I can remember trying to get free of her and follow my Uncle. But the nun held me firmly by the ear lobe and warned me to stop, otherwise I would receive a “good flaking”.
Three weeks had taught me the meaning of that phrase. I rose cautiously from my bed, rubbed my eyes and cheeks with my knuckles and went towards the window. I stood back, frightened that I might be seen from the yard below. I moved as close to it as I felt it was safe to do.
The wall glistened in the sunlight like a million jewels. I pressed my face against the window and watched the approaching train. The sun shone onto its black rounded front like a spotlight. The shiny, black funnel belched out a mixture of smoke and steam that hung above the tender in a large plume of grey and white, and when the colours merged to black and soared into the sky the cloud cast a dark shadow across the grey concrete of the school yard. Behind the glossy tender, the wagons laden with sugar beet rattled along, zig-zagging awkwardly in contrast to the graceful, steady movement of the engine. A screeching of the wheels on the tracks and a loud prolonged hissing brought the engine to a halt. I noticed the sparks made by the wheels as they skidded along, igniting in the dark shadow of the underframe. A final banging of the wagons as each one buffetted into the one ahead of it, then silence. Total silence. Two men in blackened boiler suits jumped cautiously from the tender, stood briefly in the hot sunshine and rubbed their foreheads with a sleeve. Before leaving the train each in turn slapped the great tender on it’s belly as a farmer would a cow, or a jockey a horse, a sign of affection, the beast had done her job well.
The children in St. Michaels were divided into two groups, those between six and ten and children under six years of age. I was just over six and so I was regarded as one of the “big boys”. As such, I was given charge of a younger child. My “charge” was a small curly headed blonde boy I knew only as Eugene. The day he was put into my “care” Mother Paul told me that I must take good care of him, see that he went to the toilet when he wanted to and ensure that he was kept clean, especially before and after meals. Eugene latched onto me. He annoyed me by following me constantly but if I said anything to him he would start crying. I did everything I could to stop him, he was cute enough to know that I wouldn’t want any of the nuns to hear him cry. One day while we were all out in the yard I left Eugene alone to play with a group of boys of my own age. I liked to play priests and altar boys and I treated the game as though it werea an actual religious ceremony. I always regarded it as good training for the day I would become a priest. Halfway through the game Eugene’s voice rang in my ears. So did Mother Paul’s. I ran to where the child stood. A circle of children had gathered around him. I broke through and saw Eugene standing in a mound of his own excrement and urine. Tears ran in torrents from his pale blue eyes. He was dirty from the tops of his legs to the heels of his boots. Mother Paul screamed at me to clean him up, but before doing that I was to clean the yard. I stood looking at the child, my hand tightly pressed across my mouth to prevent myself from vomiting. My stomach heaving, I ran off to get a bucket of sawdust and a shovel. When I returned Eugene was still standing like a statue, yelling. I dug the shovel into the galvanized bucket of sawdust and scattered it at his feet. Then holding my breath, I told him to move, and when he was out of the way I scooped up the excrement and dumped it into the bucket. Then I took the child by the hand and brought him to the toilet. I had to take off his boots and socks, his jumper and shirt and finally his trousers. As he stood naked with much of his body covered in his own excrement, I vomited onto the cement floor. He became hysterical and to stop him being overheard I slapped my hand across his mouth and begged him not to scream. I cleaned him with some old papers that had been left in the toilet for that purpose. I held my nose with the fingers of one hand and rubbed off as much excrement as I could with the dry newspaper. “Why are you holding your nose?” Eugene asked me.
“Because I don’t like the smell,” I answered, gripping my nose tightly with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because it stinks, that’s why.”
He laughed at the emphasis on the word “stinks”.
I went to the tap that hung from the wall to get some water to clean him. I turned its brass handle, and as I did it swayed on its length of lead piping. I soaked an old newspaper in the freezing water and rubbed the child’s body with it. His pale skin erupted in goose-pimples and his teeth chattered uncontrollably. He cried from the cold but there was nothing I could do. When I was finished, I warned him not to tell anyone that I had been sick. He said he wouldn’t, but just to stress the point as best I could, I told him that if he opened his mouth I would kill him. Once he had committed himself not to telling anyone, I further warned him that if he told now, he would be lying and that lies would ensure instant death. Then when he was dead he would go to hell. He looked straight into my eyes and then asked me if the devil really had horns. “He has,” I said positively, “and he might come and stick them in you if you tell anyone that I was sick.” By the look of Eugene’s face as I spoke, I knew he would not say a word about what happened in the toilet. He watched me as I swirled his dirty clothes around in a bucket of cold water to rinse them. When they were clean I threw the dirty water down the drain, wrung out the clothes and shook them to remove the wrinkles. As soon as he was dressed in clean clothes he ran out of the toilet, content.
