Monday, February 24, 2020

The Rest of "The Cross", my Unfinished Novel

Since there are only two and a bit chapters left of my novel "The Cross", and since I am going to take a break from blogging over Lent, I decided to publish what remains in one post, rather than a chapter per week as I've been doing so far.

Apologies for the irregular formatting. I think trying to correct it would be an enormous headache, so I hope it doesn't bother anyone.

I should mention that, although I wrote this only a couple of years ago, I don't think I'd write it today, especially the scepticism expressed towards the concept of dialogue. It's a concept John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI used frequently. I've come to value a greater docility towards the teaching Magisterium of the Church, even in non-dogmatic and non-infallible matters.


Chapter Five 

“Dean Moran, let me see….Moran, Moran, Moran….yes, here you are. Here’s your lanyard. Here’s your programme. Some pens...here’s your lunch voucher...that’s perfect. Welcome, Dean! See you later!”

“Yeah, you too…see you later...thanks.”

Awkwardly, Dean strapped his lanyard over his neck. He had only three days left teaching in St. Canice’s school, and one of them was to be spent attending this conference of Catholic teachers. The principal of the school, Mrs. Kavanagh, was very keen on staff members attending conferences-- “keeping our finger on the pulse”, as she put it. Not only was Dean encouraged to attend the conference today, he was expected to write a report on it. He wondered if anyone would ever read it.

He hoped lunch would be nice, at least.

The foyer of the hotel was already filling up. Of course, there was the inevitable tea, coffee and pastries before the talks and workshops began. Dean found this chitter-chatter by far the most intimidating part of the day, and had been dreading it all morning. At least, during the talks, all he had to do was sit in a chair and listen.

He walked to the coffee table, took one of the tiny cups-- why couldn’t there be a decent mug?-- poured himself a coffee, and took a Danish pastry. His heart was pounding, and this fact made him feel ridiculous. It was just “breaking the ice”, after all. It was just “small-talk”, after all. It wasn’t like he was being trapped in a cage with a bear!

He looked around at the various groups chatting around the foyer. Were they all as relaxed as they looked, or did some of them also find this nerve-wracking? There had been a spate of books about introversion recently-- almost an Introvert's’ Pride movement-- and he’d been surprised, reading the reviews and the internet plaudits, at how many people identified with the movement. It was still an extroverts’ world, though-- and in any case, he couldn’t help feeling that the last thing society needed was yet another victim group. This final thought made him ashamed of his own preciousness. He screwed up his courage and walked up to a knot of two men and one women who were chatting animatedly.

“We just switched our phones off and spent the entire weekend watching season three. Total binge. It was amazing.”

“Season three was the best, in my book.”

A plump, dark-haired woman looked up at him as he approached and said: “We’re talking about Kingdom of Blood”. The two others beamed.

“Of course you are”, said Dean, with an attemptedly casual smile. “I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t seen it yet, I think.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing”, said the man-- a lanky guy with close-cropped dark hair. “I only got into it recently. Now I’m out to convert everybody else.”

Dean smiled weakly. “Well, I’m squeamish. I’ve heard the violence is pretty intense.”

“Hey, there’s violence in Shakespeare, too”, the lanky man replied. “Look at the end of Hamlet, and we teach that in schools.”

“I think I’m going to have to watch it, so I can talk to people about it”, said Dean. “Otherwise,  I’ll be a social pariah. It’s like Dallas and “Who Killed J.R.?”., back in the day.”

“I remember that!”, said the other woman-- a pretty blonde lady. “Everybody gathering around the TV to see who shot him. You know, I kind of miss the days when everyone had to watch a show at the same time, when it was shown once and you either saw it or missed it.”

“I know!”, said the dark-haired lady. “I miss the days before multiplexes when people would queue for ages to see the latest big movies. I remember doing that for Jaws.”

Dean was finding this foray into social history quite interesting, but in a moment they were back to talking about Kingdom of Blood. Considering he’d just told them he didn’t watch it, this seemed quite rude. But then, Dean’s standards of politeness often seemed higher than most other peoples’.

He sipped his coffee and ate the rest of his pastry, hardly even pretending to listen. After a few moments, he broke away and headed for the bathroom at the end of the foyer, leaving his empty cup on the catering table. He didn’t really need to use the bathroom, but he needed to get away from this crucible.

He locked himself in a cubicle, sat on the toilet, and looked at this watch. Ten minutes to go before the “keynote” speech. Nobody would notice his absence for ten minutes.

“Close To You” by The Carpenters was being played over the speakers, at a subdued volume. It was soothing. Dean found himself wondering if anything in the world was quite as nice, quite as hospitable, as a nicely-kept bathroom. “Rest-room”; that’s what the Americans called it, and he liked the term.

He pondered the events of the day before. He’d been holding them at bay, mentally, ever since they happened. Now he began to explore them gently, like a tongue probing a sore tooth.

Had he really heard a voice in the bath? Or had it simply been a dream? That had happened to him before. He’d sometimes woken up with the idea that he’d heard somebody calling him or speaking to him. There was nothing supernatural or strange about it. That’s all it was. As for the dream...well, it was a dream. Dreams were supposed to be weird. There was nothing to be worked up about.

He took his phone out of his pocket and, for the tenth time, read the text Holly had sent him this morning: “Hope conference isn’t too boring. Try not to fall asleep xx H.” He wondered about the x’s. Doubtless Holly wouldn’t indulge in them if she thought there was any chance of them being misunderstood. No, he had to stop thinking like this about her. She was his friend.

