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Hamlet & Me

 

London, October 1963

 

 

Nineteen priests came to my granny’s wake, five more than buried Colm’s Aunt Molly that was knocked down by a distillery cart on her way to early mass at St. George’s Cathedral.

“Eight of them don’t count,” Colm said as we walked back home after Scouts. “They’re only novices.”

   “A priest’s a priest,” I said, taking my hands out of my pockets, and after the tussle we ended up with the novices counting a half and the granny still clear by ten clergy or more.

   Gran was a cheerful old soul, but so ancient and stricken with the arthritis she’d bent over double like a pothook, and she only came down from her bedroom once a year when she attended Midnight Mass. The rest of the time Canon Bogan visited our house on Sundays to give her communion upstairs in her bed.

   “Your Reverence,” my father called to the Canon one damp Sunday as he saw him in the hall shaking his umbrella before going up to Gran’s room. “Why don’t you do all the Clearys while you are here and save us a wet walk to church on a day would destroy us with double pneumonia?”

   He winked at me, but I looked away, playing the neutral party.

   The Canon stopped in his tracks. “John Patrick Cleary,” he said, stabbing his words at my father with his wet umbrella. “If you can reel twice a day to Mooney’s Bar, you can walk to St. Dominic’s on God’s holy day to save your immortal soul. The Catholic Church does not peddle salvation door to door like a gypsy clothes peg.”

   The Canon and my dad squared off, one in his scarlet cassock and billowing black raincoat and the other in his Sunday double-breasted suit with a silky, stripy tie, a double-pointed hanky in the top pocket and his medal ribbon from the War on his breast – two big, red-faced, beefy men with wild hair and podge bellies on them, glaring at each other like that Hitler fellah and Mr Churchill, God bless him.

   But it was all for show, for when Canon Bogan had given Gran communion, my mam would usher His Reverence into the parlour with tea and chocolate digestives, and before you could say Jack Robinson he and Dad would be debating the issues of the day like the Brains Trust on the radio.

   When my Mam went up to see to Gran, my father would give the Canon a secret wink and get me to pull a half-bottle from one of his hiding places to spike their tea and fortify them for the exertions of the afternoon.

   The Canon’s exertions led to kippers for Sunday tea at St. George’s presbytery, and my dad’s led to Mooney’s Bar.

   My father was not a huge drinker, at least by the measure of his cronies at Mooney’s, but hardened he had to be to touch a drop with my mam and her sisters staunch for the Ladies’ Temperance League, and my granny praying every night for him to take the Pledge.

   When Dad got a big carpentry job with the local brewery, Mam brought in our neighbour Mrs Hennessy for an emergency consultation.

   “A brewery!” Mrs Hennessy cried, rattling the windows. “You’ll have to take precautions. You can’t let Jack loose in a brewery without taking precautions!”

   Mrs Hennessy was a heavy set, red-faced woman in a black dress and cardigan in part-mourning for her husband and with a net over her frizzy grey hair. She had a voice that could stop clocks. I’d to move our budgie, Joey, a sensitive soul, to a safe distance whenever she visited.

   She’s popped in a week or two before my nan died, and I’d watched from the kitchen doorway as she showed Mam an object wrapped in a shawl like a baby and reverently unwrapped it.

   “This is the genuine article, Teresa, none of your over-the-counter local rubbish. This is your guaranteed Lourdes Water, blessed in the bottle and brought home from France by a Redemptorist nun so spotless with holy grace she could cure haemorrhoids with a single glare.”

   “In a Guinness bottle?” Mam asked with a doubtful look.

   “It came in a plastic Virgin Mary bottle,” Mrs Hennessy replied with a frown, “but I lost the top. I emptied the Holy Water into a Guinness bottle and capped it up firm. Take it from me, this stuff would shrivel the horns on the devil himself. I had it brought over special when Hennessy got the athlete’s foot swimming in the public baths.”

   Mrs Hennessy folded her arms across her chest, and her voice rose to its usual budgie-deafening volume.

   “I told him there’s half the riffraff of the city widdling in the public pool, but Hennessy would do his lengths. He got the athlete’s foot on his middle and it spread like mould on a cowpat. Holy Water it had to be,” Mrs Hennessy cried, “rubbed over twice a day and twice more on Sundays and saints’ days.”

   A strangled squawk came from the parlour, and a dog howled several streets away.

   “And did it work?” Mam asked.

   “The rash went, thank the Lord, but he died a week later of the lung cancer.”

   Mrs Hennessy and my mam blessed themselves.

   “Mr Russell said he’d never seen a corpse in better condition, for his age and illness,” Mrs Hennessy continued. “My Hennessy had skin like a piglet.”

   “Well, I don’t know,” Mam said, “I don’t want to do Jack a mischief.”

   “Holy Water?” Mrs Hennessy said, her eyebrows raised, “How could that do any harm? It’ll bring out the natural goodness in him.”

