The stooped figure shuffled along the Clontarf seafront on a grey Sunday afternoon.
His gait was gimpy and his pace pedestrian, for Vinny Fitzpatrick had long lost his first flush of youth.
On the last day of this month, he would enter his 60th year. Sixty. “Positively Methuselan,” he shuddered, as he turned his collar up to shield the jabbing chill.
What was it Benjamin Franklin had once said about age? Oh yeah, "At 20 years of age the will reigns; at 30 the wit; at 40, the judgment."
And what of being 60, eh? What reigns then, Ben? Was there anything left worth hanging on for? In his case, he thought not.
As a brace of 130s trundled past him in the direction of the bus garage, Vinny half turned his head. He spied plenty of folk on board, laden down with pressies on their return from town.
For 35 years that had been his gig; he was the ferryman, a Cheery Charlie, not a Creepy Charon, who contentedly played Christmas carols for his customers, especially the Clontarf Warblers.
There were the best of times and he missed them dearly.
Forced off the road
He was an ex-clippy now, forced off the road on health grounds after suffering a stroke during the summer.
When Socket Twomey delivered the news, Vinny had resisted angrily but his protest was futile.
His left leg had a noticeable drag and his right hand turned in slightly – he couldn’t drive a ball off the tee let alone take charge of a four-wheeled chariot.
Here he was, out of work and out of sorts. Bah, humbug.
He stomped into Foley’s, head down to avoid eye contact with any of the regulars, and found a quiet alcove. With his large nose buried in the racing pages, and a third pint demanding his attention, Vinny was probably as near to affable as was likely all evening when a young woman dressed as Santa approached.
“Would you care to support the CRC Christmas Charity Raffle, please? It’s €5 a ticket. There are terrific prizes and the draw is on in a few minutes.”
Vinny ignored the request and began to study the form with an even deeper gravity.
When Santa spoke again, he raised a hand, rustled his paper loudly, and growled, “Back off, Nick. You’re not welcome here.”
As a blushing Santa retreated to the brighter lights of the lounge, Vinny called for a refill and shuffled to the men’s toilet. On his return, pint to hand, he was about to plonk down on his chair when he spied a piece of white paper under the table which he scooped up into his meaty mitt.
“Well, well, what have we here?” he said to himself. It was a ticket for the CRC raffle, which someone, possibly Sister Santa, had left behind in her haste to get away from him.
In the past, Vinny would have high-tailed it after the seller and handed it back but this time he decided to stick, not twist. “Sure, what harm can it do?”
There were 10 prizes in the raffle, and the winners were called out in reverse order, from 10th, ninth and so on. The first prize was one worth winning as the chap on the PA, also dressed as Santa, stressed before the final draw.
“Sponsored by our friends in Dolan’s, this coveted hamper includes wine, spirits, a box of biscuits, box of chocolates, Christmas cake and 10 crackers containing a total of €1,000 in cash. Some crackers have one €50 note inside, others have more.”
Vinny nodded his large head. This was his kind of moolah.
"And the winning ticket is number 343," called out Mr Santa. At that, Vinny stiffened. 343. It couldn't be, could it? Yet, there in front of him was a ticket with the digits 343 in the top right-hand corner.
“Ahem,” he called out. “Winner alright,” he said brandishing his ill-gotten ticket before waddling up to collect the spoils.
The hamper was a thing of beauty but it was the bright red and white crackers upon which he feasted his eye.
“Here’s to the man who said ‘you can be young without money but you can’t be old without it’,” he grinned, before raising his glass, and then downing it with a swallow.
Outside, Vinny sheltered in a doorway, with his booty, as he waited for the 130 which would bring him home. “Who says suckers don’t get an even break?” he thought to himself.
Just then, he heard the doors to Foley’s open. Matches were struck and Vinny could smell the cigarette smoke from his hideaway. He could also make out some agitated murmurs, for his hearing was still acute.
“What did you think of that graceless fecker who won first prize?” said a voice Vinny recognised as the Sister Santa. “He’d nothing good to say about the CRC or anyone. I wonder where he got his ticket from as he refused point blank to buy one off me.”
The male voice replied. “He used to be a local bus driver, and a popular one too, I gather. Now he’s a mean-fisted curmudgeon. You know, he probably answers to Grinch.”
With that, there were a couple of giggles before the Santas re-entered Foley’s.
In the shadows
For some time, Vinny stayed where he was, in the shadows, alone with his thoughts. A 130 came and went; then another, before Vinny left his lair, lugging his hamper with him.
He was soon breathing hard, for he was unfit, but he didn’t have far to go.
The parish church was close by and Vinny knew its nooks and crannies well from his time as a master altar boy of the late 60s.
All was quiet, for evening Mass was still an hour away, as Vinny huffed and puffed his way down the nave. His memory was not what it used to be but to one side of the chancel there was a wooden door, if he recalled correctly. He found it and twisted the knob; it turned.
The corridor was short and unlit but Vinny knew where he was headed. At the far end, was another door, which was also unlocked. Inside, all was dark but Vinny fingered for a switch and the room it was soon bathed in light.
Moving nimbly on his feet, like Vinny of yore, he placed his hamper on the large table at one end, which was set out with bowls, plates, and spoons.
The parochial hall was silent and empty but in the morning, when the first of the Dublin 3 homeless shuffled in for hot soup and a crust of bread, Vinny hoped they might have a reason or two to feel some festive cheer.