According to the
Roman Catholic Church
by Peter Jordan
On Good Friday morning Declan Walsh woke up with blood on his hands. He looked up at the ceiling, blew out, wondered how he’d gotten home the night before, and staggered to the bathroom. In the centre of the palm of each hand was a cut, and when he opened and closed his fingers, the cuts wept. He took a shower. When he stepped out of the shower his head felt better but his palms continued to ooze blood. He walked into the kitchen with a towel tight around his waist, filled the kettle, flicked it on, and took his morning medication. His head felt racy, he’d been taking this particular drug for two years now, he wasn’t sure if it worked or not. He was diagnosed when he was in his final year of school — the educational psychologist said he had no stop button.
He rang Becca. They’d been friends since they were children. Last night was the first time Declan had seen her since Christmas. She was home for Easter. It was her first year at university in Belfast.
‘How’d I get home last night,’ he asked.
‘What am I, your minder?’
‘I left about one, you were playing pool with Mick Hanna. Yous were both pretty blocked.’
‘Jesus,’ said Declan, ‘I’m dying.’
‘Tell me you didn’t drive.’
‘I may have crawled.’
‘You know you shouldn’t really be drinking on that medication.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I googled it.’
‘You want me to go tee-total in this town?’
‘I’m just saying it doesn’t help with ADHD. Contraindications…’
‘Is that a university word,’ he said.
He held the phone to his ear while looking for his trousers. He found a trainer. It looked like a cow had taken a shit on it.
He looked closely at his left hand. ‘You want to know something,’ he said to Becca, ‘I’ve a cut on the palm of each hand and they won’t stop bleeding… well not bleeding exactly, weeping.’
Becca laughed. ‘Yer ma will be delighted.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Jesus,’ he said, ‘I’ll see you later.’
From his upstairs flat window, he looked outside but his car wasn’t there. He phoned Mick Hanna, who owned a bar up the road.
‘You were in some order last night,’ said Hanna.
‘Is my car there?’ he said.
‘I had to take the keys off ya.’
‘Right, well thanks. I’ll get it later.’
The bells of the church rang loud, and painful. He’d to take his ma to mass. He phoned her.
‘Do you need anything in?’ he said, ‘I’ll be up in fifteen minutes.’
‘You missed morning mass,’ she said, ‘will you get me a loaf of Sunblest Veda?’
‘Yes I know, I slept in… a loaf of Veda… we’ll go to three o’clock mass.’
‘Right you are,’ she said, ‘make sure it’s Sunblest,’ and hung up.
It was cold outside: bright and breezy. Easter was always cold; it’d be a full month or two before the good weather arrived. Declan made his way up the hill through the town’s main street to the Centra — head down, hands in pockets, up past the cut-out of Rory McIlroy in mid swing, the cut-out of Yoda with his lightsabre, and the faded one of Jesus in his robes.
Declan’s mother lived in the one estate in Ballykesh: it was an encirclement of terraced houses that had been added to the widow’s cottages for the fishermen lost at sea. It looked like a giant helicopter had dropped an estate into the middle of nowhere. The house was two-up, two-down, but Declan moved out as soon as he finished school; got a job in the fish factory gutting fish and lived above the furniture store in the town’s main street. He’d been living there six months: since Becca had left for Belfast. The furniture store below was open for business, but it had a big sign across the large front window saying Closing Down Sale! The sign had been there for the past five years.
He stopped at the Centra and got his ma a Sunblest Veda, and Marlboro Gold for himself. He’d have a smoke after. His ma still didn’t know he smoked full-time. She suspected but didn’t know for sure. It was a further five minutes’ walk to her house. The door was unlocked. It was never locked, apart from after dark.
‘The teapot’s on the stove,’ his mother shouted.
Declan poured the tea into a big white mug with Pope John Paul II’s face on it, added two spoonfuls of sugar, and a dash of milk. His mother had seen the Pope in Ireland, her and one million others, long before he was born.
