Christmas nightmare

Burst pipes and back-boiler, flooded sitting room and cake-hungry mice feature among Áilín Quinlan’s not-so-happy festive memories

I LOVE Christmas – but it isn’t all plain sailing. Not in our house anyway. Last Christmas the back-boiler burst, we lost our water and our central heating and nearly had to cancel our Christmas dinner. And, oh yeah, the fireplace fell off the wall. But even that wasn’t the end of it.

St Stephen’s morning I was putting the rubbish out when I slipped on the icy footpath and sprained both my wrists. Badly.

Christmas 2010 the pipes burst in our newly-decorated sitting-room and ruined the freshly-painted ceiling, while out in the backyard, a pair of large, starving rats, driven half-mad by the cold, arrived up from the frozen river-bank in search of food.

For two days they gambolled with horrible gaiety in the thick snow outside the kitchen window, eating the crumbs we’d left out for the robin, watched by a traumatised guest from the US.

The kids were terrified they’d eat the robin. Which they would have, if they’d been able to catch him.

And then, of course, there was our newly-wed’s Christmas long, long ago.

We’d rented a lovely, picturesque, but rather ancient house in west Cork. On St Stephen’s Day we left to stay with friends up the country, leaving the beautifully decorated Christmas cake — a present from my mother — on the table in the old kitchen.

When we arrived home days later, I was just about to cut into the s cake — as yet untasted — when something made me pause.

I leaned in to examine the cake more closely. Erk! It had been tasted. Very much so. In fact it had been most assiduously tunnelled.

My first married Christmas cake was now only a shell, its interior full of winding little paths eaten into it during a 48-hour cake-eating orgy by our resident family of mice.


The plan was to make a bomb ...

- John Creedon, broadcaster

“When I was nine years old, I wrote to Santa for a chemistry set. I wanted a chemistry set because one of my friends told me that if I had one I could make a bomb.

“I wrote a letter to Santa asking for a chemistry set, and, in fairness, Santa duly delivered. Santa, needless to say, was entirely oblivious to the fact that the plan was to make a bomb.

“The other part of the plan was to go up to Belfield off Patrick’s Hill in Cork city, where there was a big open space and let off the bomb.

“I was thrilled with the chemistry set, but when I opened it there were no chemicals in it, just equipment like a Bunsen burner.

“So I had the chemistry set, but nothing that I could make a bomb with.

“On Stephens’s Day I was walking around town sulking about it; I was rightly fed up. Then, some of the lads said there was loads of sulphur lying around on Horgan’s Wharf. We got a plastic Roches’ Stores bag and went to Horgan’s Wharf, and, sure enough, there were these yellow bits of rock lying around.

“I collected them and brought them up to my house. I lit the Bunsen burner and tried to ignite the rock.

“The sulphur caught fire alright; it started to melt, it was like lava. There were terrible fumes off it. There was this bright-blue flame and a wicked choking smoke filled the house — it was like trench warfare.

“We all had to run out with our eyes watering. We had to leave the windows and doors open — there was a smell in the house, and, needless to say, I got in the height of trouble, though, in fairness to my parents, they took it well enough.

“The moral of the story is don’t try this at home.”

Arlene Hunt, Crime writer

“When I was a teenager, I was stubborn and difficult and right about everything. At 16 — after a vicious fight with my mother — I left home. I left school, worked two jobs, paid my own rent and ate almost no food. Who needed an education, or protein? Well, it turns out I needed both, and come December I was unwell and miserable.

“I had mysterious aches and pains, and there was an equally mysterious fungus growing in the ‘bathroom’ of the garage/flat I rented; no doubt nourished heartily by the abundance of condensation that formed on the walls daily. But still, I reasoned, despite developing a hacking cough, at least I was independent.

“I had my moments of doubt. Walking back from work one evening in the pouring rain, I passed countless windows of brightly-lit, warm homes. I stuffed my hands in the pockets of my coat and tried not to think what awaited me: a mouldy damp garage/flat with a pullout sofa-bed. I lay fully-clothed on the sofa-bed, in the darkness, pulled the scratchy duvet over my head and cried myself to sleep. Being a resilient sort, the following morning I bought a new bulb and set forth with a determined clench to my jaw. Christmas Eve I spent alone and cold and hungry, under my new bulb.

“On Christmas Day, I rose early and went for a brisk walk about the neighbourhood to raise my spirits — but every shop was closed. It was a disaster for me, 16 and alone, with nothing, no prezzies or indeed anything else. Then something marvellous happened. At 11am, a knock at the door. My friend Mary. ‘My mother says you’re to come down for dinner.’ ! That sumptuous meal is the most glorious of all Christmas dinners I have ever eaten, and reminds me of the true value of compassion, generosity and good will to others.”

- Arelene Hunt’s latest novel is The Chosen, published by Portnoy Publishing, €10.99

Half the people on plane cried

- Terry Prone, author and columnist

“About nine years ago I was celebrating Christmas Day on Sanibel Island, Florida.

“I was there with members of my family and some friends and employees when I got a phone call to say my mother was very ill and had been taken to hospital.

“I fed everyone and then I caught a flight home.

“It was a very, very strange journey because no one flies on Christmas Day unless there is a disaster involved, or unless you have no human connections — or that one of your human connections is in trouble.

“So about half of the people on the plane were quietly crying, and the others were staring into space as if that could make the plane fly faster. It was breath-takingly sad.

“When I walked into my mother’s hospital ward on Christmas Day, I was the hero of the hour.

“I think my appearance undoubtedly made her feel better. She couldn’t believe I had managed to get home from Florida, and I think the very fact that I was there gave her a lift. She left hospital after about a week.”

We had no money for dinner

- Lorna Byrne, author of Angels in My Hair and Stairways to Heaven

“One Christmas, about 25 years ago, we had no money. I was in my mid-30s and had been married for about 10 years. My husband, Joe, was ill and unemployed — we had absolutely nothing.

We had three children under the age of nine and we didn’t even have the makings of a Christmas dinner — there was no food on the table.

“I prayed for help to God and the angels. Someone listened — to this day I don’t know who it was — but when we got up on Christmas morning, there was an envelope lying on the mat at the front door.

“There were two 20-pound notes in it. At that time, it was a huge amount of money. We went to mass and after we got a Christmas dinner together — a chicken, vegetables, lemonade, everything we needed — we were even able to get the kids a few crayons and colouring books.

“That was a wonderful Christmas. That person must have come up to our house very late at night and slipped the envelope under the door.

“That person listened to the spirit of Christmas. Now, every year, I remember the special gift and pray for whoever delivered it. That person understood what Christmas meant and listened.”

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