The two boys had been scrubbing white and black tiles for the past two hours. A metal bucket full of muddy coloured water was stationed close to their heads, its suds having long since disappeared. They were leaning towards each other whispering rumours and stories; speculating as to why another boy had just been admitted to the industrial school.
They didn’t hear Brother James creep up behind them.‘I told you no talking Michael Carter!’ The steel capped boot landed hard on the boy’s backside, pitching him forward into the bucket which duly tipped over, the filthy water flooding the corridor.
‘Don’t you understand simple English! No talking means silence.’ He kicked the prone boy on the shins, the child yelping with pain, trying to pull himself out of reach.
‘Now look what you’ve done.’ The middle aged man gestured at the large puddle of water. ‘I want this mopped up by the time I get back. Do you hear me? Every last drop. What’s left you’ll lick up. Dessie, come with me,’ he demanded of the other petrified child who was still kneeling, his socks and tweed breeches sopping wet.
The two boys shared an anxious look.
‘I said, come with me. Are you deaf, boy?’
A hand clamped on the child’s shoulder lifting him to his feet. The corridor echoed with their footsteps, a nervous patter accompanying assured thumps, the scowling portraits of former schoolmasters glaring at their progress.
The heavy oak door creaked open, Brother James ushering the boy into the office under his outstretched arm. The room was sparsely decorated containing an old desk - a wooden chair placed on either side - two bookcases, and a large enamel sink in the corner. The door closed behind him.
‘You need to be careful who you make friends with, Dessie,’ the Christian Brother said, his tone softening. ‘Michael Carter will be in prison by the time he’s twenty. Nothing good will ever come of him. You though … You could make something of your life. You have it up here …’ He tapped the side of his head. ‘With a bit of extra help you might become somebody. Do you understand what I’m saying?’
The boy stood stock still unsure how to answer. Brother James had a trigger temper. One minute he could be talking to you quite reasonably, the next you could be on the other side of the room, sore and bloody. For some reason the other boys nearly always received the beating that he should have at least shared equally. They’d both been whispering in the corridor, but it was Michael who’d been kicked and now he was being praised. He didn’t know why this was the case, but he knew the other boys resented it; bullied him because of it.
‘I’m trying to help you here, Dessie.’ He placed a hand on the boy’s head rubbing his hair affectionately. ‘Give you an opportunity that only a few boys get. You do want to make a success of your life, don’t you?’
‘Yes, Brother James.’ He said it because it was expected; because he knew the potential consequences of not saying yes. He’d seen Brother James kick a boy from one end of the corridor to the other; beat another with a thick leather belt that left ugly black welts that took a month to mottled to yellow before fading away.
‘And you do want to please the teachers, don’t you, Dessie?’
‘Yes, Brother James.’
‘Well I think we can come to some arrangement. Yes, yes, something that will ensure just that. It would mean extra effort on your behalf. Extra classes. Extra work. Do you think that you will be able for that?’
‘Yes, Brother James.’
‘Is that all you’ve got to say for yourself, Dessie, Yes, Brother James?’ the old man mocked.
‘Yes, I mean, thank you, Brother James.’ The boy glanced from the Brother to the door wondering why he’d been separated from Michael; wondering why the old man was being nice to him; why he always seemed to favour him.
‘Good, good. Since I’m helping you, Dessie, I want you to do something for me. Do you think you could do that?’
The boy stared unsure what he was being asked. ‘I … yes.’
‘Good. I’m glad we understand each other. This will be our little secret. We don’t want the other boys to become jealous now, do we?’
‘No, Brother James.’
‘Have you heard the saying that cleanliness is next to godliness?’
‘Yes, Brother James.’ The phrase was pinned to every bathroom door in the residential school.
‘In return for the private lessons I want you to help me wash; help me and you become closer to god. Help me wash away the grime and sins on my skin from all the boys in this place. You’ll help me do that, yes?’
The boy stayed silent unsure what to say, afraid to say, ‘No, I don’t want to wash you, Brother James.’
‘Don’t worry, every year I chose a boy to help and they in turn help me wash. The other brothers do likewise. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be clean, Dessie. It brings us closer to god. I’m going to get undressed now.’
Brother James locked the door and pocketed the key before removing his clothes, his gaze fixed on the boy who was staring at a spot on the wooden floor.
‘Come. Let’s move to the sink.’ He led the boy to the corner of the room, turned on the tap and gave him a sponge. ‘Now wash me. First my back.’
