ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE by Peadar de Burca
Henry Roche is lying on a big brass bed with Miss Gilligan’s breast in his mouth.
A car horn. The prolonged blast yanks him from his teenage erotic wonderland. Little spits of rain remind him he’s walking on the South Douglas road, sodium vapour streetlights and a Maxol petrol station, a line of cars jostling for the pumps. He’s on his way to the Greenhills housing estate where his friend Jason Dodd lives. They both have parts in the school musical, Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat, Feb 14-16 Colaiste an Spiorad Naoimh School Hall—all proceeds in aid of Alzheimer’s Cork. The first dress rehearsal is this evening, and Henry’s chest flutters when he thinks of his big moment; belting out the song “One More Angel.” Jason can’t sing or dance worth a spit, but Miss Gilligan, their English teacher, wanted to show him there was more to life than Grand Theft Auto so she shoe-horned him into a few crowd scenes, so far to the rear Doddy was technically backstage.
Miss Gilligan. Such a perky way of standing and smiling. Henry found himself thinking of her a lot. He has his favourite Miss Gilligan memories which he never tires of swiping left on. He’d love to do another little swipe now, but he’s already at Jason’s house.
The lights are on. He can see Jason’s brothers in the sitting room either hugging or wrestling. The latter, he supposes. A giant flat-screen TV stuck to the wall above the fireplace and a chintzy chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Henry pulls back the sliding glass door and rings the doorbell. No answer. He can hear the TV from the porch and the bass thump of shitty music coming from the room overhead.
He phones. No answer. Jason rarely answered a phone-call, yet responded to every dopey WhatsApp message straight away.
I’m at your porch. Rehearsals 7pm!!!!!
The Jason is typing message flickers at the top of the phone-screen.
Crazy here can u cum back in 20
So crazy, Jason had to give the word Come a porno spelling. So crazy he couldn’t invite Henry in. Not that he wants to go in. The place reeked like some kind of BO freakshow and Jason’s brothers had this way of shouting really loud. Last time he was there, Benny Dodd gave him a purple nurple and belched in his face while he was doing it.
The Sacred Heart Church is two minutes away. Henry figures he’ll kill time sitting on a pew, googling Liverpool F.C. and try not to get too hung up on singing “One More Angel” with a mic for the first time.
He breaks into a mild jog and jumps the wall into the church grounds. The rain lashes dark stains on his jeans. He dips a finger in the stone basin of holy water (just a reflex, he doesn’t know why he did it) and makes for the second-last pew, sliding in, stopping by a knee-high, bronze plaque that says
Donated by The Hardiman Family
He’s about to unzip his jacket when he hears it—
A long and deep growl.
The timbre is more animal than human. Henry doesn’t know it yet, but there’s going to be no singing or dancing this night.
Or maybe not ever.
The Sacred Heart is one of a slew of Catholic churches built after the optimism of the Pope’s visit to Ireland in the nineteen eighties, and most look better now than they did then. Irish society caught up with the design-led architecture of the era which sacrificed pomp in favour of minimalism. The Sacred Heart is cheery, with large white walls and a huge oval chancel. There are no nooks or vestibules or stone crannies for shadows to gather and multiply.
Henry doesn’t expect an answer, but feels obligated to call out.
The rain and wind thrash against a long horizontal window on his right.
While it isn’t clear what’s making the noise, the atavistic nature of the growl warns Henry to be careful. He slides his ass along the glossy teak pew. A German Shepherd? He’d come across one with his father on a country lane in Skibereen over the summer. A malnourished old fella, hurt and unwilling to let them get close. Henry had to beg his father to phone a vet, an English woman who took an hour to arrive, which turned out to be half an hour too late.
The memory pricks him, but in a good way, giving him courage. He moves to the centre aisle full of cold focus, like a soldier from Delta Company in Ghost Recon Wildlands. He catalogues the empty pews. Screw Joseph and his Technicolour Gimp-coat, screw Jason Dodd and screw his father who never wanted to help anyone, too busy making money with his RENTAL PORTFOLIO. Liam Roche has sixteen properties in or around Cork City. Last year he earned sixty-nine thousand euro out of one property alone. Henry’s mother told him this and told him never to tell anyone else.
A shriek of wind. The church’s pitched roof creaks. Henry carries on up the aisle, slowly, like someone counting out measurements in actual feet.
The growling is coming from the top of the church. Henry keeps advancing, his stiff body shaped in the hands-up pose of a bank robber surrendering. He should have an escape plan ready, just in case the wounded animal scenario gives way to a Thriller-era Michael Jackson werewolf, hungry for boymeat.
Wheezing noises play behind the altar. Henry steps on the carpeted lip of the chancel, angling his approach for a better view.
A boot. There’s a boot, like a builder’s boot, so it must be
In a way he’s glad. They are easier to reason with, he supposes.
Three more steps and the full body presents itself. A man in jeans and ripped bomber jacket. His curly red hair clumped in a crusty scoria of blood. Henry thinks of those giant heads on Easter Island, but that isn’t right...this guy is more...more...simian. His body too. Built like a gorilla.
