The Gift


The scroll is growing mould, taking a shape that it shouldn’t (aren’t we all) and in danger of being turned into a paper aeroplane by any one of our playful sons. It’s been nagging away at me for years, lying there on top of the chest of drawers, looking as useless as it is in my life at the moment. It’s waiting, like me, for someone to come along and review it. Pick it up, look at it from different angles and in different lights, show it a bit of recognition, just say yes. Yes I see you. Come this way. This one’s for you.

When he asks what I’d like for Christmas I trot out my usual answer.
‘Nothing thanks, let’s just cover everyone else. No need to waste any money’.
‘But you got me something, so that’s not going to work, is it’. Damn.
‘Ok, let me think for a bit’. We have this nonsense conversation every single Christmas. We promise we won’t get anything for one another as it’s not about us, is it, and then I break it, naturally, just some little irresistible thing and then he has to too. Every single year.

‘I have it’ I tell him. We’re out for Christmas pints, all chilled, ish.
‘I know what I want’. He’s looking a little alarmed now. I must have that determined look in my eye. Very scary. Usually I point him gently towards some book or other. A sniff of old perfume perchance. Anything along those lines, love, will do. Not this time.
‘I want a frame. I want you to take the neglected, disintegrating scroll into a frame-it shop, if one exists, and get it framed’. His lack of an immediate gung-ho response says a lot. He’s not too sure about this. It’s dodgy territory. What if something happens to the scroll in transit? Fragile thing that it is. A gust of wind. A cloud burst. What if they lose it in the shop. Christmas chaos and all that it is. What if the frame is wrong? What will the consequences be for him then.

‘That’s it, it’s all I want. I don’t care what it looks like. I’m not exactly going to hang it on display. I just want it to be protected, minded, taken care of, you know?’
He’s still got a little scared look about him which his pint of Guinness is failing to wipe off. He knows as well as I do that it’s about a hell of a lot more than that. That there’s a symbolic parallel game being played. A game about identity loss and the quest for re-emergence. Much and all as the thesis was. Through humour though. Funny that. A frightening game is on the table. A game that needs to be played.
We order another round.
‘I’ll do it’ he says, three gulps in, banging his pint down on the beer mat, sealing the deal. That’s my boy. I like it. A willingness to play no matter how scared. That’s what has got us where we are after all.
Now get this man a whiskey chaser, he’s going to need it.

He does it well, all cloak and dagger sneaking around, plucking marque three to assist him, whisper, whisper, and I am ridiculously excited. A child again. I almost suppress the urge to quiz marque three on his return. It wouldn’t be fair, would it? Perhaps a little question falls out of my mouth. What did you get up to then? But he’s good. Details some things they did, dead-pan, and avoids the trap. On Christmas Eve he summons his dutiful, loyal assistant again and they disappear. I do manage to get other things done, stuff the turkey, dust the mantle-piece, wrap presents and the like, all in a bubble of sweet anticipation. On their return he tip-toes past me up the stairs, smiling a no-peeking smile. He’s enjoying the game now too. Making me wait.

On Christmas morning the kids wait until all are awake. They prod gently-ish at the tired old parents. Then we all go downstairs and they line up outside the sitting room door while he checks to see if Santa Claus has been, and I have my fingers crossed that no-one else has been in to relieve my children of the joy of their gifts. All is well and in we go for the bliss of the discoveries, the whoops, the laughter. An intoxicating hour with the kettle on again and again.

The gift is handed to me. I tear at the wrapping and the bubble wrap and it emerges, mounted, shiny, embraced by natural wood. It exceeds all expectations. I had no idea it could look this good. Beautiful even.


‘We should put it here’ he says whipping down an old picture in the corner of the hall and hanging the gift which I don’t want hung, not at all, until I see it and, fickle creature that I am, agree that it’s a perfect spot for it.
‘And then, every time you leave the house, to pick up the kids or whatever, you’ll pass it and remember who you are, your past and what lies ahead for you’ he says and he laughs, a kind, appreciative laugh. He has played this game far too well. The excitement for what lies ahead drums merrily in my veins. Now get this man a prize.

Thanks to all of you for reading and every good wish for the new year.


