Lemon trees, now that’s another thing. Don’t they pee all over them down in Australia? The people that is, probably the dogs too. I got that straight from the horse’s mouth, from Joan Maher. My namesake, Joan. She always calls me Joanie and I call her Joan, it saves confusion. The whole town sets the pair of us apart the same way. She was down visiting her son and his wife and the new baby in Australia. Adelaide. Everyone has lemon trees in their back yard. Imagine. And orange trees too. And peaches. Her lad Fintan took her to barbecues all over the place. ‘Twas very nice, the food was delicious – but the heat! That’s another story. It would fry you alive. She says that going out the back yard is like walking into an oven. Hard to imagine that. And the spiders! Awful entirely! I wouldn’t be so keen to admire spiderwebs if I lived there, and that’s for sure.
“Mother of God! “I’ve never seen the like,” she said.
“The house spiders are the size of mice with legs, and they’re not the bad ones. ‘Tis the tiny ones that get you. They have the poison”.
She couldn’t remember what they were called for a while, but then it came to her.
“Redbacks!” she says.
“Redback spiders that’s what they are. Fintan showed me one down by his shed. He took me down the first morning I was over. ‘Twas all I was able for, with the jet lag. The excitement of seeing himself and Ellen and the baby was the only thing that kept me going the first week. I swear to God, I’d have been in a coma otherwise. Lovely house. It’s a fixer upper but you can tell it has potential. Four good size bedrooms and two bathrooms. A little bit of work and it’ll be a palace. Ellen says he’s at it every weekend and most nights after work as well, inside and out.
He has pavers bought for the new path to the clothesline and he has them stacked by the side of the shed. Would you believe they weren’t in it a week before those feckin’ Redbacks started building in them.
“Isn’t that terrible!” says I. I must get her to show me some pictures of Fintan’s new pavers. She’s sure to have some.
“I know, and what’s worse, they aren’t easy to spot. He had to point one out to me, a Redback. There it was, sitting on the edge of one of the bricks, happy as Larry in the sunshine”.
“O for heaven’s sake”, says I.
“‘Twas a lot smaller than I was expecting says Joan.
“You know yourself, when you hear of something dangerous you kind of expect it to be big and impressive.”
“I know, I know,” says I.
“It was a very pretty. No. Pretty wouldn’t be the right word for it. What would you call it?” says Joan.
“Attractive,” says I. I was only throwing the word out there, having had no personal experience with Redback spiders.
“D’you know – that’s a good word for it. Attractive rather than pretty, like a man can be attractive rather than handsome”, and she gives me the wink. I rolled my eyes.
“Mind you,” says the bauld Joan
“Aren’t they all the same in the dark with the lights off!”
“God forgive you, you dirty article. Will you behave yourself”. I hit her a clout with the teatowel, but only in jest. Joan was mighty crack, even on a bad day.
“Jesus, we’ll never get to the end of the story with a mind like yours. All that shagging sunshine and still a mind like a sewer. And the age of you!”
“You’re never too old for some things a girleen” she swatted back at me with a laugh.
“You bloody well are”, says I.
“At our age you could crack a hip? Or you could lose your teeth in the heat of the moment. And where would you be then? Down on your hands and knees with your arse in the air searching for them under the bed.”
“Ara it might be well worth it…if they could get past the cobwebs and dust – and ‘tisn’t the floor by the bed I’m talking about!”
“Oh Jesus you’ll burn for that”. I gave her another swat of the tea towel, for emphasis.
“I hope they didn’t let you next nor near a beach in Australia, you’d have all those young lads terrorised.”
“They might have loved it. You know yourself there’s no substitute for experience”, says Joan. She had a comeback for everything. You couldn’t be up to her.
“Next you’ll be telling me you had a toy boy over there”. I laughed.
“I did not indeed. More’s the pity. Australia missed out badly this time round. Mind you, I might have let the side down. My God, it’s been more than a decade since I saw a willy. At this stage I’d hardly know what to do with one. I’d need a map and a manual – and a compass. Might well even have to stop and ask for directions!”
“Will you get back to the story and don’t be talking filth”.
“’Alright. Alright. You could call the Redback, or at least the one I saw, an..attractive creature” she nods with a smile.
“Jet black all over with a stroke of brilliant red down the back, like someone took a bit of nail varnish to it. You’d nearly pick it up; thinking someone had lost a ring or an earring. ‘Twas the perfect size for either. But by gum you’d get a rude awakening if you did!”
Joan leaned at me over the table as she tapped its surface, for emphasis.
“They’re deadly,” says she.
“Really?” says I.
“Full of poison,” she tapped every word.
“Fintan says they have two sharp little fangs on them and that one bite from the dirty feckers would make a grown man sick for days. And..” she paused to make sure she had my undivided attention. She needn’t have bothered. Joan was impossible to ignore, but I let her off with it.
“If it was a small child, he’d be dead”. She hit the table a smack with the palm of her hand, exterminating the Redback spider before it had a chance to get next or near her.
“Jesus!” I said.
“Yes!” Joan agreed, pursing her lips and fixing her cardigan, as she always does when she’s delivered a meaty bit of information.
“Well, I told Fintan straight away that he’d want to gut that garden of his and make damn sure there isn’t a spider alive in it before that baby starts crawling. Especially as they look so nice. If I thought it bright enough to be an earring, couldn’t a child think it was a sweet or something, and put it in their mouth? Where would we be then? Going back for a funeral, God forbid! It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
“Aren’t we lucky here really”, I said.
“They’re only a nuisance with their webs. They’re not out to kill you”.
“You’re too right”, agreed Joan.
“I’m telling you I’ve lost sleep since I came home, worrying”.
“Oh look now,” says I.
“That young lad of yours has a fine head on his shoulders. He’s no fool. I’ll guarantee you he won’t let a spider within an asses’ roar of that child. Those pavers will be laid faster than you could spit. You know that. Always a hard worker is your Fintan. And sur’ look at Ellen. I’ve yet to meet a girl with more sense and you know her far better than I do. And won’t the child be spending most of his time in the house, what with the heat and all. You couldn’t let a child out in that heat. You’ve nothing to worry about. That child is as safe as houses”.
That seemed to cheer Joan a little.
“He’s a good lad, our Fintan. Feckers those spiders are. Absolute feckers! There’s no call for that sort of creature in this world. Could they not just be normal? It’s that feckin’ heat for you!”
She still had the pinch in her brow from thinking about it, but despite herself she had to agree with me. Her new grandchild would be well minded indeed.
“And what about the other spiders – the house ones? They’re not too bad are they?” says I.
“Oh Lord, Joanie”, she said.
“The house spiders. The Huntsman Spider. There’s a tale in itself. Didn’t Fintan tell me about them and I hardly listened. I let it go in one ear and out the other because it was the Redbacks that were bothering me. But one night, weren’t be coming back from Ellen’s sisters house, after another barbecue. I don’t think I’ll be eating meat for the rest of the year I had so much of it. ‘Twas all lovely though. Anyway, one night we were coming back from Eileen’s, must have been around ten or eleven, ‘twas dark and Fintan led the way to the front door on account I might not see the step. He wanted to be in first to put on the porch light. I was coming along behind with Ellen, the child asleep in her arms. The poor little creature had a busy day indeed, and as good as gold every step of the way.” Joan beamed at me and nodded in agreement with herself.
“Where would he leave it?” said I.
“Sure I remember little Fintan, a pure angel of a child. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.
“Ah, you’re right there, but let me finish.” Joan put down her cup, carefully. The way you knew something good was coming up.
“Go on”, I said.
“Well, doesn’t Fintan put the key in the door to open it, and I behind him, when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye ‘Twas only a glance and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. You know yourself what it’s like trying to see in the dark at our age”.
I nodded. “Feck!” I thought, the story sounded worthy of another pot of tea. Too late now – Joan was building up to something.
