There was a hard brightness about him which not all of us could see or acknowledge. Some regarded him a dark, narrow-minded figure, with a caustic tone that was as intractable as it was derisive. Others, myself included, looked upon him as a somewhat benevolent character who mellowed considerably towards us as we advanced through our time at school.
We first got him as our religion teacher the year of our Inter Cert. It was unusual for him to be allocated so junior a class as ours. As a rule, he taught to classes in the senior house of the school, and quite why the Dean of Studies gave him 4B that particular year must have been as puzzling to him as it was unnerving to us.
He landed in that first day in September and the instruction was firm and unmistakeable. We were to take out our jotters at once and copy down everything he would say. No statements of his were to be omitted. He promised us constant monitoring and examination in this regard.
”˜I’m going to dictate the lessons I have apropos the saints and other such holy beings,’ he said in an inflexible tone, ”˜you will write out word for word what I say, and God help the fella who dares talk out of place or interrupts me. Is that understood? Good! Then we begin!’
It was far from a promising start with regard to the whole teacher-student relationship and I can only surmise that he was annoyed with Fr. Basil for having inflicted this ghastly horde upon him. What an insult he probably thought. The senior lads and their spiritual guidance was his proper sphere of activity. It had been from time immemorial as far as I understood. So what had he done to deserve callow specimens such as us? How degrading. How significantly beneath the extensive range of his mental faculties. Needless to say we weren’t allowed to address him for several weeks into term; and only then in the most constricted way imaginable; under terms and conditions dictated upfront by him. Without a shred of ambiguity. And most certainly without the refuge of obtuseness.
He only began to lower his reserves in early November. It was an important time of year he explained, a month of key observances. All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day. One or two others which for the life of me I can no longer remember. By then we’d grown accustomed to some of his quirks and foibles. The way he interlaced his fingers, making a veritable cage of his hands, when delivering a message of some consequence or imparting a meaningful narrative. And how his crisscrossed brow grew thoughtful every so often. He spoke with a neat enunciation and employed theatrical beats on a regular basis. A seminal juncture in the life of St. John the Apostle or St. Francis of Assisi might be reached and it would be necessary to ensure we’d understood its import and bearing. There’d be no point in his continuing if we didn’t grasp the relevance of a specific act or sacrifice.
”˜Ad maiorem Dei gloriam,’ he intoned sombrely to us, ”˜or let me put it another way boys – action follows belief. The glorified soul in this tale realised this only too well. He laid down his life for God. God knew this and justly rewarded him. The saint was the artisan of his own fortunes. And these were inextricably linked with the higher purpose of our Lord.’
He’d nod then at the apparent wisdom of his words and proceed on in this vein. The sleeves of his brown habit were invariably chalk-smeared from the text he’d etched on the archaic blackboard. The warm garb hung in heavy folds about him, but it also served to conceal a frame which was bordering on the rotund. He had oily, chubby hands; folds of loose flesh protruded from under his chin. His style of writing had a flamboyant feel to it and his slightly corpulent figure moved to and fro to our quiet amusement as he logged passages from the old and new testaments. The epistles of Saint Peter the Apostle had a special place in his heart. As did the Book of Revelation which he especially liked for its dramatic imagery. He had a keen interest in foretellings and symbology and told us how this final book of the New Testament was a perfect fit for his literary taste. His frank blue eyes shone rapturously and his thick features grew lively as he expounded on the subject. He had a lusty demeanour generally with lines deepened on his weathered face. A great gush of a smile and opulent laugh suggested that his initial hostility towards us was at last coming to an end. But there were setbacks and impediments to this and quite often we were the cause of them. But sometimes, truth be told, so was he.
Saturday morning lessons were devoted exclusively to preparing us for the liturgy of the word at Sunday mass. He’d arrive in with an old-fashioned cassette player and we’d listen to the ”˜experts on tape’ as he referred to them. Week in, week out they consisted of the exact same voices and, occasionally, longwinded explanations. After this we discussed their analysis and also speculated as to what the next day’s homily might consist of. On Mondays he rewarded the boy closest in his guesswork with an apple from the monastery orchard or a prized loaf of homemade bread from the kitchen. There was a tuck shop in the school which opened every day at 3 o’clock, but he didn’t approve of this saying that chocolates and fizzy drinks would rot our teeth. In spite of this assertion it was noticeable that his own were not in such good shape. For that reason he’d earned the nickname ”˜choppers’ down through the years.
We were required to submit homework frequently and he kept close tabs on who was promptest and most consistent in this. He warned us he would never tolerate tardiness and we dared not test his resolve on this point. The lessons concerning figures such as Ignatius Loyola and Maximilian Kolbe continued that whole autumn, but he began to embrace a more wide-ranging approach with respect to us. We were encouraged to speak up and voice our opinions on matters such as papal infallibility and the role of the sacraments in our spiritual lives. He was tickled by our incomplete reasoning and guffawed aloud when we debated one another; but every so often an irritability overcame him if our arguments descended into petty squabbles or flippant commentary. His voice edged with sharp authority and all his weight tilted forward when he was dissatisfied or arriving at such a state. He lowered his head like an angry bull if the class as a whole was to blame. A bleak stare he’d nurtured was applied if it was the fault of a particular individual.
It was the final week of November that year when he told us how and why he’d taken his monastic name.
