I was a Catholic altar boy.
No, really I was.
A lot of people might say that this explains a lot.
Why I am like I am.
Nothing happened, though.
I didn’t get spit roasted by a bishop and a nun with a strap-on or anything.
No inappropriate touching around the tabernacle.
I sometimes feel left out.
Wasn’t I sexy enough?
What did all those boys who got bummed have that I didn’t?
I must be one of the only Catholic altar boys never to have been violently molested.
I occasionally try really hard to remember, just in case there’s a dodgy incident buried somewhere among the dark cobwebs in my mind.
A bout of rampant sodomy with a man in a black dress that I just happen to have forgotten about.
A facial cum shot from a cardinal that slipped my mind.
Sadly, there’s nothing.
Not that I actually want uncomfortable memories of having my back door kicked in by the clergy plaguing my waking thoughts, you understand.
No, but a few grand’s worth of compensation from the Vatican coffers wouldn’t go amiss, I can tell you.
I wasn’t an altar boy because I was really into God and Jesus.
Or Mary, for that matter.
I became an altar boy for the same two reasons every other altar boy became an altar boy:
1. Because you got out of ordinary school lessons for a couple of mornings a week.
2. Because the families of dead people sometimes coughed up hard cash if you looked particularly angelic during funerals.
Sloth and Greed.
Two of the seven deadly sins right there, and I wasn’t even ten years old.
What hope did I have?
It must have been 1984.
I was ten, maybe eleven.
I wandered across to the church from the school.
I was alone.
Altar boys weren’t meant to unlock the church on their own, but we did.
I went to the sacristy, unlocked the door with an iron key the size of my forearm, got changed into my vestments.
Black cassock, with a big white tablecloth over the top.
At other schools you’d have been lynched for wearing shit like that.
We didn’t know any better.
We thought everyone did that.
Didn’t know it was odd.
Once I was dressed like a penguin I fetched tapers, matches, another big key.
I unlocked the door leading to the church.
Cool air drifted through the open door.
I stepped into the darkness.
Rows of pews glazed in a dark toffee varnish were on my left, but I didn’t look at them.
I kept my eyes right.
On the altar.
This wasn’t out of reverence.
It was because I didn’t want to look at what was lurking between the pews.
I climbed the steps to the altar.
I didn’t kneel where I was supposed to kneel.
I never did when I was on my own.
For a greedy sloth, failing to kneel was a minor digression.
With the matches and the tapers I lit the huge candles on the altar.
I let them burn for a minute, then slowly tipped one of the candles until the glowing wax dribbled onto my fingers.
It was something I had done countless times before, but the shock of the hot wax hitting my skin never failed to thrill me.
It didn’t burn.
I knew it wouldn’t.
It cooled quickly, leaving a heavy shell of wax on each finger in turn, until all my fingers were covered in a numb, warm shell.
As I looked up at the craggy features of a giant stone Jesus I gently clacked each waxy finger against my waxy thumb, one, two three, four, one, two, three…
The instant urge was to pick the wax off.
I turned away from Stone Jesus, and tapping my fingers, walked down the steps away from the altar, keeping my head down.
Averting my gaze, not from the religious icons, but from the dark pews and what lay between.
At the bottom of the steps I turned and looked up.
The candles had failed to illuminate the grey church.
The light had altered though.
The gloom moved with the flickering flames, like ripples in a polluted pond after a half brick has been thrown in.
I was stood at the front of the church, right before the altar, the most important place to bow, to kneel.
I stood straight, tapping my armoured fingers, one, two, three, four…
Greedy sloth didn’t kneel, didn’t bow.
I closed my eyes.
He was right behind me.
I knew he was.
The man who lurked between the pews was waiting, three feet behind my back.
I’d been frightened of him before, terrified, in fact.
But not now.
One, two, three, four… Peter Pointer, Toby Tall, Ruby Ring, Baby Small… all banging waxy heads with Tommy Thumb.
My eyes opened.
My smile widened.
There he was!
Right in front of me.
Between the toffee pews.
In a box.
With brass handles.
And flowers on top.
I walked around the coffin.
I’d seen coffins before, lots of times.
But this was the first time that I knew the person inside.
I looked at the flowers.
I read the little brass plate on the polished wood that said who he was and when he’d died.
Then I snorted once, twice, and dribbled a big pool of snot and saliva onto the top of the coffin.
It sat there, glistening.
I’d learned a new word at school recently.
I didn’t know what it meant, but knew it was bad.
