My Christmas Tale

So that's the end of that then, eh??!!….

Christmas and New Year fly by in the blink of an eye, or at the very least a drunken squint.

So here is a brief (!) summary of the festive season and what we all got up to:

Leaving from a frosty Eindhoven airport on Thursday 22nd Dec. at 19:00, I returned home for the festive period, arriving into Dublin airport at around 20:00 local time, with a horse's head under my arm, as well as some presents for the family.

The horse's head had been given to me by a friend, but it was nowhere near as sinister as it may first sound, although considering the true nature of this gift, it might have been better for the macho ego in me had it been of the ilk made famous in the Godfather movie.

In fact, the horse's head (plus body and accessories) was a lovely lilac affair that would soon belong to the Barbie Doll of my friend’s niece. Apparently the shops in Ireland had run out of stock and I had to deliver one over from Belgium to ensure that the Christmas sparkle continued in this young girl's life.

As arranged, I met her brother, in Dublin airport arrivals hall and we made the 'transaction'. I was glad to see him – my friend had suggested that if her brother was delayed then I should just go to the airport information desk and leave it with them, apparently oblivious to the notion that a young man with a Northern Ireland accent leaving a package in Dublin airport might raise a few suspicions...

I also bumped into another friend, who had flown in from Charleroi airport, arriving more or less at the same time as me. This was different (and if I must say - a relief) compared with what we had first expected – she had originally thought that she and the three kids and all their presents were going on the Eindhoven flight with me. I was therefore spared the job of chaperone, father and luggage carrier rolled into one. How she managed is beyond me.

Having wished them all the best for Christmas and New Year, I set about finding my father, not normally a difficult task in Dublin airport. Thanks to a no smoking policy ANYWHERE in the building, there is a large congregation of lost souls to be found huddled outside the terminal building of which my father was sure to be amongst.

I sparked up myself and looked through the crowd of people for the friendly face.

He was nowhere to be seen.

The first pangs of fear started to take grip. Perhaps he'd forgotten and was already on his way up North. The last bus “Up North” was at 20:20. I checked my watch. My watch told me it was 20:20. I cursed and put my cigarette out and returned to the terminal building.

I wandered aimlessly for a couple of minutes searching the sea of faces for my father.

Thankfully, he found me and it was only when he was about 10 feet away and waving like an over-enthusiastic jack-in-the-box that I finally noticed him. Hearty embraces and patting of backs ensued and then we started the 2 and a quarter hour drive up home - there was no time to spare.

Every year, my brothers and our friends organise a meal, colourfully titled “The Spanker's Ball”. Nothing too fancy, it's in our local, and as well as the 3 course meal, there are ballots, prize-giving, speeches, followed by a 2-piece band attempting to play cover songs, a male stripper(!) and alcohol. Lots and lots of alcohol.

Resigned to missing the food, we certainly wanted to ensure that we were there in time for at least some of the booze.

About an hour into the journey I received a call from my mum. It was obvious that she had been already embracing in the Christmas Spirit.

"Is that you???"
"Yes mum, it is"
"Are you on this island?"
"Yes mum, I am"
"Ohhhhhhhhhh Loooooooooovvvvveely, my oldest and dearest is on his way home!!"
"Well, that's the thing - I'm going to go to the pub for a few drinks with Daddy and meet up with the brothers and the rest of the lads"

There was a silence. I feared the worst. Christmas as the eldest child of divorced parents can be a tricky thing. Somewhat of a political minefield even.

"That's ok - we'll come up to the pub as well!"

Certainly not the response I was expecting but I went with it. It was Christmas after all; the season to be jolly. Surely the whole family would get along ok?

As it turned out, we all got along swimmingly, all of us being united in our amazement at just how drunk by younger brother was. Worst I've seen him in a looooonng time. Daddy left around midnight because he had work in the morning. I then managed to lose my Mum and stepfather (not sure how that can be possible, in such a relatively small place such as our local). Then my youngest brother did a disappearing act as well, leaving one brother his girlfriend and myself. It had also been her Christmas party so she had been quite merry by the time she got into the pub but I think the thought of taking my brother home in the state he was in soon sobered her up.

I was all set for a few late drinks by way of a lock-in but thanks to my brother’s inability to sit up straight, never mind talk properly, the two of us decided to take him home in a taxi. After being told we'd have a 45 minute wait in a taxi, we were resigned to walking home, eventually getting him home sometime after 02:30.

I phoned mum to say that I was going to walk down from Daddy's but she sent a rather the worse-for-wear step-father up to collect me in the car. Not too sensible but it saved me a 20 minute walk in freezing conditions.

