The bishop lived in a big house across the wall from our boarding school. On slow summer evenings we’d peep over and watch him playing croquet by himself, sometimes muttering and hammering the mallet into the ground when he missed a hoop. The grass on his side was as neat as a bee-bop haircut and his shiny black shoes moved over it in tidy steps that never picked up any dirt. When his tea was ready, the housekeeper would stand outside the front door and ring a small handbell. Even if he had the mallet drawn back between his legs poised to hit, he would drop it immediately and move at a smart pace to the house. Tweetie Downey claimed that on Sundays during the summer term, the Bishop had a bowl of beans for tea. Then when we were in study hall, he would come out and zoom round the hoops like a balloon losing its air.
On St Patrick’s Day every year he visited our boarding school. If he’d wanted, he could have have opened a small door in the wall and simply walked through to us. Instead he entered through the front gate, a plump little figure half-lost in the back of a chauffeured Bentley. Among cushions he’d sit, smiling out at us with his little baby teeth, one white hand in mid-air sending blessings through the car’s closed windows.
With a March breeze whipping our Brylcreemed hair, we would line the sloping driveway to clap and cheer as his car crunched slowly past. Behind us, knees bent and head low, the Dean trotted up the line abreast with the car. “Now, boys – clap! Quick, quick before he’s gone past on you!” And if he thought we weren’t enthusiastic enough, he’d prod the backs of the nearest boys and hiss “Applause! Applause!”
Then, on St Patrick’s Day 1958, somebody booed. Nobody could tell where it began. When we looked up and down the line everybody seemed to be still clapping, everybody’s mouth was still open apparently cheering. But there was a boo. A travelling boo that started somewhere near the entrance gates and moved like a cloud of midges up the line in time with the Bishop’s car. You felt rather than heard it pass over you. To this day I don’t even know if I booed myself.
Mercifully, sealed in the back of his car, the Bishop couldn’t hear a thing. All through the act of heresy he went on smiling and blessing us. But the Dean heard it. There could be absolutely no doubt about that. The problem was, stumbling along, he couldn’t tell who was doing it. If the Bishop hadn’t been around, the Dean would have waded into us with his strap flailing, making it his business to find out who was doing it. But then if the Bishop hadn’t been around, there’d have been no booing. So the Dean, poor man, went staggering up the line, his little groans of frustration mixing in with the boos and the clapping.
The car eased to a stop in front of the school and the Bishop was led into the chapel by the ring-kissing sacristan. Once he was out of sight we broke ranks and hurried down the marble corridor, elbowing each other aside to get a fingertip in the holy water font. The air in the chapel was heavy with the smell of flowers and the altar cloth had a green edging. On the right-hand side a big chair with a purple cushion was waiting for the Bishop’s behind, and you could see a trail of incense smoke coming out of the sacristy door. For five, seven, ten minutes we sat coughing, whispering, waiting. Once the Mass and the Bishop were done, we were all to get out down the town for the rest of the day.
Then the organ in the gallery was thundering and the Dean had led a line of altar boys out of the sacristy. Behind them came the Bishop in his pointed hat and staff. He had so much stuff on, it looked as he might any minute collapse under the weight of white and gold and purple. When the head prefect in the front seat stood so did we, hobnails clattering. We bawled out the first lines of Hail Glorious Saint Patrick:
‘Hail Glorious Saint Patrick, dear Saint of our isle,
On us they poor children, bestow a sweet smile,
And now thou are high in thy mansion above
On Erin’s green valley look down in thy love.
Masses like this, with singing, went slower. Everything stopped for the choir to perform the different hymns and things in Latin. Stopped again when the Dean had to walk along the altar, shaking the thurible and sending the incense smoke everywhere. And when he’d done that, he had to do the same thing, walking round the Bishop. But it wasn’t the delay that made us uneasy. It was the Dean himself. There seemed to be a tension about his neck and a tightness about his mouth as he swung the thurible, carried the book, moved the chalices about. Once or twice when the altar boys were slightly slow with carrying cruets or ringing the bell, he fired them a glance that would have sliced meat. He reminded me of a lion I’d seen in Duffy’s Circus once, that sat on a tub staring at the trainer because he wouldn’t let him out of the cage to eat the audience. So the Mass muttered on, the Dean doing the hard bits, the Bishop taking over with his little nose-in-the-air voice at the important bits. Finally it was time for the last gospel, and he wished us all a happy Saint Patrick’s Day and gave us yet another blessing, only slow motions this time and with words. To the thunder of the organ making everything shake with Faith of Our Fathers, the Bishop was led in procession to the priests’ refectory, to get out of his hat and finery and stuck into a heavy meal. The Dean, on his way out, made a discreet signal with his right hand to indicate we were to stay put. Three minutes later he came back into the chapel.