Snake queue


The woman in the queue behind me, but one, is keen to talk. We are snaked around the aisles with our returns for exchange at customer services. All these people who have made mistakes with their purchases of late are in this punitive queue. As mine is a direct swap for an undamaged replica I try a floor assistant first.
‘I just want to swap this deflated item for an inflated one’ I say reasonably.
He shakes his bureaucratic head and mumbles about customer services, pointing a hard worn finger towards the front of the shop.
‘But there’s a ginormous queue and look, here’s the good one, here’s the damaged one, here’s my receipt’ no-one need know my eyes try to tell him. It can be our little secret. There’s a flash of an understanding look about his wearisome face. Maybe he just needs to be bribed I think as I slot onto the tail-end of the snake. The kids are out early from school today so queueing here will mean I forego taking something else off my list. I’m about to feel sorry for myself when the woman behind me but one pipes up.
‘This is going to take forever’ she says about the static snake. I look up at the two customer services staff, at their grouchy non-festive faces and their painstakingly slow movements as they ignore the length of the queue.

I turn to the woman. She is looking frazzled and dazzled all at once.
‘I wouldn’t mind but I’m really up against it today. I’ve to collect the twins from Montessori and get all of us to the school for the nativity play’.
‘What time do you have to be at the school?’ I ask, not sure why, just joining in.
‘Quarter past eleven, but I have to get the others first. That’s if the car starts’ she says beaming at me. ‘It usually starts on the sixth try. It’s just back from the garage and it needs big work. They’ve fixed a couple of wires but it’s not as simple as that, apparently, it’s a much bigger job’.
‘Oh dear’.
‘And I wouldn’t mind but that’s come on top of a string of other things. The heating went kaput last week. My phone is broken, so if the car doesn’t work on the sixth try, I can’t call anyone. The TV is scrambled and my husband is trying to fix it. Mind you he managed to save his sports channels’ she says laughing.
‘And the in-laws are arriving from abroad on Monday for three days, I’ve nothing prepared for that’ she says continuing to smile. I’m dying to say something that might relieve her a little. Instead the more she talks, the less burdened I seem to feel. A symbiosis that I hadn’t been looking for. Or had I? Perhaps. Everyone is feeling the pressure at this time of year. But some a lot more than others. I think I’m feeling a smidgeon of guilt or something like it. It’s all throwing me off kilter.
‘And I wouldn’t mind, but I’m self-employed, I try to work from home in the mornings while the kids are in Montessori and school. To make the money to pay for all the things that are breaking’ she says, still smiling.
‘It wouldn’t pay for me to go out to work and have them minded. So if working from home doesn’t work, he’s going to have to get a better job’ she says, laughing.
‘Exactly’ I say laughing too, in useless solidarity. How can I help? If she wasn’t in such a rush I’d take her for a coffee. A complete stranger clearly in need of an ear. Instead I look at the woman directly behind me and she nods.
‘You should go in front of us’ I say, ‘if that’s any use to you’.
She is so grateful for this small gesture that, as she thanks us, her eyes glisten. She turns again when the dour customer services staff have done their job. She waves and thanks us again.
‘Merry Christmas’ she calls out, smiling still.
‘Merry Christmas’ I call back. I hope it all works out for you.

My turn. The grumpy customer services guy asks if I left my deflated item in a hot room. Yes, I stored it in the hot press, or was it the sauna, I forget, wasn’t I supposed to? Silly me. There must be a new sort of staff-training about. Blame the customer. Always blame the customer. Especially if they’ve just travelled inconveniently to this hell-hole and queued for half an hour to exchange something that shouldn’t be damaged in the first place. The cheek. But I’m not going to bother getting bothered by this ignorance. My thoughts are still firmly with the smiling woman on the verge. My fingers crossed wishing hard that her car starts, that she makes it to the play, that her in-laws are kind to her, that all her broken essentials are mended and that her work is a success. Deo Volente.



