Must admit the journey home was constrained, especially on the train. Didn’t see much of Myra in the next few weeks. Neither of us had a phone. Put it all behind me. After a few drinks with my mates, the story grew arms and legs. What happened became the trashiest kind of joke of a bucking mother and daughter routine. It felt pretty surreal and stupid. I wouldn’t have believed it myself and neither did anybody else. Got back to doing what I did best, building to the same wall that went up and down again and took the hump in more ways that one.
Was having a few pints at lunch time in the The Cleddans across from the main entrance to the college. Got chatting to Harry the barman. He’d a shaved head, and he looked like the bouncer he once was. Not much for him to sort out. Usual crowd. Some pensioners standing at the bar. Younger hillbilly guy with a Sothern cross on the back of his denim jacket was playing the fruit machine and beating a track across the pitted floor to the bar to get more change. Two young women sitting on the soft seats with their backs against the wall. Glowing white teeth, hair, and designer overalls. Soft drinks with straws on the table in front of them. Anyone threw a dart anywhere near the college and missed the dartboard was bound to hit a beautician. But Holly I was sure could have taught them a trick or two about beauty. Kept an eye on my time. Downed my pint. Had to set up before my afternoon class came in. Harry was rinsing off glasses, raised his hand in salute.
‘See you later,’ he growled.
Had my hand on the swing door. Ready to push through and go back to for the next two periods and finish early for ‘paperwork’.
‘Sorry to hear about that bird of yours,’ he said.
Two beauticians gathered and flocked together in panic at my sudden about turn. Eyelashes like bat wings they hugged their folders, clopped daintily round me in big heels and a haze of perfume.
‘The bird you were seeing.’ Harry ambled up the other end of the bar to serve a grey-haired man a glass of Bells.
Didn’t take me long to work out who he was talking about. Harry lived in Dalmuir near Myra and knew more of other people’s business than was natural for any normal man, even a barman. He came back and stood in front of me. Put his two big squarish hand down on the clean bar and leaned across.
‘You want another drink?’
‘Nah.’ Waved the suggestion away. ‘You mean Myra?’
Shrugged. ‘Dunno her name.’ Turned towards the noise of coins spilling into the tray of the fruit machine.
‘Whit happened to her?’
‘Dunno.’ Was more interested in watching the guy that had won the money. He picked up a blue-chequered dishtowel, slung is over his shoulder and sashayed on down the bar closer to see what he was doing. ‘Tried to kill herself, or something.’
Used the payphone outside the pub and phoned Bert in the college. Told him to tell them that I’d been violently sick and wouldn’t be back that afternoon. He gave me what for. Said it was likely they’d look at disciplinary. With my track record that wouldn’t be good. But there was nothing I could do about it. The problem was I didn’t know any of Myra’s other friends. Been selfish. Wasn’t even sure she had other friends. Thought about taking a walk down the hill to The Jehovah hall. But figured there wouldn’t be anyone there at this time of day. They probably had a rota tacked to the door: times when they should annoy normal folk with Watchtower Bible tracts and tales of apocalyptic gloom. A track record of using old women with varicose vein legs, dangling them as bait, wanting to use your toilet and hang about for all eternity for a cuppa. Although I’d been to Giffnock on the bus, wasn’t sure of Holly’s address and felt uneasy about even trying to find it out. Started walking, not even sure what way I was going, or what way was up.
Ended up at the bottom of the hill, Kilbowie Road, leading onto Dumbarton Road. The seaside smell of the Clyde whipped in my face. Kept walking in the general direction of the hospital. Was close to Our Holy Redeemer’s. Went in the side door and sat in the chapel for a wee bit. Lit a candle at the altar. Kneeled. Not sure what to say or do. Smell of beeswax taking me back to droning voices, childhood, which took a week of Sundays, but seemed much longer. My head dropped. Must have fell asleep.
Hand on my shoulder woke me. Looked up. ‘Sorry Father,’ I said, instinctively. Had spent my whole life saying sorry to some priest.
A laugh rumbled from somewhere near his stomach and rolled out of his mouth. ‘Never thought I’d catch you in a chapel.’ He slapped me on the shoulder. ‘How you been keepin’ Jim?’
Took me a second to recognise him in tab collar, cassock and priestly garb. His hair was shorter, more pepper than black. He waddled rather than walked when we were kids and a pear shape had bloomed into the full tree. Shared a desk next to him most of Primary school, through choice rather than necessity. Used to accuse him of copying me. Used to call him ‘Brains’ after the guy in Double Deckers on Saturday morning telly because his name was Brian, which made sense in those days. Lost track of him when he went away to Rome when we were kids. Promised to keep in touch, but never did. ‘Is that you Brains?’ Grabbed his hand and pumped it up and down.
‘Aye,’ he said and his laugh was just the same. He studied my face. ‘You want to come into the church house for a cuppa?’ Slapped my shoulder again. ‘Come on. We’ve got custard creams.’
Screwed my face up. ‘I hate them fnnn things.’ Looked guiltily at the gilded altar. Looked at Brain’s face. Knew he was winding me up again, just like he did when we were kids.
