MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS
Lives and loves of two smalltown Irish girls and their polarized families, inextricably linked by fate¦ "Heart-rending." (Sunday Life)
Synopsis: From 1959 to 1984, the lives of the Meehan and Alexander families cross and become inextricably linked, in moments of great passion and hatred, as deeply held loyalties are threatened. Catherine Meehan and Jayne Alexander meet at the predominantly Protestant Grammar School. Their disparate backgrounds dictate that they will never be friends as each is compelled to conform to their differing family traditions. But those traditions are shattered and the thin veneer of tolerance and civility is cast aside as the families become romantically, and tragically, involved.
At the age of five-and-a-bit Catherine Meehan realised she wanted more. It was 25th December 1971, with her first and lasting recollection of Christmas, when she opened her meagre pile of parcels to discover they contained cheerful, but cheap, presents.
A shriek from her brother caught Catherine's attention and made her look up.
"Look what I got! Look what I got!" he cried, running barefoot round the sparsely furnished room, rattling a box of Meccano above his head. In his excitement Michael seemed oblivious to the sharp pine needles underfoot that had fallen from the tree.
She heard Geraldine gasp, "Oh, he's lovely!" and turned to find her sitting, cross-legged on the floor. In front of her a newly-lit fire spat and crackled in the grate, steam rising from the wet lumps of earthy coal. In her arms Geraldine nursed a fluffy white lamb.
"Lambsie," she cooed softly as she stared, besotted, into his little black face.
Some gifts were surprises. Most, especially for the older children, were long-awaited necessities disguised as presents. But the children were happy all the same, glad to have new jumpers and shoes and underwear at long last.
Catherine, alone, sat in a corner unwrapping her neat parcels with grave and serious intent. Every now and then her small frame shuddered involuntarily as her emotions fluctuated between heart-stopping excitement one moment and gut-wrenching anxiety the next. It took her longer than the others to complete the task, largely because she spent most of her time with an eye on everyone else fearful lest they got more or better presents than she.
"Hurry up, slow coach," said Sean, the eldest, coming over to observe the proceedings, "Everyone else has finished and you've hardly started."
"I have to save this, Sean," explained Catherine as she painstakingly smoothed out and folded up a sheet of thin Christmas paper, "Mammy says we've to recyle it. So it can be used again next year."
And with each parcel she opened her dismay intensified. A quilted pink nylon dressing gown, pyjamas, a pair of pink slippers, underwear and things for school; pencils and rubbers and notebooks. When she was done, Catherine looked at the carefully folded garments piled neatly on the scrubbed-clean floor boards and felt insanely jealous. Of whom she had no idea. But she knew deep within her that someone, somewhere, was having it better on Christmas morning. And more than anything she wanted to trade places. She crossed her arms and settled them petulantly across her chest, the sleeves of her outgrown dressing gown riding up to her elbows.
"Don't you like your presents, Pet?" asked Mammy, reaching down and giving Catherine a squeeze across the shoulders.
"No," she said slowly, "How come Sean got Monoploy and Geraldine got... got Lambsie and I..." Here she started to break down, "and I... I only got a dressing gown and slippers and things?"
She set her lips tight in an expression of resentful disappointment and Mammy knelt down beside her.
"But look at this lovely petticoat and these colouring books," she cajoled, holding up the items for Catherine to admire.
"And look," she said, caressing a shiny red plastic pencilcase in her dry, slender hand, "won't this be great for putting your pencils and things in for school?"
"No, it won't," thought Catherine as she turned her head away and shrank, deliberately, from her mother's touch. She would not cry. She would not let her see how terrible her agony was; how she would have to lie at school about the toys she got for Christmas - the Cindy doll, the glittery Cinderella "glass" slippers and the till with prices that popped up in a clear plastic window when you pressed the buttons. And inside pretend money that you could play shop with. Her heart ached for all these wonderful things. If only she'd got just one of them, she would have been happy.