That night, the three of us made a huge dent in the house’s alcohol supply for the Christmas period. Talking and chatting until 07:00 in the morning, a sure sign that none of us are getting any more sensible with old age!

Friday lunch time and with the power bestowed upon me of an Ulster Fry-up, washed down with the elixir of life that is known as Lucozade, I took my mum's Nissan Micra and braved the Christmas shopping on the streets of Belfast. I didn't have to get everything but there was still enough on the to-do list to make me nervous enough.

Still, it was a lot milder back home than it had been in Belgium - the sun was shining, it was Christmas time and I was back in my home town. All was good in the world. I took in the scenes around me, pleased to be back amongst "my people" (I hate that use of phrase), getting a buzz when I heard all the Northern Ireland accents that surrounded me. I smiled at passers by and enjoyed the apologies from people that bumped into me; something that Belgians have long since forgotten to do.

I took time to go to some clothes shops that I like and I treated myself to a few items of clothing. Oh, how I'm good to myself when I'm Christmas shopping for others! I make no excuses for this - there is just something I like about the clothes back home compared with Belgium. Perhaps it's the less serious approach to fashion in the UK, or just the fact that colours do range beyond black and grey…

Unfortunately on the shopping-for-others front things weren't going so well. Queues in the music and video stores were unbelievable. This was a problem, because all the presents I had to buy were….music and video related.

Things were to get worse.

When I finally did manage to get a sales assistant's attention, each store I tried didn't have all the things I wanted and I didn't want to join a queue for just a couple of the items.

Beaten but not finished, I returned home, confident that I'd get everything the following day, Christmas Eve. Today had just been a reconnaissance mission and I was starting to feel a wee bit tired from the night before and a wee bit battered by the Christmas shoppers.

I returned to mum's and had fish and chips from the fish and chip shop at the bottom of the town and officially the best fish and chip shop in Northern Ireland (and 5th in the UK) and then went to bed for a few hours, to prepare for the night ahead. An evening in the pizzeria at the top of the town with my dad, step-mum, their 9 year old daughter and her wee mate, as well as the two brothers and their better halves, followed, of course, by drinks afterwards in the local.

Needless to say food and wine consumption exceeded necessary amounts and as we dined the shop next door fell victim to an armed robbery. Merry Christmas, Northern Ireland style. (the perpetrators, a father and son, were later caught in their car a few miles outside our home town).

After the meal, we said goodbye to my step-mum, the kids and my younger brother (who had allowed his fiancé a few late drinks so that he could go and relieve Mum + Stepdad of babysitting duties).

She stuck the pace for a short while before she became wracked with guilt. The other brother’s girlfriend took that as her chance to make a break for the border, leaving my brother, dad and I to prop up the bar, which we did most valiantly until we begged to be locked-out rather than locked-in.

I went back to the brothers - which is like a building site these days, as he undertakes a complete renovation of the property. Why he can’t do one room at a time is beyond me. We subsequently fell asleep watching a DVD - I don't remember which one, but there is a good chance Sylvester Stallone was in it…

Following lunchtime the following day, I had promised to take Mum into Belfast to do her shopping, which also allowed me to finish mine off.

So, as we arrived in Belfast, we said our goodbyes and arranged to meet in 2 and a half hours. There was nowhere near the same amount of people in Belfast compared to the previous day - the people of Belfast seemingly better organised than my mum and me, so I managed to get the presents organised in double-quick time, before sitting admiring a young jazz quartet for half an hour giving decidedly jazzy renditions of Christmas songs. Excellent stuff.

Still - with an hour and a half to kill, I did the only thing that I knew that would not involve spending a lot of money on more clothes - I went to a city centre pub and had a couple of pints of Guinness. I was a sucker for the advert outside, proclaiming “Come inside for the Best Pint of Guinness in Belfast”. I can't say that I was disappointed. The pub, “Kelly's Cellars”, has a nice feel about it, and I was amazed that I'd never been in it before, although, to be fair, it is in a bit of a republican stronghold. The benefit of the peace process, eh?

As I still had 20 minutes to kill and two pints of the black stuff inside me, I headed off to meet mum, but could not resist the temptation of an inviting virgin, whose beguiling charm and promises of untold treasures diverted me from my destination.

A Virgin Megastore that is.

