Christmas in Tramore: A short story by Aingeala Flannery

Jan approached the meat counter. I wouldn’t hold out much hope, the butcher said. Did she detect a smirk?

Fagan’s car park was full. Jan circled twice, around the twinkling Christmas tree and past the inflatable Santa spancelled to the trolley bay, before she mounted the kerb, engaged the handbrake and waited for a free space. A fringe of blue LEDs ran the length of the supermarket and every glass surface; all the windows and doors were covered in a pox of fake snow. Christmas was getting more American by the year.

At the entrance, she’d passed a hoarding that said Happy Holidays. It had a built-in Advent calendar and each morning the supermarket owner, Walter Fagan, put on a Santa hat, climbed a stepladder and turned a dial that counted down the days to Christmas. Jan heard this from her daughter, Olivia, who worked restocking shelves for Fagan. “He’s like Bad Santa,” she’d said, “going up and down the aisles asking kids if they’ve been naughty or nice. I swear, Mom, the guy’s a total paedo.” Jan looked at the hoarding. ONLY 5 SLEEPS TO GO! the counter said.

Was Walter Fagan a paedophile? Teenage girls were perceptive about that sort of thing. All the same, Jan didn’t think so. He was just a shopkeeper who couldn’t beat the supermarket chains on price, so he tried to outdo them in other ways. Friendliness, community spirit, festive cheer. If Fagan was guilty of anything, it was trying too hard. And Olly? Well, she was just being Olly.

The job with Fagan had started out as work experience. When he asked her to stay on for Christmas, Jan could not conceal her delight.


“Well done, you!”

“It’s a McJob, Mom.”

“At least you’re earning some money.”

“Yeah, right.” Olly flopped on to the sofa and swiped her iPhone screen. “Seven-ninety an hour? He’s taking the piss.” She burrowed down into the cushions and muttered “scabby bastard”.

Jan ignored her. You had to, for sanity’s sake, let half of Olly’s backchat go. Had her little sister, Beatrice, been in the room, Jan would’ve barked “language!” Cursing was not allowed in front of Bea, who mimicked all the things she wasn’t supposed to hear.

Illustration: Alan Dunne

Scabby bastard! Scabby bastard!

Poor, bewildered Bea. She could register tone but not meaning. Like a lyrebird, her repertoire was vast and pitch perfect: Olly’s tantrums, her father’s road rage, the television weather forecast – she could repeat it all verbatim.

While Jan was kerb-crawling in Fagan’s car park, Bea was at the Unit’s Christmas party, where Santa Claus himself was the guest of honour. At the morning drop-off there had been a performance of Silent Night for parents, the SNAs in Christmas jumpers and light-up antlers, the kids dressed as angels. Bea was bursting out of her costume, tugging at her new bra like it was a snare, yet somehow she stayed in tune, her voice pure above the cacophony.

Slee-eep in heavenly peace

Slee-eep in heavenly peace

The mothers looked on in their bobble hats. One was sniffling into a raggy tissue. Jan caught her eye. A mistake. She didn’t want to stand around afterwards, comparing notes on the children, everyone congratulating each other for coping well. For looking well. Until someone cracked and started to bawl about how she wasn’t coping at all or how she’d put on a stone since last Christmas. Then they’d all be at it.

Jan wasn’t in the mood. She was on a mission: go to Fagan’s, order the turkey; post a few last-minute cards in reply to the ones she hadn’t expected, from people she hadn’t seen since their wedding; it was hardly worth the price of a stamp when all they’d bothered to write was Have a great Christmas, from Tish, Martin, Evie and Buddy (woof-woof!). That reminded her, she must drive by the Pet Barn and get a bag of Tasty Mix for Bea’s rabbit.

When Silent Night ended, the sniffling woman craned her neck above the antlers to get Jan’s attention. “WOW!” she mouthed. Jan smiled at her, then looked away and plotted an escape route through the maze of low tables and chairs. Doling out One4All vouchers to the SNAs, she wished them all a Happy Christmas. Thank you. Really. We’d be lost without you. Gotta scoot – nothing done. Yes, pick up at two, bye ... bye ... bye. She made her getaway across the poured-rubber playground, belted herself in to the Hyundai and had a little cry as she drove to the Pet Barn.