We watched as he mounted the altar steps again, then turned to us. Not a cough or sniff was to be heard. When we felt we could hold our breath no longer, he spoke.
Whoever had booed, he said, was a blackguard. He was also…a blasphemer! The Dean pinched his Adam’s apple with his finger and thumb, leaving two white dots. Because the Bishop was a direct descendant of the apostles, who were bishops also. So any boy who booed had in fact been booing the twelve apostles and our national saint, Saint Patrick, who had also been a bishop. What discourtesy, on this day of all days! What heresy! He flicked back the cape of his soutane so the shiny bit showed. His lips were pressed together tight as a vice. A boy or boys like that were a disgrace to their school, their religion, their country, he said.
You could see boys staring at the Dean or giving quick glances at each other. Right then. The Bishop was descended from the apostles. OK. And the apostles were bishops…Or was it the bishop were apostles? Worse than the old riddle: Brother and sisters have I none, but that man’s father is my father’s son. Only there was no time to think. The Dean was talking again.
He would, he said slowly, leave the chapel now. In fifteen minutes’ time he would come back. If by then the culprits hadn’t owned up, not one boy, not one single mother’s son would set foot beyond the school gates this day. For all leave – he glanced from side to side, his voice almost a whisper – all leave to spend the day out town would be cancelled. WAS THAT CLEAR? After the sudden roar had echoed round the chapel, he glared at us for a full minute. Nobody coughed, nobody breathed. Very well, he’d leave us to examine our conscience. With his eyes like burnt raisins in a rice pudding, he strode from the chapel.
When his steps had faded, a buzz filled the chapel. Cancel all leave! It wouldn’t, it couldn’t be allowed to happen. In my pew and in the ones near it, we all agreed: the Dean had gone mad. Not half-mad but whole-mad. For a start the Bishop and Saint Patrick were two entirely different men, anybody could see that. Did Saint Patrick ride around in a motor car, for God’s sake? The apostles had nothing to do with anything. Besides, it had been just a bit of booing. To listen to the Dean you’d think we’d been firing stones at the bloody Bentley.
After a few minutes of people whispering and arguing and twisting round in their seats to point their fingers at each other, the head prefect walked to the front of the altar rails. There he turned to face us with a raised hand like a traffic policeman, until the hum died down. This, he said quietly, was a simple matter. No call for anybody to go making it complicated. It was a simple matter of truth and lies. So to solve it the lies must be taken out and the truth told. In other words, let the culprits put their hands up now, make a clean breast and take their medicine. If they did, we’d know they were men and that honour wasn’t just a word in this school. If they didn’t, we’d know they were cowards and honour was dead in this school. He said the last bit very softly and then sat down.
Immediately a sixth-former with eczema stood up and told the head prefect that his arse was dead. Hadn’t everybody booed? What was the point in the head prefect going on about culprits this and culprits that, when everybody had booed? Shoulders raised and hands open, he appealed to us. Half the congregation took the opportunity to nod in agreement with him. The other half sucked in their breath and began to tell anyone who would listen that they hadn’t been doing any booing, and anyone who tried to say they did had Just. Better. Watch it.
A fourth-year boy with red hair asked were we sure there’d been any booing? He’d been standing in the line like everybody else and he hadn’t heard any. Cheering and clapping – he’d heart that. But not booing. For if there’d been booing, how come the Bishop hadn’t said anything about it? Maybe it was all in the Dean’s head? Maybe the Dean had a booing complex. After all, Joan of Arc had heard voices.
For a few seconds we weighed up this new possibility: brazen the whole thing out. Because the Dean was a confusable man, that much was true. Hadn’t he been known on several occasions to start saying the rosary when he should have been saying grace after meals? If everybody else – every single person – was firm that no booing had happened, wouldn’t the Dean’s belief about what had occurred collapse? A small collective sigh indicated that the answer was No. Not even the Dean would swallow that notion – the booing was lodged too deep in his mind by now. And anyway it wouldn’t be ten minutes until at least twenty jelly-bellies had cracked under questioning and admitted to doing it. The red-haired fourth year who had made the suggestion was told to shut his face and not be stupid.
The head prefect stood again and help up his two long-fingered hands. All right, he said. In that case blame must attach to whoever had started the booing. They must own up.
I twisted round and looked about me. All the way back to the holy water font, boys were glaring at each other. People were leaning forward, eyes bulging, jaws thrust forward. Some were making chopping motions with their hands, and anger and suspicion were swelling by the second. Would the shifty eyes, the shuffling of the culprit give him away? Hardly. This wasn’t Greyfriars, and besides, Billy Bunter only got six of the best from Mr Carruthers. Our Dean wouldn’t stop until he’d torn the flesh from the bones of the guilty party.