”˜I chose the name Gregory because Pope Saint Gregory the Great is, and always has been, a personal hero of mine,’ he revealed with no little pride. ”˜Gregory was the first pope from a monastic background you know. He’s also the patron saint of students and teachers. God help us but he may even be looking down on us in our meagre efforts right now boys – me as the lowly educator, yourselves as the imperfect scholars. What do you think of that? Do you think there’s any possibility we are pleasing to him? Whatsoever?’
At the back of the classroom Aengus Harrington piped up.
”˜I think he’d be happy with our efforts Father,’ he volunteered, ”˜if he’s a saint, then he has compassion and understanding, doesn’t he? He’d know we have good intentions. He wouldn’t mind us falling short every now and again.’
A faint wave of tittering arose in response to Aengus’s contribution. Gregory shushed us as he shook his head with farcical gravity.
”˜Thank you for that Aengus,’ he said with mock solemnity, ”˜but if you had kept your silence just now, you would have stayed a philosopher. Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses. That was not the point I was attempting to make young man. My question was answering itself, but your mind is not lateral enough to realise this. Our efforts in this classroom can never be entirely worthy of one such as him. Because he has such an exceptional amount of sacredness, the father of Christian worship as the middle ages knew him. Kindly listen and you will learn a great deal more. And a smidgen of humility on your part I would recommend young man. More commonly put – look before you leap.’
Such put-downs were not unusual and were mainly directed at boys that Gregory did not care very much for. He had his favourites in the class and I happened to be one of them. There was no personal history between us, no background story to warrant ill feeling on his part. In Aengus Harrington’s case, however, Gregory could apparently summon up a plethora of reminisces and reflections. Aengus was from Rathfarnham in Dublin. His grandfather had gone to school with Gregory and his father had also been a student at the same alma mater. Gregory did not like either of them, the older man in particular, and was not inclined to conceal this. He addressed Aengus in an often patronising manner and remarked upon the hereditary similarities he noted from one generation to the next.
”˜Your father was often acting the fool Harrington, but we straightened him out eventually,’ he told him one day, ”˜I see the same glint in your eye that he had. You’d be wise to obey the rules in my class. Don’t give me any excuses to come down on you. Because if I do, it will be severe young man. And those other relatives of yours I knew…they did not relish their just deserts when they came along.’
At the Christmas musical in December I saw Aengus’s family for the first time. We’d been in school two-and-a-half years by then, but somehow I’d missed of them. He had a younger brother and sister, both still in primary school. His father and mother in their mid-thirties were unremarkable and looked like so many other parents to my young eyes. They were accompanied by an older couple – Aengus’s grandparents on his father’s side. His grandfather, Dermot Harrington, was a tall and stately-looking man. I’d heard he’d made his money in the design of small-craft harbours all over the world. He was still in practice Aengus told us. There was constant demand for his expertise. Retirement had been put on hold indefinitely.
Aengus’s clan were a few minutes late and were rummaging for their seats in the semi-darkness. The entertainment on stage had already begun and they were disturbing more than a few. But in a very polite and well-bred manner. An abundance of apologies was offered as they entered their row. The younger couple whispered graciously. The older pair nodded diplomatically. Behind me there were some low murmurings and then a familiar voice rose up and disparaged the entire scene. It was Gregory. He was sitting beside Mr. Edwards, one of the older teachers.
”˜Would you look at that Jackeen Larry and his mop of facial hair,’ he said to Edwards, and I could imagine how his lips were pursed in annoyance, his head raised like a blind man’s. I could also figure out who his scorn was directed towards. Mr. Harrington the younger had a clean-shaven face, the kind you saw in a Gillette ad. Gregory was referring to the paterfamilias as he viewed him. And, clearly, he was not deriving any modicum of pleasure from this.
”˜Does he think himself above everyone else?’ he said noisily. A few of us looked around, but were careful not to attract his steely gaze.
Gregory pushed on with his diatribe.
”˜A beard does not make one a philosopher you auld Jackeen,’ he said as contemptuously as he could manage. ”˜Barba non facit philosophum. Sit yourself down this instant and allow the rest of us to watch this fine show. Be respectful and come on time in future. You’re not King Solomon in these parts!’
A few days after we’d returned from Christmas break myself, Aengus and Francis McInerney stood chatting in the fourth-year toilets. It was mid-January, but there was still a vestigial light in the sky outdoors. The bell was due to ring for tea shortly and, following that, we’d trudge to the study halls as per usual. Aengus was bemoaning this routine of ours which he personally found most exacting this time of year. January was the very worst month of the calendar he declared gloomily. And February was not far behind it in terms of its dreariness. Especially in a place like this. Especially on days which began in darkness and ended much too quickly in the same miserable condition.
”˜There’s no doubt about it lads, I’m suffering from what’s known as seasonal affective disorder,’ he said emphatically as McInerney cadged a cigarette from me. Aengus did not smoke himself, but liked to join us whenever we went for a few drags. He was good at keeping lookout. Smoking was not allowed in the junior house and the Deans of Discipline monitored the lavatories on a constant basis. But they’d never caught us in the act on Aengus’s watch, a fact he was especially proud of. He was our keeper of the flame as he’d self-proclaimed himself. But the flame was not burning so brightly today and he was making no secret of this. Everything was wrong, all was amiss. School was weighing him down, classes were exasperating, and some of the teachers were antagonistic towards him. Of this latter opinion he was most convinced. And one name figured prominently above all the rest.