Getting no response from Catherine, Mammy let out a long sigh, rolled backwards onto her heels and stood up.
"I don't know what to do with you Catherine Meehan. You're the most ungrateful child God put on this earth."
She was cross now.
"What's wrong with my little angel?" Daddy said, laughing, and moved to swing Catherine up into his arms. She was already anticipating the roughness of his chin against her cheek and the painful pleasure of his firm grip under her armpits when she heard Mammy's stern voice from the other side of the room.
"No, Frank," she commanded, "Leave her be. She"ll have to learn that sulking doesn't get rewarded in this house."
Catherine looked up woefully at Daddy. He hesitated and, for a heart-stopping moment, Catherine thought he was going to defy Mammy.
"I said. Leave her be," repeated Mammy, her voice tight and thin.
Daddy shrugged his shoulders, gave Catherine an apologetic smile, and retreated to the other side of the room.
Catherine turned her face to the wall and leant miserably against it. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the Christmas tree in the window recess, the branches dense at the bottom, sparse at the top. It was not at all like the ones Catherine had seen on Christmas cards that were always tall and straight and perfectly conical. The children had made the silver decorations from milk-bottle tops and they hung lifelessly from the branches by white cotton thread. Catherine yearned for the shiny coloured baubles and thick gold tinsel she'd seen in Woolworths.
After a while, when she thought no-one was looking, she peeked over her shoulder. Woodchip paper, freshly-painted in Magnolia, warmed the otherwise bare walls. The only picture in the room, a gilt-framed Sacred Heart, had pride of place above the mantlepiece. With one hand Jesus held back His blue robe to reveal a plummy gold-crowned heart beating luminously in His breast. His other hand was out-stretched in a gesture of pleading serenity, a faint smile playing round the smooth red lips. The image seemed somehow pathetic to Catherine yet it filled her with unexplained feelings of guilt. Mostly, she avoided looking at it but she was always conscious of those vacant blue eyes watching her every move. Like now. Chastising her with that gentle, piercing stare.
Mammy stood by the tree staring out the window, her long brown hair pulled back from her face. She seemed to be looking at something far beyond the row of newly built council houses opposite and the lush green hills beyond. Her work-worn hands rested on the back of a brown velour chair, her expression wistful and longing, like she was remembering something that happened a long time ago.
Catherine hated it when Mammy went like this. She reminded her of the women she saw in St Malachy's on Saturday when the family trooped to confession. Not Catherine of course - it would be two more years, an eternity Catherine thought, before she would be seven and old enough to experience the thrill of the confessional for herself. The women â€œdoing the Stations of the Cross" stood transfixed with grief in front of each gruesome crucifix, mumbling prayers under their breath and staring dreamlike into the space in front of them. Then they would shuffle silently to the next â€œstation", twelve of them in all, spread out along the walls of the chapel, each depiction of Christ's suffering more heart-wrenching than the one before.
But today, it was Catherine who was making Mammy sad. It was her fault.
Mammy and Daddy did their best - Catherine had always known there was no Santa - and she should be grateful. She knew it wasn't their fault they didn't have much money. But if they weren't to blame, who was?
No, somewhere along the way Mammy and Daddy had got it wrong and Catherine was determined not to fall into the same trap. She was quite certain that money was the secret to a happy life. She'd heard her parents arguing about it late at night, when she sat listening, half-way down the stairs, in her nightie.
"If only we had the money..." Mammy would say, or, "When we have the money we"ll do this and we"ll do that..." But the money never seemed to come their way and things never got any better. And so Catherine decided that money, or rather the lack of it, was at the root of all their problems. "When I grow up, she promised herself, I will be very rich and then everything will be all right." And so she resolved to have lots of money at any cost.
Michael came up quietly and enquired softly with his gentle brown eyes.
"Do you want to play with my Meccano?" he said, "You can have first go."
