The Infant School is gone now. It made way for the amalgamation of the old Boys and Girls schools. The Boys School was viewed by the Nuns with a deep suspicion as if it was an academy of evil and vice. The Girls School was a place where they set out to promote virtue. They would strive to educate a few aspiring teachers, an odd nurse, occasionally a nun, but for most girls it would be a low level civil service position or a farmer’s wife.
Sr. Eugenia was her name. She was a sadistic bitch who ruled her Senior Infant’s class with fear, fear and lashings of more fear. She did have her pets in that room; those whom she favoured because they were from what she would have termed ‘good’ families. Some of these favoured few were clever enough to know that there was a game to be played and if you knew the rules you could get by, relatively unscathed. The Pets were gratified with little errands such as handing out the pencils that were kept in a metal box on the teacher’s desk. The pets were mostly girls from the town. Even at that stage it was clear that most girls were much more advanced than boys of the same age. They didn’t fear her like we did. It was as if they could miraculously anticipate her moods. We boys just threaded carefully in constant fear of her sudden outbursts and rages.
It began as a day not unlike any other. It was the year the Pope came to Ireland. I can’t recall what time of the year it was, nor the time of day, or the weather. I can clearly recall though that precise moment when the mood changed in that space between those four walls, this mini State where her writ did run. The change was sudden and without warning and seemed to catch even the pets off-guard. The Nun said a toy was missing, stolen no doubt, by a boy no doubt, a boy from the town no doubt. At the side of the room were various cupboards and shelves containing the tools and machinery for running a classroom. There was paper and paints, pencils, word cards and charts. On one particular side arrayed neatly on a counter there was a row of abacuses. To one side of these ancient counting tools were a collection of small toys such as little cars, tractors, trucks and various animals. I don’t ever recall that we ever got to play with these toys. I remember how teasing and tempting they were, their different hues of racing green and fire engine red, distracting us from the lessons been drummed into us throughout the long day.
The Nun began a mass interrogation of the class. “Who took it? Own up whoever it is? We can’t have any thieves among us? Someone here is a thief” Everyone was scared as they knew when she got this angry someone would have to suffer. She would have to have satisfaction. “That’s it I’m going to go down to the Barracks and get the Sergeant. When he comes up he’ll find out who took it and they will be thrown in the Black Hole in the Station. Ye won’t see your Mammies and Daddies tonight”. A few of the children began to whimper, one boy uncontrollably. By now she had stormed out of the room and in a moment we saw her black habited silhouette rushing past the window in the direction of town. She was going to the Barracks and she was going to get the Guards. This is bad we thought and we realised that she really was going to go through with this. What if we never see our families again? More children whimpered the cries and sobs of the damned.
I don’t know how long she was gone. It might only have been a few minutes but to the five and six year olds huddled in that room, shivering with fear, it seemed like an age. Return she did in the same bluster as her leaving; her eyes were now dancing wildly in her head and her face was distorted with unfettered anger. “Was it you?” she shouted accusingly at Carr singling him out from the herd. She always singled him out for some reason. He was a strange kid but we were all friends with him in those early days where the tolerance of the innocent prevails. My mother said that he was adopted. We didn’t know what that meant. It was a strange sounding word loaded with meanings that we as children could not comprehend or grasp. His adoptive mother died soon after he arrived into their house. Terrible luck to lose one mother but to lose two before you had even crawled must have been crushing. He was raised by a soft spoken, meek father and a frail, elderly housekeeper. The father sold ecclesiastical supplies and was often away at night. His shop was adorned with all the effigies and idols of the Catholic Faith. When one entered the shop your senses were overwhelmed with the smell of candle wax. One side of the shop was given over to toys and stationery. There were rows and rows of matchbox cars. It was a strange mix, the religious icons reinforcing submission to the Word and the colourful toys which were tools to fire a child’s imagination. It was a palace of wonderment, the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of our little country town.
“Stand up I said” but even as she was saying this he was already shuffling up and out of his seat. She had him caught by the ear like a hooked fish. “Where is it? Where is it? I’m giving you one chance and once chance only”. Carr was shaking now in fits. Paradoxically many of the rest of us were relieved that she had now chosen her victim and it wasn’t us. We all waited for Carr’s fate to unfold before us. “I’m going to teach you a lesson and show you all what happens to thieves”. She was gone again, out of the room with Carr left standing there, like a man stuck in No Man’s Land, doomed, forlorn, awaiting his fate.