”˜Gregory has it in for me,’ he said to us in a cindery whisper, ”˜he’s never liked me and I know why. It’s on account of my grandfather having been at school here at the same time he was. They didn’t get on with each other you know. Grandad says that was the way between him and a lot of other fellas.’
McInerney’s eyebrows arched with rising curiosity.
”˜You mean Gregory?’ he said. ”˜You’re telling us he wasn’t popular?’
Aengus’s head tugged from side to side. His wiry body flexed and strained as he formulated the words. There was an excitement on him, but also a loose fear that held sway. He continued in a faint, undersea voice, peering over his shoulder as he did so.
”˜His real name was Padraig Spillane,’ he said with reference to Gregory, ”˜he’s originally from Waterville in County Kerry. Grandad said they used to call him Podge because of his…well I think you can guess why. That stuff he told us about taking Gregory as his monastic name; about how the Pope was a hero of his…Grandad said that’s a load of nonsense. He was made take the name and didn’t like it one bit. But he didn’t want anyone to think they had the upper hand on him. Even the Abbot himself. Grandad said he was always like that when they were in school together. When they were the same age as ourselves.’
He paused then, appearing surprised at the cool sound of his own words. McInerney and I exchanged glances. It was a windy mouthful even by Aengus’s standards. We both liked Gregory in spite of his many eccentricities. It was more agreeable to think these were part of his make-up, something organic in him, rather than cultivated over time. And now Aengus was suggesting a narrative thread, a backdrop that might unlock the mystery. Neither of us wanted that. We preferred the enigma; the dramatic irony. A reductive explanation did not appeal to us. And so I decided to take the lead.
”˜Choppers is not the worst of them Aengus,’ I said, ”˜don’t get me wrong, he’s as odd as two left feet, but his heart is in the right place. Religion is everything to him. His whole world. It’s his Manchester United, his Tottenham fucking Hotspur.’
Aengus shook his head dismissively, rejecting it.
”˜I’m just telling you what I heard from Grandad,’ he said, ”˜he knew him in the past and told me not to believe everything he says. A lot of it might be guff according to him. Those ghost stories he tells us for example. How come he’s always involved in them? It’s always something that happened to him, isn’t it?’
”˜Now wait a minute Aengus, are you saying he’s a liar?’ McInerney interrupted. ”˜Personally, I don’t think he is. How else could he have such details, such information? No one could know those things if they didn’t have the experiences first-hand. Maybe he lays it on a bit thick sometimes, but I wouldn’t mind that. His stories are entertaining. They’re a helluva lot better than Julius Caesar or Jane Austen.’
”˜You’re dead right Franny,’ I said in agreement, ”˜you remember that one he told us about the sanatorium in the 1950s. He couldn’t have been making it up when he said he had TB. That’s not the kind of thing you invent for the sake of a story. He was telling us the truth, no doubt about that. The night fevers and weight loss he described – they all happened.’
”˜That’s how it was with that disease,’ said McInerney, ”˜it was shocking stuff altogether. Half of the people who got it back then didn’t pull through. Just like that fella who shared a ward with him and died one night. That story was something else! The kind they’d have on Ripley’s Believe It or Not!’
Aengus threw his eyes up in the air at this. He chuckled quietly to himself.
”˜You mean the fella whose dead mother came to visit him during the night?’ he said. ”˜And her speaking to Gregory who just so happened to be awake at the time. That one?’
”˜That’s exactly it,’ McInerney said with gusto, ”˜Gregory had a supernatural experience. Imagine finding out the next morning that he’d passed away a few hours earlier! And that she’d been dead herself for ten years! She must have come for some unearthly reason like Gregory said. Maybe to say goodbye to her son. Maybe to tell him his life was coming to an end.’
”˜Maybe she didn’t come at all,’ Aengus suggested in a stage whisper. ”˜Did you ever think of that? It’s just his word after all. Grandad said we ought to take his stories with a pinch of salt.’
McInerney pooh-poohed this suggestion.
”˜If you ask me it’s your grandfather who has it in for Gregory,’ he said, ”˜you told us they didn’t get on with each other, right? Well there you go! Your grandfather told you a load of stories because he didn’t like Gregory or Podge…whatever his name was back then. That’s what happens when people fall out. One of my cousins did that over a bit of land last year. Put out a heap of rumours and gossips about his own brother and most of them weren’t true.’
Aengus smiled sadly at this note of dismissal.
”˜Actually my grandfather didn’t go into any great detail,’ he said, ”˜and he didn’t tell me anything specific. I asked him to, but he refused. He said, ”˜I’m schooling my impulse to tell you any more right now Aengus. Notwithstanding what I might think of him, Fr. Gregory is your teacher. Perhaps I’ll tell you some other things later on; when you’re finished school. Meantime show him the proper respect. God knows he’s earned it. The life of a monk is a harsh one and he’s certainly made his sacrifices. Maybe for that very reason I shouldn’t have told you anything at all. But I knew the man before he wore the hood. There’s an expression about that. He’d know it very well seeing as how he’s so educated in Latin.’
Aengus coughed with a little embarrassment.
”˜I tried looking it up, but couldn’t find anything that matched what he was saying. I won’t be asking Gregory what it is though. I’d be afraid he’d have an idea that…’
The bell sounded for tea just then. I put out my cigarette under a cold tap. McInerney stamped his on the floor. Aengus, dutiful as ever, reminded him to pick up the butt. The Deans were always on the lookout for evidence he said. No point in giving them ammunition. That would make his job as our sentry all the more difficult.
