A Traditional Christmas gift - A Fiction of Love and Craft..
A Traditional Christmas gift
December 2020, Christmas day
It was snowing again in the streets of New York. Barely a foot print tarnished the sugared pavements. How different Christmas had been this year.
The box sat under the tree, still a sealed package. It had arrived two days ago but the advice was to leave any package untouched for 48 hours and anyway she had wanted to save it for Christmas day.
She looked longingly at the Irish post stamp, memories of her trip to Ireland flooding her thoughts. It was a happy time, maybe her happiest ever. She longed for that time, a time before all of this, a time when she could be there and be with him again.
December 1st 2019
The Christmas lights hung from one side of the street to the other glistening white across the sky and reflecting below on the lightly frosted streets of Kilkenny. A school choir stood at the end of the parade singing Christmas carols. It was Alice’s first time in Ireland. She had dreamt of visiting since she was a child. She had grown up with stories about her Irish ancestors, her Kilkenny ancestors. Most of the details had been lost somewhere in history but she was very sure they had come from Kilkenny and they were artists or craftspeople. She walked along slowly absorbing the atmosphere, so glad to finally be here.
Jack stood on the corner of the parade smoking a cigarette, he had ventured in to town early to soak up a little of the pre-Christmas buzz before he started work. He worked at a popular Pub in the city center for quite a few years now. He enjoyed Christmas even tho’ he often spent it alone. He had no relatives in the area but he had many friends.
The streets were busy with late evening opening hours and bustling shoppers dashing around. There was a congregation of people gathering at the bottom of the parade, all dressed in long coats and seasonal hats with bobbles. That evening there was to be the opening of the Kilkenny Makers market, it always attracted quite a crowd.
He stamped out his cigarette and leaned across throwing it in the bin beside him. It was then that he spotted her.
Like a floating feather she sailed slowly through the crowd, rocking and swaying on the vertices of busy shoppers. She took his breath away from that very moment. He watched her as she approached the market, her silky hair shining beneath the street lights, her slender figure throwing the most elegant shadows across the stoney grey pavement.
It was not like him to hesitate, he did, but not for long. He walked with a truly confident facade towards her. Had it been any other woman it would not have been a facade but this ethereal being demanded reverence from all who gazed upon her, while radiating nothing more offensive than nonchalance.
As he approached her, he willed her to turn around. She stopped neatly in her stride and with very little movement she turned just her head to look in his direction.
A couple of Jacks friends from the pub; Pat and Barry were standing across the parade, they had just spotted him and were laughing to themselves as they looked on. ‘He never fails does he? With that razor sharp wit and flawless charm, it never takes him long to get at least a smile. They couldn’t hear the words that Jack and Alice spoke to each other but they could see the conversation, the body language.
It was everything she had dreamed of before she had come, everything she had imagined about Ireland and Irish craft.
Jack and Alice strolled up the street side by side. They stopped to look at every stand. There were beautiful ceramics, many of them. Each with their own unique design. There were wood turned pieces, some of the most beautiful she had ever seen. There were leather goods, jewellery, wax candles, hand woven blankets and scarves and so many more beautiful handmade Irish crafts, some calling up the ancient heritage of Ireland and the Celts, some evoking the beauty of the rugged Irish landscape and some of such breath-taking simplicity, that purity that is implicit of a greater knowledge of design. It was everything she had dreamed of before she had come, everything she had imagined about Ireland and Irish craft. She stood there saturated in the wonders of Irish culture in the medieval city of Kilkenny, awash with artisans and makers, surrounded by the spirit of her Irish ancestors and Jack. There was Jack.
What caught her eye in particular, apart from Jack was a stand with hand blown glass baubles. They were pure and understated, so unadorned and simple hanging there in the middle of all the hustle and bustle like a breath of Christmas air tied in a red ribbon. Somehow it was perfect to Alice, it said everything she could have wished it to say about Christmas.
Alice was also thoroughly enjoying the pleasure and the surprise of the company of Jack.
As they strolled back down the parade stopping every couple of moments to talk or look at stands. They talked about family, friends, interests and more. Jack was charming. He paid her many compliments and was the ultimate gentleman in every way.
It started lightly snowing, a small gust of air swirled around them lifting soft flakes off the ground. Alice felt herself stepping closer to Jack as she glanced at the pavement below her feet. Lifting her head she felt his hand slide around the outside of hers. There was a pause, a smile from both and they continued to walk hand in hand down the street.
