Mal­ibu Bar­bie Christ­mas

Fes­tive flash fic­tion from Paul McVeigh

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - PAUL McVEIGH ■ Paul McVeigh is the au­thor of The Good Son, win­ner of the Po­lari Prize

Fin­tain and Síofra are awake in Ma’s bed. Ma went down­stairs about half an hour ago. Get­ting things ready. Not that there’ll be much this year. “Can we go down now?” asks Baby Síofra. She made them start call­ing her that again the other day though she’s not even any­more.

“No, we can’t go down yet,” says Fin­tain. “Sure, Mammy’ll be talk­ing to Santa. And he’s got to drink his whiskey and feed Ru­dolf some mashed pota­toes.”

“I read in a book you’re sup­posed to leave him car­rots,” says she.

“Was it one of those English books?” says Fin­tain. He tuts and shakes his head. “What have I told you be­fore about the English?” “They know noth­ing?” “Cor-rect,” says he. “Now, those in the know, know, Ru­dolph al­ways eats the lo­cal food. He’s like one of them trav­el­ling food crit­ics from the TV. Sure, doesn’t he love go­ing to In­dia and all? Frig­gin’ adores crunch­ing them pop­pad­ums. But he’s al­ways geed up about com­ing to Ire­land cuz, he says, he loves Mammy’s mash the most in all the world.” “Does he Fin­tain?” says she. “Would I lie to you?” says he. She doesn’t an­swer. She doesn’t be­lieve a word that comes out of any­one’s mouth since Da left. Ex­cept Fin­tain’s and only some­times.

Fin­tain, on the other hand, has been in his el­e­ment since Da cleared off. Now Baby Síofra and him get to sleep with Ma in the dou­ble bed. Ma says it’s be­cause it lets Big John have a room to him­self with­out them two – es­pe­cially af­ter the night he got so drunk he pissed in the wardrobe think­ing it was the toi­let. Ma was dead an­noyed, cuz that meant he had his willy out in front of Baby Síofra, and Fin­tain said, sure she was asleep, and Ma said, that was just as bad as it could have ap­peared in her dreams, which isn’t even a thing, is it? And, any­way, Ma said, you’d think at 16 he’d have learned to han­dle his drink!

Ma only lets on that Big John is why she has them share her bed – like Fin­tain lets on to Baby Síofra that Santa’s real. He knows he’s not cuz Da told him when he helped carry the drunk up to bed last Christ­mas Eve. There is no magic man who gives you presents. Only Das and their wages. He killed the pre­tend Christ­mas and now he’s killed the real one cuz him and his wages are gone. And Ma’s dis­tracted.

Re­ally Ma wants the kids in bed with her be­cause she can’t sleep now she’s on her own. She told Jinny the tick woman when she called with her book to col­lect the money Ma owes. Jinny told Ma she’s still hold­ing on, oth­er­wise, why’s she still wear­ing that ring? That’s when Ma started twist­ing it on her fin­ger. She hasn’t stopped since. She does it when she’s watch­ing TV. She does it ly­ing in bed at night when she thinks Fin­tain’s asleep but he’s re­ally watch­ing her with his eyes al­most closed. She even does it in the bath cuz Fin­tain saw her when he came in and sat on the toi­let do­ing his spellings the other day. He doesn’t like leav­ing Ma alone for one wee minute af­ter he found her that time.

“Can we go down now, Fin­tain?” says Baby Síofra.

“Do you want Santa to get drunk by belt­ing that whiskey into him? Sure he’ll be knocking down chim­neys from here to Cully­backey,” says Fin­tain.

Wee Síofra sucks on the cor­ner of a dirty old baby bib from years ago she found in a suit­case un­der­neath the bed. It’s an ab­so­lutely dis­gust­ing habit that turns Fin­tain’s stom­ach and he’s been try­ing to get her to stop but she squeals the place down if his hand as much as in­vades the same airspace as that bib. She’s promised to throw it in the fire to­day if she gets a Mal­ibu Bar­bie with a swim­ming pool, a div­ing board and a chang­ing room. You’re more likely to see St Pa­trick flyin’ by on a mo­tor­bike as Ma hasn’t two pen­nies to rub to­gether. And it’s not like Big John’s gonna give her any money, he can’t even get the dole cuz he’s sup­posed to be at school. He’s a waster like Da.

Síofra wig­gles, which is not a good sign as she’s started to wet the bed since the night she told them all to call her Baby Síofra again. Fin­tain sticks his hand un­der her bum. Dry as a bone. “Good girl,” he says, like he’s proper Daddy. “I’m hold­ing it in for Santa,” says she. “Santa’s go­ing to be very proud of you, Baby Síofra,” says he. “And I am too!” “Santa’s been!” shouts Ma from down­stairs. And even though he knows there’ll be frig-all for him down there, Fin­tain’s heart thumpers any­way. And the look on wee Síofra’s face is like 56 Christ­mases and a Hal­lowe’en rolled into one.

Them two leap through the open door and lit­er­ally sprout wings and fly down the stairs.

Go­ing into the liv­ing room Fin­tain and Baby Síofra stop dead. If syn­chro­nised jaw-drop­ping was an Olympic sport they’d be gold medal­lists. Three moun­tains of presents flagged with three kids’ names at the sum­mit. There’s a mo­ment’s pause as Fin­tain squeezes wee Síofra’s hand then they both bomb into them like they were div­ing into Bar­bie’s Mal­ibu pool.

Fin­tain couldn’t even en­joy Baby Síofra’s hap­pi­ness be­cause there was just no more hap­pi­ness left in the world for him to feel.

Kill me now, God, thought Fin­tain, it’s all down hill from here. Big John falls in. “Je­sus, the screams of ye’s. Who’s dead?” says he, then sees his moun­tain and his eyes pop out like a car­toon coy­ote’s. “Sweet Mother of Je­sus. Did you win the lotto?” he says, pick­ing up his new tech and get­ting lost in plug­ging and tap­ping.

The Four Beam­ers, that’s the McGuin­ness fam­ily right now. At that mo­ment some­thing oc­curred in Fin­tain. He looked at his Ma in fig­ur­ing-it-out-ful­ness. He knew Santa wasn’t real. He knew be­liev­ing was a baby thing. But sure, couldn’t he see it with his own eyes?

He al­most closed his eyes, looked at Ma, in se­cret, like he does at night. Watches Ma twist that bloody ring, like he does ev­ery day. Then sees. There is no ring. Ma’s twist­ing skin where a ring used to be.

They didn’t need no magic man to save Christ­mas, they had their Mammy. And his Mammy didn’t need no man.

‘‘ ‘I read in a book you’re sup­posed to leave Ru­dolf car­rots,’ says she. ‘Was it one of those English books?’ says Fin­tain. He tuts and shakes his head. ‘What have I told you be­fore about the English?’ ‘They know noth­ing?’ ‘Cor-rect,’ says he.

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