Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Sean stretched his hands as far as he could into the darkness, first one way, then the other. Nothing. The cold air of the space hit him full in the face.
‘I can’t find it!’
‘Take the torch’, the voice of his brother Jack below re-assured him. Sean leaned back down, grasped it and switched the beam on.
He had never liked the attic, this cold, dark, uninviting place sitting on top of the house, like a hidden cave close to a sunny beach. He imagined all kinds of creatures – spiders, mice, bats – lurking in the darkness waiting to pounce. He shivered, and then felt the light of the torch transform the dark space in front of him. He moved the beam across oddments of carpet, a rocking horse from years ago, the discarded gold-fish bowl, and a box of old copies of ‘Ireland’s Own’. And there it was finally, next to the old birdcage and the battered brown suitcase: the large, wooden fruit box, covered in old newspaper. ‘Found it’, he shouted. He moved forward quickly, careful to step only on the joists, and hefted the box toward him, then eased his way back to the opening, and passed it down through the trapdoor and into the welcoming arms of Jack. He then turned and holding onto the opening, sought the stepladder and felt the relief of Jack’s hands steady his legs onto the rungs.
‘Be careful, Sean’ his Mam cautioned, as he swung his legs onto the ledge.
He loved this moment every year, when they assembled with the box in front of the Christmas tree in the front room. He always shut his eyes as the news-paper was removed, and tried to remember exactly what was in there, and never ceased to be amazed at how much he forgot: the concertinaed lengths of coloured paper, the baubles, the snow figures, the lights which always worked when they packed them away, and now, a year later, refused to glow. Jack was busy, spilling the contents onto the settee. Sean left him to it - he couldn’t keep up with Jack’s energy anyway - and went looking for the thing he most wanted to see and feel, the big orange star, that would hang on the light in the hall, and cast a beautiful orange glow throughout the bottom of the house and out through the front door. When his Dad put it up later he would feel that Christmas had really arrived.
They sat in the kitchen later on, eating the stew dinner that was his favourite. His Mam hovered about, clearing pots to the sink, and wiping down the cooker.
‘Yes need to be leaving soon and not keep Ciaran waiting’, she reminded them, before moving off with some clean laundry down the hall.
Sean whispered to Jack.
‘Are they still there?’
‘Don’t know’ Jack replied, then pointing his spoon at Sean’s stew added,
‘I’ll check, but only if you give me some of that’.
Sean looked down at his dinner, thought about it, and then spooned some onto Jack’s plate.
Jack wolfed it down, then after listening for the sounds of his Mam overhead, shot towards the dining room.
‘You keep nix’
Sean stood at the door, watching Jack, anxiously listening out for footsteps on the stairs.
Jack knelt in front of the fire-place, and reached a hand up into the chimney.
‘Yeah, still there’ he said, as he wiped the soot from his hands onto a piece of newspaper, sitting in the grate.
‘Does that mean Santy might forget us?’ Sean asked, panic rising.
‘No he won’t, he never does’ Jack said with such certainty that Sean felt the wave recede immediately.
And that was the thing about Jack – he was always so sure of everything.
Sean thought back to the Sunday before, when they both sat down to write their letters together. They’d just come back from town where their Mam and dad had taken them to see the street lights and the shop windows. He wanted the guitar, which he’d seen in Clery’s, but Jack had spotted the red boxing gloves in the Arnott’s window, with their picture of Cassius Clay on the front, and was excited.
Before Sean had even got past ‘Dear Santy…’, Jack was at him.
‘Wouldn’t it be brilliant, the two of us with gloves, we could pretend to be Cassius Clay, Joe Louis, Floyd Patterson.’
‘I dunno’, Sean hesitated.
‘We could have competitions with all the others, see who’s the champ of Whiterock’, Jack persisted, flicking out a couple of left jabs for effect.
‘I really liked the guitar’ Sean added lamely, feeling he was fighting a losing battle against Jack’s flurry of enthusiasm.
As if sensing his hesitation, Jack moved in for the kill.
‘Then you’d be able to fight them bullies at school. I’ll teach you’ Jack added, and Sean remembered how he had come to his rescue a few days before the holidays when Shamie Ryan and his pals were picking on him after school. Jack had given Shamie a bloody nose and routed the others. He’d felt pathetic and at the same time grateful to Jack. He sometimes worried what would happen if Jack wasn’t there.