“But, at a glance didn’t it look kind of like he’d grown a spare hand. It was right beside the hand opening the door, right on the wall beside it”. Joan gave a wave in the direction of my fridge. So that would have been Fintan’s left hand, I reckoned. I didn’t ask for fear I’d interrupt her flow.
“Ah sur’ I thought it must be my imagination so I let it go. I thought it must be a shadow or something. ‘Twas late, I was tired, the day was long”.
“Indeed”, I agreed.
“Well, in he goes and turns on the light for us and, Sweet Mother of Jesus! ‘Tisn’t a shadow at all! It’s a spider the size of his hand! I kid you not”.
“Ah go on!” says I.
“Not a word of a lie. May I die on this spot if I’m lying to you.”
“Christ almighty”, says I.
“Sure that’s not natural”.
“I’m telling you, ‘tis the heat Joanie. There’s no other excuse for it. It brings the poison out in them or makes them grow like weeds. You can’t win either way. The feckin’ thing was the size of our Fintan’s hand. You could even see its eyes. It’s eyes Joanie! All eight of them and the hair parted around them. Jesus! I nearly died on the spot!”
“What did you do?”
“What else did I do but let a roar out of me that would shatter glass. I woke the poor child. And did I care I ask you? I didn’t give a shite because then do you know what happened? As soon as I opened my mouth I must have frightened it as much as it did me. The curse of hell on it didn’t that scutterin’ spider jump. Jesus! Who knew spiders could jump? I didn’t for one. The shaggin’ thing was like something out of the Exorcist, I’ll tell you. It didn’t just jump, it feckin’ levitated! Clean across the doorway, right in front of my face and landed on the glass at the other side of the door. ‘Twas that close I felt its dirty, hairy arse across my cheek as it went past, I’m not kidding! We were that closely acquainted I should have given the gobshite my phone number entirely. I’m expecting flowers and a card from it at the very least some time soon. I’m lucky I didn’t swallow the damn thing entirely and choke to death”.
“Thank God you’ve a strong heart!” I really tried not to laugh, but there wasn’t a hope in hell.
“Strong heart? Strong heart? Not any more Joanie. That spider took ten years off my life, I’m telling you. I’ll never be right. The second I kissed its arse, against my will I might add, that was it entirely for me”. I let another roar out of me that you could have heard here, if you had your window open, and I took off down the driveway.” Joan started to smile and then to chuckle.
“I hadn’t a clue where I was going, or which way was up. I didn’t know a soul in Adelaide other than Fintan and Ellen, but I didn’t give a curse in hell. I was damned if I was going to share a porch with a spider that could eat a small child. ‘Twas every man for himself. I was gone like a bat out of hell, roaring like a banshee down the road. The new shoes got a serious workout let me tell you. Heels or no heels, there were sparks flyin’ out of them at the speed I made. I’d have left tracks on the shaggin’ roadrunner’s head! Jesus! Wiley Coyote would have retired in despair. And you can forget Usain Bolt. I’d have left him scratching his arse at the starting line! I broke every record there was, and then some. If you could have taken a feckin’ photo I’d have only been a blur. There isn’t a camera invented that could capture the speed of me. Sweet Jesus!” Joan wiped a tear of laughter.
There was no hope for me at that stage. I couldn’t speak.
“Christ, if I could run like that every day of the week I’d be famous. I’d have medals up the yacksee, but that was the least of my worries. Not only was I screeching like a banshee, I’m damn sure I looked like one too. The hair was standing on the back of my neck like a peacock’s tail and I was clattering myself round the head as I ran for fear it had latched on. How did I know that the fecker didn’t taken another leap at me as I hit off down the road? Sur’ weren’t we already intimately acquainted? He might have loved the feel of me and wanted another go. I might be a kinky spider’s ultimate fantasy. The damn thing was big enough to have a brain, and a perverted on at that. The arse wipe! And it had the legs to reach me for a repeat performance if it wanted. Jesus! The size of those legs, tree trunks they were. I’m telling you ‘tis only by the grace of God I’m sitting before you now.”
“Stop Joan, my pelvic floor!” says I. I was doubled over at this stage in fear of either wetting myself of having a heart attack or both simultaneously. If I was pushed for choice I’d rather wet my knickers any day of the week, and that has nothing to do with health and safety. It’s all about planning. Wet knickers are a lot easier do deal with than a heart attack. You can strategise for one, but not the other.
If you’re going out and you’re prone to leakage you can plan for the odd surprise in your undergarments. A spare knickers in your handbag covers all eventualities, and quite nicely too. But a heart attack is a different ball game entirely. No organisation is involved. It just happens. When and where it happens is just a matter of pure chance. I find that element of uncertainty highly unpleasant because it leaves knickers completely out of the equation. Now I’d rather not have a heart attack at all, but left to choice, if it had to happen, I’d hope it might hit me when I was out shopping. God forbid it should happen, but live or die, that would be my personal preference, because I’d most definitely be wearing my best knickers.
In my day you never went out unless you were properly groomed, and that included decent underwear. Mother drilled that rule into us since the day we said goodbye to nappies in our house. I’ve followed her guidance in that matter religiously. To this day once I’m abroad in the street I couldn’t give a rat’s arse if a hurricane hit and blew the skirt clean off me. While there might be a measure of embarrassment involved I’d still rest happy in the knowledge that my infrastructure was well upholstered, and with taste. I could handle a heart attack in public view, consoled in the knowledge that I wouldn’t give the ambulance lads reason to gossip about my unmentionables as they resuscitated me.
There’s lovely knickers to be had today too, much nicer than the shapeless Gandhi pants we were stuck in as children. You’re spoiled for choice. I got a new set in Penney’s not long ago and they’re gorgeous. Black, naturally, with a fancy little bow at the front, only a tiny one though, so it doesn’t show through your clothes. And there’s good coverage in them too, over the front, round the back and up the waist. I got five pairs that came together in a little plastic bag, all rolled up nice and neat, for only a couple of Euro.
And they have thousands of knickers, Penneys do. For all shapes and sizes. Some of them look like doilies with all the lace on them. Others are see through. I can’t see the attraction in that. Wouldn’t it be like looking at a ferret in a fishing net?
Mind you, they have a few and you’d swear to God they forgot the knickers entirely and just packaged the elastic! Jesus! Where’s the warmth in those? All they have is a little line of thread that goes right up your crack without a ‘by your leave’. For all the good they are you might as well just tie on a tea bag with a bit of dental floss and be done with it. Then at the very least you could make yourself a hot drink and clean your teeth after. They’d serve some purpose.
I’m told those little stringeens are the fashion. Well, if they are ‘tis no wonder half the young ones walk around with a grimace on them like a dead fish. How could they be comfortable in them? Wouldn’t you give yourself a hysterectomy just walking? If you had to run for a bus or something the heat of your arse cheeks rubbing together could well set fire to the little stringeen that’s stuck to your nether regions and burn the giblets clean off you.
Give me the auld reliables any day. Especially for a heart attack and especially out around town.
Everything would be covered, and well covered, especially my backside. The whole drama surrounding a heart attack could be undertaken without a skerrick of embarrassment on anyone’s part, regardless of the outcome. I would happily twitch like a flounder on the footpath until the ambulance came. They could haul me off, dead or alive in my clean knickers as far away as they wanted to take me. As for the spare knickers in my handbag, if I came out of it alive I’d be sure to need them later. If not, they could bury me in them. I’m sure spare knickers are few and far between in a hospital or a morgue. They’d probably congratulate me or my dead corpse for my foresight and planning.
It would be an entirely different ballgame if I went belly up at home in my kitchen. And again, it’s down to the knickers.
