I originally published this in 2012 on my other blog, World of Writing, and it also appeared in the WORDS Anthology 2013.
Half Past Christmas is the hushed hour that comes just as Christmas morning breaks, an hour stolen from the Christmas juggernaut. You wake all a-tingle. The sky is the colour of ink, but the clock tells a different story. Something exciting is happening. You fancy you can hear Santa’s footsteps on the rooftop. Your stomach carries the memory of the years when you tumbled down the stairs, in search of Santa’s bounty.
You swaddle yourself in a dressing gown and slipper socks and creep downstairs, taking care to skip the creaky step. A veil shrouds the house. You don’t turn on a light, in case you pierce it.
Defiant embers still burn in the grate. On a table beside the couch, there is a plate strewn with crumbs and a glass with a dribble of milk on the rim, left for an incredulous child to find. You flick on the Christmas tree lights. They begin to dance on the walls, showing off their colours, pink, orange, yellow.
You nestle beside the tree. The lower branches tickle your face. The carpet feels scratchy underneath you. The house murmurs to itself; you listen to the quiet chorus of whirs, grunts and moans. Next to you is a pristine pile of presents. The paper crackles a little, as if quivering with anticipatiodn. You breathe in the smell of pine.
The house begins to stir. You hear doors open, running water, running feet. The veil is torn away. But as the day whirls around you, you hold fast to the memory of Half Past Christmas, the hour when you let yourself believe.
We Irish love weather. We analyse it constantly, and no conversation is complete without reference to it. Most of the time our weather isn’t very dramatic. It’s just wet, and the wet won’t kill you. But our love of the weather means that when a big weather event happens, we go to town on it.
So last weekend, when the weather mavens started speaking in low, urgent tones about an “ex-hurricane,” “status red weather warnings” and “emergency meetings,” I paid them no heed. We may not have had a hurricane hit our shores in over 50 years, but we’ve had plenty of practise with storms. We would weather the storm, clean up and move on. We felt no need to name them or give them a colour scheme.
The day that the poetically named Storm Ophelia arrived was bright and clear, but the air was charged with a certain electricity. I call it Storm Excitement. It’s what drives people to plunge into the sea or ride waves when a hurricane’s a-brewing. We were infected with a milder dose of it, and headed for the promenade in the seaside town where I live.
The sky was blue, the sun was shining, but a high, whistling wind blew along the prom. It pushed and pulled at me and I hung onto Husband for ballast. The cafes on the seafront were boarded up in anticipation. We went to the slip and watched the waves begin to gather strength. The weather mavens were right. Storm Ophelia was going to be more than just your average storm.
Others in my circle were also infected with Storm Excitement. Messages flew back and forth, as we all urged each other to stay safe. It was a comfort to know that we were all weathering the storm together. But being Irish, we couldn’t resist a bit of humour. Pictures and clips abounded, depicting messianic news reporters, irate weather men, and a hand holding a pint of Guinness as the waters rose higher.
Then the power went off.
‘Never mind,’ Husband and I said to each other. ‘We’ll go down to bed and wait it out.’
A sense of calm descended on me as I slid under the covers, a sense that this was out of my hands and there was nothing I could do. Husband went to sleep and I realised there was nothing to distract me from writing. I brain-dumped onto the page until my navel was red-raw from gazing at it, and I felt cleansed.
Husband woke from his nap when the light went on and the machinery in the house started to hum. Our power was back, far sooner than we had anticipated. When the wind lost some of its rage, Husband ventured out to assess the damage. Only a few minor repairs would be needed. As we listened to the reports of three fatalities brought about by Ophelia, and of families without electricity and water, we felt we had been spared the worst.
And then the next morning, the news reporters gave the name of one of Ophelia’s victims, and we realised that we knew her.
She and her daughter had been regular fixtures in our hillwalking club. Memories flooded into our minds, of her leading a group of walkers along a beach, of us eating pizza at her house, of her looking out the window of my old flat as we watched a colourful parade go by. Most of all, we pictured her smiling face and heard her warm, friendly voice.
There will not be another storm Ophelia, When a storm or hurricane takes lives, its name is not used again, in case it evokes memories. The storm has passed now. We have weathered it and we will clean up after it. But for some people, it will not be possible to move on.
I’m not a hoarder in the traditional sense. My wardrobe does not bulge with unworn clothes. My shelves are not cluttered with dust-friendly ornaments. And I’m not drowning in newspapers. My hoarding is of a more intangible nature – I hoard memories.
I see myself as a bag lady tramping the roads, weighed down by bags filled with memories, memories that are long past their sell-by date. Phone numbers I’ll never dial again. The names and ages of celebrity children. Addresses of places I’ll never visit. And more pernicious memories too. Rows that were never resolved. Words that should never have been said. I can feel the weight of those memories pressing down on my skull.
Balls of Memory
The animated film Inside Out takes you on a fascinating tour of a little girl’s brain. In the film, her memories are depicted as black balls sitting on shelves. The balls are about the size of bowling balls, and when her memories are considered redundant, the balls are simply rolled off the shelves.
Now I’ve decided to push some of my own memory balls off the shelf. But I’m going a step further. I’m taking them out of the bag and letting them smash onto the ground. The experience is oddly cleansing. The German word for table. Smash. My friend’s landline number, which I haven’t dialled in 20 years. Smash. The dinner that was three hours late. Smash. The row over disability rights campaigners falling out of windows. Smash.
My bags are starting to feel a great deal lighter as I shed my load. And the memories I want to keep have become more visible. Dancing with my nephew and singing the word “Cream.” Swishing down a ski slope in one long, glorious movement. The sunlight slanting through the church windows as we said our wedding vows. I will polish these memory balls to a bright sheen, and curate them with care.