‘Go on, what do you say?’
‘All right then, I suppose’ Sean conceded, and Jack punched the air.
An hour later, they were muffled up in winter coats and being waved off down the road by their Mam. Her parting shot was directed at Jack ‘you’re eleven now, so keep an eye on your brother in town’.
They marched towards the other boys, milling together on a small green area close to the O’Doherty’s. The last of the overnight snow, icy mush now, was being harvested for snowballs, as two groups lined up facing one another.
‘Hey Jack,’ Mickey Fagan shouted, ‘you be on our side’.
‘C’mon Sean’, Jack cried, as he sprinted towards one of the warring factions.
Ten minutes later, the ‘war’ was over, due to a lack of ‘munitions’ – as Tommy Smith, the school swot, put it - and a ceasefire declared. The group, seven in all, and now comrades in arms, sat on the O’Doherty’s wall, brushing off bits of ice, and sending great clouds of frozen air to the heavens.
‘When’s Ciaran coming?’ Tommy asked.
‘He’s not coming’, Brian Kennedy said, ‘he’s going to meet us in there. We’re to get the number 3 bus and see him at the Pillar’.
‘Who’s got the collection boxes, then’, Tommy, who felt himself to be one of Ciaran’s ‘lieutenants’, wanted to know.
‘Ciaran’s bringing them himself’, Brian replied.
‘I love this bit’ Jack piped up. ‘After all the nights around the streets, it’s great to be in the middle of town, around all the buzz. Do youse remember the first year we did it, we were worried sick in case we made any mistakes. Then we sussed that you could be singing any muck, so long as it sounded like a carol, and people threw you some lolly’.
‘Listen if we were brutal, we wouldn’t have got anything’, Tommy retorted, his voice rising a notch, ‘and look at how much we collected for the sick children’.
‘I’m only sayin’ it’s no big deal’ Jack scoffed, ‘so will you stop getting your big sisters knickers in a twist’ . The others laughed; Tommy was always being slagged because he was the only boy in a family with five sisters. Tommy shut up, and Sean could see that Jack was in his element now, leader of the pack, top-dog.
Three years ago, Ciaran Ryan had formed the choir. He had suggested it during one of their weekly summer hikes to the Wicklow mountains. Every Sunday, weather permitting, Ciaran took them on the bus to Enniskerry and they walked the 3 miles to Knockree, spending a few hours playing down by the river. They’d return home, late Sunday night, exhausted and filthy, and fall into bed. Ciaran had great plans for a boys’ club in the parish, and the hiking and the choir were part of his plan. The summer before he had called a meeting of the parents to set up a committee, and their Dad had put himself forward. The committee was now looking into the possibility of building a premises for the club.
The choir met once a week, and they had started to sing, by popular demand, at one of the Masses on a Sunday. After a few months, Ciaran asked them if they would like to do some Carol singing at Christmas, to raise money for the Children’s hospital, and the lads had agreed. Sean loved it, especially if it was frosty. Going around the streets, stopping under the lamp-posts and singing into the cold night air felt magical; it reminded him of the old fashioned Christmas cards, with someone holding an oil lamp while the choir, all muffled up in winter coats and long scarves sang brightly, as a robin looked on from a snow-covered bush.
The Christmas before, Ciaran had arranged for them to sing outside the GPO, and this year was to be no different. Sean could feel the excitement in the air; the lads didn’t get to go into town very often, and there was always a buzz as people did their last minute shopping. Afterwards, Ciaran took them to Cafollas as a treat.
‘When’s the next bus?’ Jack asked.
‘We just missed one,’ Brian said. ‘could be ages’
A torpor settled on the group, as they sat on the wall for the wait, the exhilaration of the snow-ball fight giving way to a quiet introspection. Maybe everyone, Sean thought, was, like him, thinking about Christmas, and the presents he hoped would be lying at the foot of the tree on the big day…
It was Tommy who spotted them, the two black figures etched against the white of the snow, as they rounded the corner, and moved in their direction. He nudged Jack, who alerted the rest of them.