   Mam considered. “I’d be happy if he cut down a bit. He has his tipsy Friday nights, but he’s not a stagger-home-and-give-us-a-swipe boozer.”

   “That’s how Dr Crippen started!” Mrs Hennessy shrieked, and a pigeon passing the kitchen window flopped senseless into the back yard.

   I edged out the door, my ears ringing as she continued. “Just the one or two little murders at the weekend till he got the taste, and soon there’s whole streets missing and him winning prizes for his rhubarb.”

   That tipped the scales.

   “Well, let’s give it a try,” said Mam.

   “That’s the spirit! We’ll water down his whisky, gradual like, and he’ll never notice a thing.” Mrs Hennessy opened the Guinness bottle, and Mam grimaced. “It’s got a niff to it.”

   “Ten years old,” Mrs Hennessy replied, “the year of the coronation. It’s bound to be brisk.”

   "And the brown colour?”

   Mrs Hennessy frowned. “Maybe I didn’t wash out all the beer. Still, they say that’s good for you too, in moderation. Fetch the whiskey bottles, Teresa, and we’ll do God’s work.”

   “Should we not say a prayer while we’re at it?” Mam suggested.

   “That’s an idea. To the Blessed Virgin, is it?”

   “No,” Mam said firmly, “to St. Jude.”

   Mrs Hennessy nodded. “The patron saint of Hopeless Cases.”

   I had almost slipped out when my mam nailed me to the wall with a look. “Mikey, fetch out your dad’s bottles from where they’re hid. Every one of them mind, no holding back.”

   “Mam,” I cried. “He’ll kill me!”

   Mam narrowed her eyes, Mrs H gave me a wart-curdling glare, and I fetched the bottles.

 

We were all up at dawn on the day of the wake.

   My dad said he’d get me out of early Mass if I helped him with the wreaths, so we hid in the back-yard pretending to fix the broken swing until Mam and the aunts had left.

   Dad took the Canon’s wreath with the black-bordered mourning notice outside and held it up to the front door.

 

‘Mrs Mary Catherine Cleary (née O’Donnell), formerly of 12 Dean’s Park Road, Dublin, passed softly into the bosom of the Lord at 4 am on October 3rd 1963. RIP.’

 

   “Pass me the hammer, Mikey.” Dad stood on a chair in his shirt and braces, measured down from the door lintel with his open hand and banged in a nail.

   “Dad,” I asked, “Why is it we don’t have granddads, only grandmas?”

   “The wear and tear on the Brodie men is notorious, son. Them on your mam’s side died years ago. And how the Brody clan can produce more priests than the Kennedys and still fertilise the family tree is one of the mysteries of Nature.”

   “What about your side, Dad?”

   He paused for a moment and considered. “We Clearys are short on male relations too. Cleary men are more in the roving, devil-may-care sort of line: not family men at all. Your great, great, granddad went to America to make his fortune and was ambushed by Mormons on the Salt Lake in America, and ate, beard and all.”

   He tested the nail for firmness. “My granddad died young too, fussed to death by his wife and her sisters. And didn’t his fancy woman come to the funeral and get spat at and her fur collar ruined by my grandma, when she had her health?”

   He gave the nail another whack with the hammer. “My own da, bless his soul, went down to the corner shop for a pack of Wild Woodbine ciggies and a Sporting Life in 1928 and there’s never been hide nor hair since, except a picture postcard from Blackpool with no stamp and tuppence to pay. No, the Cleary men do not buckle down easily to family life.”    He hung up the wreath.

   “You’re a family man, Dad.”

   “I was ambushed by your mam. She wouldn’t let me use a – well, let’s just say you’re lucky we didn’t christen you ‘Oops’.”

   We went back inside and into the parlour. Joey chirped a reproachful tweet from his cage, and I whistled a reply, but he ignored me and turned his back. The poor bird was still deafened.

   Dad slumped into an armchair by the fireplace. “Fetch me the bottle from the shelf behind poor Saint Francis, son. It’s a heathen disrespect to your granny not to have a wee glass in her memory.”

   “I’ll get into trouble with Mam.”

   “You’re in trouble already for missing Mass. We’re a troubled family.”

   I stood on the pouf and got down the bottle, and Dad poured himself a large whiskey. I fetched the soda siphon from the sideboard.

“What’s your excuse for missing Mass?” Dad asked. “Better make it convincing, not one of your usual ‘I dropped me dinner money down a drain’ numbers.”

   I sloshed soda from the siphon and drowned his drink. “But you said you’d square it with Mam! You promised!”

   Dad wagged his finger at me. “One thing you’ve got to learn about women, Mikey, is they’re like the circle; they cannot be squared. That’s why we men are in a constant state of being in the wrong and why priests don’t marry, apart from the obvious.”

 

There was a great bustle in the house after Mass. Colm’s mam came to help with the arrangements, the men from Russell’s brought in the coffin at the back and the aunts sliced bread and slapped on turkey or fish paste.

   My mam and the Canon were in conference in the kitchen when they spotted Colm and me. “Will the boys?” my mam asked in a hushed voice.