He left the cubicle, walked to the washbasins, turned the taps on, and splashed water on his face. He felt a bit groggy after only three hours sleep, and he knew it was only going to get worse when he was sitting listening to a droning voice. He looked at himself in the mirror. He was a man of average height, dark brown hair, grey eyes, neither good-looking nor bad-looking. Utterly nondescript in every way, he thought. Only his slight pudginess was a departure for the norm-- although, considering how often he heard about the obesity crisis, that was probably utterly average, too.

Outside, somebody announced something. He couldn't make out the words, but he assumed the “ice-breaking” was finally over. He left the bathroom, and followed everybody else filing into a conference room.

A grey-haired man in a green suit was standing at the top of the room, behind a podium, looking supremely at home, even a little bit bored. He was holding a clicker in his hand, and there was a projection screen behind him. According to the programme, he was the President of the association. It wasn’t too long before the chatter in the room had been hushed, and he began.

“Welcome, everybody, to this year’s conference of Catholic teachers in Ireland. As you all know, the theme of this year’s conference is “Fostering a culture of dialogue in the class-room”. And I hope this conference, itself, will be a locus for dialogue.” 

Locus, thought Dean. Who ever used a word like “locus” except at an event like this?

“There was a time when religious education was a matter of drilling young people with the Maynooth Catechism, of getting them to learn off by rote the answers to question such as Who made the world? Or What is original sin? As we know, these ready-made answers didn’t do much to keep Irish people in the faith when society became more open and pluralistic, the authority of the Church began to the questioned, and so many other options presented themselves. To put it bluntly, the dam broke almost as soon as the first cracks appeared..

“Today, it would be a complete waste of time to drill pupils in the Catechism, even if we wanted to. The young people we’re meeting today are highly individualistic, questioning, sceptical of authority, and unlikely to accept anything on the basis that “the Church says so”, or “the Bible says so”. If only it was that simple, I’m sure you’d agree all your jobs would be a lot easier.”

There was a ripple of dutiful laughter. The man was a practiced speaker, and Dean had noticed that practice speakers generally commanded laughter by the sheer force of their personalities. He thought about Paddy the poet, yesterday evening, selling books of poetry because he expected to. He wished he was like that.

“Then again”, the President said, “our jobs would also be a lot more boring, in that case. I think we are quite lucky to be living at a time when we have to work hard to engage these young minds, when we can’t take anything for granted.”

Dean sensed an atmosphere of approval in the room. We have to work harder today, he scrawled on his pad, for the sake of the report he would have to file. Then he added a question mark, and drew a cartoon grimacing face, a tongue sticking out sideways from the mouth.

The President flicked the clicker, and a black-and-white image of a man in a wide-brimmed hat and a long grey beard filled the screen.

“I’m sure you all recognize Martin Buber, the German and Jewish philosopher. More than anyone else, he is the great philosopher of dialogue. It was Buber who famously made the distinction between I and Thou and I and It. When we objectify another person-- when, for instance, a religion teacher treats his pupils as simply vessels to be filled up with knowledge-- then we have an I and It relationship. But when we treat our students as thinking, feeling, intelligent beings-- people who can teach us, as well as learning from us-- we are more likely to be entering into an I and Thou relationship.”

Dean, a keen reader of C.S. Lewis, remembered that Lewis had words of praise for Buber in one of his last books. There must be something to Buber if Lewis liked him, he thought. He’d tried reading Buber himself, but couldn’t make head nor tail of him.

“The purpose of today’s conference, then”, continued the President, “is to ask ourselves how can enter into a deeper, more rewarding dialogue with the currents of thought that are swirling around us, in our society and in our classrooms.”

Dean thought about his first religion teacher in secondary school, Sister Columba. He’d had her for one year, when he was thirteen. She was a fat, sweet nun who never had a stern word for anybody. She’d taught them how to pray the rosary, about various apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and about some of the more famous saints such as Padre Pio. The traffic in that class was strictly one way. Sister Columba taught and they listened, or didn’t listen.
Poor Sister Columba treated us like vessels to be filled, he thought, sarcastically. No dialogue at all! And yet, she’d taught him more than all the rest of his religion teacher combined.

The talk went on. The President went through the programme for the day. Dean was listening just enough to take notes for his report, but by now he’d lost interest. He looked around the conference room. Everybody looked pleasant, intelligent, good-humoured, attentive. They were lapping it up, it seemed. This irritated him.

“Any questions?”, the President asked, finally.

There was a long silence. Dean cringed. He hated long silences.

He put his hand up, just to end it. And because he was still irritated, and felt he should say something.

“Hi”, said the President, pointing to him. “Just introduce yourself first, if you would.”

“Dean Moran, St. Canice’s, Phibsborough”, he said. “Thank you for that, President. I just wanted to ask...about this culture of dialogue and so forth…” Dammit, stop babbling!, he told himself. “It seems to me that we’ve had this attitude for a long time now. I mean, it’s been a long, long time since we had children memorizing the Catechism. Maybe it’s not been called dialogue, but it’s all been about personal development and not drumming answers into the kids...I mean, into the students. For a long time now. Maybe twenty, thirty years.”

Everybody was listening now, anyway.

“But, my question is, has it actually been working? Aren’t students leaving Catholic school and giving up their faith entirely? Haven’t vocations to the priesthood and religious life fallen to hardly anything?”

The President smiled urbanely, although he looked less than pleased. “Those are all great and important questions”, he said. “That’s the reason we have conferences like this, to ask these very important questions and see can we come to some sort of answers..” He paused, and stared at the carpet for a few moments, then looked up again. “But I will say this. Just using the word “dialogue” is no guarantee of anything. The question is whether we have a genuine culture of dialogue. And it’s difficult. And maybe we’ve not done so well in the past.”

“But”, said Dean, feeling frustrated and horribly self-conscious at once, “what if the whole idea of dialogue is the problem? Can’t we ask ourselves that?”