In May, 1958 most of the older boys in the school were told to write to a relative. Many of us had never met the people we were being asked to write to, and even if we did, couldn’t remember them. The letter writing was pervised by Mother Michael, the nun responsible for our schooling, and their purpose was to ask for a two week holiday away from St. Michael’s. All the letters were written under her close supervision. She told me to write to my aunt Mary. I looked at her, surprised. “Don’t look so stunned,” she said “You do have an Aunt as well as an Uncle.” It was three years since I had arrived in the school and though I remembered my uncle, I had never heard of any aunt. Mother Michael wrote a standard letter on the blackboard which she instructed us to copy. The address was in the top right hand corner and the date underneath. “Dear________” she had written, telling us that “the blank line is for you to fill the name of the person to whom you are writing.” “Dear Aunt Mary,” I wrote, before looking at the blackboard to copy what was written on it. “I hope you are well as I am myself, thank Dog. I would like to come and spend a fortnight with you if you would not mind. I will be good, and do everything I am told. Mother Michael and Mother Paul send you their good wishes. I am very happy here, the Nuns are very good to me. I pray for you every night. I look forward to hearing from you soon, I remain, Your nephew, Patrick. Mother Michael went around checking the letters. She slapped her wooden ruler down on the desk of one of the boys near me. It made a sharp crack which startled the other boys. “Always a capital G for God,” she shouted. She picked up my letter, and asked me to spell God . “G.O.D.” I answered confidently. She walked to the top of the classroom with my letter in her hand. “This is more of this fellow’s clowning,” she said. “Not only does he tell lies and bring the school into disrepute, now he has taken to making fun of God Himself.” I watched her face redden as she rushed towards my desk. Thinking she was going to hit me, I cowered. She banged her clenched fist on the desk. “Spell God.” she demanded again. “G.O.D.” I said. She handed me the letter and asked me to read the first sentence. As soon as I looked at it I realized my mistake. I reached for my pen to correct it. “Read,” she shouted. “Dear Aunt Mary, I hope you are well as I am myself, thank Dog.” Some of the boys laughed, but stopped suddenly when she said there was nothing to laugh about. She referred to what I had written as blasphemy, one of the most serious of all sins. Kneeling at the top of the classroom, I was forced to say an “Act of Contrition” before being given six slaps, three on each hand. Then I collected all the letters and left them on her table.
Wait here,” Mother Paul ordered, putting her head out the front door to see if the convent car had arrived. Mr. O’Rourke was driving. He opened the door and Pushed the seat forward to allow me in followed by Mother Paul. The drive was only about two or three minutes and when we got to the house the nun asked the driver to wait. When she wasn’t looking the old man winked at me through the open window of the car. In the doctor’s waiting room a man was contentedly puffing his pipe, sending great clouds of smoke towards the low ceiling. When he saw the nun he took off his hat and saluted her, suggesting that she should see the doctor before he did. She accepted the offer and thanked him, before sitting upright in her chair and crossing her hands on her lap. The old man took a newspaper from his coat pocket and unfolded it.
“You don’t mind if I read Mother?” he asked.
“Not at all,” she said.
“I see there’s talk of putting dogs into outer space,” he said,
“I wonder what they’ll be thinking of next?”
“God only knows,” she replied.
“I just hope they know what they’re at,” the man said before re-lighting his pipe. The surgery door opened and a woman came out bidding the nun good evening as she walked quickly past. Mother Paul got to her feet and led me in. The doctor was a white haired woman in her mid fifties who wore glasses which she carried around her neck on a golden chain. She had a friendly face and gentle voice. She greeted Mother Paul and then looked at me closely.
“I’ve often seen this little man serving mass,” she said.
“Is’nt that right?”
“Yes”, I replied. “He’s one of the finest altar boys I’ve seen in the church and a great credit to you. You must be very proud of him Mother?”
