Father Hendry always gave sterner penances to errant schoolboys than any of the other priests. He was by far the sternest looking too, a priest I never remember having a smile on his face, and who evidently took his priestly duties seriously as a temporal and spiritual representative of the Almighty, in charge of the moral wellbeing of every nine year old child in Miss Lynn’s class at Braidcraft Road Primary School.
Where Father Wilson, the rotund and jolly red-faced parish priest, who had clearly been Friar Tuck in a previous life, gave three Hail Marys for every transgression from spitting on a Sunday to just shy of murder in the second degree – and even Father Molumby, the most ancient and ante-diluvian elderly ordained foot-soldier of Mother Church ever to pronounce an ego te absolvo, rarely stretched his penitential burdens beyond three HMs, an Our Father, and a Glory Be – it was other for Father Hendry. His tariff started at five Hail Marys, and even that was unlikely to be pronounced on anyone less blemished in soul than Pope John XXIII.
Yet for all he was stern, most of the pupil sinners of Miss Lynn’s class, when we were marched down to St Conval’s church at mid-afternoon on a Friday, to confess our sins ready for communion at ten o’clock mass the following Sunday, vastly preferred to sit in the pews and wait for Father Hendry’s confessional to become available, over Father Molumby’s. This was because the ancient and ante-diluvian Father Molumby, an octogenarian if he was forty (and possibly even when he was forty), was nearly stone deaf. This meant that the sinner kneeling in secrecy in front of his confessional grill had to raise his or her voice in order to be heard. No identifiable sin = no absolution. And so deaf was Father Molumby that the raised voice had to be a shout. In the pews outside, we would hear the unfortunate who’d been seen go in to the door for Father Molumby …
– Bless me father, for I have sinned, <mumble mumble>
– What? Speak up.
– Father I <mumble mumble>
– Speak up! I can’t hear you!
– PLEASE FATHER, WHEN THE GIRLS WERE SKIPPING, I WAS LOOKING AT IRENE HOOD’S KNICKERS.
– Say three Hail Marys, and avert your eyes next time.
No penitential sentence, however, could compare with trying to slither unseen out of the confessional door when all the eyes of Primary V were upon you reprovingly. Especially Irene Hood’s.
So all of us single-digit sinners preferred to line up for Father Hendry’s Ave Marian severities, even though his tariff started at five. And in my case, almost led to the gates of Hell. Father Hendry once handed me down an entire decade of the rosary, and told me that if I didn’t mend my ways (i.e. stop having lascivious thoughts about Barbara MacNamee, viz, wondering what was the colour of her knickers), he’d send me to a Protestant School. Now, I didn’t know then that there was no such thing as a Protestant school, but as any good Catholic schoolboy knew, schools that weren’t Catholic were full of snotty-nosed grey unhappy children of the damned who were doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the pits of Hell with Auld Nick. And the threat of being sent to a school populated by proddies sent tremors of fear coursing through me ; it was tantamount to being given the front seat beside Beelzebub on the ghost train hurtling down the miles-deep lava-lined black and glowing red tunnels plunging through the earth and into the sulphurous vaults of Hades. More than any other, Father Hendry put the fear of Satan, not the fear of God, into me. This meant that I did try to keep thoughts about Barbara MacNamee as clean as I could manage, at the age of nine. Which in turn meant trying not to wish for an updraft of wind as the girls were jumping into skipping ropes.
An aside, however. They were good men, these priests, and in a world where their rank and calling and social standing have fallen in recent years, it is worth taking some moments to point this out. I loved Father Wilson dearly, and still revere his memory, though I once almost killed Father Hendry.
