A short story by Eoghan Regan
Thieves are among themselves noble people, tipping an uneven scale in their balance. Who are you to say that what you own is your own? Did you not only have it given to you when you were born into a basket of jewels? “I was born into a basket of rags”, or so they would cry. If the odd worn ruby or scuffed topaz should be plucked from behind your indifferent back why would you miss it?
And then there are those who thieve for reasons less just; drugs… women… sin. They need not the bread and milk and carton of five eggs, one cracked in the escape to feed the snapping, starved chicks. Oh no, they steal only for themselves, and no other. Feeding a black carnivorous habit, a mouth that never shuts and which screams like a dying child, never saying please or thank you, only more, and more, and more. Everything can be noble, if you fool yourself enough.
Christmas day had spread the food of the world across granny’s aged chestnut table, draped in a festive tarp to hide the nail scratches on its corners, where granddad used to sit. Hands were dancing over the steaming meats and gravy, swooping and scooping, all mirth and holly about the room. Uncle Tom, Auntie Mary, Cousin Jim, Granny and my father Bill each one of us elbow close in the stuffy grey dining room. “Who wants to pull a cracker?” Tom, the eldest son held the wrapper to my young face and scratched my nose when I nervously said my polite no’s. “You, Bill you’ll pull a cracker won’t you?” “I most certainly will Tom my man! Hold tight till I’ve shaken these last few drops!” his glassed clinked as he wriggled the bottle neck inside Granny’s Waterford crystal. I was afraid he would crack it. “Pop” and the cracker was disembowelled, its contents sprayed across the room, a hat in Jim’s mash, a joke in Aunt Mary’s water and a small gold trinket into granny’s Christmas peas.
All eyes darted to the small treasure nestled in the marrows as granny saved the gilded man from drowning. “Jesus it’s some sort of miracle, a tiny Christ on a cross”, Granny passed around the little saviour, each hand rubbing the now greasy face hoping to squeeze out a prayer. “What an odd thing to put inside a cracker!” cried tom, “what did you get in your one Jim, A marble Buddha?!” Tom had laughed so hard that the sacred heart above the fridge flickered at the heresy. He was passed to me still wet and warm from prying thumbs which had almost wiped the gold colour clean. The detail on his face was astounding, small artisan grooves across his crown no larger than the heads of needles. I stared at his face harder than I had ever stared… at any sight on earth, combing the face for a glint of happiness. His face was agony, contorted and frozen in pain. The most painful face I’d ever seen.
“Where’s Magdalene?” blurted Mary sheepishly running her ringed finger about a large, empty wine glass, “Doesn’t she know it’s Christmas, hasn’t she seen the snow?” Granny laid her poised cutlery neatly to the side of the dish, “Magdalene had been invited Mary, she had been for all her sins, invited. I had sent her a card with a picture of the three wise men on it. So she was invited” She returned her face towards the plate, garrotting any further questions. Tom’s red face attempted to interject, coughing through a fog of potato he had just swallowed the wrong way, “she…ahem, she’s with her fuckin’ scumbag of a boyfriend…” as he pointed his fork towards the window, “that mangy dog of a man. She’s laid her bed, with that dog, that dog of a man, and she can sleep in it too, oh yes as all dogs do”. Each syllable threw forth flakes of food, one landing in his glass. I watched it sail the circumference of the meniscus before it was consumed by his boorish mouth, like a ship swallowed whole by a whale.
Jim had been herding brussel sprouts about his plate, quiet through the whole ordeal, then reached to his pocket “she’s on her way”, he lifted his head “she’s texted me there she’s on her way. “But is he with her, Jim is he with her?” Tom had now leaned over to Jim, dirtying his sleeve in the gravy. “She didn’t say” he replied. Granny had barley lifted her eyes through the news, drawing a heavy breath, about to speak, then deciding to instead to let it out in a rush of air, exhaling it through her nose.
Conversation, fuelled by wine and ignorance was occupying the others as I continued my study of the messianic trinket. I held the face to my lips and felt the thorns prick my skin, then clenched it, squeezing the pain out of him and into my hands. “Give that here boy”, Granny’s words caught me in the act “that’s no toy; it’s a piece of jewellery. Not to be played with, but to be kept. I’ll see if I can’t attach it to a chain”, extending a Judas hand I passed him to her. “I’ll take good care of him; he’ll live in my little box you see?” She pulled a purple chest with green felt inlay from the bureau, stretching to reach it without leaving her chair. I could see the glinting lights of polished broaches and coiled gold chains and I watched my saviour drop into a mound of cluttered earrings. “There, he’ll be safe in there now. Won’t be lost during the clean up!” I wanted to say I owned him; I wanted to say he was mine, I wanted to push the thorns into my hands again and feel what he had felt, but I didn’t.
