It was Christmas eve morning 1985. A mad house at home as we readied ourselves for a trip to town. Young adults with thoughts of friends, drinks and a few last minute presents. My brother Robert and I were to head in on the Suir Way bus, our sisters, Kathleen and Eileen had other transport arrangements. Also at home was our mother, Mary, father Bob and our younger brother Chris. As we both headed out the door, our mother called after us to remind us to collect the turkey. As it was the umpteenth reminder we waved her away as we headed up the Mount Avenue in Cheekpoint, to await the bus at Elliott’s.
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The morning was dry, mild but cloudy and we were dressed in our best; runners, levis jeans and sports tops. The plan was simple, alight the bus outside Kelly’s on the Quay, stroll around for the few gifts, maybe meet the lads for a few drinks and get home again on the 3 o’clock bus if possible and get ready for the long night ahead.
The plan worked to perfection until Robert bumped into some mates from the place he worked, AIPB in Christendom. They dragged him away for a pint in Egans, leaving me to my own devices around the town.
At 2.30 I was standing outside Phelan’s Butchers in Georges St, waiting on Robert to arrive. As mobile phones were only a sci fi concept at that point I had little choice to either wait patiently or walk the town in search of him. Standing there the evening became darker, the lights and decorations that lit up the street gave a golden glow to the last minutes shoppers struggling by with bags from Darrers, Mork from Ork or Mr Hipps.
Ten minutes later I gave up waiting, and perceiving a lull in the activity inside the shop I pushed inside and joined the queue. I never liked the smell of the butchers I have to admit and in those days when much of the butchering was done on the premises the smell was more intense. Sawdust was strewn across the floor and behind the counter a large timber cutting block, immaculately clean on the day, was often the scene of pigs being cleaved apart as we stood on the floor as children with my mother. But not today, today ‘twas a scene of organised chaos as a well oiled machine of a family run business took and filled pre-orders with a military precision.
The counter ran from the right of the shop around in an L shape. A gap allowed for access and egress to the shop floor. A glass front allowed visibility of all the wares and meat hooks hung down from the ceiling holding up sides of beef or pig, heads and all. Tom Phelan himself was the master of operations and he greeted his customers with a familiarity and fondness that seemed genuine and heartfelt.
I didn’t even have to open my mouth for once my turn came the call went out for Mr’s Dohertys Turkey, which was handed over the counter and with a Happy Christmas from the man himself I was on my way.
Boarding the bus down on the quay, I searched in vain for Robert and presumed he had made his own way home. But once I got there he was nowhere in sight. I left for my grandmothers not long after, leaving my mother busy with the preparations, my brother Chris lying on the couch with my father watching TV.
Meanwhile in town Robert realising the time had decided to burst out of pub and head for the turkey himself. Running up Barronstrand Street he crossed over to O’Flynns butchers and joined the surge of customers inside. In his mind he guessed I had hit the town and forgotten all about the errand.
O’Flynns of course was also well known to the young Doherty’s. My mother had a countrywoman’s habit of going to different butchers for different cuts of meat. One week it would be O’Flynns for the ham, chucks or skirt, Phelan’s for the tripe, sausages, etc. The following week, having heard something on the bus, or from a fellow shopper in the street she might reverse the orders or indeed go elsewhere.
So when Robert’s turn finally came in O’Flynns he too was recognised. But on asking for his mother’s turkey rather than eliciting an instant command it created a bit of a stir. Now of course this only created confusion in Robert and a fair bit of panic. Where in the hell was the turkey, and how could he go home without it. The fact that he was six foot four inches and almost as broad across the chest as the proverbial bus perhaps played a part. There again it might also have been the queue of customers backing out the door. But certainly his earnestness in thinking that our mother had ordered and paid for a turkey and that he was supposed to bring it home could not be questioned by the staff in the shop. Relenting, a turkey was found and handed over and Robert left the shop, contented that he had saved Christmas. Realising he had missed the 3 o’clock bus he went back to the pub.
Meanwhile I was relaxing in my grandmothers reflecting on what had been a good day so far; I had the presents I needed, the turkey I delivered was being prepped for the Christmas day dinner and now I could look forward to a good night out in the local pub, Tynan’s Jolly Sailor. Returning to my mothers at about 7pm I walked in on a very different scene. The calm and peace I had left was now in tatters. My mother was furious, my father had gone to the pub and Chris had retired to the safety of the girls room, who had returned from town with Robert on the 6pm bus.
My mother, the most calm and good natured woman in Cheekpoint, had almost fainted when Robert had walked through the door. On hearing his account she had rushed out without a word. She had run to the Cross Roads, where from the phone box she had tried unsuccessfully to ring the shop to apologise for the mistake. The O’Flynns had closed and now my mother was custodian over a turkey that she could hardly afford, did not need and couldn’t fit in her tiny freezer. Her biggest fear of course was that it was someone else’s turkey and that their Christmas was ruined.
Robert and myself decided to make ourselves scarce as we couldn’t stop laughing. When we got to the pub Robert got a great cheer, my father had already put a spin on the story and the way he had told it made it sound like Robert had jumped through the window with the bird under his arm. The gauntlet had to be run of course. First was my fathers mates, Fishermen like Robert and Edward Ferguson, Martin Mahon, Paddy Duffin and Ned Heffernan. The story had to be told, with my fathers interjections, and they roared with laughter as the scenes unfolded. Next was our own mates stuck in the far corner, Mossy Moran, Paul Duffin, Neil Elliott, Ger Doherty, Michael Duffin, all shouting at once, laughing and blackguarding. As each new group came into the pub the story was told and retold.
Visitors to the house on Christmas morning had already heard the account at that stage but their questions and reactions all helped to put my mothers mind at rest. All those Robert met over Christmas wanted to hear the story from the horses mouth and from The Jolly sailor, the Suir Inn and on to Jack Meade’s the story grew legs and his celebrity grew.
Our mother eventually decided that she would have to cook the second turkey and so we ended up with practically a second Christmas dinner and lots of sandwiches and curry’s. The first opportunity she got to get into town, she was away to O’Flynns with her purse and her apologies. Bernard O’Flynn at least managed to put her mind at rest about another family’s Christmas being ruined, as he had several on reserve and no one went hungry. It was as if Christ himself had answered her prayers and she was a much less troubled woman when she finally arrived home. But from that year on neither Robert nor I was ever asked to get the turkey again.
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