Formica table is filthy - strewn with dirty coffee mugs and empty packets of instant tomato soup. Headline from last Sunday’s Press is screaming at me . . . . I pay little attention. My head is hurting so I lay on my bunk to ease the pain. My hands are trembling; beads of sweat gather on my forehead and trickle down the deep channels on my face. Sprouting from the splintered ceiling the bulb hangs bare, leaking light at the yellow smoky wallpaper that litters the walls of this Godforsaken doss house. The smouldering fag in the saucer, the black slimy stout on the lino and the piercing smell of piss rising from the bunk suffocate the room.
The game is up for me.
I push the last few tablets into my mouth and drain the Whiskey bottle as I swallow. Sleep descends and pain drifts away with the disappearing smoke.
Relief is temporary.
Nightmare starts almost immediately. In that big room the same shadowy figure bending over me . . . all dark and lumpy, his swarthy face smirking like a possessed demon, long rosary beads rattling against his swollen thighs, spitting out words through huge gaps in his teeth.
‘This is our little secret’
The words suffocate in my throat.
The door closes with a gentle click and a bulgy shadow disappears down the corridor just as the grandfather clock strikes out. Tears begin to flow. Twelve is too old for crying but I just can’t stop myself. I taste the salt in the soaking pillow. A dim shaft of light escaping from the corridor catches the crucifix on the wall and through wet sleepy eyes I see the forlorn face of Christ. My weak cries fade to whispers. Christ I’m scared of every little sound, scared of this house and scared that the Chaplain will return.
How incredibly different everything had been a few hours earlier. Carefree and happy with my school pals Mucker and Davy skimming up that steep hill under the sparkling September sun, bags flung over our shoulders eagerly anticipating our first trip to Pater Noster House. And missing three days from school as well!
Could anything be more perfect?
We skipped along. Laughing and joking and trying to imagine how all those poor suckers felt who could not fork up the cash to pay for the retreat and had to remain behind in class. Doing Latin about now . . . .
MENSA . . . . MENSA . . . . MENSAM . . .
We chuckled out with great delight!
When we reached the gates we were impressed. Down a stony pathway stood the great house, with huge mahogany doors and a gleaming brass nameplate. We each took turns at pulling faces in front of the brass plate, and roared with laughter at our silly images all distorted and yellowy. The bearded wall, the ancient trees and the tall labyrinth promised three days of wild adventure for Mucker, Davy and me. We looked out at Cork Harbour stretching down below us in the distance with its white matchstick ships and dazzling blue waters.
‘Old Grandpa’ – Brother Jessie from our school was fussing about in reception and ticking off names from a list as each group of boys arrived. He lifted his head when he was the three of us approaching.
‘The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost’ said the good brother.
‘All present and correct’ said Davy.
We laughed. We always enjoyed Jessie’s humour.
It was then we caught sight of the chaplain. His brown habit clung tight to him, outlining a flabby belly that wiggled from side to side as he toddled along. A rosary, with beads as big as chestnuts dangled nosily from his belt and almost touched the ground. He stopped, mumbled something to Jessie and waved us along to assembly room. The room was old and shiny. The smell of dying books on the open shelves lingered everywhere. Two large windows opened up the outside world, inside the chaplain was shuffling about before getting down to the real business of religion. Mucker, Davy and me positioned ourselves in the front row and cleared nervous throats. The tension was broken almost immediately when the chaplain did a pirouette on the floor making fun of his bulky mass to the uproarious laughter of the boys.
‘Now boys who do I remind you of?’
We all knew but no one dared offer a suggestion.
‘Let me say it for you then . . . could it possibly be Brother Sebastian.’
We almost cheered – this priest really understood us boys.
‘I’ll let you into a secret . . . just between us….. For these few days why don’t you call me Brother Sebastian.’
We wished that the brothers in school were all like this priest. He went on to tell us some wonderful stories from the bible, and how God made the world in six days and that he was so pleased with his work that he rested on the seventh day. Davy said it was a good thing that God only took six days otherwise we wouldn’t have any football matches on Sundays. Brother Sebastian went on to tell us how God loved each and every boy like a father loves a son, and finished up by raising a poster with great big letters high over his head on which was written:
TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOU LIFE.
After confession that afternoon, we knew it was going to be the first day of the rest of our lives, our souls were as white and sparkling as new born snowdrops, and when we knelt before the raised figure of CHRIST ON THE CROSS we vowed never to commit a single sin again. Not even the tiniest stain.
It had been a long day. By the end I was whacked. All I wanted to do was to throw my sleepy head onto a pillow. When I had said my night prayers and tucked up nicely, I was startled when the door clicked open. I was mightily relieved to see it was only Brother Sebastian. He wore a broad smile on his face.
