Father O’Leary had issued what he said was his final ultimatum to the men standing at the back of the church and it came as no surprise to the rest of the congregation. Wasn’t it true after all that the parish priest had given the same group sufficient warning in the past? Hadn’t he tried to be as subtle as possible when broaching that very subject? Every manner of an oblique reference had been utilised; euphemisms had been employed until they sounded tired and hackneyed; the distracted priest had even resorted to paralipsis in an attempt to dislodge them from their implacable position (”˜not to mention the men at the back of the church…’), but nothing had worked. And so it had come to this. The wizened-faced priest was careful to remind everyone present that he’d been given little choice in the matter. After all, when it came to criticising his own parishioners he was caught between a rock and a hard place. But what else could he do. He felt duty-bound to bring it up.
”˜People who come to church to stand at the back and talk come for disingenuous reasons,’ he intoned somberly, ”˜I hope I will see them seated this time next week. I hope they will see fit to defer their conversations to a more appropriate place. One that does not cause disrespect as this current practice of theirs does.’
By these remarks he meant them all. No one was exempt. Tom Bergin and Bill Campion knew that as individuals they were as much the object of the priest’s censure as the next man. True they were both partially hidden from view, nestled as they were behind the corpulent figure of John Ryan, but nonetheless the scathing words reached them, audible and unambiguous.
”˜Stupid man,’ said Bill as he leaned in closer to Tom, ”˜sure what does it matter to him why we come to mass? Shouldn’t it be good enough that we come at all. He should be content with that much. Is it fewer numbers he’s looking for?’
His friend Tom did not respond at first. Instead he shifted his balance languidly, folded his arms in a pensive way. He’d heard these threats before. Empty threats he thought as they were usually forgotten or simply not acted upon. Bill of course did not know this. He was still relatively new to the parish. How could he know the priest had ordered the same men away from the back of the church before, only to back down when it was apparent they would not comply. Personally Tom did not feel intimidated in any way. There was nothing to worry about he was sure. The parish priest was only trying to call their bluff, but instead they’d call his.
”˜It’s just a new spin on an old story,’ he declared confidently to Bill.
”˜What’s that?’ his friend asked.
He had no idea what Tom was getting at, but sensing there might be a story in it was keen to hear more. In his opinion Tom was very good at this. Since his own arrival here four years previous Tom had filled him in on many of the pertinent details of the parish and its most notable characters. It was no surprise that he found himself pressing his friend for an elaboration. Tom liked to be coaxed into telling his stories. Proficient narrator as he was, it seemed to please him greatly knowing he had an attentive audience. A bit like Father O’Leary that way.
”˜What’s it all about Tom?’ Bill asked.
This time he was careful to imbue his tone with just the right amount of curiosity. It had the desired effect. Tom smiled wryly to himself. He enjoyed such provocation. It was good to be in the company of someone who had a genuine interest such as Bill’s. Someone who hadn’t been born or raised in the locality, and did not consider these anecdotes with a degree of reservation.
”˜Do you see my father there?’ Tom said gesturing to an older man who was one of two making the church collection that morning.
”˜I do,’ replied Bill.
”˜Did I ever tell you that it was Father O’Leary got him doing the collecting in the first place?’
Tom smiled again, but in a more acute way.
”˜Well, I suppose if I tell you about that, I’d better tell you about the communion suit as well,’ he whispered.
”˜The communion suit?’ said Bill.
Tom nodded quietly.
”˜I had a friend in primary school,’ he said, ”˜his name was Frankie Daly. You wouldn’t have known him Bill. He left here many years before you arrived. We were in the same class and we made the first communion together. Now there’s nothing remarkable about any of that I know, but the year after the communion I had this plan in my head which involved using our communion suits all over again.’
”˜What for?’ asked Bill.
”˜Well, let me tell you exactly the way it happened,’ Tom continued, ”˜it was early May and the two of us were sheltering under the oak tree in my father’s front field and I was doing my level-headed best to bring Frankie around to my way of thinking. Now Frankie was agreed with me on the indisputable fact that making the communion had been a highly profitable enterprise, but he was not so sure about us using our suits that way a year later.’