There’s a deliciousness in the air. It’s 5.30 on Friday. The friends have just been collected from our house and we are retrieving one of our own from another. The school bags are still in the car. There’s no homework or lunches to worry about. It’s been a busy week with Christmas tests, secondary school assessment tests, secondary school exams, plays. The fire is lit. The Christmas tree glistens and winks at us from the corner. There’s a bottle of Prosecco and a curry waiting for us in the fridge. We’ll delay the gratification though. Save it for the Late Late Show. The Domino’s pizza is about to be ordered for the lads. Friday night treats. There’s a knock at the front door. I open it expecting to see sunny marque 3 but it is not.

It is a small stocky ginger man with a story up his Nike sleeve. He begins as Marques 1 and 2 join me in the porch. As he pours his sorry story out I think now that I must’ve been having a mini-stroke. I listen as he pulls all the emotional punches. A recently deceased mother, Miss, a special needs little brother, Miss, only doing me best, Miss, but it’s so very cold in the mobile home, freezing Miss. He squeezes his little eyes hard together and, with the wind on his side, a tear dutifully, beautifully, falls down his freckled cheek. After coming over here on the dart Miss, just to do me best for the family in the wake of the poor old mother’s death. If you could help us at all, Miss, for to get a bit of heat, Miss.

I know as he talks and I glance at my boys, soaking up the hardship, that I will not turn him away. If they weren’t in the porch with me I would, no problem. This is an empathy lesson unfolding in front of us. He will not leave empty handed. There’s a fiver in my pocket. I know this because I’ve just given the other note – twenty euros – to himself to get a bargain on briquettes in Woodies. Five for €20. Saves you a fiver. A good deal. Heat for a week. This aids my already over active empathy muscle. The fiver we’ve just saved on heat will be given to this poor sod for his heat. A karmic circularity. Oh, come on. I know, I know, but I didn’t then. Clearly. The stroke an’ all, bleeding into the empathy section of the brain, wherever that may be, reeking havoc. Look at us, I think, with our tree and our fire and our food. Then he says something which should have me twigging big time. But it doesn’t.
‘I’ve even put duct tape on the windows in the mobile to try to keep some heat in, only doing me best, Miss’.
‘Sure we’ve duct tape on our own windows…’
‘I know Miss and I’m not being funny or an’thing but it is much, much more freezing in the mobile’.
We’ve duct tape on our downstairs window since our robbery earlier in the year. The window needs to be replaced and will be, presently, perhaps. The window and tape are not visible from where he’s standing. How does he know? And I think I’m processing all of this, mid-stroke, as I reach into my pocket to dish out a Christmas empathy lesson for all. Off he goes.

‘Wait a sec Mum, I could give him that box of chocolates – should I?’
Marque 1 had returned to the house minutes earlier, beaming, with a massive tin of Roses chocolates under his arm. An elderly neighbour had borrowed him for an hour to help her set up her new mobile phone. Handed him the chocolates to thank him when he was leaving. While he was working on the phone she was telling him stories about some voluntary work she does. Heart wrenching stories from the recipients of meals-on-wheels. Marque 1’s empathy button was already well and truly engaged.
‘Yes’ the wise mother instructed. ‘We don’t need them and his family would devour them’.
So he goes after him up the road and I go out onto the path, just in case. I notice a car down the road, engine running, head lights full on. It reminds me of something. Think brain, think. Then I hear him, sounding not too grateful for the chocolates – ‘would you have any money yourself lad?’
‘Would you have any money for me in your pocket there?’
Jesus. ‘No I don’t, sorry, I don’t’ my brave son replies. He comes back in but something is niggling.

He goes back out again to witness our poor unfortunate frozen friend run down the road, jump into the car with the headlights and zoom off.
‘We’ve just been scammed’ he says and explains it all to my leaking brain.
‘Just like the time when we were robbed, the car at the bottom circle, headlights full on so we can’t read the reg. It’s the same gang’.
The father arrives back plonking the great value briquettes in their box as the kids battle to be the first to tell him the story. I phone the guards to let them know that there’s a gang checking out houses for robberies in the area. That’s why he knocked on the door. To see if we were really in. Or just leaving the lights on to fool the likes of himself. Sob story at the ready in case someone opens the door. He probably wasn’t expecting any eejit to actually hand over some dosh. The kind Garda suggests that I keep the station on speed-dial. They could be back. And he sends a car to check the surrounding roads.

