The Untimely Death of Jerzy Gruszka: Chapter 5

Winter 1991

Peter Anthony Brophy stared at the flame until the image was burned into his retina. Then he closed his eyes, and watched it slide across the back of his eyelids, a greenish ghost against an orange backdrop, made by the shaft of sunlight pouring through the sacristy window and filtering through his skin.

He opened his eyes again and blinked a few times, each blink reducing the intensity of the after-image, which blotted out the beatific smile of Canon Price (Parish Priest, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, 1959-1981) in the framed photograph hanging over the fireplace. He had a job to do, a prestigious and very important job, and he had better get on with it. Judging from the tone of the drone coming from the altar, Father O’Driscoll was going to finish the Homily soon, and then there would be the Creed, and if he was not done by the end of that, Boyley would be straight through with his big stupid red angry face, and then there would be trouble.

Peter walked across the sacristy – the changing room for altar servers. Priests had their own changing room, of course, the vestry, closer to the sanctuary and, therefore, God. He pulled open one of the sacristy drawers and took out a roll of charcoal tablets wrapped in silver foil, and a taper. He breathed in the citrus and sandalwood smell of the open box of incense granules and the wax polish of the dark oak cabinet, burnished every Wednesday after the noon Mass by little old women with all the time in the world for God and Our Lady and Father O’Driscoll, and pushed the drawer closed.

He ripped the foil and took out one of the dimpled charcoal tablets, carelessly smearing his thumb with black grains, and placed it on the mantelpiece above the thurible stand, then he lit the taper from the single candle burning in the sacristy. He had to use a taper. You were not supposed to use the candle to light the charcoal because the sparks might extinguish the flame, and if the flame went out you were stuffed. Altar boys – well, altar servers, now they were letting girls do it – were not allowed to use matches, not at Peter’s age, anyway. Girls. Why did they have to let girls in? Peter had enough of girls in school, with their New Kids On The Block stickers and their circles over the letter ‘i’ and their Sweet Valley High books and their dance routines in the middle of the actual pitch in the playground when you were playing football. At least in September he was going to St Vincent de Paul’s RC Boys’ High School, and he would never have to worry about girls ever again. When his cousin Martin was an altar boy there were no girls, and even when Peter started the Guild of St Stephen was an all-male club. It was a golden age. Mind you, when you were seven or eight and you were an altar boy you were proud of it. All your aunties were made up and gave you money when you did your first Mass and asked you if you were going to be a priest, and at that age it did not seem like the most ridiculous idea in the world. But he was older and wiser now, and whatever he did for a living it was going to involve fast cars and a lot of travel. And you had to be careful who you told you were an altar boy nowadays.

But age had its compensations. Now he was old enough to be a thurifer. That was prestige. A thurifer was going places. The wax from the taper dripped onto his black cassock, as Peter used the tongs to grip the charcoal. He would have to deal with that when it hardened. He held the charcoal over the taper’s flame. This required steely nerve. Too loose a grip on the tongs and the charcoal would fall out and shatter on the floor. The burn marks in the burgundy linoleum around the fireplace were testament to this. Grip the tongs too tightly and the charcoal would crumble in the air, sending sparks flying. Peter had once singed his cotta, the white smock covering his cassock, and Stephen Hannigan had had to go to hospital with his eye, or so Peter’s mother had said. And sometimes the charcoal just would not light. Only a seasoned thurifer could tell if he had a squib soon enough to start again before the Creed had finished. No wonder they would not let the little ones have a go. The pressure would make a small child crumble, like a charcoal tablet in the grip of too-tight tongs.

Father O’Driscoll had stopped. Peter did not have much time. He could hear the scuffing of shoes and the kicking of knee rests from the church as the congregation, caught unawares by the end of a Homily to which they had not been listening, rose to their feet and began to recite the Creed.

‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen…’

Peter held the charcoal steady. Any second now…

‘We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father…

A spark, two sparks, then a front line of sparks advancing steadily across the surface of the charcoal.

‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made…’

Peter snuffed out the taper with a puff of air, then blew more gently on the charcoal, making it glow a subdued red. Relieved, he took it, still firmly clamped in the tongs, over to the thurible. The thurible at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception was intricate and ornate, even by Roman Catholic standards. It was made up of two golden domes which fitted together into an elongated sphere. The bottom dome had a conical stand attached underneath, while the top half had three sets of vents cut into it. Three golden chains ran up from the bottom dome, through loops in the top dome, and were joined together into a ring at the other end, which the priest or thurifer would hold when using the thurible. Three sets of holes and three chains, possibly to represent the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and even if they were not originally intended so to do, they would be co-opted as representative by a church wrapped in symbolism. A fourth chain was attached solely to the top dome, enabling it to be pulled apart from its partner, affording access to its chamber. God knew what that chain symbolised. The Virgin Mary?