Really. I nearly killed him. It had nothing to do with the sentence handed down the previous Friday. I nearly, accidentally, punctured his cranium with mortally wounding effect. It had been a Saturday night Novena, one of a succession of nights of prayer and devotion and endless rosary recitations. The priest would lead the prayers for the congregation, and the altar boys would undertake the roles accorded to them by the senior altar boy. Duncan Steele was the senior altar boy that night, and the roles were as follows : accie, bell, thurie, and crucie. Other parts were played by minor members of the altar boy cast, which meant standing or kneeling with nothing to do but look holy. ‘Accies’ were the acolytes, boys who were given a stick with a candle on top of a kind of saucer that collected the molten wax. ‘Bell’ was in charge of the bells, one a set of four conjoined bells rung at appropriate moments, and another a larger, solitary bell with a big clapper, rung at More Significant appropriate moments. ‘Thurie’ was my favourite. Thurie carried the thurible, a hollow sphere that opened to contain a piece of glowing charcoal, on which the priest sprinkled incense powder. Thurie then stood motionless at the right hand side of the altar, swinging the thurible from side to side, releasing the burning scents of incense through holes in the surface of the thurible.
This was one of my earliest introductions to physics. With nothing else to do but swing the thurie, the trick became finding out how high you could swing the thurie from left side to right, but with minimal and imperceptible movements of the hands holding the end of the chain. You could start very small, with just a few inches to left and then right, and as time passed, with hardly any additional energy added to the system, have the swing increased on every subsequent stroke until the chain was stretched parallel to the horizontal on every swing. Go above this, however, and the chain would lose tautness. That was my first physics lesson of the pendulum, that no matter how high the thurie swung, the time taken for a complete left to right cycle was always the same.
But I wasn’t thurie that night. Duncan Steele had decided I was advanced enough to be crucie. Crucie was the altar boy who held the crucifix, a large and incredibly weighty brass crucifix perched on top of a tall thin wooden spear, about seven foot high. What I hadn’t realised was that crucie was the least active and most boring of all the roles for a Novena altar boy. Symbolically important as it was, it meant just standing there, in the same spot, for about fifty minutes, entirely motionless, while accies moved their candlesticks from one hand to the other, bell rang a few bells, and thurie re-enacted Galilean experiments on gravity, as each decade of the rosary made its way slowly past. Crucie just stood there, holding a tall and unwieldy stick.
I was incredibly relieved when the last Hail Mary echoed away, and the last Glory Be faded, and all the altar boys, accies, bell and thurie, lined up behing Father Hendry, facing the tabernacle on the altar. Father Hendry genuflected reverentially, the accies genuflected, bell genuflected, thurie genuflected. I genuflected.
Physics. The centre of gravity of the system, already perilously high from the weight of brass on top of the wooden pole, shot up higher as I sank downwards on one knee, taking my controlling hands with it. I lost control of the crucifix, and it hurtled downwards and leftwards, the sharp end of the left hand arm of the crucifix wheeling straight towards Father Hendry’s head. By sheer chance, or a whispered warning from the BVM, perhaps swelled to interventionist attention by the recent waves of Ave Marias in the rosaries just gone, Father Hendry looked round, and then ducked violently. Had the crucifix connected, there is no doubt at all that Father Hendry would have been injured, possibly severely.
I stood up quickly, regained control, and pulled the cross back. Nervously, I followed Father Hendry and all the other altar boys off the altar and into the priest’s sacristy, for the regular inspection and dismissal. I knew I was for it. And from Father Hendry, the penalty was sure to be severe. He put down his chalice, then slowly walked along the line of altar boys, inspecting each one, until he came to me. He leaned forward, and with unexpected restraint and calm, said, in a low voice I have never forgotten in half a century since passed,
“Crucifix. Doesn’t. Genuflect.”
When in my turn, I became senior altar boy, I was never, ever, crucie again. I allocated that to some other boy, with suitable caveat about not braining the clergy. I was always thurie ever after. Rank has its privileges.
