Although, from time to time, the Cathedral College Fathers loudly professed their faith in the miraculous, they seldom ran so far as to number their pupils in that reckoning. Even so, when that odd, troubled, acned, perpetually withdrawn boy, Vinny Mooney, had turned out to be so astonishingly good at running the School Shop, it was a surprise of such magnitude that several members of the Order privately saw in it evidence of the Divine Hand at work. Vinny’s classmates, too, were somewhat taken aback by this improbable turn of events. They had all long since pegged Vinny as some kind of weirdo loner, one far more likely to be interested in hunting Little Green Men in their flying saucers on cold winter nights high over the Mersey estuary than in turning a profit on sweets, crisps and bottles of fizzy pop. Known for his obsessive reading habits, which typically encompassed an eclectic mix of lesser known sci-fi authors, American comic books and – admittedly, more so of late – such derided, speculative thinkers as von Däniken, Fort and Sitchin, Vinny had earned from his peers what was widely considered to be the deserved nickname of ‘Dr. Strange’. As everybody knew, Dr. Strange had no rightful place in the shop business.
But, for all that, what the commonly held and comically convenient view of Vinny neglected was the fact that, until his mother’s death some five years earlier, his family had operated the little newsagent’s shop on Clarence Street, and so he had grown up with a true insider’s knowledge of the trade. In fact, for a significant period when he was thirteen, Vinny had practically run the family shop on his own while his father dedicated himself industriously to the task of drowning his sorrows – his prerogative as he saw things, in light of the bum hand that Fate had dealt him. Finally, as a reasonably priced favour, his brother (also ‘Vinny’) bought him out, with the result that, the family crisis thus averted, relief was presumed universal. Except for ‘Little’ Vinny, that is. A bright boy, taken to long bouts of stubborn silence, he nonetheless missed the consoling daily routine of the shop – the regular flow of familiar customers in and out, the constant serving – where even repetitive, mundane chores like restocking and pricing were more than compensated for by the secret thrill of taking other people’s money, and soon became an end in themselves. For all of what the school would later term his ’inappropriate interest in occult matters’, Vinny possessed a down-to-earth business sense and an all-around practical streak that was as wide as the Mersey itself. So, after the supply arrangements for the School Shop fell through, leaving the metal counter shutters locked down for nearly two whole frustrating weeks, Vinny saw his opportunity and stepped forward with the novel proposal to run the shop himself at breaks and lunchtimes. Initially, the school was doubtful, not least Fr. Lafayette, the Head of Sixth Form. Still, Vinny pointed to his history in the business and the fact that, through his uncle, he had a direct line into the large wholesale trade stores. In the end, he volunteered to run the shop for free and allow all profits to flow straight into the school’s coffers, at which point it was agreed that Vinny could carry out his plan for a trial period provided that he did not let it interfere with his studies.
From the outset, business boomed. At first, the curiosity factor brought in the majority of boys, who turned up in the hope of witnessing a disaster but were soon won over by a combination of the fact that it was nothing of the sort and by Vinny’s low prices (with no staff to pay, he undercut all the local shops, including his uncle’s). Now, with the novelty factor long past, it might be expected that the volume of Vinny’s custom had dropped off a little. However, on the evidence of the present lunch-break, this was clearly not the case – Vinny was more than rushed off his feet, with the queue stretching two-deep all the way back to the main doors. His situation was not being helped any by the distracting presence of two of the older boys – Vinny’s classmates, Christensen and O’Hagan – who, despite blocking half the counter, obviously had no interest in buying anything. In fact, most unusually, it appeared to Vinny as if they were loitering solely because they wanted to talk to him, a circumstance he found not just distracting but – frankly – disturbing. He tried hard to pretend they were not bothering him, but it was difficult. O’Hagan, in particular, with his bulk and all-out aggressive manner, was a challenge to ignore. He liked always to be in his opponent’s face.
