ON December 8, 1970, my mother Madge and I, then aged 11, alighted from the No.2 bus from Blackrock onto Patrick Street, with the footpaths thronged with shoppers.
All the country people had come to Cork to do their Christmas shopping and I was fascinated by their accents and the looks of bewilderment some of them wore! The lights had yet to be turned on and hung forlornly; sleighs and reindeers wavered like trapeze artists in the breeze.
Our first, and most important, task was to collect my father’s suit in Fitzgerald’s. My parents had paid for it in instalments and my mother held it in her arms like a new-born baby. She caressed the sleeves, inhaled the scent of the fabric and fingered each of the four buttons on the double breasted jacket. Finally, she ran her hand up and down the legs of the pants in turn before delving into the pockets as though looking for coins. The ritual was almost spiritual to watch and she was in no hurry, savouring this purchase.
At last, my mother nodded to the shop assistant who reverently folded the grey suit and put it in the bag with a receipt for £19 and 6 shillings. I can only surmise my mother collected it first so she could swag the Fitzgerald’s bag around town, announcing to all and sundry that Joe Coogan was going to be sporting a new suit for Christmas. People’s approval was very important to our family.
Outside there was a cacophony of sounds, shouts from the Echo boys, the honking of horns, mixed with the shrilling of bicycle bells. Carol singers sang Joy To The World as we made our way down Princes Street and into O’Donovan’s to order the rashers, sausages, and black pudding.
Our next mission was to enter the English Market. Amid a tide of people ebbing and flowing, I was caught in the current of sweaty adults. Rows of turkeys hung by their long necks, looking accusingly at me with beady eyes. Fruit and veg sellers shouted their wares. The smell was the worst, a mixture of rotten meat and fish. The English Market has improved greatly since, but at the time was quite frightening through the eyes of a child.
I was so glad to emerge on Grand Parade and enter Murrays’, which was warm, bright with crystal white bales of net curtains. It was imperative that the windows of our house on Convent Road be dressed smartly for the season. Again, my mother took her time here, examining many patterns before making her choice.
Having bought red ribbons, pencils, erasers and sharpeners in the shape of TV sets, we could now go home.
We were walking to the bus stop when my mother turned chalk white. She had lost the suit. There was no unearthly way we could go home without it. I felt her terror as if it was my own. I could see my grandmother’s flushed face in my mind’s eye, my father’s shake of the head. Christmas, 1970, was going to be disastrous.
It was decided we would retrace our steps. My mother bit her lip and pledged St Anthony a ten shilling note if he would reunite us with the suit.
By the time we got to Murrays’, it was shut. Madge banged pityingly on the door. Eventually it was opened and she fell onto the astonished shop assistant. It was then I made a pact with God: “Please, you can make something terrible happen to me if we find my daddy’s suit.”
My prayer was answered, the suit was found under a bale of curtain material.
Christmas Day came, Santa visited and got me the Ultimate Children’s Classic Collection and a box of paints. I went to Mass and visited the crib in our local church, St Michael’s. Nothing bad had happened to me and I thought God had left me off.
It was February when I was diagnosed with TB. Everybody was surprised except me. My first experience of lockdown had begun. I was in bed for three months, and nobody was allowed to visit. I lost myself in the books I had received for Christmas.
When the country locked down in 2020 due to Covid, I tapped into my 12-year-old self. After all, I had done this before.