My uncle Mike is a unique character in many ways. He could best be described as a mild mannered tornado, with a huge smile. He has his own particular way of looking at the world, and some of the things he gets up to would leave you shaking your head in amazement. Uncle Mike always had one scheme or other brewing, but things didn’t often go to plan.
Mike's greatest gift is his ability to take anything that the world throws at him with a laugh and a smart comment. If Uncle Mike had been on the Titanic, he would have said “What’s all the fuss lads, sure tis only a bit of water.” So, as an introduction to this larger than life fella, I thought I would tell you about the time he went to buy a Christmas tree.
Back in the eighties, Mike had been married to Rita for about seven years. They had three young tearaways, who seemed determined to follow in their father’s wild footsteps. I don't know how Rita stayed sane, she was either a saint or had a huge stash of Valium someplace. The trail of destruction, that was Mike's life, was rapidly being added to, by his three little helpers. One shared room in Granny Begley's house could no longer cope with the madness, they needed a place of their own. That was why they moved, lock stock and barrel, five miles, to the neighbouring village of Killblany.
Let me tell you, Ireland was a tough place to live in, during the recession hit eighties, and rural Ireland was positively spartan. Uncle Mike was a mighty wheeler and dealer, always on the lookout for a bargain, but he was too soft by far, to ever make any money from his schemes. Mostly, Mike’s job consisted of driving his rusty old JCB on building sites. That is, whenever there was work to be had.
Like most Irish men, Uncle Mike loved a good knees-up and was the life and soul of any party, always quick with a joke, or a song belted out with gusto. Within weeks of moving to Killblany, Mike had made friends with nearly everyone in the village. There wasn’t a table in the place that hadn’t shaded his feet, while he drank bucket loads of tea over a good chat. When Paul, the teenage son of a widowed neighbour, needed a favour, Uncle Mike was only too happy to help. Paul wanted to get a Christmas tree as a surprise for his mother, and who better to rope in to help, than Mike.
At this time, Uncle Mike was driving a bright orange Renault C4 that had seen nearly half a million miles as a post van, before he picked it up in one of his famous deals. So it was, that two weeks before Christmas, on a frosty winter’s afternoon, Uncle Mike and his young sidekick coaxed the little van to life and went in search of a cheap tree. They vanished into the gloom, leaving an oily cloud of smoke trailing after them.
They ended up in Clonmel Town, which was packed with Christmas shoppers. It took them ages to even find a parking space, and that was only by a bit of luck. The amount of people out shopping was crazy, considering they times they were living in. Most weeks, the average family classified their needs into two main categories, can you eat it, or can you drink it? If you could not eat it or drink it - it was a luxury, and have you ever tried chewing on a Christmas tree? Uncle Mike thought that the place would be awash with the things. He imagined they’d be practically giving them away for free. As it turned out, there was only one man selling trees in the square, and thankfully, he had plenty left in the back of his truck. Uncle Mike waddled up to him, with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, trying to look as casual as possible.
“Well there, you-sir,” Mike said, in his sing song way. Uncle Mike had the worst memory, and he called everyone he ever met “You Sir,” the two words rolled into one, “Yousir.”
“Well, lads,” said the man selling the Christmas trees.
“What are you asking for a tree?” asked Mike, nudging one with his foot.
“Fifteen Pounds,” said the man.
“Fifteen! Are they gold plated, or what?” Mike laughed.
“Fifteen, and that is a fair price, look at the size of them,” said the man, holding one out, to be fully appreciated.
“Aye, grand size, but look at the needles on it. It's half dead.”
“It’s not, tis only cut fresh this morning,” said the trader, angrily.
“Twenty-five for three of em,” said Mike, spitting in his hand and shoving it forward. The man looked at Mike's hand like it was the sweaty armpit of a leper.
“Forty and that is the best I can do.”
“Twenty-five and you’re lucky to get it. The hills are covered with the things,” said Mike.
“Forty quid, or piss off!”
“No need for that,” said Mike.
“Take it or leave it.”
“Feck off, you chancers,” said the trader, throwing the tree into the back of the truck.
“Suit yourself,” said Mike, with a shrug, and walked away with his neighbour’s son trailing behind him.
