Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Short Story


There are moments that are locked into memory. The door opens onto a crisp, bright morning. Overhead the clear blue sky is coldly still. The hoar frost has driven all nature to a cosy hideout. The low sun reflects off the icy whiteness and dazzles the eyes. The grass is laden down with crystal frost and beckons enticingly to be disturbed. The cold air assaults the boy’s face and he quickly wheezes out a breath. The vapour rises in the still air. The slight drip on his nose starts to freeze. He wipes it with his coat sleeve and sniffs.

Standing on the doorstep he pauses for a brief moment. The concrete path leads outward to the yard shed. When he looks at this path he not only sees the patches of pure ice that have formed in the potholes, he also sees the warmth of a summer day when he rushes out to chase the hens into the long meadow. He sees the dog relaxing in the tall overgrown grass verge, panting in the heat. It is a pathway leading to the secret sanctuary. It leads to the mysterious countryside that remains outside his small explored world. All association with the path is one of reaching out for safety and escape from fear.

Now he stares in the direction of the back fields and yearns to be free - to head off into the welcoming unknown. He shivers and feels internally sick at the prospect of the coming day. The glorious weekend of freedom is over. All night he had fretted at the thought of the morning coming too soon. He had tried to stay awake as long as possible to prolong the night. He believed that time passed very slowly when you were awake. If he closed his eyes he would wake in an instant and then school would beckon. But inevitably sleep overpowered his feeble will.

He didn’t have nightmares but always had a disturbing recurrent dream. It was hard to visualise the dream that was closer to a feeling. He dreamt of an image like that of a rope with neither beginning nor end. It stretched out horizontally in the dark and seemed to be progressing onward from the past. The overall effect was one of entrapment in a hopeless and featureless world. There was a sound too - a constant drone like the hum of a malfunctioning speaker. Everything in the dream was constant - there was no end, no way out. He always awoke in a panic from the dream and always to the sickening realisation that it was yet another school-day.

As he pulled the kitchen door closed behind him he felt the cold air sweep round his body. He shivered again and for a moment thought of heading off along the path. He dreamt of the joy of the day spent in his friendly lair. He could nestle down in his nest under the dense briers, safe from the world. From there he could peer out safely on the morning scene. The sun would soon start to thaw the hoar and the white would change to green. Then the birds would come out and there would be song in the air. Foetus like, he curls up under the now dripping branches and hugs his arms tightly around himself. He is his own best friend. There are no evil enemies to harm him. He doesn’t feel the dampness make its way to his skin. He doesn’t feel the creeping chill. It is only base hunger that will drive him from his cocoon. He will stay there all morning. Judging time by the sun’s height in the sky, he emerges and listens for the distant sounds of other children coming home for lunch. Then he covers his school-bag in dead grass and makes home for lunch. Here he wolfs down some bread and tea and saying nothing rushes off as if eager to get back to school early. But it's back to the cocoon. He backs his way into the brier hideout and feels safe again from the world. As the afternoon sun begins its wintry descent, a sickening feeling enters his stomach. He shakes in anticipation at the fallout from his deception. He knows that word will soon get back that he was not at school. He fears his mother’s frustrated response and already is loathing the scene in the next morning’s classroom. He tries to put these things from his mind and once again cuddles himself tightly. By now his pants are wet through and he is cold. He ignores the long drips from his nose. His coat sleeve is now also saturated. He is cold everywhere. He longs for emotional warmth and dreams up cosy images of living in a warm underground home. A small fire smokes away and there is a little table set with a dainty chequered cloth. Mama Bear is serving a steaming hot broth to her family. He feels her warmth and her love. This is what life should be like. He hears her call his name. Then louder and louder. He wakes up and hears the angry frustrated shouts from the back-door. He knows that the news has broken.