But these were later days. In the meantime, my experiences of, and understanding of, matters of human sexuality were limited to the point of ignorance in the absolute. There were as yet, not even the shadows of kicking hormones in a one hundred mile horizon. I knew no more than that girls and boys were different, because they went to different toilets in the school, and that the boys peed standing up, and the girls peed sitting down. Except Margaret Murray, once down on the banks of the River Cart nearby, who under the bridge and away from public view, showed a bunch of us that she could hitch up her skirt, pull her knickers to one side, and pee into the river like the rest of us. Not as far out into the river, but it was still impressive enough to draw appreciative nods from those of us more naturally equipped for the competition.
As for my lascivious fantasies about Barbara MacNamee, the passing of time and experience shows how unlascivious and innocent they really were, consisting as they did of sneaking up at playtime into the field behind the school, and lying on the grass, limbs spread out like two starfishes, holding hands and looking up at the clouds scudding by. The most erotically charged fantasy was to lie there, fingers twined with fingers, wondering what colour her knickers were. When you’re nine, that’s what passes for pornographic thoughts.
That level of innocence and ignorance endured for some time. I can remember the exact moment, and the exact location, when all that changed. It changed in three distinct phases.
I’d been playing down at the River Cart with James ‘Jamesie’ Reilly, whom I’d always admired for his ability to be naturally funny in everything he did and said. We’d been playing by ‘the reeds’, tall but fragile stalks by the river bank, which broke easily with a stick and where we could pretend we were explorers along the Amazon, cutting our way through thick jungle with the dangers of alligators only a row of teeth away in the river. It was long past teatime, the late afternoon turning to dusk, as we headed across the field towards Dormanside Road.
“Dae you know where babies come fae?” he asked, out of the blue. I knew from the way he asked that he was speaking from authority.
“Naw, no really.”
The most I knew was that they were in some way associated with big tummies in older women (when you’re nine, girls who reach double figures are already old), and that God was involved in putting them there. But what happened after that was also known only to God.
“Naw. How dae ye get babies?”
“Well,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “ye get a lassie, then ye pull doon her knickers, then ye stick yer dick up her fanny.”
“Dae ye really? Then what?”
“Then,” he said slowly, “ye jist pee intae her.”
My head was swimming with new knowledge, and new questions. Ever the scientist, even from that age.
“But whit if she disnae get pregnant when ye pee intae her?”
“Well,” he said with some disdain for my ignorance, “ye just keep peeing intae her till she does.”
“What if ye’re peeing, and she gets pregnant, and ye’ve loads mair pee?”
“Disnae matter. Wance ye start peeing, ye cannae stop.”
Every boy knows that. In a trice, my harmless fantasies over Barbara MacNamee changed in tenor and nature. Instead of two amorous starfish looking cloudwards at the sky, I began to re-imagine this new sexual adventure, in which I had sneaked up to the field at playtime with Barbara, and had persuaded her to accept a romantic bladderful of pee. Even as a non-scientist, unversed in fluid dynamics, potential problems presented themselves immediately. What if I’d drunk bottles and bottles of Irn Bru, and peed incessantly into her? Jamesie’s warning was clear : once you start peeing, you can’t stop. Barbara MacNamee would start to inflate, and that was confirmation of the peeing-pregnancy theory, since pregant women were self-evidently swollen. And what if I’d peed into Barbara MacNamee, and not stopped, and there was no leak, and then she also needed to pee, and started to pee back into me, reinforcing her own pee pressure with the volume I’d peed into her? Would I start to balloon up? Would I get pregnant instead? Holy Jesus! If it all came back into me, I would swell up and explode, because girls are designed by God to swell up under pee pressure, but boys aren’t.
But fluid always leaks, especially pee, and if girls’ fannies weren’t watertight, then all the pee would start to leak out over me, and the evidence would be all over the front of my yellow-stained grey flannel school trousers, and her pee-stained knickers and frock. I envisaged us sneaking back to school and trying to get back into the classroom un-noticed, only for the tell-tale clypes in the class to give it all away, pointing accusing fingers at our giveaway stains and yelling, “Please Miss, Alex MacPhee and Barbara MacNamee have been up the field doing dirty things!”