Bea would be too excited to sit down at the table. Olly, ethically vegetarian since leaving primary, had requested Tofurkey despite being clueless as to where they might find such a thing

With the way things were, she might as well sleep in the bloody car. If she wasn’t on the school run, she was bringing Bea to OT, SLT, or whatever the F-U-C-K therapy, and no sooner did she arrive home but she was off again, dropping Olly to work in Fagan’s. She wasn’t allowed to drop and shop because it would be totally embarrassing if she appeared when Olly was restocking the Cornflakes, or the tea bags, or the like whatever. Tell her to go jump, was Rob’s advice. No. She would not tell Olly to go jump. And give the little madam a reason to skip work? Not a chance.

Illustration: Alan Dunne

Jan wondered whether Olly would be less of a handful if she’d got the occasional slap when she was small. Too late now. And besides, a slap might’ve made matters worse. Was it poor parenting that had her circling Fagan’s car park with ONLY FIVE SLEEPS TO GO! and nothing bought for Christmas? Wait. Was that someone leaving?

The man at the butcher counter told her last orders were on Monday, when she asked him about a turkey.

“Don’t you order a few extra?”

His neck looked raw against the edge of his white overall.

“Extra turkeys?”

“Yes – for emergencies?” God, she sounded desperate.

He reached into the fridge and squeezed a ham. “I could give you this.”

Jan looked at the flabby pink stump in his hand and shook her head. She was about to turn away when he lowered his voice, “they’ve fresh turkey crowns above in Aldi and whole birds in the freezer. But here’s the thing,” he half-whispered, “you’d want to know what you’re about with a frozen turkey.”

“I know what I’m about,” she assured him. “If there’s a spare turkey between now and Christmas, set it aside. My daughter works here and I’ll have her collect it.”

“Who’s your daughter?”

“Olivia Power.”

The butcher looked at her blankly.

She tried again: “Olly Power?”

“The one with the ring in her nose?”

Jan glared over the counter. He’d some cheek. And the cut of him! Two strings of greasy rat-coloured hair clinging to his forehead, and sweet Jesus, the ridiculous hat – like a paper boat capsizing on the back of his skull. “Yes,” she snarled. “The one with the ring in her nose.”

Buy a big chicken was Rob’s response.

“But chicken isn’t very Christmassy.”

“There’s only the two of us eating it.”

He had a point. Bea would be too excited to sit down at the table. Olly, ethically vegetarian since leaving primary, had requested Tofurkey despite being clueless as to where they might find such a thing.

Illustration: Alan Dunne

“Shop around, Mom.”

“Can’t you just eat what everyone else eats one day a year?”

Olly huffed. “My body, my choice.”

“Oh stop that!”

“No, you stop, Mom. Meat is disgusting! For my entire childhood you forced me to eat slimy ham sandwiches. I’d no choice. The way animals don’t have a choice.”

Pigs cry actual tears, Mom. Did you know that? They die screaming. You totally lied when you told me that ham was mostly water and sausages weren’t meat at all

Jan opened the fridge door and stuck her head inside. Something was off. The Cashel Blue. Why did she buy it? They never finished the packet; it just sat in the cheese box mouldering.

Olly was still going. “Pigs cry actual tears, Mom. Did you know that? They die screaming. You totally lied when you told me that ham was mostly water and sausages weren’t meat at all.”

“Sausages!” Bea shrieked.

Jan gave in. She drove to Waterford and bought a vacuum-packed slab of tofu from the health food shop on the quay.

When there was ONLY THREE SLEEPS TO GO! Olly had a day off and Jan went to Fagan’s to do the Christmas shop. She worked her way around the aisles with a trolley and a list: parsnips, carrots, sprouts, a block of cheddar, a wedge of Brie, whipped cream, Ballymaloe, a tin of biscuits and a box of Cadbury’s Heroes. Bea will be bouncing off the walls like a pinball. Two-litre bottles of Coke and Sprite. An acid bath for her fissure seals; she won’t have a tooth left in her head.