We walked towards the refectory with little enthusiasm, and even less elasticity. It was Thursday evening and that meant pizza, or rather its scanty substitute. I could already get a faint whiff of it in the distance, but my mind was elsewhere. The conversation we’d just had was still ringing in my ears. Especially the last bit of it – the parting remark Aengus’s grandfather had made about the hood. I wondered what he’d been driving at. Was he hinting at something hidden, something unbecoming? No, I told myself. It’s just a bit of history between the two men, nothing more. And, besides, it was a long time ago. People change. Often for the better. Aengus’s grandfather was just holding on to the past a bit too much. But then again so too was Gregory, and I recalled his boisterous tirade at the Christmas musical. True to form he’d been opinionated and outspoken. And certainly funny as well. Barba non facit philosophum; the comment he’d passed about King Solomon. It was him all over. He definitely had a way with words. I could see the funny side to it. I had to remind myself that not everyone could.
Towards the end of January, he switched the focus of our classes to life’s lessons as he called them. We were young men after all he said. It was high time we examined some of the truths of our mortal existences. His estimation of us had improved considerably since the beginning of the school year. We had developed, matured, in the space of a few short months. There was hope for us yet he joked. Our minds were expanding, he could recognise this in our daily interactions, and by way of the written work we presented him. He implored us not to disappoint him going forward; not to betray this newfound confidence of his.
”˜In knowledge there is possibility and potential boys. Scientia potentia est. You will appreciate how long it has taken for us to come to an understanding,’ he said as he heralded this new chapter in our relationship. ”˜Five months ago I would have thought it unimaginable. I would have predicted a year of dictation on my part; of notation for yourselves. I would have considered your minds rough and ready; entirely unsophisticated. But I’m glad to say I was in the wrong to a certain extent. I made an erroneous assumption in this regard. To err is to be human after all. We may now move on to other discussions, other examinations. Matters concerning your future lives, as you enter adulthood. Challenges you will face. Difficulties you will have to overcome. Some of these will seem insurmountable. There will be hardships along the way, days so long you will wonder if they ever have an end. But remember this – the pain will be useful to you in some way. Be patient and tough and there will be recompense. One day such things will be pleasing to remember. Just like that first one when I walked into this classroom. We did not begin so well and you probably thought me an oppressor. But see how far we’ve come. I look back on that day now with a sense of content. It is pleasing for me to remember. For yourselves too I hope. Carry on as we have been going and we will benefit one another. Revel in the latitude I will be allowing you. But mind you don’t abuse it. Otherwise it’s back to the incessant transcribing. Is that understood? Good! Then we begin!’
Gregory’s life lessons were quite distinctive and often peppered with his own interpretations of the world, both spiritual and secular. He revealed a more playful side to himself when discussing corporeal matters. He told us that, in spite of his religious calling and all it entailed, he could appreciate the finer things in life such as a flavourful glass of wine or a full-bodied woman. He spoke in a low, musical voice about a wedding of his nephew’s he’d recently attended. We were gobsmacked at how comfortable he was with language regarding the female form. Words such as pert and firm were employed liberally and he did not bat an eyelid at their sound parting his lips. He fell away into howls of laughter when perceiving our amazement at this.
”˜It’s one of the few occasions I’ve seen boys your age so utterly speechless,’ he observed, ”˜you never thought a man of my disposition had such thoughts, did you? Well I do. On occasion. And it’s not a sin. A slight weakness perhaps. An inclination. A taste. And in matters of taste, there can be no disputes. De gustibus non est disputandum. Everyone has his personal preferences and I’m merely stating my own. Ultimately, I exercise self-control of course. As I have to, as my vow of celibacy obliges. But I can look boys. I do have eyes in my head you know. There were women at the wedding of Cana and I’ve no doubt that Jesus noticed them too. His strength of mind ensured such thoughts went no further. He transformed the water into wine and they had a great session after that for sure. Which is what we did at my nephew’s wedding. Beautiful wine indeed. Much better than what we have on the altar I can tell you.’
He turned our discussion to other themes as well that spring. A prominent one was his own especial interest in death. It was regularly broached. The transience of life was a fait accompli, but it was not something to be feared, rather embraced, as far as he was concerned. His fellow monks in the abbey who’d passed on were a testament to this. They’d led rich lives, but not in an affluent or moneyed way.
”˜We are but dust and shadow as Horace tells us boys; pulvis et umbra sumus,’ he said one day with a flicker of gloomy delight written on his face. He stifled this and replaced it with a look of tight wisdom. His eyes searched the spaces of our classroom as he continued.
”˜You may have heard about the passing of poor Father Dominic. Did Father Canice mention him at morning prayers?’
”˜Yes, Father,’ we replied in precise unison.
Gregory nodded his head solemnly. A more fervent tone crept into his speech.
”˜Ah, he was a great man Father Dominic, so he was,’ he said with no little enthusiasm, ”˜a most unassuming member of our community who tended the grounds of the abbey for the best part of fifty years. Father green fingers was the pet name we gave him on account of this. He could coax a failing hydrangea back to life. Or give new impetus to a sluggish chrysanthemum. He had a natural gift with flora and fauna, no mistake about that. And in pious terms he had an unshakable devotion to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower as she’s known. Many was the time I passed him on a corridor in the abbey and heard that familiar prayer offered up to her in a soft voice – ”˜Little Flower, in this hour, show thy power.’ Father Dominic is in the same place as that great Carmelite nun now. He will reap the reward of his faith and dedication.’
