Ringyboy counted the loose change in his hand, then let it trickle to the grass. He pulled a crumpled ten-shilling note from his pocket and smoothed it out. Twenty-seven -shillings-and-six-pence between him and the poorhouse. It was enough to take him and Marian to the pictures that night; and maybe enough for a few pints before the dance at the Silver Slipper on Sunday. Come Monday he’d be lucky to have a couple of shillings left.
’I’m gettin’ outa this place’ he said. ‘Soon’.
Marian Dempsey, a plump girl with curly ink-black hair and dimpled knees, brushed wisps of stray grass from her school uniform then dangled her legs over the rocky outcrop that partially shielded herself and Ringyboy. She waved to Celia, who was waiting patiently at the bottom of the path.
‘I can’t stay long. Me mother will be after seein’ the bus comin’…’
Ringyboy offered the cigarette he was dragging on. ‘Tell her ya stopped off at Celia’s. She won’t know the difference’.
The KBS bus service, officially titled Kennedy’s Bus Service, but more generally known as Kennedy’s Bone Shaker, carried Marian and thirty other pupils to the town of Dungarvan, some ten miles away. There it disgorged its raucous occupants untidily in the town square; - the boys swinging and fighting their way to the nearby Christian Brothers; the girls pursuing a more dignified path to the Presentation Convent.
‘What’s like?’ Marian enquired. ‘Like ?’
’’s a dump. Johnny says ya could fit it in Kilburn and have room to spare. ‘Tis twenty times bigger…’
‘When are ya goin’?’
‘I dunno. When Johnny comes home maybe’.
‘Will ya write to me?’
Like feck, he would! Johnny reckoned there were women over there with legs up to their arses. Eat you for breakfast, he reckoned. He had shown him pictures of women with their heads thrown back, looking at you through half-closed eyes, and their legs wide apart.
Out in the bay, he could see several boats riding the waves; ducking and diving like boxers on the ropes. One good hit and they could be out for the count. And all for what? A bucketful of mackerel and maybe a few cod or sea bass if you were lucky.
One of the boats was heading for the slipway at the far end of the bay. He wondered if it was Tommy Keenan. Tommy’s was the life; fishing all day, then dashing around the countryside in his old van selling the catch. Marian had seen the boat too and shaded her eyes to chart its progress.
‘Mackerel for tea tonight’, he said. Or whiting. He hated bloody whiting, but his mother often bought it because it was cheap. Christy liked it though. Like a bloody piranha he was, at stripping the bones.
He watched the two tiny figures clamber into the water and drag the boat onto the concrete ramp. It was Tommy alright; there was no mistaking the lithe figure that ran to the winch and began hauling the vessel beyond the tide-line.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Celia trying to attract their attention. She was pointing to her wrist. He waved her up.
‘I have to go…’ She arrived panting. ‘Me mam’ll be wonderin’’. She laughed shyly. ‘You stay if ya want, Marian. I’ll say ya went to the chapel to say a few prayers’.
She was a tiny little thing, looking more fourteen than seventeen. Her face was pointed, like a ferret’s. He made a grab for her, but she jumped back.
’Stop it! Shouldn’t you be workin’?’
‘Then why aren’t ya?’
He shrugged. ‘I got the sack’.
He laughed. ‘Again’.
Marian stood up and brushed her skirt clean. ’Yer father will kill ya’.
‘He can try’.
It wouldn’t be the first time the ould fella had given him a kicking. And it probably wouldn’t be the last.
The two girls stood whispering together for a moment then Marian spoke. ‘She fancies Tommy, and wants to know if he’s goin’ with anyone at the moment’.
‘I do not!’ Celia protested, her face turning scarlet. ’I’m goin’…’
He laughed as he watched them slither down the path. ’I’ll tell him you were askin’ for him’.
The journey back to Cassidy’s Cross took ten minutes on his new Raleigh. It had three speeds and was a big improvement on the ‘high nellie’ he’d inherited from his ould fella. Although how he was going to pay for it now might be a problem. He’d bought it at Twomey’s for a pound down and five shillings a week for life – well, a year really – and still owed most of the payments. Money - that was the root of all his problems. If he had money he could rule the world. Still, when Johnny came home…
He suddenly found himself sitting in a clump of bushes as he was forced to swerve to avoid crashing into Fr. Maguire.
The priest was comforting his two greyhounds when he untangled himself from the briars. Stupid ould fool – out in the middle of the road.
‘These are valuable animals, I’ll have you know’, the priest admonished, stroking the dogs backs.
