Whenever I think of what we call Christmas boxes my mind goes back to the first time I sat on a trolley bus in Belfast. This was in the early 1960s on the Friday before Christmas. Eugene, a schoolmate, invited myself and another friend, John, to come to Belfast with him and to stay overnight in his sister’s house which was near Greencastle. We had arrived in the city by train about midday and having wandered around the city centre for a few hours, we had gone to the cinema where we watched John Wayne, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds and a host of others, star in ‘How the West was Won’.
Shortly after six o’clock we boarded the trolley bus in Castle Street.
It was nearly full and it seemed to me that everyone was detached and anonymous, faceless and anonymous compared to the no 72 from Armagh at 6 o’clock where everyone knew everyone else and the chatter was incessant. When the conductor arrived Eugene asked for three to Greencastle and held his hand out. The conductor rolled out three tickets and silently picked up the coins. I think the fare was sevenpence each. It seemed to me that most of the passengers were engrossed in their evening paper while we country folk just stared ahead.
Then everything changed. A drunk man boarded the bus and made his way to an empty seat near the front. He wasn't really all that drunk. His cap was perched to one side of his head and with a big smile on his face he nodded at everyone who looked round. Given that he didn't stagger, his exhilaration and broad grin gave everyone on the bus the distinct impression that he “had drink taken”.
Some might even have thought he “was under the influence” but he might well have said the same about them for newspapers were cast aside and he was observed by all. It seemed as if we had all changed from being faceless zombies into caring human beings.
The conductor had been upstairs and now, having come back down, he made his way up where Your Man was sitting. He pushed his helmet back on his head with his thumb as if to match Your Man’s cap and nodding in the direction of the new arrival he smiled.
It was as if the name, conductor, had taken on a new meaning for everyone nearby, including us three culchies, beamed in his signals and smiled back at him and at one another. It was if we were all now in agreement with the conductor that here was someone we all understood, sympathised, pitied – and loved. You can't help loving a man who is “under the influence”. While some of us might unconsciously feel a little jealous, most of us look upon him like we might look upon a lost child.
As he was making his way up the bus we noticed that he had a rectangular parcel in his left hand, of which he was very careful and having settled in his seat he told us more than once what was in it. He was obviously very proud of it.
He reached into his pocket with his right hand and produced a large collection of coins, allowing the conductor to take the fare from his right hand while telling him to let him off “at the lights”.
“Put me off when we get there, oul’ son.”
As he attempted to put the change back in his pocket he dropped the parcel. Some people near him put their papers aside and prepared to lift it but they were beaten to the mark by a swift small boy who dived under Your Man’s seat and retrieved the parcel. By now everyone aboard was aware it was “a box of chocolates for the wee woman.”
Reaching back into his pocket he called the young wing forward up and gave him a shilling. “Am I past it yet?” he asked more than once referring to his destination rather than his mental wellbeing but he might well have held his tongue for nearly every passenger – apart from us culchies – was keeping a sharp lookout. He had underestimated his influence for almost everyone was willing him home safely so that the “Wee woman” would receive her box of chocolates.
And when he was tipped on the shoulder by oul’ son, every head nodded when it was time for him to arise and all were relieved to see that he had a good grip on his parcel. It seemed as if he lurched a bit as he made his way down to the back of the trolley bus but as nearly every hand was raised to say goodbye and he was responding, turning from side to side like President Higgins acknowledging a crowd, few of us would have been as steady on the moving vehicle. I could not be sure but I felt he might well have been giving us all his blessing! “He's as good as John Wayne,” whispered John.
We might well have been in need of his blessing for while some returned to their papers, others smiled. You felt that when they got home they would have a story to tell. So, when a haughty little woman who been in the seat opposite him called out, “God help his poor wife,” she was met with glaring looks and a stony silence.
“She's no Debbie Reynolds,” said Eugene as we moved to the back of the trolley bus to get off.