“Absolutely!”, said the President, nodding his head quickly. “Absolutely. We need to ask that. We need to ask everything. But let me ask you...how often did Jesus ask his hearers questions?”

“A lot”, said Dean.

“And isn’t that a kind of dialogue?”

“Sure.”

“Well, there’s our model of dialogue, I think”, said the President, and his smile was a little smug. “We couldn’t ask for better authority. And when St. Augustine and the other Church Fathers drew on the concepts of Greek philosophy to explain the Christian message, wasn’t that a sort of dialogue?”

“Yes”, said Dean. He felt that the President was missing the point, but he didn’t have the words to argue with him. The President was used to answering questions from the floor. He was polished, suave and self-confident. Dean was none of those things.

“Does that answer your question?”, asked the President, when he’d realized Dean wasn’t going to say anything else.

“Sure”, said Dean, trying not to sound sullen.

“It’s a fine question, a very important question”, said the President, magnanimously. “Thank you for that question, Dean. OK, Any other questions?”

The conference wore on. After that, Dean noticed people looking at him with a certain curiosity, all through the day.

The first talk was a “workshop” on “listening”. The very word “workshop” gave Dean the shivers. It began with an exercise. The woman giving the presentation set up a CD player, asked them all to listen very carefully, and pressed “play”. There were five minutes of noises, some of them obvious ones such as a dog’s bark, some of them more difficult to identify. At the end, she asked what people had heard. Dean kept quiet this time, but others gave their guesses.

“OK”, she said, after all the answers had been given. She was a petite dark-haired woman, and now she had a rather satisfied smile. “Did you notice that you all mentioned sounds that were on the tape? But I never actually said anything about the tape. I just asked you to listen very carefully. Nobody mentioned me coughing, or tapping my pen against the desk, or indeed the sound coming from that air vent there. Do you see what I’m getting at here? If we really want to listen, we need to question our own assumptions first, to make sure we’re not hearing what we expect to hear.” 

God give me patience, Dean scrawled on his notepad. He drew a caricature of Edvard Munch’s “Scream” next to it.

Next there was a group discussion about the way teens expressed themselves, in the modern world. Dean was surprised to find this rather interesting. There was a long discussion of “memes”, a word that Dean had first heard from Holly. Holly was always showing Dean funny “memes”-- they were basically running jokes, usually online and usually using pictures or short videos. Holly’s favourite involved a very old, wizened man waving his fist and complaining about something in extremely fast Russian. Subtitles would “translate” it into whatever tirade the meme-maker wished, from the performance of their local sports team to a plot development in a TV show.

“I don’t know, Holly”, he’d said. “I’d prefer to come up with my own jokes, rather than use ready-made ones.”

“Oh, don’t be such an old grouch”, said Holly, her eyes still bright with mirth. “Does everything new have to be bad? You can be such a killjoy sometimes.”
 

She spoke without heat, but Dean felt suitably chastened, and gave up grumbling whenever she showed him her memes. After a while, he had to admit that they were funny. Holly was right. She seemed to have an instinct for knowing what was healthy in the modern world, and what was unhealthy. The unhealthy bits she simply avoided, with no fuss or sanctimoniousness. Unlike him, she made no heavy weather of it.

“I think you could say that Jesus used memes”, said one of the ladies in the group discussion, dragging Dean back from thoughts of Holly to the present moment. “I mean, look at his parables. The prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the treasure in the field...very simple images that stick with you. I bet he told those stories more than once, just so that they’d stay in peoples’ memories.”

“St. Patrick and the shamrock”, somebody said. “Well, even if St. Patrick never actually used the shamrock to explain the Trinity, somebody made the story up, and it’s a bloody good image.”

“St. Francis and the Christmas crib”, said someone else. “He began that, you know.”

Dean didn’t say anything. He sat there, scribbling notes, and sometimes doodling. But his mind was on his dream of last night. The golden light that had streamed from the cross, and the smell of incense that had wafted from it. Everybody’s eyes upon the cross-- the simple chipboard cross that he’d bought in a craft fair. That, too, was an image-- an image branded on his own consciousness.

They broke for lunch. The dining area of the hotel was quite spacious. Everybody else filed into the restaurant in little groups, but Dean went in alone, fiddling with his smartphone. He was near the head of the queue for food, choosing spaghetti bolognese with a cup of tea, and taking it the furthest corner of the dining area. It was a cosy enough space, with long leatherette benches and pleasant enough pictures of horse-racing, fishing and pastoral scenes. He didn’t linger over them as he usually did, as he already felt self-conscious.

He was still fiddling with his smartphone, in between bites of the reasonably tasty food, when someone said: “Can I sit here?” in an Ulster accent.

Dean looked up. It was a tall, handsome young guy with a sensible haircut and a cleft chin. He hadn’t said anything during the conference so far. His lanyard proclaimed his name to be Gary.

“Sure”.

Gary sat down, placing his lunch of chicken and rice on the table, along with a glass of red wine. “I liked what you said earlier”, he said.

“Oh yeah?”, asked Dean, surprised. “I thought maybe I’m made a fool of myself.”

“Well, it’s not the worst thing you could do”, said Gary laughing. His eyes twinkled. “To be honest, I felt like cheering when you said it. This whole thing isl nonsense, isn’t it?”

“Well…” said Dean, and trailed off.

“It is nonsense”, Gary insisted.. “The Catholic faith is dying in this country, and all we do is have these cosy conferences talking about Martin Buber and dialogue and listening skills and all the rest of it. So comfortable. So reasonable. So broad-minded. So mellow and tolerant. And every year, more of our priests die off with nobody to replace them. And the congregations get older and older. And still we keep organizing conferences and workshops and seminars and book-launches, as though the whole show is just going to go on forever. And the ship slowly sinks.”