   “I don’t see the need, Mrs Cleary,” the Canon murmured. “Only twelve is it? No, no. Young minds scarred for life in published cases.

   “Bless them,” he said in his altar voice, patting Colm and me on the head. “Their infant minds should be filled with the Joy of Jesus.”

   “I’ve never seen a corpse,” popped up Colm, who had no sense at all.

“What Colm Mcfee means, Your Reverence,” I said quick, “is that we’d dearly love to pay our last respects to the mortal remains of my sainted granny.”

   But it was no use, so when we got away, Colm and I made up the plan for later that night while the mourners would be at the whiskey punch and savouries.

 

The early arrivals turned up at about five-thirty, and we were kept busy with the coats and hats up to the back bedroom with slips of paper inside the priests’ birettas to tell them apart.

Canon Bogan came straight from six o’clock mass with a musty incense taint on him, different from the carbolic, soapy smell of the novices. He walked through the parlour dispensing blessings to all there and sat down heavily on the settee reserved for important guests and principal mourners.

   My mam followed him up with a dark whiskey-punch that he took with a great show of reluctance and sipped as if the taste was new to him. He settled back in his seat looking around the room at the knots of clergy and laity all glaring daggers at my dad and his pals huddled by the fireplace.

 

“She was a good woman, right enough,” my father said to Tommy Dolan as he stubbed out the remains of his cigar in the fireplace.

   “That she was,” said Tommy.

   I offered a plate of sausage rolls, and my father waved them away. “Not an easy life you understand.”

   “Indeed not!” Tommy said quickly. He hooked a couple of sausage rolls and reverently shook his head. “No, I didn’t think that at all.”

   Dad refilled his companions’ glasses from the bottle on the mantel and shook another cigar from the packet beside it.

   “Ninety was it, Jack?” Patrick asked.

   “Ninety-one last Thursday was a week,” my dad intoned between lighting another cigar and puffing smoke across the room. “Ninety-one years of unsur-unsurpassed piety and good works.”

   “Ninety-one,” Tommy Dolan repeated in wonder.

   “Aye,” sighed Patrick.

   “Glory be to God,” said Dad.

 

I fetched another plate of sausage rolls from the kitchen and edged through the mourners to the chairs by the window.

   “He was her cross,” Mrs Hennessy confided to a pair of fresh-faced, freckly young novices in a whisper that made the window panes shake.

   “But the other son, Michael Joseph?” asked one, taking a sausage roll.

   “A clerk with the Post Office in Dublin and doing well,” Mrs Hennessy said with a tight smile. “No, Jack is the black sheep of the Clearys. He’d lick whiskey off a corpse, saving your cloth, fathers.”

   “Is it strong waters then?” the other novice asked, glancing sideways at my father across the room.

   “It is, Father,” Mrs Hennessy whispered, as paint flakes floated down from the pelmet above and earthquake warning sirens wailed in Tokyo. “You could bottle his blood. Look at him now, swilling it down like a tinker; he that promised his poor dying mother only two days since that not another drop would pass his lips.”

 

“And how was it at the Last, Jack?” Tommy Dolan asked his best pal.

My father, always a man for the dramatics, stood slowly upright from leaning against the mantle and turned close in to his cronies.

   “Ma looked at me with the light of the Holy Spirit aglow in her eyes,” he murmured, a catch in his voice. ‘John, my son,’ says she with her last dying breath, taking my hand in hers in a fearful grip. ‘John Patrick Aloysius Cleary, promise me one dying wish before I give myself up to my Maker’.”

   Dad wiped a tear from his eye, drained his glass with a sorrowful gesture and waited for it to be refilled.

   “I was in mortal fear,” he continued. “I knew what I’d to promise. I’d be barred from Mooney’s: ruined. But, ‘I’ll promise,’ I said, never letting on.”

   “It breaks your heart,” Tommy said with a half-sob. “And Jack with a top job promised at the brewery making the new lorry ramps.”

   “She took my head in her hands,” Dad said, miming the gesture, “and she whispered, ‘son, give it up. Give up the drink for your Dying Ma’.”

Dad took a long pull on his cigar.

   “What did you say to that, Jack?” Tommy asked in a hushed tone.

   “What could I say, with the water running down my cheeks like a wet Monday and my lips parched with dry expectation?”

   Dad held up his glass to the light, swirled the whiskey and sighed. “I was about to make the pledge would see me follow her into the dust within the year, but when I raised my eyes to her poor face, I saw she’d gone over without another word.”

   “She’d gone?” Tommy asked.

   “She had.”

   “That was a sign, Jack,” Tommy said, “a fearful sign.”

   “Fill my glass, now Tommy,” my father said. “I get hard looks and sermons if I open so much as a ginger pop before the clergy.”

 

By eight o’clock, almost all the guests had arrived and visited the Dead Room before joining the wake below, and Canon Bogan stood and gave a speech about my granny’s famous pieties and great service to the Church. Thinking to make my father smart, he continued.