He broke off for a moment in thought.
”˜I think he already is,’ he said with an odd grin, ”˜if I’m not mistaken, there’s a smile on his face. He’s lying in repose at the moment beyond in the abbey. He looks very peaceful in himself. You ought to…’
His eyebrows arched and he looked at us in a conspiratorial manner.
”˜Would you be interested in seeing him?’ he asked consulting his wristwatch, ”˜we could be over and back in the space of twenty minutes. There’s plenty of time and I’m sure Mr. Edwards wouldn’t mind if you were a few minutes late for geography. You’ve all seen a body in repose before I assume?’
A solitary hand at the back of the classroom was raised. It was Aengus Harrington’s. Tentatively, he offered up his personal information.
”˜I’ve never seen a dead person Father,’ he said, ”˜I’m not sure if I’d like to.’
”˜And why not?’ Gregory intoned with apparent seriousness, ”˜there’s nothing to be afraid of lad. He’s perfectly quiet and still. No danger of any sudden movement, if that’s your concern.’
Aengus pondered this for a moment or two. A slight lowering of his head implied he was still not very keen on the idea.
”˜I think I might find it spooky Father to be honest,’ he replied, his eyes pleading for release, ”˜especially if he’s smiling like you say. I didn’t know corpses could be happy.’
Gregory waved this away. His hands moved vigorously like a conjurer’s.
”˜Of course they can be,’ he said with a marked emphasis, ”˜in circumstances whereby the departed left this life with a profound sense of fulfilment. You’ll be able to see it for yourself Mr. Harrington. What’s more, it’s something you will have to experience sooner or later. No one lives forever. Not even your own kith and kin.’
Aengus assumed a brave expression. He drew his breath in through his teeth, accepting this last remark.
”˜Okay Father, I’ll come along,’ he said.
Gregory flashed a huge wink in his direction.
”˜That’s the lad,’ he said in a reassuring tone, ”˜no cause to be anxious about it. It’s good to encounter new situations. It’s part and parcel of growing up.’
The encouragement worked on Aengus. The intellectual fibre of the words had the desired effect. A diffident beam spread across his face. The moment of doubt and delay passed. All his previous reservations seemed scattered from his mind.
”˜Right you are Father, I’m ready so,’ he said, ”˜I’m looking forward to it now.’
”˜Good man Aengus!’ Gregory responded. He upped his voice then in a further demonstration of support. ”˜Good man yourself!’ he said.
It was a dry, bright day outside, but a dogged breeze had the remembrance of winter’s sharpness to it. The branches of the nearby elm trees stirred gently as we crossed from the school building to the abbey. A pale sun hung in the sky. It was high and purposeful, but wholly lacking in authority.
Aengus matched his every step with Gregory’s. He asked a variety of questions about the dead man. What age was Father Dominic when he’d passed? Where was he originally from? What kind of man was he? How come he’d never been a teacher in our school?
Gregory received the inquiries with garrulous good humour. He spoke of how the older monk had been delegated the most menial of tasks in recent times. His infirmity and advancing years had caught up with him, yet he refused to remain sedentary. He wanted to play his part regardless of his physical limitations. The Abbot had had no choice in the matter he declared. But Dominic had performed his lowly chores with great humility and attention. He’d always been a stickler for detail. That kind of commitment never faded Gregory opined. The pleasure for a man such as Dominic was the work itself. He chuckled sagely as Aengus asked him why this was. They continued to chat volubly as if old friends lately reconciled. Francis McInerney and I exchanged quick glances. My friend rolled his eyes in amusement. The same thought had occurred to him, as myself. Aengus appeared to have forgotten the conversation he’d had with us in January; the hard facts his grandfather had hinted at in his possession. At the very least he now seemed to be disregarding this. Or else putting on a very credible performance for Gregory’s benefit. Is he trying to get into his good books all of a sudden I wondered. It was quite possible I figured. Deep down Aengus wanted people to like him; most especially of all our teachers. His energy in this regard was an irritation at times. He wanted to be popular with us. He wanted to impress them. His design was transparent, even as he tried to disguise it. At this very moment it was as clear as crystal. A fawning note of agreement and exaggerated tilt of his head confirmed to me what he was up to. Playing up to Gregory of all people. I could hardly believe it. The greater part of my amazement, however, was reserved for our religion teacher. It was entirely out of character for Gregory to allow such out-and-out ingratiation. His normal practice was to keep people at a restrained distance. Even those of us he was partial to. And especially fellows like Aengus who, up ”˜til now, he’d shown no great affection for. I wondered why he wasn’t seeing through the charade. Was he getting soft in his old age?
Another monk, approximately the same age as Gregory, was sitting by himself in the church saying his prayers. He had dim grey eyes which lifted pensively as we approached. The two men nodded at each other, but exchanged no other pleasantries. Gregory encouraged us to draw together in a tight little knot around the simple coffin. We peered in at the deceased. He was indeed a very old man. He had a snow-white oval face, weather-beaten, with many creases and crochets. His wrinkled hands were clutching a pair of rosary beads. The remainder of his frail body was covered over by his brown habit and a material of indeterminate quality. There was no evidence of a smile. Gregory’s description in this regard had been embroidered. Personally, I was not so greatly surprised.