The empathy lesson is re-delivered by himself. He tells his sons never, ever, to hand out money at the door to people they don’t know. Anyone calling should have ID otherwise they have no business calling or asking for anything. All this as I sit, sheepishly, on the couch pretending to be relaxed, reading the newspaper. The appetite for the delicious evening ahead has gone. Better not have that Prosecco. Mightn’t wake up when my ginger friend comes back for more.

‘He was playing on the stories that have been in the news, about the homeless and the freezing cold, you could see that’ marque 2 tells me later.
‘Could you, at the time though?’ I ask. And if so, why didn’t you tell me, intuitive son, telepathically of course.
‘Yeah, I thought it was pretty suspicious the way he chose our house, I mean why our house, and you could see he was trying to cry’.

I tell my mother, looking for a bit of sympathy for my foolishness.
‘God, and your sister was scammed only last Saturday over the phone. Have I no daughter who can sniff these creeps out? Your younger sister, maybe’ she says hopefully.
Yes my younger sister living in Dubai would be onto them. Would have no problem telling them where to go before they had a chance to get going. I say this to Mum and she sounds relieved. One child with a bit of sense, ’tis all we can hope for. She suggests a dog for the future. Something to look after us all. She must be really worried. I spend the next couple of hours looking uselessly out my bedroom window trying to catch him. And I wake up in the middle of the night with a bang. I get up and run around the house looking for him. Then I gather any stray bits of technology and hoard them in my room. I sleep fitfully cursing myself and him. The empathy lesson turns into a full-blown lesson on the usefulness of cherry picking paranoia. Ho-hum.


I hover outside the sitting room door catching the tail-end of marque 4 instructing marque 5 on how he came to be.
‘Mum had an egg inside her and it cracked and you grew’.
‘No she DIDN’T’.
‘She did, in fact Mum had too many eggs inside her. That’s her disability’, and he cackles.
Cheers mate. I hadn’t quite looked at it like that.
‘NO SHE DIDN’T. GOD put me in mummy’s tummy. AND THEN I GREW’. I enter the room as marque 5 seems on the verge of thwacking marque 4 for suggesting he came from an egg. He doesn’t like eggs unless heavily disguised in a cake.
‘I think you might have a few eggs left in you Mum’, marque 4 continues.
Cheers again mate.
We haven’t mentioned God or eggs or anything at all to them. They’re creating their own stories, cherry picking their way into being from whatever they absorb around them. They don’t look for validation from us. Long may it continue.

Overhearing their fresh snippets as they navigate and make sense of the world has been a source of laughter and inspiration over the years. Some of them stick and float in my mind. Like when a much smaller marque 2 observed: ‘You have 5 sons shining down on you – but you’ll get too hot’. Indeed I will. Or when marque 3 told marque 4 that he would find the ball on the beach because he was very good at finding things: ‘I can even find God and He is VERY hard to find’. He was four at the time. The younger the snippets are caught the better – before too many influences creep in. We swore we’d write them down, each little interesting one, to show them when they’re older. Must jot that down later, I say in the muddle and the mayhem of the day. Then later, if I remember at all, I reach for the quotes in my frazzled head, grasping and grappling but they’re gone. I tell myself that next time I’ll stop what I’m doing and jot on the spot. If I did as I said we’d have tomes of them. Oh well.

They seem to arrive on this planet with a clear philosophical mind and a fresh moral compass which if left alone – without the cloudy ‘guidance’ of the elders – would probably do just fine. ‘Let the children show you’ is a line I heard once that stuck with me. The context was a bereft, struggling grandmother seeking counsel on how she was to be with her young grandsons after their mother’s death. ‘Let the children show you’ was the simple response. I thought then, as I do now that this could be a guiding principle. If we can remember to do that instead of imparting too much of ourselves everyone might be a little better for it. We might just learn something along the way too.

So one day, when I must’ve forgotten that mantra, I was busily tidying for guests coming and giving out to marque 3 – age 5 – for making a mess and wasting good art paper, scrunching it up instead of drawing something nice.
‘But look Mum, it’s a crab’ he said, indignantly, holding up the screwed up ball of yellow paper. I stared at it waiting for the crab to emerge – much like staring at a cloud that a child says is a giraffe, wait, wait, ah yes now I see it – and the body revealed itself but I had to stop myself from asking which bit of crumple was the claws. Perhaps I looked a little confused as he looked up at me waiting for the ‘ah yes, now I see it’ moment.
‘Maybe you just don’t understand our world Mum’ he said, eyes glistening.
Maybe indeed.

