The genesis of my infatuation with skates goes back to the late 1950s, when on St. Stephens’s Day a phenomenon of seismic proportions occurred on a narrow strip of concrete opposite our front door.
I doodled in the condensation and watched the kids from around the corner arrive with skates in hand and gather at the top end of the concrete strip right opposite Jones’. As I stared in disbelief, I thought it was either the bravest thing or the most stupid thing I had ever seen, for they were leaving themselves open to attack being on enemy territory. I could feel a ghoulish delight rise within me and waited with bated breath for the blood bath to begin. As I looked down to the other end of the road to where our skaters had gathered, I could see they were in a confab trying to figure out what should be done. They broke rank and skated in the direction of the other skaters; I feared the worst. I was on the brink of telling my mother that she might need to intervene but to my utter amazement having reached each other nothing happened and in no time both camps were just chatting away. I have no idea what dialogue had occurred but the up shot was that there was no longer two camps of skaters but one chasing and frolicking together like March hares.
Later when Fran and Dom came in they were full of it, It was Rebecca this and Ruby that and David the other. They just sickened me. Was it not enough that they had left me alone all afternoon? Did I really have to listen to what great fun they had? The entent cordial that had started on Stephens’ Day continued right through the holiday and by the time summer came around a deep friendship had developed amongst the kids. Fran and Dom became particularly friendly with the Rosenblatts’ and spent a great deal of time over at theirs. Now and again I would brave it and ask if I could tag along but it was always a big fat ‘no’. But I persisted and resorted to outfoxing them by following them around the corner and only making myself visible the moment Mrs Rosenblatt opened the door, then thinking I was with them she would let me pass through, only to be lambasted by Fran on our way home.
I didn’t care; it was worth it. I loved everything about it. I loved that Mr Rosenblatt had ringlets either side of his face, ringlets that any Irish dancer would kill for, and that Mrs Rosenblatt always wore a wig when she left the house. I loved their elaborate candlesticks that they used on certain occasions while we only used ours during electricity strikes. I loved the way they repaired sheets, when holes appeared in them, with the most delicate designs made from the purest white thread; it wasso different to how our mother tackled torn sheets for if they were not beyond dumping she juststitched any two ends together. There were other things that I admired like the fact that they had a putting green at the end of their garden so different to our boring vegetable patch. Or, that they had an orchard while we only had trees. There were so many things I liked and this only served to strengthen my resolve to get skates the following for Christmas. I wanted to get close to the ‘exotic’ on my own terms.
Christmas morning had begun no different to how all the previous Christmas mornings had gone before. My parents had been up since six sorting out last minute things, so, when they came in to tell us it was time to get up we awoke to the lovely smell of sausages sizzling in the kitchen and the sound of crackling fires coming from every grate. Once breakfast was over and we all gave our faces a lick, we went to our appointed clothes that had been laid out across the banisters and got dressed. I know I hadn’t moaned about all the different shades of red in my Christmas jumper, the result of wool been brought over a protracted period of time; or that my kilt had not got stitched pleats at the top, the sort I had requested; or even moan as my head was pulled this way and that with each movement of a skilled platters hand. I had been good as gold and genuinely overjoyed with my new patent leather shoes and the whiteness of my cotton crochetd knee socks.
When it came time to head back down the stairs for the annual line up in the hall and great opening of the sitting room door I didn’t even moan that they were telling us what to do, for we knew it inside out; it was the same drill we had carried out on all the previous Christmases. I obediently stood there and allowed them shuffle me like a deck of cards to make sure I was in the correct order and was not trying to pull a fast one on them. Finally my father produced the key and unlocked the door. As instructed one by one we were allowed into the room where we were gently guided towards our own particular gifts. First the three little ones went in then it was Tina’s turn. I could not see what she had got but soon the squeals out of her told me it was skates. The relief was immense for we had asked for the same things and knowing that she had got them I knew that it was only a matter of time before I too would be putting my brand new black shoes into them thinking how wonderful the red straps would look against my lovely new socks.
