Miss Martin’s piano was lovely. It had a nice chocolate colour to it, not scratched and black like ours. All its keys worked and none of them had bits of their ivory missing. When I pressed them, they gave a rich cushioned sound. When Miss Martin pressed them, it made me think of stretching back in a warm bath, looking at my bare toes. As she reached forward to turn a page the little brass clips on the sheet-music stand winked in the afternoon light as if they knew a secret and would tell me later.
Miss Martin and her piano went well together. She had brown hair and teeth that were slightly crooked in a way that made her look cheerful. Her lips and wrists were smooth and plump, and she wore a gorgeous perfume tht I could smell each time she moved. My lesson was on Saturday afternoons, and as I cranked through ‘Bobby Shafto’ she would tap time with her pencil on the wooden bit at the end of the keyboard, nodding her head and humming the tune. At the end she’d put her hand on my arm and say “Good boy, Jimmy. Now practise hard, remember!” She always said this, even when I’d been rotten. I liked Miss Martin.
And then on Saturday in May, on my way home from a lesson, Bubbles Begley screeched “Gerr –onimo!” as he came flying at me from the top of the chapel wall. I dodged aside and he landed, swearing, on the footpath. He was known as Bubbles because he once hid in the hot press and watched while his sister Eileen took a bubble bath. At least that’s what he said.
Stopping occasionally to rub his knee where he’d hurt it, he walked down the Court House hill alongside me. I’d missed it, he said, at the cowboy picture in Miller’s Picture House earlier that afternoon. Gene Autry had punched the baddy in the face five times, and when the girl fell backwards over the dog you could see up into all her petticoats. He walked on for a few yards, nodding to himself. “All the way” he said. Then he noticed Fifty Pianoforte Melodies under my arm.
“What’s that?” he said, tugging at them. Bubbles was forever touching things, as if to prove to himself that they existed. In art lesson he nearly always did the best drawing, but Brother McGonigle would still end up shouting at him because he’d fingered the bowl of fruit and smudged the colours or left a thumb mark on the Seaside Scene.
I grabbed the music book back and told him Miss Martin was teaching me the piano.
“Has she a cane?”
No, I told him, no cane. Just a pencil for tapping time. If you hadn’t practised during the week, she might sometimes grab your hands and press them down on the right notes. But no cane. Although the thought of her with one was oddly exciting.
Bubbles leaned close to me so I could smell the barley-sugar on his breath. “Our Eileen” he whispered, “would grab the Pope. One day when I was sitting on our step she grabbed me through the lining of my trouser pocket. One minute I was reading Pudsy Ryan and the next she’s got her hand right in!”
I gripped my music tighter and tried not to blush. When Miss Martin stood behind me, an arm on either side of my shoulders, her perfume filled my head. Sometimes when she leaned in to peer at a note, I could see up her nostrils. They were always clean and not a single hair growing up there. When she leaned in to play over my shoulder, something warm and soft would rest on my back, then slither away as she sat back in her chair again.
When we drew level with Gormley’s shop, Bubbles stopped to stare at a paint set in the window. I left him there and started walking on out the road home. I must have gone nearly a hundred yards when his shout came drifting after me. “She’s got a right pair on her, hasn’t she?” I pretended not to hear.
Two days later, on Monday morning, Brother Pius McGonigle took a hanky from up his soutane sleeve and wiped his mouth with it. Then he got the pencils and paper from the press behind the blackboard and passed them out. He wanted us, he said, to draw a nature scene. It might be a river, or a mountain, maybe even just a field full of buttercups or daisies. Yes, all right, hands down, there could be people in it but we mustn’t forget Mother Nature. The most important thing of all, though, was that every drawing must be done from memory. “Trust your sense-memory, boys!” he said. The first man he got not trusting his sense-memory or copying out of a book, he’d get his ear banged ‘til he saw stars”.
I drew a fisherman by the side of a river. It looked all right. The fish on the end of the line came out a bit big, but I could say it was a salmon. Besides, the worms made up for it. They were in a tin on the grass, and I’d drawn it so you were looking down into the tin, and you could see the full brown wriggly ball. A few tiny touches of white on several of their backs to show they were shiny, then I turned to show it to Caruso Kelly in the desk beside me.
But Caruso was gone – gone out of his desk, I mean. He was three seats up in the next row, leaning on the shoulders of Presumer Livingstone and Trigger Donnelly, peering in to look at Bubble’s drawing. Brother McGonigle had gone out to the porch for a smoke, so I tiptoed up to have a look.
Bubbles was a really fast drawer and there were two drawings on his desk. One drawing showed a family picnicking in a field. Beside the spread-out tablecloth what looked like a mother and young boy were sitting. The boy’s hands held the edge of the cloth on which the food sat and he had an anxious look. The woman had her hands in the air, fingers splayed in alarm. In a corner of the field a man, presumably the father, was being chased up a tree by a bull. It was really well-drawn but Caruso, Presumer and Trigger were all staring at the second picture and grinning.