“I know what you mean”, said Dean. “I’ve been thinking of two Mormons who came to my door yesterday. They were so….raw. They wanted to tell me what they believed. They knew what they believed. And they believed they were right. They weren’t apologizing for it, not one little bit. It was so…”

“Unusual?”, suggested Gary.



“Well, yeah”, said Dean. “But I was thinking, so passionate. They acted like they really wanted to give me something. Like they really had something to give me. Like they had something...well, something very different from all this”, said Dean, waving his hand.

Gary swallowed a mouthful of food, took a sip of his wine, and said: “We talk and talk and talk about reaching out, and evangelization, and encountering the culture, and dialogue. But who are we talking to? Ourselves. What good is that?”

Dean looked his food. “Well, I’m no better than anyone else when it comes to that”, he said, unhappily.

“You know what you should do?”, asked Gary, eagerly. “Street evangelization. I think that’s just what you’re looking for. I do it in Belfast. The Good News Mission to the city, it’s the called. There’s a chapter here, too. I can put you in touch with them.”

Dean sighed. Now he felt like a complete fraud. “No”, he said, finally. “I’m not going to do that.”

Gary watched him, his soft brown eyes inscrutable, expectant. He didn’t look in the last bit scornful or judgmental, which encouraged Dean to go on.

“I mean, I’m just no good at it”, he said, looking past Gary’s shoulder at all the laughing, chattering teachers sitting away from them. “The idea of walking up to somebody in the street and saying, Hello, I’d like to talk to you about Jesus, or something like that. Bothering them. I find it difficult even to ask for directions.  And getting into debates, arguments, bickering…you probably can’t imagine how difficult that is, for me. It would be like..it would be like walking up to someone’s table here and tucking into their food.”

Gary laughed. “You’re pretty shy, huh?”

Dean grimaced. “You could say that.”

Gary didn’t press the point. He was obviously a nice guy. But Dean couldn’t help feeling he was less than impressed.

All the same, he followed him back to the conference room, and sat beside him through the rest of the discussions. There was one discussion on dialogue with the non-religious, a presentation on inter-cultural awareness, and another on dialogue with new forms of spirituality-- there was even a projector slide showing the main ideas of neo-paganism.

At the afternoon tea-break, while Dean and Gary were chatting about books, a short woman with long chestnut hair walked towards them and said to Dean: “There you are. I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I liked what you said this morning.” The name on her lanyard was Suzie. “If I never hear the word dialogue again...well, I’ll be thankful.”

Dean was surprised. As he was speaking, he’d felt himself utterly alone. Were there others in the room of the same mind? He thought about Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to speak to Jesus at night, for fear of being seen speaking to him by day.

During the wrap-up talk by the President, Dean’s lack of sleep finally began to catch up with him. He began to nod off. He tried to focus on the President’s words-- he was on about Buber again-- but he couldn’t stop his eyelids from descending. Was he was ever going to shut up? The word “dialogue” occurred again and again, like a mantra. Dean dug his nails into the flesh on his hrm, but even that didn’t work. The words of the President were melting into a stream of babble…

And then Dean was sitting in the front pew of St. Theresa’s in Clarendon Street, the Carmelite church off Grafton Street where he sometimes attended evening Mass. He was all alone in the church, except for an old man in old-fashioned clothes in the pew ahead of him, and a priest on the altar.

The priest was immensely old-- stooped, tired-looking, looking almost ready to collapse. He was reading from the ambo. His voice was stiff with age, and yet the words still reverberated around the empty church: “For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”, he read from the lectionary in front of him. “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without a preacher?”

Then suddenly, the priest himself had disappeared. The altar was empty. Dean looked around the church. He could still see the stained glass, the shrines, the statues. But every moment, the place was getting darker and he could see less and less.

Panicky, he tapped the shoulder of the old man in front of him. The man turned around, and with a shock Dean recognized him. It was Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of the Mary, the world’s largest lay association which had started in Dublin, and which had sent missionaries all over the world. It didn’t occur to Dean that Duff had died almost forty years before. He simply stared into the old man’s dark, probing eyes and asked: “Where is everybody?”

In his precise, professorial tones, Duff replied: “How can they hear without a preacher?”

“I can’t preach”, said Dean, defensively. “How can I preach?”

“Take up your cross”, said Frank Duff, as though it was the most obvious answer in the world.

With that, Dean began to slide from the pew, and the whole church grew black before he hit the floor.

He woke up, sprawled upon the thick carpet of the conference room, aware of sixty or seventy eyes watching him. 

“Well,” said the President, over a few titters, “I think that’s a signal for me to finish up”. 

Chapter Six

“I’m sorry to see you go. I’m going to miss our movie conversations.”

Dean shook his fourth hand of the day. It belonged to the Physical Education teacher Fiona. She was a young woman who wore a perpetual frown, but who was entirely pleasant aside from that. She and Dean had discovered a mutual love of science fiction films.

“Thanks”, he said. “Me too.”

“How are the little angels behaving, on your last day?”

“Not too bad. A few goodbyes. They’re not sentimental.”

“Not about teachers, anyway”, said Fiona, and her frown was replaced by a laugh—for a moment.

They were sitting in the staff room, drinking coffee. Nobody else was there. A bug was doing the rounds and several teachers were off sick. On his last day, Dean had a heavy schedule of filling in for other teachers. A lot of pupils were off sick, as well, and it gave the day a strange holiday atmosphere.

“I won’t ask you about other jobs and what you’ve applied for and yadda yadda yadda”, said Fiona. “I remember how that used to drive me crazy, when I was doing temporary contracts.”

“Thanks!” said Dean, emphatically. “It’s much appreciated.”