"What about the tree?” asked the young lad, when they were out of earshot.
“Don't worry about that fella, there will be loads trees this time of year,” said Mike, but there weren't. They looked everywhere they could think of, but no one else was selling Christmas trees.
"Thanks for trying, Mike, I couldn't afford fifteen quid anyway. We might as well head for home."
"Don't be talking like that you-sir, we came for a Christmas tree, we’re going home with one. There is more than one way to skin a cat, you know." Mike threw the van into gear and left town in a haze of blue smoke.
It was getting dark, when they pushed the overheating old motor up the mountain road. The bushes rubbed both sides of the van, long before they reached the top of the forestry road. It wasn’t long before they had to park up the C4 and make the rest of the journey on foot. Uncle Mike got a rusty old bushman from the back of the van, and walked away into the undergrowth, with young Paul tripping along blindly behind him. They had been walking for fifteen minutes when the sky clouded over killing whatever little light the moon was providing. They were as good as blind.
“We’ll never find a tree, now,” Paul said.
“Jesus. Hold that,” Mike said, shoving the saw into Paul's arms. Uncle Mike swung himself up into the lower branches of a massive tree. He was surprisingly nimble, for a man that thought a triple helping of dinner was just a nibble.
“What are you doing?” Paul called.
“Look at the top of this one. That will make a grand Christmas tree.”
“You've got to be kidding.”
"Hold on there,” said Mike, leaning down to grab the saw out of the young lad’s hands. He clambered up the tree like a chunky, thirty year old monkey. Soon he was sawing like a mad man, eighty feet above the ground. Paul could just make out his shadow, against the lighter sky. The top of the tree came crashing into the undergrowth nearby, scaring the life out of Paul. He could only just make out the shape of Uncle Mike, swinging around in the sky, and laughing like a teenager.
“That’s fantastic,” Paul shouted up, when he pulled the decapitated treetop from the brambles.
“I told you we'd get a Christmas tree.” laughed Uncle Mike.
“You sure did, Mike, come back down now, will yea.”
“What about me and Mrs O’Brien?"
"You’re going to kill yourself."
"Rubbish. I did this all the time, as a kid," Uncle Mike said, starting to sway the tree top, over and back.
“Come down, Mike.”
"Shush, you old woman!” Mike shouted. It dawned on Paul, what Mike was going to do. He was trying to get the top of the tree to swing far enough over, so he could grab the top of the next tree.
“MIKE COME DOWN!”
“I am nearly there, one more swing.” Mike shouted, as he swished backwards and forwards, clutching what remained of the tree. With one final sway, Mike launched himself into the dark night sky.
Uncle Mike grabbed a branch, but it never stood a chance against a flying eighteen stone Irishman. The branch snapped like the dry twig it was, and Mike sailed past the trunk of the tree, into the darkness beyond. Uncle Mike whistled through the air before landing with a sickening impact in a briar patch, a few feet away. Paul felt the ground tremble under the impact, and he fought his way through the undergrowth, finding Mike laying spread-eagled on his back. He was awake, but the wind had been knocked out of him good and proper. Mike managed to take a few strangled breaths.
“You okay, Mike?”
“No, fairly sure I’m not. I felt something go squish,” Mike managed to say, between shallow painful breaths.
"Yea, inside," he said, pointing a finger at his ample belly.
“Can you stand up?” Paul asked. Mike strained, but nothing moved, his face a picture of agony. Uncle Mike's knuckles cracked as he squeezed the life out of the branch he was still holding.
“I think I am in big trouble, Paul," he said, realising that he couldn’t move his legs.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck” said the young lad, walking in circles.
“I’ll go for help,” Paul said, running off in the general direction of the van.
"Wait! Ouch!” Mike wheezed, squeezing the branch to control the pain. Paul came back and knelt beside him, waiting for the pain to subside.
“Don’t leave me here,” pleaded Mike. Paul was in a blind panic, he was on the verge of running off again, when Uncle Mike asked, “Where are we?”
“How do I know?”
“How the feck will you find me again?”
“I don’t think I should move you.”
“It will be okay, you have to get me back to the van," Mike said, as reassuringly as he could.
"You're too heavy, Mike. I can't lift you."
