A special Christmas story by Cork author Billy O’Callaghan. His novel, ‘My Coney Island Baby’, is published by Jonathan Cape and will be available in all good bookstores on January 17
MY father looks smaller than I remember. Three nights before Christmas and he is standing in the doorway, soaked through in a threadbare linen suit that might have worked in the third-world tropics but is all wrong for Cork.
“I’m sorry it’s so late, Bill,” he smiles, showing a few stubs of lower front teeth and keeping his voice small because of the lateness of the hour, and in case I have company. “My flight was cancelled.”
Some friends had called, which meant wine with supper and more wine after, and my watch puts the time as coming on for three, which means I’d slept maybe two hours. Now everything is moving too slowly, the way it can in dreams. The rain is beating down on him, his thick, fleshy face turned distempered by the overhead porch light, and across the road a couple of the houses have their Christmas lights still burning, blurs of reds, yellows, greens and blues swaying in the wind.
“I won’t stay long,” he says, in apology. “I’ll be gone first thing.”
“Come in if you’re coming,” I tell him. “You’re letting out all my heat.” When I turn away I’m not sure that he’ll follow, but he does, along the hallway and through into the kitchen, watching his steps out of concern for who knows what. Land-mines, perhaps. While I fill the kettle, he stands beside the cluttered table, seeping rainwater onto the linoleum, afraid to sit or even to move.
We haven’t spoken in four years, and I’ve not seen him in 10, that last time just before he moved to London, to remarry. Now I send cards at Christmas time, careful with my greetings, going with something like, Well, it’s that time of year again! as an opening, and wrapping up with Wishing you all the very best this Christmas and a happy and healthy new year. Keeping it general so as not to exclude anybody, letting the you be taken as plural or not and the all to stand as ambiguous. Wanting to mean well, but not quite able to stretch to the familiarity of names, especially for people I’ve never actually met.
“I’m sorry for barging in like this,” he says, to my back.
“It’s fine,” I busy myself with pouring the tea. Unable to recall how he takes his, I leave it black, set down a bowl of sugar and an almost empty carton of milk on the counter and indicate with a shrug that he should help himself. He sloshes his way to my side and adds a little of both, one spoon of sugar and just a splash of milk.
“I would have gone to a hotel,” he adds, after sipping the tea and nodding appreciation, “except I’d already changed my money back. I only had enough in euros for the cab fare. Lucky for me you were home.”
The smile, sad as it is, makes a stranger of the man I once knew. But maybe I never knew him. Few sons, I suppose, can ever really know more than a side or two of their fathers. We gather memories and morsels of detail, but these achieve only the status of caricature, not portrait. Mostly, we create myth. And I can’t get over how old he looks. There’s something new, a beaten-down quality, that doesn’t fit at all with how he used to be. Or how I’d chosen to remember him. The ravages of time have been brutal.
“What brings you to Cork?” I ask, trying to keep anger from my voice. But it’s right there and, I realise, has been for some time. “Business, I suppose.”
He doesn’t answer. My Christmas tree can be seen through my living room’s open door, perched in darkness beside the front window. All around us are dirty plates and glasses, empty bottles, crisp packets and pizza boxes. I know what he’s thinking. He peels off his jacket, grunting with the effort, and drapes it over the back of one of the high chairs along the counter but, without it, seems even more sodden. A bead of rainwater swells the lobe of his left ear. Trying not to stare, I wait for it to fall, but it just hangs there, like an icicle, or a bauble from a Christmas tree branch, for longer than seems right. Then, perhaps noticing my glances or feeling some suggestion of discomfort, he raises a hand and the droplet is lost among his fingertips.
“This weather.” He sighs as if at the very thought of it, and I feel the sudden tide of his exhaustion. “The new flight’s supposed to go at nine but they suggested I call ahead. Something about crosswinds. It’s keeping the cold away, same as in London. But it doesn’t feel like Christmas without a bit of cold.”
There’s so much I want explained, such as why it’s taken a cancelled flight to bring him to my door, and what happened all those years earlier, not just between him and my mother but between him and me, that caused him to abandon us. Now that I’m no longer a boy, maybe I could make sense of it. But then, all at once, my anger subsides, and I feel overcome by the thought that he and I may never again stand together in the same room. He’s not sick that I know of, and not even that old, but time slips by, life happens. With the best will in the world, and even though London is no distance any more, people disconnect. What this Christmas storm has given us is, I realise, a rare gift: a night, with nothing in between.
“You’ll make no flight if you don’t get out of that wet suit,” I say, hardly recognising my own voice. It’s hard to speak, but I try. He notices but doesn’t look at me, only nods his head. “I’ll get you something of mine. Let’s put this tea away. There’s whiskey in the low cupboard there, but you might have to rinse out a couple of glasses.”
I take a few minutes to fix the spare bed, find a shirt, sweater and jeans that’ll fit him, and a fresh towel to help him get dry, and when I return from upstairs I find him standing barefoot in the living room beside the now-lit tree, gazing out at the sweeping rain.
Without shyness, he strips down to his underwear and gets into the fresh clothes. They’re too big but will suffice. Then we sit side by side on the couch but half an arm’s reach apart and drink the whiskey he has poured. The tree looks beautiful, the moment turns peaceful, and I know that if I close my eyes I will feel like I am eight years old again. Hitting the bottom of my glass surprises me, and I reach for the bottle waiting on the floor between his bare foot and mine, and pour us another. The bottle is still half full, and there are hours left to us yet before the new day.
“Your flight.” I have to clear my throat to speak. “Would it be so bad if you had to miss it for an extra day?”
Beside me, he leans his head back, closes his eyes, and smiles.