”˜What way was that?’ asked Bill.
”˜Making the communion collection again,’ said Tom. ”˜You know? The money you get on the day. I was disappointed with Frankie because he wasn’t very enthusiastic. I mean here was my best friend after all – my steadfast companion since our first day of school together – resisting one of my better ideas and me wondering how on earth he could be doing that. ”˜We have to try it,’ I told him, ”˜we’ll be loaded out of it, and then boss it’s down to Toohey’s and hello to our best mates Biggles and Peter Flint.’
”˜Biggles and Peter who?’ said Bill.
”˜Peter Flint from Warlord magazine – the second world war comic book,’ said Tom. ”˜The problem though was Frankie wasn’t convinced. ”˜It won’t work Tommy,’ he said, ”˜sure won’t they remember us making the first communion last year. There’ll be trouble then when that happens.’
”˜Sounds like he had a point there,’ remarked Bill.
Tom ignored this and continued.
”˜Not a bit of it I told him,’ he said. ”˜I told him the only thing that would matter to them would be our communion suits. As soon as they’d see us in them they’d be only too happy to give I said. But Frankie still had his doubts. ”˜I don’t know about it boss,’ he said. ”˜We could be found out. Me Da would kill me.’ ”˜It won’t happen,’ I told him. ”˜Trust me on this boss and I promise you come communion Sunday we’ll be rich men.’ I then went into a long spiel reminding him how good it had been the previous year – the perks of it and all that.’
Tom’s voice became slightly wistful.
”˜For both myself and Frankie making the first communion was like having Christmas in the middle of the year,’ he said. ”˜It began in the Spring with our teacher Miss Davey playing a load of Veritas tapes about the communion sacrament and then getting us to practise for the event itself with Ritchie’s Mints, warning us that on no account were we to chew them even if they were just Ritchie’s Mints and not the real thing. ”˜There’s to be no chewing of the body of Christ,’ she told us, and she got rightly ticked off every time Harry Mullins dropped the mint from his tongue which was a common occurrence I can tell you. The whole thing was built up in our minds from the day the communion suit was bought in Ted Johnson’s old menswear shop. Although my own had required some minor adjustments, I had begun my countdown as soon as my mother passed it over the stained counter telling Ted it was my choice for the big day. The suit was a three-piece garment befitting a young fella of my situation and I would have appreciated it more had it not been for the number of buttons attached to the waistcoat and jacket. To me they seemed to be everywhere and fastening them all on the morning of the communion was an interminable exercise that put me in a bad mood for the whole journey from the house to the church. My mother did her best to humour me. She said how well I looked in the suit and wouldn’t her little man be the best looking fella of them all, but my mood didn’t improve until we got to the church. Then it flooded back to me. I began to bask in the hubbub I quickly discovered was a prominent feature of the day.’
”˜What hubbub was that?’ Bill interrupted.
”˜Don’t you remember your first communion?’ Tom asked him sounding surprised.
Bill shrugged his shoulders.
”˜Not very well now,’ he said. ”˜It came and went like any other day.’
”˜I still remember it very clearly,’ said Tom. ”˜I remember that most of my relatives were there and I remember how they showered a multitude of compliments on us all…about our appearance and dress. We were made to feel very important. With our embossed missals and shiny communion medals we were like stars in the spotlight. Outside the church a lot of people shook my hand. A small girl stared at me from the back of a parked car. And my mother spoke of me in such a way that I wondered how she would ever find fault with me again – of course being a rogue I gave her reason before long. And then there was the not-so-small matter of the money which I can tell you was appreciated by a young fella such as myself. I thought immediately of happy transactions involving Warlord comics and Biggles books in Sam Toohey’s shop. I don’t have to tell you that much of the money came from those same relatives who’d travelled to see me on my special day, but even more remarkable were those people I scarcely knew who pushed coins and notes into my hand. This for me was the hidden reward of making the communion that no one, not even Miss Davey, had told us about. I was greatly impressed by these gestures of unrestrained generosity as I saw them and a year later I wanted it all over again. But I needed my best friend to be with me, to back me up in my plan.’
