December 21, 2011
A CHRISTMAS STORY
I was told some folks who are enjoying the Irish Country series have asked for a Christmas story so I’ve written one. Like the rest of the books I’ve added a list of unfamiliar words and a recipe—one simple enough for kiddies to make without risking burning down the whole house.
I hope you enjoy this. It comes with my wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Sleigh Bells Ring
He stood in the living-room doorway watching. The chimney sweep who was working at Colin Brown’s Daddy and Mammy’s house in Ballybucklebo fascinated nine-year old Colin. Maybe, he thought, when I grow up I’ll be a chimney sweep. They can get as dirty as they like and nobody minds. My mammy’s always going on about washing behind my ears or telling me, “There’s enough muck on the back of your neck to make a lazy bed and grow potatoes, Colin Brown, so there is.”
Colin could see the back of Mr. Gilligan’s neck because he was kneeling on a big canvas sheet that lay like a second carpet in front of the living room fireplace. The soot between the collar of his boiler suit and his cut-short grey hair could probably have sustained a crop of barley—and nobody gave off to him.
Sweeping, Colin decided, was definitely a job option—after engine driving.
All the furniture had been moved to one end of the room and covered in sheets. A special wide piece of cloth was fixed in front of the grate. It had a hole in the centre.
“You’re going to screw that there,” Colin pointed at the brass fitting on one end of an eight foot bamboo rod, “into that socket on the end the rod that goes through the hole in the cloth.” Colin knew that somewhere up the flue a big, flat, circular, brush was being forced up by a series of linked lengths of bamboo.
“That’s right, Colin.”
Colin grinned. He liked being right. Always had.
He was aware of someone standing beside him. He half turned. “What do you want, Nancy?” he asked his six-year old sister.
Nancy had her long blonde hair tied up with green ribbons in two bunches that hung from the sides of her head. Her cornflower-blue eyes were set in an oval face and smiled out past a button nose.
“Can I watch too, please?”
He grinned at her. “’Course you can, but stay here with me. Mammy wouldn’t like you to get your dress dirty.”
“Thank you.” She smiled at him and took his hand.
Colin wasn’t too fond of girls. He would have been horrified if any of his friends had seen him with her hand in his, but Nancy was different. He didn’t understand why, but he always felt—well—big-brotherly around her. Protective. Perhaps, he though, it’s because you are her big brother, you eejit.
“It’s a good thing Mr. Gilligan came, isn’t it, Colin?”
“It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow and Santa’s coming.” She smiled up at him. “And we get to send our letters tonight when Daddy lights the fire. I’m going to ask Santa for a dolls’ pram and a skipping rope.”
Now she was old enough to do it herself Colin wouldn’t have to write a note for Nancy then put it in the fire. Even after it had burned you could still make out the words as the charred paper whirled up the chimney and straight to the North Pole. His was going to ask for a real two-wheeler bike.
She nodded toward the sweep. “Daddy said unless the chimney was swept he couldn’t light a fire because of the bll…bll…” She stumbled over the right word.
“Blowdowns we had last night,” Colin found it for her. Well. She was only little. “Aye. Daddy said there was too much soot in the flue and it could catch on fire and set the whole house alight. So it had to be swept. It’s not been done for a couple of years.”
“Two-and-a-half,” said Mr. Gilligan. “It was June 1961 the last time I done the job. It needed doing.” He looked straight at Nancy. “Never mind your letter not getting to Santa. How do you think he’d like to come down a chimney that’s clogged with soot?”
“Oooh,” she said and her eyes widened. “He’d get all dirty.”
“I think,” said Colin, with all the weight of his nine years, “I think he comes in through the front door. I don’t see how he could get Donner and Blitzen and all the other reindeer, them all harnessed with their jingle bells, and his sleigh up on our wee roof.”
“Do you not?” asked Mr. Gilligan. “Now there’s a thing.”
Colin was going to argue and say that it would be much easier for a man with Santa’s big tummy to come in through the door. He’d never fit through the flue. Then he saw Nancy looking puzzled. He kept his mouth shut.
She frowned and said, “Daddy says he comes down the chimney. That’s why we leave him egg-nog and biscuits and carrots for his reindeer. We put them in the hearth and they’re always gone in the morning. He does come down the flue. So there.”
“You’re likely right,” said Colin, but privately he was not convinced. He turned to the sweep. “Are you nearly finished?”
Mr. Gilligan screwed in one more rod. “Aye. Just about, but I’m going to need your help.”
“Wheeker,” Colin said. “Can I push on the rods like you?”
Mr. Gilligan laughed. “That’s not what I need help with.”
The sweep stood up. “Come on outside, the pair of you.” He headed for the door and Colin, still holding Nancy’s hand, followed. He could smell the soot on the man’s dungarees.
