In his collection of short stories, the author charts the life of Shay Elliott, Ireland’s first professional cyclist, as he struggles to compete against riders in a peloton saturated with performance enhancing drugs. After he returned to Ireland he died in a shotgun accident while making plans to coach amateur cyclists. We are taken to a meeting of Washington politicians, which culminated in the unlawful invasion of Iraq; a tragic, obscene war encouraged by Pentagon hawks and self-serving gentlemen of the right. Commandeered oil, outsourced waterboarding and enhanced torture techniques in defiance of Article One of the Geneva Convention, are imprimatured in cautious Machiavellian dialogue. We witness the insane cluster bombing of the virtually defenceless city of Baghdad; with its medieval clay and plaster dwellings that crumble to dust in air raids. We visit broken, mutilated children in Baghdad’s Al Kindi Hospital. We are taken to a chateau on the outskirts of Paris, the headquarters of the Aryan Brotherhood in France. The Aryans have devised a new strategy, a panacea to erase the simmering tensions of class warfare in French society. The goal is to create a new social order by restoring the privileged bourgeois to power; condemning the general populace to serfdom, through the science of eugenics. In ‘Up at the Palace’ Borstal detainees face the darkness of unspoken cruelties; a dignitary of the church faces his demons. We visit Alaska, the last remaining wilderness left on earth. Raging storms in the Bering Sea threaten life and limb aboard the good ship ‘ Tacoma’ A super sleuth, Marc Claudel, of the French Surete, becomes involved in terrorism and murder.
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Shay Elliott and Collected Short Stories
By John Flanagan
AuthorHouse LLCCopyright © 2014 John Flanagan
All rights reserved.
THE ALTAR BOY
"Now Son, make sure you practice the Latin on your way down to the Church. And look, you haven't finished polishing your shoes yet, and remember," said my mother with a final admonishment, "don't smile, you're on the altar of God."
I sat on the chair in my stocking feet, spit on my shoes and as I brushed them into a semblance of a shine I wondered why I let myself be talked into joining the Altar Society of the Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough Street. Dublin. The trouble started when Father Thackaberry came to my school to ask for volunteers to assist at the Mass and I put my hand up. I thought I'd get time off school to learn the Latin but found out too late I had to go to the Church on my own time. Most of my friends were already assisting at the Mass but until I learned the Latin I would be relegated to the role of candle bearer.
I left home at 7:30 P.M. to walk the short distance to the Pro-Cathedral, Dublin. An icy drizzle was coming down on this dark midwinter's night, drawing the tenements near and drenching the empty dismal Dublin streets. I pulled my collar up around my chin as the rain poured down my face. Everyone else was at home, cosy and comfortable around a warm fire. Well, the lucky ones at least.
It is unusually quiet in Parnell Street, apart from the wind and rain. The street traders deserted stalls were still out, the fruit, vegetables and fish under tarpaulin covers. The traders are all in there, in the snug of the Blue Lion pub or down at The Shakespeare pub seeking respite from the weather and the hard times. The sound of boisterous singing drifted out from the pub. At the age of 14 years I couldn't imagine how they could find pleasure in drinking for hours on end. I once heard a trader telling my mother that the reason she drank was to make the company of some, who would remain anonymous, more bearable. The world's worst bore after a drink, it would appear, could be made omniscient.
