My Dad and Dublin never used to get on. As a child, though, I remember the special hatred he reserved for our annual *December 8 family trip up to the smoke.
But here he was now, asleep in my bed in my Rathmines flat after a great night out in town with his old Garda buddies.
I had slept in a camp bed borrowed from a friend. It was early morning and in the gathering light filtering through the curtains I could discern the tousled track of white hair running around his bald head, and the red tip of Dad’s right ear above the blankets.
Muffled by the covers, his snores had moved down a few decibels and I found myself smiling. Thinking back to when I was a kid.
Thinking of **Culchie Christmas, as the so-called big city Dublin folk called it, the Eighth of December. How much Mom and us kids loved it, and how much Dad hated it.
Us six kids squashed into the back of our black Morris Minor, with Mom and Dad up front, for the big shopping trip up in the big city.
An abiding memory apart from getting up early and the buzz of the whole thing, was how tense my Dad would be already as he filtered the car into the thickening suburban traffic, telling us all to shut up to bloody hell, as we chuntered our way into the city centre.
That only made the six of us in the back worse. Here we were, four brothers and two sisters, full of the big city whoosh, arguing over who would see the most double-decker buses, all talk of Clerys and Santa and the mad dash from shop to shop to come, and best of all, the chips, the lemonade and the buns in the cafe when we would put down our bulging bags at the end of our spree.
But before all that, after more than two hours squashed into a Morris Minor, we would pull into the Roches Stores car park, where we would be leaving the car, and Mom would break out the sandwiches, and share them all out. They were always the same: plain ham or ham and tomato. Loads of butter. By this stage the tomatoes were all soggy but we loved them! The best sandwiches ever! Washed down with great big guzzles of that wonderfully tangy red lemonade, the fizz going right up our noses, but what matter, sure it was all such a laugh. All done, off we would set on our mission.
My mother, in total contrast to Dad, was in her element amid the swirl and swoosh, chatting away and buttering up all the salesmen. But Dad … I can still almost feel the white-knuckled scrunch of his huge hand on mine, and half my forearm, as we crossed the hectic O’Connell Street traffic, both cars and people.
The best part was the last couple of hours, when the evening descended and the magical Christmas illuminations came on …the lights and the sights of twinkling, dazzling O’Connell Street, and the glitz and glitter of Grafton Street, the display in Switzer’s window, the smell of coffee from Bewley’s — why did it never taste as good as it smelled?
There was no shuffle-shallying and no dilly-dallying as we bustled from store to store, the bag count mounting, us kids pushing past each in the door, and a puck from the loser into the top of the arm for the so-and-so who had made it in first.
Dad would be getting crankier and crankier, as the carol singers cranked it up, rattling their buckets and belting them out, full of manic Christmas cheer, and on our cavalcade would rumble and grumble, with one stop for sticky buns and lemonade in the Kylemore, while the adults had their sensible tea and scones.
Clery’s was brilliant with those brass cylinder cash pulleys for change which totally amazed us kids. When Mom or Dad paid for their stuff, the money would be put into one of these cylinders and they would be sent whizzing up the wire line to the cash office. There, unseen hands would take out the original cash, and place the change and the receipt into the cylinder and it would come whizzing back down the line to us in seconds.
And their Santa was the best ever, plenty of time to chat to you, as if you were the child he really wanted to talk to. It was the first time I ever experienced that trick of stepping inside this mockey-ya wooden carriage and thinking we were rattling along, like a real train, off to Santa’s den, but in actual fact it was the “trees” outside the carriage that were moving, not us.
No trip to Dublin was complete without a visit to Moore Street. Squelching over the sticky oranges and broken wooden crates as we chased each other through the upturned carts and stalls, kicking burst apples under the stalls, as the adults ran the gauntlet of gimlet-eyed traders on the scent of a kill. Especially a money bags culchie family.
“Get yer Santa hats” … “Howya, love …” catching Mom’s amused eye, a full smile now indicating she was wavering, and on the brink of capitulation.
“Six apples for a shilling, love, go on, they’re only gorgeous …” Mom would have stopped walking now, and that was it … she was looking through the fare, hooked and landed.
The good auld Dublin charm offensive continued all the while as Mom selected her apples, bananas and oranges.
“Are yiz after comin’ far, love? … Tipperary? … It’s a long way, wha?” cackle, cackle, all the while watching Mom and her opened, bulging purse …
“Do ya want a few pears to go with them as well, love … massive, they are … six? … grand”.
All bagged in a jiffy, and as soon as the money was paid over, it was a cursory “thanks, love” and her attentions were transferred immediately to the next customer.
Dad would only begin to unwind as we tucked into our tea in Auntie Joan’s afterwards and become positively jovial as himself and Uncle Liam yarned away.
All too soon we would be in the car and beyond Newlands Cross as the full black of night descended once the city lights were packed away for another year behind us.
In the back, conversation would soon dry to a jaded trickle as we kids succumbed to the tetchy torpor of the traveller’s quasi-sleep. The intermittent glare of streetlights on aching eyelids marked our passage through the largely silent villages that mapped the road to home.
Years of memories flowed by now as the shallower, irregular snores told me Dad would be awake soon.
Up to put on the rashers and sausages, and the Barry’s tea. Ah, the tea: the pot piping hot and the water scalding the tea-leaves. White bread and real butter.
Everything had gone so well last night. All the news I knew already as the bus headed in from Heuston; him chuffed about the free train as he showed me the dog-eared pass that meant only old age to me.
He was off to see his old Garda pals on a night out. I was to call for him at midnight. Me collecting my father. How often had I come out from hops to the discretely waiting unmarked blue Escort? A fleeting snog out of sight if I had got lucky and a hurried rendezvous arranged as the engine revved.
When I arrived to collect him now, the stragglers were still picking at the remains of the day. My father’s head was thrown back in laughter in the middle of a small group. He beckoned me over. The reddened nose told me he had had a few more than his usual two pints and a Jameson.
Peter and Jimmy I knew; particular favourites from back in the day, and they had visited us often. Jimmy was a Chief Superintendent now, as Dad often reminded us, but here he deferred happily to his old instructor sergeant. I basked in the warm glow of the obvious affection these men felt for my Dad.
Back at the flat later, we chatted in the dark until a whispered goodnight and his abrupt turn to one side in his bed ended a day memory was already filling away. My father asleep in my bed.
The idea of our roles coming full circle and me looking after my Dad now was fanciful, really. He would wake soon, as would some old resentments and the odd unresolvable difference. Still the patriarch and I still the son. As it was in the beginning.
*December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is a school holiday in largely Catholic Ireland, and traditionally, Culchie families would drive up Dublin City to do their Big Christmas Shop.
**Culchie is a less than complimentary Irish slang term city people use for their rural brethren.