When he entered the living room his mother was sat near the coal fire. ‘Will you take me to mass?’ she asked immediately.
‘You know I will.’
‘So, what’s strange with you?’
‘Same old same old,’ he said, then he took a sip of strong sweet tea… ‘I woke up this morning with cuts on my hands and they won’t stop weeping. They’re not sore or anything like that.’ As soon as he said it, he knew he shouldn’t have opened his mouth.
‘And what were you doing last night?’
His mother placed her two open hands on her knees, ‘Let me see.’
He shouldn’t have told her. He should have just kept quiet till mass was over, then walked his ma home, and headed up to Hanna’s for a cure. He got down on his knees — feeling the heat on his face from the fire— and rested his palms face upwards in his mother’s hands.
‘Have you shown this to anyone?’ she said.
‘Do you know what this could mean?’
‘Ma,’ he said, ‘I cut my hands!’
‘We’re going to the chapel,’ she said, ‘we need to see Father Sheehan.’
‘Ah Jesus, will ya leave it be, I knew this would happen. I shouldn’t have told you a thing.’
‘A thing about what?’
‘About my hands.’
‘Why, because you might have the stigmata?’
‘Stigmata my arse.’
‘We’re going to see Father Sheehan now, where’s my bag, and stop using the Lord’s name in vain.’
They walked down to the chapel. It was a small church for a small population. Father Sheehan answered the door to the parochial house with a smile. Declan had been an altar boy, was well liked, and his mother was the most devout woman in the parish.
‘Ach Bridie, come in… and Declan.’
‘Thank you, Father.’
Inside the parochial house they both sat down in the kitchen conservatory.
‘Would you take a cup of tea?’ asked the priest.
‘Very nice of you Father.’
‘So, what can I do you for?’
Bridie Walsh looked at her son, Declan looked at his ma. ‘Show him your hands son,’ she said.
Declan presented the two weeping hands. ‘I think it was barbed wire,’ he said.
The priest got up, looked at the hands — the light was good in the conservatory. He took the right hand first, held it, squeezed it gently and it oozed blood. Then he took the other hand and repeated the action with the same result.
‘It doesn’t look like barbed wire to me.’ The priest looked at Declan. ‘How’d it happen?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know, you must know?’
‘God strike me dead I don’t know.’
Father Sheehan pursed his lips. ‘Bridie, give me a minute with Declan.’
When they were alone, the priest said, ‘You know what day today is?’
‘How’d it happen?’
‘I was in blackout. Then I woke up this morning…’
‘Blackout… holy mother of Jesus and all the saints.’ He looked at the sky and then his feet. ‘I’ll have to make some calls.’
Declan didn’t want to tell the priest he meant blackout drunk, not some sort of divine state. ‘Wouldn’t I be better seeing a doctor first?’ he argued.
‘I’m not sure this is a medical matter,’ said the priest.
After mass, Declan picked up Becca in a taxi from her grandmother’s. He watched her walk down the drive. She was dressed in jeans. The only time he’d seen her in a skirt was the grey one she wore for the Protestant Grammar school that she used to take a blue bus to. She kept her hair in a bob, today it was purple, she had a tiny black stud in her nose, wore black Converse, and a Ramones t-shirt. She slipped into the back seat.
‘You warm enough in that,’ said Declan.
‘Yes,’ she said.
He could smell her perfume. He wanted to ask her what it was, but he felt his cheeks go bright red. He thought there had to be a time… a time before the end of his life, when he could ask her things like that without blushing.
Michael Hanna’s was two miles outside the town. The taxi moved along the coast road, past the grey, rocky outcrop on their left and the single green rectangles of farmer’s fields on their right that separated the road from the Irish Sea. The journey took them all of ten minutes. When the driver stopped in the tarmacked carpark Declan could see his own car was there where he’d parked it.
