The Angelus Boy

A short story by Angella Whitton

Published in Westerly Volume 52

The Angelus Boy

On a hill in 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 bent in the wind on the path to the tuckshop. A stone church blocked our sun. At the end of the footy field was the fence to the public school. We heard them on the other side, taunting us with chants. Sister Anthony said they were going straight to Hell.

Every day at noon the church bell rang in the pattern of the Angelus, chimes like audible rosary beads. On my first day everyone else knew what to do. They dropped their pens and stood and bowed their heads. Nobody told me. They hadn’t done 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 job of one boy to climb the church tower each midday and pull the rope in the sequence of the prayer. He went through the forbidden door at the back of the church, behind the statue of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus, post-crucifixion. Mary was missing a little finger.

The boy could hardly spell ‘cat’ but he timed the rings with care.

A string of mothers took the Angelus boy for remedial reading but no one could help. Sometimes, when urged to pronounce a word he couldn’t, his frustration rose to the surface. He threw a book and cried 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. The coarse fabric signified a previous decade. His jumper was worn at the elbows. Perhaps the nuns gave him clothes from the charity cupboard. They gave me a tunic, one time, when Robbie Tully vomited on my leg in art. He’d eaten a packet of Cheezels and the vomit was orange.

The Angelus boy’s clothes, and the way he struggled at school, singled him out. I supposed he was a few years older than us. His voice had deepened and his shoulders broadened. You’d think this would be an advantage for sports but no one picked him for their team.

I hoped the priest who asked him to ring the Angelus did so to make him feel special. When I remembered Father O’Reilly’s darting eyes, I couldn’t be sure.

A humourless aunt, with drawn-on eyebrows that made her look surprised, checked in on the boy. She arranged the altar flowers and ran errands for the priest. His dad got a war pension and drove around town in a big old dented station wagon. It lurched down back lanes. He leered from a wound-down window:  thick glasses; hair that wouldn’t be tamed.

Kids played in the street, rarely stopped by cars. They kicked balls, leant on their bikes, went to the shop for lollies. They skipped rope while the sun sank and shadows hopped beside them. When his car approached, play halted.

One boy kept laughing and it echoed against the quiet street until he turned his head and caught on in panic.

They ran inside, balls left bouncing, ice creams melting in upturned cones. They jumped fences, dove into hydrangeas, hid behind wood heaps. The sound of games was drowned by the hum of Mr Pearce’s engine.

It was probably just a myth that he skinned a man in Nam. That he caught a possum on his roof and ate it. That he chased a girl and put his hands on her throat.

It was probably just rumour, but his car incited terror in a generation of town kids.

I worried about the Angelus boy. I thought it was strange how life turned out. Our brother died and left a hole, the size of a boy, in our family. We sat around our table at night, glancing at his empty chair, not saying anything. Meanwhile the Angelus boy had no one to love him. It didn’t seem fair.

I thought how different he would have turned out if he was ours. I looked at his hair, greasy and unkempt, and knew my mother would have smoothed it with her hands. I wondered if anyone ever touched his head. I wondered if anyone read him stories. If he were ours, my mother would have read to him and with him, every day from birth. My father would have practiced ball-sports in the yard.

One morning I packed him an apple. I cut it in half so the seeds made the shape of a star. If he had no mother, only his scary dad and the aunt with surprised eyebrows, then maybe no one had ever shown him the star in the middle of an apple.

I got the apple out at lunchtime. It had begun to turn brown. I didn’t know if he’d want it. My class started walking to the oval and the boy skulked behind. I guessed that’s what you’d do if no one talked to you. That made me feel sad so I held out the apple. He looked around at first to check it was meant for him.

‘It’s an apple,’ I said. ‘It has a star in the middle.’

I showed him and he tilted his head.

‘You probably don’t want it because it’s starting to turn brown, but I brought it for you.’

He snatched it from my hand and examined the star. He wrapped it back in its plastic and put it in his bag.

At the end of the day we packed up our books and Sister Anthony watched us like a hawk. She paced and somehow saw the apple.

‘What’s this?’

The boy said nothing.

‘How many times have I told you it’s a sin to waste food? What about starving children in Africa?’

I felt sad for the kids with the bloated stomachs but I didn’t see how one brown apple would help. It wasn’t like we could post it to Africa. And the boy hadn’t wasted it. It was me. I wanted to tell Sister Anthony but I knew she was mean.

She grabbed the boy by the collar and dragged him to her desk. She hit him with the cane. He bore it in silence, his mouth a thin 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 looked straight ahead. I gave up. Everybody did. He kept to the classroom’s shadows and left school as soon as it was legal.

Amanda O’Callaghan told me in woodwork that the boy’s mother left him at the church as a baby. It was Christmas and there was a nativity scene beneath the altar. In the night, she took  Baby Jesus and left the boy in the manger. She caught the Greyhound to Brisbane. That’s what Amanda reckoned.

I thought about his mother when she held him as a baby and named him after a saint. Did she wish him a devout life? What horror made her run? Did she think the Church would save him?

I moved 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 awful,’ she said. ‘Are you sure you want to hear about it?’

‘Yeah.’

I supposed he was caught shoplifting or got into a fight.

‘No. Something bad. Really bad.’

‘Tell me,’ 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… sick things.’

I thought she was making it up. I thought about the aunt’s surprised eyebrows and wanted to cry.

Later I pondered if it could be true. What could you become if you grew up with no mother, charity clothes and no one to talk to? What anger would slowly gather inside you?

Amanda said he went to gaol. I wondered if he was always sick. I recalled that sometimes he took a while to return to class after he rang the Angelus. What did he do in the church tower while we continued with arithmetic? Did the priest lurk in the marble shadows, eyes darting, hands in his voluminous robes?

Or did the boy just savour those minutes of quiet sanctuary, when there was no one to make him feel shabby or stupid, only the stairs and the statues and the fading vibrations of the bell?