The boys left the senior dormitory shortly after midnight and, as quietly as possible, negotiated their way towards the back door of the school’s main building. There were five of them. Billy McGrath was the main man and he issued whispered directions to the others as they came down the creaky L-shaped stairway of the east wing.”˜Keep it down back there!’ he snapped. ”˜Laverty, you’re going to give us all away with those damn boots of yours!’
Conor Laverty was the youngest boy in their year, but he was, without doubt, the star pupil. Next year he’d be doing the Leaving Cert at the tender age of 16. His birthday wasn’t until mid-July. It was the same date as the Argentinian footballer Mario Kempes.
”˜What’s that you said?’ he enquired of McGrath in a hushed tone. ”˜What’s that about my damn boots?’
The burl walnut board bearing his light frame groaned once again. Conor pushed up against the raised panelling in a belated effort to diminish this. He gingerly moved his left foot to the stair below. Before putting his full weight on it, he swung his foot up and down a few times with just his toes touching. But when he applied his boot full on the creaking noise wafted up again, moving out in all directions as it did so.
”˜That’s just what I’m talking about Laverty!’ McGrath hissed in the semi-darkness, ”˜that’s exactly what’s going to draw Purcell on us!’
They were still only midway down these particular stairs. Below them was the first floor where the study halls were located. After this, there was another set of stairs to be descended. Billy was sure they’d be caught at this rate. There’s no way we’ll get out of here with Laverty creating this racket he decided. As the main man, the head honcho, it was up to him to think on his feet; to come up with a solution. He’d planned it all so meticulously up to this point and he was damned if he was going to see it come to nought now. But what to do he wondered. What to do? Tell Laverty to go back to his bed? No, that wouldn’t work. He’d be even more of a liability that way and, besides, he’d just as much a right to go down to the woods as the rest of them did. Probably more so if truth be told. Conor had made the greater contribution in terms of provisions for this late night feast of theirs. To go to the woods without him, and scoff all he’d bought, would be downright unfair. At least Billy thought so. He dismissed the idea of sending the younger boy back to the dorm and privately congratulated himself for doing so. I am a sound man he thought. Laverty may not appreciate it, but I’m a sound man. The cosmic forces immediately rewarded his sense of fair play. He had a eureka moment.
”˜Take off your boots Laverty,’ he solemnly directed, ”˜it’s the only way. Take them off so we have a chance.’
He peered about, half-expecting to see an unwanted figure lurking above them on the landing. The school’s dean of discipline had often materialised in this fashion. All at once. Without warning. They called him the Phantom Purcell on account of this.
”˜We’ll make it out provided Purcell hasn’t already heard you,’ McGrath continued, ”˜unlace your boots. Put them under your arm ”˜til we’re outside.’
”˜I’m doing no such thing!’ Conor said, upping his voice so it would carry, ”˜I might walk on something sharp like a tack or a nail. You take your shoes off Billy. And you too Donnacha…Matt…Tony…’
”˜Will you shut up Laverty before you wake up the entire place,’ Matt Nolan told him, ”˜the Phantom is on the prowl tonight ”˜cos he expects this kind of thing to be going on. You’re making it very easy for him if he’s anywhere close by. Put a sock in it for fuck sake. Take off your boots like Billy says.’
Tony Walsh and Donnacha O’Riordan, the other fellows in the group, agreed with this. Conor sighed softly to himself and yielded to the collective. He sat down and pulled off the offending footwear. Left boot first. Then the right boot.
”˜They’re off now,’ he muttered grouchily as he stood up again, ”˜but I object to this sort of treatment. Just ”˜cos I wear Doc Martens. This is a form of discrimination. Doc discrimination you might call it.’
”˜Get moving Conor will ya!’ Walsh said impatiently.
”˜Yeah, some time today would be good!’ O’Riordan added in a barbed tone.
”˜I’m moving! I’m moving!’ Conor said emphatically, which had the effect of drawing a withering glance from McGrath.
”˜OK! OK!’ Conor said registering the import of this black look, ”˜I get the message. No more sound. No more noise. You won’t hear me again ”˜til we’re outside.’
The night-time air rushed around them in cool welcome. It was late May, but it didn’t feel like high summer just yet. There were even some stars out in the sky. Distant luminous spheres all the way up there. A multitude of fixed points. But right now only one fixed point really mattered to the five. Just one destination was important; one place that was of the essence to get to.
