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.

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