The insipid sunlight moved away from the high-pointed stained-glass windows and gave way to deep shadow. The area we were standing in drained of all colour. Atmosphere took body with a flickering candle nearby, a twisted rope of wax stemming from its base; an antiquated crucifix on a rickety stand; and the aromatic smell of incense lingering in the air. Gregory’s voice rose up amidst this with calm clarity.
”˜Dust and shadow boys,’ he said, repeating the words he’d touched upon earlier, ”˜we think ourselves as permanent fixtures on this earth. Especially when we are young, when we are your age. But it is an illusion. An ephemeral thing in actual fact. We are here only for a brief period. Then we are gone. Just as the light here receded a few moments ago. The point is to make the best use of the time we’re given. As this man did. He did not waste anything, he wanted for nothing. He lived every day of his ninety-five years to the full. If we could all have that. If we could all make such an assertion in the end.’
He reached out and patted the emaciated hands.
”˜God rest your soul Dominic,’ he said in a sibilant whisper.
Rousing himself from his meditation, he considered an idea which had come to mind.
”˜Would you like to touch him?’ he said to us with affected lightness.
Several heads flinched backwards all at once. Murmurs of uncertainty circled our group. Nervous voices swelled ever so slightly. Had we heard him right? Had he just invited us to lay hands on this old dead monk?
Gregory told us to quieten down. His voice was a model of soft-spoken control. He raised both palms outwards and ushered us closer.
”˜It’s nothing more than flesh boys,’ he said in a comforting tone, ”˜no harm in it. Just as there was none in the man when he was alive. It’s being respectful to touch him. A way of saying goodbye. Mark my words, he’d appreciate it.’
One by one we acquiesced. I was one of the last to go. Father Dominic’s hands had an ice-cold feel to them. His skin was callused, damaged from the many years spent in the monastic garden no doubt.
”˜Touch his face as well Raymond,’ Gregory proposed.
I was a little apprehensive about this part, but resolved myself to comply. The monk’s features were greatly wizened as I’d observed. His face felt like the skin of a plucked turkey.
”˜Well done Raymond,’ Gregory extolled. ”˜Has everyone gone now?’
His eyes came to rest on Aengus.
”˜Why Aengus – I don’t believe you’ve taken your turn yet. Come forward here lad and say goodbye to Father Dominic.’
From my position I could see the fear drawing down on Aengus’s face. His bout of courage had been momentary. He was sunken in himself, peeping from a distance. His face was ashen; his whole deportment on edge.
Gregory persisted with his bidding, an amiable cadence in his voice.
”˜It’s quite ok,’ he said. ”˜Step up here. Let’s be having you.’
Aengus sidled forward in a crab-like manner. Standing over the coffin, and its occupier, he reached out warily.
”˜Go on,’ Gregory urged him, ”˜give his hands a rub. They’re as lifeless as the rest of him. Inert like the rosary beads he’s holding.’
Aengus quickly tapped his hand against the bony fingers. Mission accomplished, he shot back a look of triumph.
More was requested of him nonetheless.
”˜And now his face as Raymond did,’ Gregory directed.
The countenance of jubilation gave way to one of returning anxiety. Still though he knew what he had to do. With all of us present, and Gregory insistent, there were very few alternatives. None that I could think of at any rate. No way out of it without losing face. Aengus himself had evidently come to the same conclusion. Slowly, inch by inch, he reached out an unsteady arm. Trembling fingers came to hover over the stark outlines of the skull. There was dead silence except for the furtive sighs escaping him. His breathing became more laboured as he gradually lowered his small hand. He did so deliberately, almost in slow motion. As if expecting something unforeseen, something out of the ordinary. A ripple of life in the dead man perhaps. A low, mumbling sound parting his lips. What he got instead was a tremor of a very different kind. A voice that was powerful and replete with energy. It was like a shout, filling the old church with echoing vibrations.
”˜BOO!’ yelled Gregory at the top of his lungs.
Aengus started up with more than a pretty fright. He’d been on the verge of touching the monk’s leathery brow. Now his hands pressed tightly against his mouth in shock. His face was the colour of slate. He staggered back and went into a reel for a moment or two. Gregory for his part burst into an aged cackle of a laugh. The rest of us joined in sheepishly. The prank had bowled us over as well. But not to the same extent as its intended victim.
From the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of the other monk who’d been praying. He did not look very much taken aback. But definitely not best pleased judging by his expression. He said nothing, but shook his head grimly. Then he resumed his observances.
As we left the church I noticed Gregory whispering something into Aengus’s ear. I expected it might be a calming word, a passing utterance to settle his frayed nerves. Whatever was said, the subsequent reaction was far from appeased. Gregory’s words appeared to have cut Aengus like a knife. During our next class I was certain I could detect tears upon him. His eyes were glittering like broken glass as Mr. Edwards spoke about the Amazon rainforest and its accelerated depletion. Aengus looked as if he was much depleted himself. He took copious notes as our geography teacher rattled on. Not once did he interrupt, or pose a question, as was his usual fashion. He sat very still and kept his head down mostly. A dark shade of misery hung over him. When the bell rang at 3 o’clock he groped for his books and left as quickly as he could manage. He did not come to tea that evening in the refectory. His voice was veiled and sad when I enquired what was the matter. Fumbling for a plausible excuse, he reminded me it was Thursday.
”˜Pizza,’ he said in a weak inflection, ”˜I just didn’t have the appetite for it this evening. It’s always so crusty. So…’
The evasive tone staggered a little as a thought flew across his mind. His eyes blazed and his face tightened. The miserable feeling seemed to be returning all over again. But then a dull anger served to fortify him. He completed his opinion with a particular venom in his voice.