She looked at him imploringly but said nothing. The pain of her despair had begun to lessen and Catherine was getting bored. Her legs ached from standing in the corner. But she was still angry and determined that Mammy should be left in no doubt as to the extent of her misery. She didn't want her to see that she was dying to join in; she wanted to be coaxed and encouraged. So that she wouldn't lose face.
Michael understood all this without a word passing between them.
"Come on then," he said simply and, taking Catherine by the hand, dragged her over to his little bundle of presents. Within minutes Catherine was absorbed in building a windmill, the morning's wretchedness almost forgotten.
It was much later the same day and Theresa sat in her low Parker Knoll armchair by the fire. She narrowed her eyes into a frown as she examined the elbow of a jumper worn thin by sharp, growing bones and rough play. The wooden-cased clock on the mantelpiece, a hand-me-down from Frank's mother, said eleven-thirty. Frank sat opposite, staring thoughtfully into space, a cigarette dangling from his right hand.
"Do you think we did the right thing telling the children there wasn't any Santa?" he ventured.
Theresa wet a strand of grey wool with spittle and threaded it expertly through the eye of a darning needle.
"Why?" she said, without looking up.
"Ach, it's just seems a shame, especially for the little ones to have the magic taken away from them, that's all."
"Frank, it was done for the best. You know we can't afford to buy them much in the way of presents and it's even worse to let them think they're getting punished for not being good."
She was right, of course. Santa had no place in a home full of children and tight purse strings. It seemed cruel to deprive them of the dream that their good behaviour and earnest prayers would be rewarded with presents from Santa. But it was even harder letting them believe and then, on Christmas morning, having to endure the bewilderment of good boys and girls who could not understand what they had done wrong, for Santa had not brought them the toy they longed for. So, yes, it was best they knew the truth.
Frank sighed and looked across at Theresa, the faint red glow from the hot embers reflecting off her dark hair. It was nearly eight years since their wedding and Theresa hadn't changed much at all. She had borne four children and so, naturally, she was a little thicker round the waist but, all things considered, she had kept her looks and her figure.
"Besides," continued Theresa, "it's best for Catherine that she knows."
Frank lent forward and frustrated a renegade coal that was about to escape onto the hearth.
"Why's that then?"
"she's so jealous of other kids - envy would just eat her up. It's best she knows the truth and learns to live with it," said Theresa, stopping to examine her handywork.
"she worries me that one," she continued, the needle weaving like a sand-eel between thin threads of wool, "I've never seen a little girl so tied up inside herself with... well, I don't know what, but she's awful resentful about things, about everything, don't you think? It's like she thinks the whole world's against her."
"Well in Ballyfergus it is, Theresa, and maybe it's time she started getting used to it," declared Frank, ironically, sinking back into the chair.
He thought for a moment and then added, "she's a fiery little cracker though I"ll grant you that."
"And one that"ll blow up in our faces one day, if we're not careful."
"You're getting yourself all worked up about nothing, Theresa. She's just a determined wee girl and I"ll tell you something, I wish those boys had as much spirit as she has."
Theresa looked at Frank across her darning, the needle suspended momentarily in mid-flight.
"But don't you worry about her? Don't you think she's a bit odd?"
"Maybe, but I've got a feeling about her, you know, like one day she's going to make something of herself. Get out of this godforsaken country for a start like we should have done years ago."
"Now there's no mileage going over that old ground again, Frank. We made a decision to stay in Northern Ireland and we have to make the best of it. I"m sure the situation will improve with the New Year. The British government's going to have to do something - they can't let things drift on like this forever."
"Oh face up to it, Theresa. Stormont will never change and things are getting worse not better. And I don't care what anyone says, it's just as well the British sent troops in when they did or who knows where things would have ended up. But they're not prepared to do any more. The Unionists won't give an inch. You only have to listen to them on the TV to work that out for yourself."
"You're beginning to sound like Brendan Mulholland," said Theresa, looking at him from underneath raised eyebrows.