   “And a woman who, as every one of you well knows, let no strong liquor or alcoholic beverage of any kind pass her lips since she put on the proud pin of the Ladies Temperance League seventy long years ago!”

   He paused and darted a look at my dad. “A glorious example to those members of her family with sense and religion enough to follow it.”

   There was a deal of solid clapping from the aunts, and a battery of sharp looks from the mourners towards where my father was stirring the ashes in the grate with a poker.

   “Well, Jack,” the canon called over in the silence. “There’s much to be said for temperance.”

   “Indeed, Your Reverence,” my dad replied in a silky voice that would charm a Protestant,    “I’m told it’s a grand thing.”

   He replaced the poker and turned to the Canon with a smile. “Can I refill your glass, Your Reverence? I see you’re not drinking your usual plural quantities? It’s Liberty Hall at the Cleary’s as Your Reverence well knows. Don’t you mind the old women.”

   In stepped Mam quick to say she was sure Gran upstairs wouldn’t grudge us a song, so the record player was set up in the back room, and the fiddler from Mooney’s was due any minute.

 

Colm and I judged the time was right for our plan, so we slipped unnoticed through the parlour door and crept up the dark stairs, careful to miss the creak on the second step. We felt along the wall past my bedroom to my granny’s room, the Dead Room.

   A muffled chatter came from the parlour below, and a Peggy Lee song from the record player in the back room where the Mulcahys were organising the dancing. It was unnaturally hushed on the landing, and my heartbeat thumped loud in my ears as we stopped outside my granny’s door.

   “You first,” I said hoarsely.

   “She’s your granny,” Colm whispered. And then when I didn’t move. “Shall we go on down again to the wake?”

   “We w-will not,” I said, and I groped about in the dark for the door handle and gripped it, cool against my damp palm.

   The knocker banged against the street door and we jumped back. The clamour below swelled as the parlour door opened, then the light came on in the hall and my mam shouted she’d get it.

   Colm and I froze in the shadows against the wall as Mam gave the fiddler late from Mooney’s a flea in his ear, then told off Great Uncle Malachi who’d locked himself out on a call of nature.

   It quieted once more, the lights were turned off downstairs and I felt for the handle again and slowly inched open the door of the Dead Room. I felt a soft resistance for a moment, and I almost panicked when I could see nothing, before I realised that a thick, black cloth had been fixed across the doorway. I pulled it aside and put my head through.

   The room was fusty with the taint of candles. Two big church candles stood at the head of the bed and a half-dozen or so smaller nine-penny ones were on my granny’s altar shelf in the corner next to the black-curtained window.

   Shadows darted over the ceiling as the candles flickered in the draught from the door, and the brass work on the coffin placed across two chairs at the foot of the bed shimmered in the wavering light.

   My granny lay in bed, her features illuminated by the soft glow of the two big candles. She looked very peaceful.

   I tiptoed straight in, Colm behind me, and we stood by the end of the bed at a respectful distance from Granny and the coffin.

   “Doesn’t she look small?” Colm whispered.

   “It’s because she’s lying right down,” I said. “I’ve never seen her lie right down before. She’s always propped up with pillows for her poor crooked back.”

   There was a moment of silence while Colm considered, then, “Is it a lily she’s holding?”

   She had on a lacy, frilled nightdress buttoned up at the neck and sleeves, and her thin arms lying on the quilt were the same colour as the flower she held between her praying palms.

   “I think so,” I replied, and there was another pause.

   “Is she stiff yet do you think?” Colm whispered.

   “Will you stop asking daft questions in front of her?” I hissed back.

   “She must be for the flower to hold.”

   I blinked at Granny’s pale face and her waxen hands, the flowers and candles and the large unfamiliar cross they’d stuck over the bed head.

   “Will you touch her Mikey?” Colm said at last.

   “I will,” I said, for no reason at all. I walked to the side of the bed with Colm beside me and leaned over deliberately to kiss my granny’s forehead. It felt cool, much as it always did.

   “Quick Mikey, there’s someone!”

Colm and I scrambled under the bed as the door swung open, and the curtain was pulled aside.

   “In here is it, Jack?” said my Uncle Tommy’s voice.

   “Why not? My old mam is past minding,” my dad replied.

   “Ah, I’m not sure—”

   “Give me the bottle then, you squeamish man, and I’ll drink by myself.”

   I watched from under the bed as two pairs of boots trod unsteadily across the floor, and I heard a dull creak as Dad and Tommy Dolan sat on the closed coffin. There was a clink of bottles and glasses.

   “I’m melting with the heat,” Tommy said. “It’s them hordes of candles and the windows tight shut. It should be cold air in a Dead Room, stands to reason.”

   “It’s a sight better than being squinted at sideways by pimply priests and daft old women in the room below,” my father replied.

   “Secret drinkers!” Tommy said.

   “The communion wine,” my father paused as he searched for the phrase. “The communion wine flows like water down a drain.”