”˜So hard!’ he said. ”˜So bloody hard!’
Fifteen years later I ran into him on Aston Quay in Dublin. It was a Thursday evening once again. Many Thursdays had passed since we’d last seen each other. Aengus was a solicitor with a reputable firm based near Baggot Street. I was working as a freelance journalist. He suggested we have a drink for old times’ sake. The impromptu session quickly turned into more than just one. We imbibed in a number of pubs that same evening. The Palace Bar on Fleet Street; Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street. Eventually we made our way further up south-side. O’Neills on Suffolk Street was paid a visit. As was the Hairy Lemon on Stephen Street and one or two more I can no longer recall.
We found ourselves upstairs in Kehoe’s on South Anne Street at the end of the night. By then we’d had a skinful to say the least. Aengus was as well-oiled as I was, his tongue loosened by the pints of black stuff. He clapped me on the back playfully as I lit a cigarette. I noticed the bar tender observing him carefully. I signalled to him my friend was ok; just a bit tipsy perhaps. The assuaging flourish of my hand was not missed by Aengus.
”˜You know something Ray,’ he said, ”˜you’ve always been a great man to look out for other people. You were just like this in school. And yet here you are inhaling that crap down your lungs! Why do you do it man? Is self-preservation so low down your list of priorities?’
I laughed at this, passing it off airily.
”˜You forget that you were our watchdog,’ I said, ”˜McInerney and I would have been caught many times if it hadn’t been for your sharp eyes. If there was a war, you’d been called up for point duty.’
Aengus shook his head forlornly.
”˜Poor old Franny McInerney,’ he said, ”˜it’s hard to believe he’s no longer with us. Car accident, wasn’t it?’
”˜Head-on collision just outside Tourmakeady,’ I replied. ”˜Did you miss the funeral as well?’
”˜I’m afraid so,’ said Aengus. ”˜Would you believe I was on my honeymoon at the time? I only heard when we returned. It was a right shock. He’s the only one from our year who’s passed, isn’t he?’
”˜The only one so far,’ I said nodding in affirmation.
Aengus looked at me full and square.
”˜You say that as if you’re expecting more,’ he said with a faint, fleeting smile.
I gave a sniff-laugh in return.
”˜Well statistics tell us we should expect the loss of at least one within a certain time period,’ I said with assumed thoughtfulness. ”˜There was how many in our year? Seventy-two. Naturally someone’s going to die within say…ten…fifteen years. Even at a young age. Franny just happened to be the unlucky one amongst us. It shouldn’t have happened him, but it did.’
”˜God rest his soul,’ Aengus said in agreement.
He raised his glass clumsily in remembrance of our fallen friend. A sunbeam floated tremulously across the floor of the bar. I found myself growing more reflective, more nostalgic. Not knowing if it was the potency of the drink, or the manner of conversation, I pushed on in this attitude.
”˜It reminds me of something Gregory used to tell us,’ I said, ”˜dust and shadow. That quotation from Horace – ”˜We are but dust and shadow.’
Aengus’s face broadened with memory at this. He waved his hand in deprecation.
”˜Don’t even be mentioning that name to me,’ he said, his voice rising with scorn, ”˜I did my level best to forget about him. And as for those ten-a-penny wisdoms of his…pure and utter claptrap!’
”˜He died six months ago,’ I reminded him in an attempt at moderation, ”˜sure he wasn’t perfect, but then who is? God knows he acknowledged his human side to us. He was no paragon, but that made him more authentic as far as I’m concerned.’
”˜Authentic?’ Aengus repeated in a scathing tone. ”˜Is that what you’re calling him now? Just because you liked him. Just because you were one of his favourites. A journalist such as yourself ought to realise the word has many connotations. It’s not employed just because someone has worldly-wise tales to tell…so-called. Or because he can affect a roguish streak. It also denotes sincerity. Honesty.’
He picked up his pint glass and threw some of it back quickly, forcefully. I was no mind reader, but I sensed there was more he wanted to say. I knew it would not take much on my part to prompt this.
”˜Why are you so set against him after all these years?’ I enquired. ”˜The man is dead and buried. He’s equal with all the others now, good and bad.’
”˜Good and bad indeed,’ Aengus said, ”˜but you didn’t include downright nasty. Do you remember that time he took us over to see the dead monk? The same year we were doing our Inter Cert.’
”˜I do,’ I replied, ”˜Father Dominic. He was laid out in the abbey church.’
”˜That’s right. Do you also recall how he played that trick on me? Made me almost hit the ceiling of the church.’
”˜He gave you a fair fright,’ I said. ”˜The rest of us got a bit of a jolt too. But it was only a bit of harmless fun. You got over it I’m sure. That was just his way. He was fond of being unpredictable…spur-of-the-moment like.’
A stony brow informed me my old school friend was not of a like mind.
”˜Spur-of-the-moment it most definitely was not,’ he said unequivocally, ”˜that so-and-so knew exactly what he was up to. He had it planned in advance. Got me hook, line, and sinker as well. I was half-disgusted with myself the way I was caught out. But not so much after what he said to me.’
”˜Was that when we were leaving the church?’ I asked.
Aengus focused raptly on me.
