Eoin Devereux is from Limerick. He studied in UCG from 1983-1989. His flash fiction story ‘Goodnight Scarlett’ was published by The Bohemyth in December 2012 and was commended in RTE Radio 1’s Arena Flash Fiction competition in 2012. His story ‘Press Button A’ was shortlisted for the Fish Publishing Short Story Competition in 2013.
By Eoin Devereux
When the Christian Brothers finally decided to leave town, an auction was announced in the local newspapers. Eugene French, Auctioneers, Valuers and Estate Agents were awarded the contract sell the entire contents of the monastery. It was rumoured that much of the furniture was very valuable. A large crowd of Traveller antique dealers were expected to attend. The monastery and classrooms would be bulldozed and a new co-educational school would be built on site. The four remaining elderly members of the order were retiring to a house some 50 miles away by the coast. They would fill what remained of their days by praying and walking while they still could by the ocean.
I telephoned and ordered the auction catalogue from Frenchs. When it arrived I scanned through the long list of auction items. My initial interest was whimsical. I had no real interest in the furniture but I did underline a Victorian writing bureau and some oak school desks as things I might possibly bid for. The catalogue also included four Rudge bicycles, all in good working order; catering equipment and miscellaneous religious statues. The very last item was a trunk said to be owned by the late Brother Corbus.
Brother Corbus had taught me English and Science in my first year at the school. Corbus was elderly, rotund, and bald and wore the same chalk flecked black soutane every day. He spoke with a clipped sergeant major accent and made liberal use of a leather strap to beat his pupils.
I got my worst beating over a margin.
Corbus had ruled that no-one (except himself) had permission to write in what he termed his ‘property.’ In answering some homework questions on Shakespeare’s Sonnets I listed my answers in the inch and a half margin as Q.1, Q.2, Q.3, and so on. Two days later just after the mid-morning break I was summoned to the top of the class. Announcing to the rest of the class that he was going to make an example of me, Corbus slapped me violently three times in each hand. He closed his eyes each time he raised the strap in the air. His jowly, jellied red face shook when the strap made contact with my palm. Tiny blobs of spit flew from his mouth. I knew from previous experience to ignore my instinct to pull my hand away as that would result in the punishment being doubled.
I resolved not to cry in front of Brother Corbus as I felt that it lessened his power. When it was over I held on to the cold steel bars underneath my school desk to try and cool my stinging swollen palms. I watched every second on the classroom clock until the bell finally rang for lunch break at 12.30.
I walked the two miles home past the old county jail, the pig slaughter-house, the quarry and the psychiatric hospital.
It was a curious street. When I was younger, I would hide Silvermint sweets individually wrapped in tinfoil in crevices in the madhouse’s limestone boundary wall. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would hear some of the more disturbed patients scream as I walked to my grandmother’s house nearby. I would run ahead of my mother and check to see if my hidden sweets were still to be found.
There were two hump-backed bridges over railway lines and a number of huckster shops along the way. The shop that interested me the most had no roof. The cracked grey slates had fallen in years ago. Its reclusive owner sold paraffin, turf, blocks and loose cigarettes. My childish plan was to buy and repair the shop when I left school.
Lunch passed without incident. I did not tell my mother what happened. Before I ate I let the cold water tap run over both of my hands in the outside toilet. We had fish-fingers, chips and beans followed by custard and tinned peaches. It must have been Wednesday.
Reluctantly, I returned to school.
The results of the school’s science competition were going to be announced that day. My entry was on the making of cement. My father had got me samples from the lab at Cooper Hill. There were jars of gypsum, limestone, shale and mud as well as clinker and cement. The gypsum came by train from Kingscourt, County Cavan. I had written a detailed essay on how Portland cement was manufactured.
At 3pm Brother Corbus announced the results over the school tannoy. My entry did not win a prize.
My father came home from work when the rest of us had finished our meal. As my mother prepared his food he sat at the top of the kitchen table reading the Evening Press in his overalls drinking tea. His vest peppered with burn holes from welding. When I was younger he would tear out the cartoon section with Blondie, Gussie Goose and Curley Wee for me. Even now, it was usual that I would ask him how the cement factory’s three chimneys were doing. He had warned us years before that the smallest chimney had started smoking at an early age and had stopped growing.
“Well boy, how are things?” my father said.
“Just alright” I replied and shrugged my shoulders.
As my mother placed his dinner plate in front of him he asked me “Why? What’s wrong?”
His loaded plate had a lamb chop, fried onions, mashed turnip and fried bread.
He pushed it to one side.
“Tell me exactly what is wrong?” he said, emphasising the word exactly.
I quickly explained about the beating I got from Brother Corbus.
My father stood up and examined my hands. He looked at my mother.
