Here’s a story to mark my granddad’s 10th anniversary. It’s a story called Lessons, Originally published in Cake.shortandsweet, issue 5, October 2012.
My granddad was going to be a priest. He was doing his training when he met my grandmother and that was the end of that. They got married and had thirteen children.
He was a very religious man. When interviewed on a local radio station for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, he said it was God and their faith in Him that had kept them together so long. He gave out communion at mass and kept the church and graveyard immaculate. He did whatever needed doing: cutting the grass, weeding flowerbeds, pruning roses. He filled the echoey church with the abundant blossoms from his garden. Dahlias dripped over the edges of white stone handrails and marble altars. He did more for his church than any priest.
I loved going over to Granny’s. I can still hear the squeaky whinge of the gate and see the dog running towards me. Having heard the car, he’d be waiting and barking; ready to jump up on you and lick your face off until Daddy gave him a kick.
I remember the very early days when they both smoked, him his pipe, her Sweet Afton. When we walked into the house, the air would be warm with the sweet musky smells. Those smells lingered on for years. I don’t know why we always called it Granny’s. She was the boss I suppose. Granddad was a messer. He loved children. He was always making us laugh doing tricks with his false teeth. We loved it. When he worked as a postman you’d hear him coming because he was always whistling. He was always in good humour. He’d be joking with us and Granny’d say,
“Don’t mind that lad.”
“What’s she sayin’ about me now?” Granddad, straining to hear.
“He’s only a blaggard,” she’d mutter over her knitting. Granny knitted us jumpers and cardigans, scarves and gloves.
We loved running free in the open spaces out the back amongst the apples and gooseberries and rhubarb and peas and spuds. Mammy would try to get us to calm down but they’d say to let us off. We could eat what we wanted. We usually left with swollen bellies and bagfulls of apples. Often we’d have fistfulls of little blue biros aswell.
“Bring them off with ye. That lad is always bringing them yolks home,” Granny’d say. Then grandad’d appear from the other room.
“What’s she sayin’ about me now?”
“How well you heard that,” she’d say.
Back then pens and biros were precious things. We weren’t allowed to write in biro. It had to be our fountain pens in joined writing. Our teacher was strict about it. If you forgot your fountain pen or ran out of ink cartridges you were in trouble.
Our teacher was also in my grandparents’ prayer group. She always started the school day with prayers. She usually had something that she wanted us to pray for; her son who fell off a horse or her grandson who had leukaemia. All she talked about was God and religion. She especially despised hypocrites and talked about them a lot. They were the worst type of sinners she said.
She gave us impossible amounts of homework. I’ll never forget the feeling of panic, the leap in my stomach when I’d realise on the way to school that I’d forgotten to do some of my homework. She had her favourites in the class and then she also had those that she like to pick on. I didn’t want to get into her bad books. She could be cruel sometimes.
When I think of that classroom I think of sweaty palms and runny noses with no tissue or bursting to go to the toilet and not being able to concentrate . We were forbidden from asking to go to the toilet during class. That was another thing that made her furious.
One day she told us all to close our eyes to see what appeared to us. I think she was hoping that God would send her a message through one of our visions. I saw nothing just darkness. She asked everyone what they saw. I panicked when she asked me. I didn’t dare tell her I saw nothing. I lied. I told her that I saw lots of ropes winding together and as they wound together they became one stronger rope. She was impressed.
I got in trouble when the teacher collected up our good hymn copies and saw that my little sister had scribbled on it. She was furious. I was ordered to buy a new copy and rewrite all of the hymns. I bought a new 120 page copy and began the rewrite.
We took down new hymns everyday in Irish, Latin and sometimes even in English. I dreaded it, terrified that she would remember my copy and ask to see it. I still hadn’t caught up but was skipping pages where I planned to.
“Hymn Time,” she announced almost in song on a sleepy afternoon.
We knew the routine and took out our copies and fountain pens. When I took the lid off mine, the nib was buckled like someone had stabbed a wall with it. My sister must have got her hands on my schoolbag again. I tried my best to bend it out but there was nothing I could do to get it working. All I’d managed to achieve was to cover two pages of my copy and the ones under them in ink. The girl beside me forgot her spare one. I didn’t know what to do. I was going to be in so much trouble.
The teacher was still scribing the hymn onto the blackboard, standing back into her white dust halo and tilting her head to admire her own work. The rest of the class stooped over their desks carefully scribbling it down.
I silently removed the damaged pages and hid the evidence in the bottom of my schoolbag, down with something mushy. I searched my pencil case again. I couldn’t use my pencil then she’d know I hadn’t my pen. I rooted through the front pockets of my schoolbag seeking what I knew not to be there; I had no other fountain pen. In those pockets I found the little blue biro my Granny gave me. It’d have to do. I developed a strategy; every time she walked by I’d close my copy with the little biro inside and pretend to be blowing my nose or getting something from my bag.
Before I knew it she was standing at the top of the room in a pose I spent my days looking forward to. Her arm was outstretched waiting to bless herself and begin the evening prayers before we went home. All of the messing around had delayed me and I wasn’t finished. I had to hurry before she noticed. With three more words to take down I abandoned the cause. Leaving the pen inside my copy I flung it into my schoolbag. As I did the biro went flying from inside the copy through the air and across the room only to land and scuttle like a mouse across the ragged wooden floorboards and stop at the teacher’s feet.
“What the hell is this?” she shrieked, lifting the class off their feet with the fright. I wanted the collective silence to swallow me.
“Who owns this I said?” She stood with the offensive article in the air, her lips pursed in disgust.
“I own it, Mam.” I delicately raised my hand.
“Well, I don’t ever want to see you use that in this class do you understand?”
“Yes Mam.” I bowed my head.
“Ok so. In the name of the father and of…” She went on with her routine, blessing herself like a conductor guiding an orchestra.
One day she asked us what our favourite animals were. I didn’t have one but I had just read Black Beauty. When I told her a horse she looked at me with a condescending smile and tilted her head to one side.
“Your Grandfather likes the horses doesn’t he?”
Having never seen him with a horse in my life, I didn’t understand. I shrugged my shoulders and in fear said,
“I don’t know.”
I do know now however what she meant by that comment. She knew exactly where my biro came from.
She never did collect my hymn copy. My gamble paid off.