‘You want him to die with that knowledge? Castlerock College taking in the unwashed masses’
It’s Hennessy’s voice that I hear first. I can hear him through the front door. He’s telling a joke – a lawyer arrives at the gates of heaven – and the old man is pretending to actually get it.
“First thing the lawyer does,” Hennessy goes, “is he asks to speak to God Himself. He wants to know why He took him so early. ‘Early?’ God says. ‘You’re 93 years old!’ The lawyer looks back at him. Says, ‘I’m not 93! I’m 36!’ And God says, ‘Sorry, I calculated it in billable hours!’”
When my old man is absolutely certain that he’s heard the punch line, he decides to laugh – in, like, a really over the top way? – and he goes, “You’d humour a dying man, Hennessy! You’d humour a dying man!”
I open the door and I go, “Is there any chance you could keep your big focking foghorn voice down? This is a residential area.”
Except the old man just laughs even horder and goes, “You really are a tonic, the pair of you! It’s no wonder I can’t stay down in the mouth for long!”
They rang about an hour ago, from the Horseshoe Bor – where else? – the two of them half shit-hammered, saying they wanted to talk to me about a matter of, like, extreme urgency ?
I invite them in.
It’s about Castlerock College going non-fee-paying. I know that much before the old man even opens his mouth.
“You know,” he goes, helping himself to the bottle of XO he bought me for Christmas, “Denis Fehily once told me about a past pupil of his who was in the jungle in Burundi or one of these places. Met a pygmy of all things! A pygmy, Kicker! Have you ever heard the like of it?!!!
“Well, the pygmy didn’t speak any English and our friend didn’t speak any language that the pygmy could have understood either. So the chap started throwing out words, just at random, hoping he might say something that would establish a connection with this strange creature from this strange land.
“He said, ‘Ireland!’ but he got nothing but a blank look by way of a response. So he said, ‘Guinness!’ Same bloody well outcome. Nothing. Then he remembered his old alma mater. Thought to himself, what the hell, might as well give it a go. ‘Castlerock College!’ says our friend. And at that, the little pygmy’s face lit up like a proverbial something or other. ‘Cast tell ruck coll itch,’ says the little guy. ‘Rugby!’”
Father Fehily used to tell us the same story.
“I always assumed that was horseshit,” I go. “As in, just a way to talk us up before big games?”
This has obviously never occurred to the old man before. “A way to talk you up?” he goes, swirling the brandy around in his glass. “No, this is something that happened to a past pupil of his, Ross. And the moral to the story, I like to think, is that no matter where you go in the world, whatever continent, time zone or hemisphere you happen to be standing in, the name of Castlerock College is revered. And that is why it must never – never! – be allowed to become one of these State-run schools.”
“An open prison by another name!” Hennessy chips in – he’s throwing my brandy into him as well.
I’m there, “But you heard what that knob Tom McGahy said. The decision has been made.”
“Decisions can be unmade,” Hennessy goes.
I look at the old man. He’s suddenly smiling at me like an orangutan being electrocuted. “Ross,” he goes, “how would you feel about running for the school board of governors?”
I laugh. “The school board of governors?” I go. “But I’m a complete focking moron. Who’d want me on that?”
“I know who wouldn’t want you on it,” he goes. “That so-called Principal. I won’t even give him the oxygen of saying his name.”
Hennessy goes, “The election of new governors happens at the end of May every year. There’s seven of them. At least one of them has to be a former past pupil of the school.”
I’m there, “But even if I do get elected, what good would that do?”
“Wasn’t it so-and-so,” the old man goes, “who once said, ‘A persuasive man has more than one vote’? You, Ross, the only Castlerock College student to ever lift the famous Leinster Schools Senior Cup – and therefore a symbol of a wonderful tradition – are going to use your world famous charisma and powers of persuasion to talk the other governors around, to stop them turning a great, great institution of learning into an educational come-all-ye. Cometh the hour, etcetera, etcetera!”
I’m there, “Look, I’m very flattered that you’d think I’d have the brains for something like this. But I honestly don’t think I could be orsed. I’m sorry.”
The old man’s face just drops. He’s disappointed. Actually, he’s crushed ?
He makes some excuse about having to go for a wizz.
When he’s gone, Hennessy turns around to me and goes, “Can’t you see what this is doing to him?”
I’m there, “Excuse me?”
“He’s already got a bad heart. This could kill him. I’m serious. You want him to die with that knowledge? Castlerock College – the school that defined his life – taking in the unwashed masses of humanity? Once, just once in your life, you miserable little shit, do something to make someone other than yourself happy.”
The old man comes back a few seconds later, I swear to God, dabbing at his eyes.
They’re some double act.
“Okay,” I end up having to go, “I’ll do it. I’ll stand for the board of governors.”