I’m a valuable human being, I’ll have you know – a lot more valuable than those two mangy curs. Dog meat was the expression somebody had used the last time they ran in a race. He picked up his bike. There was a rip in his trousers and a graze on his left knee. Nothing broken anyhow.
‘Rush rush, rush, that’s the trouble with the world nowadays. Rushing to where, I ask…’
‘I’m sorry, Father. I was….’
‘…In a hurry…yes. Young people nowadays are always in a hurry’. He shook his head, then looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. ‘It’s young Ring, isn’t it? Johnny Ring?’
’No Father. James Ring’. Johnny was the one hit you over the head with the collection box, you senile ould bastard.
’Ah yes. Johnny was the… where is he now?
‘He’s in , Father’.
‘Of course. I hope he’s keeping up the Faith. He was one of my favourite altar boys. Very conscientious...’
Until he blotted his copybook by flattening you in the sacristy
‘And you…I don’t recall seeing you at Mass last Sunday’
‘I went to the late one in Doonbay’.
‘The late one!’ There was outrage in his voice. ‘Is that what you call it? When I was a lad we didn’t have the luxury of lying in our bed on the Lord’s Day. Up at dawn and better for it’. He began shaking his head. ‘Better for it…’
’Pity ya didn’t run the ould bastard over’, Joe Curtin remarked a few minutes later, the priest having departed still muttering about the world’s decline. ‘He thinks he owns the whole road’.
‘I know’. Ringyboy was ruefully examining his trousers.
‘I bet he’s runnin’ them dogs at Kilcohan tonight. He was probably givin’ them a bit of a gallop when ya interrupted’.
‘I hope they break their necks…’
‘No chance o’ that. He’ll be after drenching them in Holy water’. Joe picked at his nose. ‘Me father says he owes money to half the bookies in the county’.
‘No point in askin’ him for a tip then’. He lit up another cigarette and they moved to the shadows of a leafy elm tree to share it. Joe was one of the elite having his brains bashed in by the Christian Brothers under the guise of education. The Gestapo had nothing on them according to Joe. Still, it hadn’t dulled his sense of humour. When in the mood, he could be persuaded to imitate his least-favourite imparter of knowledge, a half-mad Brother from the bogs of Sligo, who brought in his canes by the bundle every Monday morning, then proceed to break them on any object – or body – that got in his way as he marched around the classroom shouting ‘Give me a boy for a year and I’ll mark him for life’.
Even so, he felt envious. He had wanted to be part of it all. Instead, he’d hurriedly departed the classroom at fourteen – and even more hurriedly departed a succession of dead-end jobs in the intervening four years. Couldn’t afford it, was the old man’s excuse. Maybe he couldn’t; you were born at the foot of the pile as far as he could see, and that’s where you fucking stayed He could read and write, couldn’t he? Wasn’t that enough? That was his ould fella’s view.
He guessed they were poor; no running water, no bathroom, No TV, no electricity, you name it they didn’t have it. Christ! It sometimes felt like they were still living in the Stone-Age behind that bloody hill…
‘She was at it again today’. Joe was attempting to blow smoke rings through pursed lips. It reminded him of a duck’s arse.
‘No messin’? Did ya see anything?’
‘She’ was Mary Kennedy, the bus-owner’s niece who worked part-time in the town and got a free ride on the bus. The other girls refused to let her sit with them, so she had commandeered a seat in the rear. For some reason these rear seats faced each other and Mary wasn’t too bothered who was watching her when she sat in them, legs akimbo.
‘I think she was wearin’ no knickers’.
‘How can ya wear no knickers?!’
‘Ah feck off ya smartarse! I mean I think she didn’t have any on her’.
’Well, I couldn’t very well go up to her an’ ask her, could I, ya gombeen?’
‘Why not? Sure, she wouldn’t be showin’ ya the view if she didn’t want ya to do somethin’ about it’.
‘No way! Hopper McGrath put his arm round her last week and she bit him on the neck.’ He drew a circle on his throat. ‘He have a mark that size on him. I think she’s a vampire’.
They clowned around for a few moments, both pretending to be vampires.
’I saw that picture in town a few weeks back. Did ya go?’ Joe shook his head.
’Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Jesus boy, ‘twas great. All that blood drippin’ everywhere. They finally kill Dracula off by drivin’ a stake through his heart’, He laughed. ‘Maybe Mary saw it and was experimentin’ on Hopper. I better watch out for her on dark nights!’
‘Talkin’ about dark nights, are we going lampin’ tonight?’
He shook his head. ’I can’t. I’m takin’ Marian to the pictures. Tomorrow if you like’.