“Indeed we are doctor,” the nun replied. The doctor sat down behind her desk and began to write on a sheet of paper, asking the nun my name and age.
“And what is the problem?” she asked,removing her glasses and allowing them to hang from her neck.
“He’s walking with his foot turned in, and he seems to be dragging it along the ground,”
Mother Paul said. “When did you first notice this Mother?” The nun thought for a minute before replying that she couldn’t say for sure, but it had been going on for a good while. “Can I have a look at your foot Patrick?” the doctor asked. Her voice was gentle and kind. It took me some time to undo the laces and I could sense the impatience of the nun as the doctor told me to “take it easy”, before she eventually helped me to undo both boots.
“Which foot is it?” she asked.
“This one,” I said, pointing to the left. Taking my bare foot in her hand she moved it up and down, then in a circular motion, all the time inquiring whether I was experiencing any pain. She checked the right foot, manipulating it in the same manner, asking if I could feel any soreness or discomfort. During the examination my fear and tension must have been obvious to her because I was being constantly re-assured.
“Will you walk down the room and back towards me please Patrick?” she asked, watching closely as I did so, then asked me to sit on the couch and let my legs hang over the edge to check my reflexes. She tap my knee gently with her black rubber triangular hammer and the lower part of my leg shot outwards involuntarily. It was a funny sensation and I laughed. With the same instrument she checked my ankles before Instructing me to put my boots and socks on again. As I did I listened to her question Mother Paul.
“How is his health generally?” she asked. “Fine,” the nun replied,
“He eats well and gets plenty of sleep.”
“Is there any history of disability in his family, anything that you think I should know?”
“No,” The doctor put her glasses on again and looked over the notes she had written. Then told Mother Paul that she could find nothing wrong. I trembled when I heard this because I knew that my punishment would be severe. “There is the possibility, Mother, that the child is imitating someone with a limp, perhaps his father or mother, and this is his way of bringing attention to himself I presume his parents are dead if he is in the orphanage?” “Yes,” the nun said attentively. “I think the child is suffering some form of trauma and time will put this matter right. It may well be that he needs reassurance and a great deal of kindness. If either of his parents or someone else close to him had a limp it is quite likely he would imitate that, not out of any sense of mockery or anything.” “I understand,” Mother Paul said. She asked was I a nervous child and the nun mentioned my fear of dogs.
“Has he had any bad experience with dogs? Has he been bitten or frightened by a dog?”
“Not that I am aware.”
“Does he have nightmares?. Has he ever mentioned his parents?”.
“No,” the nun replied,
“but we do encourage the children to pray for their parents every night.” “I see,” the doctor said. There was a brief silence before she spoke again. “Just one final question.
What did the child’s parents die from?”.
“An accident,” the nun answered. “A road accident was it?” “Yes, doctor.” This story was different from what I had overheard my aunt saying, but again it made little impact on me at the time. “Thank you very much Mother, I’d like you to keep a close eye on this little man and bring him back to see me in about a fortnight. We can review the position then”. The doctor handed me a sweet, wrapped in paper, which she took from the pocket of her white coat. I held it in my hand.
“That’s not the place for it, is it”? she asked kindly. “Are you not going to eat it”?. I undid the wrapper and put the sweet into my mouth, aware that Mother Paul was watching.
“Do you like school?” the doctor asked me.
“Yes,” I replied
“Are you happy there?”
She took both my hands in hers and asked me if anyone had ever frightened me, or if I could remember anything terrible ever happening to me. She wondered if anyone had ever beaten or locked me up. I wanted to talk to the doctor, to tell her about the beatings and other punishments given to me by the nuns and about the image of the man hanging that I linked somehow in my mind with my father. I was sure she would believe me but because of the presence of Mother Paul I couldn’t speak. Since my parents’ death I had been surrounded by a conspiracy of silence. That evening in the doctor’s room fear made me an accomplice in it. Looking back I see it as one of the turning points of my life. Back in St Michael’s I played in the yard while the two nuns discussed what had happened at the octor’s. I can only assume that Mother Michael agreed that Mother Paul was right in lying to the doctor. They must have realized too, that the caretaker, Tom O’Rourke limped, and that it was probably him I was imitating. I think they resolved that day to make a greater effort to ensure I would eliminate from my mind the image of a hanged man because any time I mentioned him now I was caned severely. My constant talking of him turned to a frightened silence.