So now whatever it is they say they see in the clouds, I see it too, fingers crossed, wishing it was that clear to me. And I’ve bought a little notebook for the snippets. Now I just have to find a pen.




‘My animation teacher says I’m good at caricatures’ marque 2 says, pencil in hand, staring above my brow.
‘Does she now?’
‘She does. Do you know what a caricature is? It’s where you take a feature and exaggerate it to make it look funny’.
‘I see. What are you doing looking at my forehead?’
‘Oh nothing’ he says, scribbling away.
Sometime later he produces his creations.
‘Look Mum, it’s a whole family. You see the way I’ve exaggerated the teeth here, made them longer and…
‘Who is the old woman in it?’
‘That’s the granny’.
‘Phew, I thought it was me’.
‘No, I just borrowed inspiration from’ and he doesn’t finish, looking suddenly afflicted with a terrible shyness.
‘From what?’
‘Well, from the little lines there, the two ones that go down and the ones that go across and…’
‘So you copied my forehead for your granny?’
‘Not copied, just borrowed and exaggerated a bit, you know, it was the inspiration’.
‘Well I’m glad to be of assistance to your artistic endeavours’ I say staring at the granny. Her forehead a complete replica of mine. I’m wondering if throwing a little insulted strop is called for. Instead I hook the ends of my hair, sweep them forwards and hang them across the brow.
‘Perhaps I should get a fringe’ I say and he’s looking pretty concerned now. He seems to have become mute again too. Maybe the scraggly ends going into my eyes fails to give that immediate carefree look I’m after. Oh well. Time to let him off the hook.
‘You know your great grandfather was a famous cartoonist and caricaturist?’ He’s nodding, still unsure if speaking could make matters worse.
‘Maybe that’s where you get it from’.
Show don’t tell I say to myself, a writer’s mantra, and I jump up, whip the old dissertation off the shelves, blow the dust off it and start to flick through.
‘See here, this is one of your great grandfather’s cartoons – look at the exaggerated foreheads and…’
The troops gather around.
‘Wait a second mum, did you write that big book?’ marque 4 asks.
‘I did’. Irish humour and identity. I’d have a rake more to add to it now.
‘Oh my god, how many pages are in it?’
‘Don’t know, three hundred or something like that’.
‘How long did it take you?’ marque 3 asks as I flick and point to the cartoons with the great-grandfather’s signature. CEK.

‘Well it wasn’t all written in one go’ I say remembering the painstaking stages from conception to birth of this tome. How it was started before marque 1 joined us and completed as marque 2 joined us.
‘I had to have the first draft in before you were born’ I tell marque 2, thinking that was probably when the furrowed brow began to take hold.
‘I really wrote it while pregnant with you’. That’s why you’re my sidekick little friend.
‘I submitted it on the Monday and you were born on the Thursday’.
They say a few wows about all the words and pages and then run off to find paper and pencils. They spend the afternoon sketching and cartooning. A theme started by marque 4 gathers steam. He draws a big beaming oblivious woman holding five little kids in her arms. A terrified little man stands in the background, holding a bill for the cost of such a family.

‘Look at Dad, he’s shocked with that big bill’ he says cackling.
They all do variations of it. Some swap it around, my feminist rantings haven’t gone unnoticed, and the woman holds the bill behind the cheerfully oblivious man. It’s an afternoon of laughter as they connect with their inner cartoonists.

‘Were you doing anything interesting when you were pregnant with me? marque 3 later enquires.
I think for a moment. Should I tell him this or not? Oh what the hell.
‘Daddy and I were celebrating, big time, after I got my doctorate. That was in April 2004. You were born nine months later’. A grin spreads across his face.
‘So I’m the celebration baby?’
Yes, and how it suits you, you cheerful little soul.

Just as well I can’t afford Botox – we wouldn’t have had this gem of an afternoon. Now where the hell are the scissors…