Wednesday, May 04, 2016
I was six. Fresh out of the country and into a suburban school in Cork. An old national school once part of a village until urban sprawl had incorporated it. A smelly old school. Thick walls, uncertain heating system, we were always cold. Even in the spring.
We'd practise hymns. We were all getting ready for our First Communion and the RC church ran the schools, the hospitals, the orphanages, the old age homes and us.
Six. And we sang of hell fire and redemption and saints who died for Jesus.
And one of the girls, in a class of about 40, vomited all over the floor as we stood there singing.
And Mrs. Hoare?
Well, she flew into a rage. The priest was expected shortly to examine us all and make sure we were fit to confess our dreadful sins and be accepted, in our bridal dresses and veils, into the kingdom of the parish and thereafter heaven, if we did what we were told. You may laugh at the Taliban but Ireland is, was, and always will be a trendsetter in that regard.
And Geraldine Barry had the gall, the brazen brass of her, to throw up all over the wooden floor.
And Mrs. Hoare said we were all going to make up for this unforgiveable sin in the eyes of Jesus. We would all suffer along with Geraldine and stare at that filthy floor all day and learn of our mistakes, our evil natures. With the priest coming.
And he did. And the smell in that room was appalling. And little Geraldine, her freckles stood out like raindrops on her little white face. She hung on to the desk with her eyes downcast, tears trickling off her chin and on to her shoes. I can still see her page-bob hair, she had lovely bangs, we called it a fringe back then. None of the rest of us had fringes, they were too expensive to maintain. Good haircuts cost money and fathers made you look like a boy if you let them loose on your head with your brothers' hair trimming equipment.
When the priest saw the mess on the floor, he left the room, the smell was pretty bad then, permeating everything. I remember using all my energy to battle the rising bile in my stomach, biting my lower lip down so hard my teeth left marks.
He came back with a bucket of sawdust and threw it all over the mess. We were all still standing there shaking, as our mothers had bought our First Communion dresses. My mother had made mine. She got a gift of cream silk damask from a priest who still loved her but now lived in Egypt. I didn't know that story until I was old enough to talk unrequited love with her but he sent me a pendant in the post too, a non-Catholic one with a little hinged door on the front of it where I put my Granny's sixpence.
So what would happen if Father Sheehan now punished us by cancelling our big First Communion Day? Our mothers would be raging.
He chatted briefly with Mrs. Hoare and muttered something about her good job in teaching us all a valuable lesson in respect for property.
He fired off a couple of solid questions at us along the lines of: Who made the world? And we all chanted back at him: God made the world, fadder. And then he left us all to our vomit and sawdust.
And one month later little Geraldine of the perfect fringe and freckles was dead. Of meningitis.
The first funeral I was ever at.
She wore her gorgeous First Communion Dress as she lay in her white casket.