A Great Man?
Until this moment everything had been perfectly choreographed. The Rosary on Wednesday evening, followed by the wake, then last night the removal from the front parlour above the bar to the church, and this morning the funeral mass followed by the burial.
All the incense had been burnt, the holy water splashed, every prayer and incantation uttered now all that was left was the work of the gravediggers. The two men in coveralls lounging against a headstone four graves down from his Da`s plot, which was temporarily covered with timber, each dragging on cigarettes, shovels resting in the crook of their shoulders, waiting for the mourners to depart so they could get on with their work.
No matter how many funerals he`d been to in his fifty eight years this had always been the most awkward point in proceedings, people milling around, desperate to be anywhere but in a graveyard, particularly on a beautiful May morning like this one; but no-one wanting to be the first to make a move towards the gate.
â€œSorry for your loss!â€
Frank took the outstretched hand, â€œThanks Miss Dillon.â€
His old primary school teacher looked solemnly up at him, her back still ramrod straight despite celebrating her ninetieth birthday less than a month ago. â€œHe was a decent man, and charitable to a fault, even to those undeserving of it,â€ her eyes flicked past him to his right as she spoke, a trace of annoyance clouding them as she did.
Frank resisted the urge to look around, to see what had caught her attention. Her words had been solicitous enough, but her tone had been snippy, as if she didnâ€™t mean them.
He thanked her for her kind words, thinking, old bat never lost it, as he did. Miss Dillon had taken an instant dislike to him from the first moment they`d met, though he`d never understood why, making his first four years of primary school a living hell, taking any and every opportunity to punish him.
He waited until her back was turned before looking over his right shoulder to see what had caught her attention.
Forty feet away a clutch of elderly women stood huddled together, their body language broadcasting their anxiety. He wondered who they were, not locals that`s for sure, he thought, as the owner of one of the only two pubs in the village he knew everyone within a ten mile radius. And yet.. and yet there was something oddly familiar about them, he`d have sworn he`d seen them somewhere before, probably some of me Da`s cousins, he decided, yeah that must be it. But he wasnâ€™t convinced; would cousins be too nervous to join the family?
â€œHoney,â€ a hand touched his arm.
â€œHuh? Oh Maura, sorry I was away with the fairies,â€ he smiled at his wife, feeling oddly guilty for no reason he could think of.
â€œAre you alright?â€ she looked genuinely concerned.
â€œWhat? Oh yeah just a little, you knowâ€¦.â€ He waved a hand in the general direction of the grave, noticing that people were starting to edge towards the exit.
â€œWe should be going,â€ Maura said, her voice full of understanding sympathy, â€œpeople will be expectingâ€¦â€
â€œRight, right,â€ they`d invited anyone who`d cared back to the pub for drinks and sandwiches, it wouldnâ€™t do to be the last to arrive.
He pulled the car keys from his pocket, â€œWill you go on ahead, get Padraig to open up, I`veâ€¦ I just want toâ€¦.â€ He looked around distractedly.
She touched his arm again, â€œYou sure?â€
â€œYeah, yeah, you guys go on ahead, it`s only half a mile, the air will do me good,â€ he smiled to show she neednâ€™t worry.
â€œOkay, if you`re sure,â€ she hesitated a moment as if uncertain whether she should say anything, then went to join their grown up children, and their children, to explain the change in plans.
When he was certain they were all on their way out, he turned back to the small cluster of women, and began wending his way around the plots between them, a need to find out who they were gnawing at the back of his mind.
As he approached they huddled together, whispering amongst themselves in obvious disagreement, that is to say the tallest of them was disagreeing with the other four, and by the time he was within a few feet of them, they were prodding their unwillingly nominated spokesperson towards him.
Awkwardly she thrust out a hand, â€œSorry for your loss," she said with real feeling, "your father was a good man.â€
Her Brummie accent was unmistakable and triggered a memory, suddenly he knew where he`d seen these women before, at Harry`s funeral in Birmingham ten years previously; although â€œmetâ€ would be stretching the meaning of the word to near breaking point, â€œseenâ€ would be more accurate.
