Yet another Christmas morning without snow!
Paddy seemed to remember that there had always been snow on Christmas morning when he was a child. Almost exploding with excitement he would waken his three brothers – they all shared the same bed – throw off the coats which acted as duvets and scurry to the bottom where their stockings would be hanging.
They always got the same every year – a bar of chocolate, some nuts and a brand new penny. Then downstairs to see what Santa had brought. One present each! Usually it was something that Santa had made out of wood. Young Paddy used to think it was great that his daddy and Santa both made things out of wood!
Old Paddy trudged down the stairs, his dressing gown and his seventy eight years hanging heavy on his shoulders. Madeleine was already in the kitchen making tea.
They did not wish each other ‘Happy Christmas’ anymore. They did not tell each other ‘I love you’ either. Both were given things. Each one new it!
“Would you like an egg?”
“If there’s one going”
There was always one going. She asked the same question every morning and the answer was always the same. It was another given thing.
She brought him his egg and slightly overdone toast, just the way he liked it, and tea served in his own mug.
He reached under the table and produced her present. It was unwrapped, still in the Marks and Spencers bag.
It was a cardigan – as always. And some oranges. Madeleine had always been given an orange as a child at Christmas. It was a tradition that she liked to keep up and Paddy played along with it.
She put the bag beside the cooker without looking. She was happy, even though she did not show it.
“Yours are under the tree as usual”.
With their children long grown up, they still kept the Christmas tradition. Both tree and decorations were dated and the lights were old enough to be back in fashion again. The paper chains and tinsel also belonged to Christmases past.
He shuffled into the front parlour wiping the sleep from his eyes and scratching his grey stubble.
The presents were neatly arranged on the armchair. Five of them as usual, untidily wrapped each with a little card with “Happy Xmas Paddy” written in spider scrawl pencil. They could have been from anyone. They were as uninventive as those he gave to her – some socks, a shirt, a tie, a diary and a bottle of ginger cordial. Each year he hoped for a bottle of whisky. Each year there was none.
He looked at the dated decorations and was glad that they would be coming down the next day. He did not like to keep them up longer than necessary. He only suffered Christmas for Madeleine. He thought back to Christmases when his children were young, saw their faces and heard the laughter as gleaming red fire engines, dolls, teddy bears and sweet shops would be opened. The room was silent now, both laughter and children gone. Only their living ghosts remained.
He rarely saw them. The three older girls had emigrated to Australia never to return to Ireland. They phoned occasionally and always sent some dollars in a card for Father’s Day. He and Madeleine took it in turns to go to visit them. He would stay two weeks, she would stay for two months.
His son remained at home but rarely visited. He was too busy with his work as a supervisor in a meat packing plant – Italian sausages if he remembered rightly. Paddy understood, even though he would have liked to have seen his grandkids. He would call sometime over the Christmas period. Paddy could then give the kids their Christmas and birthday presents together.
There was a knock at the door. Paddy rose to answer it as he knew Madeleine would not. She never answered the door to anyone. It was Christopher, his son. Paddy looked behind him so see if his grandchildren were there. They weren’t! He brushed past Paddy straight in to the front room, the smell of cold air hanging on his clothes.
“Happy Christmas Da! Sorry I haven’t been here in a while. Busy at work. Bronagh sends her love. Had to stay at home. The kids were having some of their little friends over to see each other’s toys.”
“Listen Da! We didn’t have time to get you and mum any presents this year. But I have something you might like. I got a freebie at work – free flights to Rome. Bronagh and I can’t use them. We will be in Poland. You will have to pay for a hotel and food of course. I know you have always wanted to go”. He threw an envelope with the tickets on the table.
“There are a few Euro in there from our last trip to Lanzarote. Can’t spend them in Poland!”
“Gotta rush! Say hello to mum for me”
And with that he was gone.
As far as he remembered, Paddy had never wanted to go, to Italy but he said thanks anyway……..and they went. Madeleine had never wanted to go either as far as she remembered but the hottest week in July saw them sitting in a budget room in a hotel as far as possible from the places they might have wanted to see.
“Well girl! What do you want to do?”
“I’m not sure! What about calling to see the Pope?”
“I don’t think he takes visitors uninvited!”
But he was not sure either!
“What about the Colosseum?”
“What about the Trevi Fountain?”
“Or the Spanish Steps?”
He was just reeling off names he had read in a guide book which he had borrowed from the library….and had forgotten to return.
“Do you know what I would really like?”
“Oranges it is then!”
He put on his overcoat and stepped out into the searing heat of the noonday sun forgetting that he was still wearing his slippers. Against the minimalism of the summer attire of the rest of the people, he looked more than a little out of place.
The aromas from the flowers in the overcrowded window boxes of the ageing buildings fought for supremacy. He thought he could detect sweet pea but again thought it was probably too early.