Jan approached the meat counter. I wouldn’t hold out much hope, the butcher said. Did she detect a smirk? No. He just had one of those naturally annoying faces. There’s a rib roast on special offer, he said. Jesus wept. She kept going, past the seafood and the party food: olives, dips, charcuterie. Onwards toward the alcohol.

There was a human bottleneck at the mouth of the drink aisle. She scanned the heads. Thank Christ, nobody she knew. Hang on. There – with the balayage shag – wasn’t she a mother from Olly’s school? From back before Covid? On reflection, there was a lot to be said for masks and social distancing. Jan watched her pluck wine bottles off the shelf and turn them over to read the tasting notes. Seriously? In Fagan’s? Buy the Cab Sauv she wanted to shout, it’s fucking delightful. Balayage Mom found a wine – just one – that she approved of, and moved along.

The left of the drinks aisle was stacked with spirits, wine and Champagne, the right with six-packs, crates of beer and a freezer containing party bags of ice. Jan coasted down the median display of New World wine, a sign coaxed her to buy half a dozen and get one free. Walter Fagan may not have been a paedo, but he was certainly an enabler. You’ll have a drink. You will, go on. It’s Christmas. Have another. Look! Two bottles of Bailey’s for 20 quid. It’d be rude not to. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.

What if they were invited somewhere at short notice? They’d hardly arrive with one arm as long as the other. Jan loaded the trolley with bottles and threw in a couple of festive wine bags. Just in case.

On December 23rd, Olly summoned them both into the kitchen and declared herself unwilling to bring home the Christmas turkey.

Illustration: Alan Dunne

“I won’t be an accessory to murder,” she said.

“Right,” said Rob, and he poured himself a cup of coffee.

Jan looked from father to daughter. Jesus, they were infuriating. “But we’ve nothing to eat for Christmas dinner!”

“Then you should’ve sanctioned the killing sooner, Mom. Now, can you drive me to work?”

“I’m busy,” Jan barked. “Take the bus.”

“It’s too late.”

“Then you should’ve got out of bed sooner.”

“Da-aaad!” Olly wailed. “Tell her!”

Jan slapped the worktop. “I will not be told what I can and cannot eat in my own house!” She suspected she was shouting. She may, in fact, have been roaring.

“Read my lips, Mom. There. Are. No. Fucking. Turkeys.” Olly stomped down the hall and banged the front door behind her.

Jan looked miserably at Rob. “What are going to do now?”

“Get a big chicken,” he replied.

She turned on him. “Why don’t you get a big chicken?”

“Because you keep insisting on turkey.” He lifted his coffee mug off the table and walked out of the room.

“She’s – oh my God – she’s like, totally dead. I can’t believe you, Mom. How could you let this happen?”

At 7.20am on Christmas Eve, Bea’s pet rabbit Dora The Explorer, was found dead on the kitchen floor. Rob launched an investigation and discovered the gate to the rabbit hutch had been left open and Dora, true to her name, had gone exploring. He found nibble marks on a lower leaf of the rubber plant in the sitting room and concluded the rabbit had been poisoned. Or rather, she’d poisoned herself. As he stood at the breakfast bar, delivering his postmortem to Jan, she observed the fold of fat hanging over the elastic of his pyjama bottoms. He’d great hair, Rob, gunmetal grey and plenty of it, but now in the recessed lighting, she could see his scalp. It was shiny. Jesus, was he going bald? Who knew home decor could age you? Like skinny jeans. Or the wrong fake tan. What the hell did she look like? He’d always been better-looking than her. But now, Rob looked haggard.

“Jan,” he was saying. “Jan!”


Bea had come down for breakfast. She was rocking the rabbit back and forth in her arms.

“Sweetheart,” Rob said, “put Dora into her hutch. She’s tired and needs to go haboo.”

Bea crouched down and gently placed the corpse in to the cage. She lifted the corner of the pink fleece blanket and tucked it in, under the rabbit’s bum.

Jan turned to Rob. “I’m not able for this.”

He hissed at her to shut up.

“Shut up, Mammy,” said Bea. And then: “Can I’ve my breakfast now?”

Illustration: Alan Dunne

It was agreed that Rob would take Bea into town on the bus, for a spin on the Winterval carousel, while Jan looked for a replacement rabbit. It was the stupidest idea she’d ever heard. Where was she supposed to find a rabbit on Christmas Eve?

