By Seán Mc Donagh
The early sun shone mistily as Frank walked along the canal towards the church. On the far bank two swans stood – the cob standing alert with extended wings while the female preened her breast feathers. Frank carried a cloth bag containing his folded soutane and surplice left ready for him by his mother on the hall table. He crossed the canal bridge, climbed the stone steps to the sacristy door and entered.
Fr. Kelly, a tall fair-haired man, was standing at the long mahogany vestment sideboard. The priest and boy greeted one another and went silently about their routine. Frank donned his soutane and surplice and went into the sanctuary to light the altar candles. As he left the altar he saw the small Saturday congregation taking up their usual pews. He genuflected before the altar with its three front marble panels of the Lamb, the Pelican and the Dove.
Precisely on time by the sacristy clock the priest and his server walked onto the altar and Mass began. The sanctuary became a stage on which Frank performed. His script was in Latin which he did not understand. His props were the missal, the bell, the cruets and the paten. His actions were precise and timed.
At the Gospel Frank looked at the centre altar panel – the carved white marble pelican. Beneath the pelican’s beak a gash had been carved in the smooth stone. Into this deep red – almost purple – clotted paint had been inserted. Below the gash were three congealed red drops of paint. Fr. Kelly had explained to the altar boys the myth of the mother pelican’s self sacrifice and the significance of this metaphor to Christian redemption.
After Mass as Frank left the sacristy Fr Kelly shouted “See you this afternoon Frankie. I have got a surprise for you lads”. Fr Kelly, as the priest with responsibility for the altar boys, was the organizer of their annual May picnic outing.
That afternoon the boys assembled at the sacristy door. Some kicked a ball against the church wall and contested its return. Two Shantalla boys were wrestling. Most of the boys had brought food – Frank’s mother gave him a paper bag full of sandwiches, fruit and sweet cake. The boys cheered and gathered excitedly when Fr. Kelly arrived driving an old bus. They scrambled for the back seats. They shouted, laughed and sang as they traveled along the coast road and cheered when the bus turned into the Trá Mhór beach site for their picnic.
The boys ran across the grassy bank, scrambled across the stones and onto the beach. It was low tide and they ran down the sand towards the sea. Some removed their shoes and paddled and splashed in the cold water. Others climbed and hid on the large rocks exposed by the tide. They formed revolvers with their fingers and engaged in fierce gun battles.
After a time the bigger boys called the group together so that a football match could be played. A pitch was marked on the sand with shed jackets as goal posts. Two captains were acclaimed and selected alternate players. Meanwhile Fr. Kelly with one or two of the boys had made a fire. He made a ring of stones and they gathered storm tossed wood jetsam from amongst the beach stones.
By the time he summoned the boys from their sport the fire was strongly blazing. The boys sat in a semicircle leeside of the fire. Fr Kelly distributed bottles of lemonade and the boys shared their food. They ate largely in silence but communicating a feeling of comradeship and pleasure. Some boys threw crusts over the stones onto the beach and circling seagulls dived and squabbled over them.
Fr. Kelly stood up. He went to the bus and took a long wooden box from the luggage section on its side. He opened it and revealed a new shotgun with blue-steel barrels and shining stock.
The boys gathered round excitedly. “Fire it, fire it Father” they shouted. Fr. Kelly released the catch and broke the gun revealing empty barrel chambers. From the box he took a handful of cartridges and put them in his pocket. He walked across the grassy bank and the stones onto the beach followed by the cheering boys.
On the beach Fr. Kelly insisted that all the boys stand behind him. He loaded two cartridges. He aimed at circling seabirds and fired. The boys cheered wildly. “Do it again, Father” they shouted. Fr. Kelly fired again and again they cheered and scrambled for the spent cartridge cases.
Fr.Kelly reloaded. He fired again. This time a seagull trembled in the sky and spiraled down onto the beach near the incoming tide. The boys shouted wildly and ran towards the fallen bird. The herring gull had fallen on its back and its one free wing flapped feebly. One eye looked blinking at the circle of shouting boys. Frank saw its yellow beak with the red underspot – the target for its pecking chicks seeking disgorged food.
One piece of shot had hit the herring gull’s white breast. The wound oozed a deep red – almost purple – blood which flowed down on its side. Frank backed away from the circle of excited boys. He walked away quickly. He could not share in this cruel celebration. He walked along the beach until their cheering receded. He walked away until he knew he was alone.