The clock in the kitchen had crawled its way to four and the dinner had been thoroughly seen to. The turkey’s bones had been picked clean, handed out and drowned in gravy. Wrappers of Quality Street were blowing about the table like small festive tumbleweeds and I had been left to wrangle up the debris, to brush away the carcass. My Father and cousin Jim were now smoking out the window, pulling back the lace to blow their souls onto the wind outside. Aunty Mary and Granny were both talking about the weather, the only topic which would keep one from finding out anything about the other. Uncle Tom was lost somewhere in the hall, whispering foul nothings behind the shield of his hand, and I was busying myself about the plates.
I had never seen Magdalene before, she was always a distant name, like Saddam or the Queen, cursed by Uncle Tom who’s already red face would turn crimson at the very mention of her. My father had told me she had left some years ago, occasionally calling him for money. He had stopped answering the calls; I was instructed not to answer to her number, sometimes even to lie. “She’s just not to be trusted”, he would say as he laid the phone to rest. When she arrived that afternoon the first thing I heard was her voice, “Hello! Mary, how are you? It’s been a long while!” She sounded young; the pitch of her voice was higher than the other adults, and more pleasant, like a waitress or a nurse. “Come in, come in outa that cold you’ll catch your death at that door”, Granny sounded pleased to see her but stayed seated. “There’s a bit of food left there for ya! Let Billy’s boy round you up a bit of grub, you must be starved the size of ya”. Magdalene flinched at the observation; it was true that her face was slim, the contours of her cheeks casting long shadows across her light pink lips, as though she had just wiped make-up from them.
I did as instructed, fetching a cornucopia of leftovers, thrown into the microwave for a minute and thirty. When I returned they had sat themselves back at the table. A large green bottle was being passed between Tom and my father, Jim had waved his hand to a small golden glass. “Have a drop of this” Tom beamed, extending a small glass unsuited to the liquid towards Magdalene; it was an odd gesture coming from a man, who only an hour before had called her a dog. She refused without gifting him her eyes and returned to Granny’s hand which was wrapped like a snake around her forearm.
Tom leaned back into the chair as it let out a moan of discomfort. “So… is he not coming no?” Magdalene’s eyes remained pointed at Granny, her hand now handling the tight grip of her fingers, she said nothing. “Is he not coming, doesn’t he miss your pretty face? Or has he left you again?” Still nothing, “Has he fecked off to another gutter? Look I’m only asking Maggy because I care, that man isn’t right forya’, not at all. He’s bad, a fierce bad man, no lie, but sure don’t you know that yourself”. It was clear Tom had no need for the large whiskey now rolling between his fingers. His eyes had dropped and his speech was slow and bubbling like dirty water flowing over a sordid brook. “Stop Tom, Just stop that talk. It’s a time for peace, right? A time for forgiveness, no?”. “ Is that not Easter I thought?” Jim’s contribution had not satisfied the room, “Ah jesus, Jim would ya ever… Look Tom, stop this nonsense. This bloody nonsense, its fuckin’ disgraceful carry on, and in front of my young lad?” Tom began again, “Look, I’ve no idea why were all sitting here playing happy families”, the irony of the statement brought a sly smirk to my face “when the truth is, Maggy and… I mean no harm toya when I say it…” “He’s dead”, Magdalene’s words had torn Tom asunder, now fumbling with a napkin he wiped the stinging liquid from his chin, “Ah Jesus Maggy I had no idea…”. “We’ll it didn’t stop ya did it? An overdose. It was an overdose, and I’m clean now I promise, it took his dying to do it but I’m clean now”. Granny’s arm had now relinquished its grip, hovering above her shoulder in shock, “Oh God, Jesus Mary and Joseph….Dead?” Granny’s words were carried by a breath of hidden relief, “but you’re off it, the drugs I mean… It’s a terrible thing that happened to that boy but he was no good forya, no good”. There was a silence that lasted an ice age, a gust from the window blew the perched hat from Tom’s head onto the carpet. I watched as Tom scrambled for the crown, deciding instead to leave it where it lay.
The rest of the evening Magdalene spent with Granny’s arms wrapped around her head, she was sobbing out words like ‘never again’. Aunty Mary had fallen asleep in the large yellow couch her hand out-stretched to a Christmas bauble on the tree, like the Creation of Adam. Jim, Tom and my father were now smoking round the table, “I don’t believe her” they whispered each one bowing a head in agreement, I’m not sure if I did either.
As the night wrapped the house, kept at bay only by a small lamp in kitchen I opened Granny’s small chest of treasure and resurrected my small saviour. I pressed him hard between my thumbs and mouthed a quiet prayer, then without a whisper of a footstep I crept up to Magdalene, now asleep in a chair. She looked peaceful, warmed in a blanket of total silence and stillness; and I slipped my lord into the coat which laid beside her. She needed him more than I did, more than any of us ever would.