I have round the house knickers. I don’t know if I’m alone in that but let me tell you, my round the house knickers have seen better days. Some are so holey that you’d think I was wearing a windsock. The elastics are shot in a couple of others and it’s only for the Grace of God and my support stockings they’re holding on to my arse at all. Most days I scarcely leave the house so it doesn’t matter. They serve their purpose adequately enough for pottering around inside. I even make use out of them when they’ve gone past the point of no return and given up on any illusion of cover. I give the really old ones a good boil and use them for dusting. Might as well, holes or no holes there’s still enough cloth left in them to sail a ship. They make do as a hair net as well when you’re dusting cobwebs and you can wrap them around the broom handle and give those hard to reach corners a good wipe. I even cover the kitchen stool with one when I have to stand on it to change a bulb. It saves the cushion.
With a bit of imagination old knickers can be very versatile around the house. But not beyond it. Most definitely. I couldn’t countenance a heart attack indoors unless the Good Lord gave me enough energy to crawl up the stairs and change my smalls before the ambulance came.
If it hit me when I was dusting I’d be ruined entirely.
The poor feckers would be met with the sight of an auld one gasping her last in holy knickers, with another pair on her head and a third tied to the handle of the broom. Knowing my luck I’d have the good pair in my frozen hand with not enough life left in me to put them on. God Almighty, they’d either think I was crazy or playing some weird kind of sex game, home alone. If the heart attack didn’t kill me there and then I’d die of mortification.
But the state of my knickers meant nothing to Joan. Not that she’d know, as I don’t tend to advertise my undergarments. Who does that in company? Anyway, she was on a roll.
“Yourself and your pelvic floor!” she roars at me.
“Wasn’t I just assaulted by a spider the size of a dog. A bit of sympathy please. I was nearly ready for a pacemaker by the time Fintan caught me after my hundred-yard dash. He was completely out of breath and I was so busy roaring I didn’t have time to take one. And then d’you know what happened?”
“Stop!” I gasped. But she didn’t.
“I got such a fright when Fintan grabbed a hauld of me, didn’t I hit him a clatter that would have poleaxed a cow. Naturally he wasn’t expecting it. Down he went on knee, straight onto the hard road like he took an immediate and urgent notion to say a quick decade of the rosary. He even had his hand to his mouth like he was kissing the beads. In point of fact, the poor creature was checking to see if I had split his lip.
Jesus Christ above! I’m sure I gave the poor child concussions. There he was, the fruit of my loins and he trying to save me, and I damn near killed him. He had an expression on him like a goose looking down the top of a bottle for the next two days, God help the child. I can only pray the damage wasn’t permanent. I was afraid to suggest a trip to the doctor for fear he would let on his mother hit him a smack. Can you imagine that? It’d probably end up on the telly, with me behind bars in a prison suit, peering out at the camera through my bifocals, and a big hairy bastard of a spider sitting on top of my head! And when you think it couldn’t get any worse who comes along?”
“Ah Jesus!” I was laughing so hard I was missing half the drama.
“Not Jesus at all, a girleen, though Divine intervention would have helped greatly in the heat of the moment. Doesn’t the whole street come running because they think an aul’ one is being mugged down the road. And what do they find? I’ll tell you what, a hysterical old granny swearing like a fishwife, running rings around a young lad in the middle of the road who appears to be praying, and all over a spider. I’ll never forget it, and they won’t either!”
“No!” I squeaked.
“There isn’t an ounce of compassion in you Joanie Corbett, the curse of hell on you. I doubt they’ll ever let me back into Australia after that. You should have seen me. Oh I’ll never be right after that” laughed Joan. She loved to see me helpless.
“I’m sick. I’m sick now. The tea is above in my throat. Feck you”, says I.
When we finally managed to compose ourselves we made another pot of tea and she filled me in on the Australian barbecues. That’s how I learned about the lemons.
What if? Romeo and Juliet and…
Have you ever stopped to ponder
The fate of two had they lived longer?
Would Romeo continue with his trend
To burn the candle at both ends?
And Juliet, would she her vigil keep
Or get some sense and go to sleep?
I’ll paint a picture now for you
Of Mr and Mrs Montague
Some then years on, or thereabouts
When kids have blessed their little house.
“Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou?
Night caresses my tender brow
And bids me sleep.
Herewith I state
If thou the slightest sound do make
To wake the kids,
I’ll break thy back,
Or both thy legs,
And that’s a fact.”
His sighs have changed,
From ones of love
To those of pain.
“Dear God!” he thinks of all the times
He wasted climbing bloody vines.
© E O’D
DORM 2B, ST. GABRIEL’S ORPHANAGE, MIDNIGHT, 30TH OF OCTOBER
The best bed in dorm 2b at St. Gabriel’s orphanage was on the left-hand side of the door. It was dark, damp, close to the pipes, far from the windows and beyond the capabilities of the only heater in the room. It was also the last bed Mr Strangeways ever checked when he did his rounds, simply because it lay directly behind the door when he opened it. This effectively gave the bed’s occupant .025 of a second more than everyone else to cut his torch, hide his book and pretend he was asleep. There were rules at St Gabriel’s, particularly about reading at night.
Callan moved his pillow beneath his bony chest, and tucked it in under his armpits. It supported some of his weight, lessening the extent and intensity of pins and needles that he knew would later strike at some point. He positioned his book so that the bottom of the page was approximately at the level of his nose, the prime position for preventing neck cramps. Aligning the torch for maximum page coverage is really a matter of individual taste. Callan preferred to jam his between his chest and the pillow, its light aimed just below the level of the book. This minimised page glare. With a lick and a spit he smoothed his auburn hair off his forehead. It had an irritating habit of sneaking back to stab him in the eye, but he had plenty of spit. Lastly torch-leak levels were controlled by sheet positioning and controlled draping. Callan was a master at it, which wasn’t always the case.
Once, and only once he was caught reading…at night…with a torch. One would hardly think this was a problem, but it was. The offence incurred a dose of Mr Strangeways, the housemaster. That was five years ago and now at the age of twelve, he still hadn’t forgotten. Mr Strangeways didn’t see reading at night as just breaking the rules. From his perspective it set in motion a chain of events that could only have tragic consequences of global significance. The night he was caught, Callan learned of them. That night also the book he was reading was so good he had no idea his guardian had entered the dorm until the blanket was lifted from his head and his secret exposed. Callan got such a fright it flew from his hands, fell from the bed and landed open at Strangeways’ feet. Strangeways looked liked he was about to have a heart attack. An agonizingly long moment of stunned silence followed, during which all else in the dorm quietly reconfigured themselves to face away from the scene. Callan didn’t, well, he couldn’t. He was stuck like a deer in the path of Strangeways watery glare. Escape was not an option.
Finally, Strangeways managed a squeak, “Office!” and gestured limply at the door.
The other boys in his dorm stared sadly as Callan clambered into his faded plaid dressing gown with matching, equally faded slippers, which his heart immediately sank into. Another feeble point sent him onwards and outwards, down the hall Strangeways’ office, the only place the very best, or the very worst boys in St. Gabriel’s ever saw.
The halls bled green under the flickering glow of Strangeways lamp, their ancient wallpaper held together by mould, an occasional plaque or shield, and an awful lot of masking tape. Sheldon could feel the cold rising from the granite through the soles of his slippers. Something scurried, something creaked. Strangeways sniffed. No words were spoken. Tension ruled. The build up was intense, particularly as the dorm was nearly five minutes walk from Strangeway’s office.
Being new to the orphanage Callan naturally thought a beating was in order or, perhaps, gruel for a week. Alternatively, he figured he might be committed to a cell deep within the bowels of the building, and left there to share his food and thoughts with rats and cockroaches. He had no idea that a worse punishment was possible until he experienced it.
