‘‘You look,’’ someone said to me the other day, ‘‘like an altar boy caught drinking the Communion wine.’’
‘‘Guilty as charged, M’Lud.’’
But never mind the latest misdemeanour. Those words swept me back down the years to a time when I really did see an altar boy finishing off the Communion wine, sucking up the dregs after seven o�clock Mass in St. Pat’s, Grangetown, Cardiff.
I was nine. He was twelve. It was, without doubt, the greatest sin I’d ever seen committed. ‘‘Oh God," I prayed, ‘‘when you send down the thunderbolt, don’t include me in.’’ God wouldn't singe the skin off someone guilty of sin. Would he? He didn't. But once back in those dear distant days I realised the song was wrong. You could recall them. And I also realised I was probably the world’s unluckiest altar boy.
We trained under Canon Tom Phelan. Old St. Pat’s people will remember Canon Phelan as a man who had designer stubble before they invented designer stubble and a neck that strained the dog collar. We altar boys always reckoned Jack Dempsey had ducked him in earlier years. His one mistake was nominating me for the big supporting role at twelve o’clock Mass to celebrate my first outing as an altar boy.
And the star of the show? No, not Canon Phelan himself. The star was the senior altar boy, known to us all as Clampy. Clampy could have intimidated the Pope. In fact, we felt that he regarded his work at St. Pat’s merely as routine training for the Big Job in St. Peter’s at some future date. When Clampy served Mass he took over. His genuflections were works of art, his responses sounded like speeches in the Roman Forum, he shimmered around the altar as though levitating. His grave demeanour inspired admiration in visiting bishops. Years later I realised that Clampy was, in fact, a sort of altar boy Jeeves to the priest’s Bertie Wooster. He seemed to be doing the priest a favour by simply being there. A raised eyebrow, a discreet cough, and you’d see the priest wondering where he’d gone wrong.
And here I was, my first outing, supporting the great Clampy. He interrogated me before the Off. How were my responses? Did I know when to kneel, when to stand? Had I been to the toilet? ‘‘You’d be surprised,’’ said Clampy ‘‘how nerves can take over on the first day.’’
We marched on to the altar. The church was packed. Twelve o’clock Mass was always a big one, a men’s Mass, with the Catholic Club a hundred yards away, the Reilly family manning the pumps ready for the one o’clock rush.
The Mass started.
And Clampy fainted.
I was left alone, a gibbering little wreck, suddenly wishing I hadn’t lied to Clampy about the toilet. A couple of stalwarts from the congregation carried Clampy off and the rest watched my performance with, as they say, interest. I knelt down during the Gospel. I rang the bell at the wrong times. ‘‘Nerves.’’ I said later. Finally, one of the more devout front‒benchers took pity and stepped over the altar rail to take over. I felt like a scrum half being substituted against the All Blacks, the Big Day triumph turned to tragedy.
‘‘I t’ort we’d taught you,’’ foamed the Canon after Mass. He relented. I’d get another chance. I would serve Mass for the Mission Priest that coming Friday.
The Mission Priest was an ancient Irishman who’d spent about fifty years in Africa or the Amazon or some such place a long way from Grangetown. But he was here, apparently on his way to retirement in Ireland, and he was anxious to say a Mass in St. Pat’s. Seven o'clock on a winter’s morning.
We inspected each other To me he looked about a hundred and three. He finished his inspection of me and sadly shook his head. ‘‘But not to worry’’, he said.
We were on the side altar. Now on the high altar there was a bell, or rather a Bell, shaped like a huge dish cover. You hit it with a sort of drumstick and the resulting Bbbboiiiinngggggg shook the windows of the Methodist chapel a mile away. The side altar could boast only a tiny, tinny bell to be shaken in the manner of a lady of the manor summoning a maid with the crustless sandwiches.
We started. I reached for the bell. It wasn’t there. I’d forgotten to bring the bell. The Mission Priest paused. He glanced around. His mouth opened as he silently spelled it out. The B‒e‒l‒l.
There were only five old ladies in our section. They wouldn't notice. So I did my imitation of a bell. Brrrringggggg, I went. Brrrringggggg. The mission Priest paused. I could see the muscles on his neck tightening. He went on with the Mass.
And I went on with my imitations. Brrringggggg, Brrrrinnnngggg.
As he disrobed he looked at me. I felt like a chicken being scrutinised. He looked puzzled. As though about to ask when I had to go back to the institution.
He shook his head. ‘‘I thought I'd seen everything’’, he whispered, ‘‘in Africa.’’ He shook his head again. ‘‘But never anything like that. Son, you are a star. I’ll never forget St. Pat’s.’’
Then he gave me half‒a‒crown. And some advice. ‘‘I don’t really think you’re suited, you know."
I took the half‒a‒crown. And the advice. My days as an altar boy were over.
I think I finished Clampy’s career as well. He never made it to the Vatican.
Funny, how a sudden phrase can bring back those memories.
© : Dan O'Neill, who wrote this piece especially for ‘The Green Dragon’, is a columnist with the ‘South Wales Echo’, Cardiff.
Published in The Green Dragon No 6, Spring 1998.