‘O day and night, but this is wondrous strange,’ ran O’Hagan’s loud- pitched commentary, as if to nobody in particular. ‘Though it’s not just that he does it well, is it? Mooney, you impressive lunatic – you’ve been pulling the old wool cap over our eyes all these years, haven’t you? All this time we had you down as the retiring type, you know, based on your winning personality. Turns out you’re virtually a public figure.’
‘Not to mention he’s a humble shop-keeper now, too,’ added Christensen, in a similarly sonorous stage-whisper. ‘Though, like you say, it’s not just that he does it well – ’
‘No, that’s so, so true,’ noted O’Hagan, with a mock solemnity. ‘Mooney, you clever dog, who knew? Really, we had no idea you could walk on your hind legs and talk as well. Amazing.’
Christensen looked agog.
‘He speaks? Are you certain? I’ve yet to hear it speak these seven years.’
‘He must. Could there be two? – Mooney, for fuck’s sake, will you stop just for a second? I swear it’s making me tired just to look at you, laddie.’
Halting, reluctant, like a horse refusing a fence, Vinny drew back from the boy he was serving and turned to face his tormentors, his eyes skittish and wild, as though it were difficult for him to make them focus in that direction, an extreme effort of will.
The young boy at the counter turned and stared also. ‘Got your sweeties, yes?’ O’Hagan said to him. ‘Now, fuck off.’
Quickly, the boy left. O’Hagan positioned his bulky form so as to block off the remainder of the lengthy queue from the counter.
Vinny looked from O’Hagan to Christensen. He genuinely had no idea what was going on.
‘Mooney, Mooney, Mooney,’ O’Hagan went on, ‘I have to say we really
are most impressed. Why you’ve waited until now to share your heretical genius with an adoring world must forever be a mystery, I suppose.’
‘What?’ Vinny managed to say.
‘Your interview,’ said Christensen, ‘in the Echo. All that guff about Jesus being a spaceman. Bloody fantastic.’
‘What?’ Vinny repeated. ‘Priceless,’ said O’Hagan with an affected enthusiasm. ‘Especially the bit
about ‘alien seed’. Genius. I love that. Who writes your material?’
A faint dawning of realisation began to hit Vinny – and then it quickly turned into a fully-fledged sense of panic. He felt like he had been kicked in the gut, or worse.
‘So, what we want,’ continued O’Hagan, ‘is for you to run through a few of your more charming theories this afternoon in RE – you know, wind Gumby up. Get him going. Think of the time it’ll waste, laddie.’
‘He won’t rise to us anymore,’ said Christensen, ‘but you – ’ ‘No, no,’ said Vinny quietly.
Another voice intruded upon the scene: ‘Why isn’t the queue moving? What’s the – ’
‘Cripes, it’s the former Head Boy,’ said O’Hagan. ‘Let’s scarper pronto, Tommo, we’re rumbled.’
‘No one expects the former Head Boy,’ said Christensen, in similar mockney.
The new arrival watched the desultory pair depart before turning his clear blue eyes in Vinny’s direction.
‘Mooney,’ he said, ‘Lafayette wants to see you in his office at the end of break.’ He regarded Vinny with a curious air, as if appraising him for the first time. ‘Best be on time, if I were you,’ he added, as he left.
Packing up at the end of break, Vinny experienced an all too familiar amalgam of anxiety and gloom. The news of his so-called ‘interview’ appearing in the evening paper was a severe shock to his system. Of course, he had been loosely aware that the person he had been talking to over the weekend at the North Wales UFO Conf. was a journalist of some sort, but had not imagined for a second that anything he said might end up in print – in the Echo, no less. He was just talking! Besides, usually no one ever listened to a single word he said. Why should it have been any different this time? Now, he had been summoned to see Lafayette – surely the timing was not coincidental? Distressed, Vinny slammed the zigzag metal shutter down on the counter with needless force, slipped the padlock into place and checked that it was locked. Then, even though he was sure that the counter was successfully secured, he checked the lock again. And then, once more. Only now could he leave.
