It’s Christmas in Kilcolgan, in our little corner of windswept west of Ireland. On Christmas Eve my daughter Liv and I went up the road to the ruins of Tyrone House to stretch our legs; Reuben the terrier has only got little ones, but stretching they need nonetheless. It’s only five minutes’ walk away, through somewhat bleak but very beautiful countryside. Liv suggested we take our sketching stuff (excuse me while I sigh proudly) and we sat in the field next to the ruin, drawing, painting and generally having a great time, but getting colder by the second. Reuben dug a hole, which made him excited, so that when Liv commanded him to STAY so that she could include him in her sketch he moved forward defiantly rather than remaining next to the wall. He kept still long enough for me to sketch him, but Liv yelled at him for insubordination all the way home. Throughout, Reuben was jaunty, his fluffy tail held high and proud, the curling tip bouncing as he trotted. Then we washed him in warm soapy water, and he stayed obediently still in the bath until the part where we dried him vigorously, which always provokes a fit of towel-biting. It’s a lot of fun – I feel like I have a (surprisingly snappy) baby again when I dry him upside down on my lap – and this time it also meant life slowly oozed back into my fingers.
My parents designed and built their house. It was the 1960s, and they did everything themselves. As a result, the house was a little unconventional, but parts of it were beautiful. It was built in a forest clearing on the side of a mountain, and took advantage of this with a very 1970s split-level living room, which had polished teak floors, a fireplace built into the corner of a brick wall and huge windows looking out over a sloping lawn, into which would wander deer from the woods at the edge (and which ate my mother’s flowers). It was in beautiful north Co. Wicklow, and it was very Falling Water in both design and setting. We were three miles from the last bus stop and it felt isolated, but magnificently so. The stunning Powerscourt Waterfall – over 100m high, in 19th century, manicured parklands – was a short, brackeny walk through the trees away, and it was paradise for eight children to grow up in. The babble of the river leading from the waterfall at the bottom of the slope was the soundtrack to my childhood, and we spent long summer days with our neighbours trying to build a raft that would float. I just wanted to see wildlife, but I never did, other than the deer. In winter, everything was dark green conifers and brilliant white snow, across which neon blue shadows were cast. It was the most idyllic setting for Christmas imaginable, and my wonderful parents made it magical for all of us. In the dining room there was a long table, and at Christmas the usual complement of 11 (eight of us, our parents plus grandmother) rose to 15 or so: my mother always invited anyone she thought might be on their own at Christmas. That’s what I was used to, and even now I like to invite at least one or two extra people for Christmas dinner. It’s not how it happens in my home now, though. The eight children scattered with the four winds, and blew across the world. Two are in Vancouver, one is in Jamaica, one in Spain, one in France and three in Ireland, one of the latter of which has close family connections in Spain, and is often there over Christmas. My parents have to spread themselves thin to visit everyone so they are rarely with us (besides, we have repeated the self-build chaos of my parents’ experience, and my elderly father won’t stay in a house with rickety stairs).
This is a long way of saying that my Christmas these days is small. Just the five of us – me, Marcel and the three children. You can look at that one of two ways: miss the family who aren’t there, or appreciate and be glad for the family that is. Like many families we’ve had our ups and downs, and over dinner I felt a surge of gratitude that all three of my children were present, happy and healthy. There was a row, because it would have been too good to be true otherwise, but the row came to an end and everyone was still happy and healthy, to a greater or lesser degree.
Here is Paddy doing something or other on his phone (excuse scratchiness of my line: I changed my pen for a new one yesterday). That’s Reuben to the left: he wasn’t in the air, dive bombing the sofa: he was on the floor to the right, staring intently at his fluorescent yellow frisbee, which he got for Christmas.
Giving gifts to Reuben is great fun. Up until recently we had concluded that he is not very bright, but I think I have to revise that conclusion. We thought he might be dim because (1) he can’t catch and kill rats; (2) he pees under the toilet, and if he can’t get to the bathroom then under a certain pot plant whose fronds touch the floor; but I think the evidence for being brainy is compelling. (1) He is scared of rats, which seems sensible; (2) he pees where he thinks he’s supposed to pee – near the toilet or vegetation; but most importantly (3) he only opens presents he’s been handed, prettily and rather delicately with his teeth, and then plays with whatever he’s received until it’s fallen to bits, which can take up to two years. He also performs lots of tricks on command (although “fist bump”, “high five” and “paw” look the same), and he speaks quite clearly: he squeaks when he wants dinner, and if things become too much (such as when given a frisbee) he may mutter to himself.
I hope you all had a lovely Christmas, even if it’s different to what you once knew.