I turned left into Marlborough Street. A salubrious name of an English Duke for a ramshackle street with tottering Georgian tenements, pubs and pawnbrokers galore. Ahead of me is the protestant chapel. Rumour has it that if you ran around that pagan edifice three times you'd see the devil. At one time I ran around it twice and then went straight home, I saw no sense in tempting Providence. Suddenly I remembered the Latin and recited the little I knew;
Ad deum qui laetificate juventutem maem quia tu es deus fortitudo mea quare me repulisti et quare tristas incedo dum affligate me inimicus et ..., et ...,
I had forgotten again. I hadn't a bent for foreign languages. I crossed Cathal Brugha Street. Before me, under the enamelled, blue awning of Lyons Tea, sat the huddled, shapeless figures of the two winos, Jack the Boxer and Malachi the Poet. They were laughing hysterically as I passed them and when they raised their red-glazed eyes to look at me, I quickened my pace. They were in the throes of a delirium that made them impervious to the chilling rain and cold. Their emaciated faces were ablaze from the raging fire of the alcohol. Empty Red Biddy bottles lay scattered about their feet, drained of the magic elixir that had woven kaleidoscopes of wondrous images, until reality was suspended and happiness, however illusory, embraced them for a few fleeting moments. Jack had been a Garda Siochana and a heavyweight boxing contender. He was massively built with a great shock of sleek black hair. He was handsomely imposing in the way some men of the West are, being as many are descended from Spanish sailors washed ashore in Galway after the carnage of the Spanish Armada in 1588. It was said he was a dab hand at the Irish dancing and the floor would tremble when he got going in the Siege of Ennis. Great things were expected of him in the ring until the drink, an opponent he would never defeat, gained the upper hand and smote him down. Malachi had had his poems published in a national newspaper. He was thin and frail with sparse fair hair and a long delicate face. He had been brutalized since childhood by a drunken lout of a father. To add to his woes he was an epileptic but Jack seemed to know how to help him when he had a seizure. Malachi clung tenaciously to life and to his sanity by his fine intelligence and his love of poetry. And as timorous men seek strong friends, Malachi was drawn to Jack to lessen the burden of his private hell. I left the two winos as I found them, dispossessed orphans of the storm, unwitting players strutting their hour on the stage in the role of the damned. Fate, which we are taught is the fulfilment of God's will, could as easily have cast them in the role of a King or a Merchant Prince with the most benign indifference. Tomorrow the grinning face of the piper will wake them, and the frenzied laughter of this night will be paid for in full.
Malachi once stopped me in the street and, quietly sober, told me that but for him, I wouldn't exist. He said his life negated mine and I was merely an image on the periphery of his vision, and if he had not been born to see me I wouldn't be here. He said our identity needed to be verified by others, because it was impossible to prove our existence to ourselves alone. It was all over my head but Malachi was a poet, so you had to make allowance.
I went up the steps of the Pro-Cathedral, went in and looked at the clock above the door. I had time to get confession before I got ready to assist at Benediction. In the pervasive silence I walked tiptoe past a row of old women wrapped in black shawls, all intently praying, some holding rosary beads. A few eyebrows rose with faint smiles of recognition as I was well known to the Parnell Street traders. I used to steal their apples and oranges, but when they offered me fruit without the asking, their generous hearts refined my callous instincts and I've been straight ever since. I genuflected, went over to my right and sat on a long seat outside the confessional. Before me a statue of the Blessed Virgin appeared to levitate over a pyre of penny candles. I looked up at the name over the confessional. A priest I don't know and I'm glad, I don't like confessing to the ones who know me.
Four penitents on my side, five opposite, all black-shawled street traders. Eyes staring into space, the lined sallow faces translucent in the dim light. Where do they go? To what lofty realm do their supplications and hopes soar and finally rest? Meditating on their transgressions against the decrees of God and His Church. From this prelude of misery and despair they will leave the Church re-born in a state of grace, metamorphosed from sinner to divine, shining in the light of God's love. It's almost worth sinning. You'd miss a lot by being holy all the time.
Two to go, sliding sideways on this hard wooden bench, highly polished by countless generations of Dublin bottoms sliding to redemption. The door of the confessional opened, one out, one in. A quiet thankyou for the door held open. Now an indiscreet penitent inside the confession box is talking above the normal whisper. He is hard of hearing so he talks louder and I can hear everything he has been up. I feign piety and cover my face with my hands as if in prayer but it's only to stop myself smiling. My smile vanished as I saw an old woman sliding wearily on the seat opposite. I recognized Mrs. Mulvey, one of the Parnell Street traders. Emaciated and worn out, a black shawl covered her inclined head. If God ever visited crosses on anyone in this life He heaped them to excess on that unfortunate woman. She sold fish and had her stall near the Blue Lion pub in the snug of which she spent most of the day. She had steady customers who would take the fish, wrap it themselves and go in and pay her in the pub. She often sold a whole box of mackerel without leaving the Blue Lion. She raised 16 children in a two pair back in a tenement house in Gardiner Street. I never saw her looking so sad and unhappy as she did at that moment. She edged sideways again towards the confessional and came to rest in the lamplight that filtered in through the stained glass windows. The light illuminated her hands, fingers entwined. A rosary passed between a knurled finger and a thumb. Her hands like her face were of a deathly pallor, a wax-like patina of marble.