He`d been with his mam, Maura wasnâ€™t able to make the trip, a bad case of the flu, and it was a moment not unlike this one. They were in the graveyard and six women had almost mobbed his Da, crowding around him, smiling and jabbering at him. Frank had made to go over and see what the commotion was about when his mam had grabbed the sleeve of his jacket and simply said, â€œNo, leave it,â€ he was about to protest when he noticed she had, (and when he recounted what had happened to Maura when he got home, it was the only time in his life he ever used the word) â€œShe had the most beatific smile on her face as she said it,â€ he`d told her.
That was to be the second most astonishing thing he`d seen that day, the first was watching his Da, a bear of a man, wrap his arms around Harry`s sobbing live in â€œFriendâ€ David Blevin, as if he were a long lost relative, hugging him tightly for a full five minutes, murmuring, â€œThere, there, I know, we all miss him,â€ tears spilling down his own cheeks as he did.
â€œYou were friends of Harry`s,â€ he said, â€œI saw you at his funeral.â€
The tall woman smiled, â€œYour uncle was more than a friend to us, he and your father did more for us than we can ever repayâ€¦â€
â€œYour Father saved our lives.â€ One of the women blurted, her small round face looking shocked as she said it, as if she`d meant to say something else entirely, but the words had escaped her.
â€œNow Ethel,â€ the tall woman cautioned.
â€œDonâ€™t, now Ethel me, Rose O`Leary, Pat Hegarty saved my life, all our lives, including yours, and you know it.â€
The woman named Rose smiled at Frank, â€œYou`ll have to forgive Ethel, she`s being a little melodramatic. Your father.... and his brother saved us alright; from the laundries.â€
Frank felt a chill sweep across his skin, â€œThe Laundriesâ€ an Irish solution to an Irish problem. Young girls who found themselves in the family way shoved by their families into the laundries which were run by the nuns, a form of slave labour dressed up as Christian charity, and for many it was to become a life sentence. Their children sold off to rich Americans, or worse, used as guinea pigs, the latest vaccines tested on them with no-one to care if they survived or not.
A fresh memory surfaced, his Da, face purple with rage snapping the T.V. off as they were watching a documentary on the Magdalene laundries, "Stop watching that shite," he`d thundered, Frank misinterpreting this at the time as a defense of mother church, only now fully understanding what had enraged is father so.
â€œHowâ€¦.?â€ He couldnâ€™t think how to articulate the question.
â€œHe gave us money, organised transport to England, had his own little underground railroad as it were. Your uncle would be waiting for us in Fishguard, he`d put us up as long as we needed, helped us get jobs, some of us even got to keep our babies..â€ she trailed off realising she`d said too much. â€œOh Ethel I`m sorryâ€¦.â€
There were tears running down the fat woman`s cheeks, her shoulders heaving though she wasnâ€™t making a sound, the other women patting her shoulders sympathetically, one was rubbing her back; it became too much for her and she turned away from him, burying her face in her hands.
Frank thought of what it must have cost his Da, not in monetary terms, but to his reputation, for a publican in a rural village to get between the church and a lucrative source of income, my God, he thought, with absolutely no sense of irony. And he finally understood all the snide comments he`d endured, the jagged edges of his life slipping together until, for the first time he was able to see the complete picture, his own childhood finally making sense.
Then a horrible thought struck him, and it must`ve shown on his face because Rose smiled, patted the back of his hand and said, â€œDon`t worry there`s none of them anything to you, your father was a complete gentleman, never laid a finger on a one of us.â€
â€œI wasnâ€™t, I, Iâ€¦.â€ he blushed.
Recovering he said, â€œWe`re having food and drinks back at the pub, nothing fancy, just sandwiches and cake, I`d be honoured if you`d join us, I`m sure Da would want you toâ€¦â€
Rose shook her head, â€œNo; thank you, but we couldnâ€™t,â€ the other women shook their heads in agreement.
