As the eggshell light of winter fades, Gran puts her knitting aside to stoke the range, spilling red warmth and sweet turf scent into the kitchen. I love being here on the farm with Gran and Gramps, with its wild hedgerows, pines, and black clouds of squabbling jackdaws who fill the chimneys each spring with the things we lose. I love feeding the chickens; burying my nose in the ripe lanolin scent of a sheep’s fleece; milking the cows; and humming voiceless nothings to Connie, the ageing donkey, whose cart was eaten by woodworm years ago.
The sound of a car penetrates the evening.
‘Go get Gramps, love,’ Gran instructs. ‘Looks as if they’ve arrived.’
The outside world crashes in with Uncle Liam and Auntie Dee in their city-smart clothes. There’s a flurry of air-kisses under an alien cloud of aftershave, scent and deodorant. My teenage cousins, Mary, Eileen and Ruth, trail behind: a matching threesome of white-skinned, dark haired, green-eyed beauties. Ruth is the youngest, thirteen, like me, but they all share the same superior smirk.
Gramps is in the parlour. I tap him on the arm.
‘Ah,’ he says. ‘They’re here? D’ye know who’s arrived?’ He waits a second, hoping, but I say nothing. The words race in circles in my head, but can’t find the door. ‘Well, no matter. Come on, love, bear up. Christmas cheer, eh?’
Gramps takes his special chair on the right-hand side of the range. Gran’s Mum, Granny Kelly, is already ensconced in the rocker the other side. She’s startled awake, bewildered by the bustle and noise. Gran says she used to run the farm like a tornado but her wits followed Grandpa Kelly when he died. Now she misses the whole point of everything.
Uncle Jack and Maureen come next, with little Johnny, who’s a brick short of a load according to Gramps. When he says this Gran swipes a dishcloth at him and tells him she wished some of her other grandchildren had his sunny nature. We all know who she’s talking about, and it’s not me. I’m her best girl, destined for special things, she tells me, though I don’t know what. When she says that I do feel special, before the emptiness comes rushing back in.
Mum’s older sister, Anne, the one who had once wanted to be a nun but said God had other plans, can’t come. She’s too busy doing her good work abroad.
So that’s all of Gran’s ‘gathering’, as she calls us: Mum’s two younger brothers with their up-market wives, three teenage bitches, a moron, and me. The gathering gets smaller each year. Anne’s always missing. Then last year Mum was missing, too. Then this year Dad said Mum’s ghost was sitting at the table staring at him with all the eyes of her sodding family and he couldn’t bear to do it again. So he went away with his new girlfriend to Majorca instead.
‘Stop sulking, Katie, love,’ Gran said when Dad dropped me off, but I saw the look on her face. She was angry at Dad. He married Mum, so that makes him family, but he doesn’t act as if it matters any more. Mum created me by accident during a passionate affair, only for it all to fall apart after my birth. The best accident ever, she told me. Dad, not my real dad, of course, caught her falling and saved her, only for her to die of a disease he’d never even heard of.
There are kisses and hugs and small presents. There are “how’s ye doings” and “how’s the family” and “how’s the dog…”
The kitchen is packed and warm. Never seen from one month to the next, Gran and Gramp’s offspring congregate like flies around cow bombs at Christmas, because everyone’s hoping for a slice of the farm when they’re too old to run it and have to sell up. People think that because I don’t talk, I don’t understand. They think Gran and Gramps don’t understand, either, but I see Gran’s eyes twinkle, and I know she and Gramps have their own plans.
We squeeze into chairs, onto stools, on the settle between the oak tallboy and the damp-stained walls. Gran hands around mince pies. Johnny beams at everyone. The three bitches cast sidelong glances. I feel their venomous shafts spike everyone. They’re here, in this dirty backwater, on sufferance.
There’s light-hearted bitching between the Stepford Wives – Mum’s pet-name for her two sisters-in-law – while my uncles sit in uncomfortable silence, chewing valiantly at the hard pastry. Gran’s cooking skills don’t match her good nature by a long way.
Then Gramps breaks out the sherry.
Like magic, out of the Stepfords’ vast handbags come beer and brandy and Coca-cola.
‘Cheers,’ Gramps toasts. ‘Happy Christmas everyone. Here’s to family, absent and present.’
I lift my glass obediently, my head bursting with all the rage which can’t escape.
After a while the sherry and the beer kicks in, and Gramps lifts his hand for silence. I don’t recall a year when Gramps didn’t say his song:
’twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…
It brings tears to my eyes because Mum loved hearing it, over and over, every year the same. In my mind I can see a smile lurking at the corners of her mouth. I recall the way she used to lean forward as though to capture every word. She loved everything about family, about Christmas. She loved the farm, too: the goats, the cows, and milking when your hands were raw with the cold. I miss her so much it hurts. Gran told me God takes the good ones first. So why didn’t he take Anne first, I say.
‘Aw, Dumbo’s crying.’
‘Hush yer noise!’ Gran says, angry.
‘Well, she is dumb,’ Mary says, all mock innocence.
She’s right. The words in my head swoop and clatter and argue round in circles, trying to make sense of why Mum had to die rather than one of the Stepfords, who do nothing for anyone except themselves.
‘I’m going to sing, now,’ old Granny Kelly announces.
