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My leg was almost asleep, and I was trying to stifle a yawn when the Pastor raised his voice. “I’m not saying they’ll go to Hell–” he stretched his arm vaguely in the direction of the Catholic church on the other side of the road– “but how can a person really mean what they say to Him, when they are just reciting the words of some long-dead so-called saint?”
I was glad we didn’t have to be Catholics. They weren’t like us. There were small matters of theology, but bigger things too, like what school we went to: Wood Park Primary School for us, or St Aidan’s, which was two streets down, for them; after that, Gorse Heath Secondary, or St Ignatius and Holy Trinity in the next village. Except I went to the Grammar School in town, which some Catholic boys went to because the nearest Catholic grammar school was St Thomas’s, which was about twenty miles away. My best mates, Andy Baker and Jon Murphy, the Pastor’s son, went to Gorse Heath, which was a pain. I’d seem then on a Sunday, and they’d talk about stuff that happened during the week, stuff I’d missed.
After the service, we sat on the wall outside. It was early summer, and we’d finished our first year at secondary school that week. This was going to be my first chance to hang out with them properly for weeks on end, and as the sunlight warmed the left side of my body, we talked about what to do now. Jon had a ball, but we couldn’t make two teams out of the three of us.
“Ask your kid,” Andy said.
Jon shook his head. The big doors opposite opened as we watched and Mrs Brady from the sweet shop emerged, waving her umbrella from side-to-side so that the three unruly lads behind her couldn’t overtake until she was on the path, and they could run round her.
If we shouldn’t have been playing football with Catholics, God didn’t strike us down. Three-a-side in the middle of the road: goalies keeping an eye out for cars. We won 4-3. I pulled off a fine save in the final seconds to stop Kevin Cavanagh equalising. I plucked the ball off his forehead, even though he was three inches taller than me, and I was blinded by the sun peeping out from behind Coroner’s Wood, a mile away.
For the rest of that summer, Sunday evenings and the thought of football got us through interminable services. Some weeks we would win; some weeks they would; some weeks we’d give the rest of the world the slip and sneak down to the canal; some weeks we’d just sit and talk.
“So, your dad’s the priest?” Kevin asked Jon after I’d mentioned it one evening.
Jon nodded. “Only, we don’t call him a priest.”
“And he’s allowed to have kids?”
“Don’t forget Miss O’Donnell’s baby,” Martin Wright said.
“Yeah, but no one knows that for definite,” Kevin said.
The three boys laughed.
During the week, we would meet in the afternoons and go round to Andy’s. He lived on the edge of the village, in a house backing on to an empty field. The grass was shoulder-high, with paths and diversions trampled across. In the middle stood a mound of bitumen we called the Black Hill. If you stood on top of it, you could see to the edge of the field, but miss someone creeping through the grass two yards away. When we were younger, we’d wasted hours playing hide-and-seek, but we were too old for that now.
None of us knew why the field was empty. There was a story that the farmer who owned it had drowned in the stream at the far end. One evening we stayed out until it was beginning to get dark. As we sat on top of Black Hill, Andy told us another story. The farmer had killed his wife and buried her underneath the Hill; he was now in prison and his wife would come out of the Hill late at night and the souls of anyone foolish enough to be in the field after dark.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Jon said.
“Hail Mary, full of grace,” Kevin said. “Blessed art thou among women,” the other two joined in with him.
In the Autumn, when we were back at school, and the nights got darker, the weekday meetups and Sunday football dropped off. Some weeks, I had to rush straight home because I had homework to do before Monday morning arrived. It would have been less hassle to do it on Saturday, or even Sunday afternoon, but pushing it closer to the wire just seemed a more enjoyable use of my time.
The lighter nights came, around about the time that I met Anita O’Toole. I’d known her at primary school, but I hadn’t paid much attention to her, until I saw her on the bus one afternoon just after the Easter holidays. I spent most of my time thinking about how much I loved her, and how happy she’d be when I told her. She didn’t get the bus again that year, but summer would give me more time to hang out in the village.
The summer holidays started, and we spent Sunday evenings waiting outside the church again. Mrs Brady was still the first one out, but our friends weren’t immediately behind her. There were other boys, maybe their younger brothers, anxious to race out, while Kevin, Martin and Damian ambled behind.
We tried football. Kevin was now six inches taller than me, and the first game ended 4-1 to them. I lost the ball in the sun, and he nodded home for his hat trick.