‘I came to tell you that God was very pleased with you today Johnny.’
I was surprised he knew my name.
‘And I’m pleased as well, so pleased in fact that I brought you a little box of sweets.’
I felt great. I thanked him and said it was a very happy day, and that I felt very close to God.
‘Your pal Davy told me you twisted your knee in the gardens today . . . and I came to take a look.’
‘Oh Father it was nothing, it’s better already.’
‘These things are better seen to right away.’
He pushed the covers aside and began to gently rub my knee. He examined it further.
‘That could be a nasty little sprain you have there.’
He continued to rub, this time with more intensity. The effort was showing on his face and his breathing got louder and more rapid. I knew that something awful was happening to me, as his eyes became strange and focused, and the smile disappeared from his face. His hands were now rapidly moving up my thighs. The shock reduced my voice to a mumble, as he muttered that God would be very pleased with me for making Brother Seb so happy. Soon he was beside me in the bed, spread out like a giant jellyfish with frantic sweaty tentacles, foul breath and frothy spits all over my neck. He disappeared as quickly as he arrived, and I sobbed ‘till a merciful sleep enveloped me.
I awoke suddenly from my stupor, eyes hurting. As I sense the dampness of the bed, that face flashes before me again – swollen and ruddy, mad eyes dancing in his head, words hissing from his mouth. I scramble into my clothes and with shoes still untied I prise the window open. Escape . . . escape . . . I keep muttering to myself…..escape from this hellhole. The plunge from the first floor lands me onto the rain soaked lawn; I scale the slippery ivy-clad wall and leap into the deserted street below. Too ashamed to face home and tell my parents I splatter my way downhill and feel the rain seeping through to my skin just as I reach the quays – this early morning all deserted and quiet. After observing the scene for some time I managed to sneak aboard a ship laden down with timber. Before I realized the gravity of what I had done the ship was speeding ahead for Southampton. From there I jumped a train for London and spent my first night under the stars . . . but none shone for me on that night or in the twenty years ever since – the haunting figure of Brother Sebastian ensure that.
The first few weeks were hell. I thought of my family and friends every minute of every day as I hid amid the teeming masses of London but I could not muster the strength to make any contact with them. I was unable to exorcise that brutal beast from my consciousness. His appalling face, his watery speech and his evil touch hung over me - I was possessed by him. His image followed me to park benches, to soup kitchens, to overcrowded hostels. In the middle of lonesome nights I could hear the rattle of beads, the awful words hissing forth, the snigger of satisfaction. Weeks tumbled into months, and months into years. Time became for me the harsh frost of winter or the kinder climes of summer. It was the doctor down at the police station who lost patience with me.
‘Listen Johnny, we’re sending you away to the country, the rest should do you good and you won’t know yourself in a few weeks.’
‘But doctor I am perfectly well, I don’t want to go to any asylum.’
Suddenly I was grabbed from behind by two coppers and before I could protest my sanity I was whisked away. Life was more unbearable now. This renewed my hatred. This beast responsible for my miserable life and somehow his evil spirit had managed to get me locked up. Day by day I became more obsessed with revenge. It was to the visiting pastor that I first put my request – my life’s desire was to return to Ireland. I told him it would bring back a lot of childhood memories. The Pastor felt that getting back to my roots might be the best thing for me now that I was otherwise so well. Not alone did he convince the chief medical officer but he organised the cash for me.
It was the beads I noticed first almost scraping the pebbled stones; his fat frame listing to the right; a blackthorn stick helped pull him along. I tagged along behind until I was outside his door. When he had settled I pushed in the door and stood before my fat prey . . . he had a startled look on his face.
‘Who gave you permission to enter my room?’
‘The same person who gave you permission to enter my room twenty years ago.’
‘What are you talking about, are you insane?’
‘Yes I am, thanks to you.’
‘Listen Brother Sebastian I have come to pay my dues.’
I cracked him straight in the face and sent red hot blood splattering in all directions. Gathering up his beads I wrapped them around his neck . . . his eyes bulged with absolute terror. Those who live by the beads will die by the beads; I thought to myself as I squeezed further ‘till his eyes almost popped out of their sockets, and his face reddened to boiling point. His breath fading ….. Gone …. I slipped back to the squat.
It was my breathing that almost stopped when the banging started on the door.
‘This is the police, open up or we’ll break the door in,’ a rough voice rang out.
With my heart pumping furiously I pulled the bolt open and stood helpless before a bunch of detectives. As I was being led downstairs one of the detectives remarked that I was a lucky man that the ‘old geezer’ survived.
‘Anyway’ he went on, ‘we want this Padre alive, got over twenty calls about him since last week.’