The guy (Henry can’t stop the phrase “Monkey-Man” popping into his head), has his eyes closed, his shaggy, paleo head nodding from side-to-side, fighting for consciousness.
‘Hold on, okay...? I’ll go for the priest...’ Because this is the only thing he can really do. Plus, without the need of any interior monologue, Henry has pieced together the clues we all use to identify if someone is a threat. The (Monkey-Man) guy has clumsy tats printed on his fingers. His jeans are clunky, ill-fitting, the kind you get for five euro in a bargain bin in a Retail Outlet MegaSt%re. He has either been assaulted or lost a fight and it doesn’t take Sherlock to figure out a guy with steel-cap boots doesn’t spend his spare time pressing dried flowers into a notebook made from recycled paper.
The priest’s house is a little bungalow to the rear of the church. A sensor light clicks on when Henry comes to the porch and presses the bell. The door opens after the third ding-dong.
‘Eh, hello,’ says Henry.
The priest is tall, closer to seventy than sixty. Grey cardigan over black shirt and pants.
‘Are you here about the youth group meetings?’ asks the priest. ‘Father Spencer...I think, yes, he takes them on...what day is this?
‘Oh...okay. Father Spencer takes them on...Friday evenings.’
He has kind eyes and the air of an old knight who spends his evenings tangled up in cobwebs, while the mice come out to steal the cheese and gin.
‘I’m not here for the youth meetings, Father. There’s a...eh...’ It’s on the tip of Henry’s tongue to say Monkey-Man. ‘...a man...’
‘Yes, Father, he’s hurt – in the church.’
‘Oh... I see. I don’t like it when people are hurt, do you? It’s never good.’
‘Eh...yeah.’ Jesus. Is this guy playing with a full deck? Henry’s father has an expression for doddery old goats like this – Moses has got potholes.
‘Well, let’s not hang around like a fart in a phone box—lead me to him.’
‘Eh, maybe we should phone somebody?’ But the priest is already out, patting his pockets to see if he hasn’t forgotten his keys.
‘Phone somebody? Oh there’s no need. We can do this.’
Henry thinks of another of his father’s sayings—
What’s this “we” business, paleface?
But instead he says,
‘You know him, Father?’
The priest is bent over the wounded man, shaking his shoulder.
‘I do. He comes from a rather large family. They’ve had their troubles.’ He tries to rouse Gerry by patting the side of his cheek. Flakes of dried blood and crud are stuck to his face and in the places where the blood hasn’t hardened, Henry notices mean acne scars. The priest manages to get Gerry partially conscious, in that way when a person can’t open their eyes or speak coherently, but can hear commands and respond to them.
‘Let’s go, Gerry...to the hospital...you’ve got a nasty cut on your head, big fella.’
‘Help me get him up... What’s your name again?’
‘Henry, Father, Henry Roche.’
‘I knew a Jew called Henry,’ says the priest. ‘He directed me in Saved. He said, “Arthur, if your shoes squeak, the audience will love you!”‘
‘You acted?’ asks Henry.
‘A theatre show...you...’
‘Oh yes! Birmingham Rep. Absolute murder—we’d often be rehearsing four plays at once.’
‘Wow. Must have been hard remembering the lines?’
‘Oh no. Remembering the lines is the easy part. The hard part is remembering other peoples’ lines, especially if you’re doing Pinter... “Is that you, Petey?” Yes? Have you seen The Birthday Party?’
Henry shakes his head. This old priest is nuts. The whole evening is nuts. Still, he feels good, and tough too, on account of being so close to a seriously dangerous looking, bleeding man.
Lloyd Webber has great tunes but he’s no match for a little real-life blood and guts.
They gather Gerry in an agricultural fashion and manage to set him into the front passenger seat of the priest’s two-door Toyota Yaris. He groans nonsensical declarations when they strap him in.
The priest squints at the dashboard.
‘Okay, Harry, let’s see... It’s been ages, but trust me, I’ve done this before...’
Henry smiles. The priest is pulling the piss, right?
‘I was in a crash once,’ the priest continues. ‘Coming back from Woodstock. The bus rolled over twice. Absolute decimation.’
‘Everyone got killed?’
The priest lets out a long sigh. ‘Dec-i-ma-tion. It means to lose a tenth of your forces. But everyone misuses the word. Five died Harry, the rest of us survived. Okay, I’ve figured it out – let’s go.’
He starts the car, or rather it takes three attempts to start and when he does get going, he swerves out onto the wrong side of the main road.
Henry squirms in the back seat, yanking on his seat-belt.
‘Father – the left, you need to be on the left!’
‘No worries.... Just checking.’
A little fucking around with the gears, but he changes lanes. Thankfully, the road is quiet, yet Henry can’t help gasping from a weird, light-headed but heavy-hearted feeling of powerlessness.
They drive for ten minutes. The streetlights thinning out to nothing and Henry can only guess what hospital the priest is thinking of? The rain and the windscreen wipers duelling it out. The only other sound is Gerry pulling out of his coma-sleep. His head pitches backwards and forwards.