He stares longingly at the pathway but knows that that is not an option today. He turns left and makes his way around to the front of the house. The large expanse of white lawn causes him to shield his eyes. The white earth and blue sky are so inviting compared to the greyness of the schoolhouse. To his left workmen have started their day’s toil on the new house being built alongside. Two carpenters are perched aloft in the rafters and are banging away regularly with their hammers. The boy’s eyes rest on them enviously. He loves driving nails into wood. How glorious to be able to spend your day out in the clear air banging at nails for all you’re worth. That was heaven. They had no fear. They were not constantly watching the clock willing the day to be over. They did not end one day fearing for the next. Mondays to them were the start of another happy week. They didn’t feel like crying or running away. Their hands only shook from tiredness not from the vicious, sharp pain of a stick. They had only the friendly foreman’s eyes to look at them - not the tyrant eyes of a white collared tyrant. They did not cringe at the sound of a sharp male voice. They did not shiver at the intense silence of a frightened class.

The banging resonated in the still morning air. It was a solace to know that not all the world lived in fear. Maybe it was necessary to pass through this phase and that at the other side there was this - happy men working merrily on a roof on a bright frosty morning.

His feet dragged along the pathway to the roadside gate. There were small imprints of his rough shoes on the frost-covered paving. Here and there, there were good stretches of ice. Were it the weekend, he would run at these and slide along, shouting in delight. Now he hardly noticed them, so taken up was he with the thought of going to school. As he closed the gate he looked longingly towards the sanctuary of the field at the back of his house. He looked up again at the lucky workmen. With huge reluctance he turned and headed down the road toward school.

The road was quiet at that early hour on a cold winter’s morning. There was reluctance in his pace as he made his way toward the town. His home was on the outskirts of the market town. Recently the footpath had been extended past his house out as far as the brow of the hill. This had made the road seem more a part of the town and houses had sprung up along the route. Out of some of these houses other young children emerged shrieking happily in the frosty morning air. They ran straight out onto the car-free road and started to make impromptu skating runs. Lower down the road where the Council houses were, the children had been more adventurous. Buckets of water had been thrown along the pavement and the ice made a perfect slide. Boys were taking it in turns to run at the slide with great speed and then glide along the ice sometimes landing on their backsides laughing and cursing at the same time. All this gleeful activity seemed to go unnoticed. His mind was thoroughly preoccupied with the dread that awaited him in class. He passed the playing children without casting them a glance. His head was down and his eyes followed the line on the gutter with its frozen water. He had started to count the joints in the concrete path and realised that each one brought him that much nearer the hateful school.

His school bag was slung carelessly over his shoulders. He began to worry that he had forgotten some book or other. This would entail a barrage of vitriol and an inevitable volley of slaps to the head or if luckier on the hands. The worry was too much so he had to meticulously check that each book and copy was in its proper place. As he opened the bag the smell of school emerged and he felt nauseated. He wanted to cry out in despair but couldn’t. He knew there was no release from this nightmare. He relaxed a little as the count proved that each book and copy was accounted for. His cold fingers struggled with the buckles as he closed the flaps. As soon as he had finished he suddenly thought of his ink pen. The nib was bent and was causing blobs of ink to mar his writing copy. He panicked. He did not have the few pennies needed to buy another before classes began. His face went pale. He knew the day was going to be full of terror. An ink blob deserved a proper thrashing and there was no way he could avoid it. Slowly he threw the bag over his shoulders and continued on, his pace even heavier.

As he rounded the bend in the road he cheered up a little at the sight of Sweeney’s shop on the corner before the bridge. The shop was a symbol of good times for him. Before his father had lost the sight of his eyes, he used take him for walks to the shop, particularly after mass on a Sunday. There he’d buy penny sweets or lollipops. He sucked them happily all the way home holding tightly with his free hand onto his father’s coat. Then there were the special occasions when the treat was a bar of plain Cadbury’s chocolate. It was the best way to spend sixpence in the whole world. He loved the heaviness of the bar with its deep blue colour and silver inner paper. Each square was allowed to dissolve slowly in his mouth and last as long as possible. As the shopkeeper handed over the bar he smiled, knowing just how treasured was the treat. Sometimes he’d add a further treat of a free lollipop if it were a birthday or other special occasion. These memories brought a little relief from the trauma of fear that was ever-present. He could reserve a few moments to linger, looking at the wonderful sights in the display window but he feared to delay too long. To be late for school was asking for another punishment, one too easy to avoid. He now moved more quickly onward.