“I heard you were at a conference”, said Fiona. “Mrs. Kavanagh and her conferences! How did it go?”

Dean tried not to wince. Holly had thought the story of his falling off his chair asleep was hilarious. It would take him longer to see the funny side of it.

“It literally put me to sleep”, he said.

Fiona laughed. She looked at her watch. “Well, the volleyball court beckons”, she said. “Hope the rest of your last day goes well”.

“Yeah, me too”.

Dean finished his coffee and went to the teacher’s locker room, a little down the hall. It had a dusty, dreamy, outside-it-all atmosphere, one that he’d always liked. He opened his own locker. There was nothing in it beside some pamphlets that he’d picked up from various bookstalls in churches, and had distributed to the students for book review assignments.

That hadn’t gone down too badly. Well, they could stay here for Mrs. Doyle, when she came back from maternity leave on Monday.

He took them out, and went to the religion cupboard across the room. Its metal door creaked as he opened it. Looking into this particular cupboard had always depressed him. There were rows of “inspirational” DVDs, and indeed VHS tapes that had doubtless not been played for decades. Feature films about divorce, bereavement, homelessness, and other “issues”. There were stacks of a book called Living in God’s Light, which—much like the Mormon pamphlet—showed a group of attractive, fashionably dressed young people, all beaming at the camera, and one (who was also listening to headphones) giving the thumbs up to the camera. Yikes.

He left the pamphlets on the top of the stack, and then something a little further in caught his eye. It was a lunch-box, with something wrapped in bubble-wrap inside it.

He drew it out, with a little frisson of excitement. He’d always liked going through boxes and cupboards and other treasure troves. He loved books about dusty attics and old chests and everything of that kind.

Inside the lunch-box, when he had unwrapped the bubble-wrap, he found a few dozen sets of plastic rosary beads. They were very cheap, very simple, the sort made for giving away rather than selling.

He thought about Sister Columba, teaching his class the rosary when he was thirteen. He was filling in for Mrs. Gorey’s second year religion class in a few minutes. He’d had no particular plans for it—he’d substituted for an English class, first thing in the morning, and had spent a pleasant forty minutes chatting to them about their favourite books. It was that kind of day. However, maybe he could do some good for these kids, in the single class they’d have with him.

“Hello”, he said, as he walked into the class. There were only about fifteen students present, most of them congregated at the back of the class. They reluctantly, and slowly, filed back to their desks and he walked in. “Some of you know me already. I’m Mr. Moran. Dean. I’m filling in for Mrs. Gorey.”

“We were watching Shadowlands”, said a girl towards the middle. A sassy-looking girl with blonde hair. “We stopped at the part where the American woman got cancer.”

“Well, we’re going to do something different today”, said Dean. He tapped the lunch-box.

“Drugs!” shouted a boys’ voice from the back.

“It’s not drugs”, he said. Normally, he was quite ruthless when he took over a new class, knowing that a hint of weakness could make a class ungovernable for a new teacher—and especially for a substitute teacher. But he was highly unlikely to ever meet these kids again. And the holiday atmosphere had taken hold, anyway. “It’s the rosary. We’re going to pray the rosary.”

There was a groan, but it was a dutiful rather than heartfelt.

“Everybody take one”, he said, walking from desk to desk and holding it out. “How many of you have prayed the rosary before?”

Most hands went up, but not all.

“Well, we’re going to pray it together, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve never prayed it”, said Dean.

“But today is an official doss day”, said a sandy-haired boy at the front, using the Dublin slang for “a do-nothing day”.

“Well, this won’t take very long.”

“Shut up, Keith”, one of the girls said.

The rosaries had been distributed now, and Dean resumed his place at the front of the class.

“Your grandmothers and grandfathers would have prayed this all the time”, he said. “Back in the day, every family would have said the rosary together. It’s a very old prayer, it’s been around since at least the thirteenth century.”

“Can it cure Aids?”

Dean looked up. A skinny fellow with ruddy skin and close-cropped dark hair, sitting beside the window, was smirking at him. One look at him told Dean that he was a bully and a trouble-maker. In fact, he guessed it was Leo Connolly, as he’d heard about him from several teachers.

“I’m going to ignore that question”, said Dean. “The rosary is mostly a combination of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, as most of you know. The beads are formed into decades—“

“It was a serious question. Can it cure Aids?”

Leo Connolly was staring at him intently. His eyes were dark and malicious.

“It’s not a serious question and I’m not going to answer it”, said Dean, after a pause.

“Shut your mouth, Leo”, said a tall lad who was sitting at the opposite side of the class, beside the lockers.

“Make me”, said Leo, darting a vicious look at the other boy, one that made it plain to Leo that they were long-standing enemies.

"Another interruption like that and we’ll take a walk together to the principal’s office”, said Dean.

The Connolly boy fell silent at that, although he sat at his desk glowering at Dean. He didn’t even pretend to join in with the rosary.

The other kids went along with it happily enough, although there were a fair amount of giggles and muttered comments. Dean ignored them. After his potted explanation of the prayer, he led them in the recitation of the Sorrowful Mysteries, explaining each one as he went along. He tried to make it solemn as possible, hoping that this might leave some impression on their juvenile imaginations. He knew that some of the kids were giggling because of his seriousness, but it was a minority—and somehow, the giggling encouraged him, rather than inhibited him. Usually he hated being laughed at, but it felt strangely desirable now—something that had to be broken through, something that had to be defied.

He said the first part of each Our Father and Hail Mary, letting the class respond with the second part. Their voices rose and fell like a wave.