The boys walked purposefully past the abbey building, which dated from the second half of the 19th century, and then crossed the 9-hole golf course, which was far more recent. In front of them lay a sizeable expanse of open-wooded countryside. They advanced towards it under the prevailing cover of darkness. Adjoining this tract of land was the abbey farm which the monks still worked exclusively, in spite of their ageing population. Conor said he’d heard they were going to sell some of it shortly. Put it up for auction at the very least, to test the market. It’d happen in the summertime while they’d be on holidays he predicted. There were parts of the farm they might never get to go to again because of this.
”˜The farm is out of bounds to us anyway,’ Billy said in a somewhat irritated voice, ”˜even if your tall tale is true Laverty – which I seriously doubt it is – what difference will it make to you? You’ve got one more year left in this place same as the rest of us. So what if it’s got smaller when you come back? You’ll still be hemmed in to the same spots that you’ve always been. And that suits you down to the ground.’
”˜Not so,’ Conor replied trying to sound defiant about it, ”˜I often go down to the farm. And get into the orchard as well. No one’s ever caught me yet. Not the Phantom or Harry. Not even Father Lonergan.’
”˜Father Lonergan couldn’t catch a cold if he tried,’ Billy said, his voice loaded with sarcasm. This raised an audible snicker from the other three.
Conor ignored the jibe.
”˜And by the way, it’s no tall tale,’ he protested, ”˜my father heard it from a reliable source. He said it’s a shame because he’s a past pupil of this place himself. The beginning of the end was how he put it.’
”˜My father’s a past pupil too,’ Billy said laying emphasis on this, ”˜and he hasn’t said a word about it. Sometimes you’re so full of shite Laverty. Your old man too. It’s a wonder we let you come out with us at all.’
”˜I coulda gone out with some other fellows,’ Laverty replied insistently.
”˜Oh yeah? Name them so. How come I don’t see them this fine Saturday morning?’
Conor pretended to cold-shoulder him. The truth was he had no answer to this. He knew why he was here, how he came to be with the so-called cool gang of their year. He’d bought the best food in the school shop for this especial purpose. He’d done the same the year before when they were finishing the Inter Cert. The previous one too. And each time he’d made doubly sure the other lads knew about it. Billy McGrath above all. It was his sure-fire ticket to a late night feast. The late night feast of late night feasts this year as it so happened. They were seniors now and come September they’d be right up there at the top of the pecking order. It was important to keep Billy McGrath on side. Conor knew this very well. Experience told himself as much. It made his life at the school just that bit more palatable. To have it any other way just wasn’t worth the aggro. He knew first-hand what that was like. He’d seen how it was for others.
The woods were populated by ash for the most part, but on the western edge, bordering the abbey farm, there was a cluster of pedunculate oak. The boys entered this space and sought out the tree within which they’d hidden their supplies. It was the one with the coarsest bark and a wide-spreading crown of rugged branches. Its trunk had been hollowed out over the course of time and within this damp semi-enclosed cavity there were Tupperware containers and plastic bottles of soft drink. They were not readily visible to the unsuspecting eye, however, as the boys had camouflaged them with fragments of rotten wood and mould which looked like reddish-brown flour. Conor had come up with this particular idea as he knew Harry and the Phantom would be on the lookout for rations stashed in the woods. The housemasters came down here on a regular basis in advance of the summer holidays. Just a few days before, as he added to their stockpile, Conor had seen Purcell skulking about in that very familiar manner of his. He worried at the time that he’d been seen. Although there was a considerable distance between them, the Phantom had a remarkable knack of detecting things he’d no human right to. This was his singular gift as a dean of discipline, and it had been costly to many students over the years in terms of extra periods of study and other forms of correction which he deemed appropriate. But worst of all it would mean confiscation if he discovered their cache. For a few minutes Conor felt as if he was between a rock and a hard place. It seemed likely Purcell hadn’t seen him, but the boy worried about the possibility of a ruse. The Phantom was notorious for his trickery and he might well return later if he suspected an accumulation in progress. Then there would be hell to pay. McGrath and the others would berate him for sure for having been found out. He could hear their unforgiving voices. Especially McGrath’s. Conor felt some turmoil in the pit of his stomach. He felt his whole body shake with anxiety. For a short time he toyed with the notion of moving everything. But to where exactly? That was the million dollar question. This was the best place he realised. After all, he’d picked it out himself. And how on earth could he explain such an act to the others. They’d see through any half-baked excuse right away. And then with the inevitable slating and slagging once again. In the end Conor decided to take his chances. He assumed the Phantom hadn’t seen him and left everything as it was, in place for this end-of-year celebration of theirs.