”˜And that was Frankie, was it?’ said Bill.
”˜Frankie Daly lived a mile away from us,’ he said, ”˜his family home was just a stone’s throw from the ruins of Clonmacnoise where the nobles of Europe, we were told by Miss Davey, had once sent their sons to be educated. Every Saturday without fail I walked straight to his place after breakfast, and the day before the communion was no exception. Frankie’s house had never appealed to me greatly. For one thing it was a lot darker than our own. I remember too how the walls in it were often damp in winter. But Frankie never complained. He was not the sort to do that, and when Miss Davey got us to do impressions of our homes in art class, his drawings were full of colour and pretty flowers. Frankie’s father, Charlie, was a burly man with a blowzy complexion. Probably the many nights he spent in Paddy O’Rourke’s pub contributed to this. He didn’t go to church very often and I offered this fact up to my friend as encouragement the day before the communion. I was happy to see that Frankie was more enthusiastic about my plan and we talked about how we would spend the money in the most practical way boys our age knew.’
”˜Do you suppose we’ll get a lot of money tomorrow boss?’ Frankie asked me.
”˜Enough I’d say for twenty or thirty Warlords,’ I told him.
”˜Up Peter Flint,’ Frankie said, raising his arms triumphantly.
”˜Down with Gruber,’ I shouted at the top of my voice.
”˜There’s a brand new batch of them in Toohey’s right now.’
”˜We’ll get them after school on Monday boss.’
”˜Great stuff,’ I said and I walked home that evening in the light of a blood-red sky humming a song I didn’t even know the name of.’
”˜Sounds as if you were a bit of a boyo,’ Bill said grinning.
”˜Oh I most definitely was that,’ said Tom, ”˜my mother was always saying that about me. She used to say it to my father in such a pronounced way that it seemed to me she was trying to get a reaction from him. Action I think more to the point. Something she hoped would put a cap on the streak of skullduggery she said was inside me. My father was a quiet man. He divided his time working in the local meat factory and on our farm. He preferred not to have too many things imposing on his busy schedule. He’s a tall man, as you know, and was much leaner back then. I suppose this added to a sort of distance between us if you know what I mean. From my seven year-old height my father seemed to go up forever. I found it hard to say anything to him. He wasn’t around too much and, even when he was, he wasn’t given to much in the way of talking. My mother admonished him at times for not taking a firmer stand with me. But the most she got out of him was a cursory nod of the head. Even after I’d been in a fight with Larry Dunne at school he excused himself from the resulting inquisition in our kitchen saying he had to check on a cow ready to calve that night in the box outhouse.’
Tom nodded his head in the direction of the altar.
”˜Our good friend Father O’Leary came to the parish with a lot of new and earnest ideas befitting a man of his then young age,’ he said. ”˜Amongst other things, he revived the choir which was flagging and asked a number of the men to help with the Sunday mass collection. My father was one of them. He was reticent to take on the job at first, but when he did he applied himself in the same quiet, zealous manner as he did to everything else. Soon his gangly frame became a familiar fixture during the service. It was on account of this that he got to be nicknamed Father Fiscal by some of the older people. The children at my school who couldn’t quite get their tongues around that word resorted to calling him Father Fishal instead. For me that was ignominy enough, but far worse was the fact that we had to wait for him in the car every Sunday after mass as he helped our fastidious curate count the takings. Now as you know children are not renowned for their powers of patience and I was no exception in this regard. Week after week I fidgeted and complained and did every other imaginable thing to express my frustration at being held there for so long. My mother bore the brunt of this naturally since she too was left waiting, and although she gave out to me, I think she secretly saw my point of view. Relations in the house were seldom good on Sundays because of this. Mostly my mother and father did not speak. Mostly I read my war books, or called to see Frankie if he was knocking around.’