   “They’re all hippo – hippo – what in the name of God is the word, Jack?”

    “Pharisees,” my father said firmly.

   “That’s right,” Tommy said. “That’s right enough. There’s not one of them wouldn’t strut past a dead dog in the gutter.” Another chink of bottles and glasses. “Saving your loss, Jack.”

   “Don’t upset yourself, Tommy,” my dad replied airily, “I take no offence.”

   I stared up at the dusty bed springs above my head and prayed to Saint Jude that we’d not be spotted.

   Colm nudged me in the ribs and pointed at a thickish rope that stretched from side to side across the underside of the bed and then at another towards the foot. I frowned back at him and shrugged.

   A bottle came down on the coffin lid with a loud plonk. “I’ll tell you a thing,” Tommy said in a confidential undertone, “Listen to me a minute here.”

   There was a pause.

   “Lame Duck.”

   “Do you say so?” my father asked.

   “I do,” Tommy said, “Lame Duck!”

   Another clink of glasses, and Tommy continued. “I had it off a man was talking to the stable lad’s brother after late Mass last Sunday at St. Dom’s. It’s a dead cert.”

   “It’ll have me last quid,” my dad said firmly.

   “You’re a wise man,” Tommy replied in a pleased tone.

   Colm nudged me again. “I have it,” he whispered, “It’s to keep your granny down. It’s to flatten the kink in her back!”

   I frowned at him. “She got stiffened sitting up?”

   He nodded, and we looked up at the taught-strung ropes above our heads that kept the bent old body flat. Then we both had the same idea.

   “Jesus,” Colm whispered. “You can’t do it!”

   “It’s a mortal sin at the least,” I said as I fished in my pockets for my scout knife with the seven guaranteed Sheffield blades.

   “Fair play now,” said Dad. “That fiddler from Mooney’s is a decent soul for all he’d drink Guinness from a policeman’s boot and shout for more.”

    “Aye,” Tommy said. “And he’s not shy of the loan of a few bob for a body in need. There’s good in all men, irrespectable of – even Proddies.”

   “Ah, that’s true, Tommy. That’s a beautiful thought.”

   I heard a gurgle as Dad refilled his glass and his friend’s.

   “Is she insured at all, Jack?”

   “Is she hell,” my dad replied. “Even the radiogram was hers she left to the Little Sisters of St. Paul. She’d not insurance enough to pay for the lid of the coffin beneath you.”

   “A mortal blow.”

   “Thirty pound or more,” Dad said.

   “As much as that?”

   “Economy model at Russell’s, and the Lord knows he’s the cheapest for forty miles.”

   “God bless us,” said Tommy. “Can you trust nobody these days?”

   They drank deeply and vehemently.

   I had the upper rope almost cut through, and Colm sawed at the lower.

   “I’ll tell you what, Jack. This whiskey has a kick to it today.”

   “Aye, it’s good stuff, I’m almost after feeling the effects already. And there’s a sort of a funny aftertaste—”

   “What was that, Jack?”

   “What?”

   “A pop, or a – Mother of God!”

   I peeked out as Dad looked up sharp at his pal and followed his thunderstruck gaze to the bed, where, rising like an amateur stage Venus, with infinite slow twangs of bedsprings and classical droops of drapery, Granny sat up in bed.

   “Holy God!” Dad dropped his whiskey bottle with a crash and slipped onto his knees at the foot of the bed. Deprived of his weight, the coffin tipped off the chairs and pitched a paralysed Uncle Tommy onto the floor under the altar.

   Twin plaster statuettes of the Little Child of Prague and Our Blessed Lady fell on his head with a horrible double thud, and the altar candles dropped with them and went out, leaving the flickering church candles as the only illumination of the ghastly scene.

   “Merciful God!” Dad sobbed as the corpse creaked upright. “Ma, God help us and save us,    "Ma—”

   His voice dropped to a husky whisper under the dark stare of the hooded eyes that transfixed him from the shadowed face.

   “Look Ma!” He flung the bottle he’d reserved in an innermost pocket of his jacket into the far corner of the room, where it smashed and drenched the altar and Tommy.

   The reek of whiskey wafted across the room.

   “I swear I’ll never touch another drop so help me God!” Dad cried. “Ma! Forgive me!” he sobbed, tears streaming down his cheeks as he quivered before the spectacle of his raised ma.

   Colm had the lower rope cut now, and Granny faltered, reached the point of balance and began a slow decline back towards the horizontal. At the same time, like a poorly lubricated beam engine, her girder-stiff legs started a hesitant climb under the quilt.

Inch by inch, under my father’s horrified gaze, the corpse lay back and stuck its legs in the air.

   “Jesus, Mary, and Holy Saint Joseph!” he shrieked, and he fled on his hands and knees to cower sobbing and trembling in the dark beneath the washstand.

   Colm and I slipped out from under the bed, out the door and along the dark landing to my bedroom.

 

Canon Bogan was the first on the scene when he went up to pay his last respects to Granny before leaving.