"You're going to have to drag me." Mike winced, as he lifted his arms, allowing Paul to get a grip of him.
"I don't think we should do this." Paul said, once more.
"It'll be okay, trust me."
Paul heaved backwards, and Mike slid out of the bushes. Uncle Mike stifled a groan of pain, concentrating on squeezing the branch he still held in a steely grip. Every tug was agony. Brambles ripped at Mike's skin and clothes, as he was dragged back in the direction of the van. An excruciating hour later, they arrived, it felt like a lifetime for them both. Uncle Mike was a sweaty mess, as pale as a ghost. Paul didn’t look much better.
"It feels like my guts are hanging out,” Mike said, when he got his breath back.
"You look okay to me."
"It hurts like hell. I can't move my legs."
"I'll get you into the van," Paul said, opening the back doors. He got Uncle Mike’s arm over his shoulder, and heaved with all his might. Mike landed in the back of the back of the van, with a thump.
"Oww, Jesus, take it easy. I am not a bag of spuds."
The little orange van rattled down the winding rutted road. From the back of the van came grunts of pain, each time they bounced over a rough patch.
When Paul swung the van onto the main road, Mike called out from the back, "Hey, Paul. You better turn back. I think you missed a pothole."
"If you don't like my driving, why not get out and walk," said Paul, with a smile on his face. The way he looked at it, if Mike was still able to crack a joke, he couldn’t be that bad.
"You’re a right funny man, right funny," said Mike, from somewhere behind him.
"I don't know what you're complaining about, I was the one doing all the pulling and dragging. You were just lying there, you lazy lump." Just then the van hit yet another hole in the road. The bounce caused Mike to cry out. Paul felt bad for teasing him, so he drove on as carefully as possible.
Paul pulled the van into Dr Carey's driveway and jumped out, leaving the engine running. He ran to the front door and rapped the knocker, quick and hard. The lights came on in the hall, and the door opened. Mr Carey was standing there, a newspaper in his hand.
"Is Doctor Carey there, it’s an emergency!"
"Mary," Mr Carey called, and a grey haired lady appeared from the kitchen, wearing yellow washing up gloves.
"Hello Paul, is everything alright?"
"It's Mike Begley, Dr Carey, he’s taken a fall and can't feel his legs."
"Where is he?" she asked, stripping off her marigold gloves.
"In the back of the van, doc."
"Bring my bag will you, dear," Doctor Carey said to her husband, following Paul to the back of the orange van.
The doors creaked open, and there was Uncle Mike, stretched out on the floor, where a Christmas tree should have been, still clutching a fir branch across his chest.
"Hi Doc, how you doing?" asked Mike.
"I think the question should be how are you, Mike. I heard you had a fall?"
"He fell off a -" started Paul, but Mike cut across him.
"A roof of a house, Doctor." Mike said, the look he gave Paul said, shush.
"Don't move from there, Mike, I am going to get a light to examine you." said Doctor Carey, going back inside her house.
"Why did you tell her you fell of a roof?" asked Paul
"We don't need every man, and his dog, knowing we were robbing the forestry, do we?"
Doctor Carey came back with her bag and a big red torch. She climbed into the back of the van and began examining Mike.
"I think it's my guts, Doc, I felt something go squish, when I hit the ground."
"Well, they are all still on the inside, Mike. That's a good start," she smiled at him. After ten minutes, she got out of the van.
"I can't tell how much damage you’ve done, Mike, but it is fairly clear that you have injured your spine. There could be internal organ damage. How high was this roof you fell from?"
"I would say - about the height of a telephone pole," wheezed Mike.
"That’s well over the height of a three story house, you’re lucky to be alive." said Doctor Carey, not looking one bit convinced by Mike’s story. "I am going to call an ambulance, it is too dangerous to move you again in this heap of junk."
"Is there really any need of that Doc, Betsey here is sensitive." Mike said, patting the floor of the van.
"Mike, one jolt and you may never walk again," Doctor Carey said, her voice grave and cold. She turned to Paul and said, "You had better run up and get Rita, someone will have to go with him, to Cork."
"You’re sending me to Cork?" shouted Mike, from the back of the van.
"We have to Mike, you might need surgery," she said.
"Jesus, that's great, Rita always wanted to go Christmas shopping in Cork, she will be delighted."
"It's not a shopping trip, Mike, this is serious." Doctor Carey snapped at him.
A quiet "Sorry" floated out of the back of the van, making Doctor Carey crack a huge smile. It was all too surreal. "Run on and get Rita, Paul." Doctor Carey said, again. As Paul turned to run down the driveway, Mike shouted out of the van.
"Tell her to bring my razor, and some clean clothes. Tell her not to forget the underpants. Remember the underpants, clean ones!"
"I’ll be back in a minute Mike," said Dr Carey.
"Did he hear me about the underpants," Mike asked, before she could leave.
"I am sure he did," she said, with a smile. As she walked away, she heard Mike saying to himself.
"Can’t be going to hospital without clean pants on."
From the house, Dr Carey called for an ambulance transfer to University Hospital Cork. She detailed spinal injuries, possible internal bleeding, and possible organ damage. After she hung up the phone, she wondered if she should have included possible brain trauma. No, she thought, Mike was about this mad all the time. As it turned out, the ambulance arrived before Rita did. Mike was being slid onto the back board, when a winded Rita looked in the back of the van.
"Holy God, Mike. What have you done to yourself?" she asked.
"I fell off the roof," Uncle Mike said, as his head was being wedged into a neck brace.
"What the blazes were you doing on a roof, I thought you were going to buy a Christmas tree for Paul's mother?"
"It’s a long story. I‘ll tell you later," Mike said, going very red in his face.
Dr Carey was standing outside the van, and laughed to herself. It all made sense now. Up to now, she had been baffled by the branch Mike was holding when he arrived. He was still very reluctant to let it go of it. Only when she said she would give him a shot for the pain, would he release the thing.
"Did you bring the underpants?" Mike asked.
"I did, two pairs."
"Two pairs, we’re not going on holidays, woman, just a quick trip to the hospital." At this comment, even the paramedics laughed. When Mike was settled into the stretcher, Dr Carey gave him a morphine shot, for the pain.
"What CC was that, Doctor?” asked one of the ambulance men. When she told him, he looked surprised, and said "That's quite a bit."
Dr Carey nodded and said, "I know, but he is a horse of a man."
As the ambulance doors were closing, Dr Carey could hear Mike asking the driver what his name was, and if he was anything to the O'Briens up near Grange.
The ambulance crew would later tell the staff in the hospital, it was one of the strangest call outs they’d ever been on. For a guy with such terrible injuries, Mike didn’t stop talking once. Halfway along the sixty mile journey, he treated them to a couple of jokes and even a song. The paramedic turned to the driver after a while, and said in a low voice.
"Do you think he is having a reaction to the morphine?"
Rita, who had sat quietly the whole journey, holding Mike’s hand, overheard the comment and said, "I wouldn't worry, this is actually quiet, for him."
Rita's comment got Mike going again, this time with mother-in-law jokes. Before long, the ambulance was making its way up Patrick Street, in Cork. From where Mike was lying, he had a great view of the sky above him.
"Holy God Rita, look at the lights."
"They’re lovely, like thousands of stars," she said.
Smiling, Mike squeezed her hand and said, "I told you, I’d bring you to see the Christmas lights, one day."
Rita squeezed his hand back and a little tear fell from the corner of her eye. Rita was the only one that could read him like a book, and she knew, despite his good humour and joking, he was terrified. She knew he understood exactly what could happen, what the consequences might be. She also knew, that if this big bear of a man ended up in a wheelchair, it would kill him, for sure. Mike saw it in her eyes, and smiled his biggest reassuring smile.
"Hey lads, how much further to the hospital?" Mike asked.
"Five miles, Mike."
"Bet you a tenner you can’t make it there in under ten minutes," Mike said, with a wicked grin.
Rita saw the ambulance crew exchange a smile, before the lights and siren screamed into life, rocketing them through the city traffic with four wildly laughing people inside. The happiest little emergency vehicle in the west.
If you enjoyed this story, you can get all of Uncle Mike's adventures in one place by checking out The Misadventures Of Father Tom. Hope you enjoy them.
If you enjoyed this story, you can get all of Uncle Mike's adventures in one place by checking out The Misadventures Of Father Tom. Hope you enjoy them.