‘Just give me a minute,’ he said. He genuflected at the altar and peeled right. Hadn’t seen the older woman sitting staring rapt at the altar, a mantilla on her head. Father Brian whispered dutifully in her ear, a soul of discretion. She shook her head that she understood. He helped her get her bag and brolly together. Gripped her arm as he helped her along.
Waited in the flickering half-light, felt myself dissolving in the incense that stained the dark walls and seats made shiny by countless bums over the years into a childish presence. Watched a light grow in the altar and flutter out and take wings like a butterfly, soar up about seventy feet into the rafters.
My head was tipped right back ‘You alright Jim?’ Brains stood with his hand on the pew looking at me.
Yawned. Put my hand over my mouth. ‘Just tired.’
Gave me a funny look. ‘Aye, you look tired,’ he said. ‘C’mon we’ll get that cuppa now.’
It was usually me that led, but followed on behind him. He genuflected at the altar, I genuflected at the altar. He dipped his hand in the holy water to make the sign of the cross. I dipped my hand in the water to make the sign of the cross. Stood behind him as he pulled the door shut. Pulled out a set of keys out of his side pocked and dubbed the chapel up. Rain started pelting down. Pulled up my collar.
‘Bad state of affairs when you’ve got to lock up a chapel,’ I said.
Shook the doors to make sure they were locked. ‘You’d be surprised,’ he said. ‘And it’s got a lost worse in the last couple of years. Not just the usual stuff. People stealing the Saint Vincent de Paul tin. Or even lead from the roof. I can understand that. But downright nastiness. Filling the tabernacle from top to bottom with human shit. I’m not even sure how they’d manage to do that without getting themselves covered. But they managed it. Desecrating the statues of the Virgin Mary.’ Shook his head. ‘Bastards,’ he said. ‘Know what I’d want to do to them.’
Followed the lane round to the church house. There was enough space of one of him and two of me walking abreast. I fell in behind him again. ‘Aye,’ I said. ‘You’d be sending them a very strongly worded letter, telling them not to do it again.’
He chortled. ‘You’re probably right.’ Fished another set of keys out of his pocket for the door to the church house. He turned and looked at me. ‘Mrs Clocherty said I was to tell you she was praying for you.’ Held the front door open.
Sloped into a narrow passageway that opened out into the main house. Stairs running off to the rooms above where I imagined the bedrooms and studies to be. ‘No idea who that is,’ I said.
High ceilings, but modernised with double glazing. New carpets and the click of radiators, church houses were no longer what they’d been. The kitchen smelled faintly of fry-ups dressed in the bow-tie of pine air-freshener. An impressive lump of oak table and four chairs would have acted as a makeshift air-raid shelter during the Clydebank Blitz. Brains flicked the kettle on. ‘Well, she certainly knows you.’
Hung my damp coat over the chair. Heard the whoosh of the boiler in the corner heating the water as he rinsed two mugs. ‘Funny,’ he said. ‘Very nice old woman. It’s a shame. Cancer. Not got long to go. And all she ever seems to do is come down here and pray. She must be in terrible pain, but never complains.’
‘Sorry Father, don’t know her.’ Could have bitten my tongue. ‘I mean sorry Brain, don’t know her.’
He grinned at me.
‘Don’t really know whit to call you?’
‘Brian will be fine.’ Flung a teabag in the bottom of the mugs. As he stood waiting for the kettle to finish boiling he flicked an earwig from the draining board into the sink. Ran the cold water tap. We watched it struggle for buoyancy in the whirlpool the plug had created and disappear. ‘What do you take in your tea?’
‘Milk, two sugars.’
He sat at the head of the table with his back to the hum of the fridge-freezer. My mug of hot tea clinked into place on the doily beside his. Took the nearest seat and faced wet sun sliding down the window panes. He picked up a chocolate biscuit and sipped at his tea.
‘What brings you all the way down here?’ he said. ‘I take it’s not the scenery.’
Supped at my tea. We slid into the silence of a still life. Rooks outside cawed plucking at my nerves. Didn’t know what to say. ‘You remember Myra?’
‘Aye,’ he answered. ‘Who could forget her? She was the prettiest girl at our school, probably any school in the district.’
Pulled his chair tighter into the table. Drew out forgotten squibs of the story of court cases, happy families, and my involvement. He would chuckle sometimes. Pickpocketed the best parts about black magic I’d try and keep hidden and brought them out to the light. He wandered away and brought back a bottle of Jameson whisky and three glasses.
‘This’ll help us think,’ he said. Poured himself and me a large measure. Threw his back whilst still standing hovering about. ‘I’ll need to phone a friend of mine. He’s totally brilliant. A Jesuit. Doctorates in medicine. Member of the Royal College of psychiatry, but just such a nice guy. So down to earth. He likes to debunk charlatans. Pretends he’s paralysed from the legs down and springs up in alleluia. Always surprised that crowd. He’ll love your case.’
Sipped at my whisky. Wasn’t so sure I liked being a case. But he was already dashing away. Poured himself another drink. Glass in hand, golden memories swirling in the bottom. A phone hung on the wall, near the back door. He picked up the receiver and dialled.