Fr. Lafayette’s office stood in one of the far, perpetually gloomy corners of the Sixth Form common room. For a boy to be summoned into his considerable presence, typically for punitive reasons, was one of the more intimidating educational experiences offered by the Cathedral Brothers, one Vinny had managed to avoid these last seven years. His emotions rose as he climbed the stairs to the upper floor. The common room was largely deserted except for those students with a free period. Vinny passed the now mysteriously vacant plinth outside Lafayette’s office, where the statue of the Founder had lately stood, and stared for a long minute at the dark wood door before knocking. His initial knock was so light that, gaining no response, he felt obliged to try again, this time more assertively. On the second occasion, however, the gruff exhortation to ‘Come’ was immediate and loud. Vinny’s hand faltered but, after a second, still turned the cold brass handle. Inside, behind his desk, sat Lafayette, head down, his eyes closely following some paperwork. When the old priest did not look up or otherwise acknowledge his presence, Vinny hesitated. Perhaps there had been a mistake? Maybe he should not be there at all? The thought that he might yet escape his fate, whatever that was to be, flickered into Vinny’s mind, until, without raising his eyes, Lafayette coldly directed him to close the door at once and sit down. Vinny did as he was told.
Some moments passed. The elderly, crop-haired priest continued to read,
turning one page, then another, before eventually closing a vanilla folder. Famously myopic, he removed his thick, blue-lensed spectacles and, as though to relieve the pain caused to his eyes either by reading or by the unwelcome sight of the boy before him, pinched and held the soft flesh above the bridge of his nose for what seemed like several minutes. Vinny could not help but notice that a series of partially erupted boils littered the backs of both of Lafayette’s heavily crease-lined hands. His attention wandered to the open window to his right, where, through the narrow archway, a patch of cloudless blue sky was visible. A single vapour trail bisected the heavens.
‘For the record, your marks have not improved,’ said Lafayette suddenly in his thick Northern Irish growl. ‘We expected a substantial improvement this term.’
‘Father?’ said Vinny, confused.
‘You were permitted to run the school shop so long as you did not allow it to interfere with your academic work, were you not?’ said Lafayette, staring at Vinny now through the blue lenses.
Vinny managed to nod his assent.
‘Then it is very simple,’ said the priest. ‘The anticipated improvement in your performance has not happened; therefore, we must conclude that it has been impacted negatively by your extracurricular activities. Therefore, Vincent, these activities must cease, at once. Do you understand me?’
‘Father?’ said Vinny.
Lafayette pursed his lips somewhat effeminately, as if now irritated by the need for further explanation. ‘Your work in the shop, boy, must cease, has already ceased. Please leave the keys with Fr. Palfreyman this afternoon. He will be running the shop as of tomorrow.’
‘What?’ said Vinny. ‘But – ’
As an indication of his growing displeasure, the priest sucked in his hollow, pock-marked cheeks, rendering them concave, and Vinny thought better of pursuing his protest. Slightly dazed, he got up and left.
Vinny fumed. He felt bereft. The shop had been his sanctuary, not least because it kept him so busy. Working there left no time for uneasy thoughts to gather, for his mind to loop back on itself over and over. He crossed straight back to the shop, opened the side door and went inside. The dark quiet filled him at once but he knew it was no longer his to claim. Everything had changed and he understood the reasons why it had happened, why it could not be reversed. He opened up the till and began to count out the cash. When he had finished, he wrote the total on an envelope, put the cash inside and sealed it up. He took a last look around. Nothing. He left.
Fr. Palfreyman was clearly surprised and a little embarrassed to see Vinny so soon in the afternoon, when the news of his new responsibilities was quite possibly something of a fresh revelation even to himself. The young priest took the keys and the envelope containing the cash from Vinny and asked him a few genial, light-hearted questions, as was his way. Was the existing stock sufficient to meet the boys’ needs for tooth-rot for the rest of the week? Should he expect the existing supplier to continue beyond the month? Vinny shrugged. The shop was no longer his concern. He had his lessons to attend to and so he went off to do exactly that. He did not want to think about anything else.