   As he later told the story, “It was out of Dante’s Inferno or the Marx Brothers, I don’t know which. The poor pious, wee widow woman jacked up under the quilt like a performing acrobat, one irreverent sot out cold in the heap of the coffin and the other cringing in the corner awaiting the Last Trump.”

   A corps of clergy under my Great Uncle Joseph, a ‘16 man and sapper through two world wars, stretched Granny to rights, while Mam and the aunts put Dad’s feet in the fridge to sober him up.

   Colm and I hid in the wardrobe in my room. “Was it a mortal sin, Mikey?” he whispered.    “Are we going to Hell?”

   I considered for a moment. “Yes,” I said, “it’s up there with graven images and worshipping thy neighbour’s ass. It’s definitely mortal.”

   Colm groaned.

   “But lookit, Colm,” I said. “There’s confession on Saturday, so if Dad doesn’t murder us before then, we’ll be right as rain.”

 

The Canon found us soon enough, and although we could understand the stripes from the hairbrush, the two-bob coins he gave us were a mystery to Colm and to me.

  He could have saved his money, for my dad got paralytic drunk as soon as he’d recovered strength enough to hold a glass. He told the company it was a mercy to God that he’d not been struck dead on the spot, and that any man who could turn away a dram after the sight of his risen mam should stand up front and centre so that my father could knock him down again for the heartless un-Christian heathen he was.

   Not even the Reverend Canon took him up on the offer.

Romulus and the Pope

 
I
Sicilians

 

 

Behind the Forum in Rome.

 

 

 

A dozen litter bearers drinking wine and nibbling olives leaned against the counter of an open-air bar opposite a ruined temple. All were tall and blond, and two stood out as hugely muscled, Bear and Wulf.

   “Why do we have to wait while these others shove off?” Angel, the youngest of the group, asked idly as he watched a procession of litters stopping at a discreet iron-barred door in a derelict outbuilding across the street. Gentlemen dressed in antique togas darted out of the door, clambered into litters and were led away by guards bearing torches.

   “Our fellah is the host tonight, so he has the honour of performing the purification ceremonies while his mates go home,” Wulf answered.

   “I wish he’d get a move on.” Angel sniffed the air. “Rain’s on the way.”

 

 

Senator Gaius Antoninus, known as Britannicus, lay on comfortable cushions on one of the stone benches that ran either side of the barrel-vaulted underground chamber twenty feet below the temple ruins.

   He sipped wine from a gold cup stamped with his insignia as an initiate of the Lion rank while around him slaves cleaned silver plates and glassware and polished marble, bronze and gold statuettes under the narrow-eyed supervision of his major domo.

   The dinner had gone smoothly, Britannicus thought. With the bonus of a valuable connection with the visitor who had sat on his left, a gentleman from the coastal resort of Baiae whose freedmen supplied luxury goods to the tourist rental villas, inns and bars in the town.

Britannicus called his nomenclatura, a senior slave trained to remember the names and personal details of his master’s friends, acquaintances and business connections, and they discussed arrangements for an even more select dinner party planned for the following week.    

   A shipment Britannicus had funded of a choice vintage from a well-regarded Gazan vinery was due in the port of Ostia any day, pirates and weather permitting, and the senator aimed to ripen his acquaintance with the visitor from Baiae into friendship and a business deal. The gentleman had suggested he could dispose of several hundred amphorae at a pleasant profit for Britannicus – handled through freedmen of course, so he would not to be tainted by trade.

Britannicus heaved himself up, toasted the deep-carved relief of the One God at the far end of the chamber, and murmured a thanksgiving prayer as he poured the dregs of his wine into the sacrificial grill in the floor.

   He handed his wine cup to a slave to be washed, polished, wrapped in soft leather and fitted into its niche in the utensils portmanteau before he took a deep breath and began the climb up the steep and narrow stairs towards street level. He trod carefully, the hem of his unwieldy toga hitched and gathered under one thick arm and a steadying hand against the smooth wall.    

   The senator’s nomenclatura was before him and his major domo behind, offering discreet tugs and nudges. The slaves and baggage followed.

   Britannicus paused for breath on a landing halfway up and admired the exquisite gold statuette of a shepherd boy with a new-born lamb across his shoulders in its niche, and a marble bust of an equally beautiful young girl in another.

   Britannicus negotiated the final flight of stairs and edged through the narrow doorway into the cobbled street. He recovered his breath as his nomenclatura locked the discreet iron-bound door and gave final instructions to the night watchman.

   Britannicus glanced up. Unlike in the star-studded painted ceiling of the chamber below, clouds hid the moon and stars. He sniffed: rain was in the air.

   Lamplight flickered from a corner bar across the street that had remained open late to cater to the slaves and litter bearers of the worshippers. Britannicus signalled the leader of his bearers, Wulf, who waved his stave in his casual manner and called his men together.

   The senator felt the first drop of rain on his cheek.

   A loud screech startled him, and he turned and peered into the shadows of the temple ruins as black-clad, shrieking figures erupted from hiding places in the rubble and raged into the street brandishing hammers and clubs.

