Wednesday, August 8, 2007

A Christmas Quest

The festive season had run its normal course.
Christmas Day had been too hectic to enjoy – well, for us parents anyway. Rising far too early at the insistence of our demanding offspring, we then spent the next eight hours performing unspeakable acts upon the turkey, and trying to balance all the tasks required to produce the perfect Christmas meal, which was devoured in fifteen minutes and everybody ran off to watch Indiana Jones, leaving great piles of washing-up congealing on the table.
Two hours later, and we were just about done in, and it was time to go visiting. Great fun of course, but not much relaxation, and by the time we got home we were determined that next year we would book the family into a hotel somewhere.
St. Stephens Day was the best day. Everybody lolled around in dressing gowns, yesterday’s leftovers were reheated for a quick dinner in mid-afternoon, and the sitting room got strewn with Quality Street wrappers.
The next two days were very similar except the potatoes got boiled instead of roasted, and the frozen chips made their first appearance of the holiday. The turkey meat was finally removed from the carcass and to our great relief it didn’t take the strength of four people to force the fridge door closed on it. The ham was practically finished, while the stuffing had long ago been devoured by ravenous teenagers who couldn’t appear to pass by a fridge door without eating something from it.
And then came December 29th, with its hint of depression that the festivities were more or less over and that reality was flexing its muscles.
For me, this day always marks a watershed in the Christmas festivities. It is the day when you begin to tire of slouching around between the fridge and the couch and have a desire to go for “a nice brisk walk” as my Aunt Alice would put it. Not that you ever do, of course. There’s always “The Sound of Music” on, or “Willy Wonka” and you feel compelled to pig out in the armchair with the last of the Roses, in case the film has altered since the last time you saw it.
This year December 29th dawned, as indeed it does everywhere after the night of the 28th, and I woke with a feeling that perhaps I ought to be taking advantage of this brief sojourn from work by doing something a bit more constructive. A quick glance through the by-now well-thumbed RTE Guide however quickly disavowed me of that ludicrous notion and I propped myself on the couch to see if this time Steve McQueen would make it through the second set of barbed wire.
When Donald Pleasance finally realised that he was going blind, I was so moved that I got up and went to see if there was anything tasty in the fridge. To my horror, it looked surprisingly bare. It seemed like only yesterday that we had a big turkey firmly wedged in its racking and cans of Guinness sitting in basins of cold water outside the back door, because the fridge had been stuffed to the seams with all things sweet and savoury. Now its appearance would have left Old Mother Hubbard feeling a tad disappointed. A bowl of dried turkey meat and five tubs of “Bless my Cotton Socks I Can’t Believe its Not Butter” scarcely whet the appetite.
The realisation hit me like a sledgehammer. We’d have to go down to the Centre and do a shop.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. When this impressive edifice is talked about in work, I bask in some kind of reflected pride as though in some way I am partly responsible for its success by virtue of living nearby. I proudly proclaim to all that will listen that I still haven’t seen the Millennium Spire, because there’s no need to go into town any more. And I also boast, quite untruthfully, that before Dundrum, it was the only shopping centre on earth that could be seen from outer space, though you’d need pretty good eyesight.
But by the time Christmas comes around I feel I never want to set foot inside its hallowed halls again. The queues of traffic up the slip road, the people milling for the last of the wrapping paper, running frenziedly around dozens of shops with your arms hanging off because “you’ve just got to get something for Aunt Ethel.” Blanchardstown Shopping Centre in December is the definition of Purgatory.
My mother, God bless her, was an ardent anti-Communist. Her reasoning was that whenever you see footage of Russians, “they always look so miserable.” If she were alive today, and sitting by the fountain people-watching, she’d think she was in downtown Stalingrad, surrounded by Vladimir Ilyich’s finest. Nobody is having fun, nobody wants to be there, and everybody can’t wait to get home.
And so, standing there before my embarrassment of a fridge, my heart sank as I realised the trip to the Centre would have to be made. The signal that Christmas was truly over, and another 51 weeks of reality was about to begin.
But then I remembered! In the last shopping expedition before The Big Day, in a fit of largesse, I had thrown some very small cheese portions into the shopping trolley, with the words “Sure, its Christmas,” as if that justified such extravagance. Normally we have St. Bernard’s finest Cheddar throughout the year, but for a treat I had plumped for some Brie, some Emmenthal and some Gruyère, albeit in the smallest quantities I could find. They would come in handy after Christmas, I had thought, when we were looking for a bit of a change from mince pies and mallows.
And wasn’t this such an occasion? Blanchardstown could be deferred until tomorrow, if only… But where were these small cheeses? Now that I thought about it, I hadn’t seen them since a bleary-eyed checkout girl had thrown them carelessly down from the register.
“Has anyone seen the cheese I bought coming up to Christmas?” I demanded, striding into the sitting room, but Richard Attenborough and “yer man from Upstairs Downstairs” were holding another briefing, and I got no response.
I checked the boot of the car to see if they had somehow fallen down into the spare wheel or in the empty ice-cream tub that we keep there “in case of emergencies.” No joy. I checked the bag of shopping bags, in case some eejit had folded the bags away with the cheese still in it. I checked the fruit bowl to see if they were hidden under the rotting satsumas.
This was becoming a mission. Who cared about Charles Bronson’s claustrophobia, when there were three small wedges of cheese out there somewhere, alone and unprotected? I’d scoured all the obvious places – now was time to rummage through the more unlikely spots. I checked inside Neil’s working boots and through his underwear drawer. I manually spun the washing machine drum. I emptied out the contents of the charity sack onto the road in front of our house, and went through it with a toothcomb.
Then as James Garner was desperately plummeting out of the sky, I looked in the crib. There, nestling in the cotton wool that had apparently adorned your typical manger in biblical times, was a baby Brie, a baby Emmenthal and a baby Gruyere.
“Look!” I shouted to a completely disinterested family, pointing excitedly into the crib, “The Baby Cheeses!”

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