”˜As Hannibal Smith puts it in the A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together,’ Billy said triumphantly as he portioned out the containers and bottles between them.
Conor felt mightily relieved. The Phantom hadn’t seen him as it turned out. All was well. Now he could enjoy himself. But he wasn’t quite as excited as he’d been hoping for. This he found strange. It must be the way it goes he supposed. Reality sometimes does that. Like at Christmas. It smothers anticipation just that little bit. He wondered what he might have done if the cavity of the trunk had been empty, if the Phantom had swooped in in the meantime. Would he have told them the truth? Would he have looked McGrath in the eye and chanced the consequences? Probably not he realised. The yarns he’d spun on the way down here about forays to the orchard and abbey farm were just as McGrath dubbed them – tall tales. Conor normally stayed within bounds as Billy said. He only really cut loose when he was with the gang. When it suited them to have him around that was. But also when it matched his needs too. Billy McGrath was the lynchpin in this respect. He was a confederate worth having as far as Conor was concerned. But at times – just like right now – the younger boy regarded him as nothing more than a necessary evil. He had no grounds to disbelieve what I said about the abbey farm Conor thought. And he certainly had no right to say anything about my Dad. My Dad’s not full of shite. I may be, but that’s just ”˜cos needs must in the here and now. He shouldn’t have said that about my Dad he thought to himself one last time. Then he let it go. He figured it would serve no purpose to mention it in any case. A year from now and they’d be on the cusp of the Leaving Cert. Then off to university after that. He was fairly certain they’d be going their separate ways by then. With this in mind, he decided to enter back into the spirit of the occasion. Opening a 54321 bar in an exaggerated fashion, and then a packet of Golden Tayto crisps, he gave the others a lip-smacking smile and began devouring them eagerly. It was as if his eyes had got the jump on his stomach.
”˜Jesus Laverty! Just how hungry are you?’ asked McGrath. ”˜Didn’t you eat in the last 24 hours? Slow down and leave some for the rest of us.’
”˜I skipped tea this evening,’ Conor explained as he munched liberally, ”˜I figured that way I’d heighten my appetite. You know…increase it.’
His wild black hair protruded in unusual criss-crosses. He was skinny and fair-skinned, and not in the least bit sporty like the others. Billy, on the other hand, was tall and well-built for his age. He was good-looking, had a dimple in his chin, and strode with a firm step wherever he went.
”˜You are one helluva strange fish Laverty,’ McGrath observed as he dug into a ham-and-cheese sandwich that Conor had made, ”˜in a restaurant you’d probably have dessert before the main course.’
He regarded the meticulously prepared sandwiches. There was a combination of cheese-only, ham-only, and ham-and-cheese. Conor had clearly gone to painstaking lengths. At times like this he was worth having along.
”˜How did you even manage to make these? How did you come by all this stuff?’ Billy asked.
”˜That’s my secret,’ Conor replied, tapping his nose playfully. ”˜You like them? I used Calvita cheese just for the occasion.’
”˜As in the Calvita girl?’ enquired Walsh through a lop-sided mouth. He had ash-blond hair and was forever plucking his bushy eyebrows.
”˜The Calvita girl is right,’ Conor replied brightening his smile in Walsh’s direction.
”˜Would you put the gob on her Laverty?’ McGrath asked without missing a beat.
Some muffled laughter circled the group.
Conor too felt obligated to chuckle, but deliberately kept it short.
”˜Well you know how that song of yours in South Pacific goes, don’t you Billy? There is nothing like a dame.’
This had the desired effect, just as he hoped. Their conversation moved on to other subjects. They recalled the school year just gone by. South Pacific at Christmas and Donal Hanrahan’s inept rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening”; the annual bogus flu epidemic in mid-January which, mercifully, exempted many of them from second study; the parent-teacher meeting in March when they’d driven around the grounds in Nolan’s old man’s car; the substitute Irish teacher Miss Brolly and the way her arse jiggled whenever she wrote on the blackboard; the food fight in the senior ref in November; and of course, though not so memorably, the hurling final they’d lost to Kieran’s of Kilkenny before Easter.