One mad dash around the shop, and I had purchased 8 DVDs and a couple of CDs:

Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy
Base Moi
Animal Factory
The Secretary
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Straw Dogs
House of a 1000 corpses

Robbie Williams

Like I say - I'm good to myself, eh? To be honest, when the sales are on in the UK, the prices work out cheaper than in Belgium and I never buy Cds or DVDs in Belgium. The DVDs were only between £2.99 and £5.99. (I sound like I’m trying to justify myself)

Anyway, we met up and got out of Belfast and I went for my usual post-shopping nap, before going to Gran's for the usual Christmas Eve get-together with the "outlaws”.

Gran was looking frail but still has her wits about her. Lord knows what she makes of us coming into her tiny little living room and shouting and messing around, but it's been tradition for decades now, so there's nothing she can do about it!

After having done that we headed to the centre of our universe, ‘the local’, where the party was already in full swing. It was just like old times - with mates and family. We all joined in with several renditions of the best Christmas song ever, "Fairy Tale of New York" and whilst there were plenty of Shane McGowans, it has to be said that there were not so many Kirsty McColls about the place…

The party continued down in a mate’s house into the wee hours, before I thankfully got a taxi to my mum's around 04:00. I say thankfully because I don't think that I could still be in my home town and walk a further distance from one house to another. The town is increasing in size and apparently is the "fourth most popular place to buy property in the UK".
I was of course told this by people who live in their own property in the town and have yet to receive official confirmation from the internet, so I'll hold judgement on that one. Still, the place is expanding at a frightening rate and I didn't mind the double taxi fare to get me home. It was 4 below freezing when I set off in the taxi. The walk back to my mum’s would have been a good hour.

Christmas Day

In the past we’ve gone to Mum’s around lunchtime, opened presents, eaten early and then gone to Dad’s and done it all again.

Circumstances (and a little family politics) meant that my family decided that they would do something different this year.

My step-father was working Christmas Day from 11 until 16:00, so our Christmas dinner was delayed. The step-mum was going to prepare a buffet for the following evening, Boxing Day. This meant that things went at a lot calmer pace this year.

I was up at Daddy’s for 10:30, to open the presents from his side of the family. The onset of adulthood has ensured that the presents we open on Christmas morning don’t have the same sparkle as they once did. Also, in the past, we would have opened presents from “Daddy Santa” but this year in a break with tradition, we decided that those presents would be opened the following evening down at the step-mum’s. (I tell ya - organised with military precision these broken-home Christmases!!)

This resulted in the morning being spent playing on the playstation and eating a fry-up as prepared by the brother. Even the early morning cans of Harp didn’t make an appearance until long after noon. Gran wasn’t up to the usual visit to see us, thanks to the icy conditions, so they skipped the traditional, “let’s go laugh at and play with Harry and the weans’ (see: for that translation) presents”

All in all, a calm Christmas morning, although it’s worth noting that in spite of their being no snow for a white Christmas, thanks to the heavy frost from the night before, there was a good covering of white frost around the town.

Present count: Socks, sweater, ice-pack hangover cure, chocolates, a football quiz book, a prank that laughs hysterically when it senses movement – good for use in the bathroom on unsuspecting victims and a frog massager. That’s a massager in the shape of a frog, rather than a massager for frogs.

Around 14:00, we headed down to Mum’s to “help out” with dinner. Although, to be fair, the only thing that I helped with was perhaps emptying a couple of bottles of wine, ably assisted by Nana – that woman drinks like a fish - set anything down in front of her and she’ll drink it!

The step-father got a flier from work, so he was home by 15:30, not that it made that much difference, with Christmas dinner, I get the impression it’s a lot like a big steamer boat - once it’s in motion, it’s hard to change direction.

So, around 16:00, we all sat down to Christmas dinner – Nana, Mum, the step-father, the younger brother, the youngest brother and his fiancé as well as the new addition to the family – their 6 month old son, “The Wee Man” although to be fair, there’s nothing too wee about him these days.

Apparently the proud parents – because the mother is Scottish - have come to an arrangement. If he turns out to be a footballer, Northern Ireland can have him, but if he’s a rugby player, Scotland can have him. Well, The Wee Man could well be doing second row for Scotland in 20 years. You heard it here first.

Food, drink, entertaining stories and a bit of a sing song from The Wee Man complete and we were ready to open our presents. This year, the youngest brother got to play Santa and deliver all our presents. We humoured him and said it was so that he could “do it for The Wee Man’s first Christmas” but to be honest, it’s because he’s the only one of the three brothers that has the belly for it these days…

Present count: A great haul for me – receiving a DVD, a couple of books, a Norn Iron supporters pack including commemorative “Norn Iron 1 – 0 England” calendar, Allure aftershave, a stylish shirt and a limited edition “Champions of Europe 5 times” Liverpool watch

At around 19:00, the party started to wind down. The young family were the first to leave and they offered Nana a lift home but she had half a glass of red wine in her hand, so there was no way she was for shifting just yet.