Past the bridge, old Mrs Hickey was out throwing hot water over the pavement in front of her public house. The steam rose like a cloud from the path and she was panting from the exertion. She was a heavy woman and, like most such, was a genial type. She spotted the slow walk of the child. Her greeting was met indifferently, barely a nod. She knew the child was unhappy and her heart grew heavy. She had no children of her own. This made it all the worse. She put down her bucket and picked up a broom. She swept the hot water along the pavement, her figure disappearing in the rising steam.

He did not like Mrs Hickey. She was always asking how his mother was, yet he felt she didn’t really care for his mother. He hated when she would pat his head condescendingly as if he were a poor urchin. For all her friendliness she had never once given him a sweet or other treat. So he tended to avoid her, lowering his eyes or staring ahead. When sometimes she cornered him, placing her vast bulk in his path, he had to accept the hand running over his head and the questions. Always questions. She was voracious for news or gossip. He kept his mouth shut not out of shyness but from obstinacy. He was not going to be forced to speak by this woman. She could not take out a cane and beat him. This rendered her powerless. Her words had no threat. They were not backed up by violence. He never thought for an instant that they might be well meaning. That was not his experience of people. Older people wanted to force you to do things and if you didn’t you were beaten. The more you resisted the more you were beaten. The lesson had been learned over the few years of his life and it was embedded deeply in his make-up.

He did not look back at the fading sight of a friendly woman waving in the rising steam. His mind had returned to the gloom of the impending day in class. How he wished that time would stand still on this journey to that austere grey stone building. This would turn into an ideal journey if the end were forever pulling away. How he would love to jump about in the ice like all the others. He would be the liveliest boy about without this constant burden. He had glimmers of this heaven when the school term had ended for the Christmas holidays. As he rushed out the gate, it was as if there was an eternity between him and the dread. He had jumped happily into his mother’s arms on arriving home. The whole world took on a glow that was unreal. His heart did not have that feeling that drained his life-force on school mornings. He was full of energy and played happily from early morning until long after the winter sun had disappeared. He loved those cold frosty evenings under the dim glow of the street lighting. Crowds of boys and girls played skipping games on the pavement in the borrowed light. He was able to completely forget all. It was as if the terror never existed. Christmas had come and gone in a daze of happiness- never mind that his presents from Santa were small and unpretentious. He loved the jigsaw of the Piccadilly Circus and spent hours on the carpet in the living room trying to assemble the parts. The scene of the monument and the grand neon signs were a world apart. In between placing pieces his mind wandered to this magical world that he felt was the most wondrous place on earth. Half finished he would toss the pieces into a jumble and put them back in the coloured box. He didn’t want to finish the puzzle. He wanted to prolong the journey.

Always prolonging the pleasure to avoid the inevitable downfall into the abyss. As the days passed after Christmas he began to realise that the holidays do not last forever. They had seemed interminable coming up to the great day itself but now slowly but surely the days ticked by and the old bad feelings were resurgent. And finally the first day back arrived. All the old feelings returned with a vengeance. Even though he had survived the first few days without any major beating, the fear continued to mount. That was what happened to him. The mounting fear was dammed up in his small mind and eventually a dam burst and he would run. Search out the safety of the hidey- hole in the country or sometimes spend the whole day in the church.

Those days in the church were spent in fervent prayer. He prayed that he would not be caught. He stared up at the giant stained glass windows. The saints portrayed there were wonderful in their size and the brilliant colour of their vestments. They surely could intercede on his behalf. He recited all the prayers he knew over and over again.

Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy.

Hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope.....

Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears......”

He repeated these words over and over in a gentle whisper. He felt they described his plight. He was happy that he was not alone in his unhappiness but was part of a greater woe that was our painful lot on earth. The darkness of the quiet corner of the cathedral accentuated the mood. The remnant smell of incense and candle wax added to the gloom. He huddled unseen in this quiet corner in absolute charismatic prayer to a merciful omnipotent power. The long day spread out before him. He knew that his absence from school was by now reported. The die was now cast with the certainty of terrible retribution. Each minute in the church was a reprise. The sanctuary would last until the great bells chimed out the call to prayer of the Angelus. The marking of noon would begin the descent into a greater terror. Now he had to plan on returning home for lunch and hope that the news of his absence from class had not preceded him. He counted the seconds after the last chime from the tall bell tower and with trained cunning made his way out just before the lunchtime rush of children started. He made his secretive way home, arriving before his siblings. A quick lunch and he rushed out again. He was delighted that his mother had noticed nothing. The afternoon at least stood between him and the ordeal that had to come.

By now the street was busy with children on their way to school. There was excitement in the air as they slid their way along. At the top of Dunkellin Street where there was a slight incline a big slide had been made and there the bigger boys were showing off their skills and bravery doing ever more dangerous runs. A crowd had gathered to watch and he stopped for a moment. He envied the boys their sense of daring and devil may care. Some of them were from the rougher parts of town and were subject to regular battering at school but they seemed not to care. They were proud of their indifference and wore their assaults as a badge of honour. He wished he could be like them. He would curse and steal like the best of them. He would be afraid of no-one. They could beat him all they liked but he would not cry. He would not cower before them. He would be defiant and laugh in their faces. They could call the Guards on him for all he cared. He would brazenly rise from his desk and stride out the classroom door. He would never return. On mornings like this he could spend his time sliding along the pavement in ever more spectacular runs. These thoughts flashed through his mind in an instant but in the next instant the anxiety returned. He didn’t want to be late and turned away from the scene.

As he continued on into Main Street, he passed Dolly Casey’s shop. Its bright red doors were ajar and some older convent girls were inside buying sweets. The shop window was small with a very simple display of empty sweet-boxes and wrappers. On one side was a poster for ice cream. He looked longingly at the image of the chocolate topped orange ice-pop; not because he wanted one now in the cold morning air but because it reminded him of the long warm days of summer. He thought of the long trek home from the lake. The swimming place was called the Long Point and there was sand on the lake’s bottom, just like at the sea. It was a wonderful place with hills like mountains in the background. The lake looked endless in its expanse of water - the town being barely visible to the north shore. Long happy days were spent there. As the sun began to fall in the sky and alerted by the sound of the six o’clock church bells he’d contentedly make his way home. Sometimes he had a few pennies and always knew what to spend them on. As soon as Dolly’s shop came into sight he’d begin to salivate. He could taste the cool chocolate layer break from the ice. It would melt slowly in his mouth. He put off the first lick of the iced orange knowing that the certainty of being fulfilled made the longing all the more delicious; then followed the blissful sensation of cool, sweet ice-water on his tongue and the explosion of acid orange as he swallowed.

The convent girls leaving Dolly’s brought him out of his reveries. They were talking loudly to each other and passed no remark on his presence. He turned again to the window and was startled to see the grey head of Dolly looking at him from behind the inner window curtain. He did not see any warmth or recognition in her eyes and he suddenly shivered lest she get angry. He turned away quickly and started to run feeling guilty. He knew that some of the older boys indulged in a bit of shoplifting and that Dolly could get very angry if she suspected she was being duped. Her look had that severity in it. The warm memory of the orange ice-pop had quickly disappeared.