Strangeways’ office was a large, oak-panelled room with deep, comfortable armchairs of red leather. Its leaded lamps cast a warm glow over the shelves of books and files that lined three of the walls. The books were magnificent and they were many. Huge, leather-bound tomes of black, blue and brown with spines engraved with gold and silver were stacked inside the door. More were jammed together on the shelves above and around them. Many of the books were topped by smaller volumes lying in angles along their dusty tops. Others were scattered about desktops and tables, opened at pages that blazed with colour and promise. More than one appeared to move of its own accord, or was it a draft? Callan couldn’t be sure. But best of all was the smell, that glorious book smell, of warmth, comfort, friendship, hinting of magic and adventure. The smell that turns a small boy’s head and makes him wish he could flick through the tomes around him, even through he was already in enough trouble. Their titles added to his torture. Try as he might Callan couldn’t stop himself from craning his neck around to take them in. They included “The Chasm,” “Floating and Flying,” “Keepsers Handbook,” “The Dragon Said.” A whole collection of others, curiously titled “Digby Histories” filled an entire shelf. Some were battered and worn from use, others looked as though they had never been opened. All begged to be touched, smelt, opened and most importantly, read.
The fourth wall, behind Mr Strangeways’ desk was not as inspiring. It was covered in diplomas and degrees. This was where Mr Strangeways sat after he had paused to fill a small brandy from the bottle on the bureau next to the fireplace. He took a sip, cleared his throat and fixed Callan with a look of heart-rending misery that was quite startling in its intensity. The boy stared back, alarmed. This was not what he expected.
The light from a desk lamp illuminated the tired weathered face of his guardian, a tall, wiry man, a man who was clearly having difficulty retaining his composure. His sparse grey hair lay flat and defeated across his head, as though it considered letting go completely and ending the whole illusion of cover. Callan thought he saw the glitter of a tear behind the owl like lenses of his Strangeways’ glasses. Their silver rims reflected the worn blue of his silk cravat, which sagged limply down his waistcoat and over his belt. Even his belt was tired. Wear and tear along three of its eye holes suggested that at some point in his life Mr Strangeways had been much larger. The young boy raised his small thin face to the tragic figure before him and offered a weak smile.
“Ah Callan,” was the mournful reaction.
“Callan, Callan. My dear boy, my poor misguided young soul.”
Mr Strangeways shook his head forlornly. He leaned across the desk, reached for a small glass jar full of bullseyes and offered one to his charge. A startled Callan shook his tousled red-head and immediately regretted it. They looked nice. Mr Strangeways examined the jar sadly.
“Reading at night Callan, at night, and with a.. torch! Callan my boy. This reading business, it can’t be done…” He stared into the young boy’s eyes for effect.
“Not without consequences.”
Callan had three thoughts. First, it could be done. He knew that because he had just been caught doing it. Second, the consequences were, from Mr Strangeways perspective of some significance. Lastly, he had a sinking feeling he was about to hear them. Mr Strangeways gestured gloomily at his bookshelves. He wasn’t wrong. After a long, long moment of extremely awkward silence, the lecture began.
“Callan, this must stop. There’s nothing to be gained from such nonsense son. Not for someone like you, an orphan. Keep this up and you’ll go blind. Then how will you get work? The packing factory take all our boys. How could they possibly take you if you can see the boxes to pack? And what about all their machinery? Their cutters? The blades? You’ll be a danger to yourself and others. They don’t want to be sweeping up arms and legs every day after work. What’s more, you could You’ll be out on the street, begging.” Mr Strangeways couldn’t meet Sheldon’s gaze, the image of his charge a destitute was too much to bear. Then it got worse, much worse. His guardian outlined a future of woe and grief that was, to say the least, mind-boggling in its misery.
If Sheldon managed to find a position in the packing house of death, chances were he’d most likely be critically injured, possibly even killed stone dead within a year, due to his wretched eyesight. There was of course the chance he might injure someone else instead, most likely an old man a week short of his retirement. In that event there was a strong likelihood his distraught wife would harm herself in her grief. Deprived of his company and possibly hers, the dead man’s children and grandchildren would spontaneously and uniformly pine, their lives forever tarnished. No longer would christenings, birthdays or weddings hold allure and enjoyment for them, all thanks to an inconsiderate and sightless orphan. While that transpired Sheldon, would be arrested for manslaughter or more likely, murder. He would lose his job, his home and go to prison, forced to exist on bread and water, condemned to break blocks for the rest of his natural life.
On hearing the latter the boy realised that while the food at St. Gabriel’s wasn’t that crash hot, it certainly varied above and beyond crusts of bread and water that smacked of metal from tin cups. Furthermore, though the uniforms at St Gabriel’s did bear a curious similarity to prison garb their wearers were certainly not locked down for the night or randomly selected for inappropriate searches. They were also certain of release within a designated time. From what he had gleaned in books, prison was not a nice place. A worm of worry began to niggle at the heart of the young boy.
Mr Strangeways in the meantime had risen to his feet and took on the manner of those suited preachers Sheldon had seen on TV. He raised his eyes and arms to the ceiling in supplication, clearly living and experiencing the orphan’s fall from grace.
“Then, of course, there’s the press,” he wailed.
“They’re bound to mention you’re a St. Gabriel’s boy. Naturally, I’ll be blamed. I’ll have failed in my duty of care, might even get arrested. We’ll lose our funding, our grants. We’ll have to close, which means one hundred and ten boys, orphans, wandering the streets to die of cold and hunger. Innocents all of them. Orphans that never even thought to read at night, and with a torch”.
Mr Strangeways paused, but not for long. Sheldon learned that life imprisonment can, for the lucky few, end after twenty or twenty-five years. Eventually there was hope he might walk free, burdened only by his guilt and his eyesight. Given the standard of food and lack of facilities he’d probably be completely blind by then. On his first day of freedom for twenty-five years he might be inspired to go for a stroll, take a walk down memory lane, possibly visit the old places thinking he’ll know them. He’ll have carved a white cane in prison wood-shop to guide him, helped by two guys called Crusher and Mitch. They’ll help him polish it, carve a fancy handle. But it won’t matter because he’ll be blind, from reading at night, and with a torch. Within an hour he’ll take wrong turn and fall; into the weir and drown.
Then again, if Sheldon didn’t manage to kill himself or someone else, or drown, he could get hopelessly lost, most likely in Hope Forest. Overcome by starvation and hypothermia he would have to resort to eating his own foot, possibly even both feet.
His guardian gestured to his desk, clearly seeing a wet, bedraggled, lost and footless corpse laid along it. At this point he appeared to hold a moment’s silence in Sheldon’s memory during which time he patted moisture from his eyes, overwhelmed by the sheer tragedy of a young life, Sheldon’s life, lost. Sheldon was feeling very sorry for his invisible and very dead self on the desk. He hadn’t even met his parole officer.
After a sustaining sip of his brandy Mr Strangeways stood and walked to the fireplace, his back to Sheldon. He appeared to talk more to the fire than to the boy at this point.
“Then again, my boy, there’s always the chance you’ll walk out in front of a truck. You might never know what hit you!”
Consoled by this relatively swift and expedient alternative to Sheldon’s passing Mr Strangeways wiped his glasses with some enthusiasm. Sheldon did not share in his optimism. He was dumbstruck, overwhelmed. His heart began to cloud with a feeling he soon became familiar with at St. Gabriel’s, guilt.
More was said, promises were made and an agreement reached. The torch was also impounded. An hour or so later he was returned to his bed in the dorm. It was nearly two weeks before he stopped having nightmares, even longer before the guilt of the agony he inflicted on Mr Strangeways lessened. All up he didn’t venture to read at night again for nearly two months.
That was an extremely long time for a seven-year old who loved, adored and consumed books since he was old enough to hold one. It was torture. He tossed and turned for weeks as he mulled it over at night. Finally, after a long battle with himself Sheldon decided he’d rather read and accept the consequences of his actions. But he prepared for those eventualities. He planned to work at the least dangerous job possible and never to stand close to anyone as he did, but he would still read. And so he did. All possibilities had been considered and covered, except for one. Mr Strangeways never told Sheldon that reading under the covers late at night might result in being kidnapped.
