A short story by Angella Whitton
Published in Westerly Volume 52
I’m walking through the city and I hear the bells of the Cathedral pealing. Whenever I hear a bell toll, I think about the Angelus boy. I wonder if there was something I could have done to change his fate. Or was it already too late by the summer of 1981? Even then I had the curious feeling that a current was dragging him down-river, with nothing to grasp onto.
I wonder if the bells in the Cathedral are mechanised or if they have a boy, like we did, to climb the tower and ring the bell in the old way. I expect it’s all automated now.
It was back in my school days. On a hill in the middle of sheep country, I attended the convent school. A century-old building with sagging rafters and wrought-iron lacework, it had two classrooms upstairs, two down. Poplar trees, bending in the wind, lined the path to the tuckshop. A grey stone church blocked our sun. At the end of the football field was the fence to the public school. Sometimes you could hear them on the other side, singing taunting chants about us as they skipped rope. Sister Anthony told us they were going straight to Hell.
Every day at noon the church bell was rung in the pattern of the Angelus: each chime connoted a segment of a Catholic prayer.
On my first day the bell rang and everyone else knew what to do. You had to drop your pen and bow your head in silence until it ended. Nobody told me. They didn’t have it at my old school. There were only two of us who hadn’t been there since kindergarten. They didn’t let on what they thought of me but I heard what they said about her.
It was the specially assigned job of one boy in the class to climb the church tower at midday and pull the long rope in the sequence of the prayer. He went through a door at the back of the church that no one else was allowed to enter. Past the statue of the Virgin Mary holding the broken body of Jesus, post-crucifixion. The paint was chipped and Mary was missing a little finger.
The boy could hardly spell ‘cat’ but he timed the rings carefully.
A stream of volunteer mothers took the Angelus boy for individual reading but no one seemed to know how to help. Sometimes when he was being urged on to read but simply couldn’t, his frustration would well to the surface and he’d throw his book and cry out like a wounded animal.
You could tell from looking at him that he was motherless. He wore trousers that may have been his father’s once. The coarse fabric signified a previous decade. His hand-knitted grey jumper was worn on the elbows and had lost its shape. Perhaps the nuns gave him clothes from their charity cupboard. They gave me a tunic from there, this one time, when Robbie Tully vomited on my leg in art class. He’d eaten a packet of Cheezels at lunch and the vomit was orange.
The Angelus boy’s clothes, and the way he struggled with his schoolwork singled him out from the other boys. I’m not sure if he matured faster than us, or if he was a few years older, but his voice deepened and his shoulders broadened before the other boys. You’d think this would have given him an advantage in school sports but no one wanted him on their team.
I like to think the priest who asked him to ring the Angelus did so to make him feel special. Looking back now and remembering Father O’Reilly’s creepy darting eyes, I’m not entirely sure.
A humourless white haired aunt, with drawn-on eyebrows that always made her look surprised, looked in on the boy. She arranged the altar flowers and performed secret errands for the priest. The boy’s dad was on a war pension and drove around town, slowly, in a big old dented station wagon.
The station wagon lurches down the back lanes. Old Mr Pearce is leering out the wound-down window, thick glasses and hair that won’t be tamed.
Kids are playing in the street, interrupted only once or twice an afternoon by cars. They kick footies, lean on their bikes, skite and go to the corner shop for lollies. They skip rope until the sun sinks and long shadows jump and hop beside them.
When his car approaches, the play halts. One child is laughing still and it echoes against the now quiet street until he turns his head and catches on in panic.
They run inside, balls left bouncing, ice cream melting from upturned cones on the road. They jump fences, dive through hydrangeas, and lie behind wood heaps, with their hearts in their mouths until the car finally moves on. The sound of children’s games is replaced by the low hum of Mr Pearce’s engine.
It’s probably just a myth, what they say about him. That he killed and skinned a man in the war. That he caught a possum in his roof and ate it. That he chased a girl and held her down.
It’s probably just rumour, but the peculiar hum of his engine is enough to incite terror in a generation of town kids.
I used to think about the Angelus boy. I’d think how it was funny the way life turns out. Our brother died and left a hole (the size of a boy) in our family. We’d sit around the dinner table at night, sometimes glancing at his empty chair but never saying anything. Meanwhile the Angelus boy had no one to love him. It just didn’t seem right.