Ignoring her he went on, "And there's the state of the economy as well. I read in the Tele the other day that unemployment's at an all time high. I just don't know," he said, shaking his head thoughtfully, "what kind of a future's ahead of the wee uns."
Theresa intervened, more briskly this time, "Well, as I said, we made a decision and that's that. Anyway, Frank, you couldn't have left your mother when she was ill, now could you? And then it would have been very difficult to move with the two boys so young and you just starting up the business. Sure we'd have lost everything."
"I still don't know if the business was a good idea, Theresa. We're only just washing our face at the minute."
"I know, Frank, but it's bound to be difficult at first. It's only five years since you left the Power Station and it takes time to get established. People decorate once every two or three years, at the most, so you've only started to benefit from repeat business in the last couple of years. And you're getting more and more work from word of mouth which means we"ll be able to save on advertising this year."
"Hmm," agreed Frank reluctantly.
"When you think about it, we've done well Frank, really. Considering we started out with nothing."
It was true. When he was laid off at the Power Station Theresa encouraged him to start the painting and decorating. He began with nothing more than a set of ladders and a few tools, confining himself to jobs within walking distance. When they"d scraped together a few pounds from this endeavour he bought an eight-year-old Austin van. With Theresa's help he began to advise on colour schemes and did a profitable line in supplying wallpaper and paint, taking a small percentage for his trouble.
Frank was a hard worker, not like his father, and he'd managed to make a go of it, although it was still a struggle. Yes, times were hard, but they were hard for everybody. And he was proud of the fact that, apart from a few months in the early days following redundancy, his family had never relied on Social Security or the burew as it was commonly known. Not like his poor mother, God rest her soul, with that useless git of a husband.
"You should go and see your father more often in the New Year, Frank."
It was almost as though Theresa could read his mind.
"For your mother's sake," she added, "You know she would've liked you two to bury the hatchet. He's an old man now, Frank."
"Well, we never did have much to say to each other. Anyway, Mary and Rose take good care of him. He doesn't need me."
"All the same, it would be nice to go up and see him now and again."
Frank didn't reply but stole a subversive glance at Theresa who was still darning industriously and oblivious to his scrutiny. In many ways he owed her a great deal; she was a good wife and mother, practical and full of common sense. In that respect his mother had been right. He just wished he could love her more, the way a husband should.
She was always telling him what to do and, though he admired her strength, he resented the extent of her control. Like this morning and that incident with Catherine. He thought she was awful hard on the wee soul but Theresa always knew best as far as the children were concerned. In fact, when he thought about it, she always knew best about everything. But it was his own fault for not standing up to her from the outset.
"I"ll do what I damn well please," he said, irritable now.
Theresa looked up sharply.
"I was only saying."
"You're always only saying " he repeated, bitterly.
"What's wrong with you?"
"You know, Frank," snapped Theresa, "I've it just as hard as you. What do you think it's like for me scraping to make ends meet, day in and day out?"
"I know, I know," he interrupted, "Because I"m not providing for you properly. That's right, blame it all on me."
Theresa went to speak then appeared to think better of it. Instead she picked up the sleeve of the jumper and returned, tight-lipped, to her darning. A long silence followed.
"Mark my words that girl is setting herself up for a big disappointment in life," she said suddenly returning to the subject of Catherine, "Yes, she's setting herself up for a fall, that's for sure."
But Frank was not listening.
"I"m going to bed," he announced, getting up and walking to the door.
"And a Happy Christmas to you too," he heard Theresa say sourly as he closed the door behind him.
Even though it was Christmas morning, the church service seemed to drag on forever. Every time Jayne Alexander shifted in her seat her father yanked her sharply by the arm and applied even pressure until she sat up, straight and attentive, in the pew. He expected both his children to behave themselves in church even though Jayne was only five-and-a-half years old.