Five years later nearly to the day Mr Strangeways did his rounds as usual. He checked room 2b, again as usual. When he looked behind the door all he saw was a torn pillow, a broken torch and a book.
Sheldon was gone.
NUMBER THREE OLIVE GROVE, MIDNIGHT, 30TH OCTOBER.
That same night, on the far side of town, a light glowed from the window of a small and quite unremarkable shed. It was No 3 Olive Grove. The shed sat at the end of a cracked cement path at the back of a neatly ordered garden. It also leaned slightly to the left, but that’s neither here or there. The light from the kitchen didn’t quite carry to the door of the shed and from time to time Mrs Bromley tripped over the step or the neighbour’s cat, and shattered a teacup. On one particular occasion a wineglass was involved which meant the entire set was ruined. The end result was that Mrs Bromley very rarely bothered to check on her husband when he worked nights. That was a shame because inside the shed was far from ordinary. It looked like a very glorious firework had just exploded. The room was filled with the clutter and colour of an artist’s studio, which is exactly what it was.
Oil paintings of various sizes and shapes crowded every wall. They hung above, below, beneath and partly over the shed’s grimy windows. Canvases were propped against easels, piles of newspapers and cans of house paint. Along one wall three small, tired benches strained and creaked under the weight of dozens of tubes of paint. Dusty portraits dangled just below the eaves, held there by a tired and very saggy strip of red velvet rope fixed across the shed from end to end. Some of their frames seemed to be supported by spider webs that crawled across the canvas and made them look like jigsaws glued back together. Charcoal sketches and watercolours lay scattered about shelves, bench-tops and every available space the oil paintings failed to cover. Stacks of smaller paintings overlapped each other next to them, like the wings of a strange kind of butterfly. Quite a few looked wet. Caterpillars of paint wobbled around and between the jumble of mess and masterpieces. They crawled across a pile of old brushes and wrapped themselves around the foot of glass jars filled with murky liquid. There were a number whose content’s vaguely resembled coffee. Mr Bromley made that mistake more than once.
In a corner of the room, behind a cluster of easels, canvas and two shrivelled and startlingly hairy donuts, something rustled, sighed and smacked its lips. It was Richard Bromley, artist and studio owner. He was examining his nights work. Had anyone been looking for him he would have been difficult to spot, as he was as colourful as the jumble of colour around him. One of his eyebrows was blue, the other green. His broad face was rainbow striped and some of the stripes had dribbled into his beard, giving the impression that the artist was a warrior painted for battle. His clothing was a different matter. Richard Bromley had developed the habit of tucking his shirt into his underpants to avoid coating his shirt tails in paint. The overall effect was, according to his wife, far from attractive and another reason she left him to himself. It looked like his bum reached all the way to his armpits.
Tonight Mr Bromley stared in amazement at his painting, stroking his beard and tutting. His hairy donuts were supposed to be the subject of tonight’s work. He came across them earlier as he searched for a tube of burnt sienna and thought they had a captivating allure, not to mention smell. Much to his own surprise he had not painted them. He had instead painted a young boy and a young girl. The girl had mousey brown hair and pale blue eyes. Her companion had spiky auburn hair and eyes of green. Side by side they stood, in a deep, dark cavern, in front of a series of tunnels that seemed to lead in all directions. In their left hands they held swords. It looked like they were surrounded by shadows, hundreds of them. Shadows of no clear shape or form that oozed a menacing and unmistakable evil. At the left of the painting was the silhouette of a strange and alien creature. It had razor-sharp claws and teeth that shone wet in the dim light. It was surrounded by an army of grotesque creatures that clung to every crack and crevice in the cavern. They looked ready to pounce on the children beneath. Flickering torchlight glanced off scales and wings, teeth and claws while in the background; eyes glowed red and menacing from the impenetrable darkness of the tunnels.
Richard Bromley shook his head. He was tireder than he thought. Why else would he paint such a sinister scene in a perfectly ordinary forest? And where were the donuts? He checked his wrist, where his watch should have been, if he hadn’t mislaid it.
“Must be around midnight,” he guessed.
He yawned, stretched his broad frame, scratched his beard and decided to go to bed. He would fix it in the morning. Outside, in the gloom of his small garden, something crackled. Even from inside the shed it was loud enough to make him jump. Richard Bromley swung to the window of his studio and peered through its dusty panes. He heard another crackle this time followed by a hiss. Something scrambled along the edge of his path and headed towards the fence on the right side of his house.
“Darn cat!” he muttered.
Ever since the broken wineglass he had a running battle with Mrs Cutty’s tomcat. It had decided that Mr Bromley’s garden was the best cat box in the street and used it at every opportunity.
He heard the sound again. This time the lavender bushes by the clothesline started to wave and bob like they were being trampled. A shadow crossed the cement path just beyond his view, but he had seen enough.
“Too big for a cat,” thought Mr Bromley. The way it moved was weird and . . wrong, very wrong. He shivered slightly. Something was definitely going on out there.
At that moment he felt hot and cold at the same time. A glob of blue paint trickled unexpectedly from his eyebrow and onto his cheek. He smacked himself on the face with fright. The shadows had gone behind the privet hedge that fringed his vegetable garden. Good. The light from his studio didn’t reach that far. He could open the door and sneak up on them.
But first, he needed something. Glancing around the room he realised that painters really don’t have much in the line of serious weaponry. He rummaged among the pile of paint and papers by his side to look for something larger and more threatening than a paintbrush, settling for the metre ruler that he used to centre his pictures. It might look like a bat in the dark, he hoped.
Quietly he turned towards the door, knocking over a stack of sketches with his makeshift weapon as he did so. He froze amid a halo of floating artwork, eyes wide, lips pursed, face scrunched up. Richard Bromley’s stomach did a most uncomfortable flip. He listened. They didn’t appear to have heard. As his stomach and the papers began to settle he found his watch. He had been looking for it for weeks and here it was all the time, right in the shed like his wife had told him. Richard Bromley listened distractedly, first to his watch, then to the garden. They were still at the fence.
Slowly, he opened the door of his studio and stepped outside. Turning sharp right he kept his back to his shed and crept towards its rear. There was a gap in the privet further down. He could sneak through there and squat behind his beans for a peek. There seemed to be two of them beside his fence. It looked like they were trying to climb over it and into the house next door. In the dim light it also appeared that they were wearing fancy dress. Their costumes were quite unlike anything he had ever seen. They seemed to have blade like ridges along the shoulder and a number of legs coming from the waist area. The masks seemed overly large and disagreeably oily. Then again he could only see them from behind. He was making mental notes for the police.
The Burglars moved along the fence. For a second, and only a second, he thought it might be a good idea to let them go. It wasn’t that keen on his next door neighbour. Maude the moaner, he called her. Her niece was a different matter, so tiny and thin. It wouldn’t be fair to let those cowards scare her, especially when he knew they were there. He regretted not listening to his wife and putting a separate phone line in the shed. Too late now. Bromley made himself as big as possible and in his sternest voice he shouted,
They turned. Richard Bromley looked into the faces of the shadows he had painted.
He turned to run but was thrown forward in a tangle of bean shoots by the full impact of their bodies against his back and legs. Their tentacles of the creatures locked around his chest, neck and thighs. He felt warm ooze coat his hair and clothes and then a piercing hot pain in his back. That was all. Because then it didn’t matter. Bromley’s eyes glazed over and he stopped struggling. He was not poisoned or seriously injured. He was not paralysed or unconscious. He just gave up hope. It had been sucked it from him.
It only took a moment. Then the creatures returned to the fence. The little girl was next. It was not her hope they wanted. It was her.
