From China with love


I find it hard to watch television on Christmas Eve. There’s too much tinsel, and jingle bells and sentimental movies on every channel with nice guys playing Santa, and cuddly dogs with their tongues hanging out.

The Christmas cake is sitting on the worktop in the kitchen and the pudding is still upside down in a glass bowl and sealed with silver paper, but I will resist the tyranny of sentiment that gushes from every television station.

Instead I might watch a foreign movie and enjoy that sense of elsewhere I get by just seeing traffic on a street in Chad or Persian women eating a meal on the shores of the Caspian sea, or maybe I’ll watch one of the Chinese Opera DVDs I got recently from my friend Little Lotus who lives in the midlands.

Her pregnancy went well and the child was born in the summer. Now she and her Irish partner are looking forward to Christmas.

They sent a letter to her mother earlier in the year, inviting her to Ireland and her mother, who lives in a city in the north east flew around the world just to spend the autumn with them around their stove fire, cooking exquisite meals and helping with the new born baby. It was a pleasure to be invited to dine with them occasionally because the food was, as my mother used to say about chicken soup, out of this world.

The new baby was baptised in a small church near Mullingar, on a windy day in November. I don’t know what the Chinese grandmother made of it because she had no English but when the priest poured water on the child’s head she blessed herself with great reverence. Afterwards there was a banquet of 14 exotic dishes in the kitchen of their home.

At first the Chinese granny didn’t like Ireland. She couldn’t understand how it was so empty.

Sitting in the bungalow all day made her lonely. And just when she was beginning to enjoy the lead-up to Christmas it was time to go. The day before she left they all went to see Santa in Dublin. On the morning of her flight her daughter cried as she translated her mother’s words for her new partner.

“Tell him,” mother said, “that I am grateful for all the love he is giving you and your child.”

She bowed and walked off towards the boarding gates and flew back to the far end of China.

When I lived in west Cavan years ago the mummers would come knocking the door at Christmas with rhymes. “Room, room, gather room, give us room to rhyme we are the jolly mummers that come at Christmas time.”

And then the Captain of the Mummers would enter the house and he’d introduce various characters who straggled in behind him, each with their own verse and musical instruments. Sir Patrick. Prince George. Beelzebub. Little Miss Funny. And finally the Doctor, who was last in, and only arrived after Sir Patrick had been wounded by Prince George in a fight.

“Is there a doctor in the house?” the captain would inquire, and when a gentleman appeared, with bowler hat, tailed suit and medical bag the captain spoke again.

“How far have you come, doctor?”

And the reply was – “I’ve come all the way from China, up a high hill and down a low hollow.”

As if China was the furthest place you could imagine from Cavan. A place so exotic that we would never reach it. And yet the strawboy masks, and the percussion thump of bodhrans and the movement and dance of that raw folk ritual wasn’t a million miles away from scenes in Chinese opera.

When her mother’s plane had lifted off, Little Lotus returned with her partner to Westmeath and as she put her coat in the wardrobe she found paper stuffed in every shoe, and she wept again for the mother who had loved her so much.

So it’s Christmas Eve and the newborn baby sleeps on Little Lotus’s lap. And in China a mother throws dice in a city café and waits for her daughter to text.

I watch the lake for white horses. They rise up with the breeze. Their white tips dissolve into the mist. Then I walk up through the windmills. My walking stick balances me against the wind. The blades cause confusion in the fog.

And later I drink tea by the stove thinking of the poet Lu Yu. The cup is hot in my hands. When I am finished, the dregs turn cold.

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