”˜The day of my own communion however was different. The money I received brought about a change in my thinking. As usual we were the last to leave the church grounds – Father O’Leary insisting on totting up the cash after the photos were taken – but I didn’t mind so much. I sat on the edge of one of the gate pillars, basking in the warm sunlight, as thoughts of my newly-acquired wealth danced merrily in my head. That’s when the idea first came to me. I thought about my collection and the one my father performed. I decided if he could make his once a week, then there was no reason why I couldn’t make my own once a year. There couldn’t be much wrong which doing that I figured. Just a minor transgression perhaps. There was more than enough to go around on communion Sunday. Me diverting a certain percentage of it my way would hardly be tantamount to a cardinal sin.’
”˜And what happened on the day so?’ asked Bill. ”˜The following year I mean. When you weren’t making your first communion but were acting like you were.’
”˜I remember I awoke early that morning,’ said Tom, ”˜with a confident sense of fine things to come. I cast my mind forward to how I’d spend the money. I thought of Ritchie’s Mints and Warlord comics and paperback books by Captain W.E. Johns. The weather was as glorious as it had been the year before. I got up and put on the suit with eagerness like never before.’
”˜Now wait a second,’ Bill interrupted, ”˜just how did you manage to get away with that? Didn’t your mother and father notice you were wearing the suit? Weren’t they in the least bit suspicious?’
”˜Not at all,’ replied Tom, ”˜during the intervening year my mother had insisted on me wearing the suit from time to time. Her logic was I’d grow out of it soon enough and it’d be a waste not to get some wearing out of it. I had that on my side you see. Neither of my parents were suspicious when I came down dressed that way. The only thing I had to add later was the communion medal. That hadn’t seen the light of day in a year. It was the most important item for my scheme. And, crucially, the one thing neither my mother nor father should see.’
”˜Now as a boy I often wondered how God went about distinguishing us from one another, if indeed he had such a commanding view of the world as the older people said. My mother once told me God was omniscient and when I asked her what that was she said it meant he was in all places all of the time. Now you might suppose Bill that would surely have put some degree of fear into me; enough at least that I might think twice about devious schemes involving communion suits and money collections. But it didn’t. My belief was that with the day that was in it me and Frankie would move almost unnoticed amongst the crowds and general stir. We’d be visible enough to make the collection of course, but we’d do it in such an artful way that no one would doubt our bona fides.
”˜Yes sir, I made my first communion today and I feel very proud. Our teacher made us practise with the Ritchie’s Mints and I didn’t feel a bit nervous when I stood up there in front of the priest.’ And as for God? Well I figured that even God might have difficulties seeing everyone no matter how omniscient he was supposed to be, especially since all the boys and girls looked just as we had the year before. That was my logic and I wasn’t far wrong. When we arrived at the church that morning the communion procession was already underway. First came the girls as they made their way up the church, picking their steps carefully for fear of the smallest speck of dirt blemishing the ornamental borders of white needlework. Next were the boys in their dark suits, a cacophony of creaking sounds issuing from the leather of their new shoes. Everything looked as it had twelve short months earlier. A carbon copy I thought. Even Father O’Leary in the same chasuble, its ornate material shaking animatedly as he preached on the subject of the communion and its ongoing importance.’
”˜That would be just like him,’ Bill commented.
Tom did not seem to hear this.
”˜Frankie believed the best way to make the collection without risking detection was to do so in the least conspicuous places in the car park,’ he said. ”˜Jimmy Farrell was one of those ubiquitous figures you see after Sunday mass in every rural parish. Jimmy spoke to everyone, enquired openly of people’s affairs, and moved freely between groups as conversations fluctuated. He drove a Ford Granada which he parked in the same spot every week – next to one of the perimeter walls at the extreme right of the church entrance – and after careful deliberation I settled on this as the seat for my campaign.’
”˜We were no sooner inside the church when I became separated from my parents. A fortunate happening as far as I was concerned. Communion Sunday brought with it an infusion of visitors to the parish and it caused a scarcity of space. Family members used to sitting together found themselves broken up, and shuffling in tentatively beside people they did not know. The service itself lasted about an hour and I was careful not to attach the communion medal to my suit until the recessional hymn began. The choir sang Now Thank We All Our God and I imagined how I’d be giving plenty of thanks outside soon enough. Upon leaving the church, Frankie and I quickly took up our positions. He stood at the other side of the car park and we both waited expectantly as the first of the congregation trickled out. Mostly they were people who had no involvement in the communion day, but this did not dampen their sense of generosity as I soon found out.’