”˜That beating we took tasted just like these aniseed balls,’ O’Riordan grumbled noisily as he spat out the hard round sweet, ”˜why the hell did you get these Conor? Why not refreshers or something else? Even Black Jacks would be better.’
Sitting next to him, Matt Nolan produced some John Player Blues. He dangled one in his mouth and extended the pack around.
”˜Want one?’ he murmured almost unintelligibly.
Conor refused politely. Billy also said no.
”˜I got to keep my lungs clear for Sports Sunday,’ he explained all matter-of-factly, ”˜that finish line won’t come to me. And I don’t want to fuck it up. My old man will definitely be peeved if I don’t win. He was a defending champ in the 100 and 200 metres in his day too…when he was here…’
A sense of clarity filled out the features of Nolan’s face. His trademark bright grin appeared and became even more pronounced when Tony Walsh, a tenderfoot as regards cigarettes, began to cough continuously as if his lungs were on fire. Mock expressions of concern rose in the air for a few moments. They died down again and they fell back into more reminiscing. Donal Hanrahan’s second-rate voice was referred to once again. Donnacha, Matt and Tony agreed that Billy should have got the part of Emile de Becque. Giving him the lesser role of Billis had proven to be a mistake. Conor’s voice was much stronger than Hanrahan’s. His robust performance of “There is nothing like a Dame” had left that much beyond doubt. The last snatches of this particular discussion gave way to further chewing and swallowing. Conor wrinkled his lips into a variety of positions as he sampled Chomps, Fruit Salads and Candy Cones. His stomach was beginning to send him signals that it was nearing capacity, so he applied the brakes ever so slightly. Pushing a Sweet Peanut against the corner of his cheek, he wondered aloud about something that was rattling inside his head.
”˜I didn’t see your old fella at South Pacific last Christmas,’ he said to Billy. ”˜Did he come?’
He received in response a long, firm-jawed glance from his peer.
”˜He couldn’t make it on account of business in Dublin,’ Billy tersely answered, ”˜that’s why you didn’t see him. That’s why he didn’t come.’
Conor shrugged his narrow shoulders and tilted his head to one side.
”˜Fair enough,’ he said discerning the tenor of the reply, ”˜I was just asking is all.’
In the semi-darkness his face was framed by a night’s tangle of his unkempt black hair. Billy continued to stare daggers at him. He felt an anger burning up inside. He hated the way Laverty looked. He hated a good many things about Laverty, and now he had another cause to fuel that hatred. Laverty was asking a question he seemed to know the answer to. Was he trying to be clever? Just because he had all those brains to burn. Or was it something else? Was he being cocky seeing as how it was so close to the end of the year? Whatever the reasons, Billy was determined not to let him get away with it. His eyes squinted with intensity. His shoulders stiffened. His mouth twisted into a derisive grin.
”˜You’ve an awful good memory Laverty, don’t you?’ he said, deepening the intake of his breath in order to slow it down, ”˜you remember the smallest of things like they happened yesterday and sometimes I wonder if there’s a reason for that. Sometimes I wonder if you make half of it up. The half you use to peddle the same old shite you always do. You’re very good at distracting with facts and figures; with that fount of memory of yours. But I know things too. I heard about your audition for the part of Bloody Mary. Frankie Johnson let me in on it. He said you sang “Happy Talk”, but that was the only thing happy about the performance. Frankie said you wailed like the wind. Father Slevin and the other casting fella were too polite to laugh there and then. But Frankie reckons they did once you were out of the room. Now what do you think of that? You got anything to say?’
