north, its masts aflame with a thousand lit tea-candles. The tillerman is a phantasm, a spirit of the night, one of the lost memories from those years I no longer remember. My eyes not being as sharp as they used to be, I find myself having to squint to make out the name on the prow. Midsummer. The letters are cracked and peeling from the wood. Years of saltwater and neglect have taken a toll. From the book-lined walls of my office the words whisper: Belay. Tack. Painter. Pennant. Skiff. Open water. Anchor. Captain. To steady myself, I take a long, deep breath and sing in a low, steady voice, “I don’t know if you can see / The changes that have come over me…” Outside, the dimming lights recede and a shadow passes over the moon as a lone nightjar sings its lonesome love song.
Mother and child. The starspun cloth, pageantry and shattered comets fill the air, the coming of the one, the straw uncrushed, the animals fed and well-rested. The color is midnight and the sound is a peculiar blend of orange and pink. We stand at the edge of the broken-hearted ocean, the few bobbing seals making up a poor congregation. ‘Tis the Yule and the stirred pagan blood of my Celtic forebears rumbles in my veins. Children sing out, Alleluia! Several unidentified serpents writhe in the thin sand by the train tracks and yesterday’s pain simmers at the back of my mind. Your hands. Cold. Veined. Blue. The blue of another time. Mortality approaches on the deck of a nearing sailboat, the flag unfurled, the wind billowing, as the prow cuts its way through the choppy memories of other, better days. Fires are lit at home, hidden celebrants in hollows and woodsy places, their songs flitting high into the sparked sky, their souls awake and away to the edge of knowingness. Here, in the lee of the harbor, faint traces of hidden animals frame impressions in the sand. All is as good as it could be, and yet the empty sky sings of shallow cavities in dark spaces beneath loamy soil. Proceed through the night and approach the post-Yule day with some aspect of possibility, the slight tendril of such poking through the fresh-blessed ground.
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Raindrops marble the tin roof as we sneak into the darkened clubhouse. The line of hooks and eyes on the back of your shirt are too complicated for me to decode. I’m afraid your mother will find out about us and the things we do in the darkness. She scares me, your mother, with her religious fervor, and the cross she leaves the house with on weekend mornings. How she strides in circles under the statue of Parnell, paper rosettes pinned to her coat, the prayers tumbling from her lips, passers-by staring with dubious wonder.
You never speak of her crusade against the promiscuous, only ignoring the barbs of those who know, but are too embarrassed to tease you. You tell her you are going to the church’s youth group—a lie. Instead, we meet by the petrol station and follow the shadows to the tennis club’s back door. Light from outside paints your face a gently-washed pink, a faint halo around you. The curve of your back reminds me of a rowan tree bending in the wind.
The time you have all four wisdom teeth extracted at once. We sit on the couch, the two dogs sunk in pillows, your cheeks swollen, the H.B. Neapolitan’s ice cream’s striped sections melt from the fire’s heat. Now, everything is different, the shape of our lives a prolonged trajectory of disappointments. I heard you lost a baby at term, the careful months of preparation wasted. Once before, you might have been pregnant. It wouldn’t have been mine. Still, I drove you to the clinic, waited, held your hand, and when the false alarm sounded we parted without fuss.
When I go home tonight, I shall wear my hat—the one with the ear-flaps—and listen to some music that reminds me of you: Cream maybe, or Frampton Comes Alive. Despite the closeness of the street I will sing the words aloud, halfway between the kitchen and the back bedroom. The dog-walking neighbor with the three terriers might stare, the bells on their collars ringing with impatience. If there’s a decent moon she’ll make out my handsome face, the notching of my crooked nose, the way my feet slide on hardwood floor. More likely, I’ll go unnoticed, the same way I’ve done for most my life.
We meet in the margins of my book, between Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon. I wonder if you shall use the pear-scented soap, the one I bought for you at L’Occitane en Provence, the one you lathered your pale skin with as we listened to the rain on the slated roof? Shall you fold back the covers and slide into the bed? Those luxuriant sheets, Egyptian cotton, made before the revolution in Tahrir Square, in the days of slave labor. Ghostly apparitions of our former selves appeared in the steamed mirror.
In Skerries I sit at the same table every day for two weeks and imagine you back in my life. The owner twirls the tips of his mustache between thumb and forefinger as his daughter smokes cigarettes and pours my café-au-lait. The setting sun shadows the territory between skin and lace. I spare you a thought between sips, and let my mind wander back to the snow-crusted fuchsia bushes where we parted before the door opened and your mother poked her head out to call your name.
The dropped sun, a tablet of ochre dissolving into our quiet Pacific, the wintering ducks ignorant of the stunning beauty unfolding to their backs. Lone seal parallel to shore, the renegade, usurper, sign of a bettering of things to come. Mask. The white tuft of feather. Dip under the water. Emerge. Emerge. Single bicyclist watching for a sign. The LA bound train rattles past, whistling tea kettle loud, shiny pennies spread to ancient world maps under its wheels. A blind dog sniffs saltwater, the imprint of early memories probably creating a longed-for tableau. Empirical. Known world. Rubber wheels on rutted path. The kid goes down, thirty feet from where the cracked path stopped his progress. Tree. Starpinkcrossdeath. Barriers. Bicycle lights. The Geminids above caroming the skies. Days draw down and the nightbirds ready for flight.