”˜Jimmy Farrell himself was the first up to me and I can tell you he didn’t hesitate to burrow into his trouser pocket for an old pound note. Next there was Anthony McGee. Anthony was well known in our parish for his trite stories and jokes which he told over and over again, but I remembered how he’d given me a pound note before, and indeed he proved equal to that gesture again.’
”˜Making your first communion young fella, are ya?’ he asked.
”˜Yes sir, I am,’ I replied.
”˜Well don’t spend all of that in the one shop,’ he said, laughing as he’d done the year before when he’d told me the exact same thing.’
”˜Betty Sheridan and her sister-in-law followed directly on from him. Betty was a milliner by profession and her sister-in-law was staying with her for a short while because she was writing a paper on ecclesiology. The churches in our area were of particular interest to her. What was of particular interest to me was the pound and fifty which they summoned up between them and I thanked them repeatedly as they wished me well on my elevated Christian status. And Betty herself was no back of the clock I can tell you. She was a sharp-witted woman who ordinarily saw through such duplicity. But it was communion Sunday and even the likes of Betty was inclined to be taken in a bit more than she normally would be. So were many others, unsuspecting as Betty was. The plan was going off without a hitch. It was very easy money.’
”˜I see. And did you get much money?’ asked Bill.
”˜Much more than I expected,’ said Tom, ”˜by the time Bobby Campion, the leader of the choir, made his contribution I had accumulated almost as many notes and coins as the year previous. When Anne Gilmartin, the local postmistress, made hers I officially surpassed the previous amount. I could hardly believe how well it had gone. At the other end of the car park I could see that Frankie had done just as well as me. There’d been a moment during our collection when I caught his eye and he threw me a big grin and a nod of the head. But I didn’t respond to him. That would be out of character given the circumstances. I knew I had to remain serene and comport myself like the innocent young fella I was supposed to be with the body of Christ inside me for the first time. But after Anne Gilmartin I decided it was time to stop. I signaled this to Frankie. We didn’t meet up to compare our takings. We agreed we could wait until Monday in school. Our car was empty when I got to it. My mother was still in the church absorbed in conversation as she waited on my father who, in turn, was waiting on Father O’Leary. The last of the communion parties had left by the time they emerged from the church. My father was smiling as my mother spoke to him, but his demeanour changed when they got to the car. I knew at once it was because of me.’
”˜Why was that?’ asked Bill.
”˜He spotted the communion medal on my jacket you see,’ said Tom, ”˜in my excitement I’d forgotten to take it off. The penny dropped straight away and by the time we were moving off he was po-faced looking back at me in the rear view mirror.’
”˜What the hell are you wearing that for Tom?’ he enquired. At first I didn’t answer. I hoped it might simply dissipate into silence as it usually did with him. But I was wrong. Very wrong. He persisted.’
”˜Were you up to something outside the church Tom?’ he asked, his voice more direct than it had been before. I still said nothing. He glared at me through the mirror again.’
”˜Will you tell me in the name of God what you were doing!’ he shouted, his cheeks filling with colour until he looked just like Charlie Daly.’
”˜I was doing nothing,’ I replied, thinking I could bluff my way out of it somehow. But my father wasn’t hoodwinked by this. A hardened look had set in across his face. I knew I was done for then. I waited for my mother to say something. I expected her to speak for them both, as she normally did; to put in words the sense of disgust they both felt on account of my behaviour. But she said nothing. She deliberately held her silence as I realised later. Instead, it was my father who spoke again.’
”˜I’ve never seen the likes of it before,’ he said, ”˜never seen such bare-arsed impudence. He’s abused the sacrament of the holy communion,’ he told my mother.’
”˜And still she said nothing. She stared ahead and made no attempt to mollify or interrupt. I was as puzzled at her mute reaction as I was amazed at my father’s irate one.’
”˜Did she say anything at all?’ asked Bill.
