The parcel arrived before Christmas and it was the biggest one we’d ever had.
My mother untied the string and rolled it up neatly, as people did in the fifties. Then the brown paper was carefully unpeeled to reveal – a sleigh! A sleigh – all the way from America. Our eyes fairly popped open at the sight of the beautiful thing.
Its steel runners gleamed like silver and a small bell tinkled merrily when you touched it. There were red leather reins which, my father explained, could be tugged to the left or right to steer it. Steering! On a sleigh!
The magic of the thing took our breath away. We’d had sleighs before, but they were all home-made. They were thick, cumbersome things with wooden runners, and they never got up any real speed.
The snow fell in Ballina on a January morning, when Santy and the turkey were already memories. We rushed up Rooney’s lane to get to Greenhill, our adventure playground in all seasons. At the old quarry there was a perfect slope: long and not too steep.
My brother was first to try out the sleigh. The precision and speed of its movement exceeded our wildest expectations. Like a bird in flight, it sailed effortlessly over the top of the snow, gathering momentum as it went.
It brought the tin tray and cardboard box brigade to a sudden standstill. As I climbed on for my first trip, I felt the envious eyes of twenty children upon me. The thrill of selfish, proud possession ran through my small frame and I couldn’t help a superior toss of the head as I grasped the red reins.
It was a magnificent ride, one that I will never forget. It was fast and smooth and there was no awkward tumbling off at the end. I climbed out and turned to go back up, the centre of attention on the white hillside.
It was then the clamour started.
“Can I have a spin?”
“Ah, go on. Give us a go.”
“Can I have a turn after him?”
The glorious, magical object had to be shared. My heart sank as a queue formed and child after child went careering down the slopes with the wind in their faces and bliss in their hearts. By dinner-time, I got the sleigh back, but the enchantment was gone. They had taken it from me. I couldn’t swank any more, for they’d all had a go.
Sulkily, I tugged the source of my moodiness behind me, and set off for home and a hot dinner. Someone called me back. It was a small, scruffy boy without a coat. “Hi,” he shouted. “Can I have a go?”
Everyone had left and I was close to tears, but resignedly I went back and handed him the reins. I’d never seen him before, and wondered if he was a traveller child. I’d seen caravans and tents at the other end of the huge field.
He smiled at me as he hopped on the seat and something about his demeanour made me smile back. It was as though his being was filled with happiness by this small moment of pleasure. As he whizzed downhill, I could feel the excitement pulsating in the cold air around me. It was infectious.
He handed me back the scarlet reins and his dark, dirty face was alive with joy.
“Imagine,” he said with awe in his voice, “bein’ able to give that to people!” and we both gazed at the sleigh – with gratitude.