The First Day Back After Christmas

The first day back after Christmas. The day after ‘Little Women’s Christmas’ as it fell this year. The day it all gets back to normal as people say when trying to get over that everything they looked forward to is now in the past. A dark dreary day as it happens to be today, the sun not yet up as I leave the house and the lights in neighbours’ windows showing they are back in routine too. For Daisy the dog it’s her morning walk, a chance to stretch the legs, go for a pee and assert her dominion over Tralee town park once more. Tradition means little to animals.

The sun may not be up, but its rising in the east and the lining of the black clouds is turning a shade of grey. It’s trying to rain, but that’s not putting off the thrushes and blackbirds singing their morning welcomes. I see them in the grass, digging in the rotting leaves, pulling at whatever they can find and largely ignoring me where possible. The ones who fly off don’t go far and often track back behind me soon after I pass, obviously what was in under the leaves isn’t worth abandoning to the next early riser. Cars are gently splashing along the road outside, on their way to join the queues at the roundabout. A now regular, early morning driver is already parked by the fence at the cul-de-sac end of our road, lights on inside, engine running and the steamed windows trapping the smoke of her first cigarettes of the day. Sometimes she parks further up before the junction with the road into town, with the window down on warmer days, with the smoke curling out like the turf fires of lore. Who she is I do not know, but I guess she must drop someone off earlier before making her way to our road for a fag and a relax before going to work. Maybe she heads home again, who knows? I once thought she was trying to avoid tailbacks by arriving ahead of traffic but around here the tailbacks are in the town centre and only start around the time she heads off. In the spring and summer she’s only arriving at the time I’m coming back but in these dark mornings, she’s already in place by the time I’m heading out. You can spot her regular stopping places by the gathering of butts on the road. It’s always a sign that I’m late if she is there before me and if I were the sort to do one, I’d do a scientific study of her arrival and departure times, just to see how regular she is in the mornings. Never once have we exchanged greetings and I’d be as likely to pick her out in an identity parade as I would any unknown reader of this piece.

Out on the road into town the traffic is slowing down, ready to hit the backup at the roundabout. Going over the bridge I look to the west and see the clouds getting an even brighter shade of grey. To the south they are showing tinges of pink where separating and that low winter sun must be hiding somewhere. The river is emptying, no sign of the oil slicks of last week and the service station smell is gone too. Whoever caused the spillage, whether by accident or deliberate action should be ashamed of themselves, dirtying a small river doing its best to look after the wildlife of Tralee. Thankfully my friend the otter was out hunting the other evening as the river ebbed, barely breaking the surface as he or she slid up and down through the brackish water. The upside-down V they cause in the water as they move gently upstream spreads to the banks so you can keep an eye on their progress before diving again. Over by the canal on dark evenings I often hear the crunch as they break through fish heads or maybe it’s the shell of a crab. One full moon-lit night the canal was nearly empty, nothing but a stream was making its way to the lock gates below but an otter was still swimming it, the moon gleaming on its wet back and guiding my eyes as it hunted its prey. That night the otter walked up the bank when I was coming home. I stopped and it stopped, and it moved further through the grass before darting across my path maybe ten feet from me, the full moon still catching its wet coat and its slinky tail only glistening behind. It was gone into the reeds in only a second but the image will stay in my mind for life.

No such meeting on the pavement this morning, though the well-worn path of an otter, fox or mink is clearly visible through the grass on the marsh if you look for it, so maybe such a sighting is possible at times. Ahead of me walks a woman I normally pass on the way home and I easily pass her as, as is normal, she is walking slowly with her head in her phone. Daisy is sniffing in the grass verges, looking for scraps of food leftover from the weekend late-nighters and you can see the takeaway wrappers, papers and cups mashed into the road and rocking against the edge of the footpath. I pull Daisy along as I don’t want to spend my time waiting for her to find a half-eaten chip or chase the scent of burger. She doesn’t look happy, but then she is well-fed so I know it’s only her survival instincts kicking in as she forages in the not-so-long grass. By the time we make it to the roundabout the traffic is filling the lanes, people going to the left or heading into town, queuing for their chance to go and all four approaches are the same. Single drivers may be on the phone, talking to who knows who, catching up on the first day back or telling work they are on the way. Cars with passengers look like parents taking the kids to school or even the learner-drivers learning the hard way in morning traffic, a parent beside them encouraging and warning as they progress.