“Get your coats and hats and gloves,” Mr. Gilligan said.
Colin helped Nancy into hers then put on his own. He wondered what he was going to be asked to do.
Outside in the garden he was glad they had dressed warmly. Although the sun shone down from an enamel-blue sky even at two in the afternoon there was still a heavy rime of frost sparkling on the little lawn. The ice on a puddle in the path crackled when Colin trod on it.
Across the Shore Road and past the sea wall the wind chivvied the waves of Belfast Lough like a sheep dog chases the sheep. The rollers turned to foam as they rushed up the shallowing shore. The breakers rolled the pebbles on the shingly beach making a noise like a thousand kettle drums.
It was nippy enough out here. Colin glanced at Nancy. Already her nose had turned red. He hoped for her sake they’d not have to stay out too long.
“Right,” said Mr. Gilligan. “First of all I have to go up on the roof.” He pointed to the chimney pots. “That one there is the pot for the living room.”
Colin looked. It was funny, he though, he’d never really paid any attention to chimneys.
“That wire netting has to come off.” Mr. Gilligan said, “because the brush has to get out.”
“I see,” Colin said, staring at a conical wire mesh contraption sitting on top of the chimney pot. “Daddy says it’s to stop jackdaws nesting in the chimney.”
“That’s right. So I’m going to nip up my ladder, take the wire off then I’m going back inside. Your job…both…of you is to watch until my brush pops out of the chimney then run back in and tell me.”
“We’ll do that, won’t we Nancy.”
She smiled and nodded.
The sweep turned, then half-turned back. “Just one wee thing, Colin.”
“Are you quite sure Santa can’t get his reindeer on your roof?”
“I…” Colin was. Absolutely convinced. That wee roof? Eight big reindeer? No way. He glanced at Nancy who was listening to every word and frowning. He knew she wanted to believe Father Christmas came down the chimney. “…I don’t know,” he said.
Mr. Gilligan smiled. “I’ll only be a couple of ticks.” He went up the ladder rung by rung.
Colin watched the sweep cross the neat, yellow thatch, unlatch the bird-preventer, swing it over to one side, then head back to his ladder.
“I think he’s awfully brave going up there,” Nancy said. “I’d be scared.”
She squeezed his hand. “You’re brave too, Colin and you’re older than me.” She looked deeply into his eyes. “I just took a quare good look at those chimney pots.” She swallowed and when next she spoke Colin heard a catch in her voice. “They’re awfully wee. Maybe you’re right. Maybe Santa does come in through the front door.”
He sensed tears were not far away and didn’t know what to say.
“Excuse me,” Mr. Gilligan said.
Colin hadn’t heard him return. He looked at the big man.
“Were you two arguing about whether or not Santa comes down the chimney?”
“Not really arguing,” Nancy said sadly. “I think Colin’s right.”
“Indeed?” said Mr. Gilligan. “Well I found something at the chimney.”
“I think you should have them Nancy.”
He held out his fist, knuckles up and slowly, slowly uncurled his fingers until, when his hand was completely unclenched, there in the palm of his hand lay two silver sleigh bells.
“Now I wonder,” said he, “who left these behind and whoever it was what do you think they were they doing up there in the first place?”
And Colin, still inside of himself sure he was right, looked at the wide grin on his little sister’s face, and realised that being right didn’t always matter. It didn’t matter one tuppenny bit.
Possibly unfamiliar words or phrases in the order in which they appear
Lazy bed Heaped up row of earth in which potatoes are grown
So there is Phrase added by people in Ulster for emphasis
Boiler suit One piece protective over-garment
Gave off Scolded
Flue Inside of a chimney that the smoke goes up
Eejit Idiot. Often used affectionately
Blowdowns Times when the fire’s smoke come back into the room
So there Emphasis. Like, “booh sucks”
No way It is impossible
Quare Irish pronunciation of queer used to mean “very”
Tuppenny bit Old English coin worth about ½¢
8 oz (225 gms) icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar )
1 large egg white
3 or 4 drops peppermint essence
green colouring (optional)
Beat the egg white in a bowl and sift in the icing sugar (through a sieve). Add the peppermint essence and mix into a paste. Sprinkle some icing sugar on a kitchen worktop.
Knead the paste on the worktop and add some more essence if they don’t taste minty enough. Then sprinkle more icing sugar on the rolling pin and roll out flat to about a1/4 inch (0.5cm thick).
Using a tiny round or star shaped cutter cut out the peppermint creams and place on a plate covered with greaseproof paper. Then cover with a clean tea towel and leave in the fridge for an hour or so.
You could store them in an airtight box—but they won’t last very long.