* * *
There was a knock on the door.
The white haired man issued the command without looking up. ‘Come in!’
A young man dressed in dirty jeans and checked shirt entered the office and took up a position on the far side of the desk. He glanced round quickly; the room was exactly as it had been ten years previously.
Finally Brother James looked up. He hadn’t aged well; his eyes puffy, his cheeks cracked with red capillaries. ‘Yes?’
‘You don’t remember me, Brother?’
The old man stared up at him and shook his head slowly. ‘No.’
‘My name is Dessie.’
‘Dessie?’ he said uncertainly. He shrugged, though his eyes betrayed recognition.
‘I was one of your chosen ones. Do you remember now?’
‘You made us wash you, Brother. Over there by the sink. Scrub you with a sponge and kiss your mickey.’
‘What do you want, Dessie?’ The old man asked rising to his feet.
‘An apology. Justice. Some kind of retribution.’
‘I did nothing wrong, Dessie. We had a contract; I helped you with your studies and in return you washed me.’
‘You used to quote Matthew 17 to me, Brother James, amongst other things. Do you remember that?
‘“Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?” You never gave me verses 18 to 20 though did you? Do you know what they are, Brother James?’
‘I’ll tell you. “Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man unclean; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean.”
‘“From out of the heart come evil thoughts.” That was you, wasn’t it? You picked defenceless children and you stole their innocence from them. You stole my innocence; my childhood. You said you were going to help me make a success of my life. Instead you ruined it.’
‘But we did help you, Dessie,’ Brother James said calmly but firmly. ‘We gave you a chance. If it wasn’t for us you’d have died long ago. What do you think would have happened to you if we hadn’t taken you in? You with no mother or father? You’d have starved to death.’
‘But you didn’t have to do the things that you did,’ Dessie said angrily. ‘The beatings, the torture, the abuse. None of us deserved that.’
Brother James smiled pityingly.
‘You took advantage of us; of your position. We were just boys.’
‘I think you should leave now, Dessie. I’ve let you say your piece.’ He started to move round the desk.
‘No, no. You’re going to wash me now. You’re going to …’
‘I don’t think so, Dessie. It’s time to ...’
‘I think you are Brother James.’ Dessie pulled a knife from the waistband of his trousers. ‘Get the sponge.’ He started to unbutton his shirt.
‘Give me the knife, Dessie,’ Brother James said firmly, ‘and we’ll say no more about it.’
‘I said, get the sponge, you fuckin’ pervert!’
‘Give me the knife, Dessie, before I call the police.’
‘Call them. We’ll tell them about what you do to young boys.’
‘Who do you think they’re going to believe, Dessie? A man of God or a mixed up young man wielding a knife?’
‘I said, get the …’
‘No! I’ve taken as much of this as I’m going to. Leave now or you’ll come to regret ever coming back here.’ Brother James stepped towards Dessie, his hand outstretched.
The knife jumped forward, crashing into ribs, sliding uneasily between ribs.
The old man’s eyes widened in surprise.
Dessie withdrew the knife and thrust it forward again. He felt a sharp blow to his own chest. He stepped back confused and Brother James folded to the wooden floor.
He experienced another blow to his ribs. He looked down but there was nothing there. Then everything turned black followed by flashes of white light. Slowly the world floated into focus.
‘You can’t sleep here, son, they’ll be opening up the shop shortly.’
He glanced up. A policeman was hovering over him. He realised where he was, curled up in a shop doorway, surrounded by empty pilsner cans. He’d been dreaming again; his revenge fantasy where Brother James had paid the ultimate price for his crimes. Of course it would never happen. He never wanted to see the old teacher again, let alone confront him. Deep down he knew he still possessed a spirit of fear; that he feared what the old man might do to him. He was probably still grooming and abusing young boys; safely protected by the Church and State. He would never be bought to justice – his kind never were. The most that might happen is that he’d moved to a different school where the process would begin again.
‘Did you hear me, son?’ the policeman repeated. ‘You’ll have to move on.’
‘Why don’t you go back to
‘I’m not wanted there, officer. I’m surplus to requirements.’
‘You’re not wanted here, son, either. We’ve enough lay-abouts and drunks as it is without your kind coming here.’
The Ryan Report into the systematic and routinized sexual abuse within Irish educational institutions run by various Catholic religious orders, and its subsequent cover up, was published in May 2009.