From then on, I tried hard to contain my erotic fantasies, and to keep them tamed to cloud-watching from the field on Langton Crescent. This didn’t last long. It got worse.
It was all because of Malcom Lawler. I never liked Malcolm Lawler, he was the class bully, and we all knew he was going to go to hell. That’s because the previous Sunday, at ten o’clock mass, the children’s mass, around communion time, I’d looked round and had seen him, standing when he should have been kneeling, and eating sweeties from a paper poke when he should have been going for communion. And as every Catholic school pupil knew, eating anything except communion in church was a mortal sin, and even the communion host wasn’t to be eaten, but sucked or left to melt away, untouched by teeth that would, in theological truth, hurt Jesus severely. Malcolm Lawler stood there eating Dolly Mixture from a paper bag. He was hell-bound.
On the following Monday, Miss Lynn had given him a dressing down in class. Miss Lynn, tall, with a long face, a tweed skirt and horn-rimmed glasses that posterity bequeathed to Dame Edna Everage. In order to get a dressing down, you’d to stand upright by the side of your desk, exposed to the collective view of the entire class. He never said a word, either in defence or explanation, but just stook there looking defiantly guilty.
“What’s the matter with you boy, have you no spunk in you?” asked Miss Lynn.
I remember her words as if they were yesterday. There was no sound from the girls, but there was a trace of a murmur from some of the boys, a kind of stifled giggle. I’d no idea what it all meant. At playtime that morning, when all the boys were piling into the playground for ten minutes of kicking a ball, I asked Kenny Booth what it was about the Malcolm Lawler scene that had some of the boys stifling a giggle. Kenny Booth was not destined for greater academic achievement, and his snot-oozing nose suggested little promise of success at job interviews, but he seemed to know something about the mystery.
“Did ye no hear what she said tae him?” he replied incredulously.
“She said ‘spunk’. Miss Lynn said ‘spunk’,” he said in slow, low tones.
“Whit’s ‘spunk’?” I’d no idea.
“D’ye no’ know whit spunk is?”
His voice became even lower, lest any of the girls should overhear him.
“Spunk, ‘at’s the slime ye get on a lassie’s fanny. An’ Miss Lynn said ‘spunk’.”
I was reeling with new and disagreeable information. Girls’ knickers, previously holders of nothing but sugar and spice and all things nice, were now full of slime. Even Miss Lynn, whom I’d never thought of as female, but must now be acknowledged one, would have had knickers, big enough to cover a Volkswagen Beetle, and now they too were chock full of slime.
“Aye, like doon at the river, where the frog spawn is.”
Down at the river, there were small inlets where the water accumulated, free from the flow downstream towards the place we called ‘the falls’, where there had been a drop in the river base level and the River Cart tumbled even faster. Algae could accumulate in the still water inlets. Green algae. Green slime. Girls’ knickers were full of green slime. When class ended for the day, I found myself glancing nervously at the chairs of all the girls as they poured out of Room 6, to see if there were any tell-tale signs of green left on the wooden seats.
Now, my romantic interludes up the fields behind the school with Barbara MacNamee deteriorated shockingly. The prospect of peeing inside her, already less erotic than horizontal cloud-watching, became fraught with the menace of cheap horror films, as I became engulfed, from the dick upwards, in green slime. And if the risk of being caught out “doing dirty things” up the field by virtue of urine stained trousers was high, it was absolutely certain we’d be condemned by guilt on appearing in class after the dinner break, covered in pee and green slime. I imagined, in terror, it happening on a Friday when Father Hendry had come to lead the class to confession at the church three hundred yards away. My sinning exposed to all, no mere five Hail Marys for me, not even a decade, but an entire set of the Five Dolorous Mysteries, which everyone knew and took three whole years non-stop to recite, and then he’d have me expelled and into the McGill School in Meiklerigg Crescent, with the proddies and the damned, and where all the proddies would know I was a Kafflik because I had the papal colours, yellow and green, all over my indecently promiscuous grey school flannel short trousers.