Dean thought about the dream he’d had, in incense and golden light were coming from the cross he was carrying. In some strange way, he felt the same thing now—he wasn’t smelling or seeing anything, but the same emotion that the golden light and the incense had excited in him, was excited in him now. And was it his imagination, or were some of these fourteen and fifteen year olds feeling it too? Now and again he looked up, ignoring the baleful stare of Leo Connolly. Many of the other kids looked peaceful, reverential, even under a spell. Some of them had their eyes closed.

He thought of Irish families in decades gone by, sitting around the kitchen table, immersed in this same rhythm, the light of the range glowing against the plates on the dresser, the Sacred Heart picture hanging on the wall above them. It was as though generations of the dead were praying with them.

“The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery is Jesus carrying the Cross. Jesus is nearing the final stage of his journey, the crucifixion. His body has been scourged—whipped—and his own blood would be streaming all over him. Tradition tells us that he falls three times on the way to the place of Crucifixion. His disciples have abandoned him. The soldiers are laughing at him. The Pharisees are mocking him, relieved that he turned out to be just another fake Messiah after all. If he wasn’t a fake Messiah, how would he let them do this?

“Then, tradition tells us, he comes face to face with his mother. Remember, this woman and her son are the only human beings who have never committed even the slightest sin, the most venial sin. She is the greatest saint of all time, the greatest mother of all time. She has more capacity for love than we can even imagine, and she loves her Son more than any mother has ever loved any child. And here she sees him, whipped to a bloody mess, mocked, about to be executed as a criminal. How could our Blessed Mother—“

Right at that moment, his voice perfectly calm, Leo Connolly said something so obscene, so disgusting that the whole class gasped. Nobody giggled this time.

Dean dropped his rosary on the desk ahead of him, and strode towards the smirking boy. Leo was staring straight at him, his eyes sparkling with malicious mirth, triumphant. For a moment, Dean saw something in his expression that looked utterly demonic.

He stopped before the boy’s desk, and the fury that had overtaken him subsided instantly. He had been a hair’s breadth away from striking him.

“I’m going to give you such a hiding, Leo”, said the tall boy at the other side of the class, and Dean could tell from his tone that he meant it.

“Just try it”, said Leo, but his eyes did not leave Dean’s.

“Get up”, said Dean. “We’re off to see the principal.”

Leo stayed sitting for so long that eventually Dean was going to leave without him. But slowly, he rose to his feet, his shoulders hunched.

They left the class-room together, Leo walking a few paces behind Dean. The murmur of conversation began from the class-room as soon as they were outside.

They walked down the corridor together, past a statue of St. Anthony and a reproduction of a Vermeer painting. Passing teachers looked at them curiously. Dean didn’t look back.

Mrs. Kavanagh was in her office, typing. It was obvious from her reaction when they walked in that she was already used to dealing with Connolly.

“Principal”, said Dean, “I’m sorry to bother you. I was taking Mrs.Gorey’s class. I was saying the rosary with them. Leo here had interrupted several times already and I’d asked him to stop. Then, when I was coming to the end of the rosary, he said—well, let me write it out for you. I don’t want to say it. It’s vile.”

“Use this”, said Mrs. Kavanagh, handing him an envelope.

He wrote out the words, feeling disturbed even to write them. When he handed it back to Mrs. Kavanagh, a look of disgust passed over her face.

“Did you say this, Leo?” she asked, turning the envelope so he could read the words.

He shrugged. He wasn’t grinning anymore but he didn’t look in the slightest bit sorry. “Sure”, he said.

“Why did you think it was OK to say something so awful?”

Leo shrugged, staring blankly at the principal. He’d looked demonic a moment before. Now he looked moronic.

“Well, before we do anything else, I want you to apologize to Mr. Moran”, said Mrs. Kavanagh. “It’s his last day and you treat him like this. Apologize.”

Another long pause. The sound of French verbs being conjugated drifted down the hall towards them. The fire had returned to Leo’s eyes, and once again he was glaring at Dean.

“Apologise, Leo”, repeated Mrs. Kavanagh.

“Go ***** yourself, Mr. Moran,” said Leo, staring straight into Dean’s eyes, and speaking slowly.

Mrs. Kavanagh stood up. “Go get your coat and your bag, Leo”, she said. “Come on. I’m taking you home right now.”

The chatter in the class-room died, like a television being unplugged, when the principal walked into the room. Leo, with theatrical slowness, gathered up his things. Nobody spoke.

“***** you too, James”, he said, as he passed his tall adversary. The other boy didn’t speak, merely looked straight at him.

The class listened to their footsteps as they walked away.

“We’re going to finish this rosary”, said Dean, picking up his beads again. “I’m sorry for that incident.”

They prayed the last two decade, the kids joining in dutifully. The enchantment of earlier had been broken.

Though he tried to concentrate on the final two mysteries—the carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion itself—he couldn’t help thinking of the sheer hatred that he’d seen in Leo Connolly’s eyes. The boy had been notorious amongst the other teachers, but only in the manner of an ordinary “difficult” student. Something seemed to have pushed him over the edge. Could the recitation of the rosary really have done that?

Then Dean thought of the sheer hatred that the Catholic faith seemed to provoke in his country today. Newspaper columnists and TV pundits and commentators of all sorts, who seemed perfectly balanced and reasonable when it came to any other subject, became almost fanatical when they spoke about the Catholic Church. They had nothing good to say for it, and they seemed ready to believe any rumour when it came to priests and nuns and bishops.

Was there some natural explanation for it? Or did the explanation go deeper? Were they really demonic forces working against the faith, even here in an ordinary class-room? Once again, the sceptic and the mystic in Dean were at war.

“…may by his passion and Cross be brought to the glory of the Resurrection, through Christ our Lord, Amen”, he finished.

“Amen” echoed the students, in hollow tones.