It was 8:30. Jack was to start work in an hour.
Pat and Barry caught his eye, grinning and waving at him from beneath the tall trees on the mayors walk. They joked again about his delightful appeal with the ladies and that ever present twinkle in his eye. He had a style all of his own, always the tweed jacket and the tweed cap, a cream linen shirt and braces even in the snow.
And there it was the epitome of his gentlemanly charm, a kiss on the hand and she walked away.
Pat and Barry ambled over to Jack, full of smirks and Questions, Who was the beautiful lady? Was she from around here? Was he hoping to see her again?
Alice arrived back to her hotel room on the outskirts of the city. She took off her coat and scarf. She looked at herself in the long mirror on the wall. She took off her dress and tried on another, red with long sleeves and buttons all the way down the front. She admired herself for quite a while. She couldn’t remember the last time she had done this. She wasn’t in the habit of mirror gazing.
She listened to him say it over again in her head. “You truly are the most beautiful woman in the market place this evening, I love your style, you have such beautiful eyes” and a bouquet of other compliments and sweet admiration.
She watched herself sway from side to side in her red dress. She saw her reflection change in the mirror from that, that she was so bored looking at, to that of the beauty he so eloquently described when he looked at her.
She lay on her bed trying to sleep. The butterflies kept her awake. They hadn’t visited recently those butterflies, she couldn’t remember when the last time was.
10:30 he had said, I’ll be there at 10:30 to pick you up. He had offered to take Alice to some of the craft workshops that lay dotted around different parts of the county. It was such a kind offer and she simply couldn’t refuse having no transport of her own and having come all the way from New York especially to discover her craft ancestry in Co. Kilkenny.
Jack pulled up to the front of the hotel, he had been awake since 6 am. There she stood like something from a classic novel. He had never met anyone with such style and grace, such beauty and poise, emanating charisma with every move she made from her silky, shining hair right down to her little laced boots.
She dropped a post card to her parents in the post box outside of the lobby door, it had a picture of Kilkenny castle and a note about her travels to Ireland.
They set off in the direction of Thomastown. There was a chocolate maker there called the Truffle Fairy. Jack had been there once with friends and while he was not of sweet tooth, he found the hot chocolate there to be possibly one of the most delicious things he had ever tasted. They had dark chocolate, light chocolate, White Chocolate, Mexican spiced hot chocolate and Aztec spiced hot chocolate among a medley of other flavours.
They sipped their hot chocolate amidst the morning stir of Thomastown. The day was more than bright enough for the out of doors. The December sun poured a golden table cloth across the terrace where they sat. They talked and laughed. Inquiring about each other’s past-times, work and favourite movies. Asking each other a dozen curious questions. He could tell a good story she soon discovered, and he did, many.
After one hundred years or three seconds, the passing time of another realm, the way time passes in the company of two people falling in love, they got into Jacks car and continued on their journey.
They were on their way to the scenic town of Graiguenamanagh to Visit Cushendale Woollen Mills, a textile company established in the 18th century and running through six generations of the same family. The drive from Thomastown to Graiguenamanagh was one of the most stunning landscapes Alice had seen since arriving in Kilkenny two weeks ago. There were wind swept gorse bushes staggering across the hills on one side and the impressive Blackstairs mountains and Brandon hill on the other, changing shape and perspective with every turn in the winding road, looking ever more impressive with the brightening sun and sheer whiteness of the snow creating the most sublime illumination.
The Woollen Mills was like an extraordinary step back into history. The Mill itself an enchanting structure with high roves and enormous wooden beams. The old looms and machinery were the same ones used more than a century ago. Even the original water source diverted by the monks in the 12th century was still used today for the dying of the wool. The textiles were rich and authentic, drawing you in to the intricate patterns and weaves, making you want to feel them and wrap yourself in them.
In the afternoon Jack and Alice made their way back across the hills towards Stoneyford. They passed Jerpoint Abbey a 12th century Cistercian Abbey. Alice wowed at it and all of the old churches, castles and other ancient buildings that adorned the Irish country side. It was an awakening for Jack to experience Ireland through the eyes of someone from so far away. It was the same old Ireland but now suddenly laced with Mystery and intrigue that he had never seen there before.
