‘When I grow up, I want to be a priest.’ Tommy Turner stretched his little neck from his big school day shirt, that was too small for his older brother Bryan, so that his head rattled about inside it and made him sound different, more intellectual.
Alex was trailing along beside him and behind him and sometimes in front, weaving in and out of the Saturday pedestrian crowd, going no where fast. There was nothing to be said. That was God’s business. But Tommy had jumped from not been anything, had to be pushed like a wheelbarrow into going to confession, never went to communion, and would never even consider the long and arduous journey necessary to become an altar boy, to becoming a fully fledged priest, and going to live in a big house were all the holy Wullies were corralled away from normal folk, and fed steak dinners and mince and potatoes every night to keep them strong. Tommy’d done it in one easy jump, missing out the notion of natural Darwinian progression from one thing to another. Alex studied him for clues, but he seemed just the same.
He looked at Tommy through his dirty wire rimmed glasses that made him look intelligent or stupid, depending on which way he angled his head, or whether or not he kept his mouth from opening when he considered a problem that was too big for him, like Arithmetic, and his tongue poked out to help find the solution. His head was mashed-up, full of American comic strip heroes and home- grown Desperate Dan pies. It wouldn’t have surprised Alex at all if Tommy went down on one knee and proposed to Almighty God.
Tommy’s mother had given him a penny for the plate at mass. Alex hoped he would split it. Give him a halfpenny to put in the plate and keep a halfpenny for himself and God. But Tommy made a detour away from Our Holy Redeemers carried on walking down Kelso Street and into the Post Office at North Elgin Street and bought a five packet of Woodbine.
‘I hope those aren’t for you because you’re too wee to be smoking,’ said the old hump-backed spinster Maggie McCoyne.
Maggie was always saying things like that, little homilies, that stamped out her day. She was a Jehovah’s Witness and her mouth boiled over with Kingdom Hall bile. People took no notice of her, especially when, with some biblical arithmetic, that Tommy would have been proud of, the world was meant to have ended, but didnae, just kept on going.
He said ‘no they’re for my ma’.
Tommy didn’t even blink, dipping deep for the brown coin in his shorts like a gunslinger, and the coin that was marked for God didn’t burn his Judas hand as it kissed and spun onto the top of the Post Office counter.
Tommy broke open the packet of fags even before he’d left the Post Office. He handed one to Alex. The two of them stood with a fag in their gobs looking at each other.
‘Have you no got any matches?’ Tommy asked.
‘Nah,’ said Alex.
‘That’s a bastard,’ said Tommy, ‘now I’ll need to ask some cunt for a light,’ making him sound less and less like a priest.
‘Have you got a light missus?’ he asked, one woman, then another, the smoke of his sin not yet on his nostrils, until a women passed pushing a black pram, the size of a bus on the pavement, with three heads popping out the hood and holding another child’s hand, felt sorry for him and gave him one.
Tommy sucked in the smoke of the lit fag and passed the end to Alex.
‘Have you got another penny?’ said Alex, showing off, blowing smoke rings.
‘Nah,’ said Tommy, ‘what makes you say that? You think I’m made of money?’
‘No. No.’ said Alex, ‘it’s just that…’ He didn’t know how to put it. ‘You’re ma gave you that money for the plate’.
They ambled along towards Whitecrook Park. They’d at least an hour to kill before mass came out and Tommy could show his pious face at home. But with the sun shining it was odds on that there would be somebody kicking a ball about and they could get a game of football.
‘So,’ said Tommy, ‘what she doesnae know willnae hurt her’.
‘But don’t you feel guilty?’ asked Alex, flicking the doubt of his fag away from him.
‘Nah,’ said Tommy, ‘it’s like the black babies. You can give a penny to the black babies of you can buy a sweet’. His tongue stuck out of his mouth. ‘There’s either too many black babies, or not enough pennies. In either case the loss of one wouldn’t make any difference’.
‘But. But. Don’t you believe in God?’ said Alex.
Tommy’s mouth fell open and the fag dropped from his mouth. ‘Course a believe in God. I need to believe in God or my ma would batter me. I believe in God in the same way that I believe that Santa puts an orange and an apple in my stocking at Christmas. Only sometimes he doesnae. Sometimes he’s too busy giving kids from Kelvinside new bikes and forgets about us. Sometimes he steals the sock and I need to hop about until it turns up days later and my wee sister’s wearing it.’
‘But I thought you said that you wanted to be a priest,’ said Alex.
‘Aye,’ said Tommy, ‘so I can whip the bejesus out of everybody with a leather belt, on there bare arms, hands, or legs; whatever bit I could hit for anyone that annoyed me, like that Father Tobin at school’.
‘Don’t you really believe in God?’ said Alex.
Tommy walked away from him and through the narrow park gates, shaking his head. ‘Aye, he said, looking back at Alex, ‘I believe in Him if it makes you happy’.
The way he said it made Alex smile back at him. And he felt something like love for Tommy Turner and knew that he’d always be his best mate ever.