Conor’s face flushed crimson at these words. It was true Frankie Johnson and he had auditioned for Bloody Mary at the same time. He hadn’t succeeded in getting the part, but, then again, neither had Johnson. The truth was he didn’t really want the part anyway. He knew his singing voice was lousy. And as for the role itself, he had no great desire to play a middle-aged Tonkinese woman who sold grass skirts and bantered flirtatiously with sailors. The audition was no more than another one of his random acts of participation. Maintaining membership of their club. Just to be able to say he was one of the lads. That he took part and deserved to be one of them. And now he felt anything but. On the outside once again. He didn’t blame Johnson though for telling the truth about his paltry audition. That ship had long since sailed in any event. No, the fault here lay in another place. And with another person. The one who was sneering at him so intently at this moment in time. Poking fun at him as he was wont to do. No, thought Conor. That’s an understatement if ever there was one. He’s doing a lot more than that and he knows it. A year to the Leaving Cert he thought. Just one more year left here. It’s not so far away. I can put up with whatever comes. I can put up with whatever he throws at me. And I can do it because it’s the right thing to do. He felt a calmness roll into his body. His gait loosened. He no longer needed to be in this club. He was determined to remain on the outside now. No more random acts of participation. Because that’s just what they were – acts; pretence; playing to the gallery; playing a part like Bloody Mary that he had no wish to. Instead now he was going to take action. Stand up to Billy McGrath for one thing. He knew what he had to do. He knew what he had to say.
”˜Both yourself and Hanrahan were unhappy over South Pacific I know for a fact,’ he said, ”˜it was because you were both upstaged every single night. By the fella who eventually played Bloody Mary. Do you remember that Billy?’
McGrath pretended to draw a blank on this.
”˜What the hell are you talking about Laverty?’ he said. ”˜What are you driving at?’
”˜I’m talking about Aidan O’Neill,’ Conor replied, his voice sounding more assured, ”˜you haven’t forgot about him, have you? He played Bloody Mary. And he was very good in the part. Neither you nor Hanrahan were happy about him stealing the show. But at least Hanrahan didn’t bear him a grudge afterwards. At least he let it go. Which was a helluva lot more than you did.’
Billy visibly winced at these words. For a moment he retreated just a little.
”˜I don’t want to talk about that!’ he said. ”˜I don’t want to talk about Aidan O’Neill.’
”˜Why not?’ enquired Conor. ”˜Is it because you’re sorry for doing what you did?’
”˜No, I’m not sorry!’ Billy answered forcefully, ”˜O’Neill got just what he deserved! And it wasn’t because of South Pacific. It was for other things.’
”˜What for? For being the new boy?’ Conor pursued.
McGrath shook his head animatedly. He began to warm to the subject, to his own defence. His chin jutted out as it always did when he became confrontational.
”˜Aidan O’Neill came here last September,’ he said, ”˜and he thought he was so much better than everyone else. Including you Laverty. He bested you in a few subjects at the Christmas exams in case you forget it.’
”˜I don’t forget it,’ replied Conor, ”˜you wouldn’t let me forget it.’
”˜He was a stuck-up little bollox,’ McGrath said paying no attention to this, ”˜and he deserved to be taken down a peg or two.’
”˜Taken down a peg or two, is that what you call ducking him a few times in the artificial lake?’ said Conor.
”˜He got that ”˜cos he didn’t go to the hurling final against Kieran’s,’ Billy answered, ”˜he should have been there supporting his school, supporting us.’
”˜We got hammered that day. What difference did it make whether he was there or not?’
”˜None,’ replied Billy, ”˜but that’s not my point. It didn’t excuse him. We came back from that final and there was his smug little face to greet us. As if he was saying, ”˜I knew you’d get beaten, I knew they’d make mincemeat out of you.’ He looked well pleased that we’d lost. Someone had to wipe that look off his face. It just so happened to be me.’
”˜He didn’t have any look on his face,’ Conor argued back, ”˜you just saw what you wanted to see. It was the same when you picked on him just ”˜cos he didn’t take part in the food fight. And when he didn’t come down with fake flu like the rest of us. It’s what you always do. Except with him you went too far. You know you did. The artificial lake was too much. Even by your low standards. That’s why he ran away. That’s why he never came back. You never let up on him. You jeered him from day one. Just ”˜cos he was the new fella. Just ”˜cos he wasn’t one of the lads. You’re a bully Billy McGrath and it’s about time one of us said it to your face. You’re nothing more than a bully and a bully amounts to not very much.’
In a flash he found himself wrestled to the ground. Billy was on top of him all at once, the muscles on his arms swollen and knotted, the veins on his neck popping out like cords. He pushed his right fist into Conor’s face. Overpowered though he was, the slighter boy managed to knock it away.
”˜Get off me you big bollox!’ he shouted at the top of his voice. ”˜Get off me!’
The other three rose to their feet and encircled the scene. They implored Billy to let Conor go, telling him it wasn’t worth it. The school year was almost finished after all. Why would he want trouble at this late stage?