When he jerks into total wakefulness, it’s like that moment in a horror movie when lightning illuminates the killer.
‘What the fuck? The fuck is goin’ on? I’ll kill ya, fucker, fucker...!’
‘Now, Gerry,’ the priest soothes in the tone one reserves for a child asking to stay up late. ‘You’ve a bad cut and we’re taking you to the hospital.’
‘What the fuck are ya on about? Why are ya calling me “Gerry” ya shifty-eyed prick?’
‘Just relax, Gerry, we’ll be there soon.’
Gerry opens the car door and tries to jump out, not realising he’s wearing a seat belt. The priest pulls over to the kerbside, nearly mounting it in his confusion and haste. Henry shouts. Fear pins his body against the backseat. Gerry’s arm scrapes along the road. The open passenger door hits a street-sign pole, causing it to clatter off Gerry’s head. He lets out this sound, a wail, pitiful, more suited to a little child than an overgrown thug. Because, let’s face it Henry thinks, that’s what he is. Oh yeah, he read the words tattooed on Monkey-man’s fingers, the total cliché of a psycho nutjob and even though they’re so amateurish he could still make out HERO on the left hand and ZERO on the right.
The priest manages to get the car stopped and uses both hands to pull Gerry in.
‘Gerry! This is wrong, Gerry – we’re only trying to help-’
‘Stop calling me Gerry, you child-raping bastard—’
He gives a ferocious twist of his shoulders, lunging a head-butt at the priest, missing so badly he falls between the two front seats, staring at the car-floor and seemingly stuck.
Henry wriggles hard, as if trying to fashion an escape route with his ass. Monkey-Man is going to kill them both. They won’t be decimated, they’ll be annihilated. This is what happens when you try to help people and make the world a better place.
Gerry twists his head, reminding Henry of a bear who has just caught the scent of hunters. He lifts his eyes slowly.
‘Who da fuck are you?’
‘Are you with him?’
Then with no warning, because psychos never warn their targets they’re about to fuck them up, Gerry unsticks from between the front seats, thrusting at Henry, grabbing his Liverpool FC scarf. One—two—three punches into the teenager’s head. The first blow explodes against Henry’s lip, turning it into mush. The second and third make shit of his nose, stinging like nothing on earth, it feels like copper wiring being jammed up his nasal passages and into his eyes and brain. Henry is crying and bleeding at the same time, hot wetness streaming over his face. He goes rigid. He can’t scream. He can’t cry out. All he can do is take the punishment. Just before a blow lands on his eye, he notices the priest is gone. The doddery old bastard has legged it out the car. Jesus Christ, thinks Henry, I’m going to die right here, in the back of a Yaris.
The blow against his eye is the last, then they stop. With his good eye, Henry watches Gerry Monkey-Man pull back, his head arching towards the car roof. He’s swaying between the seats, unable to decide what direction he’s going. Jets of blood shoot out his neck like a bust pipe, splatting the ceiling of the Yaris and stinks of dirty copper.
The priest is leaning into the passenger side of the car, holding a broken vodka bottle in his outstretched hand. He looks more like a warlock than anything, his mouth moving in a creepy, guttural whisper, incanting a death-spell to lure Gerry-Monkey-Man into a hard, eternal slumber. The brute gurgles obscenely, hand pressed to his neck, his eyes crazy-wild from the soon to be fatal blood loss.
‘If I turned on the radio now,’ says the priest, ‘and there was that Rod Stewart song playing, wouldn’t it be mad?’
Henry hasn’t a clue what this means. All he can barely manage to say is—
‘You killed him, Father...you killed him...’
Gerry slumps his back against the steering wheel. His gurgling and fighting for breath is down to a low rattle.
The priest sighs. His face and hands drenched with blood. He turns to Gerry—
‘That’ll teach you, coming to my church with your fancy stories and your threats. Rape this, rape that—I was good friend to your family—I loved you all!’
When Henry hears this, he wonders if the priest didn’t pull out onto the wrong side of the road on purpose.... If it wasn’t a distraction because...because he never intended on going to the hospital at all...?
‘Do you know what I’m thinking, Harry?’
The priest is pushing the passenger seat forward and leaning in. Henry can see that Gerry Monkey Man is dead, wedged between the driver seat and the dash. The interior car light producing a halo effect, rendering him almost beatific.
‘Our lines, Harry, we need to rehearse them – ahem... “We found this poor fellow in the church, threatening suicide, and we tried to take him for help, but when we let our guard down, didn’t he go and stick this bottle into his neck as hard as he could”—what do you think? Good?’
Henry isn’t allowed to answer. The priest stretches into the back of the Yaris and swipes the bottle’s glass fang off Henry’s cheek. Pain, far worse than the thumps he’d suffered, sears the left side of his face. Stars light up his vision, but they fade when Henry bursts out crying.
‘That’ll make our story plausible. You tried to stop him, but he bashed you and slashed you. Yes? What do you say?’
Henry who wants this night stop, nods his head up and down.
‘Great. I’ll phone the ambulance and the police. Take it easy. It’s been ages but trust me, I’ve done this before.’