In this one he’d drawn the same three people – the boy, the woman, the man. But there were a couple of big differences. Instead of a field, the second drawing showed a room. The boy had the same worried look but now he was sitting at a piano, hands on teh keyboard, and you could see beads of seat bouncing from his forehead. The woman sat in a chair beside him and was bent forward about to grab his hands. Over her left shoulder there was a window, and through the window a tree could be seen. A man was running towards the tree, followed by a bull. Over the man’s head Bubbles had written ‘Brother McGonigle’, over the woman ‘Miss Martin’ and above the boy ‘Gess Who?’ The other big difference between the room drawing and the field drawing was even more striking. All three figures – boy, woman, man – were completely naked. It was true he had put them so their backs were turned or their legs were in the way, so nothing really important showed, but they still hadn’t a stitch on. My eyes kept going back to Miss Martin’s left breast, which lay on her forearm like a baby seal. The other boys around Bubbles’s desk were snorting with delight, some of them biting their hands to not make too much noise. Bubbles was smirking and putting the finishing touches to one of the trees.
Who knows what I’d have done if at that moment the porch door hadn’t opened and the Brother come back in? I might have stabbed Bubbles with a compass and torn the drawing up. Or maybe I’d have done nothing. Stabbing Bubbles or creating a scene would just let people know I was a softy who made a fuss about drawing people with their clothes off. At the same time I felt a burning in my chest that Miss Martin should be treated in this way. That she should even be in Bubbles’s mind with no clothes on seemed an attack on her. And what right had he to take things out of his mind and draw them on a page, for people to snuffle at…But there was no time for that now. Brother McGonigle was standing at the door talking to someone, his back to us, and we slid quietly back into our desks. When I looked, Bubbles had slipped the second drawing out of sight.
That night I had a dream. Bubbles and I were alone in a white room with red furniture. Outside the window a herd of buffalo was thundering past, making the floor shake like sitting on a tractor. I was seated on a stool with a dunce’s hat on and Bubbles was standing at the window with his back to me. That made it easy for me to get off the stool and creep up on him. I had my father’s saw in my hand, the one that went whook! whook! when you shook its blade. I grabbed Bubbles by the hair. “Gerr- onimo!” I yelled, starting to saw at his neck. Soon there was blood everywhere – on the window-ledge, on my arms – I even had to blink some of it out of my eyes. Luckily enough, what splashed on the furniture didn’t show up because the furniture was red. Some blood did spill on the floor but Bubbles, bleeding and smiling at the same time, bent down, gripped the floor and shook it like a bed-sheet. The pools of blood bounced once, then drained down a mouse hole in the corner of the room. We nodded to each other and shook hands at the same time, like Laurel and Hardy after an argument, then sat down side by side to watch the see of buffalo and dust stream past the window. No offence had been intended, I told Bubbles. It was just that I loved Miss Martin and would some day marry her, and part of picking somebody out to marry was that you protected their honour until the time came for her to be dishonourable with you. Bubbles nodded and laughed when I said that, and continued laughing even after his head had gone rolling along the floor. I could still hear chuckling from under the sofa as I woke up. My hairline, when I wiped it with my hand, was limp with sweat.
This couldn’t go on. I had to get that drawing from Bubbles. One, it was Bubbles using the things I had told him about my music lesson to make a mockery of me and my teacher – a slimy, dirty sort of mockery. Two, looking at Miss Martin in the drawing gave me a warm glow like an electric fire, a glow that would be delicious to feel again. I closed my eyes. What had her back looked like? Had her bum flattened where it met the seat? I pulled the bed-sheet around my mouth, breathed into it, made it warm. Someday Miss Martin would lose her key and have to come to my house to give me a piano lesson. My father and mother would be out when she range the bell, and she’d follow me into the hall and say, “I’m boiling, I need a bit of a bath before we do anything!” Then I’d show her the bathroom and she’d stop going out again, would lean against the inside of the bathroom door the way women were always doing in the pictures. Then she’d ask me to be a good boy and loosen some buttons at the back of her blouse. Then it’d emerge that she had sprained her ankle the previous day and had been bravely hiding the fact. But now she could hide it no longer, because she needed help to get into the bath. So I’d help her. Once in, she’d put her head back, letting her hair spread out on the water like a fan, while the round parts of her in front floated glistening to the surface. She had her finger raised and crooked for me to come and soap her back when the bedroom door opened. My mother stared very hard at me and said if I lay a minute longer, my porridge would be stone cold.
