Santa Claus is coming.
My aunt Sally and her husband, Jim Edon, lived in Birmingham. They were exotic creatures. They had two good incomes and no children, making them, in our eyes, wealthy and privileged. The high point of Sally’s year was Christmas—spent in the Belfast home of her sister, Margaret. Whenever possible, I was in the welcome party at Aldergrove airport.
The airport was a frightening place, one did not loiter there. I later heard stories of my friends from the Republic of Ireland being taken to spend a day at Dublin airport for a treat; watching the departures, drinking Coke in the bar, joining the air of celebration as emigrants returned from every country to spend Christmas at home. Winter or summer, there was no carnival atmosphere in Belfast airport. We walked through ranks of heavily guarded barriers to the arrival hall. The security presence was huge. The Police had pistols clipped to their belts, their eyes darted ceaselessly, alert for signs of sedition and intrigue.
I clapped and jumped with giddy joy when the tall, imposing forms of Sally and Jim swept grandly through the arrival barrier. I felt all eyes upon them- this wealthy, important couple. Sally wore a full-length mink coat, it was her pride and my delight. I loved to stand beside it, as it hung in Margaret’s hallway. I pushed my hands up inside its tight cuffs and nuzzled my face into its delicious warmth. Beside it hung Margaret’s 100% polyester “fur” coat, shamed by this luxurious garment. Two years ago I brought the mink to Vard’s furriers off Grafton Street and paid a large sum to have it updated and modernised- I rarely have the courage to wear it.
Jim was considerably older than his wife. I was just slightly too young to realise what a storehouse of knowledge and tales he must have been. Educated in Preston Grammar school and at Oxford, he was a creature from a different world. I have always known that he fought with Rommel in the desert, during the Second World War. I remember his tales of smoking cigarettes made from shredded grass and camel dung. He was infinitely glamorous in my eyes. Recently, I asked my aunt Eileen, the youngest of Sally’s siblings what she could recall of Jim’s wartime experiences in the desert. She laughed. All fiction. Just stories to delight a little girl.
Finally, Christmas Eve arrived. I had bathed and dried my hair—viciously scrubbed with “Squeezee” dish-washing liquid—in front of a three-bar gas fire. Time for midnight Mass. Margaret favoured Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road, for solemn feasts. Clonard’s sonorous choir and Monastic rituals were as close to the Catholicism of her youth as she could find in the city. “Lumen Christe….Deo Gratias” we intoned as the final candle of the advent wreath was lit on Christmas Eve, thrillingly, in the centre of the aisle. Its flickering light cast eerie, distorted shadows over the vast building, revealing a gilded picture here, a flash of marble there. Slowly, slowly, a chain of candles illuminated the darkened space- the holy spark passing from person to person until the huge congregation was a marvellous, dangerous riot of flame. Travelling the few short, familiar miles between Vauxhall Park and the Falls Road, I forgot that I thought of Belfast as a large and threatening place.
Afterwards, in new, pink-striped pyjamas, I lay tossing and turning in a tiny room, occupied Sunday to Thursday by one of Margaret’s lodgers, a student at nearby Queen’s University. I have no idea what this obliging young man thought about the fact that I borrowed his bedroom nearly every weekend. Perhaps he did not know?
I couldn’t sleep. I was beyond any reasoning with. I lay, vibrating with excitement, looking at Peter’s philosophical wall-posters. “Behold!” shrieked one “The turtle! He only makes progress when he sticks his neck out!” Yeah, right, I thought, How else would a turtle get around the place? Sure, he couldn’t see if he didn’t stick his neck out. Another poster had a furtive face peering over a wall. “Just because you’re paranoid,” it declared “Doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” Margaret assured me that I would understand this complicated slogan when I was older, which was a bit rich from a woman who gave me free rein among her Doris Lessings, Erica Jongs and Muriel Sparks.
Uncle Jim was full of wild stories and imaginings. Eight years old, I finally made a startling observation: Jim did not go to Mass. How bizarre. I had heard of lapsed Catholics, but even the most recalcitrant dragged themselves to church on Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. Not Jim. I probed a little, as subtly as I could contrive. On New Year’s Eve, I announced to Jim my resolution of attending confession weekly from now on. He greeted this news with derision, assuring me that I could not possibly commit a sin on a weekly basis, and had no need of such regular shriving. No other adult I knew would have responded in this way to such blatant sucking-up.
Tucking into the season’s final turkey, after Mass on New Year’s Day, I blurted out my question.
“Why don’t I go to Mass?” Jim mused. All eyes turned towards him. Christmas-time festive meals all involved Margaret, Mary, Eileen and her husband Eamonn, Sally and Jim. Eileen’s sons, my three worldly-wise Belfast cousins, crammed with me around the rickety “children’s table”. The atmosphere tensed, there was an air of enthralled anticipation. Sighing, and pushing his chair slightly back, Jim removed from his pocket the pill box I saw him use each breakfast-time. He shook its contents onto the table among the gaudy napkins.
“The simple truth of the matter,” he began, in his fruity, upper-class English voice, “Is that I cannot risk going to Mass. The priest would see through me straight away and my secret would be out. I am, in fact, a vampire. Only these tablets, which you see me take each morning, protect you all from my horrid blood-sucking habits.”
Jim was an avid collector of horror fiction and a fan of the macabre. He delivered his speech in sepulchral tones. The young cousins rushed over to the adult’s table, to have a good look at the vampire pills. My aunts relaxed and a frantic hum of small talk rose quickly over the small room. The secret of Jim’s shameful Protestantism was safe for another few years.
One of our last Christmases together, he made a faux pas which put him in the dog house for quite some time. All ten of us gathered, as always, round the tree late in the evening to open our presents. We were finally sated with pudding and shloer. The adults had had a few glasses of Black Tower, or the ever present Gordon’s and tonic. My eldest cousin Paul ripped open his card from Jim. I was perhaps thirteen years old, Paul several years my senior. From the envelope tumbled a cheque and a Christmas card. Santa sat on a toilet, giant red trousers concertinaed round his ankles. He was “reading” a newspaper, which quite protected his modesty. The caption below read “Santa Claus is coming…” Paul choked and turned an unusual colour. My cousins Marc and Patrick snickered and whooped.
Jim put his hand over his mouth, glancing uneasily at Auntie Mary, the self-appointed guardian of morals, and arbiter of taste, in the family. “I thought it was humorously scatological,” he explained, chastened, “Now I see that, in fact, it is rather pornographic.” I understood every individual word of his sentence, but had no idea what it meant. To this day, I am not sure whether my sixty-year old Aunt Mary, or I, was more confused, in our innocence, by all this fuss about a photo, albeit vulgar, of a man doing a poo.