Jayne stole a glance at her brother Eddie, sitting on the other side of Dad. He was engrossed in picking chewing gum off the sole of his shoe until his father's hand swooped down and captured the offending fingers. Eddie looked over at Jayne and rolled his eyes in exasperation.
The suspense was killing them. Despite their loud protests that morning they hadn't been allowed to open their presents, even the ones from Santa, until, Dad said, "praise had been given to the Lord for their wealth and good fortune."
Eddie crossed his eyes, then rolled them up under his eyelids until all Jayne could see was the whites and the red rim of his lower lids. He tried to touch the end of his nose with the tip of his tongue and Jayne fought hard to stifle giggles. She must have made some sort of noise for the next thing she knew Dad was whispering in her ear.
"Jayne. If you don't stop that this minute, you"ll go straight to your room when we get home. Christmas morning or not."
Dad didn't make idle threats and Jayne immediately composed herself, folding her hands primly in her lap and forcing her back to follow the unnatural angle of the wooden pew. She tried to concentrate on what the minister was saying, something about the true meaning of Christmas, whatever that meant. Instead she found herself remembering what she'd put in her letter to Santa. Had she been good enough, she wondered, to get everything? Probably not, she thought, and tried even harder to listen. This was her last chance to show Santa that she could be a good girl.
Then the sermon was over and the minister was standing in front of the pulpit wishing everyone a "Happy and a Peaceful Christmas." The congregation stood up suddenly and sang the final hymn, "Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem." Jayne joined in enthusiastically, mumbling most of the time because she didn't know the words. At the end of every verse she paused, expecting it to be over, but the hymn seemed to go on forever and Jayne had to stop herself from pushing past Mum and running out of the church.
Finally, the organist ground to a halt, the last few notes long and mournful. And then a low murmur of voices filled the church as everyone shuffled out of the pews and down the aisle.
Getting out of church was only half the battle. Outside everyone hung around and Mum and Dad shook hands with people and wished them a "Happy Christmas" as though they had all the time in the world. It was made worse by the fact that it was dry. Jayne looked up at the sky hopefully; if only it would rain everyone would scurry home.
Then, to her horror, she saw a fat woman from the congregation waddling towards her. Her legs appeared bowed down by the strain of carrying all that weight and the bag clutched against her chest was doll-size in her pudgy slabs of hands.
"How's my pretty girl today then? Isn't see gorgeous?" she puffed, turning to a wizened old woman, all edges and angles, who"d come up alongside her.
The thin one nodded in agreement then said in a high voice, "With those blonde curls and blue eyes she looks just like a little angel."
"And isn't that outfit beautiful?" she added, bending down to stroke the arm of Jayne's new coat made from white rabbit fur. The skin on the back of her hand was dry and brown like Tommy the tortoise's neck. Jayne recoiled from her touch.
The matching fur hat made Jayne's head itch and the muff made her hands too warm. But for appearances sake she had to put up with it.
'stop fidgeting," whispered Mum, coming up alongside Jayne as she gave her head a particularly vigorous scratch.
"We were just saying, Helen, what a lovely outfit that is," said the thin woman, nodding at Jayne.
"Nana Alexander gave it to Jayne specially for Christmas morning," said Mum, smiling down at her.
The origin of the clothes seemed to excite even greater admiration.
"You're a very lucky girl."
Jayne was relieved when Mum said, "Lovely service this morning," so deflecting the attention away from her.
"Oh yes, Helen, wasn't it just?" said the thin woman. Then she added quickly, ingratiating herself, "Mind you I always preferred Reverend Alexander myself. God rest his soul. How's Mrs Alexander keeping then?"
Jayne hated the way the two women poked and prodded and talked about her as though she wasn't there. So she was glad when the conversation moved on to discuss Nana. She soon stopped listening and sought out Dad from amongst the crowd. He was, slowly, moving towards the car parked just outside the church. If Jayne could just get Mum to move, now was her chance to escape. She began to tug at her arm.