Finally it was my turn. I hadn’t heard Daddy call me for I was too busy popping wallpaper and thinking about the skates. So as I stood lost in my thoughts he came around the sitting room door and guiding me in the direction of my pile he told me to close my eyes. Then I heard ‘open them’. There were no skates. Instead Santa had left me a bike, a bike I didn’t want, a bike with three wheels. one that I knew I would feel stupid on at my age. How I hated it and standing there transfixed and stung with disappointment I could hear my father saying: ‘Pauline do you like it, what’s wrong, do you not like it?’ I didn’t, I hated it. I felt humiliated, furious and even envious of my little ‘bobbsy twin’ Tina standing there clutching her skates close to her as if she feared I was about to snatch them right out of her hands. Eventually, I was shaken out of my reverie by the sound of my father’s voice asking again what was wrong. As I turned around to answer him and saw his worried face and amazing blue eyes, I could not tell the man I loved more than any man in the world the truth. Mustering up all my acting skills and feigning delight I told him how much I loved it and jumping up on the hard cold saddle, to reinforce just how delighted I was with the bike I put my thumb on the cold metal bell and let it ring out. But the sound that may have sounded one of joy to others to me rang hollow and dull.
Sitting there I knew there was no one to blame but myself for though I had vowed to do whatever it took to get the skates, I hadn't. I had taken every shortcut there was, onlybehaving well when eyes that mattered were upon me otherwise doing whatever I wanted to do with impunity. But perhaps the biggest impediment to me not getting the skates was that on more than one occasion purely for the amusement of Tina instead of my normal polite request for skates I would put on my letter: ‘Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is a doll, a drum and a kick on the bum’ and a chase around the table, and as it disappeared up the chimney assured that it was now in the hands of Santa we would roll around the floor in fits of laughter knowing that Santa was going to have to read the word bum on my Santa letter.
Stephens’s Day was soon upon us and just like last year at about two o’clock the skaters from both sides of the divide began to assemble. Determined not to be left at home again this year I headed out on my bike grabbing my coat and new furry gloves on the way. I bravely headed straight to where the skaters had gathered, and expecting jeers and gibes to my amazement there were none. If anything the kids were very kind and seeing an opportunity to add to their fun they appointed me chief train driver and gave me the unenviable task of pulling them along like a train. It wasn’t what I had expected from that Stephens’s day but it was fun and I had made a break through.
Then next day just before I was about to mount my bike for the second time the door bell rang and when I opened it to David, the curly-headed kid who lived oppositethe Rosenblatt’s. In his hands he held in suspended animation the rustiest pair of skates I had ever seen. The straps looked like they had been gnawed away at by some unknown creature and when I took them in my hands I realised that they were covered in oil and would surely leave marks on my socks. I looked at them in horror but could not come up with an excuse quick enough to get out of wearing them. For, my mother who was in the background knew what was going on in my head and quickly thanked David for his kindness. Without any ceremony, she shoe-horned me into the skates and pushed me out the door. Having joined the other skaters, in no time my faltering shuffle gave way togliding as one foot and then the other left the ground; soon I went from faltering duckling to high speed racer or so I thought. As the afternoon went on and we frolicked about on the skates, I could feelall thefrustrations from the previous day melt away and I thought that from now on skates would have a new purpose in my life and that was for fun. I knew that the burden I had placed on them as a conduit to reach the exotic was unfair; they had the grace to set me free, now it was time for me to set them free.
In time the issue of the bike got resolved and some poor unfortunate kid who could not resist the temptation stole it. My father’s response to finding out who had it was ‘well how else are they going to ever get a bike of their own’. The skates with their red straps arrived the next year. And after a while the ‘exotic’ ceased to exist for we became so familiar with each other that we did not notice the difference. The little boy with the curly blond hair who had given me the skates moved away but later in our different lives we met up again and he is now my husband. The Rosenblatt kids are still in contact with Fran but she is still very protective of her relationship with Rebecca and still will not let me join in. The skates held on to the accolade of being the most exciting toy anyone could ever have. And, even after all those years when we are asked by the kids what do we want for Christmas, my husband will always say ‘peace’ probably as a result of the trauma he suffered as a kid at our hands and I will always say ‘skates’ .