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PADRAIG ROONEY

 

 

 

 

Padraig Rooney

Padraig Rooney has published one novel and three collections of poetry. His early stories were published in New Irish Writing, Best Irish Short Stories 2 & 3 (Paul Elek), Phoenix Irish Short Stories, London Magazine and Stand. In 2010 he won the Strokestown International Poetry Prize. He is the 2012 winner of the Listowel Single Poem Award. He lives in Switzerland.

 

 

 

 

The Tin Tabernacle

 

 

 

1

 

Sadie Orr worshipped in a part of town gentrified by the coming of the railway. The meetinghouse was flanked on one side by a private nursing home and on the other by a credit union set back behind railings painted gold at their tips. The model school let out at three twenty-five, half an hour before the Catholic schools, and the pupils in crested blazers with red piping lounged against the railings until their bus pulled in. Their names were different from ours: Cecil, Shirley, Ivor.

 

It was a small galvanised shack with blacked-out windows and a tarpaper roof, the plot fenced by remaindered sleepers. It reeked of creosote in summer, and in winter the wind threatened to lift it from its moorings. On Friday nights, returning from the scouts, I wondered was there a tabernacle and what was in it. A notice board gave the times of worship and the minister’s name: the Rt. Rev. Charles William Oxtoby M.A. Oxon.

 

One Sunday evening in June Sadie’s raucous voice hailed me from the footpath: “Hello Paudie.” We were neighbours and she would expect me to accompany her out the road. The Orrs lived in the old lock house across the canal from us.

 

“This is Reverend Oxtoby,” she said.

 

It might have been an occasion of sin to shake hands with a minister. He was medium height, slight, youthful despite hair speckled with grey. At twelve I had no handle on adult ages.

 

“Paudie, is that right?” My name turned condescending in his mouth, but he kept hold of my hand. Names in our part of the world tended to rehash history, familial or political. His eye scanned my uniform shirt to decipher the merit badges. He read them off one by one with easy flattery.

 

“That one’s for fire-making. And knots. And that one’s for first aid.”

 

“You must have been setting fire to the whole countryside,” sniffed Sadie. “Where were yous?”

 

“Out at Carton.”

 

“Ah, Carton.” The minister gave the name its proper due. “I hope you weren’t totally pyromaniac. Is that a place I should know?”

 

“It’s just outside the town,” Sadie said.

 

“I wasn’t in the scouts myself. I was in the boys’ brigade. But I expect it amounts to the same thing. Knots, and fending for oneself. You had good weather; at least you weren’t rained upon.”

 

He spoke in la-dee-dah English while Sadie’s red heel kept time on the pavement.

 

“Are you heading out the road?” she asked, cutting short his palaver.

 

“And what does this mean?” He ran a finger along the embroidered applicate over my pocket. “It must be in Gaelic.” He pronounced it Gallic.

 

Gasóga Católici na hÉireann: Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland.”

 

He attempted to repeat the Irish and all three of us laughed. The bib of his collar had worked loose from his jumper. His grey suit and dusty slip-ons would have marked him down as a bit of a swinger were he a priest. Not totally square, anyhow. He asked us to call him Charles, and there was another round of handshakes as though we were all great friends. I put the rucksack on the carrier and we walked under the cool trees with their conkers ready to come down.

 

“That’s the new minister,” said Sadie. She was inviting comment but knew none would be forthcoming. You didn’t run down the other side to their face. She tottered beside me in one of her “get-ups”, as my mother called them: a scarlet suit with wide white lapels like one of the Redcoats at Butlins.

 

Under the shade of the trees she put a steadying hand on my shoulder. “Hold on there, Paudie, till I change me shoes. These heels has me run ragged. Look at them ladders.”

 

She took a pair of gutties from her handbag and slipped off the shoes with a sigh.

 

“That’s better.” She hoked in her bag and lit a cigarette. “Do you want a fag, Paudie? No? Sure what harm will it do you? All you boys must have been at the fags round the campfire. Was the crack good?”

 

At home I made straight for the sitting room and looked up pyromaniac in the dictionary.

 

 

2

 

They were not the black Protestants my uncle railed against up in Belfast, hogging jobs in Harland & Wolff, but Presbyterians who shopped with “their own kind” in the border towns before the Troublesnot Ascendancy, Uncle Sean joked, but Descendancy. Sadie was thirty years younger than her husband Davy, an invalid who occupied the back room of the lock house and knocked with the poker when he wanted attention. A minute later she crossed the garden with an antique china po and threw the contents into the canal, disused since the Great War in which Davy had fought “for King and Country”. The canal ran between us, the locks rotted, the rats sneaking up to our back door in broad daylight to eat the scraps we kept for my uncle’s greyhounds. I helped my father put down poison and traps for the rats, but they were cute.