I used to look across the classroom and wonder if the boy would have turned out different if he was ours. I looked at his hair, all greasy and unkempt and thought how if he had my mother it’d be all clean and brushed. My mother would have smoothed it down with her hands before he left for school in the morning. I thought maybe no one ever touches his hair.
I wondered if anyone ever read to him. If he were ours, my mother would have read to him and with him, every day from birth.
One morning I packed him an apple. I cut it in half through the core, so the seeds would make the shape of a star. I figured if he had no mother, and only scary Mr Pearce and the aunt with the surprised eyebrows, then maybe no one had ever told him about the star in the middle of an apple.
I got the apple out of my bag at lunchtime but it had turned brown and it spoilt the star. I didn’t know if he would want it after all so I was going to put it in the bin. All my class started walking down to the oval and the boy was skulking around, waiting to fall in behind them. I guessed that’s what you’d do if you didn’t have anyone to talk to. That made me feel sad so I held out the apple. He looked around at first to make sure I was looking at him.
‘It’s an apple’, I said. ‘I cut it through the core so it has a star in the middle’.
I opened it up and showed him. He tilted his head and considered it but didn’t say anything.
‘You probably don’t want it ‘cause it’s started to turn brown, but I thought I’d show you’.
He sort of snatched the apple from my hand. He looked at the star. He nodded at me then put it in his bag. I nodded too and walked towards the oval.
At the end of the day we were packing our books into our bags and Sister Anthony was watching us like a hawk. She walked up and down, then she saw the apple.
‘What might I ask is this?’
The boy said nothing.
‘How many times do I have to tell you that it’s a sin to waste food?’
She said to think about all the starving children in Africa. I felt sad for the little African kids with the bloated stomachs but I didn’t see how one brown apple would make a difference. It wasn’t like you could actually send it to Africa was it? And the boy wasn’t the one who wasted it. I wanted to say this to Sister Anthony but I thought about how mean she could be so I stood still.
She grabbed the boy by the collar and took him to her desk. She hit the boy with the cane. He bore it quietly, his mouth a straight line, the class watching.
My apple only hurt him more. I didn’t know how to help. I tried to talk to him one more time but he just looked straight ahead and said nothing. I gave up. I guess everyone did. He kept to the classroom’s shadows and left school as soon as it was legal.
Amanda O’Callaghan told me in gym class that the boy’s mother left him at the church when he was a baby. It was Christmas and there was a nativity scene near the altar. When no one was around, she took the Baby Jesus and left the boy in the manger. She shot through to the city. Well that’s was Amanda reckoned anyway.
I thought about his mother when she held the baby in her arms and named him after a saint. Did she wish for him a devout life? What horror made her run? Did she think the Church would save him?
I moved away to the city but a few years after school I caught up with Amanda.
She said, ‘Did you hear the Angelus boy turned bad?’
She inhaled on a Winfield Blue.
‘It’s pretty terrible. Are you sure you want to hear about it?’
I said, ‘Sure’. I thought it couldn’t be anything too serious, maybe shoplifting or he got in a fight.
She said ‘No. It’s really bad’.
‘Spit it out then’, I said.
‘He tied his aunt to a chair’, she said. She put out her cigarette and leaned in close. ‘He cut off her dress and did things to her… Sick things.’
I thought she was kidding.
I thought about the aunt’s surprised eyebrows and wanted to cry.
Later I pondered if it could be true. I thought about the boy and wondered what you could become if you grew up with no mother, charity clothes and no one to talk to. I thought about the anger that would slowly gather inside of you.
I heard he went to gaol.
I wondered if he was always sick. I remembered that sometimes he took a while to return to class after ringing the Angelus. I wondered what acts he might have performed in the church tower while we continued on with our arithmetic. Perhaps even the priest watched, lurking in the marble shadows, eyes darting, hands in his voluminous robes.
It’s possible though, I think, that he just savoured those minutes of quiet sanctuary in the old tower. There was no one there to make him feel shabby or stupid, only the stairs and the walls and the fading vibrations of the bell.