Billy calmed down and loosened his grip. He took his weight off Conor and thrust himself back into a sitting position. A chasm of silence opened up. None of them could measure how long it lasted. Conor lingered on the ground as if he’d been shot. Billy adopted a posture that was almost ramrod in appearance. Each one of them was terribly quiet. It was so quiet they could practically hear the air whistling through Billy’s nose as his breathing continued to race. Eventually, it was he who broke the silence.
”˜I’ll let you off the hook on this occasion Laverty,’ he said giving the latter a sidelong glance, ”˜I’ll let you away with it because it’s the end of the year and there’s no point finishing it on a sour note. That’s the kind of fella…friend I am. What do you say?’
His offer was met by an ill-disposed grumble. Conor willed himself to his feet with purpose. Tears tried to sneak out the corners of his eyes, but he fought them back.
”˜I no longer want to be your friend, if that’s what we were,’ he said. ”˜I’m ashamed if we were ever that at all. Because I played my part in the things you did. Especially those things you did to Aidan O’Neill.’
He regarded the other boys quickly and then carried on.
”˜We all did,’ he said pointedly, ”˜we stood by that day and watched you duck him in the artificial lake. And we did nothing about it. That means we were involved. Maybe not the ones holding his head underwater, but we could have stopped it. Standing there watching was as good as backing you up. We helped make you think it was the right thing to do; supported you that way. But it wasn’t the right thing Billy. O’Neill didn’t deserve that. He’d done nothing to you. One of us should have made you stop – myself, Donnacha, Matt, or Tony. Most of all though, I wish it’d been me.’
He turned around and faced back towards the direction they’d come from. The network of trails in the woods was still shrouded in darkness, but this didn’t bother Conor. He knew it was time to go. He’d made that decision already. He was happy about making this decision, of having his freedom again. He felt breathing space the way he imagined the tops of the trees might.
”˜I’m going back now,’ he announced his voice a model of whispery control, ”˜I’m going back to bed. It’s cold out here. I guess summer’s only just starting.’
His eyes widened, then narrowed. Addressing McGrath one last time he said, ”˜I expect you’ll probably ride me about this tomorrow Billy; and probably for a lot of next year. But I don’t care any longer. And I won’t mind. Coming out here tonight was worth it. It was worth this much to me. I don’t need to go on any more late night feasts with you.’
He spun about and began to walk away. Before he was out of their sight, Tony Walsh called after him.
”˜Hey Conor! What about your food? Don’t you want to take some of it? There are a helluva lot of Wham Bars left.’
”˜Yeah! And Marathons,’ added Nolan.
Conor motioned a no to them both. An odd smile framed his teeth.
”˜You have them if you want,’ he said, ”˜I’m fine. Besides. I’ve eaten enough already. Goodnight.’
A few more minutes passed and the other three found excuses to leave as well. Sports Sunday was just a day away after all. A few hours in the sack would not go amiss they figured. Matt Nolan was competing in the long jump, high jump and triple jump. Tony Walsh’s events of choice were the discus, hammer throw and shot put. Donnacha O’Riordan’s specialities on the other hand were the hurdles and sprints.
”˜You ought to pack it in now as well Billy,’ he joked weakly as he departed, ”˜I might actually beat you in the 200 if you stay up too late. Get some kip.’
Billy remained sitting where he was. He was still eating. There was too much food left. Most of it would go to waste, but he was not ready to admit this just yet.
”˜I’ll come in after a while,’ he told O’Riordan. ”˜I’m going to wait for the light to come up. It shouldn’t be long now. I might even walk down to the farm.’
”˜You don’t think it was true what Laverty said about the farm, do you?’ O’Riordan probed tentatively. ”˜About them selling some of it?’
Billy’s eyes rolled quickly in warning.
”˜Laverty’s full of shite,’ he replied flatly, ”˜the monks won’t sell any of the farm. Mark my words – it will all still be here when we come back in September.’
”˜Sure Billy…sure,’ said O’Riordan, although he did not sound wholly convinced. ”˜See you later on. Enjoy the rest of it.’
”˜Thanks Donnacha. See you back at base.’