I went into the confessional and knelt down. A crucifix appeared out of the darkness as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom. A small wire mesh in front of a sliding panel. The panel slid across. The profile of an old head, white, weary and bowed. I whispered through the wire mesh.
"Bless me Father for I have sinned. It's a week since my last confession. I cursed and committed ..., eh, unholy actions."
"You must try to mend your ways, my son, and keep from bad influences. Remember the devil is always lying in wait. You must fight the forces of evil. How old are you, my son?"
"I'm fourteen, Father."
"Why were you cursing, my son?"
"I don't mean to Father; it just comes out all of a sudden."
"It's the devil getting hold of you. And what about the unholy acts?"
"I ... I ... eh ..."
"Don't be shy in front of God, my son."
"I ... eh ... I kissed a girl Father."
"Why, my son?"
"I don't know, Father."
"Is there anything else?"
"It's the devils work, no doubt about it. You are young and at the crossroads of your life. Seek recourse in the saints. Pray to Saint Jude, the saint of Hopeless Cases. He will come to your aid but only if you are holy and contrite in your heart. You must never see that girl again, for she will corrupt your soul for all eternity."
"For your penance say three decades of the rosary and offer ten Hail Marys to Saint Jude. Now say the Act of Contrition."
I recited the final prayer for him. He leaned towards me before he closed over the panel.
"God bless you, my son. Remember me in your prayers."
I left the confessional and went over by the statue of Archbishop Murray and knelt down in the semi-darkness. The damp flagstones made my knees numb as I said my penance. I always kneel on the cold flagstones instead of the pews as someone told me I'd get more indulgences that way. Three decades of the rosary, I'll be here all night just for kissing Una. I lost count of the Hail Marys. When some altar boys passed me on the way to the vestry I cut my contrition short and followed them down the narrow steps to the changing room. A babble of excited chatter filled the room as Charlie the Sacristan handed me a black soutane and a white surplice. I put the soutane on and quickly buttoned it down. The surplice was crisp and starchy. I peeled the folds apart and pulled it over my head. Charlie asked me to recite the Latin but I was so nervous I couldn't remember it. He was very annoyed with me and said he wasn't sure I wanted to be an altar boy. My head was just too full of worldly affairs, Una for instance. After last minute instructions four of us went up to the vestry and picked up the Benediction candles. Charlie lit the candles while Father Thackaberry waited for us to precede him to the altar. I felt a tinge of nervousness as I went out to make my debut as a candle bearer in the Pro-Cathedral.
Charlie opened the door and our tiny procession wound its way through a packed congregation to the high altar. I was alright until I saw the holes in the socks of Noel Styles, the candle bearer in front of me. I had to suppress a smile that now threatened to spread across my face. You'd think his mother would darn the holes in his socks if he was going to peregrinate on the altar of God. We went up on the steps of the altar and took up our positions. The congregation stood and sang.
O salutaris hostia
quae coeli panis ostium
bella premunt hostilia
da robur fer auxilium.
Father Thackaberry opened the tabernacle, enthroned the Blessed Sacrament and began the reading. We turned and faced the congregation. It was Friday night, the nave, transepts and aisles were filled to capacity.
A priest, a big culchie with a rotund suety face, climbed awkwardly up to the pulpit. He rubbed his hands together and smiled benignly over a sea of wan faces. In a subdued voice the priest began his sermon by reminding the congregation of the timely remittance of their pledged dues. Punctuating his soothing tones with reassuring nods and smiles he expressed his regret that henceforth the names of recalcitrant payers of dues would be printed in the Church newsletter and read out in public. The fear was palpable in the many who stared at him open mouthed. A deathly silence and gasps of disbelief now fell over an already subdued congregation. The priest's thick country accent went up a few octaves as he warmed to his theme and in no time he had stopped smiling and was bellowing like a man possessed. With eyes bulging the priest directed his fiery rhetoric at the nave of the Church wherein sat societies destitute, all the street traders among them, cringing with guilt under the onslaught. In a fit of anger he thumped the pulpit with his huge fists. With a pointed forefinger he described an arc over the heads of the petrified congregation and expounded on the wages of sin and the hellfire to come. If he had an ounce of sense in his thick culchie head he'd know the largest part of his congregation was already living in hell, in rat-infested tenements with families of up to 16 living in two rooms. The jowls under his chin undulated like a turkey's wattle each time he moved his head. His suety face by this time was scarlet, as if scorched by the very flames he alluded to.