They were on their way to visit Jerpoint glass, a handmade glass studio set up in the seventies. A family run business broaching on its third generation.
The workshop had all of the atmosphere of a medieval forge with fiery furnaces and glowing glory holes with heavy rods of iron, but the skills and techniques so fine and intricate talked of something sibylline and ancient.
It was a captivating fusion of heat, strength, endurance and finesse a process that was essentially untouched for over 2000 years and ultimately out of the flames comes the art and delicacy of a piece of hand finished glass.
It was utterly enchanting, the kind of magic that Alice had dreamed of back in New York when she first thought about her trip to Ireland. She could feel her Irish ancestors all around her and in her heart this was her home.
The next ten days passed in that mysterious realm, ever so quickly and roughly a century. Alice spent many of those days with Jack, in fact every hour of it. He drove her to Dublin airport and said goodbye with a thousand promises to see her soon, to visit New York early in the New Year, to think of her every day.
Alice left with no sadness in her heart and without the faintest shadow of a doubt that Ireland would soon be her home and that she would be living in Kilkenny by springtime in the cradle of handmade Irish craft, in the footsteps of her ancestors, with Jack.
2020 had ended the happiest year of Alice’s life and begun one of the toughest. ‘The Dreaded Thing’ had arrived and taken no prisoners. Everyone was affected to some extent. Alice had not seen any of her family in months and her dreams of moving to Ireland had been shattered.
Jack had spent nearly the entire year by himself. The pub had been closed since March and the world outside his door had become a hostile place. Alone in his small house it was the first time in his life he had experienced loneliness and all the more so for having met her, knowing she was out there but that he could not be with her.
Jack spent many hours toiling over what to send her for Christmas. It had to be so special, as unique and beautiful as she was. The shops were all closed so he trawled through websites, browsing fine and fabulous wares. A myriad of luscious, extravagant and glittering gifts all brilliant and blinding, shouting loudly of Christmas and the season but nothing that could even whisper of her beauty.
It was then that he remembered the Makers Market this time last year, the place where they had met. How could he not have thought of it before, the joy in her eyes had been no less than unforgettable as they had viewed all of the handmade crafts together.
He knew in an instant what he would send her. They joy of Christmas rushed over him like he was seven years old again and it made him momentarily reflect on a bright, shiny red train that had epitomised Christmas always in his memories.
Christmas day New York 2020
It was time. She sat on her soft carpeted floor, the flicker of the city a shade of itself in her large apartment window. The package from Ireland lay on the floor beside her.
She ran the blade of a kitchen knife down along the side of the box, cutting through the heavy tape binding it. She pulled it open and to her joy a beautiful blanket from the Cushendale woollen mills sat neatly folded in the box.
The smell of authentic sheep’s wool filled the room and she was there again in the old mill for a brief but beautiful moment. She took it out of the box and wrapped herself in it. It was not his arms around her but it was as close a second as she could think of.
There were a couple of letters that had arrived during the week also. Alice opened them, some Christmas greetings from friends and family. A card from family in North Carolina with a photograph and postcard inside. There was a note attached; “Happy Christmas Alice, I found this photo of you and thought you would like to have it”.
She smiled as she looked at it. The St. Catherine’s prom photo from 1955. She would have been 16. She thought of Jack, a few years her junior. He would have been barely 12. Alice had turned 79 in the spring but she had felt sixteen again every moment she had spent with him.
She looked at the postcard, a picture of Kilkenny Castle on the front. The very card she had sent to her parents in North Carolina care/of her niece who still lived there in the original home place. It was something she had done every time she traveled anywhere since they had both passed on back in the early 90’s, a travel diary of sorts.
There was still a small box sitting amongst the wrapping in the package from Jack. Alice took it in her hand, slowly unwrapping it, relishing every moment.
It appeared, simple and beautiful, as delicate and pure as the moment. A breath of Christmas tied with a red ribbon. A clear glass bauble from Jerpoint glass. The perfect gift chosen by the perfect man.
The despair that had descended on her over the last year lifted slightly. The hope of returning there was restored. She would spend Christmas day 2020 alone but happy, wrapped in her woolen blanket, with love in her heart and her traditional Christmas gift in her hand.
The crafts mentioned in this fiction are very real ! And visiting them is a fantastic experience. To know more about visiting them follow the links below: