In these social days of Christmas you find yourself invited into places you didn’t ever expect to see. You visit the family homes of those friends who’ve always come to you. Meet the sisters, drink tea with parents. Pat the dog and choke down Christmas cake. Laugh politely at photos stuck to the fridge.
You excuse yourself and run upstairs. Examine the books in the bathroom. Crazy stuff. There is no soap in the sink so you wash your hands with shampoo. They smell of lavender — too strongly. You wash again with just water to try and lessen it.
Coming back down the landing you meet the granduncle. Though often alluded to, you’ve never seen him in person. As you shake hands his right arm quivers and his fingers barely articulate the clench. There was a stroke, you remember. His speech is equally indistinct, and you pick up maybe half his words in a polite two minutes’ conversation. You are at sea; he talks about silage, and county hurling. You agree where agreement seems agreeable. You mention the weather. You do not know the McNamaras, oh right, the old mill house? Lovely family, I’m sure. Yes, terribly sad.
On the subject of county finals he motions for you to come with him to a room at the end of the hall. It’s impossible to refuse an offer you can barely understand so you follow him in, leaving the door swung wide behind you. It’s a kind of sitting room, with a small bedroom visible through another door at the back. Ancient upholstered furniture is crammed along the walls, threadbare and musty.
He walks to a large glass cabinet and fumbles with the brass key in the ornate lock at its centre. Reaching inside, he pulls out a time capsule and places it on the cabinet top. It is instantly familiar, common to generations of Irish schoolboys. A small straw basket, filled with hurling and football medals from sixty, seventy years ago. He sorts through the basket, pausing occasionally to hand you a county medal with a crooked grin. “This is not pride,” the grin says. “I am way past pride.” His life has become a point of historical interest, and he acknowledges this with a wry humour. Little tarnished circles of metal with his name artfully engraved on the back, beneath the year.
After much searching he pulls out a shallow, red felt box and holds it up in triumph. Removing its lid with great care, he holds it out for you to see. There, nestled in black velvet, you see what is unmistakably a dark, dry, shriveled human ear.
“It was a Protestant’s,” he says.
“Oh?” you say.
“His name was Johnathan.” He pauses for a moment, staring inwards, then imitates himself in a sing-song voice. “John-a-than.”
“Oh,” you nod.
He shrugs, and grins that crooked grin. “Different times,” he says. “Different times.”