My wandering eyes fell on Una. She was looking straight at me, and smiling and whispering to two other girls. She was probably telling them about us, as if she wasn't the one who started it all. I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was wearing her red beret, the one she had on when she asked me to be her boyfriend. I said we were too young. She said Romeo's Juliet was also only 14 when she fell in love and how could I counter that even if I wanted to.
The incense rose in small grey clouds from the thurible, filling the Pro-Cathedral with its sickly sweet aroma. Father Thackaberry elevated the Host. We inclined our heads forward for a moment in adulation. The congregation rose to its feet and sang the second hymn.
Tantum ergo sacramentum
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui
prestat fides supplementum
sensuum defectui. Amen.
I could never see Una or talk to her again under pain of mortal sin. Henceforth I would walk in the light of God's love and cast out Satan. From the pews she smiled at me again with those dark lustrous eyes that would lead a saint astray and already I feel my resolve weakening. O Saint Jude, Saint of Hopeless Cases, pray for me.
The careworn faces of the women at the altar rail, their beauty decimated by squalor and abusive husbands. They are nature's sweet bounty, orchids that can somehow survive even the compost heap of the Dublin tenements. Mrs Mulvey is among them and I was delighted to see her face lightened briefly by the euphoria of absolution. The Divine Praises begin.
Blessed be God
Blessed be His Holy Name
Blessed be His Most Sacred Heart
Blessed be the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar.
I think I'm going to have trouble with Una. I wish she wasn't so pretty. It's a test of faith. What am I going to do when she says hello? Saint Jude, help me not to think of her anymore. Father I am not worthy I should enter under your roof. Forgive me my trespasses. If I can't be holy and chaste here in the shadow of the tabernacle, what hope have I got on the outside. But I must try. Benediction was over. I left the altar with the other candle bearers as the last hymn was being sung.
Adoremus in aeternum
laudate eum omnes populi
quoniam confirmeta est supernos
misericordia ejus, et veritas domini
manet in aeternum.
Inside the vestry again, we were all talkative and jubilant, and Father Thackaberry smiled indulgently at us all. I went down to the changing room where I carefully put away my soutane and surplice. By the time I had finished all the other altar boys had left. All the garments were strewn around the room. Would I become careless in time, how could that be possible? Something so full of infinite meaning as the Mass and Benediction could never be staled by custom or repetition. But they were like me once, starting, awed and in wonder, reverential. No it would not happen to me. I looked at the clock. 9:00 P.M. A desultory chime of a pendulum striking the hour, echoed eerily through the damp gothic cell beneath the Pro-Cathedral. I put out the light and walked up the stairs. The Church was empty. A bolt slammed noisily into place as Charlie, the sacristan, locked up for the night. I knelt for a moment in the last pew and fervently joined my hands. I will go forward in Your light. This embracing love of God that elevates and lightens the soul. Tomorrow I will talk to Father Thackaberry about some things that have bothered me of late. Maybe he can explain to me why God is so angry and unforgiving of human frailty since, Him being God, He knows in advance how everyone is going to behave? I watched as Charlie walked up the steps of the altar and extinguished the candles. Thin wisps of white smoke spiral upwards as he moved from one candle to another. I blessed myself, genuflected and went out into the cold night air.
Excerpted from Shay Elliott and Collected Short Stories by John Flanagan. Copyright © 2014 John Flanagan. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Altar Boy, 1,
The Aryan Agenda, 15,
Who is Gabrielle?, 73,
Guest of the Station, 103,
The Wake of the Tacoma, 129,
The Bishop, 141,
The Fiancee, 175,
Shay Elliott. A Sporting Life, 209,
Up at the Palace, 243,