"Mum, we have to go," she said.
"In a minute, darling."
Jayne kept tugging until, at last, Mum made as if to move.
"Well, goodbye, ladies," she said, her voice full of forced cheerfulness, "And a Merry Christmas to you both."
And then they were moving. Jayne held her breath. A few more "Happy Christmases" shouted across the courtyard and at last they were in the car.
Jayne pressed her face up against the cold glass of the car window and waited impatiently for Dad to drive off. After two false starts the engine fired up and they were away. They passed the blue-painted railings of the deserted Town Park built by the Victorians, then pulled away from the coast and through the town centre. They drove past rows of small red-brick terraces built to house linen mill workers at the turn of the century although the mills were long since gone.
"They're a terrible eyesore," said Mum, referring to three towering blocks of flats under construction on the edge of town.
"I know," said Dad, "but now the mill houses are coming down they've got to put the people somewhere."
"They're demolishing them?" asked Mum, surprised.
"Yes," replied Dad, "Mill Lane was the first to go and they plan to level the rest next year."
"Oh," said Mum abruptly and she sat back in the passenger seat and stared out the window.
"I don't suppose you were ever in them, Helen" said Dad continuing on without waiting for a reply, "I used to go sometimes with my father on his rounds. They were terrible so they were. No inside toilet and full of damp. I remember families of twelve, fourteen even, brought up in two bedrooms. Shocking that people had to live like that."
Then they climbed up the steep incline of the Grammar Brae, the houses and gardens becoming larger as they ascended. Jayne felt her heart quicken as the familiar lead-coloured facade of a large imposing house came into view. Variegated ivy clung all over the front of the building and, across the top, were small ramparts that made the house look like a miniature castle. The excitement was almost unbearable.
"Look, Eddie, look! We're nearly home."
Eddie jumped up and down in the back seat.
"Can we open our presents when we get in? Can we, Mum? Can we?"
"Yes, darling, of course you can. Now quieten down children. We're nearly there."
The polished tyres of Dad's big grey car crunched up the gravel drive and almost before it had come to a complete stop the children clambered out. Jayne couldn't budge the stiff door handle so she had to follow Eddie out his side of the car. Then they had to wait for Mum to open the front door. Once in the house, coats and hats were abandoned on the hall floor and they tore into the living room where mounds of presents waited for them under the tree.
Jayne threw herself down on the soft carpet and dived into her bundle. There were lots of presents from aunts, uncles, neighbours and friends of Mum and Dad but she quickly sought out the presents from Santa. These would be the really good ones.
"Mum, Dad, look! I got a Cindy," she squealed, waving the golden-haired doll, radiant in her shimmering evening dress, above her head.
Cindy was soon temporarily forgotten as Jayne's attention was captured by the next enticing present. This time it was a pair of roller skates and then, a plastic till with prices that popped up when you hit the coloured buttons and a real drawer for putting the money in.
"You can play bankers with that, Jayne, just like me," said Dad smiling down at her and Jayne liked the sound of that very much indeed.
Once she had finished opening the big presents, the ones from Santa, Jayne sat back. She couldn't believe her luck. She must have been a good girl after all - much better than she'd thought.
Mum said, "Jayne, what's that over there in the corner? Let's have a look," and she went over to the back of the room followed by Dad.
Jayne noticed that they were laughing and smiling at each other, something they didn't normally do. Her heart surged with joy.
Two large objects covered in white sheets were against the wall. Jayne's heart began to pound. She got up very slowly, opened mouthed, and stood unable to move in the middle of the floor.
"There's a label on this one. It says to Jayne from Santa," said Dad, sounding very surprised, and then he read the label attached to the other white sheet.
"To Eddie from Santa!"
Jayne was astounded. Where had they come from? Had Santa been again when they were at church?
