It was the day before Christmas Eve, in the year of Our Lord, Nineteen Hundred and Sixty Eight. Maggie, who was Paddy Donnelly’s wife of twelve years, gave him some money to go and purchase some decorations for the Christmas tree. But before she parted with the money she gave him strict instructions not to buy anything from second-hand shops, cheap markets, or anything made in Hong Kong but above all…not to buy anything from Gerry Stanley.
“I’m giving you three pounds Paddy and I expect some change back as well. I’d go myself but I haven’t the time, as I have to have this house in tiptop condition before my Mother, Phil and that stuck-up wife of his and their three brats come over for Christmas dinner” she paused briefly before continuing “and I won’t get it done with you hanging around”
Paddy wore a solemn look and made to cough before responding as he took the three crisp pound notes from Maggie’s outstretched hand. “I can put up with Phil and Marjorie and those kids to a point, but it’s your Mother that really unnerves me, why she has to poke her nose into everything every time she sets foot in this house is beyond me”
“Paddy! let’s not go there” Maggie replied in her best vexed pose “she only gets to come a couple of times a year so the least you can do is be clean, smart, and be nice to her when she does come, now be gone with you and don’t take all day” as she angrily wiped crumbs from the formica kitchen table.
Paddy hated when Maggie was like this, she was always on tender hooks whenever her sister in-law visited, coupled with the fact that Maggie’s mother thought the world of her daughter in-law ‘My son married a real lady there, and you wouldn’t see Marjorie wearing anything cheap and vulgar’ she was fond of saying, especially in close proximity of Paddy’s earshot. This real lady malarkey nonsense really irked Paddy, as he was sure that his mother in-law, whenever given the chance was quick to fire a shot across her bow at him. She’d never forgiven Maggie for marrying me Paddy thought. Well I’ll show the lot of them, what a real Christmas should be like’ Paddy said to himself as he hopped on the number fifty nine bus into Oldham.
Paddy alighted from the bus just outside of Woolworth’s supermarket on Bricker Street. Attracted by the colourful window display of all things Christmassy, he decided to see what the store had to offer in the line of Christmas decorations.
At this late hour in the day he just might land a bargain. When he got to the ‘all things Christmassy section’ Paddy was in for a big disappointment, all that were left were three or four boxes of, Shiny, Brite green feather tree Christmas holiday ornaments, which were made in Hong Kong, two Roto-Wheel aluminium Christmas tree projectors which were out of his price range, and one Father Christmas figure with an eye missing. Paddy heard the voice of his father resounding in his head ‘A bargain is only a bargain if it’s useful and it works’. Paddy looked at his watch; 3.30 pm stared back at him. He was in panic mode, he reasoned that all the shops would have much or the same on offer. And so he found himself in a dilemma, should he chance other shops or take a chance on the market where he would be spoilt for choice, an outdoor and an indoor market. On exiting from the front doors of Woolworths his head told him to take a right and head on up Bricker Street and try Marks and Spencer’s, at least he’d get something there, might be a little expensive but he would have quality. His heart told him differently and his feet turned left, and his body propelled him forward. So it was that Paddy found himself like the Salmon that returns to the river where it was born, being inexorable drawn towards Green Lane where Tommyfield Market was.
There was no time to waste, after browsing through a couple stalls in the hope of finding something unique and startling with which to dress his Christmas tree, Paddy suddenly realised that the stall holders were beginning to pack up. Now he was in panic stricken mode franticly stretching his neck and turning his head in all directions, looking for anything or anyone that was selling what he was looking for. Three rows to his left he could just about make out a stall that had what looked like coloured flashing lights on it. Even though it was a cold day he was sweating and his hands felt clammy as his feet carried him on a wave of turbulent anxiety towards the stall that might save the day. The man at the stall held a captive audience with his spiel “last chance ladies and gentlemen…just four more boxes of the Petal Reflector twinkling coloured mini light strings sets, and a Santa for the tree, all for just two pounds and ten shilling. Several people reached into their pockets. Paddy reached into his and shouted “I’ll take a box too”.
