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Fiction #376
(published April 3, 2008)
Coffin Nails
by Sean McCabe
Mr Downes was out sick for three days. Mr Madden took our class until our hero should recover. We were in our last year of primary school so it was considered important that we have a teacher present at all times. There was the entrance exam to the classical school to prepare for.

Some said Mr Downes had taken time off because the O'Mahoneys' Gaelic football team had won the county championship. He was seen driving his car around Baile, his window down, grinning and waving at fans who spotted him, and him supposed to be in bed with flu. If that was true there was no chance he'd get in trouble with headmaster Craven. He was a hero to the whole town now. He had scored two goals in the Sunday final. His photo had appeared in the Chronicle, alongside one of the full team.

We cheered when the victorious players brought the silver cup into our classroom the day after that final. They lifted it high into the air and let us drink coke from it, one by one. Then they paraded it through the town on the back of a lorry, as was the custom whenever Baile won the championship.

The next day Mr Madden appeared.

Mr Madden was a tall, stern man from Donegal. He had lived in Baile a long time. He currently lodged with our housekeeper, Mrs Boyle. She had been lonely after her husband Benny died, and had decided to let out a room. She had never had lodgers before. There was no need, she said.

He stood at the top of the classroom and spoke Irish in his growling, northern accent. He was bald, with tufts of white hair thatched above each ear. He looked nine months pregnant under the pressed blue blazer, white shirt and yellow tie that he wore every day. He had taught at the Brothers for forty years, Mrs Boyle told me.

Nobody gave back answers to Mr Madden. He had a fearsome reputation amongst the boys, although he was known as a good teacher.

One early afternoon, after testing us with some particularly difficult multiplication and division sums, and finding to his disappointment that most of us were unable for them, he ordered my friend Bozo to go out to the shop for a packet of coffin nails. Bozo stood up from his desk but looked at Mr Madden quizzically. What did our stand-in teacher want coffin nails for? The sudden alertness in the room (rare after lunch because our dinners in our stomachs made us languid) indicated that that question was running through every young head in the room. Was Mr Madden planning on dying? Had he bought a coffin for himself and needed nails for someone to hammer the lid on?

I planned on asking Mrs Boyle these questions about her lodger when I got home. She would know all the answers. She always did.

Bozo marched to the top of the class and took the money out of Mr Madden's hand. Enviously we watched him make for the door. It wasn't every day a boy got to leave the school during school hours. Mr Downes, hero as he was, had never sent anybody out on an errand.

Mr Madden switched back to Irish, which he seemed to enjoy teaching. For us Irish was boring, though nobody complained. It was unwise to complain to Mr Madden, we had been advised. All of us opened our Irish books as instructed, except for Michael Joyce the itinerant, who sat on his own at the back of the class by the window. Sometimes he came to school, sometimes he didn't. Usually he lost the textbooks that were given to him. He said that whenever Mr Downes asked him where they were. He'd be left alone then with only a pencil and copybook for company, his shaved head turned towards the halting site across the road. His family lived in a caravan there. He was taller than anyone else in the class and God help you if you teased him on account of the unwashed smell. He had used his fists before. Even the teachers did not interfere with him.

A good while later Mr Madden looked up from the Irish book he had been reading aloud and checked his watch.

"Where is that fellow gone to?" he said, referring to Bozo.

Nobody answered. Nobody knew.

He resumed reading the fairy tale, pausing to cough every few seconds and clear his throat.

"Young Grady," he said suddenly ten minutes later, pointing at me. "Would you go out and look for that lad?"

I jumped up from my desk, delighted to be sent roaming the streets of Baile during school hours. I hurried away before Mr Madden might change his mind.

Maybe he was worried. Maybe Bozo had been kidnapped.

We had been warned by our parents not to talk to strangers, especially if they approached in cars and pulled their windows down. Kidnappings had been reported in the news.

While running home one day from Moate Bridge with my two brothers in the pelting rain and us with no umbrellas, a car had slowed beside us. The window was rolled down and a man asked us did we want to hop in. I knew his podgy face, perhaps from mass or from coming into our shop. He seemed bothered when I shook my head and said we'd be alright. He had no choice but drive on.

