By Mae Leonard
During the weeks after Christmas I have a man on my mind. A very special man who came into my life on an isolated beach in County Kerry. When Christmas is over, without fail, I think about him toasting his toes before an open fire as he reads from a book that I have put into his hands.
That may sound odd as I can only hazard a guess as to his taste in literature. So I choose a couple for him from our bookshelves and I find myself reaching for my father’s Wild West collection.
But let me start at the beginning.
I met my ‘After Christmas Man’ several years ago at a mystical, magical place called Aughacashla on Tralee Bay near Castlegregory. It was on a glorious summer day with the sun so hot that walking barefoot on the sand stung the soles of my feet.
It seemed even too hot for the sea and it had given up working. There were no waves to speak of just small sighing wavelets turning over to create a lace border of foam along the shoreline.
I spread a rug, sat and tried to read but the heat made the print wobble before my eyes. I had to move into the shadow of a beached boat where that slight coolness was a blessing. Then I saw him, my ‘After Christmas Man’, a solitary reaper in a small meadow behind the beach. Its containing walls were of loose rocks and only about two feet high. The Man, despite the heat, was dressed in a heavy red and black check lumberjack shirt and matching hat.
He was cutting the tall grass the old way with the broad arc of a scythe. Ignoring the blazing sun he laboured away sending up onto the air the sweet scent of freshly cut hay. And all the time he was tightly buttoned into the heavy shirt that was more suitable for a snow blizzard.
The opening lines of Robert Services’ ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ came into my head:-
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold…
The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.”
There was no cold or ice even on the surrounding mountains in Aughacashla that day but the seaaring heat surely must have had some effect on him.
Sometime later when hunger drove me back for lunch past the meadow, I called out a greeting. He looked up and touched his cap. On my return he was sitting with his back against the loose stone wall eating thick slices of brown soda bread and drinking from a bottle what looked like milked tea; cold, I imagine, or maybe even lukewarm.
Finally when the field was cut he paused to survey his work and with a satisfied smile he climbed over the loose-stone wall and halted to chat with me for a while. He had been in Canada for a number of years, he told me, (ah! so that’s where the lumberjack shirt and hat came from) but the homesickness brought him back, never to leave his beloved Aughacashla again.
“Not even for a holiday,” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I have my holiday at home in the low time of the year – the week after Christmas.”
And what does he do?
“I put on a blazing fire of my best turf, put my feet up and I read to my hearts content.”
And with a friendly nod of his head he walked away to somewhere between the beach and Mount Brandon.
And I still remember him at Christmas. I have this vision of him taking down those books and savouring every printed word.
But what does he read? I forgot to ask him. So now, as I think of him, I choose books for him from my father’s shelves – Hopalong Cassidy, Nanook of the North, Red Cloud, and of course, Songs of a Sourdough by Robert Service.
And sometimes I imagine my Christmas Man, in his red and black check shirt, reciting aloud, as my father would have done, The Cremation of Sam McGee …. On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail. Talk of your cold! Through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
And, thinking of my ‘Christmas man’ in the low time of the year, I feel the heat of that summer’s day and smell the new mown hay of that mystical, magical place… Aughacashla.