The man lifted his head to look in what the direction the agitated cry had come from and a broad smile spread across his face “ah it’s yourself Paddy; I’ll be with you in a minute.
After the crowd had dispersed Gerry Stanley began to start packing up too. “Look Paddy” Gerry said “I’m in hurry, I want to get packed up and gone before the rush, so if you’ll fix up with me we can be both on our way”
“I’m sorry Gerry, but I think I was a little bit hasty there” as he patted the box of lights.
“What do you mean, a little bit hasty” Gerry replied with a look of suspicion in his eyes
“About the lights Gerry, I think they’re a little bit too dear at two pounds and ten shillings, and they’re made in Hong Kong too” Paddy said, as he looked away in embarrassment.
“Let me tell you something Paddy, Hong Kong is a thriving economic miracle that produces all kinds of things, from transistor radios to suits and skirts that the ordinary working man and woman can afford at a reasonably price. And just because they can be bought cheaper doesn’t mean they aren’t good, if it’s the fact that they’re made in Hong Kong is bothering you, I’ll put a sticker on them that says there made in England” Gerry said with a mischievous smile on his face.
“I’m still not sure; maybe I’ll stick with something plain and simple” Paddy mumbled.
“Listen Paddy, plain and simple is boring, these flashing lights are all the rage now…tell you what I’ll do, I can let you have a set for only two pounds”
“Janey Mac, I don’t know Gerry, two pounds is still a lot of money. And anyway, what in God’s name would I do with them”
“Ah ha Paddy, that’s the beauty of em, you place them on your Christmas tree, starting from the top, down to the bottom, and there you have it, a mini version of the Blackpool illuminations, right there in the corner of the livin room…just think of it. You’ll be the envy of all your neighbours and relatives”
“They sound awfully complicated to me, I think I’ll just stick to the ordinary decorations…and anyway the last thing I bought from you, never bloody worked. Maggie will go mental if I buy those yokes from you”
“Well Paddy, you’re the one that’ll miss out on a great bargain, you can’t hold on to that money forever, they’re selling for six pounds in the shops, and just think what a great surprise it’ll be. The kids will remember this Christmas forever, not to mention the satisfaction Maggie will get, when that stuck-up sister in law of hers see’s those pretty little lights flashing away in the corner…you’ll be the one they’ll all look up to, plus the fact, I’m throwing in a cardboard village and a hanging Santa to go with them as well”.
It was the pride that overwhelmed Paddy Donnelly that day, the thought of being a hero to his kids, and their friends, and also the source of Marjorie’s displeasure that finally sealed the deal.
This is what happened; On returning from the market that day Paddy presented the lights as a great surprise to his children and his wife, before Maggie could begin the inquisition as to where and how he got the lights Paddy proudly boasted that he had purchased the last set from Marks and Spencer’s, and produced a receipt as proof. This was done so as not to arouse suspicion and scorn from Maggie in the form of sarcasm, or so Paddy thought…
“What are they Paddy? And what are we supposed to do with them?” These two questions were delivered in such a tone that could only mean one thing…trouble with a capital T.
Paddy had to think fast “before you say anything Maggie, they’re all the rage at the moment, and they’ll look fantastic around the Christmas tree” Paddy continued quickly, the look on Maggie’s face compelled him too. “The lights consist of twenty strands in sets of eight bulbs wired in series, this is done, so that if one bulb fails, only one strand will go out…which of course they won’t go out, plus they come in three different colours, red, yellow and blue” Paddy paused to draw breath, he didn’t get a chance to continue.
“That’s double Dutch nonsense to me and well you know it” said Maggie, who was not in favour of this purchase, and was by this point beginning to lose it altogether.
