From Little Big Boy by Max Power – chilling, tragic, funny and heart-warming ..coming to your local amazon store soon
“Bless me Father for I have sinned, it’s been one week since my last confession. I killed my father.”
I could have told him anything. I was going to lie regardless, why not a big one? They were all complicit in my lies despite their desire for me to confess them. But that one wasn’t going to be an option. I was too afraid although I wished I had the guts to say it anyway. The choices were pretty much always a selection from the same list for almost all of us. I could go for ‘I told a lie’ or ‘I used a swear word’ or ‘I disobeyed my parents.’ The last one was dodgy depending on the priest, it could easily backfire and it was important to know which priest was in the confession box before you went in with that one. For some reason they all had their own particular pet hate when it came to prepubescent boy sins.
We arrived at the church, a mass of boyhood; six classes of forty boys at a time so there would inevitably be the possibility that you could get a nice(ish) priest, or a fire and brimstone merchant. One might perhaps get Father Connolly, a bit nuts but generally quick and painless, although on occasion he could dish out extraordinary penance for relatively minor offences. I once got twelve Hail Mary’s and twelve Our Father’s for no more than a few lies and a couple of curses.
On the other hand you could get a priest who would be pedantic about your prayers, or just torment you and make you feel so terrible for being such a bad little boy, that you would want to cry. Sometimes I had to Steel myself before I left that box. Tears were often ready to burst from my soft eyes and it sometimes it seemed impossible to hold them back. You couldn’t cry of course, for the moment you stepped back out of the confession box, the eyes of your classmates were on you, looking for signs of what it had been like, or just looking for a sign of weakness. Being first in the queue was the worst place to be, because then you didn’t know who was inside. Regardless of where I was in the queue, my stomach would be churning so bad that I usually thought I might get sick.
Seven, was way too young to feel that level of anxiety. In today’s world, it seems hard to imagine that terror was a currency for so many of the adults that were charged with the physical and spiritual welfare of such precious and often delicate little children. Being hard didn’t help those that toughened up early, it only brought extra wrath. Softness was never tolerated, so there was a fine line that needed to be tread which I remember being impossible to find. Sometimes I’d freeze and forget all my made up sins and you couldn’t have no sins, that was worse than having loads. At least when you had sins you could be forgiven. That was the rule. No priest in our Parish could possibly accept the insane possibility, that a seven year old boy could have gone a week without committing at least one minor atrocity. That was the first thing they drilled into us before our first confession.
“Bless me father for I have…” I remember Tony Dunne doing the rehearsal at the top of the class with Father Kelly before our First Holy Communion. He went through the ritual until he came to; “…These are my sins…” but then he was stuck. He didn’t have any.
“Go on lad…go on…these are my sins…”
Poor Tony hadn’t a clue. Brother Matthew had thought us the sins but Tony had simply forgotten them in his fear of the priest. Rather than make an eejit of himself he stayed silent.
“I’ve told lies boy… come on, come on!” Father Kelly didn’t seem to get the irony of teaching a boy to lie about telling lies and it was way too philosophical for us to kop on.
“I’ve told lies…”
“You’ve told lies…?” Clearly an insufficient answer, Father Kelly needed more and we could all see poor Tony’s brain working overtime.
“I’ve told lies…” His brain had abandoned him. “…Father.”
“And?” Father Kelly was already exasperated but Tony was still struggling.
“For the love of God boys! This’ll never do, not at all. Do you think God wants to hear your silence after the sins you’ve committed? Well?”
“No Father.” We answered him as one, but we had no idea what he was talking about, it just seemed like the answer he was looking for and we stuck together as one, a herd being stalked.
“No of course he doesn’t. You are all sinners. I only have to look around and I can see the sins on your faces.” He began waving his pointing finger across the room. We all sort of half bowed our heads instinctively, least it fall on us to be shamed for some terrible sin that he could see on us.
“You’ve lied. You’ve taken sugar from the sugar bowl (a sin I was guilty of, but more out of hunger than wilful sinning) and you have cursed, or had impure thoughts or God forbid, touched yourself inappropriately.”
I had no idea what the last two were but I was making mental notes to use if asked. We all were. By the time we got to our first confession, we each had a selection of sins lined up, made up, all ready to satisfy God’s desire to forgive us through the priest. By the time we had gone to confession five or six times we were hardened veterans, exchanging notes with each other in whispers before going into the confessional least we repeat our predecessors sins when it was our turn. But it was still a terrifying ordeal. I once made the mistake of using the ‘impure thoughts’ sin without knowing what it was only to be challenged by the monster in the dark.
“Have you been interfering with yourself son?” It was an even more confusing question that came back at me and afraid to confess to something that could be as bad as murder maybe, I answered,
It got me off the hook – that day anyway. But my abiding memories of that black box are filled with fear, anticipation and dread. Even then, particularly then, I felt so tiny as I knelt before the grid a foot above my head in the darkness. It was designed for adults and no concessions were made for those that should be seen and not heard.
More often than not, you were left to sweat in the darkness, sometimes listening to the rumblings from the other side, until eventually and with a suddenness that always startled, a sliding wooden window was whipped back just leaving a metal grid between you and the priest. I could never see them and was afraid to look anyway. The ritual was always the same, there was Latin from their side and rehearsed lines from ours and sometimes, we would have to listen in terror while we waited our turn, if the boy on the other side of the priest was getting a torrid time. Ours were double barrelled confessionals, so that while one boy confessed to the right of the priest, the next victim could line up on the left. It was brutally efficient and always left you in the dark for at least a couple of minutes, filled with dread, anticipating the worst.
And so it was on that cold November morning, as I waited and my skinny little knees ached on the hard wooden step inside that dark smelly box. I didn’t know this priest. He had come from ‘the missions’ that was the rumour anyway and after he finished tormenting the boy to his right, I heard him slam his shutter and I waited in silence for my turn. For what seemed an age, I listened to his unintelligible mutterings in the pitch dark, until at last the shutter door was pulled back. Startled and against my better judgement, in reflex I snapped my head up to stare at the grill…
… Little Big Boy, Max Power’s fourth book, will be available on amazon early in 2015.
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