I know I’m very late in getting round to this, but the wishes are the same no matter how late. I hope that 2013 is good to all my friends and if I could write with my fingers crossed then I would. I have always been one who thinks that things will get better, but sometimes it’s hard to believe they will. I’m not complaining for myself, but it pains me to see how sick and downcast my country, Ireland has become. I’ve always been a bit of a Christmasholic, someone who plans for it the whole year. I love the glamour and glitz, but this year, for the first time ever, it was a complete let down. The season was somehow muted, as though no one had the heart to truly take part. I had the same amount of family and friends to Christmas dinner, 14 of them, so it was very busy. Still, everyone seemed lethargic, not only in my home, but everywhere. I’ve spoken to a number of people since and they all had the same opinion. It feels as though people have lost hope and when that happens there’s no way back. I’ve stopped reading the newspapers, as everyday the sad panorama of human suffering is played out in black in white. A couple in their 60s frozen to death in Dublin and more and more people are losing their homes. Up to 25 homes a week are having their gas cut and this is just as the really hard weather hits. Some people are actually asking the electricity companies to cut their supply as the stress of owning big bills is killing them. This is modern day Ireland, living by candlelight while ice forms on the inside of the window glass. When I was researching my first novel, The Paupers‘ Graveyard, I thought things like the famine were history. This is not so as people can no longer afford to feed their families and the charity organisations are overwork and under financed to cope with the thousands asking for help. The statistics I have given you may seem small, but you must realise how tiny our country is compared to many. There are no jobs to be had. My daughter sent out 512 applications for jobs and received two replies, both rejections, so I know what I’m talking about. All we can do is pray for a miracle and that’s what I wish for you all as the months tumble one in to the other. Good health and happiness, I suppose if we have these two basic things then we can achieve anything. Like Pandora’s Box I leave you with the thing I wish you the most, Hope. Never stop believing.
Mr Brown stood with hands on hips looking down at the boy. Something told him that this child was desperate for the work.
“Look, son, I have customers to serve. Why don’t you have a practise until I’m finished and we’ll talk then?”
“Oh, thank you,” Johnny hauled the bike upright.
He rode up and down the street for over an hour; falling now and then and skinning his knees through his threadbare trousers, but he never gave up. When Mr Brown came out, he was able to cycle up to him and dismount without falling over. He stood with flushed cheeks, triumphant at what he’d achieved.
“I knew you could do it, son,” Mr Brown ruffled his hair. “ You’ve got yourself a job. Its five and a half days a week and the pay is five shillings. I’ll expect you to work the extra day when we’re busy with the Christmas rush and for this you’ll get an extra two shillings. Are we agreed?” He held out his hand.
Johnny shook, his fingers disappearing in to the man’s huge hand.
“Thank you, sir. I can start in the morning,” he said.
“Good boy, be in at eight sharp.”
It took him quite a while to persuade his mother to let him take the job, but they both knew they needed the money. He told her about the five shillings, but not about the two extra he could earn. She assumed the wages were for a six and a half day week and Johnny was happy to let her think that. His first two shillings were placed as a deposit on the doll in Mrs O Rourke’s window and he swore her to secrecy. It was ten weeks to Christmas and he knew he’d have enough for the doll, with seven shilling left over. With this he intended to buy a coat for his Mother; second hand, but warmer than the one she now wore and a small present for his baby brother. His mind was awash with plans as his little legs pumped up and down like mad, as he cycled from house to house. The customers all liked the thin little boy with the sparkling eyes and they lost no time in telling his employer this. Mr Brown knew from the start he’d chosen well in Johnny and gave him the leftover cakes and bread to take home each night. Slowly the sadness faded in his mother’s eyes and his sister and brother were no longer hungry.
