Christmas In Newtownards

Christmas morning, 1993. It was a cold morning in Ards, and I felt like doing something other than just lying watching kids TV in my dressing gown. It wasn’t a white Christmas, and I felt energetic, so I took the car and drove up to Scrabo Hill. The tower was closed (Christmas, obviously), so I perched on one of the rocks nearby.

I looked toward the duck pond and I saw the Cool FM studios in Kiltonga had some lights on, but I was pretty sure they were just playing a pre-record as I drove up here. Maybe in 20 years, we’ll finally be rid of that Slade song. An old couple on the Belfast Road left their house to take a walk around the duck pond. They took great pleasure in spoiling the ducks with their treats of bread and stale buns, but their joy was spoiled when they got harassed by an over-zealous goose. 

Meanwhile, a car left the house next door to theirs and made its way to the rough-looking loyalist housing estate just below the hill. They pulled up at the church-ah! Yes! I thought I might have had something to do today… Too late now though, I’ve made my choice. The family got out of the car, three young boys, and by the look of it, they probably had a telling off about something. They were carrying some toys: a train, an Optimus Prime, and a Boba Fett: the middle one had all the countenance of a child who’d broken his toy already but didn’t want to say so for fear of making people unhappy. They made their way into the church, and I could faintly here the strains of O Come All Ye Faithful, fourth verse and everything.

The other churches were filling too. St Mark’s, First Ards, Regent Street, Strean… Rev Sinclair seemed to arrive about half an hour before everyone else. Nearby, I saw that Roma’s Bar was being rebuilt. I might have spent the afternoon there with some mates, but the IRA thwarted my plans by blowing it up in July. Still, no one died. I’ll probably just go to Jonny’s instead, watch the Queen and have a few drinks. 

While church was on, the streets were empty and quiet. The only person I could see was the religious fanatic in the sandwich board who was always proclaiming that the end was nigh- evidently he did not take a break for Christmas- walking along past the Model. I had half a notion he was coming up to tell me I was wasting my Christmas.

I sat for a good hour drifting in and out of deep thought. Occasionally some walkers would arrive and wish me a Merry Christmas, but it was relatively quiet. Even the airfield was pretty much silent, save for one or two folks taking advantage of the quiet. By now, church was over, and the family I’d seen arrive took forever to come out. The lights went off, and they drove home. As they were getting in, the middle one seemed to look at me for a second before arguing with his brother about who sits where. After resolving the argument, they drove off. 

The tree had gone up in Conway Square a month ago, and despite it being a bit windy this year, it still stood, tall and proud. It had been up for about a month and Eddie Irvine had turned on the lights. Not bad for someone with only two Formula One starts! Everyone had come to see it being switched on, but the square was empty save for one young man smoking on the town hall steps and a dog outside Woolworths. Over in Londonderry Park, some kids were showing off their new gear and their football skills, in the shadow of Castlereagh Park. Rumour had it the football club was going through financial difficulties, but the people milling about seemed more concerned about whether the pitch would be playable in time for the Bangor visit on Monday (The kids seemed to be fine on the park, though). Might go to that if there’s nothing else on. Since he went to Edinburgh Johnny’s been going on about how rubbish the football is here. Proper Jambo now. He has a point, but there’s still something magic about it. 

The religious fanatic was now bothering a young couple outside the Strangford Arms Hotel, and I got the notion it was time to leave. I stood up and took one last look at the town that Christmas morning. 

I’d been here so long. I’d recognised its faults, its charm, its quirks, its brilliant people, and its desperate need, but there was something about the place, something that nobody could take away from it. It was home. And nothing would ever change that.

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