“Have you a better idea?” Rob said.

She did not have a better idea.

She’d phoned half a dozen pet shops without joy by the time Olly slouched down the stairs in her T-shirt and knickers.

“Where’s Dad?”

“He took Bea into town and I’m phoning around looking for a black rabbit. There’s a brown one in New Ross. But they’re closing early and I wouldn’t make it in time.”

Olly was on her knees before the rabbit hutch. “What’s the matter with Dora?”

“She got poisoned.”


“She ate the rubber plant.” Jan glanced over. Olly was lifting the rabbit out of the hutch. “Leave it!”

“She’s – oh my God -she’s like, totally dead.” Olly started to sob. “I can’t believe you, Mom. How could you let this happen?”

“I wasn’t the one who left the door open. Now, will you make yourself useful and start phoning pet shops in Kilkenny?”

“God, you can be such a bitch.”

Jan swung around. “Excuse me?”

Olly looked her in the eye. “You heard me,” she said.

“Yes, I heard you and I cannot believe my ears. You wouldn’t speak to your father like that.”

“Dad doesn’t talk to me the way you do. You’d put Dora in the oven if she was mine. But because she belongs to Bea–”

“Not this again, Olivia. Not now. For God’s–”

She was gone. Her bedroom door slammed, and 15 minutes later, just as Jan was drawing a line through the last pet shop on her list, boots thundered down the stairs, and the front door banged with enough force to topple two wise men and a donkey in the crib down the hall.

Olly didn’t last long out in the cold. Jan heard her slink back up to her room, lock the door and there she stayed. Sulking. It was dark when Rob and Bea arrived home with a candy cane that Bea sucked down to a twig as she lay on the couch, watching her Frozen DVD. Jan poured another glass of Malbec and watched in silence as Rob put a chicken into the fridge. He grabbed a bottle of beer from the door before it closed. Passing Dora’s hutch, he made the sign of the cross. She did not laugh. With a screech of metal on tile, he dragged a stool to sit opposite her. “Well,” he said, raising his beer. “Merry Christmas.”

She made a face. “With the heat in here, that rabbit will start to smell by tomorrow. I looked it up on Google. We’ll have to move the hutch into the garage.”

“I’ll do it after Bea goes to bed,” Rob said.

Beyond the patio doors, the night was clear. Frost glistened on the tree boughs, on the bare, brittle, hedges. Down Galwey’s Hill and along the Prom, sodium street lamps cast beams of yellow light. The tide was in, and the moon, or rather its reflection, round as a dinner plate, bobbed on the still, black, sea. How strange Christmas must have been before electricity, on nights when fog rolled in off the bay and sat, a low grey ceiling above the town, waiting for the year to turn. Jan tried to recall Bea’s voice singing Silent Night, the devastating innocence of it, and then, as if they knew she needed them, the bells of Holy Cross rang out over Tramore.

On Christmas morning, she awoke to a quiet house. Rob’s side of the bed was empty and cold. She put on her dressing gown and went downstairs. Olly was eating toast at the breakfast bar.

“Where’s Bea?” Jan said.

“In the sitting room, with Malibu Barbie and–”

Upon hearing her name, Bea appeared in the doorway. “Look, Mammy!”

Jan stared at the mound of black and white fur wriggling to get out of her arms.

“Santa put snow on Dora!” Bea tightened her hold on the rabbit.

When Jan opened her mouth to speak, Olly cut across her: “The same thing happened to this guy I know last Christmas. Santa came down the chimney, petted his rabbit and would you believe, it’s still covered in snow.”

Christ, but she was the cut of Rob. The same barefaced matter of factness. In the window above Olly’s head, a movement caught Jan’s eye. It was his old grey hoodie she saw first, down at the end of the garden, where she’d draped a string of fairy lights over the outstretched boughs of a Japanese maple. He was digging, in his hiking boots, exhaling great puffs of breath each time he sank the blade of the shovel into the soil. Beside him, a small parcel, wrapped in black plastic, sat under the tree.

Aingeala Flannery’s debut novel The Amusements is published by Sandycove. In September, it was named winner of the John McGahern Prize for a debut book of Irish fiction published in 2022