He passed a mini market and knew he could get the oranges there but he wanted to walk. There would be a stall holder somewhere and he would get them there…..proper oranges.
He walked……..and walked more. The sweat trickled down his back from the weight of the overcoat. He stopped to watch swallows diving and weaving like World War Two fighter planes, taking their lunchtime snacks on the wing.
He walked to the Piazza Navona and stopped to eat in a tourist trattoria. He ordered spaghetti with a glass of the overpriced house wine, and looked at the milling crowds, a sea of moving gelato. He did not finish the spaghetti – it did not taste like the proper stuff which came out of a tin at home and which Madeleine made for him at supper time when he was watching television. He settled the bill and disappeared into the crowd without leaving a tip.
For a while he got caught in the flow. It carried him past the Trevi fountain then it began to ease out. He found his orange seller. He was not a Sicilian nor even local trader as he had hoped but seemed to be Eastern European. At least the oranges looked good. He bought six and they were wrapped in a brown paper bag.
He saw a sign for the Spanish Steps and headed in that direction. On the corner of one of the streets a young girl sat begging. She could not have been more than twelve. She had two song birds in a cage and she sat as dispassionate as the birds with her hand out. Paddy rummaged in his coat pocket for his wallet. Gone! He thought he may have dropped it in the bistro where he had had lunch but suspected it had been taken as he was being jostled by the crowds. Just as well. There was no point in going back to try to find it. He was not sure but he thought he was lost!
“I’m sorry”, he mumbled.
He reached into his other pocket and pulled out the crumpled bag of oranges and gave her one. She peeled and ate! He sat down with her on the pavement and did the same, peeling his with the small penknife he always carried…two souls, one sadder than the other. Two tourists passing by threw down a one Euro coin.
“Grazie”, she said.
“Thank you!” he said immediately realizing his stupidity.
They finished their oranges.
He stood up and started to go.
“Prendi questo!” she said offering him the coin.
He shook his head.
“Buy a gelato….or some seed for your birds. Then maybe they will sing!”
He took two more oranges out of the bag and gave them to her.
He shuffled off.
The sun had become mellow. He had to get back to Madeleine. She would be wondering where he had got to.
But which direction? He could not even remember the name of the hotel! He thought it was something to do with cowboys! Or maybe even Ronald Regan. With no name, no street and no Italian in no particular order, Paddy felt that seeing his Madeleine again might not be as easy as one might think!
He approached a succession of passers by hoping that someone would be able to speak English. They just looked at him and passed by as passers by do. Then he had an idea. He would stop at the nearest hotel and look for help there. Hotel staff always spoke English.
He found one and they did. The receptionist listened intently to his story. He told her of Madeleine, the oranges, the stolen wallet, his walking, the girl with the singing birds. The forlorn creature standing in front of her with his winter overcoat and trousers which hung in folds down to his ankles and on to his tartan slippers made her feel both sorry and amused.
“Always carry the name of your hotel with you when you go out”.
She scolded him as a mother would a child.
“My wallet was stolen…I told you.”
“Now then. The hotel has got something to do with Cowboys and maybe Ronald Regan?”
She stifled a smile.
“Yes!” he mumbled sheepishly and looked at the floor.
“Now let me think! Would it be the Best Western?”
He involuntarily clapped.
“Can you get me a taxi? Madeleine will give me money when I get there!”
“Hold on a minute Cowboy! There are twenty Best Westerns in Rome!”
Paddy sank further into his trousers.
“Ronald Regan, you say! Would it be the President Best Western?”
“That’s it. That’s it! Now will you please get me a taxi? Madeleine will think I am not coming back!”
“I think you’ve had enough adventure for one day! I’ll drive you. Do you know how far away you actually are from the hotel?”
“Then probably best not to tell you!”
They pulled up outside the hotel some twenty minutes later.
“There you go Cowboy. Delivered straight to your door!”
“I cannot thank you enough!”
He fumbled in his pockets looking for the wallet that was not there.
“Oh I forgot! If you wait I can go and………….”
She put her finger over his lips and leaned in and kissed him gently on the cheek. It was like a butterfly had briefly landed
“Go home to Madeleine. She is waiting for you!”
He fumbled in his pockets again and produced the oranges.
“Here. These are for you! Madeleine won’t remember”.
She took the crumpled bag and took one of the two remaining oranges.
“Give the last one to your wife. It is hers”.
Paddy got out of the car and went straight to the room. Madeleine was sitting up in bed watching an old movie on television.
“Well you took your time! Have you got them?”
Paddy took the bag from his pocket and produced the last one.
“It was all they had!”
She began to peel it. He rubbed his cheek where he had been kissed just minutes earlier undressed and got in beside her.
“I love you Madeleine”
“I love you too Paddy!”