It turns out, your best friends will hang you out to dry and watch you dangle while they save themselves when danger lurks. That was the valuable lesson I learned at eleven years of age. It started with a smile and a giggle, as Colm Dunne pretended to fart and made faces, dangling his tongue and rolling his eyes like he had either just suffered from, or was relieved at the passing of his fake gas. It didn’t matter what he was trying to portray, or whether he was giving an accurate account of the feeling. What mattered was that he cracked me up and the titchiest burst of a spit-laugh couldn’t be suppressed by my hand.
Normally at that point, Brother Donnelly would have simply roared down the classroom, demanding to know what I found so amusing and imploring me to share with the rest of the class. However on that particular occasion the fact that he didn’t was ominous. The truth was he had just asked the class a question while my attention was diverted and I hadn’t heard it. Worse still it appeared that he was now directing that very question at me specifically.
I looked up at him, standing against his big desk with his buttocks supporting his weight against its edge as he faced the class of forty boys. My memory may play tricks, but I am sure that I released just the tiniest amount of wee from the fear that he instilled in me in that very moment.
“Answer the question… come on, come on, I’m waiting!”
Now it was at that point that I recognised the betrayal. Of course I’d witnessed it and been party to it many times before in similar circumstances, albeit with another boy-victim in the Brother’s line of sight, but I’d never seen it for what it was until that precise moment. All around me hands shot up, waving eagerly, accompanied by the call of ‘Brother, Brother’ to attract his attention to them so they could offer an answer. The hands were everywhere and many of them had no clue what the answer was to that question, which I had not heard.
It didn’t matter if they didn’t know the answer. I was the Brother’s target. As long as he had me on a string they were safe. If he chose one of them before I answered, it wouldn’t matter that their answer was wrong, so long as I was in his sights; once he had a victim lined up they were safe. The moment he finished with my humiliation the hands would drop but for now, they hoped to be eliminated by being selected to answer, right or wrong, before that moment arrived.
But for some reason Brother Donnelly only had eyes for me that morning. I was one of his best students, well behaved, clever, studious, always did my homework and normally I would never be in trouble. Maybe it was my half-chocked snigger or perhaps he just wanted to show that even the good boys got punished if they crossed him.
“Come up here!”
It was a simple terrifying instruction that could lead to a clip around the side of the head or worse, the leather. Of all the Christian Brothers that taught us, Donnelly was strangely the least quick to whip out the leather, but when he did, his handling skills ensured his wrath was felt on both hands with the accuracy of a man who must surely have practiced in his free time. Eventually I assumed the shame-faced, head-bowed stance beside him facing the class of wiggling, enthusiastic hands. Even my best friend was waving his hand to gain kudos with the sadist in our midst.
“I will ask you again and I had better hear an answer.”
He slipped his right hand into the folds of his cassock and produced the wooden tipped leather strap, which he placed beside him on the desk. He folded his arms and never once looked at me. He looked straight ahead and I shot a furtive glance at his spectacled face. I knew he saw me for while he didn’t look down, a familiar cruel smirk grew at the side of his mouth. The fear was now all consuming and finally, he repeated the question that I hadn’t heard and therefore couldn’t answer.
“What…” each word was separated by a long carefully chosen pause and spoken with the crispest, poshest, clipped country accent “… is …the…Mass?”
My God it was such a simple question for boys like us. Two things were beaten into us with fervour second to none, the Irish language and religion. It should have been so easy. All I had to say was, “A blessed sacrament Brother,” and I might have gotten away with a telling off, but oh no, my mind went blank. All I could see, was a room full of traitors waving frantically, afraid to be singled out by keeping their hands down, for fear that would single them out after me. I could imaging the leather strap slapping down and the follow through, as Brother Donnelly would surely grab my hand by the tips of my fingers, raise it high and arc it backwards for maximum impact then…wallop! That picture in my head overcame my ability to say the four words that would save me and my mind went blank.
Liam Corcoran, a ‘refugee’ from the troubles in the North was in the front row directly in front of me, his hand raised impossibly high, a smile across his face. The others I understood. They were afraid. They had no choice, it was self-preservation and although I recognised their lack of loyalty, I knew I had done exactly the same in the past. Corcoran was different. He was a smart ass and always wanted to impress. Despite the fact that his family had to abandon their home in Belfast, we had no childish sympathy for him and worse still, he had a better standard of education than we had, so was therefore way ahead of most of us. Brother Donnelly loved him it seemed, but that sneering smile made me despise him in that moment. I just knew that he would be the one that Brother Donnelly would ask to answer the question, to prove to the rest of us that this interloper was smarter than all of us.
“For God’s sake boy, what sort of heathen are you? Everyone knows what the Mass is! What is the Mass? What is the Mass?” He repeated the question and was shouting, spiting, fuming as he turned to face me, raising to his full height, a monster in black about to consume me and I thought that in that moment my life was over…but then a miracle happened…
‘Little Big Boy’ is a story of adversity, crushing heart break and triumph to touch your heart and make you smile. Follow Max Power on Facebook for news of the release date.