Peter pulled this chain and dropped the charcoal inside, then he lowered the lid and picked up the thurible, holding the ring in his left hand, while his right hand gripped the chains halfway down their length. And he began to swing it.

He had to swing the thurible to keep the charcoal burning, allowing air to rush through the vent holes. When he emerged back into the sanctuary, the area surrounding the altar, Father O’Driscoll would take a spoonful of incense granules, lift the lid of the thurible, and sprinkle the incense onto the charcoal, immediately producing a thick, perfumed smoke with which he would wreath the altar.

And later, when Father O’Driscoll would be consecrating the bread and wine, and using the super-powers granted to him by God to turn a wafer and grape juice into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ, Peter would have to kneel in front of the altar, his back ramrod straight, and incense the offering himself.

So if the charcoal were not alight when he left the sacristy, he would have looked a right divvy, wouldn’t he? Up there in front of his mum and dad and everybody he knew? And Boyley, the master of ceremonies, with his big stupid red angry face, would bawl him out after Mass and might even hit him. He would not have put it past him. Mr Boyle would have eaten babies had the law not frowned upon it. And so he swung the thurible as the Creed continued…

‘… by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man…’

Back and forth went the thurible, back and forth, the sunlight glinting off the golden dome, while Peter remained as still as he could be, making sure The Guild of St Stephen medal hanging from his neck by a red cord did not move. ‘If the medal’s moving, you’re not doing it right,’ Stephen Hannigan, who went to hospital with his eye, had told him so when he was passing on the trade secrets of the thurifer.

And then Peter wondered how high he could swing the thurible without appearing to move himself. The thurible arced higher and higher, reaching the horizontal, as the Creed continued.

‘… On the third day he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures; He ascended into Heaven…’

Peter Anthony Brophy has never been a naughty boy; he was too scared for that. He was not like Andrew Rooney, one of the acolytes currently sitting in the sanctuary, who swigged from the bottle of altar wine whenever he was thurifer, and supposedly did something rude with Jade Woods in the woods on that trip to Freshfield. He was not even like Shaun McGovern, who took Peter on Knock And Run games in the streets off Smithdown Road, and who always did the knocking. Peter would never have drunk the Blood of God, even before it became the Blood of God, and not because it was one of those things that people told you not to do. He knew, in his bones, it was wrong. Besides, he had never, to his knowledge, drunk wine. It was only when he was older he realised that the sherry he was allowed at Christmas was wine, but by then the damage was done. The strongest drink he was allowed was tea.

But he was sometimes – if not actively naughty – distracted. Sometimes the pressure of being good all the time, of going unnoticed, was too much. Right now, he was thinking of the television room in school, when Mrs Jeffers would wheel in her Bush and drop a VHS into the top-loader video recorder, and they would watch a schools’ programme made before Thatcher was Prime Minister.

An image had stayed in his head since the last time he had been in the television room. It was a science programme featuring a bearded man called Fred, who was enthusiastic and wore flared trousers. To demonstrate the principle of centripetal force he half filled a bucket with custard, and tied a rope to the handle. Then he swung the bucket back and forth, like a pendulum. Or, indeed, a thurible. Back and forth it went, higher and higher, until enthusiastic Fred swung it over his head and around and around at such a speed that he was in no danger of having to have his polyester flares dry cleaned after a catastrophic custard spillage.

‘…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…’

He had time. He had loads of time. Go on, have a go, Peter thought. He swung the thurible higher and higher and, yes, it worked! He had swung it in a circle and the glowing charcoal had stayed in place, and the sky had not fallen in.

Emboldened, he tried again. But this time he was not pussy-footing around. He swung it back and forth, no longer concerned about the medal around his neck echoing the swing. Higher and higher and, yes, over his head, sparks issuing from a vent like a comet’s tail. He swung it a second time, and a third, each time feeding out the chains, making bigger and bigger circles.

He was not paying sufficient attention to where he was standing. The weight of the thurible had pulled him marginally closer to the fireplace, as it spiralled outwards. And as the censer arced back down to earth for the fourth time, it hit the photograph of Canon Price right in the beatific smile, smashing the glass into a thousand shards, and sending it careering across the room. Before the sound of the crash had reached the ears of Ruth Fisher from Mrs Jeffers’ class, who was waiting to do the offertory procession next to the font at the back of the church, Mr Boyle, the master of ceremonies, with his big red stupid angry face, was staring into Peter’s little red stupid terrified face.

The next time Peter Anthony Brophy was allowed to be thurifer, he was a pupil of St Vincent de Paul’s RC Boys High School. And he had found all sorts of new ways to worry about girls.

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