I aimed my steps towards Lawlor's big hardware shop on Market Square. It was two o' clock and if I timed my jaunt correctly I would not return to the classroom until ten or five to three. School finished at three.

Still I wondered where Bozo was. It was not like him to go astray. He wasn't the best student but he was always correct about everything. He was friends with my brother too, since he lived around the corner from us in St. Martin's Terrace. They tended to gang up on me and slag me when the three of us played together. One time during a marbles game at Nanny's Mountain, Bozo, in that serious tone of his turned towards me and said:

"You're stupid."

My brother sniggered. Bozo's cousin, who also lived in St Martin's Terrace with eight older siblings, silently flicked his marble. Angered, I denied it. I was a great reader and produced some words off the top of my head to show that I was the opposite of what he had just said. I had read Star Wars. Most people had only seen the film. I went to the library almost every day for books.

"Obvious," I said. "I bet you don't know what that word means."

He shook his head, that unperturbed look still on his face. I was mad that he'd insulted me like this, and him the only boy in the class with red hair and he always got slagged for it. Also he was the only boy who had been circumcised. He had a funny walk because of it. That, which he had admitted, brought him no end of abuse in the schoolyard. Nevermind the fact that his father was English.

"I don't care," he said. "You're stupid."

My brother sneered again. It didn't matter that Bozo always beat him at marbles. They were allies when all three of us were together.

I bumped into Bozo on Flower Hill. I told him Madden had sent me out looking for him. He blinked anxiously. His forehead was sweating. This secretly pleased me. I had never seen him anxious before. Perhaps he feared a beating from Mr Madden, or from his own father if he found out his son had not been able to find coffin nails for his teacher.

"I went to all the bloody hardware shops," he said. "None of them have any."

"Are you sure you checked them all?" I said, feigning concern. I was pleased to be out and about.

Solemnly, he nodded his head.

"I even went to Goughs' up in Blackcastle. They didn't know what I was talking about."

"Well we'll just have to go back and say that," I said. "Anyhow, it's not our job to be looking for coffin nails for teachers."

He agreed but his cheeks glowered. It was easy to detect embarrassment in a red haired person.

We walked back slowly. I stopped a couple of times in order to catch my breath. We didn't want to arrive in the classroom at half two, I said.

My friend did not concur. He had said once that his father at times was a hard man on him.

The class hushed when we entered. Mr Madden looked up from his Irish book. He liked reading from that Irish book. He was supposed to be a native speaker. Sometimes he accompanied Mrs Boyle to bingo. He had never been married. And he hardly would be now, she cackled.

"Well," he said, from his chair, "what took you so long?"

His voice was hard but I detected relief in the watery blue eyes that scanned us. He lifted his yellow fingered hands to his face and scratched. Yellow fingered from smoking. It was the only complaint Mrs Boyle had about her lodger: the smell of cigarettes in the house. And she was terrified, she said, he'd fall asleep in his bed with a lit cigarette in his hand.

"Sir," said Bozo, his voice trembling, his cheeks even redder than before, "I went to every single hardware shop in Baile and none of them had any coffin nails."

Mr Madden sighed.

"What kind of eeejit are ye?" he said.

He took a packet of Carrolls' from his pocket, opened it and showed Bozo the one remaining cigarette inside.

"This is a coffin nail," he said, taking it out. He coughed, as if to emphasize his point.

"But I suppose since it's near belltime I can go and get a packet of them myself. Sit down the two of yis."

So we sat down and endured the sudden outburst of laughter from our classmates. I wasn't bothered. I had only been sent out to find Bozo. His face was as red as paint.

I was tempted to ask him across the desks how it felt to be stupid but I wasn't that cruel. I would save that question for later, if I needed it. We were supposed to go playing soccer that evening at Nanny's Mountain, him, me, my brother and Bozo's cousin. His cousin maintained that Bozo knew everything.

I'd be tempted to ask him then. I knew I would.

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