They agreed to meet then went their separate ways; Joe in the direction of Doonbay, he up the narrow boreen that curved around Cassidy’s hill. Avoiding the worst of the potholes, he let his mind explore the possibilities of escape. Kilburn, Cricklewood, …anywhere but this hole.
‘Discipline. Where would we be without discipline? I’ll tell you where – in a world ruled by savages. Yes, savages. Running around with spears and loincloths, eating each other’. Donal Coffey studied the rapt faces before him as he wiped his chalky hands on his backside. “Wipe that smirk off your face Oliver Power, before I wipe it for you…’
A pause for breath and a quick glance at his watch. ‘No clothes, no discipline. Remember that’. His gaze fell on Christy Ring, who stood twitching in the corner. ‘You, Ring, over here’.
Christy shuffled over, his nose running and his knees bare.
‘Why are you here, boy?’
‘Punishment, Sir’, Christy snuffled.
‘Punishment for what?’
‘For sticking a pin in Mary Power’s behind, Sir’
The class tittered.
‘Silence!’ He selected a cane from the pile on his desk. It swished through the air with an ominous sound. ‘Now you will all witness the consequences of a lack of discipline. Hold out your hand, boy’.
The class winced collectively as the rod smote the air. Eight, nine, ten…
Suddenly there was silence.
‘What is that horrible smell?’
‘I...I…Sir…’ Christy sobbed.
‘Get out you disgusting boy. Get out of my class.’
Five minutes later, through the window, he observed his charges bursting from the school, bags swinging wildly, singing and laughing their way across the playground. He was reminded of a pack of wild animals.
‘Thank God for the weekend’, said his companion
‘Indeed Helen. I sometimes despair of ever getting anything into their thick skulls’. He placed a hand on her back and let it slide down so that it was resting on her buttocks; his eyes taken up watching a boy make his way crab-like towards the exit. Three other boys were dancing around him, jeering and laughing. Suddenly, the boy lashed out with his satchel.
‘What is the matter with that boy?’ Helen asked in a voice that wavered slightly.
‘He got – ah – short-taken in the class’. He shook his head and let his hand explore her curves. ‘What hope is there for lads like young Ring? He shows no aptitude for any subject. His reading skills haven’t improved since third class – and his homework is never done. Too busy helping out at home is the excuse…’
She turned to face him, her eyes peering intently into his own. ‘What hope is there for us, Donal? We can’t go on like this. Hiding from the world like a couple of escaped convicts in a wood…’ She waved at the disappearing children. ‘Look at them, they’re free. Not a care in the world’.
He stroked her hair, fingering it back behind her ears. ‘It gets to me too, you know. What you need is a few days holiday. Some peace and quiet…’
She swung angrily away from his probing hands. ‘Of course I need a holiday. Are you offering to take me somewhere?’
‘You know I can’t do that’.
‘Oh yes. I forgot. There’s your wife to consider…’
‘I can’t help it if she’s sick. I’d leave her tomorrow if she was well’.
‘Would you? Would you really?’
‘You know you wouldn’t. You couldn’t. ’The headmaster having an affair’…you’d be run out of town. You would never get another teaching job in ’.
He shook his head in exasperation. ‘I don’t know what’s up with you today. I really don’t. We had all this out before and we agreed…’
She moved away from him and stood with her hands on her hips. ‘Would you say I am attractive?’
‘Not getting too old for you, am I?’
‘Old? You’re five years younger than Cora…’
She shrugged, a shoulder-drooping gesture that clearly indicated her feelings. ’I feel old, Donal. I feel worn. This morning I looked at myself in the mirror and do you know what my thoughts were? You are thirty now, girl. This is as good as it gets. From now on it’s all downhill’. Her voice trembled. ‘I tried to see myself in ten years time. All I could see was a middle-aged woman all alone. I couldn’t see you at all’.
He laughed shortly. ‘I’ll still be here’.
‘That’s what I am afraid of. We will still be here, but the world will have moved on. I don’t think I can settle for that’.
‘I thought we loved each other’.
‘Is that what you call it? An hour in the back of your car up some deserted boreen. Or a couple of hours at my place when you can get away from…her. We are living a lie…a sham’.
‘What else can we do?’
‘Pack up everything and go. Lock stock and caboodle. , , I don’t care. We could have everything back again; identities, self-respect, a sense of purpose. You could concentrate on your writing; I could do that advanced art course…’
‘Meanwhile back in the real world there’s your wife’. She sighed and patted his cheek. ‘I’ll expect you after the meeting?’
He nodded. ‘It will probably be late. Leave the back door on the latch’