”˜No,’ said Tom, ”˜she went directly into the house when we got home. My father held me behind in the car.
”˜Take out all that money you got,’ he said, ”˜and recall to me who gave it to you and exactly how much.’
”˜He got me to make out a list of the names of the people I’d accepted the money from. Beside each name I had to write the correct amount, or as best as I could remember. Then he drove me to each of their houses and waited as I returned what was owed them. Anthony McGee lived closest to us – he was the first we went to – and I can tell you he had no joke or story to tell when he heard mine. Next there was Bobby Campion, and then Anne Gilmartin, and ever so gradually all the rest of them. Most of them had nothing to say when I explained why I was returning their money. I couldn’t understand this; couldn’t for the life of me understand why most of them looked disappointed, but had nothing severe to say to me.’
”˜Now you might well imagine that my task got easier after the first few houses. That it became less embarrassing for me because I was parroting the same words. But it didn’t. My father didn’t allow that to happen. He was a different man to me and I feared his anger in the same way I feared those people standing close-mouthed on their doorsteps. Now they reminded me of how he normally was. Lost for words they were and it made my whole body feel rigid just having to look at them. I hated their silence. I felt I could no longer stand it and I tried to ask my father if we could stop. I wanted to tell him I could take no more of it; could take no more of them and their affronted expressions burning into the back of my head as I walked away. I wanted to tell him what it was for – Ritchie’s Mints and Biggles books and Warlord comics with Peter Flint, who most certainly would not have allowed his well-laid plans to come to grief in this fashion. I wanted to tell him that I’d made the collection because it was a highly profitable enterprise and could he not understand that making the collection as he did every Sunday himself.’
”˜And did you?’ asked Bill.
Tom shook his head in response.
”˜No,’ he said, ”˜I wasn’t able to. I discovered the silence had me in its grasp as well. As much as I tried, I couldn’t break through it. Jimmy Farrell was our last call. At the back of his house there was a small copse which he’d obstinately refused to cut down over the years in spite of his wife’s pleas. I’d never been inside it, though I had it on good authority from Frankie that it was overgrown and dark. Frankie said it was a scary place to be. But I knew I didn’t want to face Jimmy. I was sick and tired of everything and everyone, of the entire affair. I saw all their faces again. Pained and a bit out of shape. They were all stuck in my head. I also saw Frankie meeting me the next day at school, full of enthusiasm to head down to Tooheys. I wondered what excuse I could come up with for not wanting to go. I didn’t want to tell him I’d been caught. I didn’t want to lie to him either. I saw myself growing out of the communion suit as my mother said I would, but none of it mattered anymore. I simply wanted to be done with it all. I wanted communion Sunday to end right there and then and I saw Jimmy’s overgrown copse as a way of somehow ending it. I ran directly towards it as soon as I got out of the car. My father of course followed me. He was fast but I had a head start and made it there before he could catch me. Inside it was dark and dreary as Frankie had said. I felt my jacket being jerked sharply as it came into contact with some merciless thorns. I heard the same noise behind me as my father entered the copse. The ground beneath me was soft and muddy and my movement was hampered by this and not helped in the least bit by the pair of slip-on shoes I was wearing. I pushed forward as best I could, but he was gaining on me. I felt as if I was being prodded with a thousand pins and needles from the chafing of the prickly foliage. Then one of my shoes got stuck in the uneven ground and came off as I pulled on it. There was no time to retrieve it. Ahead of me I could see the faint glimmer of daylight breaking through the thick canopy of branches and leaves. I ran directly towards it. I wanted to quit this place as quickly as I’d come into it. I didn’t care if I had one shoe or none at all. Who needed shoes at a time like this in any case I thought. Who needed polished footwear or a fine communion suit when he was about to make good his escape from Jimmy Farrell’s copse and from communion Sunday and all the negative things he now associated with it? Who even needed solid ground underfoot with which to make his escape when Biggles and Peter Flint had done so on innumerable occasions, and in less enviable circumstances, such that they might consider this nothing more than a leisurely stroll in the park? But I certainly needed it. I could not do without it. Not in that place and not with such a sudden dip in the ground that put an end to my notions of escape and landed me unkindly in the watery mud. Communion suit and medal and everything else of course.’