We argued about whose God was bigger. They won that. “Our church is bigger than yours, so our God must be bigger too.” We argued about whose God was better: “We don’t need words in a book to tell us what to say to God.” This made us even, I thought. We argued about whose church Church Road was named for. I had been to the library in town and read some local history. “Before either of our churches was built, there was a Unitarian chapel down here.”
“Unitarian, what’s that?”
“Well, it isn’t Catholic,” I said.
We forgot about football and spent Sunday evenings walking up and down Church Road, trying to get the upper hand. Jon knew more about the Bible than anyone else, but didn’t like to admit it. When we were younger, I liked to be on his side for quizzes in Sunday school, until he got too self-conscious and refused to put up his hand, even if he knew the answer.
“The Father says you don’t have proper sermons in your church,” Martin said. “You just sing songs that make you feel good about yourselves.”
“What’s wrong with feeling good?” I asked.
“God doesn’t want us to feel good,” Damian said. I looked at Jon, hoping he’d contradict that, but he said nothing.
God might not have wanted us to feel good, but boys have different ideas about themselves. “Have you got a girlfriend, Dan?” Kevin asked me one evening.
I blushed and said nothing.
“Martin has, haven’t you?”
“Shut up,” Martin said.
“She’s not a Catholic. She goes to your school. You might know her. Anita O’Toole.”
My stomach fell to the floor and rolled into the gutter. “Don’t go Gorse Heath,” I said, my mouth too dry to speak in proper sentences.
“And guess what Martin’s going to be doing on Friday night.” Kevin stuck out his tongue and wiggled his eyes.
“You don’t know anything about it,” Martin said.
The only time that summer we got away from Church Road, was the evening we walked back to Andy’s.
It was not quite dusk when we got there, and we all lied about what time we were expected home. There was half-an-hour for a game. Hide-and-seek was for kids: this was going to be war. Andy found a large stick with a handkerchief attached and stuck it on top of the Black Hill. We would start at opposite corners of the field. First team to capture the flag would win.
“That’s boring,” Kevin said. “It’s just who can run the fastest. Or has the shortest distance to travel.” He wasn’t convinced the Black Hill was exactly in the middle.
“Once you’ve captured the flag, you’ve got to get it to the opposite corner. That way we all have the same distance to travel. And if the other team gets the flag first, you have to stop them.”
“What are the rules?”
“They’re Protestants,” Kevin said. “They don’t believe in rules.”
“And you’re Catholics,” Jon said. “You can do what you like so long as you go to confession afterwards.”
We should have won. After all the time we had spent in that field, we knew every route to the Black Hill and the hidden paths away from it. We had spent weeks planning how to put them back in their place.
I was the smallest and had to sneak into a hidden path where I would wait for Andy, who was going to capture the flag and then bring it to me. Andy and Jon would keep the other three occupied, while I ran as quickly as I could to the far corner. If they captured the flag first, I was to sneak ahead of them, while Andy and Jon took advantage of the fading light and the mazy pathways to confuse the enemy. I would jump out, grab the flag and give it to Andy, who was the school running champion.
Kevin got to my secret hiding place first. He tripped me up, stuffed a clump of grass into my mouth and sat on me. After a few minutes I heard shouting. Kevin let me up to watch. Martin had captured the flag and was running towards the far corner of the field. Andy tried to catch him, but he couldn’t get close.
“There are no secret hiding places in this village,” Kevin said. The three of them walked away singing while we sat on the lawn in Andy’s back garden and blamed each other. Or rather, Andy and Jon blamed me. I just wondered if I’d ever see Anita again.
I did see her again. It was a small village, and you would see everyone sooner, or later. I was looking round the market one Saturday afternoon and saw her with her mates. She smiled when she said hello, but that was all. I heard a rumour that she had split up with Martin after she had caught him doing something unspeakable with a girl from the convent school, but I never found out if that was true.
We went back to school, and I decided it was time to concentrate. I’d been the cleverest kid in the class at Wood Park, rarely challenged by anything, but this had changed. There was physics and biology, religions and politics, history and current affairs. Things I hadn’t known about before. I watched the news and heard that the miners were on strike, that the government wanted Cruise missiles (but other people didn’t) and I heard about the violence in Northern Ireland.
The Catholic boys in school had their own assembly on a Friday morning. The local priest would take it, and our English teacher, Mr Pearse. I thought he was just sitting with them because it was his job, until he started talking about names one Friday afternoon. “And if you lived in Belfast, for example, people would make assumptions about you, whether they want to get to know you, give you a job, rent you a house even, based on your name. Names like Paisley, MacCrea or Wilson,” he told us, “are usually associated with the Protestant community. Names like Joyce, O’Donnell or Murphy…” I lost him there. Murphy wasn’t a name a Catholic would have, was it?
