A Christmas encounter - by legendary Limerick Leader columnist John B Keane

The late, great John B. Keane wrote this article for our edition of December 31, 1966. Like all his best work, it has a timeless appeal.

The late, great John B. Keane wrote this article for our edition of December 31, 1966. Like all his best work, it has a timeless appeal.

LAST week I was forced against my better judgment, to indulge in some pre-Christmas shopping.

There was a large crowd in the town in question and freedom of movement was restricted. At last I saw what I wanted – a nice quiet shop, where the girls behind the counter spoke in strained voices.

"I would like," I said, "to see some jumpers, size 40."

Without a word the girl turned to her shelves, paused, rearranged her hair and surveyed her stocks.

"What you want," she said after a while, "is a nice twin-set."

"No," I reminded her, "I want a jumper."

She threw some boxes on the counter in front of me, and deftly removed the contents.

"Would you mind," she said, "not smoking. The ash falls on the garments."

"These are not garments," I told her. "These are polo-necked jumpers and they are not what I want. What I want is a vee-necked jumper."

"What size do you want?" she asked.

"All right, all right," I told her, "I'll take a twin-set."

More boxes appeared but she wouldn't let me take the article I wanted.

"Mustard is all the go these days," she said.

"I don't know all about that Miss, I was in an hotel a while ago and they had no mustard."

"It's the colour I'm talking about," she explained.

Finally after an age, she gave me the twin-set which suited her and I paid up.

In the street with my parcel under my arm I dodged hurrying passers-by, I went into another shop and called for a bottle of perfume. The assistant was obliging enough and I was just about to make a purchase when the boss appeared on the scene and suggested a new perfume which had just come on the market.

"You might have seen it advertised," he said. I confessed I hadn't. He shooed the assistant away. When in the end, I opted for the original bottle of perfume he beamed all over as if it had been his idea, while the assistant stood morosely in the background pretending to re-arrange lipstick samples. I felt guilty about the whole affair. Again I paid and left without saying goodbye.

Out on the crowded street once more, which by now was jammed with people of all shapes and sizes, a man confronted me.

"I know you," he said.

He wore a long brown coat and cap and under his oxter he carried a brown paper parcel with blood seeping through one of its corners.

"A bit of mate for to-morrow's dinner," he explained. "As we met," he went on, "we'll have to have a drink."

Away we went into a crowded public house.

"You'll have something short?" he said.

"I don't mind if I do," I agreed.

He called for two half-whiskeys and we sat down, the better to enjoy them. We had two more and we discovered that we had mutual acquaintances. There was an aunt of his married back my way and a first cousin of my own had bought a farm near his. I rose and called for two more half ones. We smoked and chatted about a variety of subjects.

"Do you ever go to the races?" he enquired.

I told him I did occasionally, and he gave me a tip for a horse. Time passed and we decided that it was time to depart. We walked up the street together avoiding the bustling passers-by.

"You know," he said, "somehow you look a different man since we had the few drinks."

"I was going to say the same thing to you," I said, "because somehow you look different too."

"It's amazing isn't it," he said, "the difference two drinks can make in a man."

"There's more to it than that," I pointed out philosophically, "We didn't know each other too well before and now we're on friendly terms. People look different when you get to know them better."

"I have it figured out," he said, and he stopped and pointed a finger to the place where brains are supposed to be. "The difference is that we both had parcels when we first met and we haven't any parcels now."

We retraced our steps hurriedly and there were the parcels sitting side by side on the table where we had deposited them. We both agreed that it was remarkable to find so much honesty in the world.

"I wouldn't mind your parcel not being stolen," my friend explained, "because nobody could sell what's in it, but mine is different because obviously it's a parcel of mate and a parcel of mate in a public house is a terrible temptation."

He went on to tell me that it is fair game to pick up a parcel of meat in a public house.

"I often lost two parcels in one day," he confided, "but a parcel often came my way too."

"Poetic justice," I explained.

"Justice or no justice," he said, "we'll have another drink. "What's yours?"

We both had bottles of stout and again we sat down.

"For the life of me," he whispered, "I couldn't go into a shop to buy a present. The missus does all that, I'll buy mate all right but don't send me looking for fol de dols, because I'll have to refuse you."

We had two more bottles of stout.

"Do you drive?" he asked.

"No," I replied. "Do you?"

"I wouldn't know what to do if you put me in a car."

We finished our drinks and rose to go. This time we did not forget our parcels.

"A happy Christmas to you," I said, and shook his hand.

"The same to you," he said.

"Is there anything wrong?" I asked for I had noticed that he was looking at me in a peculiar fashion.

"Nothing," he said, "except that you have my parcel and I have yours!"

You can read John B Keane every week in the Limerick Leader.