As he passed the post office he could see from the big clock on the wall that he had only five minutes to get to school. He started to run. He was not alone. Other boys with a look of panic on their faces were tearing down the street to the turn into Boy’s Lane. The scene in the lane was one of hurried excitement as boys on foot and on bicycle made their reluctant way to class. The appearance of the tall cut limestone walls of the playground always made his heart beat faster. They were a foreboding sight like the walls of a prison to a convict. They were too tall for him to climb but a bigger boy could scale them but at his peril if caught. Inside all the boys were playing wildly in the concreted yard under the watchful eye of a roving Brother who walked about calmly with his leather strap slapping off his surplice every so often to remind all of the results of defying authority. The big walls were broken by the two tall gate piers, from which hung a two-leafed ornate iron gate. The gate was painted a dull green to match the colour of the tall schoolroom windows. The gates led directly to the double-door entrance to the school hallway. Outside, school bags were thrown everywhere on window ledges and in corners. They were all very similar in a cheap leather effect material with twin buckled flaps - all showing the signs of ageing and having being passed down from sibling to sibling.

Passing through that gate was like passing into a hell. There was no release once you entered. It was forbidden to leave the school-yard once you had entered. Transgression of that rule was dealt with severely. But even that severity was not enough one morning to dissuade him from running. He had, on this morning, come to school early and had left his bag on the ledge by the main door as usual. He was feeling very worried that morning having had a major beating the previous day for not having done some homework. Brother Cannice had warned him that the punishment would be doubled if he did not know his spellings the next time. He had returned home from school in pain and in such a trauma of fear that he could not concentrate on his spelling. His mind kept going blank. He kept repeating the letters loudly in an attempt to learn off by heart. The repetition should have etched itself on his soul so much had he gone over the few words. That morning he was sick with fear for the coming class. He took no notice of what was happening in the play yard but just walked about in worry. Coming near the time for the bell when there was a flurry of late arrivals, he secretly crept out the gate. He turned left along the lane and entered the Cathedral grounds and walked along by the river until it reached the lake. There he cowered in fear as he listened for the bell to stop play. The jingle of the hand-bell tore into his fear. He wanted to cry but knew that now was no release. He had roared in pain yesterday as Brother Cannice lashed at the back of his bare legs with a big stick. They had numbed under the pain so that after the first dozen he could no longer feel them. No, crying was of no use.

After a safe time he left his hideout and made for the church door. He entered quickly and lost himself in a dark corner. The last few early morning mass-goers had already left and he was alone with God. He started to pray. He prayed that he would not be caught. He prayed that his mother would not be too angry. He prayed that Brother Cannice would have mercy. He prayed for mercy. But all was in vain, because he had left his bag on the school ledge where it stood out like a clear signal of guilt. As the bell sounded for the start of class, everyone stopped where they were, and on the second bell formed lines after having collected their school-bags. The last remaining school-bag stood alone. It sent shock-waves through the boys who immediately knew what it meant. It was unheard of to come to school and then leave. Lots had played truant or mitched but none had been so foolish as to announce their truancy to the world by leaving evidence of their school-bag sitting there on the ledge.

The on-watch brother immediately plucked the bag from the ledge and brought it inside. The look in his eyes as he emerged dared any to do the slightest thing out of order. The faces of the younger boys in his class had gone white with the expected fall-out from this grim early morning discovery. They too would feel the brunt of such lunacy. Woe to anyone who got spellings wrong today. Punishments would be doubled.

When he came home for lunch on that fateful day his mother greeted him with unexpected happiness. She was in a great mood and hugged him up in her arms.

How is my little sumackeen?’, she asked using his pet name. Just then his older brother entered and announced: ‘Your little sumackeen was not at school today!’