“Yeah, my dad’s family were Catholics,” Jon told me that Sunday. “Still are, some of them.”
“Why’s your dad a Protestant?”
He shrugged. “Ask him.”
The following summer was dry. People talked about the last hot summer and standpipes. The stream at the end of the field behind Andy’s house almost dried up. A warm summer is one thing, but this was a heat that tasted like congealed eggs.
The first evening of the summer holidays we sat on the wall outside church and pretended we weren’t waiting for Kevin, Martin and Damian. Mrs Brady had died a few months earlier and there was no rush to get out. In that heat, there was no rush to do anything. A few younger lads wandered out, followed by some adults. The three lads we weren’t waiting for sauntered out about ten minutes later. They seemed taller, Martin especially, and older: more like young men than boys. We on the other hand… I looked around and realised that there was no we.
“Why does your service go on longer than ours,” I asked.
“Because your God gets bored of all that singing.”
“Haven’t we had enough talk about God,” Andy asked.
“You want to try living at my house,” Jon said.
We walked round the village for a bit. There wasn’t any banter. There wasn’t anything really. I wanted to ask what the Catholic lads thought about the Northern Ireland situation, but without discussing God stuff that would be impossible. Besides, no one else was interested in politics.
This went on for three weeks. Sunday evenings sitting round in the heat, parched and with nothing to say. We tried playing football, but games were even more one-sided than they had been a year ago, and it was only minutes before either thirst or boredom overwhelmed us.
We tried the field behind Andy’s as a last resort. Ghost stories couldn’t scare us, and it soon became obvious that the grass wasn’t as tall as it had been when we were younger. We sat by the stream that had become a trickle in the heat. ‘Do you reckon it’s true about that farmer drowning in there?’ Damian asked.
We looked at the water doing its best to bubble through the stones. I’d heard it was possible to drown in three inches of water, but it was difficult to imagine. You could see the tide line where the stream usually came to; even that wasn’t impressive. A bird flew onto a branch on the other side of the stream while we watched. It seemed to look at us, wondering what we were doing, then Damian threw a pebble at it and it flew off.
There was no need for him to throw the stone, but I don’t know why Andy got so angry with him. “Fucking, Catholics. Think you’re in the IRA or something?” There was some pushing. No one was hurt, but I ended up in the stream. All five of them laughed.
I ignored Andy and Jon during the week and on Sunday I wanted to tell Mum and Dad I was staying at home, but I couldn’t manage it. While we sat outside waiting Andy wondered if we would go round to the field again. “Might as well,” Jon said.
“After last week?” I asked.
“What happened last week?”
I reminded them. They laughed. Andy stopped laughing when he realised that I wasn’t. “Yeah, suppose that was a bit out of order.”
“I could have drowned.”
Jon laughed a bit more. “In there? Don’t worry, you can go home if you’re frightened.”
“You two are supposed to be my mates.”
“Nah, come on, Jon,” Andy said. “If they try it on today, we should stick together.”
The other three lads emerged while we talked. “I don’t think we should wait for them to try it on,” I said while they were still out of earshot.
We went to the field without discussing it. Without discussing anything. Damian crossed the road ahead of me and I stuck my foot out to trip him. He stumbled but didn’t fall and turned to face me. I was about to square up to him, but my forehead was level with his chin – and he was the shortest, after me. “Enjoy your trip?” I asked.
“That joke was last funny in junior school.” He pushed me in the chest. I would have fallen, but Andy was standing behind me. He eased me aside and punched Damian on the nose. Damian wiped aside a small amount of blood and larger amount of snot, and he laughed. Kevin and Martin were on edge, standing beside him arms at their sides, ready to jump in. Damian turned to them and without saying anything he walked to the field. The other two followed him. We watched them cross to the Black Hill and sit on the top, staring at us.
“What did you do that for?” Jon asked me.
“He’s been asking for it.”
“He’s not done anything to you. Or to anyone else.”
“I just don’t like his attitude.”
“Well deal with it then, but don’t involve us.”
Andy shook his head. “There are three of us. Mates. We should look out for each other.” He started walking towards the Black Hill. I followed him. Jon stayed where he was.
We reached the bottom of the Black Hill and stared up at them. Was it too late to back out now without looking like idiots and cowards? I turned round to see what Jon was doing. He was walking towards us slowly, whether to get involved or get a better view I wasn’t sure. I felt uneasy turning my back on him.
