After Eight

It was before nine but after eight and fast approaching bedtime. It was late in the 70’s on the cusp of the eighties somewhere in the suburbs of Dublin.  My older sister and I were watching telly waiting for my father to return from a business trip; a trip that had the capacity to yield presents.My sister was ill, nothing life-threatening, a bout of flu or perhaps a sore throat. She lay wrapped in blankets on the sofa issuing orders about which channel to watch. This was before remote controls had been invented. To change channel entailed a minor expedition from the comfort of the sofa up to the television set whereupon a knob would be turned or a button pressed.

Due to her incapacity, the privilege of program choice was sister’s and I, given the duty of acquiescing to her demands. It was a chore borne with supreme reluctance. We loathed each other and fought constantly. Already, she had wailed  ‘Mum!’, when I  ‘inadvertently’ pressed the wrong channel for the third time.  Mother was teetering… on the edge. She warned us if there was one more peep, just one…  it would be straight to bed; no TV, no father and definitely no presents.

It was way after eight and I was approaching my ninth year.  At the time I was a pupil of Alexandra College, a school for young ladies and in the run-up to Christmas had made the socially disastrous decision of announcing to my classmates that Santa did not exist. This revelation caused an outbreak of high-pitched hysteria, as twenty little girls wailed inconsolably. I myself joined in, realizing I had committed social hari-kari.

I cannot remember my motive for sabotaging my social status but I do recall that for the past eight years I had been a steadfast believer. I was the child who believed in all things metaphysical; in Santa, fairies, elves, imps, goblins and ghosts.  With evangelical enthusiasm, I did my utmost to coax such magical creatures from out of their invisible worlds and into mine. Strategically placed doll’s tea sets were hidden about the garden, alongside miniature platefuls of stale broken biscuits or jam jars of homemade potions.

Every Christmas Eve I would keep guard at the bedroom window peering fervently into the night sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa on his sleigh.  I stole scraps of tinsel from school and held them aloft as if a Claus beacon.

Being Jewish we did not celebrate Christmas. Still, I prayed that if Santa would overlook my religion I would be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Alas, there were no sleigh sightings, no presents at the end of the bed, no stockings full of sweetmeats or clove pricked oranges.

It was getting late. It was some time after eight when our ears pricked up and we heard our father’s car roll into the driveway. We flew to the hall door and had it open before he’d even reached the porch steps.

‘Are you two still up?’  He asked, knowing it was not yet bedtime. It was not yet nine.

We were wet-nosed puppies yapping at his coattails, bubbling with excitement as there hanging

from his left hand was a huge bag out of which emerged the biggest box of chocolates in the world. It was an immense square ornate box of assorted chocolates. The lid decorated with a scenic countryside vista and wore a resplendent bow.

My mother appeared from the kitchen and told my father how poorly my sister was. My sister, as if to emphasise the point looked up at him with pale, wan, wide eyes, the edges of her mouth aptly downturned.  His heartstrings tugged and the next thing was he gave her the box. He gave her the box of chocolates….  With the proviso, she shared some with me.

Share?

Sharing with my sister was not an option. The only thing we shared was the physical abuse of one another, kicks, pinches, thumps, and hair pulling. We understood this. My mother understood it. It was understood. We three looked at my father in disbelief. Whatever one of us got the other had to have. It had to be replicated, that was sibling law. Perhaps the box had originally been intended for us both, perhaps not. All I know was that father reached into the bag, and pulled from it, (almost as an afterthought) another box.

This other box was as different to the first box as it could possibly be. There were no pretty pictures depicted, no assortment of any kind. It was a small rectangular box. One of the smallest boxes available found in any corner newsagent and contained the most pedestrian type of chocolate.

I am sure I turned a shade of green, to be more specific a shade of mint chocolate green. My sister had already untied the bow, lifted the lid, and with ostentatious delight was cooing over which chocolate to choose. Meanwhile, eyes downcast, I was visibly disappointed with my, After Eights.

This gift, this magnificent box of chocolates given to my sister was a dagger through my heart, a punch in the guts. Never was such sibling rivalry roused, I fumed and frothed and plotted revenge.

I cannot say for sure if I was inspired by the plight of the Maccabi’s and the miracle of the longer lasting Chanukah oil – but as the festival was upon us, it may have infiltrated my subconscious. My sister was well enough to devour her box of chocolates with the glee befitting such confection. In retrospect, she may have been oblivious to my fevered jealousy. She did not have to do anything to inspire my hatred; just being in possession of the box was a red flag and I the incensed bull. Every time that pretty lid lifted, it was a love victory, her victory, and every time she perused the chocolates; be it the nougat crunch, orange truffle, coffee cream, or fudge divine, it was a gloating triumph.

Pitched against my sister with my pride pricked I felt I had to find some solace in being given the shitty box of chocolates. There must be, I surmised something advantageous about my humble box.  Obviously, my options were limited as her box was undeniably bigger, plainly the more delicious and here in lay its weakness. Her chocolates were utterly mouthwateringly, Moorish, whereas my mine, weren’t.  Thus, my only pathetic warring advantage was that my box would last longer. a bet was wagered and accepted.

Yet, did my sister attempt to prolong the rapid depletion of her box?  Not a bit of it. Every chocolate was gobbled with relish.  I, on the other hand, set out with a stalwart self-control to limit myself to two wafer-thin chocolates a day and extended the ecstasy by slowly nibbling each wafer.

I felt so triumphantly smug for I managed to make the box last not one, not two, not three nor four days (by which time my sister’s box had been entirely scoffed), not five, six or even seven days, but eight days. My tiny box of After Eights lasted eight days.

It would have lasted longer, but on the eighth day in response to my sister asking had I any left, I discovered the box was empty. Someone had gorged on my after dinner mints leaving only the wrappers.  I pointed the finger of blame directly at my sister and went ballistic.

I recall that night as the night my mother tipped over the edge. Her rage scared us into silence and instant apologies. Sent to my room, elbows on the window ledge I gazed into the darkness, despairing of the unfair world I lived in. There was no justice. There was no truth and as my sobs abated out of the corner of my eye a bright spark scorched the night sky; a flash and flurry of colour and it looked to me, well it looked to me as if a man in a hurry was racing across space.

For all my restraint and denial, I lost this war to my sister. There was no denying she had the better chocolates and more importantly, she properly enjoyed them. Sadly and it is with a certain amount of shame I admit that this episode in my youth had two lingering consequences; the first, a penchant for After Eights and the second, a tendency to squirrel away my pleasures.