”˜You saw that, did you?’ he said. ”˜Yes, it was when we were going out. Absolutely hateful words that I’ll never forget. He pulled me up at the door and said, ”˜memento mori – remember your mortality, and those around you. Especially with regard to your auld grandfather, Dermot.’ He said it in such a foul way too. Now don’t try telling me there was anything particularly elevating or ennobling about that Ray. There was an inherent wickedness in the man and no mistake about it. He made it very clear to me that day.’
He drained the remainder of his pint at a gulp. It was cool and quiet in the pub by this time. The last of the day’s light was gradually ebbing away. There was a palpable silence between us and it stuck for a few moments. Then Aengus ransacked his pockets for some loose change.
”˜How about one for the road?’ he proposed, allowing a lighter tone to ring in his voice. ”˜Something to befit the occasion. It’s not every day we’ll run into each other.’
He recommended an expensive whiskey which I agreed to. I offered some money towards the price of it, but he told me to keep it to myself.
”˜You’re the struggling writer,’ he joked, ”˜you probably won’t make a cent ”˜til your second novel, right?’
I reminded him my area of expertise was current affairs.
”˜Better still,’ he remarked with a chuckle, ”˜truth being stranger than fiction. That should yield more than a few paperbacks.’
He held the old-fashioned glass up to the light, staring through it like it was the viewfinder of a camera.
I sampled my own, convinced he’d lost the thread of our preceding conversation. He hadn’t. He was still thinking about it. The whiskey had given us both pause.
”˜I’m sorry if I went too far just now,’ he said. ”˜Perhaps I should let it go. Perhaps I should be more forgiving. But he’d taken on the habit and hood of a monk. He should have tried harder, been better than those words he whispered to me. Wasn’t he always saying how action ought to follow belief? You see my point Ray, don’t you? Surely you can understand how hurtful that was to a lad of fifteen. I loved my grandfather dearly. To hear something so utterly to the contrary was distressing. Needless to say, I never repeated it to him.’
A polite cough ensued and then he elaborated further.
”˜As a matter of fact, you’re the first person I’ve ever told about it. Apologies again. I know you prefer the enigma of the man. That panache of piety he was so good at.’
I took a sip of my whiskey and thanked him for taking me into his confidence.
”˜What you say may well be true,’ I admitted, ”˜I liked him greatly as a teacher. It distorts the memories somewhat to hear a thing like that. It…’
The remembrance of something else stirred in my mind just then. I had to pursue it. It was in my nature, my bread and butter as a journalist. Gather as many facts as possible. Make the story as well-rounded as you can.
”˜You remember how you told us your grandfather had other things to say about him?’ I said to Aengus. ”˜Did you ever ask him later on? Did he give more detail?’
Aengus’s eyes answered for him. He nodded his head in no uncertain way. But he had no wish to go on. Instead he laughed quietly, patted me on the shoulder.
”˜You journalists,’ he said, ”˜always dissecting motions and motives.’
We said goodnight at the corner of South Anne Street and Grafton Street. We hadn’t exchanged phone numbers or made arrangements to meet up in the near future. I think it was understood we would not see each other for some time again.
”˜Well cheerio Raymond,’ Aengus said pleasantly, ”˜I’ll be sure to watch out for your by-line in the papers. Keep giving those politicians hell.’
”˜I’ll do my best,’ I answered, ”˜and as for you, keep doing the right thing in the eyes of the law. Let justice be done though the heavens fall. I’d quote you the Latin, only I don’t remember it.’
Aengus took me by surprise with his response.
”˜Fiat justitia ruat caelum,’ he said effortlessly despite the quantity of alcohol he’d consumed.
He turned to go away then, hesitated, and turned back.
”˜Tell me something Ray,’ he said thoughtfully, ”˜do you think you’ll ever drift into the field of fiction? Writing it I mean.’
”˜It could happen I guess,’ I acknowledged, ”˜some people believe journalists are nothing more than frustrated novelists. Why do you ask?’
He smiled cautiously.
”˜I was thinking of that other thing…what we were talking about in the pub,’ he said. ”˜There’s a famous western with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. I can’t remember the name of it right now, but the newspaperman in it says something to Stewart at the very end. Let me think…that’s it – ”˜When the legend becomes fact…’
”˜…print the legend,’ I completed.
”˜Or, rather, in this case, stick with the version that works best for you,’ he said. ”˜And that’s the final thing I have to say about him. That’s the thought I leave you with my journalist friend.’
He departed then, a little wobbly on his feet. I watched for a few moments as he ambled away. He was a tad on the inebriated side, but he’d get home fine even so. He’d have a fair hangover in the morning no doubt. Perhaps he’d forget parts of our conversation. I wondered which ones.
A strange sense of aloneness crept over me. I thought to myself: this was our first time meeting in fifteen years. When might we run into each other again? After another fifteen? More? Less? How many fifteen years does one have in a lifetime? Five perhaps, if you’re lucky. I thought of poor Francis McInerney in this regard. He didn’t even have two. A tender reverie floated up just then. I recalled the advice Gregory had given us that day in the church; when Fr. Dominic was laid out. To make the best use of the time we’re given. How true that is I thought. I heard myself repeat those words of his; Horace’s, of course, to be more exact.
And when I looked up again Aengus had disappeared from view. He was probably in a taxi already. On his way home. Giving an account of his evening to some indifferent driver. Describing the old friend he’d met by chance on the quays. The times past; our school days together. Francis McInerney too, quite possibly. But one name I knew he’d never mention again. Not to me. Not to anyone. That part of his life was over. Dust and shadow as far as he was concerned.