Michael Hanna’s was a detached house, close to the shore, that had been converted into a bar. On the gable wall was a big colourful toucan balancing a pint of Guinness on its bill. Inside the bar, Hanna was pulling pints to the usual crew who regarded Good Friday — no matter what their religion — as a day for a good lash at the gargle. Hanna walked to the end of the counter and gave Declan his keys. Hanna was hungry; every pound was a prisoner, but he’d made the bar work, and he liked Declan.
‘How’d I get home,’ Declan asked him.
‘I dunno,’ said Hanna, ‘you must have walked. You scalped me for a few quid on the table.’
‘You let me walk. I lost a shoe.’
‘Aye, sure you can afford another one.’
Declan looked at Becca, she looked beautiful, unfeminine but feminine. He was terrified of her knowing what he thought, how he felt. He ordered two pints of Heineken.
‘Morning saviour,’ said someone, walking to the toilets.
‘It’s late afternoon,’ said Declan, ‘and I’m not the saviour.’
‘Be careful with those hands of his Becca,’ said someone at the far end of the bar, ‘you could heal over.’
The bar laughed.
Becca raised the middle finger of her right hand.
They each carried their pints to a table.
‘Nothing’s secret in this town,’ she said. ‘So, what did the priest say?’
‘I’m the new messiah.’
‘And how do you feel about that?’
‘I dunno,’ he said, before sipping his pint.
‘Why didn’t they send you to a doctor, like your GP or something?’
‘None of his business, apparently. And it’s Good Friday.’
‘What about work?’ she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘You can’t gut fish with cut hands,’ she said.
‘I don’t want to gut fish, Becca.’
‘So, what happens with the church?’
‘Someone comes up to examine me, question me.’
‘I dunno, some ninja priest from down South.’
‘And what if it’s all healed by Monday?’
‘Then I’m back to gutting fish and pool hustling.’
Becca lifted her pint, but she didn’t drink from it.
‘My ma wants me to come up to her house tomorrow night,’ said Declan, ‘touch some of her friends. There’s a jar on the mantelpiece where you put in what you can.’
‘Jesus!’ said Becca…
‘Yep,’ said Declan.
‘What do you think happened?’ asked Becca.
‘I think I took a shortcut home across the fields, I lost a shoe, maybe I gripped barbed wire.’
‘It doesn’t look like barbed wire.’
‘That’s what Father Sheehan said.’
‘My gran believes in it. She has a friend was cured.’
‘Cured of what?’
Declan touched the back of his neck, involuntarily.
‘Aren’t you playing?’ asked Becca, looking across at the pool table.
‘I can’t,’ he said, raising both palms.
‘Jesus, it must be the real thing if you can’t hold a pool cue.’
He looked at her and laughed.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘every night we’ve ever come up here you play pool.’
‘I know,’ he said, ‘I’m good at it.’
‘When you’re up there playing game after game I’m sat here on my own watching.’
‘You don’t want me to play anymore?’ he asked.
‘No, she said. ‘I want you to realise that when you play, I’m sat here alone.’
They both sat silent, looking at their drinks. Last Halloween at a house party in Ballywalter they’d both woken up in bed naked together. They were quite sure nothing had happened. But Declan skirted the issue in case he’d done something embarrassing.
‘It’s alright for you,’ said Declan, ‘you’re away at university. I’m here gutting fish.’
‘You could do nightclass,’ she said.
‘Yeah right. Like what?’
‘Whatever you want. People like you are gifted. You could be whatever you wanted to be.’
Sat there now in silence beside her he wanted to tell her how he felt. He had rehearsed it thousands of times. He would tell her he missed her with something that felt like hunger and thirst. He would tell her he remembered walking by her last June. It was early, the sun was out, and he smelt the life of early summer. She was stood alone at the bus stop in her school uniform, and he didn’t even wave. They didn’t attend the same school: he went to the local Catholic Boys.
‘Becca do you want to get out of here?’ he said.
‘Out of Ballykesh?’ she said.
‘No,’ he said, ‘out of this bar?’
‘Where will we go?’
‘Yes,’ she said.