I’d been saving it up.
The word echoed from the stone, from the pews, from the altar.
I looked up.
Stone Jesus didn’t say anything.
When I looked down the blob of mucus had oozed to the side of the coffin and had begun to drip down it’s side, just as the wax had dripped onto my fingers.
I watched, fascinated, then reluctantly wiped the saliva away with the corner of my cassock.
I headed back to the sacristy to prepare for the Requiem Mass.
There was a ginger kid in my class at school called Glenn.
He started school at the same time as me, in 1978.
We were four.
Apart from being ginger, there were two other things that made Glenn stick out in class.
1. He was the grandson of the Headmaster.
2. The squeaks, grunts, oinks, whistles and moos he made. Constantly.
I realise now that he had Tourettes Syndrome, and that he really couldn’t help himself, but back then we just thought he was a naughty kid.
The teachers thought he was a naughty kid.
The Headmaster thought he was a naughty kid.
And no grandson of his would get away with being naughty.
Glenn was made to sit at a desk at the front of class every day, away from everyone else.
He was treated like a leper.
He’d sit there on his own, whistling, twitching, oinking and squawking until the teacher could handle it no longer, and sent him to the Headmaster.
And off he’d go.
With fear in his eyes.
He’d be gone a while.
Then come back crying.
Now, the Headmaster wasn’t molesting him or anything.
No, he was hitting him.
Smacking his little arse until he couldn’t sit down.
And every day, in spite of himself, and no matter how he tried, Glenn would go moo.
And get hit.
And get hit.
And quack quack quack.
And get hit.
Poor little sod.
This went on for three years.
The Headmaster would stand in for teachers who were sick.
When he took over our class, we knew what was coming.
It was bad enough that Glenn made these noises in front of the teacher, but when he made them in front of the Headmaster, he would go berserk.
The Headmaster had a favourite phrase.
He would bellow it at any kid who didn’t measure up, didn’t look tidy enough, didn’t answer the question correctly.
What a lovely thing to call a five year old child who is trying their hardest.
Glenn would be biting his lips, almost going purple from the strain of keeping quiet.
It couldn’t last.
“Silence I said, you idiot!”
And that was it.
The little ginger kid would be dragged from his chair, hauled to the front of class, have his trousers and underpants hauled down and the Headmaster would crack his little arse until he howled.
The rotten, black-hearted bastard.
Like I said, it went on for three years.
Then one day, Glenn was taken away.
No-one said why, nobody explained.
He was taken away, and I never heard another thing about him.
My younger brother is three years younger than me.
We’re of similar intelligence, but he struggled with school.
I didn’t do great, but I got by.
My brother didn’t get by.
He became very quiet.
We didn’t know why.
After a while we discovered what it was.
With Glenn spirited away, the Headmaster needed a new whipping boy.
He was giving my younger brother the same treatment he gave Glenn.
It would have carried on too, except my mother marched into his office one day and told him that if he ever laid another finger on her son’s head then my father would come down and batter him.
He stopped hitting my brother.
He still hit everyone else though.
Still bellowed ‘Fathead’ at little kids.
Still struck utter fear into young hearts.
Then he died.
Secret smiles in the playground.
Giggles in classrooms.
Ding dong the witch is dead.
The funeral was to be in the church next to school.
I volunteered to be altar boy.
I knelt by the altar as the priest said Mass.
I’d kneel like a good boy, when people were watching.
I pretended to have my eyes closed, but I was watching the congregation.
Nobody was crying.
I didn’t see Glenn.
I wondered if the mourners would think I was being angelic enough, if they’d give me money.
If they did, I’d spend it on sweets for me and my brother at the newsagents on the way home.
We all sat down as the priest began his eulogy.
I don’t remember all of it.
It was a long time ago.
But one line sticks out in my mind.
“Every child at the school knew that if they had a problem, were frightened or unhappy, then they could go to the Headmaster and he would be there for them, to listen to them, to help them.”
I remember screwing my fists up inside my cassock, the fragile shells of wax that coated my fingers cracking and crumbling, my fingertips feeling sensitive after being covered by the protective shell for so long, and looking at the priest in profile, and thinking:
“You are a priest, but you are lying. You bloody liar. The Headmaster was a horrible bastard. Everyone knew it. He was a bastard, and you are a liar.”
I didn’t get any money from the mourners.
Perhaps they guessed what I had been thinking.
Perhaps they had seen a stain on the coffin.
I didn’t care.
I was just glad he was dead.
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