This time when she returned she had what looked like a skipping rope in her hands. There were no handles on either end and it now became clear it was some sort of chord. She took a chair, stood up on it and began passing the rope through a metal ring that was protruding from the ceiling. The ring and other hooks were used for holding the Christmas decorations and hanging paper lanterns and aeroplanes. The nun was furiously making a loop and tying a knot on the other end of the rope. We all just sat there quiet and cowed watching this bizarre event unfold. Bizarre quickly yielded to shock and then to the macabre.
The Nun got Carr to stand up on the chair and purposefully passed the newly made noose over his head, jerking it down over his frightened face, around his neck before tightening the loop until it pressed against his tiny throat. All this had been achieved in near total silence but this lull was finally broken when some child wailed. The rest of us just sat there motionless and helpless, unable to move or act or to comprehend what was happening in front of our eyes. Carr was going to hang for stealing a toy car. This is what happens to thieves.
The Nun began shaking the seat under Carr’s feet as if to pull the life out from under him. Carr didn’t make a sound up to this but now the tears streamed down his face in rivulets. He began mumbling repeatedly “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it” pangs of desperation in his shaking voice. She didn’t believe him or she simply didn’t want to believe him.
Carr didn’t hang that day. I don’t believe we even told our parents about what happened. The next day the missing car was back in its place on the counter but Carr hadn’t put it there. Carr had no need for any more toys. He had a whole shop full of them for his own amusement. Carr didn’t take the toy, he wasn’t lacking in material things, what he was lacking was a Mother and Brothers and Sisters.
Twenty years later I was talking to my brother who was also there that day. Memory has a habit of playing tricks on us all. I had recently recalled the events of that day. The truth is I had come to doubt myself on whether it had happened at all. “Do you remember anything in High Infants with Sr. Eugenia and Carr? Without hesitating he replied “Do you mean the time she went to hang him?” Not long after this I met a girl who was in the class that day also. She remembered it too.
Nobody knew where Carr went to after school but everyone knew his life had gone completely off the rails. The old housekeeper died. His timid father re-married again in middle age to a cold heartless creature that had no time for Carr. He spiralled even more out of control. He was expelled from Secondary School. Some nights he wouldn’t go home at all. He often slept rough in the local mart, alone, except for nights after big sales when some cattle were left over night. He had acquaintances as he always had cigarettes to share. He had no friends. Parents discouraged their children from having anything to do with him. He was described variously as mad or bad, wild, a nutter, a crazy mental case. He had become the town pariah. It was rumoured he had fondled a young boy in town from another dysfunctional home. It was said he would pay the young lad money. He always had money when we had nothing but a few small pence to buy penny sweets.
Then he went away to God knows where before making one brief memorable appearance up at the school. It was around the time we were preparing for our Leaving Cert and he waltzed up to the school yard. His hair was gelled up in punk-style spikes, he was wearing a huge chain around his neck and a frayed black leather biker-jacket. He was drunk or high or possibly both. We were glad to see him again but almost as quickly he was gone. It was the last time we would ever see him. We heard he was in prison on Spike Island, or that he was in a band in Athlone, or that he was sleeping rough in Dublin, Galway or Cork.
Sr. Eugenia moved on too. Our paths crossed again some years later when we were preparing for our Confirmation. She was now a Catechist touring the Diocese on behalf of the Bishop. Her mission was to ensure that we believed in the sacred Scripture and were ready to receive the Holy Spirit the following Month of May. I can’t recall if Carr was in our class that day she called to the School but he must have been. He is there in the Sixth Class School Photo, second row, first on the right, there we are lined up in front of the school on a wet drizzly day. I wonder now how he must have felt as he watched the Nun that day, the woman who had tortured him and humiliated him, standing there at the top of our class beaming. Was he sickened by her cheesy smiles and the babble of the phoney small chat between her and the Principal?
I also wonder now what state of mind he was in when he decided on Christmas Day twenty years later to take his own life. I wonder too when he slipped the ligature around his neck that morning, his last on this earth, did he recall, even if only for an instant, the very first time a rope was wrapped so snugly around his soft throat.
He was Thirty Two years old, the same age as our lord was when he was crucified. The Catechism told us that our Lord had descended into hell and rose again on the third day. Carr never ascended from his Hell.