“Thank you”, said Dean, bunching his plastic beads together and dropping them back in the lunchbox. “You can study whatever you want for the rest of the class.”

“What do we go with the rosaries?”

“Keep them.” Dean was pretty sure they wouldn’t be missed, or that anybody knew of their existence.

He’d brought his desk diary with him to the class, and for the last twenty minutes pretended to be working on something in it, pen in hand. But he was thinking of what had just happened, and about everything that had happened in the last few days. Paddy the poet. The Mormons. The dream of the Cross, incense and golden light streaming from it.

He listened to the noises of the school around him; voices, the thump of basketballs coming from the gym, footsteps. All the routines of the school’s life would continue on Monday, when he was only a name on an old time-table. The thought made him sad, even after the drama of moments before. When would he be a part of a world of routines, permanently? He had a momentary image of himself and Holly sitting over breakfast, listening to the radio, sleepy-eyed in the early morning…

Eventually, the bell went—or rather, the recorded sent of cheeps that served in place of a bell sounded over the intercom. It was lunch-time. Dean gathered his stuff, rose, and walked out. One or two students said goodbye to him, and he nodded at them.

There was a presentation at lunch. The other teachers gave Dean a book-token and a farewell card, one to add to his collection. He glanced over the messages during the afternoon. They were as impersonal as he’d expected, mostly just alone the lines of: “Great to work with you, all the best in the future.” Fiona added something about science-fiction movies.

Of course, everybody wanted to know about Leo Connolly. He told them the facts, leaving out all the thoughts and feelings that had accompanied them. Nobody knew what his fate would be, and Kavanagh didn’t seem in the mood to talk about it.

During the afternoon break, two girls came up to him and thanked him for praying the rosary with them, and one boy did the same towards the end of the day. Dean was reminded of the teachers at the conference, who’d come up to agree with his little speech. 

At three o’clock, he went to Kavanagh to thank her for his time there. She thanked him, assured him of a good reference, and apologized for the incident on his last day. She told him that Connolly would be suspended for a month. “I don’t want to expel anybody”, she said, “but I think it’s inevitable, after the line he crossed today.”

He walked straight from her office to the front door. Only a caretaker who barely even recognized him passed by, and he did not spare him a second glance. Dean took a last look at the student’s painted, ceramic plaques hanging on the wall, the recycling poster beside the trophy cabinet, the montage of group photographs from classes gone by. Nobody looked at him as he stepped out the front door walked out the drive.

He would probably never return to St. Canice’s. When would he stand at the top of a class-room again? He had a strong feeling that something new and very different was about to begin for him, and right now it frightened rather than excited him.
Chapter Seven


“It all just sounds very weird to me”, said Holly, as she broke off another piece of bread, rolled it into a pellet, and threw it towards the ducks. “When did all this come into your head?”

It was a cold, windy morning and they were standing alone on a gazebo in Stephen’s Green park, in Dublin city center, one that overlooked the pond. Actually, Dean wasn’t sure if it was a bandstand or a gazebo. But it was where he always stood when he came to the Green.

“The day the Mormon came, I think. That’s when I started thinking about all this.”

Holly was quiet. She didn’t look very happy.

“So you want to take that home-made cross and carry it around the streets of Dublin”, she said, her voice flat. “Full time. Living from hand to mouth. Not knowing where you’re going to sleep every night. Because…you had some dreams.”

“Some pretty strange dreams”.

“OK, some pretty strange dreams. But, Dean, what’s it all about ? What’s going to achieve? What’s it going to achieve for you? What’s it going to achieve for anybody?”

Dean stared into the deep green waters of the pond. By now, seagulls were landing at their feet, trying to get in on the action.

He thought Holly would be more enthusiastic, somehow. She was the spiritual one. But she didn’t seem enthusiastic at all.

“You’re missing the whole point, Holly. You’re being too sensible. The whole point of this idea is that it’s not sensible. I’ve been sensible long enough. Ireland has been sensible for long enough.”

“Oh, you’re too young for a midlife crisis, aren’t you?” She stepped back from the edge of the gazebo. The seagulls were getting too insistent. She rubbed her hands together, to brush the crumbs away, and then thrust them into the pockets of her purple anorak. “Look at it from a practical point of view. Do you really need a hole in your resumé, with the job market the way it is now? How long is this  going to take? And why can’t you do it part-time, if you have to do it.”

“The whole idea is that it’s all or nothing”, said Dean. “And it will take as long as it takes.” The more Holly disliked the idea, the more stubborn he felt.

“And do you really think people are just going to feed you and put you up?”

“I don’t know”, said Dean. “I hope so”.

“Dean”, she said, turning to him and looking him full in the face. “This is the twenty-first century. It’s not nineteen-forty. The streets are dangerous. People are suspicious. Your romantic notions could get you killed.”

“If it’s really that bad”, he said, “I’ll give it up. I promise.”

“If you’re not frozen to death, or stabbed to death, before that”, she said. She reached out and put her hand on his arm. “Besides, I know you. You’re a stubborn son-of-a-gun. You’d starve to death rather than admit that you made a mistake.” 

 “I feel God is calling me to do this”, he said, lowering his voice. He felt embarrassed to admit it in so many words. “If it doesn’t work out, then…well, maybe God isn’t calling me after all.”

Holly sighed. She was never more adorable then when she sighed. “Let’s sit down”, she said, making her way towards one of the park benches nearby. “Dean, it feels so strange to hear you talking about God calling you and prophetic dreams and all this. I never thought you were that religious.”

“Thanks”.

“Oh, you know what I mean. When have you ever gone on a pilgrimage? When have you ever gone on a retreat? When is the last time you went to confession? Your faith seems more…intellectualized. And political.”