NUMBER 5 OLIVE GROVE, JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT, 30TH OCTOBER.
Next door she was opening a pack of birdseed. Her name was Shelly. She liked chips, peas and chocolate. She also liked birdseed. Claude, her parrot was the only one that knew, because he shared with her. At night, when Aunt Maude was asleep, Shelly and Claude sat together on the laundry floor chewing and whispery chatting about the day.
To be accurate, Shelly did the chatting and Claude the listening. Being a parrot his vocabulary was limited and rather uninspiring. Still, he was better than no friend at all.
Tonight was the same, but different. It was the night before Halloween and after her Aunt Maude went to sleep Shelly had decorated the laundry. Her Aunt was the kind of person that bought nuts and pumpkins for their nutritious value. She was not the type that saw any reason to waste money on decorations and dress ups. In her opinion witches, goblins and ghosts were just an excuse for multinational corporations to compromise the financial stability of the working class by encouraging the purchase of expensive and useless merchandise. She also thought it was not good for children like Shelly, who was born on Halloween, to think they were special. To shatter any illusions of grandeur Aunt Maude regularly told the tale of the young boy that once lived across the street. His birthday was on Halloween as well, and he’d had gone through not one, but two perfectly serviceable sets of parents. It was no wonder he was shipped off to an orphanage. Shelly herself had managed to wear out one set of parents, including Aunt Maude’s sister. The local Council said it was another gas leak that did it but Aunt Maude didn’t hold with that theory. She decided that the children were to blame and it was only a coincidence that their parents simultaneously expired on the same night.
Aunt Maude decided that Shelly was not, under any circumstances, going to wear her out. The woman had altogether too much responsibility trying to mind the child forced upon her by a cruel twist of fate. In addition to this poor Aunt Maude had to contend with the possibility that her mere proximity to the child might well result in her own immediate and sudden death. The child was strange to the point of being odd. Things seemed to react to her moods in an unnerving manner. Like yesterday, when the brat said she was tired. The geranium in the hallway wilted. Then there was the incident last week, when she had the cheek to ask for a shilling and was, naturally, refused. The milk soured as Maude was pouring it. Maude refused to think about that other time, when Shelly got angry. It made her pale and weak even now, though one would hardly notice.
Even on her best days Aunt Maude did not look healthy. She was a flaccid, anaemic looking individual, tightly bound in tweeds and sweaters that gave the impression she had been upholstered, rather than dressed. She wore her muddy blonde hair tied in a topknot where it sat like a large and very sulky toad on the crown of her head. She also claimed to have an arthritic spine, a dodgy knee and gout, disorders that necessitated sustained and prolonged rest. Her life was therefore limited to TV and candies, prescribed for herself in large doses. The chores were Shelly’s responsibility. They were gruelling, tiring, and never-ending. Shelly was responsible for the washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning, dusting, shopping, gardening, vacuuming, window cleaning, plumbing, wiring, repairs and general maintenance. She also had to feed Claude. Everything was done under the direction of Aunt Maude as she ate her pastries and pies, washing them down with beer and ice cream. The day before the day before Shelly’s birthday was no different. Aunt Maude announced that Shelly would spend her eleventh birthday the way she spent all her other birthdays, and every other day of the week for that matter, working. She then staggered up the stairs, leaving Shelly to clean the kitchen. By the time she had finished Aunt Maude’s snores were vibrating through the walls. Shelly smiled and tiptoed to the laundry. This year, she had plans.
For the last three nights she had hidden in her wardrobe and made paper chains. During the past week she had borrowed pipe cleaners from her Aunt Maude’s desk and turned them into spiders. Aunt Maude was partial to smoking an enormous and strangely carved pipe after tea. She took empty toilet rolls from the recycling bin and made ghosts from them with the help of a few paper towels. The clothes-pegs combined nicely with a few teabags from the compost bin to make vampire bats. Shelly was particularly proud of her witch. She had covered a milk carton with her old black t-shirt, drawn a face on it and topped it off with the orange funnel her Aunt Maude used to fill her beer bottles. It was a shame everything had to be taken down and hidden before morning.
Shelly mixed nuts with the birdseed as she chatted to her parrot. As usual, she talked about their day, well, mostly hers, and mostly stuff that happened on Olive Grove. Shelly’s house, a little brick bungalow, was the same as nearly all the others on the street, boring. However, the people inside them were not. Mrs Bromley next door wore knickers on her head when she dusted. Her husband, Mr Bromley painted naked people and bowls of fruit. Mr Wilson, at number Two, kept ferrets. He also kept a small bottle beside the electricity meter. Every evening he took a drink or too from the bottle, then he sang to his ferrets. Sometimes Aunt Maude joined him over the fence and together they serenaded the animals for an hour or two.
Across the road at number Four Mrs Cutty liked to hide behind her hydrangea and peek out at everyone. She was wondrous large and wore enormous stripey dresses that flapped like sails over her house on washing day. Mr Cutty picked his nose when he watered the plants, and started like a rabbit if she shouted hello. He was very friendly, though easily distracted. When that happened he was prone to watering Mrs Cutty where she hid. Then Shelly would watch with a smile as Mrs Cutty chased him around the garden and wrestle him into the rose bushes. They were a strange pair. Mr Cutty looked like a movie star, or one of the guys on the cover of her Aunt Maude’s romance novels. They were usually dashing, bare-chested, and holding a swooning woman in their arms. Shelly decided there wasn’t the smallest hope Mr Cutty could attempt anything like that with his wife. He’d probably end up in traction if he did. Most likely it would be Mrs Cutty that would do the lifting, and hopefully not bare-chested. Shelly shook herself. That was way too much information to deal with and a visual image that could cause nightmares.
Mr Crabtree at number Six was a different matter. He grew only cacti in his garden and was by all account a most disagreeable individual. His personality was as pointy as his plants. When he first arrived the Cuttys, the Wilsons and even Aunt Maude tried to be friendly. He responded in a truly obnoxious fashion. Basically, he was downright rude. He snarled at his neighbours, including Shelly to let him be, except those were not his exact words. His exact words are usually represented by %$&*!@ in print. Yep, they were the worst ones imaginable. He also stood in his garden late at night talking to shadows.
Then there was Miss Olivia from next door, number Seven. She kept to herself, living quietly and unobtrusively in the biggest and best house in the street. It was three stories high. It had seven steps up to it, seven windows on the front, seven on the sides and, seven at the back, all of different shape. The windows on the ground floor were circular, rectangular and square. On the second floor there was an oval window, a star-shaped one and another Shelly could never remember the name of, though she had seen it in Maths class. Right under the roof the window was triangular in shape and appeared to be made from stained glass. The windows peeked out from a cloak of the reddest ivy giving the impression that the house was wrapped in crimson velvet. When the wind danced across its face it seemed to breathe. A high fence draped in dark green ivy wound like a glorious scarf all around the property and up to the massive front gates, its ribbons and swirls of metal twined like interlocking fingers. The latch was the shape of a dragon’s head. Though rusted and chipped Shelly could tell it had once been painted in many colours as the eyes of the dragon still sparkled beneath the dust of its scaly eyebrows.
Miss Olivia’s garden was seriously interesting. A conundrum. Long ago Shelly had decided that huge snake lived there. She came to that conclusion as the garden appeared to be a bird free zone; that is, nothing winged ever seemed to visit there. The plants also appeared to move around the garden. Shelly was willing to grant that the aforementioned snake may have been responsible. The fruit trees, however, proved more difficult to explain. They grew apples one week and the following week they grew pears. Finally, there was Miss Olivia herself.
Sometimes, late at night, Miss Olivia went into her garden and disappeared. Shelly knew this for a fact as she had spent several nights hidden in the ivy of Miss Olivia’s fence watching and waiting. This was intrigue at its best.
“She must go somewhere,” said Shelly, again and again.