”˜You must have been in a right mess from that,’ said Bill.
”˜I was, ‘replied Tom, ”˜my father hauled me out of it, sat me upright so I was facing him.’
”˜Why did you do it?’ he asked angrily.’
”˜I struggled to catch my breath.’
”˜It’s alright for you,’ I said, ”˜you make the collection every Sunday and no one stops you. No one says anything to you.’
”˜He became even more incensed at that.’
”˜Is that what you think?’ he said. ”˜Do you not know I never wanted to do the collection? Can you not understand that? I never wanted to do it, and after this…I don’t know what. Do you know what they’re going to say at mass next Sunday when I collect? Do you know what they’re going to say Tom?’
”˜No, I don’t,’ I answered.’
”˜It was true I didn’t at that moment in time. So I waited for him to tell me. I wanted him to tell me, but, as it happened, he didn’t get the chance. Instead his attention fixed on something else.’
”˜Oh Jesus!’ he said, ”˜would you look at the state of your communion suit! You won’t get to wear that again. It’s too far gone…soiled it is. You won’t ever get to wear your communion suit again. And then he began to cry. Which amazed me I can tell you. I’d never seen my father cry before. I didn’t think it was possible for him to cry. We sat there for five minutes solid, not a word between us. On the way home I thought about Frankie and his father. I felt sure Frankie hadn’t been caught out the way I was. I felt sure he was luckier than me because of that. Fellas sometimes wish they had a different father. I did my fair share of it that day…the day I ruined the communion suit.’
The men at the back of the church were the first to leave when mass was over. Tom and Bill walked out together. As they separated from the other men, Bill felt more at liberty to speak again. He still had one or two questions which were playing on his mind.
”˜So what happened when you got home that day?’ he asked. ”˜Was anything else said to you?’
”˜Nothing,’ said Tom, as he shook his head, ”˜I got cleaned up. I never wore the communion suit again. Like my father said it was too far gone. I wouldn’t have worn it again anyway.’
”˜But your father kept on the collection?’ said Bill.
”˜Yes, he did,’ said Tom, ”˜he’s been collecting now for a lot of years. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks of that Sunday, if it’s still in his head. I doubt anyone else around here remembers it now. But I do. And maybe he does as well. Who knows Bill. Maybe God above. If indeed he’s omniscient like my mother said.’
The two men parted company saying they would see each other later that week in the pub. There was a raffle being held on Friday night, though neither of them knew what the prizes were. They agreed on a few pints then.
Bill sat into his car, but the usual haphazard parking in the church yard prevented him from leaving right away. He wondered how long it might be. All dependent on the post-mass chats experience told him. Normally he was careful to park in a space that afforded an expeditious departure, but on this morning he’d been slightly inattentive, and was now paying the price. Hilda Rooney, Maeve Bergin and Agnes Kelly were the chief offenders and they were deep in discussion. Bill cursed silently to himself. It’s a damn nuisance to be delayed like this he thought. What do they have to talk about? They’re neighbours and they see each other every day. He tried staring at them cantankerously, but they didn’t notice. Or simply pretended not to. Many cars had moved off by now and here he still was, a hostage of their idle gossip. It was tedious waiting for them to break up, so he cast his eyes about hoping they’d be gone sometime in the near future. Looking around, he found he was not the only one. There were other hostages as well. Most looked resigned and familiar with their situations. A small few attempted to look daggers as he’d done. But to no avail. There was no doubting the victors in this particular battle. They always win thought Bill. They come out on top like those fellas in Tom’s war comic books.
From the corner of his eye he spied that very same person just then – Tom sitting in his car too, but he was not hemmed in like the others. Nor did he appear impeded in any way. Why is he still here Bill wondered. Why hasn’t he gone home already? He could not see any sense in this. And then it came to him. Tom was still here for a reason. There was an explanation for his remaining behind. He was waiting for his father who was counting the collection with Father O’Leary in the church.