I carried on in this state of heightened and disconcerting new sexual awareness until the end of the ‘qualy’ exam, at the age of eleven, when we were all allocated to streamed classes in the ‘big school’, Notre Dame de Lourdes, in Kirriemuir Avenue. The risk of being in the same class as new girls with slime-coated knickers dissipated, as at the ‘big school’, classes were segregated for the first two to three years. So in Class 1A Boys, there were only boys. No girls. No knickers. No slime. No Barbara MacNamee. Only in second-year Latin class, where numbers were so small, was there a girl, the luminously beautiful Antionette Wynne, whom I fell in love with on sight, and so resolved never to think about her knickers in case green slime should appear to contaminate the fantasy, concentrating instead as hard as I could on gaining useful Latin expressions should I ever meet a Roman, like ‘the poets were killed by the arrows of the farmers’. (Sigh nostalgically if you, too, remember ‘Paterson & MacNaughton’.)
Phase Three. One lunchtime, I’d been walking back to school with a new school chum, Jim ‘Chooch’ McHugh.We’d probably been out to the grocer’s shop on the Paisley Road that sold broken biscuits at threepence a bag. Though I don’t recall how the conversation started, it was almost certainly because he’d seen something lying on the pavement, for I remember him saying
“That’s somebody thrown away a jolly bag.”
I’d no idea what a ‘jolly bag’ was.
“What’s a jolly bag?”
“D’ye no’ know what a jolly bag is?” he asked.
“Naw. What’s a jolly bag?”
For a while, he made merry of my ignorance, and feigned that it was obvious I was too young to know what a jolly bag was, so he wouldn’t tell me. At last, enough teasing done, he ‘relented’, and told me what a jolly bag was.
“It’s an FL.”
I felt shockingly ashamed to admit I was no wiser from this. I’d heard Jamesie Reilly mention an FL, but I think it was just a term he, too, had acquired with only ignorance to explain it.
“So, ye don’t know what an FL is either?”
After a bit more making merry at my expense of ignorance, the explanation came.
“A jolly bag is what ye put on your dick to stop you getting a lassie pregnant.”
I immediately thought of it as something that ballooned out like a pee-filled football inside the unfortunate girl, as unromantic an encounter as I could imagine, given my patently experience-limited pre-teen imagination.
“Don’t be stupit. You don’t pee in a fanny.”
“Oh, right, but it keeps her spunk off you then.”
I repeated my bio-sexual ignorance on bodily fluids once again.
Let me gloss over the heap of scorn on my risibly incompetent awareness of matters sexual that followed. My attempt to re-mount the horse I’d fallen from will be no more successful now than it was then.
The reliability of peer-originated sex education is marginally better the older one’s peers, and within the shortest of short spells, I knew that getting girls pregnant did not involve lemonade-bottle volumes of pee, it did not involve pee at all (except perhaps gratuitously or with poor timing), it wasn’t yellow, and there was nothing green in girls’ knickers (unless you were unlucky).
Just as I was taking renewed encouragement in this new found knowledge, and the prospect that I could begin to think again about Barbara MacNamee’s knickers free of the Menace of the Green Slime, Chooch destroyed the landscape with another bombshell. Girls didn’t have green slime, but there was something just as terrifying. They had something known to pubescent boys as The Scary Thing. Same idea, different colour.
Schooldays are not long, and with hope and optimism, ignorance is not longer. The gaps in my knowledge were eventually filled in, until by the time I was sixteen, I was so expert that I knew my parents, and their entire generation, were complete ignoramuses in the subject, which I and my generation had invented last Tuesday. I knew all there was to know about sex, and the opposite sex.
Or nearly everything.
For I never, ever found out the colour of Barbara MacNamee’s knickers.