It was Christmas Eve and the shop was busier than ever. Snow and slush lined the side of the roads and made the going tough. Johnny wore two pairs of old socks over his hands in a vain attempt to keep out the cold, but his fingers were frozen. Sometimes, when he dismounted from the bike, his hand retained the bars shape and he had to blow on them to breathe life back into them. At times his hands were so cold, he couldn’t pull the brakes and he took many a tumble. It was now five-o-clock and he was finished for the day. His mother and baby brother’s presents were hidden in the flat, but he still had to collect Cathy’s doll. Mrs O Rourke’s shop didn’t close until half past five so there was plenty of time. He smiled, as he wheeled the bike in to the shop.
He named an area over two miles away and Johnny’s heart sank. Mr Brown was a good employer and he couldn’t refuse to go, but he’d never be in time to collect the doll now. He peddled like the wind; the pennies he’d received from grateful customers slapping against his legs. It was six-o-clock when he finally reached O Rourke’s shop and the lights were all out and the door shut tight. He stood on the pavement wanting to cry, but that would not be a manly thing to do. He felt his heart might break until the bell inside the shop tinkled as the door opened.
“Ah, there you are, Johnny.” Mrs O Rourke smiled. “I waited for you; I knew you’d be along.”
He handed her the last payment of one shilling and sixpence and took the brightly-wrapped parcel.
“You’re a good boy, Johnny,” Mrs O Rourke kissed his forehead. “Your mother should be proud of you.”
Mrs O Rourke went back inside her shop and Johnny stood listening as she rammed the bolt in to place. The street was quiet; the last of the shoppers had all gone and he knew as he walked home, his mother would have a fire blazing and there would be plenty to eat. He had done it. He was a man with a job and could take care of his family. He stopped at the door of the flats, looked up at the heavens and whispered a prayer for those in need that night. His eyes were drawn to a light in the sky and there it was; the Christmas Star, shining as brightly as it had done over two thousand years before on another little boy.
Copyright © 2012 Gemma Mawdsley
Mrs O Rourke shook her head in wonder as she placed the doll in the window. It was a very beautiful doll by any standards and ordering it had been an impulse she could not resist, but the moment she opened the box she had regretted her lack of common sense. Who in their right mind would pay twelve shillings and sixpence for a toy, she wondered? She was so busy fanning its lace dress and fixing the blond curls that she didn’t notice the bright eyes, watching from outside. Despite the cold of the October morning, six-year-old Cathy Ryan pressed her nose and the palms of her hands against the icy glass and gazed enraptured at the doll. Today was her birthday and for the first time ever, she hadn’t received a present. They never got anything nice now, not since her Daddy died and she felt cheated. The doll caught her eye on the way to school; she was dawdling as always in the footsteps of her big brother, Johnny. The doll’s big, blue eyes and blond curls stopped her in her tracks and she swore she had never seen anything so beautiful in all her life. Her breath made small patches of condensation on the window pane and the glass, still damp with morning dew, made her nose wet.
He grabbed her hand and dragged her away; terrified of getting a telling off from his teacher. He did well in school and he didn’t want anyone to complain about him; not now, not at this sad time. He felt tears gather in the corners of his eyes and his throat hurt when he thought about his mother. They had left her minutes before, so sad and forlorn, in the cold, two-bedroom flat they were forced to rent after his father died. It was on the top floor of a block of flats over a fish and chip shop. The stink of fish permeated the very bricks of the building and rose in waves from the worn carpet lining the stairs. The stench stuck to his clothes so the neighbourhood children held their noses as he passed by and made exaggerated wafting motions with their hands. There were six flights of wooden stairs to climb and no matter what time of day it was, the stairs were always dark and frightening. At first, he imagined some terrible monster lurking in the shadows on each landing, but now all such thoughts were gone as he assumed the role of man of the house.
Today was the hardest so far since his father’s passing. He realised how upset his mother was at not having a present for his little sister, but times were hard. At twelve, he was old enough to understand this, but his sister was still too young and couldn’t be expected to be as grown-up as he was about the whole birthday thing. His mother tried her best to find a job, but it was difficult. The year was nineteen-forty-two and jobs were hard to come by, especially for a woman with three children and two-year-old Jimmy wouldn’t start school for years.
