The Man in Black
by Gabriel Byrne
© Copyright: Magill (December 1997)
The following is an open letter to a teacher from my schooldays.
A Christian Brother.
You do not remember me. But your unsmiling ghost still sometimes disturbs my dreams, when you move as in life among rows of silent frightened boys towards me. I sit in the last row by the wall, Dunces Corner, cutting off attack at least from one side, but inevitably you reach me, pull me towards you, so close I can smell that singular stench you give off of stale sweat and chalk. I can see so clearly still, the bony Adam's apple moving up and down as if pulled by some invisible string behind the cracked white collar. The small clumps of beard the razor missed (mirrors are sinful things). The thick scuffed boots, the stitched triangle on your soutane when the cummerbund rides up. Your teeth long, yellow like an old horse. And those ever-vigilant malevolent eyes that sweep the room for signs of recalcitrance, laughter or insolence.
With your thumb you prod me to the front of the class and I stand, dumb before a senseless drawing of stick figures. If it takes ten men three weeks to dig a hole, how many weeks does it take five men to dig the same hole, if x equals y and pi r ý equals the sum of the difference between two tangential points at a calculation of one inch to the square mile, that is, if the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the Bishop of Cork? You urge me toward the solution, employing one of your pet words for those of us you deem irrevocably stupid: egobaloon, ludramon, eejit, lump, gobdaw, amadan, foola, dumbbell, clown, dunderhead, galoot. My face furrows to mimic concentration. I hear you growl low with impatience, your viciousness awakening. At last, to placate you, I write something, anything, I dare not look at you. Silence thunders. I can hear my own breath and yours. Your arm rests loosely across my shoulders, stangely comforting and menacing at the same time. You ask me if I know I am stupid. I reply that I do not know. Am I blind? No, I say, hoping this is what you want to hear. The the inevitable spitting fury as chalk screeches across the board. The final dot after the simple answer. You take my hair in both your hands, lifting me off the ground until my eyes water with anger, humiliation and pain. Afterwards, condemned to stand in a line, arms above my head with my fellow miscreants. Without the window I can see the hills beyond. The Hellfire Club, where the devil played cards and Oisin fell from his horse. My friends and I hike up there. The sight of those green and golden hills sustains me, soothes me, reminds me that there is an escape from this horrid world. We stand for a shameful eternity until the blessed bell delivers us.
But there is another you. Hands behind your back, loping towards the monastery, another day over in the endless days of your small existence. I imagine you climbing the stairs to your bare room with its crucifix and thin bed. Some books, maybe a photograph of your people, the view through the window of the same hills we played in. And even though my child's mind cannot make logic of it I sense instinctively a great loneliness.
On Sundays with your fellow brothers, black-coated, walking out among the roads. People saluting you respectfully, stepping off pavements to let you pass. Did they not know the cruelty behind your answering smile? Once, we saw you picking blackberries on a winter's afternoon. A silver can on your arm. Reaching in over the bushes to pick the ripest ones. Absorbed, you did not see us pass. But we stood behind a wall, watching you, and it began to rain, and you took shelter under the bushes, and you began to eat the berries one by one until the rain stopped. Then you began again. You were there for hours, and we watched until you left, fascinated by this vision of your private self. You seemed happy, I thought then. Maybe remembering when you were a boy yourself. After, I brought this image to mind when you stood before us in the classroom. A leather and a chair leg in your belt like a gun-slinger. You walked slowly with great steps, like a man used to walking up hills. Were you from some mountainy place? I suspect so.
Your hands, hairless red lumps of things. The nails bitten to the quick, and when you leaned them on my desk the blood drained from the edges of them and became white.
Your hands meant pain, and we were always wary of them, as if they had a life of their own. There was something perversely intimate and tender about the gesture. You rested your hand momentarily on my outstretched palm as if to reassure me that you did not intend to hurt. Then you drew back and swished the folds of your soutane with a stick before the blows rained down.
Once (do you remember?), you hit me so hard on the side of my head that I smashed into the boy behind me and reeled about the room dizzy and foolish as a new-born calf and could hear nothing from my bleeding ear for hours afterward. That worried you, and you had me sit by you in the front seat and stood me aside when class had ended and gently warned me about provoking you. A boy should be good, you said, and if a boy was good he did not provoke people, did I understand that? Yes, I said, I did.
You were in charge of hurling. Your soutane tucked into your socks, you ran amongst us urging us to puck and hurl and pull and drive and not be like sissies. I wasn't much good at that, either, and hid on the sidelines or in the open, away from the rude tackles.
You never seemed to notice, but in the dressing room you came among us afterwards and said you liked to see the red on a boy's white legs, the blood coming to the skin, that was a good thing to see. And when you put your hands into my shorts and told me I was growing into a big lad, why did I not feel invaded or abused? You whispered the words between my heavy breaths. This is what you did to all the boys. It was just your way, we knew that, and we laughed about it. There were other things, too, darker and incomprehensible, that you did to some boys, but instinctively we knew that our silence protected us, and you.
But one day, something in us as a group changed from fear to anger. I cannot remember which of us initiated the plan to revenge ourselves against you. We crouched behind a wall and ambushed you as you cycled out one evening. The stones we threw struck you hard, knocking you to the ground. We felt a thrill as we saw the bright red blood on your face as you lay in a heap, your bicycle twisted underneath you. The lollipop man and a woman came to you, and we fled over the hill like guerillas. The next day, when you appeared before us, your head and face cut open, your arm bandaged, we were terrified but exultant. You stood with the other brothers on the roof of the bicycle shed like great black birds as the head brother asked the boys responsible for the vicious attack to stand forward. Like the citizens of Fuente Ovejuna, we stood united by the secrecy and were never discovered.
Some years ago, I stood beside you in Croke Park at a hurling final. How the years had changed you. You seemed so frail now. Hunched into a great black coat, your beret with soiled leather band. Wisps of white hair stuck out. There was dandruff on your collar. Hair growing from your ears and nose. All the signs of self-neglect. A man who lives alone. A cigarette hung from your lips. I smiled when I heard you mutter, "drive it, you eejit," to one of the players. You recognised me from TV I suppose, nodded to me, making remarks to me intermittently about the game. But you did not remember me, and I could not remind you of who I really was. As I watched you disappear amongst the crowds, I felt a kind of sorrow for you. For the loneliness of your life, for the man you might have been. Because there were times when you told us stories - you were a great storyteller - about the Fianne and the football heroes you loved and Robert Emmet and Sarsfield, and we forgot who you really were and were enthralled by you. Who could envy your life, I thought, your joyless existence, the lonely hours without wife, without family. The certain knowledge you must have had that you had chosen, not wisely, to spend your days prescribed by rules, bells and prayer. Could you have helped who you were? I doubt it.
I heard later that you died quietly in your sleep after a short illness. The kind of death I'm sure you always prayed for. At least you were lucky in that. May you rest in peace.