‘Priests at 2 o’clock’ he joked, mimicking the voice of the American pilot in the film they’d seen in the Grand the previous week. They all knew Fr. Callery, who had been in the parish for 2 years, but the Parish Priest was new, having only arrived the previous month.
The two priests stopped purposefully in front of the group.
‘Hello boys,’ Father Callery said.
‘Hello Father,’ they replied in unison.
The Parish Priest looked slowly at them all, then asked:
‘Now tell me, what are a group of young boys like yourselves doing sitting out here on a cold winter’s day?’
Everyone waited for Jack and Tommy to respond.
‘We’re waiting for the bus to go into town, Father.’ Jack finally said.
‘And what will you be doing in town?’ the Parish Priest asked.
‘We’re the church choir and we’re going to sing carols at the GPO’ Tommy said proudly.
‘The church choir?’ the Parish Priest repeated slowly, and turning to Father Callery added ‘did you hear that, Father, this is the church choir.’
Sean didn’t like the way he said ‘the church choir.’ It reminded him of Brother Leydon at school when he asked a question but didn’t really expect an answer, just before you knew someone was in for it.
‘And which of you gentlemen,’ continued the Parish Priest, ‘would be the conductor of this church choir?’
All the lads shifted uncomfortably, and Tommy looked expectantly at Jack, who was now staring at his boots.
‘Ciaran Ryan is our conductor’ Tommy eventually said, ‘but he’s not here….we’re meeting him in town.’
‘Are you indeed. Well boys, do you know who I am?’
‘You’re the new Parish Priest,’ Mickey said quickly.
‘I am indeed’ the Parish Priest nodded, ‘and given how busy I’ve been since arriving in the parish, I haven’t had the opportunity to set up a church choir, but’ - and here he looked at each of them in turn – ‘believe me, I do intend to.’
Tommy looked at Jack, who now sat stony-faced on the wall.
‘But,’ said Tommy, feeling that the Parish Priest hadn’t understood, ‘we’re already set up. We’ve been singing for a few years now. We do the 12 o’clock Mass every Sunday, and we even sang for the Papal Nuncio, when he came to Dublin.’
The Parish Priest paused, and, ignoring Tommy completely, repeated:
‘As I said, I will be setting up a church choir very shortly, and hopefully all of you will audition to be in it.’
‘But.. but,’ stammered Tommy, ‘we’ve been singing carols for the past three weeks, collecting money for the Children’s Hospital, and we’re hoping to get a big load of money in town today…’
The Parish Priest fixed Tommy with a steely glare, then looked slowly along the line.
‘Now boys, listen to me carefully. No-one is going into town today to sing carols, to collect money, to pass themselves off as the Whiterock church choir. There is no Whiterock church choir. I’ve come here to tell you all to go home and be good boys.’
There was stunned silence, and even Tommy seemed at a loss for words.
Sean nudged Jack, who ignored him and slid off the wall.
From somewhere deep inside him, Sean heard himself say ‘…But we’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.’
Suddenly Jack kicked him in the shins. Sean winced but didn’t cry out.
Father Callery interjected, looking directly at Sean. ‘Lads, you’ve heard what the Parish Priest has told you. Now if you don’t do as he says, you’ll be committing a sin.’
His words hung frozen in the cold December air. Nobody moved.
Sean was rooted to the spot, trying to take in what Father Callery had said. A sin?
Then suddenly Jack pushed past him and began running off towards home. The other lads quickly followed suit.
Sean and Tommy were the last to move.
Halfway down the road, Sean turned to see both priests staring after them.
‘How will Ciaran know,’ he wondered, ‘will he think we just didn’t bother coming?’
They parted at O’Hanlon’s, and Sean watched Tommy walk off down the street to his house. Tommy had guts, he thought, the way he stood up to the Parish Priest.
He couldn’t understand why Jack said nothing. He had thought Jack was afraid of no one.
He reached the gates of his own house. Saw the orange glow of the shining star welcoming him home.
But he didn’t want to be home.
Didn’t want to have to talk to his Mam and Dad about what had happened.
Didn’t want to see Jack.
Didn’t want to share a Christmas present with him.
Feeling his anger rise, he kicked at a clump of snow as he stomped up the path.
He thought about the guitar in Clery’s window.
He wondered if there was still time to change the letter to Santy….