“Sqarrrk,” said Claude.
“She disappears, that’s going somewhere”, Shelly concluded.
They sat quietly together, thinking and eating.
Shelly thought it was quite possible Miss Olivia was magic. These things happen. On the other hand it is very easy to disappear in an overgrown garden without magic. Which was it? Shelly had to know. She thought of sending Claude to look for a secret door in Miss Olivia’s garden, but he really wasn’t the brightest of souls. When all was said and done his life was pretty much governed by eating, pooping and little else.
Shelly knew there was no hope of his help so she decided to look for herself. Tonight was the night.
She was dressed for the occasion. Aunt Maude had bought her a new pair of second-hand jeans the day before. Clothes were clothes. Fashion was essentially an arbitrary concept structured by individuals who mistakenly consider their opinion and taste infallible. Besides, there was no point in buying new stuff for girls that were bound to grow, some day. The jeans had patches on the knees but the denim was still hard and edgy, especially around the calves. Shelly wore her green fuzzy jumper over them, it being her warmest piece of clothing, an important consideration at Halloween. She tied a string around her waist for her stick, her only weapon against the snake. It was as big as she could carry it and as sharp as she could make it.
“Sqarrk” said Claude. Then he bowed.
Shelly bowed back.
“I won’t be long”.
Shelly opened the laundry door. It creaked softly as she stepped outside, into the dark.
To her left lay Miss Olivia’s fence. To her right, Richard Bromley’s. Had she thought to look in that direction she would have seen it wobble slightly as the creatures began to climb. But that was not all. Something else began to stir. Something large, quiet, dark and extremely dangerous. Something in Miss Olivia’s garden.
Outside in the dark Shelly had the feeling that things were hiding from her, watching her. She also had the fleeting idea that this might not be a good idea. But really, when all was said and done, there wasn’t much else to look forward to tonight, tomorrow, or the foreseeable future. Her life was tragically boring. Shelly looked for the spot she had practised climbing on all week, where the ivy was old and strong and easy to grasp. Naturally it was in the darkest part of the garden. As soon as she started to climb though, Shelly knew she had a problem. Her weapon, the stick seemed determined to impede, main or even cripple her as she moved. Skin was being grazed, legs impaled and ribs speared with gay abandon. Finally, the stupid thing tangled in the branches and nearly prised her out of the ivy and into the void of gloom beneath. Shelly decided she had to let it go, which she did.
She reached her usual perch on top of the fence and paused to catch her breath and check Miss Olivia’s garden for snakes. That was difficult, not really worth the effort as it was pitch black down there. The fruit trees seemed to have moved closer to the fence and she smelled apple blossoms, even though it was autumn and the apples were ripe. Shelly looked again. They weren’t apples. They were oranges. Yesterday she climbed up there and saw apples.
“Magic, most definitely,” Shelly decided to herself, but she had to be sure.
She climbed into Miss Olivia’s garden, or at least attempted to. Her descent was more a slip, grab, bounce and wallop towards the ground. As this point it should be mentioned that she was never noted for her co-ordination. In all honesty her green jumper, now ripped badly over one elbow, was solely responsible for preventing a broken arm, or concussion or both.
All the while the creatures, muggers and hope suckers of Richard Bromley were closing in behind her. For a reason that will later transpire, they stopped short of climbing Miss Olivia’s fence. They were not alone however. As Shelly lay a tangled and bruised heap at the base of the fence in Miss Olivia’s garden, something large was moving towards her. So basically she was surrounded. Slowly Shelly began to move. Slowly, because something extremely pointy and very uncomfortable had found its way down the back of her pants. As she tried to dig it out she noted that, combined with the hard denim, her left butt cheek was sure to smart by morning. This was followed by a stumbly shuffle around the edge of the garden, during which she was liberally sprinkled with sticky burrs.
Shelly tried keeping close to the fence all the time and it proved far more difficult than she anticipated. . In fact, within minutes Shelly had to move away from the fence to get around a particularly large bush. The bush smelt strange, like chocolate. Shelly walked, tripped, got up, fell backwards, righted herself and walked again. In the grand scheme of things she had, essentially, made enough noise to alert snakes in five neighbourhoods and if those snakes had any sense, they would have kept their distance for fear of injury.
Minutes, lots of minutes passed and she was still walking. Eventually it began to dawn on her that something wasn’t right. No-one has a bush that big in their garden. Shelly stopped and looked around and then, it got interesting. The wall had gone. The fruit trees had disappeared. The rose bushes had vanished and when she looked back, the bush she had being trying to pass was nowhere to be seen. The garden was empty, except for one thing. Something large, bigger than large, something enormous lay like a mountain to her left. It had lumps and bumps, it had smooth parts and scales, it had shadows and darkness, and it moved. A red light flickered at one end of this monstrosity. Another flickered beside it. They caught and glowed a brilliant fiery red and slowly, excruciatingly slowly, they turned towards the bedraggled eleven-year-old. When they did, Shelly had her answer. There was no secret door in Miss Olivia’s garden. there was, however, a lot of magic. Shelly knew that because she was looking into the eyes of the largest dragon that ever was.
When someone really gets a fright their spit seems to spontaneously evaporate, which is a really uncomfortable feeling. In fairness, it’s a feeling rarely noticed when the spitless person is in mortal danger. People can also pee themselves in a situation like this. Shelly had no spit. She was stuck to the ground in terror, in the dark, head to eye with a dragon the size of a mountain. A dragon that couldn’t possibly fit in Miss Olivia’s garden unless that garden was magic.
Worst of all no one knew she was there. No one except for Claude who was, effectively the same as no one. He hadn’t the brain mass, the wherewithal, the vocabulary or anything else that could help in this type of situation.
The dragon’s head slid like a snake across the grass in her direction. Under the moonlight the massive ridges along its back became wings that were folded and folded and folded again, its claws hard, shiny talons that grated furrows and ridges into the ground as it moved. Shelly had a fleeting image of her Aunt Maude grating cheese on her spaghetti bolognaise. The moonlight flicked along and between its scales, scales as large as an ice-cream truck, as pitted as the surface of an under-ripe orange. They also looked a million times stronger. The dragon got closer. Shelly saw things caught beneath some of the scales. Big things. A bicycle wheel. A shopping trolley. A tree. It had hairs around its face and muzzle. They were sparse, oily and as thick as the girl’s waist. Nostrils flared, inhaling her scent through openings so large she could have sat in them, not that she would ever want to. Its glowing red eyes cast crimson shadows along its face. The dragon stopped, inches from where she stood. It breathed hot spicy steam at the little girl. Shelly was wet from head to toe in a second, all of it dragon breath, just in case you were wondering. Slowly, very slowly it opened its mouth, displaying teeth as big as the mast of a ship, or ships. Shelly thought she saw a road sign stuck between the front ones. The dragon smiled and she was sure. The road sign read ‘Cinn Mhara 26 km’.
Then the dragon spoke.
“It’s about time,” was all it said.
Shelly made a sound somewhat reminiscent of Claude when he got his beak caught in his seed box, a bizarre occurrence that happened from time to time. Then she did something else people are prone to in times of crisis. She fainted.
When she didn’t feel like reading ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’ Sister Assumpta would tell us holy stories, mostly about the baby Jesus and how smart and wonderful he was. Baby Jesus seemed like a nice lad. I often wondered how he started his miracles. Did he practice them in his bedroom or out the back yard where no one could see? Did he fix the strap of his sandal or magic jam on his bread? Were holy folk like Jesus allowed jam? I hoped so. Poor Jesus deserved a bit of joy, married to Sister Assumpta, a shilling short of a pound – God bless the mark. Herself and The Calling. The Calling – a fate worse than death to a six year old.