 

On Armistice Day Davy stood at the edge of the canal like a scarecrow, shrunk inside a black three-piece suit, sporting a medal. We gathered at the scullery window. My father said Davy was making a last stand. My mother said he’d get his death, and him at death’s door already. Once a month, pension day in the North, Sadie got off the bus from Armagh in her bell-bottom trouser suit, and sang her way down the lane.

 

“That Sadie one’s a holy terror. Half-scuttered. There’ll be ructions.” My mother raised her eyes to heaven.

 

It was Davy’s second marriage; his first wife had died of the flu. He was ‘staunch’: on Sunday evenings Songs of Praise bounced through our scullery window, and on the twelfth of August the drums on the wireless rattled the glass.

 

“There’s nothing invalid about thon wee Orangeman,” Uncle Sean said.

 

Sadie, on the other hand, didn’t make any difference; she was harmless. My mother offered her a glass of sherry when she got off the bus from town laden with groceries. She left lipstick on the butts crushed in the ashtray that I emptied behind the hedge “in case your father smells them”.

 

My father had had a second heart attack and was off the fags. In the evenings he went on long walks on the unapproved roads along the border, swinging a cane. We sometimes crossed paths, and these unexpected encounters jolted me into seeing him with the callous eyes of a twelve-year-old: his slower movements, a jaunty manner, as though the cane were a prop from the Noel Coward plays he had acted in at university. A look of pleasure animated his drawn face when he saw me in my scout uniform or returning from second study. He came home along the canal towpath, beating nettles with the cane, and his talk was filled with the names of the old baronies, abandoned quarries where he liked to examine the gravel pits.

 

At teatime my mother beat a saucepan lid with a wooden spoon to summon us back from Sadie’s, where we went to play games from the compendium box she kept on the windowsill. It was the signal to shake the dice one last time for Ludo, or Snakes and Ladders. When Sadie wheeled Davy in for his tea, our small Roman presence reproached his age and infirmity. His invalid chair had levers and contraptions that would nip your fingers as we helped him negotiate the three tiny rooms of the lock house.

 

The summer the Yanks came my sister changed out of her convent uniform into a poncho and hot pants and crossed the canal on her own to gossip with Sadie about boys. The Yanks were cousins of our next-door neighbours, Maureen and Lucy. Maureen was my age, pale-skinned in a summer frock gathered at the chest in intriguing rucks. Before venturing across the footbridge of stones we’d made through the reeds and mud of the canal, she removed her clocked stockings and stuffed them into her sandals. Safely on the other side, she wiped her muddied feet on the grass and sat on a stone under the whitethorn hedge to roll on her socks and buckle her sandals. I looked up her frock at the taut crease of white knickers.

 

“The Yanks are coming,” she said.

 

“When?”

 

“Next week. They’re flying into Shannon. They’re going to rent a car.”

 

Maureen’s sister, Lucy, at eleven, was the same age as my brother. She wore Maureen’s cast-off frocks, and was prettier. Sadie delighted in pairing the four of us on the sofa, egging us on to handholding or stolen kisses. When we tired of the compendium box, we played truth and dare gamesspin the bottle, blind man’s bluff. Sadie’s smile exposed her black back teeth.

 

“That’ll be a girlfriend for you, Paudie.”

 

My heart tightened, called to account, and when the Yanks arrived I noted the girl’s brown hair cut in a bob, her jeans, her sweet ten-year-old face. But it was the boy, Kevin, I fell for: his crew-cut compactness, like the astronauts’ kids, small neat ears like dough left over after a tart, Irish eyes in tanned skin. He was my first love and already I knew to keep him to myself.

 

“Hi,” he said, wet lower lip slack, as though an essential muscle were missing. What I had on him in months, he won hands down in glamour; he was one of the ethereal beings, casual and aloof, in the Teen 16 magazines Sadie brought back from Armagh.

 

We showed them the guinea pigs and the rabbits and let them feed Sadie’s goats. A milestone, sunk in the grass of the towpath, allowed me to show off my knowledge of history. A path led through nettles beneath the bridge to a platform where flax had been offloaded. Deep in the mystery of the canal that summer, I explained what flax was but all my pedantry only highlighted our rustic world. The Yanks responded with timid shrugs.

 

“Mind the briars.” I held them back to let him pass, and his smell was clean, cottony.

 

Under the bridge our hideout was dark. We played with the echo.

 

“There’s rats.”

 

“Rats! Ugh!” Cathy made a face.

 

“Big ones. Water rats. That size. They nest in the bank.”

 

Kevin squared his shoulders and stretched to touch the arch of the bridge without falling into the canal. The faint hair in his armpit electrified me. We waited on the rats to come from their hiding places.