“I am going down to that school now. The dinner can wait. No brute of a Christian Brother is going to treat any of my children like that.”
At home my father had regularly recalled the inhumane ways the brothers had treated the poor in his home town in County Wexford. Once, one of them sent a young mildly retarded boy out into the school’s front garden and ordered him to count the blades of grass there and not to return to class until he had done so.
My father and mother drove to the monastery. He rang the doorbell and was promptly answered by one of the maids.
“I want to speak to Brother Corbus now” he stated forcefully.
“I am sorry sir, I can’t interrupt him, he is saying his office” she replied.
“I don’t care what he is doing. Get him out to the door now or you will all be sorry” he said.
Eventually Corbus came to the front door.
“Good Evening. It’s a beautiful night thank God. Not at all cold for this time of year” Corbus began.
My father, usually a quiet man and not given to outbursts, quickly interrupted him. “Spare us the niceties. We are here because of the beating you gave my son. I will tell you this once and once only. If you ever, ever lay a finger on my son again I will come down here and knock you into the middle of next week.” My father had boxed in his twenties and the constant physical work he did in the factory had allowed him to keep his stocky frame in shape.
Corbus retreated and slammed the monastery’s front door.
Back at school, Brother Corbus did not utter another word to me. He would throw my corrected homework copies on my desk without comment. I found being invisible even more disconcerting than being beaten or being shouted at. At the end of the year I was moved out the class and sent back to a class destined for the Group Cert, a trade or prison. My school report said that while I seemed to be of average intelligence I lacked the ambition to succeed. Brother Corbus had had his revenge.
French auctioneers announced that there would be a viewing open to prospective bidders on the day before the sale. The numbered lots were distributed around the school hall. The Rudge bikes had 26” wheels and were in reasonable condition. Each of them had a bottle dynamo which illuminated both front and rear lamps. Brendan, the caretaker told me that there was a lot of interest already in the writing bureau. I soon found the trunk in front of the stage. It was made from camphorwood and cased in black wrought iron metal. The trunk was empty apart from some yellowed mothballs in each corner. Pasted inside the lid was an inventory written in copperplate on foolscap paper. It read:
Brother Corbus, CBS Monastery, Clonmel, June 1956
Black Trousers (2)
Socks (3 pairs)
Leather shoes (1 pair)
Sandals (1 pair)
Grey Cardigan (1)
Aran Sweater (1)
Cricket Jersey and Cricket Whites (1)
Cricket Bat (1)
William Bulfin’s ‘Rambles in Eireann’ (1 copy)
Charles Kickham’s ‘Knocknagow’ (1 copy)
Muintir Na Tire’s Constitution (1 copy)
Fountain Pen (1)
If lost in shipping, please return to the above address.
In spite of the Brothers’ diminishing status in the town, Eugene French himself was in the auctioneer’s chair the following day. There was a capacity crowd in the school hall. The Traveller antique dealers bought up nearly all of the furniture. The writing bureau achieved twice its reserve of £350. A small number of lots including the Rudge bikes and school desks were bought by ex-pupils. I did not bid until Lot Number 196 was called by Mr. French.
“Okay, Ladies and Gentlemen and so to our last item. Lot Number 196 is a genuine camphorwood Victorian trunk. Its lid is dome-shaped. Owned most recently by the late Brother Corbus, this ancient trunk has travelled the world. It has been to Argentina, Brazil and Rhodesia. It’s beautifully crafted. It’s worth it for the wood alone. Shur it’s a piece of furniture in itself”
He continued “Okay, the reserve price is £30. Do I have anyone at £30?”
No-one placed a bid.
“Alright, Ladies and Gentlemen, this item has to go to-day. My work here is almost done. Will someone start me at £12?”
I waved my rolled up catalogue.
“Thank you sir, do I hear any advance on £12?”
One of the Travellers bid £13. I nodded and bid another pound.
“So are we all done at £14?”
The Traveller did not budge. He took the lack of interest in the trunk as a sign that it was not really worth much.
“Okay, so we are all done, going, going, gone. Sold, to the young man with the quiff in the front row and with that Ladies and Gentlemen, I bid you all a good day” French said irritably as he slammed his gavel on the table.
I paid the woman at the desk at the rear of the hall and arranged to collect the trunk later that afternoon.
I began to think about what I would do with my purchase. I could smash it up with an axe or a sledge hammer. I could soak it in petrol and set it alight. I could dump it intact into the canal and watch it slowly sink to the muddy bottom like a coffin being buried at sea.
As I drove away from the monastery I decided that I would, in fact, keep it and use it to store my vast collection of vinyl and punk memorabilia. It would now be home to Iggy, early Bowie, Virgin Prunes, Radiators, Stranglers and The New York Dolls.
Brother Corbus would not approve.