At lunch time next day, I hurried from the classroom and hid in the lavs. The cubicles didn’t have a lock, but if you jammed your back against the door and propped your feet against the toilet bowl, nobody could get in. Not that anybody was trying – they were all out in the school yard, chasing each other with toffee-apple sticks for daggers or walking along the top of the yard wall with their eyes shut. Rigid against the lav door, I took a jam sandwich from my lumberjacket and started eating.
Supposing I just asked Bubbles for the drawing? Went up and said, Give us the picture, Bubbles. But then he’d say, What for? And even I didn’t tell him, he’d still make up something embarrassing and go and tell Caruso and Trigger and half the school. Hear what your man came to me looking for? Piss wisss wisss wisss, dirty wee bugger. Unbearable, that would be. No, asking would be useless. The only way out was to steal it.
“Never take a pin that’s not yours” my mother had always warned. But this wasn’t a pin, this was a drawing of people with no clothes on. In a sense that my mother could never understand – must never understand – this drawing was mine. My words had created it for Bubbles. The piano, Miss Martin, my hands – practically everything. He had just stuck the nakedness on as an extra. Bubbles was only an instrument, the way a pen or pencil would be an instrument of you picked one up to write down your ideas. The boy’s face might not look all that much like mine, but that didn’t matter – it was still my drawing by rights. That was why I would be perfectly justified in going into the classroom, opening Bubbles’s desk and taking it. By the time he discovered it was missing, I’d have it at home under my bed.
I trotted through the playground with my eyes down, in case some of the ones playing jailsies would ask me to join in. No one did. The wooden hand of the classroom door turned easily. Inside the room the sun shone through the window and caught chalk dust in its beam. The door made an echoing sound when I closed it.
Bubbles’s desk was two rows across from mine at the back. He had left his pen stuck in the inkwell, a tiny triangle of blotting paper decorating its top like a flag. The desk lid, scored with generations of gouges and initials, creaked when lifted. Inside, a half apple lay in a corner, its cut side brown and dry-looking. I went carefully through the disordered pile of books. A sheet with a drawing of a dog, spittle hanging from his teeth, about to bite into a cat, the cat with its teeth parted to devour a mouse. Bubbles really could draw…I lifted an atlas; a fountain pen with a gold top slid from inside the spine of it. A week before the Christmas holidays, Brother McGonigle had got us all to pray to St Anthony to help find the pen. It meant more to him than any pen in the world, he said, because his mother had given it to him. But even though we prayed for a week and every desk had been searched, it could got nowhere. Until now. As well as doing everything else, Bubbles was a thief!
Finally, at the very bottom, my drawing. A quick glance showed Miss Martin as even more lovely than I’d remembered her. And yes, where her bum met the seat it did flatten, just a little bit. I closed Bubbles’s desk gently, wincing as it creaked again, and crossed to my own. Under Junior Geometry would be a good place to hide it. I had just lifted it and Treasure Island out of the way, and walking a last peek at Miss Martin’s toes – even they looked interesting – when the porch door open and Brother McGonigle came in. He moved straight towards me, a trail of blue smoke from the cigarette in his left hand zigzagging behind him. Where it caught the shaft of sunlight it turned grey.
His voice was soft. “What’s this?” he said and took the drawing from my hand. “Hmmm?”
I tried to speak but a raw quarter-spud seemed to have got stuck in my throat. Instead the hair on my neck crinkled and I stared hopelessly at the iron leg of a desk. The friction from hundreds of young boots had worn its bottom bit shiny.
Brother McGonigle’s voice came from above me, slightly thick as if he needed to clear his throat. “That’s lovely” he said slowly, and I heard the sound of tearing paper. Then more tearing, and more, the Brother now grunting with the effort. Finally a flutter of pieces into the waste-basket beside my desk. “A lovely use of your God-given talent”.
I stood, eyes on the floor. This must be how a salmon felt when the gaff went in. I wanted to grab his sleeve, tell him that it had been Bubbles, not me – that I actually disapproved of him using his God-given talent on it, that was why I’d nyucked it. But I knew it’d be useless. I squeezed my eyes shut and spoke to God at a very quick speed. Listen, dear God, let us off this time and as long as I live, I’m serious, I will never look near a naked woman. On paper or anywhere else. I’m finished with them. Amen. Then I began to cry.
When some people cry, their noses don’t run, it’s their eyes. I’m the other way round. The first tear has hardly dribbled past my cheek when my nose starts, big wads of snot coming down on strings, practically choking me when I go to sniff them back up. The top of the desk was splashed in tears too, some of them falling on my exercise book and smudging the sums.
I was still crying when Brother McGonigle called for the class to pay attention. They had filed in and were staring at me, huddled in my desk, gasping and sniffing, to him, straight and unblinking at the front. Piss wiss wisss, they said. What’s happening? Pissss wisss wissss.