Fr. Gumby’s RE class was scheduled cruelly as the last session of the afternoon and it had reached the point where he had commenced to intone the conclusion of the lesson in true, sing-song, liturgical fashion. The thoughts of many of the boys were already out on the sports field for after-school football practice, or on the bus ride home – on the rush for the seats upstairs near to those occupied by the girls of English Martyrs, who boarded the bus at an earlier point in the homeward journey. They traditionally colonised the front seats of the upper deck, turning it into an exciting tumult of teenage hormonal delight and high spirits, the call of which few of the Cathedral boys could resist – with, of course, one or two notable exceptions. Always such an exception, Vinny was slumped in his seat at the rear of the classroom, counting down the minutes until the final bell, though not with any thoughts in mind of exciting, after-school adventure. He simply wanted to escape. He realised many of the boys must now be aware of his new, high-profile, public notoriety: several of them had smirked at him throughout the double Geography period that had preceded the present lesson. At one point a co-ordinated barrage of paper missiles had struck him roundly on the back to the accompaniment of a loud chorus of the ‘Twilight Zone’ theme music, an old baiting tactic that Vinny had previously imagined was long behind him, now evidently resuscitated. Even at the start of this class O’Hagan and Christensen had twisted their faces into a succession of grinning gurneys of supposed encouragement for Vinny to launch into a diatribe on the extraterrestrial origins of the Lord, or something of the kind. They soon gave up, however, when confronted by the dour bleakness of Vinny’s mood, his absolute lack of interest in them, their pranks, or seemingly in anything else. He would not be anybody’s puppet, not today, not tomorrow. He lifted the lid of his desk as if concerned to look inside, once, twice, three times.
Judging by the incantatory tone, Fr. Gumby appeared to be reaching the climax of his discursion on a mystical something or other to do with the Virgin Mother. A palpable mood of optimism seemed to lift the class almost as one. They had survived the lesson, were very nearly at the end, and, out of the depths, their desperate prayers heard, life reborn was once again tantalisingly within reach. The groan from all present at the sight of O’Hagan’s raised hand was matched only by the sourness of the expression on the priest’s face at his realisation of the origin of the interruption to his flow. He swallowed hard and looked up at the clock behind him on the wall above the board.
‘Yes, Mr. O’Hagan?’ he said abruptly, no longer in sing-song mode.
‘Father,’ said O’Hagan. ‘Thank you for that, er, really most interesting and quite lengthy summary of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. But I couldn’t help but wonder, Father, what you make of the mistranslation in this context of the Hebrew word almah, which I understand means “maiden” and not “virgin” at all. In no sense at all does it mean that, in fact.’
‘Your point, Mr. O’Hagan?’ said the priest wearily, glancing once again up at the clock. ‘Assuming, of course, that you have one.’
‘Get on with it, will you, Hog!’ called someone at the rear.
O’Hagan glanced back over his shoulder coolly, to silence the impetuous dissenter.
‘The point being,’ he resumed, even more slowly, precisely, ‘that it’s only through the mistranslation in the early Synoptic gospels of the Hebrew almah into the Greek parthenos – which explicitly means “virgin” – that we now have what has become this huge cult of the Virgin Mother. It was neither actually prophesied nor intended and is, in point of fact, founded entirely on a quite ironical, typographical error. This, given the evidence before us – I’m sure you must agree, Father – is in fact the case, don’t you think?’
A hard look passed between student and teacher – one which reflected their respective familiarity with the entrenched position of the other and which was interrupted, to the great relief of the priest, by the sudden, vigorous sounding of the bell for home. For the first time that long afternoon, a smile, albeit quite sickly, blossomed on his wan, harassed face.
‘I’m afraid we’ll have to pick this up next week, if we have time,’ he called above the general hubbub, for many of the boys had already voted with their feet on the outcome. ‘But remember, everyone, next time it’s – ’
The clamour for the door drowned out entirely any sensible understanding of the theme of his class the following week, not that he cared in the least, for the teacher was soon combating his students with equal fervour for the door himself. No one sane wished to remain in that room for a moment longer than they had to be there. Even Vinny had picked himself up and was shuffling to the front. O’Hagan was up on his feet, too, looking down on Christensen. He was dancing back and forth in a tight, tiny circle of frustration, a boy surprisingly light on his feet for someone of his substantial girth. ‘I had him dangling on the line,’ he said to Christensen. ‘You know, I had him dangling and he got away, the jammy, feckless bastard.’ He turned to Vinny as he passed. ‘Well, Strange, this was all your stupid fault, I hope you realise that. Happy?’