â€œPlease, I want my children to know who their Grandda really was, the kind of man he was, you` d be doing us, me, an honour.â€
Rose shook her head again, â€œWe`d love to butâ€¦ well you see, there`s some in this village have memories that`d shame an elephant, it`d beâ€¦. Difficult.â€
â€œI`m prepared to beg,â€ Frank said, â€œon bended knee if I have to. It seems to me you knew me Da better than I did, and I`d like you to introduce me to him,â€ and to prove he meant it he actually dropped to one knee, â€œI wonâ€™t take no for an answer,â€ he declared.
And though he`d never raised his hand to a woman in his life, he thought, and if that old witch says one word out of place I`ll slap her into the middle of next week, middle of next year if need be.
Rose was giggling, an oddly girlish sound coming from a woman who couldnâ€™t be a day under seventy; even Ethel was smiling. â€œAlright,â€ Rose said, â€œYou win. You really are your father`s son, that man could charm the paint off the walls when he put his mind to it. Now get up before you ruin your suit pantsâ€
my shroud of a father,
my poor pinched giver
of skewed advice, of a knowing
that was off-scale, out of its time.
Once you were enormous,
towered over us as tots,
had visions that lit the future,
you were a colossus, a beacon
for our moth-like love.
Trapped by your parents
in an emotional iron lung
not allowed to breathe unaided
even when released you limped,
slipped knitting, not quite sound.
All my days youâ€™ve been
shrinking, or I have loomed
up from nothing to overshadow
your self-image, leader, great man
whose followers lost their faith.
Silence. Rows of teenagers stare at me blankly. Well, some of them stare. Others are texting under the desk. Nico is gawking openly and unashamedly at Aaliyahâ€™s chest, which is graphically outlined through the cheap cotton of her too-tight school blouse.
His eyes snap to the front. â€œMiss?â€
â€œAny ideas? Henry has been speaking to his soldiers in disguise, they think heâ€™s one of them. And then they exit and heâ€™s on his own. Whatâ€™s interesting about that?â€
â€œUm. Heâ€™s, like, talking to himself?â€
â€œWell, arguably heâ€™s talking to the audience. But, whatâ€™s interesting about what heâ€™s actually saying? Come on, youâ€™ve only just heard Keisha read it so beautifully, you canâ€™t have forgotten already?â€
â€œUm, I think I have forgotten actually.â€
An â€œoutstandingâ€ school. Apparently.
â€œWell, remind yourself.â€
Great exam results. Great pastoral. Great facilities.
â€œYou donâ€™t even need to read it, Nico, just look at how itâ€™s set out on the page. What do you notice?â€
A hand shoots in the air and I hear an â€œooh, ooh!â€ of realisation. I guess Nicoâ€™s off the hook.
â€œHeâ€™s talking in verse now!â€
â€œGood. And why do we think heâ€™s changed from prose to verse?â€
Mikayla fiddles with her pen. â€œUm, because he, like, heâ€™s not pretending to be common anymore? So heâ€™s kinda gone back to posh?â€
Iâ€™ll take it.
â€œGood. Now heâ€™s alone he can be himself. But is he happy about that? Or does he wish he could be ordinary. Lee?â€
â€œCan you give me an example from the text to explain that?â€
â€œSomeone other than Mikayla? No? Alright, Mikayla.â€
â€œWhen heâ€™s like, 'not all these, laid in bed majestical can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave'â€¦â€
â€œGood. He doesnâ€™t want to be a hero in this moment. He feels itâ€™s too much responsibility.â€
â€œMiss?â€ says Ashdon (he didnâ€™t put his hand up, but Iâ€™ll let it slide if heâ€™s making an actual point) â€œwhy is Henry V a hero anyway if all he did was, like, kill a load of French guys. Like, my Dad is French, would he of killed my Dad?â€
â€œWell, I suppose you have to see it in the context of the time. People at the time thought of him as a hero. He was a great leader, in the play at least, heâ€™s charismatic, he speaks well, heâ€™s good at firing people up.â€
â€œLike Hitler,â€ says Madison, who has managed to mention Hitler at some point during every lesson this term.
â€œOr Donald Trump,â€ says Mikayla.
The bell goes.
Alisha approaches my desk. She waits till everyone else has gone.