Sister Assumpta said it could happen overnight. She said we could go to bed every night for years, no problem. But then, when we’d least expect it, one night we’d have a dream and wake up with a burning desire to serve Our Lord. Once that happened there was no turning back. When you got the calling you had to answer and the only way to answer was to become a nun. Just in case we had any doubts about it she told us that’s exactly what happened to her.
“Sweet Jesus!” thought I.
“Is it as swift and as brutal as that?
I had visions of waking up one morning dressed in a habit from head to toe; crucifix and all, and that would be the end of me. I’d have to say goodbye to Mammy and Daddy and Jo-Jo and Colm and Katie and head to the convent with nothing to do but pray all day. No running, no skipping, no nothing. Just praying. I was rattled.
I went home from school that evening in a state of shock, punctuated with terror. My mind worked feverishly, hatching a plan of escape from The Calling. I decided the logical thing to do was to find a better recruit than me so I told God all about Mary Theresa Hynes. She sat next to me in class. It occurred to me that she might not want to be a nun either, but she had only herself to blame for the nomination. She had all the mysteries of the rosary down pat. She looked nunny. She always had the top button of her shirt done, just like Sister Assumpta, and she wore a silver Saint Christopher medal from Knock. She got it when she was on pilgrimage with her Mother. I didn’t know where Knock was. The icing on the cake were her luminous rosary beads. I never saw them but she told me they glowed in the dark so she could practice her mysteries in bed. Clearly Mary Theresa was built for the job. God would hardly have to train her at all.
But that could be a problem in itself. What if God liked a challenge? That merited some thought. He never did things the easy way. I mean, he could have just magicked us all to have sense and love him. Instead he sent Jesus down to earth to convert us. That was much harder because we were pretty useless at the time. We were kissing golden calves and sacrificing things all over the place. There was a new religion for every day of the week and some of them were only excuses to do all sorts of sinful stuff. The Romans were great at it. When they weren’t killing and adultering and praising false gods left, right and centre, they were lying on couches eating grapes until they nearly burst. And they had heaps of slaves – dozens of little pagans grabbed from their beds at night and sold like tea, or flour. T’was terrible.
You’d have to admire his courage, not God’s – Jesus’. No offence to God but he had the easy job. Jesus was the one that ended up crucified. That must have hurt big time. He was tortured too with the lashes and the crown of thorns. If someone did that to my brothers or even to my sister Katie, there’d be skin and hair flying, that’s for sure. I once got Peteen Flynn straight between the two eyes with my pencil case when he knocked over our Colm coming home from school. I broke the lid clean off it and Peteen ran down the road roaring like a cut cat. Served him right. Our Colm was only half his size and doing no harm at all. Poor Jesus took an awful pounding before he died. Could they not have just crucified him, or maybe tortured him a little bit, to give him a break? Or even better, couldn’t he have died of a heart attack after the first torture? Then he wouldn’t have had too much pain. He’d have got home to heaven and everyone would have felt sorry for him dying anyway? Or maybe God could have given him a Panadol before the torture so it wouldn’t hurt so much.
A person shouldn’t be thinking things like that about God. If they did, they should definitely make up for it by being good. I wasn’t. Mammy was always threatening me with death for talking during Mass. Then there was the time I drew a moustache on the statue of St. Francis of Assisi in the spare room. I even coloured the bald spot on the top of his head. I thought it made him look more like Jesus and the long hair was sure to keep his head warm. I still copped a belt across the arse, despite my tearful explanations.
I was no saint.
I was ruined entirely when it came to my age. Six was the perfect age for The Calling. God loved young ones. It was an unmistakable fact. “Suffer little children to come unto me” was his catch-cry. Everyone knew that. He said it so often they put to music and we had to sing it at mass.
“Suffer little children to come unto me
For theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Suffer little children to come unto me
For theirs is the kingdom of the Lord”.
And the little children came from everywhere. We had a picture of them over the blackboard. That’s how I know. There was Jesus in the middle all dressed in white and he surrounded by young ones. Half of them were black babies and the other half had the backside falling out of their trousers. I fitted right in. I might not be black but every stitch of clothes I wore was patched at elbow and knee. As for suffering, there was room for little else in my life at that moment. Tortured was my middle name.
Oh yes, all the boxes were ticked for me.
I hadn’t a hope.
Some fine morning I would wake up a nun.
I was ruined.
To put the tin hat on it, Sister Assumpta, the curse of hell on her, said The Calling came at night. Jesus! Wasn’t that worse than being told the bogeyman was coming for you? In point of fact a bogeyman would have been sweet relief. I was going to be inflicted with a veritable swarm of auld wrinkly nuns, in the flesh no less, most likely from the Poor Clare’s down the road, smack in the middle of the night. And nuns don’t make noise. They can be on top of you in the blink of an eye, battering dents into your head with their holy ring before a body knew they were coming. Being nuns God would probably tell them that the third step up our stairs and the one just before the landing were the creaky ones. They’d be prepared. Mammy and Daddy would never hear them coming. If they did it wouldn’t matter anyway because God was calling the shots. The nuns could haul me away without as much as a by your leave.
I wasn’t having any of that.
I hatched a back up plan, just in case Mary Theresa didn’t work out. That night and for the rest of the week I didn’t go to bed until I was threatened with a walloping. In bed I moved as far away from Kate as possible so the heat out of her wouldn’t make me drowsy. When I felt any hint of tiredness I stood on the lino in my bare feet and my nightie hitched high around my waist until my arse went blue and I was nearly frozen to the floor. Despite my best efforts it became quite clear to me the human body is completely useless. Inevitably, sleep came and with it, the nightmares. As if that wasn’t enough, the combination of sleep deprivation and night terrors destroyed my waking hours. I forgot my four times tables at school and had to stand in the corner. I was ‘it’ for the whole lunchtime doing chasey because I didn’t have the energy for a good run. I left my copybook on the kitchen table and Jo-Jo sucked the corner off it. His mouth ended up all red from the dye. Mammy roared at me and Mother Enda took the head off me with a clout when she saw it. My life was going to hell in a hand basket.
Finally, Mammy noticed something was up. She took her sweet time. A blind person could have seen that I was driven to distraction. In fairness though, Jo-Jo was teething all that week so maybe she was a bit tired. Anyway one night she checked in on me about an hour after we were all supposed to be asleep, and where was I? Down on my knees praying for sweet reprieve, as usual, in the cold, in the dark, by the bed, Katie snoring merrily by my head.
I had to tell her.
All she did was laugh.
I thought it an entirely inappropriate reaction in view of the circumstances. Clearly the gravity of the situation was lost on her. But I didn’t say so. No one ever gave lip to Mammy. Anyway, I was too busy crying.
“Is that all it is, you oinseach?” she said.
“Is that all that’s bothering you? Mother of God and I worried you were sickening for something or your mind had gone soft.”
Then she took me close, looked into my eyes and said,
“You’re only an infant, Joanie. Why would God want you at this stage of your life? Sur’ you can hardly collect the eggs without breaking one and believe you me, souls are far more delicate. The Lord will find a use for you when you’re good and ready.”
“Mammy, are you sure?” I snorted between tears.
“Of course peteen”, she smiled.
“I wouldn’t let you off to a convent in a month of Sundays. God knows that so he wouldn’t ask you to go. Now into bed, good girl and don’t believe everything that’s told you.” And she tucked me in and kissed me. I was asleep before she left the room and that was the best night’s rest I’d got in a week.
The following day I thought about what she said. I was glad she offered to stand between the religious life and me. Mammy could take on the Pope if she felt like it. She’d probably scare God too if he tried to make her change her mind. I was safe. ‘Twas a relief and a disappointment at the same time. I was pleased to be off the hook but to think I might not have been up for consideration at all was a little unfair. I let that notion go, very fast. There was no point in tempting fate. I put down the rosary beads and from then on they only saw the light of day at Sunday Mass. Besides, Mammy always said ‘too much of anything is good for nothing’.