After a while, the other brother went up the road to spend Christmas evening with his girlfriend’s family and Nana eventually relinquished control of her wine glass long enough for the three of us to put her in a headlock and wrestle her into the car, so that he could take her up the road and put the drunk to bed.

This left the three of us with the Christmas evening ahead and a peaceful house. There was only one thing to do - get the cigarettes out, turn the music up, open some more wine and put the world to right.

Around midnight, we retired to watch a couple of Pat’s DVD’s – the two funniest men on the planet – Billy Connolly and Peter Kaye. Although, I don’t remember much of the second DVD, the next thing I know awakening in my bed in a blind panic thinking it was the middle of the afternoon and I had already missed some of the festive Boxing Day football.

Boxing Day

Suffice to say, no need for panic and after another fry-up and some Lucozade, I was off down the town again, this time to another pub, the best place in the town to watch football.

Several big screens and TVs dotted over the premises, and coupled with the fact that they have Arabic satellite boxes as well as British satellite boxes, ensures coverage of even some of the more obscure games.

4 pool tables, cold flowing Carlsberg, and some of the town’s finest fuckwits complete the scene.

I took my place at the bar and watched 3 of the lunchtime games at once. (Who says men can’t multi-task, eh?) After that the afternoon games commenced and I was joined at the bar by the wee brother and my da (if only I had seen them coming but they sneaked up behind me).

Boxing Day afternoon and in the Protestant working-class community of my home town and the three games that they were showing - Liverpool, Glasgow Rangers and Manchester United.

The owner must have thought all his Christmases had come at once. The bar was packed out and the atmosphere was jolly. Especially when it looked like Liverpool and Rangers where going to do the business – until Rangers conceded a late equaliser. Let’s not speak of that other team. A few drinks with a couple of my da’s mates completed the afternoon. Two funny men (and the three of us aren’t too bad in the old humour stakes either!)

After that, it was back to Mum’s for a quick change, grab the rest of my gifts, said goodbye to them because they were both working the night shift that evening and then back out again to go down to dad’s for our “second Christmas”

A lot of fun was had - all the ingredients were there - more presents, more alcohol, good food, funny people …. and a karaoke machine. I’m not sure how much the neighbours enjoyed hearing Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds musical at 01:00 but we sure had a great time.

Although perhaps with hindsight it was not a good idea to let the wee brother loose on one of my presents.

Let me explain:

One of my presents was a remote controlled helicopter, so at about 10pm, we took it out for its maiden flight. History will show that it was not a successful one. My brother overcooked its take off and it went into a terrible spin, crashing back to earth before it had even had a chance to enjoy its new found freedom from its packaging.

The rotary blades came off and it hit the ground with a sickening crunch. Daddy and myself tried valiantly to repair the craft (the brother was most conspicuous by his absence at this stage) but even with some ingenious use of chewing gum, the helicopter flew no more that night. It remains at my father’s in the hope of a repair job, but I fear the worst. Perhaps I’ll get it back in time for my birthday.

Present count: Included a couple of books, a box of magic tricks (the brother had better watch out) and one slightly damaged remote control helicopter.

I said my goodbyes to my father et al and I left in a taxi for mum’s sometime after 01:30 and as I sat in my mother’s oddly quiet kitchen, considering the madness that had ensured the few days previously, I poured myself a nightcap and started to read The DaVinci Code, thinking that at long last I’d better see what all the fuss is about.

I’d got into it a few pages but stopped reading and just sat there, enjoying the quietness of the house and the draw of my cigarette and the sip of my red wine.

Perhaps it was the alcohol but I was content with my lot in life.

With my flight back to Eindhoven the following afternoon (or later that day, depending on your viewpoint), my time back home was coming to a close but I had had another mad few days in the warm, loving bosom of my dysfunctional family and friends – and had loved every minute of it.

It might not be everybody’s cup of tea when it comes to family life - Lord knows we’re far from perfect but it seems to work.

I know it works for me.

So as I said my goodbyes in the morning after breakfast and got into my step-father’s car to start the first leg of the 8-hour trek back to Antwerp, it was not with heavy heart for I had accomplished my Christmas mission:

To go home, enjoy my family and friends and let them know I love them.

Out of sight, out of mind? You must be joking!

Best Wishes for 2006!!