Billy watched the first grey streaks of dawn pierce into the countryside. From his position under the large oak, he observed as the morning dew slowly fashioned a glimmering effect on the tops of fence posts and galvanised gates. Snaking around the adjoining field, the ditch water had an effervescent appearance about it. It all looks quite beautiful Billy thought standing up so that he’d get a better view. He wondered how it might appear from the altitude of a bird’s nest. What was that word Laverty the brainbox sometimes used? Picturesque – that was it. Like something out of a John Hinde postcard. Close by some cows were stirring themselves for the day ahead, their black-and-white coats also garlanded with beads of moisture. As far as Billy could tell they were Friesians. He remembered Laverty talking about this variety of cow on one occasion they’d been down here before. He blabbered on about a famous cow named Pauline Wayne which had belonged to one of the presidents of the United States. Conor said she was bought to provide enough milk for the president’s family. He claimed the cow was allowed to graze the lawn of the White House. Jesus Laverty is full of shite time and time again thought Billy. Why the hell would a president of the United States need a cow? How would a cow even be allowed to graze the lawn of the White House? It seemed utterly preposterous. It was just so typical of Laverty.
More of the abbey farm became visible to him in the nascent light. No way will the monks sell any of this he thought to himself. He was fairly sure of this. His father hadn’t said anything about it at Easter. There’d certainly been no talk of it. But then again Easter had been overshadowed by talk of a different nature. His father had brought him into his study. For a chat he said. This happened so rarely it could only have to do with one thing. The old man had heard about the Phantom catching them driving around the school grounds in Mr. Nolan’s car. And to compound matters, there was the less-than glowing reports his mother had to relay from the parent-teacher meeting. The prevailing theme was Billy wasn’t living up to his potential. He seemed distracted one of his teachers told his mother. Another suggested he was involved in far too many extracurricular activities, spreading himself too thin. His father’s words had pursued this train of thought. He looked frustrated, coiled. He sighed a few times as he spoke causing his breath to ripple down the silk of his handsomely striped tie.
”˜Next year is your critical year,’ he said, his voice sounding as grave as he could manage, ”˜it’s time you got your act together. Don’t leave it behind you the way you seem intent on doing, because one day you’ll come to regret it. You can’t take back the past no matter how hard you try. That’s something you need to bear in mind William. It’s something you need to tell yourself the next time someone hands you a set of car keys. Or puts some other kind of temptation in front of you.’
His eyes widened, then dropped to study his chubby hands.
”˜I know how easy it can be to play that part,’ he continued, ”˜to be the cool kid. You feel all the others egging you on. Daring you to do what they won’t, what they can’t. They’ll suck you dry that way and all you’ll get for it is mock respect. A passing thing that’s no use to you anywhere else.’
With a sweeping gesture he took in the whole world outside the room.
”˜You’ve got to think of the future beyond school now,’ he intoned sombrely, ”˜that’s why I think you shouldn’t put yourself forward for house captain next year. It’d be too much on your plate. Your Leaving Cert is far more important than that. Believe me I know. I got elected and it nearly damn derailed my studies.’
For a moment he laughed in short indolent chuckles, but then directed himself back to the serious purpose at hand. The lines deepened on his bronzed face as if some presentiment had come to mind.
”˜I know that you crave popularity William. It’s a good thing being popular, but it can be overdone. And for the wrong reasons. Do what I tell you now and in time you’ll see it work to your advantage. Pull back on certain things and you’ll go some way towards making us proud of you. Both your mother and I.’
The light in the room was growing thick and coloured as his father rose to his feet. Their talk was done as far as he was concerned. He walked to the door patting the palms of his hands as if quite satisfied with himself. He murmured something about not remaining here too long. Billy had heard the instruction before. It went along the lines of, this is my private study; there are papers and documents here I don’t want disturbed. The rest of it Billy was able to infer in his own mind. It’s because you don’t trust me he thought. It’s because you prefer me at a distance. And what’s that about making you proud. I’ve only seen that in you when I win those bloody medals on Sports Sunday. It’s about the only time you put in an appearance. Because it’s the only time you’re sure of not having to be…
He heard himself ask the question then. The one he’d wanted to ask since Christmas. The one that would most likely lead to a difficult answer. Or no answer at all.
”˜Why didn’t you come to see me in the musical last year?’ he said. ”˜It was on for four nights. How come you weren’t able to make it for any of them?’
His father wheeled around in the doorway appearing surprised by this.