It was over in seconds. I threw the first punch, but only so I knew I’d got something in. I hit Martin, but just bounced off him and fell to the ground. He kicked me in the ribs. The next thing I knew, the three Catholics were walking away, laughing; Andy had a black eye and a split lip; Jon was just standing, shaking his head with a tear in one eye.
“What are you crying for?” I asked. “Not a mark on you.”
“Shut up,” Andy said. “You started this, and you go down after the first punch is thrown.” He wiped his mouth on the arm of his t-shirt and I noticed that it was ripped. Through the rip I could see cuts across his ribs.
“If he’d been in with us…” I pointed to Jon.
“Nothing. Nothing would have been any different.” Andy pushed me to the ground and kneeled on my chest. “He’s right. We should have let you sort it on your own.” He pulled back his fist and held it above me, ready to smash down. I closed my eyes and waited. His weight shifted and he climbed off me. “I thought you were supposed to be the clever one.” He walked to the bottom of the Black Hill, sat and sobbed.
“You’re right,” Jon said. “Supposed to be.” I was still on my back; Jon stood over me. “That stupid idea last summer about some fucking war game, reckoned you had some fool-proof plan, but you couldn’t handle being wrong, could you?”
“You mean he couldn’t handle Martin getting off with that girl he fancied,” Andy said. “Bet you don’t know what her and Jon got up to after they split up.”
I jumped up and stared at them both. “We’re supposed to be mates,” I said. I sat down and stared at the far end of the field while the birds flew about, mocking us.
We stayed there and the darkness crept down on us. I could see the lights of the village, and the outlines of Andy and Jon, but around me just a dark sea. There was a noise from behind the Black Hill. Or was it inside? It was a low moaning, perhaps a woman. Perhaps a man, a quiet man devastated by what he’d done. And then there was a voice. “You should not be here. Trespassers. You should not be here.” We ran.
We should have kept our heads and run to Andy’s house or stuck around for long enough to find out who was behind the mound. But we didn’t. In panic and darkness, we ran, not towards anything, not away even: we just ran.
I was running towards the stream just behind Jon. I didn’t know how I’d got there or where Andy was. There were noises behind me, perhaps back by the Black Hill. I looked around, but couldn’t see anything. I should have looked where I was going. I should have just stopped running. The stream was narrow enough to jump, but I tripped as I reached the edge of the bank. My legs got tangled up with Jon’s and I heard a loud thud followed by a splash. A bird flew off and then silence.
In the gloom, I made out his figure lying face down, body in the stream, head at an awkward angle on one of the rocks. I looked around and saw no one. Perhaps there were shouts somewhere in the distance. Perhaps laughter. I don’t know.
I went home alone. There was no reason to feel guilty. There was nothing I could do for him. There was no reason to feel guilty, but I felt guilty. I felt guilty, but I still went home.
His body was found the next day. They said the blow to his head would have knocked him out immediately. And then he drowned. In three inches of water.
The police came, of course. I didn’t mention the boys from the Catholic Church, or the fight. I didn’t mention seeing him in the water. I just said it was late, we had lost track of time and I’d slipped off home alone. I never spoke to Andy about it. I told the coroner I was too upset to say anything. She wasn’t happy, so I eventually repeated what I’d told the police.
An open verdict. A mystery, unresolved.
I found the nerve to say I wasn’t going to church anymore. I think Andy did the same. I avoided going out in the village. I spent four years with nothing to do but study. And then I went to university as far away as I could get and went home as little as I could.
I saw Andy one more time. It was over Easter, during my final year. He was on the bus from the station back to the village. We recognised each other, but neither of us said anything. The first stop in the village was at the end of Church Road. My house was a couple of stops further down and Andy’s further still, but we both got off. I followed him down the road. He didn’t slow down for me, but he stopped when he got to the church. Jon’s dad was there. Still the pastor, but with more grey hair than I remembered. He was with his other son, Jon’s younger brother, putting up a sign: Good Friday Service, 6:30 – All welcome.
He didn’t recognise us at first, but he came over to speak anyway. “You’ll come along on Friday? The more the merrier.” He gestured to the building opposite. “It’s an ecumenical affair. I’m hoping for a good turn out.”
“I thought you didn’t get on with them.”
He looked at me, recognising me now. “I was raised a Catholic, don’t know if I ever mentioned that. Until a few years ago I was quite anti-Catholicism, but sometimes life puts these things into perspective. You should come.”