   The senator was thrown to the ground in the rush of attackers, and his nomenclatura was bludgeoned to the ground, kicked, spat at and searched.  The assailants found his keys, unlocked the door of the chapel and swarmed inside.

   Britannicus tried to stand, but he was entwined in the folds of his toga, an awkward garment at the best of times. As he staggered upright, he lost his grip of the hem and the cloth dropped in folds to the grimy cobbles, leaving him in his undertunic and loincloth. He tried to run, but his sandals skidded on the slick cobbles and he fell backwards, landing heavily on his buttocks.    He screeched in pain, then gulped as he blinked up at a fat, hooded man who leaned over him, stinking of sardines and bad wine. The man waved the gold statuette of the shepherd boy from the chapel in the senator’s face and chuckled. “Happy bullday.”

   “Sacrilege, oh, help, help ho!,” the senator cried. He heard a loud crack, and the hooded man tumbled back, rolling to the temple wall. He groaned as he sat up, blood trickling from his nose.

   Wulf stood over the senator.

   “I’ll know you if we meet again,” the hooded man said, wiping blood from his face.

Wulf rubbed his knuckles. “You’re not inconspicuous yourself.”

   The hooded man staggered upright, picked up the statuette and slapped his arm across his chest in salute. “Salve, citizen. God bless.”

    Wulf helped Britannicus up and pulled him back across the street towards the bar.

   “Wulf, do something!”

   “What with, Dominus? We’ve just my stave and the litter poles.” He nodded towards the temple ruins. “They have spears and archers.”

   The attackers dragged a stone inscribed ‘The Way, the Truth and the Light’ out of the chapel and smashed it with hammers.

   “With every blow a demon is destroyed!” their leader cried, holding a rag to his bloody nose.

   Wulf held Bear and the others back as the attackers danced among the smashed statues until, on a shrill command, they knelt and intoned a prayer.

   A man on a tall black horse clattered across the cobbles and pulled up beside the senator’s litter.

   Britannicus looked up at him and frowned at his antique leather armour and helmet with its red side-to-side centurion’s comb. “Filthy Sicilians!” he cried. “Arrest them!”

   The centurion shrugged. “Nothing I can do, Dominus. Not a criminal matter.”

   The attackers faded into the night, and the senator’s slaves crept from their hiding places. His bearers draped the senator’s sodden toga over his shoulders and Britannicus staggered back across the alley and looked about him.

   The marble head of the beautiful girl lay in the gutter by the open door of the chapel, still with a delicate half-smile on her lips. Her nose had been chipped off and a cross scraped into her forehead. Smashed glass vessels, broken marble, crushed bronze statues and shards of pottery were strewn around her.

   He turned to the doorway of the chapel. His nomenclatura lay by the open door. Blood from his head wound trickled into the cracks between the cobbles and dribbled down a drain.

   A steady rain began to fall.

Alternative Facts

 

PROLOG

 

The Capitol, Washington, DC.

 

 

The inauguration of the forty-seventh president of the United States was due to take place on the steps of the Capitol at exactly eleven on the morning of the third of January, two months after the removal of President Trump and six weeks or so after the midterm elections.

   Snow and icy winds had forced a change of venue, and the leader of the Senate, Elias (Genghis) Caan, stood frowning at his cell phone beside the newly-refurbished Ohio Clock in the hallway just outside the Senate Chamber.

   Senator Caan, massively built, elegantly gray-suited and holding his trademark Stetson, ignored the gaggle of congressmen and staffers surrounding him. Among the onlookers was Jack Gould, the sole Democrat representative in a crush of Republicans.

   Jack looked up at the clock. The antique and much-revered timepiece was, at eleven feet, even taller than Genghis, at least with his hat doffed. The dial showed eleven-forty. The officiating officer, Chief Justice Manston Gould, Jack’s father, was running late.

   After a long and stormy dispute with his vice president and the dwindling remnants of his Cabinet, President Trump had been judged incompetent by a two-thirds majority of Congress and dragged kicking and screaming from the Oval Office. The vice president had taken over but exhausted by the rancorous process of extracting Trump from the White House, struggling vainly to form a credible administration, beset by international and domestic crises and stumbling between congressional and grand jury investigations, President Pence had been wracked with existential doubts: he was jittery and insomniac.

On New Year’s night, however, President Pence had not only slept the sleep of the Just, he had experienced a deliciously prophetic dream. Another vivid portent the following night convinced him that with the ouster of Trump, the Fifth Trumpet of Revelation had sounded, heralding the End Time. Earthly matters were no longer of consequence, and President Pence instantly resigned, focusing on preparing himself and his family for their upcoming rapturous journey to the Promised Land.

   The Constitution of the United States is a robust, if convoluted, instrument of government, and its Twenty-fifth Amendment provides not only the means for ridding the White House of a dangerous buffoon, but also the mechanism for choosing his successor.