A stunned anticipation hovers. We are all startled by the unexpected clarity of her words.
Eventually Liam fills the silence with his own song, ‘Sweet Molly’.
Johnny sings along, ‘Ah, ah, ah.’
The three bitches make faces behind his back.
Then Uncle Jack does ‘Sullivan’s John’, and Auntie Deirdre does ‘the Banks of Sweet Primroses’ and it’s as if my thirteen Christmases are all rolled into one long memory-song.
Then Eileen says smugly, ‘Give us a song, then, Katie, dearest.’
All the good-feelings fly away. I stare daggers at her.
‘Yeah, let Dumbo do a song,’ Ruth echoes.
Gran slaps her hand on the table. ‘Enough!’
I rush into the back room, and would have been off into the night, but Gran’s quick on her feet. She slams the door then cradles my head in her apron. ‘There, there,’ she says.
I allow myself to be persuaded back into the kitchen. Everyone is engrossed in mince pies and beer but I feel as if there’s a spotlight over my head. I want to sing my song, prove I can. I’d been learning it the year Mum died. I want it to explode out of me, telling my family I’m normal, but it sticks in my throat like a plug.
Old Granny Kelly says, again, ‘I’m going to do my song.’
The Aunts are embarrassed, and talk away.
I’ve never yet heard what her song is; she stopped singing before I was old enough to remember. It’s strange to think she was born when the First World War had ended and the Second one hadn’t even been thought of. I can’t imagine living through a whole century of changes so big. It’s no wonder her brain can’t cope any more.
Uncle Jack leaps in with Irish Molly, which he sings in a sweet and note-perfect tenor.
Then Gran sings the emigrant’s song, ‘To Americae we sailed away, and left this Irish nation…’ and everyone is sad and happy at the same time.
She turns to my cousins and says tightly, ‘Have the girls got a song they’d like to share?’
Auntie Dee gives a superior smile. ‘Ruth has a little song she can do later, but Mary and Eileen have been learning the stepping, if a small space could be cleared?’
The older two hop up with a coy wiggle of the hips, flashing Orphan-Annie smiles. All the grown-ups yell encouragement. There’s a scraping of chairs and a shifting of furniture as the two girls clasp hands in a cross before them. Angelic expressions settle on their faces as they wait, right toes pointed, ready to strike.
Uncle Liam diddles a tune. I didn’t know he could do that, and with a whoop of delight everyone starts to clap in time.
‘Whoo-hoo,’ Gramps shouts, stamping. He loves the dancing. He loves the old songs and the fiddling and the diddling. He says he didn’t have the chance to learn, and his own kids, who did, didn’t want to.
‘Ah, ah, ah,’ yells Johnny.
Now the room is filled with Christmas spirit. The beer has warmed the heart and the songs are reaching for the soul. I love the dancing, too, and sort of forgive the girls for being bitches; it isn’t their fault, after all. Mary and Eileen have the steps and timing perfect as they prance down the centre of the room. I’m impressed. They do a little shimmy of a turn and are stepping-it back again when Ruth’s face twists all up one side. She thrusts forward and a reverberating scream threatens to dislodge the rafters.
All is pandemonium.
In snippets I discover that she shoved Gran’s darning needle so far into Eileen’s thigh that Gramps had to search for a pair of pliers to pull it free.
‘Why?’ Gran asks in amazement, when the wound was dressed and all three girls are sobbing quietly in unison.
‘I wanted to learn,’ she bellows, ‘and they wouldn’t let me join in! It’s all their fault, the bitches.’
‘Holy Mary, mother of God,’ Gran says, crossing herself.
‘’t’aint nothing to do with God,’ Gramps says, a twinkle in his eye.
‘Whisht, now! It’s Christmas,’ Gran snaps.
‘I want to sing my song,’ Old Gran Kelly says. We all ignore her.
Perhaps the bitches are right. Perhaps it’s time I sang my song. I reach into my soul. I breathe and shove, and my throat seems to open a little. It had shut tight when Mum died, and no matter what anyone said, it just wouldn’t open again. But the song can’t get past the lump in my throat.
Then a small sweet voice penetrates the noise. Everyone goes gradually silent. I turn to look at Old Gran Kelly. I’d never heard her sing before.
‘Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling,
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side…
The song tickles my spine. Gran Kelly stares right at me as she sings, as though it’s for me alone. I thought I’d never be able to hear Mum’s song again without crying, but I’m smiling. Deep inside my soul I hear my mother’s voice, and realise where it came from.
…’tis I’ll be here, in sunshine or in shadow
Oh, Danny boy, Oh, Danny boy, I love you so.’
The last note fades into stunned the silence.
‘Oh,’ I breathe eventually. ‘Granny Kelly, that was so beautiful.’
Everyone’s dumbfounded gazes revolve towards me. Then I’m being hugged and kissed by everyone – except the three bitches, of course, and they don’t count. It feels like Christmas now, warm and noisy and filled with love. I’m not alone any more.
‘Ah, ah, ah,’ Johnny sings softly.
It’s quite a while before we realise Old Granny Kelly is very still.
Gran gasps then smiles wetly. ‘Way to go, Mam,’ she says. She hugs me close. ‘She gave you her voice, Katie, love, because she knew she didn’t need it anymore.’