Things had reached near-panic point when Vince McCullough rose from his place and strolled to the front. McCullough was a fifth year like myself, as skinny as a knitting needle, with watery blue eyes and a slow grin. He was at once the luckiest and unluckiest boy in the place. If he broke a rule – listened to a crystal set, had a smoke behind the handball alley – the Dean always seemed to catch him. It got to the point where people stayed away from Vince because, with him, something bad always happened. At the same time he won things. He would make you any bet imaginable – like which side of the head Abraham Lincoln had been shot in, or which of two first years could pee the highest – and win every time. Now in the chapel McCullough gave the head prefect a mock salute, beamed at us and said he would take the blame for the booing.
A buzz several notches higher and sharper than the first raced round.
“So was it you?” somebody called.
McCullough’s grin, a slit in a turnip, broadened. Maybe he had booed, maybe he hadn’t. Maybe they had booed. The point was, he was prepared to own up so everybody could be walking out the front gates – he looked at his watch – inside the next ten minutes. All he asked from us in return was a shilling each.
Another silence, then a fierce, surging debate, full of speeded-up gestures and hissing. The head prefect, his lips shiny with spittle, declared he was totally set against accepting any such offer, any such ‘extortion bid’ on moral grounds, and sat down in a dignified way. The rest of us sighed. Inside a minute and a half each pew of boys was passing money towards the centre aisle. The boy at the end of each pew took their collection in cupped hands to McCullough, alone in front of the communion rails. Serious now, he transferred the money to a big brown paper bag he produced from his blazer picket. Fifteen minutes later, raincoats over our arms and shamrocks lodged in our lapels, we streamed out the front gate. Back in school, McCullough was being led by the Dean to his room.
The breeze dropped as we moved down Bishop Street and the sun struggled out. At Wee Johnny’s, where you could buy a single cigarette for a penny , we paused, lit up, felt the Brylcreem on our scalps begin to mix with a light film of sweat, sniffed the mid-day air. Along the city wall, at the base of Governor Walker’s statue, a cluster of seniors had already gathered. Tobacco smoke was sucked in and sent whipping away. Heads swam. You could almost touch the freedom.
“His conscience was eating him” a Woodbine from Aughnacloy said. “That why he stuck the hand up”. He spat and scraped his boot over the result.
“Booing a bishop’s a reserved sin” a Gallaher’s Blue from Bellaghy pointed out. “Ordinary priest can do damn all for you. Takes a bishop to fix you up”.
This set the Fintona Senior Service off. “Reserved shite. Is booing bishops in the Ten Commandments? Or Hart’s Christian Doctrine?” he raised a finger to stifle an objection. “Anyway, McCullough never said he done it. All McCullough said was, he’d take the blame. Innocent until proved guilty”.
Brooding on this, we watched two girls pass, arms linked. They nudged each other and giggled, but no one had the heart to shout anything. Our minds were full of McCullough. McCullough grinning and receiving money, McCullough being led away, McCullough being murdered by the Dean. The thought throbbed like a boil on the back of your neck.
In Fiorentini’s, the air was heavy with steam and hiss. We ordered chips, salt, vinegar, orange juice, to help us forget.
“Twenty-five quid he got” someone said, speaking through a mouthful of chips. “Be able to afford a taxi to the hospital”. His snigger didn’t catch on.
We sat in our booths staring and silent, the bubble of cooking chips mixing with the jiggety-thud of Peggy Sue on the juke box.
Afterwards, in the smoke and darkness of the pictures, it was a bit better. We watched carefully as Joan Collins, playing a ship-wrecked nun, climbed onto a raft, wearing only a white nightshirt that showed her legs. Not a bit like the nuns we knew. Later there was a fight with a shark, where a Negro got dragged under the water and eaten, and just before he vanished it showed his mouth open screaming for help and blood running down his nose. Very satisfying. And when at the short
intermission we bought tubs of ice cream from the girl, she smiled and her fingers touched ours. Like Joan Collins, she was a smasher – soft hands, nice smile, powerful headlights.
But then the clock above the door to the toilets showed half-past five and we had to make a run for it. Coats over our arms, we sprinted back, boots hammering on the pavement and bouncing their noise off the terraced houses. At five to six, dusk closing in, we came gasping through the school gates. Barely time to hurl our coats into our rooms and collapse into our desks in the study hall. Two hours stuffed with Jane Austen and Latin verbs before tea-time. And thoughts of McCullough. I stared at the grain in the desk top, tracing my pencil through the initials I had gouged early in the year. McCullough’s desk, three over from mine, was empty. Had he been taken to the infirmary? Expelled? In any case, something a mad eejit like McCullough did couldn’t be laid at our doorstep. And yet…Was it really fitting that one man should die for the people, even when that man had volunteered?
