25th December, 1988 (and, for the avoidance of doubt, this is fiction, though some stuff did actually happen)
It wasn’t a white Christmas this year, which was just as well because I wasn’t going to hike up through the Glenshane Pass in a Ford Cortina if I was going to fly off it. There was a bit on the Sperrins but the most exciting weather aspect was seeing the sun poke out a couple of times. I wasn’t expecting to cross an international border on Christmas Day, but I wasn’t going to turn down my brother’s invitation to dinner.
I knew I was getting close when the “Londonderry” signs had the “London” bit scribbled out. There was no traffic, and it felt a bit like the Craigavon Bridge was complaining as I dared disturb it by driving across it.
The cops at the border, who presumably wanted something to do, pulled me over and asked where I was going.
“St Johnston. My brother’s a minister there, and I’m seeing his family.” They asked to see what was in my boot and there were three wrapped presents for his boys.
“What’s in these?” said the peeler.
“Board games, for my nephews.”
He took one and shook it a little.
“Sounds good. Try not to have too much fun in St Johnston.” he said sarcastically.
“Chip shops all closed today?” I joked cheekily.
“Be on your way sir” said the police officer, laughing. I negotiated the chicane which marked the border and drove along the appalling roads, through Carrigans and into the village of St Johnston. The Manse, a funny pink building, was on top of a hill with a long, absurdly twisty driveway. From it, there was a great view of the Foyle and Northern Ireland beyond it. The church beside it was just closing up after the service, still bearing the scars from the lightning strike a few years back.
Everybody greeted me and the three boys had gotten bigger since the last time I saw them. I hugged the oldest and the youngest, but not the middle who was scared of hugs, so I shook his hand instead. I gave them their gifts and they ripped open the paper with glee. They were all pleased and thanked me. I was a bit disappointed I’d missed the opening of gifts, but I didn’t need to ask if my brother had filmed it.
We sat in the lounge for a bit and watched the boys play with their toys. The Oldest (6) had a Transformer, as did the Middle (4), and the Youngest (2) got a train.
Before long, it was time for dinner, and so the Christmas Cracker jokes came.
The Oldest read out his joke: “What’s green and goes up and down?”
“I don’t know” said my brother.
You could tell he didn’t understand it. “A goose berry in a lift.”, he said, emphasising “goose” and “berry” as two different words. I laughed, my brother laughed, and my sister-in-law laughed.
The children did not. “Daddy, why’s that funny?” said the Youngest. How do you tell a four-year-old that something is funny because it is not funny? Instead, I read out my joke, which was easier.
“What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo?”
“A WOOLLY JUMPER!” said the Middle. My brother would later inform me that he’d heard this joke six months ago and had been repeating it at least daily ever since. At least he got it.
After dinner, I excused myself and went to the loo, while the rest went back to the front room.
When I came back, I saw the Middle standing outside the door, crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I just wanted to see it” blubbed the boy.
“The Transformer. I only wanted to see it but he wouldn’t let me.” It didn’t take a genius to figure out that ‘he’ in this case was his older brother. I figured that he’d wanted to play with his brother’s toy but his brother wouldn’t let him and so he kicked up a fuss and was sent away to think about what he’d done.
“How long did they say you had to stand here?” I asked. Not that any time frame would have meant anything to a four-year-old.
“I don’t know.” He said. “I just wanted to see it…” Whether he knew he’d done anything wrong was unknown, but he seemed convinced he’d done nothing wrong.
I sat down against the wall beside him. “You know, when I was your age, your daddy had a bus. It was big and shiny and if you pressed a button it made a noise like a bus. But I wanted to play with it and he wouldn’t let me. So I sneaked up to his room when he was at school and played with it.”
“Should I do that too?” he asked. I laughed and I felt a bit bad about it.
“Well, do you know what happened? I was so excited to finally play with your daddy’s bus that I hit it against a wall and broke it. The bus didn’t make a noise any more. Your Granda was very angry, and I wasn’t allowed to play with any of my toys for two days. ”
“That’s not fair”, he said.
“It wasn’t fair that I broke your daddy’s toy. Imagine if your wee brother was secretly playing with your toy and he broke it. How would you feel?”
“I’d be sad.” I don’t think that’s what he meant, but I went with it.
“And what if you allowed him to play with your toy and he didn’t have to go up and play with it behind your back?”
He hadn’t quite mastered the art of metaphor yet. “I could hear him if he was playing behind my back.”
I supressed my laughter and went on. “You know, lots of people are nice. Sometimes, though, you meet people who will do more unfair things than not letting you play with their toys. But imagine if you always let your brothers play with your toys, do you think things would be happier?”
“Maybe.” he said.
I spied a nativity scene in the porch. “I think the baby Jesus would say so too.” I’m not sure this made sense, but it was a good out. His mother came and said he could come back in because the Queen was about to on.
I felt a bit rebellious watching Her Majesty in the Republic, saying her usual stuff. Afterwards was “An American Tail“, but my brother and his wife fell asleep before we found out if Fievel would be reunited with his family. I played Mousetrap with the boys, and I won (which hopefully saved arguments).
I thought this a good time to leave. As I was putting my coat on, I told the boys to remember that Mummy and Daddy loved them very much and that I was looking forward to seeing them again. I said my farewells and headed off.
When I got back to my flat in Belfast, I lifted the phone and dialled a number 0-3-1… There was no answer, and imagined the ringing rattling around a big empty house in Edinburgh. Eventually, an answering machine responded and asked me to leave a message.
“Hi Becky, it’s me. I… uh, … just wanted to say Happy Christmas, I hope you found someone at St Catherine’s to give you dinner. I… uh… I miss you. ” Horrified by that last sentence, I hung up straight away. It was true that I was upset the weather had trapped Becky in Scotland, but maybe now wasn’t the time to confess how I felt about her.
There were other pressing matters, so I phoned my brother after that to left them know I’d got back ok. I didn’t tell them about stopping to cry on the Glenshane Pass.
“The boys are brilliant.” I told him. “Never stop telling them that.”