The Hidden Lollipop by Phil McNulty
It must have been Lent, but we were sent there
With no adult understanding, just a child's awed obedience
And medieval fear of not going, straight from school on that Friday.
With such a sense of smallness. Lost amongst the other tiny penitents
In our shapeless grey jumpers, gape-legged shorts and grassy knees.
The men and women had such purpose. Knew the words, heads bowed,
Towered over our observance, or knelt, huddled, in heroic piety.
We looked around with hooded eyes, through lattice fingers,
At polished wood benches, green kneelers,
The red of the Sacred Heart, the immaculate blue and white of the Virgin.
The harshness of stone columns stretching away
To the altar cloth, gold candles and vestmented priest.
We moved as waves, standing, sitting, kneeling, genuflecting,
Eyes shut, eyes open, mumbling the Creed or mute in fear and reverance.
I failed to follow the words in the brown prayer book.
I felt bad about myself.
I should never have escaped into the corner shop,
Never have bought the ice lolly and secreted it in my pocket.
My offertory penny was spent and was cold in its paper wrapper against my leg.
Through the arch at the end of the aisle, I glimpsed the horrors of Christ's torture.
He had died for me. Was beaten, lashed and crucified.
Suffered bloody indignity and pain.
I felt the icy raspberry trickling towards my grey sock.
This was my passion, my torment, my deserved punishment.
It was a sign.
I knew, now.
I truly believed- that He was watching me.
The old guy on the bench wasn’t sad.
I thought he should have been sad
when he said that
as a small child he had been loved,
because he was under control
and life was full.
He said he was fed, clothed,
taken to Church,
had aunts, uncles, grandmothers,
a great grandmother and cousins,
small friends in the street
and women who'd known his Dad as a boy,
great aunts, great uncles, second cousins,
and neighbours with parrots and monkeys
they’d brought back from sea.
He had aunts as babysitters,
the Jewish girls next door as childminders,
doing handstands at lampposts,
while he ate chewing gum from the pavement.
He was dragged on long walks as women gossiped,
played in hallways of old houses
and listened to talk, beyond curtains, in back kitchens.
He is on his own now
and his sepia photo is faded in places.
Mere shadows of birthdays,
bus rides, sea-sides,
bonfire nights, family births, marriages and deaths
and it’s ripped right across
from the point he attended school.
Illiterate, innumerate, unable to tie his shoes,
forgetting the Friday penny for the Good Shepherd,
And beaten, in the name of Jesus, for talking.
Love, whatever that was, he said,
Probably ended at five.
And he wasn’t sad.