After the painful extraction of Trump and the resignation of President Pence the mantle of authority should have fallen to the vice-president. With that position vacant, the next up for leader of the free world was the House Speaker, but, as a naturalized citizen, she was ineligible for the highest office. That left the President pro tempore of the Senate, Senator Caan. But the clock was ticking.

   After their spanking in the midterms, the Republicans were to officially lose control of the House the day after Pence’s resignation, at midday on January third. On that deadline, the Democrats, now the majority party, would appoint a new Speaker, who, in the absence of a president and vice president, would be upgraded to the Oval Office.

   Jack glanced again at the clock. President Pence’s resignation letter had been received by the outgoing Senate leader at eleven that morning, either accidentally or deliberately offering Senator Caan, third in the line of succession, a one-hour window of opportunity to claim the presidency and serve out Trump’s tenure.

   Jack shook his head. Almost all his congressional colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, were aghast at the prospect of more presidential shenanigans, and many Republicans, exhausted and disheartened by the Trump debacle, were content to let the Democrats take a turn at the presidential plate, confidently expecting serial screw-ups on their watch. Even at this late hour, senior Republicans were clustered in front of the clock trying to persuade Senator Caan to see sense.

   Genghis regarded his timid colleagues with contemptuous disdain as he settled his Stetson on his head and frowned down at his phone, tapping out a message with one finger.

   A young man in a sharp suit pushed through the crowd, held up a cell-phone camera and confronted Genghis. “Paul Mason, London Independent. Sources close to Pence suggest that the timing of his resignation was accidental, and he had no intention—”

   Genghis, still frowning at his phone, waved the reporter away. A Capitol policeman grabbed him by the arm and frog-marched him back to a rope-line farther along the corridor.

   “That’s President Pence to you,” Jack growled as Mason was dragged past him. “Show some respect.” The young man grinned, and Jack turned, sniffed and surveyed the crowd in the hall.

   He stiffened. Representative Ron Carling, the Democrat’s choice to take over as House Speaker, leaned against the door jamb at the entrance to the Senate Chamber, viewing the packed hallway with a wry smile. He nodded to Jack.

   Genghis’ finger hovered over the call button as he blinked at the text he’d just composed, but before he pressed send, the phone trilled.

   “Hi Genghis,” Jack heard the tinny voice of his father say. “Sorry I’m late. I’m stuck in traffic over by the Ellipse. Listen, I’m having a rethink. Maybe we should add an indemnity clause to the inauguration rites and put a couple of hundred billion dollars in escrow.” He chuckled. “Just in case things go Mar a Lago again?”

   Genghis dropped his cell phone to the marble floor and stomped on it. Reporters barked into their microphones and cameras zoomed in on the debris.

   Genghis was about to toss his hat to the ground by the remains of his phone, when the British reporter called from behind the rope, “Nine minutes to go, Mr. President.” Mason indicated the Ohio Clock.

   Genghis stopped in mid fling. “Someone the heck fetch me a Bible,” he cried.

   An aide loped to the door of the Senate Chamber and pushed past Carling.

   “And a Supreme Court Justice,” Genghis called after him. “Or any kind of a goddamned justice.” He glowered at the clock case behind him in which, rumor had it, legislators had stashed their booze during Prohibition. “And a goddamn drink,” he added under his breath.

   The Senate Bible was unaccountably missing, and a replacement, together with a justice of the peace borrowed from an obscure legal section of the House located in a dank basement office, arrived in the corridor, breathless, just as the Ohio Clock chimed the last of twelve chimes.

   Jack pushed through the crowd and held his hand out to Ron Carling. “Congratulations, Mr. Speaker.” He grinned. “I mean, Mr. President.”

   President Carling shook Jack’s hand. “And to you, Mr Speaker.” He sniffed and looked over his long nose at the crowd of legislators milling in the corridor. “I’m not officially in the Oval till I take the Oath.” He checked his watch, and then the Ohio Clock. “That piece of junk is two minutes’ fast. Genghis could’ve done it.” He chuckled. “And he’d have been deep fried in his own fat. Woulda made the Clinton pecker thing look like a picnic on the Potomac.”

   President Carling gave Jack a narrow-eyed look. “God knows, this is not an honor I’ve hankered after, but as it is, I’m gonna need a vice president.”

   Jack beamed. “I serve at your pleasure, Mr President.”

  “I guess that’s what Trump’s appointees assured him before they shafted him with the grand jury.”

   President Carling looked over Jack’s shoulder. “Here’s your father. I don’t see a Bible, but unlike Genghis, I came prepared.” He held up a leather bag. “I borrowed the Senate Bible from under the vice president’s desk.”

   Chief Justice Gould sauntered along the corridor and held out his hand to Genghis. After a slight hesitation recorded by the pool TV camera, Genghis shook it.

   “No hard feelings, I hope,” Chief Justice Gould said, smiling. “It’s a question of muffin, Genghis. In the parlous state of the country right now, there’s only so much muffin we can get down our throats without we choke.”