His heart dropped. This was the start of it - the long road into hell again. The smiles were quickly wiped out as his mother getting angrier and angrier threw questions at him. Fear had sealed his lips and he couldn’t reply. His mother fumed and started to call him names - a bloody cur, a disgrace to the family, just like his father, a good for nothing. As her anger mounted she reached into the top cupboard and drew out the cane. He shivered at the sight of this straw-coloured elastic stick. It gave a whirr as it flew through the air. The pain as it struck the legs was like a sharp knife cutting through the flesh. It was so light it could be wielded with frightening frequency. His mother caught his left hand in hers and started to swing him round and with each turn she whacked him across the legs causing him to jump in pain. He suddenly found his voice and started to roar in agony. She shouted at him to shut up and hit him again and again. Round and round they went in a tearful circle. His cries echoed through the house. His bed-ridden, blind father heard them but he was powerless to intervene. His brother and sister heard them but they were not at risk and stayed clear. It was too far for the neighbours to hear. His mother didn’t hear the cries for mercy in her violent anger. She felt that she was at the end of her tether with a useless bed-ridden husband and a problem for a youngest son. She just lashed out as if the beatings could change things for the better.

Afterwards he lay down on his father’s bed and sobbed. He cuddled into his frail body and listened to the words of kindness and hope. His father tried to cheer him up by telling him stories. It was all he had left to help his son - those romantic stories of sailors and princes. But they went unheard this time as the young boy was cowering in fear for an even greater horror. He had the whole afternoon to think about what tomorrow’s fall-out was going to be like. Bad as his mother’s reaction was, he was in mortal fear of Brother Cannice. That evening and night carved out a scar on his soul that was never to heal. Never would he feel such an utter desolation and loneliness. When he finally fell into a fitful sleep he dreamt of a long unending rope with a continuous dull tone. The tone and the rope were endless.

Next day his mother marched him up to the school. They left a little after nine o’clock so that school would have started by the time they arrived. His mother wanted to avoid the shame and ridicule of being seen by all the boys who would eagerly tell their parents the shameful news. The boy did not remember that walk alongside his mother for he was in a continuous trauma of fear. His legs still stung from the previous day and the thought of further lashing was unbearable. His eyes followed the strident steps of his mother as she made her no non-sense way down the street aware that nosy neighbours were observing her in gleeful malevolence. She had turned her nose up at them once too often. Now they could enjoy her moment of shame.

As they walked the little boy prayed with each step that brought him nearer school. As they passed the bridge even Mrs Hickey knew better than to engage his mother. She recognised the proud look of defiance in his mother’s eyes and she concentrated on her sweeping of the pavement pretending not to notice them. While she was glad that Mrs Hickey had not opened her mouth, his mother knew that the lack of intercourse was a type of snub and determined not to forget it. She was banking up her vendettas the more that life threw tragedy at her. It was her way of survival. The world was against her and she was ready to take on the world. She was so wrapped up in her own sense of hurt that the small movements of the little boy’s mouth as he recited the fervent prayers went totally unnoticed. She had no time for one who was causing her such unwanted grief.

As they turned into Boy’s Lane he shuddered at the quietness of the play yard. His first thoughts were that he was late and a terror engulfed him. The tug of his mother’s hand brought him back to an even worse reality. The greyness of the limestone took on a fearsome hue. He hated it with the hate that only intense fear can generate. He wanted to run away again but the firm hold of his mother’s hand was like a vice. He could hear the sounds from the classrooms. The rhythmic repetition of words in Irish - those hateful meaningless words that brought only grief. Once more he felt sickness rising in his stomach. If his life were to end now it would be a glorious relief. But that choice was not his. he had been cast into an evil world and must swim not being able to sink away without trace.

They turned left into the school. The two front doors were closed as class had started. His mother pushed resolutely at one leaf and pulled him in. By now nature had taken over and he was pulling against her hand. She turned to give him a wild stare that threatened him with the direst consequences if he embarrassed her further in this public place. He wilted under her stare and resigned himself to fate. What could be worse than the dire circumstances he already found himself in? Yet as they approached the door of his classroom he felt his heart pounding as if about to explode.