 

“There! They go after the water hens’ eggs.”

 

“Where?”

 

A shiny grey back disappeared into the bulrushes.

 

“Hey, that’s neat.”

 

Next morning two of them scrabbled and sniffed against the metal portcullis of the traps. I filled a bucket at the rain barrel and submerged the first trap. The rat kept his eyes open. They have great lung capacity, my father said. The bubbles stopped, the feet, like little hands, turned upwards. I threw it over the hedge into the canal.

 

3

 

Reverend Oxtoby sat down beside me on the park bench and remembered my name.

 

“Paudie, isn’t it?” The suit was shinier in the sun. “You’ve been shopping. You’ve been to the boutiques. And now you’re watching the cricket.”

 

A white figure bowled in the heat. I had hitched across the border for a Ben Sherman button-down shirt and a granddad vest I was going to tie-dye. He extended a roll of polo mints and I clutched my purchases in the shade of the chestnut trees.

 

“Have you been doing any more camping?”

 

I told him about Bob-a-Job week and the small hours of that summer watching the moon flight on the television.

 

“I hope you haven’t been spending the money on yourself.” He was determined to make me out as a rascal.

 

“And did Sadie give you a job?”

 

“She did. I cleaned out the shed under the bridge.”

 

“O, bravo!” He clapped slowly, and I thought he was mocking me. Applause from under the trees tipped into the centre of the green where a flurry of movement galvanised him. The batman ran, the minister’s eyes followed, quick and blue under brows from which grey hairs strayed. He caught me watching.

 

“So what did you get? Let me see.”

 

“My father had vests like that. Surely you’re not cold?”

 

I explained about the tie-dying.

 

“I see.” He had found my bright threads wanting and began to explain the game of cricket. Then he bought us 99-cones from a van and asked me if I wanted to visit the planetarium before he gave me a lift home. We finished the cones quickly in the heat and drove past the big Protestant houses out the Newry road and walked around an exhibition about the moon: the command module, the service module, and the lunar excursion module; glass cases of Teflon overalls, freeze-dried, vacuum-packed space meals.

 

I thought the planetarium roof would open and there would be the night sky, the solar system. Instead, the auditorium dimmed, the plush seats inclined, a fake moon spun above us, entering its speeded up phases. The minister smelled of vanilla beside me as the voice of Patrick Moore came over the tannoys. Nothing happened. No hand on my knee or across my tense shoulders.

 

On the drive home I asked about the meetinghouse. I said it reminded me of the Tardis in Doctor Who.

 

“And why does it do that?”

 

“It looks so small from the outside.”

 

“It’s an old meetinghouse, one of the original tin tabernacles, and has been in continuous use since before the Great War.”

 

He was defensive but I asked anyway.

 

“Is there a tabernacle in it?”

 

“You know what the word tabernacle means in Latin?” He let the silence grow between us. “A hut, or tent.”

 

He dropped me off in front of our house and I never saw him again. Sadie called me over and asked me to put a bet on Arkle, “her flutter” the bookie called it, smiling knowingly. “Your father’s on the mend,” he said, giving me the slip to fill out, and I went and stood in the smoke by the door where two dark-skinned gypsies, my age, with furtive eyes, looked up at the television and waited for their races to be called. The horses were led out and under starter’s orders. It must have been a steeplechase but I remember it as a race on the flat. The jockeys like boys standing up in the stirrups, in their silks. It was the holy hour and the men came in from the pubs through the saloon doors. The race was a foregone conclusion. I was sick with love that summer, and desire, and kept glancing over at the tinkers, the summer of moon landings and pyromania. There had been only that one glimpse of the boy’s underarm and the smell of his cotton t-shirt and his fascination at the rats that I trapped and drowned in the mornings. Kevin. He never came out to play; it was as though he knew I was out there waiting for himhis compact figure holding off in the dark like a god. And then Davy died and Sadie moved away to England. There were no more summers with the compendium box, its snakes and ladders. The lock house grew dark across the canal and the canal grew in. The girls went away, or I went away, and my brother died, then my father and all the deaths, one after the other, like horses. The girls, young, of cancer. Arkle was put out to stud. For years you could get no odds on Arkle, a bookie told me. And at night, walking out the road, past the tin tabernacle standing back behind the gold-tipped railings, I wondered what was in it, what god sat there in the creosote and galvanised darkness? Nothing happened under the bridge: but of course everything happened.

 

 

©2013 Padraig Rooney

 

 

Author Links

 

Padraig Rooney website

Publications by Padraig Rooney at Amazon

Poems by Rooney in Southword Journal

Paul Dolan interviews Rooney at ThinkShop

 

 

 

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