â€œBen was, like, sitting next to me and I didnâ€™t even want to sit next to him but he sat down and I didnâ€™t have time to move and, like the whole lesson he just kept touching my leg. The whole time. And I told him not to.â€
â€œOh.â€ I put down my pen. I try to look like I know what Iâ€™m doing. â€œHas this happened before?â€
She shakes her head.
â€œWell, I think,â€ I said, my mind racing as I try to recall if Iâ€™ve been given any guidelines as to the protocol in this situation, â€œthe best thing would be if I spoke to your head of year about it. Mrs Norton?â€
She nods and twists the end of her hair around her finger.
â€œWas there any thing else you want to talk about?â€
â€œNo, Miss. Only, can you not let Ben know that I said anything?â€
The first time I met Mrs Norton was when she was giving me the tour in September of this year, the day before term began.
She was saying, â€œheâ€™s completely turned this school around. In just two years. You wouldnâ€™t believe the difference. I mean heâ€™s a born leader, you just have to hear him speak in assembly. I mean, the kids actually sit still and listen to him, miraculously. But, of course, youâ€™ll have met him at your interview.â€
I said, â€œyes.â€
â€œWhat was your impression?â€
When Iâ€™d first entered the room heâ€™d looked me up and down. All the way up and all the way down. On purpose.
â€œâ€¦ like someone in control.â€
â€œOh, for certain. This is the gym. Weâ€™ve just had the floor redone over the summer.â€
â€œThe English classrooms are just upstairs, where youâ€™ll be spending most of your time, of course. This way. I shouldnâ€™t tell you this, but I know Jack was very impressed with your interview, he told me afterwards, he said you were by far the best.â€
â€œIâ€™m awful in interviews. Fortunately Iâ€™ve been here for thirty years, so itâ€™s been a long time since Iâ€™ve had to do one. But youâ€™ll have to tell me your secret.â€
â€œYes, the secret of how youâ€™re so good in interviews.â€
â€œOh. I donâ€™t think I am, really. I donâ€™t think I have a secret. Itâ€™s justâ€¦â€
At the end he stood up to shake my hand. Then he didnâ€™t let go. He stepped closer to me still holding my hand, his eyes locked on mine.
â€œâ€¦ I think, you just have to be yourself.â€
And then with his free hand he tucked my hair behind my ear, his fingers brushing my cheek.
â€œWell, weâ€™re glad to have you here anyway. Honestly, this is a fantastic school since Jackâ€™s been here. Unrecognisable from how it was before.â€
That was it. That was all that happened. And if you want to know why I didnâ€™t tell anyone, itâ€™s because there was nothing to tell. And I wanted this job.
And after all, he was a great head. He had turned the school around. He had given opportunities to kids who might otherwise have slid through the cracks. Who was I to mess that up for all those kids who were being given a better chance in life because of him?
Mrs Norton was in her office.
I said, â€œitâ€™s Ben Warren.â€
She said, â€œOh, yes?â€ in the tone of someone who has heard the name Ben Warren all too often.
â€œAlisha told me he kept touching her leg during class.â€
â€œOh. Well, Iâ€™ll have a word with him.â€
â€œOK. Itâ€™s just, she doesnâ€™t want him to know she said anything.â€
Thereâ€™s a knock and the door opens at the same time.
He strides into the room, brushing his floppy hair off his forehead. His shirt is gaping at the neck. He doesnâ€™t wear a tie â€“ itâ€™s his thing.
â€œYouâ€™ve arrived at the opportune moment, as usual,â€ says Mrs Norton. â€œWe were just discussing Ben Warren.â€
â€œOh, Ben Warren. Whatâ€™s he done now? Heâ€™s on his final warning already so we can probably exclude him.â€
â€œCatherine was just telling me, he kept touching Alishaâ€™s leg during the lesson.â€
Jack nods briskly. â€œWith his record I reckon weâ€™ve got grounds for exclusion. Iâ€™ll deal with it. I wanted to talk to you, Sue, about this fundraiser.â€
Thatâ€™s my cue to leave, I know. So I do.