“This” said the Brother, gripping my shoulder, “is Master James Rice. Look at him good and hard”. He paused while they looked. Then he pulled my jacket collar and raised me, like a dead chicken on a hook. “For Master Rie is a corner boy and a boy who spends his day drawing” – he made a face as if someone had let one off – “impurities”.
There was a gasp round the class. Boys who’d stolen lead off Protestant church roofs, boys who’d taken money from the Vincent de Paul box, boys who’d written bad words on bits of paper and stuck them down the front of wee girls’ blouses – they all sat there sucking in their breath and shaking their heads. Bubbles too. I felt my indignation so strong it pushed back my fear a little bit. “Spends his day drawing” the brother had said! Even it had been me did the drawing, I wouldn’t have spent a day at it. I wanted to protest but didn’t dare.
Brother McGonigle took a hanky from his sleeve, wiped his hands on it, stuffed the hanky out of sight again. “Some of you are wondering – I have a sixth sense, that’s how I know, it’s in the air – some of you are wondering, What was in this drawing? What form did its impure content take?” His voice went up to a roar. “WHO CARES?” He let the words vibrate around the classroom, off the windows, the blackboard, the door of the porch. Only when they’d died down did he speak quietly again. “Offensive. Filthy. That’s all you need to know”. He lowered his head as if in prayer. “Spittle in the face of Our Lady”.
Terror gripped me. Maybe I should tell him about his mother’s pen being hid in Bubbles’s desk? No. He’d probably label me as an informer and come down twice as hard. Brother McGonigle was like that.
He talked a bit more about pure snow and buckets of tar. Then he reached inside his desk and produced The Major. This was a long leather strap, springy and flexible., that wobbled up and down in his grasp as if it were alive.
“Hand!” I inched my hand, small and curled, towards him. He made it flat and glanced briefly towards the class. “Let this be an example to all of you”.
Six whip-lash zingers, with the weight of his shoulder behind them. Each time the strap came down, my knees buckled a little further, so by the last I was almost hunkered on the floor. Finished, he tossed the strap onto the desk, rammed his hands into his soutane pockets and walked down the aisle between the seats, whistling silently to himself. He always did that when he was really really upset about something. Then: “Treasure Islands, gentlemen”, and everybody breathed relief, rummaging in their desks.
Hunched in my seat I sucked and blew on my fingers time about. They were white and numb at the tips and felt like they had been attached to the ends of my arms by mistake. Caruso, Bubbles and the others were watching me, I knew, but I didn’t look up. I fumbled open my copy of Treasure Island. Squeezed my hands between my thighs while the Brother’s voice rumbled somewhere in the distance. Waited for the world to put its splintered pieces together again.
That Saturday, Miss Martin looked so beautiful I felt afraid: eyes shining, hair silky, perfume like a drug. If I held her gaze, all that I felt and the secrets about her that I had seen on a piece of paper would show in my face. So I stared at the piano keys and tried not to blush. I’d been doing ‘Polly Put The Kettle On’ and ‘Three Blind Mice’ for ages, but I still stumbled at least four times in each. My fingers seemed to have swollen even thicker and clumsier than usual; and where had the black rims of dirt edging all ten nails come from? It was as if they belonged to somebody else and that person wasn’t on my side. With six minutes left, Miss Martin played through ‘Over The Waves’, my next piece for learning, to show me how it was done. She made it sound wistful and lovely. When I tried, I murdered it. In the end she gave a little cough and said it was nearly time, and by the way did I know a boy called Robert Begley? Mouth dry and tongue a cripple, I stammered I did.
Her bow-shaped eyebrows rose, her plump lips parted in a smile. Little bits of wet gleamed around her teeth. “A strange wee boy, that! He landed at my door today with this”. She reached under her music case and produced a brown envelope. “Said he’d done it at school and his mammy thought I might like it”.
I reach out for it and my right hand shook so much I had to grip it with my left. Once again he had drawn three people: a boy quite like Bubbles himself this time, only better-looking, hair parted, playing the piano; a woman very like Miss Martin, smiling slightly, bending to show him a note on the keyboard; and outside, through the window, a man with a net in his hand, chasing a butterfly through a field. All of them had their clothes on.
“Robert Begley” she said again, pointing to the signature at the bottom, with the R for Robert and the B for Begley far too big. “How he knows I have a piano even is beyond me. Though he has improved on the real article!” With a little laugh of pleasure she leaned forward and put her hand on my arm. Her perfume tunnelled up my nose and into the empty room of my brain. “The artist’s eye, I suppose…What else has he drawn, this, ah, Robert? Does he draw a lot?”
“Oh, windows and cows and things” I said, and began to play ‘Over The Waves’ quite quickly even though she hadn’t told me to. The notes were like stones hurled into the room. Under my jersey, my chest was tight and my heart was shivering like a whipped pup.
– from ‘Booing the Bishop and other stories’ (Blackstaff Press, 1995)