Eddie was already there, on the other side of the room, and he wasted no time in pulling the white sheet off his present. Jayne put her hands to her mouth. Before them stood a bright blue, shiny new bike. Eddie clambered onto the black leather seat and Dad held the bike upright as he pretended to cycle.
"Oh, Dad, it's magic. Look, Mum. Look, Jayne. LOOK," shouted Eddie.
"I see you, son," laughed Mum and then, turning to Jayne who was still rooted speechless to the spot, said, "Jayne, aren't you going to open your present?"
Jayne nodded silently. She couldn't begin to imagine what lay beneath the white sheet but she was certain it was something wonderful. Mum took her hand and led her over to it.
"Go on then, love. Pull!"
Jayne took hold of the corner of the sheet and, glancing uncertainly at Mum, pulled hard. The sheet fell to the floor and Jayne gasped out loud as her eyes fell on the most beautiful rocking horse she had ever seen. He was made of varnished wood, different shades of glossy brown all over. Around his mouth was a bridle made of thin leather straps and, on his back, a padded brown leather saddle. Pulling the sheet off had set him rocking gently, back and forth, his glassy black eye twinkling playfully at Jayne.
"He's lovely," said Jayne, her face breaking into a huge smile.
She put her arms tenderly around his neck and, nuzzling her face into his, kissed him on the cheek. The new leather gave off a faint animal odour mixed with soapy newness, the way Jayne imagined a real horse would smell.
"I love you Horsey," she said, stroking his mane of coarse blonde hair.
After a little while, when Jayne could bear to pull herself away from Horsey, she went over to the fireplace where Mum and Dad were opening presents and sat down on the floor beside Dad.
"Oh, darling, thank you very much," said Dad, getting up from his chair. He went over to Mum and planted a kiss on her cheek.
"It's super, Helen, really super."
Jayne strained to see what he held in his hand.
"Let me see," she wailed and Dad held out a red leather case. Inside was a pen, very uninteresting.
"Come here and let's see what Dad bought me for Christmas," said Mum and Jayne shuffled over on her knees.
"Mind that new dress, now," warned Mum but she spoke gently and her deep blue eyes were soft and kind.
She opened the black square-shaped velvet box that sat on her lap.
"Ahh...Look at that. A gold chain. You can hold it if you like," she said, dropping a rope of dark gold into Jayne's upturned palms.
"Thank you darling," said Mum, but there was no kiss for Dad and her voice sounded as cold and heavy as the chain felt.
"You do like it?" asked Dad, apprehensively, "I went all the way to Belfast for it. To get one just right."
"Yes, it's lovely," said Mum but she seemed disinterested.
A sense of unease suddenly took hold of Jayne and she searched anxiously in her parents faces for signs of their earlier affection for each other. But the moment had passed and instead she found the usual distance between them. A feeling of dread began to settle on her. Jayne handed the chain back quickly and thought for a few seconds. If she changed the subject, distracted Mum, maybe things would be all right again.
"Mum," she began, "When did Santa leave me Horsey?"
"I don't know, darling."
"Cause he wasn't here when we went out to church. Did Santa come back when we were out?"
"We"ll never know," said Mum, her soft voice back to normal as she smiled dreamily at Jayne, "You see that's the magic of Christmas, my love."
Dinner was fun to start with. They pulled red and gold crackers and Jayne shrieked with delight at each loud "POP!". The jokes were read out and they all laughed and everyone, even Nana Alexander, put on paper hats. Then there was the food; broth made to Nana's recipe first followed by turkey from Uncle Robert's farm and all the trimmings. Mum brought the whole bird out to the table on a huge silver platter, the skin crisp and golden, and Dad carved it, standing up.
When the plates were all served, Dad stood at the head of the table and said grace. Then he raised his glass and said solemnly, "God save the Queen!"
"And God save Ulster!" cried Uncle Robert and they all raised their glasses in a toast.