”˜I told you why,’ he answered brusquely, ”˜it was because of that conference in Dublin. There were late evenings and I had to stay over. My time isn’t always my own. It’ll be the same way for you one fine day.’
”˜Not because I wasn’t one of the leads?’ Billy pursued.
”˜What?’ his father said looking at him as if he had stupid written on his forehead, ”˜what the hell are you talking about? I just gave you the reason. What’s the matter with you anyway? I didn’t even know if you were one of the leads or not.’
”˜I was playing Billis,’ said Billy, ”˜it was a smaller part. I thought you knew that.’
”˜No, I didn’t,’ said his father, ”˜and this is exactly what I’ve been talking about! Your lack of focus; allowing yourself to get side-tracked. You need to pull back starting from now! Otherwise I don’t know what! You understand?’
The absence of a response from his son forced him to say it again.
”˜William – do you understand me?’
”˜Yes,’ replied Billy, his mouth contorting into a rueful grin, ”˜but you should have heard me singing “There is nothing like a dame” Dad. They all said I was good. I even thought so myself. Some even said I should have played Emile de Becque. That was the lead character. That’s who I really wanted to be.’
His father’s eyes squinted with strain as he tried to comprehend this. His hands moved up to his face as he exhaled deeply, then clenched against his sides. He placed his palms together and interlaced his fingers, leaned forward as if lowering his reserves; but at the last moment his demeanour narrowed again and adopted a familiar guise. The wind of words died down within him, and instead he parted with something tight and cryptic.
”˜Why do I worry for you William?’ he said. ”˜Why do I worry for you?’
Billy felt his mind going round and round as he thought of those words again. What did he mean by that he wondered. Why would I be a worry to him? I promised I’d try harder next year. I promised I wouldn’t run for house captain. He began to think of how he’d tell the other lads not to vote for him; how best to approach that. Maybe they won’t be voting for me anyhow he supposed. Cormac Ryan probably has a better chance. Or John Regan. Then I’d look like a right eejit. Telling them not to vote for me and them with their minds made up not to vote for me in any event. Thinking about it now caused his head to spin even more. The trees around him seemed to be moving. Beneath his feet the spongy ground felt unsteady. He heard some crows in the distance absorbed in noisy cawing. Koww koww koww koww they went. Overhead a few of them took flight, emitting high-pitched eh-aws as they did so. The sound jarred his nerves. He closed his eyes hoping to make everything disappear. There were, however, colours and shapes that persisted. And faces as well. He could see Aidan O’Neill and that wounded expression of his. He pictured Conor Laverty just a short time before. He’d looked hurt as well, but then strangely content as he walked away. All of a sudden Billy felt very alone. He could understand why Laverty had left so soon; but as for the other three. They could have stayed longer he thought. Nothing bad had really happened here. He’d just lost his head for a few seconds, that was all. Later on he’d pass it off as airily as he could. The others would accept this. Laverty too. Because Laverty needs me he told himself. I am a sound man. He just forgot that for a moment there. But I’ll remind him of it. Of what a sound man I am.
Sound and movement caught his attention then. He spied a red fox moving furtively in the distance. It had a pointed snout, long bushy tail and old-soldier quality in the way it was carefully picking its steps. It might be a vixen Billy supposed. Maybe she’s out looking for food for her cubs. He had an idea. As quietly as he could manage, he unwrapped the remainder of the food. Crisps, sandwiches, snowballs, Macaroon bars, Big Time bars, Marathons. I’ll leave these here for her to get at he figured. Foxes are well-known scavengers after all. At least this way it won’t go to waste. The fox will take it. Or some other hungry animal. The leftovers of our late night feast.
He felt pleased with himself when he was finished. Absently patting the pockets of his pants, he searched for the pocket Swiss army knife his father had brought him back from a business conference in Geneva. He unfolded the large blade part of it which had Victorinox Swiss Made imprinted on its shank. Then he etched some writing into the bark of the oak where their stash had been. ”˜May 30th 1987 – Billy was here,’ it read. Admiring it, he put away the knife. Billy was here he thought. And Billy is still here, here to stay. They need me. Laverty and all the rest of them. I’m still the main man, the head honcho. He stretched out a kink or two and began to head back. The deep shadow of the woods went out and gave way to the burgeoning sun. It streamed into his face. Billy moved adroitly and with a smile on his face. It was going to be a beautiful day. He was certain of that. The world around him made sense again. He was back in control of it.