“Johnny,” Cathy dug her heels in, forcing him to stop. “Do you think that if I’m good and say my prayers every night that Santa will bring me that doll for Christmas?”
“I don’t know, Cathy. It costs a lot of money and Mam barely has enough for food.”
“I know that,” she pouted. “But my teacher says that Christmas is a time of miracles, so I’m going to be very, very good and pray.”
That’s what we need, Johnny thought, a miracle.
When they reached the school gates, he let go of her hand and bent down to speak to her.
“Hold out you hand,” he ordered.
She did as he asked and watched as he pulled two paper-wrapped packets from his coat pocket. Each held a small currant scone. Their Mother baked these every night on the griddle over the fire and she was glad they had something to fill their empty bellies during the long school day. Johnny handed Cathy her scone and opening his packet broke his in half and added it to his sister’s. He did this every morning with the promise that he couldn’t eat a full scone and he knew that she could. While she was grateful for the extra food, she wondered how someone as big as her brother couldn’t manage a full one. Her stomach rumbled very loudly at times and she always seemed to be hungry. She saw Johnny at break times wolfing down his lunch and licking the paper clean of crumbs. He was a puzzle, her big brother.
No matter how hard he tried, Johnny couldn’t concentrate on his work that day. His mind kept wondering back to the cold flat where his mother and brother sat sad and hungry. He had to do something to ease their suffering, but what? The bitter autumn wind sliced through his threadbare jumper as he made his way home that afternoon. The wind’s sting carried with it the promise of a hard winter and he knew they’d never survive on what little money his mother had. Please God, he prayed. Help me find a way to feed my family.
It was at that moment he saw it; the answer to his prayers. Grabbing his sister’s hand, he ran her the rest of the way home. After depositing her, breathless at the flat, he mumbled an excuse about leaving a book behind at school and hurried out. He ran as fast as his legs would go, hoping all the while he hadn’t been dreaming. There it was, large as life, in Brown’s window, the sign that read, Messenger Boy Wanted.”
He brushed down his jumper and licking his hand, ran it through his dark, unruly hair. The smell when he entered the shop overwhelmed his empty stomach and made his head spin. Bread, still steaming from the ovens, lined the racks behind the counter and cakes in all the colours of the rainbow vied with the plainer pancakes and scones in shiny, glass cases. He waited behind some ladies as they chatted with Mr Brown until the shop was empty and the man noticed him.
“What can I get you, son?” Mr Brown asked.
The word son made Johnny catch his breath and it took a few seconds before he could speak, but the man waited, patiently.
“ I’ve come about the job, sir,” he nodded at the sign in the window.
“How old are you?” Mr Brown thought the puny boy before him couldn’t be much older than ten.
“ I’m twelve, sir and stronger than I look.”
They stared at one another for a moment and then the man spoke.
“It’s a heavy bike; mind and it would take a strong fellow to hold it.”
“Yes, sir, I could do it,” Johnny said.
“All right,” the man rubbed at his chin. “Wait there.”
As he waited, Johnny looked around at the wondrous things on the shelves until the clackity-clack of the bicycle wheels sounded as Mr Brown wheeled it out from the yard at the back of the shop. He steered it out on to the footpath and handed it to Johnny. The handlebars reached just above his chin and he couldn’t see over the huge wicker basket that was strapped to the front of the bike.
Once the man let go of the bike, Johnny had to cling on for dear life; it must have weighed a ton. He managed to keep it upright, but when the front wheel went off the kerb, the bike, which was front heavy, took the boy with it.
“Sorry, sir,” Johnny looked up at the man with frightened eyes. “I just slipped, that’s all.”
Part Two tomorrow, folks.
Copyright © Gemma Mawdsley 2012