“ I’m not making any of this up, all that information is on the box Maggie, and wait for it” Paddy held up his hand in mock supplication, you also get a free cardboard village and a hanging Santa thrown in with these lights as well”
This last line is what saved Paddy, their youngest son Willie who was also known as little Wille, was so excited about the card board village and the Christmas lights, that he could no longer contain his joy. “You’re just the best dad in the world, can we put the lights and the village on the tree now dad, oh please dad, can we?”
Maggie capitulated at this point. But she was not a happy camper, before parting with her final barb “I hope for your sake Paddy, that you didn’t buy those yokes, from that feckin eejit, Gerry Stanley”.
“What do you take me for, Maggie, a complete fool altogether, I said I’d never buy anything from that con man again” Paddy cringed inside and prayed that all would go well.
It was with a wry sense of humour that Declan Donnelly, Paddy and Maggie’s eldest son looked back on the Christmas of sixty eight, as he was putting Christmas lights around his own tree. How could he ever forget it?
All was well in the Donnelly home, the Christmas lights were working perfectly on Christmas Eve, and Paddy was proud of himself, even Maggie was well pleased. He couldn’t wait for the following day, when the obnoxious mother in-law, Marjorie, her husband Phil and their three brats would come over for their annual visit. And so it happened…
After all the excitement of Christmas morning at the Donnelly home, calm was restored in regimented fashion, the house had to be tidied and dinner prepared for the anticipated arrival of the Queen of Sheba and entourage. It was little Willie, who was on look-out that fateful day. “Mam…mammm, they’re here” he cried in mock terror as he winked at his father.
They were ready, like warriors ready to meet their destiny Paddy opened the front door with the look of man on top of the world, a man possessed with lunatic joy. He bent down and gingerly kissed his mother in-law on the cheek, he didn’t care that his mother in-law wiped her cheek with her handkerchief. This was his moment, his hour, his day.
Even Maggie’s mother seemed kind and courteous. But jealously and envy go hand in hand. Marjorie and Phil as could be seen by the seething look on their faces as they watched their children in ecstatic adoration at the apparition in the corner of their Aunt and Uncle’s home. This in itself made Maggie’s day, and her heart swelled with pride for her Husband.
All proceeded without incident until midway during the Christmas meal. Just when victory was within Paddy Donnelly’s reach, disaster struck…from the mouths of babes, are unpleasant truths spurned…
“Some of the lights have gone out” said little Willie
“And some more have gone as well” Betty, one of the brats added.
“Not to worry” said Paddy as he quickly rose from his seat, panic rising in his chest. “It’s just a bulb gone, if one goes, a strand of eight go, it’s a safety precaution, a clever idea, don’t you think Phil”?
“I suppose so” Phil countered “They’re new, aren’t they, so they shouldn’t give any trouble” a look of sardonic pleasure spreading across his face. This was an accusation as well as an insult. But Paddy just kept the head down while muttering “Where did I leave those spare bulbs?” Of which he knew the answer to, there were none.
“I can smell something burning” said Marjorie, and so it was, the Christmas village was now on fire.
“Santa’s feet are on fire” screamed little Bernard, another brat. At this point, all pandemonium broke out, with everyone running in all directions. Eventually the fire was put out by Maggie who had the sense to smother the fire with a heavy blanket, and although the front room was in a sorry state; no one was hurt only a few of the kids with blackened faces.
“Come on Phil, gather up the children and your mother, were getting out of this death trap” Marjorie said in a most melodramatic fashion. It was a remark that Maggie would never forgive her for. Maggie was disconsolate and red faced, with shame, as she glowered at Paddy, as especially as neighbours had come to see what the commotion was.
That was a long time ago, dad might have got away with it, Declan thought, for Paddy did blame Marjorie for sabotaging the lights and Maggie believed him, that is until they both bumped into Gerry Stanley who innocently asked Paddy, “Did the Christmas lights I sold you, go down well”. But then again that is another story altogether.
Michael Mullins © October 2014