Drivers stop at the roundabout to let Daisy and I cross to the island, where we wait for a gap or a slowing car to let us get to the other side. By now the morning is brightening, the sun has made its way across the country, and the last of Ireland is emerging from the darkness of a winter’s night. Headlights are still on and spitting rain is caught in the low beams, making its way to the road before the splashing tires throw it up to the sides. Daisy and I walk on to our gap in the wall which leads us along a concrete path to the road of Castle Countess.

A 1930s estate of well-kept houses, detached and semi-detached Castle Countess has the feeling of established residents who maybe into their second or third generation. The footpath runs along the end of the gardens and Daisy and I are well-known users at this stage. On brighter mornings I’ll meet people on their way to work, school or play and exchange greetings or chat but today the footpath is empty, though the road is busy, as it’s an access point for the Green school beyond. On New Year’s Day an older lady gave me a big ‘Happy New Year’ as she put rubbish in her bin and this morning she waves as she turns back into her home. The decorations are still up in most windows, though chances are they’ll be gone by this evening. Today is probably the day in most homes when life starts again and people wonder what the big fuss was about for the last eight weeks. Yesterday evening as I passed along the street I saw over a low hedge a woman and her married daughter settling down in a well-decorated front room to watch what looked like some sort of afternoon chat show. The fire was down and the large screen was welcoming them as they took up their places on the small couch, the tray in front of them full with a plate of biscuits, teapot, cups and a jug. The brief scene was contrasted in the smaller room on the other side of the front door, where the father was in an armchair, mug in hand and almost on top of another tv, which was showing oddly enough what looked like a basketball match. His room too was full of decorations and I wonder if they do it out of tradition, or for the grandchildren I often see with their mother going in and out of the warm looking home.

We go through the kissing gates and up the worn concrete steps into the beginnings of the park. The tall light is still on through the trees by where the path diverges, though the brighter spotlight above it doesn’t pop on as it usually does on darker mornings. The path we take is almost empty; we always take the one to the right, it just seems a natural flow, and it goes anti-clockwise around the park. The boys for the Green are gathering by the entrance, smoking the last ones or vaping the final vape before spending their days at the glory of learning. The tall beech tree to my right reaches as it always does for the sky, its many branches seemingly defying the laws of physics by not entangling, and now that it is empty of leaves the majesty of the tree is even more magnificent. The old stone walls of the park still stand strong and at a height of at least eight feet in parts make you feel well protected as you walk. I love the spread of trees and the mixture of species in the park, magnolias share with oaks and chestnuts which protect the younger willows and ash. A line of poplars, obviously planted with intention is a bit incongruous in the middle of the grass; maybe there was a plan to put a path there one day. Older spruce and scots pines look like grand dames, overlooking all that is happening as the boys and girls make their way to school and remind you how old this park actually is. The well-kept paths guide you through the 35 acres and I meet the groundskeeper as I nearly always do, out tidying and clearing leaves before the walkers of the day slip and do damage. You rarely see rubbish of any kind in the park, the number of bins helps but the smiling man I now pass is on top of anything before it becomes unsightly. The town is well awake to my right, the professionals of Denny Street getting back to it and shifting the money around which keeps this town going. The Christmas lights are still up, still lighting too but no doubt they too will be boxed away over the coming few days. Strangely enough I don’t meet any of my regulars this morning, no man with a limp and his terriers, not joggers who nod as they pass and not the lady who walks with a strong stride who always smiles a ‘good morning’ when we pass.

It doesn’t take long for Daisy and me to be back on the road again. I put her on the lead before the groundskeeper, as his leaf blower scares her at times. Castle Countess is still asleep, though the late arrivals for school are just leaving the rat run. Traffic is still queueing at the roundabout, more now as the wet morning has more people on the road. Daisy and I pass over the bridge with a quick glimpse for the otter who may be nosing his way up just beyond the bend; the v-shaped ripples would indicate he’s on his way. The smoking lady is leaving, joining the back of a queue which is coming to meet the traffic now. Back home the house is rising, noise is coming from upstairs and the nine o’clock news is telling its story. I give Daisy her snack and think about what I’ll write today.

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