That question is still being asked. Even now, years after the Bishop has gone to his grave, the boys involved have left and grown middle-aged, the Dean has had his nervous break-down and been laicised – that story lives on with different endings. Some say the Dean took down a special long strap that left no marks and beat McCullough senseless. Others, that the Dean noticed McCullough’s pocket bulging and took every penny. A few people claimed McCullough used an old pocket watch to hypnotise the Dean and arranged for him to forget everything when he woke up. Not many people believed that last one.
But in the weeks and months after, nobody knew what to think for certain. McCullough himself never spoke about it. But for three days he was different. Everywhere he went – class, the refectory, even the showers – he wore a pair of gloves. And the smile was gone. We assumed the gloves were to cover up the state of his hands after being slapped, but we didn’t know for sure. The unsmiling face, though, was worst – with the mouth a straight line, your eyes went up to the way the skin stretched over his cheeks, to his fixed unblinking stare. To tell you the truth, I felt so bad I glanced away immediately I’d looked at him.
But then, the way things worked out, I didn’t have to, really. Easter was early that year, a week after Saint Patrick’s Day. And when we came back there was a measles epidemic. The minute you showed spots they sent you home. Boys were borrowing pillows, eating toothpaste, breathing on each other to get their temperatures up. I was among the first wave of those sent home, and when I got back two weeks later, McCullough was sick and gone. So it was the beginning of June before our paths crossed again. I came on him alone one evening in the corner of the handball alley, his hand cupped round a half-cigarette, sucking hard. I took the butt when he offered it to me.
“How many matches would you say’s in this?” he asked, pulling a Swan box from his pocket.
“Fifty. Between thirty and fifty”.
“A bob says twenty-five or less”. There were twenty-three. A ghost of a grin showed, then faded. Three weeks later he left the school.
And the whole incident would have stayed buried in the mud at the bottom of my mind, forgotten, if I hadn’t been at an art exhibition in Dublin last week. The art teacher in our school had a second ticket and kept at me to go, so I went. The exhibition was held in an old tarted-up brewery, where some great Irishman had once hidden, and all the paintings had this northern theme. And introducing things was the head prefect, only now he’s the head painter. I’d seen him on TV, explaining different paintings in a soulful way. In the flesh he looked greyer and fatter. He told us all about the personal pleasure it had given him getting these marvellous Irish works together, living history, canvases that breathed invention. The audience clapped until their hands were sore, especially the women.
Afterwards I was standing beside a watercolour cow with six legs, price €2,500, when I felt the touch on my shoulder. Same hands but whiter, with the bones bulging at the knuckles. If I’d been a millionaire he couldn’t have been more excited. Good to see me, great occasion, how long was it? Ah, those days…Did I remember old so-and-so’s Latin classes, and what about the porridge hahaaaaa, and the cowboy films in the big hall, how the stagecoach wheels used to go backwards, hahaaaa? Dammit, I thought. I’ll ask.
“Have you ever come across Vince McCullough? Had this big grin and was always betting – remember?”
His smile faded and he looked at the floor, shaking his head. “Dead, I’m afraid. What, oh, eighteen months ago now. Met a lorry head-on near Cork. He was in the back seat – some woman driving. No belt on and…” He spread his hands, helpless gesture. “Windscreen”. There was a pause. “Wife and him split up, I heard”.
I tried not to think of McCullough’s grin in a ditch somewhere. Buckled metal with smears of blood.
The head painter’s soft voice dropped to a murmur. “Superintendent down there I know, told me a funny thing. Seems his pockets were full of notes when they got him”.
“Tens, fifties, hundreds. Near ten thousand. There was talk” – he leaned closer – “talk of laundered money, drugs…Even, you know. The lads.” He smiled from the face that was plumper now. “A man on the make ‘til the end, our McCullough”. His eye caught somebody over my shoulder and he stuck out his hand, cultured and pale. “Next time you’re down, Jim, right? Lunch or something”. He patted my arm and was gone.
In the car on the way home I tried explaining to the art teacher why I wanted to pull the guts of Ireland’s best-known painter/critic up his throat and feed them to our Doberman. His white hands making fame and money. McCullough’s beaten in childhood and killed in middle age.
The art teacher rubbed condensation from the windscreen. “You make it sound like the bloody road to Calvary. He’s brilliant at interpreting paintings and not bad at doing them either. Even you are jealous”.
With my eyes closed I could feel the car’s throbbing movement under me, hear its hum. Was there a plan for us all?Or just things happening, the bones of our lives thrown in the air and falling in random patterns? McCullough’s head, his hair stiff with dried blood, filled the darkness behind my eyes. The bruise made his grin lop-sided, but his features were free of resentment.