Vinny raised his eyes just as O’Hagan’s huge fist caught him powerfully on the upper arm, deadening it completely for the entire journey home.
Although the sky was turning quite dark by the time Vinny got home, no lights were lit in the house. His father, for a complexity of reasons, preferred to sit at home alone in the dark most evenings. With any luck, however, by now he probably would be snoring for England in the old chair in the kitchen, the fire either burning low or out. Vinny did not care which; he did not plan to hang around long enough to find out. As soon as he could dig out his gear and get changed he was gone for the night, as late as he liked. He turned the key in the lock and, in a matter of seconds, with the practiced stealth of someone accustomed to avoiding detection, had gained the stairs to his bedroom. No call from below. No gut-wrenching, semi-sober requests to run up to the shop for ale or put a late bet on the dogs at Doncaster. Vinny reached under his bed for the loose floorboard, lifted it up and took out his black boots, torch and binoculars. Quietly, efficiently, he got changed: black trousers, black sweater. He sat on the bed and tied the laces on the boots. Then he untied and re-tied them. After he had repeated this action one more time, he put the torch and binoculars into his bag, and was set to go. Vinny stood up, mentally checking he had all the things he needed.
‘That you, son?’ called a rasping, slurry voice up the stairs.
Vinny paused, hesitated, his stomach tightening. He took out the torch from his bag and waited until he heard the first heavy step on the bottom stair. Then he opened his bedroom door and shone the torch down onto the advancing figure. The effect was immediate, causing the somehow far too old-looking man to halt and shield his eyes. Skipping down the stairs with torch and bag in hand, Vinny noted the look of fearful bewilderment on his father’s white-bristled face as he passed him, the shameful stain on his vest that matched the dirty, brown colour of his trousers – and was gone, out through the door. His father brayed something barely intelligible after him about making his tea, or else. Vinny did not look back.
He walked swiftly through the early evening twilight and soon cut onto Duke Street, which he knew would be quiet at this hour. He planned to follow the road as far as Canning Place, before heading over into the long derelict Albert Dock area. The empty warehouses and disused shops that lined the darkening street comforted Vinny with the promise of the solitude that he so craved, away from everyone. All the difficult frustrations of the day began to ebb away as he walked. Funnily enough, however, he found that he agreed with O’Hagan, up to a point. People let their lives be ruled by stupid bits of mistranslated text and dubious old stories that no longer had any relevance to anything. It was all so pointless and limiting. Even O’Hagan, though – really, he was no better. Why reject one set of preconceptions only to adopt another? Why were people’s minds not open to the possibilities around them? It confused him. What did they all get out of being so blinkered all the time? He would never understand.
At the junction of Canning Place and Strand Street Vinny negotiated the wide dual carriageway that was still heavy with evening traffic. He slipped though the torn wire fence onto the Salthouse Quay, where the evidence of abandoned ruin was immediately apparent. No ships had docked here for donkey’s years. Not even the uniformed Customs men from the Coburg Station bothered to come this way anymore. Only Vinny, it seemed, with his torch and binoculars, found any use these long winter nights for the once great Victorian warehouses. He entered the derelict buildings through a broken side-window and began to make his way up to the fourth floor on the river side, where the light would be less. It was a nocturnal journey that he had made so often now that he scarcely needed to use the torch. At the top he turned towards the short staircase to the roof and pushed against the door. Outside the view was glorious, the wind bracing. He faced north, with the wide, black streak of river off far down below to his left. He was entirely alone. He felt calm, at peace. The night sky was vast, the stars multitudinous. The possibilities were infinite. Vinny raised the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the heavens. There just had to be something out there. He felt certain of that.