His mother’s knock on the glass door panel had the immediate effect of causing a total silence in the classroom. Steps approached and the door opened. Brother Cannice stood there looking serious but deferential to his mother who was still a young attractive woman. Her feminine presence was power over the celibate man. Apologies were offered and accepted. Her advice to the teacher was to beat the bad behaviour out of the boy. She did not want this to happen again. She was mortified. She had more than enough troubles as it was with a bedridden husband. This was intolerable. Brother Cannice could not agree more and they cordially left it at that, shaking hands in conclusion.

Like a lifeless animal, the little boy just stood there while the conversation was taking place. They talked about him as if he wasn’t there. Yet he was there, pale and shivering in abject fear. The few classmates who could see out the crack in the door recognised his fear. They shared his fear and hated it as much as he, for it brought potential terror to them also. The wild animal who has tasted blood does not know when to stop and usually takes other innocent prey in his demonic lust. They did not want to be innocent fall out of this current tragedy. So while there was pity and empathy there was revulsion too at the person who was making their territory more dangerous.

All the time you could have heard a pin drop. Even the bravest and most foolhardy prankster would not dare to play a trick or make any noise that might unleash the terror that was about to unfold. The conversation ended the boy entered and took his place at his empty desk. He put his bag at the foot of the desk as he had done every morning that year since entering first class. He took out his Irish reader and placed it open at the current text in front of him. He heard the classroom door close and could hear his mother’s steps retreat. There was a long and disturbed silence. He dared not look round. Everyone was, head down, staring at the Irish text.

The slap across the back of his head sent his forehead forward thumping off the top of the desk. The open book softened the impact but could not ease the shock. The terror was unleashed. The physical pain was nothing compared to the mental anguish and loneliness. Despair has no depths for a little boy. He just kept falling . He shrieked in pain and started crying fitfully. He felt his shoulder being dragged up to the top of the class. For the first time he glimpsed Brother Cannice’s face and recognised the red- cheeked fury. He saw him open the large top to the teacher’s big desk. Inside he knew were an array of canes that had different degrees of terror. He froze in fear as he recognised the long straight stick that emerged.

Brother Cannice with the stick in one hand used the other to drag the little boy over to his high chair. It was on this chair situated centrally at the head of the class that the brother conducted his daily reign of terror on the class. From here he had an eagle eye view of all that was happening. It was impossible to look into another boy’s copybook without the huge risk of being spotted. It was the perfect lookout tower - a symbol of power and authority that was in the constant view of all pupils. Now with a vice like hold on the child he ascended his throne and with one swift jerk he hauled the boy over his lap. His outstretched hand swung down with lethal ferocity and the crack of stick on flesh sent shivers down the spines of all present. The little boy howled losing all sense of self-control. He roared in the searing pain wanting to die - to disappear from the face of this cruel world. He was unaware of the pale faces of the class as they looked on - each afraid that the terror would spread and envelop other innocents. Once more the black-clothed arm of the brother went back and the swish of the stick through the air was followed by the most pitiful wail. The boy was losing all energy to cry out. The thrashing continued for what seemed an eternity. It was as if time had stopped there in that terrified classroom - the more they wished time to pass the more slowly it went. Seconds were like minutes. Minutes were hours. For the little boy it was a lifetime, to be repeated over and over again in a recurrent nightmare.

When he had finished Brother Cannice was panting and appeared wasted by the strenuous effort. He pushed the boy away from him and took a deep breath. The boy still in deep shock and pain limped back to his seat. All eyes were averted not wanting to share in his pain. There was danger in association. This was a precarious time. The little boy found it difficult to sit down on his bruised buttocks. Through the tears he stared at the loathsome text book in front of him. He tried to understand why all this was happening to him. He must have done something very wrong. He prayed for forgiveness.

As he passed through the gates the bell rang out. It was too late to turn back.