“What do you mean, political?”

“All about being on one side, rather than the other”. Holly waited for a couple walking arm-in-arm to pass them before she resumed. “You get so angry at the liberals and atheists and secularists and all the rest. It’s like everything is a battle to you. If there weren’t people attacking the Church, would you even care so much?”

Dean was feeling annoyed now. “That’s not fair, Holly. Of course I’d care. But the thing is….”
There was a long pause. The October sunlight gleamed on the ripples of the pond.

“The thing”, he resumed, “I’m a man. It’s my nature to defend. It’s my nature to fight. It’s what men do.”

Holly laughed. “Yes, that’s you”, she said. “A real Terminator, for sure.” The teasing in her voice was so playful, so gentle, that the words—which would have stung coming from anyone else—didn’t sting at all.

Dean laughed, too. “You’re right. I’ve never fought for the things I believe in. I’ve never risked anything. Maybe now is the time.”

“You missed the Crusades by a few centuries, you know”, said Holly, rather warmly. “Will I tell you how you fight for your faith? You keep plugging away, looking for a permanent job. You find one. You do it the best you can. You live a life of service to God. It’s that simple. I know it’s frustrating—“

“It’s not that I’m frustrated!”, said Dean, his voice rising a little. An old couple, standing on a bank of grass a short distance away, turned to look at him. He smiled at them, reassuringly, and dropped his voice. “It’s not that I’m frustrated. It’s just that I feel this call. How do you know that it’s not real?”

“If it was real”, said Holly, “you wouldn’t need me to give you permission.”

This took the wind out of Dean’s sails. He realized, with some shame, that this is exactly what he was doing.

“Holly!”

Dean turned around. A man his own age was walking towards them, a fellow with a glasses and a beard. He wore a rather stylish sheepskin coat, and he was taking headphones from his ears. A hipster, thought Dean. He was a handsome devil, too—far too handsome for Dean’s liking, considering the way he smiled at Holly.

“Hi, Matt”, said Holly. “This is my friend Dean.”

Matt raised a hand in the air for a second, giving Dean a smile that was affable enough but not nearly as warm as the smile he’d given Holly. Immediately, he turned back to her. “I was hoping to see you at Greg’s party. You never showed.”

Holly chatted with the hipster for ten minutes or so about parties and mutual friends, while Dean listened, and forced himself to smile. His attention was torn between Holly’s last remark, and his speculations about this handsome young man and how friendly he was with Holly.

Matt moved on only after Holly had promised to text him about coffee sometime. He gave one brisk nod to Dean, put his headphones back in his ears, and hurried on.

“I guess he must be a student”, said Dean. “If he’s out on a work morning like this.”

“Actually, he owns his own company”, said Holly. “They do 3D printing.”

“Good for him.”

“He’s a little full of himself, for my liking”, said Holly. “But really really sweet. Let’s get an ice-cream.” Holly was a fiend for ice-creams, in all four seasons of the year. She rose from the bench, and Dean did the same. They began to walk towards the Stephen’s Green shopping center, just outside the park itself.

“You’re right”, said Dean, as they came towards the main gate of the park. “I was looking for permission from you. I’m sorry. I have to make my own decision.”

“It can be your own decision and still be a bad decision”, said Holly. “And don’t write me out of this so soon, anyway. The thing is, you know I’m not going to just let you die on the street, don’t you?”

Dean’s heart soared at the words, but he did all he could to stop this showing on his face. “I can’t ask anything of you”, he said.

They passed under Traitor’s Gate, the arch carved with the names of Irishmen who had died in the Boer War in South Africa, fighting for the British Army. Dean thought it was a bit hard that they were branded traitors—but at least they were commemorated. Most people didn’t even have that much.

“It doesn’t matter whether you ask me or not”, said Holly. “Don’t be so…obtuse. You know this isn’t going to just affect you. You know that I’ll be worried. So…think about that.”

They passed a bank of rickshaws, waiting to take pedestrians down Grafton Street. One of them waved at Holly, and she waved back. Thankfully, this time it was a girl.

“I’m going to do it, you know”, said Dean, quietly, as they walked through the wide entrance of Stephen’s Green shopping centre. It was a multi-storey shopping centre made of metal and glass—lots of glass. It always made Dean think of the pictures he’d seen of the Crystal Palace, the building that had hosted London’s Great Exhibition in the Victorian era.

“Yeah”, said Holly, quietly. “I know you are.”

They said nothing until they were at the ice-cream stand. Holly bought a raspberry ripple and Dean bought a chocolate dip. Wordlessly, they took the escalator up to the first level, then to the second level, and walked to one of the balconies that looked over the shopping centres’ central hall.

“And you really want to give me your wallet and your mobile phone before you…set out?”, asked Holly, looking down at the shoppers below.

“I can’t bring anything with me”, he said. “Like Jesus said to the disciples: Take nothing for the journey. I’ll take a change of clothes. Socks and underwear. A pocket Bible and a rosary. And that’s it.”

“Well, you’ve obviously made your mind up.”

(At this point I gave up on the novel.)

4 comments:

  1. Well, we'll never know what happened to Dean! But thank you for putting up what you did write. I enjoyed it, and there's plenty to think about...

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    1. Even I don't know what happened to Dean! I hadn't decided how the novel was going to end.

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    2. And thank you for the kind words!

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  2. Once again, I enjoyed this a LOT. I remain sorry it is abandoned and can't help but wonder if it might be reworked some day more to your satisfaction, even if you have little interest in that now.

    But you gave Dominic N "plenty to think about" in what I think was an entertaining or, better, nourishing story. I think the book could do the same for many more.

    As for me, I find myself thinking about you considerably, yet struggling somewhat and still withdrawn in this tragic time.

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