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Christmas Fiction

Three doors down from Mr. Slattery's shop with the lighted windows; the lights red and yellow and green. The nutcrackers in the window, little toy soldiers soldiering on, cymbals crashing, fairies dancing, dancing after the stabbing, the stabbing of the foul mouse king. O'Shea had his head under the car, twisting this way and that with his spanner. His feet stuck out and across the sidewalk. He wore nice shoes. The nice shoes had made him kind.


The white falling all around us traced O'Shea under the car. It was an old car, but he had new shoes. The new shoes made him kind. When he was kind he wanted to give me a lift. He was so kind he wouldn't let me take the bus coming round the way. He took my bag off me and thrust it onto the seat and dragged me away from the creaking bench damp with snow and sagging slightly as the bus, ratty old clunk of metal, creaked on ahead and past us. They'd used like them in Flanders. The plane would leave in an hour.


'I'll have this done in ten minutes like,' he said.


I went up the road past Mr. Slattery's shop and up into the place with the red door and the broken down sign. The pub was warm, and there were more faces than I knew there. Jack Simons was at the bar. He poured an even stout.


'Not going home there Jack?' I said.


Jack poured me a pint and slid it over. The amber made it seem warm, the little bubbles frothing through the head popped with a soft effer, the vessence of it was soft, soft like the white falling, crunching underfoot, and the top of the amber dripped over the side and cooled my fingertips.


Jack wasn't going home. Jack's wife had had a child. They couldn't travel back this year. They bought baby shoes. Baby shoes were nice, not as nice as O'Shea's. O'Shea worked at the Port. They got new boats from the war. They sold them for scrap.


'You're not going home?' Jack asked.


I worked in the Mayor's office. I was supposed to go home.


'I was. The car broke down.'


'You have a car?'


'O'Shea's.'


Jack didn't like O'Shea. O'Shea liked Jack well enough. Now that he had nice shoes O'Shea liked just about everybody. He bought tinsel from Mr. Slattery and gave it to the children at the school. They made little scarves of tinsel. Their shoes were nice once. Their new not so new, not so nice shoes clattered on the brick steps as they tied each other up in the tinsel. Little Flynn tied his around his head and ran lengthwise down the playground. He said he was on a horse. The horse had won his da a new pair of working boots. The working boots had bought his ma a new dress with a yellow bow, and she wore it like narcissus, touching it up here and there and twirling and kissing him sloppy on the cheek.


'Did you hear about Bunny?' Jack asked.


'I did.'


'What a nasty thing to do. And just before Christmas too. Then again, there's been plenty of Bunny's around.'


'Sad, that,' I said.


Bunny Byrne was an old battle-axe who had lived in the south of the town. He'd got himself a limp two years prior and a medal to go with it. He seemed rather pleased with himself when he got back, smiling and joking around with his crutch. He even let us sign it. It was great craic having him around the pub, daring any man who would pay the attention to a foot race, Jack trying to calm him down as he hobbled atop a table, fighting off maybe three of them with nothing but a rusty old pen knife before they got him in the leg. He only told me the truth about it four months later, once the fame started to die a little. He had got it jumping out of a window of a house somewhere in France. She was a soldier's wife. He was only twenty-two then. It was a sad thing.


O'Shea came in after an hour. He rubbed the oil down his left pant leg where it mixed with the snow and stained it pretty. His shoes he wiped with a rag. He sat beside me, placed both hands on the bar then on his face and rubbed his hands for warmth. Jack put the fire on and someone tinkled on the piano. They played four notes, three falling down in step, then an octave up, then the falling. Then it was plenty falling. The falling sounded like whistles, they used whistles in the war. They told them when to shoot, and they told them when they were falling. I had heard them falling on the houses. We heard about Dresden. Jack poured one out for O'Shea.


'Merry Christmas to ye,' O'Shea said.


He drunk it slow and deep. The foam dribbled out of the side of his mouth and down his red cheek and around his sharp Adam's apple. His eyes were closed. He gulped it down. It made a soft thumping sound, the drink. It sounded like footsteps on the boards.


He finished it in one, and asked for another. I drank mine slowly. The man at the piano then turned to playing a hymn. O'Shea sipped his. The windows frosted over so we couldn't see outside; so grey it turned blue. Jack set the fireplace going proper. It cackled and warmed the room, and the piano, just a touch out of tune, sounded like the boys down at St. Joseph's.


They sang softly at first, with their unbroken voices and their fair, unblemished faces down facing their sheets. They were unsteady to start, but their headmaster waved his arms up above his head then close to his chest, and some of the boys giggled and they sung better. I watched them that Sunday past. They wore white and red, and their voices folded and melted over one another. Harmony. A sound like a feeling, Marianne had said. They sounded like warmth and the morning fog and nice new shoes.


'Couldn't be helped,' O'Shea said. 'D'ye have a room?'


'Mrs. Holloway's locked up and gone herself.'


'Do you want come stay with me a while? Maybe you could get the next one. Sure you can't miss New Year's.'


'That would be lovely, thanks,' I said.


O'Shea was humming to the tune. The hymn was slow and solemn. The voices all moved together, and the player moved them softly, making much use of the pedal. We all went silent, and we let the hymn go through in the cold and the grey. The fire kept it going, and in the corner a lady with a napping child got to singing. Not so as to wake the lad.


She had a lovely singing voice. Words and music. The words dripped from her lips like honey, like a soft balm over a wound. She sounded like the priests did on Easter, all feeling and hope. The boy did not stir, and O'Shea turned fully to her. He held the beer away from his shoes and his head lolled a bit as she sang. Slowly getting louder she went on to the second verse. This was a sad verse. It leaked heavy from her, like porridge down a straw.


Jack was humming now. We all were humming, fiddling around, each voice trying to find it's place, but the lady was singing. She had dark brown hair, like honey too. The piano man took the melody out of the tune, and then it was just the woman. The boy in her arms opened his eyes a little, but he didn't move from her, and she went on to the third verse.


Soon it was over, and we were quiet. Then O'Shea was clapping, and then there was a jig. The jig sounded like old shoes. Old shoes that fit right. Old shoes that were still nice, and not at all ready to be thrown out. These old shoes you didn't throw out. There was clapping. O'Shea knew how to lilt. He did it better than I. The boy woke up and was laughing. The boy giggled the sound like a bubbling stream, and his ma smiled and laughed, and then we all were laughing.


Up from his table by the window a nicens man with hair the color of the fire started dancing. O'Shea was so pleased he lilted louder and danced with the man. They clicked their shoes against one another, and then the place was noisy and gay and now O'Shea had beer on his nice shoes, but he kept on lilting and dancing. And the dancing and the singing went on until late that evening. We were raucous and hot and the grey windows were steaming. The salt of the sweat from our faces mixed well with the stout. It felt like honest labor.


When the singing was over and the calm evening set in, we made our way up to O'Shea's flat. The car was working now. The oil had frozen. In the dim light of the street lamps above, our shoes looked the same in the snow. Everyone had new shoes at New Year's; they were made new at Christmas.

April 12, 2023 08:46

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