When the dinner plates were cleared away and Jayne had examined the contents of all the crackers, she wanted to leave the table. She was fed up with the grown-ups talking - talk, talk, talk. That was all they seemed to do and it was so boring. Most of the time she had no idea what they were talking about and she wasn't interested. Especially today, when all she wanted to do was ride Horsey.
"Can I leave the table please?" Jayne asked for the third time.
No-one heard her plea, or if they did, they ignored her because everyone was listening to Uncle Robert. He was very excited, his round face as red as the tiny hat perched on top of his head, his fleshy belly straining the buttons of his white shirt. And he was shouting.
"No, I"m with Paisley. We need decisive action; no good pussyfooting around. The country's out of control and Faulkner spends half his time pandering to London. The IRA and the Catholics don't want reforms," he said, scornfully, "They've had reforms and are they one bit interested? No. It's just a cover for what this is really all about - a Dublin inspired plot to force Ulster into a United Ireland. Look at the way Lynch keeps interfering in our affairs. And I for one am not going to stand for the Republic meddling in Ulster."
He thumped his closed fist on the table and the crystal glasses quivered.
Jayne, sandwiched between Uncle Robert and Nana Alexander, cowered in her chair. She could hear clattering noises from the kitchen and wished Mum would come back to the table. Jayne didn't like it when Uncle Robert was angry although she wasn't sure exactly who he was cross with. She reckoned it had something to do with Catholics, whoever they were. Dad and Aunt Irene nodded slowly all the time Uncle Robert was speaking and Eddie, wide-eyed, was both alarmed and captivated at the same time.
"It's the fault of those journalists and TV people, you know," said Nana. She made a snorting noise through her nose and went on, "Foreigners coming here, not knowing a thing about it and trying to tell us how to run the country. They twist everything to make out like the Catholics have been hard done by. You don't hear anything about how people like us made this country what it is today. And if Catholics are worse off, it's their own fault. If they don't like it, they can go and live in the Free State with their own kind. They're all traitors anyway."
"I agree with you, Ma. Everyone's so busy worrying about the rights of the poor Catholics," said Uncle Robert, injecting a sarcastic tone into the last two words, 'that no-one's stopping to ask the right questions."
He paused for dramatic effect and looked round the faces at the table.
"Who's protecting the interests of the Protestants?" he said, "That's what I want to know. We're the minority on this island and if anyone's in danger of being persecuted it's us, not the Fenians. Ulster hasn't been under greater threat since 1690."
"We fought and won then and we"ll do so again if we have to," said Nana matter-of-factly, through thin lips and clenched jaw.
Jayne tapped the leg of the table with her foot. She wanted to jump up from the table and run away from the stifling atmosphere of the dinner table and the angry talk.
Uncle Robert took a deep breath and went to speak again but this time he was interrupted by Dad.
"Now, now, Robert," he said soothingly, observing Jayne's solemn face, "It's Christmas, and we don't want to be spoiling the day getting all wound up. We all know where we stand on that subject. Let's save the debate for another day, shall we? Relax and enjoy yourself. Here, have another drink," and he topped up Uncle Robert's glass with juice from the crystal decanter.
Jayne never heard Dad talk like Uncle Robert although he never actually disagreed with him either. Dad always said that Catholics weren't bad people, you could pass the time of day with them all right, but they just weren't loyal to Ulster and the Crown and you couldn't trust them.
Uncle Robert's eye followed his brother's and came to rest on the worried face of his niece.
"You're quite right, John. We"ll not let them spoil our day, will we pet?" and he gave Jayne's shoulders a rough squeeze.
"Time for Christmas pudding," announced Mum, coming into the room, and turning to Jayne with a big smile, she said, "Yes Jayne, you can leave the table. But before you go don't you think Horsey might be hungry?"
"Oh, yes, he must be!" gasped Jayne, suddenly ashamed that she had been so busy filling her own tummy, she'd forgotten all about poor Horsey.
"Here, he"ll like this," said Mum. She handed Jayne a red apple and she scurried away from the table as fast as she could.